"There's water coming up from the floor, honey."
There was a special emphasis on the word "honey," the kind of emphasis that makes a man sense trouble.
"That's not possible," I replied, thinking that was a stupid response as soon as the words escaped my mouth.
"Well, it's good to know that this liquid seeping up between my toes is all in my imagination. Otherwise, we'd have a real problem."
I glanced into the bedroom. My wife pushed her foot against the wood slats and water rose and retreated with every bit of pressure. We were in a Florida beach house rented for one reason: to bring our big family together for rest and relaxation.
One of the great benefits of a large family is the circus known as vacation. We've always enjoyed staying close to home with visits to Hot Springs and its alligator farm, Jasper with its elk herds, and Eureka Springs with its hippies. As the kids aged and my wife and I became more confident with travel, we attempted soul-fulfilling excursions to the mountains and the beaches.
However, this was the first time one of our kids had to miss a family vacation. Sam, our third child, had an internship with AmeriCorps at Sewanee. He couldn't take time off. Worse, his 21st birthday occurred during our vacation.
We opted to go to New Orleans first. As we walked the Tulane University campus, the wind picked up at the same time an alert buzzed on my phone: Tropical Storm Warning. It'll probably miss us, I thought.
It did not. Rainwater flowed through New Orleans' ancient streets. I stepped off a curb into a deep puddle of angry gray water. The water had a certain oozing quality, appearing as if it could be the exact spot where a virus would make its jump to humans. Wonderful.
The next day, we shoved off for Florida in two cars. "The trip to New Orleans set us up for a quick four hours to the beach," I say to my wife. Thanks to Tropical Storm Claudette, it takes us eight.
There's no need to describe what it was like driving through a tropical storm on the coast. We arrived at our beach house, worn out from close calls and hands still shaking. Finally, I open the door. Rest and relaxation. It's all worth it.
The beds aren't made. As in, they'd been slept in. Wet towels are on the floor, food in the sink. I call the rental company and they're polite: "Go to dinner and we'll pay for it. We'll send the crew right now."
"No problem," I say. "These things happen."
A call came later telling me the house was ready. Finally, I think. Peace. I just wish Sam was here. We come back from dinner and open the door. There's food still on the dining room tablecloth. There's dirty mop water in a closet bucket. And the real kicker: There's sand in the beds. The cleaning crew had not changed the sheets.
I call the rental company, maintaining the Cold War philosophy of saving the nuclear option for last. Try to use diplomacy first. I keep calm.
That's when we noticed the water coming up from the floorboards. A small stream gently trickled from the wall. I went straight for the nuclear option.
I again called the rental company, named Real Fun, which made me think it was supposed to be said sarcastically, like, "How was your root canal?" "Oh, it was real fun."
Rain pours the next morning, then, blessed sunshine. We head out. My wife wants a paddle board, so I rent one. The surf is high but she's determined. She steps on the board, a wave hits as her foot is in the air, she hears a pop in her knee and can't walk. My wife doesn't hesitate to use the nuclear option.
I return to the house where a crew is fixing the leak. Thank God, I think. I notice they've cut a hole in a corner of the room and are covered in sweat and dust from working on the floor. I also notice they're crawling back and forth across my bed to get to the hole. I'll wash the sheets later, I think.
The leak was from an AC pipe in the wall. All done, they tell me. But the hole in the wall must stay open, and they need to have an industrial size fan blowing into the opening at all times to help dry it out. The fan sounds like a lawn mower. It's so big it puts off heat. The bedroom with the squishing floorboards feels like a greenhouse because of the moisture, the hot fan, and a lazy air conditioner.
My wife moves to the couch so she can cool herself and prop up her knee. The lawn-mower fan blows incessantly. I grit my teeth, lamenting our middle child missing from the scene.
The weather stayed clear and calm the rest of the week. I got used to the loud fan and the greenhouse bedroom. It's hard to complain about a vacation and having the opportunity to eat happy hour oysters ($11 a dozen) and visit an independent bookstore (brilliant idea for one next to a well-traveled beach).
My youngest is 6 and she squealed in the waves. My fifth child is 14 as was, apparently, every other tourist nearby. The rest of us are adults, so we enjoyed reading, swimming, and not-paddle-boarding. We ate more than we should and talked late into the night.
Still, we were missing one.
We hated to see the beach go, but had an idea to visit Sam, our missing middle child, at Sewanee. The woods of Tennessee replaced the palm trees of Florida, and he met us at a restaurant outside in the bright, cool air of the Cumberland Plateau, beer in hand already. We took him to a big family dinner and hoisted a toast to the middle child, the one we missed so much.
The vacation circus ended where our family began in the first place.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.