A Classy Post about a Loyal Dog with an Unfortunate Name

On the night of May 29, 1805 in the Montana wilderness, a group of intrepid and weary explorers got a shock when a large buffalo bull came charging across a river, pushed off a long, wooden canoe, and crashed his way through camp. The agitated beast stomped within eighteen inches of the heads of several of the sleeping men, causing a ruckus throughout the company before anyone had time to really react.

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Lewis and Clark and Seaman. St. Charles, Missouri. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Captain Meriwether Lewis journaled about the scare, expressing both his relief that none of the members of the Corps of Discovery had been hurt in the incident and his pride in his dog, whose fierce and heroic reaction to the buffalo had convinced it to change direction and run out of the camp. The dog referred to was a large black Newfoundlander named Seaman.

Said to be the only animal to have made the entire trip, Seaman was evidently a pretty special pooch. Lewis purchased his doggo for twenty dollars in Pittsburgh in 1803 while awaiting the completion of the boats for his upcoming journey through the vast wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase and to the Pacific Coast.

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There may not be any Seaman on this sign, but we know he was all over the place on the trail.

Seaman was a great defender of his pack, a pretty good hunter of tasty squirrels, and a fearless retriever of whatever the men managed to shoot. He must have been an impressive animal because a Shawnee man wished to purchase him for three beaver pelts, an offer that made Lewis scoff.

The Newfie shows up sporadically in Lewis’s writings, but it’s clear from the mentions that Seaman was a favorite of all, filling the role of mascot for the expedition. And that’s kind of how he’s portrayed now, too. You can find Seaman statues and monuments all along the Lewis and Clark Trail, including St. Louis, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Washburn, North Dakota; Great Falls, Montana; Seaside, Oregon; and many others.

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A less classy blogpost might find humor in stating that you can find Seaman all over the city of St. Charles.

You can also find him in St. Charles, Missouri, where the Corps of Discovery met up with Captain Lewis and Seaman to officially begin the journey to the west.

There, on the bank of the Missouri River, stands a fifteen-foot tall bronze statue of Lewis and Clark with their trusty canine companion. And in the last week or so, a lot more statues of Seaman have cropped up throughout the town, which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary.

To commemorate its Sestercentennial, the city commissioned local artists to decorate twenty-five statues of the famous dog that are now placed at local businesses throughout the town and that are starting to light up my Facebook feed as friends stumble on them and share obligatory pictures.

And I’m trying to be high-minded enough not to picture the meeting in which a member of the city’s promotions department pitched the idea that they should cover the whole town in Seaman. A number of other bloggers and journalists have been unable to resist the built-in, low-brow jokes. I find myself wondering whether the person who came up with the idea got fired, or got a raise.

Because people sure are talking about St. Charles, Missouri and its abundance of Seaman. I wasn’t the only person hunting him down for pictures on a pretty Wednesday afternoon. He is cute. And everyone loves a good doggo, even one with a possibly kind of funny-sounding name. You don’t have to be a dog person yourself to appreciate the aww factor of man’s best friend.

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Purple Seaman covered in popcorn on the streets of St. Charles.

The men of the Corps of Discovery certainly did. Even though hard times forced them to consume more than two hundred dogs during the expedition, Seaman made the entire journey alive and well.

Though it’s not entirely clear what happened to him after the trip, an 1814 account by Clergyman Timothy Alden writing about (then deceased) Meriwether Lewis, mentions the man’s dog who refused food and comfort, eventually dying of grief at the grave of his master.

It’s not a huge leap to assume that Seaman was the broken-hearted canine, a loyal pet that chased away a rampaging buffalo and became one of the greatest mascots in American history. He’s the kind of trusty companion worth remembering on the 250th anniversary of the town where his epic journey began, even if his name sounds a little funny. I mean, if you’re into that kind of humor.

