It was Wednesday December 19, and my radio, coaxed me to a waking state, tuned to the rock station WABX. I heard yet again the title song from Bowie’s new album Aladdin Sane, the lyrics of the song’s chorus intrigued the Coopster in me…
Who’ll love Aladdin Sane
Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise
Who’ll love Aladdin Sane
“Aladdin Sane” sounded exactly like “a lad insane”, and I was sure that double meaning was intentional on Bowie’s part. Who would care about a young person with crazy, outside the box ideas? But what if that young person was in fact a wizard with magical powers. Might that provide a method to their madness? I had often been afraid to express some of the innate wildness inside me for fear people would ridicule me, see me as “a lad insane” as it were. Perhaps I needed more faith in my outside the box thinking!
And taking the whole “love” thing a step further, maybe I had to find a romantic partner who appreciated that outside the box aladdin in me, if I could ever learn to get comfortable with it myself. Those thoughts continued to percolate through my brain as David and I awaited the arrival of our dad driving up from Xenia, to take us down to stay with him for the rest of the week.
While I was homesick traveling through Europe, I had fantasized about our whole nuclear family being together for Christmas, along with my Aunt Pat, my Uncle Ray, and my cousins, them being the extended family that I felt connected to. So I had included in two of my letters home to my mom a pitch for us all to get together for the holidays, and she had written back that she would try to make it so.
But then after Thanksgiving the whole debacle around my dad’s new girlfriend Mary happened and turned everything in our tenuous little family upside down. According to a letter my mom had written me while I was still in Europe, my dad had mentioned to her in passing during a phone call that he was “seeing” this woman named Mary. This had triggered immediate concern on my mom’s part. Though she and my dad had been divorced nearly a decade, my mom still depended financially on him for child support. Though my mom had gone out with other men since the divorce, my dad had continued to plead with her to get back together. She would always say no, but at least she felt she had control of their relationship. If he was actually getting serious about another woman that could undermine the whole shaky foundation of my mom’s life.
So my mom, as was her way, addressed the issue head on, and asked my dad if his relationship with Mary was serious. He had then assured her that the relationship was not, and that he and Mary were just colleagues and friends. Given my dad’s shyness to talk about anything in the romantic department (a shyness I had unfortunately inherited from him) my mom was still concerned that he might not be being honest with her. It had been my dad’s affair with another woman, and lying about it to my mom, that had infuriated her and led her to wanting a divorce, and her self esteem had never recovered.
So my mom called her sister, my Aunt Pat, who lived down in Dayton, not far from dad in Xenia. Since Pat occasionally had him over for dinner, she confirmed that my dad looked to have had an ongoing relationship with Mary for some time, and my mom then jumped to the conclusion that he was being disingenuous and that the relationship was way more serious than he had said. When my mom then called my dad to confront him on his relationship with Mary, he had finally confessed that they had been more than friends for several years now. He said he had not shared it with her because his relationship with Mary was “casual”, and he didn’t want to worry her. My mom was livid, the whole thing dragging her back to all those feelings of betrayal and abandonment she had had nearly a decade ago.
She was so angry that she nixed the whole getting together at Pat’s in Dayton for Christmas thing. When she had told me about it a couple days ago, it occurred to me that if she spent time with him, given the current context, it would only reinforce how financially dependent she still was on the money he gave us. It would be harder for her to deny the power he still had over her life.
Even a couple years ago, that kind of insight into my mom’s motivation might have caused me to be very angry with her. But now, after my Europe trip and having felt the fragile preciousness of my connection to my family members so far away, I was trying to operate in a new zen. My mom and dad were just who they were, flawed human beings like all of us, and I was going to accept each of them as such. The continuing issues between them, including this whole Mary thing, were their issues, not mine. I could compartmentalize, and have a good relationship separately with each of them, even if they continued to have a difficult one with each other.
