California Stars

Last August, difficult circumstances and unfortunate coincidence caused me to have to take the kids on a family vacation by myself. It was only 24 hours before we were all to leave together that it became apparent that my wife wouldn’t be going and that I’d be doing it solo. I was somewhat overwhelmed at the idea, but I managed to pull it off.  While a week’s vacation with the kids isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things, having done that made me pretty confident that I could do this single-dad-on-the-go thing when it later became necessary for me to do so.

Maybe too confident. Because this year I got it in my head that I’d take the kids to California.

Last year’s vacation was a car ride up to Lake Michigan and a condo stocked with all of the comforts of home. This time it would be a two-leg cross-country flight and a hotel where every little extra thing cost $24.

Of course I figured that the logistical difficulties would be balanced out by how easily impressed they are.

“How big is the Pacific Ocean?” Carlo asked.
“Pretty big.”
“Can you see the other side?”

And so on.

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I briefed them on air travel weeks ahead of time. They quickly understood that they could take their backpacks stuffed with books and video games and anything else they could carry with them on the plane, but that they could not take water because someone once tried to blow up a plane with liquid explosives.  They further understood that they could put anything that would fit in the suitcase this side of atomic weapons, but that they had to take their shoes off at security because someone once tried to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb. They never asked why anyone would want to blow up a plane and never exhibited any anxiety about it. They’ll never think that stuff is weird.

On the first leg of the flight we sat in the seventh row, which is the first row in coach. Anna saw the people in first class getting drinks and food and asked me what was so special about those people.

“They’re in first class. They pay extra to get bigger seats and more legroom and food and stuff,” I told her.
“How much extra?”
“Hundreds of dollars, I guess.”
“The food can’t be that good,” she said.

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We landed in San Diego at 1:30. By 3 P.M. we were in the ocean. By 3:17 P.M. we were in the pool. By 3:46 P.M. we were in the ocean again. It’s possible they were a bit overwhelmed. My brother arrived at the hotel a little after 4pm and began throwing them – literally throwing them – all over the pool. This did not calm them down at first but contributed to them passing out later, so thank you, Curt.

Thanks to the pool fun and the time difference the kids were almost unconscious by 6:30 P.M. We had to keep them awake, however, because (a) we had arranged for a bonfire and s’mores on the beach at 8; and (b) I didn’t want them waking up at 4 A.M. the next morning due to jet lag. The only way to beat the lag is to stay awake, so we did so by taking them to the Coronado Police Station where Curt’s girlfriend Kim works as a dispatcher. A nice police officer gave the kids a tour. She showed them booking and let them sit in the back of a police car. She also put Curt and Carlo in the drunk tank.

They looked a little too natural in there, frankly.

The police station gave them enough of a second wind to make it to the bonfire.  We sat in little chairs on the beach next to a roaring fire, made s’mores, watched the stars come out and felt the cool Pacific breezes. We had the setup ourselves for an hour and a half. The kids lasted approximately 27 minutes before crashing. It was the best/worst $100 I ever spent.

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For the next two days we woke up, ate a fantastic breakfast each morning, spent almost all day alternating between the pool, the hot tub and the beach and having a nice dinner someplace. Curt would show up after waking up, throw the kids around the pool more and give me an extra set of eyes so that I could take a kid back to the room if they needed it without having to make the other one come too. Really, that’s the most difficult thing about taking your kids on vacation by yourself. Not the travel, not the sleeping arrangements, not the carrying things. It’s all about having to make both kids do the same thing at the same time because you can’t leave one alone. Did I mention that having Curt around for this was a godsend?

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On Monday night Curt and I took the kids to their first major league baseball game. It was the Rangers vs. the Padres at Petco Park. Jason Marquis started for San Diego and, thanks to a huge park, a Josh Hamilton-free Rangers lineup, cool, heavy marine air socking in the place after sundown and a stiff breeze blowing in from the outfield, the Rangers hitters were fairly helpless against him after the first inning. He somehow struck out ten guys. Carlo now thinks Jason Marquis is a great pitcher. One day I’m going to have to sit him down and tell him the truth about it. May be the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do.

