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July 1968

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Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss



"GOSH, I don't think we'll be able to leave for the lake today. My stomach ..." Instantly, a chorus of self-pitying moans and whimpers drowns out the hapless TV daddy. His TV wife, surrounded by her rosy-cheeked brood and a mountain of tennis rackets, suitcases, water skis and all the other paraphernalia for an on-the-go family holiday, reaches into her Mexican handbag, pulls out a blue bottle and hands it to him. "Here, take two of these." "Well, OK, but it's no use. I've tried everything." Popping the pills into his mouth, he smacks his lips a couple of times and says irritably, "Why, these taste just like - candy." "There's no law that says medicine can't taste good," the family shouts in unison. He swallows doubtfully, waits a moment for the little A's and B's to go to work, then breaks into a blinding Ultra Brite smile. "Say, you're right. I feel good again." Cheers. "All right, then, let's get the show on the road," barks the TV momma, herding the happy family out the door toward the station ' wagon and vacationland. My old man, I reflected gratefully as I snapped off the set, was not a TV daddy. For one thing, I have never heard one of them use anything like the language he employed in moments of stress. Had he been playing that same touching scene, it would have gone something like this: Quick medium shot of a fifth-hand Olds in the family driveway. Close-up of the old man's face behind the wheel. "HOLY CHRIST, I'M GONNA HEAVE! WHAT THE HELL WAS IN THAT RED CABBAGE?" Quick pan to my mother, hair in curlers. "What do you mean, red cabbage? Them seven beers..." Back to the old man, face now turning green. "Forget that crummy trip!" Sudden uproar from kids in back seat, including me. Quick cut to the old man. "WHAT DID YOU SAY?" Shot of his right hand sweeping the back seat like an avenging boom, knocking heads together indiscriminately. Pan to Mother: "Here. Take a Tums." Old man, bellowing: "ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND!" Shot of door opening quickly, as he rushes into bushes. End of commercial. That true-life vacation scene is all too reminiscent of the one we played out every year. The family took a vacation trip by car each and every time the earth completed its laborious cycle around the sun. It usually came in late July or the first two weeks in August, but it made no difference. It always went the same way. For 14 straight years, our vacations were spent in southern Michigan on the shores of colorful Clear Lake. Clear Lake-it was many things, but the one thing it wasn't was clear. In fact, it was never even clear why we went there, but we did. Such are the vacations of the humble. From June on, five minutes after school let out, my kid brother and I were in a feverish sweat of anticipation about this annual pilgrimage. The old man, playing it cool, didn't get really heated up until maybe a month or so before the big day. My mother - who, incidentally, would never have made a TV momma - would begin laying in supplies. As far as I was concerned, the only thing that counted was my meager collection of dime-store fishing tackle and my BB gun. For weeks I gazed at fishhooks, rolled lead sinkers over my tongue, drenched my Sears, Roebuck 79-cent reel in 3-i n-l oil. To be honest, I don't think I could have made it as a TV kid. For one thing, there were the pimples; and for another thing, I had a tendency to smell in those days - as a result of a lot of time spent in alleys and under porches and crawling through bushes with Schwartz and Flick aud Kissel and the motley collection of spotted dogs that always accompanied us wherever we went. Come to think of it, Schwartz and Flick and Kissel smelled, too; which may be why, to one another, none of us smelled. In any event, Right Guard was something we played, not something we squirted on ourselves. About two weeks or so before the big day, the old man would take the Olds down to Paswinski's Garage for a tune-up, which in our case was purely a cabalistic ritual. It was like fingering a string of beads or burning incense. But southern Michigan was a long way from northern Indiana and the Olds was our only hope. She was a large, hulking four-door sedan of a peculiar faded green color that the old man always called "goat-vomit green." This was his big party joke. He always said it when everybody was eating. The Olds had been in the hands of at least four previous owners, all of whom had left their individual marks on body and seat, fender and grille. My old man didn't like the Olds. I don't think it liked him, either, but it was ours. The week before vacation, the old man would go into high gear. On Monday of the last week, just after supper, he would make the Big Phone Call. Putting through a long-distance call to Michigan was not something that happened every day in our house. "Is this long distance?" he shouted into the receiver. "Operator, I want to put through a long-distance call to Michigan." The rest of us sat in hushed excitement, trepidation and fear. This was crucial. Would there be a cabin available? The old man played it for all it was worth: "Marcellus, Michigan. Ollie Hopnoodle's Feed and Grain Store. I wanna talk to Mr. Hopnoodle." He listened intently, then put his hand over the phone and whispered: "I can hear 'em ringing him! ... Hello, Ollie? You old son of a bitch! Guess who this is.... Right! How did you guess? . .. We want the green one this year. ... Yeah, the one on the other side of the outhouse.... ou did? That's great! "Ollie had two more holes put in the outhouse," he reported in an aside to us. "OK, Ollie, see you next week." The die was cast. We were on our way - almost. The week dragged by interminably - but finally it was Saturday night. All day, my mother had been cleaning up the house for the two-week hiatus, nailing down the screens, locking the basement windows, packing suitcases, trunks, cardboard boxes, laundry bags and wicker baskets with everything she could lay her hands on. The old man, who worked on Saturday, came roaring up the drive, the Olds already snarling in defiance over what was about to occur. He charged into the kitchen, his eyes rolling wildly, his very being radiating sparks of excitement. "OK. now. This year we're all gonna get up early and we're gonna be on the road by six o'clock. No later! This time we're gonna beat the traffic!" My mother, who had heard all this before, continued