Cliff Leppke, WITI TV6 Milwaukee
Given that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, don’t be fooled into thinking this is another warm ode from a son to his mother. The usual exchange of greeting cards, whether it is on V-Day or Motherâ€™s Day contain narratives about maternal nurturing, human closeness and world peace set in domestic locales such as kitchens. This is not one of them.
My mother and I have a distant relationship, both geographically and emotionallyâ€”abetted by all things, the automobile. According to my mom, this gap appeared during my early childhood. As she tells the story, she wanted to play ball; a game of catch. When I caught the orb, I would keep it; I didnâ€™t toss it back. Instead, I grabbed it and ran away-headed to my favorite mode of escape, an early 1960s Murray ‘flat face’ pedal car with fender ornaments. She was frustrated.
Mom had a countermeasure, however-the family car. She discovered that nearly the instant I was supported by a 1955 Ford Mainline’s seat sporting a glittering cover, I became pliable, docile and sleepy. It’s as if Scarlett Johansson’s voice whispered through the car’s see-through I Astra-Dial speedometer. Years later, mom’s instrument to garner closeness was a station wagon, a 1967 Ford Country Sedan, the gold-colored behemoth didn’t have a radio! No napping, when she drove this monster. Nonetheless, riding with my mom was instructive, and destructive, at the same time. For Instance, my mother drove a car as though she escaped from the Midway at the state fair. In her hands, they were Tilt-A-Whirls run amok.
Given the Fordâ€™s slab-like waffle-print seats, this meant we had to fasten the outboard seatbelts. Mom often set the Sear’s Lady Kenmore clock-controlled oven, then became the neighborhood chauffer ferrying kids to all of the wonderful places mother’s take their brood, such as our community’s outdoor swimming pool. One time she approached a fork in the road, downshifted and then gleefully stomped on the throttle-instant autocross; a ride on the wild side. The resulting force tossed the preacherâ€™s kid, who was riding along, smack against the door panel. I thought this great fun until he â€œnarcedâ€ on Momâ€™s driving. Letâ€™s just say that my folkâ€™s minister wasnâ€™t amused.
I, however, couldn’t contain my laughter. It suddenly dawned on me: My mother’s idea of family-style motoring wasn’t the norm. So if your idea of a family car is a mom-approved safety cocoon, you werenâ€™t in our family car.
Did this driven woman teach me to drive? Possibly, but she refused to let me sit in the driver’s seat, even on the trip home after I got my driver’s license! I rode in the back seat.
Any amusement ride can become a mode of cruel and unusual punishment. Surely, you remember Alfred Hitchcockâ€™s merry-go-round? Well, my mother came close. She found cruising at 55 mph on a county highway the ideal velocity to introduce the facts-of-life quizâ€”and weâ€™re not talking the TV show.
What was a guy to do? I mean, there must be something in the Fourth Geneva Convention banning this form of deportation and confinement. What could I say??? Quick turn left at the stateâ€™s vehicle inspection facility. I think theyâ€™re open late to check nocturnal emissions???? One wrong word could provoke my mom: Thereâ€™ was no telling what avenue sheâ€™d take next.
Just Say No
On the road, one can learn how to thwart adult authority. During one trip home from the city, which was supposed to include a side trip to McDonaldâ€™s for Hot Apple Pie, I discovered that crusty concoction was conditional. There was a stern parental request. I said â€œno.â€ It was one of my early victories. I won the battle, but lost the treat. Had I retorted that McDonaldâ€™s wasnâ€™t nearly as good as momâ€™s homemade pieâ€”a verityâ€”my smart mouth might have scored an extra bite.
Mom, however, often turned our 700-mile treks to grandmotherâ€™s house into excursions any car-crazy kid would dig. Sheâ€™d dole out trinkets meant to delight and entertain. One of these was a Matchbox model eight, a silver oval-rear-window VW Beetle, which I still have. My brother got the Microbus. My mother engaged us in car and card games. Auto bingo was a favorite. She handed out cards with colored windows you slid over DeSoto, Packard or Nash logos. Those now defunct makes were still roving the early interstates, if you watched carefully. Then there was Mille Bornes, a French car card game. You won if you were able to rack up 1000 kilometers.
Neither the Mille Bornes gameâ€™s tire punctures nor speed limits, however, were as fiendish as my momâ€™s wicked use of the family car. And unlike the game, you could not play a coup-fourre (counter thrust, protection card), when your mom was at the wheel.
Sunday drives home from church could be devilishly thrilling. My mother was the church organist, and also presided over one of the early two-car families on our block. That meant that my folks could head to and from church services in separate cars. My dad and I were in agreement about not arriving at our house of worship an hour early for music preps. Heading home, however, was a different matter. I had a choice: One, ride with my nerd-insert dad who drove as though he had to get every millimeter out of his investment in a set of Duralon bias-ply tires. Two, ride with my daredevil mother. The choice wasn’t always obvious. With dad, I could ride in the front while I scanned the roadside for lost hubcaps. Or, I could ride with mom-in the back seat. Mom preferred the long way home; a rural route that snaked between a farmstead and its barn, dipping abruptly downhill. For a moment, the car would feel airborne.
Today Mom is a 75 year-old loving grandmother who still enjoys driving. Her wheels come in the form of a Toyota Camry Hybrid, as well as a five-speed Ram diesel truck. The truck-my parentsâ€™-is used to tow their fifth-wheel abode. Trailer Trash?
As she has always done, Mom creates her own Valentines Day cards for us all. She keeps busy, but gone are the days when she would drive with reckless abandon. Like the time she took the 1959 Rambler off-roading and got stuck in a puddle.
Then there was the time she forgot to pick me up from school! A second-grader, I walked about four miles toward home, but had to stop at a AMC dealer to use their restroom. The receptionist attempted to call my parents. Mom had absent-mindedly got apple picking and hadnâ€™t realized she was two hours late!
In todayâ€™s world, such an event might have made it on the evening news. In the good old days, it was an â€˜adventure.â€™ A car show!
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