I figured my dad was disappointed that the Christmas plans were off. So this new plan to take David and I down to Xenia today until the Sunday before Christmas had emerged. When I thought about it, it was actually better. I’d have some real time to reconnect with my dad, like I had already had with my mom, Mary Jane, and my best friends. That rather than the old plan where we all would have just spent Christmas day together basically, a different dynamic that would have given me less one on one time with him. That time with my dad was going to be important to my new “mission”. Hatched during my last couple weeks in Europe, I was back home determined to reconnect with each of my family members and help our tenuous little biological unit stay connected. And maybe try to thrive even, if that was somehow possible.
The whole effort was actually putting me in the weird position of feeling like I was the head of the family now, at least psychologically though certainly not financially. In my current opinion, limited as it might seem (or actually be) given I was less than a year as an official adult, I felt neither of my parents were capable now of playing that role. They were both caught up in and overwhelmed by their own stuff. My mom was trying to find a job, for both financial and self esteem reasons. She was hoping to become financially independent of my dad, but given her lack of a real profession, and being a woman in a male dominated work world, the prospects of that seemed minimal. On the relationship front, I know she dreamed of finding another man to be with and even marry, one who really loved and appreciated who she was, and also had the financial wherewithal to support her.
My dad was trying to go back to some idylc past with my mom. If it had ever existed back in the early days of their marriage, it didn’t exist now, nor could it even possibly exist in the future, given their fundamental incompatibility. Then there was my dad’s shyness combined with his basic struggle to own up to and communicate what he was feeling. I had that combo of issues too, but I was 18 and had a lot of time ahead of me to try to overcome that limitation. My dad, on the other hand, was 59. He was unlikely to teach himself many “new tricks” at this point.
Given all that, in my present thinking, neither of them was in a place where they could really appreciate the bigger picture beyond their own immediate needs. Of course if I was being perfectly honest, which I rarely was, there was my own ego wanting to be the one, instead of my mom, who could see the true path forward clearly. When I was younger she always seemed to understand me and my motivations better than I did, which had frustrated me to no end. Now it was, delicious in its way, payback time. That was maybe a glimpse of that passive-aggressive streak that I still shared with my dad.
So all that was percolating in my mind when my dad arrived in his Plymouth Barracuda from the four hour drive up from Xenia. He even knocked on the front door before coming in. I came up from my “lair” in the basement and welcomed him. My brother and my mom were apparently up in their rooms.
He looked at me with very tired looking brown eyes behind his professorial glasses under short trimmed gray hair. Normally he’d drive up in his college professor work clothes, open dress shirt and khakis, having left directly from campus after early morning classes. But Wilberforce University, his main teaching gig where he was a full professor, was on winter break, so he was wearing jeans and a “Michigan” sweatshirt under his winter jacket. Though I wasn’t even wearing my heels, it was the first time I noticed that I was now taller than he was. We had both been six feet even, but he was at that age I guess when your body started shrinking.
His face lit up with a big smile.
“Coop. It is so good to see you, returned from your great adventure!” and then continuing, “I read every one of your postcards over and over and had a map of Europe to keep track of your progress.” His words touched a pang of sadness, realizing that I’d written way more to my mom than to him. She had gotten a postcard pretty much every day or two, plus a half dozen letters, some very extensive, where I shared my innermost feelings. Dad maybe got one letter and less postcards than mom.
There was feeling in his words. It was about the extent of his emotional repertoire. He suddenly looked awkward and I intuited that he wanted to greet me physically, I saw the fingers on his right hand activate like maybe he was deciding whether to reach out to give me a handshake, but was not sure how to proceed. Feeling like a handshake would be lame, given all this intensity of emotion, being the Coopster now, and being the self-proclaimed manager of this relationship, I moved toward him and gave him a big hug. I could feel just a split second of discomfort on his part before he wholeheartedly went with it, giving me a real squeeze, which neither of us tried to release for maybe twenty seconds. He smelled of aftershave and a little salty sweat. He finally put his hands on my shoulders and took a step back from our embrace to look me over, big teased out ‘fro of hair and all.