toiling stoically over her enormous pile of effluvia. "When that alarm goes off at fourthirty," the old man said to no one in particular, "I don't want to hear no griping. OK, now, let's check the list." Far into the night they went over every can of pork and beans, every slice of bacon, every box of crackers, every undershirt and rubber band-even the jug of citronella, that foul, fetid liquid mystically (and erroneously) believed to be effective in warding off mosquitoes of the Michigan variety. Finally, sometime after midnight, the uproar slowly petered out. A few minutes later, the alarm went off and my kid brother and I leaped out of the sack like shots. This was it! From the next bedroom came a muffled curse. "Fer Chrissake, will ya shut that damn thing off!" Mutterings from my mother as she put on her slippers in the dark. "Don't worry," growled the old man in his familiar litany, ''I'll get right up. I'm just resting." More mutterings. "Look, I'm just resting my eyes! I'm getting right up!" The vacation had begun as it always began. Already, not three minutes old and it was imperceptibly inching downhill. Five minutes later my mother, wearing her rump-sprung Chinese-red chenille bathrobe with tiny flecks of petrified egg on the lapels, her eyes puffed sleepily, peered down at a pot of simmering oatmeal in the clammy kitchen. Outside in the blackness, a few sparrows clinging to telephone wires chirped drowsily, pretending that they were real birds and not just sparrows living in a steel-mill town. My kid brother and I ran insanely up and down the basement stairs, dragging stuff out of the coal-bin that we figured we might need at the lake. For over a month I had been assiduously collecting night crawlers in a Chase & Sanborn coffee can; I brought them up from the basement to be ready to pack when the time came. I toyed with my oatmeal, but it was such a great day that I actually went ahead and ate it. My brother, who had been known to go for over two years without eating, was playing Pig in honor of the festive occasion. This was a game invented by my mother to euchre the little runt into eating. It consisted of my mother saying: "Randy, how does the little piggy go?" His nostrils would flare, his neck would thicken, his face, redden. He would grunt twice and look for approval to my mother. "Nice piggy. Here's your trough." He would give another snort and then shovel his snout deep into the red cabbage, mashed potatoes, oatmeal or whatever it was and slurp it up loudly. He wasn't a TV kid, either. This morning, in excitement, he polished off two troughs of Quaker Oats, usually his quota for a month. My mother, her hair curlers clinking, called out: "Are you up?" Silence. "Are you up?" Silence. "I t's getting late ." "SHUT UP, FER CHRISSAKE!" Wearily. she bent back over the sink. She had been this route before. Half an hour later, the sun streaming in through the kitchen windows finally flushed the old man out into the open. By now, the mound of impedimenta filled the kitchen and overflowed out onto the back porch. His B. V. D.s hanging limply, the old man weaved unsteadily between the piles and collapsed into a chair. "Gimme some coffee." He slumped unshaven, staring numbly at the kitchen table, until my mother set the coffee down in front of him. She did not speak. She knew that this was no time for conversation. He lit a Lucky, took a mighty drag and then sipped gingerly at the scalding black coffee, his eyes glaring malevolently ahead. My old man had begun every day of his life since the age of four with a Lucky and a cup of black coffee . . He inhaled each one alternately, grimly, deeply. During this routine, it was sheer suicide to goad him. The sun rose higher, and higher. It grew hotter and muggier, as only late July in northern Indiana can. The first faint whiff of oil-refinery smoke and blast-furnace dust eddied in through the screen door. Somewhere a cicada screamed into the brightening haze. Clotheslines drooped. I\Ty brother and I were busy carrying bags, suitcases and lumpy cardboard cartons tied with string out into the driveway. My mother wordlessly squeezed lemons for the lemonade we always carried along in our big two-gallon Thermos. The old man stonily began his second cup. Halfway through it, he suddenly looked up, the sun now well over the high-tension wires and striking him full on his stubbled face." WELL!" he shouted. "ARE WE ALL SET TO GO?" This was the signal that the real action could begin. The old man was still alive for another day. It was vacation time. He had been let out of the pen: My mother, picking up her cue, said: "Well, everything's about set." "OK, gimme that list." He roared around the kitchen, his B. V. D.s flapping obscenely as he rechecked the pile of rubber ducks, beach balls, old inner tubes, spyglasses, straw hats, fielders' mitts - all of it. He rushed into the bathroom to shave and emerged a few minutes later with a wad of toilet paper plastered to a nasty gash on his chin. As I said, he was no TV daddy. By now, we had moved perhaps a ton and a quarter of stuff out into the weeds of the back yard, which at this time of the year were usually knee high, filled with green caterpillars and millions of stickers. As always, Mrs. Kissel peered wistfully from her kitchen window next door. Since Mr. Kissel never worked, the Kissel family never took vacations. The neighborhood dogs, sensing that something was afoot, scurried round and round the cardboard cartons. yipping. A couple of them did more than that. Piece by piece, carton by carton, every available inch of the back seat was packed solid. The old man had a Sears luggage rack clamped onto the roof of the Olds. The heavy stuff was loaded on top: comforters, folding camp chairs, beach umbrellas, his set of matched Montgomery Ward golf clubs - all piled high and held down with lengths of clothesline. Those wooden-handled, chrome-headed clubs represented his only foray into the magic world of the "Big People," as he called them, the ones who ran Chevy agencies and sauntered around the course on Sundays in checkered knickers. At last he crawled in behind the wheel. rolled down his window and peered over a pile of junk next to him to see if my mother was in place. Back in the rear, my brother and I were wedged into two tiny cockpits burrowed into the wall of tightly packed essentials for living. My mother, for some reason, always pretended that going to Clear Lake was something like traveling to the North Pole. You had to be ready for anything. The doors were slammed, windows adjusted, and