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Man Plans, G-d Laughs

July 29, 2013

Connecticut was going to be the challenge. From the moment I started planning this trip, I was at a loss for what to do in Connecticut. The biggest attraction in the state is the seaport in Mystic, which is fantastic and enchanting, but I took the Hamster there for a couple of days a few years ago, so there was no need to double back. There are three minor league baseball teams, but one of them we saw on the way to Mystic, another is too far out of the way, and the third wasn’t going to be home when we needed them to be. So I asked my friend from West Hartford, Connecticut, what there is to do in his home state. His answer: “Nothing. Connecticut blows.” So, what to do with Connecticut? You kinda can’t get from New York to the rest of New England without going through Connecticut. Ultimately we settled on three stops, all right along I-95, which we’d be taking all the way into Rhode Island: the Pez factory in Orange, lunch in New Haven, where there are a few kosher food options, and finally the US Naval Submarine Museum in Groton, complete with an actual retired Navy submarine visitors can board.

Each year we’ve kicked off the road trip with a first stop that both of us could really get excited about. The first road trip started with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Last year’s first stop was a guided tour of the U.S. Capitol in D.C. And this year, Pez.

I started collecting Pez dispensers when I was in 11th or 12th grade. A few years later I met my future wife, who thought it was cute and joined me in my modest quest to collect what was at the time some 100 or so current dispensers. Of course, it wasn’t long before the folks at Pez got a lot looser with the cartoon characters they were willing to recreate in sugar-dispensing form, and now our collection numbers somewhere around 600 dispensers and has outgrown even the dozens of linear feet of custom-built shelving in our basement. Meanwhile my wife tweets as @pezmeister1 and our kids are constantly calling me from various candy stores asking whether we already have a particular Pez dispenser. In fact, if you’re reading this there’s a decent chance you’ve called me with that same question. So when my neighbor told me a few months ago that there’s a Pez factory in Orange, CT, AND that said factory allows visitors AND has tons of rare Pez dispensers on display AND has a big store, too … well, first I checked a map to see where Orange is and then I put it on the Must-Do list for this trip. When I told the Hamster that it’d be our first stop, he responded, “What a perfect way to start the trip.”

It was. We were in heaven before we even got inside the building: the outside has three giant packs of Pez candy, and even the safety poles in the parking lot are striped to look like a stack of Pez. Inside was smaller than we had imagined, with everything in one room, but it had everything we needed. First a small interactive exhibit about the history of Pez, then a brief movie about how both the candy and the dispensers are made, and then windows through which we could see the factory in action. When we turned around we were looking at huge display cases full of old, new, and rare Pez dispensers and toys. And on the other side of those displays was the store.

The store! Hundreds of dispensers, choose-your-own candy, and various paraphernalia. In seconds my shopping basket was overflowing and Sam was grabbing a second basket. And then a third. The checkout girl was in disbelief. And as she rang us up Sam asked an important question: “Where are we going to put all this?” The car was pretty packed when we left home. There was a bit of room in the trunk for souvenirs but not for three full shopping bags of Pez dispensers. I stood outside, staring at the already full trunk, and I had to laugh. Suddenly making Pez the first stop on our trip instead of the last stop didn’t seem like such a great idea. Somehow we managed to find room for all the Pez but we may have to jettison some of our clothes in order to buy anymore souvenirs.

We also made a video postcard, which you can view here: http://www.yourpezvideo.com/video/display/view_key/1375112420

After the Pez factory we had a fine lunch in New Haven at a kosher supermarket that had a few tables next to the takeout counter, and while we were there we picked up some extra takeout for dinner so that I wouldn’t have to find a place to grill later on.

Our next stop was supposed to be the submarines, but Congress messed that up. See, the museum is normally closed on Tuesdays. But since the sequester went into effect it’s now also closed on Mondays. So no submarines for us.

Undaunted, we continued to Rhode Island. Our first stop was the absolutely adorable seaside town of Westerly to ride the country’s oldest carousel. As a New Yorker I half-expected high prices, flashing lights, and a cadre of hanger-on tourist traps. Instead we found the somewhat ordinary Flying Horse Carousel right next to the entrance to the beach, and rides were only $1.50. And the rides were long, too. And we even found a parking spot close by, which I quickly realized was the biggest coup of the day.