During our hug, David had come halfway down the stairs and stopped mid flight, not wanting to feel like a third wheel to this little reunion. Seeing David there, dad waved him to come down.
“David. Say hi to your dad”, he said.
David continued down the stairs and approached him. When he got within range, my dad took his arm from my shoulder and reached out and rubbed David’s head, before putting that hand on David’s shoulder.
My mom came down the stairs seeing the three of us together.
“Hello Eric”, her tone was measured, and there was some resignation in her voice, “How was the ride up?”
“Hi Jane” he said, and then clicked into more professorial, just relaying the facts, mode. “Usual bad traffic through Dayton in the morning where the construction is on 75, but okay after that.”
“You look tired”, she noted.
He nodded thoughtfully. “Trying to get all my finals graded last night so I’d be done by the time I came up today. Didn’t quite make it. Will finish tonight. Have to turn in grades on Friday.”
“I appreciate you changing your schedule.” My mom said it with a flat affect. “I’m sorry Christmas is not working out.”
He pursed his lips and nodded, not saying anything at first. I could feel him psyching himself up to say something difficult.
“Everything’s okay Jane.” I assumed he was referring to the whole Mary thing. And then more to all three of us. “There’s nothing to worry about. My relationship with Mary is just casual, we’re just dating.”
My mom nodded and exhaled quickly, as she often did before she headed into an argument.
“Eric, I get it that your life is your own business, as mine is mine. I just don’t feel I can have a relationship with you if you can’t be honest with me about what’s going on so I can make my own plans.” There was a pause, where I could see him grimace and some anger flared in his eyes.
My mom picked up on those nonverbal cues, as she always did, saying, “Maybe it would be better if you and I talked about this alone on the phone sometime soon.”
Still grimacing, he nodded.
Then once again he spoke, “I just want the three of you to know that everything is okay, nothing is changing between the three of us.” He looked very uncomfortable saying it, and I was feeling the same. Like father like son. Ugh!
My mom nodded and ended the conversation with a, “Well have a safe trip down to Xenia. Have a good time, and see you three back on Sunday.” She did her best to paste a smile on her face, but the heart on her sleeve was sending a very different message.
Our suitcases were by the front door, ready to go. David and I grabbed ours and looked at our dad expectantly, like, “Let’s get out of here now!” He opened the door so we could carry them out and followed behind us. We loaded our suitcases into his trunk and David, sketch pad in hand, said he’d sit in the backseat by himself if I wanted to sit in front and share my Europe journey with dad. Dad started the car and headed down the street.
“Though your mom and I still have our issues”, he said looking ahead at the road, “I want you two to know that I will always be there for the two of you. Don’t have any doubt about that. There is nothing more important to me than the two of you.”
“Okay dad”, we both said immediately, almost in unison, followed by silence. Dad was not much of a talker.
We stopped at a gas station in town and he bought us all Cokes. It was also a chance for him to use the restroom.
The ride down to Xenia was a routine, a ritual even, that the three of us had done so many times together over the past six years since he had gotten the teaching job at Wilberforce University down there. David and I usually sat in the back seat together, facilitating the two of us doing whatever discussion, imagination game, or other activity the two of us decided to engage in for the trip down. Dad drove and enjoyed, I think, overhearing whatever conversation was going on behind him, without participating in it too much, unless we specifically asked him a question or made a comment that applied to him. But on this occasion, the trip down was the opportunity for him to hear about my travels, so David had suggested that I sit in front, at least for the first leg of the journey south, to make it easier for me to relate the events of my trip to him.
After our quick pit stop at the gas station at the corner of Packard and Stadium Boulevard, we continued east on Stadium. We drove by Tappan Junior High, the big three story block of a building on the bluff, still looking like a forbidding institution, with all its difficult memories for me. Another couple miles up the road to Arborland and then on to 23 south towards Toledo. It would be about a 45 minute drive past Dundee and Sylvania down to the “Welcome to Ohio” sign, and then another three hours or so to Xenia.
