Walkie-Talkie #1: “Dad . . . where are you?”
Walkie-Talkie #2: “We’re one minute away. We got caught at the light. You’re at that gas station in the middle of the next block, right?”
Walkie-Talkie #1: “Uhhh, yeah but . . . ummm . . . we have a slight problem . . .”
Walkie-Talkie #2: “What problem?”
Walkie-Talkie #1: “Ummm, Margarita didn’t swing wide enough around the gas pump and we ran into a concrete thing. It tore out the bottom of the RV. What should I do? Margarita’s sitting on the ground crying.”
Walkie-Talkie #2: “Holy crap.”
Less than a half hour into the adventure of a lifetime and the wheels had already come off. Well, maybe not the wheels, but sizable chunks of the rented Winnebago now lay scattered around a convenience-store gas pump in Mesa, Arizona. Big pieces of splintered fiberglass, twisted strips of jagged metal, and in the middle of it all, sitting on the oily pavement, head buried in her hands, was my sobbing daughter-in-law, Margarita.
It was a distressing, stomach-churning sight. It was also moving. Literally. I was in the driver’s seat of a second rented RV, a much bigger rig called the Holiday Rambler, and couldn’t stop. The entrance to the gas station was too narrow and I was too rattled. Rolling past the accident site, the troubling scene swept by my eyes like a slow panning shot in the movies. The wounded Winnebago was beached on a concrete gas-pump island with three of my family members walking around it in a daze. It was four-thirty in the afternoon on the second day of February, rush hour in snowbird season. The street was clogged with traffic and the drivers were getting pissed, mostly because of us.
“That means the trip is over, right, Jack?”
It was the voice of my mother, eighty-two years old, with a Ph.D. in pessimism, coming from the back of the Holiday Rambler.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Marge, nobody died.”
That was my eighty-seven-year-old father, the patron saint of hope, launching yet another flimsy balloon of encouragement into a howling hurricane wind.
Jack and Marge, the package of opposites, the plus and minus charges still holding enough juice to light each other up after more than sixty years of married life. They were raised in the same New Jersey neighborhood, share Irish roots, and make each other laugh. Other than that, Jack and Marge are polar extremes. My dad expects the world to work the way it should. He bought into this life believing the sales pitch that all people were made to be good but then he tears open the package, rips away the bubble wrap, and finds another con artist ready to take him to the cleaners. And it still shocks him. Every single time.
My mom, on the other hand, would’ve been looking out the window and checking her watch wondering why the crook was late. By her calculations the per capita number of creeps and jackasses on the planet is the highest in recorded history, and most of them seem to be in possession of my father’s address and phone number. To deal with that distressing situation and to cope with all the other kinds of inevitabilities, including but not limited to horrible diseases, fiery highway collisions, plane crashes, killer bees, and Charles Manson–like home invaders, my mother has developed a philosophy that she calls stinkin’ thinkin’. By assuming that all of life’s encounters will stink, my mother has managed to stay even keeled when in fact things do end up stinking. When they don’t stink she’s pleasantly surprised. To better understand how my parents’ opposing charges influence their outlook on life, I have prepared this sample conversation.
Jack: “We should have my new boss, Fred, and his wife, Connie, over for dinner.”
Marge: “Fred’s an asshole.”
Jack: “Come on, Marge, you can’t say that just because he wears Harvard cufflinks. And why don’t you like Connie?”
Marge: “Connie thinks her shit is cake.”
Oh yeah, my mom swears. She also likes to down a little booze at the end of the day. My dad hasn’t had a drop of liquor in his life. How did they stay together for sixty-plus years? It doesn’t compute. Match.com would’ve built a firewall between their applications. Vegas bookies would’ve shut down the wedding-anniversary betting line. It’s the classic mismatch.
In the right corner, at five foot two, 105 pounds, wearing a white floppy hat, denim jacket, denim shirt, denim pants, and white sneakers over pantyhose . . . with an undefeated marital fight record of 973–0, all but three of those victories by knockout . . . the pride of Paterson, New Jersey . . . The Cynical Cyclone . . . Marge Leonard.
