Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ramblin' on.

In a few days, I'm about to embark on a cross-country trip West for a few weeks with Kathryn to attend my nephew Allyn's wedding.  

As I prepare, it calls to mind other trips I've taken over the years- some reckless, some well-planned, others risky, most every one a good memory. An especially memorable one was our family move in the early 90's from Omaha to New York City.......

Begin jiggly memory swiggles as seen on television for comedic subjective recollections....

Cue Narrator as camera pans a suburban Midwestern street featuring neighbourhood children on shiny bicycles or kicking a bright red ball.  Capture summertime trees in full bloom--birds chirping.  Zoom in on smiling woman placing tidy square boxes, matching suitcases, and cat-carrier into a gleaming white vintage sedan, while four young children file into the vehicle followed by romping yellow-Labrador dog.

Aside from the obvious stresses that moving creates from uprooting and starting fresh, I always enjoyed the adventure-- both as a kid and as an adult.  When I was growing up, my family moved seven times and I attended 7 different schools, including two high-schools.  In our adult lives, Stephen and I moved a few times as jobs changed and his education and career changed course.  When he got out of the Air Force in the 80's we had a home and were well settled assuming we'd remain in Omaha indefinitely, but the unexpected loss of his job in the 90's prompted a move from Omaha back to the east where he was starting a new job.

We were hard pressed to leave friends and our lifestyle in Omaha, but financially it was the only option since it was a particularly rough time in our lives then.  We had four young kids, and our youngest, Olivia, was pretty sick with a blood disease that required frequent hospitalizations.  This new job would offer everything we needed most, an income, very good health insurance accepting a pre-existing health condition, paid moving expenses, and the sale of our beloved but rundown home that had exhausted both our skill and finances for all its needed improvements.

Stephen had posted his resume on the internet, and was found by a consulting company based out of Washington D.C. that offered information technology consultants to big name corporations.  He accepted the position through e-mail and a phone calls. 

Having flown ahead of us, Stephen was settled in at The Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, Manhattan,  where he was already given a consulting assignment.  Justin, Andrew, Kathryn, Olivia, Scout the dog, Mittens the cat, a few suitcases and some other fragile belongings that we didn't trust to the moving company followed over the next several days in our four-door 1964 Rambler sedan.  Our travel budget was extremely tight having little cash, a small available balance on a credit card, and a small-chain gas card, so we packed in a sack of egg-salad sandwiches to keep us well fed along the road and each of the kids got some money for the trip to spend on their own.  Our adventure was about to begin!

Unfortunately, our departure day fulfilled the predictions for continued rain throughout the Midwest.  Mittens the cat had to forfeit his leash so it could be used to operate the windshield wipers.  For the duration of the rain, who ever sat in the front passenger seat was responsible for pulling the leash that was attached to the wipers, strung through the driver's side wing-window, and across the front of the dashboard. The wipers worked by a failing vacuum pump, so for each pass they had to be manually lifted across the windshield and would drop by their own weight.  It stopped raining when we got to close to Saint Louis, Missouri--approximately 450 miles later.

We traveled south-east through Kansas, St. Louis, and Kentucky so we could visit my sister's family in Tennessee where we planned to stay for a night or two. It was a familiar trip we'd made several times before without any problems.   This time, in Kentucky, we had a small one-- we simply ran out of gas.

Now, before I go on, I should mention that this Rambler was a fabulous car:

Cut to vintage film advertising for the AMC RAMBLER CLASSIC SEDAN automobile while narrator describes the attributes of such a fine vehicle. 

Our Rambler had four doors, a capacious trunk, (Stephen installed rear seat belts for each kid) a powerful V-8 engine that truly hummed, and a brand new brake job with four new 'budget' tires.  Except for a rear-end accident that happened a few month prior, the body was actually in very good shape; it was dull, but not rusted out anywhere except under the driver's floorboard which was only noticeable in torrential rain when water would enter from under the floor mat.  (The driver that hit the Rambler and crumpled its back-end didn't have insurance, so we got a body shop to bang out the worst of it, and make sure the trunk would close and lock.) Oh, and the fuel gauge didn't work.

So, I made a minor error in mileage/gas estimation based on the odometer reading.  We were doing fast high-way driving, and the engine just drank the gas as we hummed along.  So we sat on the side of the highway and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

We sat in the stultifying summertime Kentucky heat and humidity for about thirty minutes (no cell-phone in those days!) hoping a state trooper would soon stop, but instead a very nice non axe-murdering/rapist saw our distress and stopped.

Resume jiggly memory swiggles as camera pans the length of a brand new candy-apple red Dodge Ram Truck slowing down, merging onto the shoulder, and stopping in front of the disabled Rambler.  Cut to close-up shot of driver, as played by Robert De Niro, exiting vehicle and approaching the driver's door of the Rambler.

Our rescuer asked if we needed assistance, and I suggested we'd only run out of gas.  He promptly said he'd tow us to the next exit and produced a brand new tow strap, attached it, instructed me how to steer/brake, while being towed, and just like that we had a full tank and running engine at the nearest service station within 20 minutes!  Crisis averted.