Dad hadn’t prompted me yet to start the telling of my journey, and I wondered if he was not going to be so assertive to ask, so I decided to broach it myself.
“So you want to hear about my trip?” I asked.
I immediately thought that calling it just a “trip” kind of downplayed the profundity of the thing. “Odyssey” would have been more accurate.
His eyes looking ahead at the road, he nodded, and said, too matter of factly, “I’ve been waiting to hear about your trip since I received your first postcard from London.” He glanced at me. “I’ve got all your postcards in case you want them back to document your trip.”
“I would. Thanks!” I responded. “Though I did keep a pretty extensive journal. I’ve got it in my suitcase.”
“Good for you!” he said, smiling and nodding, his eyes getting thoughtful as he continued to look ahead. “Someday you’ll be glad you did that. Maybe someday you’ll write a memoir or a novel based on your trip.”
I nodded and pondered that but did not reply. Since I was a little kid I had always wanted to write stories, starting so many of them but finishing so few. Invariably I would get bored in the middle of the effort and abandon the project. Plus the whole writing process was frustrating, both writing longhand or with a typewriter. My mind was always thinking in many directions at once, and the act of turning those non-linear thoughts into a single sequential stream of words, sentences and paragraphs was maddening. I was constantly crossing things out and wanting to move those words, sentences and paragraphs around on the page, and generally lacked the patience and perseverance to completely rewrite my pages the three or four times it would take to get them somewhat right. I had an eye for design, and my handwriting always looked awkward and ugly on the page. I loved the look of a cleanly typed page of words, but once I started marking that page up it quickly started looking ugly.
My dad turned into the reporter conducting his interview.
“So your mom said Angie’s mom drove you two to Metro Airport to catch your plane to London.”
“Yep”, I said, “Everything we were going to be using, wearing, or sleeping on, on our bodies or in our backpacks. Mine weighed fifty pounds.”
He chuckled. “Like being in the army!” The only time he had been in Europe was as a G.I. in World War Two. He had always imagined going back, but it had never panned out.
“Yeah. I even had the metal knife, spoon and fork kit you gave me from the war.”
“How about that!” He smiled.
So with an occasional prompt from him I told the story of Angie and our first few days together in England. The difficult first night at the fleabag hostel in London. Visiting the Clays in Oxford. Heading from there down to Salisbury to see Stonehenge, and there at the hostel Angie’s bombshell that she did not want to continue the trip with me, followed by my call home to share the unwelcome news with mom.
“Your mom called me that night after she got off the phone with you. You must have been crestfallen. What was Angie’s reason for not continuing?” His voice did not give away any emotion, but I noticed a slight flair of fierceness in his eyes, like she better have had a damn good reason.
It struck me that I still wasn’t clear on her reasons. At the time I was so into my own anxiety about whether to continue on my own that I don’t remember what her reason was if she had shared it with me or I had even asked. Talk about not sharing your feelings! But I had to say something to my dad’s direct question.
“I guess it was just too much for her.” That seemed to be becoming my standard answer. Anticipating a possible follow up question I said, “I saw her and Lane on Saturday. She said that she was glad I continued on my own, ‘No thanks to her’. We’re still good friends.”
Still looking at the road he nodded and his countenance softened.
So I continued the tale of parting with Angie in London, crossing the channel and taking the train to Basel on my own, where I had my first experience negotiating a big European train station with everything in German and French, trying to figure out how to get a train to Munich.
“When I was still there after the war”, he noted, “You had to get around mostly by truck or bus. The railways and stations were in pretty bad shape.”
I told about getting to Munich in the midst of Oktoberfest, the couple I was hoping to stay with apparently out of town, and with the youth hostels and even regular hotels all completely booked. Meeting a Canadian guy who was staying with U.S. kids who were going to an extension of a U.S. university, whose dads were stationed in Germany. Ending up staying with them. I did not tell him about all the hash and alcohol I consumed with them. Not that my dad would have had any problem with the alcohol part, but I had never shared with him that my friends and I used marijuana and hashish fairly regularly now, when we could get it. I did tell him about all the great beer on tap at Oktoberfest, beer that put standard American beer to shame. I could tell he liked that part, his son taking on the adult habits of a young man.
