County fare

Last Friday night we loaded up the minivan and headed to Lawrenceville for the Gwinnett County Fair. We hadn’t been in several years, and we were overdue for a family outing. This one fit the bill nicely.

Carlton looking down on the Gwinnett County Fair from the ferris wheel.
Carlton looks down on the Gwinnett County Fair from the ferris wheel. Look at ALL the people eating bad food!

I prefer my fairs a little later in the fall — call it a habit formed by 10 years of living in Middle Georgia where the Georgia National Fair in Perry and the Georgia State Fair in Macon hit in October — but as fairs go, the Gwinnett County Fair has all you need. There are rides, both for the kiddies and the astronaut trainees who can withstand whirling G forces. There are animals, mostly pigs and cows the night we went. There are people to watch. How on earth the freak shows can compete with who you see on the midway is beyond me, what with all the piercings and tattoos these days.

And then, there is the food. If you can cover it in batter and fry it in oil, then it will be served to you at a fair. This year we treated ourselves to corn dogs for the kids and Philly Cheese Steak and Italian Sausage sandwiches for the adults.

I am normally a little more health conscious about what I consume, but fried processed meats and potatoes are what you are supposed to eat at the fair. It’s expected. It’s … it’s … well, it’s just plain American.

What I have noticed in recent years, however, is the addition of fried candy bars and other desserts. OK, I’ll give you a fried fruit pie. That makes sense, in a way, and those have been around for years. But who was the first person to put a stick in a Snickers, coat it in batter and deep fry it?

This year’s Holy Grail for Carla was the fried Reese’s Cups. Anyone who has visited her Pinterest board dedicated to all things chocolate and peanut butter will know she has more than a passing interest in this food combination.

So a couple of hours after our grease-infused supper had settled, we joined the line at a vendor advertising fried Oreos, Twinkies, Reese’s Cups and much, much more.

And I’m happy to report that coating desserts in batter, frying them and adding powdered sugar may kill you, but it doesn’t taste half bad. Yes, I know, it is an assault on your pancreas, but it is a delight to the taste buds.

Harris eats a fried Twinkie
Harris enjoys a few bites of the fried Twinkie on a stick. I may or may not have finished it.

We all shared each other’s selections. Carla, of course, went with the Reese’s Cups while Harris chose the Twinkie. Barron, who had gone off with his buddy, Noah, got a to-go box of the Oreos, one of which is still in the refrigerator, a persistent reminder of last weekend’s gluttony.

You can count the calories and fat grams of such food. You can even qualify the great taste with an array of superlatives. What you can’t measure is the amount of damage these foods do to your self-esteem. As I sat on the bench outside of the jungle-themed fun house, my black T-shirt getting coated with the tell-tale evidence of powdered sugar, I couldn’t help but think what an awful nutrition choice this was. I knew I should be resisting it with every fiber of my being.

But I stay pretty up-tight most of the time. I finished off Harris’ Twinkie, which he discarded a couple of bites in, while watching him and Carlton laugh and play in the fun house. I watched their faces light up as they zoomed down the giant slide. I swear I could see their stomach’s rising into their throats as they dipped and swooped on the tug boat. I enjoyed their joy.

So if I ate some food that may shorten my life by a few days, I think I can live with the trade-off. The fair has a way of helping you re-prioritize and savor what’s truly important.

Of course, you definitely want to stay away from the “Guess Your Weight” guy. That’s a definite buzz kill.

What’s your favorite fair food? What’s your favorite part of the fair? Share your secret culinary indulgences from the midway by leaving a comment below.

In search of the moment

As temperatures rose into the upper 80s, I packed the minivan for a three-night campout at Black Rock Mountain State Park just north of Clayton. With sweat running down my forehead and my patience waning, Carlton and Harris sat in their seats too eager to get underway to heed my repeated instructions to stay out of the van.

We all received anxious hugs and kisses from Carla, and soon we were headed north, the strains of a “Harry Potter” movie on the DVD player.

