Following Dad down the road

  • The author in Spokane in the late 1950s

    Russell Sylvain
  • Maps of Sylvain family travel from a memory book

    Russell Sylvain
  • Russell Sylvain
  • Russell Sylvain
  • Russell Sylvain
  • Russell Sylvain
  • Russell Sylvain
  • Russell Sylvain

I thank you for the music, and your stories of the road;
I thank you for my freedom  when it came my time to go;
I thank you for your kindness, and the times that you got tough.
And Papa, I don’t think I’ve said “I love you” near enough.

--Dan Fogelberg, from his song “Leader of the Band”

This is a true story, although some of the details are a bit dim now, and my Dad might be inclined to argue with them. (Of course, my father, who just had a birthday June 13, insists that he’s only 44 – whereas I am in my 50s – so I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide who to believe.)

My Dad spent years in the Air Force, fighting “on our side,” as he likes to reassure brand-new acquaintances. It was a generally interesting job that offered him the chance to travel, meet new people, and occasionally take year-long vacations at taxpayer expense to places like Vietnam.

But from a kid’s point of view – and there were three of us – it was the traveling that mattered, for reasons both good and bad. A rootless childhood leaves you with a strong awareness of the inevitability of loss, the constant knowledge that, sooner or later, you have to say goodbye to what you love – not just to your friends, but to your house and your favorite climbing tree, to the fields you played in and a landscape you’d memorized, where the weather and seasons had come to seem right somehow. And we changed landscapes and climates a lot: Going from the bitter winters and hot dry summers of eastern Washington to the mosquito-buzzing fug of deep down South, then off to the high mountains of Colorado. We'd ping-pong our way across the map from Moses Lake, Wash., to Homestead, Fla., with detours to El Paso and Denver, and lengthy side trips and family vacations to Butte and San Francisco and the Northern Cascades and Dallas and Key West. We spent a truly dreadful year in Tampa (when Dad was in Vietnam); followed by an oddly wonderful, isolated period in a trailer in the eastern Virginia woods. Then we schlepped out west to Colorado Springs, then back down to Panama City, Fla., in the northern part of the state. Then back to Colorado again, and – well, you get the idea. And that’s only some of what I recall; my older brother, the family archivist, remembers a whole lot more.

There were good things about all that moving, from a kid’s point of view: We always had cardboard boxes to play in and build things out of -- forts and robots and boats and castles and mazes, all kinds of glorious constructions. And we learned a lot that cannot be found on any school curriculum. When you attend nine or 10 schools in 12 years, you learn how to adapt to different people and situations, while hanging on fiercely to the deepest, truest part of your own nature, so that you always have something you know you can trust -- a place in yourself where you feel at home, even when everything around you is new and strange. We lived off-base whenever we could because we never adapted well to a regimented life, so we got to know all kinds of human habitats: cement military duplexes and civilian trailers and basements; rundown shanties and ranch-style split-levels; the tidy, comfy streets of Spokane; and a kudzu-covered neighborhood by an alligator-inhabited bayou.

It certainly made for an interesting life. But it wasn’t always an easy one. Sometimes we had to say farewell to pets we loved: especially our big, beautiful dog Rebel, along with miscellaneous snakes and lizards and turtles and “horny toads” – the kind of animals that don’t thrive in new climates. (Cats, fortunately, are remarkably adaptable; we had a huge and awesomely intelligent one, Ringo, who traveled with us for years and enjoyed it -- consenting, when necessary to walk on a leash and even to go camping in tents, although he preferred the luxury of motels.) Still, it’s probably not a coincidence that all three of us kids chose as adults to find a place that we love and try to stay put, planting deep roots and claiming our homes as our homes.

The trips were usually terrific; both my parents were born with the gift of seeing life as an adventure. They took back roads whenever possible. They turned us loose to explore every historical site or park or battlefield or funky roadside museum, the musty mysterious cobwebby kind that specialized in unconvincing two-headed goats and the like – the kind of mystical, Ray Bradbury-ish emporiums that seem to have vanished along with my youth. We even got to give input on the route, when there was time – poring over the atlas together, sometimes seeking out places just because they sounded interesting: Truth or Consequences, N.M., and Chugwater, Wyo., Dinwiddie, Va., and Wewahitchka, Fla.

But that doesn’t mean we were always fun to travel with. You have to consider that there were always three kids (and at least one large cat) crammed into the back seat of an overcrowded, usually un-air-conditioned car more or less held together with duct tape – with two of those kids prone to frequent car sickness. Occasionally one of those kids – hardly ever me, of course – would, er, misbehave. Deliberately, rather than accidentally. It is not deliberate misbehavior when a little girl absent-mindedly croons “Puff the Magic Dragon” into her father’s ears for 75 miles or so, or chants, “That’s not our house; that’s not our house; that’s not our house,” for the last two hours of a long trip home. And it’s certainly not deliberate misbehavior when, because the little girl is too polite to say anything when her daddy remarks, “Honey, you look like you need to throw up,” she simply responds by leaning over the seat and demonstrating that, in fact, she does. By throwing up. Down her daddy’s back. The girl in question has never been forgiven; I don’t know why.

But that’s not the story I set out to tell. It’s this one: We were arguing our way late at night across some God-forsaken desert after a long, hot, miserable day, and my Dad finally said something along the lines of, “One more peep out of you kids and I’m leaving you here!” Somebody – not me! – said something along the lines of, “Peep.” And my dad slammed the car over to the side of the road, hit the brakes, flung open the door, threw the three of us out, and – this is the part that made the whole episode seem most serious at the time – handed my little brother his teddy bear and gave us a single blanket to share between us. And then drove off. In my memory I can see the taillights fading in the distance as the stars got sharper and closer and scarier-looking, and I can hear the coyotes (or were they wolves?) howling hungrily from the desert around us.

“You ARE going back, aren’t you, dear?” my Mom says she asked him, after several minutes had gone by.

“I’m still thinking about it,” Dad muttered, his hands still white-knuckled around the steering wheel.

Eventually – I’m sure it wasn’t as long as it seemed – the headlights of the car reappeared and slowly drew closer, creeping toward the part of the highway where we three future feral children huddled, weeping, each clutching our corner of the blanket. Dad stopped the car and opened the door without a single word, and we scrambled into the back seat, still clinging to the blanket. And I guarantee there was not a “peep” from that backseat – scarcely even the snuffle of a choked-back sob – for at least several hours. I’m not sure any of this would be legal today, but I must say it proved an effective parenting technique.

Ah, my dear father. There are so many stories I could tell about him, but let this one stand as an example of the remarkable man who led his often-troubled and always struggling family through years and miles of adventure – adventure we learned to see as adventure, largely because he taught us to. He’s now retired and living in Florida, but he still pores over maps (whenever he thinks my stepmom isn’t looking) and dreams of new and often insane expeditions. Dad, I hope you know how much we love you. And I haven’t gotten car-sick for years, so it’s safe to let me sit behind you now. Really.

Diane Sylvain is an artist and writer. She also works as copy editor and general mischief maker at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds