Family Spring Break, Anyone?


Charles Bins, Writer, illustrator

When you were 14 years old, where would you go on Spring Break if you had a choice: The Grand Canyon, Disneyland, the beach? For me and my family, the answer was “West Virginia,” not because any of us kids wanted to go there, but because my parents wanted us to go, and my Dad had veto power.

There may be parts of West Virginia that are nice, but this was the early ’70s and we were headed on a mission trip to Appalachia, coal country. Ugggh. It was a long day’s journey from N.J., and we weren’t going to stay at a Holiday Inn but at a Catholic monastery–with real monks. We knew there would be other families there on this adventure. Yet we had no idea what we would be doing, except that we were there to help people. The accommodations were not stellar. The pillows were flat, and the mattresses lumpy like the oatmeal. But at least I did not have to sleep in the barn like some of my siblings.

We kids were curious about the Brothers. They wore brown robes with white ropes holding up potbellies. We all ate together in the basement dining room. From the kid’s table, we watched as the Brothers regaled the adults with stories that erupted in laughter. After dinner, the Brothers headed upstairs, promising to share our assignments in the morning. Meanwhile, the rest of the adults chattered in the kitchen and did the dishes without fuss–some drying with a towel over their shoulder, others putting dishes away. We kids mostly looked on, glad that no one was asking us. (We learned the next night that the adults were just setting an example.)

In the morning, someone opened a 5-gallon pail of red paint and distributed it with 4-inch brushes so we could paint the barn. This seemed a monumental task, and it didn’t look like we were really helping anyone but the monks who were nowhere to be found. We painted for several days and finished Thursday afternoon. When it rained Friday, we heard that March was still the monastery’s slow season, so they didn’t field many requests for help.

In the evenings, after dishes, our group of kids played Crazy Eights religiously until bedtime. On Thursday night, two jovial Brothers joined us, squeezing in from either end of the booth. They said if we could play Crazy Eights, we could easily learn their game. They called it “Screw Your Neighbor.” It was essentially UNO only with a regular deck of cards. The Brothers relished the play and kept us up late, so we were delighted that they joined us again on Friday. (UNO was not officially “invented” until 1971, but I suspect the game play originated in the basement of this monastery.)

Saturday morning was eerily quiet. The other families had hit the road early, so the monks gave my father the first real field assignment: There was a problem with the shacks on the side of the mountain. No car could climb it, so me, my Dad and one of my brothers hoofed it the last 70 yards to the first shanty. The screen door was open, and my father spoke to an old woman rocking next to a wood-burning stove. At first, she thought we were delivering lunch. But after some prompting, she said the drainage ditch at the bottom of the hill was stopped up. So guess what we did that morning?

This was the family vacation that I learned the true meaning of “Screw Your Neighbor.”