Carlton and Harris roasting marshmallows.
Roasted marshmallows for breakfast.

Last year on Memorial Day weekend I discovered two truths: don’t ever try tent camping in South Georgia in late May and, more importantly, there is no activity that helps you spend uninterrupted time with your children like camping.

My deal with Carlton, 3, since last year was that he could go camping as soon as he learned to go in the potty. He finally crossed that hurdle a few months ago, so his time had arrived.

He was so excited to be going on his first camping trip that he asked me every day for a week “Is dis da day we go camping?”

Dis was da day.

The boys fishing at Black Rock Lake
Drowning worms

In two hours we were winding our way up Black Rock Mountain, carefully maneuvering the switchbacks. I was thankful I wasn’t towing a camper. The campground was nearly full, but we found a perfect spot with a shaded picnic table a short distance from the “comfort station.”

The echoes of children’s laughter, the crackling of wood in fire pits and the whirring of bike tires gave evidence that family camping is alive and well in the New South. As we set up camp and started the charcoal for supper, I could feel the tension ease in my neck and shoulders. Even with Carlton getting into everything and asking a zillion questions (“What does dis ting do?”) I began to notice small subtle details about my children that I haven’t been able to see in the rush of our everyday, hectic existence.

I hadn’t really thought about what I was after by planning this trip. I enjoy camping, even though I need an air mattress these days, and the boys enjoy it, too. Camping always brings back memories of the camping vacations I took with my family at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City, Fla.

Barron checks out a scenic overlook with binoculars
Scanning the horizon

Conversation came easily as we ate our meals of hot dogs, cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, pancakes, bacon, eggs, sandwiches – the menu wasn’t nearly as important as the time at the table. Yes, there was the usual inane rehashing of TV show or movie plots that drives me insane, but there was also deeper reflection.

Harris, in particular, has a habit of saying “I love you, Daddy” when he’s in a good mood. The “I love you, Daddys” were flowing as well as the victory dances when he won six games of Skip-Bo in a row.

We fished, we played at the playground, we took pictures at the scenic overlooks. We even toured the Foxfire Appalachian heritage museum. The trip had just enough structure and activity to keep us from getting bored, but most of the time we built fires, played cards, laughed and talked.

Carlton asleep
Camping takes it out of you.

Carlton did fine with camping. He fell asleep the last night a little after six, roused only long enough to eat a S’more (which he called “snores”) before succumbing to sleep again. He was joined in his early bedtime by Harris who couldn’t even wake up enough to join us for a S’more.

So Barron and I passed the dusk into early nighttime with Uno, the old standby of camp entertainment. When the bugs descended, we moved into his small, two person tent and played by flashlight. We talked and laughed. It was unforced and natural, a bonding that I try too hard to make happen at times and then miss altogether at other times.

Yes, my boys are growing up, Barron will enter middle school next year. Harris will be in second grade, and Carlton is rapidly leaving the toddler stage. I can’t always treasure the moments like I should. But when you get out in the woods, you notice everything. And if my boys are anything like me, they’ll remember a lot of it, too.

The four Wallace men
Happy campers

I had my moments with each of the boys, moments when I saw something behind their eyes, something more than just their outward appearance. I recognized myself and Carla in them. I saw glimpses of their spirit, flashes of their souls. A few times, I even thought I saw their future selves.

It’s amazing what we see when we slow down and set aside all distractions.

Camping isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding. What’s a few bugs in your tent if you are building stronger relationships with your children?

Do you like camping? What do you remember about the campouts of your youth? What do you like to do on camping trips? Where is your favorite destination? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Connecting with the past

When we hit the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge from Charleston into Mount Pleasant the boys stopped watching Harry Potter on our minivan’s built-in DVD player.

From the span over the Cooper River we could see the U.S.S. Yorktown, parked at Patriots Point. It would be our home for a night, and it was lit impressively, beckoning us to come and explore.

