Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Over the River and Through the Woods in a Shiny, Silver Camaro

There are some holiday traditions you simply don't mess with. Families take that stuff seriously. For some, it's certain foods: there absolutely will be sweet potato casserole or else. For some it's at whose house the festivities take place, or the time of day, or the ritual drawing of names for holiday gifts. Every American family has that one thing that makes or breaks a holiday and sends uptight family members into an uproar.

For the Hyden girls, it was the trip down home every Thanksgiving morning. Thanksgiving didn't happen in Erlanger, it happened in Barbourville, in the warmth and closeness of Mamaw's trailer. And this tradition was both nearly wrecked and ultimately saved by my father one year, with an assist from a rented silver Camaro.

Every year from when I was three to when I was twelve saw the following ritual Thanksgiving ritual: a long, family-wide nap after school on Wednesday; an early rising on Thursday; a few minutes of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade while Dad loaded up the car for us (I couldn't leave until I saw the Snoopy float); a stop at the Florence White Castle for provisions, mostly because they were always open Thanksgiving but also because we loved their cheeseburgers so; then the three-hour drive to Barbourville, where we could smell the roast chicken and pressure-cooked green beans from Mamaw's yard. Along the way, I always sang, "Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's house we go..." because it was true--we indeed went over a river and through the woods, not to mention up some mountains. I loved that there was a song that described that feeling of welcome and homecoming I started to feel about the time we got to Richmond and crossed over the Clay's Ferry bridge in all its awesome scariness.

One Thanksgiving morning, a colder , wetter, grayer holiday than usual, we woke to find Dad already up, already three sheets to the wind (knowing that we'd be gone, Dad started his own holiday traditions immediately after getting home from work late the night before), and bearing bad news:

"The car won't start."

Mom only worked one day a week at that point, and we made do with only one car: an increasingly unreliable Ford Fairmont that I heard discussed as a "lemon." This confused me because it was very blue and very square and not in the least bit citrusy.

"Well, what's wrong with it? Why aren't you trying to fix it? You know we go down home today."

"I think it's the alternator. Or not. I don't really know. And in case you haven't noticed, it's Thanksgiving," Dad said. "I can't take it anywhere to get it fixed. Guess you're going to have to walk."

It would be many more years before I could recognize sarcasm. I thought of carrying my overnight bag and my favorite stuffed animal, Mousie, from Erlanger to Barbourville and knew it would be dark before we got there. And Mousie would get wet. Or the worse alternative: staying home and eating the bologna and Grippos Dad had stocked up for himself. I burst into tears. No dumplings! No Mamaw! No doting family! Not even the sight of a giant Garfield in the parade could calm me down.

Mom and Dad argued over whose fault it was (regular maintenance was never my father's strong suit), how the holidays were ruined, how we had nothing suitable to eat, how sad my grandmother would be. I didn't cry alone that morning. And just as we were all about ready to retire to our own corners and be miserable for the rest of the day, my father had a brilliant plan, inspired partially by beer but primarily by a desire to get all the crazy women out of the house:

"If one of the neighbors can drive me to the airport I will try to rent you all a car."

I was in awe. I had heard my parents say before how ridiculously expensive it was to rent a car during those times we found ourselves needing a second vehicle. It seemed such an exotic luxury that I simply had to tag along.

We found ourselves at the airport navigating the car rental area. Being a child of the 80s, I wanted Dad to pick Hertz. Because O.J. Simpson was awesome in their commercials.

Here's something to know about my dad: when sober, he was the most frugal man on the block. He only shopped for clothes for himself during off-season sales at Sears, he bought his eyeglass frames from the "Clearance" section of the optical store, and he checked receipts for any purchases made by the women in his family in his absence and criticized "designer" items like Lee jeans as being vain and unnecessary. But when under the influence, the man had no purse strings. My mom has a collection of high-end jewelry as evidence of this.

So luck was actually on our side that Dad was mildly- to moderately-inebriated this particular Thanksgiving morning. Because an hour later, we showed back up at the house in the must-have sports car for the poor white trash of the early 80s--a Chevrolet Camaro. Silver. Fully loaded. More than we probably could afford, but worth every cent.

"Quick. Before he changes his mind."

After getting over the nervousness that comes with driving a car that's not your own, we began to enjoy our trip down home even more than usual. My sister, a new driver, was even allowed a turn behind the wheel.

"I could get used to this."

We all could. And the oohs and ahhs of our family when we finally pulled into the gravel driveway made the morning's drama disappear and any residual anger we'd felt at Dad for not taking care of the car, and not seeming particularly concerned that it wouldn't start, went right out the powered windows.

