All the windows are down and the wind is blowing through the car like we are in a Boeing test tunnel. Mama has a scarf over her head, tied under her chin. Large, sauce pan sized sunglasses. My sister is sitting next to me in the back seat of our 1965 Ford Falcon. She is wearing a small-yellow-checkered outfit, also with super-sized sunglasses. I’m pretty sure she thinks she looks like Annette Funicello in Beach Blanket Bingo. All the girls wanted to be Annette so they could swoon with Frankie.
Me? I’m skinny like a toothpick, wearing shorts, and my legs are sticking to the vinyl seats with sweat. I probably had a pair of flippers and mask and snorkel in the floorboard, right under my feet. I wanted to be able to grab them and head straight to the pool once we got there. No messing around.
“Hey, you wanna play another alphabet game?”
“Noooooo! We’ve played that twice already. Besides, I beat you every time. It’s no fun anymore.”
She’s right, you know. I don’t offer much competition with it comes to smart games. She reads all the time. I play in the dirt. I mean, it’s not like I don’t know my alphabet. I do. But sometimes I have a hard time picking out the letters from a bunch of words on a billboard.
The last game we played, I got stuck on “J”. You’re pretty much doomed on the letter “J”. There were no Jack’s burger joints back then. It was inappropriate for Jack Daniels to put highway signs out in plain sight. You start to wonder if the letter “j” is ever used in the English language. Your only hope is to see a junkyard, or maybe one of those small official looking signs that says something about police jurisdiction.
“I just saw a “J” on your side. You missed it.”
“No you didn’t. You’re just saying that.”
“Nuh uh. I can’t help it you can’t see. There was a sign for a Sinclair Station JUST ahead.” She said it just like Lucy would say it to Charlie Brown. I was a blockhead.
The letter “k” was tough, too. But nothing was as elusive as “Q”. If she found a Quality Inn sign on her side before I did, I was doomed. Which was almost always how it happened.
“I’ve got ‘Q’ in Quality Inn. ‘R’ in restaurant. “S” in restaurant. “T” in restaurant. “U” in restaurant. And it snowballed from there. I was left in the dust of her alphabet speed ball. She even got the “Z” for the sign advertising the Ocean Breeze Motel.
The alphabet game was useless on a two-lane highway. Not enough signs to keep the momentum up. After 30 minutes and you’re both only up to “D”, you lose interest real fast. So, we’d invent games. We always divided up the game between the left and right side of the car. Anything on her side was hers, and anything on my side was mine. We counted cows to see who could get to 100 first. Or, to make it more challenging, just the Herefords, no Angus allowed. Or, we counted VWs. They had to be parked in somebody’s yard. On the road didn’t count. And you got extra points for a yellow one.
Where was I going with this? I was thinking about our summer trips to Panama City Beach. Stopping at some roadside picnic table to eat a pimento cheese sandwich. White bread with the crust cut off. Chips and iced tea poured from a thermos. We didn’t make unnecessary stops. There wasn’t much place to stop anyway. Gas and bathroom break. Then lunch under a shade tree. Mama packed everything in Tupperware and
put it in the round cooler covered in a red scotch plaid design. We toted that thing on every trip we ever took.
What started this story was the aroma of a cigar. Yep. One whiff of a cigar and this is what happens to my mind. Let me explain.
Dad was never a smoker or a drinker. I’m not sure how or why he never embraced either one. He certainly chewed Brown Mule plug tobacco my whole life. It wasn’t like he had no vices. But cigarettes and beer or booze wasn’t it.
After he passed and we looked through some old pictures, we found this envelope with some pictures a friend had mailed to him. Her note said, “Thought you would like to see these.” It was kind of funny. When you’re a kid, you don’t think of your parents as ever having dated anyone else. At a certain age, you just assume that Mom and Dad were joined at the hip in the cradle.
But these pictures showed my Dad holding hands with some other girl. It had to be high school. There was one of him sitting on the hood of a 40-something model Chevrolet with a beer bottle turned up to his lips. I’m pretty sure it was taken down at Indian Springs. You could’a knocked me over with a powder puff. Dad with a beer.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I have this tidbit of a memory. It’s so small I can’t be sure if I have it right or if I’m dreaming it up. Dad was an active member of The Lodge. Some of the pictures and papers and booklets left behind in his desk are a testimony to that. What I think I remember is Mama telling me one time that she reminded him of something important. “John, something’s gotta change. Every time you go out that door to the lodge, our son is watching.” It must have made an impression. She said he never drank another beer after that.
Okay, I’m wandering again. Back to the cigar.
The one time every year that Dad allowed himself a simple but unusual pleasure was on that trip to Panama City. I can still see it. I can still smell the aroma.
He’s sitting up front, behind the wheel in that Falcon with a cigar. I watched with great interest how he peeled off the cover and bit the end off. He drew the cigar through his lips to moisten the tobacco a little. The cigarette lighter was pushed in. It popped out and he pulled it from the dash. The red-hot ceramic end lifted to the cigar. A few hard puffs. Smoke wafting into the back seat. I sat forward and leaned up over the middle of the front seat to take it all in. He puffed and grinned like he was really enjoying himself. He was about the coolest man on earth in that moment.
I can’t swear that I think about him every day anymore. But I do still think about him a lot. This week marks ten years since he left this earth. When I caught that aroma, my first thought was of him. That Falcon. Those trips to the beach. And I wondered if that was him puffing and grinning.