A FEW DAYS GO BY AND I have almost forgotten about the day Mom threatened to leave. Dad comes home unexpectedly one afternoon and asks me if I want to go for a ride.
“Where?” I ask.
“What do you care,” he says. “Come on. Go for a ride with your dad.”
I feel a little anxious about committing to something as visible as a trip with Dad, but I decide I don’t have much to lose. This summer I am spending most of my time at an apartment down on Front Street, smoking cigarettes and attempting to impress two young ladies who are somewhat older than me. My sister Terri, my primary ally in the house, is only now just beginning to shun my company for the company of our next door neighbor. Although Terri and I are not disdainful of one another yet, our relationship has devolved into constant pestering: I bum cigarettes from her while she chides me to help her clean. I hold a vague hope that I can hide my travel with Dad from the rest of the family, but especially from Terri.
Jumping into his Gremlin, I slink down into the passenger seat, furtively looking out the windows. How will Dad feel if I ask him to drop me off up the block when we get home?
As it turns out, none of that matters. This is the first of many car trips for me and Dad that summer. At the start of each trip, I am always a little hesitant to get in the car, but once we pull away from the curb, everything changes: I am on the road with Dad.
I get to operate the radio and the 8-track tape player. He teaches me how to read a road map. If we stop for gas, I watch as he jots down mileage and time in a little spiral notebook he keeps in the glove box. We always go to his brother or one of his sister’s houses, just like the whole family did when we were kids; only now, it’s just me and Dad.
I never know exactly where we’re going, until we’re already on the road. When I ask Dad for our destination, I like to hum the Mission Impossible theme song under my breath. I pretend I am Jim Phelps receiving another impossible mission. We listen to Dad’s 8-tracks: Jim Croce, Sly & the Family Stone, and Mowtown’s Greatest Hits. Left untouched, 8-tracks play endlessly, and I quickly memorize the order of all the songs. When Dad gets tired of the tapes, he asks me to switch to radio.
On one of our first trips that summer, I switch to radio at Dad’s request, and then start humming along to an old Simon and Garfunkel tune from the 60s. My window is open. I am watching the scenery go past with the wind on my face, when suddenly Dad turns down the radio. I cut my eyes at him, annoyed. As I turn the radio back up, Dad slaps my hand away and clicks it off.
“No man is a rock, son.” Dad says this and points his index finger to the roof. “No man is an island.”
When Dad tries to sound profound, it makes me feel self-conscious. To make myself feel better, I consider telling him he has the lyrics wrong. At the last second, I decide to just smile and nod my head.
“Cool,” I say.
Dad wants to talk about my behavior, but I don’t have any explanations for him. I hum songs about feeling lonely and isolated, as if they were theme songs written expressly for me. Any irony in the lyrics about what happens to people who feel this lonely and disconnected sails right over my head. If he is going to reach me, this is what my father must overcome.
“You think,” Dad says, “you’re not as good as Tom and Tony, but that’s not true. You’re just different. You can do things those two can’t.”
Looking out the window, I pretend what Dad is saying doesn’t even matter to me, but I am listening carefully to every word he says. The wind rushing in the window makes a loud noise. I wait quietly for a few minutes. When I finally speak, my voice sounds creaky and dry.
“Like what things?” I ask.
I have waited so long to speak, my father is caught off guard. As he stumbles for words, I click the radio back on, keeping the volume low.
“I dunno,” Dad says. “Drawing? Reading?”
Bad answer. My interest in these things is well-known, but both have proved to be poor substitutes for athletic prowess. I look at Dad with such disdain he immediately begins searching for something else to say. After a few minutes of hedging, Dad zeroes in on one thing with confidence.
“You can make small talk,” Dad says.
I look at him warily. I am not even sure what small talk is, but at least it is unexpected. I sit quietly while Dad recounts an incident that happened weeks ago when his sister called, but his hands were full, and he couldn’t take the phone. I chatted with her about the weather and school for a few minutes. Small talk.
“That don’t sound too important, if you know what I mean.” I tune the radio to a pop station I like.
“Your brothers can’t do it! If they took that phone, they’d be like two lumps on a log.”
I patronize Dad with a smile. I like hearing him call Tom and Tony lumps on a log, but this small talk thing sounds desperate.
“Come on, Dad.”
Putting my hand out the window, I let it coast in the rushing wind. Dad protests about the inherent value of small talk for a bit, but then he sighs. He gives up and the car goes quiet. On the radio an advertisement plays for a charitable foundation called, Save the Children. It must be a well-funded campaign, because the radio stations play this ad constantly.
I am humming along with the radio when suddenly my father’s hand comes crashing down on my thigh. I look over and he has a wide grin.
“You,” he says, “are special.”
His hand clutches my stinging thigh and he squeezes hard enough to make me wince. “And you’re gonna do something none of them others can do. I know it.”
I turn my head so he can’t see me grin. When I have my face under control, I look back again.
“Like what?” I ask.
I know this question puts him on the spot. I know I probably shouldn’t even ask, but I can’t resist. Waiting patiently, I look to him for an answer.
He thinks for a minute, then he says, “Save the children.”
I laugh, astonished.
