So Frank was the first Southerner born in my family. My father was born in Philadelphia, and the first one in his family born in America. My mother was also born in Phila. Me and my 2 brothers and 5 sisters were all born in Phila. My first foray below the Mason-Dixon line was to boot camp at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. Tracy and her whole family were born and raised in Texas. Now one thing I have learned living in the south is Texas is not the south; it’s Texas. I think it was sci-fi author Mack Maloney first to say that after the dust had settled from a nuclear war, Texas would need one week to reset it’s high-school football schedule and it would be back to business as usual. In other words, Texas is a place all it’s own and really can’t be lumped in with the South. Ask someone from Texas if they are a southerner and they’ll say, no boy I’m a Texan.
All that is to say this, Frank is a true southerner. He was born here in Knoxville at St. Mary’s hospital right in the city. He’ll never be from Jersey, no matter how much he may look like or eventually sound like me. For some reason that really never sunk in until well after he was born. I’m not sure why, it just didn’t. And his sounding like me is quickly becoming a pipe dream. The other day I picked him up from school and on the way home we go up a small hill. Frank exclaimed from the back seat “oh a big hieel!” Now I am guessing at the spelling of that and it is impossible to convey the sound of Frank’s enunciation here but the word Heel, drawn out to impossible length would be close. The coup de gras came when we were going through my side of the family album. We do that every couple of weeks so Frank can stay aquatinted with his Jersey relatives. When I pointed to my brother-in-law Bill and said who’s that I got “it’s Bieeeel.” God help me.
After Frank’s first birthday we decided it was time to introduce him to the Jersey that resides in his tiny little heart. Road trip baby! We’re going old school. No planes, no airports, we decided to load up the starship Frankerprise, (our mini-van) and go full on Clark W. Griswold back to the motherland. I had made the trip many times since I moved to Knoxville in 2000. It normally took me between 9 to 9 1/2 hours depending on traffic, time of day, etc… Yeah, no way we’re gonna come close to that time. But getting there is part of the fun right, … right?
Packing was not really a problem. It ain’t the space shuttle but the starship Frankerprise can haul some cargo. The real rubik’s cube of this trip would be timing. Frank was only a year old and still taking two naps a day; a small hour to hour and a half nap in the am and a big three hour plus nap in the late afternoon. The kid can saw some lumber but it made departure time a little tricky. We waited until he finished his morning nap, figuring we could eat lunch and maybe do the majority of the driving during his afternoon nap. I think the plan was to attempt about 6 hours, stay overnight in the northern half of Virginia and head out early the next morning. As Scot poet Robert Burns wrote, The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley. Actual translation: The best laid plans of mice and men go often askew. The practical translation: You are friggin crazy if you think this is going to work out remotely close to the way you planned it and it’s quite possible you’ll roll a seven* before all is said and done.
So off we go. Hit the Golden Arches on our way out of town for a #3 with diet coke (1/4 pounder and fries) and a little something for the kid. Almost 2 hours in and we have crossed into Virginia from Tennessee. We are rolling now annnnnd
we have to stop. 1 mile into Virginia and we have to hit the rest stop so Frank can stretch his legs and mom can pee. A schedule might be completely worthless at this point. After a quick rest we hit the road. Harrisonburg is the new target. That’s in the upper middle of the state but still on the western upper middle. Still holding out hope that Frank will take a good long nap. If he does we are a go for a town called Front Royal. It’s a very small burg and the first town you hit when crossing the state from west to east on the way to D.C. on US 66.
Houston we have a problem. No nap as of yet. We are well past nappy nap time and Frank is wide awake. He’s clearly up to something, just not sure what. I have 7 more hours to figure it out. It’s becoming painfully more obvious that he is skipping his afternoon nap. Makes no sense. He took his normal small nap in the AM. He has to be hurting for some zzzzs. Ok, no nap. Gotta stop for dinner. What is this kid up to?
Getting dark now, this has to work in my favor. He has a full belly, Little Einsteins is playing on his little movie screen, he’s snug in his car seat with Lenny and a binker; I even tilted the car seat back so when he does finally fall asleep his head won’t roll forward. Anytime now and he’ll be out. This actually plays into my hands. If he falls asleep now, we can maybe get all the way to DC. Yes, I’m dreaming at this point.
Getting very late now. It’s about 10:00pm and Front Royal is a pipe dream, actually at this moment Harrisonburg might be a pipe dream. The kid is still awake. So lets recap, no afternoon nap and now 2+hours past his bedtime and he’s sitting in his car seat looking at the video screen like the leader of the mole people. Harrisonburg is out, stopping in Staunton Virginia. By the time we get settled in a room it’s about 11:30. Frank is wide awake. We are not. He wants to play. We do not. He starts to cry. We do too. I imagine the people of the Marriott will be waiting to stab us as we exit our room the next day. I might close out 2 or 3 of them before they take me down.
