industrial robots
Cranking out widgets in search of meaning...

Dr. Pepper

Dr. Pepper can

It happens almost every time.

When I take the first gulp from a really cold can of Dr. Pepper, I’m almost always taken back to this one summer vacation, like a 23 flavour time machine.

Suddenly I’m in Duluth, Minnesota and around six years old. Canada didn’t have the new aluminum cans yet, so the soda is larger, making it harder to hold on to while being easier to crush than I’m used to.

I’m standing in our motel room, taking that first metallic taste again. A taste of the freedom of summer vacation. A time when the rules seem to get relaxed a bit, even though nothing specific is said about it.

Vacations were a time when it was okay to eat at fast food restaurants. A time when my sister and I were given some spending money for no special reason because that’s just part of being on vacation (money that I would inevitably spend on something frivolous out of impulse). A time when things felt almost like we were a normal family. Almost.

There was never any discussion about where we would go on vacation, which generally consisted of long drives to some U.S. destination, likely because of a favourable exchange rate. My father enjoyed driving, which made sense, as he was a mechanic and racing enthusiast.

We’d pack up the car and leave in the early hours of the morning, often in September. This could also be the reason I’ve always liked travelling in the fall, having it be the default rather than the actual summer. We would miss a couple of weeks of school, but I can’t fault my parents’ logic that we wouldn’t miss much and we both did well for the most part anyway. I’m sure it was cheaper too, which I can understand being a concern.

For the most part, we went to states around the great lakes, like Michigan and Ohio, or places in the midwest like The Dakotas. One time we went to Indianapolis, Indiana and rode a tour bus around the Indy 500 race track. I always felt kind of sorry for my dad that we didn’t go when there was a race, but maybe it was just too expensive.

I remember seeing things like the badlands, mount rushmore, and the depths of some caves where we learned about stalactites and stalagmites. On a later trip, after my younger sister was born, we went to a place called “Circus World Museum” that I don’t remember much of, other than a hat she got with the name of the park spelled out in colourful block letters. Along the way, we would also visit some Ontario landmarks, like the Wawa goose, the Sudbury nickel, and a weird park in Sault Ste. Marie called Dwarf Village that had mushroom themed tables and chairs and displays of fairy tale characters like Snow White.

Travel is good for several things, generally. Exploring and learning about a new place, challenging and learning more about yourself, and having a shared experience with people you care about. I’d say the first one is the most true of my childhood vacations, the second came later as I travelled alone as an adult. That third one is different though, and even though it’s true for my adult life, when I was a kid, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

I’d agree that, for the most part, my older sister and I had quite a bit of shared experience. Most of the time we would have similar reactions to whatever was going on at the moment. Where things feel a bit odd, is in the interactions between us and our parents, or rather the lack of interactions.

While travel and vacations can often be seen as a way to develop and reinforce relationships, at least as an adult, it seems like our parents didn’t recognize the opportunity to do that with us. I mentioned that we often didn’t know beforehand where our destination was. This lack of information and input was typical in our family. I don’t think where we went should have been our choice as children, but we had no say and it often felt like no consideration. This would remain common in the lack of interaction between us as “the kids”, and our parents as another, separate unit while we were on vacation.

I’m not sure how typical or not the situation was, but I remember other kids knowing their family vacation plans and being excited. Would I have been excited about seeing some caves? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the somewhat educational focus my parents had for our travel plans made them inclined to keep them secret in case we questioned them.

It just always seemed to me like we were almost a normal family at those times, but that it was also a situation of pretending to be typical while the same basic issues still existed beneath the surface. I don’t ever remember my parents talking about any of these places afterward, or even asking us if we had a good time. Maybe they could tell and didn’t need to ask, but that lack of interaction and the feeling that we were just along for the ride never really went away.

Years later, an anime would inspire me to drink a Dr. Pepper from a vending machine in the Akihabara area of Tokyo. I’m not sure if I was subconsciously trying to overwrite this memory, but the association from childhood still remains.