(I still think it was Robert De Niro, actually.  He looked just like him--mole and all--had a mild accent--defined to neither New York or the South.  His truck appeared to be brand-new and expensive.  At the gas station, he made sure the engine started after the tank was filled giving advice to put a little gas on the carburetor to get it primed to start up again.  We shook hands, and he wished us good luck on our trip.  Thanks Bob!)

We made it to Tennessee without further incident, and visited for a few days, also without incident!  Back on the road again, we traveled as far as Pennsylvania, and took a hotel room.  I wanted to be fresh, well rested and ready for our anticipated arrival and meeting up with Stephen in New York City the following day.

But the next day, it was hot.  Very hot.  Traffic congestion increased and slowed as we got closer and closer to the city.  The temperature climbed outside, and as it got hotter outside the Rambler's gauge indicating the engine temperature began to rise--my growing indigestion matching it.

When we reached The Holland Tunnel, I barked at the kids to roll up the windows and lock their doors.  I suddenly felt very vulnerable with our Nebraska license plates, very old car, open windows, and full clam-shell car-top-carrier a beacon announcing to all New Yorkers that we were Nebraskan hayseeds ripe for the picking.

On the approach to The Holland Tunnel, we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the car steadily overheating, as we inched along with windows closed.  I turned on the heat to pull some off off the engine, but it was too hot to bear; we had to open our windows, and I directed the vents to blow the heat down toward our feet.  Our poor Scout was panting heavily, but remained ever patient, and we noticed we'd stopped hearing Mitten's plaintive mews from his carry-box since we left the hotel room earlier that morning.

Cut to cartoon footage of heavy machinery/boilers/steam vents/ pressure valves/factory warning horns all at peak levels about to burst with gauges and indicator needles intensely vibrating at the highest measure of DANGER/RED zones!

In those days, the toll for the Holland Tunnel was three dollars.

Sound Ahooga Horn featuring cartoon face with bulging dollar-sign eyes shooting in and out.

I had just under two dollars left from our exhausted travel budget, and panicked when I saw the toll amount sign.  I asked the kids to fork over any money they had left from their spending allowances, which brought us just a few cents short.  I desperately ordered them to check the seat cushion cracks and under the floor mats for more and they miraculously generated enough coin to match the toll fee.

As we pulled up to the booth, I handed over a dollar bill and the remainder in coin and pennies.  The intensely dis-interested and bored toll-taker pointed with her open hand heaped with our offered coinage, to the dirty, cracked plastic sign that read: NO PENNIES.  I shrugged, and said, "I'm really sorry, it's all we have."  She looked at me, with my sweaty hair plastered to my face, peered in the car to see the panting dog, the four red-faced sweaty kids, then looked at the steam gently rising from the hood of the Rambler, and blankly said, "just go."

Music Cue:  From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz--Optimistic Voices--played as Dorothy and her friends head toward The Emerald City from the Poppy Field.   Camera widely pans the Rambler as traffic parts, the tunnel opens wide, wind blows cooling air through the vehicle and obvious relief takes over as we relax and anticipate the sights of New York City; our final destination.  Jane brightly re-grips the steering wheel with renewed energy.

We're gonna make it!  We sail under the Hudson River through the tunnel and emerge onto Canal Street where we're greeted by stopped-dead traffic.  Horns honking, city stinking, people sweating, cars at a stand-still, visible exhaust waves rising intensifying the heat.  I holler out my window to the pedestrian traffic, "Which way to Times Square?" and several people all point in the same direction.  We turned the corner, and go.

We travel slowly in city traffic, block by block, light by light.  The car is visibly, dangerously, overheating by now, and I see several  parking opportunities and choose a open lot facility near 36th and Broadway and pull in. 

A cheerful lot attendant, all smiles, approached the car with a paper ticket in his outstretched hand obviously expecting the exchange of car keys and ticket, but he stopped short when he spied Scout, panting heavily and slightly foaming at the mouth from near dehydration.  His welcoming smile quickly faded and he said I could not leave the dog with the car.  I explained to him that we'd be right back, we'd leave all the windows wide open, he was on a leash attached to the inside of the vehicle posing no danger;  he was just a good, but very hot dog!  I reached down to the passenger side floor board to retrieve the cat box while the kids gave Scout some water, and saw poor our poor Mittens.  His flat body, eyes closed, his tongue sticking out, and all four feet splayed out wide.  My stomach lurched.  I'd killed our cat by turning on the heat to pull it off the overheating engine and sending it down to the floor right where his travel box was. I immediately felt the crushing guilt of murder by heat exhaustion. 

Quickly deciding it was not a matter to deal with right then, and certainly not wanting any of the kids to see,  I shut the door, and we walked to the hotel asking the lot attendant the right direction to Times Square.

