By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Columnist
POSTED: Jun 21, 2009
It begins badly.
“Some things never change,” Dad says, sliding into the passenger side and noticing the collection of newspapers blocking his feet.
We’re still at the airport. We are about to spend the next three days in closer quarters than we’ve shared in decades. I’m not sure what possessed my father to want to drive 26 hours with me, sitting shotgun as I retrieve a son from college in Kalamazoo , Mich.
But I am grateful for the company, I tell him.
“I’m not going just to be company,” he says. “I’m going to be helpful. “
We are nothing alike. He’s the soul of practicality. I’m more of a romantic. He believes cars should be cleaned and detailed. I believe they need good speakers.
He still has his original house key from 1949, and each time he shows it to me, he runs his fingers over its baby-soft edges. I’ve had more than a dozen addresses since I left home.
The morning of the trip, Dad is up with the birds. “Don’t need an alarm,” he announces, his Boston brogue treating the word as alahm. He is deeply tanned and bald except for longish wicks of silver hair on the sides. His twinkling green eyes are shaded by a pair of wild black eyebrows that would have been the envy of Leonid Brezhnev.
We share a cup of coffee, then take off, eager to beat the morning rush. I’ve brought a book on tape in case we run out of conversation: Roger Mudd interviewing historians. I thought Dad might like the part on World War II. But we get pretty far on our own stories.
I tell him of the drive from Kosovo to Montenegro when Milosevic’s army was manning the roads and all I had for company were World Cafe tapes. I tell him of that time in the West Bank when a woman screaming in Arabic stopped a group of kids from tuning me up with a baseball bat – and how it turned out she was from Second and Girard.
“You never told me what it was like,” he says.
“Didn’t want you to worry,” I say.
I haven’t heard much from him about growing up in Boston with a stubborn, immigrant father, and Dad digs down and shares all sorts of memories – how the hardware store began with a borrowed $300, how the cousin who’d come to work on Saturdays would sharpen push mowers while blasting opera.
By lunchtime we’re out of the Big Woods and running low on licorice. It is Dad’s idea to seek out the DuBois Diner. He devours a local version of the beef sandwich stuffed with fries. As he grabs the check, he wonders whether we can stop here on our way back.
I yield the wheel, and it is Dad’s luck to drive through two hours of pounding rain. At 83, he still has a steady hand, even if his eyes can’t make out the signs as quickly as they once could. I doze. Mom calls. I thank her for the loaner.
I anchor the last leg, and Dad narrates the view – the immense flatness, the giant trucks and farms. We debate some of the great puzzlers: why those roadside salt sheds are conical, why barns are red, what the origin is of phrases like “Dutch uncle” and “on the fritz. “
When we finally arrive, Dad doesn’t seem to mind that his grandson Gordon is exhausted from finals and hasn’t done much packing. Or that he heads out for his last Ultimate Frisbee practice, which turns into his last dinner with the team. “I’m not saying anything,” Dad says to me, quietly.
So I pack. The three flights of stairs to Gordon’s single are too taxing for Dad. He sits in the car, reading about the Civil War. When it’s time to load the Explorer, Dad demonstrates his spacial skills. In all the years of making deliveries for his hardware store, he crows, he never had to leave a package behind. He leaves me room to look out the rearview mirror.
Dad and I are ready to go by 6 the next morning. Gordon’s still asleep. He’d gone to bed only two hours before. I pace. I fiddle with my phone. When Gordon emerges from his dorm, he moves as if underwater. I can imagine how impatient my dad must be. But Dad’s being cool, so I take his lead and say nothing.
As I pull onto Interstate 94, heading into the sun, Gordon is already deep in the well, hat on backward, face buried in a pillow. Dad and I look at each other and laugh.
We’ll have another 13 hours together, so much to talk about.
“Do you ever use cruise control? ” I ask, fine-tuning the mirror.
“No,” he says. “I like to control things myself. “
No, we are nothing alike.