Ditches, Diet Coke, and Dad

The glorious sun and the open road beckoned me with their siren song that fateful April Sunday afternoon. Just hours before, I had stood before the congregation of my little country church and professed my faith in all things Lutheran, thereby proving to the world that I was an adult and ready to take on great responsibilities.

The previous three months had been considerably less glorious. My older brother, Cedric, had quietly slipped away from us, disappearing into the frigid loneliness of January and emerging from the waters of the Mississippi River in late March, having given up on the exhausting journey that was his life. Cedric was my hero, my muse, my companion, and my substitute father, so losing him crushed all but random pieces of me. As we went through the motions of planning his funeral and slogged our way through the initial stages of the grieving process, I gathered those remaining wisps of myself together and made a bold declaration to my friends: they were forbidden to wear black to Cedric’s funeral. I desperately needed their laughter and their color as a lifeline to what remained of my carefree teenage identity, and because they had no idea what else to do or say, they all showed up to the Range Funeral Home looking like the wildly colorful eighties teens they were.

I, myself, had just purchased my Confirmation dress, a turquoise, ruffled extravaganza complete with a bow around my waist. I remember slipping it over my head the morning of his funeral, not knowing how I was ever going to survive burying my brother. Ions later—a few days, in all reality, I slipped it over my head again—this time for the occasion for which it was originally intended.

Several hours and a belly full of lunch and bakery cake into the afternoon, the ruffles lay in a heap on my floor, and I had a mission in mind for my best friend, Kerri, the family Ford LTD, and me that involved a short burst of fun and a cloud of dust.

“Dad, can Kerri and I practice driving?”

The driver’s license: the Holy Grail of every American child between the ages of nine and fifteen. More than just a piece of plastic adorned with an unfortunate picture and imprinted with our dream weight, that 2.5” X 3.5” card was the key to teenaged life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I wanted it more than curly hair and a date with Patrick Swayze. To get it, I had to practice, and to practice, I had to get the keys from my dad, the King and Protector of Matts Family Vehicles.

He set down his coffee mug of ice cream, reached into his jeans pocket, and pulled out his key ring, the leather of which was worn and blackened from taconite dust and motor oil. As he slid my freedom across the table, he looked at me over the top of his square, metal-framed, old-man bifocals and said, “Don’t go past Reino’s driveway.”

Reino was the Finnish bachelor who lived in a wooden shack of a house near the end of our country road. My direct interactions with him had been limited to friendly waves as he flew by in his brown Ford Bronco, but my dad took great pleasure in teasing us girls that he would be the perfect boyfriend.

“No problem!  See you later!” Kerri and I called out as we grabbed our Diet Cokes and raced down the steps, three at a time.

Shut the door. Put on the seatbelt. Insert key. Turn key. Release. Open windows. Depress brake. Shift into drive. Ease up on brake. Depress gas pedal ever so slightly. Roll to the end of the driveway. Depress brake. Put on right blinker. Look left, right, and left again. Ease up on brake. Depress gas a little more this time but not so much as to kick up gravel. Crank the radio.

Is there anything more satisfying than cruising down the road with your best friend, giggling about cute boys and singing along with the radio while your permed mall bangs dance in the rush of the spring wind? Is there anything more beautiful than the green of the leaves emerging after months of breath-snatching cold? Is there anything more empowering than a steering wheel in your hands and a gas pedal underneath your flip-flopped foot? Not when you’re a fifteen-year-old girl chronically obsessed by the number on the scale and worried about whether you look cute enough to attract the attention of the senior you’re too paralyzed to talk to. Not when you’re a fifteen-year-old girl sick to death of sitting in a desk in a stuffy classroom, listening to her math teacher drone on incessantly about quadratic equations. Not when you’re a fifteen-year-old-girl who wishes she could make her dysfunctional family functional and bring her darling brother back to life.

Normally, all of those things would have been more than enough for me, a classic goodie-two-shoes rule-follower, but a magnetic force caught hold of my compass and set it spinning out of control: the need to blaze my own trail out of my angst, even just for a few minutes.

“Kerri. Should we go farther?”

“I don’t know, Car. You’re the driver.”

“He’ll never know. There’s a turnaround just a little ways past Reino’s house.”

