My Father Not Yet My Father

Bo Smolka

(USA)


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I pulled on the rope cord that hung from the ceiling, and the attic steps yawned open with a creak and a groan. My sister and I slowly climbed the rickety ladder, the wooden steps wobbling as we eased toward the darkness. Musty air that smelled of old timber poured down as if freed from a cocoon. At the top of the stairs, I reached for the string that turned on a single light bulb hanging from the rafters and saw boxes stacked along one side where floorboards had been laid. In the far corners, where the light began to dissolve, old insulation the color of storm clouds was sandwiched between the joists. 

My parents had moved to Arizona for the winter, and my sister and I had returned to our childhood home in Washington, D.C., to help them prepare it for sale. Taking inventory, we slid one box after another into the cone of light in the center of the stuffy room. We discovered old school forms, checkbook registers, and bank statements, decades’ worth of dusty, musty minutiae. 

Then I opened another box and pulled out a thin, sky-blue folder.

For the next twenty minutes we sat speechless and handed papers to each other, the only sound coming from an exhaust fan that was fighting a losing battle with the overheated air. When we finally finished going through every page, we looked at each other dumbfounded. What is this?

*****

A detailed account of my trip across the states

About 10:00 I drove the car to the Pearl-Brookpark shopping center. I hid the keys and started on the trip. I immediately got a ride to the Ohio Turnpike. There I turned down six count ’em offers of rides East as far as New York or Philadelphia before catching a ride west ….

Over the course of 13 single-spaced, typed sheets of paper, a cross-country hitch-hiking adventure poured forth, with characters and discoveries tumbling off every page. 

The journal was undated, the characters for the most part unnamed. The paper had yellowed with age and was torn in places along the edges. Letters occasionally blurred where two typewriter keys had leaped to kiss the page together, and we quickly surmised that this was my father’s writing, my father’s story.

Through this magical folder, the calendar had peeled back to 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower was president, Elvis Presley released his first album and gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon. Here was Dad before his career, before his family, before his life as I ever knew it. Here was Dad, lean and single, with a fresh-out-of-the-Army crew cut, a keen eye, a fearless sense of adventure and wanderlust woven into his DNA. His sister Monica later told me that Dad often hitch-hiked with friends, catching rides after school in downtown Cleveland. Once, she told me, he and a friend hitched all the way to New Orleans. Two weeks before he was set to begin college, Dad apparently had decided to hitch-hike to California and back to reunite with an Army buddy who lived there.

“It was a different era,” Monica said.

*****

(Near Fort Wayne, Indiana)

After setting 9:00 (pm) for my deadline to catch a ride, I caught one about five minutes to nine. When I first started to get in the car, which was a ’53 Packard with Michigan plates, I thought I smelled liquor. It did not take me too long to prove that I was not in error …

Needless to say, I was very uneasy about the situation and they sensed it. However, they were under the impression that my uneasiness was on account of them personally and not on account of the drinking while driving. They repeatedly told me they were ‘just a couple of fun loving hillbilly boys from Arkansas.’ Bill, the driver, was especially friendly, and his rider Jay was especially drunk.

When do we ever see who our parents were, before they were our parents?

That thought struck me as I imagined Dad looking through handwritten notes of this trip, then sitting down at his battleship-grey Underwood typewriter and pounding out his story. I imagined him savouring a beer and listening to a ballgame on the radio, smiling as Vic Wertz smashed a long home run for his beloved Cleveland Indians as the clack-clack-clackclackclack-bing! and silver carriage return of the old Underwood marked his progress. I imagined a small apartment with linoleum floors, no curtains and mismatched towels, the habitat of a 1950s bachelor. It’s all conjecture, of course, because I never knew Dad as anything other than a parent. When I was a child, maybe an aunt would spin a yarn at Thanksgiving about Dad’s childhood, swimming in a lake or playing stickball, but at that age, trying to envision my father as a gangly, freckle-faced kid was like trying to envision ice skates on a camel. It was beyond comprehension. 

At some point, though, the concept of aging crept in like the tide. Maybe it was when my voice and body began to change, or when my oldest brother went off to college. When will he come home again? Maybe it was when I noticed creases on Mom’s face as she read the newspaper after breakfast. When did those get there? Maybe it was when I noticed Dad leaning heavily on the railing as he slowly descended the steps. When did he start doing that?

One day several years ago, I had seen a sepia-toned photograph of Dad’s family, and I studied it like an ancient scroll. In those smiling eyes, I saw my brother’s eyes, and wow, that dimple was just like my daughter’s. Then I found the sky-blue folder, and the sepia turned full colour. It was as if those words on the yellowing pages had beamed through a prism, illuminating a twenty-four-year-old with career, marriage, and children all somewhere beyond the next horizon. Here was my father not yet my father, his youthful joys, frustrations, and goals articulated one mile at a time.