The Rangers won 2-1. The kids somehow made it through all nine innings and were into it the whole time, yelling “let’s go Padres!” and voicing their annoyance at the umpires at the appropriate times. They also consumed a soft pretzel, a hot dog and a soda each and split most of a bag of peanuts. Carlo added soft serve ice cream in a helmet. Anna wanted the helmet but not the ice cream so Curt ate one and gave her the helmet. I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t believe the kids ate a vegetable or a piece of fresh fruit all week. I’m the best dad ever.

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It was 11 PM when we got back from the ballgame. Outside the window of our hotel room we saw little green lights bounding up and down the rocks along the beach and heard men yelling. After a few minutes we figured it out: Navy SEALS training. Hell week. Dozens of soaking wet, freezing cold, totally exhausted SEAL trainees carrying heavy logs and rubber boats above their heads while being run to near death as the guests watch, drinks in hand, from the verandas and balconies of one of the most cushy and luxurious hotels in the country. God bless America.

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Tuesday was the San Diego Zoo. The zoo trip itself was a joy and a success. There was one notable failure, however: I left the sunscreen in the hotel room, which required me to purchase some at the zoo. Ounce per ounce it was only slightly cheaper than weapons-grade plutonium.

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Some time on Tuesday afternoon the kids discovered that the nice lady with the tray would bring them whatever they wanted while they lounge in chairs poolside. The peanut butter and jelly and Capri Sun was not as expensive as the zoo sunscreen, but it wasn’t cheap either. Of course, given that I was drinking $8 beers, I didn’t have standing to argue. Instead, I took the time to think about how at this rate next year’s vacation is going to be someplace more reasonably priced. Like, say, the Maldives, Dubai or on the moon.

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Anna and I were looking out at the ocean on our last morning.

“I don’t want to go, Dad.”

“I don’t either, honey. But that’s how you know it was a good vacation,” I told her. “It’s always better to leave a day too early than a day too late.”

“How about we just not leave at all. Why don’t we just move here?”

“Thinking like that is another way you know it was a good vacation.”

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I spent more on this vacation than I really needed to spend. And yes, I could have made life easier for myself by taking them up to the lake again. But at some point, I reasoned, Anna and Carlo were going to look back at 2012 as the year their parents got divorced and I wouldn’t mind them having something they could look back to from around this time that didn’t suck. An over-compensation vacation? Yeah, there was probably an element of that at work.

But as we sat in the airport waiting for our flight home on Wednesday afternoon, I asked them about what they liked and what they’ll remember from the trip. They went on for nearly an hour:

  • They talked about how fun it was to fly on airplanes;
  • They talked about palm trees;
  • About the smell of the ocean and how great it was to fall asleep listening to the crashing waves;
  • About how nice an 82 degree pool is on a sunny 69 degree day;
  • About how it probably wouldn’t be fun to spend a night in the drunk tank, even in a fancy little town like Coronado;
  • About how avocados and freshly squeezed orange juice make every breakfast better (OK, they had a little fruit);
  • About how big and beautiful and exciting a major league baseball game is even when it’s a 2-1 game and all of the runs were scored in the first inning;
  • About pandas at the zoo;
  • About In-N-Out Burger and how all shakes should be Neapolitan and all food should be made “animal style;”
  • About how freeways are referred to with a definite article (“the 5,” “the 163”);
  • About looking down at aircraft carriers from Point Loma and looking out from the hotel room and hearing the Navy SEALS who – after my explanation of who they are and what they do – the kids roughly equate to The Avengers;
  • About seeing their Uncle Curt on his home turf and having more than a day in my living room during some brief visit back east to play with him;
  • About this strange and exotic land called California which they’d heard of but had never really grokked before now. 

They’ve only had a few vacations in their life, but they say this was the best one they’ve ever had.  I’ve had a lot of vacations in my life, and I know that it was the best one I’ve ever had.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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