And in the left corner, also from Paterson, New Jersey, at five foot nine, 160 pounds, wearing a dark blue jacket trimmed in white powdered doughnut crumbs and brown coffee stains, winless in sixty years of fighting but still battling . . . The Smiling Slugger . . . Sugar Jack Leonard.
Another bout between my parents was the last thing I needed as I gripped the steering wheel and scanned the road ahead for a suitable exit route. The rising chorus of car horns was starting to unnerve me. Mesa’s rush-hour motorists seemed to be having major problems with the way my RV was taking up both lanes. We were now two blocks past the crash site and in a desperate attempt to find a wide driveway, or an empty lot or a cliff to drive off, I cut my speed again, this time down to ten miles per hour. The car-horn octave level shot into the Roy Orbison range. It’s not easy trying to navigate an ocean liner through a rolling city sea of ticked-off people.
I had picked up the gigantic Holiday Rambler only a few hours earlier. It was thirty-six feet long, ten feet high, with a huge curved windshield and a large, round, bus driver–type steering wheel. The helpful folks at the dealership had given me an hour-long lesson on how to operate a rig far bigger than the Winnebago, but all that went out the window when the rubber met the road and hostile people started shaking their fists at me. How were they to know that I’m not an RV guy? I’m not even a car guy. I drive cars, but I don’t know cars. Manifold? Carburetor? If it’s under the hood, it’s over my head.
Last year the front headlight went out on our Volvo wagon. When I drove it up to our small-town service station, two blocks from my Winnetka, Illinois, home, the young mechanic asked me to get back in and pop the hood. I didn’t know where the hood popper was. I really didn’t. Masking panic with a cocky nod of the head, I found a lever and pulled it back. My seat reclined. The mechanic, with disdain written all over his grease-smeared face, walked over, opened my driver’s-side door, reached down near my left leg, and pushed or pulled something. The hood popped. Then he went back to the front of the car and yelled, “Switch on the brights.”
Looking down at the two levers sprouting from each side of the steering-wheel pipe, I flipped a mental coin and went with the one on the right. Blue water sprayed onto my windshield. The mechanic told me to get out of the car.
That’s the kind of idiot who was now at the wheel of the S.S. Fiasco as it lurched through a raging urban shitstorm. With the lead vessel already on the rocks, it was now up to me to somehow save the day. Three blocks past where the Winnebago had gone down, I spied a Doubletree Inn with a large driveway leading to what appeared to be a nearly empty back parking lot. To guarantee a sufficiently wide turning radius, I cut our speed to four miles per hour and edged farther into the oncoming traffic lane before swinging the nose of the RV back to the right. This maneuver caused the Roy Orbison car-horn choir to morph into a deafening Phil Spector-esque wall of sound. Concerned about clipping the elevated Doubletree Inn sign with the vehicle’s high back end, I glanced over my right shoulder just in time to catch a glimpse of my mother giving somebody the finger.
We cleared the sign, made the turn, and rolled to a stop in a vacant corner of the hotel parking lot, where I turned off the keys and rested my forehead on the huge steering wheel. All was quiet. For five seconds.
“Jack, do you think the man at the gas station can fix it?”
“For crying out loud, Marge, those guys can’t fix a Slurpee. You know that.”
Of course she knew that. She also knew that my father would take the bait and respond, as he always does, totally unaware that he had been duped once more into becoming an unwitting mule for another load of my mother’s stinkin’ thinkin’. Now he was the one mouthing those negative words—nobody at the gas station can help us—and that’s when my resolve started to weaken.
I had always prided myself on staying positive and toughing it out, but these were extreme circumstances and the urge to feel sorry for myself was overpowering. What harm could come from a small dose of self-pity? Lifting my forehead off the steering wheel, I leaned back in the driver’s seat, stared out the front window, and softly muttered two simple words: “Why me?” That’s all it took. Within seconds I was in a full-blown stinkin’ thinkin’ funk, convinced that our trip was doomed and that I was a weapon’s-grade fool for letting a stupid dream take over my life.
