It is not my practice to take vacations. They strike me as a form of surrender, like Evacuation Day in New York City, which marked the end of the British presence in Manhattan on November 25, 1783. In fact, the last shot of the Revolutionary War was fired that day on jeering crowds from one of the departing royal ships. It is still commemorated annually here by decreasing numbers of people who for some reason celebrate the cultural suicide of New York. It can’t go on forever, though, since our schools teach nothing about our past: this year on Independence Day, most people on Jones Beach were unable to answer a television reporter’s questions about what happened on July 4 and who was the first president of the United States. But every vacation strikes me as a form of evacuation with results not quite as dire as the disappearance in 1783 from our shores of the last ethnic group with a command of the English language.
Against my better judgment, and at the urging of numerous people with mixed motives, I took a vacation in July. A retired bishop had told me I should take one. I objected that I had no need to go away, since I love what I do and do not need a vacation from it. He replied that I may not need a vacation but perhaps my parish does. So off I went, accepting a kind invitation to the Gulf of Mexico for three days. My first mistake was to fly, since everyone who knows me well knows that there is some inexplicable jinx on me when I take an airplane. If there are a hundred flights scheduled and one is canceled, it will be mine. The last time I defied this curse was earlier this year, to attend a wedding in Australia for one full day and two nights. It is hard for me to get substitutes in my parish, so I rarely spend an overnight away, but going to the other side of the planet for just a day did prove somewhat of a strain, especially as on the way over, there was a power failure, and then a bogus terrorist scare, after which, two hundred miles over the Pacific, a man behind me had a heart attack. The jumbo jet turned around and we flew to Pearl Harbor under circumstances more benign than in 1941. We were greeted by an ambulance and a group of grass-skirted senior citizens from the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce singing Aloha songs. After waiting almost a whole day, we were bundled back on the airplane. There was a further delay because of a tardy catering service. Everyone agreed that we did not need food, since it was hard to tell by that time what the meal should be. It seemed to be the consensus that all we needed was a capable bartender. Fortunately, the ill man was saved, although most us felt that we were on a trajectory to the grave. So I arrived in Sydney with only a few hours before the wedding.
Now back to my mandated holiday. Out of three days at the Gulf of Mexico, which I could tell, just by looking, was much larger than New York harbor, there were constant tropical storms with fierce lightning, and only one window of opportunity for swimming. As I do not take the sun well, and prefer the beach at night, I had little chance to test the waters for sharks. My family has inbred judiciously and injudiciously since the Norman Conquest to attain the sickly pallor, which provokes remarks from hardier outdoorsmen. I did not betray my ancestors. For the rest of those few days, there was nothing to do but watch informally dressed people waiting on long lines to eat a wide assortment of fish in restaurants, most of which had gift shops featuring the same sort of costume jewelry that can be had on lower Lexington Avenue at discount. The fish were similar to kinds indigenous to the Hudson River except for unattractive creatures with suction cups. I have no appetite for anything that can cling to a ceiling.
My return flight from Pensacola was delayed more than five hours because of a mechanical problem. This required changing my connecting flight twice. Because I had a funeral scheduled for the next day, I tried to place a telephone call to my parish saying that I might be spending the night in Atlanta, whose modernist airport could benefit from a visit by General Sherman. I do not have a mobile telephone and when I asked for the location of the nearest telephone booth, it was as if I had requested an astrolabe. There was one “public telephone” requiring an expensive “Phone Card” with operating instructions that only an engineer from Cal Tech could understand. Everyone including children now have “cell phones” that are said to damage the brain. I saw evidence of that medical caution all around me. A kindly woman in the airport souvenir shop selling taxidermied heads of small alligators as paperweights, lent me her mobile telephone which I gratefully used though it was bright pink and decorated with floral stencils. I was able to arrive at LaGuardia around midnight, shortly before closing time.
Upon my return, taking an expensive taxi driven by a Zoroastrian who shared my critical opinions of Al Qaeda, I was moved to kiss the ground of Park Avenue. Then I lost my wallet, which contains everything necessary for survival except oxygen, which so far is still free in our country. It was proper punishment for not traveling with just a walking stick and sandals, which advice indicates that our Lord himself did not think in terms of long trips. At least I made the funeral as scheduled. It has been my long experience that the beloved departed, though dead, always are punctual for their funerals while brides, though alive, usually are late for their weddings.
G.K. Chesterton said that “travel narrows the mind.” By this he meant that we appreciate things foreign when they are far away, but when we travel and encounter them, we focus on how different we are from them. I pray that I may keep my anxious vow, frequently broken, never to fly again. As a theologian, I know that if God had wanted man to fly, he would not have given us Amtrak. So that is all I have to say about the strange custom of going on vacations. For my part, I spent the rest of the summer happily in my parish, taking advantage of the general evacuation of the locals, to study German, do some boxing, paint a landscape, and practice my violin—which has the benefit of driving the flocks of pigeons from my roof. Curiously, my own neighborhood was filled with vacationers from other places, including a young couple with three children taking a break from the Gulf of Mexico. I am persuaded more than ever before, of the wisdom in Noel Coward’s song: “Why do the wrong people travel, travel, travel, When the right people stay back home?” A higher authority is St. Paul who traveled only of necessity and was beaten, shipwrecked and stung by scorpions in the process. He said, “When you live in New York you don’t have to travel because you are already there.” Or perhaps it was another one of those saints. But it is true.