Dad, do you mind if I take the car?”
My dad had a two-toned, turquoise and white 1956 Pontiac. As soon as I was of legal driving age, those wheels replaced the bicycle as my freedom machine. Whenever I got the chance, I’d take off to explore the warren of back roads surrounding the town that restrained me. Don’t get me wrong. Des Moines wasn’t such a bad place to live: in fact, for Iowa, it was quite a metropolis. But city life was too humdrum. Give me the open road anytime.
Luckily, the late ’50s witnessed a surge of dual-career couples, which assisted my flight toward the freedom I craved. After my brother went off to college, my mom traded in her apron for a businesslike blouse and skirt, selling housewares in the bustling aisles of Miller and Paine department store, Des Moines’s answer to Macy’s. My dad, a minister, spent long days in the study of his parish, dutifully preparing his sermon for the following Sunday.
In my eyes, this arrangement was perfect. With my brother at college and my parents both at work, I was free to create my own life. What could be better, especially when my dad lent me the car at night? Whatever little boundaries remained in my life at that time, I was more than willing to push.
This particular evening, my folks had settled down to the new American regimen of watching TV after a hard day’s labor. Instead of imagining Ozzie and Harriet, as we used to when gathered around the radio, we could now see them on our 12-inch Zenith, if the rabbit ears were adjusted just right.
But I’d grown tired of Ozzie and Harriet, so I telephoned my buddy Deeter, grabbed the keys to the Pontiac, and sprang out the door before Dad could reconsider his decision. It wasn’t long before Deeter and I were well beyond the city, the Iowa countryside deepening around us as we drove. The lights of the few farmhouses in the vicinity glowed in the distance like jack-o’-lanterns, and only the sweeping tunnel of our car lights fought off the darkness. We had no destination—all we’d wanted to do was drive.
Eventually, we came upon the ghostly shadows of an isolated cement plant and spotted a barely visible dirt road off to the left—basically, two tire tracks overgrown with weeds that stretched through a dark copse of trees into a tangled forest beyond.
“Where do you suppose it goes?” wondered Deeter.
“Don’t know,” I replied. “Never seen it before.”
Deeter and I looked at each other, almost daring the other to give the go-ahead. Then together, we nodded our somewhat hesitant agreement: this deserted road was the perfect mystery for us to investigate.
Now a ’56 Pontiac was built for style—a huge, showy tank of a car, made to cruise the new interstates that Ike was building all over the country. It was definitely not a jeep. With its low-slung clearance, it scraped every rock on that dirt lane. Undaunted, we slowed down to about five miles per hour and plowed ahead, straining to see the path as our headlights were gobbled up in the murky shadows.
Further and further we ventured into the midsummer darkness, the rhythmic chirping of crickets louder than the engine itself. Although the deepening mystery was tantalizing, it soon began to dawn on us that there was no place to turn around. The surrounding forest hemmed us in. The taillights were too dim to back up safely. So we had no choice but to proceed onward, into the blackness, occasionally glancing at each other with apprehension.
Finally, the headlights lit up a small clearing about 50 feet in front of us. Maybe we could turn around here and give up this expedition, which was feeling increasingly risky. As we drove into the clearing, however, our relief turned to dread as the car began to sink, slowly but inexorably, axle deep in mud.
I tried to gently give the car some gas, but the wheels spun out in protest.
“Maybe if you rock it,” Deeter suggested. That’s not easy to do with an automatic transmission, but I threw it into reverse, then drive, then reverse. No dice. The behemoth only sank deeper. Finally, I gunned the accelerator in one last desperate attempt to escape. The motor wined and complained—and the car settled even further into the muck.
For a few moments, we sat there in disbelief, looking at each other. Then the headlights dimmed as the battery began to run out of juice. Quickly I shut them off. Blackness surrounded us. I turned on the parking lights in hopes they wouldn’t drain the battery, and we stepped out gingerly into the mud to assess the situation.
