When Truman Capote set off to do book research on his seminal classic, In Cold Blood, he took along his childhood friend, fellow author Harper Lee. When I set off recently to do research on a book that I'll just be glad to finish by deadline, I took along my wife.
For one, my wife—not even the jealous type—would have killed me if I took Harper Lee. But also, with three kids, you have to get away when you can. Free and easy is how life should be lived, with kids or without.
To reach that rarified state of free ease, though, we had to leave the house at 4:30 in the morning, both to have three full days in San Francisco and—truth be told—to dodge any potential mom-and-dad-leaving-for-weekend tantrums.
Not that we have a pattern of abandonment. Outside of staying over at the hospital to have more kids, Lori and I have only been away without the kids one other time. Plus, my in-laws (retired elementary school teachers, for God's sake) were running the show.
This was going to be easy. Or so we thought.
We were flying out of convenient Westchester County Airport, with a stopover in D.C. before heading to the coast. First there was a tiny issue with the plane. Namely, it was roughly the size of a tuning fork. I didn't even know they flew propeller planes commercially anymore. Lori, who does not like to fly, turned ashen. I tired to sooth her nerves. She, in turn, mentioned something about a fiery ball.
As our tuning fork taxied down the runway, I remembered how anchorman Brian Williams had once said that Westchester County Airport reminded him of "the fall of the government in Jakarta." I wrote about the contretemps in The New York Times, and at the time I thought his diva was getting the best of the avuncular Mr. Williams, but now? Here-here, Brian.
When we finally landed, we were ready for the free and easy part of our trip to begin. But we had no sooner landed than we were checking into—and out of—our hotel. It was the first time that we had ever complained about a hotel, let alone checked out, but there is nothing like bad accommodations with attitude. Two strikes and you're out—or off to the Hilton, paying up and eating the cost of a night's stay at the lame place.
San Francisco was magical, but the pixie dust of freedom had hardly been sprinkled when I had to bolt. I was there for book research, after all.
I am writing a book, due out in the spring, about how volunteer firefighting seems a lost relic of Americana, but is actually quite vibrant. In photographs and words, I'm profiling some very interesting fire departments around the nation, including one in Sea Ranch California, where firefighters in their 50s, 60s and 70s battle wildfires and repel down cliffs to rescue swimmers in distress.
But to get there, I had to drive three hours north on Route 1, as windy, steep and treacherous a route as probably exists in America. In a less than charming development, my car had faulty alignment, pulling left toward the depths of the Pacific, so driving along those cliffs was like trapeze work with no safety net.
Next day, it was the red eye home with a middle of the night connection in Washington where—wouldn't you know it—the world's last commercial propeller plane was there, waiting for us. I'm pretty certain even Capote and Lee, making their trip way back when, didn't have to fly one of those—which got me thinking about them. In one of the greatest flukes in suburban history, two of the most-renowned authors of the 20th Century just happened to have grown up across the street from each other. And that got me thinking, as the propeller planed began to dip and spurt, about the irony that Capote had Harper Lee as a neighbor, but our kids are probably growing up across the street from kids they'll smoke weed with in the garage.
A few more dips and spurts and we were finally, somewhat mercifully, home.
I like to write with a larger point, but thanks to our strident attempts to get away and relax without kids, I've officially been rendered too tired to think of one. Perhaps we should just leave it that for parents, in the end, being free is anything but easy.
Marek Fuchs is the author of "A Cold-Blooded Business," called "riveting" by Kirkus Reviews. He wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column about life in Westchester for six years and teaches non-fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville. When not writing or teaching, he serves as a volunteer firefighter. You can contact Marek through his website: www.marekfuchs.com or on Twitter: @MarekFuchs.