11 August 2009

"Kids, Get in the Car!"

It's amazing to me how stumbling across the photos of the car and the thermal jug brought this to mind. This post was much longer in the beginning, but some of the history was omitted because it's much more personal.

I can't remember where we had been, but one Saturday afternoon, my mother, sisters, brother and I returned home to find that Daddy had destroyed the house. He had ripped the phone out of the wall, threw the black and white Admiral television, the kind that swiveled on four, brass-tipped, pointy legs, out the back door into the garage where it amazingly stayed intact after hitting the ground. He opened the Frigidaire and slung its contents all over the counters, the walls and the kitchen floor. There was a distinct elbow shape in the front glass of the empty 50-gallon aquarium. The dead angelfish, goldfish and guppies lay strewn amongst Christopher's toys, which had been dumped out of their toy box onto the living room floor. He shredded my mother's clothes, unsuccessfully tried to burn them, then turned on every faucet in the house in a lame attempt to keep it from burning to the ground. I remember seeing water running from the back of the house onto the patio and into the yard that afternoon. Mommy said, "Go next door and ask to use the phone." I ran to the next door neighbor's house to call Plain Grandma and the State Police. They found Daddy naked in my parents' bed, woke him up and instructed him to put on some underwear before they handcuffed him, put him in back of the sheriff's cruiser and hauled him off to jail. I was eleven.

This 1970 Ford LTD Country Squire looks identical to ours except for the wheel covers. To me, these were leftovers from previous models.

Sometimes a place to hide from him meant staying away until the wee hours of the morning. This could be a visit to the drive-in theater or a late-night trip to White Castle. One hot, humid, Kentuckiana summer evening, Lou and her boys, Eddie and Richie, were with us for a trip to South Park drive-in. Shortly after we drove past the huge neon arch where Speedee toted his sign that no longer said 15¢, Lou exclaimed, "that's misery!" She was referring to the morbidly obese woman walking alongside Dixie Highway in the sweltering heat wearing a cotton peasant blouse and too-short shorts. Her companion, a much smaller person, made her seem enormous. Like a side show attraction. While the car filled with laughter at the expense of the unfortunate soul, I imagined it was Lou's way of elevating the mood, and recognizing that everybody has a cross to bear.

Other escapes meant traveling for hours to campsites like Barren River, or Nolin Lake. We'd arrive under the cloak of darkness and set up camp using the headlamps until we unpacked and lit a Coleman lantern. One such evening landed us closer to home at Deem Lake, near Borden. And for some reason that I can't recall, Lou was with us again. After we had been there a while the familiar sound of our old Volkswagen approaching drowned out the forest's evening song. Its headlights lit the dust from the gravel as its driver stopped at the end of the road leading to our campsite. It saddened me to see the car I'd adored for so long, battered and tired after a trip at my dad's hands through a thicket in Floyds Knobs one icy night. What made me even sadder, and even fearful, was to see it there at that moment. Lou's husband, Dan, was with Daddy. It was plain that they had both been drinking. Dan barely could stand well enough to pee in the bushes on the side of the road, and to this day that's the way I remember him -- perpetually stumbling, drunk. As we kids stood in the background, the two wives approached the car, talked briefly with their husbands, but stood their ground. The intruders eventually left us to pursue a night's respite from the hell at our respective homes.

Day trips to Deem Lake became as regular as Saturdays. We'd fill up the Coleman thermal jug with Kool-Aid or Pillsbury Funny Face drink mix. Over time this concoction became fruit drink with instant tea mixed in. The anticipation of having Choo-Choo Cherry was dashed with the addition of Nestea. I wasn't a big fan of this blend that Tina annoyingly dubbed "drink." To me it was unnatural and tasted odd. Adding insult to injury, her name for this brew became amplified once it was evident that I hated it.

After filling the matching red Coleman chest cooler with cold-cuts and condiments, we'd load the Country Squire with portable radio and beach towels, then head out to the lake. At first these these excursions were exciting, fun excuses to be away from home. After a while, though, they became boring and tedious, at least to me. I sense my mother understood this and began allowing us to bring a friend, squelching the familiar refrain, "is it time to go?" Sometimes Lisa would bring Sherry. Sometimes Thom would come with me. Sometimes Doug, Brian and Kim would come along. As creative children are prone to do, we found ways to entertain ourselves once the novelty of doing flips from the diving dock faded.

Thom extolled the virtues of numerous trips to the snack bar. One day I learned why. Ducking into the men's locker room might reward him with a glimpse of the lifeguards changing clothes. Upon seeing those men for a split second the one time I went with Thom, I couldn't reconcile the curiosity or excitement I felt with the gut instinct that I shouldn't be there. So, I stuck to other more juvenile diversions, like swimming with Christopher over to the edge of the swimming area where we'd try to balance on the float ropes delineating safe from unsafe waters until we'd hear a screeching lifeguard's whistle followed by the transistor sound of a megaphone from shore: "get off the rope, please!" The demand sounded ridiculous. We laughed for days, mocking the poor girl to one another.

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