“Wow! Is that it, Daddy?” and “I’ve never been on a ship like that before!” came from the back.

That’s when I knew it would be a good weekend.

Boarding the U.S.S. Yorktown
Boarding the U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriots Point in Charleston Harbor.

The boys and I joined 101 other Cub Scouts and parents from Pack 564 for an overnight visit to the retired aircraft carrier parked in the Charleston Harbor since 1975. The six hour drive was interrupted only by a stop in Sandersville to unload Carla and Carlton, who were spending the weekend with her parents.

What struck me most about the half hour stopover was Poppy’s excitement about the boys’ trip. He had served on the U.S.S. Little Rock in the 1960s, and began telling us about his experiences at sea. I referenced the conversation numerous times while on board the Yorktown, trying to help the boys connect with their grandfather in a new way.

For kids, the sheer size of the ship is a novelty. But throw in 38- and 50-caliber gun mounts to climb on, airplanes to get a closer look at and seemingly miles of passageways to explore, and you’ve got life-long memories.

Harris at the helm
Harris at the helm of the Yorktown.

What stood out to the boys? If you ask them, they will tell you about the galley with a recipe for 10,000 chocolate cookies printed on the wall. Or they’ll describe the brig, the massive engine room and the gigantic hangar containing old aircraft.

Their expressions of wide-eyed wonder as they took the helm and climbed into the captain’s chair spoke volumes about their experience, and the questions came faster than an F-18 catapulted from the deck of a carrier.

I could see the realities of life at sea with 2,600 other sailors begin to sink in with the boys as they stowed their gear in their “berths.” The stacks of bunks, three and four high connected by chains drew immediate calls for “top bunk.”

Barron even affirmed my career choice. After watching me duck through hatches all day, he said, “You wouldn’t be a very good sailor, Daddy. You would always be hitting your head.”

Barron in the captain's chair
Barron tries out the Captain's Chair.

When we got back to Sandersville to pick up Carla and Carlton, I caught a glimpse of a twinkle in Poppy’s eyes as the boys breathlessly fired facts and descriptions at him. They covered the highlights, pausing every now and then to let Poppy insert a story from his service to help provide context for what they saw.

It’s like the time I saw “Saving Private Ryan.” In the intensity of that film, I was able to barely grasp what it must have been like for my grandfather to serve in Normandy. Now my sons were seeing their grandfather in a whole new way as they experienced history.

We’re still processing the questions. The boys spent their President’s Day holiday drawing pictures of the Yorktown and setting up dioramas with their souvenirs, all the while asking more and more questions.

Perhaps even in the New South, there’s an appreciation for the experiences of our elders. I look forward to the conversations my boys will have with all their grandparents as their understanding of history grows and their bonds with them are strengthened.

How have you connected with your grandparents? Did a trip to a historical place or an afternoon of stories on the front porch or time at the dinner table give you a glimpse into their lives? Take a moment to share your experiences by leaving a comment.

The Power of Pine

For the last five years, I’ve spent one Saturday in January at a unique sporting event that induces anxiety, quickens the pulse and triggers a few tears.

Of course I’m talking about the annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby.

Harris and Barron working on their Pinewood Derby cars
Harris and Barron hard at work turning their blocks of wood into works of art... fast art.

This anachronistic competition is a throw-back to the days when kids made their own toys out of what they found lying around. In an era when everything is plastic and comes with detailed picture instructions, the Pinewood Derby challenges kids to use their imagination and show dexterity with sharp implements.

It’s a simple concept: You get a block of wood. That’s it. Oh, and four small nails and four plastic wheels. It’s an intimidatingly blank canvas.

Pinewood Derby makes me anxious because I am not a woodworker. I do not possess woodworking tools. I do not possess woodworking skills. We have relied on the help of our friends, Jeff and Christine, who have been gracious with their time, expertise and equipment. They help us get the body of the cars into their basic shapes, so the boys can go to town on them with files, sandpaper and paint to achieve their artistic vision.

