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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

road trip

You can tell a great deal sometimes from a simple list. 

a 1964 Dodge Dart,
a 1974 Plymouth Valiant,
a 1982 Ford Fairmont,
a 1988 Chrysler Reliant K.

These were the cars I grew up in, cars my dad and mom bought...“used" except for the Reliant...and the cars we drove around the center part of this continent for our family camping vacations.  Solid, reliable, affordable, if not exceptionally boring, American cars.  Cars, that nevertheless hold meaning to me: falling asleep with my sisters looking out at the stars from the back of the Dart, my dad listening to jazz on the radio of the Valiant, me learning to drive stick on the Fairmont in South Minneapolis, and, eventually, the sight of a 5-ton truck crashing through the driver’s-side window of the Reliant as I drove it on the last day of its existence (I walked away unscathed), but this is a different story…

In 1986 I was 17, it was May, and my legs weren’t working right.  I’d had a cold that never quite went away, and my fingers and legs just felt funny.  I’d been out at a Black Flag show at Minneapolis’s First Avenue and only moshed to one song, unusual for me.  Maybe I had mono.

My dad picked me up at a White Castle on Lake Street, where I was waiting for a bus transfer; truth was, I was just too tired to make it home.  The next day I went to the doctor...and though he’d never seen a case of it before, he took one look at the blood work...negative for mono...and told me I probably had a rare condition called Guillain-Barré Syndrome: in all likelihood I wasn’t going to die, and because I was young, I was pretty surely going to make a full recovery (I did), but for the next few weeks my nerves were going to stop working right...and if I was unlucky, my lungs might not work well enough to breathe.

I thought, “What a drag."

My mom and dad and sisters, of course, were absolutely crushed.  Being sick is one thing; being sick when you’re young enough to not really quite understand what’s happening to you is another.  Since that time I’ve worked in a number of children’s hospitals (I work as a photographer)...and it always strikes me how people view a young person who is ill with different eyes.  Truth is, when you’re young and have a disease, you don’t have an adult sense about what that really means.  It’s hard, but it’s also something that life has thrown at you.  However, you do know something is different.  Because folks don’t look at you the same; they look scared.

To be honest, having been there, having been viewed in that manner, having been viewed as “sick”...well, that experience is, in my opinion, one of the most frightening things you can experience as a human being.

My family is tough and close.  We simply went through it together.  There’s stuff I’m sure that I’ve never taken account of.  Like the fact that my dad slept just outside my bedroom door the first nights, close enough to make sure I was breathing...but far enough so that he wouldn’t scare me and stop me from sleeping.  Or the fact that my mom is a rehab RN and I’m sure knew about all the acute possibilities but somehow found ways to keep me hopeful and let me experience things my own way whatever happened.  But, yeah, I lost thirty pounds off an already skinny frame, I lost the ability to walk, I couldn’t hold a spoon without using both hands and bending, I fell over dressing myself and broke a leg off the bathroom sink.  My younger sisters would lift me from the couch, would walk behind me to prop me up the stairs so I could get to the bathroom; they literally had my bony back.  But, for me, the most important thing was the thing you absolutely need from those you love; no one in my family ever stopped looking me in the eye...stopped treating me like a full person, stopped being themselves.

I was lucky.  I plateaued three weeks in.  I spent July in a spindly state...and in early August, and perhaps with the help of bacon double cheeseburgers that I began to consume in super human quantities....strength began to come back into my body.  My nerves began to communicate with my muscles again.  I began to feel like doing new ambitious things.  My body felt whole and my neurologist, who’d worn a look of firm concern for most of my daily check ups...begain to smile and relax around me.  Since I was getting better extremely fast, something significant was called for, a symbolic feat that even had my physician’s approval.  At that point, my dad, my youngest sister and I planned a road trip together.  We’d drop my sister, then in 7th grade, off at my Uncle and Aunt’s in Indianapolis...and my dad and I would head to the Smoky Mountains of Eastern Tennessee.  We were going to use my new found strength on a big project...we were going to climb a “mountain" together.

We took the Ford Fairmont.  I remember that whole drive.  How Wisconsin’s hills open out into flat Illinois.  The Dan Ryan expressway and the streets of the South Side of Chicago, where we stopped to check out the University.  Listening to Janet Jackson on the Fairmont’s AM-only radio as we climbed the skyway bridge into Gary Indiana.  My dad and I stopping in the middle of a sea of corn on a back road south of Indianapolis.  And, among the winding back roads of Kentucky, the August peach cobbler at Bea’s Kitchen in Madison, someplace that, in 1986, still had a Walker Evans look to it.

My dad and I didn’t make it up that mountain.  (5600’ Mt. Camerer) A storm came and chased us back down the hill and into cover of our tent.  But we sure as hell made it up several thousand feet of elevation.  Not bad for a kid who’d been immobile and could only shuffle with a cane a couple months earlier.

At any rate, since my dad loves photography, he’d given me a used camera...an Exacta, an early 35mm...to document our trip in black and white.  I took a good number of photos from the passenger seat....looking at my dad’s profile driving the Fairmont with freeways and countryside behind him.  In each one he’s wearing a kind of summer version of the Holden Caulfield hat...a baseball cap with earflaps...the brim and his focus always pointed directly forwards.

Occasionally I’ll pull those prints out and look at them.  As you get older and get some distance, you see things you might not have seen before.  Yeah, boring things like my poor focus or how young my dad looks.  But also things that you take for granted until you get some adulthood in you.

You see, personally, there’s no more powerful expression of parental love and commitment, of real manhood, than what those pictures speak to me: my dad, Holden Caulfield-style, resolutely piloting our Ford Fairmont through Chicago on our way to climb a mountain.