At this point we had passed the big “Welcome to Ohio” sign on US 23 just north of Sylvania. Our ritual at this point was to decide on which fast food restaurant to go to, in this case for lunch. Given I was just back in the States from Europe, my mention that I hadn’t had a hot dog in three months, won out. There was a Dog ‘n Suds just outside of Maumee, and we decided to go there.
My dad loved every sort of fast food, from all the spectrum of standard “cuisines” – hamburgers, hotdogs, fish n’ chips, pizza, fried chicken, roast beef and steak. Yeah even steak, as one of his favorites was Ponderosa, where you could have the whole hunk of red meat (his always cooked medium rare) and baked potato thing, with Texas Toast as well, for a good price. Even sit at a table with a tablecloth and silverware. And everywhere he went in his travels he noted this or that little place and remembered, even years later, to go back there the next time he was passing through. Anything really that was cheap and tasty and quick, and where you didn’t have to pay extra to tip the person serving the food.
So we ate out hotdogs, mine and David’s with just mustard, but dad’s piled with onions and relish as well (those items were free), washed down with big glass mugs of their own homemade root beer. As we ate, I continued my tale, now the part of leaving Munich, hitchhiking with my Canadian buddy down to Chur Switzerland. The night out at the tavern drinking beer and then offering to drive home for my drunker comrades but getting pulled over by the police for going the wrong way up the “Ein Bahn Strasse” that our hostel was on. The police speaking in German, looking at my U.S. driver’s license and then telling me to get out of the car to take a breathalyzer test. Me continuing to stress that I had only drunk “Ein Bier”, in my minimal German.
“Wow Coop”, my dad was really enjoying my tales, “You will have to write this someday! What an adventure!” He had never talked about it, but my mom had told me that he had written a draft of a book for young people on the history of English literature, but never finished it or gotten it published.
I continued my story with hitchhiking across the Alps and then using my rail pass for the first time to take trains back to Munich to finally hook up with Angelica and Helmet. Climbing the mountain with them and visiting the old castle of the crazy Bavarian king. Then saying goodbye to them and striking off on my own, taking the tour boats along the Rhine and the Mossel. Recalling his stories about being in Patton’s army during the War, I noted that it was not the stretch of the Rhine he had crossed at Remagen, but I did take the train to Clerveaux in Luxembourg, just to see a town that was part of my Battle of the Bulge game.
“We rode through Clervaux, after the battle was over”, he recalled, “Driving around wrecked German tanks covered with snow.”
Back in the car now, we continued down I-75 south towards Dayton. The unexpected closure of the youth hostel in Clerveaux led to my story of the rest of that very long day in Luxembourg and Belgium. Walking four miles from the train station through Liege to get to the youth hostel, but throat parched stopping for a beer. Then because of that digresion, arriving at the hostel five minutes after they closed at midnight and not being let in.
“They really wouldn’t let you in? Just five minutes after closing?”
I shook my head. He groaned. I could tell he was imagining it all viscerally. Me walking that same four mile route through town, after midnight, back to the train station. Tired, lonely, homesick, with a cold coming on. Catching a middle of the night train heading north to Copenhagen, just to try to sleep in my seat. Stopping in the outskirts of Brussels on my way and seeing the neon sign of the hotel just outside the little station. Changing my plan and stumbling into the hotel and paying some huge amount of money for a little room for the rest of the night. Listening to the World Series game on the U.S. Armed Forces Radio station I was able to tune in. Then getting to Paris and seeing Giselle and her family, who had befriended my mom when we had lived in England three years earlier.
“I remember Paris”, he said, “But after the war, it didn’t seem much like Hemingway’s Paris.”
