© 2023 Robert Sickles
We are blessed with five wonderful grandchildren. They’ve all grown up to be fine adults, strong and happy… which is so remarkable, considering the traumas we inflicted upon them years ago.
I'm sure there were other times we managed to scare or confuse the wee ones, but here is a look back at just three ill-fated incidents. Honestly, we only meant to broaden our grandchildren’s world view, not terrify them.
The Victoria Clipper
One interesting thing to do for Seattle natives and tourists is to take the Victoria Clipper hydrofoil to Victoria, Canada. For about three hours, it roars over scenic Puget Sound and Canadian waters, passing ferries, sailboats, pods of orcas and pretty islands. You land in the capital of British Columbia in time for high tea at the Empress Hotel, take a tour of Parliament and browse the streets of quaint shops, pubs, museums and old homes. The city’s one-time motto: “Like visiting England without leaving North America.”
We were trying to think of something fun to do with our first-born grandson, then 7 years old. He was ready for his first adventure away from home and parents. Linda beamed, “Let’s take him on the Clipper. I think it will be fun.” I agreed, and knew the Clipper had overnight packages at downtown Victoria hotels. I made the reservations.
There was just one thing we couldn’t have known, and I think the boy didn’t realize it yet himself, that he had a palpable fear of sinking into the deep ocean and being eaten by sea monsters. Even though the ride to Victoria was perfectly fast and smooth, the little boy was very nervous during the voyage.
He white-knuckled the boat ride, only allowing an occasional glance out the window when Grandma urged him to look at a sailboat or a group of seals. Once ashore, the city of Victoria was mildly entertaining for him, I suppose because he couldn’t stop worrying about the return boat trip. We made the most of things around town and spent the night in a nice hotel.
By the end of our stay, a Pacific storm had blown in with heavy wind and rain. At the waiting room of the Clipper terminal, our boy began to beg us not to take the boat home. An announcer said that seas were too high to sail safely. But if the captain saw a break in the weather, he would decide when the Clipper could sail. If not, they would put us on a bus back to Seattle.
“Let’s take the bus! Please, please, please let’s take the bus! It’s too windy, I don’t want to sink!” He begged and pleaded, then pouted and stomped.
“Oh, what a silly noise you make! Let’s have a story, OK? Or do you want to color?” Linda tried her best 2nd grader strategies. But she hadn’t yet realized the phobic roots of his tantrum and the depth of his dread of sea monsters.
Finally, the waves and rain eased and the captain said the ship was ready to board. We took the little boy’s arms and practically lifted him aboard.
Well, not more than one hour out, the boat began really tossing about on large waves and the ship slowed because a hydrofoil can't reach full speed on an ocean that rough. Our grandson was inconsolable, turning pale as he rocked himself and clutched his life vest. Passengers were crying out, “Oh my God!” and “What the hell?” Wave after wave lifted us high then slapped us down hard with such a jolting thump it sounded like we were banging against rocks or hitting deadhead logs.
Then the ship slammed down on the back of one incredibly high wave and a great amount of water flooded into the passenger cabin through the forward doors and windows. The engines went silent; we were stalled in the stormy Strait of Juan de Fuca. Someone yelled “We’re going down!” Everyone was on their feet, scrambling to see where to go, and I saw our grandson tightening his life vest and running for the life boats!
In fact, we were not sinking. Unfortunately, we never got an announcement of what was going on—some reassuring words from the wheelhouse would have been helpful. The engines eventually restarted and we continued bouncing across the waves.
The ship finally crossed the open Strait and we moved into calmer waters; hours later we reached home port. Needless to say, there was no calming our boy. His worst fears had been precariously close to reality, and we knew never again to expect him to enjoy boating with us. A broadening experience? A fun overnight trip with grandparents? Or the source of a lifetime of nightmares?
The Procession of the Species
Olympia, Washington has an annual parade in April called “The Procession of the Species.” It is a fanciful event where individuals and groups celebrate the whole world of animal and plant species and ecosystems, represented in colorful costumes, giant puppets, live music, dancers and floats. It’s a fun tradition that brings the town out, especially on a rare sunny Spring day. For a sensitive young child, though, it can be overstimulating and scary.
