Since I’m sitting around a lot these days, and since tomorrow is father’s day, I thought I would post another tale from my youth- a slightly lengthy one that encapsulates best many of the things I love about my father. It really should be written down, even though it’s hard to imagine any of us who were part of the story could ever forget it. It’s the story of our last family road trip, before the six of us left the nest.
My oldest sister had already graduated from high school and spent some time abroad. I had just graduated as well, and was preparing for my own sojourn overseas. Dad realized that home life with his all of his daughters was fast coming to a close. So, being a lover of road trips, and always looking for an excuse to head south to his homeland in sunny southern California, he began planning the grand finale of family road trips. This one would not only head south, but also east through the dessert towards Colorado and back home again to Washington state.
We had often borrowed cars for trips to California, since we rarely had a family vehicle we could depend on. But this time, dad splurged. We bought a new van. One that wouldn’t die on the side of the road, as had happened in some of our other memorable family outings. It was a shiny, deep burgundy color, with lots of space inside- a very dependable looking vehicle.
We left for our three week trek in July. Dad’s motto when vacationing has always been “No time for sleep!” So naturally he planned to leave in the evening and drive through the night, so as not to waste a single moment of daylight in driving. We girls were supposed to sleep through the night, but seeing as I never am able to sleep in cars, I spent the night gazing out the back window at the incredible stars high in the mountains as we crossed from Oregon into California. Even though there were now four other licensed drivers in the van, dad insisted on doing all the driving. But despite the loss of a night’s sleep, he made very good time, so that we were well past the border by the time the sun rose and we blearily looked around.
Our goal was to get to our destination in record time. I had made breakfast ahead of time so that we wouldn’t need to stop to eat- a couple of pans of homemade cinnamon rolls that we all munched happily as the sun rose higher. We were making such good time that we anticipated surprising our beloved cousins several hours ahead of schedule. Dad was in his most exuberant mood- full of nervous energy, jokes and old stories, and trying not to exceed the speed limit too much. The sunshine of CA always had this effect on him. It was infectious, and we in the backseats were soon hyperactive as well, laughing uproariously at the slightest joke and full of anticipation.
And then the funny smell began. It started out as an occasional whiff that we ignored for a while. As it grew stronger, one of my sisters piped up with a “Hey daddy, what’s that smell?”
It smelled a little like oil, or maybe like hot tires. We were driving through farmland, and dad thought that maybe it was some kind of new fertilizer they were using on the fields. This reassured us for awhile. But soon the hot tire smell began smelling like a burning tire. I looked out the back window and noticed a thin trail of smoke streaming behind us.
“Ummm, dad?” I began.
The next few seconds are some that are etched on my memory as if in slow motion. The van launched itself a few feet off the ground, and came back down again with a thud. I watched, horrified, as flames spurted out behind us. I saw a semi bearing down on us, honking it’s horn loudly, as if to notify us that something might be wrong. And then thick black oil covered the entire back windshield. I whirled around to face the front, and there was dad, frantically trying to control our vehicle that was veering from side to side. I remember it being totally silent. Either we didn’t have time for screaming or I was just to shocked to hear it. It seemed an eternity before dad managed to pull the van to the side of the road, but as soon as he hit the brake, the volume seemed to come back up. I will never forget the look on his face or the tone of his voice as he shouted at us to get out of the car. It didn’t take us long.
Expecting the whole van to explode behind us in a fiery ball any second, we all pelted up the grass-covered hill that ran along the side of the freeway. When we had reached a safer distance, we turned to survey the scene. There were still flames burning away underneath the van, but this was still the dark ages, before we had a cell phone. There was no way to notify the fire department. Then I noticed, as I looked down the straight stretch of freeway behind us, a black patch of burnt grass in the distance, perhaps burned by a carelessly thrown cigarette. I saw us sitting in that long, tall, dry grass, while the flames from the van were being blown towards the hill. But before I really started to panic at the thought of the imminent grass fire, a cop pulled up. Dad ran down to talk to him, and he immediately called the fire department. There wasn’t much the cop could do for us, but I do remember his kind and helpful words to the seven females trembling on the side of the road.
“Hey. You ladies should watch out for rattle snakes up there.”
Just what we needed to hear.
Within moments, the first firetruck wailed up, then another. But by that time, the danger had passed. The last of the flames had gone out, the van was still standing and the excitement was over. Then came the tedium of waiting. We weren’t sure what to do next, other than keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. The firemen were bored too. To pass the time, I fetched the other pan of cinnamon rolls. We divvied them up with the firemen, who we noticed were casting hopeful looks in our direction. We couldn’t help some slightly hysterical giggling at the ludicrous situation we now found ourselves in, but seeing dad, pacing up and down the side of the freeway, wringing his hands and looking stressed, we kept quiet.
Eventually a tow truck arrived, and the firemen left. The problem now was how to transport all of us back to civilization since eight was too many to fit in the cab of the tow truck, and it was illegal to ride in a car that was being towed. In the end, the driver decided to flout the law, and told us all to get back in our poor burnt van. In we got, and burst into laughter again as the tow truck hauled us up and we drove to the nearest town at a slightly reclined level.
We spent the afternoon waiting in a small patch of grass outside a car rental place as dad haggled with the the car company to try and get us a replacement vehicle. At long last, he managed to find a big enough van for us, and arranged for our broken van to be towed back home. We transferred all of our things, and dad insisted on taking the wheel again. We all took a look at his haggard, sleep deprived face- the face of a man who had nearly lost his entire family that day. His hair was standing on end, his shoulders were in tight knots, his eyes had a slightly wild look. Mom put her foot down. We gently guided his protesting self to the passenger side of the van. One of us started massaging his neck, another reclined his seat for him, and he was asleep almost as soon as mom pulled back onto the highway.
We eventually made it to our destination, and by that time, dad had revived enough to tell our story with a laugh. For once in his life, there was no need to add any dramatic flourishes. He retold it again and again as we reunited at the beach with his family, met up with friends for a few luxurious days in Santa Cruz, passed through Las Vegas, and made our way to Lake Powell, Utah, where we spent a glorious weekend on a house boat with more relatives.
By the time we reached Colorado, and made our way up to visit our pastor and his family at their vacation home in the mountains, I could tell it was going to become the stuff of family legend. He had even given our ill-fated van a name- “the eight- slice toaster.”
It may not have ended up being the perfect trip he had planned, and the financial and legal hassle over the car that awaited us when we got home would take several months to sort out, but it was still one of the best times we ever had with dad. His love of life, of family, of adventure, his ability to see the humorous side of things, even his vacation motto “no time for sleep” which sometimes left us exhausted, are all things that endear him to us.
And, of course, his love of a good story. This one’s for you, dad.