(Suburbs of Detroit, 1971)
I married into a large, traditional, first generation, straight-off-the-boat Polish family when I was in college. As a result, I ended up attending more than my share of Polish weddings.
For reasons that I am about to describe, one wedding stands out as particularly memorable. It was a classic Hamtramck American Legion hall or St. Ignatius Catholic Church basement affair. The food and drink was bountiful and sumptuous: chicken, ham, beef and sausage, stuffed potatoes and beets, cakes and pies of every sort, coffee and tea – all mixed with cigarette smoke. Lots of cigarette smoke.
A team of bartenders poured vodka, champagne, whisky, gin and beer non-stop. A five-piece accordion band led by a round man with greasy hair and a pencil-thin mustache was pacing through the standards from Bobby Vinton to the Beer Barrel Polka. Everyone from the ring boy to the bride’s mother was plastered to the gills.
The bride's father, the owner of a small refrigerator parts factory in Melvindale, had spent a considerable sum of money to insure the perfect wedding for his youngest daughter. He was holding court at the bar, laughing loudly and consuming aggressively, intent upon getting his money's worth.
"Have more, have more,” he laughed nervously, “for what I’ve paid there should be more food than you can ever eat. Here! Uncle Felix, take some sausages home to your fat wife and underfed dog!". More laughter, clinking of glasses and swirls of fresh cigarette smoke.
The party continued. But suddenly around 2:30 a.m., after hours of music, dancing, eating, drinking, kissing, laughing, yelling, quarrelling and marveling at how the children had grown, the party hit a lull. The wind went out of the room and the collective wedding wisdom assessed the damage. It was done, they concluded, it was time to go home.
And so, with a unified nod, the reception ended. As sure as it started, it ended. Guests dug for coats and purses. Sleepy kids were sorted out and retrieved. Kisses, hugs and the last of the good-bye’s were exchanged before heading for the parking lot.
On a table near the door, many pies of apple, cherry, minced meat, chocolate, lemon-meringue and coconut remained uncut and uneaten. The father of the bride stood proudly by the table, receiving the complements of his guests, shaking theirhands, and handing them pies to take home. "Take a couple," he chuckled, "they're already paid for." And so to coats, purses, keys, cigarettes and children, the guests added pies as they exited the wedding hall.
Just outside the door, the white noise and sticky warmth of the party was met by the sudden quiet cool of a Michigan early-summer late-night. Last minute comments, jokes and insults were hollered back and forth between the parked cars as furtive good-byes were said amongst old friends and family members who just-never-got-the-chance-to-see-quite-enough-of-each-other. As the noise died down, a momentary stillness fell over the group. Hands hesitated at door handles and fumbled through coat pockets and giant white vinyl purses for keys, cigarettes and a light.
It only took one pie.
It was either coconut or banana cream based upon the filling that slopped from the sides as it spun unevenly through the night air. It crashed against the windshield of a Chevy Impala sending pie shrapnel in radial arcs. Within seconds, pies of every sort were being hurled back and forth by otherwise proud people wearing their very best clothing. Apple pies ricocheted off the hoods of Buicks from Lansing and meringue splattered on Fairlanes from the Wixom Ford assembly plant. The night air became thick with pies. Husbands pelted wives and aunts pelted uncles. Cousin was turned against cousin, neighbor against neighbor, stranger against merry stranger. Errant pies became secondary sources of fresh ammunition as handfuls of pie-fillings were scooped from the asphalt and off windshields and then hurled again with gleeful abandon.
The one minute and twenty-seven second episode ended with a flourish. Daring last minute attacks and counter attacks sent cursing and giggling revelers quickly into the safety of their family automobiles. Car doors slammed hurriedly, excitedly, shut.
"Oh my god… look at your rented tux!".
"Can you see out that window well enough to drive?
"Damn, I missed… “
The father of the bride was leaning against a green Rambler, coated with pie, laughing breathlessly and coughing up cigarette phlegm - grinning ear to ear. He waved to the honking and departing guests, flicking pie-filling from his hands and from his best silk tie.
Behind him, his daughter, the beautiful bride, stood at the door of the wedding hall, peering out at the scene of destruction with abject horror.
