Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Road Warrior

I hurry home tonight—I drive my truck fast like my father taught me; I let off the gas at the head of a sharp curve and on the arc of the curve I hit it again, this swings me and my little Ranger smoothly out onto the straightaway in a satisfying feeling of nimble gliding. On the straightaway, a flock of turkeys are dashing across the road, they scatter out from a soybean field and push their cumbersome unwieldy bodies up, their wings spin in a blur like whirligigs, and I think to myself; there is nothing more optimistic than a turkey in flight.

My father was always driving me somewhere; to New Jersey, to Virginia, to Belmont Park, back to Connecticut. I spent more time with my father in his car than anywhere else. And the car was always packed with his camera bags that billowed and spilled open on the back seat . . . telephoto lenses, zoom lenses, little yellow boxes of film, gray and black canisters filled with his work, chamois cloth, motor drives and Nikon camera bodies, race programs, the racing form, bottles of pills—I gotta Nikon camera, I like to take a photograph, Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away . . .

The New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, the land of factories just north of the Meadowlands we used to call The Stinky Place. We ran out of gas in The Stinky Place once, the sun was setting and we were headed south to Princeton, where my father was living at the time. My tiny sister curled up in the backseat among the camera bags and a wool horse blanket over her to keep her warm. My Dad left us in the car and walked up the highway to find gas. I remember sitting in the car watching him disappear just at the moment the sun dipped behind a smoke stack that was unfurling its heavy cargo of soot into the New Jersey twilight. It wasn’t the first time I had been left alone somewhere, and it wouldn’t be the last. My sister; my father’s daughter by his second marriage—and his second divorce—was completely unaware of our predicament, she slept like a kitten. I felt our car sway and halt with each car that zoomed by us on the turnpike. The silence of the car, its dead-out-of-gas-din, buzzed in my ears louder than the rush-hour traffic that was all around us. I locked all the doors and night fell. There were some Ritz crackers and I ate those, watched my sister sleep, and watched the artificially lit horizon for my father’s return.

And he did return, with a New Jersey state policeman and a can of gas. We were back on the road and soon we were in the Princeton house, with his great dane and his jack russell terriers running all around, while my father whipped up stir fried rice and vegetables, the sounds of the highway now replaced by the gong of a metal spatula against the cast iron wok in the middle of the night.

My father road raced when he was younger. It was an offshoot of his steeplechasing days. He favored small racy sports cars. He had an MG spitfire in the days he was married to my mother. And as I grew up there was a series of small fast cars, a Fiat roadster being the one that remains with me most because of what he called it -- Mussolini. It was deep forest green with a racing stripe and it was the kind of car you might see in a desert rally in North Africa. Driving the eastern turnpikes and highways with my father was not unlike being in a race. He drafted behind tractor–trailers, he snaked between lanes, downshifting heavily as he entered corners and then kicked up and sped out of the corners, just like a proper race car. But this might lead you to believe that my father was always concentrating and utterly in command, but he wasn’t. His fuse was short, very short indeed, and it was as though all the other drivers existed for only one reason: to slight him, to piss him off.

I always rode in the front seat because I was prone to car sickness. I think my bouts of nausea and vertigo had more to do with panic than with actual sensitivity to motion. My father would hand me a Coca Cola and tell me to sip it along the way, and I pressed my hands into the cold sides of the can and braced myself for the ride ahead. There was never an uneventful drive with him. Never. If someone on the road failed to set him ablaze, then my sister always supplied the fuel. Tiny little thing that she was, all it took was one complaint or barely audible whine and my father went off like a cherry bomb in a mailbox. And me? I pressed up against my door contemplating just opening it and spilling out on the highway to escape . . . like Steve McQueen.

Pop used to tell a harrowing story of driving north on old Route 1 in 1966, from Southern Pines to Westport, with his then son-in-law, my father. With my father at the wheel, they careened along at speeds that Pop was never comfortable with, but by this time, he knew of my father’s irritable nature, so Pop did as I did when riding with Raymie, he kept real quiet. Somewhere between D.C. and Philadelphia, they were cut off by a station wagon full of men. The wagon came up behind them at a horrible speed and swung around them, leaving my father with no choice but to slam on the breaks. This was the fire that was waiting to be set and so it began. My father gunned the engine and caught up with the wagon, which was so full that it rocked low on its wheels as it sped along. He pulled up along side and told my grandfather to roll down his window. Pop did as he was told, and then the words started flying. You know the kind of words I'm talking about. My father was in a blind rage, but Pop was the middle man; he turned his head to see the recipients of my father’s wrath, and there within an arms length of him, was a Ford station wagon with wood paneled sides and windows down; it was full of Hell’s Angels. Just jam packed with the meanest, scariest looking men Pop had ever laid eyes on. Their long dark hair seemed to tangle all of them together and it whipped around like baby snakes. Their enormous arms were bruised with tattoos and they wore thick leather bracelets. They just glared back at Pop, they weren’t saying anything—my father was doing all the talking—he was talking himself into a terrible spot. Pop decided it was time to say something, “Raymie. . .” My father didn’t respond, he just kept swearing a blue streak and the louder his voice got, the fast the cars went. “Raymie, you need to calm down.” But my father didn’t calm down and still, he seemed to have no idea who he was addressing. Pop looked over at the Station Wagon from Hell again, now the Angels were calling back and they were brandishing knives. Pop looked back at his son-in-law, and then he looked straight down the highway. He saw an exit. “Raymie, I want you to hit the brakes, get behind these guys, then take that exit and let them go on. Do you hear me? Goddammit! Do you hear me?” And something made my father listen, maybe he saw the sun glint off of a switchblade and it cut through to him. He downshifted and swung behind the Wagon of Doom and before Angels could maneuver, Pop and my father were down the exit ramp and on their way to a Howard Johnson’s for a hamburger and a cocktail.


Robert said...

"there is nothing more optimistic than a turkey in flight."

Thank you for a great laugh.

T.S. Dogfish said...

Great story! How well I remember the Stinky Place! I can well remember going down the Turnpike with the Meadowlands on the right and the silhouette of NYC on the left and the foul malodorous funk of cancer in the air.

Did either you or your sister inherit your dad's temper?

wolfy said...

My sister inherited his temper . . . she fights it like a demon.