Since we had to depart the RVA at the ungodly hour of 6:40 AM on Thursday, we got up at the buttcrack of...well, it wasn't even dawn yet. It was damn early, y'all.
The trip down was relatively uneventful. Heck, we breezed right on through and arrived in Dallas, picked up our rental car (by the way, if you ever fly into DFW airport I highly recommend Hertz - they had us in our car in under 10 minutes thanks to me pre-reserving online) and hit the road. I was almost pinching myself because, well, we had arrived on time. With our luggage. It was almost too good to be true.
We headed on toward Abilene and stopped for lunch at a barbeque place. It was kind of an odd setup, it was almost like cafeteria-style and then you sat wherever you wanted. The food was pretty good, but halfway through our meal I suddenly had to go to the restroom. As in, "I haven't peed in what feels like three days and no, I can't wait." Or as in, "I am three years old and wait until just before I pee my pants before I let anyone know I need to go, thus ensuing in a mad dash to the restroom." And since it was that certain time of the month, I decided to allow myself a little privacy and not ask Monkey Man if he wanted to go.
I'm sure you know how this goes. The very instant I'm ensconced in my stall in the ladies' room, Monkey Man announces that he has to go. Right. Now. And no, he can't wait. So Joey hustles him into the men's room to do his duty.
I come out of the restroom, probably two gallons lighter, and as I walk to our table I notice the strangest thing. There's someone sitting there. At our table. With new trays of food. Oh, I figured maybe the boys had finished up their food and were waiting outside for me - so I went out into the lobby of the restaurant to look for them. No boys. Then, I spy them coming out of the men's room and the look on Joey's face when he realized that some lady was sitting at our table was one of total shock. All of our stuff was gone. Including Joey's prescription glasses, which he had put on the tray.
A few panicky moments later, I found a managerial-looking person and asked if they could check and see if Joey's glasses were back in the kitchen. He sheepishly emerged and apologized, but there was no offer of replacing our lunches.
Note to self: Do not attempt to leave boys alone at tables again in hopes of having privacy in the bathroom. Murphy's Law will mean that one of the two will have to Go Right Now and then you could potentially have your food removed.
Meanwhile, I received a text from my nephew Steve who had decided when he originally booked the trip that he was going to fly directly into Abilene. He was stuck at the airport - had been there for 45 minutes - waiting on my sister to come pick him up. I texted back - "If you're still there in two hours, call me and we'll just swing by and get you when we pass by the airport." Luckily, I think they showed up shortly after so he wasn't stuck in Cowtown's airport waiting on us to finally make it there.
We finally got into Abilene around 3 PM and after a quick shower we were ready to go. The rest of the famn damily showed up shortly after and we all headed out to a really good dinner at the Lytle Cattle & Land Company. Lots of deep-fried stuff and some delicious steaks. Oh, and these things called swirls - margaritas with sangria swirled in there. Yeah, I might as well admit it here that I got more than a little tipsy at dinner. My mom was there, so sue me. I need to drink heavily just to block her bitching out.
On this trip were my parents, my sister Kathie and her husband Richard, my brother Dave and his wife Karen, my nephew Steve, and the three of us. Ten total. The family dynamics are really interesting - I'd say my sister and I are probably tied (although she probably would edge me out) as my dad's favorites, whereas my brother Dave is undeniably my mom's favorite. The dude can do no wrong as far as my mother is concerned. Like we had to sit there at dinner and listen to what a good baby my brother was. As far as I know, it wasn't like I was a total hellion or anything, and the bastard tortured me incessantly for years. Ask me sometime about my toilet phobia and you'll see how mean he was.
Friday was museum day. We all trucked on over to the museum and spent a few hours looking at the exhibits. It's the only museum of its kind in the country, and when we were there seven years ago it was still really not finished. I guess it's always going to be a work in progress as people donate more items, but they have really done a nice job. Monkey Man thoroughly enjoyed seeing the halftracks like my dad drove and all the guns and military paraphenalia.
One part I wasn't really prepared for was the room about the POW camps and the concentration camps. I had seen a short documentary recently about the division's part in freeing many camps around Landsberg, Germany, and it brought me to tears with all of the suffering the detainees faced. Well, they had that same documentary playing on an endless loop and I guess my dad hadn't ever seen it, because I spied him sitting there watching and then he waved Monkey Man to come over and watch it with him. Yikes! I ixnayed that immediately. I walked him around and showed him the still photos and tried the best I could to explain in terms that a 6-year-old could possibly understand what horrible atrocities had been committed. I'm not sure he understood completely, but I felt okay about it.
As I walked around that room, my nephew came over to ask me some questions and soon we were approached by a tiny little man, using a walker and an oxygen tank. He was wearing a military-style jacket covered in medals. I asked him if he had been in the 12th Armored Division and he said no - he was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. As in he parachuted in on D-Day. He proudly showed me all of his medals as his wife stood by smiling and patting him on the back. He had received 26 medals and citations for his service - and although he didn't belong to the 12th AD, he lives in Abilene and had asked his wife to bring him over when he heard the 12th guys were going to be in town for the weekend. He wanted to see "his brothers". I asked him if he was scared to jump out of an airplane, and he replied, "There's a secret to it. Don't jump down, jump out. Then your head gets right."
"He is my third husband," said his wife," We just celebrated our seventh anniversary. We met when I was 70 and he was 80. He might be my third one, but he's the sweetest one yet!" My heart just melted.
As he walked away with his walker, I almost started bawling. Hearing the stories, seeing all the pictures, imagining what these men - who were boys then - experienced, was almost more than my heart could take.
It's easy to forget in this time of all media, all the time, how primitive the intelligence was at that time. Like the whole concentration camp thing - my dad told me (and I read recently in a book about the division) that they knew nothing about their existence, they had stumbled across them in their journey across Germany and were stunned at what they found. "It was just one day, but it was a day that has hung in my mind almost every day," he told me quietly. "That day, we got word that there was a farmhouse nearby with some Germans holed up in it. Another guy and I were sent in there to see what was going on, and we discovered a civilian couple hosting a dinner for some Nazi troops. People were starving less than a mile away, and they were eating like kings. So we took them outside, and...." His voice faded and his eyes watered. I knew what happened.
So it was a really emotional day. Listening to all of my dad's peers talking - telling what they can still remember as the memories are starting to slip away. Watching my dad seem to slip far into thought at times, like he was being transported back to 1945 as he trudged through the snow.