 

All Your Kazoo Questions Answered

On January 28, 2019 American kazoo enthusiasts celebrated the 167th anniversary of their favorite instrument on what has come to be known as National Kazoo Day. I missed it this year, because I had no idea it existed. In fact, I’d given little thought to this funny instrument that anyone who can hum can easily master. But as I recently learned on a family spring break trip, there’s more to the humble kazoo than I had ever not even bothered to imagine.

electric kazoo
I can honestly say I never imagined this.

Looking to make some quirky vacation memories, my crew headed to the Kazoobie Kazoo Factory in Beaufort, South Carolina, the only producer of plastic kazoos in the United States.

As you might expect, it’s not a large operation, but the little factory does produce about one million high quality (they’re even dishwasher safe!) kazoos per year. More importantly, they give tours. And they answer all your kazoo questions—Yes. All of them.

It was there in the factory that I learned of African American Alabama Vest who conceived of the idea for the kazoo sometime in the 1840s and approached German-American clockmaker Thaddeus Von Clegg in Macon, Georgia to mock up a prototype. The two men then exhibited the new instrument, which they called the “Down-South Submarine,” at the 1852 Georgia State Fair. Though it wouldn’t be mass produced for another fifty years, the kazoo was born.

Or so the story goes. I tend to want to believe any story in which historical figures are represented on video as brightly colored kazoos with googly eyes, but it turns out the story might not really be all that reliable.kazoo patent

The first actual documentation of the kazoo comes from an 1883 patent issued to a W. H. Frost. Frost didn’t call his invention the “Down-South Submarine,” and it didn’t look a whole lot like the modern-day, boat-shaped kazoo found abandoned at the bottom of every kid’s toy box.

Something more similar to the classic design as we know it today was patented by George D. Smith in 1902. Within a few years, several factories had gone into production. The only remaining metal kazoo factory in the US can be found in Eden, New York, which claims to be the “Kazoo Capital of the World.”

If you ever spend spring break in New York (though I’m not sure why you would), you can tour The Kazoo Factory and Museum, too. I suspect you’ll have a good time. But for some great, silly family fun in Beaufort, South Carolina, I doubt you can beat Kazoobie Kazoos.

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Kazoo + Wazoo Horn + Bugle Bell = Wazoogle

At the end of the tour, each of the guests (and there were quite a few of us) got to make his or her own kazoo. Then we tested them with a moving rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” There were tears. Well, maybe not tears, but there were definitely giggles.

Next, we made our way to the store to trick out our new instruments with more kazoo accessories than I can honestly say I ever dreamed of. Yes, there are kazoo accessories. There are even electric kazoos, in case your death metal band is looking for that unique buzzing tone.

A few bands through the years have incorporated kazoos into their music, though the instrument hasn’t proven to have a lot of staying power on the professional music scene. It’s mostly been relegated to the bottom of the toy box. But on January 28, or thereabout, or really any day you want since the origin story is so sketchy anyway, consider digging out the kazoo you surely have lying around somewhere, and hum a little tune. It may not be fine music you produce, but it will probably make you giggle.

Revision, Blogging, and Imaginary Fame

I confess I wasn’t going to post anything today. I love writing in this space and interacting with those readers who are kind enough to leave a comment, thereby publicly admitting that they have read my foolishness. Thursdays are blog days. Still, posting weekly sometimes gets a little overwhelming. Currently I am knee-deep in a novel revision of the type that never goes as smoothly as I think it will.

Part of the problem is that I get bogged down with little research questions. What, for example, besides the Bible, might a family have been reading aloud by the fire in 1836 in rural Pennsylvania? I am genuinely asking by the way, as this is a problem I’ve not yet managed to solve adequately. If you point me in the right direction, I promise to name you in the acknowledgments.

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Steve the Traveling Sock Monkey is ready to go!

I’m also in the middle of preparing to go on book tour.

That little sentence gets its own paragraph because it makes me giddy. The “tour” as I call it really is just a couple of bookstore signings tacked onto a trip to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival in (you guessed it) Augusta, Georgia, at the beginning of March.

