Growing up, I was what I like to call fishstick-and-bologna poor. Now, don’t get me wrong—we weren’t poverty-stricken, and I never went without anything at all. My mom made sure that I had all the things growing up that she never had, and I remember my dad working from sun up to sundown before my mom headed out to work long hours into the night. They both worked their tails off to make sure of that I never felt deprived.
I was immensely loved and well taken care of.
We just didn’t live in a mansion; we had a single-wide trailer that my parents eventually added onto. It was home in a way that nowhere else will ever be. We drove used cars (my parents even saved me an ‘88 Dodge Daytona for when I turned 16 in 1999, and I loved that car), and we didn’t have satellite or cable. We ate bologna sandwiches on white bread and fishsticks dipped in ketchup. Hence being fishstick-and-bologna poor.
But I never did without anything. My parents did, but I didn’t. In almost all respects, I had a magical and wonderful childhood that I wouldn’t give up for anything.
Almost every summer, we went somewhere for a family vacation. It might not have been far from home in some exotic locale, and we might not have had the ritziest accommodations (my dad often commented that he couldn’t tell the difference between a fancy hotel room and the one he’d get at the Motel 6, so why bother paying the extra price?), but we were together. That’s what mattered. Some of my fondest memories are of trips to places just an hour or two away from where we lived.
Now, two of my favorite things in the world are geekery and running. The geeky stuff has been a part of my life as long as I can remember, but the running…well, that’s a pretty new addition.
Weirdly, though, my earliest vacation memory involves both geekery and running. Back in the ‘80s, Tennessee was lucky to have a theme park called Opryland. It was awesome. It was no Disney World, but it was nearby, it was affordable, and it was fun. All of which really hit home with my family.
I don’t remember a lot of details about my first trip there. I had a wonderful time. I remember seeing people dressed up like the Trix rabbit and other General Mills characters. I remember some shows with ladies in bonnets and flowy dresses. And I remember wanting a gigantic stuffed Mario—like from Super Mario Bros. I wanted that Mario more than anything I had ever wanted in my life.
I can’t even remember what game it was from. But my dad stood there and played it until that 3-foot-tall, plush plumber was mine to hold and to love and to cuddle. It was the greatest day. I carried my stuffed plumber around all day and all night. I remember making him jump on flowers like they were Piranha Plants or Goombas. We were friends of the closest sort.
The trip was perfect. As the day wore on, my parents and I stopped and ate or rested on a bench here and there. The entire time, I had Mario at my side. He was my buddy. The sun started to set and night fell. My mom and I looked at stuff and watched shows, my dad played with musical instruments. He was a professional musician before I was born, doing lots of studio work in Nashville and even touring with Hank Williams, Jr. in the 1970s. And then, before I knew what happened, it was time to go home because the park was about to close.
We headed out the gate, made it to the car…and my parents realized that I had left my new BFF Mario on one of the benches outside of the bathroom we had just stopped at.
I remember my dad looking at his watch. He and my mom were talking about going back into the park.
“I guess you should go get it,” my mom said. “If you remember where it was.”
“I think he left it by the bathrooms. That’s the last time we sat down.”
“Probably, yeah,” she said. “You should go check for him, but who knows if they will even let you back in the park.”
“I have the hand stamp,” my dad said. “They’ll let me in.”
“And you’re sure he left it at the bathrooms?”
My dad shrugged and turned around. Immediately, he was sprinting full-speed back toward the gate. It was like watching an Olympic hopeful pushing himself in a time trial, trying to win a spot in the biggest event in the world. Only instead of that, it was my dad, hoping for them to let him back inside a closing amusement park.
I have no idea how long he was gone, but I was 5 or 6 years old, so in my mind, it was hours and hours and hours. I sat there in the parking lot with my mom, staring at the front gate of Opryland.
“You think Daddy’s gonna find Mario?” I asked her.
“I hope so, baby boy,” she said. “I just hope no one picked him up and took him for themselves.”
“I don’t think they would do that,” I said.
“Because Mario’s my friend. Not theirs.”
My mom smiled at me, and I kept staring through the window of the car. Eventually, I saw my dad jogging back toward us, not sprinting like before.
“Momma!” I cried. “Daddy!”
She turned around and looked, too.
“He’s got Mario!” I cried.
My dad came up to the car, opened the backdoor and handed me my plumber friend. I hugged that plush Italian and said, “Thank you, Daddy!”
“You’re welcome, buddy boy.” Then we drove back to the probably-Motel 6, and I played with Mario until I went to sleep.
Years later, my dad would tell me he had to jump the turnstile to get back into Opryland. He said the attendant was okay with it, but knowing my dad, I don’t think that was the case. I’m pretty sure he broke into an amusement park to rescue Mario.
So for years, Mario lived on top of a bookshelf in my bedroom, and I am 90% certain he is still in the attic at my mom’s house right now.
There was nothing special about that doll. It really wasn’t even that plush—it was hard and didn’t move or flop around. I probably would have forgotten about it, too, if it hadn’t been for my dad running like an Olympian to get it just because I’d been a stereotypical 5 year old and left it just kind of sitting around somewhere random.
I like to think that means something.