A couple of years ago, Titanic Pigeon Forge opened and my darling husband said to me several dozen times, “We should totally go see that.” The only thing Otto likes better than cars is other big vehicles, like boats and subs and airplanes and stuff. Apparently a really big boat that hits an iceberg is WAY up on the list of Cool Things.
Being the loving, supportive partner than I am, I responded with, “Mmmmhmmm,” and went back to whatever it was I was doing.
But then one day we all got an email from Merry that said, “Hey, I was thinking it might be a really cool Hippie School trip for us all to go see the Titanic exhibit at Pigeon Forge. What do you all think?” Otto thought Christmas had come early; I thought something more along the lines of “Hmmmm, that’s kind of far away for a school trip, how is this going to work?” But I guess enough people said “let’s do it” and Merry began plotting.
Last week it was finally time. Merry rented a 12-bedroom house in Tennessee and bought the tickets and we all handed in our money and set up carpool arrangements and hit the road. We were going to have an ADVENTURE.
Monkey and I ended up riding with another mom I didn’t know particularly well before the drive; although Otto was possibly the most excited family member about this trip, he couldn’t leave at the appointed time because he had to teach a class, so he was going to meet us in Tennessee much later that night. So Monkey and I threw our stuff into an unfamiliar vehicle and I said a silent prayer that our ride would be uneventful.
The good news is that—although the other child in question certainly isn’t one of Monkey’s besties—the boys chattered happily and kept themselves amused for the entire drive. The only moment of friction, if it could even be called that, was when the other kid’s younger brother (who was along for the trip) announced he really needed his mom to stop because he had to pee, and Monkey straightened right up, turned around in his seat, and with a large grin said, “You have to go? Whatever you do, don’t think about… WATERFALLS. Or RIVERS. Or a faucet that you just can’t turn off. Or RAIN, most definitely DO NOT THINK ABOUT RAIN.”
[Sidebar: The blessing of a child with a developmental delay is that in times like this, when he's being a little shit, instead of thinking "man, my kid is kind of being a little shit," you instead think, "OH MY GOODNESS, my child is using humor and sarcasm in a social context in an age-appropriate way. YOU GO, SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE!" And then after you wipe the tiny tear from your eye, you turn around and fix your offspring with a hard stare and exhort him to stop being a butthead. Then all three boys laugh uproariously, because... um, I'm not sure why. Because butthead is funny coming from a MOM, probably.]
Anyway. It’s a long drive from here to there… like 4+ hours. We were less than an hour in when we were zooming along, chatting, when we passed a trooper sitting on the side of the road. Our driver immediately turned to me. “What’s the speed limit here?” she asked.
“I dunno,” I said. “I haven’t seen a sign. How fast were you going?” I looked in the side mirror and saw the cop pulling out behind us.
“72, maybe? Isn’t it 65 here?” She watched in the rearview mirror and I watched in the side mirror as the cop drove along behind us. His lights weren’t on.
“His lights aren’t on,” I offered. “Maybe it was just time for him to move?” We continued watching him, nervously. By now we’d gone another mile. “I don’t think he—” I stopped, because he turned his lights on.
We adults exchanged A Look and with some muttering, our driver pulled the car over. The boys looked up from their video games and asked what was going on, and we assured them everything was fine, we were just going to talk to the nice policeman for a minute.
Said trooper was practically a fetus, and even his serious face couldn’t hide the fact that he appeared to be barely old enough to shave. Pleasantries were exchanged, he noted that we’d been going 72 in a 55, and then he peeked in the car and noted that we had “an awful lot of children” with us.
At this, the other mom laughed. She has four kids in all, so she quickly pointed out that we were headed to Tennessee for a school trip, but this particular cargo was fewer children than actually belong to her. The trooper then asked if everyone was properly buckled up and there was a chorus of “Yes, sir”s, and THEN he asked if anyone in the car was under 8 and should be a booster seat. We said no, and then he went back to his car to do whatever it is they do with your license and registration (make sure you’re not on the lam or anything, I guess).
I turned around to face the boys, the youngest of who was the little brother, at 10. Monkey was the oldest of the trio at nearly 13, so I looked at him and said, “Hey Monkey, that cop thought you were under 8.” Monkey’s a little sensitive about being short, so that was a total dick move on my part, but it did exactly what I wanted it to do—the tension was broken as all the boys laughed and Monkey insisted that HE DID NOT.
The trooper came back with a written warning, and the driver was so relieved that she began to regale him with a tale—I swear I am NOT MAKING THIS UP—of the last time she got a speeding ticket. I was not close enough to kick her to get her to shut up, but the trooper seemed unbothered (thankfully) and eventually we were on our way again.
