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Hub of The 1800s

Historic Roscoe Village in Coshocton, Ohio

This is a story of resurgence for a bustling canal town that fell into ruin and has since reclaimed its glory days. 

The tale begins with a massacre and a girl who would grow to be known as the “White Woman.” This journey spans two eras of a community separated by a century. Both echo out with the sounds of molten metal being pounded into form, a helmsman shouting to a hoggee, a school bell ringing, and merchants asking, “How may I help you?” Both are known as Roscoe Village. Today, they coexist at a crossroads in time, ready to serve visitors with authentic goods, services, tours, meals, and unforgettable experiences.

But what makes a community sprout along the water’s edge or grow up among the trees of a forest? At first, it may be nothing more than a gathering place in an open space where nearby settlers, scattered about the frontier, can bring goods to exchange or services to offer. And so a market is born. Then it may grow into a transportation hub where the abundance of goods are shipped beyond the community to other towns and regions in a network of trade.

Well, New York City wanted what was from the wilderness to the west – Ohio country! And this western frontier wanted what was from the east. So came the Ohio & Erie Canal to inject an artery that would feed the wants and needs of the east and west much more fluidly than horse and wagon trails. In fact, eastern goods were reduced by as much as 80 percent. And Ohio’s product values rose because they were introduced to new markets, creating increased demand. Across Ohio’s frontier, canal towns sprouted across its fertile landscape, and America had a growth spurt.

Now, about that “White Woman.”

“Mary Harris was captured by Indians in the Deerfield Village Massacre of 1704,” said Alice M. Hoover, a volunteer historian at Roscoe Village. “Some 200 Indians and about 40 French marched their 112 English captives 300 miles to Canada.”

Harris was a 10-year-old servant girl who eventually married a Mohawk brave amongst a small community of Jesuits and praying Indians outside Montreal. In the 1740s, Harris, and others came to Ohio and settled. Perhaps the reason was for fur trading, as Harris practiced her husband’s customs.

“The forest was the Indians’ grocery store,” Hoover smiled.

This settlement became known as “White Woman Town” in honor of Harris. It was on the bank of today’s Walhonding River, which was previously known as White Woman Creek. This was a mere five miles downriver of Caldersburgh, which was renamed Roscoe Village in 1831 to honor an English Abolitionist poet – William S. Roscoe. The adjacent city of Coshocton annexed Roscoe Village in the 1950s, but both towns had a Main Street, so Roscoe’s was renamed “White Woman Street.” And it is so even today.

After the canal was dug 309 miles from Cleveland to Portsmouth, Roscoe Village would become a great wheat exporter. In 1830, the first canal boat to arrive in early Roscoe Village (Caldersburgh) was the original Monticello. The Monticello II served tourism needs from 1971 – 1989 along a mile-long stretch of the canal that had been restored. And the historically accurate Monticello III has been running ever since the summer of 1990. It is 74 feet long and carries 125 passengers.

Life on the towpath is relived through canal boat rides along a preserved section of the Ohio & Erie Canal aboard the Monticello III. This authentic canal boat is powered by two horses guided by a person known as a hoggee. The vessel itself is steered by the helmsmen tending to the tiller at the bow. Together, it all moves smoothly through the serene woodlands as the captain spins the most interesting tales describing the bygone era. Unlike the rest of the Village, the canal boat is not available year-round. It is available Memorial Day through Labor Day and during the fall Apple Butter Stirrin’ Festival.   

Locks were used to raise or lower canal boats to compensate for the new level of water they must travel in the next leg of the journey. This is a section of the canal closed off by gates in which the water level was raised or lowered before the boat continued through the other side of the lock’s gates. Locks are generally made of stone, and there were 146 locks to maneuver from Portsmouth to Cleveland. Roscoe Village has two sets of locks. Lock 26 and 27, known as double locks, are seen on the trail between Roscoe Village and the Monticello III landing in Coshocton Lake Park. This ruin is on dry land now, so you can walk through it. The other set of locks are known as Triple Locks 1, 2, and 3 and are on the west end of the Lower Roscoe Basin. These restored stone structures are modern-day ruins.

“Arnold Medberry was the mover and shaker of Roscoe Village during the canal’s heyday,” Hoover explained. “He owned a sawmill, flour mill, wood planing mill, a hotel, and other interests, including the big Empire Mill at the Triple Locks. These impressive and rare locks are restored and seen today across from the Visitor Center at Coshocton Lake Park.”

Roscoe flourished as the fourth largest port in Ohio, trading wheat, flour, corn, coal, pork, beef, lumber, glass, salt, and other staples of life. Meeting this demand largely were the mills and businesses owned by Medberry. Today’s Medberry Marketplace – a three-story brick building with a wrought iron balcony – was originally the Roscoe Hotel that opened in July of 1856 after an original wood structure burned down.

“There’s a suspicious pit under the floor thought to have been used to hide slaves, serving as a stop on the Underground Railroad,” Hoover said. “The hotel was also a stagecoach stop.”

When you walk inside now, it’s an old-world marketplace with a gourmet deli and café. The deli serves meats and cheeses fresh from nearby Amish country. You are bound to be greeted by its manager, Terry Hill. You’ll find her very cordial and accommodating. And she’s a wealth of information about the area and happenings. 

Around the time the hotel was up and running, so too were the railroads.

Canal towns felt the impact because trains could carry much more to market and do it much faster than a canal boat which topped out at a brisk walking pace. Oh, and there’s the fact that winter’s frozen waters posed little or no slowdown for these iron horses steaming here and there and everywhere.

“Still, the canal operated albeit at a fraction of the capacity it once had,” Hoover continued. “But around 1912 and 1913, it would meet its final demise almost instantaneously.”

First came a series of arson-related fires. There were also mill fires and natural fires. Together, coupled with the close proximity many buildings stood to one another, fires grew out of control despite the efforts of local bucket brigades. Bucket brigades were nothing more than people lined in a row relaying buckets of water from a water source to the fire and back again. Ironically, too much water would prove to be the final death knell to the Ohio & Erie Canal. For in the spring of 1913, a mass flood washed out canal locks, basins, aqueducts, towpaths, and so on. It would simply be too expensive to rebuild because the return on investment would be far from worth it.

Thus, Roscoe Village and other canal towns lost their livelihood and fell into disrepair as the years moved on. Mr. Medberry made a final trip to New York in 1861 aboard a canal boat. And as fate would have it, he fell sick, returned, and a month later, he died. His holdings were auctioned off, but as it was on the eve of the Civil War, this returned pennies on the dollar. His estate was left in financial ruin. However, his widow, Phebe, had an inheritance from her grandfather, Mathias Denman.  She paid off Arnold’s debts so that his name would not be besmirched.

One hundred years later, in 1961, Coshocton would celebrate its Centennial.

An artist – Dean Cornwell – was hired to capture its history in a painting. So he sought inspiration by walking around the area. That’s when he came across the Roscoe ruins. But in his mind, he saw what was a thriving canal town rather than the squalor it had become. His original canvas was recreated as a mural on the wall of Coshocton’s national bank. Later, the same mural would grace the main wall upon entering the Roscoe Village Visitor Center.

This piece of art paid it forward, further inspiring a modern-day mover and shaker in the community.

Edward Montgomery and his wife, Frances, looked at the mural and decided how wonderful it would be to revitalize Roscoe Village to its peak condition.

“It triggered Edward’s childhood memory of the great 1913 flood when he spent his formative years in Coshocton,” Hoover said. “He remembered the disarray it left in the canal system.”

Their vision was helped by a recent trip the couple took to visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The timing was perfect. Edward was looking to retire from the successful venture he started during The Great Depression when he innovated the use of latex over fabric gloves. He now wanted to enjoy a project he and Frances could do together. Their new passion was embraced by the community. So in 1968, their first restoration was of the Toll House. For their remaining decades, the couple toiled together, helping to bring splendor back to the Village.  

The Toll House is a little red brick home with white trim and a quaint porch. The first recorded toll collector of the Village originally lived here when it was built in 1840. Today, upstairs of the Toll House, there are interactive videos sharing the restoration history of any building in the Village. The main floor has crafted items for sale.

Frances Montgomery planted a garden at this house using many of her favorite plants from her home. This garden would awaken a green thumb across the Village in the coming years. Pocket gardens would sprout up in just about any nook and cranny dotting the landscape. Pocket gardens, also known as cottage gardens, are planted in small spaces along a curb, between buildings, and in more imaginative places.

An avid gardener, Frances had a hand in most of the tiny gardens seen today. To her tribute, the Visitor Center created a grand garden and named it the Frances B. Montgomery Memorial Garden. It includes all of the little touches she left throughout the Village’s pocket gardens, such as incorporating stones into the landscape among her favorite trees and blossoms. It has become a popular wedding site in which to shoot exquisite photographs.

Perhaps the most fun window into Yesteryear is in the cellar of the Toll House. When you walk down the old staircase, you hear the magic that awaits. Get ready for a real-life toy story that goes to infinity and beyond. The storyteller around the corner, winding up his favorite toys, is a smiling Richard Hoover. He’s there most weekends from 1:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m., April – October. His eyes sparkle in the light every time he sees guests look with wonder at the enormous collection of vintage toys from the 1860s to the 1960s.

It feels like Christmas morning. And for the senior crew, you’ll hear the joy in the sound of, “I remember this one!”

But no matter your age, you’ll revel in the creativity and imagination these old toys generate. The Toy Cellar features gravity toys that had no batteries or springs, such as the peculiar contraptions that sent marbles rolling from high to low, flipping and moving things on their descent. Then there are the wind-up toys that spring into action like an airplane flying after a blimp around a lighthouse. Other delights have elements of wonder and surprise that you wish could find their way back into the toy chests of kids today. Unfortunately, these toys are on loan and not for sale.  

The same year that the Montgomerys restored the Toll House, they tackled the much larger Warehouse. Arnold Medberry originally built this warehouse and mill store in 1838. It is one of the more interesting pieces of architecture in the Village. It features a distinct railroad tie that juts from the second-story brick and connects to a vertical beam holding up a large wooden cube with a painted sign that says Lock Twenty-Seven. Inside is the Lock 27 Pub and the Steak N Stein Restaurant where you’re likely to be greeted by Becky Prosek’s smile. It is definitely one of the focal points and meeting spots in the Village. And next to it is a splendid rustic outdoor patio for dining as well. The tall weathered wood fence ensures a world unto its own. Light bulbs are strung in the enormous Maple shade trees to illuminate the evening diners. It also has a stage for periodic entertainment during the summer months.

As you roam the Village, you are bound to come across ladies in old-fashioned dresses working in stores or out for a stroll. Men, too, are seen in attire that may cause a double-take because they look like they just stepped off a canal boat from another era.

Again, this journey spans two eras of a community separated by a century.

Let’s delve into the Mid-Nineteenth Century on the Living History Tour.

The Living History Tours take you all over Roscoe Village, but several places are of particular interest. You’ll see life in this old canal town come into focus, and if you’re lucky, you may even get your hands on some authentic experiences you’ll talk about all the way home.

So on that note, meet the Village Smitty!

It seems the town’s blacksmiths always work up hearty belly laughs while they cast a story or two over the noise of red-hot metal being forged into something useful between a hammer and anvil. Roscoe’s blacksmith shop dates back to 1889. It was renovated in 1978. Today, the weathered red wood exterior is peeling and bowing in the artistry of decay, fitting the calloused hands hard at work inside. Between the stories and the roar of the flame when it gets a big breath of air, visitors may be mesmerized, thinking they’ve entered a wrinkle in time.

Just down the red brick sidewalk, made wavy from tree roots, is the Hay Craft & Learning Center. Inside you are greeted by an enormous old printing press. This 1870s gem still works, and the printer there will demonstrate it and explain the ways of the old print shop. In an adjacent room, a broom squire will gather everyone around to see brooms made by hand. The process begins with what is called broomcorn.

Sometimes the skilled craftspeople of old may have had a mishap landing them at Dr. Maro Johnson’s office further down the red brick sidewalk. You can’t miss it. The stark white brick building is tucked between two red brick buildings. It was originally built in 1842. There, someone will explain the medical instruments and procedures of the Nineteenth Century. The good doctor’s house is just next door and has furnishings true of the 1830s. Costumed interpreters are happy to share the lifestyle of the family of six who lived there.

The doctor’s children likely studied together at the one-room schoolhouse just down the road. If you hear the school bell ringing, hurry up; you best not be late for class. On the other side of the door, you hear the creek of the worn wood floor. The teacher is at the head of the class, a wood-burning stove off to her side. The authentic wood and iron-made desks look like they are straight out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder story. Grab one and enjoy a lesson on what school entailed in the 1800s. 

Let the lessons of the 1800s continue next door at the tiny red-brick Craftman’s House. It seems so much larger inside. Although it’s the oldest building in the Village, it’s the only one that isn’t a Village original. It was moved from a nearby location. This 1825 construction is where a weaver toiled at his craft. The backroom has a couple of large old looms. No doubt you’ll hear wood smacking together to tighten a weave. The front room looks like a pioneer could come home any minute to light a fire and take a seat at an old wood desk, feather pen and inkwell at hand, to write to a relative back east.

Now that you’ve seen others with their hands hard at work, it’s your turn to roll up those sleeves.

Back at the Visitor Center, you’ll find the Diorama Room. If you want to learn something, just ask Stacie Stein. She loves to help inquiring minds. This is where imaginations fly, and keepsakes by one’s own hand become proud souvenirs no matter your age.  Since this is a canal town, a rope maker may be handy. Participants get to twist jute twine, hoping it’s strong enough to secure a canal boat to its moorings. Become a tin smith and learn the craft of tin punching and create a decorative ornament using a hammer and nail. Moonlight as a candlemaker and actually hand dip a wick into warm wax and voilà – a pair of candles. Use a slotted wood frame and yarn to weave a little something special or design a quilt square. Since canal life may have been hard, you have to make sure there’s still time for play. A simple top spinning could bring fun to just about anyone. Learn about canal-era games as you decorate your own Nineteenth Century wooden top.

The River Ridge Leather Company has modern-day tradespeople hard at work. Their workshop doubles as a store. The leather goods for sale are hand-crafted before your eyes using nothing but traditional tools and techniques of the trade. The friendly guy working on the other side of the counter with others is Dennis Knight. He knows his business so ask him anything.

If shopping for conversation starters is of interest to you, welcome to modern-day Roscoe Village, where ma and pop shops abound. As you walk about marveling at the wonderful architecture from one building to another, you will notice about a dozen places that offer novelties such as Annin flags, a winemakers cellar, antique books, handcrafted homewares, cottage-style accessories, jewelry, fresh-cut flowers, American bench-made furniture, and handcrafted acoustic guitars. Of course, there’s much more, but why spoil the adventure of exploring these historic buildings for the find of the century?

Perhaps the anchor store of the Village is the General Store. It sits in a central location across the stage area for special events. With a small third floor, it stands taller than the buildings around it. Even way back in 1870, it was a general store. Edward and Frances Montgomery restored this red brick landmark in 1971. If any place harkens to a bygone era, just walk inside. To the right are usually two ladies in canal-era dresses behind an aged wood counter. Above are lamps hanging down, along with the ceiling fans lazily circulating the air. But it’s the mammoth and ornate cash register that still rings up sales that is the crown jewel of this trip back in time.

During the canal era, there was another general store over at the William Roscoe Building. Today, it’s the Uncorked Wine Bar & Restaurant. This impressive three-story brick building with sidewalk seating was built in 1840. It’s a place where you’ll want to pause and take a load off over coffee or wine and a bite to eat. Another notable trip down memory lane is at Sweets and Treats. This old-fashioned candy shop has it all. From vintage favorites like a giant lollipop to hard-to-find pieces, you’ll delight in over a thousand confections.

Any day is a treat in the historic Roscoe Village. But there are a few times during the year when its spirits really dance.

During the fall apple butter festival, the chill of the night air beckons the call of Roscoe’s secrets. Seasoned storytellers will walk groups to places around the Village on so-called Spirit Tours. Listen closely to the Firebug story, and you’ll learn the haunting truth behind the rampant arson that helped end the canal era. The White Woman tale shares the gruesome details of the horrors Mary Harris experienced in her lifetime. Or how about Matilda Wade? She was murdered in a hotel basement doing laundry. When she was found, her head had been nearly chopped off. These are just some of the accounts you may dare to hear.

Did someone mention apple butter?

Pots of these are churned throughout the Village during its annual October Apple Butter Stirrin’ Festival. Artisans, crafters, and food vendors galore set up tents up and down White Woman Street. Apple Butter simmers in the crisp fall air. Live music has people dancing in the street. Everything is open, and the Village is never more alive with living history around every corner.

But if it’s the holiday spirit that calls, don’t miss an enchanting day and night like no other. Three dates every December are reserved for Christmas Candlelighting. Horse-drawn carriage rides are one way to experience the magic of the holidays. So too, are the multiple groups of carolers gathered on various street corners filling everyone’s heart with warmth …along with hot-mulled cider. But Christmas magic really appears with the evening stars. That’s when thousands of people gather in front of the General Store, candle in hand, and gaze toward the stage. A giant Christmas tree on a hillside towers overhead. When the flock sings the first verse of Silent Night, the Christmas tree lights up, and then a flame is passed from one candle to the next until the entire Village is alive with the sound of music flickering in the night.

With all its history, mystery, and intrigue, Roscoe Village is as it was – a mixed community of small shops, eateries, residential homes, and historic buildings with amazing architecture and stories to share.  One of today’s more controversial stories is told in the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum. It holds the controversial Newark Holy Stones. During the 1860s, these were discovered at the Newark, Ohio, Earthworks of Hopewell Indian culture. The stones are inscribed in Hebrew, begging the question, where did they come from?

“Historic Roscoe Village isn’t just any restored village,” smiled Alice M. Hoover. “Many restored villages are old farm villages, and you get that flavor. But canal history is an essential part of American history. Other places may have a canal boat ride but no village or a canal village with no locks. Roscoe has it all!”

Roscoe Village is open year-round. For more information, visit If you are looking to experience the hub of the 1800s today, this is the place that rebuilt it, so you will come.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, Your Tour Guide to Fun!

The Turntable

My life is coming full circle around the turntable.

When I was a child, I remember that first record player. It was in a bright red plastic case with a carrying handle so I could lug it from room-to-room in the house to listen to my favorite records. My favorite was a safari adventure with Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert. My little sister had one, too. From her room you could hear, “B my name is Benny, I haven’t got a penny, but if I did I would cut it in two and give a half to you.” It cycled the entire alphabet in such fashion. I remember secretly enjoying the rhyme, when I wasn’t annoyed with my sister and the sounds she’d play.

At a garage sale, my mom agreed to buy me an old floor model record player. It was ancient, the kind of thing you’d find in a grandparent’s home. But I thought it looked cool and more grown up. We didn’t have much money back then but this thing was priced to move. It spun a Star Wars soundtrack, Bee Gees disco, and my pet parakeet. Yes, I got a kick out of putting my pet parakeet on a record and starting it. His wings were clipped so he wasn’t going anywhere. He loved spinning around, I think, kinda like we did as kids until we’d wobble off, trying to walk straight.

As I grew into my teen years, cassette players replaced record players. I remember taping Casey Kasem’s American Top-40, trying to time it just right to pause and play in order to capture the good songs, and not the DJ talking or the commercials. It took commitment. When I got my first car with a tape deck in it, I could retire my not-so-portable boom box. Then, my music collection, on cassette tapes, grew at a pace supported by all that I could earn at my part-time jobs.

Meanwhile, old albums collected dust in the attic.

CD’s replaced cassettes. When I finally invested in the state-of-the-art rack stereo system at the time – it had everything – I played the crap out of my CDs. They didn’t scratch or warp like records and they didn’t have tape get tangled up in the wheels of a cassette player after too much use. These rack systems came with all of the components: turntable, radio tuner, cassette player, and CD player. But the only thing that got use was the CD player. Oh, and the speakers would have made Marty McFly proud!

When I came home from the Army, I was jamming Milli Vanilli in the basement while shooting pool by myself. Nobody could know that I was loving Milli Vanilli. Then, I twisted the wrong way and popped my knee out of joint. I laid in agony on the far side of the pool table with only my legs visible from the stairs. The music was cranked to the max. Soon to follow, my dad, a man’s man, came rumbling down the stairs shouting at a volume that cut right through the music, “Turn that crap down!” When he saw my legs and heard me say I popped my knee, did he help? No. He turned, shaking his head, as if he had lost his son, and retreated upstairs, as “Blame it on the rain,” shook the walls.

CD’s had a long reign on the music scene. Then came Napster and the digital music revolution. It was a game changer and gateway to the on-demand culture of immediate gratification.

I was slow to adapt to the purchasing of music at 99 cents per track to listen to on my phone. I remember being at a crossroads of the past and future, staring at an old stereo rack system and all of its components that I wouldn’t use, but wanting it all, badly. It was priced to move but a friend of mine talked me down from the ledge, saying something like,” What would you do with that, today?” There may have been a slap upside my head to hammer in the point.

Fast forward a handful of years later and my teenage daughter asked, “Dad, do you have any old vinyl?”

My first thought was, ya, I think there are siding pieces in the shed. I quickly learned that vinyl records were all the rage with the kids today. I was intrigued so I bought her a record player that came in a case like the one I first had as a kid. The twist was that you could plug your phone into it and upload the music from the records.

I entered into a strange flashback-world. We explored old album bins at flea markets, only the albums were brand new again, unopened, no scratches, ready to spin. And listening to entire albums just felt more natural. It felt good. It felt real. It felt like a richer experience. I was hooked.

Now, having come full circle, I’m ready for a trip back to the future. I need a grown-up turntable, and fast!

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel

My Long Walk Home

A fictional short story by Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel

My hand reached for the withered door. If the wood had consciousness, it would have thought it saw its reflection.

Darkness was blown out by the breeze that flowed through my nostrils and lit up my eyes. I smiled while the world outside came into focus. It was time for my long walk home.

I paused at the curb and waited for a car to pass.

“What was that again, Fred?” were the words gargled from my rusty pipes.

I was relieved that the gentleman across the street could hear me above the engine still reverberating in the car’s wake.

“Sure was – brutal one at that,” I smiled, waved and shifted my weight to the cane assisting me on my way.

At the corner, my head was pulled to the side by curiosity. A teenage boy was hanging out of a side window, desperately clutching the long grass to pull his body free. My eyes squinted to wrap my mind around this peculiar maneuver. An instant later, my head was lured in the opposite direction to see a man enter the front door.

Shaking my head as the lad hopped away and into his pants, I shifted my weight to the cane. It assisted me another way to pretend I didn’t see a thing. But a belly laugh blew my mouth open.

Joyce was tending to her tulips. Once my memory pieced her together, I tried to flee, but it was too late. That added 20 minutes but it could have easily been 60. The whole time she kept turning up the same dirt.

I dusted off and continued on my walk home.

A young man, grinning ear-to-ear, hammed it up for a pretty lass to snap his picture. He pulled a real estate sign out of the ground and pointed to the word “sold.” As if it were my reason for being, they recruited me to take a snapshot of the two of them in front of their home. I held up my shaky hands and snapped away hoping one of the shots wasn’t too blurry.

I tried to make my break – in slow motion – before they analyzed my work. But a tender touch halted me. The woman planted a gentle and kind kiss on my cheek that made me feel like all of the spring bloomed in an instant.

Ten steps down the road I managed to swing my cane in my hand. It was a daring maneuver. One that I didn’t repeat. The smell of flowers, or maybe it was her perfume, danced in my head.

Another fella on the opposite side of the road was walking one of those “don’t mess with me” dogs. Then, my eardrums were pierced by so much yapping I could have sworn it was my late wife scolding me. The thought of her yammering away made me feel warm all over.

Several miniature dogs ran up to the invisible boundary separating the big dog from their onslaught. The big dog cowered and whimpered, wrapping his body around the man’s legs, nearly tripping him. It was shameful.

Then, with a touch of bravado, the big dog extended his leash and stopped just before the imaginary line where the other dogs clamored. With leg raised, the big dog brought silence back to that curb.

I smiled and tipped my hat to the man. He looked rather relieved.

Ah, the dandelion house came into view. I loved the dandelion house because it sang out its unabashed brilliant color for the world to see …and judge. I would never keep a lawn like that, but I was glad they did.

A small group of little girls called out – “Lemonade!”

It sounded perfect to me, so I trekked over to their makeshift stand. I noticed that the plastic tabletop, where they mixed their concoction,  was filled with Kool-Aid packets and lots of colored powder that had spilled. There was no lemonade in sight. They were silent, bursting with anticipation as I raised my Dixie cup and threw back the refreshment in one big gulp as if I were downing a shot with my war buddies. I went bug-eyed. I gasped and asked if they had water. Of course, they didn’t. But they sure had a whole bunch of sugar and who knows what else to make their “lemonade” as sweet as could be – much like their precious souls.

“I think you just rotted my teeth out,” I said, setting up my joke.

Then I pulled my false teeth out of my mouth giving a gummy laugh.

Those poor little girls ran every which way, shrieking for the whole neighborhood to hear. I moved with a fleet of foot that I hadn’t known for decades.

A house and a half separated from the mayhem I caused, I slowed to catch my breath.

As I stood still, drool fell from my mouth onto my shirt. I’ve learned to accept my undesired lack of bodily control at times. Then my stomach lustfully cried out, “Where’s the barbeque?”

A moment later, I quickly ducked and almost shouted, “Incoming!”

Someone had lit off fireworks, and the series of explosions that ricocheted through the trees scared the crap out of me. Hell, it was broad daylight and at least two months before Independence Day.

I pressed onward with my journey home, my heart still racing, my mind flashing back to…

As I walked with my cane again, the hammering of roofers drew my attention upward. When I neared – it took a while – this small group of 20-somethings sat down in a row across the peak of the rooftop for a water break. I thought it was strange that they looked straight out, nobody talking at all. They looked like birds on a wire.

My eyes followed their line of sight to a house across the street. People were on an opposite low hanging roof over a front porch. I squinted and realized that that roof was shingled with bikinis so small it left little to the imagination.


Right in front of me, a teenage boy rode his bicycle straight into a mailbox. He caught the attention of roofers and bikini girls alike.

“Son, are you okay,” I asked with genuine concern.

I could tell he was hurting badly, but he shook it off as if it were nothing and acted all cool as he pushed his bike away, flipping it back on its rear wheel, holding the crumpled front end by the handlebars.

The roofers hammered away again as I turned the corner, heading for home.

At the end of my street, I was reminded it was trash day. Old lady Thompson had left hers on the curb already. Every week, her trash amounted to nothing more than a stuffed little plastic grocery bag. It made me wonder how that could be.

Although I am old as well, I have always referred to her as “old lady” because she was old the day we moved in all those years ago. But she was young at heart. Everyone loved her energy. There she was weeding her flower beds. That spunky thing popped up when she saw me coming and asked if I could start her lawnmower. Chivalry washed over me, so I even offered to mow her grass. Although there wasn’t much grass to mow, I couldn’t do it, and we both knew it.

“No-no, I really enjoy cutting the grass,” she insisted. “I just don’t have the strength to start this mower anymore.”

So I played hero one more time.

Halfway down the street, a group of young boys and girls lined up on a lawn to race from one driveway to another. I watched them do this back and forth several times as I walked by them. Then, one of the boys stumbled and skidded his knees across the concrete driveway. He stood up, paused and looked down. When he saw blood, he cried until some lady threw open a door and ran to his rescue before I could get there. She held his little sobbing face against her as she kneeled low to comfort him.

His sob muffled.

When she stood to take the boy inside, she smiled at me and said, “It’s good to see you. It’s been so long.”

Finally, I arrived at my driveway.

I paused for a car to pass.

“What was that again, Fred?”

Fred repeated himself.

“Sure was – brutal one at that,” I smiled, waved and sauntered up the hill to my porch to sit in my chair.

With the sun on my face, I closed my eyes and leaned my head back.

When I heard car doors shut and a bunch of footsteps pitter patter up the drive, I rose to greet them.

As they poured up the hill, I rose even higher.

That’s when I saw me on that porch, head back and eyes closed.

I had a smile that radiated like the sun. Much as the smile I felt as I drifted through my porch roof, higher. Not just higher but all around and through and through. I seemed to be everywhere and touching everything. And everything was touching me.

That’s when I realized that this wasn’t about me. It never was.

The harmonious connectedness of everything, as one thing, was something that that old mind on that porch could never comprehend.

