Sunday, August 10, 2014

No Hands

In a battered Volkswagen Bug, we would begin the trip -- any trip. If I were lucky, I'd sit in the passenger seat, with my brother sulking in the back, and watch my dad carefully. He always seemed amiable and easy-going in the early stages, before the inevitable boredom and bickering that came with the miles. I saw in him the tall, dreamy hero in a princess story.  He'd flick his long, white-blonde hair from his face and tap a cigarette out of a crumpled pack, then light it on the warm glow from the little knob in the dusty dashboard. He'd turn the key; the engine would sputter and catch.  The car would vibrate as he settled his long, lanky frame into the sagging seat, his knees poking up along the sides of the steering wheel.

Before slipping the Bug into gear, Dad would reach over and look in the tattered box under the dash. He’d search through the 8-track tapes, looking for whatever fit his mood. For the start of the drive, he’d pick something my brother and I liked. Our favorite was "Puff the Magic Dragon," though we knew nothing of the hidden symbolism of the song. Dad would push the cassette in, and I'd hear it click into place. A low burst of static snapped from the speakers, followed by the sound of the tape sliding through its reels. He would turn the sound up until we could barely hear the rumbling of the engine, then he'd pull out.
Image courtesy of  Stuart Miles at

The routine captivated me. But mostly what I remember is that as soon as we hit a stretch of straight road, however brief, Dad would let go and start tapping his fingers to the beat -- on anything but the wheel. His knees would cradle the shifting circle and make small adjustments. His demonstration of "skill" left me both terrified and awestruck.  I couldn’t wait until I grew up, old enough to hit the road and try out my own abilities.

I wish, sometimes, I had better, more inspiring memories of him. I wish I remembered something more substantial. I wish the image of the princess’ hero hadn’t faded. Perhaps it is better this way. Memories are unreliable, tainted by time. They offer something better than the truth.


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