Cruising Route 66 With Dad (Abbreviated)
I had dreamt often of this day.
Following my parents’ divorce in the spring of 1959, Mom, my older brother Ron and I moved
from our house in Wilmette, Illinois to an apartment community in St. Louis, Mom’s hometown.
My adaptation to this unwelcome reality of family life without Dad, whom we hadn’t seen in two
months, required time, patience and my big brother Ron. I never did figure out who he leaned on,
but this Sunday morning, June 5, 1960, would mark the close of eight dreadful weeks. We
awaited Dad’s arrival and, with that, the first day of our week- long vacation, beginning with a
road trip back to Chicago.
Ron fell asleep early Saturday night as soon as his head hit the pillow. I lay awake. Although
my eyelids succumbed to slumber after only five minutes, my mind’s eye kept a sharp lookout
for Dad should he arrive early. We woke up at 6:00 a.m.to a steamy Sunday morning five
hours short of Dad’s arrival time. Mom woke up in a less cherry mood, exhausted after the
animated difference of opinion she had had with Grandma Jean (Mom’s mom who lived with us)
about the “ungodly hour” Mom’s date had brought her home. We could, she agreed, watch
television but at a very low volume lest we arouse her and Grandma Jean’s combined wrath.
Absence, not abandonment defined Dad’s relationship with Ron and me. His voice
bridged the distance between Chicago and St. Louis. He called us at 6:30 p.m.
every Sunday and unfailingly began each call by asking about Mom’s well-being.
Dad taught me many lessons over the years but none more memorable than that.
My emotional attachment was simple. He was my dad and his absence only made my heart
Dad arrived at 11:00 a.m. as he had promised. “I’ll have a coffee with Mom, just take a few
minutes. You guys wait here for me,” Dad advised, referring to the back seat of his new 1960
Ford Thunderbird, nick-named the T-Bird by aficionados. We waited patiently. A few minutes
became ten. Ten became twenty.
“How long does it take to drink a cup of coffee anyway?” I asked.
“Hold on to your horses,” Ron advised. “He’ll be out soon.” Several more minutes passed.
“Come on, Dad. Let’s get going,” we pled loudly, tingling with the excitement one associates
ordinarily with roller coaster rides and puppy dog gifts on the first night of Chanukkah.
At last, he appeared in the doorway.
My father, who once opined: “A man’s dental hygiene, followed by the neatness of his personal
presentation, are the bases upon which people form their first impressions” wore white
summer weight slacks, their cuffs breaking perfectly atop a pair of O’Conner and Goldberg
wingtips, a navy blue Banlon knit shirt and crowned by a beige Cavanaugh linen ivy cap set at a
rakish angle. To watch him stride toward his car was to see a man whose destination beckoned.
“Hey guys, hold this for me,” Dad requested of us, flipping his cap into the back seat.
“Sure Dad.” We lunged for it. He turned the ignition key. The engine purred like a kitten.
“Watch this.” Dad, now gleeful, unlatched the convertible top from the windshield. With a
flip of the switch, the top lifted off and rose like an enormous black bat, its wings fully
extended and thereafter folding itself into a neat pile behind our heads. Mom stood in the
doorway in her housecoat, looking a bit teary-eyed.
“I think Ma is crying,” I remarked to Ron, who busied himself with Dad’s cap, looking for a way
to adjust its size to fit him.
“Don’t worry, Ma. We’ll be back,” I shouted encouragingly.
“Albert, you’ll have the boys back next Sunday around noon, right?” Mom gently reminded
Dad of the promise he had made. “Sure will, Gerry. I’ll have them back on time.”
And so we set out to get “our kicks on Route 66”, words immortalized by Nat King Cole at a
time when the “Commies” launched Sputnik nearly three years before, American school kids
lagged behind in the sciences and to be “gay” meant “happy”, but such things mattered not, at
least not to me. Nothing would spoil this Sunday morning a lifetime ago in 1960.
“Give it here, “I demanded. “It’s my turn.”
“Why ‘dontcha’ come and get it?”
Dad had entrusted his cap to both of us, but there was no “both of us” in this matter. Ron was
merely doing what I would have done. Frankly, had the tables been turned, I wouldn’t have
shared it either. Life was good if not always fair. “Hey boys, take a look. We’re crossing the
Mississippi River,” Dad excitedly announced. That would have interested us on any other day,
but Ron’s taunting was fast eroding my patience. When the appeal of reason failed, the use of
force suddenly became alluring. Considering the absence of other options, I decided to go for it,
assaulting Ron where he sat. I loosened the cap from his tightfistedness, but the gusty winds
sweeping across the historic Eads Bridge snatched the cap from my grasp. I gasped, reaching out
for it as if I could have undone what had just happened. Stunned by the speed at which it had all
happened, Ron and I watched as the cap floated away like a feather into the muddy waters of the
Mississippi River. Ron clamped his hand over my mouth and wrestled me to the footwell of his
seat, nearly knocking my head against the carpeted hump of the transmission housing between
the two footwells.
“Everything okay back there?” Dad wondered, having felt the slight tumult behind his seat.
“Just checking out the river Dad,” Ron blurted out, perhaps too eagerly. No matter.
Steering the car with his left hand while draping his right arm over the top of the passenger seat,
Dad busily enjoyed the day, quite impervious to it all.
“You think he saw it? What are we ‘gonna’ do?”
“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 grab for it?”
“You think we can go back and find it?” I asked pleadingly.
“Are you whacky? It’s probably dangling off the hook of some fisherman’s pole.”
“You really think so?”
