It was such a hot summer Sunday that the black pitch used topatch the roads reached its boiling point by mid-morning, amatter of some concern to local highway and volunteer firedepartments.
As we crossed over the mighty Mississippi from Missouri toIllinois, my father, a genuine sun worshipper, gleefullylowered the convertible top of his flashy Ford Thunderbird. Fashionably dubbed the “T-Bird” by afficionados, my dad, older brother Ron and I cruised along U.S. Rte. 66 from St.Louis to Chicago. It happened one summer Sunday, a lifetime ago. Life was … good.
My brother Ron and I couldn’t have been more excited.Anticipating a grand week in Chicago with Dad, we rode very comfortably in the leather–upholstered back seat where any mischief might at least remain undetected for a while which, as matter of fact, it did or so we thought.
My folks had recently divorced and, as the courts typically decided in those days, the mother received custody of the children. Don’t get me wrong. We loved Mom then as we do now forty-five years later. Simple as that. My dad has always been a conscientious father. To his credit, as the non-custodial parent, that’s never been an easy thing todo. While we saw him only four times a year, he more than made up for the infrequency of his visits by the quality of the time
he spent with us.
We had just passed through Litchfield, Illinois, one of those“slice of Americana” towns you’d miss had you so much as blinked or nodded off for a second. In the old days before the interstate was rerouted outside the town, “motorists’, as theyused to be called, drove through the town itself, stopping ate very red light, “stop” sign, Esso “filling” station (remember their slogan that advised us to ‘put a tiger in your tank?’) and“Dog ‘n Suds”. Now there was no finer lunch to be had on a sultry summer day than a Dog N’ Suds all-American beef hotdog on a steamed poppy seed bun with everything on it (naturally!), the greasiest fries you could ever imagine and an ice cold root beer.
“Hey, you guys hungry?”
“Hey yea, Dad! How ‘bout Dog and Suds?”
“I was thinking the very same thing. I see their sign up ahead.”
“What are you asking me for? I’m not the one who lost hisc ap,” Ron shot back.
“Why did you reach for it?”
“You think we can go back and find it?” I asked pleadingly.
“Are you whacky? That was probably thirty miles back. Besides,it’s long gone by now. Probably hanging off the hook of some fisherman’s pole.”
“You really think so?”
My father loves the sunshine, the brighter, the hotter, the better. But, as with everything, there is a limit, and my father reached his that day. He had driven bare-headed from St.Louis and, by the time we reached Litchfield, given the baldness of his pate, it had become too hot even for him.
“Wow, the top of my head is burning up,” Dad remarked as he pulled up to the Dog ‘n Suds Drive-In. Edging up to the two-way speaker as closely as he could to avoid having to hang out the window to place our order, he depressed his automatic window switch.
“Boys, will you hand me up my cap, pl … ?”
“Welcome to Dog N’ Suds. May I take your order?” a pleasant lady’s voice asked.
“Oh, okay, sure,’ Dad responded, turning back to the speaker.“Hi, okay, thank you. Uh, one moment, Miss.” Dad seemed slightly rattled, caught-as it were-between a talking box and the chicanery of two boys.“Fellas” hot dogs and fries, right? Shakes too?”
We nodded eagerly.
‘Yea sure, Dad, two chocolates, right?” Ron turned to me, beseeching my quick agreement.
“Hello sir, may I have your order please?” she requested again with the slightest trace of irritation in her voice. Dad turned back quickly to place our order.“Yes, sorry about that” he began, “We’ll have three dogs with the works, three fries, two chocolate shakes and one extra largeroot beer.” Whew! Saved by the lady’s voice in the Dog N” Suds speaker. Within five minutes, our roller skating teenage waitress hooked our tray onto Dad’s half open window.
“You guys ready?”
“Yes Dad, thank youuuuu …” Ron and I lazily responded,feigning irrepressible sleepiness while harmonizing our yawns and stretching our arms overhead. Good thing the top wasa lready down. We would have gone straight through it otherwise. We handed up our trash to Dad.
“Hey, you know,” Dad cheerfully said, “By the time you guys wake up from your naps, we’ll probably be in Chicago.” Thinking we had pulled the proverbial wool over Dad’s eyes, Ron and I “dozed off".
”Have you ever noticed how summer weather can dramaticallychange within several minutes? As we approached Lincoln, Illinois, about forty miles beyond Litchfield, those big, fluffy, puffy gray rainclouds- which had been looming overhead eversince we left Litchfield-became ominously dark, blotting out the rays of sunshine, a welcome respite from the intense heat.
Dad put up the convertible top.
“Hey boys, everything all right back there? You sleep okay? Ron looked at me. I looked at him. The jig was up! “Oh just great Dad. Are we almost there?”“
No. we’ve got a ways yet.”
“Dad, is there another Dog N’ Suds coming up?” Ron inquired, barely concealing his beginner’s attempt at disingenuity.
“Hey, yea Dad, how ‘bout those shakes?” I chimed in.
“Don’t know Son. I had a root beer. Remember? Oh, by theway, my cap … do you guys got it back there?”Now, you may not believe this, but at that precise moment,when it appeared no further subterfuge could prevent the revelation of the awful truth, Dad’s cap probe was interrupted yet again, but this time by a thunderclap so startlingly loud that I spilled the rest of Dad’s root beer on Ron’s shirt. What fell from the sky were not raindrops but rain buckets. Dad switched his wipers on high, but they could not keep up with the deluge. Dad pulled over. We’d wait this one out. After five minutes, the rain stopped, having moved out as quickly as it had moved in. The temperature must have dropped fifteen degrees. Dad put the top down again and seemed happy, you know carefree. Pulling off his shirt at a rest area, he drove therest of the way into Chicago smiling broadly, bare-chested and still bare-headed. He certainly appeared to be enjoying life-kind of like the idealized “glamorous people” you’d see depicted onthe ubiquitous marketing billboards placed along the interstate every quarter mile or so. I remember their smiling facesfashionably accentuated by Marlboros or Benson and Hedges andwhose hair was as wind-blown as Dad’s would have been had he still the red wavy locks of his youth.
My father never mentioned the cap again. Did he realize what had happened? Probably did, but this week in Chicago would be his time with us and ours with him. Jeopardize that over a cap? My dad wouldn’t have done that. Besides, the cap wasn’t exactly a Biltmore black Canadian suede fedora, just a cloth cap, no big deal, right? And you know what? Even had it been a Borsalino, my father was wise enough to know it’s not the hatwhich makes the difference but the head wearing it.