For years, I have identified with E.B. White in “Once More to the Lake” as he takes his son to a lake in Maine where he and his father used to vacation when he was a boy. He expects that in the thirty years or so since he first visited that lake–a time in which American had fallen fully in love with the automobile, among other more “modern” conveniences–much of it will have changed and the visit will be a disappointment. To his surprise, though some of modern American life has crept in, the lake is mostly the same to the point where he sees himself in his son and his father in himself. It’s an essay version of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s Cradle” (though written thirty years prior) and the sort of tale that you probably would aspire to associate with your life.
Alas, I can’t lie anymore and say that when I think of Kezar Lake in New Hampshire, where my parents still spend two weeks every July, I think of E.B. White. Because the truth is, I think of Weird Al.
Appearing as the last track on the soundtrack to UHF (a movie that I have loved since I first saw it on video and will definitely write about at some point), “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” is not featured in the film but is one of several songs on the album that were put there to make sure that Al had enough for a full CD. The song is an Al original, meaning it’s not a straight-up parody like “Eat It” or “Smells Like Nirvana,” although according to Wikipedia, it’s a send-up of a folk/country style song like that of Harry Chapin (the entry even mentions Chapin’s “30,000 Pounds of Banans“).
The lyrics of the song tell a story of a family vacation. The narrator, who sounds a little bit like he coud be related to Clark Griswold, gets a couple of weeks off and decides to take his family to see … well, the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota. They pile into the family station wagon, which is decked out with enough window decals to obscure any view (the song doesn’t say if any of the stickers said “OBX“) and head out. Along the way they pick up a drifter named Bernie who’s supposedly headed to the Twine Ball and who steals their camera when asked to take a picture of the family in front of said ball. “But at least we have our memories” is the dad’s easy-going reply to that.
I discovered this song in the spring of 1992, when my friend Brendan had lent me a slew of Weird Al tapes, songs from which I copied onto side B of a tape–side A consisted of the Off the Deep End album that he’d copied from CD for me (that’s the album with “Smells Like Nirvana” as the lead track. I wouldn’t buy Nevermind until the early 2000s). That summer, we headed to New Hampshire as always and my sister and I both brought our Walkmans for the car ride and plenty of tapes. The ride up was roughly seven or eight hours, six of which was spent in a car (with 90 minutes or so on the ferry from Orient Point to New London, CT). My Weird Al tapes were a favorite with the Twine Ball epic a song even my dad thought was funny.
Now, our car trips were nowhere near as quirky or eventful as the one described in the song. They weren’t even as eventful as those described by people whose parents actually owned station wagons and schlepped them out to whatever tourist trap they had a bug up their collective asses about visiting for a week in the sweltering summer heat. Our car trips, for most of my childhood, were mind-numbing one-hour excursions to my grandmother’s house in New Hyde Park or two-hour schleps to my aunt’s house in New Jersey with my sister and I begging my parents to put Z-100 or at least WBLI on the radio and my parents subjecting us to WLTW, “Lite FM,” a station that they insisted played the same music as BLI.
If it hadn’t been for Michael Bolton, they would have been completely wrong.
Anyway, the New Hampshire trip could be especially excruciating because instead of a station wagon, Nancy and I were crammed into the back of my father’s Honda Accord (or if it was earlier than the early 1990s, my mom’s 1987 Honda Prelude) and forced to endure Lite music, country music, my parents bickering, or the very awkward silence that followed my parents bickering. That is, if the rain wasn’t coming down in sheets while my father tried desperately to follow my Uncle Vic on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and bitched about it the entire time (it would be years before he realized that they both had the same set of directions and decided to simply meet one another at the cabins). Hearing Al in my Walkman at a reasonable volume (because my father has the ears of a bat and can detect any bass beat coming from the tiniest of earbuds) helped pass the time.
And even if we weren’t traveling in some war wagon of a vehicle, there was something about the vacation described in the song that made Nancy and I laugh with familiarity. When Al is describing the overabundance of window decals on the family car, he rattles off a number of places they’ve visited:
Like Elvis-o-rama, the Tupperware museum, the boll weevil monument and cranberry world, the shuffleboard hall of fame, Poodle Dog Rock, and the mecca of albino squirrels. We’ve been to ghost towns, theme parks, wax museums, and the place where you can drive through the middle of a tree. We’ve been to alligator farms and tarantula ranches, but there’s still one thing we’ve gotta see.
Now, my family was never one for tourist traps like that, and outside of the parking lot of Dinosaur Land in Virginia, I’ve never been to one of those really weird places myself. But at least once or twice during those trips to New Hampshire, we would have to pile into the car in order to visit some place that they were really interested in going. For instance, it was either 1992 or 1993 when we visited the Woodstock Glass Works in Woodstock, Vermont and also toured scenic downtown Woodstock, which is scenic if you’re over the age of thirty and want to wander around for an afternoon, but most teenagers are bored stiff by watching some guy with a beard and really dirty hands blow a goblet. I’m sure my parents found it fascinating but I was about as interested as I was when we visited the Castle in the Clouds near Lake Winnepesauke and all I could think about was how I wanted to go to Funspot, the arcade that was not too far away.
I guess I could say that if I hadn’t been dragged to those places; been forced to endure every knick-knack store, gift shop, and outlet mall on the Vermont-New Hampshire border; or been made to eat mustard on hamburgers at Burger King, I would not have been such a moody brat on my family vacations when I was a teenager. But considering that I was fifteen years old and suddenly really into Weird Al? The awkwardness was already there.
Still, I enjoyed my time on the lake and my sister and even though our destinations were glass factories and gift shops, my sister and I definitely saw ourselves in the lyrics of the twine ball song. So much so that we had a vision of what it would look like to shoot a video to the song (as far as we knew, no video existed and I’m pretty sure that’s stillt he case). It would have been cheesy with a really enthusiastic family, a Bernie that was like an adult version of pig pen, and some great ad-libbed scenes. For instance, at the end of the song, when Al sings, “But we didn’t want to leave that was perfectly clear,” Nancy and I clearly saw a vision of our father screaming, “Get in the car!”, frustrated beacuse we were screwing up his ability to make good time.
My last vacation to New Hampshire was in 1993, the year after I discovered Weird Al, and I’m sure that those tapes came with me for one more year, along with whatever Billy Joel, Metallica, and Queen I was listening to at the time. The next year I would spend three weeks in Europe with a group of high school students and by the time I graduated high school I was either spending all of my available time with my girlfriend and couldn’t be bothered to go on vacation with my parents (to this day I’m shocked they let me stay home while they were away) or I was working a summer job and simply couldn’t get the time off. I returned in 2006 for a few days with my wife, although we cheated a little with the journey and flew into Manchester, then rented a car and only had to drive an hour and a half.
But even though so much remained the same that it brought “Once More to the Lake” to my mind, our ventures to Portsmouth, Franconia Notch, and The Old Man in the Mountain (at least what was left of it) were more in tune to Weird Al Yankovic and his family of twine ball devotees.