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SHRIBMAN: Vacations are the turnoffs from life’s winding, narrow roads
David Shribman

FRYEBURG, Maine — Make way for turkeys.

No, that’s no error. One morning in Maine — many of you parents out there will recognize that as a title of a well-loved 1952 children’s book by Robert McCloskey — we did just that, made way for turkeys. There was the lead turkey, and then eight others. We don’t know their names, but in McCloskey’s classic “Make Way for Ducklings,” which won the 1942 Caldecott Medal for illustration in children’s literature, the little ducks were called Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack. 

Our turkeys along the side of a Maine byway marched precisely the way Lack and Pack and the others did, and of course we had to stop the car. We also stopped to remember how, maybe a million times, we read McCloskey’s books to our children — the one about the blueberries in the hills especially, because it was set in Maine, where the license plates bellow “Vacationland.” It’s the thing we have been doing this summer, on vacation as gateway senior citizens, with our children far away: remembering.

For more than a decade, I filled this space once a year with reflections on our family summer vacation, two beautiful little daughters in tow — just like McCloskey, whose daughters, Sal and Jane, strode through his books. I wrote about tramping the hills, and pausing for a swim by a frosty lake, and taking a picnic into the woods, and always — always — licking cones at an ice-cream barn on the side of the road. 

These were the big thoughts of those columns — (maple-)syrupy columns, I suppose, from the heart more than from the head. My editors, thinking I should have been writing about Bill Clinton or Al Gore or Bob Dole or George W. Bush, or at least the arms-control talks or maybe the machinations of the Fed, reluctantly put up with this indulgence summer after summer. Now I feel I should whisper this to my fellow columnists, who seldom stray from the fray of the day: That summertime vacation column, written while the other typists shared their thoughts about campaign-finance overhaul or the safe-harbor leasing provision in the tax bill being considered by the Ways and Means Committee, always got the most comments of the year. Never failed.

So, once more to the lake -- some of you will recognize that as the title of a fabled E.B. White essay about taking his son, “who had never had any fresh water up his nose,” to a lake in Maine in 1941 -- and once more to the mountains. And, yes, once more to the keyboard to talk about vacations and why they are so important, and what we can learn about ourselves, and our country, from them. 

I was thinking about all that amid the striped maples, red maples and mountain maples (and the balsam fir and hemlock, plus the dense mosses and the mountain-wood sorrel) while walking counterclockwise around a pond the other morning. Counterclockwise being some sort of metaphor, I later realized, for I would like to turn back the clock to the days when, as I wrote in one of those columns 28 years ago, my “hiking partners walk in sneakers the size of [my] palms.” 

Those hiking partners are grown up and now wear size 7 boots, and -- this is a source of great pride to us -- that very weekend they both were hiking, too -- one in the Northern California mountains, one along Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan. I suppose they learned something from their parents after all. 

John Buchan — one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite authors and one of mine, too -- once wrote that it is when people are children, living “very near the ground,” that they get to know “the smell of the soil and the small humble plants and the things that live at the roots of the grasses.” 

We — Mom and Dad — now live at the branches of the trees, not the roots of the grasses, but there are lessons there, too. I saw some of them while on vacation, which is why the controversy about whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump took more vacation time is pointless. (Woodrow Wilson spent much of World War I on the golf course, perhaps his lesser-most sin.) It’s the time off when the mind is at rest, and most receptive to the greater-most truths. Go on vacation, Mr. President. It will do you a great deal of good.

If the president were along with me this summer, he would have seen the people he seeks to lead themselves leading rich lives — less rich, I should add, because of inflation, but rich in the important ways. 

The day before I typed this I saw these things: a dad playing catch with his daughter. Parents lining up with their children at the ice-cream truck that announced its presence at the lake with that cloying jingle you always associate with summer. Four teenaged girls relaxing on the blow-up floaties that are the rage this summer, bobbing on the water, their cellphones packed away under their towels on the shore. And an older couple sunning on rusted beach chairs they probably bought when Dwight Eisenhower was on the putting green he installed at the White House.

“If only these moments would linger, would stay forever, and there would be no packing up and departing,” Daphne du Maurier wrote in the forgotten 1943 novel “Hungry Hill” that I bought for a dollar at the village library book sale last summer. She knew there was “a winter ahead that might bring uncertainty and change.”

A column is supposed to have a point of view. My point of view is the hills and the lakeshore and the farm stand where the sweet corn, New England’s yellow gold, is just now coming in. A column also is supposed to convey a large truth. My truth is one we should remember as we make way for turkeys and try to live amid all the tumult of the coming congressional elections and the (melo)dramas on Capitol Hill: The country is healthy even if its politics is not. 

I learned those things on vacation, and on a 4-mile stretch of gravel that bore this warning on a poignant yellow sign: Narrow Winding Road. Happily, there are turnoffs along life’s narrow winding roads. They’re called vacation. 

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.