She looked at her father in disbelief and to her mother for an explanation. There was none forthcoming. Her parents were giggling like twelve-year-old children. The father gave his daughter a huge hug and, catching her eye, winked.
“Don’t worry Sweetheart,” he smiled, “ they were already paid
for. Every last one of‘em".
On August 7, 2007, Barry Bonds drove a baseball deep into the San Francisco night, thus becoming, arguably, the all-time home run champion of baseball. In doing so, he forever linked himself with my 1995 green Ford Escort station wagon, a champagne toast in front of San Quentin prison and a snowy late-night drive from Milwaukee to Green Bay and back.
I should probably explain.
I have turned-over 100,000 miles in two different cars in my lifetime, and 200,000 miles in another. Each was a dear automobile to me – full of journeys and memories. And each time the prospect of watching the odometer roll over wearing nothing but six bare-naked zeros and a decimal point approached, I pondered what I should do to properly mark the occasion.
The first car was an old, used, 1969 Rambler that I purchased in Michigan while in college and drove across the country to California. In the late 70’s, I was living in a small one-room chauffeur’s apartment above a garage deep in the redwoods of Marin County –just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The Rambler was running poorly so I drove it sparingly, leaving it parked out under the big trees. Eventually the odometer tumbled to 99,980, and with a mere 20 miles separating she and I from infamy, we decided to grab a bottle of champagne and drive until we reached 100,000. Magically, this mile post occurred right outside the front gate of San Quentin prison. We pulled over, popped the cork, played celebratory music on my harmonica, honked the horn wildly and drank the entire bottle of Champagne without incident. Apparently anyone passing by San Quentin stares at the frightful walled monstrosity and pays no attention to celebrants parked on the other side of the road. No one paid the triumphant Rambler nor I any notice.
But that’s not the story.
In the summer of 1986, the year that a young rookie named Barry Bonds hit his first major league home run, I purchased a “seasoned” Mazda 626. It was a functional, square little car that I drove all over the country on a variety of adventures, rapidly piling up the mileage. A few years later, while living in Milwaukee, I again watched impatiently as the odometer continued its unobstructed march towards 100,000. Eventually it reached 98,798, just over two hundred miles short. At my usual rates of travel, this could take three or four days, maybe not until the weekend. I couldn’t wait.
So on a snowy midnight in December, I jumped into the car and drove northward towards Green Bay and beyond. I drove until I felt I’d traveled half way before turning around and heading back. By the time I returned home my odometer sat at 100,002.8. (The actual century locality turned out to be an unremarkable spot on the outskirts of Milwaukee under a street light and a sign that read “Jack Gronik’s Nuts –Salters and Packers”.) We had no champagne and it was getting late so we noted the fact and rolled home with no fanfare.
But that’s not the story either. I’m merely establishing a modus operandi and a previous pattern.
• • •
Throughout the summer of 2007, the baseball world watched as Barry Bonds inched closer and closer to Hank Aaron’s all-time home run mark of 755. Few doubted that Bonds would eventually eclipse the record, but its validity was suspect because of Bond’s rumored links with steroids. It would be a tainted record at best, and no one was sure how to regard it – most especially Bud Selig, Commissioner of Baseball.
That same summer I drove to work and back each day, listening to sports radio and wondering how Bonds and his record would ultimately be regarded - both at the time of breaking it and many years into the future. As I drove, I watched the odometer on my green 1995 Ford Escort wagon climb from 195,100 to 197,300 to 199,000. Like Barry Bonds, it kept going – inching closer and closer to the magic mark of 200,000. Also like Bonds, it wasn’t a matter of whether or not the mark would be set, but how the event would be celebrated.
The nearer I approached to 200,000, the more I began to fret over exactly how I would mark the occasion. Would I jump in the car and do another daring midnight ride? Would I have a champagne toast at the Spot? Or would I simply turn over 200,000 driving to work one morning with little more than a tip of a cup of coffee?
Barry was at 753. The Escort was at 199,995.9. Barry needed two to tie, three to take the record. The Escort needed just 4.1 miles to roll over. We were both poised, waiting to see what the other would do.
