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Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Traveling Mercies Pt. 2 - By Dan Ewald

OK, as a reader insightfully pointed out, it’s true. I could have chosen to stay in a hotel on my business trip to Nashville. But here’s my dilema.

Baptists from Jenison, Michigan consider hotels a “last-resort.”

I was reared by middle class American folk living on modest income. When our family of six traveled, we drove a borrowed van from a big-hearted member of our church. Road trips were enjoyable, but we typically slept cheap, in the van at a highway rest stop or in a tent at a KOA campground.

Hotels were a luxury. If we stayed in one, it usually had some form of the word economy worked into its name. Econo-Inn had a cheap ring to it, but you couldn’t beat the deal. Thirty bucks got you free HBO, which my parents promptly blocked, and an indoor pool, where we promptly peed. Plus there was the ubiquitous continental breakfast, which included a basket of grapefruits and oatmeal as binding as wood glue.

Some were better than others. When you stayed at a Holiday Inn you could expect certain things: towels folded into triangles, an ice machine on each floor, and perfect yellow rings resembling crop circles on the fitted sheets.

More often we stayed for free in the home of a friend of a friend of a friend. You never knew what to expect when pulling into the driveway of a strangers’ house. The Greybear family was the most memorable disaster in our life journey of mooching. Their home could be described as a pig sty, but that would be unfair to both pigs and sties. The Greybears were of Cherokee decent, yet they powerfully shattered all stereotypes of dignified Native Americans who want nothing more than to smoke a peace pipe and dance with wild animals.

There were a lot of misfits in the clan: John Greybear, his wife (Mrs. John Greybear), a few rascally sons, and Baby Greybear, a naked child who wore nothing but graham cracker crumbs. “Welcome aboard the Greybear Express!” John shouted enthusiastically upon our arrival, sounding as stupid as a common Caucasian. “Let’s give you a tour.” He started in the bathroom, explaining the trick to the toilet. “The chain’s broken… so to flush, submerge your arm in the tank and give the plug a yank!” In case we forgot, the rhyme was taped to the head.

We moved to the next room where John gave decorating tips. “You can furnish an entire house if you have buddies at the salvage yard!”

In the hallway, he stood in front of an old map and commenced a history lesson about his grandfather’s involvement with Custer’s Last Stand. Too tired to stand, I leaned against the wall and dreamed of eating custard. (Dumb joke, sorry.)

Mrs. John Greybear took note of my weary body language and became sympathetic. “John, these folk are exhausted from the trip. Let’s give ‘em time to unpack.”

It was obvious John Greybear didn’t appreciate being interrupted by “the wife,” as he obnoxiously called her. He scowled, then made a fist and pretended to backhand her. She flinched and sauntered away. John laughed and rolled his eyes with the good ‘ol fashioned charm of a wife beater. No doubt about it. Mrs. John Greybear was an abused woman waiting to inspire a Lifetime movie. I just knew Hollywood casting agents would one day ask, “Will Jilll Eickenberry be able to pull off Native American?”

My family exchanged knowing glances, from my dad to my mom, to me and Sarah, to young Rachel and Becky. It was if we were all saying the same thing – “This family makes our family look healthy.”

The rascally sons set fire to something in the garage. Baby Greybear sucked on the dog’s chew toy, her bare feet standing on bubble gum and shards of glass. We marched down to the cellar where Rachel and Becky would sleep. John pointed to a hide-a-bed normally occupied by Coughball, the family cat and her litter of nine. “She had those sweet kitties last Saturday,” explained John. “Some of ‘em were stillbirths, so if you see a dead one, toss it.”

We shuddered, but it explained the smell. We whispered “Good luck” to eight-year-old Rachel and five-year-old Becky and left them alone in the chilly, darkened basement.

In the living room, my parents were handed an air mattress and pump. John pointed to an electrical outlet and my dad began to inflate. “Where are my manners?” asked Mrs. John Greybear. “Let me get you some bedding.” She returned minutes later with the same pee-stained sheets you’d find at Holiday Inn.

Later that evening, the hosts said goodnight and left us alone to mock them. Mom, Dad, Sarah and I began to bond over the bizarre situation of staying in this house. Within twenty minutes my parents dropped the adult pretense and giddily channeled their inner-teen. It was one of those moments when everything became funny. There were no lines between what was appropriate and what was not. We were ridiculing and deriding the Greybears in their own home, beneath a ceiling fan that inexplicably dripped maple syrup.

While Mom braved the bathroom, Sarah and I bounced on the air mattress. When she returned, we invited her to flop down on the bed between us. “Are you kidding me?” Mom asked, before uttering the funniest thing she’s ever said: “If I jumped on that air mattress, the two of you would hit the ceiling like rag dolls.” We laughed until tears flowed. The whole night was an exercise in shushing each other.

The four of us took turns sneaking around the house, going on a scavenger hunt for unusual items. When Dad returned from the kitchen with “Utter Balm… for Utters and Teats” we snorted and chuckled so hard we rolled off the air mattress. That earned him ten points.

Sarah tied the game, however, when she entered from the bathroom clutching a bar of soap from the shower. It was covered in mud. “Dirty soap!” she exclaimed. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

It was a mammoth struggle to keep from laughing too loudly. We didn’t want to insult the homeowners...at least to the point they’d be aware of it.

Even though the original plan had called for staying two nights, the next morning there was no question. As the sun rose, we threw our stuff in the car and checked out of Greybear Lodge.

It was a night we will never forget. Rachel and Becky won’t let us – their hair still stinks of graham cracker and deceased kitty.