finally the old man gave his yearly cry: "OK. Here we go!" Outside in the yard, a motley collection of well-wishers had gathered. Including Flick, Schwartz, Kissel and other smaller fry who moved in the substrata of kid life-nameless, noses running, never invited to play ball. The old man turned the key in the dash and stepped on the starter. From deep within the bowels of the Oldsmobile came a faint click. He jabbed again at the starter. Another click. His neck reddened. "Oh, fer Chrissakel That damn starter spring's stuck again!" The sun beat down mercilessly on our wheeled pyramid, the interior growing hotter by the second. Enraged, the old man threw the door open and rushed around to the front of the Olds, shouting: "TURN THE KEY ON WHEN I JUMP UP AND DOWN ON THE BUMPERI" He grabbed the radiator ornament, a shoddy copy of the Winged Victory, climbed up on the bumper and began to bounce maniacally up and down. It was a routine we all knew well. The old man, his face beet red, the blood once again dripping from his gashed chin, hopped up and down in a frenzy. Once again, from deep within the Olds, came another faint click. Instantly, the old man shouted: "DON'T NOBODY MOVE! SIT REAL STILL!" He tore around the side of the car and eased himself into the driver's seat. It was a touchy moment. Carefully, so as not to create the slightest vibration, he pushed the starter button on the floor. Gug gug gug gug.... It failed to catch. The old man whispered hoarsely: "Don't nobody breathe." He tried it again. G-gug gug... BBRRROOOOOOMMMM! The mighty six-cylinder, low-compression Oldsmobile engine rattled into life, rocker arms clattering, valve springs clanging, pistons slapping. After all, 142,000 miles isn't exactly around the block. He threw her into reverse and slowly she lumbered backward down the driveway, swaying under the immense load of half the available stock of the A & P. Safely out on the street, he threw her into first. Painfully she began to roll forward. I peered out of the tiny crack of window available to me, a square of glass no more than three inches across, and saw my assembled friends standing dumbly along the sidewalk. For a brief instant, I felt a deep pang of regret about all the great things that were going to happen in the neighborhood while I was gone. From somewhere off to my left, amid the rumblings of the Olds, I heard the first muffled squeakings of my kid brother. Two minutes later, we turned down a side road toward the main highway that wended its way listlessly past junk yards and onion patches toward the distant, rolling, sandy hills of Michigan, It was Sunday and already a solid line of automobiles, bumper to bumper, stretched from one horizon to the other, barely moving. The old man, his eyes narrowed with hatred, glared through the windshield at his most ancient and implacable foe - the traffic. "Damn Sunday drivers! Stupid sons of bitches!" He was warming up for the big scenes yet to come. As traffic fighters go, he was probably no more talented nor dedicated than most other men of his time. But what he lacked in finesse he more than made up for in sheer ferocity. His vast catalog of invective-learned in the field, so to speak, back of the stock yards on the South Side of Chicago - had enriched every Sunday-afternoon drive we ever took. Some men gain their education about life at their mother's knee, others by reading yellowed volumes of fiction. I nurtured and flowered in the back seat of the Olds, listening to my father. At least we were on our way. No one could deny that. We crept along in the great line of Sunday traffic, the Olds muttering gloomily as its radiator temperature slowly mounted. My mother occasionally shouted back through the din in our direction: "Are you kids all right?" All right? I was out of my head with excitement. I looked forward to this moment all year long; it made Christmas and everything else pale to nothing. I had pored over every issue of Field & Stream in the barbershop, dreaming about tracking beavers and fording streams and making hunter's stew. Of course, nobody ever did any of those things in Michigan, but they were great to read about. One time, our scoutmaster took us out on a hike through Hammond and painted moss on the north side of all the fireplugs, so that we could blaze a trail to the vacant lot behind the Sherwin-Williams sign. But that was about the extent of my expertise in nature lore. Hour after hour we inched northward, and finally burst out of the heavy traffic and turned Onto the rolling, open highway that led through the sandy hills to Marcellus, Michigan. By now it was well along in the afternoon and the temperature inside the car hovered at maybe 15 or 20 degrees below tile boiling point. The Olds had a habit of hitting a thrumming, resonant vibration at about 50 that jiggled the bones, loosened tile molars, rattled the eyeballs and made all talk totally impossible. But over the roar, a faint squeak filtered through the cartons to my left. My mother turned in her seat, took one look and shouted at the old man to stop the car. "WHAT THE HELL NOW?" he bellowed, as he pulled over to the side of the road under a pair of great, overhanging Michigan poplars. Everywhere around us the yellow-and-dun fields, mottled with patches of grapevines, streched out to the horizon. My mother dashed around the side of the car to my brother's door. I heard him being hauled out of his tiny capsule. Oatmeal, Ovaltine, caterpillars-everything he had downed in the past couple of days gushed out into the lilies. I sat in my slot, peering out of the window at the alien landscape, my excitement now at fever pitch. Randy always got sick at about this point. That meant we " 'ere halfway there. Ashen-faced, he was stuffed back into his hole. Once again, the starter spring stuck. Once again, the old man raged up and down on the bumper. We were off. It was then that the bombshell struck. Oh, no! OH, NO! I slumped deep down into the seat, a two-pound box of rice sliding from the shelf behind me and pouring its contents down the back of my neck. The Oldsmobile boomed on toward Clear Lake and its fighting three-ounce sunfish, its seven-inch bluegills and its five-inch perch, all waiting for me under lily pads, beside submerged logs and ill the weed beds. Oh, no! I had left all my fishing tackle in the garage, all piled up next to the door, where I had taken it the night before to make sure I wouldn't forget it! Every sinker, every bobber, every hook I had saved for, polished, loved and cherished stood all neatly piled up back home in