Exactly one month after the end of my freshman year in high school, we moved. Not just across town, but halfway across the country, from the damp climate of the Ohio Valley to the foggy San Francisco Bay Area of California.
There is some back history to the move. During World War II my dad was stationed in San Diego, and then in San Francisco, before being shipped out to sea. He fell in love with the mild temperatures and friendly people. He promised himself that when the war was over, he’d move to San Francisco. He never forgot his dream of someday living in such a pleasant place even though work, marriage and family delayed the move.
My family was not quite destitute, but certainly was considered low income. We were never truly homeless, but often in between housing. My mother did not work when we were young and this placed a major financial burden on my dad. He sometimes worked a forty-hour week at one job and then picked up extra hours driving a cab or helping on construction projects.
In 1963 my mother developed chronic asthma brought on by the mildew that grew in the crawlspace beneath our house. While she was never hospitalized, there were several close calls. After one severe attack the doctor declared that we had to move if we wanted her to live.
That was when we began planning for the trip to California. This was well before the Internet so we made many trips to the library to gather information. My brother and I took on the role of California experts. We analyzed climate options, for there is a wide range, and decided that the Bay Area would be the best match for our mother’s needs.
One discovery that tingled our toes was the Community College system. At that time the tuition was miniscule and therefore affordable even to us. For the first time I had hope that I could become something other than someone’s wife.
As the time to move neared we sold things too bulky to take with us, gave away even more, and packed the bare essentials into our boat-like station wagon.
One morning we loaded everything into the car and literally drove away with the sun at our backs. The car was jammed full with a family of five, the pet dog, clothing, bedding, and travel games sufficient to keep my brother and I occupied.
The early parts of our journey were boring. We drove past one cornfield after another as we crossed Indiana and Illinois. Colorado was much more promising with its spectacular vistas and unfamiliar trees.
All had gone reasonably well until that point. The car had performed marvelously, we’d been able to find affordable lodging and there was food to eat. Things changed when we were high in the Rocky Mountains.
Rain clouds darkened the sky. Huge, boiling, black masses of clouds that drastically dropped temperatures and brought ripping winds that nearly blew us off the road. Amazement at the high craggy peaks quickly turned to fear. While we knew tornados, we were ignorant in the ways of mountain storms.
My dad persisted, however, for we had limited money for luxuries such as an extra night in a hotel or additional meals on the road. Unfortunately, it was his persistence or stubbornness that nearly doomed our journey.
An awareness arose that mud was washing across the road. Not just an oozing of dirt, but bubbling masses of dark brown, saturated mud that quickly covered the road, obliterating edges and lines. My dad, the determined explorer, kept us pointing westward. No mud was going to delay us.
We slogged on, albeit slowly, mile after mile until an avalanche blocked our path. Rain was pounding so hard on the windshield that the wipers could not move the water fast enough for clear vision. My Dad leaned forward, bent over the steering wheel straining to see ahead, following taillights of a vehicle in front of us. No matter how much mud was on the road, my dad kept us moving westward until traffic came to a complete halt.
My dad has never been a patient man. He always had a hard time sitting still. He was happiest working with his hands, building, scraping loosening, greasing, keeping busy, keeping moving. Imagine him in his thirties, which was how old he was at the time of our move. He was brass, bold, daring, critical, mouthy, and arrogant. While his business was an admirable quality, my dad was not a pleasant man unless things were going his way.
Dad being who he was, was flustered by the avalanche. We could not move forward and there was no way he would turn around. Retreating would add precious travel time and expenses. After sitting motionless for what felt like at eternity, he got out of the car, to do what, I was not sure.
He stalked over to a group of men standing under a nearby tree. I assumed that these guys were drivers of other trapped cars, talking about what to do. Through the rain-created haze, we watched our dad approach the men. His posture and stride were aggressive, typical of the man I knew. When he stood face-to-face with the men, we could see, but not hear, his lips move. His gestures were angry and accusatory, very familiar to me as I was often a victim of his ire.
Eventually my dad returned, not with a solution, but with extreme anger. Using a bevy of foul swear words he explained that the wall of mud completely covered the road. No one could get through from either direction. We were stuck just like all the other drivers. My dad despised helplessness in others, so imagine his anger at being the one who could do nothing to change our circumstances. He tortured the steering wheel, my mother and myself and my siblings since there was no one else that he could attack.
I have no idea how much time passed while we huddled inside our car, but my older self believes that it was possibly no more than an hour. My brother and I knew to keep silent but our sister played with her dolls, singing and talking and laughing. I feared that she would bring Dad’s anger down on me, for it was my responsibility to watch over her. Obviously, I wasn’t doing my job.
My mother, ever the nag, didn’t help when she began calling my dad a series of disgusting names. The tension was horrendous as I knew that Dad would explode and that someone would get hurt.
Just as his arm swung out to smack my mom a loud roar erupted not too far from us. Through our foggy windows, we watched mesmerized as a large truck moved out of line. It crossed over into the opposite lane which was empty, thanks to the slide. When the truck was parallel to our car it suddenly stopped.
All of a sudden there was another roar and then the truck shot forward. It went up and over the mound of mud with the grace of a gazelle leaping a small hill.
That did it. My dad’s male ego was seriously threatened. If that truck could climb the hill of muck, then our station wagon could do the same.
If I had known what I do now about weight and trajectory and propulsion, I would have calculated that we could never make it over the mud hill. Even if I had known all those things, it would not have deterred my dad’s intention to match the truck driver’s bravado.