And then one night the stars converged upon a single, focused point and I knew exactly what needed to be done. Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants had finished up in Chicago and would be traveling to Milwaukee for a three-game weekend series with the Brewers. He would surely hit a couple in Milwaukee. I looked at the facts:
1. I used to live in Milwaukee.
2. I moved to Milwaukee from San Francisco.
3. Milwaukee was where I turned over my second 100,000 miler. (San Francisco my first).
4. Hank Aaron began his career with the old Milwaukee Braves, and broke Babe Ruth’s record playing for the Braves after they moved to Atlanta.
5. Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, lives in Milwaukee.
Well jeez, it may not make sense to you but at the time it made perfect sense to me. It made cosmic sense. I had access to a second car, so I decided that I would park the old Ford in the driveway and wait until the day Barry hit his record-breaking 756th home run to turn over 200,000 miles. We would do it together.
And so the car waited. Throughout the remainder of the Milwaukee series Barry failed to hit a single home run and the records remained intact and onhold: 754 and 199,995.9. The Giants returned home but Bonds failed to homer for over a week. The Giants then traveled to Los Angeles and San Diego where Bonds hit #755 to tie the record. The next one would be history. The Escort was poised. The world slowed. You could hear the
On Tuesday night, August 7th, I plopped down in front of the TV to try to catch the end of the Late News. Immediately I saw a video of Bonds stepping to the plate at AT&T Park in San Francisco, uncoiling on a pitch and launching a ball high, long, deep…
I jumped from the TV and ran to the car in the driveway. I turned her over and pointed her out upon the open road with high beams on. She sported a rakish devil-may-care grin that you only see on a car who is off upon a late night date with destiny.
There would be no room for error. She sat at 199,995.9, just 4.1 miles short. In order to return exactly at 200,000.0 we’d have to go out 2.05 miles and come 2.05 back. The odometer was only good to 0.1 – we were in math’s hands now.
We drove. Down the road, across the bridge. 199,996.8. Up the hill, down to the creek, over the creek and up the big hill on Brenneman Road. 199,997.5. Watching the odometer carefully, we slowed. We switched from autopilot. We drove by FEEL. 199,997.94….
The ball disappeared from sight as it climbed above the lights…
Suddenly, magically, the math said "yes!". I pulled up hard on the reins, shifted my weight, burst a loud whistle from between my teeth and turned her back around to the south. Her big head flashed and her turn signals twinkled as she reared around, blowing steam from her nostrils and dripping ice from her chin.
Right then. Right then she knew it. And I knew it, and so did the night and the wind and the dying shouts of 60,000 fans in San Francisco. She knew she had a chance to make it back to the driveway, to pull in exactly on the nose; and then to sit smug all night knowing she was flashing "200,000.0" like a great big Cheshire grin.
The ball reached its apogee and began it’s descent. Bud Selig held his breath.
Back we headed, closer and closer. Down the hill. 199,998.5 Across the bridge, up our road… 199,999.3… We could see the mailbox ahead. Would we make it? Would we end up 1/10th short? 199.999.8 Would we overshoot our mark? It was too late to worry, the die was cast, our fate was now completely in the hands of the circumference of our wheels. I cut the engine and rolled silently into the drive, just-a-bit-further-until-over-it-rolled:
The ball plopped sailed over the right-center field wall and into the bleachers, setting off a vicious scrum for the valuable archive. Barry, the Escort and I sat in the quiet of the driveway sharing the rarest of moments. We were all in the presence of greatness. The moment called for a Word, it was nearly midnight, this day of destiny was soon to end, the spirits were quiet. I cleared my throat and collected my thoughts. This was a moment for posterity. This was a moment for Barry and baseball and the Escort and the Mazda and the bottle of champagne in front of San Quentin. Damn Bud Selig and damn Jack Gronick’s Nuts, this was bigger then all of us. I knew I would be forever judged by what I said right here, right now. My confidence and wisdom must not fail me....
"No shit!" I said, listening to the tinks and pops of cooling manifold steel. Barry chuckled, gave me a high five, opened the door and walked off into the night.
• • •
Barry Bonds drove a few more into the night and ended the 2007 season with 762 home runs, thereby establishing a new all-time record. But by that time, the steroid controversy had so completely enveloped him that he left the game never to return. Like Barry Bonds, the little Ford Escort put on a few more miles until electrical problems forced me to trade her in. When I turned over the keys in November of 2007, she showed 201,365 on the odometer.
Bud never called. The record will be forever subject to debate.
