Call it Random Friday. Call it Nothing To Blog About Day. At any rate, for your reading pleasure I offer up a section of a biographical piece that has been floating through my head (and on my hard drive) for the better part of a decade. Feedback welcome!
My parents were raised on opposite sides of a mountain that straddles the Kentucky/Tennessee border. They both moved North in their respective fifteenth years, led up I-75 by fathers hoping to cash in on Detroit’s booming auto industry.
If my family were given to seeing the irony in a given situation, this would have been a heck of an example. But I can’t recall anyone making mention of it. The fact was, they had lived no more than an hour apart for their entire lives before they finally met at a church supper with some really good Southern potato salad on the menu. From the beginning, this was all they had in common: twanging backwoods accents that set them apart in their mostly black high schools and a longing to return to places filled more with winding hollers than claustrophobic alleys.
Except for a brief, tragic stint in Knoxville, my parents never made the return to their roots. We went Back Home (as we called it) at least twice a year all through my childhood, pulling out of our brick, two-car garage before the sun came up and grinding our way up the dirt road that led to my Uncle’s trailer before supper. The trips down were boisterous, if agonizing. Before my baby brother joined us, I rode alone in the wide, windy backseat of my mother’s Charger, dodging still-red ashes from my parent’s cigarettes and handing up bottles of Bud when asked. All of this was before the ban on drinking and driving went into effect; it was the late 1970s, and only idiots thought driving with a few innocent beers under your belt was dangerous. These were presumably the same idiots who wore seatbelts when anyone with any sense at all could see that you’d have to be cut out of your car if you were strapped in and wrecked.
Trips South were sacred, as evidenced by the temporary suspension of several family rules. First, I was allowed to gather a small bag of toys and books to bring along for the ride. I could voice my picks for music, too—all I had to do was suggest the Johnny Horton 8Track and chances were good it would find its way into rotation. But the clearest sign that a trip Back Home was something special was this: It was the only time I was allowed to eat or drink in the car.
Despite the fact that both of my parents smoked, food—or anything else that might stain the interior—was taboo. Forbidden, too, was any horseplay that might damage the exterior of the car. My father orchestrated what he called “D**n Common Sense Rules” (as in, “Don’t you have any d**n common sense?”) pertaining to behavior in or around a vehicle:
1. Never ever put your feet in the car’s seat.
2. Never get in the car with dirty feet. If your shoes are dirty and you can’t clean them adequately, take your shoes off and set them in your lap. Mom can wash your clothes when you get home, but the floor mats, if soiled, may be ruined forever.
3. No eating, drinking, chewing gum, spitting, etc. in the car at any time.
4. Never use the ashtray in the car. Flick butts out the window to keep the ashtray clean.
5. Do not lean or pull on the front seats when you are sitting in the back.
6. Do not lean against the car.
7. Do not sit on the hood of the car.
8. No balls around the car: bouncing, thrown or otherwise.
9. If you must pass the car with your bike, do not ride it. Get off the bike and walk it past the car carefully, with your body between the bike and the car.
10. If the car gets wet, wipe it dry with a clean, soft towel. No air drying ... it causes spots.
The day to day enforcement of these rules was strict. Stopping at a drivethru for dinner meant an agonizing ride home with a hot, greasy bag of White Castles or Arby’s in my lap, the smell perfuming the air. I don’t remember even asking to try a fry in the car. It would have been sacrilege. Except for the times I was allowed to participate in the weekly automobile worship/washing sessions, I had never touched any of my parents’ cars. I had no idea what would happen if a real infraction—a scratch, a ding, or, heaven forbid, a full-fledged dent— took place. I was a quick study, and had been barked at a few times for being too near the vehicle. It was an honor and a priveleg just to be near the car. Anything more was too much to ask for.
But going Back Home was different. We didn’t eat breakfast in my family, so everyone filed to the car with an empty stomach. My mother always brought along a pillow and a blanket for me, and I would stretch out in the backseat. I was allowed to pull my shoeless feet up into the seat, but not to place them against any of the glass or vinyl trim. When I woke up, my mother would be carefully draining the last dregs of black coffee from our tall silver thermos into the lid that doublled as a mug. This was usually the sign that it was time for the music to come on—something raucous, usually. A little CCR, maybe. For years I thought that “Suzy Q” was somehow tied to the Ohio state line. I don’t know why, but it always seemed to be the song that was banging through the speakers when we left Michigan behind.
For lunch, mom had packed the day-glo orange cooler with bologna sandwiches. Mine were always plain: two slices of white bread and one slice of slick bologna. It came wrapped in a flip-top sandwich bag and a warning: “Get all the crumbs in the bag. And don’t go waving it around.” I was never sure why I would have wanted to wave my sandwich around. It was just one of those things that grown-ups said sometimes, I figured. When I finished the sandwich, I knew, mom would tell me I could get a bottle of Coke, the glass so cold that the ice from the cooler might still be beading on it. I would drink the whole thing and sit back, bloated and satisfied.
And then I would pray that I didn’t have to pee.
The trip from our suburban ranch home in Michigan to Uncle Shep and Aunt Lou’s three bedroom trailer in Kentucky took ten hours. There were no planned stops. Toileting was done by necessity only, and even then my father was more likely to pull off on the side of the highway and swing open the door as the car idled than to visit a rest stop with actual toilet paper. His glare in the rearview mirror was usually more than enough to make me sit with crossed legs and suffer while my bladder ached. And ache it did—a whole bottle of Coke, chugged so quick it gave me a sugary buzz and stinging throat, was more than enough to fill a six year-old’s bladder near to popping. How my dad drank all that beer and black coffee and never had to stop, I’ll never know. Part of me think that it was the magnetic properties of the place, drawing him home.
He couldn’t have taken his time going Back Home if he’d wanted.