Sunday, June 17, 2007

On the Road with Leon

The following is an e-missive I composed in honor of my father's 60th birthday, in 1998. I thought it particularly appropriate to post it here, especially because it recollects the Summer of 1977, 30 years ago this season. I'm sure Dear Old Dad, The Ancient One, Blessed Be He, has this tucked away somewhere, but I thought it might be nice to resurface it for all posterity here on BillyBlog.

"On The Road With Leon"

In the summer of 1977, my father and I participated in an American ritual that I was too young to appreciate at the time, but looking back, cherish as a wonderful set of memories. In late July, Dad packed up the Buick and, with me in tow, headed West. It was a long journey, traversing 14 states and lasting several weeks. And at the end of the road, I emerged with a clearer sense of the American landscape.

My first vivid memory from the trip was our stop in Oklahoma City. I'm pretty sure it was a Saturday night. We caught a triple-A baseball game between the home town and the Denver Bears. As ten years of age, baseball was pretty much all I thought about, spending a lot of the time in the back seat of the car with two sets of baseball cards, two teams playing each other in a cross-country series of "dice baseball," a primitive (by today's standards) game in which two dice determined what happened in the game.

Anyway, all I remember about the game itself was that I didn't catch a foul ball, and Dad ordered an exotic dish called "Nachos," which was something quite new to me. Dad ate all the jalapeno peppers which, we discovered the next day, helped propel us out of Oklahoma and into the Texas panhandle. "Heat Waaaaaaaave!" Dad would bellow and a mini-explosion in the front seat necessitated the rolling down of windows to let in some fresh prairie air which kept me from asphyxiating.

That Sunday morning, we drove through a town called Maclean. I will always remember it because, in the five minutes it took to drive through it, we did not see a single soul. I thought this was amazing. Empty streets, tumbleweeds, an almost black-and-white texture. Years later, when watching the movie THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, I was reminded of that early Sunday morning in and out of Maclean.

I believe it was somewhere in New Mexico that we stopped and watched a Little League baseball game at dusk. The air was crisp and I can still hear the crack of the aluminum bat hitting the baseball. The outcome of the game was unimportant. The feeling was alien, here, watching strange kids with strange names on their uniforms playing a game I loved. Yet the sport served once again as a bonding experience between me and Dad.

Arizona is a desert blur, as was California. I still have the sensation, as we neared Los Angeles, of how striking the freeways were in their scope and size. Quite different from the rural routes surrounding Springfield.

In Los Angeles, we spent time in Beverly Hills with Grandpa Abe and Grandma Martha. We also visited with Sy and Resa Brenner. I remember playing in their yard with their dog, Mickey, and for some reason, an unlit back room with a San Diego Padres cap hanging on the bedpost is burned into my memory. Aunt Bobby visited as well. We walked in Beverly Hills where we stopped at a B. Dalton bookstore and I bought a few Mad Magazine paperbacks. On our stopover in L.A., we visited Venice Beach, where a wave helped blow out one of Bobby's knees. In my innocence, I was
reprimanded by Dad when I asked, perhaps too loudly, "where were all the freaks?" This in response to an earlier comment about "going to Venice and seeing the freak show."

The high point of Venice was seeing a street performer juggling a bowling ball, a rubber chicken, and an M&M candy. All of these early L.A. memories seem to be from this time, although perhaps I am clumping together different events from different trips. I don't think so, though.

Next, I remember Las Vegas, much different now than it was in 1977. Circus Circus Hotel and Casino was there though, and I remember enjoying the arcade and watching trapeze artists swinging above our heads. One of the last things we did in Las Vegas was one of those father-son life lessons. Dad informed me he had $10 to spend and he was going to play ten silver dollars on a slot machine. This excited me. $10 was a lot of money. I was advised I had to stand behind a velvet rope since I was a minor. After six silver dollars, Dad had won a couple dollars back. The seventh one was lucky. He hit a hundred dollar jackpot. We're rich! I thought. Dad played the last three of his original ten bucks and cashed in. "See Billy," he said, "I cashed out when I was ahead. THAT'S the way to do it. Remember this." Well, I remember it, but that still hasn't stopped me from contributing more than my fair share to the good people
of Las Vegas. I like to think, however, that this early lesson has subconsciously guided me out of casinos before I gave anyone more than I had.

In Utah, Dad asked me if I wanted to stop playing dice baseball a moment to check out the magnificent canyons we were passing through. I looked up between dice rolls and acknowledged the sprawling vistas. The dice resumed and I let Dad know, "Okay Dad, let me know if there's any more scenery."

In Wyoming, I saw Old Faithful, but no bears. We were in Yellowstone Park and I wanted to see bears. I remember thinking I saw a bear's head and shouting "DAD! A bear!" The poor guy almost drove off of the winding road. That was the day I learned that it is not good to yell in cars. Especially if the word "bear" is involved. I remember we wound up behind a car with Oregon plates, driving extremely sloooooow through the park, and I looked out through the back window and counted at least eighteen cars behind us. I'm still wary of cars with Oregon plates.

We blinked and were in and out of Idaho.

In Montana, I didn't notice the big sky as much as the bullet holes in all the road signs. You didn't see too many bullet-riddled anything in Hawaii. We arrived in Billings, where we watched a rookie league ball game with the home team Billings Mustangs. Dad was heavily involved in a collegiate summer league in Springfield, serving as President one year of the Springfield Caps. The previous year, one of the players named Bob Morrison had been drafted by the Cincinatti Reds and was in Billings playing for their farm team. That was what drew us into Montana. THAT
night was when I retrieved a foul ball, definietely a high point of the trip.

Next thing we knew we were in South Dakota. Mount Rushmore was impressive, but I remember Spearfish more, because it was there, in a motel room, that we heard that Elvis Presley had died. That would have made it August 16 . Whenever the anniversary of his death is announced, I think of Spearfish, South Dakota.

From there we drove down to Iowa. At one point we were driving along the Iowa-Nebraska border and a piece of South Dakota was visible too. I was simultaneously looking at land in three separate states. I thought that was pretty cool. We stopped in Council Bluffs, Iowa to visit Coach Matthews, who had been at the helm of the Springfield Caps the year before.

From there we rolled back across the Mississippi and headed the final stretch of road back to Springfield. I do remember passing through Detroit, Illinois, with a population of less than a hundred. It was a long journey that had to come to an end, and so it did, but only after we had seen more of our country in a couple of weeks than most people see in a lifetime.

Together we shared a common experience that no one could take away or duplicate. As time passes, and memories fade, the uniqueness of an experience crystallizes. America is a constantly-changing canvas. If I were to follow the same route in the same car at the same time of year, I could only imitate a transcendent memory. As we rolled back across the Mississippi into the corn and soy bean fields of central Illinois, Dad and I left behind us a painting of the Western United States that fuels
my imagination even today. It was a gift from the Road, shared by Father and Son, priceless and permanent, forever engraved into my heart and soul.

Happy 60th Birthday Dad!
And Happy Father's Day too!

1 comment:

Leon said...

Bill: Thank you for the incredible Father's Day gift. I also remember that trip and how, at the time, you were missing so much by playing dice baseball in the back seat. Obviously, I was wrong about that.

I do have a slightly different memory of what I said to you after winning the $100 at the slot machine. It was something like, "Well Bill, you just learned a valuable lesson about gambling." You replied, with only a hint of sarcasm, "Yeah? What dad?." ANd I answered, "Always quit when you're ahead."

Anyway - thank you. I love you #1 son.

- Dad