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
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 very
comfortably 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 has always been a conscientious father. To his credit, as
the non-custodial parent, that’s never been an easy thing to
do. 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, nearing a
state of panic.
“What are you asking me for? I’m not the one who lost his
cap,” Ron shot back.
“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. Besides,
it’s long gone by now. Probably hanging off the hook of some
“You really think so?”
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
Should we have shared the cap between us? Well sure, but
that would have been way too grown-up for an eight-year old
boy and his ten-year old big brother 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
“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 speaker.
“Hi, okay, thank you. Uh, one moment, Miss.” Dad seemed
slightly rattled, caught-as it were-between a talking box and the
chicanery of two boys.
“Fellas” hot dogs and fries, right? Shakes too?” We nodded
‘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.
“Yes, sorry about that” he began, “We’ll have three dogs with
the works, three fries, two chocolate shakes and one extra large
root beer.” Whew! Saved by the lady’s voice in the Dog N” Suds
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 Inquired,
barely concealing his beginner’s attempt at disingenuity.
“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?”
Now, you may not believe this, but at that precise moment,
when it appeared no further subterfuge could prevent the
revelation of the awful truth, 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 smiling broadly, bare-chested and
still bare-headed. He certainly appeared to be enjoying life-kind
of like the idealized “glamorous people” you’d see depicted on
the ubiquitous marketing billboards placed along the interstate
every quarter mile or so. I 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 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 it’s not the hat
which makes the difference but the head wearing it.