I’m pretty excited about this because I do not live in Georgia. In fact, I have never lived in Georgia. I have never even lived in a state that borders Georgia. As thrilled as I am, I might as well be going on an international speaking tour.augustaliteraryfestival

Mark Twain did that. In the summer of 1895, the then fifty-nine-year-old great American humorist hit the road, delivering recitations of portions of his own impressive and hilarious works. He did this in front of large crowds all over the world from Australia to South Africa to Great Britain, where the report of his death was greatly exaggerated.Mark_Twain_circa_1890 It should probably be noted that he was not invited to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival, though admittedly, had it existed at the time, I’m sure he would have been welcome.

Twain embarked on his successful tour as a scheme to get himself out of debt. I’m hitting the road because I have a pretty great librarian sister-in-law who does live in Georgia and is the best cheerleader ever.

I’m pretty sure I won’t draw quite the crowds Mark Twain managed, but I do hope that if you, dear reader, happen to reside in the neighborhood of Augusta or Savannah, Georgia, maybe you’ll swing by to say hello. I’m probably not as funny and charming as Mark Twain, but I promise I’ll do my best.

I won’t be traveling as long as Mark Twain did, either. His great comedy tour lasted more than a year. Mine will be a long weekend. But because I imagine I’m famous (and sometimes coincidence works in my favor) I have a speaking engagement when I get back to the great state of Missouri, too. That one is sure to draw a crowd because I will be talking to an auditorium full of high school students who can choose to either attend my presentation or go to class. If I lose out to a physics lecture, I will be particularly disheartened.

Then finally, it will be back to work, answering tedious questions about life in the 1830s and writing, rewriting, revising, and yes most weeks, posting to this blog. Because Thursdays are blog days.

The Second Best (Creeptastic) Hidden Ice Skating Rink

Included in the January 15, 1895 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is an article mentioning the increase in numbers ice skaters frequenting the frozen ponds of St. Louis’s Bellefontaine Cemetery. At night.

This time of year, thanks to television commercials and overly enthusiastic neighbors who insist on placing plastic headstones in their lawns to add a little holiday ambiance, we all become a little haunted by the shadow of death. Or at least I do.

neighborhood grave
The cemetery isn’t nearly as scary as my neighbor’s yard decked out for Halloween. I wouldn’t ice skate there, either.

I don’t much fear death, and I might even associate it with ice skating, but I’m still not sure I’d be willing to engage in such a lighthearted activity in a cemetery. And definitely not at night.

Of course, the skaters of 1895 showed up after dark because at the time ice skating was specifically not allowed in the cemetery. By 1909, Bellefontaine had placed additional restrictions on dogs, fishing, and bicycles. Because apparently a lot of people wanted to hang out there.

I suppose it makes a little bit of sense. The cemetery opened in May of 1850, only about twenty years after the first “rural cemetery” in the nation was established outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prior to the development of cemeteries outside of major cities, Americans buried their loved ones primarily in church graveyards that had become dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary as city populations boomed.

Like most of these large rural cemeteries, Bellefontaine was designed as a park, with great attention to beautiful architecture, winding paths, and gorgeous landscaping. It was designed to be a place where mourners could reflect on the lives and deaths of loved ones in peace and quiet. It was also a place one could have a nice picturesque afternoon picnic.

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The real reason I don’t ice skate in the cemetery at night is because when I skate it mostly looks a little something like this. But also it would be pretty creepy. photo credit: vwcampin Ice Skating via photopin (license)

Because at the time there weren’t public parks like we have now, nor were there botanical gardens or art museums available to just any person who wanted to enjoy them. Cemeteries like Bellefontaine filled that need. And sometimes the ponds froze over and people went ice skating.

As city populations continued to grow and park systems grew with them, the role of the large rural cemetery became less public skating rink and more city of the dead. For a time, then, these really beautiful and well tended pieces of land gained a tinge of darkness and dread. They were the places where grieving people gathered for graveside services and solemn remembrances, which is probably why I can’t imagine ice skating in one.

And they’re still that. But recently, while letterboxing with friends, I found myself visiting Bellefontaine for the first time, and you know, it’s really a beautiful place that I could see hanging out in for a while. It was even voted the city’s 2018 second-best hidden gem by the readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Busch Mausoleum
The fancy mausoleum of St. Louis Beer Baron Adolphus Busch.

