I took the family on a vacation about a month ago, so now the credit card bills are coming in.

I’m looking here at two line items, each for $32, which have been billed as in-flight food and entertainment from United Airlines.

You see, a trip from California to Newark would have been unbearable, cruel and inhumane without the use of the in-flight Dish Network entertainment system that is embedded in the back of the seat in front of us. With a swipe of the credit card you are $8 lighter, but you have six hours of movies and cable television to keep your mind off those cramped conditions in coach.

It would also be cruel and humane not to feed the family, so another $8 per head and we each have a “sweet n’ savory box” of goodies. I would have ordered a Guinness to wash it all down, but the card had been maxed out for over-use as it was!

When I was my daughters’ ages (wow! Sounded just like Dad there for a minute!), I took the flight every other year from JFK to Shannon Airport. The duration of the flight was roughly the same as the Los Angeles cross-country travel we did, depending on the head winds at the time.

Of course, that doesn’t include the time actually getting to the airport on the Belt Parkway. It was only about 50 miles as the crow flew from Jersey City, but the unpredictable Belt could mercilessly add an hour that you hadn’t planned for onto that trip.

If you had to get to the Aer Lingus counter two hours before your flight, the crow’s flight was an hour, the clogged Beltway allotment would tack on an hour, and my father’s compulsive ways would require you to be an hour early wherever you went, so we would leave at 3:30 for a 9 p.m. flight.

“Look at those green mountains, Dad!” I would exclaim from the back of the car as we slinked past the Arthur Kill on Route 440 through Staten Island. “They look like the Galtee Mountains near Granny’s house!”

The driver, his thumbs drumming on the steering wheel to let off nervous steam, would roll his eyes and turn to my mother.

“This eejit thinks the landfill piles are the mountains. Is there any hope for him?”

More often than not, the Belt Parkway would behave and the journey that was supposed to take three hours took about 50 minutes. That meant that we would be at the airport with tickets in hand and bags checked at 4:30 for the 9 p.m. flight.

“Now, g’wan, better to be early than to be sorry,” my dad would say amidst our protests that we could have swum to Ireland faster than this route he had planned. “Ye’d be whinin’ about the vacation bein’ ruined if we were still stuck on that godforsaken road.”

With that, he would fish through his pockets for loose change and my brother and I would split a few packs of Life Savers or M&M’s for those three hours in the waiting area.

Of course you wouldn’t pay for a thing once you boarded the plane and there were no television monitors to keep you entertained.

Who could see the screen with all that cigarette smoke billowing above you? What did it matter that you were in the non-smoking section? Weren’t we all in the same cramped tube with wings breathing in the same air?

We would land at Shannon, our pink lungs charred black with the smoke, completely knackered by the jetlag and what amounted to be a 12-hour journey to get there when you factored in the wait time.

The only thing we’d have to show for the trip would be the Aer Lingus tea spoons that we’d all be instructed to pack in our bags before the stewardesses removed our service trays. When I questioned the motives behind this theft, I was told the spoon dispensed the perfect amount of sugar for “the tay.”

Looking at the screwing I got from United on my credit card bill, I am thinking about those sweet times we’d screw over the airlines for a sugar spoon. Those were the days!

(For more of Mike’s essays on Irish American life, log onto www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com.)