When I was growing up in Washington, DC, the Deep South was our personal Oz. We traveled it yearly, with my father at the wheel, and we traveled it in style.
My father loved Cadillacs. He'd been brought up dirt poor -- first-generation Irish-American -- and now that he could afford a living room on wheels, he bought one. One after another, actually. So my brothers and I -- let's say aged ten, eight and eight (twins), would be plunked down in the back seat, and we headed South.
My father would spend hours sitting on the living room floor with a huge map of the South, plotting the journey. We always hit at least two Civil War battlefields, a prospect that made our eyes glaze over, but we weren't driving. Here are my brothers and my mom and me, and we're all being good at Gettysburg, although my brother Mike has his six-gun trained on the camera. (Remember toy guns?)
This was before The Great Pasteurization, back when the South was different from, for example, Van Nuys. Instead of Denny's and McDonald's, there were Bubba's Catfish Fry and The Chat 'n Chew and Bide-A-While and Dewdrop Inn. Antique stores were everywhere, selling actual antiques. (If I could go back in time and take about $1,000 with me, I could return from almost any little southern town with enough good stuff to make me rich.)
I remember some things very vividly. A little restaurant in Alabama. We were eating mountains of food at a booth when an old truck pulled in and a truly ragged family got out. They sat at the counter, and the father ordered one plate of bacon and eggs, and a Coke each for the two kids, who used it to take aspirin before eating their share of the breakfast. One of the kids poured ketchup into his glass of water and drank it.
Afterward, neither of my parents said a word for miles.
At a steak house in Houston, a guy who was either an oil millionaire or did a superb imitation of one -- Stetson, snakeskin boots, big belt buckle - ambled over to out table and offered to buy me. (I was a ridiculously cute kid, but that's all far behind me.) My father, ever the businessman, said, "How much?" and the man in the Stetson said, "A million five." My mother said, quite firmly, "Give us a few days to think about it."
The average trip, with the five of us rattling around in some behemoth of a Cadillac, would take us down the middle of the South to, say, New Orleans, where we'd turn left and go to St. Augustine, Florida, and stay for 3-4 days in a little cottage motel on a wide, flat beach.
Down in St. Augustine, there was a stubby little pier where we went fishing. One day, a short wide man with a cigar, wearing, for some reason, hip-high wading boots, stomped out onto the pier carrying a short thick pole and a bucket of fish cut in half. He absolutely exuded importance. He claimed some territory, stuck half a fish on a big hook, and shouted, "Stand back, everybody, stand back. I'm casting for shark."
And then he brought the pole way back over his shoulder and did a mighty cast, except that his sinker got wedged between two boards on the pier and stopped dead, while his pole flipped end over end into the water, and the line broke, and it sank.
The pier was dead silent until my father started to laugh. Then everybody began to laugh, and the man in the hip boots went home. For years afterwards in my family, "I'm casting for shark," was one of those punch lines that didn't need a joke to set it up.
(I used that story, with a little embroidery, in the upcoming Poke Rafferty book, and my editor cut it.)
One of the things that kept him young, my father always said, was irritating my mother. His favorite method was what the encyclopedia approach. As the trip grew closer, he would learn absolutely everything there was to know about something my mother especially enjoyed -- Spanish moss, for instance -- and just sit on it until she said something like, "What beautiful Spanish moss." And then he'd start an endless data dump: Really an epiphyte, not moss, related to bromeliads, lives on air and humidity, rat snakes like to live in it. He could keep it up for a remarkable amount of time. Then he trotted it out every time Spanish moss made an appearance. He'd also work it into conversations.
And they stayed married more than fifty years.
If any issue threatened their stability on trips it was my father's total refusal to ask directions or even consult maps. He had a mystical ability to get places, except when he didn't. One time in the wilds of West Virginia, with the sun going down, we failed to find Wheeling, where we'd determined to spend the night. We were clearly hopelessly, perhaps permanently lost, when a bus came by, going in the other direction with a sign on the front that said WHEELING. My father endured my mother's triumph and turned the car around so we could follow the bus.
We followed it down one road, then down another, smaller, road, then down another road that was barely a rut in the dirt, and which ended at a copse of trees. The bus stopped. We stopped behind it. The bus driver climbed down and came back to us as my father put the window down so they could chat. The bus driver said, "Do you know how to get to Wheeling?"
To this day, few things appeal to me more than getting into a good car with a full tank and pointing it nowhere in particular.