By John Carlson—
So there I was, standing in front of D.J.’s Clam Shack, thinking how the older you get, the less risky your vacations become.
It wasn’t that long ago one of my vacation goals was to join those hardy souls who summit Mt. Everest. Twenty minutes later, however, I decided that another equally worthwhile vacation goal is to not die while trying to do something stupid. If I wanted to explore gigantic natural protuberances, I decided, I’d just go to Dollywood.
Haven’t made it there yet, either.
That’s why, just like the past ten years, Nancy and I were recently vacationing with our friends Jimmy and Cathy Hayes down at our same old favorite place on the Gulf of Mexico near St. Pete. Unlike Mt. Everest, we could be fairly certain that when we left there, it would not be in a body bag. While it was gray and drizzly this particular day, I had yet to see the gulf’s watery environs explode with anything like awesome anger.
Then Saturday as we were leaving it put on a pretty good show.
Looking out from our hotel room, I tried to formulate the words to convey its natural magnificence, then settled on this.
“Wow. That’s a crapload of waves.”
But most of the time, down there at our hotel in Florida, life seems pretty safe, assuming you aren’t one of the geckos that populate the courtyard. Watching from our balcony one afternoon, the hotel owner’s son patrolled the property with a powerful leaf blower strapped to his back, clearing wayward leaves and such. While he’s a nice young man, I was struck by how he must seem to be a wrathful, malevolent presence to those little green guys from the Geico commercials.
Caught up in the blast, they go tumbling past.
Of course, sometimes it’s the things you can’t even imagine that spell disaster on a vacation, for geckos and humans.
A little background. I am Guy Fieri’s biggest fan. I love Guy, and watch his signature cable show “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” by the hour, though even I can’t figure out why he pronounces his last name with a T when it’s spelled with an R.
Anyway, there are a couple places Guy has visited on “Triple D” within a mile or two of our hotel, one a diner where the blackened grouper sandwiches are to die for. The other place is D.J.’s. Clam Shack. I had never visited it, but I trust Guy implicitly not to lead me astray, food-wise.
And yet, upon reading the words “Clam Shack” as we entered, I couldn’t help but feel a moment’s stomach-churning revulsion.
This feeling went back back to 1983. That year our family – Nancy, our daughter Katie, who wasn’t yet one-year-old, and I – set off in our dinky pickup truck bound for Maine, sleeping under the truck bed’s protective cap, tucked in among all the down sleeping bags and camp gear we could stuff into it.
All told, this was a pretty nice little vacation.
It was on our way home that, based on the advice of a newspaper buddy, we made a lunchtime visit to the picturesque fishing village of Scituate, Massachusetts, which had all the natural charm of a nostalgic coastal painting. Right outside the seaside diner we’d chosen, quaint fishing boats bobbed at the piers to which they were tied, the surrounding ocean air perfumed by sea salt.
The whole scene was deliciously fresh. Norman Rockwell could have been sitting at an easel painting it.
So I happily polished off my large platter of yummy fried clams, joined my wife and daughter back in the truck, and we continued on our way.
A couple hours later, having quickly visited Plymouth Rock, we were motoring along an interstate with the skyline of Providence, Rhode Island, in the distance, when suddenly, my arms automatically turned my truck off the interstate and onto the berm. I braked to a stop.
Slowly, I got out, walking like a zombie.
“Honey,” Nancy asked. “Are you all right?”
Ignoring her, I stumbled from behind the steering wheel around to our truck’s right side. Then I sprawled on the pavement and, with cars whizzing past, began hugging my right front tire in a death grip, like it was some huge, new, Pepto-Bismol flavored Dunkin’ Donut.
As for what I did for the next fourteen hours, I shall skip the disgusting details, save to say that kid from “The Exorcist” had nothing on me. But in all honesty, Nancy told me later, she began questioning the legalities that would be involved should she have to drive my putrid, moldering body back to Muncie.
Me? After spending all that night and half the morning on the floor of the “Hotel Room From Hell,” wishing I were dead, I finally began to keep down tiny sips of orange juice.
Now, much as the notion of buying a shotgun, driving back to that diner, and registering a 12-gauge’s worth of disappointment with what that place’s cook and staff had done to me was appealing, I was no killer.
If I had gone back there with a shotgun, though, when I left, its clam fryer would have had more holes in it than a cheese grater.
Anyway, I hadn’t eaten a fried clam since. So into D.J.’s I walk and ask, “Is Guy here?” Like we’re best pals. “Nope,” the kid behind the counter says. “Palm Springs.”
So while Jimmy, Cathy and Nancy order shrimp tacos, fish tacos, and a bowl of clam chowder, respectively, I swallow the fear, screw up my courage, and order clam strips.
Know what? They were dynamite.
Guess I needn’t fear fried clams on vacation again, at least if Guy says they’re fine.
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three. John’s columns appear on MuncieJournal.com every Friday.