For a split second my stomach was suspended weightless in my abdomen, just like at the top of a roller coaster descent. The four tires of my father’s red Isuzu Space Cab pickup had left the gravel road and were on their downward trajectory toward terra firma. As the truck landed, all three boy scouts and the grown boy at the wheel grinned, laughed and agreed that was the best jump yet.
We were headed to the campsite which was at the end of a dirt road that wandered through 2,500 acres that the Boy Scouts of America used for the betterment of young men. In an effort to keep the speed down on long straight stretches of this road, whoever was in charge elected to build, or more likely elected to use young men’s free labor to build, improvised earthen speed bumps. In my mind’s eye, these mounds were two and a half feet tall or so and stretched the width of the one lane gravel road. Nobody in their right mind would take one at speed. My dad would tilt to them like a knight with enough speed to momentary liberate the truck from the Earth in a flourish of gravel dust.
I was used to this. There was a poorly designed bridge on a back road near our house. When you hit it at 65 or so the suspension would compress at the bottom of the approach and rebound at the top launching the car. The wheels would touch down again on the other side of the bridge.
His mother and father lived down a labyrinth of gravel roads in rural Texas. When we would go visit them my dad would powerslide each corner. The feeling of sliding sideways in a car never gets old. He did all these wild maneuvers with poise and control. He also wrecked more cars than anyone I’ve ever met. The Saturn, the F-150, the Isuzu etc. I was only in a couple of those accidents. As far as I know, he never considered that it might not be a super idea to jump your daily driver. His brother tells a story of how he wrecked three cars in one day, which has to be a record. He got the first stuck in a creek and proceeded to thrash two more cars trying to unstick the first one.
He took me to a monster truck rally when I was a boy. It’s one of the most vivid memories I have from my childhood. The huge tires, the smoke, the sideshow vehicles like the firebreathing-car-eating robot dinosaur. And of course the noise! All that fuel turned into horsepower and hydrocarbons right before my young eyes, creating an un-earthly racket that invaded my ears (no hearing protection, it was the ’90s) and rattled my little chest.
When the time came to teach us kids how to drive, my mother’s temperament proved too tightly wound to tolerate the inevitable and innumerable close calls teen drivers have. When she was in the passenger seat, the tension in the car was palpable. So the task fell to my father. He taught my sister to drive stick by taking her to the steepest hill for miles which just so happened to have a stop sign at the crest. A hard lesson for sure, but to this day the girl can drive a manual.
I remember waiting until the last possible moment to brake each time I’d turn left off the two-lane highway a mile from the house. He’d say, “you’re scaring the bejeebers out of me.” I still don’t know what a bejeeber is. Once, I was maybe 15, he let me take the wheel of his green F-150 on the gravel roads leading to his parent’s house. I wanted to step the tail-end out like I watched him do so many times. Trouble is, he never told me how he did it. So I ended up carrying way too much speed into the corner and skidding into a ditch. He was not happy. I didn’t know what to call it then, but that was probably my first experience with understeer. It wouldn’t be my last.
My dad died at the end of March 2019. Before that, he was sick for more than a decade. Frontal lobe dementia is what the doctors called it. It was protracted and painful for everyone around him. I witnessed his decline at home and eventual move to an assisted living facility. He spent his last six years there, in a continually worsening state of confusion.
I’m still trying to sort out what his death means to me. But one thing has occurred to me. I’m much more like him than I ever imagined, and that my driving shenanigans are a direct result of the adventures we had together.
He had a feral streak and a tendency to do mischief. To my knowledge, he was not a deep thinker or a terribly sensitive guy. He was the impulsive older brother to my two aunts and two uncles. A lot of the time I think he treated me more like a little brother than a son. When he was young, he was very clever at taking non-functioning machinery and electronics apart, diagnosing their malady, and restoring them to working order.
My dad and I didn’t see eye to eye on most things. Whether due to his illness, or some inborn stubbornness, he was frequently difficult to communicate with. I have to thank him though. Thanks for the handful of events he took me to that helped shape my love of cars. The arena-cross races where he did his best to explain the difference between two and four stroke dirt bikes. Thanks for the Volkswagen meet in Waxahachie when I was 14 or 15, where I saw a ’60s era VW transporter pull a wheelie on a drag strip. And I got to ride in a bizarre bug that was made to look like a blue whale. It was complete with a C02 activated spout and a tail that moved up and down as the car rolled along. Thanks for exposing me to fine cinema like Smokey and the Bandit, and all the chase scenes in the classic Bond films.
Finally, I have to thank him for whatever genetic anomaly he passed on that makes me mechanically inclined. Whether by nurture or by nature, I also inherited his feral impulsiveness, which I have mostly under control. I wish he could have seen me become a dad. I wish he were here and in command of his faculties to appreciate his grandson.
Life is weird. I doubt I’ll ever powerslide a car again, or turn off the traction control in the rain without appreciating where the impulse comes from. Even though he’d never be nominated for father of the year, I have love for my dad. I don’t wish I had a different childhood, because without it, I wouldn’t be here typing this. But I won’t be drifting or jumping my truck with my son and his friends on board.