the garage. "DAD!" I cried out in anguish. The great thrum of the Olds drowned me out. "HEY, DAD!" He glanced into the rearview mirror. "Yeah?" "I LEFT ALL MY FISHING TACKLE IN THE GARAGE!" That meant his, too: "WHAT?!" He straightened up in his sweat-soaked pongee shirt. "YOU DID WHAT?" ''I ... I..." "Oh, fer CHR1SSAKE! What next!" He spit through the open window into the onrushing hot air. It arced back in to the rear window and missed my brother's head by an indl. My mother had been asleep now for some time. She never stirred through this disaster. Deep in my hole, I wept. The steady, rumbling oscillation of the ancient Olds rolled back over me. Way down deep inside, the first faint gnawing of car sickness, like some tiny, gray, beady-eyed rat scurrying among my vitals, merged appropriately with the disappointment and the heat. A faint whiff of the sweetish-sour aroma of my kid brother filtered through the camp gear, drifted past my nose and out the window to my right. I stared with glazed eyes at the blur of telephone poles; at a barn with a huge Bull Durham sign on its side, with its slogan, HER HERO; at farmhouse after farmhouse; at a rusty tin sign with its faded message: HOOKED RUGS FOR SALE - ALSO EGGS. The low hills, green, yellow and brown, wound on and on. I had wrecked the vacation. You might just as well tell Santa Claus to go to hell as leave your split-bamboo casting rod that you saved all year to buy and that had a cork handle and a level-wind Sears, Roebuck reel with a red jewel in the handle, and your Daredevil wiggler, so red and white and chromy, back in the garage amid the bald Goodyears and empty Simoniz cans. Oh, well, nothing ever works out, anyway. My little gray, furry rat reared on its hind legs, his fangs flashing in the darkness. Over the steady hum of the mighty Olds engine I could hear the pitiful keening of my kid brother, who had now burrowed down to the floor boards in his travail. I stared sullenly out the window over a huge, rolled-up, dark-green comforter and an orange crate full of coffeepots and frying pans. Suddenly: BA-LOOOMMMMPPP! Ktllnk k-tunk kk-tunk k-tunk. The car reeled drunkenly under the wrenching blows of a disintegrating Allstate tire. In the front seat, the driver wrestled with the heaving steering wheel. Overloaded by a quarter ton at least, the car continued to lurch forward. Ding ding ding ding. It was down to the rim now. My father hauled back on the emergency brake. We slued up onto the gravel shoulder of the highway and rolled to a limping stop. He cut the ignition; but for a full 20 seconds or so, the motor continued to turn over, firing on sheer heat. Finally, she coughed twice and stopped. Dead silence enveloped us all. My father sat unmoving behind the wheel, his hands clenched on the controls in silent rage. "Do you think it's a flat?" my mother chirped helpfully, her quick, mechanical mind analyzing the situation with deadly accuracy. "No, I don't think it could be that. Probably we ran over a pebble." His voice was low, almost inaudible, drenched in sarcasm. "I'm glad to hear that," she sighed with relief. "I thought for a minute we might have had a flat." He stared out his window at the seared corn stalks across the road, watching the corn borers destroy what was left of the crops after the locusts had finished their work. We sat for possibly two minutes, frozen in time and space like flies in amber. Then, in the lowest of all possible voices, he breathed toward the cornfield: "Balls." Very quietly he opened the door, climbed out and stalked back to the trunk. "ALL A' YA GET OUT!" he shouted. My mother, realizing by this time that it hadn't been a pebble after all, whispered: "Now, don't get on his nerves. And don't whine. The four of us gathered on the dusty gravel. Along the road behind us for a quarter mile at least, chunks of black, twisted rubber smoked in the sun and marked our trail of pain. The old man silently opened the trunk, peered into the tangled mess of odds and ends that always filled it and began to rummage glumly among the shards. He removed the clamp that released the spare tire. In his world, spare tires were tires that had long since been given extreme unction but had somehow clung to a thread of life and perhaps a shred or two of rubber. Next, the jack. "We sat at a safe distance next to the cornfield, in the shade of an elm tree suffering from oak blight. "Let's have it picnic while Daddy fixes the tire," - suggested Mother cheerfully. Daddy, his shirt drenched in sweat, tore his thumbnail off while trying to straighten out the jack handle, which was insanely jointed in four different spots, making it as pliable as a wet noodle and about as useful. While he cursed and bled, we opened the lunch basket and fished out the warm cream-cheese sandwiches and the lunch-meat-and-relish sandwiches. "Gimme a peanut-butter-and.jelly sandwich," said my kid brother. "We don't have peanut-butter-and-jelly." "I want a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich." "We have nice tuna and egg-salad sandwiches. On rye bread. You can pick the seeds out and have fun making believe they' re little bugs." "I WANT PEANUT-BUTTER-AND-JELLY!" Raudy's voice was rising to a shrill pitch. Off in the middle distance, the jack clanked and rattled as the Olds teetered precariously on the flimsy metal support. "GODDAMN ITI IN TWO SECONDS, I'M GONNA COME OVER AND BAT YOU ONE GOOD!" yelled the tire repairman. Randy threw his tuna-salad sandwich out into the road, where it was instantly smashed flat by a Mack truck. Our little picnic went on. "We drank lemonade, ate cookies. Finally came the call: "OK. Pile in ." "How 'bout some music," my mother asked rhetorically as we rolled Out onto the highway. My father stonily drove on. Sometimes, after a particularly bad flat, he didn't speak to the family for upward of two weeks. I suspect that he always pictured heaven as a place where everybody was issued a full set of brand-new, four-ply U. S. Royal roadmasters, something he never in his life attained, at least on this earth. My mother fiddled with the car radio, which hummed and crackled. "Roll out the barrel We'll have a barrel of fun... Roll out the barrel We've got the blues on the run..." The Andrews Sisters were always rolling out barrels and having fun. "Isn't that nice? Now, how 'bout playing a game, kids? What am I thinking of - animal, vegetable or mineral?" "We always played games in the car, like who could tell quicker what kind of car was coming toward us; or Count the Number of Cows; or Beaver, where the first