We five chained hands, and walked the width of the sidewalk and within just a block or two, came upon a crew with a film camera taking footage of the bustling pedestrian traffic.  How exciting!  We'd only been in New York City a few short minutes and we were already experiencing the sights, sounds, excitement of activity on the street!  As we approached the squatting cameraman, something came over me.  Perhaps it was whimsical relief and exuberance at having made it this far but not quite knowing what was still ahead, I broke grips with the kids' hands, pulled them forward and close and with wide arms and beaming face stood in front of the camera man, looked directly at the lens, and exclaimed, "HELLOOO, WE'RE FROM OMAHA, NEBRASKA!!"

The cameraman took his face off the eyepiece, bent his head around the camera, looked at me, scowled, returned to his eyepiece, while his crewman with monotone repetition stated, "Keep filming, keep filming, keep filming." and sharply gestured to me that we pass and continue on our way.  We did.

We reached the Marriott Marquis, inquired at the front desk for Stephen's room, and proceeded up the glass-front elevator to the 34th floor. We were hot, tired, sweaty, stressed, road-weary, thirsty, and we all looked it in the highest degree.

Switch to slow motion: imitating the scene from Reservoir Dogs in view of a long hotel corridor,  five Chrysostoms walking abreast.

We knocked on the hotel room door, but Stephen wasn't there!  My heart sank.  Now what?  We waited just a few moments when he emerged from the hallway, carrying his lunch in a paper sack--at long last, we were all re-united! We sum up the excitement of day's events; car trouble, dog trouble, money trouble, (I whispered to him about the cat trouble.) and we settle the kids into the air-conditioned hotel room giving them full mini-bar privileges, while Stephen and I return to the Rambler.

I tell Stephen how I killed the cat, and we'll have to find a vet or something to properly dispose of him.  At the car, we find Scout to be resting comfortably on the length of the back seat and we retrieve him on his leash and collect the cat box.  But wait!  There's movement!  Mittens is ALIVE!!  Oh joy!  I didn't kill the cat, I only nearly killed him! 

Stephen drove us back to the hotel, emptied our luggage from the clam-shell car-top carrier and then strapped it onto the trunk so the car would fit down the ramp to the underground garage beneath the hotel.  He handed the keys to the attendant giving our room number, and we wouldn't see the car again while we lived in Manhattan.  (When we retrieved the car weeks later, the parking fees were far more than the car was even worth.).

We wanted Scout to relieve himself in every way possible before taking him to the room, but the city proved too distracting for him, so we went up the glass elevator without result.  Good Scout, sweet, simple-minded Scout; a true Nebraskan dog.  The only stairs he had ever experienced were in our home in Omaha.  He'd never been in bodies of water, bustling city streets, lobbies, corridors, elevators jammed with impatient people.  He was a good , mild-mannered family dog, and he went willingly into the elevator, sat when we told him to as the elevator filled with hotel guests and their luggage. The Marriott Marquis has an open lobby to the 49th floor, and the glass sided elevators look out on it as they go up and down. Scout was fine until we began to ascend and the floor outside the elevator dropped away.  His eyes widened, his paws and toes outstretched, claws gripped the carpet.  He did NOT like this experience whatsoever.  His blood pressure got so high, he had a slight nose-bleed--this was one stressed dog. Shortly, the elevator doors opened letting some people out and others in.  We continued upward.  Again the car stopped, but Scout saw his opportunity, and bolted.  He would not come back into the elevator.  We let it go without us and pushed the button for another car.  When an empty one stopped Stephen pulled Scout's leash, coaxing and encouraging him to join us.  He refused.  Stephen pulled his collar firmly, commandingly.  Scout let out a quiet, low, sad growl.  No, he just won't do it.

We were only at the 26th floor, so we took to the stairwell.  He can handle stairs and steps!   We began our way, but the stairs all had open risers which Scout's little brain just could not comprehend, so he refused that option as well.  Stephen was forced to carry that fool dog up each remaining flight to our floor.

When we were all finally together again in the cool comfort of the hotel room, we enjoyed the sights of Times Square from high above the city. The cat curled up, happily re-hydrated, the dog safely on firm ground, the kids wide-eyed with anticipation of the weeks and adventures ahead full of pop and goodies from the mini-bar.

I'm sure the kids all have their own jiggly memory swiggles of this adventurous trip featuring a calm, beaming, generous mother with good hair, and sweet voice.  But they can tell their own version.


  1. That was an awesome short story! I love your writing and was in stitches several times. Three of my kids keep interrupting and asking questions. Why I decided to read this only 12 minutes after getting them home from school is beyond me. I scream, "Can't you see I'm reading something!" Well, you managed to fully entertain me and give me a boost of endorphins that just might take me through til' dinner time. I can't wait to read more of your blog.

  2. my recollection of these events are flanders-esque
    i remember a nice short calm car ride with a happy dog, a bustling metropolis, and a nice view of the coca cola sign; none of the stress / indigestion / sheer terror
    o, and being chastised for eating the 7 dollar fun size snickers bar out of the mini bar thing and the permanent mental scar of "hello! we're from omaha nebraska!"