In October of 1986, Northwest Airlines merged with Republic Airlines. One of the logistical issues arising from the merger was how to integrate two separate staffs of pilots into a common seniority system. My father was hired as an IT consultant during negotiations about how that integration would work, I believe to help one of the parties produce decision support data that ended up being used during the arbitration process. Once the work was finished, he received a thank-you from his employer in the form of three free airline tickets which he could use to take me and my brother on a vacation anywhere in the country. This was a thoughtful gift, as he and my mother were going through a bitter divorce and the inflexibility of the visitation/custody schedule had been a challenge that visibly affected his professional availability during the contract.
My parents had separated in November of 1985, quite abruptly: my mother packed a couple of bags and we spent the next two or three weeks living with a friend of hers (and her son, a good friend of mine.) My dad came home to a note on the kitchen table explaining that she had left him and taken the kids, and that he needed to move out of the house. I didn't see him again for a month, and for many years afterward in discussions with my brother and I, my dad always referred to that event as my mother having
kidnapped you boys. The day-to-day schedule of my childhood from then on was plotted out by strict court order; my parents almost never traded days or weekends in the custody schedule.
In February of 1987, my father picked me and my brother up from school on a Friday afternoon. This was typical, as it was
his weekend with us; we both packed suitcases full of clothes for the weekend with him and brought them to school with us, so he didn't have to do any planning ahead to take us on a vacation. He was able to take us straight from school to the airport. We were going to Disneyland.
I remarked on the way to the airport that it was kind of cool that we were going to be on vacation that particular weekend, because our mother was also out of town on business. I didn't remember a lot of details about where, just that she was staying on a hotel which had been built aboard a ship. I don't believe the flight out was my first time on a plane, but it was the first time I was really old enough to remember. The pilots (either on the flight there or the flight out) spent some time showing the plane's cockpit to me and my brother; we took home some plastic pilot's wings as souvenirs.
So, I got to visit Disneyland at eight years old, just about the perfect time for a kid to go. We spent our whole Saturday there, just about; I recall eating at White Castle (for the first time) before going to the amusement park. My dad called the burgers sinkers and that stuck with me enough that I was confused when I later started hearing people call them sliders instead. I remember surprisingly little about that Saturday other than the It's a Small World ride and the Alice in Wonderland ride. Teacups and dancing robots and very long lines. I remember talking for a long time about wanting to go back and see more of the attractions; that stopped with a visit to Disney World and Epcot Center a couple of years later. My favorite part of Disneyland was a multi-story video arcade; I played Peter Pack Rat there and spent years afterward trying to find a Minnesota arcade which had it.
What I remember best about that trip was Sunday. We spent the morning walking on an almost deserted beach, the first time I had seen the ocean. Then we toured the Spruce Goose, a gigantic luxury airplane that had been built by Howard Hughes using all-wood construction. Finally, we went on board the Queen Mary, a retired cruise liner that was anchored in Long Beach and had a hotel on board. We toured that as well, finishing a little before noon. We ended up in the hotel lobby--where my mother just happened to be checking out of that very hotel.
I remember that scene very well. My brother, a couple of years younger than me, went running excitedly over to her. My dad was hiding behind a potted plant on one side of the room. My mom was at the checkout desk, and I was hovering nervously between the two of them, not sure where I was supposed to be.
At the time this happened, it felt like a funny prank. As the years went by, I started to think of it more as a kind of stalking activity on my dad's part. How had he figured out which weekend she would be in California on business, and then worked out her check-out time? How messed up must it be to be 2000 miles away from home and see your young children run up to you unattended in a hotel lobby? Did my dad take us to Disneyland because he wanted to fuck with my mom's head on Valentine's Day weekend?
I asked my dad some of these questions recently.
The main point, he told me,
was to let her know that if she screwed me around too badly on child support, it would be incredibly easy to take you boys out of state without her knowing.
My first and only visit to the happiest place on Earth was conceived as a veiled threat of child abduction. It's funny the kinds of things one can learn over a calm glass of wine with family.