By Faith Ellestad
Australia had come to the Milwaukee Zoo in the summer of 1984, and there was no way our kids were going to miss the opportunity to see the koala. As it was on loan for only a brief interval, our window of opportunity was closing quickly. Time was of the essence. We needed to secure vacation days, arrange for dog care, find some money and attempt to work out a plan that would fulfill everyone’s expectations. Our family trips generally included a weather component, and this one was no exception. We managed to choose the hottest day of the year to date for our trip.
Locked in by vacation requests, we couldn’t capriciously wait for cooler weather, so attired in our lightest summer wear, we headed south. Anticipation grew as the boys read the “X miles to Milwaukee County Zoo“ road signs. About 25 miles from the zoo, we passed the town of Delafield where I noted a McDonalds atop a hill, and my husband noted the car was running a little hot. I decided I could wait til we got to the Zoo to use the restroom, and he decided that it would be prudent to turn off the AC and put less stress on the engine. Windows wide open, we cruised into the Zoo parking lot, purchased our tickets and headed straight to the Koala exhibit.
There we joined a line of hot, sweaty patrons, moving slowly in the nearly-hundred-degree heat. Eventually we made it to the rather steamy exhibit window and discovered what was taking so long. Koalas, unlike humans, are unwilling to risk dehydration or heatstroke for the sake of an educational experience. They were keeping themselves well insulated within the canopy of leafy branches that was their temporary home, barely visible to the naked eye. But we held our ground, staked our claim and waited stubbornly until eventually one of the adorable marsupials decided to move just within viewing range. I suspect he had been still so long he’d gotten a cramp in his little leg and needed to stretch, luckily for us. We had a brief but satisfactory view of an entire koala, and were ready to move on in search of cold sodas
Lordy it was hot! After draining our beverages, crunching all the ice, and rubbing the cold wet cups on our foreheads, we resumed our tour. First up, restrooms, then to the zoo map to plan our route. Hippos, of course, reptiles, miscellaneous exhibits along the way, and a request by our older son to visit the Big Cat exhibit where the white tiger, a recent addition to the zoo lineup, was housed.
Before taking on yet another jaunt, we needed sustenance. You can’t go to the zoo and not have a hot dog. We did pass on the cotton candy, though, due to the likelihood of inciting a swarm of bees which were lying in wait around the trash cans for just such an opportunity. It was now late afternoon, and the temperature had risen above 100 degrees. Everyone agreed that a visit to the aviary and a quick detour to view the white tiger would round out our day, meshing nicely with closing time. The aviary was blessedly cool, and we tarried there a little longer than we’d planned, purchasing, to the boys’ delight, a second round of sodas from a welcoming vending machine. When it came time for the visit to the Big Cat exhibit, the six year-old suddenly demurred. He did not want to go there. He was hot, tired and anxious. Ultimately, his dad and brother made the toasty trek to the tiger environs while we rested in the relative comfort of the bird house.
Soon they were back and we immediately headed for the car. Still mindful of overheating the engine, we opted to leave the AC off and allow the breeze from the open windows to cool us off naturally as we headed onto the highway back toward home. At first, all went well, but soon, the engine began to run hot. We pulled off on a frontage road to allow it to cool down, and started out again. We were about twenty miles out of Milwaukee, when the engine began to chug, and then to steam. Once more, we pulled off to let it cool down, and started the drive again. But the car was barely moving at all by this point. Blessedly, as the engine temperature passed the red zone, we noted the Delafield exit right in front of us, took the off-ramp, and lurched slowly into a service station at the edge of town. A mechanic there told us the thermostat was fried, there was no way to fix it at that hour, and no way that car would get us back to Madison. My spouse negotiated with him order a part, do the repair, and let us know when it was ready. A few days at least.
Ah, this was a bit of a pickle, as a condiment lover might opine. There were, of course, no cell phones back then, we had used all but three dollars and some loose change at the zoo, and it appeared to be about closing time in Delafield. 8 pm seemed early to us, but then we were city folk. All we could find open was a convenience store, fortunately air-conditioned, where we huddled while figuring out what to do. Ultimately, we realized our only option was to call my mother-in-law in Madison for help. She graciously agreed to come down and pick us up, but it would take a while. Our plan to sit tight in the quickie-mart until she arrived was short-lived when we were brusquely informed that the store was closing in 5 minutes. Did we want to make any last-minute purchases? Yes. We bought a mini-snack and comic book for each of the boys, leaving us with less than a dime for emergencies, and went outside in search of a spot to settle in and wait for our rescuer.
Well, as there were no benches or little parks nearby, we eventually seated ourselves on some low cement walls surrounding the town square. Almost immediately, we became, apparently, the most interesting thing to ever occur in Delafield on a Friday night. People began driving around the square in their cars staring at us, some making several loops in case they missed something the first time around. A group of several adults gathered in a tight knot across the square, gawking at the strangers. Little kids pointed at us. We began to feel more and more awkward and unwelcome as time passed, at least we parents did; the boys, immersed in their comic books, didn’t seem similarly affected. It appeared that Delafield, at least back in the 80’s was a very close-knit community, and they knew interlopers when they saw them. We couldn’t have been more conspicuous had we been green and sporting antennae. Look. Aliens.
We had nowhere to go, so just alternately stood and sat for over an hour in full view of the curious citizens of greater Delafield, until, finally, blessedly, a blue Buick Century hove into sight, driven by my husband’s mom, accompanied by his Uncle Bof. The kids were delighted to see Grandma and ride in her relatively new car, which held five fairly comfortably. Of course, there were actually six of us, but so grateful to be out of the public eye and thankful to our rescuers, no one complained as we squeezed ourselves in. I buckled my younger son onto my lap to make space, and without a single wave goodbye to the curious town-folk of Delafield, we headed back to Madison, in smooth, reliable, air-conditioned comfort. I suppose they were disappointed when the persons of interest were rounded up and taken away, but oh, well, we were a one-time only spectacle. Too bad for them.
Thank you in memoriam, Maxine and Uncle Bob. I don’t know what we would have done without you that crazy night.
You might think I’d have come up with a plan in case such a thing ever happened again, but I haven’t. The optimist in me says we’ll just figure it out. Brave thought, now that we have cell phones and credit cards. Oh, yes, and a new car.
© 2021 Faith Ellestad
Faith has been writing to amuse her family since she was old enough to print letters to her grandparents. Now retired, she has the opportunity (and with Covid restrictions, the time) to share some personal stories, and in the process, discover more about herself. Faith and her husband live with two elderly cats in Madison, Wisconsin. They are the parents of two great sons and a loving daughter-in-law.