But now everything made perfect sense.

It was beauty words cannot describe, and minds cannot comprehend.

I was home.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


The Last Road Trip

A Farewell to Another Generation’s
Traditional Family Vacations

Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

The all-American family vacation harkens images of the Griswold’s out on the open road trekking cross-country in a station wagon to the sound, Holiday Road. And it repeats with each generation. It’s a rite of passage that comes and goes in about a 12-year period from when the kids are old enough to remember something to old enough to fly the nest. But it goes by in the blink of an eye. Thousands of dollars are spent seeing places like Disney, Yellowstone, and countless other destinations and attractions. Littered along the way are tourist traps and roadside gimmicks to lure the weary family to break up dad’s power-drives to get somewhere special.

In the end, what does everyone remember? The moments between geological wonders and architectural gems. The unexpected.

After a dozen years of summer vacations, we decided to take one more before our daughter heads off to college. Some call this the senior trip. In all likelihood, it marks the end of an era. Never (most-likely) will just the four of us be packed in a car for two weeks forced to get to know each other better. It isn’t always rosy times, but even the meltdowns are remembered, fondly. Every trip, I’m good for one earning the nickname – Travel Dad.

“Uh-oh, Travel Dad just got behind the wheel,” could be uttered from the backseat when I cuss out loud at a traffic situation.

Alas, it really is about the journey and not the destination. Here are some of the more memorable experiences our family had together over this blip in time. I’m sure our stories are your stories or at least they’ll get you talking about yours, too.

Our first real vacation had us flying on a small, bumpy flight with one row of single seats on one side of the plane. I sat in front of my six-year-old son and behind him was another six-year-old. The seatbelt sign was on. We descended before our stomachs. That’s when I heard two remarkable imaginations echo through the hollow tube with a play-by-play for everyone to hear. “We’re going to crash!” One boy yelled at the other. “Ah, that was close.” “Holy moly, there’s an alligator on the wing.” The plane bucked in the air and then tilted to turn. “The alligator is gone, but seaweed clogged the engine, and now it’s smoking.” I tried to squeeze my face in between the back of my seat and the metal wall with desperate “SHHH” noises, but these two were on cloud nine all the way down.

On a long driving day, we approached a small town I had read was one of the 100 you had to see before you died. The distance was deceiving, and it came in and out of sight as we rolled over hills and turns for about 10 minutes nearing it. Coming closer, we “oohed and ahhed” looking for a place to pull off and snap some photos. In town, I had stopped and started at a few signs and lights before a flashing light caught my attention. When I found a place to pull over, it was revealed in short-order that this popping mad policeman was in slow pursuit of us for …miles. After he spits his displeasure and ripe words at me he returned to his cruiser to write my ticket. That’s when my daughter wondered out loud if I was going to prison.

In a desolate part of the country, I was proud to have found a motel close to a remote national monument that Triple-A didn’t even know existed – and for a good reason. Our cinder block accommodations overlooked nothing for as far as the eyes could see. There was a cluster of filled-in bullet holes head-high in the door. The “inn-keeper” fetched my son his bead (cot) from a shed and when she turned to leave, I asked for the room key. She said there was none. There was a pause between us before she turned away, laughed, threw her arms in the air and said, “Besides, where ya gonna go?”

There’s nothing like hiking to the top of a mini rock mountain searching for Petroglyphs when lighting strikes. What had been a careful ascent due to the multiple “Beware: Rattlesnakes” signs became a mad dash for the car. The winds and rain whipped up, but we managed to get to our four-wheel shelter before the brunt of it nailed us. Winds still churning albeit it not as powerfully, I rolled down my window trying to get a better look at an anomaly headed our way. “Roll up the window!” my wife screamed, but before I could, a wall of sand slammed into our faces and all over the car.

I withdrew some cash before stepping out of our hotel and into the early morning sun …and the chest of a homeless man. He asked for forty-nine cents or some odd number like that. I only had twenty dollar bills. When I said that I couldn’t help now but certainly would later, he yelled and threatened, “You won’t always be together,” waving his finger at my children in a threatening manner. Now I know he probably wasn’t playing with a full deck, but I couldn’t help myself. I stopped, turned around and said, “Did you just threaten my family?” He proceeded to shout at me and called me this and that for an entire block.  He crossed a street, so we walked a bit more before we crossed. But first, I paused to see which way he was going to head on the other side. He turned and scanned my side of the street until he found me. Then he waved me over in sharp motions as if to say, “Bring it on!” I laughed to myself, and we walked away.

After police confiscated all of our water before entering a building (plus snacks, sunscreen, you name it), we walked for miles from one site to another on a record hot day all over a city. But if you ask anyone in our family, what was the best thing you ever ate on all of your trips, the answer is unanimous. Frozen lemonade from a food truck. We scrounged up just enough coin to splurge on one five-dollar frozen lemonade. The four of us lined the curb, each taking a spoonful of heaven and passed it down. We were that desperate and elated.

A cottage stay put us on what amounted to a cul-de-sac street in the woods with every cottage in the cluster having been rented out by college kids, partying like there’s no tomorrow. Every cottage except ours and one other, kitty-corner from us. Ours was remarkably soundproof so as long as we could sleep, I wasn’t complaining. But kitty-corner family had this to say, “In the middle of the night, my worst fear came true,” said kitty-corner dad. “Someone was banging on the back door yelling, ‘let me in.’ I yelled back, ‘You better get out of here, this isn’t your cottage, now go away.’ To which the drunk on the other side pleaded, ‘Come on dude, stop mess’n with my head and just let me in.’ This exchange repeated a few times before the stranger at the door fell silent.” He couldn’t open the door in the morning because the college kid had passed out against it.

While waiting at a street corner, a strange sight grabbed our attention. A lady was walking backward ever so casually at a pace somewhere between not too fast and not too slow. I quickly reminded the kids (and myself) not to snicker when she neared. We missed our “walk” sign and stood still, gawking, as her back-side passed us and now shown her front side. She kept walking backward, looking at us, us looking at her. She crossed a couple of streets as if she had eyes in the back of her head and finally turned a corner, all the while walking backward. When she finally tuned out of view, we looked at each other and said in unison, “Well, you don’t see that every day.”

The stories go on and on. There’s the time we were trapped on a back road trying to navigate through a herd of wild bison. There’s the coffee cart sermon from a crazed vendor talking about end times as he waited on a long line of snickering, but caffeine-addicted customers. The coffee was to die for by the way. Then there was the white-knuckle Cliffside drive up and down a mountain dirt road. Oh, and who will ever forget those black flies and cockroaches! Falling off a horse charging through the water was a good one. And there are the slap-happy moments where you laugh so damn hard you think you’re going to be asked to leave a restaurant. But the time together always leads to the most memorable times of all – conversation that tighten bonds in ways that only a family vacation can.

My favorite memory was from a generation ago when I was the kid. My mom was reading a plaque inside a museum aloud to my sister and me. We lost interest just like Dad and faded back. Filling the void came interested tourists hanging on my mom’s dramatic reading. Soon, we couldn’t see Mom because a whole horde of folks gathered around her. When she finished, she turned to see the sea of people gathered around her. Without missing a beat, she waved her arm and said, “Now if you follow me over here…”

And so it goes, the all-American family tradition. Happy travels to you and yours.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel



Kids Shoveling Snow

It was the day after a blizzard – time to make some scratch.

Just after breakfast, the gang received the relay call. Bundled up and raring to go, we hit the streets with our shovels. Door-to-door, we knocked out driveway after driveway at about five to ten bucks a pop.

We headed back to my house for warmth and lunch. On the way, we crossed paths with the competition. A snowball fight ensued.

The doorway pooled with the melted, dark, gray slush from our boots. Our socks hung in front of every heater we had in the kitchen, dining and family room. Grilled cheese and hot cocoa never tasted better.

Recuperated, we trudged out into the great white again, shovels over shoulders.

“No-no-no-YES-no-no-no thanks,” pretty much summed up the afternoon.

It was approaching dinner time and we were determined to get one more “yes” before calling it a day …and before frost-bite set-in.

We ventured down a street we normally didn’t travel on and found a nice long driveway still buried in fluff that was almost waist-high. This was a ten dollar job. The house was behind the garage, a peculiar set-up. A middle-aged woman opened the door. She gave us the creeps. Age had not been kind to her. But, she smiled, strangely, and said we could shovel her drive. We set the price and went to work.

This job nearly killed us. It was the deepest snow of the day because of a drift. It was also the tail end of our grueling labors. We were tired, aching and oh so cold! It was difficult to feel our fingers and toes. We were anxious to finish.

The apron of the driveway was particularly tough. The snow there was higher than the rest. Actually, it was more of a hardened sludge, compliments of the snow plow. We muscled our way through and collapsed on our backs when we finished.

It was time to get paid and go home. We were whipped but smiling.

We went around the garage to the front of the house. It took some determined knocking before the woman finally came to the door. She seemed angry at our incessant pounding, but we weren’t going anywhere, we knew she was home. In short, she snarled that she didn’t know who the hell we were or what we were talking about.

All of the pleading in the world wasn’t going to change things. We got ripped off.

Defeated, we backed off the porch and down the steps. The door slammed and we heard a cackle inside. She sounded like a witch.

We rounded the garage and saw the streetlight illuminate a perfectly shoveled drive. Then, out of the blue, we mustered an unexpected energy. Justice had to be served. Dinner was calling and we weren’t coming. We had more work to do. For some reason, cold and fatigue were gone. We buried that driveway in the snow that we had previously removed and then added more snow from elsewhere. This wasn’t your fresh fallen snow, it was packed!

Days later, even the competition couldn’t chisel away our concrete-like concoction.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


Home for the Holidays

It was just several weeks past basic training and my 18th birthday. I walked to the travel office at Fort Gordon, Georgia to book a bus to Cleveland, Ohio for Christmas. It would be my last chance to go home before I shipped off to Europe.

I congratulated myself for thinking months in advance to secure my passage home so that everything was set well ahead of time. No worries. But when the lady behind the window handed me my ticket, she had a peculiar smile. Something was off but by the time I walked back to the barracks and stuffed my ticket away, I had other things on my mind.

One of my best friends from home joined the Army with me. We were stationed on the same base for basic training – Fort Jackson, South Carolina – and now resided here for our advanced skills training to learn our Army jobs. Even though we were so close, we only saw each other twice. Back then, to communicate, we had to mail letters to each other at the post office even though we were just minutes away. He had procrastinated getting his bus ticket but sometime after Thanksgiving, he assured me it was in his hand.

When I showed up in a vast parking lot jammed with damn near the whole base, leaving, I scrambled to find my bus. I had an overstuffed duffle bag hoisted on one shoulder, weaving around buses with signs to Memphis, Denver, Boston, you name it. Then I saw Scott. He was hanging out the window of the bus marked for Cleveland.

I flashed a big smile of relief and pointed to him as if to say, “Save me a spot, I’ll be right there.”

Then, the unimaginable happened. The bus driver said the bus was full. I shoved my ticket into his chest with pleading eyes, unwilling to take no for an answer.

He looked at the ticket and said, “Nope! No good. We’re full.”

He boarded, the doors closed and my buddy cruised by me making hand motions and expressions, saying, “WHAT THE….”

One by one, buses kicked into drive and pulled out.

I desperately grabbed a sergeant and rattled off the horror of my predicament.

“Private, in about three minutes, you’ll be the only person in a ghost town. My suggestion is you land yourself on any bus with room headed north,” asserted the sergeant.

I turned and saw “Pittsburgh” in the window of a bus right in front of me. I stepped on and saw plenty of vacant seats. As a Browns fan, the humor didn’t escape me. I told the driver my story as he glanced at my ticket and waved me on.

Somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia, we pulled off for a 15 minute break to get gas and food. I used this opportunity to make a collect call home. Fortunately, my mom picked up the phone.

“Mom, listen carefully, there was a mistake with my bus ticket and now I’m headed for Pittsburgh. You will have to pick me up there,” I spoke clearly but concisely.

“What…” she responded and began to babble.

“Mom, I have to go now. I can’t explain. Just pick me up at the Pittsburgh bus station at about Midnight. I will not have another chance to talk. I’ll see you there.”

She had no choice but to say, okay.

And just like that, I was off the phone and just made it back on the bus before it pulled out of the stop.

My parents got in the car and headed for Pittsburgh. There was no GPS or even an Internet to get directions. Time was of the essence so they just got in the car and drove, looking at a roadmap that had been stuffed in the glove compartment. When they neared the city, as luck would have it, they saw a greyhound bus on the road.

“Follow that bus!” Mom yelled at Dad.

And that’s what he did. They figured if a greyhound was headed for the city, it must be headed for the station. Quickly, they realized that the bus station was in what seemed to be a rundown part of town.

When I got off the bus and waited in the Pittsburgh station, I wandered aimlessly. I saw all walks of life up close. Most of the people wandering at this desolate hour were the kind that triggered a little voice in my head that said, “You need to get the hell out of here or at least keep moving.”

“ROCKY!” cried out my mom.

I wrapped my arms around her and my dad. It had been months since I had seen anyone I loved. And in this lonely, dark and cold terminal, they were a sight for sore eyes.

There I was, a grown man enlisted in the Army about to depart America for nearly three years before I’d see family again, enjoying the fact that my mom and dad traveled through the night to rescue me. It made this the most special trip home for the holidays I had ever had. And although I would never have wanted this to happen the way it did, I wouldn’t change the fact it had, yet I would never want it to happen again.

My dad picked up my duffle bag and said as any Browns fan would, “Pittsburgh sucks. Let’s go home.”

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel



It’s Thanksgiving! What Could Go Wrong?

We were hosting Thanksgiving for the first time! How exciting.

Our first arrivals were my mom, sister, niece and nephew. They came a day early. The men would arrive on Thanksgiving Day.

Based on previous visits, my mom’s rescue dog earned a reputation as “a runner” among other things. So we learned to leave an opening in the garage for the crew to pull inside. Then we shut the garage door and let everyone inside the house through the connecting side door.

What was easily forgotten was that the poor dog had been traveling for hours. Coming straight into the house among the happy greetings and hugs between family members who have not seen each other in months, he instinctively headed for the back door. But nobody noticed. Then, he decided that the large cloth chair would suffice to do his business.

He’s a big dog, and he took a big leak down the side of the chair and then shifted to thoroughly saturate the carpet – of course missing the adjacent tile floor by mere inches.

After supper, my sister had pies to cook. Don’t ask me why but something went terribly wrong!

After my little sis bellowed – “Oh noo!” – we all came running to find the oven was caked in hardened pie remains.

Good grief, what a mess it was! So we figured we’d just set the oven to self-clean and let it do its thing overnight.

In the morning, the oven was long cooled down, but the doggone door wouldn’t open. There was a 20+ pound turkey to cook! We burned up Google for a solution, but no matter what we tried, it didn’t work.

I looked at the time. I glanced out the window at the patio. I looked at the time again.

“Let’s just grill this bird!” I yelled.

People looked at me like I was crazy – as they often do.

I sprang into action and grabbed the propane tank to get it filled. I just knew that if I didn’t, it would probably run out halfway through cooking. Besides, my Google solution for grilling a turkey said I needed indirect heat so I needed a cooking sheet that would fit. I found an aluminum solution at the hardware store while I waited for the propane tank to be filled.

When I returned home, I fired up my modest grill. Within a minute my aluminum solution caught fire. I cleaned up that mess and zipped to the grocery store and back with a commercial grade baking pan. I slipped it under the grate. Perfect fit.

My dad and brother-in-law arrived about an hour and some beers into my roast.

“What are you doing?” they both asked at the same time.

“Barbecuing turkey,” I smiled casually with a slight buzz.

Their jaws dropped, and eyes grew wide in disbelief.

“This is going to be a bust of a meal,” I could read them saying in their minds.

I weathered the cold, tending to the manual temperature controls toggling around 325 degrees for hours. Sometimes the temperature reached about 350 degrees, and at others, it went down to 300, but I managed to keep it as steady as the pouring beer.

I couldn’t jeopardize the temperature by opening the lid. I had to wait for the halfway point to finally get a glimpse at what was happening inside.

That’s when I flipped the bird.

It looked pretty darn good but my dad and I both suspected looks could be deceiving. It might be one raw mess deep inside that meat.

I kept at the controls catching parts of the football game while fetching sanity refills.

On one trip to the kitchen, tensions grew, and some stereotypical sibling squabbling exchanged between my sister and me. Others joined in. Oh, this was going to be a Thanksgiving to remember.

I huffed off to my patio retreat. My sister simmered over the top of the stove. Inside the stove, her pie disaster from the night before remained trapped. Its warming aroma wafted in the air as the burners on the stove top heat the side dishes.

Then came the moment of truth. I shoved a thermometer inside a breast. Then I took the turkey into the house for my brother-in-law to carve it. At this point, nobody trusted me with sharp objects.

My brother-in-law’s heart sunk because he couldn’t get the carving knife through the bird. He was afraid to say anything. He just stared and wondered how he’d break the bad news. When he looked down again, he realized the thing was upside down.

We sat around the table – everyone silently praying for a meal that wouldn’t send us to the Emergency Room.

One by one, noises of pleasure passed around the table. Some declared that it was the best turkey that they ever had.

And when nobody got sick, I gave thanks.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel



I was always an early riser. When I slept in a strange bed, I’d rise even earlier. So it was the case when I spent the weekend at my mother- and father-in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving.

Already familiar with the layout of the house, I walked into the kitchen to get myself a cup of coffee after retrieving the newspaper out front. Before I sat down, I had to clear a spot to open the paper. The kitchen table sat four, but it was stacked high with books, magazines, archeological stuff and other research. It was typical for the amount of collecting my in-laws did. The clutter/treasure was extreme.

Once I settled into my paper cave, I sipped my coffee and found a good read. I enjoyed the silence of the wee hours – until a faint rustling noise caught my attention. I raised my head, lowered the paper and parted a couple of stacks. Then, with bug eyes and the hair standing straight up on my neck, to say I was startled would be an understatement.

A tiny, frail woman, well into her 90s stared at me through the trench I made. Her eyes looked magnified behind her saucer-sized glasses. There was no looking away.

It was “Mamu.”

She had blended into the stacks so well, I never noticed her. She was up before me. Maybe she never went to sleep. Maybe she slept where she sat as she was prone to do.

I wanted to flee!

Before I could make a break for it, she spoke in Langish, alternating sentences between Latvian and English, “Good morning. Jums ir līdz agri līdzīgi man.” So, I heard, “Good morning ….man.”

Good enough. I returned the greeting of the day while I racked my brain for a reason to excuse myself. Unfortunately, my mental powers lay in the nearly full cup of coffee cooling before me.

“When I was a meitene Latvijā …”

I knew I was trapped.

Twenty minutes went by. I was confused. My attention span had met its limit 20 times over. I made occasional loud noises hoping to wake another house guest, preferably my wife so I could slip away.

Mamu’s crackly voice continued. Her head barely cleared the tabletop, blending into the stacks of who-knows-what lying everywhere.

Another 15 minutes dragged by before words I recognized like “jail, freed and fled the valsts,” – well okay; “jail, free and fled” – raised my eyebrows.

Then a strange thing happened. I was leaning in.

Not only that, I said, “Repeat that part again.” …“No, in English.”

TWO HOURS LATER, I was hanging on her every word, whether it was in English or Latvian. It was World War II. Mamu, her husband and four – now five – young daughters were roaming war-torn Europe, homeless. A wagon wheel broke, they missed a boat, it was bombed and sunk. They slept in a farmer’s field and woke to a glow of fire consuming the house they had been invited to sleep in. There was a train they missed, a bomb, and I didn’t need to translate the Latvian, I knew what happened next.

Someone walked by me and said, “Mornin’,” and turned on the TV, ending one of the best stories I had ever heard.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


Free Range Kids

The creek was long, and on one side it had rolling hills. Shaped like three sides of a square, we’d pick it up at a corner where our trail led. There was nothing but a mile or so of woods between our backyards and this “playground.”

One day, we followed the creek up around another of its bends. Next to the grocery store was the American Legion. It was the time of year they would have live fire shooting ranges – turkey shoots I think they used to call them. I imagine if you missed the target, the round ended up in the woods. They weren’t shooting so we didn’t have to get our feet muddy in the creek. The creek on this stretch had no hills, but its earthen walls were steep, camouflaged by bushes and saplings.

We decided to venture up to the grocery store. Men were at the dock unloading huge sides of beef. Out of the truck, they would slide one slab at a time down a cable attached to a hook. It would slam into the other slabs at the end of the tilted line. We sat on the concrete ledge and whooped it up when we heard a solid slam. We went nuts when meat parts flung off. The workers were grinning as they worked, allowing us to carry on.

When they finished, they took a break. We slipped inside to see what happened next. The saw noise was deafening so when a guy yelled at us we only saw lips moving. We exited at the nearest door and were now inside the store by the meat department and a water fountain. We strategically hit an assortment of free sample tables and satisfied our hunger.

Eddie suggested we play hide-and-seek. The game had never been this much fun. After a while, we decided on one more round. Then, we’d go back to the creek and woods.

I found the perfect spot. It was the cereal section. I moved enough boxes to slide my body behind an outer wall of cereal. Then, I pulled one box over to hide my face. I was so proud of my creativity. I knew nobody would ever find me.

About the time I was cramping up and dozing off, I thought about ditching my spot to see what everyone else was doing. That’s when I heard someone closing in. They were onto me. They must have been. Box after box was being moved to see what was behind it, I presumed. My anxiety from the anticipation of being found was off the charts high.

That last box I placed in front of my face moved. I looked out and saw the slacks of a lady. She was holding the box between us. It looked like she was reading the back of it because staring at me was Count Chocola. I held my breath and remained motionless. I don’t know when she sensed me, but when she did, she dropped the Count and screamed so damn loud, I felt like bursting from my hideout and sprinting for the exit. But my body would not move.

In the manager’s office, I got a good scolding, but before he finished, someone came in and alerted him of more boys creating mischief.

He pointed at me and said, “Don’t you move!”

He disappeared, and so did I.

Cautiously, I walked out of the office, looked around, turned the corner and strolled right out the front doors. Once I was in the parking lot, I sprinted around the far corner of the building into an open field heading for the woods. I kicked into overdrive when my friends flew around the opposite corner of the building and into the field. Three men were in hot pursuit. We made a “V” toward each other and the creek.

We ran right up to the edge of the creek and jumped. We knew we couldn’t clear it and that wasn’t what we had in mind. We splatted into the far bank, righted ourselves and splashed down the middle of the creek in the direction of the American Legion. The men weren’t far behind.  They drew closer quickly, running along the upper edge of the creek peering down when their view wasn’t obstructed.

We stopped when they stopped.

Everyone took notice of the gunfire.

One of the men made a motion with his finger for us to come his way thinking we were at a dead end so-to-speak.

My friends and I looked at each other, smiled and then bolted toward the gunfire …and to “safety.”

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel



When I was seven-years-old, Dad took Grandpa and me to a ball game. It was my first.

Grandpa told me how he fell in love with the sport when he was around my age, several years after emigrating from Sicily. Dad went to get some foot longs and I sat there next to my grandpa, holding onto my little league glove. I heard the crack of the bat and saw the ball coming closer – Closer – CLOSER. We were in the upper deck down the third base line. When that ball whizzed directly over my head I yanked back my outstretched glove because I wanted no part of it.

I shook Grandpa afterward and screamed, “Did you see that!”

He grunted, “See what, see what?”

He had no clue what just happened. Little did he know that was the moment I became a fan of the game and his team, just like my father before me.

Decades later, it was time to pass down the family tradition.

My daughter, Cara, was only 4-years-old and we were going to move away because of a job offer. Before we left, I wanted to take my little girl to experience the magic of Jacob’s Field.

We got on what Cara called “the train ride” and settled into a seat that happened to face backward. She liked that. I didn’t.

The man sitting in front of us had big hair.

“Dad – look, that man has a comb stuck in his head.”

I saw the big hair shift but not make a complete turn.

After that, we arrived, stood at the end of the line and walked into the ballpark.

I don’t give my kids a lot by today’s standards but I flat out spoiled my daughter on that day. Program – yes. Hot dog – yes. Peanuts – yes. Cracker Jack – yes. After all this and three innings, Cara saw a man with a big tray of clouds on sticks, colors dancing in the light one section over. She followed him with her eyes. Finally, she asked about this strange sight. Now, her only mission in life was to try this thing called cotton candy.

Half an inning later, she was twisted backward, thumping my shoulder without looking, as she panted, “He’s coming, Dad. Dad, here he comes.”

I decided to make her earn this treat and said that she had to get his attention to come down to us or she would be out of luck.

She asked how to do it so I told her to just yell, “Cotton Candy here!”

So she did! LOUDLY and REPEATEDLY.

Seeing how she handled the entire transaction by herself, many in our section gave her a standing ovation.

Her head swelled.

I had to tilt my head back to contain the pooling water building up in my eyes.

When the game was over, we soaked in the experience for a while longer until we were some of the last people there.

“Dad, I love our team. Did they win?”

“I’ll always remember this day too, honey.”

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


The Gas Chamber

We were marched out to a clearing in the woods. There before us stood a non-descript building. It was the size of a modest ranch house, maybe half that or somewhere in between.

There’s nothing like the fear of the unknown unless the fear is known.

We went from bad to worse as soon as we were told, “At ease!”

“Welcome to the gas chamber!” shouted a drill sergeant.

Even the toughest wore faces of uncertainty.

Quickly, the ranks filled with a murmur of questions and answers: “Do they really gas us? …With what? …How bad is it?”

One group at a time put on their MOPP gear to prepare to enter. MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) is a head-to-toe protective gear used in the Army in toxic environments such as chemical warfare. It includes gloves, pants, jacket, and gas mask with hood. We had spent hours in training to get it pulled over our BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms) in seconds flat once a signal was given. Sometimes we wore it for hours in the blistering, August, South Carolina heat. Usually, when we were about to pass out, we got the all-clear sign.

We were in a line parallel to the rear of the building so those of us in the back of the line could see the first group coming out, one by one, victims. Some yelled, a couple puked, but most just groaned and flapped their arms in the air as tears streamed from their burning eyes. With this haunting imagery set against the thick woods, it was like watching a horror movie unfold. Anyway, it begged the question; would it be better to go in oblivious to the outcome or see the agony of those going first?

Some wondered, what’s the purpose of having to go through this? I figured the answer was probably so we’d understand just how real this threat was in modern warfare. Granted, the gas used in training was not life-threatening, but it did make your skin and eyes feel like they were burning up.

“Forward, ma-a-a-a-rch!”

I entered with my group, in full MOPP gear. The first thing that went through my mind was that I hoped every zipper and fastener was sealed properly. We stood in three different lines and one-by-one walked up to a drill sergeant. I was struck by how clear it was inside. It looked plain and harmless. I thought, seriously, how bad could it be?

The first three were ordered to remove their gas masks then walk out the door. It was funny watching them turn stupid all of a sudden. They bumped this way and that way, feeling in front of them as if they were trying to escape a dark room. Of the sets of three, there was usually one who seemed to have little trouble, probably because he pre-planned his route. Then there was one who probably tried to pre-plan but found it more difficult to carry out. And the typical third one never even contemplated it, with fear probably being his foremost thought. One, in particular, actually bumbled around, bumped back into a drill sergeant, and walked into the corner of the room where there was no door to escape.

It was excruciating to watch this. Many of us, I included, wanted to break rank and lead him back in the right direction. The drill sergeants seemed to be enjoying this inept soldier’s “malfunctioning” moment. Finally, even they showed mercy and walked him out with assistance.

When it was my turn, I had already pre-counted the number of steps to the door and had an idea of what angle I needed to take to find it. As soon as I unmasked, the searing pain tore into me. My skin was burning from the get-go. Even closed, my eyes felt like they were incinerated to nothing. I held my breath but the scalding was through and through. I had no idea of how many pre-counted steps or where in this fiery pit of hell I’d find the door. But, I did – and not a moment too soon!

When I exited, I knew it because the fresh air was anything but. I flapped my arms and walked and walked, feeling fried and nauseous. Through my gasping, wheezing and choking, soon I returned back to normal, except for one thing – I had been gassed.

It was a rite of passage. We sat in the grass, later, eating lunch, already reminiscing about our “war” stories.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


Topino – The Tooth Mouse

The tooth fairy is a celebrated legend in much of the world. So, too, is the tooth mouse.

