(Granddaughter Zoey at the Blue Zoo Aquarium in Oklahoma City)

It has become something of a tradition, over the past decade or two, to devote this space around this time of year to a topic many of us remember from our grade school days: “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.”

Such accounts over the years have focused on trips to Canada, Louisiana and New York; visits to such varied destinations as the Grand Canyon, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Seattle’s Space Needle and (yes!) the Pez Visitors’ Center in Orange, Conn.; and my participation in such pop culture events as the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con (where I was actually one of the guest speakers) and the 2010 Science Fiction Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

And then, every other year or so, there has been the family trips to the annual PulpFest convention and concurrent FarmerCon - a fan celebration of Hugo Award-winning science fiction author and creative mythographer Philip José Farmer - where I have taken part in book signings, bought more books than I probably should have, sold copies of some of my own literary endeavors, and rubbed shoulders with such pop culture icons as author Joe Lansdale and famed comic book artist Jim Steranko.

Such outings have been grand adventures indeed for a fellow who grew up dreaming of making road trips like the ones my parents took us on when we were growing up and of becoming a professional writer. They’ve provided a lifetime of memories not only for myself but for my wife and sons, who have had the opportunity to not only visit some of our nation’s most scenic locales but to meet celebrities like Stan Lee, Arlo Guthrie and Ray Bradbury. 

And, on occasion, they‘ve given me the opportunity to puff my chest out a little and tell some of my childhood friends, “Not bad for one of the least distinguished members of Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School’s Class of 1981, right?”

Alas, there would be no such grand adventure in 2020. Thanks a lot, COVID-19. 

As we had on several occasions in the past, Melissa and I both scheduled our annual summer vacations to once again coincide with this year’s PulpFest/FarmerCon festivities. It was to be a much-anticipated reunion with fellow members of the New Wold Newton Meteorics Society, a chance to hawk copies of the two books I’ve seen published since the last time I attended, and an opportunity to once again add some long sought-after titles to my personal library - much to the almost certain exasperation of my beloved and long-suffering wife, who is always quick to point out how little room we have for any more books yet always manages to come home with two or three additions to her own collection…

Yeah, that had been the plan. But as has been the case with countless activities across the country, from this year’s Comic-Con to our own Johnston County Free Fair and Reaching Out fundraiser, the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 PulpFest/FarmerCon event. Other possible destinations were discussed and investigated in the weeks leading up to vacation, but in almost every case ended up being discarded - either because they had been similarly canceled or shut down by the pandemic, or because they were located in potential “hot spots” and we just were not willing to take the chance. 

I suspect this might make us a target of ridicule by some. It’s no secret that there are a lot of folks out there who dismiss the pandemic as either a hoax or something that’s been overdramatized by the media. They laugh derisively at people who exhibit caution, dismiss warnings by health officials as the fearmongering ravings of Chicken Littles, and react angrily - and sometimes violently - to calls to wear face masks and practice social distancing. 

For the record, my wife and I are not among them. She’s a registered nurse whose training gives her a pretty fair understanding of the potential effects of a large-scale health crisis. I’m a life-long believer in the importance of research, the validity of science and the notion (deeply ingrained in me by my parents) that God gave us brains and common sense for a reason.

Also, we’re both rapidly aging Baby Boomers who, unfortunately, find ourselves among those who might just be among the most vulnerable. 

Look, I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit that I can sometimes be something of a chicken. During my stint in the military, when I was in basic training and providing the information to be stamped onto my dog tags, my response to “Religion” was “Coward, orthodox.” (The drill sergeant made me change my answer, the old fuddy-duddy…) While I have had my moments of reckless behavior now and again, I have made a deliberate effort to not make a habit of it. That fact that I’m here to tell you so indicates that this was probably good thinking on my part.

Her decision to marry me aside, my wife has for the most part been similarly cautious. So I’m pretty sure I can speak for both of us when I say we make no apologies for maintaining a “better safe than sorry” attitude for almost six decades. 