In 1975, I was a couple years out of college, twenty-four years old and living in a $25 a month basement in a house full of hippies in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I had recently been fired from a job as an all-night disc jockey at an FM radio station, and with the economy of the Upper Peninsula being what it was, I rather spontaneously decided to spend the summer hitchhiking around the country.
I had no planned route, no itinerary, no estimated date of arrival or return. I had little more than a backpack, a change of clothes, some raingear, an old tent, sleeping bag, less than $100 and a harmonica in the key of A. Shouldering my backpack, I headed out to the main highway and stuck out my thumb, heading in the general westerly direction of California.
In those days it was fairly easy to get around by hitchhiking. Hippies were a community unto themselves, traveling freely about the country in Volkswagen vans, like vast herds of buffalo. Part of the code of the road was to always pick up other hitchhikers: they were our brothers and sisters, they had stories to tell, experiences to share… and maybe, probably, some pot to smoke. At least that’s what Angus and Earl hoped when they pulled over and picked me up somewhere in central Minnesota.
Angus and Earl could easily have been extras from a Cheech and Chong movie. Their sole and solitary goal was to get and stay as stoned as humanly possible, for as long as possible. Then they would stop to eat, crash, and start over again. I fit right in. By the time we reached the Flaming Gorge, we had consumed every flake of pot that we owned between us, and were brainstorming how best to restock our stash.
Angus and Earl came up with this bright idea. They figured we should take a side trip into Salt Lake City, split up, fan out and see if we could buy from the locals. From what I’d heard about Salt Lake City, this didn’t seem to be a particularly good idea but Angus and Earl were positive that we’d succeed. They were driving and I needed the ride, so into Salt Lake City we went.
We eased into town, drove past the enormous Mormon temple and parked the car alongside a large park. As I started to reach for my backpack, Earl said “Man, just leave it. We’ll be back in an hour.” But one of my own personal rules of the road is: Never become separated from your stuff. “Thanks just the same,” I said, “but it’s no hassle, I may need something.”
Our plan was to fan out in different directions, try to find a likely source and meet back at the car at 2:30 p.m.
We went our separate ways.
I set off in search of the stoniest-looking hippie I could find, the kind that sit glassy-eyed under just about every tree in northern Michigan. But I quickly learned that there probably are no hippies in Salt Lake City, never were, never will be. Thinking better of the whole situation, I elected to settle down under a tree and play my harmonica for an hour or so, and then return to the car to see how the other warriors had fared.
At around 2:00 p.m., I picked up my pack and headed slowly down toward the park, taking my time so as to appear to have been busy. As I rounded the corner near where the car was parked, I was greeted by the sight of four or five Salt Lake City Police cars parked helter-skelter in the middle of the street with lights flashing. And there were Angus and Earl, up against a park fence, being grilled by the cops.
Backpedaling quickly to the shadows of an alley, I shouldered my bag and moved quickly towards the west, away from the park and out of Salt Lake City.
A couple of quick, short rides took me to a truck stop on the salt flats west of town. Here, truckers gear up for, or gear down from, the searing hot, dry trip across the flats to Nevada, a long, hot journey with few waysides along the way. I filled my water jug, bought some cheese and a loaf of bread and settled down in the spare shade of an “Eat” sign to have a snack. Before I could open my loaf of bread, a big semi-truck pulled up and the door swung open.
“How far ‘ya goin’?” the voice boomed down from the cab.
“California.” I replied.
“Hop in.” he chuckled.
The air-conditioned cool of the cab was delightful. The trucker offered me a cold beer and I gladly accepted. “Now we’re traveling!” I thought to myself, as the blinding white salt flats zipped by outside the tinted windows of the well-appointed cab. He had Hank Williams on the 8-track and he was full of stories of life on the road. Somewhere around Winnamucca however, his tales became mean, explicit and sexual and he began to tell me a series of creepy stories of homosexual liaisons he’d had with young men he’d met along the road. As it became dark, I began to feel very uncomfortable and as we pulled into the outskirts of Reno, Nevada he pulled the truck off to the side of the road and said: “You know some of those things I’ve been tellin’ ya… how’s bout I do that to you?”
