Saturday, May 1, 2010

Pause: Driving Dad

Over the past couple of years I’ve taken some long road trips with my elderly father.
He’s of an age where helping with the driving is out of the question. Couple that fact with my desire to not stop overnight on these drives and you get the conclusion that I’m driving about twelve hours straight on these trips. I don't mind the driving. I've flown enough for a lifetime and don't care if I ever get on an airplane again.

Dad sleeps a good bit as we roll down the highway. When he does I turn the satellite radio up and the hours slip by effortlessly. When he’s awake he likes to read. Which wouldn’t be a problem except that he reads billboards. Aloud. It seems rude to drown him out with the radio so I turn it down and listen to the advertising messages of a variety of establishments, services, and causes.

On a recent trip he had just read a McDonald’s sign to me and asked me what they met by “PlayPlace”. I told him that it meant that particular outlet had a place where a parent could let a child crawl on hard plastic balls that other kids had sneezed, pee’d, and drooled on while drinking coffee and sending text messages to people. He looked at me like I had told him that Martians had built the Eiffel Tower in 1825.

“No. What is it?” he said.
“Ya know, like a playground,” I said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those at a…uh... a...”
“Yeah. At McDonald’s,” he said.
“When’s the last time you went to a McDonald’s?”
He pondered that for a second and then read the upcoming billboard, “Wendy’s Exit 64.”

“Do you want to stop at Wendy’s?” I asked.

We went along with the radio low and dad reading aloud every road sign and billboard he saw.
I was learning so much about the hotels, restaurants, scenic attractions, insurance agents, as well as that the Lord was my savior.

A few miles down the road I saw a billboard approaching and wondered if he would read it to me. It was this one….

He read it to himself and didn’t make a noise as we passed it. I tried not to laugh or even smile.

A mile or two went by and he finally said, “You know something I never understood?”
“No. What, dad?”
“Why you always had such good looking girls… you know, why you always went out with such pretty girls.”
“Gee. Uh, thanks dad.”
“What?” he said.
“Nuthin', dad.”
“I mean you weren’t the star ballplayer in school... you were a good kid... but there sure were some lookers around the house.”
I just shook my head.

“Dad, you can’t remember what I made for dinner last night, how do you know whether I dated good-looking girls back when I lived at home?”
“Pork chops?” he said after a pause.
“Steak!" I said, "But what made you think about my old girlfriends anyway?”
I smiled waiting to see if he’d own up to the blond on the billboard being the reason his thoughts had wandered toward pretty girls.

Silence for a couple of miles.

“Who was the girl from work you dated for a while?”
From work… from work… from work.

Then I realized that “work” meant where he worked for thirty-some years, not where I did.
“You mean from summers at the plant?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Her dad worked there with me, right?”
“You must mean Sharon. Yeah, dad. He was the HR guy,” I said.
That got a blank look.
Personnel. He was the head of plant personnel.”

“Right. That’s right. Kind of an odd fella. Cute girl though.”
“Yeah dad. She passed away several years ago.”
“Really? That’s too bad,” he said.
“Yeah. Mom told me that she had breast cancer and then a while after that she sent me the obituary. She had two sons in high school when she passed away.”

“Didn’t you go with her and another girl to Nashville one weekend?”
“Louisville!” he said as if he actually knew that was right.
“You didn’t drive. They picked you up in a muscle car,”
“Yep. A Camaro. It belonged to her sister’s friend-- she was driving.”
“That's right. That girl was a real looker too. Your mother worried all weekend,” he said.
“Not you though, huh dad?”
He made a sound that must be what is called a guffaw.

“No. Still can’t figure it out though.”

More miles went under the wheels of my truck.

“Who was the girl who lived over behind the shopping center?”
I thought a while.
“Denise. You’re thinking of Denise.”
He wasn’t sure. The name Denise didn't ring any bells.

“There was one with really long straight black hair. Spanish girl.”
“She’s half Mexican, dad. Her mother is Mexican-American.”
Beautiful girl,” dad said.
“She lives near Chicago last I knew. Married with kids. Mom used to run into her mom at Kroger’s and they kept up with all that stuff,” I said.

A few more miles went by.

He must have started worrying about bringing up the subject of my ex-girlfriends.
“Of course, the mother of my grandsons is just outstanding,” he said.
“Well, dad, you said yourself I always punched above my weight class.”

He looked puzzled.

“It's a saying. I meant I went out with women who were too good for me,” I said.

“Ha!” he said, “Never could understand it.”

Then he went back to sleep and I turned the radio back up. He didn't know the half of it.