My dad was born to a Sicilian immigrant. Growing up, my dad and his siblings were told of “the little white tooth mouse.” Instead of a tooth fairy, it was a tooth mouse who would appear at night to exchange the baby tooth for a coin.

Although Dad shared his childhood tale of the tooth mouse with my sister and me, we went with the American standard – the tooth fairy.

When I had kids of my own, I decided to reintroduce the tooth mouse tradition of my dad’s childhood, but with a twist. First, I discovered the tooth mouse went by different names throughout the world. In Italian, the name was Topino.

I told my kids that when their grandpa was a kid, there was a mouse in his house named Topino. Topino emmigrated from Sicily with the Satullo family. His job was to check the childrens’ teeth every night and when he found a wiggler, he’d put the tooth fairy on high alert. She was very busy so it was helpful to have a tooth mouse in the house. He would give her a head’s up so she could better plan her route each night. A tooth would be exchanged with a coin by the tooth mouse and a dollar bill by the tooth fairy. When kids grew up, so did their tooth mouse. The tooth mouse would have baby mice, all named Topino. When the kids started their own families, a Topino would move in with each of them.

My son, Dominic, not only believed in Topino, he was so fascinated by this peculiar mouse, he took things to a new level. One night, my wife came into our room after replacing the tooth with a coin and bill and handed me a note. Our son was asking the tooth mouse questions like what does he look like, where does he live, what else did he like to do, and can he read this?

So began a strange pen pal relationship between my son and me. Our minds worked together to open a whole new world. It didn’t matter if a tooth was loose or not, I had to check his desk to see if a letter was left for Topino. The fun wrapped around this communication between father and son was something for the ages. There were great adventures, head-scratching questions, revelations and more.

One of Dominic’s favorite storylines revolved around the mischief Topino got into at night when he’d play with Dominic’s toys. One time we awoke to a toy car stuck in the chandelier. Don’t ask, it’s a long story! Topino also seemed to get into the same life situations as my son, at the same time, so it became the topic of conversation between them. Until one day it stopped.

We had carried on the letter writing for a couple of years. Sure, there were some long pauses at times between letters so when they stopped altogether, I was slow to notice. Finally, I asked Dominic if he still left letters for Topino. He showed me the last letter he wrote that had gone unanswered.

“Why did you put it here?” I asked, aware that it was not the usual spot.

“I don’t know,” he answered.

Since it was not in the assumed usual spot, I explained that Topino may have missed the note. Dominic then moved the note to the old spot. But there was more to Topino not finding the letter than it just being in the wrong spot. Topino, too, had been in the wrong spot.

Dominic ran downstairs the next morning with a wad of papers in hand.

“Look – look, Topino, he’s back!”

“Whattaya mean, back?” I asked coyly.

“He hid in my bag the last time we went to Avon Lake to visit. It took him forever to get back and he waited a long time after that for me to write him. He didn’t know that I did because I used a different spot for the letter so you were right about that, Dad.  I can’t wait to hear about his adventure!”

So there were stories that lasted another year.

Then one day Dominic looked on in horror as I put out mouse poison in the garage, cautioning him to stay clear of it. I had to convince him that I bought a special blend that targeted unwanted mice versus a beloved tooth mouse like Topino. He preferred all mice live. I had other ideas considering the bag of seed they feasted on all winter.

Eventually, it all ended as most childhood fairytales end; by just growing too old to believe anymore.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel



I looked up from my chair, which was attached to my desk, and wondered if I had heard my teacher correctly.

Yep! She said it again – “…brownies!”

I put my pencil down from doodling on the desktop and refocused on the classroom.

“…So if you want to stay after school tomorrow for brownies, you’ll need a note from your parents,” she concluded at the bell.

When I got home, I promptly remembered to relay the information to my mom. She didn’t bat an eye, wrote a quick note and tucked it inside my folder for tomorrow.

At the end of the next day, my mouth was watering. I gazed at the clock three times and all three times the long minute hand didn’t budge. One minute to go and it seemed to take an hour.

Then, finally, brownie time!

“If you’re staying after for brownies, line up here,” my teacher directed.

Bam! I was second in line, eagerly waiting to satisfy my sweet tooth. My focus slowly turned foggy as background noise penetrated my one-track mind. It was laughter.

“Rocky wants to join the Brownies, Rocky wants to join the Brownies …” was the chant gaining volume around me.

I looked around. I was the only boy in line. My teacher looked at me with an expression of …unease.

“Rocky, boys can’t join the Brownies. Brownies are Girl Scouts.”

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel

Big Shots

It’s funny, but I don’t remember any of my childhood friends or classmates being Cleveland Indians baseball fans. Maybe it was too painful to admit openly.

When I was in high school, the manager was probably best remembered for charging the mound at an opposing pitcher, pathetically failing to land a karate kick. To add insult to injury, the pitcher dropped our manager with one punch. But this was my team, my lovable losers. I played in a world of possibility whereas nearly everyone else I knew played in a world of probability. Life is safer their way. But perhaps it’s with my mindset that I entered an essay contest by a Cleveland newspaper – “Why Do You Like The Indians?” At this age, I was reading the sports section daily so I wrote and sent in my essay.

I won!

Thinking back, I wonder if I was the only one who bothered with the contest.

Nonetheless, the prize was “dinner” with the Indians and a free ballgame. Dinner with the Indians meant I got to invite a friend to accompany me to the stadium for a luncheon that launched the team’s winter press tour. Only the manager and a couple players showed up to talk to the room full of reporters and afterward, I got to wait in line to shake the hand of a forgettable rookie infielder.

When we got there, Mom dropped us off and my friend, Steve, and I walked in. Immediately, we seized a plush booth. It was long – very long – and center stage. It was located in the back of the room next to huge windows high above the ground outside. It had our names all over it, so to speak. It was ours! Until some lackey in a suit scrambled across the room to us as some old guy and his entourage entered.

“Hey kids, you can’t sit there!” he said with alarm.

“Sure we can,” I said.

“We are,” said Steve, shooting a smile my way knowing he just slipped in a cocky remark under the radar.

The man demanded we move.

“But I won the contest,” I said matter of fact.

He looked dumbfounded. Then, he saw the entourage nearing and looked back to us in desperation.

“You gotta go, now,” he pleaded, reaching for my arm.

I pulled away and scooted farther into the wrap-around booth.

“What seems to be the problem?” asked the old man arriving next to the table. His entourage fanned out around it.

The scared looking man (lackey) sounded like he had diarrhea of the mouth so I explained.

Laughing, the old man said, “You boys have a good time,” and he left us to the enormous booth.

Then, he and his entourage pulled tables and chairs together in the center of the room, displacing some adults.

As they crowded around a hastily made large table by clustering together smaller tables right in front of us, we sat back and ordered meals fit for kings. I sat at one end of the long booth and Steve sat on the far end. You could have sat five adults on one side between us.

This was our day and nobody was going to take it away.

Later, the old man was introduced as the general manager of the Cleveland Indians. My natural instinct was to boo, but I bit my tongue. We all knew how the Indians were mishandled, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the kindness he extended toward us.

On the way out, Steve and I shared an elevator with a “rising star.” He had a giggling girl under each arm, thereby making him a bigger hero than just a moment earlier, even though he didn’t notice us in the tight space we shared going down.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel

New York City

Last Stop  │  Next Stop (Coming Soon)

On the way to New York City, I dreaded the anticipated traffic nightmare and white-knuckle driving. There was a pause at the tunnel but nothing too bad. And the city streets seemed just fine. Of course, this was Sunday. Our escape from New York would be a much different endeavor.

Our hotel was squeezed in amongst the concrete jungle. It was as if someone purchased a little patch of land and built a tiny square floor plan straight up as high as umpteen stories. The width of the building made me feel like I could wrap my arms around it. Inside we were greeted with the most friendly hotel staff we had ever encountered.

“How un-New York like,” we joked privately at the broken stereotype.

When we exited the elevator, we could literally walk 12 paces either way and be at the end of the hall which turned and continued around the square interior. The hallway was very narrow, too.

We unloaded and decided we had time to explore Times Square. Unlike D.C., we decided not to hoof it, heading for the subway instead. That was more of a stereotypical New York experience. But we enjoyed it and marveled at its efficiency. There was one recurring problem. It may have been user-error, I don’t know. But whenever we used the subway, we had to purchase tickets and I always seemed to get shorted.

Times Square was just as it seems on television. It was full of pedestrians – mostly tourists like us – and digital advertising everywhere you looked. I spun in a 360-degree turn with my video camera to try and capture it all. That’s when life-size Elmo walked up and put his arms around my two kids and motioned for my wife to snap a photo.

“Oh, how fun is this,” my wife smiled and took the photo op.

Then Elmo, rather un-Elmo like, made arm motions demanding money for his services. So much for Elmo seeming like the good-will ambassador of Times Square. I reached in my wallet and gave him a bill. His body-language suggested dissatisfaction. He didn’t hesitate to grab a couple of other kids in a bid to shake down more tourist-parents.

Our mission at Times Square was laser-focused on going to M&M Headquarters to find out what kind of M&Ms we were. This little adventure resulted from a word-of-mouth campaign that came from a kid my son knew back home. It somehow made it onto our must-see list. Not on my list mind you but I was outvoted 3-1. So it goes.

Every turn inside and outside was met with shoulder-to-shoulder bodies hustling and bustling as you may expect from a stroll through Times Square. The M&M building was even more crowded. Finally, we located the screens that would reveal our inner M&M. One by one, we were analyzed and then our color and personality description posted to the monitor overhead for all to read. Really, it was just a high-tech version of those vintage, wooden, carnival fortune-telling machines.

Another stop was to the 9/11 Memorial. It’s complicated emotionally to be at a place that marks such tragedy and yet is a tourist attraction. In this coveted and jam-packed real estate space in Manhattan, the vast openness of no skyscraper looming immediately overhead is noticeable.

Instead of something extending skyward, the perimeter of what was the foundation of the old World Trade Center’s twin towers streamed almost glasslike downward. Black granite walls went straight down along with water pumping gently down all four sides from just underneath the memorial railings. They were topped with flat angled displays with the names of the unfortunate etched in plaques that stretched around where both towers once stood. The water pooled but there was yet another descent. In the middle of the pool, another square of granite walls went straight down again, appearing to the eye, infinitely so. And again, water seeped over the edges in glasslike fashion.

The design is called “Reflecting Absence”.

We stood silently among hundreds of other quiet onlookers surveying the scene and pondering the loss and the enormity of it all. There is a spirit there. I think everyone standing at the edge of the abyss senses it. But that spirit soars in the open air above, much like the two new nearby towers casting shade on the old site.

You can knock us down but we will always rise again – stronger than before!

As we walked some more, our path met with what became known as The Survivor Tree. The Callery pear tree stood right there at ground zero and inexplicably survived the terrorist attack. Roots snapped, branches broke and burned, yet it clung to life. It was rescued, rehabilitated and returned. It is a symbol of our resilience.

Although our children were too young to reflect on that infamous day in human history, they appreciated the 9/11 Memorial just the same. And it opened a thoughtful dialogue over dinner at a nondescript New York eatery that we enjoyed so much it served us two nights in a row.

The next day we were very happy that we pre-purchased tickets for the ferry ride to Liberty and Ellis Islands months ago. The incredible droves of people standing, waiting in line boggled my mind. We got to walk right past them.

As we left the dock and drifted toward the Statue of Liberty, the view of the skyline in our wake seemed to make New York look like a cozy town instead of the mega-metropolis it is. Then, we floated by the Statue of Liberty making a turn toward her harbor. It was a sunny day with blue sky and just a smattering of fluffy white clouds to accent the canvas that was air.

With Lady Liberty standing tall just a stone’s skip away, I just stared, thinking, “That’s the Statue of Liberty – That’s the Statue of Liberty – Hey kids, that’s the Statue of Liberty.”

“Duh, Dad!”

I tried to see the statue through the boyhood eyes of my grandpa as he approached this new world. My wife was trying to see it through her mom’s childhood eyes. The symbolism and hope must have been immense.

What I enjoyed most about our visit to Liberty Island wasn’t the fascinating stories told to me through my audio tour headphones. It was the many interesting views of Lady Liberty that you don’t normally see in photos or video (see the photo montage below).

Over at Ellis Island, I had the cool opportunity to walk in my grandpa’s footsteps and see what he was met with upon his arrival to America as a young boy with his family from Sicily. Oh, how his eyes must have been like saucers. But the surreal sensation that that must have had on the imagination of a great life ahead in the land of the free was sure to have come crashing down when the reality of Ellis Island hit him. Ellis Island was either a house of horror or just a quick processing to the promise of a better life. The preserved graffiti on walls transcended the timeline as much as the old architecture from original ceilings to staircases – some parts haunting and others liberating.

At Ellis Island, we were pretty much limited to exploring one building, grand as it was. But the adventurer in me wanted to roam the island and explore the other buildings and grounds. Still, the museum inside the main building was excellent. It tells the stories of the immigration process in vivid detail. You can even look up your immigrant ancestor’s records and see a photo of the boat they came in on and the manifest with their name.

The main building was built in 1900 and was the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station for much of its time before closing in 1954. Between 1892 and 1954, some 12 million immigrants funneled through Ellis Island.

Once we had had our fill of appreciation for the roots that brought us to these shores, we went outside to fetch a return ferry. There was not a pre-purchased ticket line this time. The line was four wide and wrapped from the front of the main building around the side and beyond the back. The wait between ferries was long. When a ferry filled up, the line moved sluggishly forward. It took three or four ferries before we could board.

When we left NYC the following morning, it was the nightmare – only worse – that I had expected upon arrival. Fighting from lane to lane with New York cabbies during the midweek morning rush hour in Manhattan made me revert into “Travel Dad.” This was a nickname given to me by my kids earlier in the trip. I become “Travel Dad” when I become super intense behind the driver’s wheel under stressful traffic conditions.

Once I could breathe easy, away we went to what would become our favorite stop of our Magical History Tour but notably the least attractive attractions. Go figure.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop: Coming Soon next right
last leftLast Stop: Philadelphia


Upper New York Bay

Ellis Island Main Building

Ellis Island Graffiti

Ellis Island

Ellis Island Main Building

M&M Store in Times Square

Freedom Tree at 911 Memorial & Ground Zero

Gore Orphanage

We moved a temporary “bridge out” sign so we could drive our car across. Clearly, the bridge was not out, but we were, for a good time.

We had driven well across rural Lorain County, a route so many teens have come to know. Mike and Bobby had the munchies. We pulled off at a rickety old roadside store and they went inside.

“Look, is that someone leaning out of the window above the store?” asked one of the girls in the backseat.

I rolled the window down.

“Do-o-o-on’t go-o,” the stranger lobbed down to us.

We looked at each other inside the car. When we looked back up, the stranger in the window was gone.

“What the hell was that?” asked one of the girls sitting behind me.

Surely it was just some guy having fun with us.

Mike and Bobby jumped back in the car. They didn’t believe a word out of our mouths about the stranger in the window.

Eventually, we arrived at a desolate country road which led down a steep, narrow hill. We noticed but ignored the “no trespassing” signs riddled with bullet holes. Near the bottom of the hill, there was a turn-off to the left that veered so sharply it was difficult to see. This offshoot was even steeper and narrower and led to blackness. Our other option was to continue on the main route and ascend up the other side.

We chose blackness.

With windows rolled down on a crisp night, we listened as we puttered up to “heartbeat bridge.”

“Kill the engine!”

We listened. Then, we got out and leaned against the metal bridge.

“I heard it.”

“Me too.”

“I didn’t hear **it.”

The legend was that long ago, there was an orphanage that burned to the ground taking with it dozens of kids. If you listened closely, you could hear their faint cries echoing through the valley. Oh, and if you turned your car off on heartbeat bridge, it wouldn’t restart until you pushed it off. So, we intentionally left it out of gear to spook the girls. They even gave it a try before we pushed it to the other side. Wouldn’t you know it, it started right up. You could probably catch us winking and smirking at each other on the sly if you were looking in the rear-view mirror.

We continued down the all but forgotten road, winding around a bend one way and then back another before pulling over to park.

“They say the foundation of the orphanage is that way,” Mike said, pointing a flashlight in the direction of the trailhead, where the woods met an open field.

Before going there, we ventured up the road on foot. There was a lonely house at the end of a long wooded driveway.

“Holy crap! Someone lives down here!”

Uphill, around a bend, the road was barricaded. We went back to the car.

“Oh no, cops!”

“Those aren’t cops, they’re teenagers.”

And they led us to the foundation. At the tree line was a lone pillar. Large graffiti warned, “You are now entering Hell.”

We sat on the remaining foundation blocks and befriended the new carload of strangers. They decided to leave before us but we weren’t far behind.

As they drove away, I went for some kicks. I threw my flashlight as hard as I could, end over end, high over their windshield, freaking them out. They sped off. Pleased with myself, I ran, laughing, to pick up my flashlight. Within minutes, it died. Worse, unbeknownst to me, my car keys bounced out of my unzipped jacket pocket.

We knew we were up a creek without a paddle after our failed attempts to search for the lost keys. The other flashlight went dead. So, Mike and I left Bobby with the girls and went to the old house to ask for batteries or a flashlight. It was pretty late at night.

A freak rain shower drove down upon us forcing us to return to the car. Everyone bitched up a storm.


“What the …”

We were all staring out of the back window at an old-looking pickup truck pulling off the road near our car.

“Get down.”

Peeking over the back seat, we all witnessed a man jump from the truck. He was carrying something long. He let three dogs out the passenger door and they all ran into the field together and out of our sight.

“What do we do?”


“What the hell was that?”

“Was that a gunshot?”

“Here he comes!”

The man emerged with two dogs, hopped in his truck and motored away.

When we finally peeled ourselves from the floor mats, the rain had stopped. It was past midnight. We were stranded …far from home.

Amazingly, another vehicle appeared. No, it was two cars carrying more teenagers. They were locals. One agreed to drive me back to his parents’ house so I could call my mom. She would have to come out with a spare key.

“Now, listen carefully, Mom. At that point, you’ll have to get out and move a sign that says bridge out but don’t worry, you can cross. Ignore the no trespassing signs. Go down the road that looks like a car should not go down. It gets really steep and narrow …”

It was close to dawn when we got home. But it would be a long time before any of us saw the light of day again.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!


The Black Hills

Last Stop  │  Next Stop (Coming Soon) 

No-o-o-w we’re “out west!” I was thrilled along with the rest of my family. After waking up in a nice but over-priced hotel in downtown Rapid City, I stepped into the hall to get the morning paper and did something spontaneous to get a quick laugh from the kids. I was in my underwear, bare-chested and as I stepped into the hall, I stretched my arms out and beat my chest in a comical primal manner. Little did I realize that this blip of a moment would forever be remembered and retold EVERYTIME that our trip came up in conversation. I guess it was impressionable for them to see their dad act so carefree for a change.

As they say, it’s the little moments that count but in the Black Hills, there are enough big moments and sights to burn images into the brain.

Having gained an hour due to the time change and finally getting a solid night’s sleep, we were ready to take on the day. And what a day we had planned. But first, I had to take a quick jaunt up Iron Mountain for old-time’s sake. When I was a kid, my dad took a wrong turn that led us up Iron Mountain. Now I wasn’t sure if things changed since then or if the drama of the moment warped my memory, but 30 years apart, I experienced two very different Iron Mountains.

The one from my youth was scarier than all get out. My Dad whipped up the mountain in our full-size family van at an accelerated pace cutting the wheel on hairpin mountain-side turns that had my mom clutching the doorframe screaming for him to slow down or stop. My sister and I laughed aloud between terrified screams. My dad was reminiscent of Jack Nicholson busting through a door with an ax in the movie The Shining saying, “He-e-e-re’s Johnny!”

This time, it was a pleasant ascent. And at one point, we came to a tunnel with people taking pictures of us. Well, not us but what was behind us. As my wife looked back she said, “Wow!” So we too pulled over on the other side of the tunnel on a stretch of road that was not built for so many people to park cars and walk away. Seeing Mount Rushmore framed by a mountain tunnel was a pretty cool sight. All of us had cameras out for the photo-op.

Later, we neared the top of the mountain and pulled off to take a mini hike to see wildlife. We were treated with an enormous herd of deer. Then we reached a large area offering tourist overlooks near the summit. It too provided views worthwhile. When we descended the other side of the mountain we didn’t know where it would lead us, but we never turned back. It proved to be one of the best spontaneous decisions of the trip as if this “detour” hadn’t already paid dividends.

We neared the bottom and later discovered we were in the 71,000 acre Custer State Park, home to nearly 1,500 buffalo. I mean bison. Did you know that there are no wild buffalo in North America and there never were? Early settlers mistakenly labeled the bison they saw as buffalo because it resembled buffalo found in Africa and Asia. The name stuck – wrong as it is.

Before seeing our first buffalo (sorry, I’m as bad as the early settlers), we saw burros, pronghorn, mountain goats and elk. But as the saying goes, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Around a bend we had to slow down as if we were driving through one of those auto-nature safaris where animals come up to the car and you feed them. Only this was truly a wild setting and the last thing on our mind was feeding wild animals. But we did slow to a stop to take a picture of a buffalo on the edge of the road right next to us with only the opposite lane separating man from beast.


I hit the gas on the first grunt and darned if that thing didn’t lunge right at us.

With that adrenaline-induced moment still over-pumping blood through all of our hearts, we had two more buffalo come over a ridge from the opposite direction. They were in full stride. For big animals, they can move pretty quickly. In fact, I read that they can run as fast as a horse. Although they looked to be chasing each other we did not slow down.

Once charged, twice shy …or something like that.

Another blind bend and another surprise. This time we had to come to a complete stop. A couple of cars ahead of us disappeared into the herd as I’m sure our SUV did to anyone coming up behind us. It took close to 30 minutes to navigate like inch worms through the maze of buffalo swallowing the road and countryside all around us. I was talking out loud, “PLEASE, don’t scratch the paint fella,” worried about my new vehicle, unsure if buffalo encounters were covered by my insurance.

Then there it was, “Dad, I have to go to the …”


Since the trip up and down Iron Mountain and through Custer State Park ate up so much time, we realized we had to tamper with the itinerary so we could still see the Mammoth Site, Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore all in one day or what was left of this day. Although we technically just saw Mount Rushmore and considering I’ve seen it by day once before, we decided we’d hit it after dinner at dark instead of calling it a night.

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota was something that had accidentally been discovered in 1974. It grew into a world-class museum and tourist attraction. A few people highly recommended it when we announced our vacation plans so we decided it had to be worked into the agenda. It was a bit of a drive south compared to the cluster of attractions in the Rapid City area. As we weaved through the motor-lodge stretch, sign after sign revealed deals at decent looking motels with clean looking pools. I had buyer’s remorse and wished I had looked into lodging options more thoroughly when our “Triple-A lady” said we needed to pre-book lodging in this area to guarantee a nearby place to stay.

It was lunchtime when we arrived at the Mammoth Site. We had a picnic on a blanket in the grass under shade trees. Like a flashback to the old station wagon days of family travel, we weren’t the only family with the cost-saving and healthy picnic idea. It was very peaceful.

Mammoth time. As was typical of me, I was not sold on this site as being all that but decided to check it out anyway. When we entered, we had to wait a bit for a full group of people to gather for the next tour. I kept looking at my watch wondering if we had time to get back and see Crazy Horse. Then the doors opened and we entered. I wanted to go nuts on my own to absorb the fascinating scene coming into focus all around us. But I stayed with the group. In doing so, I learned a lot!

The Mammoth Site just happens to be the largest mammoth research facility on the planet. It is an active paleontological dig site. Visitors witness first-hand, a scientific excavation. The floor of the building was the earth. In this concentrated area, there are more than 50 fossilized remains of Cambrian and Wooly Mammoths unearthed approximately 26,000 years after they mistook a sink-hole for a watering hole. Ironically, if not comically, they were all male. Go figure. After our guide walked us to every part of the dig, he turned us loose to take pictures and wander around on our own. In addition to the excavation, visitors are treated to a working paleontology laboratory, hands-on activities, Ice-Age exhibit hall, walk-in Mammoth bone hut and junior paleontologist dig.

Although the Mammoth Site rocked, we had to roll back to the Black Hills.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at Crazy Horse Memorial. Pulling in, I already noticed the progress made over the past 30 years since I was last there. Crazy Horse isn’t just a mountain carving. Albeit is it the largest mountain carving in the world. And it’s not just about one Indian chief or one sculptor either. It is all these things and more – a work in progress – representing a complex myriad of importance.

When I was here last, as a kid, what stood out in my mind was a bullet-ridden sign out front. The Crazy Horse Memorial withstood much opposition in its early days but has since grown into a first-class American success story.

A sculptor who had been involved with the Mount Rushmore project was invited by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to build a mountain memorial honoring the cultures, traditions and living heritage of North American Indians. On June 3, 1948, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began work on a mission that would consume his life and most of his family’s well past his death in 1982. The blasting and carving of the mountain continue today. When it is completed, the entire mountain will not just be a carving on the face of the rock, it will be a 360˚ sculpture, 641 feet by 563 feet in-the-round, of Chief Crazy Horse erupting out of the mountain with his horse.  Crazy Horse’s stone head is large enough itself to house all of Mount Rushmore’s presidential busts. How’s that for perspective?

The project is completely funded by the money spent by visitors, donations and other private contributions. It was decided from the beginning that no federal or government money would be accepted due to the fear of losing control of Ziolkowski ‘s and Standing Bear’s vision.

The Crazy Horse experience isn’t just the incredible visual of the work-in-progress. There is much more. For starters, there’s a 40,000 square foot museum dedicated to the history and culture of North American Indians. In addition, there’s a Native American Cultural Center with artisans at work and wares for sale. While browsing the endless array of beautiful creations throughout the buildings, my daughter took particular interest in the native tales about Devil’s Tower. She was so enthralled by the folklore, it would again spontaneously change the itinerary of our trip the very next day. But that’s a story (or detour) for the next stop on “Holiday Road.”

Like the mountain itself, everything seems enormous at Crazy Horse Memorial, including the gift shop. As with the morning incident, it’s often the little things or free things that make the lasting memories of a family vacation. I think the Ziolkowski family understands that. While we were there, there was a big bin of nice rounded fist-size (okay –double-fist-size and some triple) rocks from the Crazy Horse mountain blast site free for the taking.  Now the kids have a piece of Crazy Horse in their own backyard and it didn’t have to cost Dad a penny, but we left a donation.

Dinner-time. Back at the hotel that was too nice for our purpose, we decided to walk to a restaurant.

Dit-dit-dit doot-it. That was my attempt to spell the sound of the opening tune to the old television show, Sanford & Son. Welcome to Sanford’s. If you think a junkyard is the last place you’d go for a good meal and fun time, you’re wrong. Located in Rapid City, Sanford’s entertained the kids even though they’ve never seen the show. They just knew this was a unique setting for eating. It isn’t every day that you eat at a restaurant with light fixtures fashioned from washtubs and TVs buried in a hodgepodge of discarded items more commonly strewn about a junkyard. We really liked it! So much in fact that it served us dinner two nights in a row when we swore to try a different eatery every night. The montage of junk a.k.a. art was a sight that set the imagination on fire. As a bonus, the food was tasty and the price was right.

Once we were done with dinner, we had one more calling – Mount Rushmore!

When we arrived, it was dark, windy and cold …really cold. We bundled up and made our way to the main building. Outside, a crowd gathered. But we needed warmth so we ducked inside and got lost …in the stories of this fascinating place. For example, Mount Rushmore National Monument is incomplete. Unlike Crazy Horse, when Rushmore’s sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, died in 1941 so did the project. His son tried to carry on for several months before halting the project all together. It remains unfinished to this day. Another point of interest that doesn’t seem to dawn on anyone is why the name “Rushmore?” The answer is simple. An attorney from New York City by the name of Charles E. Rushmore was sent to the area in 1884 to check property titles. He asked the name of the mountain. It didn’t have one so locals named it “Rushmore” after the inquisitive attorney.

It is no coincidence that Crazy Horse was built nearby Rushmore’s monument. The Native Americans took offense to Rushmore being carved on their lands and answered with a sculpture of their own only more grandiose in scale and design. Rushmore’s museum is filled with great gems of information about the history and people involved with building this iconic piece of American history honoring Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.