Today, no longer so much outside the city as well within it,  Bellefontaine is a sprawling 314 acres with fourteen miles of curved roads and more than 87,000 internments, many of them people who once helped shape not only St. Louis, but much of nineteenth century America. Tours are offered regularly, and even include an annual beer barons tour (because St. Louis has had a few of those) complete with plenty local beer samples.

If you’re not too frightened by the tales of ghost sightings and the general creepiness of 87,000 dead people in one place, the ornate mausoleums and memorial statuary are worth a gander, and the stories are fascinating. Today you can feel free to bring your bicycle and your dog, but if you want to fish or ice skate, St Louis might have better options.

Fun with Elvis in the Toilet Paper Capital of the World

Between the hours of 1 and 7 am on August 8, 1977, about one week before his death, superstar Elvis Presley rode his favorite roller coaster back to back to back to back. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little sick.

I actually love roller coasters, and have since I was a kid, but I have my limits. Given the chance, my younger self could have ridden (and probably did) just about any coaster an easy ten times in a row, though I imagine six hours of mostly continuous riding would have been a bit much even then. At forty (the same age Elvis was in 1977), I’m confident my threshold would now be much lower. I can even admit that within the past few years this coolest of aunts has ridden a few coasters with enthusiastic nieces only to discover that I spent most of the ride contemplating the very real possibility of my own immediate death.

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The kind of coaster that makes you want to gyrate your hips a lot. Apparently.

But there are definitely some coasters I like better than others. I have a strong preference for the hilly, wooden variety, the ones that feel a little rickety, zip down big hills, squeal around the corners, and don’t require a rider to wear a five-point harness. So if I were ever going to ride a coaster for several continuous hours, I would gravitate toward one like Elvis rode.

Summer is winding down around these parts with only a couple weeks now until school starts. This past weekend we got back from our annual summer family road trip and a couple days ago we bought school supplies. It’s time, then, to reflect on the adventures of the season. One of those adventures involved a trip that my youngest son and I took to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I needed to do a little research and we have family in the area, so the two of us took off to Titletown (also, I recently discovered, known as the Toilet Paper Capitol of the World) to eat some squeaky cheese curds and ride Elvis’s Zippin’ Pippin roller coaster at the Bay Beach Amusement Park.

Elvis Presley
Something tells me this man never kept his hands on the lap bar. Image via Pixabay

In 1977, the Zippin’ Pippin was the coolest ride at Libertyland in Memphis and Presley was a frequent visitor, usually renting out the park to enjoy the ride unmolested by adoring fans. And that’s why he was there between 1 and 7 am, with just a handful of friends and family and plenty of time to give himself what I imagine was probably a terrible bellyache.

One of the oldest wooden coasters operating in the United States, the Pippin, which didn’t start zippin’ until the 70s, was built between 1912 and 1917. It’s 2,865 feet long and travels between 20 and 40 miles per hour, the ride lasting just 90 seconds. Its largest drop is seventy feet, and like most good ol’ wooden coasters, is best enjoyed with your hands in the air and a scream on your lips.

The coaster was dismantled after Libertyland closed in 2005. In 2010, the Toilet Paper Capital of the World purchased and refurbished the ride for $3.8 million. I rode it for a dollar. And it was money well spent. Though I don’t think it’s a six hours in a row kind of good, the Zippin’ Pippin is a pretty good ride. I’d go again. And maybe again. But after that I’d probably have a bellyache.

Also, only 35 days until publication day!

Liars, Outlaws, and Mandatory Fun

We’re in our second week of a heat wave here in the St. Louis area, the kind that pushes the heat index well over 1oo degree Fahrenheit and keeps us all stuck inside and miserable. We’re fortunate to have air conditioning and lots of fun places to escape the heat, but one day last week, it wasn’t enough.

