Dad at the Wheel


I used to like going with Donald to the John Deere plants in Moline, Illinois, and Columbus, Ohio. We’d get up pre-dawn, pull out in the big flatbed, pull in at the plant, eat a packed lunch while a piece or two of equipment was loaded onto the truck, and head home. Dad loved these trips, or any other excuse to drive.

Any Sunday afternoon he might say: “Let’s go see the Michigan farms.” So we’d drop whatever we were doing, or planning to do, and hop in the car. I still wonder why we seemed eager to visit the Michigan farms, where we spent half the summer fighting off deerflies, ticks and mosquitoes, and scratching out a crop that rarely yielded enough to cover expenses. Perhaps there was something special about going on our day of rest, under no obligation to try to make anything grow. In any case, Dad’s urges to move could not be denied.

Uncle Wes, Dad’s brother, was a Dodge dealer. The first car I can remember had fins. Then came a series of Darts and Coronets, and the 1968 Polaris. The Polaris was exceptional, a Boxer of cars, its motto: “I Will Roll Further.” In 1978, on Dad’s orders I drove the Polaris to the Tedrow junkyard. The rear springs had at last broken through the under-structure, protruding into the trunk like an old man’s shoulder-bones. The car had 254,000 miles on it according to the meter, and the engine had never been rebuilt. Taking it to the junkyard was as sad as Boxer’s being taken to the knackers in Animal Farm or one of our dogs being taken to the woods. (“Taking a dog to the woods” was a Dad euphemism. They never came back.)

Another place Dad liked to drive Sundays was to the Irish Hills in Michigan. There was a speedway of no interest to any of us and a botanical garden Mom liked. Usually we’d just drive around when we got there, and then drive home again. Dad didn’t believe in getting out of a car unless he had to.

In 1962 Dad acquired a pop-up camper-trailer that he set up in the yard under one of the maples. He often brought home such surprises, accepted in lieu of payment from clients at the implement store. Mom would have preferred hard currency, but kept her mouth shut.

“We could go to the World’s Fair in Seattle,” Dad proposed that July. Lois noted that Seattle was on the other side of the country, 2300 miles away. And that we were short of hard currency.

“I’m aware of that,” Dad said, “but we’ll take the pop-up trailer. It will more than pay for itself. On the way home we’ll swing up through the Peace River country.” Peace River, Alberta, was 950 miles north of Seattle and could hardly have been said to be on the way home by anyone but my father. There was no point discussing it. Mom began provisioning the madness on a shoestring.

The pop-up trailer was hitched to the finned Dodge, a neighbor kid was conscripted to feed the dogs and mow the lawn, and the usual security measures were put in effect. Dad pulled the keys from the tractors and pickup, stashing them under a box of washers on the sill of the tool shed. He padlocked the fuel tanks and Mom shut the house windows in case it rained. We did not bother to lock the doors. Dad argued that there was little inside worth stealing in the first place – and in the second, that anyone determined to enter the house would do it whether the doors were locked or not. Better to accommodate potential intruders – cheaper than replacing broken locks or glass.

Dad had decided we wouldn’t be taking any major interstates. He wanted to see the country. I sat in front between the driving, driven Donald and the silent, suffering Lois. Mary, George and Rebecca sat in back. We hadn’t been gone 30 minutes before they were squabbling. Dad bounced a stern glance off the rear-view mirror.

“Stop it!” Mary said a few minutes later, something of an outburst for elder sister.

“You started it.” This was George, next in age, brash and impetuous. “What’d you hit me for if you expect me to stop it?”

“I didn’t hit you.”

“Did too.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

Dad’s eye returned to the mirror. Rebecca, youngest of the three in back, shrank in terror. She had reasons.

The Dodge rolled along Route 20 towards Chicago. Dad turned on the radio.

“Stop it!” Mary said again.

I turned to look. George had his hands in the air, which, combined with a gap-tooth grin, suggested a sort of innocence.

There came tugging, a snicker, a sniffle, more tugging.

“I’d like to cut you just to watch you bleed,” George drawled. It was a line he’d picked up on the schoolbus.

Dad snapped the radio off.

His right arm entered back seat airspace. He didn’t care who got pinched just so long as a message got through. The odds of finding the guilty party were one in three, good enough for Dad. He gave Rebecca’s cheek a twist that set her howling.

Younger sister sat convulsed under the smart of injustice. George hadn’t quite erased the grin but had the good sense to look cautious. Mary, in her school-marm goodness, passed a handkerchief across to Rebecca. Mom stared straight ahead, wondering how far it was to Iowa.

The trip lasted five weeks. In South Dakota I was allowed to ride in the pop-up trailer. I’d begged and begged Dad to let me ride there, and eventually he gave his consent with a nod from Lois. Apart from a band of daylight at the back door, the interior of the trailer was pitch-black. I lay wedged in the center aisle peering through the crack at the white stripes of a South Dakota B-road sliding east. I lay there long after it occurred to me that I’d likely been forgotten.

“How was it back there?” Mom asked at the next gas stop. Something in her voice suggested she was tempted to take a turn.

What I remember most about the Seattle World’s Fair is my disappointment at not winning a prize. My brother had promised me one of the teddy bears sitting along the highest row of a gaudy stall. There were no mights or maybes. “You’ll get your bear,” George assured. “What color do you want?”

The grand prize was twice as big as I was. I worried about how I was going to carry it once I won it. To pursue such magnificent game, you were obliged to hand the hard-bitten Okie behind the counter a quarter in exchange for a basketball. You got three shots. They all had to go in, otherwise no bear.