Noise outside grew as did the nighttime crowd despite the cold. It was drizzling to boot.  None-the-less, tired kids and all, we braved the elements for what turned out to be such a touching ceremony, we all had goosebumps (unrelated to the weather conditions). The evening ceremony takes place in an outdoor amphitheater with the monument center stage. The ranger talk was inspirational as it focused on the Presidents. The setting rung of patriotism and history. It was followed by the film Freedom: America’s Lasting.  It climaxed with rousing music and illumination of the memorial creating an unforgettable experience.

I was proud to be American!

It’s uncanny how unforeseen obstacles can create a better result than what was originally planned. Sometimes, it’s just best to blow with the wind.

When we woke up the following morning, that’s just what we did.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop:  Coming Soon next right
last leftLast Stop: Badlands National Park


Stirring Up A Hornets’ Nest

We had been in position for 30 minutes, firing our BB guns at the hornets’ nest.

It wasn’t just any hornets’ nest – it was the mother of all hornets’ nests! Our BBs seemed to have no effect. We shifted our strategy to the base where it hung in the tree but we were just too far. Granted, it was a safe position when calculating how far the hornets were seen buzzing around the nest. However, we needed to get closer since our target went from a huge gray mass to the base where it clung to the tree branch.

Some of us dressed in green camouflage, others in white tee shirts, blue jeans and ball caps. We low crawled through the waist-high, light brown brush of the open field and found a new position much closer.

It was close enough to put the sling-shot into action with more accuracy.

“Wow! Nice shot!” was the consensus as the hole was visible and the flurry of hornets thickened.

Twenty minutes later, several holes torn into the nest, we realized this could take all day to bring it down. We needed a bolder plan.

“Manny, run up closer and throw this at it.”

“Screw you!” was the reply.

“C’mon, man,” the peer pressure poured on until Manny, the youngest of our group, went home.

Down a man, we re-examined the pecking order.

“Don’t look at me, you go,” Jacob said to Kyle.

“Heck no,” said Kyle.

“Wussies!” I yelled as I sprinted in an arch pattern at the nest with a chunk of shale and whipped it like I was skipping a rock. It missed.

“Crap, I think I got stung,” I said when my adrenaline level came back down as I returned to our position.

Like a dam giving way, the throbbing-stinging pain spread across my left hand. I tucked it into my gut, bending over.

“Who’s the wussie now,” said Eddie.

Jacob and Kyle laughed.

Meanwhile, I had spotted what looked to be a section of telephone pole on my loop back. We low crawled to it. Weird as it was, indeed, a small cut section of a telephone pole lay in the brush. It was the perfect size to get two of us on each side and have room to spare. Plus, it was light enough to …

“Ahh, this’ll be awesome!”

“Did you fall and crack your head or something,” they replied.

But when I really wanted to be persuasive, I could usually bring my friends around to doing the most stupid of stunts.

So there we were, rushing at a mega hornets’ nest with what can only be described as a battering ram. We hit it solid, launching it straight into the ground where all hell broke loose.

We scattered, running for our lives, running for our homes – more to the point, our moms – screaming bloody murder the entire way.

At first, I was okay, running through the field. I laughed heartily seeing Jacob fall, get up and cry his eyes out he was getting stung so badly. Just when I thought I might have escaped unscathed, it felt like I was sprayed by tiny, potent bullets from a machine gun. From my fingers waving frantically in the air, across my outstretched arms to my head, neck and shoulders, even down my back, butt and legs, I went from thinking this prank was hysterical to being hysterical.

I stumbled through my back gate, crying like there was no tomorrow.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel



Sea formed me – I splashed – And became the sea

Humankind struggles with self-absorption. We want to live forever. Then we want life after death. But no matter what awaits in the afterlife, we live on.

After all, matter and energy cannot be destroyed or created, and there is no end or beginning to time and space. We are eternal.

The universe is in perfect harmony. Good cannot exist without evil. Everything connects. That is our destiny. A drop in a pool of water sends ripples to its furthest shore despite the obstacles.

We may just be drops in a sea but without drops, a sea does not exist. Subtle splashes ripple forever in calm waters. Thunderous splashes may go unnoticed in stormy waters.

We are mostly water; without it, we die. After we splash, what is the ripple effect?

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


Lava Beds National Monument


Yesterday   │   Tomorrow (coming soon)

On the long stretch from the Pacific coast inland to Lava Beds National Monument, we fell prey to the usual must-see pull-offs to snap photos, making the drive that much longer but that much more enjoyable too.

The first such stop was the Smith River on Route 199. I have never seen a more pretty aquamarine in my life. Pristine river water and mini rapids meandered as far upstream as my eyes could see. The scenic byway wrapped with the river’s edge so intimately, it mesmerized me to the point I had to pull off to take a long gaze to better appreciate it.

For a bit, we were in Oregon. I stopped to gas-up. When I popped out and pumped my gas, an attendant rushed over to me and said that I can’t do that.


“$15,000 fine for pumping your own gas in Oregon!” he said, seriously.


It didn’t seem like he was pulling my leg so I could only take him at his word.

Once we were back in the land of self-serve, I noticed a peculiar topography. It looked like the hillside all along the roadway was lava rock. I pulled off of the road to take a closer look.

It was an incredible sight to see what was once a massive lava flow cooled in its tracks. It came pouring over the hill, thick, and into the valley, ground black as night. Trees burst through it around the perimeter, creating a stunning contrast. It seemed like a black frozen lake and river. We walked along it, picking up loose rock – light, hard and sharp – careful not to cut ourselves.

On our way to the motel near our Lava Beds destination, we passed similar scenes, each wondrous and beautiful. It was an hourglass deep into Earth’s geologic history.

Eventually, we were in no man’s land. And when I say no man’s land, that means only one place to stay (that we could find) and it wasn’t in any brochure, on GPS or in the Triple-A database. Somehow I found and booked it online months in advance. It was the closest (only) place I could find near the entrance to Lava Beds National Monument.

On a desolate road, the sun finally handing the sky over to the moon, we arrived. Had I knew of any other accommodations or thought we could get away with sleeping under the stars, I would have pulled out of the parking lot as soon as we pulled into it.

There was a strip of about six rooms encased in cinder block walls and a house, a.k.a. lodge, hanging on from the 1930’s or so it seemed.

When I went up to the “office” inside the old house, I was relieved that the manager’s name wasn’t Norman Bates. The live-in lady manager said she didn’t think we’d make it. I thought to myself, the night is still young.

She escorted us to our room, carrying an old, metal, square floor fan. That was our “air conditioning.”

Inside were two beds (a single and double), old carpet, cinder block walls and a bathroom occupied by a huge wolf spider. The back window was unlocked. I promptly locked it and set a booby trap consisting of things that would fall over and make lots of noise if anyone came through it that night.

“Can you help me with your son’s cot?” the nice lady asked.

I followed her to a nearby shed to retrieve the cot. This was after she offered the alternative, a mattress on the floor. Seriously, folks, I can’t make this stuff up!

Had everything not appeared to be clean, inside, we would have slept in the car for sure. But it was a long adventurous day and a bed was a bed. On the other hand, there was no television or radio and no room key if you can believe that! I mean, where ya gonna go, right? It was about that time that I started humming Hotel California by the Eagles.

After tucking the kids into bed, I sat on the concrete slab out in front of our door and noticed seven holes that had been filled. I wondered if they were bullet holes. Then I tipped back on the plastic chair and heard dead silence. Incredibly, that night just happened to be the soundest sleep I had had in years. Imagine that.

Rise. Shine. And get the heck outa here! Wait a minute! Really? There’s a Continental Breakfast included with the room rental here. Hmm, this just may be the Hotel California. Knowing there wasn’t another choice for breakfast other than our bag of trail mix, we made tracks up to the lodge.

I have to make it clear that despite all of the knocks I made against this place, it was clean. Not only that, it was exceptionally quiet and the manager was a very nice lady. Did I mention I slept like a baby? Oh, and the whole reason we picked this place was because it was just a stone’s throw from Lava Beds National Monument. Besides, it would be another long haul from here to our next stop – Yosemite.

When we entered the dining room, my mouth watered and my stomach growled. MM-mmm-MM, the cooking I smelled from the kitchen had me very excited for breakfast. I sensed a feast!

…for the three-man construction crew already seated.

The manager/bell hop/cook/waitress explained to me that our Continental Breakfast was on the shelf. The other gentlemen, who had stayed in the lodge, signed up for the breakfast works. It was further explained to me that I could not upgrade my breakfast without at least 24-hour’s notice.

So after a quick hearty bowl of cereal, a slice of toast and a banana to go, we pulled out of there and never looked back. Okay, one peek in the rearview mirror but that was it.

Quicker than you can say, “Are we there yet” or “I have to pee”, we were there and there was a port-o-pot just inside the entrance road.

I dumped my Styrofoam cup of so-called continental coffee and gazed at the glass-enclosed wooden map, outside on a gorgeous morning where the sun split the land from the sky, rising over the high desert. I had our plan of attack formulated in my head when Captain Chaos, a.k.a. my wife, threw a monkey wrench into my well-oiled machine.

“Look, Petroglyphs!” she asserted in a delightful tone full of enthusiasm.

If there is one thing that’s non-negotiable on our family vacations, it’s that if there are Petroglyphs to be seen, you betcha we’re seeing them. I knew it, the kids knew it, and you better bet she knew it.

But I tried to talk her down from the ledge anyway. After all, the entire game plan for staying at the Hotel California was to be up and caving at the crack of dawn – no commute! And to add insult to injury, the Petroglyphs were nearly 10 miles THE OTHER WAY! I did the math. That means 20 miles plus a mile hike there and back, not to mention the time to take at least 39 photos.

Long story short, I lost the battle but it wasn’t for the lack of effort.

Our site seeing detour also took in Jackrabbits, a rodent of some sort, quail and a pelican. Then, finally, the visitor center. We grabbed a map, talked to a ranger and bought an extra flashlight and spare batteries. Now it was time to go caving.

The park was like nothing we’d ever seen. On the surface, it was nothing more than endless high desert nothingness all the way to the base of the mountains, which were way in the distance. But beneath the desert floor were more than 700 caves, according to the brochure. And dozens waited for explorers like us – completely unprepared and raring to get lost. Well, we did have flashlights and water so I guess we were somewhat prepared.

The choices were overwhelming. We had time to probably see a half dozen or so lava tube caves. They had names like Blue Grotto, Golden Dome, Catacombs, Labyrinth and Skull Cave. The most wonderful thing about this experience was that we were left on our own. Once you left the visitor center, you were free to go wherever your heart’s desire. No guides, no lights, no nothing, just you and a pitch black subterranean adventure. We didn’t see another soul anywhere for the longest time.

Our fist lava tube split into two directions. It was treacherous to navigate. If you have never walked on top of lava rock before, it has no give what-so-ever and it is extremely porous so it catches your footgear with the slightest graze. That said, we stumbled down this tunnel and that like a pack of drunken sailors.

When I convinced everyone to turn off their flashlights and zip their lips, the silence was deafening and the darkness blinding.

It was “Wa-a-a-a-a-ay cool!” to quote a Tween.

I became brazen in my quest for excitement and pried my body through tight crevices or slid down lava tubes that were sure to lead to the bowels of a monster’s lair. The caves began to echo with, “Don’t go in there Dad!”, “You’re on your own!”, “Let’s get out of this one!”, “What’s that sound?”, “BATS!”, “I’m scared!” and “Wow! Check that out!”

Everyone looked at the ceiling. It was “Golden Dome Cave.” I delighted in telling the kids that the golden glow was due to glowing bacteria. It wasn’t a joke.

Once we felt like we “did” a tube, we’d bail and drive to another. Some had discreet entries. If you were 15 yards from it, you wouldn’t know it was there until you were right on top of it. You definitely had to pay attention or you could fall into a hole. There were different levels of difficulty. Some had secure metal ladders descending into a cavern and others required climbing over boulders and rubble to get inside.

Only one time during all of our spelunking did we see other people. It was a family of four and they were wearing bicycle helmets. It looked kind of humorous. The self-conscious father of that family apologized for the “goofy get up” as they passed. But goofy was worth it I’d soon find out. I later hit my head so hard on a stalactite that I saw stars underground. Another mishap was when I was using my video camera’s night vision mode to see where I was going when I slipped on wet rock and slid down an incline. As I lay at the bottom gathering my senses I heard my son say, “Don’t go that way. I think we lost Dad.”

Thanks for the concern.

Skull Cave was enormous. The mouth opened with wonderful rock teeth that had shiny tones to it. It looked like giant gray swirled marbles. It had a flat walkway carved into the side so we walked, and walked and walked. It was a while before the daylight dissipated and that was after the huge tunnel curved. As I looked back, I thought of ants in a dinosaur’s world. Then there was a metal stair system that plunged to a ridiculous depth. It got very cold very fast. So cold, at the bottom, we discovered the ice floor, which was gated and out of reach.

When we left, I felt like a kid throwing a tantrum, “Do we have to go?” I wanted to keep on exploring. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time.

This wasn’t your ordinary national park or monument. It had hardly any visitors and it was in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the southbound road we took, leaving the park, was listed as unpaved. But it did have blacktop at one time. Now, it was very old crumbly blacktop. Imagine it was an airstrip that had been bombed. And I mean carpet bombed! We were going under 15 miles per hour, snaking around depressions and mounds of loose, pulverized blacktop chunks. I kept thinking about the time this was costing us and the power drive still ahead to get to Yosemite.

Once we found our way back to modern roads, we talked about adding in a spontaneous stop despite being behind schedule. As soon as the words “ghost town” were uttered, we all got excited.

Now, “ghost town” to me and my nine-year-old son meant tumble-weed, saloon doors and a “High Noon!” atmosphere.

This place was none of that.

My wife and daughter loved the remnants of the old gold rush town. My son and I sulked, mildly impressed.

“Can we go yet?” – “How ‘bout now?”

Looking back, it was a neat pit stop that didn’t detour much from the planned route. The town of Shasta, California dated back to 1878. Most of the buildings were red brick ruins. In retrospect, it was worth the 30 minutes stay.

The approach to Yosemite had magic in the air on this late night drive. There was a calming that overcame my wife and me as the kids were sound to sleep in the back and had been for quite some time. Finally, at around 10pm, we were as close to Yosemite’s official park entrance as you can get and still have lodging.

What a difference a night makes!

We went from rags to riches in 24-hours. The room had it all; fireplace, Jacuzzi, bar, fridge, balcony and much more. When I opened the sliding glass doors, paradise rang in my ears. We overlooked a canyon with roaring rapids right under our feet. Crack the wine, pull up a chair, romance was in the air.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Tomorrow: Yosemite (Coming Soon) next right

last leftYesterday: Redwood National Park


The Disease

Amid the heat, the drills, the lack of sleep, a heady bunch of kids were being torn down so Uncle Sam could build us back up – his way!

We had no weekend passes, no television, no anything. We could stand in a two-hour line to call home from a phone booth on Sundays but I never did. I could crank out letters to everyone in that time. Although tensions would bring some to fisticuffs from time to time, we became tight.

Several platoons joined for a road march to go sit in classes assembling and disassembling M16s or whipping on MOPP gear – gas mask and all, in seconds flat. It was hours before we were given a break. When we finally got it, there was one problem. More than a hundred guys needed to use the facilities and there were only three port-o-pots. As the grapevine leaked, there was an option-B. The port-o-pots formed a privacy barrier. This allowed about six of us at a time to slip behind and back, unnoticed, to do our business.

It was efficient and …

“Drill sergeants!”

We scrambled back in line before the drill sergeants saw, first-hand, what was going on. But someone obviously snitched!

Called to formation, a big stink was made out of urinating behind the port-o-pots.

“There’s a diseeeeease among us!” said a drill sergeant.

They walked past the ranks, eye-balling us one by one, speaking loudly the whole time about the “disease” and how to keep it from spreading.

“We know who it is. You get one chance to step forward, disease, and the decontamination process can be abbreviated. Otherwise, you’ll be quarantined for the remainder of your training.”

I wasn’t about to step forward. Neither was anybody else. Hell, there were probably two dozen of us at fault, but they just wanted to make an example of one. The only question was who would be the sacrificial lamb. Perhaps the drill sergeants only had one name to work off of – no doubt from whoever snitched.

In my head, I kept rattling off, “Please don’t be me – please don’t be me – please don’t be me.”

One of the drill sergeants said, “You had your chance,” and walked directly at me.

I knew I was screwed.


I almost peed my pants and stepped forward but just when I was about to move, I realized that wasn’t my name. It was one of my closest friends.

The public humiliation he withstood was relentless. I felt relieved and guilty just the same.

His bunk in the barracks was separated from the rest of us, taped off in the open bay. He marched separated from us. He ate alone. He showered after everyone else. He was forbidden to look at another human being let alone speak out loud. He was outcast but present.

Two weeks later it was just cruel.

He was going to crack. I could see it on his face, his walk, his everything. I felt so bad for him. It could have been any one of us. As time dragged on, we counted our blessings it wasn’t any of us though.

In the mess hall, I was in line with a couple of close friends. I suggested we sit with Serrano. There were no takers. Hell, they blasted that idea from the start. Stationed for basic training on Tank Hill in summer at Fort Jackson was already considered the equivalent of drawing the short straw in the Army. Nobody wanted to make a bad situation any worse. But I couldn’t let this ride. Not anymore.

We sat down and I made one last plea for a group effort to come to the aid of our friend. They wouldn’t even look me in the eyes. So, I got up, alone, and walked over to Serrano. He was so closed off to the world, mentally, he never saw me coming.

I plopped down across from him and said, “The Yankees suck.”

He looked up and for the first time in weeks, his face turned flush with life.

A huge smile spread across his mug and he deadpanned back, “F-you, Satullo!”

That’s when my head drill sergeant towered above me, “You’re going to catch the disease if you don’t move!”

I could tell in his eyes that he respected my effort. I could also tell he was not going to reward it. In fact, he was giving me one chance and one chance only to undo what I just did. Strong as I wanted to be, I didn’t know if I had the strength to go through what Serrano was going through.

I looked at my friend. He gave me a quick wink. This told me I gave him all he needed to get through from here. I got up, returned to my other friends and the small, cramped mess hall filled back up with the usual noise.

Serrano was cured and rejoined our ranks with a clean bill of health just a couple days later.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


Spring Break for Old Dudes

Spring break means different things to different people in different stages of life. For me, as a middle-aged man, married with two young children, it meant a long weekend getaway for Easter break with family and friends.

Every January my friend Mike and I get both of our families together for a three night stay in a nice large cabin with a hot tub somewhere in Ohio. But for whatever reasons, this time January drifted into February and then March. So we decided since both of our wives were teachers, we’d book a place over their spring break. That way, the wives and kids all had time off. Perfect.

When we arrived, it was not what we had expected. First lesson; don’t trust what you see online. It was a mini cabin in the woods, located on a cul-de-sac road, and nearby a lake. The surrounding cabins were bursting at the seams with college kids on SPRING BREAK! That is, every cabin but ours and as I would later learn, one somewhere across the street.

Mike was unusually quiet as we drank some beer and fired up the grill. Bon Jovi music was bouncing off the trees all around us. I guess that’s what the “kids” considered classic rock these days. The only good thing was that these small cabins somehow had thick enough walls, soundproofed enough, to block out the noise from the all night partying going on next door. Fortunately there was a vacant, tree-filled lot separating us. We decided to brave the night and express our disappointment to management at the main lodge in the morning since it was already getting late and the kids were ready for sleep. Our kids that is!

Stepping out back, Mike and I drank beer a little faster than we had in a long time. That’s when “Mr. Buff” appeared. Buff had a chiseled …everything.  I tried to stick out my chest but realized it was left behind in Germany when I was in the Army years ago. Either that or the good life had grown my stomach.

Anyway, Mr. Buff said, “We were talking over there and decided, ya know what? Let’s give these old-dudes our cell phone number so if they need us to pump down the volume, we’ll know.”

I was puzzled and looked around for these old dudes. It was like a truck hit me when I realized Buff was referring to us! He was so nice though, in that fake, but believing he was sincere, kind of way.

I kept having visions of us being in the middle of one of those insurance commercials – “LIFE! It Comes At You Fast!”

Well, inside the cabin, all things were quiet – proof that miracles do exist.

The next day, we did some sightseeing, ate lunch at a nice place and then someone suggested we go antiquing.

Although I wanted to, something inside me screamed, “Noooo!”

So after we spent two hours in the antique mall, we went to the lodge, swam, played games and had a fine time. On the way out, we stopped at the front desk and said we hoped there would be patrols to keep the college kids at bay, but that there were no complaints at this time.

We drove back to “cul-de-sac Ft. Lauderdale” to see nearly every rooftop shingled with girls in bikinis and guys with no shirts. Below, there was a wiffle-ball game going on at the end of the cul-de-sac. Our kids asked if they could play too. Yeah right.

At dusk, I had to take some trash to a nearby dumpster. There were raccoons. Yippee! So I got the kids, walked back and showed them “wildlife.” After the little scavengers entertained us, it grew darker so we headed back to the cabin.

Fortunately, only I saw the streaking from afar. At least this night, the party was at the cabin across the street instead of next door. Things were definitely getting wilder.

In the morning, we decided we’d had enough. After packing the van I had to make another walk to the dumpster. On my way back, I was startled to see a family of four emerge from a cabin kitty-corner from ours and next door to last night’s party.

Here’s their story:

“In the middle of the night, my worst fear came true,” said kitty-corner dad. “Someone was banging on the back door yelling, let me in. I yelled back, You better get out of here, this isn’t your cabin, now go away. To which the drunk on the other side pleaded, Come on dude, stop mess’n with my head and just let me in. This repeated a few times before the stranger at the door fell silent.”

And so it goes.

I could tell us “old dudes” had a new story to tell.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


Wrestling a Bear

We were minding our own business in a back room of a bar, shooting pool. It was on the western edge of Avon Lake. We were celebrating Steve’s 21st birthday. Both of us were fresh out of the Army and our other best friend, Mike, was home from college.

A stranger walked in and casually asked if we wanted to wrestle a bear. No’s quickly turned to contemplation quickly turned to hell yah, as long as we’re all in.

We were led to the parking lot to sign our “rights” away on some forms. Years later, the same owner of Caesar the Wrestling Bear would be in the news for one of his bears mauling a man to death. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how a captive bear trained to bar fight night after night would turn. On this night, we were wrapped in a cocktail of invincibility that combined bravado with ignorance.

We needed to capture this life experience, or death, for the record so we called – of all people – my mom. She agreed to drive across town, bringing her camera. Later, we’d get grainy copies of a video tape shot by a neighbor’s friend who was there that night. The neighbor thought he was just watching a bunch of crazies on film until he recognized me, so he dubbed a copy of the tape to give to us.

Caesar was a full grown black bear. He looked enormous, especially when he stood. Plus, he had his teeth and his mouth was not taped closed as some anticipated. He also had massive bear paws and claws that were not restricted at all. The smell of real danger began to seep in as we were introduced to Caesar and given some pointers. Sudden movements, loud noise and over aggressiveness by any of us could make the bear “defensive” and not “playful.”

Oh, and one particular pointer stuck with me, “Just make sure he doesn’t accidentally hook you in the corner of the mouth with a claw because he’ll rip your cheek straight up without knowing it.”

The handler sized us up and looked at Mike, Steve and me saying, “Usually, smaller people have a better chance of pinning him down because he is more playful with them.”

The reward for doing so was something like a cool grand – certainly incentive to give it our best shot. The pecking order went Mike, Steve, then me.

Mike was a tall guy with a pretty solid build. He entered the closed off mat (a.k.a. dance floor) and definitely had a serious look on his face. The bear must have gotten a bad vibe from Mike because he got rather aggressive. The trainer separated the bear from Mike and gave Caesar a firm reprimand. Meanwhile, Mike looked at us as if to say, I want out. But he was in – up to his neck in. The match continued. Mike tried hard, maybe too hard, and the bear got all crazy again – even rearing up on his hind legs. They ended the match and took the bear out to the parking lot to calm him down.

I was so happy Steve was next and not me. When that thing came rumbling back in, it was ready for business. Steve’s a scrappy fighter and wasn’t fazed by much in those days, but he quickly hit the mat, hard, and looked up …fazed and then some. You could tell there was nothing to be done once that bear had you. Its weight and strength determined your range of movement. It wasn’t up to you what happened in there, it was entirely up to Caesar. Moving Caesar would be like trying to move a brick house. It wasn’t going to happen unless he allowed it to happen. He wasn’t allowing Steve to do much. When Steve came off the floor, he was dripping in sweat, exhausted by the energy he expended.

My turn came. I had tried to learn from observing Mike and Steve plus remembering the pointers the trainer gave us.

Once in the ring with this beast, a voice popped in my head screaming, “What the hell are you doing here?”

I wasn’t fairing much better than Steve and Mike. The bear used one paw and swatted me down like a rag doll. Before I knew it, he was on top of me and I couldn’t budge. It took every bit of strength I could muster just to move my hand an inch, even then I could only manage to do so because Caesar allowed it to happen. I talked with a friendly, playful and calming voice. I moved slowly and didn’t look him in the eyes.

That’s when the unthinkable happened. We were both on our feet. I moved in and he went down – because he was playing and took himself down. In an instant, I was on top of this massive creature.

Now, let me slow this description down and zoom in. I went from not knowing what happened to staring at powerful jaws inches from my face, breathing in the animal’s hot, stale breath. I slid one hand over and Caesar let me press his paw to the mat. To get the other paw stretched out and down meant I’d basically have to get close enough to kiss Caesar on the mouth, my neck fully exposed.

“A-A-A-A-And we have a …” before the DJ could say “winner” Caesar was up and I was down.

And that’s where I stayed for the rest of my time.

When I regrouped with my friends, none of us felt well. The acid in our stomachs, the exertion out on the floor and the rancid bear smell all over us was all we could stand. We went behind the building, saturated in sweat, and heaved everything from our stomachs and then some.

When I looked up, one of my friends said, “Dude, your neck is bleeding.”

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


Caddy Days

I was called into the principal’s office at my middle school to be told that I was too young to work, according to child labor laws. So, I had to quit my job as a caddy at a nearby country club. Instead, I rode my bike twice the distance to caddy at a different country club across the county line – at least until school let out for summer vacation. Then, I returned to the closer place, which was still a long bike ride.

As I left Avon Lake on a country road, over the railroad tracks, I pedaled as fast as I could down the slope on the other side. I had to gain enough speed to coast by an old farmhouse with my feet up by my handlebars. There he was, barking and running right into the road, nipping at my empty pedals. No sooner than he gave up the chase did my momentum slow enough to force my feet back to the pedals. It was always a close call.

At the caddy shack, the caddy master called me over to a foursome ready for a loop. There was snickering behind the first tee. Later, I heard that someone had intentionally matched a preacher with a foul-mouth. Not until the third hole did the foul-mouth know he was in the company of a man of the cloth. That’s when everyone except the foul-mouth burst into laughter. Soon, more cursing drowned out the laughter. Later, I heard people say they could even hear the laughter and cursing all the way back at the clubhouse.

My golfer was on the quiet side compared to the others. I didn’t know if he was new, subordinate or just quiet by nature. He was a stroke or two in last. I handed him a wedge for a chip shot out of the sand trap. He got a hold of that thing and it screamed out of there so fast and hard that I thought I might have to yell, “Fore!”

It ricocheted off an oak branch overhead abruptly sending it into the flag of the pin where it fell straight down into the cup. It happened in the blink of an eye. I had never seen anything like it so I broke character and roared in delight. It was a fantastic shot in my mind. When I caught the facial expression of my golfer, I was puzzled because he looked downright embarrassed.

I asked him, off to the side, “Wasn’t that incredible?”

He gave me half a smile on the sly, tasseled my hair and walked to the next tee. Later, he tipped me the most I ever got that summer.

After my morning round, I decided to hang out for some caddy baseball and try to get a second loop after lunch. One of the caddies in this group was just plain tough as nails. He was older than I and from the inner city. His golfer was one of those who had to insult people to act like a big shot, and he demeaned his caddies.

Nobody wanted to caddy for him but inner city caddy said, “I don’t give a shit, a loop’s a loop.”

It was a scorcher of an afternoon so we rolled up our short sleeves to try and fade out the infamous caddy-tan lines on our arms. Inner city caddy was sporting homemade tattoos.

His golfer insisted that he keep his sleeves down, “A little more class here, boy.”

I saw inner city caddy drop a mouthful of spit into the guy’s golf bag when nobody else was looking. He took a lot more abuse than I figured he could stand. I began to think he must really need to make a buck. He sucked it up, rebelled a little behind the scenes and marched on like a real trooper.

