Travels with Dad

In my book, Live Long*, Learn a Little, Laugh a Lot, I wrote how my dad loved the open road–as long as he wasn’t on it. Over the years he racked up a fairly impressive total of highway miles, but most of them were commuting back and forth to work at Geneva Steel plant about thirty miles away. Membership in the car pool rarely changed which meant that over the decades they had discussed or maybe disgust and disagreed over every subject in the world and even out of the world apparently. Dad told me about one winter night on the way home when a bright full moon rose above the mountains to the east of them. One of the guys said, “Man take a look at that moon.”

Another man predictably retorted, “Hell that ain’t no moon.” He probably meant to say something like, “I’ve seen better,” but his brain went into autopilot mode.

“We couldn’t even agree on whether that was the moon,” Dad told me with a sigh and a chuckle. Over the years driving down the highway symbolized boredom more than adventure to him.

Lurking in the back of his mind may also have been the five serious accidents he had survived including a couple of rollovers. This was not a world record in his youth and young manhood. Cars then were higher, narrower and less stable. Roads were narrower and more winding. Highways were rarely divided between the lanes. My Uncle Randall, Dad’s brother had a cheery saying, “Every time you pass a car, you come within twenty-four inches of death.”

I think Randall meant it more as gratitude for Divine protection. Dad took it to mean you were more liable to be riding with the Grim Reaper of death than with Saint Christopher the patron saint of travelers.

Dad also remembered certain places that never made it on to St. Christopher’s road map. One of these was the twice cursed Malad hill on the Utah/Idaho border; a murderously long pull. Dad had seen it defeat both horses and horsepower. As a boy he had watched as his father and uncles tried to move a horse drawn wagon full of their humble household possessions back to Utah after a brief residence in Blackfoot Idaho. Part way up the long grind one horse of the team balked, gave up, and refused to pull.

The men took him out of the harness, and hitched up a big blue wild stallion they had tethered to the back of the wagon. The horse had never been under a saddle much less a harness with a rattling wagon behind it. The horse went insane. It dragged its companion, wagon, and contents screaming up to the top of the hill. They made it up in record time, but the horse overexerted, heaved over, and died. They dragged it to the side of the road and went on.

Decades later our family was somewhere near the same place on the infamous hill when our old ’37 Ford went balky on us and began to wheeze, sputter, cough, lunge and finally die by the side of the road. This was not our first experience with this and other antiques we had driven. Dad had become a little paranoid over the years I think, and figured the fates were just waiting for him to venture out of town so they could dump a crisis on him.

A breeze was stirring dust, the sun was burning down as Dad got out announcing, “Vapor lock.” He gathered a pair of pliers, a screw driver and a few other nondescript tools to make repairs. I stood by him for what seemed like four hours while he futilely poked around with only the vaguest idea of what magic would start the car running again. I remembered each car whooshing by us and my father knowing that the next one would splatter him on the side of our Ford. I firmly believed it as well. Finally a nice looking car from California pulled up and stopped next to us. It had four middle aged well-dressed women passengers, and a man driving. I thought, “At last, help.”

The man rolled down the window, smiled and hollered out to my father, “Get that piece of junk off the road so a real car can go by.” Everyone in the car laughed. My father ducked his head. They dropped into low gear, and spun gravel our way as they sped up the road laughing hilariously.

An hour or so later, a man in a coal truck passed us, stopped, and towed us to a town near the bottom of the hill where Dad’s sister and her family lived. The coal man refused to take any money for his trouble. Dad said, “It’s always a working man who stops to help.”

We thought we had it fixed. We even bought a part which for us was a major investment. “Fuel pump,” Pop said with authority. Turned out it wasn’t. The next set of hills the car began to miss again. With the new fuel pump it didn’t die altogether. Instead it bucked and coughed up the road. Pop was fit to be tied, but my maternal Grandma Wride and her unsinkable sense of humor was in the back with us. She was having the time of her life. “Ride ‘em cowboy. Comin’ out of shoot number 5 on a horse called Wildfire!” She whooped as we rode the bucking bronco in the back seat. Finally even Mom couldn’t hold it back any more. She began to laugh too. I don’t remember that Dad ever did, but Grandma did break the tension.

When we finally bucked, coughed, and wheezed our way back home to Payson Utah, Pop took the car to Crouch Brothers Service Station. They deduced it was a worn push rod activating the fuel pump, a fairly cheap fix. Pop mourned that somewhere in an Idaho land fill was a perfectly good fuel pump moldering while somewhere floating out of reach down the stream of the American economy was the nine dollars he had paid for an unneeded replacement.

But nine dollars had bought us a resolve to be better people than “California Drivers.” (That was our synonym for bad mannered motorists when I was a young boy. I have since learned better.) It gave us an encounter with a Good Samaritan in a coal truck, and a wild bronco ride with grandma. I have since paid more to be entertained and instructed less.

Years later I was able to get a good price on a Brigham Young University Travel Study tour to the Holy Land. I knew that Mom, and even Dad would enjoy this once in a lifetime experience. My wife Diane and I conspired and convinced them that the tour was free because I worked at the university. Otherwise they would have turned it down.

“Just once Dad won’t have to be in charge of transportation,” I mused. “He can kick back in a comfy seat while the pilots fly, and the tour bus drivers take care of traffic, mechanical stuff, maps, and schedules.”

They had a marvelous time. They talked about it for the rest of their lives.

I only found out later through the grape vine that on the way home the plane had a problem. They had to land at an outback airport in Nova Scotia. The airline arranged for them to bunk with the locals for two days in a little town nearby.

I’m sure that Dad, like Jonah of old knew he was the cause of it. I imagined him saying, “Just throw me overboard, and everything will be fine.”