Barron's 1966 Batmobile and best bud Noah's Mach 5 of Speedracer fame.
Barron's 1966 Batmobile and best bud Noah's Mach 5 of Speedracer fame.

Each year, my oldest son, Barron, has come up with designs that flow right out of his interests. The first year it was a Jeff Gordon replica car straight from his NASCAR obsession. A week after a visit to Sea World in Orlando, he came up with a Shamu car, complete with dorsal fin. After “riding the Ducks” at Stone Mountain he conceived of the amphibious “Duck” vehicle. Beginning guitar lessons last year produced an instrument on wheels. This year he reproduced the 1966 Batmobile, which ran pretty well and received lots of attention from the dads, if not their sons, who remembered watching the old Batman series as kids.

This year was Harris’ first foray into the world of Pinewood Derby. Like all second-born children, he benefitted from his brother’s experience. I still have nightmares about Barron’s first year. I felt like a terrible parent as I watched Barron stand, dejected, at the foot of the race track while Jeff Gordon didn’t have enough weight to roll down to the finish line. I hadn’t done the research from among the myriad websites to help him be at least moderately successful.

Harris posing for a photo for his second place design.
Despite the forced smile, Harris really was thrilled to earn second place for "showmanship" among the Tiger cubs for his hot rod school bus.

This time around, we were ready. Harris’s hot rod school bus did well, earning a second place in showmanship among all the Tiger cubs and first place in speed for our den. His flaming bus may not be sanctioned by the Gwinnett County School Board, but it will get you to school on time.

All told we probably spent 20-30 hours on this year’s cars, including helping Carlton with his car. Carlton’s idea of working on his car was putting five coats of paint on the pine block, each a different color.

Overall it was a great morning at the races. Our nerves gave way to laughs as we spent time with friends. The boys displayed good sportsmanship, pulling for their buddies and not throwing tantrums when their cars weren’t the fastest.

After five years I’ve finally figured out the magic of the Pinewood Derby – time. It’s all about the time Barron, Harris, Carlton and I spent together hacking at, sanding, painting and sealing a block of wood.

Like the race itself, life passes all too quickly. What matters most isn’t finishing first. It’s building what it takes to get you to the finish line.

Time passes one brick at a time

Yesterday we took the boys to the new Legoland Florida theme park. The boys had an amazing day, judging by their smiles, laughter and my over-exuberant uploading of photos to Facebook.

Carla and I couldn’t help but reflect on our two previous visits to that property, each in a very different set of circumstances.

Barron and his cousin, Kalee
Barron and Kalee at Cypress Gardens in 2005

Before it was Legoland, the 150-acre site was Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s first theme parks, built around the natural beauty of Lake Eloise, meticulous and exotic gardening and incredible feats of skill on water skis.

I moved to central Florida at the age of 12, and had been to the park numerous times before Carla and I visited in 1996 while we were still dating. Carla was down to meet my family for the first time and see what many tourists spend thousands of dollars during vacations to experience.

During that trip we visited the Magic Kingdom, which stood in stark contrast to the aging and low-key Cypress Gardens. Leisurely strolling through the gardens hand-in-hand was a welcomed change of pace from the crowds at Disney, but other than dozens of photos of each other in front of various plants, waterfalls and other natural phenomena, there wasn’t much that was memorable from the trip.

The next time we visited, it was about 10 years later. Carla and I were married, and Barron was 4 and Harris was just a baby.  Cypress Gardens had been sold, refurbished, upgraded with new rides and reopened as “Cypress Gardens Adventure Park.” My brother and his family went with us, so Barron had his cousin, Kalee, to go on the kiddie rides with.

There are few pictures of the natural beauty, and almost none of Carla or me. We have dozens of images of Barron and Kalee, looking cherubic in their poses, but I don’t think we spent much time in the gardens.

