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Wednesday Writing Prompt
Fun For The Whole Family


Tom Larsen
It’s the summer of ‘62 and we’re set to go Washington DC. It’s our first family vacation and as the day draws near we are giddy with
excitement. My parents picked Washington for its history and proximity, should my father be called into work. My father is always getting
called into work, much to my mother’s sputtering dismay. If he caves in this year he’ll have to pay. A DC/ Trenton commute should do the

In the evening we pore over the encyclopedia for stuff about Washington. My father bought the set from a door-to-door salesman three
years ago, while mother was having brother Ken. It’s the first time we’ve touched it and the bindings creak when we pry them open. There
are the usual pictures of the Capitol and the monuments, the White House and Smithsonian, an entire page devoted to the headquarters
of the FBI. At the bottom is a grainy photo with the caption, “Dillinger’s Death Mask”! My eyes lock on the image as features emerge,
cheekbones, jaw line, closed eyelids. What the hell is a death mask?

Dillinger I know. My best friend’s father says he was the greatest outlaw who ever lived. Laid it out in that folksy, Ward Bond way of his
while we shelled peas in the driveway. About the famous jailbreak and the big pecker and how he was set up by the woman in red.
Shelling peas, if you can you believe it.

Opposite Dillinger is a photo of a G-man shooting a machine gun. His hair is slicked back and he’s crouched over as if the gun weighs a
ton. The caption says the tour includes a demonstration. And so I have my quest.

“We are now entering Delaware,” my father announces, as if we couldn’t read.

“The first state,” my sister pipes up.

“Don’t tread on me,” my brother chimes in. Quel losers!

“Tom?” my father eyes me in the mirror.

“The University of Delaware Mud Hens,” to quote the Encyclopedia.

We drive for hours, my brother bouncing his legs until I’m ready to kill him. Up front my mother peers over the dashboard with a fixed look
of apprehension. My father’s driving makes her crazy.




“Are we still in Delaware dad?” Rob has to ask.

“Yes son, another fifteen minutes, give or take.”

“Gee, Delaware must be a huge state.”

“Actually it’s one of the smallest. I think behind Rhode Island,” he looks to mom. “Isn’t that right dear?”


He was right about Delaware but my father’s credibility was shaky, at best. Based not on the facts, but where they might lead us. His
answers were tailored to be believed, whether they were true or not.

“Hey dad, could a person count to a million?”

“Afraid not, son. Even if you started right now you’d never live long enough.”

Here the logic was preemptive. If it could be done I might want to do it. Visions of number one son lost for days in the countdown was
something he’d rather not endure. Other inaccuracies abound.  

“Hey dad, if you dropped a penny off the Empire State building would it crush somebody’s head?”


“Hey dad, if you did sixty miles an hour in a sixty mile an hour tail wind could you hold a match out the window without it blowing out?”

“Ask your mother, son.”

Outside Baltimore it starts to rain, just a smatter at first, covering the windshield in a fine mist. My father fiddles with the radio, pretending
not to notice.

“Bob?” my mother gives him a look.


“Turn ‘em on dad,” baby brother, Ken, senses her concern.

“Turn what on?”

“You know the things,” he wags his fingers back and forth.

“What are they called again?”

“Windwipe shilpers. Turn ‘em on dad.”

Christ, we still bust his balls over that one, windwipe shilpers, fingers going.   

The rain finally stops, but it’s ugly out there. Some ass end of town with junkyards and boarded up buildings, puddles to break your heart.
We pass the windows of a crumbling factory and I see profiles set in the rustbelt light.
Day after day in that stinking shit hole, thank God I will never work in such a place. To my right sister Judy hums the same two notes over
and over, combing her hair with her fingers until I want to kill her.

Oh we hate this. We think we’re hungry but when we stop we’re too antsy to eat. Then we’re driving again, stupid towns, stupid farms. I
want to kill everyone but my mother who hasn’t blinked in fifty miles. How did we not see this coming? It’s everyone getting on everyone’s
nerves in the usual ways, but in close quarters for way too long with no possibility of escape. Add to that Ray Coniff on the radio, the grim
landscape and it really couldn’t get any worse. As if reading my mind my sister resumes her humming.

“Will you stop?” I growl at her. A bad move any time, but sheer lunacy in these confines. She has me now and she knows it. Her wide-eyed
look is a classic of the genre. The pregnant pause and then,

“What?” As if I’d spoken in tongues.

“That stupid humming, I can’t take it.”

“Who died and left you king?”

“Who died and left you king?” a moron mimic, the best I can do. I would gladly pay to take it back, but it’s not up to me now.

“Hmmm-hmmm, hmmm-hmmm, hmmm-hmmm,” so low I can barely hear it. But I can hear it and will continue to hear it until I have enough
rope to hang myself. My sister is diabolical in this way, but I have a few tricks of my own. Rather than blow up at her I will appeal my case
through the proper channels. Clutching my head in my hands I throw myself back and moan pitifully.

