This a newly revised and expanded chapter 1 of my manuscript in progress about my father's last weeks of life and the time we spent together.
Cruising Route 66 With Dad
It was such a hot summer Sunday that the black pitch used
to patch the roads reached its boiling point by mid-morning, a matter of some concern to local highway and volunteer fire departments.
As we crossed over the mighty Mississippi from Missouri to Illinois, my father, a genuine sun worshipper, gleefully lowered the convertible top of his flashy Ford Thunderbird.Fashionably dubbed the “T-Bird” by afficionados, my dad, older brother Ron and I cruised along U.S. Rte. 66 from St. Louis to Chicago. It happened one summer Sunday, a lifetime ago. Life was … good.
My brother Ron and I couldn’t have been more excited. Anticipating a grand week in Chicago with Dad, we rode verycomfortably in the leather –upholstered back seat where any mischief might at least remain undetected for a while which, as matter of fact, it did or so we thought.
My folks had recently divorced and, as the courts typically decided in those days, the mother received custody of the children. Don’t get me wrong. We loved Mom then as we do now forty-five years later. Simple as that. My dad too, to his everlasting credit-though the non-custodial parent-was then and has always been a conscientious father. While we saw him only four times a year, he more than made up for the infrequency of his visits by the quality of the time he spent with us.
We had just passed through Litchfield, Illinois, one of those “slice of Americana” towns you’d miss had you so much as blinked or nodded off for a second. In the old days before the interstate was rerouted outside the town, “motorists’, as they used to be called, drove through the town itself, stopping at every red light, “stop” sign, Esso “filling” station (remember their slogan that advised us to ‘put a tiger in your tank?’) and “Dog ‘n Suds”.
Now there was no finer lunch to be had on a sultry summer day than a Dog N’ Suds all-American beef hotdog on a steamed poppy seed bun with everything on it (naturally!), the greasiest fries you could ever imagine and an ice cold root beer.
“Hey, you guys hungry?” “Hey yea, Dad! How ‘bout Dog and Suds?” “I was thinking the very same thing. I see their sign up ahead.”
“What are we gonna tell Dad?” I whispered to Ron, nearinga state of panic. “What are you asking me for? I’m not the one who lost his cap,” Ron shot back.
“Me?" “Yea, you.” ’ Why did you dangle it in front of my face?” ’Why did you reach for it?” “You think we can go back and find it?” I asked pleadingly. “Are you whacky? That was probably thirty miles back. It’s long gone by now. Probably hanging off the hook of somefisherman’s pole.” “You really think so?” “Yup.”
As for the cap, a powerful wind swept across the historic Eads Bridge just as we crossed the state line into Illinois. and snatched it from Ron's hand. We gasped as we watched it fall into the barge-congested, muddied waters of the Mississippi River. It probably never even came close to reaching New Orleans
Should we have shared the cap between us? Well sure, but that was way too adult for two eight and ten-year old brothers.. And so we tussled about who would wear it first and for how long. “Boys will be boys,” I saw my Dad mouth, smiling contentedly, when both he and I looked into the rear-view mirror at the same time.
My father loves the sunshine, the brighter, the hotter, the better. But, as with everything, there is a limit, and my father reached his that day. He had driven bare-headed from St. Louis and, by the time we reached Litchfield, given the baldness of his pate, it had become too hot even for him.
“Wow, the top of my head is burning up,” Dad remarked as he pulled up to the Dog ‘n Suds Drive-In. Edging up to the two-way speaker as closely as he could to avoid having to hang out the window to place our order, he depressed his automatic window switch.
“Boys, will you hand me up my cap, pl … ?”
“Welcome to Dog N’ Suds. May I take your order?” a
pleasant lady’s voice asked
“Oh, okay, sure,’ Dad responded, turning back to the
Hi, okay, thank you. One moment, Miss. 'Fellas' hot dogs
and fries, right? Shakes too?” We noddedeagerly.
‘Yea sure, Dad, two chocolates, right?” Ron turned to me, beseeching my quick agreement.
“Hello sir, may I have your order please?” she requested again with the slightest trace of irritation in her voice.
Dad turned back quickly to place our order. Whew! Saved by the lady’s voice in the Dog N” Suds speaker.
“Yes, sorry about that” he began, “We’ll have three dogs with
the works, three fries, two chocolate shakes and one extra large
Within five minutes, our roller skating teenage waitress hooked
our tray onto Dad’s half open window.
What a treat! And you know the best part of it all? Dad’s extra
large root beer struck out the flame scorching the top of his head.
Maybe, just maybe he’d forget about the cap. Ron and I wolfed
down our dogs, fries and shakes.
“You guys ready?”
“Yes Dad, thank youuuuu …” Ron and I lazily responded,
feigning irrepressible sleepiness while harmonizing our yawns
and stretching our arms overhead. Good thing the top was
already down. We would have gone straight through it
otherwise. We handed up our trash to Dad.
“Hey, you know,” Dad cheerfully said, “By the time you guys
wake up from your naps, we’ll probably be in Chicago.”
Thinking we had pulled the proverbial wool over Dad’s eyes,
Ron and I “dozed off.”
Have you ever noticed how summer weather can dramatically
change within several minutes? As we approached Lincoln,
Illinois, about forty miles beyond Litchfield, those big, fluffy,
puffy gray rainclouds- which had been looming overhead ever
since we left Litchfield-became ominously dark, blotting out
the rays of sunshine, a welcome respite from the intense heat.
Dad put up the convertible top.
“Hey boys, everything all right back there? You sleep okay?”
Ron looked at me. I looked at him. The jig was up! “Oh just
great Dad. Are we almost there?”
“No. we’ve got a ways yet.”
“Dad, is there another Dog N’ Suds coming up?” Ron
“Hey, yea Dad, how ‘bout those shakes?” I chimed in.
“Don’t know Son. I had a root beer. Remember? Oh, by the
way, my cap … do you guys got it back there?”
You may not believe this, but at that precise moment, Dad’s
cap probe was interrupted yet again, but this time by a
thunderclap so startlingly loud that I spilled the rest of Dad’s
root beer on Ron’s shirt. What fell from the sky were not
raindrops but rain buckets. Dad switched his wipers on high, but
they could not keep up with the deluge.
Dad pulled over. We’d wait this one out. After five minutes,
the rain stopped, having moved out as quickly as it had
moved in. The temperature must have dropped fifteen
degrees. Dad put the top down again and seemed happy, you
know carefree. Pulling off his shirt at a rest area, he drove the
rest of the way into Chicago bare-chested and still bare-headed,
smiling broadly. He certainly appeared to be enjoying life-kind
of like the idealized characters depicted on the ubiquitous
marketing billboards. Remember their smiling faces fashionably
accentuated by Marlboros or Benson and Hedges and whose
hair was as wind-blown as Dad’s would have been had he still
had the red wavy locks of his youth?
My father never mentioned the cap again. Did he realize what
had happened? Probably did, but this week in Chicago would be
his time with us and ours with him. Jeopardize that over a
cap? My dad wouldn’t have done that. Besides, the cap wasn’t
exactly a Biltmore black Canadian suede fedora, just a cloth
cap, no big deal, right? And you know what? Even had it been
a Borsalino, my father was wise enough to know that it’s not the
hat but the head wearing it which makes the difference.