You have to cross some mountains in North Carolina to get where we were going, and there were honest-to-goodness drifts of snow up there, which was just plain weird. Also the road is very twisty and turny and I am prone to carsickness, so while the boys begged for us to stop so they could have a snowball fight, I concentrated very hard on keeping the contents of my stomach inside my body. But as you come out of the mountains, you cross over into Tennessee, which meant we were almost there. Hooray!
Here’s another thing about the mountains: there’s no cell signal up there. So we were almost to our destination when our cell phones finally decided to pick up our voicemail, and it turned out that we had a message from Merry, who’d set out in a caravan with a couple of other cars earlier that day.
Merry sounded cheerful enough, but the message was that her car had broken down. She had transferred her passengers to the other cars in their group, and she was waiting for AAA, and don’t worry, everything’s fine, and she gave one of the other drivers all the information about getting us checked in at the house, and she’d see us soon. Hmmmm, that didn’t sound good. Well, okay. (Later we found out that her husband had insisted she take his car, as it was “more reliable.” I’m thinking Merry has something sparkly in her immediate future if her husband knows what’s good for him.)
We found the resort (fancy!) complex and consulted our directions. “Follow the signs to Giant Lodge,” it said. Well. There were no signs. At all. The complex was a veritable village of cabins, and it was built onto a hill, so we just kept going up and up and up as every cabin we saw was clearly too small to be the one where we were staying. Finally we reached the very top, and there was Giant Lodge, as well as the main “clubhouse” where we were to check in.
We looked around; we were the first to arrive. The rest of Merry’s caravan must’ve made more stops. No matter! We let the boys out to run around and waited patiently. Eventually the two other cars showed up and a flood of Hippie School children poured out and began running around like crazy people. Luigi’s dad headed into the clubhouse to get us checked in.
I suffered several small heart attacks while watching some of the children walk along the edge of a stone wall, and finally Luigi’s dad reappeared and I thought to myself, “Oh thank goodness, we’ll go inside and get settled now.”
BUT NO. Merry was still broken down by the side of the road (waiting for AAA, and trying to figure out where she should have the car taken), and rather than the rest of us settling in, it turned out that… our designated house was actually unavailable. Specifically: it was infested with roaches. YAY! So the resort owners were reassigning us. Okay, which cabin would we be headed to? Well, it turns out that their ENTIRE resort (and I am not kidding you, there must’ve been 100 cabins as part of this place) was booked. Or maybe that was a lie and it was all infested with roaches. BUT DON’T WORRY—they’d secured an “upgrade” for us at another location. Except that… there wasn’t a 12-bedroom house available, so they’d gotten us two 9-bedroom houses right next to each other. Okay.
We caravaned over to the new location, waited for Luigi’s dad to get us checked in, and then drove to our cabins. Again the children poured out of the vehicles like so many locusts and began to swarm the first cabin. I really shouldn’t call it a cabin; although the decor was “rustic,” I have a problem calling a 9-bedroom house with a gourmet kitchen and a movie theater room a cabin. This HOUSE had two enormous wraparound decks, a pool table and air hockey table, assorted video games and pinball machines, and televisions in every room. Merry’s vision for this trip had included a night of “screen-free” fun at the house with camaraderie and board games, but now she wasn’t here and half the children were racing around turning on every single television and the other half were running in and out of every door, out to the deck, back inside the house, around the outside, back in again, and either slamming doors or leaving them wide open.
Monkey stayed in the kitchen with me. “This is kind of a lot of noise and excitement,” he commented. Understatement of the century.
By this time, our easy 4:00 arrival had slipped to about 6:30, and more people were arriving every few minutes (as several adults worked the phone tree to update everyone on where we were), and during our planning meeting Merry had said she’d bring the food and we’d do a big spaghetti dinner that night, because that would be easy. Well. Merry had sent her cooler along with the caravan, but instead of pasta and sauce, she’d purchased several family-size lasagnas… which were frozen solid… and required 90 minutes to cook.
Another mom and I set about unloading the cooler and getting the lasagnas into the oven. Once dinner prep was underway I realized that I was completely on edge… the screaming, running, stomping, and slamming happening around us was driving me INSANE. There were other parents there, but of course it was the kids whose parents weren’t on the trip who were the worst offenders, as the rest of us tried to figure out where in the Hippie School hippie rules we stood on being allowed to squash the free-spiritedness of children not our own.
Finally we determined that we should round up the children for a community meeting. Fair enough. Except that when I went downstairs to try to wrangle some children, no one was listening and then Mario and another child tried to zoom past me (having just run in and slammed the door, natch) carrying pool cues as weapons. That’s when I snapped.
