Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My Family Vacation Part IV: Showdown at the Train Museum

Author’s note: This is the last of a four-part story of my family’s summer vacation. We made it out alive.

The steam-converted-to-diesel train engine was bigger than my house. Its wheels stood a good six inches over my 5’10” head and the photograph I took of my son in front of the engine made me wonder where he was in the picture.

“When it first ran, the wheels turned so fast it pulled the rails out of the ground,” our tour guide at the Railswest Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, said.

I don’t doubt it. Although the engine looked harmless now, when that barn-sized mass of metal moved, I’m sure it shook the earth like Tom Jones did Vegas.

Council Bluffs, sitting just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Neb., is a pivotal piece of U.S. railway history. It was the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad … oh, who am I kidding? The kids didn’t care.

The Boy, four, ran through the yard and, after a head-nod from our guide, stormed up steps and into the cab of a steam engine.

The Boy loves trains. If given the choice between pulling his sister out of the path of stampeding Clydesdales and watching an engine shunt freight cars, he’d pick the rail yard.

The Girl, two, loves trains only because it annoys the hell out of her brother.

“Do you know what this is?” our tour guide asked, pointing at a car behind the engine.

“The tender,” the Boy, and of course it was. For readers whose child isn’t obsessively fixated on trains, the tender held water for the boiler and coal for the firebox of steam engines. I didn’t know that until the Boy learned to speak.

Our tour guide was really exceptional. She was patient, businesslike and probably knew quite a bit about trains. I’m just assuming that, of course, because we couldn’t hear a word she said.

“No, my do it,” the Girl screamed in a pitch that may have only been audible to dolphins.

“Mine,” the Boy bellowed, wrestling her over controls of an engine that no longer ran.

And so on.

Back when this engine thundered over the railroad tracks that stretched across this country, there was a way to deal with people like this – toss them off the train, preferably as you were crossing a trestle. It was a more civilized era.

Next came the dining car where …

“I went poopy, Daddy,” the Girl said to her mother. Our two-year-old can tell us apart – she breastfed after all – but sometimes calls me Mommy. She just wants to keep us guessing.

Please enjoy this brief interlude while my wife changes the Girl’s diaper in our minivan. The Boy sure did.

The guide then took us through a mail car and caboose, but after dropping something old and maybe irreplaceable out an open window, my wife hauled the Girl off like a mail sack, if mail sacks screeched.

We past a lot of busy freight trains during our two-hour drive home, although no one saw them but me. I was the only one still awake – I was driving.

Copyright 2009 by Jason Offutt

You can order Jason’s books on the paranormal, “Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us,” and “Haunted Missouri: A Ghostly Guide to Missouri’s Most Spirited Spots,” at

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Family Vacation Part III: Flying Death at the Henry Doorly Zoo

Author’s note: This is the third of a four-part story of my family’s summer vacation. By now the inside of the minivan smells funny.

Sundays as a kid were borderline fantastic.

The day started with a pile of fried pork and hash browns covered in gravy. That was followed by church, hamburgers, a Tarzan movie and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”

“Wild Kingdom” was the pinnacle of Sunday programming for a 10-year-old boy because, unlike the “Wonderful World of Disney,” there was a chance I’d get to see a 250-pound feline gut a wildebeest.

Zoologist Marlin Perkins hosted the program throughout the 1960s and ’70s and never got close to an animal unless it climbed into the front seat of his Jeep. But his co-host, Jim Fowler was nearly killed every episode. Jim’s job was to wrestle whatever beast nature threw at him: lions, anacondas, yaks, rancors, the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms – anything. But never a blonde. I always felt sorry for Jim.

I wasn’t thinking about Jim as my family and I walked toward the entrance of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo (home of the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom Pavilion); I was thinking of Marlin. My family was going to experience animals like Marlin had and just as nature intended – from behind a thick sheet of glass.

With the drunken frivolity of the College World Series (see Part 2) safely outside and across the street, we met my wife’s college friends and their families ready to tour one of the best zoos in the Midwest.

The zoo, founded as Riverview Park zoo in 1894, attracts more than 1 million visitors a year to its indoor desert, indoor rain forest, great ape exhibits and an aquarium that holds 1.3 million gallons of salt water. Oh, and sharks. Lots and lots of sharks.

But it was at the indoor rain forest where the spirit of Marlin Perkins watched from a safe bench outside as our group braved the interior.