Well now, no queer truck driver was going to get a piece of my twenty-four year-old ass, and I must have said so because he became infuriated. It may have been the “road aspirins” that he’d been popping, or the shots of whiskey that he’d been throwing down since Salt Lake City, but he hauled off and hit me with a big hand, threw open the door and hollered: “I just wasted a whole fucking day on you ya’ little shit, get the hell out of my truck!”
And the hell out of his truck I got.
The truck pulled away quickly, leaving me shaken and unnerved in the quiet of the Nevada night. It was about 12:30 a.m. Feeling vulnerable, unsafe and unlucky, I hopped the fence and walked through the dark towards what seemed to be a park in the distance. Reaching the park, it seemed abandoned so I found a place to squirrel away, pulled out my sleeping bag, took off my boots and tried to catch a little sleep, planning to rise with the earliest light. I was exhausted.
I had just fallen asleep, or so it seemed, when I awoke with a start to a bright light shining in my face and a voice saying: “I found another one over here!”. It was the cops and apparently they had a big problem with vagrants sleeping in the park. They rounded up me and two other guys, put us into the back of a squad car and took us down to the station in Reno.
I sat with my pack in a bright lobby for what seemed to be hours while they checked my I.D. Fortunately, because of my liaison with Angus and Earl, I had no pot in my possession. Finally, about 3:30 a.m., the cop assigned to overnight desk duty came to me and said: “Kid, we have no reason to keep you, but if we find you out there again we will… understand? The road out of town is right outside that door, take it and keep going.” And with that, I found myself heading west, again on foot, out of Reno.
After walking aimlessly for about 20 minutes, a young couple driving a dirty Volkswagen pulled over and the woman asked me if I had any money. They had just lost all their money gambling and had barely enough gas to get home.
“No”, I said, “if I had money I wouldn’t be walking at 4:00 in the morning.”
“Where you headed?” they said.
“Oakland,” I replied.
“Shit, hop in.”
And so in I hopped, and off we drove in a cloud of blue, gas-oily smoke.
The road west out of Reno passes up a very steep grade as it climbs the last few thousand feet of the rugged east side of the Sierra Nevada before cresting at Donner Pass. The first pioneers had to haul their wagons up over the last few hundred yards with ropes and pulleys, but now a modern highway snakes over the pass. As we chugged up the highway, the car began to fill with smoke as the engine lugged, chugged and sputtered.
Just east of the summit, the car shuddered and convulsed and then died completely in a symphony of thrown rods and hissing motor oil. As the man cussed and the woman cried, I stood helplessly along side the road not knowing what to do.
“Well,” I finally offered unconvincingly, “thanks for the ride...”
Shouldering my bag yet again and sticking out my thumb, I took the first ride up over the pass and down into the foothills of California. But again, I didn’t make it far. My ride pulled off at the gold country town of Auburn and left me stranded on an on-ramp directly beneath the sign that said, very plainly, amongst other things: “no hitchhiking.”
And sure enough, who should pull up next but the Auburn police. And again, I was put in the back of the squad car while my I.D. was checked. This time I was issued a ticket for “hitchhiking on an expressway” and told in no uncertain terms to find another way to travel. When I asked how I was to do that, he suggested that Auburn was about a mile and a half down the road… I could walk. He then set me back out on the road and left. As soon as he was out of sight, I stuck my thumb back out and hoped that someone would pick me up before the next cop came along.
Someone did. It was a pickup truck full of carpet scraps.
“Where you headed?” the driver asked.
“Oakland”, I said.
“Sure, I can take you there, but you’ll have to ride in the back.”
Exhausted, I burrowed down into the carpet scraps and quickly fell asleep.
Now seriously, I ask you, does “Oakland” sound at all like “Davis”? No, of course not, but when the truck pulled to a stop and the man jumped out he said: “Here we are - Davis, California”. “DAVIS?”, I cried, “I SAID I WAS GOING TO OAKLAND!” “Oh, sorry,” he offered, “I thought you said Davis.” And with that he disappeared into the carpet store to begin his day’s work.
I’ve searched my memory many times, but I don’t remember how I got from Davis to Oakland. But somehow I did. Upon reaching my brother’s house in Oakland, I collapsed on a bed and slept for 24 hours.
I often wonder what ever happened to Angus and Earl, whether the trucker managed to get laid, how the rest of the day went for the poor couple in the Volkswagen, and exactly what the carpet guy was thinking.