It was one of those rare days when neither of my children had plans with friends and both were bored and cranky. We needed to get out of the house, to someplace else cool, obviously, but the struggle of agreeing on a destination proved too much. Finally I’d had enough. I decreed that we would have a “Mom’s Choice Mandatory Fun Adventure Day,” marched them to the car, and refused to tell them where we were going.

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For some reason once we hit I-44 it didn’t take the kids long to figure out where we were going. photo credit: el-toro Meramec Caverns Barn Ad via photopin (license)

Then I drove them an hour through winding back roads over to Interstate 44, to Meramec Caverns, the most widely toured cave in Missouri and where it’s always a crisp 60 degrees. If you’ve ever driven along I-44, you’ve seen the billboards. A lot of them. And a few painted barn roofs, too. Many of them identify Meramec Caverns as the one-time hideout for Missouri’s most infamous train and bank robber Jesse James and his gang. Sounds to me like a great place to get away and hide out from the heat for a while.

The story, as shared in complete earnest by our highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide goes something like this: Because the cave was a good source of saltpeter (or potassium nitrate), which was necessary for producing gunpowder, The Union Army used the cave as a munitions factory during the American Civil War until a group of Confederate guerrillas blew it up and put it out of business. Among those guerillas were the James brothers, Jesse and Frank.

Then in the mid to late 1860s, when the brothers began their crime spree, they remembered the cave and returned to use it as their hideout. It was a good one, too, because on at least one occasion a pursuing sheriff figured out their hiding spot, stood guard at the entrance, and waited to starve the criminals out. The man waited for three days before creeping further into the cave to discover a second exit through chilly 40 degree water that feeds into the Meramec River.

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Jesse and Frank James welcoming visitors to their alleged super secret cave hideout. photo credit: Jinx! Meramec Caverns via photopin (license)

It’s just the right kind of story to capture the attention a couple of squirrely boys who have been forced into an afternoon of cave adventure fun. The story continues to capture the imaginations of around 150,000 cave visitors per year, and countless others who drive along I-44, wondering whether they should stop.

So I suppose it’s probably not a huge surprise that it isn’t likely true. I mean, yes, the cave, which explorers originally named Saltpeter Cave, did serve as a mine and munitions factory for the Union Army, and it was attacked by Confederate Guerillas. There’s even a chance Jesse and Frank James were among the soldiers responsible. But there’s really no reliable evidence that the brothers ever returned to the cave. In fact, it seems unlikely that they did.

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You’d think it might be obvious that’s where Jesse was hiding out, what with the neon sign and all. photo credit: Jinx! Jesse James Hideout in Neon! via photopin (license)

The “proof” of the story comes from Lester Benton Dill, the man responsible for developing the renamed Meramec Caverns into a tourist destination. Soon after purchasing the cave, Dill began to expand its accessible parts, which led in 1941 to the discovery of a room beyond a crevice normally underwater, but slightly exposed during times of extreme drought. Dill claimed that the room beyond the crevice contained a strong box connected to a well known train robbery committed by Jesse James and his gang. He opened up the cave to create more access and the room now contains mannequins of Frank and Jesse and is a part of the tour.

But no one is totally clear on when Dill, a master marketer who was known to occasionally push the limits of truthfulness, made this fascinating discovery and the only witness who could testify to the truth of the cave hideout theory was a man by the name J. Frank Dalton, who at the age of 102 claimed to be Jesse James. An imposter, he said, had been shot and killed 67 years earlier. He also said that yes, of course the James brothers had used Meramec Caverns as a hideout and handy escape route.

Of course the James family and DNA evidence both denied the new Jesse’s identity claims, but he’d already breathed life into the tale Dill had been trying to spin on billboards all across Missouri.

me and my book
If you happen to like history that has been commandeered and cleverly woven into other stories and is occasionally a little made up, you should check out my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.

So basically, this guy just commandeered the tale of an interesting historical figure, and wove it together with his own story, sort of making up history a little in order to promote himself. Frankly I don’t know what kind of person might do such a thing. But personally I don’t really mind so much, because Meramec Caverns does make a great hideout on a hot day with bored kids, and a little tall tale doesn’t change that.

