How I went on family vacation and lived to tell all about it

The Baltimore Sun

By now, you are probably savoring memories of a traditional Thanksgiving holiday spent dancing to disco hits, swimming in the frosty Atlantic and hang gliding off huge sand dunes.


Well, my parents have spelled "vacations" a-d-v-e-n-t-u-r-e for as long as I can remember, so this range of strange is normal to me.

A brief review of my vacation memories reveals my earliest one: my dad pulling off the road somewhere in upstate New York when he saw a hand-lettered sign that read "Piper Cub Ride's $40." And yes, the sign did have the apostrophe precisely there, which made a little stickler like me a tad apprehensive. We stood in a windy field while Dad negotiated a group rate for all of us with the unshaven pilot, who I noted wore no uniform with reassuring epaulets.

Later, in Mexico, Dad conducted a transaction entirely in sign language that resulted in us tied in frayed hemp harnesses to a dilapidated jeep so we could parasail off the dunes.

And one time, we rented a 33-foot Winnebago for a delightfully terrifying ride along the California coast. Ah, California, where I learned to grind my teeth.

Now that I am a mom, I am certain my own mother more tolerated than enjoyed these activities, but I still proudly carry on these family non-traditions. The disco dancing was my idea; the chilly swim was my son's; but this year's Janet's World Vacation Aberration award definitely goes to my older brother, John, who initiated the hang-gliding excursion.

We assembled early one morning - which in itself is a complex endeavor for my family of micromanagers. Who has bottled water? Snacks? A grammar manual to check the signage?

At last we were off, driving in caravan toward Nags Head, N.C., heading to Jockey's Ridge State Park. Suddenly, my brother's car made an abrupt turn in Kill Devil Hills. Surprise! We would be touring the Wright Brothers museum.

The idea was, "Let's give these kids a true appreciation for flight before we let them jump off a sand dune tethered to a kite."

At the Wright Brothers Museum, a park service employee gave us a lengthy, excruciatingly detailed talk about the history of flight. Fortunately, there were prizes.

We are a highly competitive family, and darn it, we each wanted to earn a commemorative Wright Brothers museum patch for volunteering a correct answer. The kids leaned forward in their chairs. My brother-in-law scanned the museum brochure for obscure aviation facts. It was as if our very lives had been leading up to this glorious moment when we might earn a commemorative Wright Brothers museum patch.

In the end, John - a graduate of Pensacola flight school - was the clear victor, but he generously distributed his patches to the young cousins, who will decorate their backpacks with them in the nerd family tradition.

Next it was time to get to the hang-gliding school. All of the cousins were signed up, but I decided to document the event on a digital camera that can take short videos.

My nephew went first, and my record of his flight details a smooth takeoff and mildly jarring landing. My son was next, and here I should mention that the sail and harness probably outweighed him a couple times over.

A funny thing happens when you video an event: The act of looking through a viewfinder makes it somehow less real, more cinematic. So when my son apparently caught some major air and sailed higher and higher, coming down at the instructor's panicked command in a sort of human aircraft-carrier type landing, I didn't really "see" it.

My family came running. "Are you all right?" they shouted. I was surprised to discover they were addressing me.

"Did you see how incredibly high he got? That landing?"

I checked the camera to hit replay. It said "memory card full."

My son was sorely disappointed. But someday he will understand that the best memories are the ones you can replay in your head.

To contact Janet Gilbert or hear podcasts, go to

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad