…put me out of misery. It’s 7:30 a.m. and the summer of ’78 is now in progress. I slip into the car a split second before my father does, just in time to punch the button for my favorite AM radio station. If there’s one thing I love, it’s rock music. If there’s one thing he hates, it’s rock music.
The rules are the rules. It’s his car and he’s driving, so he’s damned if he’s going to listen to that noise, especially not first thing in the morning on his way to work. If he beats me to the car, then I’m stuck listening to WRVA, The Voice of Virginia. My parents have tuned every radio in the house to this station, even the one radio that gets FM stations. WRVA with Alden Aroe and Millard the Mallard, his co-host who sounds suspiciously like Donald Duck, all morning, every morning. The songs they play when not quacking away include, “The Shrimp Boats Is A’coming,” “There’s Dancin’ Tonight,” “Moments to Remember,” and Roger Whittaker’s entire catalog – a veritable Hit Parade of Music for Those Who Have Nothing To Live For.
But here’s the thing: if I change the station before he gets behind the wheel, he might be in enough of a daze from everything he’s got on his mind that he won’t realize it right away. Then for a few minutes, I can sit in my bucket seat and rock out inwardly, while doing nothing to draw his attention outwardly, the very picture of nonchalance.
For the record, I’m the apple of my father’s eye. But that won’t stop him from meeting me at the front door later this summer as I try to sneak in five minutes after my midnight curfew. If I can’t live by the rules of this house, then I can pack my bags and be out by morning, is what he’ll tell me. Yes sir, is what I’ll say, all respect and fear, and that’s the last we’ll ever speak of it. I’ll have teenagers of my own before I understand the countless tragic ways they might have died when they’re five minutes late. It’s like that song by The Police that will come out in the 80’s: Daddy grips the wheel and stares alone into the distance—he knows that something somewhere has to break.
A word about the car. It’s a 1967 Ford Mustang, my dad’s pride and joy. A custom, Acapulco Blue, 8-cylinder, zero to sixty in I-don’t-know-what-but-it’s-fast machine. He bought it used from his younger friend Ernie, whose fiancé insisted that he buy a more sensible car before they got married and started a family. What my father was thinking when he bought this car must have gone something like this: Christ. I got transferred from Buffalo, NY to Hopewell, VA where it’s hot and goddamned humid, I blink and I’ve got a wife and four kids. I’m 42 years old, go to work at the plant every day, come home every night, cut the grass on Saturdays, and fix stuff on Sundays. Screw it – I’m getting this car.
Against all odds, it’s a good fit for our family. Mom and Dad ride in the front, I ride in the back with my little brother Will and my little sister Laura. We take turns sitting on the hump. Our older brother, Conway, rarely goes anywhere with us anymore. If my parents force all six of us to make a group appearance, there’s always the VW bus, or later, the International Travel-all with its spacious bench seats.
My mother loves the Mustang. “It corners so well,” she says as she hits the tight curve of the Route 10 exit off of I-95 so fast that the centrifugal force threatens to fling us out of the car. “I don’t even have to use the brakes!”
All of us love it for its horse power, but Mom will be the only one to get a speeding ticket for going 40 in a 35 mile per hour zone at 11:00 at night when, as she points out to the officer, there’s not another soul on the road. Some people never learn when to shut their mouths, she tells us, and she should know. As the police officer stands there, debating whether or not to ticket this attractive 40-something in the hot ‘Stang, she loses her patience and suggests that he either shit or get off the pot.
She will fight about the car during the divorce. Out of fear of not getting the best deal, Mom will insist on the brand new Ford Fairmont that my father will purchase to replace our dying International. If the Mustang represents the pinnacle of Ford car making, the Fairmont represents the race to the bottom, but it’s so new that we don’t know that yet, and this will be yet another decision she looks back on with great bitterness.
I learn to drive in the Mustang, as do Conway, Will and Laura. Ford built this car for the more daring pursuits of my older brother, like drag racing out on Reformatory Road. With its catch-me-if-you-can V-8 engine, this horse has to be reined in on the thirty-five mile an hour streets of Hopewell. In high school, my friend Johncie and I drive the ‘Stang on the side streets out of sight of our parents, one of us closes her eyes and steers while the other calls out directions, both of us laughing hysterically. Left. Right. Stop! Stop!!
Now I’m home from my freshman year in college and here we are, Dad and me, driving to work together. His job in the Engineering Department at the plant allows him to get me a cushy summer job filing and typing in the Purchasing Department just down the hall.
This morning, I’m particularly fortunate, because he hasn’t yet noticed the station change and they’re playing my new favorite Rolling Stones hit – Beast of Burden. The Stones will never replace Little Feat in my heart— I‘ve considered leaving school to become a groupie because of my obsession with Lowell George— but Some Girls is a great album. My friends and I debate whether Mick Jagger is handsome or homely, but we all agree that we’d jump off a cliff for him, and here he is, singing the first song of the morning.
So already it’s a great day. I’m sailing down Route 10 in a Car of Great Power with my father, whom I love dearly—taste in music aside— and as soon as I get off work, I’ll see my boyfriend, whom I also love dearly. He’s my very first boyfriend, and by that I mean first kiss, first all the way, first everything. Daddy says I’ll outgrow him, but I hardly see how that is possible because he’s a full eight years older than I am. This will be yet another thing my father will be right about, and I’ll be brokenhearted, but for now, ignorance is bliss.
I’ll be back in school by the time my mother calls to say she’s leaving my father. Lowell George won’t die until next year, and my boyfriend and I will hang tough for another three years. We’re driving toward all that, but for now it’s out of sight, a little further down the road.
Back in the Mustang, Mick Jagger is wailing away about how he’ll never be my beast of burden, and he’s about to get to my favorite part: But put me out. Put me out. Put me out of misery. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll see Daddy’s boxy index finger with its clipped nail reach down and jab at the buttons on the radio. I’ll put you out of misery, he’ll say under his breath.
But that’s seconds from now. Here in this moment, I anticipate only Mick’s next line, as happy as a girl can be.