“STOP!” I bellowed, loudly enough that every child in the room froze. I grabbed Mario by the arm, in front of me, and gave him the full-on Displeased Mama Bear. “Mario, I KNOW that you don’t behave like this in your house, so why on EARTH would you act like this in someone else’s house??” He dropped his head to study his feet. “Please adjust your behavior accordingly. We are GUESTS here.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, straightening up, earnest. I love that kid.
“Very good,” I said, giving him a grin. “Everyone else! Upstairs for a meeting, please!” I led a reluctant group of kids whose only thought was probably “man, Monkey’s mom is kind of a bitch” back up to the main level.
The meeting was short and reiterated (not just from me, but a couple of other parents) that reasonable behavior was expected. We told them Merry was on her way and we had about an hour until dinner. All listened and paid attention and agreed and as soon as we told them the meeting was over, they ran off to act exactly as feral as they had beforehand.
A couple of parents sat down with a chart of names and tried to figure out if we could all fit in the one house. The original house we were supposed to have had a king bed and a full-size futon in every room. For families like ours—a parent or two and a kid or two—one room would’ve been plenty sufficient, there. But in the new setup, we had king beds only in five rooms, then queen bunks in four rooms. Despite valiant diagramming, it was determined that no, we really would need the other house as well for everyone to get a bed. We’d just hang out in the first house altogether, though.
“I selflessly volunteer to go over to the other house,” I said, following yet another stomp-stomp-stomp SHRIEK SLAM riff from upstairs. Another parent suggested we leave all the kids in this first house, and all the adults could go next door. PERFECT. But, uh, I guess that might’ve been bad. Anyway. I don’t know how the sleeping arrangements ended up in the first house, but only three families ended up defecting to the second one at bedtime (Otto and Monkey and I had the entire top floor to ourselves!), and it was lovely and quiet over there. Ahhhhh.
About half an hour before dinner was ready, the children started whining about being hungry. By the time we fed them all, Merry was still working out the car situation, Otto was on his way and had already been instructed to stop and buy some alcohol, and I was tempted to glue each and every child to their dining chair. Kidding! Well, no, not kidding, but it was fine. A few of us cleaned up the kitchen, Merry and the mom who’d waited with her finally showed up, we reheated food for them while baking cookies for the kids and hurling them at whiny children, a bunch of us moms sat down and had some tea, and later Otto showed up with beer and Mike’s and those who were so inclined had a drink. It was actually a lovely evening.
And then, of course, we left the noise and had a good night’s sleep, so that was good, too. The next morning we reassembled for breakfast, then headed over to the museum.
Here’s my favorite part of the Titanic exhibit: When you go in, you get an information card about one of the passengers. You have to look around the museum to see if you can find any additional information about your passenger, and then if you can’t, at the end of the tour is a Memorial Wall where you can look to see if you survived the journey. I especially liked how the guy handing out the cards clearly understood that the kids were going to be traumatized if they died—most of them were given survivors. Monkey was a crewman who made it out (he was tapped to be a rower on one of the lifeboats), but was deeply aggrieved to learn that only two of the nine dogs on board survived. (I, unfortunately, went down with my husband and six children in third class. Woe.)
Once in the museum, the group was supposed to stay together, but of course some kids wanted to zoom through and others dawdled, so after an initial “THEY’RE GOING TOO FAST I’M NOT DONE IN HERE YET” distress call from Monkey, we simply took our time and worked our way through at a languid pace. It was awesome. The exhibit is really, really interesting and well thought out, and we all enjoyed it immensely. Plus towards the end they line everyone up by a green screen and take a picture which you can then buy, so we purchased the requisite cheesy shot of all the kids in their school shirts standing on the grand staircase of the ship. Because everyone knows there was a group of feral children wearing YAY HIPPIE SCHOOL shirts on the original Titanic, yo.
After the museum, we headed out to lunch, and of course with a group of 24 people it took forfreakingEVER for even our drinks to come, nevermind the food, so Monkey and Mario—who had been good as gold at the museum—drummed on the table with their silverware and whined loudly about how they were starving and complained about OTHER PEOPLE getting food when WE’VE BEEN HERE LONGER and so on. I was about to knock their heads together (lovingly!) when the manager came over and offered to help us out, and at least then they could complain into their Sprites for a while until the food showed up. Phew.
The ride home was blessedly uneventful. We swapped Mario for Licorice (we had been gone a day and a half and she greeted us as if we’d been MIA for over a month) and then came back to the house to decompress. I think it was a full hour before the “Did anyone happen to find…” emails about missing items started coming in.
So that was all fabulous, and I am really glad to be home again. Also, I’m thinking I don’t ever want to go on another cruise.