guy who saw a red truck or a blue Chevy or a Coca-Cola sign could hit the other guy if he hollered "Beaver" first. Then there was Padiddle, which was generally played when there were girls in the car and had a complicated scoring system involving burned-out headlights, the highest point getter being a police car running one-eyed. But Padiddle was never played in cars carrying mothers and kid brothers. "NOW what the hell!" My father had broken his vow of silence. Ahead, across the highway, stretched a procession of sawhorses with flashing lights and arrows and a sign, reading: ROAD UNDER CONSTRUCTION-DETOUR AHEAD 27.8 MILES. Muttering obscenities, the old man veered to the right, onto a slanting gravel cow path . Giant bulldozers and road graders roared all around us. "Holy Godl This'll kill that spare!" The Olds crashed into a hole. The springs bottomed. She bellowed forward, throwing gravel high into the air. The trail wound through a tiny hamlet - and then, a fork, where a red arrow pointed to the right: CONTINUE DETOUR. The road to the left was even narrower than the other, marked with a battered black-and-white tin sign perforated with rusting .22-caliber bullet holes: COUNTY ROAD 872 (ALTERNATE). "We fishtailed to a stop, yellow dust pouring in the windows. "Gimme that map!" The old man reached across the dashboard and snapped open the glove compartment just as a truck rumbled past, raining gravel onto the windshield and along the side of the car. "What the hell is THIS?" He yanked his hand convulsively out of the glove compartment. It dripped a dark, viscous liquid. "OK," he said with his best Edgar Kennedy slow burn. "Who stuck a Hershey bar in the glove compartment?" No one spoke. "All right, who did it?" He licked his fingers disgustedly. "What a goddamn mess!" The mystery of the Hershey bar was the subject of bitter wrangling off and on for years afterward. I know that I didn't stick it in there. If my brother had gotten hold of a Hershey bar, he would have eaten it instantly. It never did come out-but then, neither did the chocolate; forevermore, the Oldsmobile had a chocolate-lined glove compartment. My father pored over the creased and greasy map. "Aha! Eight-seven-two. Here it is. It goes through East Jerusalem and hits four-three-eight. I'll tell you what. I'll bet we can beat this detour by crossing through four-three-eight to this one with the dotted red line, nine-seven-four. Then we'll cut back and hit the highway the other side of Niles." Two and a half hours later, we were up to our hubs in a swamp. Overhead, four large crows circled angrily at the first disturbance their wilderness had seen in years. After backing and filling for half an hour, we finally managed to regain semisolid ground on the corduroy road that we had been thumping over {or the past hour or so. None of us spoke. We long ago had learned not to say a word in times like these. "Maria Elena, yore the answer to mah prayer . .." Gene Autry twanged from the radio as our spattered, battered hulk hauled itself, at long last, back onto the main highway, after traveling over patches of country that had not been seen by the eye of man since Indian times. "I knew I'd beat the damn detour." When my father really loused up, he always tried to pretend it was not only deliberate but a lot of fun. "Did you kids see those big crows? 'Weren't they big? And I bet you never saw quicksand before. That was really something, wasn't it?" Leaving a trail of mud, we rumbled along smoothly for a few minutes on the blessed concrete. "How 'bout some of those Mary Janes? Would you kids like some Mary Janes?" He was now in a great mood. My mother scratched around in the luggage a few moments until she found a cellophane bag full of the dentist's delight. "Be careful how you chew 'em," she cautioned us futilely, "because if you're not, they'll pull your fillings out." The sound of our munching was drowned out by the RRRAAAAWWWRRRR of a giant, block-long truck as it barreled past our struggling flivver, eclipsing us in a deep shadow. As the truck roared past, inches away, sucking the car into its slip stream, an overwhelming cacophony of sound engulfed us - a sea of insane squawks and cluckings. "Chickens!" Randy hollered ecstatically. Thousands of chickens peered at us through the windows on our left side. Stretching for a mile back of us, a wall of Leghorns was going by. Then they were past us and the mammoth truck pulled into the lane directly ahead of us, shedding a stream of white feathers that struck the windshield and billowed around us and in the windows like a summer snowstorm. Almost immediately we were enveloped in a wrenching, fetid, kick-in-the-stomach stench; it swept over us in a tidal wave of nausea. ''When the swallows come back to Capistrano . .." the Inkspots chimed in on the radio. "Gaak! What a stink!!" "Maybe you'd better pass him," suggested my mother through her handkerchief. "Yeah. H ere goes." He floored the Olds, but nothing happened. She was already going her limit. Ahead, the driver of the chicken truck settled into the groove, a lumbering juggernaut rolling along at 55, spraying feathers and a dark-brown aroma over the countryside. Again and again, the old man edged out into the left lane, gamely trying to pass, but it was no use. The truck stayed tantalizingly just out of reach, the chickens squawking delightedly, their necks sticking out of the iron cages, their beady red eyes wild with excitement, as the driver happily headed to market. Occasionally, a stray egg whistled past or splashed into the radiator grille to join the dead butterflies, grasshoppers and dragonflies. "I have to go to the toilet." Already we had stopped at 74 gas stations so that Randy could go to the toilet. His output was incredible. "You'll just have to hold it." It had begun to rain-big ripe summer drops. The windshield wipers were stuck and now my father drove with his head craned out the window in order to see. Rain ricocheted off his face and splattered everything within a two-foot radius. It carried with it chicken feathers and other by-products that streamed back from the truck ahead. But this was not the first time we had been caught behind moving livestock. A load of ducks make chickens a pure joy. And one time we had been trapped for over four hours behind 37 sheep and at least 200 exuberantly ripe porkers on U. S. 41. The rain suddenly stopped, just when the menagerie boomed into a turnoff, and peace reigned once again. A few feathers clung to the headlights here and there, but the last lingering aroma of the barnyard