The steady drip, drip, drip of mineral-filled water building stalactites as they had over the past 30 million years or so became the background music as my family walked through the cave.
Meramec Caverns was dark (obviously), dank and slippery, crowded with people and amazingly fun, so of course the kids were pouting.
“Can we go home now?” the Boy asked, his face dragging like I’d just told him he could never watch “Star Wars” again.
“But the tour just started,” I told him.
“I want to go home, too,” the Girl said. “This is bor-ring. When can we get ice cream?”
Boring? Boring? This series of caves was once an important source of potassium nitrate (saltpeter – not as dirty as it sounds), which is one of the ingredients used to make gunpowder. How could it be boring?
OK, so I didn’t tell the kids that. What I did tell them was this: “Jesse James once hid from the law in this cave.”
“Who’s Jesse James?” the Girl asked in a tone of voice that made me wish her mother and I could forbid her from ever becoming a teenager. “Was he somebody stoo-pid?”
Who’s Jesse James? Sure, she’s only a first grader, but I felt I’d failed as a parent.
“He was a famous outlaw,” I said. “He’s from Missouri, we’re from Missouri. His gang robbed banks, stagecoaches, trains.”
She rolled her eyes.
“In a 1966 movie he met Frankenstein’s daughter.” It was a weak effort and completely unsuccessful.
“Yeah, let’s go home,” the Boy said reaching to touch a stalagmite, which is the one thing the tour guide said would get us booted out of there. Something about the oil from our hands staining these natural works of art, or something.
His mother stopped him before we became criminals.
I really don’t know how the children got into such a bad mood. I mean, we were on vacation, and vacations were supposed to be fun, right?
Our trip began innocently enough. A few weeks before the school year started my wife and I took our children to St. Louis to experience things they’ve never experienced. A 630-foot journey to the top of the Gateway Arch, a sightseeing riverboat cruise, a visit to the most insanely fun child-friendly museum possibly in existence, and dinner at a pretty authentic British pub (been there, know that). The day we started for home we got up and drove south to Meramec Caverns.
Turns out our vacation should have been planned around ice cream.
At the top of the Arch: “When can we get ice cream?”
On the riverboat: “Can we get ice cream now?”
On our way to the hotel after eating shepherds pie (Mom and Dad) and chicken and chips (the kids): “Let’s get ice cream.”
Mom: “You didn’t eat your dinner.”
Outside the cave, after an hour of pouting, five minutes trudging back to the minivan, and before we made it back to the interstate, the Girl said, “Boy, I could sure use some ice cream about now.”
I think next year for vacation we’re going to Dairy Queen.
Jason Offutt’s latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An Epic Beer Run Through the Upper Midwest,” is available at www.amazon.com.