Water drips from the upper reaches of the Lied Jungle, and howler monkeys fill the air with their hoots. Immense fish, big enough to swallow a human baby, swim in a shallow indoor creek as tapirs wander the banks. A rope bridge, a tunnel teeming with vampire bats, and dirt trails lead visitors through re-creations of the jungles of Asia, Africa and South America.

The Lied Jungle, we later discovered, is something called a “total immersion exhibit,” which, translated into English, meant one of us was going to be attacked by a monkey.

My wife’s friend Debbie pushed her three-year-old son Ben through the South American rain forest, Ben nibbling at Cheerios scattered on the tray of his stroller, and everyone oblivious to the orange flying death that stalked them.

The green and white sign on a wooden placard in the rainforest read: “Please DO NOT Climb Tree,” although no one could read it through the one-pound golden lion tamarin streaking through the air.

The tiny monkey thumped onto Ben’s tray, scattering Cheerios onto the rainforest floor. The adults screamed. Ben screamed, his relationship with Curious George ruined forever. The other children screamed. The monkey screamed … and possibly pooped.

Terrified of the giant howling humans, the tamarin leapt into the trees and escaped to safety.

The rest of the zoo was impressive and fun, but much less threatening.

Thanks, Jim Fowler, that was the best zoo trip ever.

Next week: The Railswest Railroad Museum.

Copyright 2009 by Jason Offutt

You can order Jason’s books on the paranormal, “Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us,” and “Haunted Missouri: A Ghostly Guide to Missouri’s Most Spirited Spots,” at

Saturday, July 04, 2009

My Family Vacation Part II: Dodging The College World Series

Author’s note: This is the second of a four-part story of my family’s summer vacation. If you want to pray for me, it’s too late.

Cars, tents, campers, lawn chairs and banners for Division 1 schools like LSU, Arkansas, Virginia and Texas decorated the parking lots of Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium like a preschool art project. The colors made me a little woozy.

It was Day One of the 2009 College World Series, it was 7:30 a.m., and traffic was backed up for blocks; which was good for the scalpers, who were also backed up for blocks. The last time I’d seen that many cardboard signs was on a Chicago off ramp.

The average attendance for the College World Series over the past five years has been 278,321, which, compared to the city’s population of 432,921, the stadium seating capacity of 23,100, and the just more than 10,000 hotel rooms in Omaha, meant there were a lot of people in town with nothing to do except get in my way.

But my family and I weren’t in Omaha for the College World Series, which caused a problem with parking. We were on vacation and taking our children to a Midwest vacation mecca – the Henry Doorly Zoo. At least 50 weeks out of the year there’s decent parking at the zoo, which shares parking lots with the stadium, because for 50 weeks the city doesn’t host the series.

I don’t plan well.

“The zoo opens at 8:30 a.m. Saturday,” my wife said as we settled into the scary hotel of death (see Part 1). “We should get there early. Let’s go.”

It was 7 p.m. Friday.

We weren’t alone in this quest to have fun in a city that’s best chance at tourism dollars was to ignore us and cater to people waving banners. My wife’s college friends and a few of their husbands were in town, and we were all going to the zoo. That made nine adults and nine children, all under six. I was scared. I can barely contain my own kids. What if one of the other parents had to go to the bathroom?

We drove slowly onto the street that leads to the stadium and zoo behind vehicles with college flags and foam fingers, packing the giant parking lot like it was a sausage. And we found a spot – easily.

The zoo, unlike me, planned ahead. Any vehicle could park in the zoo’s special parking lot if the people inside paid zoo admission.

Clipboard Guy:
How many adults in the vehicle?

Me: Two.

Clipboard Guy: You have to pay zoo admission to park here.

Me: I know.

Clipboard Guy: I mean, you can go to the games, just know we’re going to use your money to buy pizza.

Me: We’re going to the zoo.

Clipboard Guy (looking at me like Congress looks at Supreme Court nominees): That’ll be $23.

I’m sure the carload of geniuses from the University of Texas who spent $69 to park next to us, and were now drinking Natural Light from the trunk of their Saturn at 7:30 a.m., were going to the zoo, too.

Next week: The zoo.

Copyright 2009 by Jason Offutt

You can order Jason’s books on the paranormal, “Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us,” and “Haunted Missouri: A Ghostly Guide to Missouri’s Most Spirited Spots,” at