Illustration by Mark Wilson
In the late 1970s my parents bought a summer cabin on Fourth Lake. Calling it a summer cabin is high praise because it was little more than a shack. But it was only a five-minute run from the front door to the lakefront for five-year-old me and that made me look forward to our time there. I still loathed the drive.
Once we were in the car—the station wagon or Suburban or whatever land-ship my father happened to own at the time, always second-hand, always a wrench turn away from sound running condition—and we four kids were settled among the luggage, tools and building materials my father had stuffed into the massive vehicle, we’d be off. Usually we left when the sun was just coming up, and we’d try to sleep in the back. We knew that the four-hour trip to our cabin was going to be long, nauseating and boring, yet there was always the anticipation of our visit to the Wigwam keeping us awake.
The Wigwam, where we stopped habitually, was a roadside diner somewhere just outside of the Adirondack Park, maybe in Utica or some other central New York town that seemed frozen in time like Happy Days. Our excitement wasn’t just from the fact that we were free to order cheeseburgers and milkshakes there. It was also that a plane had crashed into the building.
Within 20 miles of our home, we would start wondering how long it would be before we would spot the white tail of that plane jutting out of the old barn-like building, no matter that it was still a couple hundred miles away. Or maybe it was just me. I was the youngest of my brothers and sisters, and though only four or five at the time, I remember being obsessed with the question of how that plane crashed into the roof of a restaurant and the place just continued to operate as normal.
Every time we stopped there I grilled my father—while he was malingering in the parking lot puffing on one of the nausea-inducing cigars he was banned from smoking in the vehicle—with the infinite questions of the young: how the plane could’ve gotten there, what happened to the pilot, and if it could be flown again, or whatever other fancies a child might have. Each time my father would explain it wasn’t a real plane, it was like a model that the owner had put up to attract customers.
I don’t know how many times we had been there before I was old enough to lock myself in the bathroom and climb onto the sink. From there, I was just barely able to move one tile of the drop ceiling. I thought surely the rest of the plane was in that space. As I strained to reach, tippy-toed on the lip, the sink gave way beneath me and I crashed to the floor. The sink had torn from its mounting on the wall and water spewed out all around me.
I tried to prop the sink back against the wall to stem the water flow with no success. I opened the door and slipped out, closing it behind me despite the deluge that was already running over the threshold. As I took my seat my mother sat analyzing me with her X-ray vision. She hadn’t noticed the flood yet, but she still knew something was awry. I tried looking innocent as the water began flowing into the dining room. A din started up around us as the rest of the customers began to comment and I could see my older siblings smiling with malice, knowing that I was in trouble. So I decided in my young mind to fess up to the crime before I was outed. I sat up and announced clearly, “Mom, Dad, I think I broke the bathroom.”
A moment of awkward silence spread across the room waiting to see the family conflict. “What did you do?” my mother asked almost neutrally.
“I climbed up on the sink and it fell off the wall,” I told her. I heard my father mutter; the sole waitress had rushed into the kitchen for backup.
“Why would you do that?” my mother asked.
“I wanted to see the rest of the plane.” It sounded like such simple logic to me.
The entire room, hearing my explanation, began to chuckle. Chuckles turned to belly laughs as the water flooded across the room. I was on the cusp of tears, not sure where the situation was going to end up.
My father rushed into the bathroom and cut off the water. He was an electrician by trade but could fix just about anything, and so when the water ceased he went out to the car for whatever tools he needed to refix the sink to the wall.
My brother hissed at me, “You’re gonna get it,” but Mother gave him a withering glance and asked if I was OK. It seemed like an out, so I cradled my arm somewhat half-heartedly and told her my arm hurt a little. The waitress had reappeared with an older man who stood tall and lean against the counter in his stained apron, surveying the situation.
My father emerged with his toolbox and announced the bathroom was back in service, for which he received a smattering of applause from our fellow diners, and walked on to confer with the owner/cook, who nodded and smirked and they shook hands. My father returned his tools to the car and leaned on the hood, finishing the cigar he had started earlier while my mother settled the bill.
As we left the Wigwam single file, with my brother still whispering in my ear that I was in big trouble, the man stopped me. He put his outsized hand on my shoulder and said loud enough for all to hear, “Son, the rest of that plane isn’t in the ceiling,” he eyed the room for effect and dropped his voice to a stage whisper. “It’s in the basement.” This caused another round of laughter that he interrupted by calling out, “But don’t you go diggin’ no holes in my floor.” He tussled my hair and handed me a licorice stick, a gleaming red wand big around as my thumb, which I lorded over my brother for the rest of the ride to the cabin.
Find the Wigwam (315-392-4811, on Facebook), still sporting its unique roof decoration, at 10961 Route 28, in Forestport.