finally departed through the rear windows. Then: "WAAAH! I GOTTA WEEWEE!" "All right! But this is the last time, ya hear?" No answer. Randy was promising nothing. Ahead, a one-pump gas station crouched amid the cornfields next to a white shack that had once been a diner but was now sinking into the clay, carrying with it its faded red sign with the single word EAT. Under a rusted soft-drink cooler sprawled a mangy hound, who gTeeted our arrival by opening one rheumy eye and lifting a leg to scratch wearily and indiscriminately at his undernourished room-and-boarders. We pulled up next to the pump. A thin, creased, dusty old man wearing a blue work shirt and faded jeans sat chewing a toothpick beside the screen door on an old wooden chair, with his feet on a "Phillips 66" oil drum. He didn't stir. "Fillerup, bub?" "The kid's gotta go to the toilet." He shifted the toothpick. "Round the side, past them tires." "You can check the oil while we're waiting." Taking one foot off the oil drum, then the other, the man struggled to his feet with painful deliberation, shuffled over to the car and fiddled with the hood latch for a minute or so. Finally getting the knack of it, he yanked it open, leaned over the engine, pulled out the dipstick and held it up. It dripped rich, viscous sludge on to the gravel. "Needs about two and a half quarts." It always needed two and a half quarts. "You want the good stuff or the cheap stuff?" "The cheap stuff. Put in the heaviest ya got." The old crate burned oil like a diesel. My mother and Randy were back in the car now. I t was a typical pi t stop on our long caravan route to Clear Lake and paradise. Doggedly, we swung back out onto the highway, Randy relieved, the Olds refreshed. A mile up the road, my mother, making conversation, said: "Why didn't you get gas?" "I didn't want any of that cheap bootleg gas that guy had. I'm waiting for a Texas Blue station." "The gauge says empty. Maybe you shoulda got some." "That gauge is cockeyed. When it says empty, there's over an eighth of a tank left. There oughta be a Texas Blue station ahead." Texas Blue was an obscure gasoline that had at one time sponsored the Chicago White Sox ball games on radio, thereby winning my father's undying patronage. If Texas Blue backed the White Sox, it was his gas. He would have used it if they had di stilled it from old cabbages. Thirty seconds later, the car sputtered to a stop, bone dry. After sitting stony-faced for a long time behind the wheel, the old man silently opened the door, got out, slammed it, opened the trunk, took out the red can he always carried and continually used, slammed the lid shut and set out without a word for the gas station we had left a mile and a half behind. He plodded over the horizon and was gone. We played animal, vegetable or mineral and drank more warm lemonade while we waited in the steamy heat. Forty minutes later he returned, his two gallon can filled to the brim with gas so cheap you could hear it knocking in the container. He smelled heavily of both gasoline and bourbon. He poured the former into the tank and shortly thereafter we once again entered the mainstream of humanity. A single red sign stuck in the road's shoulder at a crazy angle whizzed by; in white letters, it read: LISTEN, BIRDS. My father lit another Lucky and leaned forward on the alert, peering through the bug-spattered windshield. THESE SIGNS COST MONEY. The second red-and-white announcement flashed by, followed quickly by the third: so ROOST AWHILE. The old man flicked his match out the side window, his neck craning in anticipation of the snapper. We drove on. And on. Had some crummy, rotten fiend stolen the punch line? Another sign loomed over the next hill. He squinted tensely. GENUINE CHERRY CIDER FOR SALE. "Fer Chrissake!" he muttered amid the thrumming uproar and the constant ping of kamikaze gnats and beetles on the spattered windshield. But finally it came, half hidden next to a gnarled oak tree at the far end of a long, sweeping curve: BUT DON'T GET FUNNY. I didn't get it. But then, I didn't get much of anything in those days. A few yards farther on, the sponsor's name flashed by: BURMA-SHAVE. Up front, the old man cackled appreciatively; his favorite form of reading, next to the Chicago Herald-American sports section, was Burma-Shave signs. He could recite them like a Shakespearean scholar quoting first folios. He had just added another gem to his repertoire. In the months to come, it would be referred to over and over, complete to location, time of day and pertinent weather information. In fact, he and his pal Zudock even invented their own Burma-Shave signs - pungent, unprintable and single - entendre. It would have been a great ad campaign, if the Burma-Shave company had the guts to do it. It began to rain again. My father rolled up his window part way. Normally, the atmosphere in the Olds in full cry was a faint, barely discernible blue haze, an aromatic mixture of exhaust fumes from the split muffler, a whiff of manifold heat, burning oil, sizzl1ng grease, dust from the floor boards, alcoholic steam from the radiator and the indescribably heady aroma of an antique tangerine, left over from last year's trip, that had rolled under the front seat and gotten wedged directly in front of the heater vent. Now subtly blended with this oleo were the heavenly scents of wet hay, tiger lilies, yellow clay and fermenting manure. Ahead of us, a house trailer towed by a Dodge drifted from side to side as they, too, rumbled on toward two weeks away from it all. The old man muttered: "Lousy Chicago drivers"-a litany he repeated over and over to himself, endlessly, while driving. It must have had the same sort of soothing effect on him that prayer wheels and mystic slogans had on others. He firmly believed that almost all accidents, directly or indirectly, were caused by Chicago drivers, and that if they could all be barred at birth from getting behind a wheel, cars could be made without bumpers and the insurance companies could turn lheir efforts into more constructive channels. "Look at that nut!" The old man muttered to himself as the house trailer cut across the oncoming lane and rumbled out of sight up a gravel road, trailing a thick cloud of yellow dust. My mother was now passing out wrigley's Spearmint chewing gum. "This'll keep you from getting thirsty," she counseled sagely. We were doing well, all things considered, having stopped for Randy at only 75 gas stations so far. After licking off the sweet, dry coating of powdered sugar, I chewed the gum for a while and