Monday, October 26, 2009

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Cruising Route 66 With Dad, Revision 2

“Albert, you’ll have the boys back next Sunday around noon,
right?” our mom anxiously reminded Dad of the promise
he had made. “Come on, Dad, let’s get going,” we hurried
him along, shouting in unison from the leather–upholstered
back seat where any mischief might remain undetected for
a while or so we thought.

Fashionably dubbed the “T-Bird” by aficionados, Dad’s flashy Ford
Thunderbird was a fabulous set of wheels with which to cruise
Route 66. And that was precisely what we were about to do,
getting our kicks on Route 66, as it were, in the spirit of
Nat King Cole's famous song from that era.

"Sure will, Gerry. I’ll have them back on time,” Dad shouted
back smilingly and waving while he excitedly strode to the car.
My father looked nattily but not fancily attired as he left Mom’s house.
Sporting a pair of white summer weight slacks cuffed just perfectly atop a pair of
O’Conner and Goldberg wingtips, a navy blue Banlon knit shirt
and topped off by a brand-new cap rakishly worn a bit off center,
my father was quite the handsome fellow, truth be told.

Firing up the ignition while gleefully lowering the convertible top,
my dad, a genuine sun-worshipper, older brother Ron and I began
a memorable road trip from St. Louis to Chicago. It happened a lifetime ago on one of
several summer Sundays in 1960 so hot that the black pitch used
to patch the roads reached its boiling point by mid-morning, a
matter of some concern to local highway and volunteer fire
department. Life was … good.

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.

In the absence of their marriage, my parents went about their business of responsible
parenting as if nothing had happened. Dad was, to his credit as the
non-custodial parent, always a conscientious father. That’s never
been an easy thing to do. 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.Apparently, he and Mom had cooperated in the planning of our week-long vacation in Chicago where we had all lived until just
recently. Following their breakup, my brother Ron, my mom and
I moved down to St. Louis where we lived with my maternal
grandmother or was it she moved in with us? Really I was
never quite sure about the arrangements. I do recall, however,
that Grandma Jean moved out after a year or so , I think, due to a
dissolution of the mother-daughter relationship, traceable to her
giving my mom too much grief about coming home late from a
date. Yes, it is weird when your mom is dating, but not too
surprising in my case because Mom was about thirty-one years
old and extraordinarily pretty. I recall a good many gentlemen-
callers knocking on our front door.

One of my favorites was Dr. Leslie Rich. A dentist like my
dad, he had a boat and a Porsche, a big tough guy. I sure liked
him. Don’t know what happened between them. Wasn’t meant to
be, I guess.You know it’s kind of funny, but the kind of “funny” you don’t
really ever understand-never mind that you think about it quite
often. “What did happen back then, I mean, between my parents?
But as a kid, I clearly remember them talking together in my
mom’s kitchen over a cup of coffee on those Sunday mornings
just before Dad would head back to Chicago.

“Do you think they’re talking about getting married again?” I
asked Ron. He looked at me as if to say “That’s ‘gotta’ be the
dumbest question in the world.” God, I hated those meetings
but this one was going to end differently because we were headed
back to Chicago to spend a week with Dad. I’ll say this much for
my parents. I never saw or heard either of them argue or say one
unkind word about the other in our presence and, for
that matter, to anyone else. My folks were decent, civil people.
Whatever happened … happened. It destroyed their marriage.
That being said, I am grateful my parents never let their marital
difficulties and hurt feelings each one may have had for the other
infect their parenting.

My brother Ron and I couldn’t have been more excited in
anticipation of a grand week. It was to be our first extended time
with Dad since the divorce.

“Seeya Ma!” She looks kind of sad,” I remarked to Ron.
“Don’t worry,” we reassuringly yelled out the window. We’ll
be back.”
“Hey guys, here you go,” he said, flipping his cap into the back
seat. “Too hot for this. Hold on to it for me okay?”
“Sure dad,” we agreeably responded, each of us lunging for the cap.

And so it began. Could it have gotten any better? To our way of
thinking, no. We were with Dad, it was a beautiful though
intensely hot day and we had a cap, one cap between the two of
us. And so we tussled about who would wear it first and then for
how long.“Boys will be boys,” I saw my Dad mouth, smiling contentedly,
when both he and I looked into the rear-view mirror at the same
time. Should we have shared the cap between us? Well sure, but
that would have been way too grown up for an eight-year old
boy and his ten-year old big brother.

“Hey boys, take a look. We’re crossing over the Mississippi
River into Illinois. That might have been of interest on another

“Give it here, “I righteously demanded. “It’s my turn.”
“Why dontcha try to take it?” Ron taunted me in act of
sibling cruelty. And I did, jolting Ron somewhat in the
process. Well, the combination of my self-assertion and the gale-
like winds sweeping across the historic Eads bridge was more than
enough to snatch the cap from Ron’s hand and drop it into the barge-
congested, muddied waters of the Mississippi River. It probably
never even came close to reaching New Orleans.

“Oh my God! The cap! Dad’s cap!” Ron muffled his gasp of
“Everything okay back there?” Dad inquired, looking at us from
his rear view mirror.
“Yes. Dad, just checking out the river,” Ron blurted out, a bit too
eagerly perhaps or had it been the guilt-infused tone of his voice?
What it may have been, Dad looked somewhat nonplussed.
“What are we gonna tell Dad?” I whispered to Ron worried about
how Dad would react to the awful news.
“What are you asking me for? I’m not the one who lost his
cap,” Ron shot back.
“Yea, you.”
“Why did you dangle it in front of my face?”
“Why did you reach for it?”
“You think we can go back and find it?” I asked pleadingly.
“Are you whacky? That hat is a goner. Probably end up
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.
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 they used to be called, drove through the town
itself, stopping at every 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.”
“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
“Boys, will you hand me up my cap, pl … ?”
“Welcome to Dog N’ Suds. May I take your order?” a
lady’s pleasant 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 large
root beer.” Whew! Saved by the lady’s voice in the Dog N” Suds
speaker box.

Within five minutes, our roller skating teenage waitress hooked
our tray onto Dad’s half open window. What a treat! And you know the best part of it all? Dad’s extra large root beer struck out the flame scorching the top of his head.
Maybe, just maybe he’d forget about the cap. Ron and I wolfed
down our dogs, fries and shakes.
“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 was
already 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
are done napping, 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 dramatically
change within several minutes? As we approached Lincoln,
Illinois, about forty miles beyond Litchfield, those big, fluffy,
puffy gray rainclouds- which had been looming overhead ever
since 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 the
way, 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 the
rest 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 on
the ubiquitous marketing billboards placed along the interstate
every quarter mile or so. I remember their smiling faces
fashionably accentuated by Marlboros or Benson and Hedges and
whose 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, it 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 teach us by his example
that it’s not the hat but the head on which it sits that makes the

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