It was somewhere along the back nine that fate and justice crossed paths.

The big-shot golfer sliced a shot off the fairway into a tree. You could see the ball fall down but not out. It rested on a branch about 15-feet-high. The golfer out cursed the morning foul-mouth. During his tirade, he spun around and released his iron. The golf club flung round and round, landing in a pond.

“Get my club! Then, get my ball!” he said to the inner city kid.

To his credit, the kid casually walked to the pond, never uttering a word. Then, he turned and waited for the golfer to look.

“Come on, come on, we don’t have all day,” the golfer said for the kid to hear.

That wasn’t all that he said. When he turned toward his friends, under his breath, he added something about that kind being lazy. His friends didn’t look at him. They looked past him and nodded that he better look for himself, too.

The kid was standing with the entire golf bag, and all of its very expensive contents, over his head.

“What the …”

Before the big shot could finish his sentence, the kid spun around much like the golfer did before he launched his club. Only this time, it was the kid launching the entire bag …deep into the pond. Then, he turned, flashed two flagrant middle fingers and walked off into the sun, never to be seen again.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


The Agony of Defeat

Mike was “Mr. Ski Club.” We stood atop a hill at Brandywine ready for the first run of the day for him and my first run ever.

He was checking down with all that I needed to know and I just ya-ya’d him, impatient and ready to go.

Finally, I said, “Got it!” And shot downhill like a bullet.

I heard, “But …” and nothing else as my friend’s voice faded.

I sailed so fast over the snow, straight down the hill, that I freaked out. I could not turn, stop or even slow down!

As I bore down on a man skiing up ahead, I cringed. He crisscrossed effortlessly, kicking up powdery white stuff. I was sure he was going to be knocked from here to eternity when I collided with him in about two seconds flat.

Why didn’t I stick around to listen to Mike explain how to turn, or better yet, how to stop?

As others described later, it looked like I was shot out of canon and about to kill somebody. They watched from above in horror, waiting for my impact with this unsuspecting stranger. Precisely at the very last moment, everyone closed their eyes or took a deep breath, and I woosh-wooshed around the man. In two quick movements with my feet, I skirted disaster – barely. My friends said the guy stood straight up, shocked by the brush back but was otherwise uninterrupted.

When I got near the bottom, I managed to wipe myself out to stop along a flat straightaway.

Mike came down the hill like a pro. This was baby stuff to him. Near the bottom, he hit a raised area to get fancy in the air. When he came down, he injured his ankle. Go figure.

Later in the day, the guys either thought I was ready for the meanest slope at the resort or were willing to see me die for laughs. As the saying goes, with friends like these, who needs enemies?

The ski lift got to the top but I was snagged and couldn’t shift myself to get off. The chair turned and rose higher off the ground, circling the control shack at the top. I mentally foreshadowed the humiliation of returning to the bottom of the slope, alone on a chair lift.


I flung my body in a pathetic but successful last attempt to free myself. The problem was that I was not as close to the ground anymore but I landed on my feet, and then fell to my butt with quite a thud.

The lift stopped and a guy popped his operating shack door open yelling, “You alright?”

Laughing uncomfortably, I said, “Ya.”

He laughed, said “crazy,” shook his head, shut the door and started the lift again.

Looking downhill, it was clear that this course was not for beginners. In fact, it looked wickedly dangerous for someone like me. My depth perception was off. The slope was laden in terrain characterized by a large number of different bumps, or moguls. Not only that, but this slope was the steepest by far.  Much like the beginning of the day, I became a human, heat-seeking missile.

Unlike earlier in the day, these moguls posed a different experience altogether. Quickly, my knees vibrated violently up and down at high speed. I should have wiped out, but instead I found myself lying straight on my back but upright on the skis. I could see the lift chairs overhead, off to the side, even though my head bounced violently off the never-ending moguls.

From my friends’ perspective, when my skis finally turned in on each other and I wiped out, it was like a scene from “The Agony of Defeat,” which was an infamous ski jumping sports clip gone oh-so-wrong. When I tumbled, it was bad. My body looked like a rag doll plummeting down the slope amidst an avalanche of snow and debris. By everyone’s account, they thought I broke every bone in my body. I lost both skis, poles, one boot and the other had every buckle burst open.

Mike was the first to get to me. “He’s conscious!”

The others gathered my stuff strewn all over the slope.

It was all we could talk about the rest of the evening as everyone recalled, in vivid detail, my spectacular flight down the slope. The laughter roared like the fire we perched in front of with hot cocoa.

I never skied again.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel



Three houses down; that was the length of my leash on a bicycle.

I was a beginner and loving the freedom my new wheels gave me. Our street didn’t have sidewalks, at least not down by my house. Still, it was safe.

The third house was approaching. I was on the edge of the road traveling opposite traffic. A car was coming from behind me as I turned into the middle of the road. I was startled when the driver beeped at me. Not a hello beep but an angry one.

Back home, I came to a stop against the side steps. This was the only way I could end a bike ride without crashing to stop. We had a long driveway. Mom was outside and I was about to go in for a glass of water when a police car pulled all the way up to the house. This was an incredible sight for me. The officer spoke with my mom and I didn’t quite understand what it was all about. Finally, he approached me. Mom just stood off to the side.

Mesmerized by the uniform, holster and all, I didn’t pay one bit of attention to a word he said. But I caught the gist. It was a lecture about bicycling safety. I was intimidated to say the least. In my mind, when you do something wrong and the police come, there’s but one conclusion – jail!

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I squeaked out.

The officer paused, looked at my mom and she said to be quick.

I was quick all right. I sprinted to my bedroom, grabbed underwear, a shirt, my favorite stuffed animal (a monkey) and then found a towel in the bathroom in which to wrap it all up. I only had cartoons and kids’ shows as a guide, so in lieu of a stick to tie it to, I improvised and used a yard stick. I slipped out another door and was headed for the woods when my mom saw me.

“What are you doing? Where are you going?”

When I stopped and turned, the yardstick snapped and my sack flung to the ground.

Now I really did have to use the bathroom.

Instead, I had to listen to the rest of the safety lecture and then got the bonus lecture on running away. It all seemed so threatening to me. As the black and white pulled out of the driveway, I remember being very surprised that I wasn’t in cuffs in the backseat.

After my bust I felt on the lam, always looking over my shoulder.

By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel


Redwood National Park

Yesterday   │   Tomorrow

Up early, we asked our waitress where we could kill some time in town before getting lost in Redwoods.

Minutes later we were gazing across a low tide isthmus between the mainland and the islet known as Battery Point. On it was the historic Crescent City Lighthouse. Only it wasn’t an islet at the moment. We could walk out to it if we navigated around the pools of water just right.

All four of us went our separate ways, exploring. The kids climbed on top of rocks so high and steep I normally would have forbidden it. But once I saw them thrust their arms into the air as if they had summited Mount Everest, I figured the risk of a trip to the hospital may be worth their reward. I smiled and lost myself in the early morning ocean breeze, taking in all that surrounded me – rocky terrain, massive driftwood mounds, the lighthouse, water and mini rock mountains.

Meanwhile, my wife was tip toeing around the tidal pools, hunched over to examine something. Curiosity drew the whole family back together for a real treat. Crabs galore! The tiny critters were under every rock she flipped. Then they’d scurry for new shelter. As we enjoyed disrupting the quick little crabs, we noticed something else scattered all around us – starfish! There were so many latched to rocks in and out of water we had to watch our step.

“It’s like Bikini Bottom,” said a voice.

“Say what?”

Oh yah, Sponge Bob Square Pants.

Once we had had our fill, we ventured back down the road we came in on the night before. The timing was perfect! Sun beamed through the giant redwood forest in such a way that I spontaneously started to sing Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens. You know I had to be caught up in the glory of the moment because I don’t (rather, I shouldn’t) sing out loud.

When I could no longer take being confined in a metal box on wheels, I swung off the side of the road, randomly, and left the vehicle to go traipsing through my Eden.  I don’t know if the sun rays burst through misty fog, bending around the wooden towers and all their branches, every morning the way it had then, but it was truly a sight to behold. It felt that anything modern in the world ceased and we were in God’s country now.

After a while, and 10 rolls of film (if there was such a thing anymore), we did what anyone would do in this situation – hugged a tree. We tried anyway but it would take a schoolhouse of children to truly get arms around the trunk of any of these monuments.

We were hooked. More trees, please!

We delighted in losing ourselves in the tallest trees on Earth. This old-growth forest spans nearly 40,000 acres along the Northern California coastal region made up of not only of the national park but a few state parks as well. That may sound like a lot of giant redwoods but as recently as the mid-19th century, it covered two million acres! Failed gold miners turned to harvesting the towering trees instead. The clear cutting of the forest continued uninterrupted for decades before conservation efforts began to preserve what was left in the early 20th century. The tallest known California Redwood (technically a Sequoia sempervirens) stands about 380 feet high. Although some argue that there may have been some taller than that, especially according to the Native American tribes of the area.

Our next destination was Fern Canyon, where some scenes from Star Wars, E.T., and Jurassic Park were filmed. That caught the kids’ attention!

But first, we took a little side trek up to Klamath overlook to whale watch. Unfortunately, it was too foggy to see anything at that time. The same held true the other two times we jetted up the mountain road to no avail. On one of the stops, Cliffside, high above the ocean, I decided to ham it up for the video camera, whales or no whales. The fog was so dense, you couldn’t see over the cliff.

Whale Watching

We were the only people there, or so I thought. So I went into mock documentary mode about “whale watching.” Just then, a half dozen people appeared out of the fog just a dozen feet or so away.

We embarrassingly chortled in the mist to our escape. Moving on, laughter still echoed in our ears.

Getting to Fern Canyon was a trip in itself. A winding dirt road, barely one and a half lanes wide, snaked through hilly forest and in and out of creeks, water and all. It was not a short stint. But it was well worth it.

Once we parked and found the trailhead at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, we soon found ourselves deep within Fern Canyon. We walked through the creek, over logs, navigating the rough terrain headed north up the California Coastal Trail. Every now and then we’d stop and marvel at the green canyon walls jutting straight up for what had to be 50 feet or more above us, totally blanketed with Five-fingered Maidenhair ferns. Wow! And nicer yet, we were the only people there.

The kids were timid navigating nature’s obstacles at first. Then they turned pro before long and zipped around with confidence – until our little boy became overconfident and found himself at one with Home Creek, head-to-toe.

We laughed AT him but he got over it.

The day had more adventures and yet another side trek to not see whales. We found ourselves pulled off at a scenic parking lot to gaze at a herd of elk relaxing under a shade tree. Dozens of other motorists did the same, some in such haste they just left their cars on the edge of the road, standing next to them, cameras a blaze.

Just then, the most horrifying sound and sight played out in what seemed to be slow motion. A truck sped along the curvy road, unsuspecting of the mass of cars and flesh littering the berm. Fortunately, perhaps miraculously would be a better way to describe it, the truck spun this way, skid that way, people jumping out of the way, in such a way that nobody got hit. The truck recovered and continued on down the road, never looking back. The expressions left in its wake said it all.

Time to go …and find a restroom!

Ahead of us that night would be hours of driving inland so we could wake up near Lava Beds National Monument.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Tomorrow: Lava Tubes National Monument next right

last leftYesterday: Muir Beach & Glass Beach


Crescent City

Crescent City

Crescent City

Crescent City

Crescent City

Fern Canyon

Fern Canyon

Muir Beach & Glass Beach

Yesterday   │   Tomorrow

As we left San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge in our rear view mirror, we looked forward to driving all the way up the coast on California Highway-1 to Crescent City where Redwood National Park waited.


I remembered planning the trip with my wife and her saying we don’t have to go that far to see giant redwoods. But what she soon understood was that I HAD to see THE National Redwood Forest. And for reasons I’ll explain, it was well worth the drive!

The whole day was reserved to meander up the coast, stopping wherever we wanted. We were hardly out of the Bay Area when we made our first spontaneous stop – “Let’s go swimming!”

Muir Beach was empty except for one other couple and their toddler. They were struggling to light a fire in the wind. As we walked like penguins in the deep soft sand past them, we were friendly but they seemed to not care to talk so we trudged on to where rocks large, small and humongous littered the beach and shallow water. We delighted in dipping our bare feet into the Pacific Ocean for the first time and instantly realized you do not go swimming at Northern California beaches – Brrrr!

So the kids ran around as free spirits as we relaxed, took scenic pictures and breathed in deep the brisk ocean breeze.

“Check it out!” the kids called. “Looks like a Jellyfish.”

I grabbed the video camera and focused just when a wave hurled it at my legs.

My reaction was perhaps “wimpy” to the point everyone was laughing AT me. I was laughing AT me. I looked up the beach and I swear that grumpy couple was laughing AT me.

I survived and we moved on.

As we drove, we took in the incredible coastal views from the twisting hillsides of mountains plunging into the ocean. I had to be careful of bicyclists as we wrapped around blind curves. Pelicans flew by, distracting me.


Then we tried to figure out the intoxicating smell wafting in the breeze. It wasn’t wine country. Our guess was some sort of tree but what kind? The answer wouldn’t come for several days when we’d befriend a ranger at Yosemite. The drive didn’t grow old but my arms grew tense from the constant twisting and turning of the steering wheel as we passed cliffs, beaches, marshland and dunes. I was amazed at the untouched natural landscape all the way up the coast on both sides of Highway-1.


Another thing that weaved in and out, rather up and down, was the temperature. As the road curved inland for a bit, the digital car barometer read 83 degrees. Swing closer to the water again and it plunged to 55 degrees.

“Glass Beach!”

This was a planned stop.

Glass Beach used to be a city dump near Fort Bragg, California. When they cleaned it up, they left only the glass trash behind. The rocks broke it, the water smoothed it, and now, people collected it. All the big pieces were picked over long ago but a seemingly endless supply of little rounded glass stones remain.

We weren’t nearly as prepared as other glass hunters staking claims to areas of the hidden beach, sifting into buckets like 49ers. We used our hands and pockets. After our pants sagged to the ground, we sang a song we remembered hearing on America’s Got Talent, “Pants on the ground, pants on the ground, lookin’ like a fool with your …”

None-the-less, it was my favorite kind of souvenir – free!

Glass Beach looked pretty cool washed off and filling a vase showing off an eye-popping array of color.


The drive was taking longer than we thought but not too far off the course was a drive-thru tree! A TREE YOU CAN DRIVE THOUGH! C’mon, there’s no decision there.

Before we knew it, we were in Leggett, California staring at Chandelier Tree, standing at some 300 feet tall. It had tourist trap written all over it but I just couldn’t resist. Besides, we had a rental car. It turned out to be the largest and oldest Redwood we’d see. When we pulled up for our turn to drive through, I realized we might not make it without scraping the sides of this new sporty SUV. Then it dawned on me that I did not buy the extra insurance. So my wife got out to meet us on the other side so she could take pictures and also guide me as I inched inward.

The kids loved it. So did I even though I voiced many “nervous” sounds as I eyed up how close the tree closed in around the vehicle.

“Check this out. We’re like an inch from wood,” came a kid’s voice filled with exuberance.


I instantly stopped and was about to drop a “bomb” when the kids laughed and said, “Just kidding that was us.”

Not funny!

I kept inching forward, knowing the train of traffic behind me was growing impatient.

By the time we got out of the tree my I had a gray beard.

But the picture proved we did it.

After a pizza and ice cream stop, it was nothing but driving into the dark. Big sis used little bro’s head as a pillow smothered under her pillow.

Nearing our destination, my wife and I marveled at the bizarre nightscape we were driving through. Our ribbon of road had no streetlights. It was as black as night could be except a headlight or taillight here and there. Looking high above in every direction were trees that seemed to reach into the heavens above. Majestic and haunting at that hour. We felt like ants. It was surreal. A feeling I will always remember. Man humbled by the power of nature. As it should be.

Serenity was on the mind that night.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Tomorrow: Redwood National Park next right

last leftYesterday: Golden Times in the Frisco Bay


Stepping into the Pacific Ocean for the first time

Jellyfish washed up at Muir Beach, California

Somewhere along California Highway 1 North of SF

Golden Times In The Frisco Bay

Yesterday   │   Tomorrow

san francisco lombard street
San Francisco is where you’ll repeatedly say,
don’t see that every day!”

After our hearty McDonalds breakfast and snaking around those who slept under the stars, we had time to kill before our early bird tour of Alcatraz. We paused to see the wild California Sea Lions that took up residency at Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf. They’ve been congregating on the docks since 1989. They moved in when boats were moved out for the docks to be refurbished. Ever since, these invaders have become a tourist attraction. The kids picked out their favorites when two would start wrestling with noses and flippers to playfully knock each other off the dock. It was pretty fun entertainment for free. We were the only audience they had at that early hour. None of the shops or restaurants that we saw along the walk were even open yet.

The ferry ride was nice. It allowed for a panoramic view of San Francisco’s skyline and its roads plunging to the sea.

Once we landed on The Rock, everyone gathered around a special guest introducing us to the island. He was the youngest guard at Alcatraz when the active federal penitentiary closed. He knew several infamous prisoners, including the Birdman of Alcatraz whom a Hollywood movie later featured starring Burt Lancaster. The guard had written a book telling all about his tenure. When our thoroughly enjoyable orientation was over, we beat tracks straight to this now elder man for our tourist-must photo-op. He posed with the kids like a good sport and said his goodbye, anxious to get up the hill to sign and sell his books.

We were free to roam the island. It was a real treat. There was a lot of ground to cover for such a small island. Much of which can only be described as ruins. The out buildings were decayed to the point they posed a danger if visitors were allowed any further access. Cement staircases had collapsed sections. Building shells looked like something out of 1940’s war-torn Europe. But the way vegetation was creeping back to claim their ground left an artistic contrast of the neglected architecture.

Walking by a cannon and cannon port, I scratched my head. Cannons on “The Rock.” Why? Well, it turns out there was more to the island’s history than I ever knew. In 1859, a citadel was built on the island. And during the Civil war, it was said to have served as an important line of defense. Then again, I read that it was never needed. Anyway, America’s Civil War had ties to the San Francisco Bay. Bend your mind around that!

Earlier still, a Native American tribe known as the Ohlone lived there. They’re the earliest known residents of the small island.

American Indians lived on Alcatraz once again from late 1969 to mid-1971. This “Occupation of Alcatraz” was by those who called themselves Indians of All Tribes. The 19-month demonstration drew national attention. Today, there’s still graffiti visible on a wall when you get off of the ferry. It reads, “Indians Welcome.” There’s more verbiage but it is partially covered by a historical plaque anchored on the face of the wall.


When you enter the prison, here’s some advice. You are a fool if you do the tour without the audio headset. Truly, it is a must. And from the looks of it, there were no fools in the crowd on this day.

Once inside the historic prison, we synchronized our headphones or so we thought. My nine-year-old son would wander off into crowds when he heard prompts like, “Walk to your right and….” Meanwhile, the rest of the family was left gawking in a cell listening to the audio. When we were done, we’d turn and freak out when we couldn’t find our little boy! That didn’t last long before we re-synchronized. When we took off the headphones to do so, the entire place seemed like a zombie-land. Hundreds of people were moving slowly in dead-silence. It was a peculiar and eerie scene.

The tour is fascinating and covers everything from the showers to the dining and visitation rooms to old decayed cells. Some cells were made-up to look as they did when the prison was active while most were just vacant and dilapidated. There’s even a cell that shows the hole dug straight into its pliable wall, widening the existing ventilation duct, for what is known as The Escape From Alcatraz. Around the corner you can see the exit part of the hole in a space between cellblocks which was an unused utility corridor. This is a view into the 1962 escape from the federal prison – the only successful escape in its history. The mastermind behind it was prisoner, Frank Morris. Clint Eastwood played his part in a Hollywood movie about the event.

The Yard is another cool part of the tour. When you sit on the same concrete slabs that Capone and others did and look at the view they saw, you can feel the history here. But everywhere your eyes lead, there’s decay from the windy bay spraying salt water against the material structures. Conditions became so deteriorated and upkeep too expensive. So the federal penitentiary was finally closed March 21, 1963.

The ferry ride back crossed paths with a dolphin. I thought the boat would tip when everyone ran to our side to see this novelty.

Back at the mainland, we walked the scenic Bay streets. Our son took notice of a natural design in the bark of a curbside tree. It struck his funny bone so he clicked a pic of it and said, “I’m going to snap a butt pic every day.” Did I mention he was nine?

Now it was time to do that thing you feel you must do because you’re in San Francisco, ride a streetcar. So we waited in line – for a very long time. It was near the bay and cold. The park next door had a lot of people chilling out. Then there was a very distinct “college” smell floating in the air. So we passed the time talking about hippies.

The streetcar ride reminded me of my first day in the army when they packed us tight into cattle cars. It was that relaxing. But you do have to do it once I guess, to at least be able to say that you did it. Fortunately, we were on the backend and had a wonderful view of the bay as we climbed the steep hill.

In Chinatown, we saw mostly tourists and the things sold to tourists. We ate like tourists and shopped for a souvenir. My daughter fell in love with something I could have bought at a thrift shop back home but hey, the price was about the same so I didn’t say a word.

chinatown-san francisco

We wandered aimlessly the whole day.

As connoisseurs of Cannoli, we stopped to try some in North Beach Little Italy. Once inside the café ready to dig into the greatest pastry ever made, my family embarrassed me.

“Happy birthday DEAR DADDY…” I didn’t even realize it was my birthday. But now, 30 strangers did.


I remembered a documentary about the parrots of Telegraph Hill so we decided to walk – all – the – way – up – there! By the way, the views of the street-laced hills were incredible. So, apparently was my lung capacity. I found some college-age students kickin’ it in the grass by COIT Tower and asked where I could find the parrots. This awkward exchange made me think they might have had a hippie discussion after I left.

Finally, I found someone who pointed me in the right direction but said I was too late for today. You can usually see them from 6-10 am. When I relayed this new knowledge upon returning to my family, they were convinced I made the whole thing up.

“Dad and his parrots, yah right! Parrots in San Francisco – gimme a break!” So it goes.

We walked onward, downward and upward to the world’s most crooked street – Lombard – taking pictures all the way. Lombard Street is so colorful with its landscaping and beautiful buildings framing it. You can see this one block wonder and its eight hairpin turns down a very steep hill from far away. No matter the time, there’s a steady stream of thrill seekers driving bumper to bumper down the famous street just to say they did it.

On our last morning, we walked to find breakfast somewhere in Fisherman’s Wharf. While waiting at a street corner, a strange sight grabbed my attention. I know new trends tend to begin on the “Left Coast” so perhaps my backwards butt will see this become commonplace back home before long: A lady was walking backwards ever so casually at a pace somewhere between not too fast and not too slow. I quickly reminded the kids (and myself) not to snicker when she neared. We missed our “walk” sign and stood still, gawking, as her back-side passed us and now shown her front side. She kept walking, looking at us, us looking at her. She crossed a couple streets as if she had eyes in the back of her head and finally turned a corner, all the while walking backwards before any of us could look away.

In unison we said, “Well, you don’t see that every day.” Which pretty much summed up our visit to San Francisco.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Tomorrow: Muir Beach & Glass Beachnext right

last leftYesterday: Winchester Mystery House






Winchester Mystery House

Yesterday   │   Tomorrow

 Winchester Mansion Door To Nowhere

It’s the little things that we remember from big trips. And so it was for our family when we did Northern California in 10 days.

Yah, we did the touristy things but enough has been written about those. This is more about the experiences, not the sites.

When the alarm bellowed out – VACATION! I was eager to realize the savings in airfare having booked 10 months earlier, the furthest out you’re permitted to make reservations. So we left bright and early to beat the rush hour traffic to get to the airport. Straight off the shuttle we decided to do curb side check-in. My mind was racing. Maybe it wasn’t. I needed coffee to decide. Meanwhile, this guy rendered me motionless with his stare. My wife said, “tip him,” as if the man couldn’t hear her. I obliged, and all was well.

Clouds from airplane window  looking out airplane window

The flight wasn’t bad at all. Neither were the two dollar bags of M&M’s once I stomached that fact. When we landed in San Francisco, a terror alert flashed. Funny how you think about the potential delays rather than the possible danger. In either case, we were happy to get our bags quickly and get our rental car. Distracted by the kids as my wife wandered off, the man at the counter upgraded me for only $10 more. My wife returned to my side and informed me it was ten dollars more per day. Next purchase, swampland. Regardless, I still thought it was a good spontaneous splurge. And away we went.

Straight from the airport, we decided to hit the Winchester Mystery House before the hotel. It is billed as the world’s strangest house. And let me tell you, if it isn’t, I’d hate to see what beats it. There are disturbing architectural anomalies at every turn.

Unfortunately, indoor photos and videos are strictly prohibited.

This mystery mansion was built under the supervision of Sarah Winchester. She was the wife of William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Fisher Winchester who had created the Winchester Rife, “The Gun That Won The West.” She lost both her daughter and husband prematurely sending her into deep depression. She sought a spiritualist who convinced her she was cursed by all those killed by the Winchester rifle. She was urged to move from the east coast to the west coast and build a grand home that never ceases construction to appease the spirits and keep her from danger.


For the remainder of her life, the house continued to grow for nearly 40 years. As heiress to the Winchester fortune, money was not an issue. The bizarre home features seven stories and 160 rooms in a design that baffles the mind. Open a door and walk through and you’ll fall into a kitchen. There are six kitchens total and 13 bathrooms, 47 fireplaces, 10,000 windows and 2,000 doors. Oh, and 47 stairways. Mrs. Winchester was a very small lady with arthritis so each stair inside is only two inches high making for very long stair cases. Such baffling mysteries abound throughout. The architectural oddities and extravagant maze of eccentricities can leave you lost for hours. There’s even a séance room!

Winchester Door to Nowhere

At any given turn, you may find danger with the slightest misstep. Another door to nowhere leads to outside and another sudden drop. This door is marked clearly …on the outside. Exploring the inside of the mansion is only half the fun. Outside, the grounds and Victorian gardens are spectacular.

Remember, the spirits talked to Mrs. Winchester. Maybe they’ll talk to you, too, while you navigate the world’s most peculiar home. All in all, this was a very cool stop to kick-off our Northern California adventure.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Tomorrow: San Francisco next right

last leftYesterday: NoCal Adventures Home





Ingalls Homestead

Last Stop  │  Next Stop

Laura Ingalls Homestead in De Smet SD

Between House On The Rock in Wisconsin and Ingalls Homestead in South Dakota, we pulled off I-90 for a quick stop in the little town of Blue Earth, Minnesota. We chose this quick pit stop because the Jolly Green Giant was there. Yes, one of those roadside attractions you have to spare 15 minutes to pull up and if anything, snap a few photos and be on your way. This novelty attraction stood 55 feet high.

Jolly Green Giant Roadside Wonder in Blue Earth MN

On this trip out west, my wife wanted to take a more leisurely trek than the monstrous hours of driving I had planned to get us to where I wanted to go, quicker.  When we plotted the trip I conceded to some concessions but should have looked at the fine print before being so agreeable.

Our second stop on our holiday road was none other than a little house on the prairie. I felt completely emasculated. I’ll admit, I watched the TV show like many people when I was a kid …but come on, did we really have to visit it?

As we closed in on nowheresville, South Dakota, I was being prepped. “Now I don’t know if this is the best little house site because there’re five or six across the Midwest,” my wife revealed casually.

My translation was – Great. Torture for the day.

Here’s a piece of information you need to know. If you ever DID watch the TV show, erase it from your head. “Why?” you ask. Because I was confused most of the day before learning that in real life, the Ingalls family didn’t live all that time in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. In fact, they were there just a few years. They actually lived in many places, including De Smet, South Dakota. And it was here that many of the books in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series were based, including By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years.

The Ingalls lived in De Smet from 1879 to 1894 at the family homestead, a house in town built by Charles Ingalls, the dugout, the Brewster School where Wilder taught, and the surveyor’s home. All of which are open to visitors. Charles, Caroline, Mary, Carrie, Grace Ingalls and the unnamed infant son of Laura and Almanzo Wilder are buried in the De Smet Cemetery.


laura ingalls homestead little house on the prairie de smet SD

We tumbled out of the vehicle, stretched and wandered into a building adjacent to the parking lot. Inside it was a store. A nice lady took our money, explained a few things and handed us a map.

We exited the gift shop and went around back and saw history.