“Ohhhhhhhhh, someone pleeeeeze make her sto-op!”

My father pins me to the seat with a finger to the chest. A considerable maneuver for a man his size, but one he mastered long ago.

“OHYGODBOB!” my mother lunges for the wheel then thinks better of it. My father’s head pivots to the road, then to me.

“One more word out if you and we turn around and go home. You got that?”

If only it were true. Go home. Get this finger out of my chest. Just say the word.


“You’re not going to ruin this vacation, you got that?”


He’s knuckle deep by this time and when he pulls his hand away there’s a dent in my shirt. My brothers’ eyes pop out of their heads.

“One of these days you’re going to push it a little too far, buster,” dad turns back to the steering wheel.

Oh yeah? So what if I do, I almost say.

“Well? Do you have something to tell me?” his eyes find me in the mirror while mine drop to the dent in my shirt. What I have to tell him
would get me killed.

“I’m sorry,” I wimp out completely.      

Followed by a solid hour of my brainless sister.

All this changes when we get to the Iwo Gima Motel. We’ve never stayed in a motel but we’ve heard they’re air-conditioned and you can
watch TV in bed. The sign says they have a pool, Olympic size with a high dive and a brand new water slide. The desk clerk shows us
through the office window. Biggest goddamn pool we’ve ever seen and not a soul in it. As we’re looking the sun pops through the clouds,
washing over the tiles, glancing off tiny swells, the vision of a dream come true.

Historical significance my ass, this is the life for us! Even better than we could have imagined. The TV is mounted on a swivel stand, there’
s an ice machine right outside the door and the Magic Fingers take all or quarters before we’ve unpacked the car. My parents take an
adjoining room with a connecting door and we wander in and out showing off our stuff, the little coffee machine, our own Iwo Gima Motel
writing paper, our bible. My father turns on the evening news with different newscasters and a different theme song. A man stops by with
an armload of towels.                                                                

For the rest of the afternoon we swim in the pool while our parents sip cocktails in the cool Cinzano shade.  

In the evening we dine in the motel restaurant, an angular room done in aqua marine and beige, the official Iwo Gina Motel colors. Our
table is by a bank of windows looking out on the freeway cloverleaf, two kids to a side with mom and dad at either end. Tonight’s special
is the turkey, which sounds good to everyone but Rob who orders the duck just to annoy me. Served up charred and shriveled to my
delight, brother digs right in just to spite me.

“So what should we see first?” my father pulls a list from his pocket and runs through the options, FBI headquarters, not included.

“The Washington Monument,” Rob sucks up.

“OK, that’s one vote for the Washington-” he checks it off, “ - Monument.”

“I want to see the Capitol,” Judy weighs in.

“Check. How about you, honey?” he looks to mom.

“Oh, it’s too bad we missed the cherry blossoms. I’ve always wanted to see that,” she gazes dreamily out the window as my father drums
his pencil. “But the capitol would be nice. Really, whatever you decide.”

“That’s two for the capitol. T?”

“FBI headquarters.”

He gives me the stare, two, three, four...

“We’re saving that in case we get rain,” he snows me “As long as it’s nice out we should take advantage, don’t you think?”

“But they shoot a real machine gun!” I sense crosshairs zeroing in. “ … but I guess you’re right. I’ll go with the Washington Monument,” if
only to cancel my sister.

Rob makes a big production out of his duck, planing the meat from the bones with his teeth then laying them length-wise on the edge of
his plate, a symphony of noises rubbing me the wrong way.

“Let me try some of that,” I say, but he hunches over and gives me a scowl.

“I just want to try it.”

“No you don’t. You want to make fun of it.”

Well, yeah, sure. I mean who orders duck?

“Bobby? Let your brother have a bite,” dad tells him. Rob mutters something under his breath.


He backs away from his plate and I spear a slice, holding it up for a closer look. Dark, like a turkey leg, a glazed shard of skin caught on
the far tine. I don’t really want to eat it but we’re passed the point of no return. I pop it in my mouth and chew, nodding my head agreeably,
chewing and nodding, nodding and chewing until littlest brother breaks into giggles. Yum yum. And then they’re all laughing, my father
included, slapping his leg and pointing like it’s the funniest god damn thing he’s ever seen. Even my MOM! Rob shoots me a look of pure
hatred. It is my finest hour.

Back in the room we shove the beds together and watch TV until we’re bleary. When there’s nothing left but the test pattern we watch that.
I come out of a nod to see my mom tiptoe in to turn it off, pausing at the foot of the bed to watch us sleep. Awwww, ain’t we cute. I drift off
to the sound of pool filters and ice cubes tumbling in the ice machine.  

The next day dawns gray and drizzly. Dad pops in to find us at the window watching trucks fantail on the overpass.

“Why so glum chums. You’re not going to let a little rain get you down are you?”

We say nothing. My father is a morning person and the less we give him to work with, the better off we’ll be.

“What’s the matter T? Now we can go to the FBI headquarters like you wanted.”

