Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chasin' Mason-Dixon

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.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Tim,

    Some really comical moments! Laughed out loud as I read about the fishing story, the time your dad got lost, and the man who offered to buy you from your parents. But it was your story about the very poor family who shared the meal at the diner that was really compelling to me, and such a stark contrast to the good times your family enjoyed. From the moment that family shows up at the diner it reminded me of BLACK BOY by Richard Wright. Except the meal they shared would have been considered a feast in Wright's book.

    I know you think your dad may have set out to irritate your mom, but I think it's really sweet that at least he focused on things that he knew your mom was interested in.

    Always enjoy your stories about your family. Great photo too!

  2. Tim - Wonderful short story - sounds like it could be the beginning of a novel. It's really fun and soulful... reminds me of the characters in the Poke series.

  3. Typical Hallinan story-funny, touching, scary (selling you?), and evocative. Road trip is such a hook for new places and new sights, but probably not for food-too much homogenization. I used to love searching for a local place to eat and, of course, talk.

  4. What a nice picture. And fun memories. Thanks.

  5. My husband does not read road signs. After spending a week in DC, the annual week in museums, we were heading back to New England. I told my husband what road we needed to take, he wasn't listening, and it wasn't until he finally noticed a sign indicating we were entering Richmond, that he accepted the fact we were going the wrong way.

    I think those road trips went a long way in helping my kids forge relationships that have helped them be close as adults.


  6. I saw myself in the backseat with my two brothers. But from the way we behaved back there (and then) had the Texan offered my folks the 1.5MM, I'd likely be saying, "Thank ya'll" for a wonderful Sunday read.

  7. The bus story is priceless.

    My regret: not just the vanishing historical sites but the vanishing sense that history matters.

  8. Wonderful to read and enjoy your vivid memory of joyful childhood times. You were so cute at ten...adorable.
    I could picture your family in the cadillac travel behind the bus getting more and more frustrated.
    You are so lucky to be able to reach inside and write with such imagery and prose.
    Love you. Maria Yolanda

  9. Great post Tim. I grew up with an odd - for boy from Yorkshire, England - fascintion with the South. In 2001 I finally mustered the cash, and with my rather bewildered but increasingly bewitched first wife, toured the South by road. Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, Jackson, Tupelo, Memphis and Nashville. It was memorable, enlightening, and at times disturbing. Much of the latter was down to choosing to travel by mostly Greyhound bus, which hardly lived up to my romantic notions. But I'll never forget it, and one day I'll go back and do it again - by car.

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  11. Wow, I didn't get a SINGLE email telling me anyone replied (they're usually automatic), or I would have been here yesterday. I'm so sorry for not looking anyway.

    Anon, thanks for the laughs and the response to the story about that family. I was about eight at the time, and the event really opened my eyes to the fact that we were beyond fortunate, in what we had and in each other.

    Stephen, I've been thinking about a book that happens in that time frame, with a little kid as the central character, but for some reason I see it happening in the desert. Hmmmm. Maybe you're on to something.

    Thank you, Lil -- food used to be one of the great pleasures of travel by car, but now it's the same everywhere, just as the accents are gradually fading away, so everyone talks like they're on TV. Kind of sad. But the road is still an adventure.

    Hi, Joe -- My nephew Ken inherited my parents' pictures, and he's been sending me digitized versions, bless his soul. Really wonderful to see them again.

    Beth, your husband and I would get along fine. And like him, apparently, my stubbornness about asking directions is linked to no sense of direction whatsoever. Great combination.

    Jeff, there were trips when I probably would have preferred to have you and your brothers back there, too, we squabbled so much. My mother later told me that she and my father had a daily pool to guess the mileage at which one of us would say, for the first time, "Are we there yet?" Honestly, it's a miracle that any of us live through childhood.

    Liz, you're right, and not only history but also regional identity, which was framed by history. The entire country is becoming a single flavor, and unfortunately the flavor is vanilla.

    Maria, thank you so much for reading this. You almost KNEW me at ten, and there were certainly times when I acted seven or eight. Those trips were one of the highlights of my childhood.

    Dan, the South is infinitely interesting (to me) and infinitely mysterious. I got to drive it two years ago when I was touring for a book, and I had the absolute time of my life, taking two-lane roads in all directions as my GPS yelled at me, visiting any town that looked interesting, as long as I was at a bookstore at the time designated. I may do it again this year, for the July book. Wish you could come along.