I grew nostalgic recently, trying to figure out the dashboard controls of the rental car that I was using. All I wanted to do was listen to the radio on the way to and from Austin, and at first I thought that Avis had given me a small airplane instead of the Ford Focus that I requested. They were located, after all, near the airport, so I believed this was a reasonable suspicion. I yearned for the large silver tabs on my parents’ 1967 Oldsmobile. Back then changing the pre-set stations was a simple task but required a real commitment, as you had to first pull out the locking buttons under the dial – a feat not unlike King Arthur pulling that sword out of the stone – and then push them forcefully back in once you had settled on the station that you were pledging your undying devotion. Back then there was no satellite radio, and I confess that I miss the days when you could judge how close to home you were by the level of static on the local radio stations.
When I was a child, I would stretch out in the rear window of the Oldsmobile as we traveled back to our house at night; my face tilted up to watch the stars pass by overhead in a dizzy parade of pinpoint lights. These were the days before child safety regulations; and it’s a wonder we didn’t all wind up scattered along the sides of the highway like bits of litter. As we drove along, I rested my ear against the speaker in the rear deck, listening for faint whispers of country music blowing across my face like scratchy West Texas tumbleweeds. I would hope for Hank Williams, something I could tap my foot too, not knowing or caring then that Hank was years past a rock star death in the back seat of a limousine.
If we were far from home the music might be interrupted by a late night preacher, fading and weaving through the melodies like a snake rustling through brush. I turned my face away from all that shouting, figuring that someone had done that preacher wrong for sure. I patiently waited for deliverance from the threatened fires of hell, closing my eyes against the rush of wind through open windows while the firefly sparks from my father’s cigarette settled like bright brimstone on my arms and legs.
My mother’s job was to shake Dad now and then to make sure he didn’t nod off too deeply and run us all into a ditch along those moonlit roads. As soon as we got to the first stop light in town, my father would wake up and slam on the brakes, sending me tumbling from my perch in the window, bouncing across the bench seat in the back, and finally settling limply across the hump in the back floorboard. I would lay there, too stunned to climb back up, and breathe in the dust from the mats while I took hard comfort in the dull road hum beneath me as we moved on closer to home and soft beds.
When I rode with my older brother Ronnie in his Mustang, I was always securely buckled in the front seat. This, I supposed, was my parents’ token gesture toward safety once they decided it was all right for my epileptic brother to take me to the grocery store in a fast car. My brother was twenty-one and I was eight years old that year. Every time we stopped at a red light Ronnie would shift to neutral and press the gas. The engine growled and snarled, and when the light turned green, I wouldn’t have time to worry about car crashes, or breath to protest how fast we were traveling as my back pressed into the soft leather of the seat.
Our journeys were accompanied not by Hank Williams, nor calls to salvation, but by raw Sixties Rock n’ Roll. It might be Jefferson Airplane asking if we didn’t in fact need someone to love, or it might be the Stones and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, but it was always loud and mostly clear.
Almost twenty years later I would be returning to the mobile home we lived in at that time, driving a car my father-in-law bought for me for $50. My older son Robert was strapped and buckled in a child carrier in the back seat. The car had good brakes and a working radio, but not much else for $50. The rear driver’s side window was a clear plastic drop cloth, held in place with duct tape. Somewhere along the highway the catalytic converter plugged up, and the car grew sluggish while we were still some way from the trailer park. Then, just as we slowed down to a crawl and I thought I would have to hike the five or six miles carrying Robert, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” came blasting out of the speakers. The car surged forward with a loud bang, and we gathered speed as the song played. The rest of the way home flames shot from the exhaust at every chorus of “it’s a gas, gas, gas…” I was sure that someone along that redneck white rock road would come out with a shotgun and return fire, but we made it safely to our lot just as Keith played the final chorus.
I finally figured out the controls on the rented Ford, and made the trip safely to Austin. On the return trip that evening I drove through Waco, that city of apocalyptic prophets and Baylor Bears. A Christian light rock station filtered through the static on the radio, the cheery chorus far removed from flames of eternal damnation. As I drove over the bridge that spanned the muddy Brazos, I rolled the window down and let the mossy air from the river below wash over me. I punched the tuner and found my favorite local radio station fading in and out from the speakers. The stereo called out stronger with each mile, reminding me that; if not on the road to salvation, I was at least on the road towards home.