WOW! From our vantage point on a hill, a beautiful panoramic view of deep green grass met the blue and white sky. The wind breezed through our hair as if it were right on queue and the sun shone and the birds sang. Welcome to another world. And for the next few hours we not only got to see it. We got to live it. Thoroughly!

A teenage boy appeared by our side and said a group was about to head off to the schoolhouse by horse and covered wagon. We walked with him. The kid was as nice as nice can be and very informative and helpful. We already felt this was a gem of a stop and we had hardly seen a thing to this point.

Once we joined the other families on vacation in the covered wagon, we were off. One by one, each and every kid had a turn to take the reins and drive the horses. The trip to the schoolhouse wasn’t short so it allowed us to marvel more at the lush green grasses that swayed back and forth in the gentle breeze against a contrasting blue-white sky. There went the outhouse. Way up yonder we saw the schoolhouse. A day later we arrived. Not really. The whole ride probably only took 10 minutes at best.

wagon rides at ingalls homestead little house on the prairie de smet

As we rolled up in our horse-drawn wagon, the bell atop the roof peak rang loudly. The school teacher invited us in and instead of giving a boring description of this and that, she had the kids dress the part of prairie school children. Once they donned their new duds, they took their seats at desks in the one-room schoolhouse. Parents gathered along the walls and some desks in back and watched school take session. Each kid was asked to the front to participate in hands-on learning demonstrations. They LOVED it!

schoolhouse at ingalls homestead little house on the prairie de smet

A couple fathers and I headed back outside. After some small talk we haphazardly did a series of solo circles kicking rocks, gazing around, breathing the prairie air in deeply and listened to the kids enjoying themselves inside ringing the school bell. We reconvened with a mystery that seemed to dawn on us simultaneously. What happened to our guide?

Considering the flat fields of tall grass allowed us visibility to see forever and a day, the mystery began to unfold. Where did the kid go? We all seemed to receive non-verbal orders and went searching. One gent walked around the schoolhouse, another checked around the horses and wagon, I meandered back into the schoolhouse scanning every nook and cranny. When the three of us reconvened at the schoolhouse steps, we laughed aloud.


outhouse at ingalls homestead

Not here. We checked.

We squinted and looked as far as the eye could see and determined the boy couldn’t have walked back to the house and barn. It was simply too far to cover that kind of ground in that short a time.

By now the kids and wives had had their fill and filed out of the schoolhouse. Instinct kicked into the women and they noticed, too, something was awry. In fact, it took them much less time to question the whereabouts of our guide.

Once we all did another round of rounds, we reconvened in a large group in front of the schoolhouse. Only this time, laughter of the situation faded giving way to thoughts such as, “That’s a far walk back” and “Will this throw the day’s schedule out of whack?”

Interestingly, the kids didn’t give the fact we were all standing around stranded a thought or care in the world. They picked up sticks and rocks and tall grass and made things, played with things and then disappeared deep into the rhythmic blowing fields to where you could only see little heads bobbing up and down.

A light went off in several mothers’ heads. They whipped out cameras quicker than a gunslinger could draw his six-shooter. My wife captured our kids running through the golden glow of majestic grassland right at us with ear-to-ear grins. It was just like the opening scene of the TV show, Little House On The Prairie. If you have ever seen the show, you know what I’m talking about and no further explanation is needed. I’ll bet you can even hear the music!

Once the diversion ended we summoned the school teacher. She picked up an amazing piece of technology called a telephone (go figure) and called up to the main complex. A handful of minutes later a much anticipated call came back. No sign of the kid anywhere. Now there was restlessness and murmurs of disapproval.

Just then, as if someone said “POOF,” the boy was among us. I think our minds were as one when our puzzled looks revealed the same thought –“How did he do that?” This was followed by, “Where did he come from?”

Upon closer examination, we noticed his hair was awfully messy – a kind of matted mess as opposed to wind-blown. His eyes were unfocused and one side of his face was beat red. I think there may have even been a trace of drool that wasn’t entirely wiped away by his flannel sleeve.

He kind of looked puzzled as he looked back at us going about his routine getting the horses set for the ride back. After the school teacher said something to him that none of us could hear, his entire face turned beet-red and he could barely make eye contact with anyone. His voice even cracked with humility.

So it goes.

Ingalls Homestead Laura Ingalls Wilder Home in De Smet SD

On the return trip from the informative schoolhouse, everyone began chatting about the other things to see and do back at the Ingalls homestead. Our guide pointed out how crops were planted and explained how you can see clearly between each row straight on as well as diagonally. Then he admitted to planting the next crop himself. It was very crooked. We all had a nice belly laugh. And so did he.

Back at the homestead, each family went their separate way. Some went off to ride little carts behind ponies, some checked out the livestock and horse barn. We went to where an older lady had our daughter create a prairie doll and our son create an action figure. They used authentic tools and machines from the 1800s, shucking corn and making rope. The kids did all the work. The adults played too.

pioneer style doll out of corn husk, string and cloth

Afterward we headed to the house and took pictures when another lady corralled us and taught us to wash cloths prairie style. When the chores were done, we retired inside and the kids got to play the piano that Pa had bought Mary. Inside and out, we learned more than we thought there was too know about living life in this little house on the prairie and about the Ingalls family.

On the grounds were also a straw roof barn and a row of trees the Ingalls themselves planted.

Replicas of the Ingalls’ earlier homes were also open to explore such as the dugout. This was basically a tiny one-room living area carved into the earth just as the name suggests. Now that’s a rough way to hole up for the winter.

Ingalls family dugout home in de smet at ingalls homestead

The day concluded with a visit to the learning center and climb up Lookout Tower for a bird’s eye view of the entire homestead. For those interested, there were tiny covered wagon cabins to spend the night and a walking tour in the town of De Smet where other houses of the Ingalls were opened to see.

On this trip out west, it felt very fitting that we spent a day as pioneers. It set the mood for the trip early. And when all was said and done, after we’d return home seeing a wide variety of sites in 15 states, the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, SD ranked number one for my 10-year-old daughter. So we Netflixed the old TV show.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop:  The Badlands next right
last leftLast Stop: House On The Rock


ingalls homestead covered wagon campground
Ingalls Homestead Tiny Covered Wagon Cabins

De Smet South Dakota Home of Ingalls Family
De Smet, South Dakota

ingalls homestead trees planted by ingalls family
Trees planted by the Ingalls family seen still today

Ingalls Family Piano
The Ingalls Family Piano

House on the Rock

Last Stop │  Next Stop

Infinity Room at House on the Rock in Wisconsin

Heading on this trip out west, my wife wanted to pick a few places to stop and breakup the drive for our family. Our first stop would be near Madison, Wisconsin to see House On The Rock. After all, she had read somewhere it was the state’s top attraction. I found that hard to believe because I had never even heard of it.

I figured Wisconsin’s House On The Rock had to be more than just some architecturally delightful house to be the state’s number one tourist attraction. And after paying admission, my expectations increased 20-fold. There goes the second day’s budget!

But let me say ahead of reading the rest, it was worth EVERY penny!

There were three different self-guided tours available but hey, we’re on vacation so when we do a place, I want to do it all! Fittingly, this all-in-one tour’s name was The Ultimate Experience Tour!

Mind you the reception building was top-notch itself from the foyer to the gift shop and even the bathrooms. The visuals hinted at what’s ahead. Both subtle and bold examples from amazing and eclectic collections of collectibles were strategically placed high, low and all around.

We ventured outside and along a roofed walkway that wound down a hill and around something new being constructed. The experience will teach you that this destination is always a work in progress forever growing and offering sights and sounds to blow your mind.

Between the visitors center and the House on the Rock is a sensational rock garden, complete with waterfall, little streams and beautiful plants. You can walk within it for a variety of photo ops. Like everything ahead it is grand in scope.

Now it was onward and upward, and upward …and upward to the House on the Rock. Upon entering I fell in love with the artistry of the low ceilings and multi-level design hiding what’s around each corner to maximize the surprise and delight when you get there. The fireplace, stone walls, architectural design and fascinating music machine replicating a complete chamber orchestra all made me want to take up residence. And I find out this is ONLY THE GATEHOUSE!

Moving into the real deal, I became envious. This is a dream. The House on the Rock has touched my soul. After wrapping through its every nook and cranny I was lost. Like a kid, on the tip of my lips were the words, “Can we do it again?” But my kids’ lips mouthed, “No, Dad, let’s keep going.”

So we did.

The library was multi-level. You pass it at the bottom and later from another room higher up. The rooms have discrete entrances and exits creating framed views through cracks and holes littered in the floors and walls. Sometimes you come around a corner and see more than expected. Other times you scrunch down to see a huge stone table and casual seating nestled into a wedge that whispers cozy and p-r-i-v-a-t-e. Another thought that entered my mind was God forbid there was ever a fire. This maze and its material would be a death-trap.

Okay back to happier thoughts.

It isn’t just the ambience of the House that grabs you. It’s what its creator collected to display in it. The collections throughout the house are from all corners of the world. The owner of the house definitely had an affinity for the Orient. Stained glass and music machines were also prevalent.

The crowning jewel of House on the Rock is its Infinity Room. It’s the 14th and final room of the house. How the architect of this place defied gravity and had the gumption to build a long room that narrows from left, right, top and bottom to a gradual elevation at the end, sticking 218 feet out over a scenic valley some 156 feet below, is truly amazing. The Infinity Room has 3,264 windows that serve as walls so you can take in the views. As you near the end of the room you may feel a tinge of fear for this just doesn’t feel right. The view into the room creates a mirage as if the room continues forever. It’s an architectural marvel.

Infinity Room at House on the Rock Wisconsin

You can even go up to the roof of the house and take in breathtaking panoramic views of the nature all around.

And with that, you are only a third of the way through the experience!

As is evident throughout the house, the person who created this masterpiece loved to collect things. And I mean collect until room after room was filled with some of the world’s largest, most unique and eclectic collections using 3-dimensional space like no “museum” I’ve ever seen. The intricacy is overwhelming.

Eventually, the house could not house these burgeoning collections. So the grounds are continually developing in order to offer the never-ending collecting that so obsessed its creator.

Who was this man so driven to create this one-of-a-kind destination that nothing in the world could ever claim to rival? His name was Alex Jordan, Jr. His vision and passion were awe-inspiring. Jordan enjoyed the view from atop “the rock” and let his imagination take it from there. He learned most things on the job in his quest to build something majestic. It is said that every penny he earned from giving tours dating back to the 1940s was reinvested into the house and its collections. His dreams often were so far before its time, it took years for technology to advance enough to achieve some of them. Such is the case with the construction of the Infinity Room.

More than 60 years have passed since Jordan looked about his open canvass of natural surroundings from his favorite sitting rock. Although he has since passed on, it was not without spending decades to make sure his successor was every bit committed to the house as he was to the day he died. His legacy lives and so does his house, thanks to Art Donaldson.

Keep in mind, the house is just the beginning of this full-day bombardment of the senses.

Enter the Mill House and see one of the world’s largest fireplaces. Collections here range from dolls to guns. Don’t miss the many mechanical banks. Moving past the antique guns and suits of armor, you’ll be on The Streets of Yesteryear. The red brick lane is a recreation of 19th Century Americana. At the other end begins a journey called Music of Yesteryear.

You’ll want to grab a bunch of tokens to play the enormous and intricate displays of music machines filling one room after another. Your jaw will drop at what your eyes and ears behold.

If you get hungry there’s a mouth-watering café that’ll pump enough new energy into everyone to continue on this bizarre odyssey. You won’t want to miss the 200-foot tall sea creature, the world’s largest carousel or three of the greatest theatre organ consoles ever built.

Along the way there is one treat after another. Kids love the old carnival games that come in the form of huge wooden boxes predicting your future or telling you what kind of person you are. Remember, tokens, tokens, tokens.

The 200-foot sea monster is a towering spectacle. A catwalk allows visitors to scale the behemoth getting a bird’s eye view of every detail. Again, space is maximized throughout the tour. There are visuals EVERYWHERE high, low, left, right and well, shake a snow globe and imagine being in the middle of it trying to eye-up every flake of snow because one after the next is a completely different and cool sight to see.

The Heritage of the Sea room not only has the sea creature dominating it but along the walkway going up, up, up to the top are more than 200 model ship displays pulling your attention from the sea creature because each of them are also intoxicating.

The model ships collection is just the start of many more eclectic displays that feature vintage automobiles, hot air balloons and multistory Rube Goldberg machine. Goldberg was known as a cartoonist and also for his series of complicated gadgets that performed simple tasks in indirect and convoluted ways.

Not only are the senses bombarded from every direction but the source of which comes in stunning collectibles that are miniature to monstrous.

One moment your sky is filled with model airplanes and the next, carousel horses. In the Carousel Room the music and motion take over. The walls AND CEILING are filled with carousel horses as ornate as anything you’ve seen. But the centerpiece is the fully operational carousel itself sporting 269 handcrafted animals – not one of them a horse! There are also 20,000 lights and 182 chandeliers on this amazing carousel.

Later you happen into the Carousel Room again at a higher elevation. You see the theme and flow of the original house is repeated throughout using all available space.

The last leg of the journey treats everyone to The Organ Room surrounded and filled by walkways, bridges and spiral staircases with the centerpiece being three of the greatest theatre organs ever built.

Okay you may need another breather or dinner. There’s no better place than Inspiration Point. The restaurant is indoors but also has outdoor accommodations including a quick jaunt through a portion of the valley to get a snail’s view of the House On The Rock and its Infinity Room defying all logic as it juts out over the valley.

Back inside there is even more to get to before the day is over.

Get lost in a world of miniatures. One of the world’s largest collection of doll houses features multiple styles and meticulous hand-crafted detail. If you are like me, I was fully intrigued inspecting each house with wonder until I realized just how many houses there were to see. Most of the collections are like this and after a awhile you may find yourself as I did, just breezing past the remainder of amazing collections wishing you had more time and energy to soak it all in.

If you don’t take up residency there, you can escape to the circus. Again, it is an epic display of miniatures. The pyramid of elephants was my favorite but the music filling the room sets the mood perfectly as it serenades all from an automated 40-piece band and an 80-piece orchestra. By the way, there’s also an enormous circus wagon –nothing miniature about that.

Do you get the picture, all space is used and it’s filled with things large and small. Additional galleries feature ivories to armories and much more. But there are a couple more must-sees!

It’s difficult not to be mesmerized by the Doll Carousel and its variety of hand-crafted and costumed dolls and accessories. And last but not least is the mid-air suspension of the display called Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. The artistry, size, position, lighting, and location of this captivating piece is a testament to the entire tour. Just when you least expect it, BAM, out of nowhere your line of vision is captivated by a stunning visual. What first appeared to be discretely placed soon becomes dominant. It is unassuming and overbearing at the same time.

Trust that it is no accident that House on the Rock serves up one great surprise after another. If you have more time to spend at this place than we did, you may consider the House on the Rock Inn and resort. Begin your tour at

And just when we thought we’d seen it all, we saw the strangest cloud formation when we left a restaurant later that evening.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop:  Ingalls Homesteadnext right
last leftLast Stop: Feelin’ “The Heat!”

weird clouds strange cloud formations

Feelin’ “The Heat!”

Last Stop  │  Next Stop

Indiana dust storm

I was in a melancholy mood when I went to the post-office. I had to pay a speeding ticket I received in a little town in Illinois named Galena. I was convinced that I was a victim of a speed trap. However, I was sure there would be hell-to-pay if I challenged this officer after what I had unknowingly done to him.

Our family of four was on the first-day drive of our vacation out west. After high winds, a dust storm and plenty of ugly gray windmill farms throughout Indiana and Illinois, we were happy to be closing in on our first destination. The road was winding through trees, up and down hilly countryside, when I saw the new speed limit sign. It was about the same time a patrol car passed from the opposite direction. I didn’t see the cruiser brake, slow or turnaround through my rear-view mirror. We rounded the bend and turned the music back up.

The GPS was providing our navigation and we were listening to the MP3 playing Holiday Road by Lindsey Buckingham – a fitting song if you ever saw National Lampoon’s Vacation. Bobbing our heads and singing along, we drove over a hill and became mesmerized by a picturesque town ahead.

The hillside view of Galena was just gorgeous!

Our vehicle echoed with, “Look at THIS town, check out the building over there, no –look at that, we need a picture.”

The spontaneity quickly turned to, “Stop there, no –turn there, turn again, WAIT! There’s a cop behind us with his lights on.”

I pulled into a roadside parking space as I replayed our course in my mind. All I could imagine was that I must have rolled through a stop sign.

I rolled my window down, feeling the heat and precipitation only it had nothing to do with the muggy weather. This officer was in my ear, spitting and shouting like a drill sergeant would to a new recruit.

“Don’t they pull over to the right in Ohio!” he hollered. It wasn’t a question.

I thought for sure this guy was gasoline and I was a lit match so I proceeded with caution and kindness. But he’d have none of it, except my license, registration and proof of insurance.

He remained livid and shouted plenty more before storming back to his cruiser.

Then, we waited …and waited …and waited.

Meanwhile, I had to explain to my nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son that their dad was not going to jail (at least I didn’t think I was) but was most definitely going to get a ticket. My mind drifted to paying a fine and whether or not my insurance rate would go up. What a way to blow the budget on the first day of vacation!

The policeman returned and the puzzle pieces fell into place. Here, it turned out he had been in the cop car I thought didn’t turn around wa-a-a-ay back on that country road. Now I’m not sure if he ever had his siren on because the music wasn’t THAT loud. The kids would have complained otherwise. His flashing light was not one mounted to the exterior of the car. Rather it was flashing from the interior. The officer ensued in what was a low-speed-chase covering a couple miles, by my estimation. The cop was convinced he was “chasing” defiant tourists, when in actuality our attention had been bent on taking photographs.

Ticket apparent, I said as little as I had to when he returned to my window.

Later, I read in a magazine that Galena was one of the hundred places I must see before I die.

And we never did take a picture of it!

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop: House on the Rock next right
last leftLast Stop: Out West Adventures

Philadelphia Freedom

Last Stop  │  Next Stop

With the U.S. Capitol in our rear view mirror, rain pounded the windshield all the way to our nation’s first capital – Philadelphia.

We waited in a long snaking line under umbrellas outside of Independence Hall (originally it was known simply as the Pennsylvania statehouse). This was the heart of America. It was where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of The United States were signed by the nation’s Founding Fathers. It was only a day ago that we saw both of these original documents, guarded and under glass, in Washington D.C.

Our “magical history tour” up the East Coast connected place-to-place in ways that made the past very present.

The rain made the colors all around Independence Hall pop vividly, including the cobblestone road, green grass and brick building topped with a white steeple that housed a clock and bell tower. This is where the Liberty Bell was hung and rung to call to session the Founding Fathers to hammer out The Constitution.

Inside, we stood in the very room where formidable debate by one of the greatest assembly of men in history created a model of freedom that would ring for centuries and spread across the globe. I listened intently, along with my wife, to the stories told about those crucial times.

Then I glanced at my kids and saw them yawn big and in slow motion. I fought like hell to ward off the infectious power overtaking me. I pressed my lips closed, squinted my eyes and felt my neck and nostrils expand but I refused to open my mouth to let in any air. I probably looked like a blowfish.

Did I just make you yAWn?

The line for the Liberty Bell – in a building next door – was down a long outdoor sidewalk and wrapped back the same distance on the inside of the building. At least the rain had stopped.

The Bell was perhaps most famously rung on July 8, 1776 for citizens to gather and hear Colonel John Nixon publicly read the Declaration of Independence. But the Bell was ordered 25 years earlier to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s Constitution. It did not reach its historic status or gain its historic name until abolitionists used it as a symbol for their cause, renaming what was merely known as the statehouse bell to the, now iconic, Liberty Bell.

The first signs of the Bell’s famous crack are debatable. It was on George Washington’s birthday in 1846, he had died in 1799, that it was finally deemed unable to ring any longer.

The Bell is fascinating to look at up close. It may no longer ring in our ears but it rings in our hearts. But it was the condition of the massive dark brown wood beam that holds it that caught my attention. It was like I was staring at the deeply wrinkled face of an old and weathered soldier who had gripping stories to tell.

For all of the history that happened in Philadelphia and all of the great men who came here to forge a beacon of freedom that would capture the attention of the world, it is really one man’s town – Benjamin Franklin.

Ben Franklin’s fingerprints are everywhere. He may have merely fancied himself a printer but he was a renown inventor, scientist, postmaster, politician, author, Founding Father, civic activist, statesman, diplomat, Grandmaster Freemason …and playboy. He invented the lightning rod, Franklin stove, bifocals, Glass Armonica musical instrument and even new swimming strokes. He helped create the first library and the University of Pennsylvania. He charted the Gulf Stream. And his list of titles and achievements goes on and on.

So, it was with this in mind that we wandered down a cobblestone road and saw a peculiar high rise brick building with a tunnel carved through its lower level.

We walked through and came to an open courtyard on the other side with several Ben Franklin options to explore. We entered a tall brick building that served as a time capsule. Tourist-like scaffolding went many floors high. It allowed us to scale the opposite brick wall (all protected by the same roof). The best way to describe it is that of a perpendicular achaelogical site. Lodged in the wall was the history of one of Ben Franklin’s stomping grounds. Markers pointed out where there was a flue for a fireplace and what went where in the rooms around. Displays featured other findings from the preserved façade of the brick building as we climbed to examine it further.

Another brick building seemed modern because it is so well maintained. But it’s where Ben Franklin, George Washington and others worshipped. A cobblestone road alongside Christ Church ran parallel to a tall wrought iron fence. Above it were the grand glass windows of the church, framed by brick. To the eye, there may have been more glass than brick facing us. Gorgeous!

Inside were crisp and clean wooden pews – painted white but with dark brown stained trim along top – that were waist high and walled on three sides leaving open the entry from the aisle. The most elaborate one was marked with a brass plaque saying “Washington Pew.” It was up front, large and with padded bench seating on multiple sides. Further back was a normal, narrow pew with one bench facing front. It was marked with a modern plaque as “Franklin Pew.”

We finally checked into our hotel before eating at a famous Philly steakhouse. A plaque on its exterior wall cited it was the original site of the founding of the University of Pennsylvania. The whole town is chock-full-of-history and all that the kids wanted to do was hit the rooftop pool! I’ll admit, it was very inviting but it would have to be reserved for our nightcap.

After freshening up, we walked around the corner and to the Christ Church Burial Ground where Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers are laid to rest. Two marble topped slabs were immediately on the opposite side of a tall wrought iron fence. Beneath one lies Benjamin Franklin, the other his wife, Deborah. Mounted there in the brick wall between sections of fence were these words:

The Body of
B. Franklin. Printer.
Like the Cover of an old Book.
Its Contents torn out.
And Stript of Its Lettering & Gilding.
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be lost.
For it will as he believ’d
appear once more
In a new and more perfect Edition
Corrected and Amended
By the Author.

The cemetery also laid to rest other signers of The Declaration of Independence. The burial site had many slab-like stone burials, normal looking headstones and creepy waist-high casket-like stone tombs resting above ground. Many stones are so eroded that the writing on them is no longer legible. In many cases, plaques have been bolted to their surface with words that can be read once again.

I started to notice a pattern of imagery at the top of many headstones. Although, it wouldn’t enter my active imagination until we’d visit historic cemeteries in Boston. Together, the old graves made me very curious about the fascinating designs etched in them. Some of the more common images showed an hour glass, skull and crossbones or angel with wings spread. Others had a genie-like lantern or bending tree. Rare were old-time compasses or pyramids with an eye.

So here we were embarking on a new mystery when we still hadn’t solved that of the weird graffiti of robot-alien-petroglyph-looking stick figures from some of Washington D.C.’s crosswalks. But we were about to.

Before we solve this mystery, let’s eat!

A good traveler will always seek out the food a town is best known for. In Philly, that meant a Philly Cheesesteak. And by the looks of it, Jim’s Steaks must be the place to get a good one. A line stretched out of the building, down the side walk, around the corner and down another sidewalk. Before long we were in front of the shiny black and white lower portion of the building. There was a brick upper. We could see the magic happening through the windows. People came out expressing pure satisfaction. Our mouths watered with anticipation.

Inside, the line wound back and forth wrapping like that of a line at an amusement park. I studied how people were ordering and just as I stepped to the counter to rattle off what we wanted and how we wanted it…

Shift change!

I hated being next. I was next for darn near an eternity. It felt like I was holding up the line. I heard grumbles from deeper within like, “What’s the problem up there?” Maybe I was imagining it – Ya, let’s go with that. The shift change took a very long time. A completely new crew had to set up their own operation.

Finally, things moved again and we got what was ours and moved upstairs. There  were big round tables near windows that opened to the streetscape intersection providing a wonderful urban view of surrounding buildings. This was our perch. And we were ready to dig in.

I laughed after my first bite because my kids have bland taste. These hefty steak sandwiches had meat falling out of the side and had red peppers piled on and were stuffed with honking wide onion curls. I was shocked that my kids said it was one of the best sandwiches they had ever had. I grunted agreement with another mouth full, my wife nodded her head too while she chewed. And nobody else said a word until our plates were clean.

Now, let’s wrap up that graffiti mystery.

As we navigated the streets of Philadelphia, I saw a sticker of our weird “stick man” slapped aside a metal newspaper box.

“Imagine that!” I pointed for the rest of the family to see.

Then, there he was next to another crosswalk just like in D.C.  We snapped photos of the robot-alien-petroglyph in a hurry before we could get run over.

Gazing at the phone photos while we waited in the long line wrapping around Jim’s, my wife explored the Internet in the palm of her hand to solve the mystery.

Soon thereafter, she yelled, “Stikman!”

And so it was.

A street artist was littering this thing dubbed “Stikman” everywhere he went; Washington D.C, Philadelphia, Boston and other cities. But he and his creation were largely a mystery.

In this trip of incredulous sights, Stikman stuck with us.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop: New York Citynext right
last leftLast Stop: National Mall in D.C.



Christ Church where founding fathers worshiped

Christ Church where founding fathers worshiped

The Liberty Bell

Independence Hall

Inside Independence Hall

Inside Independence Hall

Ben Franklin’s Pew at Christ Church

National Mall & Memorial Parks

Last Stop  │  Next Stop

korean war monument wall soldiers statues

Vacation Unexpected

Got it all planned out. Go there, see this, eat here and all that. But something is going to happen that wasn’t planned. And that is what’s going to be remembered.

Hustling from one attraction to another in a sightseeing frenzy, zipping around Washington D.C., something just outside the crosswalk lines caught my attention. I stopped and looked down. A mini robot painted yellow on the pavement stared up at me.

I pointed it out to my wife and kids and said, “That’s a strange sight.”

“Looks like an alien,” my son said, nonchalantly.

“It reminds me of a petroglyph,” my wife added.

“It looks like we’re going to get run over if we don’t move,” said my teenage daughter.

I figured it had to do with marking the power lines under the street or something like that.

Later, we saw this peculiar fella painted by another crosswalk. Our imaginations went into overdrive, exploring other possibilities for this thick stick figure that was about the size of my hand. It was strange. It didn’t quite belong and we all knew it. But our curiosity dissipated as our other activities mounted.

The mystery of the strange stick figures littering the city will be revealed in the next story when we visit the “The City of Brotherly Love.” Yes, they showed up there, too!

Anyway, after we crossed another crosswalk, I made sure to have the traditional photo snapped (of me) giving a smiling, one-finger salute to the IRS building. Who can resist?


Ford’s Theatre, where President Lincoln was shot, was a grim but interesting stop. It was a little eerie to think of this place as “living” history, in a sense, considering such a horrific event occurred so long ago. I stared at that balcony and then panned down to the stage – so close and personal – and imagined how stunning the sequence of events were for the theatre crowd that fateful night of April 14, 1865. Things got more eerie when we crossed the street and entered the Peterson House to see the bed in which Lincoln died. It is where several soldiers rushed the President to await the doctor’s arrival. The bed is a replica of the original which is on display at the Chicago History Museum. However, the bloodstained pillow and pillowcases were the actual ones used on Lincoln’s death bed.


Upon leaving the Petersen House, which is part of Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, there was a staircase that wrapped around a stack of books that was incredibly high. The stack wasn’t one book on top of the other. Rather, it was a wide cluster. Every book in the bound spire was about Lincoln. Someone said these only represented half of the books published about the 16th President of The United States. I don’t know if that was true but the visual before us was nonetheless astonishing.

tower of lincoln books at peterson house in washington d.c.

One of the most beautiful sights in Washington D.C. is the ornate architecture inside of the Library of Congress building. It wasn’t even a planned stop. Right when we walked in our family let out a collective gasp.

