The Unmet Challenge

by Bart King

Our family is comprised of two grandparents, nine children, eight in-laws (one of them hugely pregnant), seven grandchildren, six members of the extended family, and a black Labrador that looks like it inhaled an air compressor.

The Kings hail from Sebastopol, about sixty miles north of San Francisco. Our family has become more and more geographically spread out, and despite the fact that we are very close, it has become increasingly difficult for everyone to attend family gatherings.

My parents, Michael and Janet King, decided to put an end to the pattern of “hit-and-miss” get-togethers. They were recently retired to Oysterville the farthest north community on Washington state’s Long Beach peninsula right next to the Leadbetter Point Wildlife Refuge.

July was selected because many Kings are teachers with the summer off. Also, Mom loves a good project, and is convinced her children do too. Reunion weekend would not be spent in idle socializing!

In 1980 Mom and Dad bought land in Sebastopol, California, and though neither had the faintest notion of how to use a drill or mix concrete, Mom decided that they were intelligent enough to build a two-story house. They used their large work force of free labor (their children) to build it and to my dismay, Mom chose a similar project for the reunion.

The substantial coast at Long Beach makes it a summer tourist hot spot and the site of “Sand-sations” the prestigious (in sand-building circles) sandcastle building project. The term “sand castle” is meant as a generic term to define any structure built as an entry. Mom’s intention was to re-construct our Sebastopol home for “Sand-sations” amateur division. Castle construction began at 8 AM and ended by 2 PM, when the incoming tide would eradicate even the most finely crafted sculptures. The day’s feverish activity resulted in an accomplishment that had the same fate as footprints on the beach.

Our problem as a team was that we trickled in at different times, and there was little opportunity to organize before the competition. By the time our motley crew of sand sculptors got to the beach, many novice teams were already working on their exotic creations. It was then that we realized three things:

  1. Most other teams were working from blueprints, pre-molded forms and forms to better design their structures. “Free-form” sculpture was only a small bit of the overall sand structure.
  2. Even if we turned out an impeccable replica of our former home, while it had sentimental value to us it paled compared to the sumo wrestler and Mr. Potato Head sculptures flanking us. For that matter, compared to any of the other sculptures! The competitors had let their imaginations run rampant with spaceships and insects.
  3. Finally, we wanted to have fun! The prospect of working feverishly on a very temporary accomplishment did not seem like the optimal way to enjoy the reunion. We stood in the sand feeling strangely inert. We had a job to do, and that was what it felt like. A job.

The reason I painstakingly describe this is for its lesson. Organize beforehand, but be willing and flexible to dramatically change plans and let spontaneity rule the moment. Clearly this was such a moment when circumstances suggested that a more enjoyable reunion would happen removing our ostensible raison d’etre.

My sister Kathleen said what everyone was thinking. “Mom, do you think it might be OK if we bailed out?”

Even though the sand house was her brain-child, my mother didn’t raise nine children by being inflexible. She put her hands on her hips, sniffed the air, surveyed the group, and said, “We can do anything we want.”

There was a palpable sense of relief. We were quitters and the better for it. The morning turned out to be a lot of fun watching sand designs being built.

The peninsula afforded a wide array of other recreational possibilities. There is fresh and saltwater fishing, hiking, golfing, bird watching, biking, eight museums, two state parks, historic building tours, and spectacular kite flying. Wildlife viewing includes bear, bald eagles, sea lions, elk, great herons, and even whales. We took advantage of it all and did something we’ve never done together as a family: we played organized sports.

The men had often golfed and played basketball but never an activity that all family members, regardless of gender or age, cared to participate in. Our resort had a fine volleyball court, and it was entirely feasible for both Grandpa King and seven-year-old Shannon King to play on opposing teams. The skill level was necessarily low, but volleyball provided us with the two best ways to judge any family get-together, namely a lot of laughter and no injuries requiring hospitalization!

As it turned out, the only reunion member who needed medical attention was the aforementioned elephantine black Labrador who attempted to eat a whole box kite. Luckily, a doctor and nurse were already attending the reunion (plus, I watch “ER” sometimes), and we managed to extricate the kite part without undue damage to the beer-keg-shaped canine.

About the author
Bart King is a teacher, historian and freelance author from Portland, Oregon. He enjoys marathon running, speaking slowly, and family reunions, but often finds himself bogged down with the daily grind of running the local chapter of the Ted Nugent Fan Club.