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My Son the Burglar, Revisited
By Greg Chandler

I went to preschool in Arcadia, a Los Angeles suburb, or "bedroom community" as it was known in the seventies. Life was peachy and uncomplicated until my nineteen-year-old Aunt Kristen, Mom's little sister, took off with a band of girlfriends for a year-long backpacking journey across Europe. We were close, and she often took me all the way to Balboa just for a chocolate-dipped frozen banana. Europe meant nothing to my young mind. It was probably like Pomona, or maybe La Cañada. My world was small. That was until the postcards started to arrive. Lisbon. Roma. Heidelberg. Hydra. No cartoon or pop-up book had ever inspired me as much as knowing that magical places really existed, that you could go to them. The cards were lovingly entered into a rattan-covered scrapbook my mother bought for me at Aaron Brothers. My aunt must have been snorting espresso the entire trip because cards arrived every two or three days. Her handwriting was bubbly to the extreme and hard to read, though I eventually memorized what was written on the cards with some help from Mom. Reading them over and over before bed made for epic dreams. The one with a picture of Lake Zurich on it was my favorite.

Guten Tag,
You would love the lake here. We took a ferry across. I could see the Alps. Me & Shelly got stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel. She threw up over the side & it landed on a Swiss man. When we got off the man chased us. We hid in a girls bathroom. Five of us are sleeping in one room with a triple bunk & double bunk. No one wants the third bunk. A pigeon came in the window. Camela wrapped it in a towel & got rid of it. Rats with wings. I went to a concert in the park of singers from Swaziland, Africa. I got lost. Took a cab to the hostel. My friends called the police. I went to a museum where you walk inside an exact replica of the human body.

I gave up swings and freeze tag for a ten-pound Rand McNally, studied and planned my own trips, and in the process became an expert on European geography. Like many Americans before me -- Mark Twain, Henry James, and Gertrude Stein to name but a few -- I became obsessed with that faraway continent, the difference being that I'd only just learned the alphabet. I don't know if it was the pictures of ancient ruins calling out to one of my past lives, or the group shot of the Norwegian men's Olympic swim team kindling something vague and still unknown in me. All I know is that I had to get to Europe before kindergarten or I'd just die. By the time my aunt returned home -- with a Joan Jett haircut and bangles jangling from her wrists to her elbows -- I had two scrapbooks packed with 141 postcards.

I was cute, so my parents tell me, when I entertained their dinner guests, usually drab members of some local Republican club, with travel tips for the French Riviera. I thought everyone was trying to get to Europe and would appreciate my insider knowledge. One night I hid in the kitchen and listened to the adults after one of my presentations. I felt sick to my stomach when I heard a woman ask Mom, her tone rather disgusted, "Do kids tease him?" My poor mother hadn't a clue what this pucker-faced busybody was trying to intimate.

"You need to get him into football fast."

"But he's only four."

"There's a peewee league now. Look into it."

They did, and soon I was in the unfortunate position of spending my weekends as a running back. But only for a few years. At the age of seven I was free to give up football for soccer. I had high hopes for this European game, but quickly realized all team sports disagreed with my personality.

Five or six years later, there was a picture of C. Thomas Howell from The Outsiders on my bedroom door. Maps not just of Europe but of all the continents and several countries were pinned to the wall. Out-of-date Fodor's guides bought at garage sales lined the bookshelves. Mom had caught the decorating bug, and after redoing our house twice she confidently opened her own business. My brother was six and a star hitter in T-ball. Aunt Kristen decided she didn't like traveling after all, and that Europe was "dirty." She went to nursing school, married a radiologist, and filled her closet with Laura Ashley dresses. By this point I'd given up on my parents taking me "overseas" anytime soon. Mom was interested but Dad was decidedly against it. Maybe after he retired the two of them would go. It looked like I'd have to do it on my own like my aunt. In the meantime I did the next best thing: I planned detailed trips right down to my airline seat (1A on Air France) and the restaurants I'd eat at, such as Casa Botín in Madrid, the oldest restaurant in Europe. I'd rent a barge on the Canal du Nivernais, check out Pippi's Villa Villekulla in Vimmerby, Sweden, or the Cosmic Club in Rimini, Italy, the hippest disco in the world.

I wonder why I felt so discontented in the San Gabriel Valley? Was it a result of playing soccer and baseball back-to-back (I did manage to escape football) since that shrew at the dinner party had enlightened Mom? Sometimes it was fun, like the team pizza parties at Shakey's, but mostly I played to please my family. Was I simply reacting to my hum-drum environment? I was definitely fanciful, which resulted in a few enemies at school. Namely Jason O. who liked to follow me home throwing pebbles at my back. There were no bullies in Europe, of that I was certain.

I was very close to my maternal grandparents who always encouraged my curious nature. Around this time, when I was about ten, they went on vacation to Hawaii. I hadn't given the fiftieth state a moment's thought. But when they returned with pictures of tropical grottos, Tiki villages, and pikaki-scented tales of nights spent dancing to Don Ho's live rendition of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," Hawaii became, for a while, my new number one travel obsession. Imagining my grandparents there as I'd done with my aunt in Europe, having a ball, basking in magic, was very powerful for me. My parents were relieved that the Bulgarian Tourist Board in Sophia stopped sending me suspicious looking manila envelopes covered with stamps of Lenin and packed with unattractive holiday brochures. Hawaii was part of America. My grandparents went there, the neighbors went there, Elvis went there. It was healthy, normal, and close.

At that time, Tuesdays were the highlight of the week. My grandmother would pick me up from school and off we'd go to Cost Plus or to pick up a repaired vacuum. Back at the house, I'd work on elaborate travel itineraries at the kitchen table while my grandmother cooked dinner and asked pertinent questions. I loved being there. I always felt like an adult.

One such Tuesday, a couple weeks before the end of fifth grade and the beginning of summer break, my grandfather Jack and I sat on the edge of their pool with our legs dangling in. In hot weather we always took a swim before dinner. He had his acoustic guitar. I had the ukulele they brought me from the Islands. The three of us ate Waldorf salad and brisket of beef outside under the citronella tiki torches. After dinner, with their short-tempered Lhasa Apso, Kashi, on a short leash, my grandfather and I walked to Thrifty Drugs for an ice cream cone. Two scoops of Cinnamon Swirl for me, two scoops of Mint Chip for him. We walked back listening to the crickets and sprinklers. I don't know what came over me. "Pop," I said, "I thought of a way to get to Hawaii." He asked how, and I told him flat out: "I'll take the money from my mom's purse."

"You think that's a good idea?" he asked.

My favorite song came to mind, and I sang it: "Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day. That's the island greeting that we send to you from the land where palm trees sway."

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