“You decide. I’m not making the decision one way or another.”

I should have turned around. I could have turned around. I heard my dad’s voice in my head telling me to turn my butt around.

I didn’t turn around.

I hit the gas.

Everything was fine right up until the moment it wasn’t, and sadly, there was nothing I could do once the wheels of my disobedient stupidity were set in motion. I had forgotten that the county had just laid a load of gravel down on the turnaround, and I didn’t realize that the warm spring sun had softened everything up so much that the ground was more like mashed potatoes than firmament. The tired, rusted-out LTD galumphed its way toward the ditch, and I did exactly what a fifteen-year-old girl would in such a situation: I panicked. When we finally stopped, Kerri looked at me and let out a big sigh. “I’ll get out and push.”

Everything was fine right up until the moment it wasn’t—the one in which my flip-flopped foot got lost on its way to the brake and hit the gas instead. In an instant, it was all over, and the mighty LTD gasped out one final death rattle before it gave up its ghost and sank right up to its belly.

It’s striking how much dirt one ear can hold and how deeply rocks can burrow into your knees when you’re desperately trying to free a car from the earth with a tire iron and your bare hands. Furiously we worked at it, clawing and scratching and commiserating about how much trouble we were going to be in should Dad ever find out. My innards threatened to burst out of my gut and assist with the recovery effort, and my ears started to ring in advance of the tirade that was assuredly mine once Dad DID find out what I had done. He ALWAYS knew exactly when we kids were up to something even marginally deviant (so we usually behaved ourselves out of fear), and he never hesitated to let more than a few choice words fly as he transformed from my father into a EF5 tornado of wild eyes, crazy gesturing, and reddening skin.

“Okay…that’s good!”

“Keep digging!”

“Ow! I broke a nail!”

“Blankety-blankety-blank-!”

Hearing Kerri cuss made me stop hard in my mud-caked tracks, for it meant only one thing: Morris had arrived.

My shoulders caved and a sinkhole formed in my stomach as I turned to face my judge, jury, and executioner. He and his massive, long-sleeve-shirt-encased belly methodically navigated through the ruts that directed him right to Ground Zero. Kerri and I dropped our tools and rose to our feet, clasping our hands behind our backs. We knew from experience that excuses would only make matters worse, so we kept our mouths shut and our eyes down.

Dad walked up to me and said one word: “Keys.” I fished my freedom out of my pocket and searched his face for an indication of when the storm would commence, but all I saw were stony eyes, sun-leathered skin, and a pair of thin lips pressed firmly together and turned down at the corners.

This was going to be bad.

I expected that we would be in the midst of the nuclear reactor meltdown and the resulting apocalypse for at least an hour, but Morris conjured up what I have later come to understand was Finlander Black Magic. Like Yoda raising dejected Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp, my father extracted his faithful work car from the depths of its muddy grave, drove it to stable ground, turned off the engine, and shut the car door behind him. Then he walked back to his car, got in, and drove off.

Kerri and I picked up our jaws and our eyeballs. We two girls, infamous for four-hour long phone conversations, were suddenly rendered mute. The only choice we had was to get back on the horse.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent hiding out in my room, bandaging up our wounds and fearing for our lives (or at least our chances of ever using another of his vehicles).  Much to our surprise, the Wrath of Morris never descended upon us, at least for that particular incident, and I went on to successfully earn my driver’s license on the first try.

Fifteen years or so after “The Car Incident,”  I was finally brave enough to ask my dad why he had never yelled at us because let’s face it—such behavior was completely out of character. He put his coffee mug down on the kitchen table that had witnessed so much family joy, drama, and sorrow and said with a grin, “I knew it should have taken you about fifteen minutes to go there and back. I kept checking my watch, and when you were gone too long, I came looking for you. I saw how forlorn you looked when I got there, and I knew that you were punishing yourselves more than I ever could. And besides…I couldn’t say anything. I would have burst out laughing.”

And then we did.

* * *

My dad struggled to express his love for his family in the right way for most of his life, but he always made sure our cars were working and our gas tanks were full.  He slipped away from us Thanksgiving morning after an unexpected battle with a fungal lung infection in 2004, but I am certain that if any of us ever end up stranded on the side of the road, he will find a way to get to us with a car carrier to bring us home.

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