I got citations from the City of Auburn in the mail for years. I never paid the ticket. To this day, I remain a fugitive from justice.
New parents, especially first-time parents, are a confident and curious breed. Seldom do two people so completely and enthusiastically embark upon an adventure for which they know little or nothing about. Working as a team, fathers serve to counteract the overprotection of mothers, while mothers temper the goofiness and, in general, bad examples set by fathers.
Amazingly, in the end it all seems to work out.
When our daughter was but a few months old, we decided to pack everything that we owned into moving van and relocate in a distant city. Amidst all the hustle and bustle of moving and packing, we noticed that the baby hadn’t pooped in two or three days. When it reached five days we rushed her to the pediatrician. The doctor took it all in stride, listened to our concerns and then assured us that young babies sometimes go as long as two weeks without moving their bowels.
“It’s not unusual,” she said, “don’t worry - but be ready when it comes because when it does, it will come all at once.” With that last statement she arched her eyebrows as if to stress the significance of her point.
“Wow,” I said to my wife as we left the doctor’s office,“when she blows, I get dibs on cleaning this one up!” To no one’s surprise, Mom was more than willing to concede me this honor.
We continued to pack. Moving day was now just a few days away and the baby hadn’t pooped in a week. We were becoming increasingly concerned with each passing day, but the baby showed no signs of illness or discomfort so we trusted in the doctor’s word and tried not to worry. There was really nothing we could do but keep an eye on her and continue packing.
Moving day arrived. The van was rented and packed and within about five hours we were prepared to leave. We would be towing our car on a trailer so we would, all three of us, be occupying the spacious cab of the moving van. Having to change a baby on the road, even under the best circumstances is a chore that requires planning and patience, but eleven days of built-up bowel movement is daunting. We gathered a pile of newspapers and old towels and placed them in a quickly accessible location in the cab.
Three hours remained until we were to leave. I was in the kitchen marking the last boxes for the van. I glanced over at the baby sitting in her bouncy chair. Her enthusiastic chatter and random exploratory movements had stopped. She was dead silent, not moving, looking at me with a look of profound amazement, as if somehow her tiny world was changing.
Something was happening.
What was happening was that a load, a full load – a load as full as a load can get - of past-its-prime baby poop was in motion like the stirrings of magma beneath a pregnant volcano that is about to blow. The baby stared at me with a look of both pain and ecstasy. It was a look that was equal parts: “Hello! I just won the lottery!” and “Excuse me, may I play through?”
She was gonna blow!
Like a volcano, the initial movements were internal, stirred by heat and pressure. Finding release, the contents of her bowels rapidly filled her tiny diaper and spewed out into the terry cloth jump suit that she was wearing. But the terry jumpsuit was insufficient to contain the fury of this bowel movement. From between the button and snaps extruded a finely bended grey-green substance the color of mashed banana slugs and the consistency of finely chopped liver pate’. As an eleven day stockpile continued to fill her one-piece terry, it issued from the leg and sleeve openings and squirted up her neck like toothpaste being squeezed from a tube.
“I think the baby’s exploding!” I hollered from the kitchen, not knowing whether to start unpopping buttons to relieve the pressure – or to run for cover. I elected to remain with my daughter. Immediately a huge smile washed across her face. The DAD in me likes to think that the smile meant that she was touched by my heroic decision, but the realist knows that it was simply the universal expression of profound
It happened quickly and then, just as quickly as it began, it was over. I began peeling away layers. It didn’t seem physically possible that all of this crap could come from one tiny baby… but it had. When I had finally finished removing, cleaning, washing, and rediapering the now-cooing kid, the mess left behind on hurriedly placed newspapers looked like a giant mint chocolate cream cheese cake that had been accidentally backed over by a truck. I rolled it up, terry cloth and all, and took it straight to the dumpster where it would most likely sit in the sun for three or four days before the trash man came to pick it up. Lucky man.
Well. So there. That was easy. Piece of cake… so to speak. Suddenly we were on the other side and the world was now infinitely less complicated. The baby had exploded and we had all survived. The van was packed. The baby was sleeping softly. There was nothing left for us to do but close the door, wave to the neighbors, pull out on to the road and be on our way.
The smell of baby shit was never so sweet.