He finally got to sleep around 1:00am. On the bed in between us of course. Good thing I set up the old pack-n-play. Frank uses his feet to give me a anesthesia-less appendectomy in my sleep whilst his head is snuggled up with mom.
Sunlight hits us in the face around 10:00am the next morning. Frank is still asleep, sprawled across the bed like a tornado had deposited him there. He wakes and is in a much better mood, apparently feeling no effects from his haze induced 8 hour car ride. Kid’s a trooper. The rest of the ride to Jersey was uneventful. There is that small 40 minute window of the Inner Loop around DC that brings all kinds of terror, but we whipped through there pretty fast. Finally we timed something right. We cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge and Frank gets his first look and smell of the homeland. Jersey; home of The Boss, Bon Jovi, Bruce Willis, Brian Williams, Frank Sinatra, Buzz Aldrin, David Copperfield, Abbott & Costello, Jerry Lewis, Norman Schwartzkopf, and me. Just to name a few.
Made a stop at Gobby and Poppy’s house, (my parents), for a little pizza and a visit. It was easier to see who Frank took after when he was sitting next to my father, the man he was named after. Amazing how much older my son Frank looked when the two were side by side.
We stayed at my sister Susan’s house, (#5 in the order) which was great and got a visit from Cousin Nicholas and my sister Kathy, (#8 in the order and youngest). They brought lunch and Frank got his first Turkey sub from WaWa. Don’t ask, it’s a Jersey thing. He muckeled it pretty good. It was a good time and an easy indoctrination to the family for Frank. Nicholas is a ham and a real good kid. Frank enjoyed him then and on subsequent trips. For a while we were calling them Nicky Cheeks and Frankie Tomatoes. I’m sure that will come back to haunt them both at their wedding rehearsal dinners.
On to Aunt Carol (my sister, 4th in the batting order) and Uncle Bob’s house, also known as Club Wideker. Great pool, good eats, and great people. Frank got a preview of the place we’ll be shipping him off to during the summers once he starts school. Then is was on to the Jersey Shore. In this case Ocean City N.J. Atlantic City had long been overrun with casinos and boardwalk clutter. We hit the boardwalk for some Gelato, Italian Ice Cream, then down to the sand and the water. Frank really got a kick out of the ocean, but man it was freezing. He didn’t seem to mind. The sand he could do without. He was very concerned when the sand got on his feet. Good lord this kid is a Southerner.
The trip went a lot faster than I thought. We were barely there long enough for Frank to receive his true “family ” name. My brother Thomas (#2 in the order) named him Frankie Pentangeli. In Italian, Pentangeli means 5 angles, sort of. So Frankie Five Angles it is. Well this southern boy with the mob name had to go home sometime. The fateful journey back to Knoxville was upon us.
We had to make some decisions on the fly. My nephew Mikey gave me some great advice about getting around Baltimore and DC, by scooting across the top of Maryland and then catching 81 South in West Virginia. That turned out to be a godsend. It was a much smoother ride all the way around. It may have even saved us some time, but what it saved in stress compared to the Inner Loop of DC is hard to calculate. We made it to 81 so quickly and Frank was doing so well that we started dreaming about getting home in one shot. When we hit Harrisonburg at lunch we really thought we could make it back that night. After about 30 minutes at the McDonald’s playground we were rolling and Frank fell asleep. Pay-dirt, finally.
We made it almost to Abingdon VA by the time Frank woke up. He slept for almost 3 1/2 hours and we were only 2+ hours from home. We stopped for dinner where Frank proceeded, at the ripe age of 13 months, to whack a chicken fried steak and some fried okra at the Abingdon Cracker Barrel. Are you kidding me? He was just rubbing it in now. No matter how long we stayed in Jersey, he’ll always be a Southerner.
Well we figured we were home free now; almost. He started flipping out with about an hour to go. Apparently 10 hours in a car seat was a little much for him. No stamina, none. Probably why the south lost the war. Anyway, it was the longest 60 minutes of our lives, but once we got in the house and he saw his stuff, (read: toys) in the living room he was as right as rain.
All in all a great trip. We learned a lot, some things by accident, some on purpose. We have taken Frank back twice since then and he does the return trip to Knoxville in a single 10 hour shot with almost no complaints.
At the end of the day I have to agree with my now 2 1/2 year old son, Jersey is fun but it’s always great to be back on Rocky Top.
*Roll a Seven: verb, Old South Jersey; Atlantic City origin. Meaning to croak, kick the bucket, go belly up, push up daisies, take the gas pipe, be no longer alive