LESSONS FROM LIFE’S DRIVING SCHOOL
My father was born in small-town Kansas and spent the rest of his life trying to overcome it.
He wasn’t sure what he wanted from life, but he knew he wanted to say goodbye to the Walnut River Valley and the sulfury smell from the nearby oil wells.
Some say the odor of oil is the smell of money, but something else tugged at him, telling him to get away, to have an adventure, to find a life and live it with abandon.
He found that life in travel. Small steps at first in the Midwest. And then big ones: Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and the Philippines, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.
By the time he was discharged in 1945, as thin as a rail and a whole lot tanner, he was ready to get in a car with his wife and daughter (and later, another daughter and still later another daughter) and go wherever the road took him.
Even as a humble federal civil servant, he managed to be king of the road, thanks to the U.S. government, which moved us every two years.
When duty called, he packed us up and pointed the car in the direction of our new home. A “vacation,” he called it.
It didn’t occur to me until I was an adult that normal vacations do not begin with tears and saying goodbye to family, friends and the familiar.
But wasn’t it a vacation to get in a new-model Chevy and drive from Virginia to San Francisco on our way to Honolulu?
Perhaps, unless that Chevy was a Corvair, which, with its rear-mounted, air-cooled engine, promised to be a dream come true but eventually inspired Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed.”
It was a dream, but a really bad one. As my mother said repeatedly, “We made lots of new friends on our trip. Most of them were Chevrolet mechanics.”
Back seat diplomacy and security
We spent hours in repair shops, which, on balance, was better than wilting by the roadside in New Mexico or Arizona while waiting for the engine to cool in the 100-degree heat. I had not yet developed Southwest sensibilities so the landscape looked to me like a whole lot of empty.
But our road-trip lives were rich and full. For instance, there were always a lot of arguments, especially among the back-seat denizens about who had to sit in the middle (always me, because I was the youngest) and who had to hold the bird cage.
Oh yes. Did I mention that Riot, the aptly named parakeet, was traveling with us? I loved our little blue budgie and fantasized, as trickles of sweat glued the backs of my legs to the car seat, that I would open the door of his cage, then open the back door of the car and together we would fly away as the car wheezed and sputtered its way through the Southwest.
I remain grateful to my sisters for keeping me in the middle and away from the door. They probably saved my life, even if it was unintentional.
You learn a lot about gratitude from a road trip.
Responding to danger and anger
That first interminable trip was followed, of necessity, by smaller ones. You can’t drive far when you live on an island.
My dad thought it would be fun to circumnavigate Oahu, our new home. Just two years into statehood, Hawaii still had unpaved roads that lacked the guardrails that would keep us from plunging to our death in the Pacific.
I held my breath for several hours that day. I am sure I remember this correctly because almost overnight I became a much better swimmer. I also learned how to suppress a scream. You learn a lot of new skills from a road trip. Sometimes they are human-relations skills. Our next road trips were in the Philippines, yet another new home.
In Manila, humidity clings to you like plastic wrap, so we would escape occasionally to Baguio City, a haven at 4,900 feet in northern Luzon.
But in the 1960s, every day of that 160-mile road to the hills was Carmageddon.
First we drove to Quezon City, which should have been a one-hour drive but was nearly three, thanks to bad roads and worse traffic. My parents laughed and talked and puffed on cigarettes whose smoke made our eyes sting until tears ran down our cheeks.
But we endured because we didn’t want to break the mood.
My father did that for us as we arrived in Quezon City.
“Did you put our suitcases in the car?” he asked my mother.
From the back seat, we saw her turn toward my father as if in slo-mo.
“No,” she said. “I thought you did.” That is how a seven-hour car trip turned into 16, the last 13 mostly in strained silence.
Today you can make the trip in about four hours, especially if you remember to put the luggage in the trunk.
You learn a lot about forgiveness from a road trip.
Lost? Don’t play the blame game
Letting go of anger is always good. So is letting go of the notion that you will never get lost.
We could never quite get our bearings on our first road trip after we resettled in Virginia. Maybe it was because we weren’t moving somewhere.
Instead, our vacation to Maine was supposed to help us escape the steam heat of a Southern summer, which we evidently hadn’t figured out how to do even after years in the tropics.
In reality, we were never going to get our bearings because we could never decipher a map. My parents and their children didn’t come wired with the directional gene. Blame was pointless because this deficiency was innate, not deliberate.
But family finger-pointing had become our favorite car game. Further, when the lights on our new car shorted out after dark on a rainy road to Bar Harbor, my parents, recent graduates of marital gladiator school, blamed each other, not the nitwit who failed Wiring 101.
The thing about being a jerk on a road trip is that you don’t have anywhere to go. You’re in a box on wheels and, unlike Riot, you can’t roll down the window and fly away. You learn a lot about apologizing from a road trip. In a car, love means always having to say you’re sorry. You have to mean it too because you are still in a rolling box with all the same people — unless you open the car door and push them out.
Follow the philosophy of the parakeet
You could romanticize and dignify our family journeys by pretending they were a paragon of this American road-trip tradition, but that’s putting lipstick on a pig.
These trips oinked, and no first sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Halona blowhole in Hawaii, the mist-draped mountains of Southeast Asia or the ocean-chilled coast of Maine could change that.
On the other hand, as mobile universities, they rocked. They conferred upon us doctorates in coexistence, a lesson then, maybe an even better one now.
Getting along sometimes seemed impossible, especially when you consider the best-behaved member of this road-trip crew was the bird.
Riot, it turned out, was our role model. Even after thousands of miles in an un-air-conditioned automotive affliction, I never heard him say, “Thanks, but I think I’ll fly next time.”
If life somehow granted us a do-over, neither would we.