Our boys at Legoland
Our three boys at Legoland

This time, Cypress Gardens had undergone the biggest transformation of all. Engulfed by the new Legoland identity, the gardens are still there but they are relegated to a corner of the park. We didn’t even go into the gardens during this visit. We were too busy admiring plastic brick creations, shuffling our boys between rides and taking in Lego-themed shows.

Carla and I took turns pushing the stroller, which alternated carrying Carlton and our backpack. As my Facebook friends can attest, we have more than a hundred photos, only one of which has Carla and me together. I don’t think we held hands once the whole day.

Life just isn’t about us anymore. With three kids, we spend our time, money and energy being parents and making memories for our family. It doesn’t even occur to us to think about what we want to see, ride or do during a day at a theme park.

The Wallaces at Legoland
The Wallaces at Legoland on Island in the Sky, Carlton's favorite ride.

In a way, Cypress Gardens and now Legoland is a door frame for us to put pencil marks on, measuring our relationship’s growth.

Who knows when we’ll be back or what life-changing circumstance will have occurred before our next visit. I do know that if the boys have their way, it will be soon.

Have you ever been to Cypress Gardens/Legoland? What was your experience like? Is there another place that helps you measure your life and growth? Share it with us! Leave a comment a below.

With every Christmas card I write

Even before my children start their annual greed lists, my wife begins a months-long odyssey of creating the perfect family image to send to loved ones at Christmas.

What some people dismiss as an antiquated practice involving such archaic institutions as the U.S. Postal Service, sending Christmas cards is the apogee of the season for Carla, who cannot fully enjoy Christmas until the refrigerator of every person we know is adorned with a unique artistic rendering of our family.

The 2011 Wallace Family Christmas Card
The 2011 Wallace Family Christmas Card. For the record, Carlton is helping his smile a bit by pushing up his cheeks, a tactic I frequently employed at his age.

Oh, to be one of those lucky families whose self-appointed public relations manager simply goes to one of those new-fangled websites, uploads a family photo from the past year into a template, electronically transfers a few dollars from their credit card and is finished with another year of sending Christmas cards.

But, alas, when I said “I do” to Carla Barron, I was saying “I do want to make sending Christmas cards an annual chore somewhere between cleaning out the basement and re-doing the kitchen on the difficulty scale.”

Yes, Carla does all the work, but having to offer feedback on her designs is like a bad trip to the optometrist.

“This one or this one?”

“A or B?”

“Clearer or brighter?”

I take some comfort in knowing that when British businessman Sir Henry Cole sent the first Christmas card in 1843 adorned with an image of a family offering a toast around a table, it was roundly criticized for promoting drunkenness. See! People have been making bad decisions with their Christmas card designs from the very beginning. This should take some of the pressure off us, shouldn’t it?

Despite all the customization we go through each year, there really is a method to our madness. We rotate annually between a family portrait and a shot of just the boys. Personally, I’m ready to cede every year to the boys, who for now, seem to be growing in cuteness while we just look older each year.

This year’s twist in our Christmas card was the introduction of a chalkboard. With this device, we could convey such pithy messages as “Merry Christmas” in black and white. Using Mixbook.com, Carla’s creation included a message from each of the boys under the headline “Wishing you a new year filled with …”

The back of the 2011 Wallace Family Christmas Card
The boys' wishes were written in their own hand... well, except Carlton. His would have just been scribbles.

Barron and Harris stayed in the normal and somewhat predictable range of “joy” and “happiness,” both good sentiments. Carlton, as usual, went somewhat off the map with his wish. The conversation went something like this:

“Carlton, what do you want to wish everyone? Wishing you a new year filled with… what?” Carla asked.

“Good,” he said.

“Good what?” she asked, hoping to elicit something more grammatically correct.

