(This story, like "Eating Ants and Whales", is as true as my memory could make it, except for the fact that my "dad" in this story was really my step-father. He married my mother two years after my real father was killed in a plane crash. I was seven, the oldest of my mother's five children, when they got married. Some people who have read this story have told me it makes them sad. It makes me a little sad, too, but it also reminds me just what he took on when he married into our family. He was a good man, and I loved him.)
Getting To Duluth
I learned to drive when I was 12. My father taught me...sort of.
Dad worked in a factory most of his life. He and most of the other employees worked grueling, rotating shifts. One week he would work from 8am until 4pm, the next week from 4pm until midnight, and the week after that from midnight until 8am. This miserable cycle continued until the employee quit, retired, or died. Dad died less than a year before he was eligible to retire. It was no wonder, he used to say, that he drank. But then, he said that about a lot of things.
On Fridays, when he was on the middle shift, he would get home, usually drunk, by about 12:30AM. My brother, Tuff, and I were nearly always up watching midnight monster movies. We'd hear him drive up and open the garage door. We could get a fair idea how drunk he was by how long it took him to get from the garage to the house and by how much noise he made doing it. If he started cooking when he got in the house, we knew he was very drunk.
Our bedroom in that old house was directly above the kitchen and it had a vent in the floor left over from the days before central heating. When Dad came in drunk on Friday night, our bedroom soon filled with the pungent smells of canned oyster stew, black bean soup, or sometimes chili. These were foods that my mother never cooked for us, foods Dad never ate sober. After he finished eating, he would go up to bed. Sometimes he would notice the light on, if we didn't turn it off in time, and stop in our bedroom, reeking of beer and whatever he had just eaten, to see what were doing. He made such a stop one night in February, about a month before I turned 13.
A fog of ambivalence surrounded us when Dad was drunk; some of it surrounds me still. It is not the least of the effects on children of an alcoholic parent; a confused mixture of respect and contempt, of love and of fear. On one hand, alcohol made him more tolerant, funnier, less irritated by his responsibilities, of which we were no small part. (He often claimed us as another excuse for his drinking.) But, it also put us in an unnatural position of superiority over him, a position we were not completely conscious of, which both embarrassed and frightened us.
I was growing at the rate of about an inch a month at the time, and I was nearly as tall then as I am now. This phenomenon seemed to confuse Dad as much as it did me. Once, after I heard him talking quietly to my mother in the kitchen, he bought me a can of spray deodorant. On a Saturday afternoon, after he'd had several beers, he made me arm wrestle him. I sensed there was a mistake in this somewhere, but he insisted, and when I beat him, I'm not sure who was more surprised. It scared me a little; I was sure there would be repercussions. He was shocked, perhaps a little awed, but his graciousness surprised me. He assumed that I was some sort of prodigy and started bringing friends or relatives over to try me, which always ended up embarrassing someone in one way or another. When I lost, as a 13 year-old would be expected to, Dad and I were both humiliated, but at least I could go back to being his kid. If I won, the challenger suffered worse than Dad had when I beat him. It gave me little pleasure either way.
Sometimes, especially when he was drunk, my burgeoning adolescence just seemed to overwhelm him.
"Christ, your gettin' big. I guess you'll be drivin' pretty soon," he said, as though driving was like puberty, one of those things that just happens to you as you grow up. "Ya know howta drive a stickshiff?"
"Not exactly," I answered, wondering where he thought I might have learned.
"Well, ya might as well learn one a these days. Yeah, less go out'na country one a these days and I'll teach ya to drive a stickshiff. I learned when I was about yer age.....Hell, less go right now."
"Aw, it's really late, Dad, we were just goin' to bed," I lied. It was late, but we never went to bed before two or three AM on weekends.
"Gitchyer coat. C'mon, you gotta learn sometime. Tuff, you come along, too. You'll be next." Tuff had been trying to make himself invisible, thinking he might somehow get out of this.
"Aw, I don't want to go," he whined.
"I said, 'gitchyer coat.' Let's GO!"
We knew not to resist too much; things could get a little ugly when he was drunk, although he would never hurt us. We got our coats, went out to the garage together and got in the car.
I had imagined I would get driving lessons sometime, when I turned 15 or so. I pictured us out on a Saturday afternoon on a country road, taking one step at a time, first learning the rules of the road, then how to shift properly, and how to pass safely. We had a 1957 Chevy at the time, his pride and joy. When I was 12 and he was sober, Dad would never have considered allowing me to drive it; not in broad daylight, not on dry, sunny pavement, not even in a deserted parking lot. But on this cold and dark midwinter Minnesota night, the streets black rivers of ice, him drunk, he decided I should have my first driving lesson.
He backed the car out of the driveway and drove the first few blocks, presumably so I wouldn't destroy the garage or anything else in our neighborhood. Then he pulled over and we traded places.
"OK, put the clutch in. Now put 'er in first gear. Let the clutch out slow and give it some gas." After he showed me where first gear was, I did what he said. The car jerked and the engine stalled. Tuff laughed.
"Don't laugh," he said toward the back seat, then to me, "That's OK, you gotta let the clutch out slower." He was being very patient. So I tried again. The car jerked hard several times, and this time Dad had to work not to laugh himself. Finally I got it working smoothly.
After about a mile, I was getting the hang of it. Dad's head began to nod and he fell asleep. I kept driving. Once I was sure he was sound asleep, I relaxed a little and just practiced my starts and stops. We drove in silence, except for the radio, afraid our talking might wake him. I decided to drive around Bald Eagle Lake, a trip of seven or eight miles.
"Hey, let's go to Duluth," Tuff whispered. I snickered as quietly as I could. Duluth was 150 miles north of Bald Eagle Lake. Neither of us had ever been there.
"Oh right, that'd be just great," I answered, "Dad wakes up and we're in Duluth."
Tuff wasn't given his nickname for nothing. If he had been driving, we might have gone to Duluth, although neither of us exactly knew the way. We probably would have driven on into the dark until we ran out of gas. I could imagine us coasting to a stop a hundred miles down the highway--some highway--and waking Dad.
"Dad? Hey, Dad, wake up. The car died."
"Huh? Whatsa matter?"
"The car quit running. I think we ran out of gas or something."
"What?! Where the hell are we?"
"We don't know...."
It did sound like a pretty funny idea, but I wasn't much of a risk taker. I knew we risked death on the highway, or something maybe worse when Dad woke up in Duluth or someplace we didn't even know.
I recognized the situation for what it was: an opportunity to become something more than I was. I knew that my mission, to practice driving and to get us home while my drunk father slept in the seat next to me, could not fail unless I killed us all, and even that would not be judged my fault. It was a chance to exceed myself without risk of the consequences that accompany failure, so I drove on, absorbing this lesson, practicing driving, practicing not making fatal maneuvers. We drove through the dark and the cold around the lake, sometimes taking side roads, occasionally sliding through a stop sign, and eventually went home. I eased into the driveway, stopped in front of the garage, very much alive, and woke Dad.
"Dad? Hey, Dad, wake up."
"Huh? Whatsa matter? Where are we?"
"Duluth," I answered, and in many ways, I was.