I continued with meeting Steve in another fleabag hostel in Paris, eating couscous at an Algerian restaurant, and deciding to travel together, some needed relief from my loneliness. But again, none of the hash smoking with the young French hippie guy that picked us up. But getting picked up by the Canadian couple in their VW van with the mattress instead of the backseat. Helping drive through the Pyrenees to Spain. The Spanish customs agents tearing the van apart looking for drugs but not finding any. Sleeping outside one night in a very dark woods, perilously close to unseen train tracks when a train came through in the middle of the night. The Spanish cities we visited, Barcelona, Granada, Torremolinos and Madrid, but not Steve’s sexual proposition. Eating Paella and seeing all the wild seafood, including octopus and squid, in the fish markets. The ride back to Paris with the old German guy who bought us dinner and put up for the night, but confessed his Nazi sympathies the next morning.
“Those damn Nazis live on”, he chuckled darkly.
Then my last night with Steve, sleeping outside in the rain. Boarding the train the next day, on my own again, but not knowing that my passport and rail pass fell out of my jacket. Telling the conductor who radioed back to the station, and they somehow found it out on the tracks. Waiting for six hours in the Basel station for the next train with my lost documents.
“I remember reading your postcards where you mentioned it”, he said, “but hearing you tell it, wow! It must have been an awful moment.”
“It was”, I said, “My rail pass was not replaceable and I probably would have had to spend weeks at an embassy to get my passport sorted out. That would have been the end of my trip right then!”
Then, reunited with my crucial documents, my circuit through Italy – Rome, Florence and Venice.
“I read Death in Venice, but I never got there!” he noted.
“It’s something!” I confirmed. “The old city is an island on a lagoon and there are no streets or cars, only canals with boats for buses. The whole time I was there the place was shrouded in fog. The buildings seemed old and water stained, like they rose out of the Adriatic.”
He chuckled and nodded, I could see his imagination in gear picturing an old drowned city, with the ennui of Death in Venice. But I could also see him struggling to keep his tired eyes open. We were getting outside Lima, passing through mile after mile of flat Ohio farmland with scattered remnants of the last snowfall. He said he wanted to make a quick stop to get some coffee.
Poor dad. I was thinking he probably hadn’t slept at all last night pushing to get his students’ finals graded. Then left his house early this morning to drive the four hours up to Ann Arbor, and now two and a half hours into the drive home. In our shared ritual of this ride down to his place in Xenia, that we had done roughly once a month for the past four or five years, he was always driving the car, and my brother and I were usually in the backseat, engaged in some sort of conversation or activity. He would listen in, experience our personalities and worldviews vicariously, mostly silent himself with just an occasional question or comment.
As he drove down the off ramp it hit me that the three of us were just going through a ritual that we were all so used to. Dad doing eight hours of driving (four up to Ann Arbor and four back), was his way of showing us that he really loved us. I could see his fatigue and discomfort in having to continue to focus on the road ahead, and I was perfectly capable of taking a turn driving. I had come back from Europe in Coopster mode, which included playing a more adult role in my family, one of four peers, though of different ages, rather than the older son within the dynamic of a family run by the parents. As I was reframing with my mom as a peer more than a parent, so I could do so with my dad as well. If I really thought about it, hadn’t they raised me from my early childhood as a person who would make his own decisions and run his own life, to the extent I was capable? It had just been the twelve straight years of school where those institutions had tried to strip me of my agency and force their developmental agenda on me.
He took a left on the two lane road that went under the freeway and pulled into the parking lot of a little convenience store. Again, our routine, our ritual, was that we could could get what we want, a bottle of pop and a donut or a candy bar on his nikel.
“They usually have fresh donuts from a local bakery in town”, he noted. No doubt they would also be inexpensive, because that was the other thing he was always looking for.
I did not feel shy and was actually excited to intervene.
“Hey dad”, I said, “You can buy yourself some coffee if you like, but I’m more than happy to drive the rest of the way down to Xenia.”
“Oh no Coop”, he replied, not in a that’s not allowed sort of way, but in a more plaintive, this is how I show you I love you thing.
“C’mon dad, you were up late grading papers and you drove all the way up. The least I can do is drive the last leg.”
