by Carl Kozlowski

Remember when you were a kid and summer seemed to stretch on forever?

You had three whole straight months off from school. 90 days without a required thing to do. And each day seemed to have 58 hours in it, because the possibilities were endless.

And it was always cool to go visit your grandma in some faraway state where she'd spoil you rotten.

Yep, it was all great, and we'd go see Grandma each summer, with my mom driving cross-country in our family station wagon from Little Rock, AR to El Cajon, CA with myself and my three siblings scurrying around in the back. Mom was an amazing driver who could put truckers to shame. That's because she drove just LIKE a trucker with a meth habit, speeding every stretch of highway that she could and trying to stop as little as possible and even driving through the night when she could.

But yet despite the fact that she'd married well - my dad is a retired VA doctor - she always drove as cheaply as possible. That was one big reason she tried to avoid stopping to sleep - to save money from hotel costs. But when she DID stop, she'd pull into divey places that made the Bates Motel look like the Ritz-Carlton - and furthermore, would have my brothers and I duck down amid the luggage while taking my sister into the office and pretending that she was the only child traveling with her. Just to save ten bucks on the extra-kid fee. The whole rest of our stay, only one of us could be seen outside at a time, so that she could always tell the onwer that any of us were THE one kid she had - a claim that the owners found hard to dispute because Mom always asked for hotel rooms on the furthest side of the parking lot, away from the door - making us look like drug smugglers.

Funnily enough, it was drug smugglers who impacted our ability to travel cheaply.

See, it was the summer of '90 when my mom was driving us through the northern Cali town of Santa Maria (where Michael Jackson is put on trial whenever he diddles a kid, since Neverland is technically there). She decided it was late at night and time to stop. We pulled into (surprise) another $25 dive, did our duck and cover routine and wound up in a room just in time to watch the final episode ever of "Newhart."

Ah, what a rich source of laughter that was. But that was hardly the most exciting thing to happen that night. Nope, at about 2 a.m. my mom woke us all up by shaking us and loudly whispering, "I hear voices next door."

Unfortunately, it wasn't the sound of love - or, ok, loveMAKING - that my mom was pointing out to us. Face it, that would be weird.

No, she was hearing angry voices. ANd now we were hearing them too.

"I think there's a drug deal going on in there," she whispered.

Now, before I go further, I need to explain that my mom was and to this day remains the ultimate conspiracy theorist. Not about big things like 9-eleven or that Bush is really a lizard man, but about little things like "hey, i think the lady next door to us is running a whorehouse out of her home." And more amazingly, her hunches - including about the whorehouse - had proven right over the years. She was the true Jessica Fletcher, leaving the amateur sleuth played by Angela Lansbury on "Murder She Wrote" in the dust each week, both in her own real-life investigations of our neighbors and in solving the crimes on every show she watched within the first ten minutes.

So I knew mom was probably right about the drug dealing. But then she wanted ME to be the one to do something about it.

"Carl, you're the man of the family on this trip. You're my oldest son. Call 911."

WHAT?

"Um, YOU'RE near the phone mom...YOU call." I whispered back.

But she was afraid if any of us used the in-room phone we'd be heard and all wind up killed. So, like an Inuit Eskimo mother sending her son off to be a man via a solo trek through the Arctic tundra, I was ordered to get my jammies on and hotfoot it to the phone booth across the gigantic parking lot.

It's funny how, when your life's in danger, everything can seem bigger and scarier than it probably really is. So when i cracked open the door and spotted the booth, the parking lot suddenly looked like the football-stadium-size lots at Costco or a 24 hour Wal Mart. And I was gonna have to run across it in PAJAMAS without being noticed.

OK, i thought. Here goes nothing.

I pulled the door quietly shut behind me and made a mad dash, feeling like Nicolas Cage when he's chased through the town in the middle of the night in "Raising Arizona." I mean, this was just as crazy as anything Cage did in that movie.

I ran like hell, and finally made it. Sure enough, it was an old-school, glass-encased booth wiht a door, and I shut it behind me so i couldn't be heard. Like I'd be heard anyway, at 3 in the morning. If someone got that close to me, I'd have more to worry about than being HEARD, that's for sure.

I dialed 911 and tried to convey the gravity of the situation.

"Um, yeah, I'm staying with my family in this shitty motel on the main drag of town..."

"Which one, sir?"

"WHICH shitty motel?" I didn't know. This place sucked so bad it didn't even have a visible sign with its name on it. KNowing my mom, i knew it had to be the worst one.

"The shittiest one. Trust me. Just send cops to the shittiest motel in town, 'cause there's a drug deal and..."

Right then, I heard the sound of squealing tires and a loud BANG. I shrieked like the chick in the shower from "Psycho" and yelled "Oh my God, they're shooting at me. They're gonna kill me.." as I slammed the phone down in sheer terror...only to find that the BANG had come from a carload of teenagers who just had some balloons with them and decided to pop one. BANG.

But I ran for it, nonetheless. I didn't want the cops to see who i was and be visible to the jerks doing the deal. I ran all the way back to my room, only to find it locked. My brothers were laughing at me on the other side, purposely not unlocking it while watching me have a meltdown outside. Well, the world's quietest meltdown, because I didn't want to get heard.

I finally made it in by convincing them with my powers of persuasion.

"I swear to God, if you don't open this door I'll tell them ot shoot you first." Funny how everyone's a tough guy when their life's in danger. I'm normally a puss, and have never been in a fight in my life, and here i was threatening my brothers like i was Brad Pitt in "Fight Club."

They threw open the door, i dove under a bed - i mean, i SLID like Pete Rose stealing home - and in a quivering mess, gave my family the update.

"Oh my God i called the cops, but i didn't know the name to this place..."

"WHAT?" my mom said. She was ready to send me back out there.

"This place is a dump. I told them to send police to the shittiest dump in town. It cant' be THAT hard here."

Sure enough, within five minutes, five cop cars showed up and raided the room next door. POUNDS of coke were found, guns piled up like the set of "The Sopranos," and a group of five sweaty Mexican guys who all got arrested.

We were secretly thrilled by it all, peeking thorugh the curtains and giggling. I was now the family's hero.

The next morning, my mom went to the front office and argued with the Chinese guy who owned the place. He could barely pronounce "refund," so he wasn't giving one. Of course, leave it to my mom to haggle for a refund on a $25 room.

But we drove out of town with an important lesson learned: no more divey motels. My mom never took us to less than a Holiday Inn again.