“Good naps.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

There are nine days until Christmas. Almost all the shopping is done. The kids are on their last school day of the year, and I’m prepping for two weeks of Christmas vacation myself. We’ve been to numerous parties, spent time with friends, experienced meaningful worship and enjoyed family traditions that make this season so special.

I am most happy to report that the Wallace family Christmas card is done and on the way to you or, better yet, already on your mantel or other place of honor.

Whether or not it conveys the message we wanted or portrays our family in the best light, it’s done. Now I can have at least six weeks before I have start giving my opinion on what next year’s Christmas card needs to look like.

Think I’ll get started on those good naps.

Do you send Christmas cards? What’s your process? Do you do photo cards? How do you choose your message? Do you still do a Christmas letter? Leave your comment below and share your pain with us. This Christmas therapy is free!

A foot in two states

Heavy clouds and the threat of rain couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for a trip on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway last Monday for Carlton’s third birthday.

Lance and Carlton on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway
Lance and Carlton inside car 549 on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

For weeks leading up to the big event, I felt pangs of sentimentality about my youngest son following the same journey as his brothers from toddlerhood to full blown boyhood. I wanted – maybe even needed – this day to be meaningful and memorable.

After a 2-hour circuitous journey from Lilburn to Highway 5 that took us through Forsyth and Cherokee counties, we arrived in the quaint town of Blue Ridge all set for our low-speed adventure.

Thanks to a school holiday there were a few families among the 515 passengers on the full train, but the clientele was mostly seniors, including a group of Lutherans who filled our car. My wife and I had agonized over the decision to purchase seats in a closed car rather than an open air car. As it turned out, we had plenty of opportunity to enjoy both.

With the airbrakes wheeshing and the whistle blowing, the Lutherans belted out a rousing rendition of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” It was value added.

The train covered the 13-mile journey to McCaysville in right at an hour. The leaves weren’t quite at their peak, but we weren’t really looking at the leaves. The boys seemed more interested in the snack bar and the on-board toilet.

I could write an entire essay on the juxtaposition of the hillside mountain homes with the ramshackle houses along the Toccoa River, but let’s just say the scenery was a mix of urban escapism and quaint nostalgia backdropped by an occasional golden- or crimson-leafed hardwood.

When we got to McCaysville, our volunteer hostess, Frances, helped us escape the train before the Lutherans, allowing us to get at the front of the line at Georgia Boy BBQ. After pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, beans and sweet tea, we poked around in the railway’s northern terminus gift shop before following the walking map to McCaysville City Park overlooking the river.

The boys worked out their restlessness, and Carlton met a friend, a boy about his age with the appropriately Southern name of Atticus. They pointed at ducks in the river, enjoyed the slide and swung on their stomachs like toddlers do.

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway engine
Thankfully, the engines don't talk or sing on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.

We headed back a few minutes before the train gave the four blasts on its whistle to signal the return trip to Blue Ridge. Carrying Carlton, I stopped at the blue dotted line in the parking lot of the IGA grocery store.  Frances had told us it was the state line, separating McCaysville, Ga., from Copper Hill, Tenn.

Deriving an odd thrill, I straddled the line, holding Carlton close.

“Hey, buddy. We’re in two states now,” I said, prompting a puzzled look from the newly-minted three-year-old.

That’s how I felt – a foot in two states. I still wanted to be a parent of a toddler, at least for a day longer, but I knew Carlton was quickly maturing into boyhood.

There would definitely be more monumental birthdays and more significant rites of passage along the way, but for me, this was the moment I had been searching for to validate my grieving the loss of Carlton’s infancy and early childhood.

The ride back was nap inducing, but Carlton sat in my lap and forcibly held my eyelids open. He didn’t want me to miss anything. Though drowsiness almost overtook me, I didn’t want to miss anything either. It all goes by too quickly, even on a slow train.

We concluded the experience with a fried apple pie at Mercier Orchards and set off back toward Atlanta. It had been a good day. The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway provided a journey I’ll cherish for a lifetime.