Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash


Someone said that comedy is tragedy plus time. There is a lot of truth in that. Sometimes we can laugh as we look back at times that were no laughing matter at the time.

Such was the case with a family trip to a place called Oak Island. No, it’s not the cursed one on TV. This one is on the coast of North Carolina south of Wilmington and north of Myrtle Beach. It’s a quiet place. There is not boardwalk. It is full of beach cottages and ice cream stands and restaurants. It has been a place of peaceful retreat for us and our family for many years.

But one trip did not have a happy beginning. Most people have some vacation from hell story to tell. This is ours. The planning for the trip was a lot of fun. My wife and five of our children were to go with my sister, brother in law and their son. We would caravan and stop at a motel with a pool the first night so the kids could stretch and swim.

All was going well. I was following my brother in law. The weather was warm and cloudless. We were listening to cassette tapes. (Remember those?) We had a seven-passenger van, so we were comfortable. My brother in law suddenly slowed down and pulled off to the side of the interstate. I pulled off behind him. (This was before cell phones.) There was smoke seeping out from his hood. His car had over-heated.

In my vast knowledge of auto mechanics, (Ok, I know next to nothing about auto mechanics.) I knew that his engine had over heated. So, we will wait until it cools down and then we will get some water and be on our way.

But we soon realized that we were in the middle of nowhere Maryland. The nearest town was called Flintstone. It was yaba-daba don’t. I went in search of a place to get some water. We filled the radiator, but the car would not start. I had noticed a sign for a truck repair shop. I went back to Flintstone and asked if they could send someone out to look at the car. They said they would tow it in.

All ten of us piled into our van and headed for scenic Flintstone. I could imagine Fred and Barnie feeling right at home. We all sat on a grassy bank near an outdoor fruit stand. Brother in law came back down the hill from the truck repair shop. I could tell by the look on his face that he did not have good news. It seems he had driven for a while with the temperature light on. The engine was cracked. The truck guy said he could not work on it until Monday. What should we do?

We decided to make the best of it. Their family piled into our van with all of their luggage. We had quite a trip to the nearest town with rental cars. The kids thought this was funny. My brother in law did not. Each kid had to hold luggage on their laps. He asked me if I wanted him to drive. I said no. I at least had a seat with nothing on my lap.

We finally got to the town and he rented the only car they had left. It was a purple Taurus. We had lost about three hours in the meantime. He took off in the purple Taurus and I followed. There was a lot of traffic on I 95. (Isn’t there always?) Soon the purple Taurus started to pick up speed. I followed closely. He was going 70, then 80, then 85. I said, “He must really be upset about his car. He usually drives very carefully. What the hell is wrong with him?” I kept up the best I could until we came to a toll booth. When I pulled up in the next line, I looked over at the Taurus. It was wrong purple Taurus. Brother in law pulled up behind me. He was thinking, “Why is Rick going so fast? What the hell is wrong with him?” What were the chances of two purple Taurus cars traveling this stretch of highway at the same time?

We dropped back to a normal speed on our way to the motel. It was too late for a swim. But we would at least have some dinner and a good night’s rest. We ate and then checked into the motel. As we walked into the room, two of the girls started screaming that something was biting their feet. It was fire ants. They were all over the carpet in that room. I wondered if we were on Candid Camera. The girls got up on the bed while my wife went to the desk to complain. They told her there were no other rooms available. The clerk obviously didn’t know the rules about a mother who was protecting her children. Somehow, they found us another room. We did not have to bail my wife out on murder charges.

The next morning, we were off to Oak Island. Once there we had a wonderful time. There were days on the beach enjoying the unusually warm ocean water. There was a pool which the kids almost preferred. There was the smell of sunscreen and squeals of laughter. One daughter was very fair skinned. For her sunscreen was not enough. She employed a tee shirt and a hat as well. Our adopted son from Africa had only been with us for a month. When we applied sunscreen to him, he proceeded to roll in the sand. His sisters started calling him shake and bake.

He was also nearly the cause of another disaster. He apparently did not understand the concept of a swimming pool. He jumped right into the deepest part of the pool. My brother in law said, “Can he swim?” I said, “I guess we will find out.” He could not swim. I dove in and dragged him into the shallow. He knew very little English. It was a challenge to explain to him that he needed to stay in the shallow.

I don’t know where the idea came from. We had a queen-sized blow-up mattress with us. It was not a flotation device. It was never intended for ocean use. But we used it to ride waves into shore. We started to put more and more bodies on it for each trip. We had a blast. I named it the Weenie Boat. We kept trying to break our own record for people on the Weenie Boat.

On another trip we got up to nine. Most of the time there were fewer bodies on the mattress than when the trip started. One friend lost his swim trunks on a ride and was forever remembered as “Moon Doggie!” The sound of all of that laughter will stay with me forever. Flintstone was a fading memory, and no one mentioned a purple Taurus the rest of the trip.

On subsequent trips we have had the pleasure of watching a sea turtle next hatch and helping the little turtles get to the ocean. We made a visit to a local haunt called the Oar House. (Yeh I know, it does sound like that.) It was a total dive with live music and menus under toilet seats on the wall and drunks dancing with themselves. The kids always said that when they were adults, they wanted to go to the Oar House, but alas it did not survive a storm that next year.

The evenings were almost as much fun as the afternoons. We played games and watched movies. We went out for ice cream and a game of miniature golf or two. Most of our meals were home cooked. We did go to a place called the Provision Company. I guess every beach area has a local dive and Oak Island is no exception. You walk into the restaurant through the kitchen. You tell the cooks what you want, then you grab your own beverage. (On the honor system). You eat on the deck overlooking the ocean and the pelicans and the occasional school of dolphins. It was a great place to get a cheeseburger in paradise, (Sorry Jimmy)

The week was too soon ended. We packed up for home. We did not travel together this time. We took with us a lot of shells and one escaped hermit crab somewhere in the car and a little sunburn and a bag of memories. Those were the most precious souvenirs of all. What had started as a trip from hell, became a little slice of heaven to be remembered always.


Since that fateful trip, we have been back to Oak Island many times with family and friends. It is a special place to us for reasons that are probably hard to understand for some. We have had the chance to take grandchildren there. There they have a chance to taste sand for the first and last time. I remember a two-year-old standing at the window looking at the ocean with his swimsuit on and his “Shovel” pointing and saying, “POOL?” Our kids have the same affinity for the place as we do. We were always worried that they would be bored. But they cherished the quiet and the chance to rest and read and play as much as we did.

This year we will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary there with family. Lots of stories will be told about grandma watching Blazing Saddles and shake and bake and moon doggie and French waiters and Barefoot Landing and too much chicken and squirt gun battles and Southern Comfort and sand castles and even purple Taurus disasters.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Rick Sweeney

The Reverend Dr. Richard Sweeney, Rick, is a retired Presbyterian pastor and author. Rick lives with his wife, Prudy, in Greensburg, PA.