He shouted, jolting my attention as a truck stacked with hay bales passed us on the freeway. With our shared sense of humor, we nearly had our own language of inside jokes. Yet this was clearly categorized as a “dad joke.”
We were on our way to school. The hills of the cul-de-sac and our little green house drifted away in the rear-view mirror. Each 30-minute drive had the same thread of routines magically sewn into a patchwork of adventure.
Before we hopped in the car, I would plan for the day. The cold morning chill under our sandstone cliff was deceiving. By the time we drove out of our neighborhood the sun had crept over the mountain, bringing with it warmth. It always seemed like we lived just a few minutes behind the sunrise. Layers of clothing were mandatory as the playground would always be warmer than our driveway.
The cold months in Montana brought snow, changing our streets into an icy wonderland. On very snowy days, the local school bus would stop at the peak of the big hill that served as gateway into our neighborhood. The hill slowly ramped at the entry and then dropped off like a rollercoaster. The bus hummed patiently waiting for all the students to trek up the Everest-like hike before it would turn away toward school.
Because I went to a different school we had to try our luck driving over that hill ourselves. My dad would back up as far as he could on the street below. We waited for any other cars in front of us to slide down shamefully or proudly break through to freedom.
He leaned on the gas. We started to wobble up the steep side, holding our breath as if that steadied the car. Whether we had rear or front wheel drive that season would make or break our escape.
Sometimes this was successful, but much of the time we ended up sliding down and parking the car. It was cruel joke that there was an even steeper hill back to our house. The valley of the street was dotted with stragglers awaiting the snowplows.
On the days we made it over the hill and reached the corner before the freeway, the smell of fast food was too tempting to pass up. Breakfast was never observed before we left for fear of running behind. However time doesn’t exist in the same way on a car ride. We refused to acknowledge the long drive-thru line was the often the cause of our lateness.
I ordered either French toast sticks or mini cinnamon buns, accompanied by a hash brown and orange juice. My “balanced breakfast” was left half eaten but missing all of the icing or dip. My dad ordered a breakfast sandwich, a hash brown, and always ate the syrupy leftovers.
There was the constant threat of dropped crumbs or splashed orange juice, but my dad was a master multi-tasker. He would drive while simultaneously clutching his food and the steering wheel. If our current car didn’t come equipped with fancy modern cup holders, then I was enlisted for the morning shift.
Upon entering the freeway and soon after devouring breakfast, we would jam out to music. We listened almost exclusively to Pink Floyd, Nirvana, U2, and Talking Heads.
Blasting the volume, we danced and sang along, my dad using the steering wheel, and my shoulder as percussion instruments. One favorite, “What a Day That Was” by Talking Heads, was always turned up quickly.
“Let me tell you a story, a big chief with a golden crown. He’s got rings on his fingers…” My dad writhed his stubby fingers around as if to show me his priceless gold bands with shining gems and pointed to the imaginary crown on his head.
“He’s making shapes with his hands…” He waved his hands around looking like he was sculpting the air.
“And don’t you dare sit back…” I sat back as far as I could.
“And don’t you dare sit down…” I scrunched down deep into my seat.
“And don’t you dare speak up…” I opened my mouth as wide as I could.
When I drive, I pump up this song and act it out the same way my dad still does. I explain all my moves to my husband, who is sitting in the passenger seat. I use his shoulder, and the steering wheel as my percussion instruments. I dazzle him with my imaginary rings. I shape the air with my hands. I point at him saying he shouldn’t dare sit back, sit down, or speak up!
When music became too repetitive, my dad switched to talk radio. We laughed along and guessed at possible solutions to car troubles on “Car Talk”. Our other favorite segment was “Star Watch.” Because we lived so far out of town, the sky was brilliant at night.
We would listen closely in the morning to know if we should break out the telescope and search for planets and comets in the night sky with a fire cracking in our chiminea. The sparkling sky never disappointed, even without planets passing by. We counted shooting stars and examined craters on the moon.
Occasionally our attention would drift outside the car windows as we played “DOG ALERT!” It was never a very imaginative name for the game; it is exactly what it sounds like. Anytime we would see a dog, usually out on a morning walk with its owner, we would yell “DOG ALERT!”
I call my dad to ask about some of the events for this writing. I barely explain the subject as he interrupts yelling, “DOG ALERT!” I huff saying, “Yes, that’s on my list” as if I could have somehow forgotten. He ignores me and shouts “DOG ALERT!” again, before I can even continue. He nearly hears my eye roll over the phone.
One of our favorite cars was an old, beat up Ford Escort Pony. We lovingly called it our “Lemon” because it was just that. It was a lemon of a car, it was painted lemon yellow, and it was shaped just like a lemon. I remember wanting to drive it someday.
One morning as I walked into class, my teacher worriedly asked if I was ok. My classmates echoed her question. I tilted my head, confused. “Yes?”
I rushed outside after my teacher replied. Another parent had crashed into my dad’s car in the parking lot moments after I was in class. My dad was fine, but needless to say, our little Lemon didn’t hold up against the supersized Suburban. We sadly had to lay our Lemon to rest and search for a new car to serve as our Magic School Bus.
No matter the car, each adventure would slow to an end when we pulled into the gravel parking lot. Sometimes we sat in the car and listened to the radio until the small groups of students lined up for class. Other times we were late. We blamed “traffic” instead of our breakfast pit-stop.
On those days we would judge my lateness not by the clock but by the most reliable means available. We judged by the ticking of the swings on the playground. If the swings were still moving, I wasn’t yet too late.
“Hurry up! The swings are still swinging! You can make it on time! Love you!” My dad waved as I ran off to start another day, always a bit sad to see him drive away.