“That’s a radio commercial,” I say. I am looking at him incredulously, but still chuckling. “You just told me what was on the radio.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Dad says. “It’s important. And you’re gonna do it.” He grins at me. There is nothing in his manner that suggests he is unsure of any of what he is telling me, despite how stupid it all sounds.
I am pretty sure he is patronizing me but not completely certain. I don’t know how I feel about any of this. Finally, I decide I am annoyed. I tell Dad to cut it out. To just quit.
“It’s a commercial,” I say. “Stop.”
“You don’t want to save the children,” Dad says. “Alright. Don’t.” He keeps his eyes on the road. I hear the rhythmic thumping of the tires on the highway.
“Sit on your ass,” he mumbles quietly to himself.
When I hear this, I feel exasperated. His disappointment consumes me. I find myself wanting to explain to him why I cannot save any children. Then I realize how ridiculous it is to justify this nonsense with an explanation, and I give up. The car goes quiet. I feel a mixture of relief and frustration. I tell myself I can at least feel grateful we have put this uncomfortable conversation behind us. There is the tiniest hint of disappointment, lingering at the back of my mind. No sooner do I think I have won, than Dad’s big hand comes crashing down on my thigh again.
“You’re special, son,” he says. “I know it.”
He says this with such enthusiasm and sincerity it takes my breath away. I have to use both hands to push his meaty palm off my thigh, but even two-handed, I never try too hard. I can’t. I have to keep turning my head, so he can’t see me grinning.
For the rest of that summer, save the children becomes a sort of code word for Dad and me. I never say it once, but I long to hear it from him. When Dad says it, I always do one of two things: I either turn my head away and grin, or I search Dad’s face to see if he is pulling my leg. Although I look often and hard, I never find any hint of insincerity there.
Tim, I remember that Gremlin…it’s wild how we remember “special” times like that w/ our parents…I wish mine were still here…miss them so…thanks again for the fun read
It’s especially interesting to discuss events from 30 years back with someone who experienced those exact same events. I talk with my sisters and sometimes wonder if we were even in the same family. I have a story that features you and your limo, Blaine, and all those late night drives with Pat and Sue around the circuit in Harrisburg. Good times. One day I’ll have to post a few more stories to this site.
I read your “I AM” piece over at Brevity, followed a link there to your “Modern Love” piece on the Times website. I enjoyed both very much.
Zeke, thank you for posting! The best part of having something published is someone saying they enjoyed reading it.
Having other people say they enjoy the work is pretty awesome, but maybe not as good as getting paid. But I still appreciate your comment Zeke.
(your check is in the mail!)
It is so cool to read about your life. I always considered myself the 8th Elhajj. Since Troy and I were only 2 weeks apart, I was always closest to him. I guess my mom would get bored and go for visits alot. I think it is so important for us to write down our memories (even though our kids may not think so!). And you are so right about how different people are in the same situation but have a totally different play on the situation. Carol and Claire were FAMOUS for that. EVERY day my heart aches that my dad has passed, your dad has passed and especially Aunt Carol. She was such a fun person to know. And I have to tell you the ONE memory I have of you. My parents didn’t go out much. When they did, I was usually at your house on Swatara Street. One time, they asked you to watch me. I don’t even remember how old I was. I thought you were THE COOLEST person ever because you knew how to make me a milkshake. By the way, I still think you are the coolest person ever, even though we are miles apart. I dearly love all of your family more than I can say with words.
Julie! What a wonderful surprise to see your post. Thank you so much for the kind words. I had seen your name pop up recently on Facebook, but wasn’t familiar with your new name, so didn’t know who you were. This message is just a wonderful way to say hello. I don’t see how I’ll be able to think of you as anything but the 8th Elhajj now!
I am glad you remember that milkshake. I am in my late 40s and just now learning how to cook, but I have always been able to make milkshakes and grilled cheese sandwiches.
I miss all the folks, really. It’s been a blast seeing family post on FB and occasionally here on the blog. Lisa sent me a note a few months back.
Our Moms are all alone now, even as a new generation is coming into the word. You know my Timmy and his wife are having a baby this summer? He (and his wife) are USCG. Semper paratus!
This is me. http://www.sacbee.com/384/story/1281662.html
Good day to you sir.
Zeke, nice work! Thanks for sharing it. I particularly enjoy the way you use the machete and steel throughout the piece. Very effective. Isn’t it amazing how a little time can give you a whole new perspective on the people you know the best? That’s certainly been my experience.
This blog entry is so old but I finally read it and wished I would have read it years ago, I like reading about how you knew dad, there was a lot to him that I missed and I appreciate you sharing. I so relate with this story because I never really went the athletic route, there is a little more then a prophetic tone in his words. I know a few people first hand that your book has helped and who knows how many others. Keep the good work up.
Ted, that’s very encouraging and I appreciate you taking the time to write. I haven’t given up hope on writing more about dad. I’m just trying to understand what it is I want to say.
It amazes me how powerful our parents are in our lives. They can either use their power for good or not. As an adult, I still keenly remember anything either of my parents have said regarding my behavior, choices, failures, successes… through the decades. This is one of the strongest stories I’ve read that points to this fact. It would be a good “must read” story for parenting classes.
Thank you for the kind words Cynthia! It’s good to be back in touch again.