First, we stopped for cocoa at a café where a man entered on a wheelchair which was decorated with jungle vegetation. He was wearing a gorilla mask on the back of his head—I guess so he could see where he was going. I’m guessing it appeared to our little boy as though he had a human face forward and a gorilla one looking back, like some kind of sci-fi crossbreeding experiment gone wrong. I turned to watch the man roll past and admire his costume, and when I turned back our boy had disappeared from view. I looked all around, and found that he’d slithered quickly and quietly under the table. I begged him to come out and go watch the parade, assuring him that there would be no more scary things. “Grandpa, you can’t know that.” Finally, he came out. “OK, but promise no more monsters?”
The Parade was, in fact, uproarious—a booming Afro-Brazilian drumming group surrounded by energetic dancing jaguars and jungle birds; a group dressed as East Indian snake-charmers; leopard-costumed belly dancers; bats on unicycles; a smoke-breathing Chinese dragon; a troupe of fallen-tree, fern and mossy-rock rainforest spirits; a dozen people making a gigantic tarantula puppet walk down the street; and a swarm of kids dressed as jellyfish and octopuses on bicycles—to name a few. Things were getting pretty intense, and a time-out for the boy was needed.
I took him to a park bench away from the street where he and I could gather wits and dry tears. He’d pulled up his hood and covered his eyes with his hands. I looked into his untrusting face, and, prematurely, assured him that there were no more scary things to see.
As soon as I’d said that, a man dressed as a peacock strutted straight up to us, fanned his tail feathers, thrust his big bird head up close and squawked loudly right into our faces, “KYOW!!” The poor lad glared at me with tears in his eyes, as though I’d betrayed him once again. It took months to coax him to come downtown with us.
Another Kid, Another Parade
Here we go on again. A different boy, another goof-up. In Seattle, the artsy community of Fremont puts on their kaleidoscopic Summer Solstice Parade with wild costumes and pulsating music. It’s along the lines of a Caribbean Mardi Gras mixed with pagan and tribal themes. The parade with floats and bands includes the famous nude body-painted bicyclists; Pride marchers in flamboyant regalia; nature worshippers and mythical creatures in Druid procession; grotesque clowns, acrobats, fire eaters and jugglers. It’s bawdy, crazy fun in a very bohemian community, and at its heart, a celebration of the seasons. A spectacle to dazzle another of our young grandchildren? Before we set out, it occurred to me that it might be too much. And yet…
Actually, everything was going OK at first. We stopped for an ice cream cone and strolled along the sidewalk of vendors, magicians and musicians. Then we reached the parade route.
The 4-year-old wasn’t fazed by the topless parade dancers, the nymphs and satyrs blowing conch shells and ram’s horns, or the acrid clouds of incense wafting over a ceremonial march of lichen-clad, fern-hair, camo-faced Sacred Naiads of the Waterfall and Forest Moon. He was trembling a little but I thought he was just excited to see the hubbub and entertainment.
But then came along this guy on stilts. He wore a giant papier mâché horned-demon head and wielded ghastly skeleton hands on his elongated arms. He strutted, glided and whirled, occasionally stooping to point a big boney finger at someone along the sidewalk. And guess who got the boney finger? Our boy had reached overload, and the fun times were over!
We hastily retreated to a quiet park to have our picnic, and we tried to explain why that man “on sticks” was 12 feet tall with big ugly hands and face.
Simply put, I was slow to realize that these kids were simply very protected, sensitive suburban babes. As our one daughter said, "They don't get out much." Until they grew a little older, they reacted fearfully to all sorts of physical and emotional stimulation. After the scary things we tried to do with them, each suspected we intended to frighten them to death.
We wanted to take them trick-or-treating, to see Santa, ride through an automatic carwash, dodge waves at the seashore, paddle a kayak, ride a merry-go-round, take in a county fair, go to a G-rated movie, listen to live music, and take a choo-choo train ride from the old depot. All those activities should be instant fun for kids, right? But after the near-tragedy at sea and those terrifying parades, there was a lingering mistrust. They all knew to be cautious… Grandma and Grandpa liked to pretend everything’s nice and normal, but then deliver the children to monsters!