Dad’s eyes met mine when we looked into the rear-view mirror at precisely the same moment.
“Boys will be boys,” I heard him say approvingly. Had he seen it or pleasantly amused by our
Litchfield, Illinois was one of countless tiny towns which dotted the map between St. Louis and
Chicago. Despite its innumerable stop signs, farm machinery traffic and deplorable road quality
which, when acting in concert, slowed the pace of traffic and life to a crawl, afforded you the
opportunity to fill up your gas tanks and stomachs at the ubiquitous Esso Service stations and
Dog N Suds hot dog stands.
There was no finer lunch to be had anywhere than a Dog N Suds beef hotdog on a steamed
poppy seed bun, greasy fries and a frothy ice cold root beer.
“Hey, you guys hungry?”
“ Dad, how about Dog N Suds?”
“I was thinking the very same thing. There’s one up ahead.”
“Maybe he’s forgotten about it, ya think?”
“I’m not so sure,” Ron cautioned.
The oppressive heat index was the lead story of the day in central Illinois It had skyrocketed so
much that, by noon, the local broadcast news reported the black tar used to patch the roads had
reached its boiling point. Local sheriffs’ departments advised motorists to avoid bubbling tar on
the roadways, a matter of some concern to county highway and volunteer fire departments.
My father loved the bright hot sunshine as much as anyone, if not more, but 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.
“See what I mean?” Ron bemoaned.
Dad pulled up to the two-way speaker as closely as he could.
“Boys, will you hand me my cap, pl … ?”
A pleasant feminine voice suddenly broke in. “Welcome to Dog N Suds. May I take your order
“Oh, okay, sure,’ Dad responded, turning back to the speaker.
“Hi, okay, thank you. Uh, one moment, Miss.” Dad seemed slightly rattled, caught between the
request of a talking box and the chicanery of two boys.
“Hot dogs, fries and shakes, right guys?”
‘Yea sure, Dad” we nodded eagerly.
“Hello sir, may I have your order please?” the order taker requested again although
not quite as pleasantly as she had the first time. Dad turned back quickly.
“Yes, sorry about that,” he began, “We’ll have three dogs, three fries, two shakes and one extra
large root beer.”
Within five minutes, our car hostess, a pretty girl attired in a pleated mini-skirt, matching button
down blouse, its sleeves rolled up just below the elbow and adorning a red and yellow maid’s
cap, roller-skated her way to Dad’s car. Deftly supporting our tray upon her finger tips held up at
her shoulder height, she hooked it onto Dad’s half opened window. We partook of this meal
voraciously. Dad’s extra large root beer struck out the flame scorching the top of his head. Just
maybe he’d forget about the cap.
“You guys ready?”
“Yes Dad, thank youuuuu.” Feigning sleepiness, Ron and I harmonized our yawns and
stretched our arms overhead.
“Hey, you know,” Dad cheerfully said, “if you guys catch some “shut eye” now, we’ll be in
Chicago before you know it.”
Ron dozed off. I worried. Who had fooled whom? Dad had always been good to us, generous and forthcoming. Okay, maybe he should have spent more time at home with me, Ron and Mom. He had done it for the good of the family or so he thought. What of Dad’s cap? Both Ron and I wanted to be like Dad, but what had begun as a playful tease ended up an attempted cover up. Dad adjusted his rear-view mirror. Our eyes met. He smiled, as he always did. Here we were, hiding the truth from him. “Dad,” I thought about saying, “your cap, it uh …”
“Yes, Son?” I stopped myself. Here I was, thinking about doing the right thing, but hadn’t yet talked to Ron about it. Not that he would have been opposed to doing the right thing, but any decision to tell Dad would have to be a shared one. He might give us that look or express his disappointment we hadn’t told him when we should have, but Ron? He’d “kill” me. As we approached Lincoln, Illinois the gray rainclouds I had seen in Litchfield blackened so much they blotted out the rays of sunshine. Frankly, we welcomed the respite from the intense heat. Dad put the top up.
“Boys, everything all right? By the way, do you have my cap?”
Ron, who had just woken up, looked at me. I looked at him. The jig was up! “Oh everything’s great Dad. Are we almost there?” Ron and I responded simultaneously, as if a practiced act. “No. we’ve got a ways yet.”
“Dad, is there another Dog N Suds coming up?” Ron asked disingenuously
“Yea! Hey Dad, I’m really thirsty,” I chimed in.
“Thirsty? You still haven’t finished off my root beer,” Dad reminded me of this inconvenient fact. Now, you may find this incredible but when nothing short of an act of God could have prevented the revelation of the awful truth, a thunderclap boomed overhead startling me so I spilled the rest of Dad’s root beer on Ron’s shirt. Rain buckets fell from the sky. Dad switched his wipers on high, but they could not keep up. He pulled over and waited this one out. After five minutes, the rain stopped, having moved out as quickly as it had moved in. The temperature must have fallen fifteen degrees.
Dad put the top down again and pulled off his shirt. Driving the rest of the way bare-chested and, quite remarkably, still bare-headed, he reminded me of the cigarette smoking, glamorous people depicted on the ubiquitous highway billboards 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 know what had happened? He probably did, but scold us and risk jeopardizing our special time together? A man should rather lose his cap, my father wisely understood, than his temper, a remarkable lesson Dad taught me about restraint in life and wisdom in parenting.
And so we headed into Chicago, “the windy city” so-called after its blusterous political leadership, as well as for, I am told, its breezy days when-lest your hand is atop your head-you’ll likely lose your cap.
Alan D. Busch