“Oh Coop”, he said, still plaintive but obviously softening.
“Please dad, let me!”
He could not refuse such a direct ask from me like that.
“Okay Coop”, he conceded, “Sure. That would be nice. I didn’t get much sleep last night.” I suspected he hadn’t gotten any sleep at all!
Frugal as he was, when we went in the store, he bought himself a donut but not that cup of now unneeded fifteen cent coffee. They had one of those old fashioned pop dispensers where you opened the metal lid on top, and then could pull one of the bottles hanging vertically along a track to the point where it clicked through a gauntlet, given that you had already put your dime in the slot. David and I got Cokes and Long Johns, with the vanilla cream inside and vanilla icing on top with those chopped nuts embedded in it.
As we got back to the car, dad with our bag of pastries, and David and I with our bottles of pop, dad grinned, said nothing, but tossed me his car keys. It felt like a rite of passage, for both of us I think. David even chuckled at the toss, and returned to the backseat, and dad took an unfamiliar place in the front passenger seat. I fired the Barracuda up, it’s relatively big engine gurgling, and we were shortly back on I-75 heading south toward Dayton, but with me, for the first time ever I think, at the helm of his car.
“If you want to wait to finish your travelogue until we get home, that’s okay” he volunteered, as I accelerated up the on ramp and merged onto the freeway.
“Naw, I’m okay!”
I was actually looking forward to the telling the story of this next leg of my journey, under the Alps and up to Grindelwald in Switzerland. And I was feeling that heady sense of completely controlling the car’s agenda, it’s speed and direction, along with the conversation inside of it.
“So dad imagine”, I said, “I’m riding a train across Northern Italy in late November. It’s maybe fifty degrees and sunny when we enter the south end of the Saint Gotthard tunnel under the Alps, headed for Interlaken in Switzerland. We’re in there for maybe a half hour. Total blackness outside the window. It starts to feel like we’re never going to come out the other side, like we are descending into hell.” I was trying my best to really milk the story.
“Wow! Okay, I’m picturing it.” He was enjoying my ginning up the drama.
“Then boom! All of the sudden I’m startled because the window turns bright white. I still can’t see anything but bright white nothing.”
I pause for effect.
“Then I look at the window more closely and see tiny geometric patterns dissolving against the outside of the glass and realize it is snow, and that we have come out of the tunnel into a whiteout blizzard!”
“Wow”, he said again.
I felt chills go through my body, including goosebumps on my forearms, as it hit me that this was perhaps the climactic moment of my whole trip. How I had felt that gnawing loneliness and a growing unease in the dark tunnel, like my world was ceasing to exist and I was being swallowed up by the darkness. Then the jarring transition into the total opposite. My wandering mind came back to the car and continued my narrative.
“Soon I could just see through the falling snow a winter wonderland of snow covered evergreen trees and little wood houses. It was like a beautiful fairytale land. I had been in a funk of loneliness and it completely changed that. It reminded me of when we went to Binghamton on the train at Christmas time.”
“From darkness into the light”, David chimed in biblically from the backseat, as he continued to sketch in his sketchbook.
“Yeah exactly!” I replied.
So surfing the momentum of my realization, I continued the tale of making my way on two different trains up to the little town of Grindelwald in the valley across from the famous Eiger mountain, which I could not see the first day because of the low clouds. The hostel like a ski lodge looking down on the valley below. The interesting array of fellow travelers of my backpacker cohort that I met. The next morning with the clouds cleared, seeing the Eiger and the other mountains across the valley from me like monstrous teeth of some giant mouth. The tavern down in the village. Drinking beer with my cohort, and the back and forth singing of songs between the older locals and my comrades and I.
He liked it all, but particularly the singing part. I knew he would. When David and I were little he would sing to us and with us, pretty much every night at bedtime.
