Thursday, 3 November 2016

Kicks on Route 66 - Umberto Tosi

I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if my parents had stayed in Boston instead of taking me west to California in 1942 when I was five years old. I suspect I would have been more like most of my New England cousins, whose stable, prosperous lives I've often admired, but rarely wished for. I wouldn't have been as itinerant, definitely not married so many times. If I had children they would not be the four I have now, and that I wouldn't want. It's unlikely that I would have become a journalist by trade and a writer by aspiration. I might have applied myself to the piano better, given the musicians in the family. There's no going back, of course. I could not imagine growing up anywhere but California, with its beaches, Pacific palisades, deserts, and mountains, its dreamers and con artists. 

     Back  then, I still wore short pants. There was a world war on, and the Great Depression had far from given way to war-inflated prosperity. But no Grapes of Wrath trek for us. We crossed the continent in a black, deco-streamlined 1941 Cadillac Fleetwood 60 sedan, decked in gleaming chrome - like the ones used to chauffeur Vito Corleone in Godfather I, last of its kind for the duration, when US automakers converted to building military vehicles. The caddy had unheard of modern luxuries -  automatic shift and air conditioning!

     The Caddy was well above the means of  my father, least favored of four competitive brothers, 24-year-old father. Though it was borrowed, driving it emboldened him. He  was a young man going West towards promised opportunity, while in the passenger seat, my mother was leaving a life and a budding career as an opera soloist. It didn't matter that their relocation was supposed to be temporary - just so that my father could drum up California agricultural supplies for his family's food brokerage firm in Boston which was struggling because its Italian food imports had been cut off by the war. My father would have to take two jobs in California, one as a part-time food broker, the other, he hoped, would be as a welder at the Lockheed aircraft factory in Burbank, California where they were building fighter planes. The latter would help defer him from military service. He already had a brother fighting overseas along with my mother's cousins, and he no intention of following them.
    We might not have made it across the country in my father's wheezing Model A Ford sedan with its dents and overfilled ashtrays. So, my father had made a deal - he always made deals - to drive the Cadillac to the West Coast for its owner, a shadowy character named Gigo whom I had seen only once before we left. (I never knew his last name.) Gigo had acquired the Caddy in New York, then flown to California on a twin-engine, TWA DC 3, my father marveled because air travel was something usually reserved for government officials, corporate execs and movie stars back then.  My father said that Gigo had connections with suppliers of California tomato products, olive oils, and cheeses, all rationed because producers were giving priority to their fat, new War Department contracts.   
      My father, for his part, had accumulated enough wartime gasoline ration stamps, with the help of relatives - to get us and Gigo's caddy across the country. Business, he said, was a game of wits, charisma and luck. He clung to every dime he made as tightly as he held the wheel of that Caddy, cigarette dangling from his lips. My father, sat tall, with his pile of wavy black hair, looking like he belonged behind the bone wheel of that Fleetwood, seeming at ease and as close to happy as I'd ever seen him. Driving the 3,000 miles from Boston to Los Angeles, whatever the risks, beat his Depression-era job of peddling notions, novelties, and wholesaled canned goods to mom-and-pop stores up and down New England, freezing in winter, all for six dollars a week or gallon tins of a Vermont maple syrup.
    It would be a 10-day trip for us in the Cadillac, stopping at bungalow motels each night when we could. The vast American interstate highway system would not be built for another fifteen years under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
     No GPS, my parents just spread maps out on the kitchen table of my grandmother's big brick house in Boston as if planning an invasion. I climbed up on a chair, fascinated, to peer over them. The roads would be best for the first 1,200 miles from Boston to New York to Chicago, starting along the then new, Pennsylvania Turnpike. From the Windy City westward we would take Route 66, yet to be made famous by the 1946 Bobby Troupe rhythm & blues classic. Route 66 - also called "The Mother Road," "Main Street America" and "Will Rogers Highway" - was merely a string of interconnected two-lane roads that crossed prairies, mountains, and deserts through the Midwest and Southwest, through eight states for the 2,000 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, California and the Pacific Ocean. 
      We drove along rivers, wound over mountains, and through small towns. We took detours and languished behind Army convoys, farm trucks, tractors, and combines. My father would grow impatient with delays, ready to jump out into the opposing lane, kick in the passing gear and hope to beat out whatever was coming from the opposite direction while my mother -- who didn't drive - would shout, "Renzo, are you crazy?"
     From the back seat, I counted cows and read forests of billboards, showing off my precocity. In vain, I nagged my father to stop for roadside attractions advertised in speed-trap towns: rattlesnake shows, rock collections, haunted houses, rodeos, Indian blankets and totem poles, carnivals, sideshows, leather goods, fortunes told... all embedded -- like pieces of gravel caught in tire tracks -- within the grandeur of the vast prairies, mountains and Southwester desert, canyons, impossible bluffs and gigantic skies with flashing cumulus columns on the horizon. 
    Sometimes my father would invite me to clamber between him and my mother on the front seat. To my mother's consternation, he would let me stand on the bench seat - so I could see the road - and hold the steering wheel while we cruised a stretch of open highway. I remember the rush of feeling the Caddy sedan responding to the wheel, thrilled with the illusion of being in control while my father kept watch.