*****

(Near Denver, Colorado)

I made it to the other side of Denver and started pointing toward Utah with my educated and talented (by this time) thumb. At this point an officer who had just collared some speeders down the road backed up and requested my presence in his vehicle. This I did not like. He accepted my ID card and my story but informed me that hitch-hiking is against the law in Colorado and I had better not get caught again. He gave me a warning ticket. This also I did not like. 

This posed a problem. I knew he would be around checking on me again and I knew it would not be too wise to get caught twice in a row. … It was then that I decided to invest two bits in some adhesive tape and to letter my destination on the suitcase. I reasoned that if I happened to be standing on the side of the road with a destination on a suitcase, it would be apparent to the drivers that I needed a ride, and yet I would not be subject to the law, for I had made no attempt to solicit any ride.

I, therefore, pasted the word UTAH in large letters on my suitcase and started walking back towards the corner on which I had been so recently apprehended. I didn’t even make it to the corner when a car with Utah plates pulled behind me and offered me a ride.

Dad was nothing if not resourceful, but then again, he never had much choice.

His own father bolted when Dad was a teenager, leaving Dad as the man of the house for his mom and three younger sisters. Dad relied on the kindness of neighbors and the Jesuit school down the street, and from a young age he understood the value of a dollar. His sister Therese told me that Dad worked three paper routes, earning enough money to buy the family its first refrigerator. When he didn’t have the money for something he wanted, he found ways to compensate.

Dad, an avid sports fan, could hardly afford tickets to Cleveland Browns football games, but he figured out that if he stuffed an old duffel bag with newspaper and located the visiting team bus outside the stadium, he could shoulder that bag and waltz in as one of the equipment managers. Once inside the stadium, he dumped the paper, folded up the bag and watched the game. 

His clever use of adhesive tape in Colorado wasn’t the last time he pulled that trick, either. A few years later, while a graduate student at American University in Washington, Dad was courting a young schoolteacher back in the Cleveland area. Living on a meager student budget, Dad hitch-hiked back and forth between Washington and Cleveland to see her. Always clean-shaven and dressed well—”He believed that helped him get rides, and I’m sure it was true,” his sister Monica said—Dad carried a battered, brown suitcase with “OHIO” written in white adhesive tape on one side, and “DC” on the other. What worked outside Denver worked along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, too. 

Oh, and that teacher back in Cleveland? Peggy became his wife of 55 years.

*****

(Reno, Nevada)

Reno, ‘the biggest little city in the world,’ and I, having several dollars more than I should have at this stage of the game, got together for a few short hours and Reno came out the better. … I played for dimes while others played for dollars, and though I played very slowly, my money went just as surely.”

I walked through town, all six or seven blocks of it, and then took up my post. I got particularly aggravated at a driver of a New York Ford who I believe had passed me the day before and did so again in Reno. When he pulled into a gas station … I decided to give him another chance and walked about a block farther to a point he would have to pass when pulling out of the gas station. It worked and he stopped this time. Took me to Sacramento.

Because his own father left the picture, trying to trace Dad’s paternal genealogy is like following a stream bed that dries up. I do know, however, that it threads through Spišská Nová Ves in eastern Slovakia, home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of Roma, also known as gypsies. 

According to an official Slovak census from 2011, about 106,000 people, roughly 2 percent of the population, were identified as Roma. But the itinerant lifestyle of the Roma makes estimations notoriously difficult, and it’s believed the actual number could be three times higher. In the Spišská Nová Ves region, the Roma account for roughly 20 percent of the population. It is an insular, closed culture, but did Dad absorb some gypsy DNA down through the generations? Is that one reason he found himself alongside a highway in Utah, a westerly breeze at his back as he waited for a ride?

Dad spent 30 years as a professor of political science at American University, raising a family, taking the kids camping or to a ballgame, anchored at home in a way his own father never was. Yet travel always appealed to him. “Better to have gone and hated it,” he once told me, “than not to have gone at all.”

I remember when I was a teenager, Dad and I rode a sleeper-car train from Washington to Montreal, and then another train to Ottawa, since he was invited to a national convention of one of the Canadian political parties. He could have flown to Ottawa more quickly and more cheaply, but he must have seen this as an opportunity for me, whether that was to experience a sleeper-car train, to see the green hills of Vermont outside the train window, or to hear French spoken at a Montreal hotel. Maybe he wanted all of that, too. 

As an expert on voting procedures, he served as an international elections observer in nascent democracies around the world. In his final semester before retirement, he oversaw a semester-abroad program in Budapest. 

*****

(Eastbound, near Denver)

Marge told me she didn’t pick up hitchhikers. I had heard that so many times by the people who picked me up that I had begun to expect it. Anyway, she explained that she was driving to Chicago and that she and her husband were moving to Denver in three weeks. How that accounted for her being in Denver alone three weeks earlier, I’ll never know, but I don’t question my drivers, especially when they are good-looking 22-year-old women.

…The second time we stopped Marge got out of the car, leaving her keys and her purse which I was fairly certain contained all her money. When she got back in I chewed her out about it, telling her that in spite of what I had said, I still might be no good and could have taken her car and her money leaving her destitute. … She agreed she never should have left her purse there in the car with me and to prove the statement she opened it and took out a small Colt revolver. A pistol-packin’ mama yet!

