The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 2

Vacation '58 / Foreword '08

by John Hughes

At the time I wrote "Vacation '58" I was working as a creative director at the Leo Burnett Company, a Chicago advertising agency. In servicing the Virginia Slims cigarette account, I traveled weekly to New York. During those trips I frequently excused myself from multi-martini lunches and early flights home to go to the National Lampoon magazine offices and angle for a writing assignment. After many hours over many weeks of sitting on a worn, cloth couch in the reception area, trying to coax a reaction from aloof staffers and freelancers, I was kindly invited by Editor-in-Chief Tony Hendra into an office where he explained how one becomes an editor. It amounted to writing filler. I was delighted.
      My work was accepted, and I quickly became a contributing editor. I continued to beg-off client lunches to race uptown for editorial meetings. My advertising coworkers and superiors knew I was working for the Lampoon; they just didn't know how I was doing it. Like many other copywriters at the agency, I was working at home at night and on weekends. I was writing on the commuter train. I was also writing at work. Whenever I had to leave my office unattended, I stashed my magazine text in the wastebasket, covered it with my morning newspaper, dumped what was left in my coffee cup on it, and emptied my ashtray over the whole mess. At the end of the day, I put it in a Leo Burnett Co. interoffice envelope, took it home, cleaned it off, and transcribed it.
     The Lampoon's culture was similar to that of the ad agency—competitive but collegial; prodigal with clever, skillful writers and art directors. I liked my dual career and would have continued it had Chicago's Great Snow of '79 not trapped me happily in my house with my three-year-old son and preg-nant wife and hours and hours of time to write without having to keep an eye out for the boss.
     For a vacation-themed issue, I proposed a piece set in the days when toddlers stood on the front seats of cars and parents' cigarette ashes blew into the faces of the children standing in the back (or hanging out the open rear windows of station wagons). I had no story but enough anecdotes to get the as-signment.
     In my bedroom office during the snowstorm, I wrote "Vacation '58." My outline was a Rand McNally Road Atlas I had dug out of the trunk of my car. I plotted the shortest route from Detroit to the most distant continental U.S. destination: Disneyland in Anaheim, California. I determined how many stops a family would have to make on such a trip, and where those stops might be.
     I wrote the first sentence—"If Dad hadn't shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever!"—and the rest was automatic. I used the voice of a boy to cover my lack of skill, and to flatten the big moments. In Rusty's prosaic language, a ruined vacation and an assault with a deadly weapon upon an entertainment legend enjoyed comparable importance. I called to mind a clamor of relatives, situations, catchphrases, and behaviors. I was mindful of my feelings as a child witnessing phony pop inventions go to hell. I understood that the dark side of my middle-class, middle-American, suburban life was not drugs, paganism, or perversion. It was disappointment. There were no gnawing insects beneath the grass. Only dirt. I also knew that trapped inside every defeat is a small victory, and inside that small victory is the Great Defeat. This knowledge—along with a cranky old lady; strange, needy relatives; a vile dog; and everything that could possibly go wrong on a highway—was enough to make a story, plug a hole in the magazine, and get on to the next issue.
     The storm ended, FedEx arrived, and "Vacation '58" went off to New York. I returned to Leo Burnett and reluctantly bid farewell to my job and all the good people there. For roughly half of my Christmas bonus, I became a full-time editor at the Lampoon under a new editor-in-chief, P.J. O'Rourke. I shared P. J.'s amusement with and affection for the unpretentious Middle America of our mutual origins. We had worked together for most of the previous year on a parody of a Sunday newspaper from the fictitious Ohio town of Dacron. It was a prodigious task, requiring hundreds of ideas and tens of thousands of words. In addition to the newspaper project, P. J. wrote for and edited the magazine, and I did my magazine pieces and my ad work. By the time I departed Leo Burnett, P. J. had educated, trained, and conditioned me to write quick and often—and to look for humor where others hadn't.
     Despite my finishing the story in time for the FedEx pick-up, it was ultimately bumped from the vacation issue to an annual edition comprised of pieces that didn't make their intended issues. Unbeknownst to me, Warner Brothers purchased the story upon publication in September. I was in Chicago, and my only experience of any reaction to "Vacation '58" occurred on a flight home from New York, when I heard two businessmen laughing out loud and discovered they were reading my story. As a salaried editor, I had no ownership. The publisher, Matty Simmons, generously invited me to write the screenplay despite my never having even seen one.
     This was all happening during Hollywood's post-Shampoo era of gold chains, red Ferraris, and big sideburns. As a print humorist—envisioning myself as Chicago's Booth Tarkington Jr.—I willfully knew nothing of show business, except that it was a rich target for satire. P. J. introduced me to the eminent literary attorney Morton Janklow, who advised me to go to Los Angeles and get an agent. When I arrived at the incipient powerhouse Creative Artists Agency in my poplin suit and rep tie, I was mistaken for an IRS agent. Despite my contrastive definition of hip, I passed the audition and got the Agent and the requisite accessory, the Lawyer. After securing a copy of a screenplay to use as a format model, I returned to Chicago to write a script and inexorably alter my life for WGA scale.
     The screenplay was a fairly straight adaptation of the short story. Like the road atlas, the story was my outline. I couldn't use Walt Disney's name or mention Disneyland, so I created the soundalike name Roy Walley, and Disneyland became Walley World. Mickey Mouse became Marty Moose. The short story was designed to depart from reality and teeter on the edge of, if not fall into, complete nonsense. I presumed the escalating turmoil worked better in the mind than it would on a theater screen. I was correct, in that the bit of nonsense that I left in—the ending—was thoroughly despised by preview audiences. Roy Walley and his executive committee dancing and singing with neckties on their heads and Clark W. Griswold heading off to jail was better on paper. I was hired again for a rewrite, and I wrote my first happy ending. I preferred the original and still do, but the rewrite gave me an introduction to John Candy, with whom I would eventually match the coherence of cruelty, sorrow, disappointment, and farce that underpinned "Vacation '58."

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