Friday, April 29, 2016

And they walked off to look for America

I grew up in a military family which meant, for me, cumulative days and weeks driving between duty stations with my two little brothers, our dog, and whichever cat was lowering himself to abide with us for the time being. We were all in the backseat, filed together side by side but not very neatly. A row of elbows and knobby knees, one of us on the hump of a white Pinto wagon or, later, a red Volvo station wagon.

Entertainment was limited in the 1970s and early 80s, driving from Virginia to California to Maine to South Carolina and points south. So this was our catalog:

1. We had two Superscope story tapes. Superscope Storyteller presents: Moses in Egypt and The Adventures of Spiderman,

2. We also liked to sing The Gambler by Kenny Rogers with lyrics we made up each time (and laughed uproarously over),

3. We liked to sing Don't Go Breakin' My Heart with Elton John and Kiki Dee,

But mostly we listened to:

4. The Mamas and the Papas Greatest Hits,

5. Simon and Garfunkel's Concert in Central Park, and 

6. Zero Mostel, in a production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Tevye: Rabbi, is there a blessing for the Czar? 

Rabbi (singing): May God bless and keep the Czar...FAR AWAY FROM US! 

Not a bad catalog. Though I do remember one of us asking my dad, "Who is Ed Koch and who are 'the guys sellin' loose joints?'"

Rolling along, I read all of the Little House books and Narnia books a hundred times each, or a thousand, when I wasn't snoozing from Dramamine. I was a bookish, very shy, easily-carsick girl born into a traveling family. (By the time I graduated from high school I had attended ten schools.)

There is a special mental state you reach when you are bored of being bored. A Boredom Rubicon is crossed. Born of resignation, resolution, but call it magic, for I would lean my cheek on the vinyl window bumper and stare out at the sky -- a clear blue endless day, a rainy roof of grey, a whiteout blizzard in Iowa, a midnight sky full of a spray of stars big and bright. California dreamin'

I saw Half Pint trundling across a prairie in her wagon in a calico dress, and Pa shouldering his way through a blizzard to feed the horses. I saw the Children of Israel pulling carts across the yellow sand and water spilling from the rock. I saw Lucy in the snowy woods, and Caspian turning his ship away from the long blue wave on the Silver Sea to go back and marry the star's daughter. Kindred spirits, I imagined, all of us -- Moses, and me, and Caspian the Seafarer.

Sunrise, Sunset.

So we all rolled along to the tune of the traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway or my brothers' action figures shooting each other. In between the battles and songs and stories, I told my little brothers my own invented, wandering story that re-commenced with each new road trip. It was a story about some kids who found an ancient, secret door in a gnarly tree, which led to a secret tunnel under the road, which led to a secret room, which led to adventures.

In some of the adventures, there was a Gila Monster. ("...and that's when they turned the corner and came upon THE HEELAH MONSTER!")

My dad had introduced us to The Gila Monster into his own "Billy Boy" story series -- concoctions initially developed to keep us amused on the exceedingly bleak and ominous day two of the five day trip to Arlington, Virginia from Monterey, California. My brothers and I imagined him as some kind of bloody-mawed, man-eating Godzilla. (So imagine our surprise and amusement when, much later, we learned that gila monsters are small, harmless lizards in the American southwest. Not even Japanese!)

On the road, my brothers asked occasionally If There Are Sharks In That Big River (fresh water disqualification was not really absorbed, for perhaps hope sprang eternal) and How Deep Is That Bay and How Long Until We Get to the Motel. My brothers were always asking about sharks, alligators, snakes, and bears which, they sincerely hoped, lived in the woods by the highways were were driving down.

They also were keenly interested in the depths of the bodies of water over which we passed on bridges. Dad obliged by thoughtfully and confidently making up the answer right out of thin air. "Oh hmmm, let's see. I believe that river is about 50, maybe closer to 55 feet deep at this point."

I eventually fell asleep to my parents comforting, murmuring grown-up conversation, waking up crick-necked and drooling in the McDonalds parking lot or the rest area off of some turnpike.

It makes sense that at some point in middle school I decided the following: The theme song for my life shall be "America," by Simon and Garfunkel.

"America" is a somehow both soaring and pensive traveling song about people and places. It builds a big picture from small things. (I have only reluctantly forgiven Bernie Sanders for co-opting it for his campaign.) It also seemed slightly and deliciously rebellious for me to choose it, because it mentions cigarettes.

It also has the gait, somehow, of a highway song. Do you know what I mean? Some songs have this, not in exactly the same way as each other, but they do. "Driver 8" is a highway song, "Africa" is, too -- not just because of the words, because of the indefinable traveling song-ness of the sound and rhythm. Like wheels thrumming steadily on pavement. Things by Gordon Lightfoot are sometimes traveling songs. "Rocky Mountain High," by John Denver, is a traveling song, and "Country Roads." "Walk on the Ocean" by Tode the Wet Sprocket. There are others.

Anyway, my middle school real estate was in my bag. My bag was a purple Le Sac with a novel, some Trident gum, some Bonne Bell gloss or Cover Girl Frosted Peach lipstick, a retainer, my allowance, a notebook with my friends' addresses from the last place we lived.

That was then. This is now.

In three weeks I move again, this time to Pittsburgh. I have never lived there.

I am 45 and married to a civilian, but he has been a traveling man, as well. If you count the three month stints in apartments waiting for homes, this will be my 30th move. If you don't, it will be my 25th.

It just so happens that the traveler in the song boards a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh. For some, maybe this means nothing. But, for me, it means that, at age 45, I'm not quite done looking for America.


Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together
I've got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner's pies
And we walked off to look for America

Cathy, I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've gone to look for America

Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, be careful, his bowtie is really a camera

Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat
We smoked the last one an hour ago
So I looked at the scenery
She read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

Cathy, I'm lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
And I'm empty and aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all come to look for America

All come to look for America
All come to look for America

Read more: Simon And Garfunkel - America Lyrics | MetroLyrics 

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