Dad's museum mania

On each museum trip, my sister and I were handed a quiz. If we did well, we got ice cream.

Mary Knox Merrill – Staff/File
Name that painting: Visitors view Impressionist works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Most people go to a museum and just kind of window shop, strolling casually past portraits of 13th-century queens, old hunting rifles, and decaying remains of clothing worn by royals. Some people take photos instead of really looking. Others can't help but defy "do not touch." And then there are the sleepers.

Once, during a movie at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., I thought that a man's snoring was actually the sound of an airplane taking off. But the snorer wasn't missing much – his wife was recording the entire film on a camcorder. Besides, I'd rather visit a museum with a snorer than with the kind of person my father is: a devoted learner.

To my father, skimming is a dirty word. He treats everything in a museum as if it were Magna Carta. He can stand for hours rocking back and forth on the heels of his appropriately named Rockport boots, studying museum plaques and posters on anything from Civil War battlefields to anthropology.

A museum is to my father what football is to normal fathers. He can't get enough. While other fathers are exclaiming over touchdowns and fumble recoveries, my father is spitting out statistics on everything from Monet to Mount St. Helens. If he were going to be a contestant on "Jeopardy," it wouldn't be so bad. But he does it out of a genuine love of learning. And that's embarrassing to a kid.

During lunch breaks from his banking job at Northern Trust in Chicago, he'd go to museums, write down facts from the exhibits, and turn them into questions my younger sister and I had to answer.

Every weekend we'd dutifully pile into the Ford Taurus and trek to another Chicago museum. On these "Father's Famous Field Trips" we were handed a copy of the appropriate quiz. Written in pencil in all capital letters on yellow office paper, each question demanded close attention not only to museum relics, but also to deciphering my father's handwriting.

Upon answering the questions to his satisfaction, we were awarded a trip to the ice-cream shop, which was a big deal when you were a child of parents who would allow you to have only two gum balls a week.

While our neighbors went island hopping, we went museum hopping. On vacations, which consisted of 20-hour car rides in the Taurus, we'd pack in as many museums as humanly possible: the Edgar Allen Poe Museum, the Virginia Historical Society, the White House of the Confederacy.

The only benefit of these "vacations" was that my father did not have time to scope out the museums in advance, so instead of having to take a quiz, my sister and I could slip away to the gift shop, usually the most entertaining part of any museum. I often wondered if there was life outside of big, imposing concrete buildings, as everything that mattered to my father seemed to be contained in a rectangular glass case with overhead track lighting.

My mother would tell my father she wanted to go to Hawaii, to which he would say, "Hawaii, why would anyone want to go there? There's nothing to do."

But what he really meant was that Hawaii wouldn't be intellectual enough. So we went to places like Colorado. And not to ski, mind you, but to explore more innards of concrete buildings. Like the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

After a half hour at this cowboy museum, my father was studying the information on the third cowboy, which was unfortunate because there were 40 featured, so I tried the snoring approach. But the bench in the museum was wooden and not fit for sleeping. So I wandered into the courtyard. My sister followed. Then my mom. Soon, the only one left in the museum was my dad and 40 dead cowboys.

The courtyard was nothing but a slab of concrete and a couple of benches. But then, to our surprise, the most entertaining subject of the cowboy museum showed his beady eyes.

Normally, people run from mice. But given that we had nowhere to go but back into a museum with a devoted learner, we stayed put. I had crackers, my sister had Sour Patch Kids candy, and the mouse had both.

After our 2,000-mile road trip, my father asked what I had learned. I tried to remember any little tidbit, any fact about flora, fauna, or cowboys that I had read but came up with nothing. Then, suddenly, it hit me.

"I learned that I'm not afraid of mice," I said.

I hadn't regurgitated any hard facts or demonstrated superior intellect, but somehow it was the best thing a Father's Famous Field Trip had ever taught me – something about myself. As my father shook his head and walked away, I couldn't help but smiling.

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