Next was the story of our trek to the big blue glacier. Though I rattled off the various fellow travelers I met and where they were from, I did not go into gorgeous Monika and her sexual exploits, or how her semi sister Ragna flirted with me to no avail. I did tell the story of how the next day some of my comrades, though not me, paid the sixty Swiss Francs to take the cog railway through the Eiger up to the weather station near the top of the Jungfrau. Telling their story of an amazing world above our altitude of the Earth.
“I just didn’t feel I could afford those sixty Francs and still have enough for the remainder of my trip.”
He shook his head as we both looked at the road ahead. “Life’s about choices Coop. But I think you always make the right one.”
So I continued with leaving Grindelwald and making my way back to Munich for the third time. Spending another day with Angelica in Munich. Then heading on to Amsterdam. Meeting the Jamaican guy on the train. Spending the afternoon at his girlfriend’s house in Best outside Eindhoven.
“I was in Eindhoven after the war on several occasions when I ran the prisoner of war trucking company. It was mostly rubble I recall.”
“Well the Dutch rebuilt it”, I noted, “The whole city seemed brand new.” He liked hearing that.
As we drove by Sydney on I-75 about an hour or so from Xenia, my tale continued, getting to Amsterdam, another canal city like Venice but with a colorful cleanness and completely different energy. Seeing Anne Frank’s house and learning more of her family’s back story, coming from Germany to try to escape the Nazis. Again I listed the people I met and where they were from, and I featured the alcohol at the Heineken brewery but avoided the hashish with those youth hostel comrades. As I waxed on about the beautiful city in the winter rain, I realized that I had not heard a comment from my dad for awhile, and i looked over to see that his eyes were closed and he was lightly snoring.
“Is dad asleep?” David asked from the backseat, looking up from his sketch pad.
“Yeah”, I said, chuckling, “So much for me as a storyteller!”
“It’s not you”, he assured me, “I’m sure these last few weeks since Thanksgiving with this whole Mary thing have been hard on him, including mom cancelling Christmas.” David laughed. “Mom’s the Grinch this year!”
“So”, I peeked to confirm dad was still asleep, “You think mom shouldn’t have done it?”
“No, I get it”, he replied, still sketching, “Despite what she said earlier about dad having his own life, she had a pretty serious meltdown when she found out about Mary.”
When David said “meltdown”, I recalled years back when I would hear her sobbing in her room at night, calling dad and yelling at him, and then hanging up to continue sobbing. She also had vented to me on a number of occasions that “I can’t go on like this” and that “Life isn’t worth living”. She wore her heart on her sleeve, so I could never tell whether she was truly suicidal or just being overly dramatic.
“So was she suicidal?” I asked.
“No. Nothing like that. She just was really really mad. Like she’d had enough.”
“Huh!” I said. I thought about her planning to start that new job as a canvasser at ISR. She needed her own money to not be so dependent on him. I needed a job too so I could contribute to the family, at least pay my own expenses.
It also struck me that though I was getting comfortable feeling more like a young adult than a kid anymore, particularly after my eleven weeks in Europe, that David was sounding pretty grown up as well. He and I had pretty much completed our transition from rival siblings to comrade family members.
“You know”, David noted, “This is the first time I’ve heard a lot of your Europe story. I know you shared it with Mom and Mary Jane, and I imagine you have by now with Jerry and Avi, and Angie and Lane.”
I felt bad. The Coopster was chastened. “You’ve been in school and rehearsing for Cinderella so we haven’t had a chance to hang out.”
“Yeah”, he scoffed, “I have a semblance of an actual life!”
We were approaching the junction with the I-70. When we first drove down to Xenia six years ago, we’d go east on 70 and then take several two-lane highways through Vandalia to get to Xenia. The last time I recalled dad driving us down, back in August, we had taken a more direct route, but I wasn’t remembering exactly.
“Shit”, I said, “Do I need to wake dad up for directions?”
“No, don’t wake him”, David said, “Just follow 75 through Dayton and then take 35 east to Xenia.”
He paused, and then continued, “And at dinner you can start your story with coming into Amsterdam, I think that’s when he fell asleep.”
David and I made it so.