At least I think it was a dream. It happened a few months earlier, in late November, after going to bed feeling sad about my aging parents. They aren’t wealthy and had just sold their condo outside San Diego, moving to a less expensive rental home in Phoenix. They were going back to familiar territory, or so they thought, having lived in Scottsdale, Arizona, twenty years earlier. Two decades of explosive growth, however, had rearranged the metropolitan area, changing it from top to bottom. My dad signed a year’s lease believing the real-estate agent’s pitch that the house was an easy walk to everything. Maybe for Lewis and Clark. It was a disheartening situation made worse upon arrival when my parents discovered that eleven moving boxes had been stolen, as well as most of my mother’s jewelry.
My parents didn’t deserve that treatment. They’re goofy but good-hearted people, oddly matched yet oddly perfect for each other. They raised four boys in a happy home, lived decent lives, had lots of friends, and always went out of their way to be nice to people who needed a lift. Now the tables were turned and they were the ones in need of a boost. That was evident when they called on the evening of my fifty-sixth birthday. I expected Mom to open the conversation with a mention of my special day. Her first words, instead, were “This place is shit on wheels.”
As funny as that sounded, it hurt me to think that my parents, a couple of silly, fun-loving live wires who rose above their humble Paterson, New Jersey, beginnings to make it through a depression, a world war, and more setbacks than they deserved, had now mistakenly steered their creaky old barge into the wrong dock. Too old and too shaken to back it up, they suddenly realized that they were stuck, one stumble away from the nursing home with no one in their neighborhood to talk to and nowhere to go.
Sleep that night was difficult. I live thousands of miles away, have four children of my own, a mortgage, and a busy life as a feature correspondent for the Today show on NBC. What could I do to change the facts? My parents were getting very old, and nothing good happens to people who have lived past their expiration date.
Then, at 3:00 a.m., my eyes snapped open. The solution had come to me in the middle of the night, rumbling in from my subconscious from who knows where. It was a gigantic RV and I was driving it. The dream immediately turned into a plan. I would rent an RV—no, two RVs—round up some of my grown children, drive to Arizona, pick up my parents, and give them one last lap around the country. I would take them to places they’d never seen before: the mountains of New Mexico, the bayous of Louisiana, the ocean cliffs of Rhode Island. I would take them to places they would never see again: their old neighborhood, their college campuses, their parents’ graves. Finally, before circling back and driving them into the sunset, I would take my mom and dad to Chicago for the birth of my daughter Megan’s baby—my first grandchild, their first great-grandchild.
I got out of bed that morning filled with excitement. Maybe I couldn’t solve all of the problems caused by my parents’ ill-advised move, but I could do something. I could give them adventure. I could give them mobility. I could give them a month of my time.
The hell I could.
What was I thinking? I’d never driven an RV. Where would I get one? How much would it cost? What if we crashed? What if one of my parents fell or got sick? What if NBC refused to let me take the time off? What if Megan’s baby arrived early?
I couldn’t do it.
No, I had to do it.
At breakfast that morning my wife, Cathy, tried talking sense into me. She used logic, listing all the potential pitfalls, from the age of my parents to the financial implications for our children if they were to go on the journey. Our oldest son, Matt, and his wife, Margarita, our middle daughter, Kerry, as well as Megan’s husband, Jamie, are all part of the family video production company. Taking them on the road would mean shutting down the business and cutting off their source of income. Brendan, our youngest son, would have to drop out of college for a semester.
But Cathy knew that her logical objections weren’t making a dent. We were approaching our thirty-fifth year as a married couple and she had seen that look in my eyes before. Out of the blue, some career-altering idea or lifestyle-changing concept would pop into my head and I’d take the leap. There were lots of failures, some costly, but more often than not things worked out, at times in a big way. It wasn’t just an urge to be different, it was . . . and I hate to say this because it’s going to sound like New Age self-help crap . . . as if I were being commanded to take those chances.