As we slogged around the car and crouched by the tires, I wondered what my parents were thinking. It was time for us to be home, but here we were, miles from nowhere, in the middle of the night, on a sinking ship. I envisioned my frantic mom staring anxiously at the phone and waiting for it to ring, as my dad tried to reassure her—and himself—that we could take care of ourselves. Oh well. There was nothing to be done about that now, no way to get ahold of them.
Determined not to let our spirits sink with the car, we popped the trunk, fished out the jack, and went to work. Securing the jack under the back bumper, we began to pump the handle. But instead of the car rising, the jack sank down deeper into the mud with each crank. We looked at each other, sweaty and tired, and tried not to panic.
“Let’s find some rocks and branches to put under the jack,” I suggested. We ventured out into the dim perimeter of light and gathered an assortment of fallen branches. No luck locating any rocks. Returning to the car, we pulled as hard as we could to extract the jack from the mud. Then we filled the jack hole with broken branches and laid additional branches across the filled hole. This done, we once again positioned the jack and began to pump. Down into the muck went our jack and the branches. The car didn’t budge.
Back we went to forage even more branches, diligently repeating the process, packing the hole with more and more debris. Finally, much to our relief, the car lifted up ever so slightly. Another couple of trips to gather more branches and we were finally able to elevate it high enough so the back wheels were some six inches off the ground and out of the muck.
“What now?” Deeter asked.
“We build a ramp,” I suggested with more confidence than I was actually feeling.
“We’ll be here all night,” he grumbled skeptically.
“Got a better plan?” I countered.
Off we went, back into the surrounding woods, aided by the dim parking lights of the car and thousands of fireflies. When we found a large deadfall, several feet long, Deeter hefted one end while I lifted the other. On the count of three, we ran straight at the nearest sturdy tree, smashing the rotted branch broadside against it with all our might, splitting it in half. Realizing how silly we must look, we both exploded with laughter, gasping for breath. But soon we had several thick branches, about three feet in length, to wedge under the back tires.
Slowly, we cranked down the jack until the back tires of the car settled precariously on their logs. They didn’t sink! We whooped and hollered in the otherwise stone-silent dead of night. Next, we went around to the front of the car and repeated the entire process. Finally, the car sat, gloriously elevated to normal height.
Congratulating ourselves, we went back to work, this time constructing a broken timber ramp that served as a road out of the bog.
“Let’s test it,” Deeter suggested. “It’s now or never.”
Gingerly, I slid behind the wheel while Deeter stayed outside to survey the process. I cranked the starter. “Rr-rr-rr-rr.” No start. Turning all the lights off, I tried again. “Rrr-rr-rr,” complained the engine. On the third try, the telltale smell of gasoline enveloped the car. I got out.
“What’s wrong?” Deeter asked crestfallen.
“Flooded,” I groused. “Let’s give it a few minutes.”
After waiting about 15 minutes, which felt like an eternity in the dead quiet, we tried it again. “Rrr-rr-rr” went the engine. But now I continued to crank it until it coughed, sputtered, and finally started. Slipping the gear into low, I carefully pressed down the accelerator and the car began to inch forward. Progress! Creeping onward, I managed to finally drive the car out of the muck and onto solid ground.
Deeter, screaming with excitement, jumped into the car and shouted, “Home!”
“Home!” I agreed.
Oh so carefully, I turned the car around while steering well wide of the edge of the quagmire. Once beyond the muck and headed out of the clearing, we began to whoop it up—until we heard a long, drawn out “pss-ss-ss-ss.” The rear left of the car sagged. We looked at each other for a moment, and as if on cue, each of us burst into hysterical laughter.
“Flat tire,” we gasped.
The ridiculous had become sublime. But we knew exactly what to do and proceeded to change the tire in record time. Finally, exhausted from our efforts and ready for a soft bed, we climbed wordlessly back into the car and cautiously drove out of the woods.
The cement plant, which still looked ghostly in the darkness, housed a lonely phone booth with a glaring bare bulb circled by a hundred moths frantically hurling themselves against it. I fished a dime out of my sweaty jeans pocket, entered the moth cloud, and with the rotary dial, called my folks, who would surely be worried sick by now and had maybe even called the police. The phone rang and rang and rang, maybe 10 or 15 times. I gulped. Finally, a sleepy voice came over the other end of the line.
