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I can’t say with any blessed assurance that Dad was with me when I last drove this stretch of road. We’ve been out west a time or two together though, and the little cedar trees always became a topic of conversation. Recalling the old western movies where they would hang the outlaw from a tree limb, I had asked Dad how they could manage such a thing with these short, sorry, squatty little samples out here? “Simple,” he said, “they kicked the Shetland Ponies out from under them.”
We played dueling one-liners too. When we crossed the famous Pecos River and saw how meager and trifling, how pitifully scrawny it was, he named it the Pecos Ditch. We crossed the Canadian River, in Colorado I believe, when he teasingly asked if I knew where it came from? I replied, “Canadia.”
Driving through the barren terrain today with nothing but open road before me, my mind took its own trip through the years and the mischief Dad and I managed to find on the road. We were in El Paso, when Dad took an important phone call from my step mom. He stepped outside the truck stop so he could hear her over the cacophony of boisterous drivers and intercom announcements inside the building. In the middle of their conversation, a prostitute approached Dad and asked if he”d like to do business. He put Mom on hold, gave the lady my description, and told her I was walking around inside the truck stop lonely as a drunk at closing time. I don’t think I ever adequately thanked him for the hassle.
Then there was the time we stopped at a service center on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just west of Philadelphia, having gone a couple of days without showers due to the crazy freight schedule. In fact, we had spent the previous night parked on the side of a street in West Chester, rendering us supremely and frighteningly unfit to appear in polite society. But we were hungry.
As I say, we stopped at the service center and went inside for coffee, with Dad looking like Festus and me (with my long hair) looking like Willie Nelson on the way to rehab. After assaulting the senses of the people at Starbucks, we saw a Cinnabon pastry shop. “Wanna have some fun?” Dad asked. “It depends,” I said with trepidation, for I knew that look in his eye, having seen it in my own mirror a time or two. “Let’s get some breakfast. I’ll talk Cajun and you translate.” Oh this sounded like fun! As we approached, the poor girl behind the cash register looked a bit nervous.
“Mais how you are?” I asked.
Unsure whether to smile or head for the exits, she said, “Fine sir, may I help you?”
“Me I’m tink we gonna get some food. Papa, what you want, hanh?
In Cajun French, Dad simultaneously questioned my legitimacy and membership in the human race, saying, “Kiss my [expletive] you [expediting] [extrapolating] [expeditionary] [expletive].” Or some such.
“He want dem cinnamon stick,” I told the girl.
“Do you want glaze on that, sir?” she asked.
“Hon, I drive dem big truck out dere. What if I get dem glaze all over ma nice truck, hanh? Mais lemme axe you, you gonna come clean out ma truck fo me?”
“Oh no sir!” She said as honestly and emphatically as if she had been offered a date with Jack the Ripper.
“Den I don’t want no glaze, me.” I said.
As we turned to walk back to the truck, Dad and I simultaneously and spontaneously looked back at the girl, waved, and said, “Tanks!” She was mortified. We barely made it out the door before convulsing in laughter.
At times, one of us would say something offhand and then look around as if to ask exactly who in the deuce said that? For example, a few years back we watched the New Orleans Saints play the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl with a room full of truckers at a truck stop in Bristol, Virginia. The room was about evenly divided between Saints fans and Colts infidels. After a Saints touchdown, one of the drivers observed that if New Orleans won the game, “They’ll be eating some gumbo tonight!” A gentleman whose accent betrayed his northern roots said, “I don’t even know how to make gumbo,” at which point Dad replied, “Well, if you hadn’t won the war we would have taught you!” The pot having thus been stirred, Dad and I sat back and watched the debate.
I’ve even been moved to tears during our adventures, like the time the waitress was digging through her pockets to find an ink pen, prompting Dad to observe, “Itches, doesn’t it?” I had to hide out at the salad bar until I regained my composure. Or, by way of contrast, the spectacular sunset that blazed across the western sky as we talked about our military service and then quietly watched the sky change colors while listening to Ray Charles sing America The Beautiful.
These are the scenes that flash through my mind this evening as I drive, some 2,000 miles away from home, while Dad is now in the hospital. You see, it appears he has had a series of mini-strokes which, combined with his Alzheimer’s, diabetes, a previous stroke, carotid artery blockage, and the stress of burying his wife of 34 years just six weeks ago today, has left him in less than ideal condition.
Sis was taking him to the hospital during what seems to have been one of the strokes. She put me on speaker phone, and I told him that I love him. He whispered to her, asking if it was Mom on the phone. You could have torn my heart out on the spot and I would have thanked you. He’s a good man and would to heavens I could trade places with him so he wouldn’t have to go through this. They are watching him closely. A neurologist is on the case, along with other specialists. His symptoms and problems are too numerous to catalogue here. But hopefully, with everyone communicating with each other, proper assessments can be made and a plan of action can be formulated.
When he was a young boy, Dad wanted to try and walk on stilts, like one of the clowns in the circus. He found two long pieces of wood — so long, in fact, that he had to climb up on the roof of the garage to mount the things. The problem was that they were so heavy that his feet kept sliding off the little pedestals he had attached, and down he would tumble.
But he had a remedy. He tied his legs to the stilts. His maiden voyage, from the garage to the oak tree on the other side of the yard and back again was successful. He was making his second go at it when his mother stepped outside and yelled, “Jimmy!!” “Huh?” he said, and that brief distraction was all it took. Since he was strapped onto the stilts, he had no choice but to ride them all the way down, face-first, into the grass. Watching our family in action is like watching a Warner Brothers Cartoon.
These are the memories, however, that calm a troubled mind and heal a fractured spirit. My sister, God love her beautiful soul, is exhausted. Six weeks after her mother’s funeral, she is with Dad even now, at the hospital, though she herself has virtually lost her own voice and is feeling just awful. Fortunately, we have a small support system of extended family in the area who are willing to repay years of smiles and enjoyment, and are doing all they can to help. What is the measure of a man, I ask myself as the miles go by. If a life can be measured by the number of smiles proffered, Dad’s wealth is immeasurable, and my heart overflows with gratitude.