The cave features all kinds of wonders, including an amazing formation that looks like a genuine stage curtain on which the tour guides project lights and patriotic images while a recorded Celine Dion belts out a rendition of “America the Beautiful.” It’s easily the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced on a cave tour, and that’s including the James mannequins.

But it’s a literally cool tour in a figuratively cool place, well worth the stop if you find yourself driving down I-44, or in the middle of a heat wave with bored, cranky brothers who need to have some mandatory fun.

Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Lately my youngest son, who tends to like to play the pessimist anyway, has become obsessed with things that don’t work.  It’s something of a family joke that stems from our recent vacation to Disney World in Florida, and it started with the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster in the Magic Kingdom.

My son had picked out our first Fastpassed ride of the day and it was a good choice. Neither of my kids love roller coasters, but this one was just the right kind: not too fast and not too jerky, not too upside down or backwards, and not too dark.

We had a great time on the ride. Then, as soon as we exited, they shut it down temporarily because of technical difficulties. We counted ourselves pretty lucky at that point and felt it was a great start to our adventure. And it was.

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We really did have a great trip, and I don’t think we actually broke Disney World.

But it turned out that this was the beginning of a trend, because it began to seem to us that every ride we either went on or were just about to ride had to be shut down. We thought it must somehow be us.

It happened when we were in line for Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Test Track, and Splash Mountain. The Kali River Rapids, Haunted Mansion, Seven Dwarf’s Minetrain, and even the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover and the oddly fascinating Carousel of Progress, all shut down for a while not long after we exited them. And either all or part of our group was actually caught in a mid-ride shutdown on Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, the Great Movie Ride, and Spaceship Earth.

It really got to be pretty funny. But our greatest shut-down adventure occurred on the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride on which we remained stuck, three boat lengths from the exit, for about half an hour.

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The live version of Captain Jack was a little less creepy.

Opened at California’s Disneyland in March of 1967 and at Florida’s Disney World in 1973, Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the older rides in the Disney collection, spawning the billion dollar movie franchise and wowing Disney guests with animatronic creepiness and complete historical accuracy.

Well, that might be a stretch (the historical accuracy, not the creepiness), but the ride does make great use of its theme song, “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me),” written by George Bruns and Xavier Atencio, paying loose homage to that old timey sea shanty “Dead Man’s Chest.” That song, featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island published in 1883, has allegedly been around so long the origin of it is unknown.

Except that it’s not. Stevenson’s book itself was probably the most influential work of fiction defining the image of the Golden Age pirate until 2003 when Johnny Depp hit the big screen as Captain Jack Sparrow. It turns out Stevenson’s pirate song was pretty influential, too. When versions of it began to show up on the stage and the small screen decades later, the origin of the words had become muddled, lending credence to the rumor that this was a song that had been in the air for centuries.

And that’s how folklore is born. Because “Dead Man’s Chest” is a Stevenson original, and “Yo Ho” is a sort of Disneyfied version of it, written for use in the creeptastically wonderful Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Of course it also appears in the movies and is a favorite of Jack Sparrow’s. If you ride the attraction at Disney World, you can hear animatronic Jack sing it to a parrot while resting comfortably on a chair in a room full of treasure, about three boat lengths from the exit.disneyworldstopped

If you’re lucky enough to get stuck on the ride at that point, you might even have time to learn some of the lyrics, if you can hear them over the complaints of the nine-year-old sitting beside you insisting that he needs to use the restroom.

I have to give Disney World some credit, though.  After about fifteen or twenty minutes, they did raise the lights and turn off the sound, leaving only a kind-of-creepy Jack and his parrot moving silently to the tune. And for our trouble, we received Fastpasses that fortunately did not have to apply to the same ride.

Actually, I think it was a highlight of the trip. We got a great story out of it, a few laughs, and when anyone asks my son about his vacation, he smiles and happily responds, “We broke Disney World.”  In a strange way, the experience has even continued to help him work through his impatience since we’ve been home, too. When something doesn’t work out the way we’d planned, he shrugs and says, “We’re just experiencing technical difficulties. It figures.”