Thursday, August 15, 2013

On the Road

There are a number of my boys’ friends who have come to stay with us for awhile for various reasons, but none as much as Steve.  Steve is my oldest son, Ben’s best friend.  There have been times since they first met in middle school when Steve has stayed with us for not only days but sometimes weeks and even months.  At different times he has spent Christmas mornings with us and we have taken him to the hospital with broken bones.  Even now that he and Ben went away to different colleges, Steve always comes and stays for at least a little while.  Steve is a part of our family, and Karen and I have always considered him one of our own.

Steve writes and over time I have watched him really developing his voice as a storyteller and a poet.  He likes the works of the writers of the Beat Generation and he has a somewhat restless and wandering soul, so I nicknamed him Kerouac.

One night this summer he came out into my studio and sat down on one of the barstools facing me over my bench.  He said, “Tom, can I talk to you about something?”  I stopped what I was doing and said, “Sure, Kerouac.  What’s on your mind?”  He told me that he was thinking about taking his junior year off and maybe traveling a bit.  I asked him to tell me more.  “I’m just not sure I’m being challenged right now and I’d kind of like to get out and get some experience instead of sitting in some classroom where I don’t feel challenged.”  When he said this it caused me to have a sort of flashback to a time when I felt exactly the same way.

The summer before my sophomore year at Illinois I went down to my mother’s studio in the laundry room, jumped up to sit on the washing machine and said to her.  “Mom, I don’t think I’m going back to school this year.”  She looked at me and said, “Hold on a minute.  Let me get your dad.”  She called my father and he came downstairs from the kitchen.  “T.S. doesn’t want to go back to school this year.”  My dad looked at me inquisitively.  “Why, Tom?” He asked.  I said, “Well, for a lot of reasons.  First, I don’t feel all that challenged right now.  Second, it’s likely I’m going to have to come back for awhile anyway.  Finally, I kind want to get out and see the world not just study it.”  My father crossed his arms, pinched his lower lip like he always did when he was thinking.  He said, “Let me talk to your Mom.”  I left and went to my room to wait.  Not long later he came to see me.  He sat on my bed and he said, “OK, here’s the deal.  We’ll go along with this but these are the rules.  If you stay home, you work and you take some classes at the community college.  When you’re not doing that then you can do whatever you want.  You can travel, be with your friends, whatever.”  I just shook my head.  “OK,” I said.  That was the first step in my quest for experience.

After the summer was over and those that were going went back to college I enrolled in some general education courses that would transfer to Illinois or wherever else I might go next. I got my old job at the bookstore back so I’d have money to go out with my friends who were still in town, and build up enough bank that I could get out on the road.  During the first couple of months of my year off, and then throughout the year, I spent a lot of time down in the city with my friend, Claudia, who lived in Lincoln Park.   It was the first I had spent much time in that part of town.  She and I would walk her roommate’s dog in the park, scour all of the old bookstores on Clark Street and play lots of Scrabble with her friends.  They were a bohemian lot and I loved being there.  One day we came home and found a note on the refrigerator from her roommate.  It just said, “Gone to follow the Dead.  Take care of Grover please.”  Very different world than the suburbs.

That fall I took my Dad’s Buick Skylark and drove for a short weekend trip to Hannibal, Missouri. I love Mark Twain and somehow I got it in my head that I had to see the place that had inspired Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  On the way there I got a lost and stopped at a gas station to ask a man how to get to Hannibal across the river.  He spread out a map on the hood of my car and in excruciating detail showed and told me how to get there.  His directions were filled with landmarks I was to look for and he digressed a lot into stories about the people and history associated with those milestones.  When he was done I thanked him and started folding up the map.  He said, “You’re quite welcome.” He folded his arms inside the pockets of his coveralls. “Of course, you can’t there that way.” I think I did a double-take.  “The road is out.”Another session of directions ensued.  When I finally got to Hannibal, it wasn’t exactly what I expected, but I was able to look past Aunt Polly’s Diner and the Becky Thatcher gift shop, and focus on the streets, the white picket fences and the houses.  I was able to let my imagination loose and that was enough for me.

On other weekends I would take weekend trips to see my sister and old dorm mates at Illinois, and friends at other colleges.  After Thanksgiving I took some time off the road to build up some more cash and to get ready for some surgery I was going to have after the holidays.  I spent time with the girl I was in love with who had come home to visit from DC. I did a lot of writing and reading and didn’t get back on the road again until spring. 

One of my last trips before everyone came home from school for the summer was one down through Indiana.  I went to visit a town called Elkhart, where my mother and father lived when they were first married and my mother was working as a kindergarten teacher while my father finished college on the G.I. Bill. I then started toward my grandmother’s house.  On the way I went through Amish country.  At one point I pulled off to the side of the road to take a picture of an old tin sign advertising Schlosser’s Dairy.  That was where my grandfather first worked they all came back to the town my mother was raised in.  Across the field from where I stood taking the photo I saw a group of Amish kids in front of simple farmhouse holding hands and dancing in a big circle.  I watched them for a bit and I wondered what it would be like to live in their world, to live a simple life of humility, equality and peace.  Then I thought, no, I am too attached to things like electricity, cars, zippers and screws to ever make a good Amish person.  Besides, black is not my color and I have never looked good in hats.

While I was staying with my grandmother, I drove one afternoon to visit with my Uncle Cecil and my Aunt Jean.  My father must have spoken to Cecil before I got there because he gave me no small amount of teasing about my wanderings and my quest for experience. Jean tried to defend me but she couldn’t stop laughing.  The one thing Cecil did say and I don’t know if it was in jest or serious was this. “Tom, you should never look for experience unless it’s job experience.”  I said, “What do you mean by that?” He scratched his ear and said. “I think experience just comes with living.  It finds you.”  Later the spring I went into my Dad’s home office.  “What’s up, Bud?” he asked.  I said, “I just mailed my papers to Illinois.  I’m going back in the fall.”  He smiled, and just said, “OK.”  I have never lost my love for being on the road but I’m more open now to letting experience find me than I am in looking for it.

After we talked, Steve eventually made the decision to take the year off.  He’s got an apartment in Los Angeles now and is working in a club on Sunset Boulevard.  I imagine he’ll do some traveling, and I imagine a lot of experience will find its way to him and make him an even stronger writer.  In fact, I bet it will.