Sunday, January 5, 2014

Road Man: Going For A Ride With Dad

Dad goes for a ride.
Photo by Pam Stephan
Dad knows roads. His working life was full of surveying, building, designing, and traveling down roads and highways. He went to college after World War II on the G.I. bill, determined to become a civil engineer, a dream he was able to realize.

My father worked for the Texas Highway Department for 25 years. He worked his way up the hierarchy and before I got to high school, he was leading a design team.

Once in a while, my mother would drop me off at Dad's office. He would take me back to a room full of men bending over drafting tables, working on huge sheets of paper. Rolls of plans stood in a box or lolled, lying half open, on top of drafting tools. A monstrous mechanical calculator that made a sound like a hail of metal stood brooding in a corner. Drafting lamps angled askew when they were not in use. T-squares, as long as I was tall, rested across the mighty tables upon which penciled lines were shaped, later to become interstate highways rising into the air.

On Sunday afternoons, my father would often say, "Let's go for a ride!" My parents, my little sister, and me would slide onto the big green seats of the 1955 Oldsmobile, roll down the windows, and get comfortable. We knew what Dad really meant by his invitation. So we'd sit back and get settled while Dad would drive. He never used a map - all the roads he worked on were in his head. We would wind up at a road construction site out in the country, a road that he had helped design, so he could do a visual check on the progress. Mom might pack a picnic in a green wicker basket, so while Dad strolled around the work site we would have a snack. After he had toured the site, he might drive us  to other notable places such as Prairie Dog Town (back then, it was just a farmer's field full of these critters) or the zoo (it was free) or the Trinity Park Duck Pond (bring your own bread scraps). 

In November, when pecan trees were loaded with ripening nuts, he would drive us along a country road and find a tree on the easement. He kept a rope in the trunk, along with a brick. The brick provided a weight that he used to sling that rope over a branch, which he then shook, causing a rain of pecans. Down on our knees, we would pick the brown beauties and collect them in a brown paper bag. Back home, we would be put to work shelling those beauties and later we had them in pie. 

These days, Dad rides while I drive him around. If he is having the blues or feels frustrated or bored, going for a ride usually helps him. Sometimes we will actually do an errand or take the dogs for a walk in the nearby park. If pecans are in season, you can be sure we will pick up some. He loves going on long drives and will ask, once in a while, if I need a break from driving. I've never taken him up on his offer to drive. Once we are in the car and on the road, he likes to comment on the weather, the state of the road, the number of overpasses, other vehicles along the way. I might come up with a story for him from our drives when I was a child - these he always enjoys. The highway drives are his favorite. He relaxes to the sound of the road, the wheels going, rain or wind, swing music or classical tunes on the radio. If the drive is really long, he's been known to take a nap. 

When Dad and go for a ride, I know that I have precious cargo on board. His safety, his happiness, and his intact memories of road trips are riding along with us. He - not my mother - taught me to drive and this is one way we can be together. Dementia has kept my father from driving for some years now, but in his heart he is always the road man, with all the maps in his head.

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