leafed restlessly through a Donald Duck Big Little Book that I'd brought along to pass the time; but I was too excited and kind of sick to worry about old Donald and Dewey and Huey and Louie. Suddenly the front seat was in a great uproar. I sat up. My mother screamed and shrank away toward the door. The old man shouted above her shrieks: "Fer Chrissake, it's only a bee. It's not gonna kill you!" A big fat bumblebee zoomed over the pots and pans and groceries, banging from window to window as my mother, flailing her tattered copy of True Romance, cowered screaming on the floor boards next to the gearshift. The bee zoomed low over her, banked sharply upward and began walking calmly up the inside of the windshield, like he knew just what he was doing. Every year, a bee got in the car-the same bee. My mother had an insane fear of being stung. She had read in Ripley's Believe It or Not! that a bee sting had killed a man named Howard J. Detweiler in Canton, Ohio, and she never forgot it. The subject came up often around our house, especially in the summer, and my mother invariably quoted Ripley, who was universally recognized as an ultimate authority on everything. She screamed again. "Goddamn it! Shut up! Do you want me to have an accident?" my father bellowed. He pulled off to the side of the road, filing his- door open and began the chase. "Gimme the rag outta the side pocket!" he yelled. My mother, shielding her head with her magazine, interrupted her whimpering long enough to shriek: "Where is he? I can hear him!" The bee strolled casually up the windshield a few inches farther, humming cheerfully to himself. The old man tore around to the other side of the car to get the rag himself. Sensing that he had made his point, the bee revved his motors with 'a loud buzz and was out the window. He disappeared back down the road into the lowering skies of early evening, obviously getting set for the next Indiana car to show up over the hill. "He got away, the bastard!" My father slid back into his seat, threw the Olds into gear and pulled back out onto the asphalt. "OK, he's gone. You can get up now." His voice dripped with scorn. My mother crawled back up into her seat, flushed and shaking slightly, and said in a weak voice: "You never can tell about bees. I read once where..." My father snorted in derision: "Howard Detweiler! I'd like to know where that goddamn bee stung him that it killed him. I'll bet I know where it got him!" he roared. "Shhhh. The kids are listening." "Hey, look! There's Crystal Lake." My father pointed off to the left. I sat bolt upright. Way off past a big gray farmhouse and a bank of black trees under the darkening sky was a tiny flash of water. A gravel road slanted off into the trees, bracketed by a thicket of signs: BOATS FOR RENT BATHING FISHING OVERNIGHT CABINS BEER EATS. We were in vacationland. Oh, boy! In the back seat, I had broken out into a frenzied sweat. ]n just a few minutes, we would be there at that one and-only place where everything happened: Clear Lake: For months, when the snow piled high around the garage and the arctic wind whistled past the blast furnaces, into the open hearth and around the back porch, under -the eaves and through the cracks in the window sills, I had lain tossing on my solitary pallet and dreaming of Clear Lake, imagining myself flexing my magnificent split-bamboo casting rod, drifting toward the lily pads, where a huge bronzeback - an evil, legendary small-mouthed bass named Old Jake - waited to meet his doom at my hands. I would see myself showing my dad how to tie a royal-coachman fly, which I had read about in Sports Afield. He would gasp in astonishment. I also astounded my mother in these dreams by demonstrating an encyclopedic grasp of camp cookery. I had practically memorized an article entitled "How to Prepare the Larger Game Fish." The text began: "A skillful angler knows how to broil landlocked salmon and lake trout in the 25-to-40-pound weight range...." I had never seen, let alone cooked, a salmon or a trout or a pike or anything else except for little sunfish, perch, bullheads and the wily crappie-but I was ready for them. We rounded a familiar curve and rolled past a green cemetery dotted with drooping American flags. Steaming, the Olds slowed to a crawl as we inched past the general store, with a cluster of yellow cane poles leaning against its wooden front amid a pile of zinc washtubs. We had arrived. "Now, look, you kids stay in the car. HEY, OLLIE!" the old man shouted out of the side window toward the feed store. "HEY, OLLIE, WE'RE HERE!" Through the rain-spattered windshield, we could see that a few lights were on here and there in the ramshackle white-clapboard buildings overhung with willows and sweeping elm trees that lined the street. A tall figure in overalls strolled across the sidewalk and plunked his size-14 clodhopper on the running board, battered farmer's straw hat pushed to the back of his head. "By God, ya made it." His Adam's apple, the size of a baseball, bobbed up and down his skinny neck like a yo-yo. "Yep. We're here, Ollie." "How was the trip?" "Pretty good. Got a bee in the car, though." "Back just before ya hit Crystal Lake?" "That's right." "Just before ya come to Henshaw's barn?" "Yep." "Gal durn. That son of a gun's been doin' that all summer. Got me twice." Ollie owned six cabins on the shore of Clear Lake, which was rimmed solidly with a thick incrustation of summer shacks-except at the north end, where the lake was swampy and the mosquitoes swarmed. "I saved the green one for you. She's all set. I emptied out the boat this morning." A jolting shot of excitement ripped through me. The boat! Our boat, which I would row and anchor and bailout, and hang onto and cast my split-bamboo rod - My split-bamboo rod! I had forgotten for hours that I had left it all back in the garage. "How's the fishing this year?" asked the old man. "Well, now, it's a funny thing you asked. They sure were hittin' up to about a week or ten day ago. Guy from Mishawaka stayin' in cabin three got his limit a' walleye every day. But they slacked off 'bout a week ago. Ain't hittin' now." "I guess I shoulda been here last week." It was always "last week" at Clear Lake. "They might 'hit crickets. I got some for sale." ''I'll be over in the morning to pick some up, Ollie. I got a feeling we're gonna hit 'em big this year." The old man never gave up. We turned off the main highway and drove along the beloved, twisting dirt road-now a river of mud-that led through cornfields and meadows, down toward the magical lake. "Ollie