Following the truck’s example, my dad pulled us out of the line of cars. He positioned us into the still empty lane. He wiggled us back and forth until we were aligned with the hill of mud. He put the car into forward gear, jammed the gas pedal, and when he was sufficiently satisfied with the sound of the engine, took his foot off the brake.
We shot forward. The force of the movement plastered us to the back of our seats, much like being on an accelerating roller coaster.
The car approached the wall of mud which was now clearly visible despite the continuing downpour. My eyes must have grown huge when I saw that it was taller than our car. In fact, it was so tall that I could not see over it and so wide that Icould not see around it.
Determined to succeed, my dad kept the gas pedal glued to the floor. Our front tires touched the mud noticeably raising the front of the car. My view changed from mud to blackened sky in a matter of seconds.
All of us, including my dad, whooped and hollered. We raised our hands in the air and envisioned us cresting the hill and the victorious descent to the other side.
That didn’t happen, however, because instead of climbing the hill, we came to an abrupt halt, heads still pointing skyward, our bodies still melded into the seats. Nothing worked to move us forward, not my dad’s cussing nor his attempts at accelerating us up and over.
Exhilaration rapidly turned to fear when there was a slight shift in our position. We weren’t moving upward. We were sinking into the muck.
My view of sky became a view of mud. I realized that we were now even with the crest of the hill. That was not the end. Instead, our car continued to sink, more and more, until we stopped with nothing but mud in front, behind and on both sides.
My dad pounded the steering well as he swore like the sailor he had been. Eventually he turned off the engine and pushed opened the door. Mud oozed in, covering the floor of the front of the car. To prevent that from happening, my dad stepped out into the mud and pushed the door closed.
He moved away by lifting his feet uncomfortably high. As he did so, mud coated his legs to slightly above his knees.
My dad slogged his way back to the men under the tree. It must have been humiliating for him to admit defeat, but he had no choice. His family was trapped in a car surrounded by mud.
We sat for what felt like an eternity, but was probably no more than twenty minutes. During this time, the rain slackened. No longer a deluge, it fell softly on the windshield, making only tiny dots. I anxiously awaited my dad’s return, not knowing what his mood would be and who he would blame for our predicament. It could be me even though I had kept quiet the whole time, but that was the way in our family: someone had to pay.
When our dad finally returned, he wasn’t smiling, but the angry look was gone. He reported that the wall of mud had stopped growing and sliding. Because he could now see over the top, my dad had seen a tow truck that was already working on the other side. It appeared that it was going to plow a passage through the mud and all we had to do was sit and wait.
I still remember the excitement when the flashing lights atop the tow truck became visible. Their whoosh-whoosh lit up the sky as gloriously as fireworks on the Fourth of July. My heart pounded with barely contained excitement.
Imagine my reaction when the mud began moving. It was hard to tell the difference first because the change was so slow, but as the revolving lights seemed to move closer, the texture of the mud hill changed well. It bulged. It bubbled. It slid. It separated like Moses dividing the Red Sea.
The plow appeared first, popping up out of the muck like a chick from an egg. Then came the grill and in quick succession, the hood, the windshield, and eventually the rest of the truck.
The tow truck had managed to clear a good portion of the road. It didn’t stop there, but instead turned around, prepared to plow through from our side. Before it took off, my dad got out of our car and began yelling at the driver of the truck. When the driver got out, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. If my dad started a fight, we’d be stuck. If somehow, he could present himself as a clam, reasonable man, then maybe the driver would help.
When the two of them walked around our car as best as they could while slugging through the mud, I breathed a sigh of relief. My dad must have been calm or the driver would not be walking with my dad.
When the inspection seemed to be finished, my dad got back in the car. He told us to put a halter on the dog and get out. All of us. In the mud!
A normal person might have been horrified, but not me. I was excited! To have permission to get filthy dirty was a glorious thing, even though I was a teenager.
Stepping out into the mud was better than a birthday gift or the discovery of a dime from the Tooth Fairy or even the baskets of candy from the Easter Bunny. If I had known about the Richter scale, I would have placed this at monstrous earthquake strength.
I didn’t step gingerly or make disgusting girlish faces. My sister did both, but not me. I smiled. No, I beamed brighter than the sun, which was now peeking through the clouds.
I planted a foot in the muck and then another, and another, and another, walking proudly, even as it clung to my shoes and ankles and legs. My heart soared with joy. A balloon never flew as high as I did that day!
Once we were safely away from the car, the tow truck maneuvered into position in front of us by pushing the mud this way and that. Once it was lined up with the front of our car, it lowered its contraption until it fit under the front end of our car. The driver employed a series of straps and chains, and then engaged a motor. Slowly, the car arose, like King Neptune rising out of the sea. What a glorious site that was!
Once the car was in the air the truck did what is was supposed to do: it pulled us through the muck to the other side.
There was no fanfare from the watching crowds. Instead, for the first time, I realized that the other drivers were jeering and pointing and slapping backs. When I looked at my dad’s face, I saw humiliation. Arrogance no longer sat on his shoulders, replaced by a profound embarrassment.
I learned a few things from watching my dad. Bravado has its place and time. Self-assurance is a good thing, only when tempered by a voice of reason. Safety of family must always be first. Competition is healthy, when appropriate. Keeping an eye to the prize only works when flexibility is allowed to overrule potentially stupid actions.
More than anything, I knew that I would never forget that day in the summer of 1964. And I haven’t.