    My parents bickered the whole way. They had told me we were "going to California," but I had no idea that would mean days on the road. I had thought of it like one of our Sunday drives to see an aunt or uncle. Sometimes, I still have nightmares about riding in a runaway car, bus or train driven by a lunatic. I remember asking my parents over and over: “When are we going to get there?” And with good reason: I was car sick for half the journey. 
     I still can’t ride in a back seat without feeling queasy. I would roll down a back window and hang my head out like a Labrador retriever gulping headwind. My parents would order me to shut it. “No, please no,” I’d cry: “I’ll be sick.” They relented after I threw up on Gigo's plush upholstery. But  my discomfort  alternated with giddy enthusiasm for new adventures.
      My father loved to "floor" the Caddy to see what she could do on an open road. One particularly sunny afternoon he let it fly on a flat, straight stretch of two-lane road in New Mexico. I leaned forward on the back of the front seat unencumbered  by seatbelts,  so I could watch the dashboard and the highway ahead.
     I giggled as the dial speedometer swung past 100 and bounced crazily against 110 miles per hour. My mother clutched her armrest and yelled at my father to slow down. I jumped up and down and squealed, "Faster, faster, faster, pop! Faster!"
      Before long we heard a siren and saw red lights flashing from a motorcycle cop in hot pursuit. My father pulled off onto the shoulder of the road. As he did, he reached around and pushed me back onto the rear seat. “Lie down, pull that blanket over you and don’t move until I say so. You got that?”
     Sir!," said the burly cop after inspecting my father's license. "Do you know why I’m stopping you?" The patrolman had a raspy drawl. "I clocked you at 90.” (I was disappointed. I had thought we'd topped 100. I realized that speedometers weren't all  that accurate.)
    “This an emergency," my father said. "My little boy is very sick. We’re rushing him to a hospital.” 
     I cocked one eye and glimpsed the cop checking me through the back seat window.
.  “Oooooh,” I groaned, loudly enough for the cop to hear me, and held my stomach. It didn’t take much acting skill because six months before this trip, I had suffered a near-fatal burst appendix that had hospitalized me for two harrowing weeks in Boston.
     “Please, officer,” my father implored. “I’ve got to get him to that hospital!”
     “Yes, sir,” said the patrolman with a mock salute to the brim of his gray Stetson. “I’ll get you there. It's right up the road." He pointed ahead.  "Follow me.” With that, the cop strode back, mounted his motorcycle, pulled in front of the Cadillac, turned on his red lights and siren, and raced forward with us speeding behind him. 
      My God, Renzo!” My mother exclaimed. “Why did you tell him that story! What are we going to do? He'll put you in jail!”
    I jumped up and cried. “I don’t want to go to the hospital!”
     “Quiet! My father shouted and swung an arm at me. “Get down. Stay down!”
   My mother turned to console me. “Don't worry. It's just a game. You don’t really have to go into the hospital.”   
     “But I’ll be car sick." I clutched my stomach and wailed: “I don’t want to go to the hospital. They’re going to cut me open!”
      We came into the outskirts of a small city still led by our police escort with siren blaring, red lights flashing. The cop led us through red lights. At last, there was the hospital.
      I raised my head, squinting again. The patrolman stood astride his bike. To our relief, he waved a hand at the hospital door, then back at my father. 
      My father, stalled for time. He  smiled, nodded his head in an exaggerated fashion, mouthing a “thank-you” while he waved back at the officer.
     After a tense moment, the cop nodded okay, settled back on his motorcycle, revved and pulled away. My father got out of the car, feigning to take me inside the hospital.
     “No,” I started to scream again. From a distance, I could see the cop glance back wave at us once more just as he pulled from the semi-circular hospital drive back onto the highway.
      My father waved back lamely above the roof of the car, while he  held me by the belt of my short pants with two fingers to prevent my escape.
    Once he was sure the motorcycle cop would not return. My father slipped the Cadillac into drive and we resumed our journey westward, in the opposite direction than taken by the motorcycle cop.
    I was so relieved at not having to go to the hospital that I forgot to be car sick for several hours until we stopped for dinner and found another bungalow cabin motel for the night.
     We made L.A. a few days later. We stayed on Route 66 right to its the Santa Monica Pier, terminus seen in so many films going back to the silent era. 
     Gigo, although trim and only in his mid-40s, succumbed to a heart attack with a girlfriend in a Fresno, California motel not long after that. I heard my father tell my mother “he died in the saddle,” and I wondered why he had been riding a horse in a motel.
     Through all the years in California that followed, I never foresaw that eventually I'd wind up in Chicago, now nearing 80, at the eastern starting point of that once-fabled Route 66. Life - especially a writer's life - can be like steering that magnificent 1941 Fleetwood Cadillac out in the Southwest desert when I was a kid. You tug the steering wheel this way and that as you barrel down the highway thinking you're in charge, but you have no idea where you're going or where you'll end up.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 



Umberto Tosi is author of Ophelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. During the 1980s and 90s, he played with several improvisational theater groups in Northern California, while editor of San Francisco magazine. He has written extensively for major newspapers and periodicals nationally. 



6 comments:

JO said...

I love it when parents set such dreadful examples. And it's given you some great stories!

Susan Price said...

Umberto, these pieces you write for us are so great, they really should be collected into a book.

Dennis Hamley said...

Absolutely wonderful story, Umberto. Yes, Sue is right. You have to make a book out of them. I'd buy at least five copies. Oh, we who have seen so much and lived so long.

Jan Needle said...

I'll vote for that!

Marsha Coupé said...

(snip) I could not imagine growing up anywhere but California, with its beaches, Pacific palisades, deserts, and mountains, its dreamers and con artists. (snip)
Same here. A landscape as diverse as the people who occupy it.
You're a natural born storyteller, Umberto.
I always enjoy reading Tosi's Tales.

dipika said...

Lovely storytelling :)