George had a good eye and the basket didn’t look very far off. Up in the haymow I’d seen him sink harder shots than this, ten in a row. It didn’t seem quite honest, stealing bears this way. George’s first ball looked good but looped off the rim to the netting below, rolling down to the Okie, who handed it back to my brother. “Two more,” said the carnie man. “Two more chances to put the ball in the hole.”

George didn’t bother to take these consolation shots, but straightway handed the man another quarter. We were going after bear, not consolation. This time the first shot went in, but the second missed. Another quarter. Another miss. Another quarter. Presently we were out of quarters.

“Who’s next to win the big bear?” the carnie man cried, looking every direction but ours.

“Hey,” my brother said. “Hey, mister.”

“What is it, kid?”

“There’s something wrong with that basket.”

“Three balls for a quarter! Three in the hole, the bear goes home!”

“I said there’s something wrong with that basket.”

“You got another quarter?”

My brother shook his head. “Then beat it.” As if to prove he had a heart, the Okie reached down and came up with a kewpie doll that he slid across the counter. I fielded the bait. “There you go, kid,” he said. “All the way from Hong Kong.”

Our money was gone but we now possessed a kewpie doll and a lesson in the ways of the World. Maybe that’s why it was called the World’s Fair. I’m sure my brother was right about one thing. There was something wrong with that basket – namely, the diameter of the rim was only a few millimeters greater than the diameter of the ball. Sinking three shots in a row was as probable as finding gold at the end of the rainbow. The teddy bears at the 1962 World’s Fair were among the best-protected species in Washington State. I doubt one was ever taken.

We crossed into Canada. I remember a campsite in British Columbia, collecting flat stones from a cold stream, spotting a screech owl, tasting for the first time a breakfast cereal called Crispy Critters. I remember a rodeo somewhere, and at last reaching the Peace River country Dad had been talking about for weeks. I remember riding a second time in the pop-up trailer, the white lines in the middle of the road zipping west this time.

We didn’t often have the leisure or the money (or the pop-up trailer) for trips on this scale. Our grandest family outing of the summer usually amounted to a drive to Detroit to see the Tigers play. I’d consult a schedule in the spring, choose an August home game, and get Dad to approve the date and finance the tickets. A lower deck reserved seat cost $2.25, bringing the total to $13.50. I put that amount in cash into an envelope addressed to Tiger Stadium, Michigan and Trumbull. Ten days later the tickets arrived, a packet of six bound with a rubber band. This was swaddled in Kleenex and enshrined in Mom’s desk drawer.

At last the great day came. The drive to Detroit took a couple of hours. Traffic into the city was heavy and Tiger Stadium was located in something of a warzone. We saw shop fronts boarded up, raw graffiti everywhere, and signs of the rioting covered by the nightly news. Every now and then a burnt-out shop drew our wondering gaze. Mom was especially nervous. Dad had to focus on the driving, but could be counted on for penetrating social analysis, e.g., “If more of these blacks would get busy and work, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.”

At last we’d see the stadium and turn our concerns to parking. Cars left along the street tended to have hubcaps missing, if not wheels. For a dollar, you could park in a secure lot fairly close to the stadium. For 50 cents you could park in a somewhat less secure lot somewhat less close to the stadium. Dad always picked a place for 25 cents, a weedy limbo between decrepit brick walls, supervised by a scrawny kid who looked about as responsible as a ferret.

“You’ll be on duty till the game’s over?” Dad asked.

The kid responded with one of those “Sure, and my old lady’s the queen of England” nods, which satisfied Donald. Then we’d set off to find Tiger Stadium. From 25 cent parking-land this demanded anything from a trek to a quest. I had the tickets. Mom and Mary had the sandwiches, juice and water.

Whenever possible, I selected what was known as a twi-night double-header. Two games for the price of one, starting at 6:00 in the evening. Mom was always asleep by the eighth inning of game one, having rediscovered how long and dull the game of baseball proved annually to be. Towards the middle of the second game she’d come to, shaking her head and looking around until she’d ascertained she was still in Tiger Stadium.

“Is it almost over?”

“We’re in the fifth, but the Tigers are coming up to bat.”

“Oh, that’s good.” Her head would then slump down in stages until she was sleeping again.

“That rascal,” Dad said, as we reached the Dodge, sitting all alone in weedy remoteness. “Where’d he run off to?” Dad sounded as if he really expected our hired ferret to be around at 11:30 at night.

Mom fell asleep as she hit the seat. I stayed awake as long as I could, listening to Ray Lane’s Scoreboard Show and then to a dreamy program called Night Flight 760. “Good evening, jazz passengers. This is your captain speaking… so happy you could join us on our journey into the wee hours… But wait, the night is young… Still plenty of time for a little rendezvous with Teddy Heath and his orchestra…”

Whoever our captain was he had a rich, mesmeric, smoky voice. I envied him being paid to sit up half the night in some studio spinning night-flight bull. It beat farming. Then I was asleep with the others. I don’t know how Dad kept his eyes open, but he always did. And by 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, we were always home.

About the Author

John Liechty

John Liechty grew up in northwest Ohio, graduated from Goshen College and attended Indiana University. Over the next 25 years he taught in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Azerbaijan and Oman, living most of the time in Morocco. He currently lives in Colorado with his family, where he does some teaching and volunteering. He travels less than in the past and shows occasional signs of settling down. The CMW journal published an early contribution by John in the New Fiction issue for January 2010.