Hey, it’s gotten us this far…

Having said all that, however, I will also admit that - as an old married couple with a history of road trips that stretches all the way back to summer tours with our church teen group when we were dating back in high school - the notion of not going anywhere at all during our annually allotted two weeks was (as my old pal Julian Frye has been known to say) about as appealing as sardine pizza à la mode. After all these months of simply going back and forth from home to work, with the occasional trip to the grocery store and even a haircut or two, we were both pretty much climbing the walls and looking for any way to get back out there in the real world, even if only for a few moments.

“I gotta get out of here even if it means swiping somebody’s hazmat suit,” I told my wife one afternoon as I came home from work that last week before vacation was scheduled to start. She chuckled - but it was a humorless chuckle, born of commiseration and shared frustration. 

And so we made the decision. While we still refused to throw caution totally to the wind, neither would we allow COVID-19 to completely rule our existence. Perhaps there would be no two-week road trip in 2020, but that didn’t mean that we couldn’t take a few short, one- or two-day trips, interspersed with some sorely needed resting and recreating at home.

And so that is exactly what we did. 

Two of those trips were full-blown family affairs, as sons Josh and Will, Will’s wife Charlesana and our little granddaughter Zoey visited first the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas, then later the recently opened Blue Zoo Aquarium in Oklahoma City. At my age I am learning that there are few sounds as enjoyable to these old ears as that of our not quite 2-year-old little darling as she ooos and ahhs at the sight of giraffes, otters, turtles and stingrays, or her giggling as she plays peek-a-boo with her grandmother while we’re having lunch together.

Magic. Sheer magic…

There were also a few short excursions Melissa and I took alone to a few interesting locales a little closer to home, such as Medicine Park near Lawton and the statue gardens at Frisco, Texas.

One of those trips also included lunch at a certain hamburger joint Melissa decided she wanted to visit after hearing a co-worker raving about it. The food was good - especially the cobbler with homemade ice cream we had for dessert - but ultimately the experience wasn’t quite the culinary adventure we’d thought it might be. 

After such a big build-up, I guess we were both expecting something a little more. I don”t know what, exactly; after all, as my father used to say, a hamburger is a hamburger...

On the other hand, the trip to Frisco included a Saturday lunch at a lovely little Greek restaurant that evoked pleasant memories of the nine months I spent stationed in Athens while in the Air Force back in the mid-1980s. Plus the food was quite good - always a plus when you eat out.

And while I may not have gotten the hoped-for opportunity to prowl the jungle of vendor booths at PulpFest, sleuthing through stacks of vintage paperbacks and the occasional hardcover treasure, my bookwormish appetites did not go entirely insatiated during these mini-outings. We were able to visit a number of used bookstores here and there, which resulted in my locating more than one volume I’d been seeking out for years

Each of these excursions saw us properly masked and doing our best to follow the social distancing protocols. Melissa even got a number of compliments for her face mask, a cute little cloth number emblazoned with the Wonder Woman logo.

We did this not just because we had to if we wanted to go inside these places, but because we wanted to out of concern for the health and safety of our fellow man. If I live to be a million (only 999,943 years to go, boys and girls!), I’ll never understand why some people have a problem with that.

During one such shopping trip, Melissa asked me to stop by a certain sporting goods store we came upon so she could get a new pair of sneakers (hers were getting pretty worn out), and while she shopped I observed an interesting scene. There was a family there - Mom, Dad and at least four teenagers by my count - apparently doing some back-to-school shopping… and not one of them wearing a face mask, despite the several great big signs in the windows at the store entrance clearly stating that facemarks were required while inside the store.

As I stood there watching, a young store clerk walked up to the father and very politely asked through his own face covering, "Sir, where are your masks?"

The father responded by shaking a fist in the young man's face and angrily snarling, "Where's your badge, a**hole?" 

At which point the clerk silently walked away, I'm guessing in search of his manager - or perhaps store security. Melissa found the shoes she wanted about that time so I didn't get the chance to see what might have happened next...

(Copyright © 2020 by John Allen Small)