looks skinnier," my mother said. "He's just got new overalls," my father answered, sluing the Olds around a sharp bend. Night was coming on fast, as it does in the Michigan lake country, black and chill. The rain had picked up. In the back seat, I was practically unconscious with excitement as the first cottages hove into view. Between them and the trees that ringed them was the dark, slate void of the lake. "She looks high," my father said. He always pretended to be an expert on everything, including lakes. Already my mother was plucking at pickle jars, Brillo pads, clothespins, rolls of toilet paper and other drifting odds and ends of stuff that she had banked around her in the front seat. Next to every cottage but one was a parked car pulled up under the trees. Down in the lake, I could make out the pier and the black swinging wedges of Ollie's leaky rowboats. A few yellow lights gleamed from the dark cottages onto the green, wet leaves of the trees. "Well, there she is." Our lights swept over the rear of a starboard-leaning, green-shingled, screen-enclosed cabin. Above the back door, painted on a weathered two-by-four, was the evocative appellation HAVEN OF BLISS. All of Ollie's other cottages had names, too: BIDE-A-WEE, REST-A-SPELL, DEW DROP INN, NEVA-KARE, SUN-N-FUN. We inched under the trees. My father switched off the •Olds. With a great, gasping shudder, she sank into a deep stupor, her yearly trial by fire half over. The rain was coming down hard now, pounding on the roof of the car and dripping off the trees all around us. I tumbled out of the back door-plunging into mud up to my ankles-and began sloshing my way down through the wet bushes and undergrowth to the lake. Behind me, I could hear my kid brother already whining that the mosquitoes were biting him. There at my feet, lapping quietly at the rocks, the black water faintly aglow, was Clear Lake. In the darkness a few feet offshore, I could dimly make out our wooden boat, the waves slapping against its side. K-thunk .. . K-thunk ... K•splat .... Plop . . . Plop. . . . One of the most exciting sounds known to man. "Hey, come on! We gotta unload! Everything's getting wet!" my father shouted down through the trees. I slogged back up the path, splopping and slipping and skidding and cracking my shins against tree stumps. My father and mother were tugging at the tarpaulin that covered the luggage rack on the roof. The rain poured down unrelentingly. "Where the hell's the flashlight? Don't tell me we forgot the FLASHLIGHT!" "I thought you brought it," my mother answered from the dark deluge. "OH, JESUS CHRIST! WHAT THE HELL DID WE BRING?" "Well, you made up the list." "How the hell can you forget the FLASHLIGHT?" "Well, if you had gotten up when you said you would, you--" "SHUT UP! I don't have no time to argue. This stuff's getting soakedl" My mother disappeared into the cabin. "The lights aren't working," she called out into the rain a moment later. My father didn't even bother to answer that one. If she had said the roof was gone and there was a moose in the bedroom, it wouldn't have surprised him. He staggered past me, reeling under an enormous cardboard box full of pots, pans, baking powder, rubber ducks and ping-pong paddles. "Don't just stand around. Do something!" he bellowed to everyone within hearing. "DAMN IT, DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING?" I grabbed a beach ball from the back seat, waded through the clay and groped my way up the rickety back steps. Inside, the cabin smelled of rotting wood, wet shingles, petrified fish scales and dead squirrels. My father had struck a match, which dimly lit up the worn linoleum and bare boards of the kitchen. "Why the hell didn't Ollie turn on the juice? That's what I want to know!" he raged, flicking his match around in the dimness. "Hey, here's a kerosene lantern!" my mother said excitedly. Above the tin sink, on a shelf, stood a dusty glass lamp half full of cloudy yellow oil. "OUCH! DAMN ITI" The match had burned down to the old man's thumb. Sound of fumbling and scratching and cursing in the darkness. Finally, another match flared. "Gimme that lousy lamp." He lifted off the black, smoky chimney and applied the match to the wick, turning up the knob all the side as he did so. It sputtered and hissed. "DON'T BREATHE ON THE MATCH!" he yelled. At last the wick caught hold and a steady blue-yellow flame lit up the primitive kitchen. We rushed out into the dark and for the next hour lugged wet sacks, bags, blankets, fielders' mitts, all of it, into the kitchen, until at long last the aids, a ton and a half lighter, shook itself in relief and settled down for a two week rest. My mother had been sorting it all out as we dragged it in, carrying blankets and bedding into the little wooden cubicles that flanked the kitchen. When it was all indoors, the old man stripped off his soaked shirt and sprawled out on a lumpy blue kitchen chair. "Well, here we are." He grinned, water dripping down over his ears. "Boy, am I hungry!" My mother had already opened a can of Spam. We sat amid the boxes, downing two-inch-thick sandwiches. "We gotta set the alarm, because we wanna get out real early to fish," announced the old man between bites. My kid brother was already asleep in the next room. "If ya wanna get the big ones, ya gotta get up early!" His eyes gleamed brightly in the glow of the kerosene lamp. "They always bite good after a rain. Yessir!" But it was all back in the garage - my rod, my reel, my father's tackle box, his bobbers, his Secret Gypsy Fish Bait Oil that he had bought from the mail-order catalog. "But, Dad, don't you remember I told you...." I began miserably. "So how come I found it on top of the car? I wonder who put all that fishing stuff on top of the car? Hmmmm.... I guess somebody must have snuck up and put it on top of the car when you weren't looking." Ten minutes later, I lay in the dark, ecstatic with relief and expectation, huddled under damp blankets and a musty comforter. The rain roared steadily on the roof-as it would for the next two weeks-and drummed metronomically onto the bare wooden floor beside my bed. K-thunk... K-thunk... Plop ... Plop ... Plop... The boat called to me from the dark lake. From somewhere out in the woods, something squeaked twice and then was silent. My kid brother tossed and whimpered softly from beneath his pillow; and across the room, my father's low, muttering snores thrummed quietly in the night. We were on vacation.


Copyright: 1968 Playboy Magazine

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