I saw an old friend today. He watched me crawl into my twenty-year-old beat-up truck and couldn’t believe I was still driving it.
“I don’t understand why you still drive that thing,” he said.
Well, it’s not difficult to understand. Vehicles are important to the ordinary people I come from.
When I was a kid, we would take long Sunday drives to nowhere. I wonder what happened to the American Sunday driver. There was a time when working-class families used to hop into station wagons and just play.
I remember one such Sunday after church. My father was on the sofa, his necktie hanging half mast. He was scanning the sports page.
“Yankees beat the Red Sox,” he said in mock amazement.
If there’s one thing I was brought up to dislike, it was the Yanks.
“Glavine pitches shutout in Atlanta. Unbelievable…”
“Gashouse Gang gets slaughtered again, fourteen to nothing, holy…”
And so on.
Usually, after he finished reading, he’d put on a pair of piddling clothes. Then he’d change the oil, organize the garage, mow the lawn twice, or repaint fifteen houses using only one arm. My father could not sit still.
But on this particular Sunday he said, “Hey, let’s all go for a drive, what d’ya say?”
My mother was knee deep in preparing cornbread and whatever else was on the menu.
“A drive?” she said, “But I’m cooking dinner.”
Sunday afternoons were the only time we called it “dinner.” Every other day of the week it was “supper.”
So my father looked at me. “How about you, Tiger? Wanna take a drive?”
A Sunday drive was big. On the occasions my father took me on these outings, I knew for certain that one thing was going to happen: Ice cream sandwiches.
We piled into my father’s ‘74 F-100, forest green, rusty, with welding equipment on the back. Oxygen canisters, cables, air hoses dangled every which way.
We drove for hours, meandering left and right. A ball game crackling over the radio. Finally, we reached a crossroads like the kind you see in old western movies. A four-way stop, cutting across scalped fields reaching toward the end of the world.
“Pick a road,” he said, throwing the gearshift into neutral.
“No, your grandmother. Yes you.”
I took my time because you never know with roads. Especially when they all look sort of the same. All roads do not lead somewhere good. Some lead to dead ends. Others carry you into crowded cities where professional people race along busy streets hurrying to their next nervous breakdown.
“Come on, Tiger. Ain’t got all day.”
“Let’s go that way.”
“Okay.” Then he kicked open the door and jumped out of the vehicle. “You take the wheel.”
It’s funny. In my mind’s eye, my childhood is like one of those topographic maps of a mountain range. Some of my memories are puny foothills, so small they blend into the beige valleys. Other memories are Pikes Peak.
I was no stranger to driving. I had been practicing since I was nine. My father was from a generation where every red blooded kid learned to drive while seated on his father’s lap.
My father was like most men of his time. He worshiped automobiles. In his conversations with others somehow he always steered discussions toward his long list of previous Fords which dated back to John Quincy Adams. And people’s faces would turn to wood.
So I crawled behind the wheel. I drove empty roads. We were riding about twenty miles per hour.
“Easy on the clutch,” he said. “Don’t push’er so hard.”
I learned that driving is work. Not hard work, but definitely not leisure. It occupies the subconscious like yoga, prayer, or watching the Golf Channel in your underpants.
You’re constantly upshifting, downshifting on steep grades, coasting on downhills. And it’s good for the mind.
The Ford pulled hard to the left and we heard a loud pop.
My father swore. I won’t tell you what he said, but it was a combination of words I hadn’t heard before. A tour de force of cussing. He only talked this way when my mother wasn’t around. It was pure joy.
We pulled into a filling station. We fooled with the bottle jack for a few minutes. My father sang under his breath:
“You’re the only one that I a-duh-duh-duh-dore!
“When the muh-moon shines,
“Over the cow shed,
“I’ll be waiting at the kuh-kuh-kuh-kitchen door!”
It was the first time I ever helped change a tire. And I know it seems like such a pathetic thing to say, but it was one of the greatest moments of my life.
Afterward, we went inside the station, hands covered in grease, clothes all a mess. My father opened the Coke cooler. He bought two Coca-Colas and two ice cream sandwiches.
He told the man behind the counter, “My son is a man today. He just changed his first tire.”
The man shook my greasy hand and said, “Sorry kid, I’m fresh outta trophies today.”
When I entered our house that evening my head hardly fit through the doorway. We ate ham and navy bean soup and cornbread for dinner. My father read the newspaper box scores while he ate. I can still see him sitting there even though he’s been gone a long time.
Every vehicle brand has its disciples. But now you know why I drive a Ford.