What I really wanted was to lounge around the pool and do nothing, but that would never make the list. I try to look unfazed by the gloomy
scene outside but something tells me I’m not pulling it off.

“Is that a smile I see?” he does the goofy voice and I have to bite my cheeks to keep them from spreading. Christ I hate this!

“Don’t crack your face now.”

I quick think of something gruesome. The kitten that crawled into the freezer motor, crickets crunching in the fingers of my baseball glove,
the way vomit comes out of your nose. Dad mugs it up, crossing his eyes, sticking out his tongue, anything to get the others going. My
sister smiles weakly but the brothers aren’t amused.

“Hey, I have an idea,” he snaps his finger.

We’re supposed to ask “what?”, but our hearts aren’t in it. He bobs his head in encouragement but the silence stretches.

“What?” my sister caves in.

“Let’s get some breakfast and go over the rainy day list.”     

I’ll admit, for one terrible second I thought he might try to lead is in a song. My father has weird ideas about family fun, being an only child
himself. The rainy day list, for example.

It’s really coming down as we cross the parking lot. My mom herds us all under the single umbrella, but dad will have none of it. Walking at
a normal pace, jiggling the change in his pockets. A little rain never hurt anybody he keeps saying, as if the rest of us are sissies. By the
time we get to the restaurant he is soaked to the skin.

The breakfast special is bacon and eggs, which sounds good to everyone but Rob who orders waffles. A half dozen families are
scattered around, fellow vacationers from the looks of them, parents pouring over brochures, kids fidgeting or staring into space. My
father pulls the list from his shirt pocket and begs a pen from our waitress. He passes them around and tells us to check our preferences,
but the paper is too soggy and pen pushes right through. Not that any of this is necessary. He’s been talking up the Smithsonian for
weeks now. The polling results are a foregone conclusion. Smithsonian over FBI headquarters by a four to one, with my mother abstaining

“That’s not fair,” I protest.

“What do you mean?”

“They just go where you want to go. They don’t care.”

“But you do?”

“Yes. I want to see Dillinger’s death mask. It’s raining. You said we’d go.”

“But what if we don’t want to see Dillinger’s death mask?”

“I want to see it,” Kenny blurts.

“Quiet son, somebody thinks he’s a little more important than the rest of us.”

“I don’t want to see any stupid death mask,” Judy sneers. Rob concentrates on filling each waffle square with syrup without running it over
the sides.   

“He really has his heart set on it, Bob,” mother pleads my case.

“It’s his attitude that concerns me, honey. He’s got to learn to compromise.”

“I want to see the death mask,” Kenny assures them.

My father heaves a sigh. “OK, but if we do I want you all to promise to behave. Whaddya say?”

The brothers mumble a promise.

“That’s not fair,” my sister complains.

At this point a passing couple pauses at our table. They are old and wobbly and for a second I think they’re after our crescent rolls. But the
woman is smiling and the old man gives me a wink.

“I hope you don’t mind,” the woman says to my mother. “I couldn’t help noticing how well behaved you
children are. And so handsome,” she puts a mottled hand on my shoulder.

“Well thank you very much,” mom fairly beams. It’s the sort of thing that will carry her along for weeks. The couple nods and totters away,
bless ‘em.   

On the way out we pass through the gift shop and my father buys each of us a souvenir. Mine is a small reproduction of the flag raising on
Iwo Gima Island, cast bronze with a removable flag. I will keep it on the dresser next to my plastic Duke Snider with the removable bat.
Being removable the flag and bat will eventually vanish, never to be seen again.

What strikes me about the death mask is the color, a sort of oatmeal gray that looked white in the photograph. That and the fact that there
is only one. I’d assumed there’d be others, a Death Mask Gallery, or something. Did Baby Face Nelson really have a baby face? Was
Pretty Boy Floyd pretty? These are things I want desperately to know.

“Where are the others?” I ask my dad.

“The other what?”

“Public enemies. The Barkers, Clyde Barrow, you know.”

“Uh, they must be here somewhere,” his recall of the gangster days is spotty. I marvel that he could grow up in those lawless times and not
be taken in by it, if only to have something interesting to talk about later, while shelling peas with his kids. We ask around but Dillinger is it
for public enemies. This could only mean the FBI has no death mask team. I know for fact they’d bushwhacked enough bad guys for a
trophy room. If there’s no team, who made the Dillinger mask? And why?

“Why would they make a death mask, dad?”

“I guess they want everyone to see the face of evil.”

Sounds good, but I’m not going for it. The guy looks peaceful, almost handsome in the pencil thin moustache way. This face of evil isn’t
going to scare anyone. In fact, if being a bad guy makes you look like that a case could be made for the life of crime. Pretty obviously the
FBI bought the mask from someone. It probably isn’t Dillinger at all.

The machine gun makes Kenny cry, then some stuff about spies and the rest I don’t remember. An hour later we are back at the motel
watching TV.  

© Tom Larsen

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