All of the Smithsonian museums and national monuments we visited were impressive to see in person as you may expect. Four of the monuments really struck a note. But first, I need to mention the best hot dog I ever had. Or so it seemed. It was at a nondescript concession stand along the National Mall, simply titled, “Refreshments.” We were famished. Sitting in the grass, we bit into deliciousness. So tasty it’s worth mentioning. Now it could have been one of those, I’m so hungry I could eat cardboard, moments. I can’t say for sure.

What I can say is that this little pit stop gave us the energy it would take to walk, walk and walk some more.

When we were at the Jefferson Memorial, I had my family walk ahead and up the sprawling steps so that I could get a distance shot of them. Now, mind you, my eyes are tricky these days. I need bifocals but don’t have any. I wear “computer” glasses for midrange, driving glasses for far range, no glasses for up close and subscription sunglasses for outside. In fact, my wife was sick of me asking her to stop every time that we went from outdoors to indoors so I could fetch the right glasses from her purse. I felt like Fred Sanford from the old TV show, Sanford and Son. Anyway, I removed my shades to see the LCD display on my camera.  I proceeded to snap great shots of my family on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, resting. I even zoomed in and got great candid close-ups of my wife and kids.

Jefferson memorial silhouette

Later, when we were marveling at the photos of the day while sitting on a curb, my wife sounded a peculiar tone in her voice when she questioned a series of photos I had taken.

“Who are these people? Why so many pictures of them?”

I looked and realized I had filmed a strange woman and her two kids. All of whom resembled members of my family. We had a hearty laugh.

I never knew about the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. But I’ll remember it because of the water fountain that allowed us to replenish our drinking bottles. The memorial is subtle, tucked away and more like a stroll through a park. It spans 7 ½ acres. It was beautiful and surprisingly a favorite of all of ours. Water cascades down rocks in one section. Then you pass into another area and sit for a while admiring the art, architecture and nature wrapped harmoniously together.


In yet another section, I took photos and noticed a Great Depression soup line. Gray, poor, sad statues with heads hung low lined up in a row against a drab brick wall. Then, in my viewfinder, I panned into a colorfully clothed girl with her head hung low standing like the other statues in line. It was my daughter! It turns out, looking at Google images; this is a popular pastime and photo opp at the FDR Memorial. I guess the humor is that starvation seems so far-fetched for most Americans today. That and other contrasts made the people passing by do double-takes and then laugh.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was nice to visit because it’s a long overdue honor for the civil rights icon. After more than two decades of planning, it finally opened in August of 2011. The quotes carved into marble launched wonderful conversation with the kids. But for some reason, the memorial seemed smaller compared to others’. Also, it is from this area that I first peered closely at the Tidal Basin body of water in which many of the monuments surround. It is disgusting. It is an absolute shame that our nation’s capital cannot keep such a central body of water clear from the embarrassing amounts of litter collected in it. It is also a shame that people litter it to begin with.

mlk memorial

One of the best sites for me was the Korean War Memorial. It had a similar black wall as the Vietnam Memorial but leading to it were statues of soldiers coming through a marshy area. It just loomed in my mind with symbolism that made me think of those servicemen. And photos just didn’t capture what my mind did. Then, as I neared the end of the wall, chance timing put an Asian woman (I’d like to think she was Korean), in front of an inscription in the flat black, stone wall. Next to her was a small Asian child. The inscription she pointed to read, “Freedom is not free.”

Freedom is not Free - Korean War Memorial

I said we had four favorite stops and so far mentioned three. I’ll get to the heart-wrenching fourth in a moment.

Remember, this was a blistering hot day and we had covered many miles on foot.  So soaking our bare feet in a huge fountain with shooting water along with many other weary pedestrians ranked right up there with our more memorable stops.

When we left the mall for the long trek back to our hotel on foot (should have used the subway), we were desperate for hydration. Our water supply had long run dry. That’s when I spotted what may have been a mirage. We all rummaged for any remaining change in our pockets. My wallet was cashed-out other than plastic, which was no good at the moment. We scrounged up just enough coin to splurge on one five-dollar frozen lemonade from a mobile stand to share curbside. At home we could get a whole   box of these for less money. Nonetheless, desperate times called for desperate measures. We needed some sort of hydration to make the trek back to the hotel. Our day started with plenty of water reserves but the “Gestapo” over at the Capitol building had us pour out every last drop before entering. Anyway, the four of us lined the curb with our precious refreshment. Each of us took a spoonful of heaven and passed it down. Hawk eyes made sure nobody took more than that in a single turn. Later, if asked what was the best place we ate. The answer was that damn curb. Go figure.

It’s also where we looked at another family’s vacation photos. The ones I took at the Jefferson Memorial.


Later, I bribed my kids with ice cream into writing their most memorable moment of the long trip (which this was only about the halfway mark). Both of their writings were about D.C.

“The thing that brought tears to my eyes was the Vietnam Memorial. To some people, it’s just a wall with names. To others, it’s the place where the memory of a loved one lives on. But to me, it’s where the soldiers that died for the country’s safety are remembered. Just walking through, looking at all of the names on the marble black wall and the presents given from loved ones to the lost lives all lead to one sentence – Freedom is not free.”
– Written by my 11-year-old son.


“Time is probably the most valuable thing on earth. You can always get more money, but time is limited, once you spend it, it’s gone …so you better spend it on something you love. In just one day I was able to see the White House, the Capitol building, the Supreme Court and ALL the Washington monuments …and that was just one day. Imagine what I could do in a week, or a month, or a lifetime. This trip has taught me that you have to make each moment count, so that someday you can say …I spent my time wisely.”
– Written by my 13-year-old daughter.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop: Philadelphia next right
last leftLast Stop: U.S. Capitol Building


Jefferson Memorial

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

split rock at martin luther king memorial
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

dr. martin luther king jr memorial statue
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

mlk monument washington d.c.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Korean War Memorial

Korean War Memorial

Vietnam War Memorial Wall

Vietnam War Memorial Wall

Vietnam War Memorial Wall

Vietnam War Memorial Wall

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution

National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution

Ford’s Theatre

Peterson House

Peterson House

World War II Memorial

Washington Monument


Walk of Shame

Last Stop  │  Next Stop

U.S. Capitol Building Dome

Walk of Shame at the U.S. Capitol Building

Long before 9-11, terrorism was in my consciousness. When I was overseas, posters of the most wanted terrorists were prominently hung in our barracks. Those of us who drove were taught to examine the underside of vehicles for bombs.

Once, I had to fly out of Frankfurt, Germany to the U.S. on the Fourth of July. Just prior to my trip, a broadcast warned of a terrorist threat planned for July on just such a flight. I remember expecting a boom the entire trip – and it was a long one – over the Atlantic Ocean to New York.

With that backdrop and the world we live in today, I can understand the precautions that are necessary when we use airports, government buildings, and other public places. Sometimes, I complain about the loss of freedom but I’m really complaining about my personal inconvenience.

While we were in Washington D.C., we stayed at the same hotel where, just outside, a sniper’s bullet almost killed President Reagan. We woke early to get a head start on a busy day. We had a pre-scheduled tour of the Capitol Building, located at the far end of The National Mall. This would kick off a full day of walking through the Mall and visiting many of the museums and monuments. Heat was definitely going to be a problem. In recent days, the temperature had been in triple digits, and more of the same was expected. So, like a good Boy Scout, I was going to be prepared and filled up my camel pack (a small backpack that only holds water). Then I filled plastic bottles to go inside my wife’s and kids’ backpacks. Since we’d be on the go all day and well into the evening, I also threw in a fist full of snacks consisting of granola, crackers and trail mix.

My wife mentioned something about restrictions and security checkpoint at the Capitol Building. I blew it off. I mean c’mon – it was going to be a hundred degrees! We only had water and snacks. Open the packs, take a look, let us through. There was no doubt in my mind that that would be the extent of it. It’s not like we live in Russia (my mind sometimes sticks in the 1980s).

“Subway?” My wife suggested.

“Let’s hoof it. It doesn’t look so bad,” I said glancing at a map.

I definitely underestimated the time it would take, something I am not known to do.

“Look kids, White House,” snap-snap and we had our pic to show we were there. Then we were gone.

The White House exterior with fountain

Once we were on The Mall, we ran in spurts in order to meet our time slot for our scheduled tour. The length of the Mall was grossly underestimated.

“Damn map maker,” I muddled.

My wife didn’t let it slide. I was to blame. Little did she know, I was just warming up.

We joined the line, which was already snaking outside, and waited. It was already getting hot outside.

The kids asked for water and I said, “No, we need to conserve it.”

You know kids, no foresight. They would deplete our water supply by the time we got inside and then complain they needed a bathroom. That was my thinking anyway.

Every now and then as tourists entered into the building, we noticed they were sent back out to dispose of things not approved for entry.

“We should dump out our water,” my wife said.

I looked at her like she was crazy, “Are you kidding me – it’s going to be a hundred today. It’s water!”

When we finally entered the building, there were scanners and commotion everywhere. We had to remove bags, belts, shoes, you-name-it, for inspection.

“This can’t go in,” said security.

I was directed to take my camel pack outside to pour it out and return. A guard at the door would let me in and out. But I wasn’t permitted to dump water just outside the door. I had to go into the grass off to the side of the long line of people waiting to get inside. They looked at me like I looked at others coming back out earlier. As I poured, I saw some couples exchange words resulting in either water being dumped or a shake of a head, no.

When I got back inside, my wife was smiling and security was frowning.

“This has to go, too,” security said, handing me a bowl full of snacks.

I made a basket out of the front of my shirt, dumped in what I considered lunch to save a few bucks and headed back outside. This time, I was directed to the other side of the line where the dumpsters were located. I felt self-conscious on this walk of shame.

The U.S. Capitol Building in D.C.

Back inside, my wife and security guard were both frowning. Now I had to go dump the water bottles. I could have kicked myself for not thinking to dump them when I dumped the camel pack. As I poured away hydration in the greenest grass I had ever seen in July, I couldn’t even bear to look at the crowd of people who certainly recognized me by now.

A guard at the door smiled out of familiarity when I re-entered.

My wife and son were standing in the clear on the other side of the metal detectors. It struck me as a little off that my daughter was still on my side so I nudged her forward, anxious to put this freak-show behind us.

“Hold up!” came a voice I was growing to despise.

“Gotta take it out,” I was told.

“Really?” I gave a look of c’mon!

I didn’t mind the three shame walks because it was my fault for trying to get over. But they got me on all my goods. Yes, I was an idiot for thinking I was sensible. What could possibly be the hold-up this time, I wondered. Security pulled out sun screen from the bottom of my daughter’s back pack.

“The dumpster is just over there, outside the doors,” I directed my teenage daughter.

She looked startled. I had rattled her from her comfort zone. I was sacrificing my flesh and blood so that I could avoid a fourth strut down shame alley. Reluctantly, she complied. The doors and wall were glass so I could watch her the entire way.

Meanwhile, my wife and son were shooed off to keep the throngs of people flowing.

Commands echoed, directing us and others, “Clear the area, keep it moving.”

“We’ll catch up inside,” I called out to my wife as she and our son disappeared from sight.


“You too, sir,” said security putting a hand on me, pushing but not shoving.

I stood pat and explained, “I have to wait for my daughter, she’ll be right back. She had to dump something outside.”

“Doesn’t matter, you have to move on,” he said pushing against me again.

I understood rules and why water and crackers had to be thrown out to keep large crowds from being bogged down by deeper inspection. It was easier and efficient this way, especially considering it was the Capitol Building. But there was no way I was leaving my 13-year-old girl to fend for herself in that crowd.

“She’ll be here in a second, sir,” I said with a pleading smile.

As he started to repeat himself, my look changed. Something about it made the guard step to the side as if I had complied and wasn’t there anymore.

I felt terrible for wimping out on a fourth trip outside, but I was so familiar with the surroundings by then, I had convinced myself that my daughter would be just fine. Standing there was the most shame I felt. Although each second seemed like a minute, my daughter was by my side again and we entered the U.S. Capitol Building, safe and sound.

The Supreme Court may ponder whether they are an equal branch of government because by the time we entered that building, we had replenished our water supply, compliments of a drinking fountain. Security looked at everything we had and let us through without having to dump anything.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop: National Mall & Memorial Parks next right
last leftLast Stop: Arlington National Cemetery







Lindy Clairborne Boggs Congressional Womens Reading Room

US Capitol dome

Blowin’ ‘round NOLA

New Orleans French Quarter

Blowin’ ‘round NOLA on a 3-day family trip

The late playwright Tennessee Williams is credited for saying, “America has only three great cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

In other words, our nation has only three standouts, the rest are pretty much the same. Sorry L.A., D.C., et al, there’s nothing particularly special about you, according to this famous quote.

So having never been to New Orleans, I had to see for myself if it was a cut above the rest.

Going into any trip, you have preconceived expectations. For New Orleans, I anticipated great music, food, architecture …and glimpses into the seedy side of life, which might be eye-opening for my coddled teenagers.

It was the week before Christmas when we arrived to experience this town otherwise known as NOLA (short for New Orleans, Louisiana) and The Big Easy on a long list of nicknames. After an all-day drive, we checked in late to our hotel just across Canal Street and The French Quarter. We needed food fast so we stepped outside and looked left then right. We only saw a sign for chicken so we blew down a dark and narrow street to get fried chicken. Once inside, we realized it was a liquor store. I don’t know if it was because we were so hungry that the rubber sole of a shoe would have hit the spot or not but that was some damn tasty chicken. I even woke up halfway through the night to steal my wife’s leftover piece.

Royal St Charles Hotel New Orleans

That’s when I must have knocked my prescription sunglasses onto the floor.

By the way, I don’t cuss a whole lot but I had a standing deal with my kids that whenever they heard a bad word uttered from my lips, they would each get a buck.

That morning, I walked through the cramped hotel room and heard plastic crack at my feet.


“Dad, you owe us both twelve dollars.” (Laughter)


“Dad, now its times two.” (More laughter)

So we went to a nearby drugstore for superglue. On the way around the corner we stepped past some sleeping bodies and weaved between those awake with their hands out. This was the business district and a whole lot of transactions were already taking place.

When we were walking out of the drugstore, a man with a burgeoning backpack whisked by us with store management hot on his heels urging backpack man to stop and return all that he took. They had him dead to rights but he just kept walking – more like leisurely strolling – along the sidewalk on Canal Street in broad daylight with a deaf ear.

Translation: “Whatchoo gonna do about it?”

The answer apparently was cease pursuit and watch your merchandise fade out of sight.

Welcome to New Orleans!

Friends of ours, we learned after booking our trip, were staying at a nearby hotel at the same time. They were frequent visitors to this storied town. We couldn’t have had better ambassadors to escort us. We hopped a couple of cabs and headed through the French Quarter to the far side of the Bywater neighborhood to Elizabeth’s Restaurant for breakfast. On the drive I had a nice conversation sitting next to our Haitian cabbie.

Elizabeths Restaurant New Orleans

Elizabeth’s was as down home as it sounds. It was definitely off the beaten path and not a place we would have thought to seek on our own. This corner house-turned restaurant was at the edge of an aging neighborhood just a stone’s throw from a very high concrete levy. We walked into the joint and it screamed character from the get-go. After we read the menu we read the walls. They were littered with the works of a famed local artist known as Doctor Bob. You can see him in Katrina documentaries. By the time we left, two words were forever cooked into our brains – Praeline Bacon!

Out on the street corner, we decided to walk to the French Quarter. Our friends said we could blow up this street or down that. “That” being the one that would take us to Doctor Bob’s art studio.

It was a no-brainer.

Past a wavy metal graffiti-filled wall and across from the giant metal praying mantis lurking above a small abandoned brick building slapped with a fresh coat of paint was Dr. Bob’s place. We followed some non-lit neon arrows across the fenced in compound past a pile of debris that had old sinks, doors and who knows what else and entered the shop. It smelled like someone just finished a wake and bake.

If I had a truck filled with money, I would have dumped the money and loaded the art. Dr. Bob’s creations certainly had a twist.

Outside, I was drawn to the backyard featuring colorful giant metal roosters, a half dozen plywood tables and spray paint cans littered about. There was also an interesting old shipping container painted purple with windows and awnings painted yellow, blue, green and red.

That’s when this wiry dude appeared from across the lot with his pit bull mix not far behind. The seven of us gathered around him and his pulpit – a wood workhorse with tall weathered boards stretching high above as a backdrop next to a rusty yellow gas pump from bygone days. The wind-whipped gray-haired man with blue jeans thickly smeared with different colored paint flashed a charismatic smile and delivered a sermon full of laughs and politically incorrect commentary. We hung on his every word. It was a ball for all. And it wasn’t even until halfway through the conversation that I realized this was Dr. Bob.

A lady drove into the lot, got out and expressed exasperation about her fight for the cause.  Dr. Bob explained the threat of developers bent on constructing high rise condos pointing just past his compound.

“There goes the neighborhood!”

He walked us to the curb after a hearty and memorable conversation and wished us well, making recommendations you won’t find in the tour books.

He reached for a smoke, laughing, “See that little old building there? I pelted that sucker with marbles and watched the riffraff scatter and then I gathered up about twenty packs of Marlboro.”

We walked past the black Santas near the curb, turned, smiled and waved bye to one of the most authentic and delightful personalities NOLA has to offer.

There was something about walking the old neighborhood residential streets back to the French Quarter that made me feel like I was in a town with its own identity – and we hadn’t even scratched the surface.

French Quarter New Orleans

The French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in the city. Most of the buildings were erected in the late 18th Century under Spanish rule. This was after the Quarter’s old French Colonial architecture was destroyed in the two great fires of 1788 and 1794. The ensuing architecture incorporated a lot of lacy wrought and cast iron balconies. Most buildings were then made of brick to safeguard against fire. It combined French and Spanish styles with a touch of Caribbean influence, too. In the late 19th Century, the French Quarter nearly became known as the Italian Quarter. It had become a less desirable area and was flooded with Italian immigrants.

A man standing in front of an Italian restaurant sounded like a carnival barker, when he yelled, “Step inside for the best cannoli in town.”

So we did. And when we told our waitress that’s all we came in for, she was taken aback and said with surprise, “Are you serious?”

Having Italian blood we make a point to taste cannoli in every town. Cannoli is an Italian pastry with fried dough rolled around a ricotta cheese filling but the quality and types are wide-ranging. Nothing that I’ve ever tried beats Mike’s Pastry in Boston and I’ve been to Italy. This place had respectable cannoli but it cost the seven of us $70, including tip.

We walked off our sugary lunch by doing some shopping in the French Market. This spanned about six blocks featuring an open air flea market accented with a political peddler with a stand in the street selling antigovernment paraphernalia and obscene political satire under a sign that read in part, “…telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The man mimicked Uncle Sam complete with loud red and white pinstripes to go with his rhetoric.

Street performers filled Jackson Square. Little did most know, there was a time when entertainment in the Square centered upon public hangings. The Square is named after former President Andrew Jackson for leading the famous Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Bustling energy danced through the throngs of people coming from all walks of life. Jazz musicians were spread about performing with hats out for donations. We took a load off, sat along a curb and just enjoyed the sounds echoing around us.

The streets were alive with the sound of music.

A magician plucked my son from the crowd to assist him in his impromptu act. A crowd wrapped around as his performance built. When it reached its climax, everyone was stunned and delighted. Then just like that, the whole scene dispersed. Walk a quarter block in any direction and similar scenes replicated on and off across the Square all day long.

Our shopping and sightseeing culminated at a couple of Voodoo shops and museum before readying for our second wind. To kick off the evening, we blew with the Mississippi River breeze to gaze out at the nostalgic riverboats and their giant bright red paddle wheels. Our paths crossed a couple of painted men frozen in time. A crowd looked on with smiles as a young boy struck up his pose facing such a man and a staring contest began. Eventually we worked our way back to Jackson Square but this time from an elevated view that had an equestrian statue of Jackson framed with the gorgeously lit backdrop of the St. Louis Cathedral.

The Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France (St. Louis Cathedral) marks the heart of New Orleans standing tall amongst the surrounding historic neighborhoods with three stunning steeples. It is one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States. You can hear its bells toll for saints and sinners both albeit probably more so for the sinners of the city.

As festive as the Quarter is by day, the activity and crowds compound at night. Bourbon Street was thumping as street musicians filled the air inside and outside with jazz performances – some were absolutely incredible drawing crowds ten people deep along the curb. Then a lonely sword swallower asked for my son’s assistance. Passers-bye stopped to gawk briefly as this man did as you’d expect to the chorus of, “Oh gosh” and “Ohhh nooo!”

We walked away wondering why our son was a favorite catch for buskers (street performers) to have assist them with their craft.

At dinner I tried to keep my eyes in their sockets as I read the menu. If the rest of our meals were going to bring the same sticker shock, I’d be panhandling by the end of the trip. But as you would expect from New Orleans faire, it was worth it or so I convinced myself.

Back at Jackson Square we just missed joining a Second Line. This is when a jazz band strikes up an impromptu parade making up the First Line. Those who fall in and follow behind are the Second Line. Nonetheless, fun was to be had everywhere. As it was the week before Christmas, we joined hundreds of others singing carols in the Square to kill time before our ghost tour.

During the ghost tour, we saw a very large Second Line parade shimmy by with loud music and lots of twirling and dancing in the street before it trailed off and our guide could recapture our attention. Not long after, he was again interrupted by a makeshift parade of drunken carolers exuberantly singing, “…O come, let us adore Him…” from the song O Come All Ye Faithful. It was a pretty funny sight of contrast. The kids found it particularly amusing and realized New Orleans was a party town like no other.

The tour itself, despite the entertaining interruptions, was chock full of intrigue. Our guide was a master at his storytelling craft and entertained us as much as he informed us.

We walked the dark streets to pause at the façade of one chilling tale after another but none as horrific as at 1140 Royal Street. This was the home of Madame Lalaurie. If you think the depiction of her in the television show American Horror Story: Coven was bad, wait ‘til you get a load of the real Madame’s story. The Lalaurie Mansion is widely considered the most haunted site in the French Quarter. And trust me, it’s in good company.

This enigmatic infamous woman had beauty and prestige. But beneath the surface she was a cruel cold-blooded murderess. After a fire, firefighters discovered a secret door to a torture chamber. In it were slave bodies found in small cages or chained to walls and operating tables. Tales say body parts filled buckets, torture tools were strewn about, a woman was gutted and had her insides wrapped around her waist, a man had a hole drilled into his head so his brains could be stirred, another was trapped in a tiny cage with many broken bones that were forced to reset at odd angles, a woman had excrement sewn into her mouth and on and on news of the hideous atrocities of Madame Lalaurie spread across the Quarter like a plague. Before an angry mob charged the mansion, the Madame had disappeared never to be seen again.

On our slow walk back to our hotel, a lone guitarist by the name of Joe Shedlo perched at a dark and solemn street corner crooning the lyrics of Christmas in Prison. I bought his CD.

Umbrellas in hand, we ventured into the elements the following morning. From the smell up and down Canal Street, there was a lot of waking and baking going on. We had another great meal to kick start a waterlogged day that began with all things – a swamp tour!

Once wrapped with rain gear, we boarded an airboat. Our Cajun guide grumbled aloud about the lousy weather and pressure to find us an alligator. That’s when I let ‘em off the hook and simply said we were here more so for the boat ride than wildlife. He smiled in relief and warmed up to us. This guy seemed to have a screw loose and before we knew it, we were stuck in the swamp and he had to radio for rescue. Back in action, damn, that airboat could fly! The tiny rain drops felt like hail pelting my face as we zoomed up and down swamp channels sometimes creating paths where there weren’t any before. I winked at my wife when we zipped past signs that read, “No Airboats” and “No Trespassing.”

When we stopped for stories, it was like this dude was an old drinking buddy who had no filter. He told stories that were probably inappropriate for our PG-13 tagalongs but hey, this is New Orleans, right? Whatever the case, he was a hoot and we enjoyed the ride …every bit of it (minus the wet and cold and not seeing an alligator). On our way back to the airboat shack we started from, our Cajun guide left the waterway altogether with our airboat and climbed onto dry land up a ridge and continued as if we were in a Star Wars land speeder. For the girls on the edge overlooking the ridge concern for them and their children rushed through their veins. I just laughed the whole way. I’ll admit, I looked back once to make sure my light-as-a-feather son didn’t blow out. It’s not like we had seat belts or anything to secure us.

We slowed to a stop, turned and the front of the airboat dangled over the edge of the ridge for a moment. Then, we plunged down totally submerging the floor which quickly popped above water again. We had to be quick to lift our feet to avoid the brief rush of water.

The guide looked at me on the sly and asked, “That is what you wanted, right?”

I laughed a reassuring, “Yes.”

As we pulled in, our guide spoke loudly as if this ride had been normal, “Please keep your hands and feet in the boat until it comes to a complete stop.”

I’m not sure if people around the dock realized why our guide’s professional sounding safety advice produced so much laughter from our group.

I tipped him pretty generously for the memorable experience.

Our combo package included a tour of a nearby plantation. But as fate would have it, the folks there were not expecting us and had closed in preparation for a large event. Our bus operator quickly problem-solved and gained access to one of the top-two plantations in the area – Oak Alley. He asked if it was okay. I resoundingly said yes because that’s the plantation I most wanted to see anyway but the combo tour was too economical to pass up.

The drive there was pretty long, clearly why it wasn’t part of a package. Our bus guide, a 73-year-old NOLA native, proved to be a treasure trove of information in that time.

The rain parted soon after we arrived at Oak Alley plantation. Just getting to see the towering oak groves of 300+ year old oak trees alone was worth the trip.

Once inside this time capsule, a Creole man took charge of our group and talked with such an authentic accent, it made us feel like we were his personal guests. He dressed the part and walked us from room to room talking about life on this plantation through its years.

Creoles are those who descend directly from colonial settlers of Louisiana prior to the Louisiana Purchase. It means Native born. Their roots are commonly French or Spanish. And they don’t think too kindly of Americans. NOLA Creole culture is most recognized in the cuisine. Many restaurants offer staples such as Gumbo, red beans and rice and Jambalaya.

What makes Oak Alley so unique is the double row of southern live oak trees stretching some 800 feet framing the plantation mansion. Oddly, the trees were planted well before the house was built. Although the variety of stories about the historic plantation’s past residents, slaves, their quarters, etc. was interesting, the fact that free blacks in Louisiana were also slave owners threw me for a loop. Granted, some bought slaves to free or care for them but some didn’t.

Oak Alley Plantation Oak Grove

Back in the French Quarter, we walked to dinner. Along the way, I took note of the water running through the streets where mini trenches were designed in the brick and stonework to carry away waste tossed out by the buckets from upper story windows before modern sanitation. Maybe that thought hung with me and that’s why I didn’t find my meal as tasty as I might. Because I just nibbled at it, it drew questions from family, friends and even the waiter. I was embarrassed by the unwanted attention but even then, I just couldn’t eat what was on my plate. My wife’s plate, however, was a different story. Anyway, I insisted it was just me and not the food but against my will, the waiter removed the charge from the bill. This may have been fate penalizing me for avoiding traditional local dishes our friends had recommended. Well, lesson learned.

Our evening entertainment was at the legendary Preservation Hall. Standing in line a homeless guy asked one of our friends for money for food.

Our friend nodded toward the pizza parlor that happened to be next to us and said, “Step inside and I’ll buy you a slice.”

The homeless man quickly said he was tired of pizza but if he had money he could get something else down the street. I don’t know that that something else was going to be food but he got his dough to do with as he pleased.

Preservation Hall was a hole in the wall kind of place but in an awesome artistic kind of way. They jammed us in until seats were gone and then lined the floor no doubt ignoring any fire regulations for room capacity I suspected. Thank goodness our friends knew to get tickets in advance so we could be one of the first to enter. Our group was split and placed in several locations within the small chamber.

This place was chewed up, spit out, flipped over, and torn into a dozen or more times over or so it seemed. But you just knew it was dripping with a history that made it one of the most beautiful landmarks in the Big Easy. Then walked in the band. They squeezed in front of everyone and let it rip. By “it” I mean Traditional New Orleans Jazz. It was music to my ears – everybody’s ears.

Preservation-Hall New Orleans French Quarter

On our last day in town our friends were departing so we ventured out on our own. I was running low on tip cash so I used a bank machine inside the hotel and shoved some twenties into my wallet knowing I had to break those bills down.