Travel can be leisurely and inviting, buffeted by luxury, tugging at a sleeve like an evening breeze. A group of friends savors wine on a vineyard-filled dot-to-dot itinerary, or a newlywed couple takes photos along a sun-splashed beach. At other times, travel can be urgent and fractured, forced by circumstance, coming with the energy of a summer storm. Refugees flee political violence, or a bitter couple empties a house amid the pain of divorce.

Dad’s final move to Arizona carried notes of frustration and the aching realization that the two-story, Sears-built house on a tree-lined street in Washington, D.C., my parents’ home for more than 40 years, had become an unforgiving obstacle. The steep, narrow hardwood staircase leading to the second floor taunted and tormented his 78-year-old bones. 

“I just don’t think I can live in this house anymore,” he told me as I helped him slowly descend those steps for what proved to be the final time. He was back home, but only to meet with a real estate agent who would be selling the house. When I left with him that afternoon, I realized he would never set foot in it again. 

By then, he and my mother had been spending winters in Arizona, where two of their sons lived, and they kept their car, a silver Subaru Outback, parked with me in Baltimore for their time back East. In the spring of 2010, I was driving Dad in that Subaru to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport for his return trip to Arizona when he said, “I’m thinking we’re going to have this car shipped to Arizona.” 

Before I could think, and certainly before I could ask my wife, I blurted out, “Maybe we can drive it for you.”

“I’d pay you what I’d pay a shipping company,” he replied. 

Like a semi truck on a downhill grade, the idea gathered speed in my head. A few months later, I headed west in a silver Subaru Outback with my understanding wife and our two children, then eight and three.

We crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis in the shadow of the Gateway Arch and chased a setting sun across tabletop-flat Kansas prairie. We slalomed the “Million-Dollar Highway,” a snake-like ribbon of road between Silverton and Durango in western Colorado, and straddled states at the Four Corners where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. We watched the thermometer rise and the cacti appear as we descended to the Valley of the Sun near Phoenix. 

We didn’t meet any hillbilly boys from Arkansas, and we didn’t drop any dimes in Reno. But like my father 54 years earlier, we saw the country as you only see it when you feel the gravel of the road, the country as you never see it when shoehorned into a seat with the tray table in its upright and locked position. Sometimes, moments and memories outweigh speed and convenience. 

Eight days after leaving Maryland, we pulled into my parents’ driveway in Mesa, Arizona, under a scorching sun and sapphire sky. I don’t remember Dad asking many questions about our trip. Maybe he wanted us to be able to park those experiences away, in our own space, to be retrieved at our leisure. After all, he knew as well as anyone how 3,000 miles of wonder lay between here and there. Maybe, from the time he first mentioned shipping the car, he figured we would make the trip all along.

*****

(Cleveland, Ohio)

Home at last after 6,257 miles more or less, about $70-$80 poorer financially for having taken the trip, but enormously wealthier in experience with human nature for having gone. It has been a rare two weeks in my life when one adventure followed another as closely as on this trip. In addition, I saw much of the country, rode with drivers from 15 different states, etc. 

The justification for the trip is infinite. There remains one problem: How to settle down to a normal routine life after experiencing the joys of the nomadic existence. 

C’est tout. 

Dad lay in his hospice room in October 2013, covered in blankets against a constant chill. His thinning, silver hair was cut short, his cheekbones sharp, his eyes deep in his pallid face. My brother Mike, who lived just a few miles away, pulled up a chair and took out a copy of Dad’s journal. 

Like the rest of my family, Mike had been stunned when I first told him about that sky-blue folder. My mother knew nothing of it, either. Oh, Dad had occasionally mentioned his trip when they were younger, she said, but until we discovered the journal, she never knew that such an account existed. We’ll never know why Dad never shared this journal with us. Did he view this time as some entity wholly separate from his life with a family? Did he preserve it privately as something exclusively his in the chaos of a house with six children? Did he ever go back and read it on some quiet night when everyone else was asleep and he wanted to hear the sounds of the open road again? We all have our secrets and our motives for keeping them. 

The autumn sun bathed the room in soft light, and Mom, wearing a striped turtleneck, quietly sat beside Mike as he loudly, slowly read every page to Dad. Mike read about “hillbilly boys” and hobos, about drunkards and diners. Dad lay in his bed, eyes closed, and at times he drifted off. Every now and then, though, something triggered him, and his lips inched upward in a subtle, satisfied grin. Maybe it was the thought of a friendly driver in Utah, or a pistol-packin’ mama near Denver. Some image, some words—his own words, put to paper nearly six decades earlier—had fired some synapse deep in his memory.

If only for a moment, he was young and strong and on the road again.

Bo Smolka

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Bo Smolka is a Baltimore-based writer whose essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe and Baltimore Sun, among other places, and he is working on a collection of essays on family and fatherhood. He holds a bachelor’s degree in math and English from Bucknell and a master’s degree in nonfiction writing from Johns Hopkins.

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