Thanks to the submarines we were pretty far ahead of schedule so I figured we would try to squeeze in some of tomorrow’s itinerary. Up next was Newport, RI. In no particular order, Newport is known as the home of three things: the oldest synagogue in America, the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and the former summer homes of the richest families in America. Synagogue tours were done for the day by the time we pulled into town, but we managed to get to the Tennis HOF about half an hour before closing. The woman inside said it usually takes about 40 minutes to go through the hall and the attached museum. The Hamster likes playing tennis but he doesn’t really follow the pros, so I figured we could make it in and out in time. We did.

The building is stunning–the hall and museum are housed in the original, sprawling Newport Casino building that held the very first U.S. Open in 1881, back when they were calling it the U.S. Lawn Tennis Championship.

IMG_20130729_172139_507

The hall itself is a bit underwhelming, with backlit plaques for each inductee attached to large rectangular columns in one small room. And there seems to be no pattern at all to the order of the plaques, so you really have to look at every one of them to find any particular player you might be looking for.

International Tennis Hall of Fame

The museum is just OK–it’s small, predictable, and not at all interactive, but it does have some cool stuff, including the U.S. Open trophy that Martina Navratilova won for defeating Chris Evert in one of their more epic battles. The best part, though, was a preprinted trivia scavenger hunt that the woman at the front desk gave Sam. It gave him a focus and got him to pay attention to some interesting stuff he might’ve missed, like a letter from Martin Luther King to Arthur Ashe and an Andy Warhol painting of Chris Evert. And there was even a prize for finishing the whole sheet: a Tennis HOF pencil that changes color when you touch it. This was especially good because the gift shop was very overpriced and thus pretty frustrating for Sam. But the real treat was yet to come.

Normally you need to pay extra to be able to wander the grounds of the museum, which includes several historic grass tennis courts that were once used by great champions. But since it was closing time for the museum and Sam finished his scavenger hunt, the woman gave us access to the grounds. We wandered for a few minutes and I noticed a sign telling us to visit the pro shop to find out about playing tennis on the grass courts. It occurred to me that playing on these historic courts would be a real treat, but I immediately nixed the idea for several reasons:

1) We weren’t dressed for tennis.

2) We had no tennis equipment with us.

3) The experience would surely be expensive and I had already spent my entire monthly budget at the Pez factory.

4) Sam doesn’t know anything about the game’s history and wouldn’t appreciate it anyway.

5) We’re not very good at tennis.

Moments later, though, the Hamster noticed the same sign and viewed the opportunity much less practically. As in, “That’s so cool! Let’s go play!” Instead of being the bad guy by just saying no and heading back to the car, I decided to humor him and let the people in the pro shop be the ones to say no. Instead they said yes. As in, “Yes, there’s a court available right now.” And “Yes, we can rent you racquets. We can even let you use a couple of demo racquets for free.” And “Yes, you can play in what you’re wearing, even though we have a strict rule about playing only in tennis whites, because it’s late and none of the uptight members are here right now.”

So, somehow, despite not even planning to visit the Tennis Hall of Fame until tomorrow, the Hamster and I played tennis for half an hour on its historic grass courts this evening. It was exhausting but we couldn’t have been happier that it worked out the way it did.

We were on a roll so I decided to push our luck one more time and head to Cliff Walk, a three-mile-long public walking path that cuts through the backyards of the former summer mansions of the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Astors, etc. It also cuts along the rocky cliffs that separate those backyards from the Atlantic Ocean, so the scenery was breathtaking no matter which way we looked.

Mansion along Cliff Walk, Newport, Rhode Island Cliff Walk, Newport, Rhode Island

And because we got there close to dinner time the crowds were pretty sparse. And it was FREE!

Completely spent after a day of driving, Pez-buying, tennis-playing, and Cliff-Walking, we holed up in a Travelodge for the night, dug into our New Haven takeout, and savored the many surprises of the day.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jessica Hickman-Beard permalink
    July 30, 2013 10:23 am

    Adam–we were supposed to be at that very carousel in Westerly this past weekend. And would have no doubt crossed paths with you! Unfortunately we weren’t able to go but am happy you were able to enjoy it and Newport too! I have enjoyed following your blog and look forward to reading about this trip too. Regards, Jessica Hickman-Beard

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