As soon as I walked through the hotel doors onto the sidewalk, I was face-to-face with a homeless man asking me for 47 cents. I have no idea why he asked for such a strange amount unless he figured he’d end up with a buck. But I didn’t have a buck, let alone change, only twenties and he wasn’t getting that.

I would have otherwise ignored him but we were face-to-face so I smiled and said I didn’t have cash on hand but I would later so if I see him again, I’ll be happy to help out. By this time, my whole family was bunched up along the curb by this man so I began to walk away to create room for everyone.

“You won’t all always be together,” the man yelled at us, waving his finger in a threatening manner.

Now I know he probably wasn’t playing with a full deck but I couldn’t help myself.

I stopped, turned around and said, “Did you just threaten my family?”

He proceeded to shout at me and called me N-this and N-that (which probably confused the heck out my kids) and walked by us heading in the same direction as we were. For the entire block he kept turning and berating me verbally. I think the kids were scared. He crossed Canal Street so we decided to walk a block before we crossed. But first, I paused to see which way he was going to head on the other side. He turned and scanned my side of the street until he found me. Then he waved me over in sharp motions as if to say, “Bring it on!”

I laughed to myself and walked away.

Curiously, there wasn’t a crowd waiting to get inside the Ruby Slipper Restaurant. A young guy out front said they had a fire and wouldn’t be opening. We were redirected to the one on Magazine Street so we backtracked and blew that way. Once we ordered I headed to the rest room.

When I opened the door, a young employee looked beside himself and said, “You can’t come any closer, someone blew chunks everywhere.”

Miraculously, I was able to clear my mind of that and had a great breakfast.

Lafayette Cemetery No 1 Garden District New Orleans

Later, we took a cab to The Garden District for a tour of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. We had been warned to not explore cemeteries – even by day – unless you were with a group. Some of them are unbelievably huge and every burial site is above ground because you can’t dig down and not hit water. This created a paradise for muggers.

We watched tour group after tour group gather and depart when finally a little old lady asked in a gravelly voice, “Are you my tour?”

Apparently so.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of our 81-year-old, four foot eleven guide. She was very kind and thanked us about 16 times for coming despite the weather.

She stumbled and said, “That’ll happen when you have too much to drink in the morning.”

I hoped that she was kidding.

“Can I persuade someone to carry my bag for me?” she asked giving puppy dog eyes to my teenage daughter. My daughter reluctantly accepted and held the lady’s purse.

This guide was good. She was real good. I could overhear some younger guides in nearby groups and they had a command about them but the information didn’t match the level of knowledge and style of delivery we were getting. She even wobbled over and corrected another tour guide from another company in front of his group. It was hilarious.

“Watch your step. Don’t trip,” she often cautioned like a grandma might.

“Did I say I’m really glad you all came even with the threat of rain?”

“I’m glad this is such a small group so I can take my sweet time and just talk.”

Those were just a few quips of the many she dropped along the way. Her storytelling was so much slower paced and personable than the other guides buzzing about. Her tales were very interesting. We learned why burial sites were above ground and had multiple people laid to rest in each. She told us of movies like Interview with a Vampire that were filmed there.

“You can check these motion pictures out at your local library.”

Lafayette Cemetery Number One

We also learned the ins and outs of a jazz funeral. At times, people hung on the edge of our group – which consisted of our family of four and one other lady. They were also hanging on our guide’s every word.

“You can join our group for just the cemetery portion of the tour for five dollars,” she’d bargain.

Every time the freeloaders quickly disappeared.

We learned she was of Sicilian descent with some Irish too. And we learned she could be feisty in an enduring way when she told us of a dashing young Spanish guide who once stole her tour.

“I wanted to wring his neck!”

As we walked the sidewalks of impressive mansions in the surrounding neighborhood she told us about her chance meeting with actor John Goodman and other famous people who stayed at or owned this house or that.

During our leisurely walk with this wonder woman she even described her personal experience living through Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath and recovery.

“We have a very nice young Spanish man in our neighborhood who is a contractor and the other girls and I decided to go with him to rebuild our homes. All of us but Doris. Doris did her research and went with the best outfit. Our homes were done better than ever soon after but poor Doris. Her people took her money and blew out of town with a job half done.”

When our 10 minute goodbye finally parted us, she pointed us to where we could catch the St. Charles Streetcar to get back to Canal Street.

St Charles Streetcar New Orleans Trolley

Still in the upscale neighborhood I noticed trees sparkling along the streetcar line. They had more beads than branches and leaves. Strings of beads are part of the Mardi Gras parades and festivities. They are often thrown from floats to parade goers. Mardi Gras is a wild season of celebration throughout New Orleans. Its biggest day is called Fat Tuesday which is the day before Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar.

The streetcar stopped somewhere around the World War II Museum. The operator explained that she can’t continue because it lost its brakes. We waited a bit and eventually another streetcar came and we emptied ours to board it.

Our three-day family trip blowin’ ‘round New Orleans finished at Mother’s Restaurant where they say its cafeteria style but it wasn’t really. Basically, you get your menu, stand in a line, order your food and then they bring it to whatever table you find. I finally tried my luck at some Creole food and loved it.

So, with a three-day stay in one of America’s only three great cities, according to the late playwright Tennessee Williams, I have to say, there’s no place like New Orleans, Louisiana.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Mississipi River Boat

Arlington National Cemetery

Last Stop  │  Next Stop

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Changing of the Guard

On the road to Arlington National Cemetery, the traffic congestion caused me to go into “travel dad” mode. This is a nickname my kids came up with to describe me when I become intense behind the driver’s wheel during family trips.

We entered the roundabout just outside the entrance to Arlington Cemetery. I began to circle. Suddenly, a police car whipped in and cut me off, halting traffic without warning to allow a funeral procession the right of way. To my wife’s dismay, I complained about the raw deal an extra second made. As she was pointing out my selfishness another funeral procession entered the roundabout. I couldn’t help but gasp, “For crying out loud …you have got to be kidding me.”

My wife wasn’t happy with me and my kids just shook their heads, shaming me. “Travel Dad” quickly retreated, realizing as he should have all along – this isn’t really a tourist attraction, it’s a place for solemn respect.

Arlington Cemetery Motorcycle Funeral Procession

I am an Army veteran who had served in peace time Germany. Many of my friends stayed in or were called back for Operation Desert Storm as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A close cousin of mine enlisted a few years after I left the service and has since done five tours of duty in the two wars. Fortunately, my visit here would not include seeing the fallen of anyone I knew personally. But as soon as you enter these hallowed grounds and see the seemingly endless rows of white marble headstones, it dawns on you the magnitude of true sacrifice required to maintain the ideals of our nation.

arlington national cemetery headstones

I stared at the lush green lawns checkered with marble headstones sprawling to towering trees, over hills and beyond. The perfect rows of nondescript, uniform, white headstones went in every direction creating beautiful symmetric patterns. All of the stones I could see had a cross outline etched in the top center. I dropped to a knee and did a quick sign of the cross as a reaction to the flood of emotion overcoming every fiber of my being.

I heard my children express their awe with one word that came from under paused breath, “Wow.” But the word carried long and low. Everywhere we walked it was all that we could see. It was a heavy price for a place that charged no admission. Our path went uphill and our feet became as heavy as our hearts.

white headstones at arlington national cemetery

Our chattering voices discussing the impact and history of Arlington came to self-hushed whispers when we heard the clicking of shoe heels. It was a serviceman in dress uniform, marching alone, with a weapon angled upright over his shoulder.

The large marble cube he was guarding had the following words carved into it:

Here Rests In

Honored Glory
An American
Known But to God

It overlooked manicured green space bordered by shrubbery as high as trees.

Tomb of The Unknown Soldier

We were at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier.

Remarkably, it has never been officially named and is also referred to as The Tomb of The Unknowns. It is guarded 24/7/365. The original tomb lay to rest the remains of an unidentified WWI soldier. It symbolizes the resting place for all who have fallen in battle but were never identified. In front of it are three white slabs at ground/plaza level. These were added later. One has the remains of an unknown soldier from WWII and another from Korea. The third had the remains of an unknown soldier from Vietnam until DNA testing in 1998 identified him.

We counted the tomb guard’s paces at 21 in one direction and then 21 in the other. This symbolizes a 21 gun salute. The guards do their pacing for 1-2 hours at a time before there is a changing of the guard. The shift depends on the season and time of day. They march on a rubber mat that gets worn through about twice per year and is then replaced. From the looks of the path worn deep into the rubber mat as we looked on, it must have been near the end of its service. When the ceremonial changing of the guard occurs, there are three soldiers involved. The stone walk next to the rubber mat is stained by the soles of the shoes by the relief commander and new guard from the precise and repeated footprints made visible by time.


Complete silence is required during the changing of the guard ceremony and everyone in the area must stand. The snap precision of the procession is remarkable. The incredibly fit soldiers, polished shoes, pressed uniforms, serious faces, dark sunglasses (worn due to the glare off of the surrounding marble) and shiny bayonets at the ends of the two rifles all resonate with respect for the occasion. The relief commander and new guard face one another and the relief commander inspects the new guard and his weapon. There is a bit of theatre in this ritual as the weapon is flipped and spun impressively and then the commander’s head snaps down or to the side to further inspect the weapon.

We were mesmerized.

The old guard and relief commander marched off. The new guard paced slowly and deliberately. The steel in his shoe soles clicked for emphasis when he did an about face after marching 21 paces one way. He turned to march 21 paces back and would continue this for the next hour until the next changing of the guard. We faded away from the scene but the scene would never fade from our memories.

Many of the services conducted at Arlington National Cemetery are done so at the Memorial Amphitheater. It is adjacent to the Tomb of the Unknowns and accommodates approximately 5,000 people. Ground was broken in 1915 and it was dedicated in 1920. Previously, a smaller wooden structure was used for services. The present one is grand in scope and architecture. It hosts special occasions such as Memorial Day services but most of the time it’s open for visitors to peruse.

The amphitheater is made of Vermont-quarried Danby marble. A cornerstone contains a bible, copy of The Declaration of Independence, copy of the U.S. Constitution, and a 1915 U.S. flag among other things. Inside is a klismos which is a type of throne dating back to ancient Greece. It is a definite photo opportunity to have family members take turns sitting in it while the camera person stands at the far opposite end of the amphitheater.


“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,” are words from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address which are inscribed above the amphitheater stage.

On our way to the Marine Corps War Memorial also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, we heard Taps being played. Off to the side of our pathway were just a dozen men in their dress blues. They snapped their posture and weapons to parade rest. They were laying to rest one of their own.

Yes, this is an active cemetery, not just a historic site.

We paused for a moment of silence and then quietly altered our course to avoid coming any closer to this private ceremony.


The Iwo Jima monument was a decent trek and I’m not even sure if it’s actually inside Arlington’s grounds because we had to cross a road and open grassy areas to get there. This was one of those works of architecture that stood high but also had intricate detail. It depicts the iconic WWII photo taken of Marines in the Pacific planting the American Flag. We snapped a lot of photos because it really captivated us, as it does all onlookers. But none of the photos gave it the majestic feel we had seeing it firsthand. Not even close.

Next, we were struck by the simplicity of the Kennedy brothers’ graves.  Robert Kennedy’s humble grave is marked by a small white cross and plaque that reads only of his name and the year of his birth and death. That’s it. President John F. Kennedy’s grave is marked by a flickering, eternal flame. Standing there made me think of all of the old television footage I had seen of that tumultuous time in our nation’s modern history. I felt connected in a way I hadn’t before.


After a day of walking – lots and lots of walking – we rested our weary heads on pillows at the Washington Hilton Hotel. This is the infamous site where President Reagan and others in his entourage were shot. Again, we whispered about the price of freedom. The days ahead would bring that price further into focus. Our “magical history tour” grew roots in our hearts and minds.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop: Walk of Shame next right
last leftLast Stop: Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon

Last Stop  │  Next Stop


Our GPS wanted us to drive to what later looked to be Mount Vernon’s original driveway. The sprawling grounds in front of the historic 21-room mansion were only interrupted by a short red brick wall and white wooden gates. Then the green lawn sprawled again to a tree line and grassy narrowing. The white gates were open with one side sitting picturesquely cockeyed. It was a perfect family photo op with Mount Vernon’s white façade and red shingles in the very distant background.

Red shingles on roof at Mount Vernon

At first, the kids (myself included), had been thinking, whoopee, another historical building. But that soon changed. This was more than a house. It was 50 plantation acres that included a distillery, slave cabin, blacksmith shop, gristmill, greenhouse, beautiful gardens, tomb and even a dung repository.

“That’s right kids! I’ll bet this trip really stinks now,” I said. Then I paused and scratched my head silently lipping, “Wait-what?”

Washington’s estate once spanned 8,000 acres and his total land ownership topped 50,000 acres. At the time, it made him one of the country’s top land owners.

River side view of back of Mount Vernon

It was nice to be there early for our tour because by Noon, you’ll see just how popular George Washington is to this day. For a man considered one of the greatest Americans of his time and all-time, he sure suffered from humility. Among the highly educated founding fathers, he had no college education. In his career, he lost more battles than he won. He never had children of his own. And his dental misery began at the young age of 24.  His cosmetic attempts to hide his chronic teeth and gum problems included false teeth made of bone, ivory, lead, and other material. Washington’s account books even have an entry showing he purchased nine teeth from “Negroes” for 122 shillings. But never did he have wooden teeth!

Another legend that I hoped couldn’t be true was that of Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River. On a leisurely walk I found myself at the river’s edge. While the family rested, I picked up a small rock and heaved it as far as I could. Then I tried skipping a stone. I was left thinking either my muscles were as bad as Washington’s gums or the first President had supernatural strength. In case you are wondering, the river is about a mile wide at Mount Vernon.

Potomac River at Mount Vernon

Towering over the mansion is a tree said to be a sapling when Washington lived at the estate. When I heard this, I was intrigued. My mind loves absorbing little known things that lead to a profound appreciation that otherwise wouldn’t have been obtained. As I stood in the shade, I admired the trunk, bark, branches and leaves of this living connector of time that I could now touch, and that our first President no doubt also touched. Small talk ensued with others marveling at this tree we all could have cared less about minutes earlier.

Washington Tree at Mount Vernon

Then, someone in our randomly formed gathering pointed at the octagonal cupola at the center of the mansion’s roof and said it was influenced by the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg. Having just come from there and next going to Washington D.C., it fascinated me how many of these stops would weave together our “magical history tour” up the east coast.

Washington was known to be an excellent dancer, the best horseman of his day and the foremost farmer of America. He was unanimously elected first President of the United States in 1789 by the Electoral College. There was no popular vote for president then. And he was the first to sign the Constitution.

Although the White House was under construction at his namesake, Washington D.C., which is only 16 miles north of Mount Vernon, George Washington is the only president not to occupy it. He served his two terms, before volunteering to not run for a third, at, then, the U.S. capital in New York City followed by Philadelphia.

excavation at Mount Vernon

Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol Building in 1793. The building was later supposed to entomb his body but instead, he is now resting in peace with Martha, his wife, at Mount Vernon. Visitors can view the tomb. To see the two sarcophaguses next to each other inside the tomb seemed to transcend time again in the most peculiar way.

Washington Tomb at Mount Vernon

Washington’s Will directed that all of his slaves be freed upon his wife’s death. There were about 300 slaves at Mount Vernon upon his death. His first slave was inherited when he was just 11-years-old. Upon Martha’s death, some 153 remaining slaves were indeed freed. He was the only president to have all of his slaves freed. I thought back to Monticello. It struck me as odd that Jefferson didn’t do the same, especially considering some of his slaves were, literally, family!

Mount Vernon Slave Memorial

In 1983, a slave memorial was added to Mount Vernon, close by the president’s tomb. A gray granite column represents “life unfinished.” Three steps and brick circles lead up to it, each step with an inscription.

The first is “Faith,” then “Hope” and finally “Love ”.

These are said to represent the virtues that sustained those living in bondage. It overlooks an unmarked slave burial site. Legend says the bodies below were buried with their feet towards the east to symbolize their return to Africa.

We left Mount Vernon on that somber note for …Arlington Cemetery.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop: Arlington National Cemetery next right
last leftLast Stop:  Colonial Williamsburg


Washington Carriage Mount Vernon

Slave Quarters at Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon Virginia

Building on grounds of Mount Vernon

Slave Burial Site at Mount Vernon

First Time Cruisers

sandy beach with palm trees

When we decided to take our first cruise, I couldn’t help but think of the horror stories. There was the guy I knew that spent the week puking more than his body weight. There was the ship that infected half its passengers with a virus. How about the vessel that tipped over or the one that lost all power out at sea?

My wife and I were going to celebrate our 20-year anniversary and suburban peer pressure said dinner and a movie wasn’t going to cut it. Besides, you could get real bargains for cruises. So I went to Triple-A and initially, it seemed we could budget both a cruise and a family vacation this year.

Do you want a balcony or interior cabin? Balcony. Food plan, drink plan, tips prepaid – yes, yes, yes. After all of the extras we threw in with the excuse, “It’s our anniversary,” the family vacation got axed from the annual budget. A cruise meant updating my summer wardrobe. Something I don’t do very often. Add that to my wife’s clothing bounty and the expense grew deeper along with the snow we were still shoveling at home in Ohio.

The possibility of bad flying weather had us plan a night in Ft. Lauderdale prior to the launch of our cruise. My best friend from the Army whom I roomed with in Germany lived just up the Florida coast. This enabled us to reunite after 20 years. The last time I saw him was when I drove to Florida for spring break during my college years but that’s a story for another time. Anyway, our flight out of Ohio was set for early Sunday morning. With the recommendation to get to the airport two hours before boarding, we scrambled out of the house at 2:00 a.m., leaving the kids with their grandparents.

When we arrived at the park and ride lot, one of the shuttle buses got in an accident.

Our driver sighed and said, “This is his first day on the job, too.”

I half-jokingly asked if it would be his last day. She said, yes. We all felt bad for the guy.

Once we were inside the airport, my wife cracked, “Whew, good thing we got here when we did!”

empty airport terminal

Instead of a cricket chirping an old guy on top of his floor sweeper slowly hummed in a circle pattern nearby. Every ticketing terminal was lifeless. The workers hadn’t even clocked in yet.

After a long layover in Washington D.C., we arrived in Florida. That’s when my worst fear came true. All that crap we bought for the trip – two suitcases full – was nowhere in sight. The baggage claim had one last bag circling round and round and it wasn’t ours! We asked an airport employee what we should do now and he pointed us to an office.

When we approached the door, my wife gasped, “Our bags!”

We grabbed them (one had a torn handle) and headed for the shuttle. It was a long walk and then a long wait as we just missed our hotel’s bus. The next one came and went when we allowed some older people to fill it. Then, we really waited a long time. But our wait was sort of fun because we hit it off with a lady traveling from Maine to partake on a cruise for Insanity workout gurus. We laughed about their having to get up at the crack of dawn every morning for a group workout.

Our paths crossed again with our chipper Insanity travel friend. We had all walked to a nearby drug store to restock some things that were confiscated at the outbound airport such as a tube of toothpaste which was in a bag that we didn’t intend to be a carry-on. Plus, we heard you could bring a couple bottles of wine onto the cruise so we bought some cheap stuff (the best stuff you can buy in a drug store). The following morning, we joked about our bad wine to the customs guy and he smiled and said there’s no such thing. But that’s jumping ahead.

moody sea at dusk

The night before we sailed meant being reunited with my best friend from the Army and his dear wife – a Canadian girl – that we had befriended in Germany. The four of us ate dinner and then grabbed more drinks at a place we remembered partying at 20 years earlier. As it grew deeper into the night, the historic beach town grew rowdier.

Police were sent to our niche club to settle down some people getting out of hand. We took it as our middle-aged queue to leave. Entering our parking garage were some real hellions. We knew of a side door to the basement where we had to park. It enabled us to get ahead of the vandals. But as we got to the car, we heard them coming our way. The hellions kicked out a headlight on a parked car just before we slowly rolled by them. The moment was tense as they stared at us, contemplating their next move and us doing the same. It seemed fitting to have a bit of an abnormal night with my old partner in crime, so-to-speak.

caribbean cruise ship

Once we boarded the cruise ship, I felt a bit claustrophobic. My wife suggested we explore each deck. Soon thereafter, we learned to bypass the casino because by the time you reached the other side, your eyes were red and your hair and clothes smelled like an ashtray. Anyway, moving out onto the open air decks is what I needed to acclimate my sea legs and clear my lungs. I couldn’t believe the size of the ship and all that was on it. There were several pools, bars and restaurants galore, stages and other entertainment areas, a grand theatre, you-name-it. The passengers were a nice variety of all ages.

Quickly, I realized why so many people cruised regularly. For an entire week, you are treated like royalty. The friendly service is second to nowhere. In fact, the total passenger to staff ratio was 2 to 1 and the food services staff alone was a 3 to 1 ratio.

My wife had done a tremendous amount of research online, for fun, about our ship well in advance. She revealed a little known fact just as we were shoving off. On a certain floor, in the bow – front – of the ship, there was an open air deck that almost nobody knew about. Even I was hesitant to go through the door at the end of the hall just beyond where the interior hall bends. Although unmarked, it whispered, you aren’t supposed to be here. But it was unmarked. Nothing said we couldn’t use it, so we did.

And it was exactly as billed. What a find! Nobody was there. Every other deck was 10 people deep with passengers waiving and snapping photos as the ship left port. And there we were with a huge private deck to ourselves. I wandered around it and up to a balcony but my wife stayed close to the door. Her good girl instincts said that despite what she read, this was not right. After I moseyed against a metal railing that seemed way more old-school than the rest of the decks, I paused to look at the decks above. I was in full sight of the glass walled gym, and other decks with a full and probably puzzling view of me! That’s when I decided to retreat before security got to me. Besides, by that point I realized I wouldn’t be able to coax my wife to reenact the “I’m the king of the world” scene from the movie Titanic.

We signed up for a dinner plan that had us eat at a set time each night in a designated dining room. This meant no waiting but you had to be on time. Oh, and you sat at a table with other people who would be your dinner company every night. It could be anyone so in looking at some of the passengers, I started to rethink the pros vs. cons. Fortunately our dinner companions couldn’t have been better. Hopefully they felt the same. Every evening with them was filled with laughs and enjoyable conversation.

Every other day, we landed at an island to explore. On two of them, we had booked special excursions. One included a mishap while horseback riding and on the other we stood out as THAT couple while on a dune buggy ride. More about those incidents in a moment.

Our days and nights on board were filled with activities. From sunrises at sea to walking several laps around the ship on the Promenade deck, we digested breakfasts so large I never thought I’d move again. Afternoon pizza and drinks out on the sun decks with regular entertainment kept us busy all day. In fact, just about anywhere at any given hour, there were activities, contests or entertainment of some sort. It was like Las Vegas on a boat.

The best part was the nighttime headlining acts. Come early enough and you could get the best seats in the house. We saw a first-rate comedian, a magician that finished highest ever on America’s Got Talent (at the time), and singing and dancing acts from around the world. Quieter settings included retreats to lounges to hear Jazz or watch a fun show. For dancing there were Caribbean starlit deck parties. In the wee hours you could take a moonlit swim. Movies played on screens throughout as well. And if island shopping wasn’t enough, there seemed to be plenty of stores on board as well offering bargains. Most days were spent in swimming trunks or shorts and evenings in business casual or semi-formal attire.

Our first excursion was on a small island that had not fully recovered from a hurricane. As we were transported to a remote corner of what was still a tropical paradise, you could see where some former homes were now shelled out buildings or stone fenced yards with no structure left within it at all. Upon arriving at the beach stable for our horseback riding adventure, we were instructed where to go to use the restroom beforehand. When I was done, I came out a bit embarrassed and said the toilet won’t flush. That’s when an island girl, a bit embarrassed, said that’s what she’s there for. And then she entered the latrine with a bucket of water.

The gentlemen – boys really – handling the horses were so loving life. Their laughter was infectious. Our first ride was on land and on sand. We saddled up and trotted uphill and down learning how to lean forward or back in the saddle. I had never ridden a horse by myself before. Of course, I got a horse with a mind of its own. He’d stop on a hill and decide to snack on the grass holding everyone up. When I dug my heels into his side and pulled the reigns, he cocked his head to look at me. I could swear he gave me an evil eye as if to say, “You wait, buddy!”

Ironically, my wife had a horse named Frenzy but Placid would have been more fitting.

horseback riding on caribbean island

After a pretty lengthy ride which I was more than ready to end, our guides removed saddles, replacing each with nothing more than a pad. It was time to ride the horses along the beach basically bareback and into the water. We only went four at a time for this ride plus two horses with guides. I wasn’t aware of the short strap for holding in front of me. I just played with the reigns. So when the guide unexpectedly hollered and the horses went into a full charge in the water, I was hanging on for dear life. I felt like it was a timed ride in a rodeo. And it was only a matter of time – not much by the way – before I knew I was going for a swim. I thought I might get trampled by the three horses on my tail so when I came off that thing, I did it with gusto to try and splash clear of danger.

When I came up out of the water, you’d think maybe I’d be humiliated but I have to say, it was exhilarating. The 13-year-old boy, who had been chasing us all over that morning on foot, snapping photos for sale, ran into the water with an ear-to-ear grin. I threw my arms up and made the most of the picturesque moment. Then one of the guides helped me back onto my horse. That’s when I noticed a look in my horses eye like, “I told you I’d get you.” My horse charged like the dickens again, thundering through the water. It was a wild ride with lots of splashing. Then we turned around, barely slowing to do so, and charged back the way we came. This back and forth repeated several times. It was pure fun! So much so, I did not mind losing my prescription sunglasses. One of the guides later found them anyway.

So, making a spectacle of me had caught the attention and funny bone of everyone. It wouldn’t be the last time during our trip that all eyes fixated on my shenanigans. But before I explain the next island’s mishap, I have to mention another secret getaway that we found.

When we came back to the resort area it was thick with sunbathers. We decided to walk the beach for a while. A band of younger people had the same idea. We wrapped around a corner of the island out of sight from the masses and kept going. Eventually, even the college-aged kids stopped in a remote area to snorkel. But we pressed on to a soft sandy area with absolutely no one near us. The hours of afternoon peeled away, effortlessly, much like my skin later.

shell on beach

On another island, we had signed up for a dune buggy tour. About a dozen dune buggies went off road on some rough terrain. At the first stop, you could hear almost every wife quipping about their husband’s driving as we sat two to each dune buggy. We saw a couple of landmarks and then came terrain that even the guides warned about. As we drove on in a single file line, a rather large mud puddle swallowed the path just before a hill we needed to ascend. My thinking was, finally, we get to really dune buggy.

I slowed enough to allow plenty of open space between our dune buggy and the one in front of us. Then, I opened it up, pedal to the metal, and hit that water filled crater so hard that the couple behind us couldn’t stop laughing about it.

muddy dune buggy ride

“If you could have seen what we saw,” started the husband once we reached our next destination. “Mud and water shot like a tidal wave out of every side. It was absolutely hysterical.”

We knew because most of the water and mud shot up from underneath our dune buggy. There’s no floor so we got it all in the most unexpected direction. And it smelled! Oh did it smell! Fortunately, we ended up at a slice of heavenly beach with no one except our group on it. It allowed us the opportunity to go get a saltwater bath to clean off. Then, we hiked into the rocks for vantage points that say, yep, you’ve found secluded Caribbean island paradise.

rocky caribbean island beach

On the way back, it was as if the other husbands noted my bit o’crazy and upped the ante. The winner of the craziest dune buggy rider went hands down to the guy that darn near ended his marriage by purposely taking a turn wide then sharp putting the dune buggy on two wheels. His wife was so close to the ground before all four wheels finally touched again – and we weren’t sure that’s the direction it was going to go – you just knew he was in for it later.

On the day before our cruise ended, we received our disembark time and location to leave the ship, get our luggage and go through customs. It’s a good thing we looked because they had my wife and me separating and departing the ship at two different times and locations. We called and it was changed. That would have been disastrous knowing the rat race that ensued the following morning.

When we made it to the airport, we found out that our flight was rerouted, as were much of the flights, due to severe weather blanketing Florida. As we waited at our gate, we recognized a lady across from us. It was our Insanity cruise “friend” from the first day shuttle and hotel. But she looked a little off. We asked how her fitness cruise went.

She struggled to say, “I spent the week sick as a dog,” while trying to show that cheerful face we enjoyed so much at the beginning of the week.

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!