“Dad, I’m sorry it’s so late, but Deeter and I had to fix a flat. I’ll be home in about an hour.”
“What time is it?” said the sleepy voice.
“3:30,” I admitted, sheepishly adding, “at night.”
“I didn’t know you were still out,” said the sleepy voice.
“What’d he say,” Deeter wanted to know when I climbed back in the car.
“He didn’t know I was gone,” I replied, not quite knowing what to make of my father’s response.
The next morning at breakfast, heads bent over our cereal bowls, little was said. Mom, I presumed, was thinking about her upcoming shift at Miller and Paine. Dad had his face buried in The Des Moines Register.
“How was last night?” he finally asked.
“Fine,” I answered. “Except for the flat. But don’t worry. We fixed that with the spare. I’ll take the flat to the garage later.”
“Good,” he said, looking up briefly from his paper. And the way he said it, holding my gaze for just a second longer than usual, was like permission. As if what he was actually saying was I trust you. You’re old enough to handle yourself.
Although I didn’t reply, I returned his gaze—I know. Suddenly, it felt like my parents knew all about last night. Not the particulars, but they knew me. They knew they’d raised me as best they could, and knew I was perched on the edge of the nest, about to fly. Realistically, there was nothing they could do to stop me, and there was no reason to try.
Looking back, I wonder if my parents had reflected on that same time in their lives. My dad had been rather rudely pushed out of his nest at the age of 17 by a stepmother who didn’t want him around. My mother, raised on a farm, was anxious to get away, too. Together, they went off to college—the first in their families—and set up a new life.
I approached my own venture to college the next year as an open road as well. Since I was a long way from home and without a car, I spent weekends hitching to Chicago, Omaha, and other midwestern hot spots. My sophomore year, a college friend who’d been an exchange student in Mexico whetted my appetite to visit the area. When I asked my mom to lend me her new Ford Falcon, she bravely acquiesced—and I drove from Iowa to Acapulco and back during the Christmas break.
In the late 1960s, I became a father myself. I remember standing by my newborn’s crib, gazing at such a miracle and wondering who she’d become. This process would repeat itself with each of my three children, each beginning as a mystery to me, each creating their own life journeys and taking me along for the ride.
When my children became old enough to get behind the wheel, loyal to my parent’s example, I was pleased to offer my car. In the mid-’80s, it was a sleek, jet black, turbo-charged Dodge Daytona T-top convertible, which the kids and I dubbed the Batmobile. It became our freedom machine, as we took road trips from coast to coast, often to scout colleges they were considering.
When my youngest daughter chose a rural midwestern college, she occasionally lamented feeling confined in her new environs. And so her sophomore year, I drove from our home in Washington, DC, to her new digs in Beloit, Wisconsin, and flew back home, leaving her with the Batmobile for a month.
I wanted her to have the opportunity to hit the open road, follow her nose, and feel the freedom that Mom and Dad had given me with their cars. She took full advantage, exploring with her best friend the byways of Wisconsin, coming back with stories of late-night drives and far-flung adventures—always managing to return from these weekend expeditions in time for Monday classes.
I’ve recently returned from an extended road trip, wandering through the back roads of Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. But now that I’m pushing toward my ninth decade, I’ve been thinking about selling my car—and trying not to feel as if I’m selling my freedom.
Oh, I know, I can always use Uber, or my bicycle, or the bus, or the subway—or my own two feet. If I feel another road trip coming on, I can always rent from Alamo or Avis or Budget. But it’s time to economize. It’s time to stop paying for insurance and gas and repairs and inspection fees. It’s time to reduce my carbon footprint.
Then why does it feel like such an agonizing decision?
Because for the last 60-plus years, the car has been my thrill, my getaway, my solitude, my pride—almost like a member of the family. Now it’s become an ecological pariah, a gas guzzler, even if it does average 30 miles per gallon.
And to be totally honest, my days of driving coast to coast in three or four days are gone.
But, you know, there are many ways to explore, and at this point in my life, I’m only beginning to discover what they might be. It’s all just part of leaving the nest.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
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