And later that night, after chicken and pie, my sister and I got to participate in an old Barbourville custom we had previously only dreamed about: cruising the town square in a hot car. I believe my sister received some catcalls and honking appreciation for both her good looks and the looks of the Camaro. I could feel proud of the latter, as I had had some say in the matter of the color at the rental lot.

We eventually had to return to Erlanger and give the car back, relying on that Ford Fairmont to get us from place to place. But the silver Camaro made such an impression on my sister that several years later, as a young married woman with a good job and some disposable income, she leased a new silver Camaro for a year as one last hurrah before moving on to a mother's minivan. She dropped me off at one of my middle-school Christmas dances in it not long before the lease ended, and we laughed about how cool we thought we were cruising the square that one Thanksgiving.

I laughed, but at that age I was convinced I, too, would have a shiny, silver Camaro one day. And I would cruise the square of my hometown in it. And there would be no limit to the noise I would hear from appreciative country boys about the awesomeness of my vehicle. When Chevy discontinued the Camaro for a while, I might have shed a tear for a dream lost.

Thanksgiving is a low-key affair nowadays. The trips to Barbourville ended a couple of years after my Mamaw passed. We no longer go over the river and through the woods for the holidays, unless of course we're heading into Cincinnati to do some shopping. But that's a much bigger river and much smaller woods. And no vehicle I've driven in since has had quite the ability to make an entrance that our accidental rental had. Our current dark-gray Prius makes a much different statement.

My father had an uncanny ability to wreak havoc on holiday plans. But he had great taste in cars.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

85 G

It was good to be the president.

In fifth grade, I had a brief but glorious flirtation with the world of politics. My term was short-lived, and the organization I was elected to run fizzled out due to tween drama and general apathy. But I got to sit on top of the world (aka, the school playground merry-go-round) for a few glorious fall days, and though I never re-entered the world of school politics, it was heady while it lasted.

My fifth-grade school year was one of the best academic experiences of my life to date. Our elementary only went up to the fifth grade, so we were kind of the graduating class. We were the top of the heap, and we knew it, walking the halls with new found superiority and popped collars. We had a new teacher, a young man (gasp! Only ladies can teach elementary school!) from New Hampshire, which might have been the dark side of the moon for how different and fascinating his culture seemed from ours. I had spent most of the previous year feeling like a complete outcast in Barbourville, and was unbelievably happy to be back home with kids who talked like me and dressed like me. Never underestimate the value of being around people who talk and dress like you; wars have been waged by groups trying to rid their turf of people who speak strange tongues and wear peculiar costumes.

The girls in my class decided that we should form a club. Our goals were simple: to have something that was just ours that we didn't have to share with the obnoxious boys in the class, and to have a forum where we could scope out/gossip about/flirt with the obnoxious boys in the class while seeming like we despised them. Fifth-grade girls really can't decide whether to start being romantically interested in boys or whether to hate them with white-hot fury.

We immediately decided that before we could have any further business, we had to elect a president. It was decreed that the main perk of this job, besides being an awesome title to have, would be that the president could sit in the sweet spot in the middle of the merry-go-round and reign in majesty over the school yard. This appealed to me, mostly because of physics. The middle of the merry-go-round was the one spot on the contraption where I could sit and not fear for my life once the thing got spinning to mach speed or suffer the rest of the day from ringing ears and a migraine.

The position of president also appealed to me because I had just been inspired by Geraldine Ferraro. I felt similar yearnings to those I felt after Sally Ride became the first American woman in space; I've never been really comfortable being the first to do something, but I am a world-class follower. I had wanted to be the second woman in space, or maybe the third if someone beat me to it. So in the fall of 1984, I decided, despite my shyness and lack of popularity, that I would someday be the second female Vice President. That's right, not candidate, Vice President. I was too young and idealistic to realize that Ronald Reagan was an unstoppable force.

My friend Denise, who was an Alpha if I ever saw one, decided to run our elections instead of running for the position herself. Which left the door wide open for me. She announced that we would have to make a short speech from atop the merry-go-round perch at recess answering this one, simple question: Why did we want to be president of the 5th-grade girls club?

I pondered over my answer for 2 whole hours. And at recess, the speeches began.

I couldn't believe what I heard. My classmates were honest, and if I learned anything from the national debates that fall, it was that honesty in politics is fatal. One girl said she wanted to be president because she liked being in charge of things. Another girl said she thought it would be really cool to be able to sit in the middle of the merry-go-round every day. Another said she was running "just because." Amateurs.

My turn came, and I made the first prepared speech of my life. I had my audience in the palm of my hand, and I hit my constituency where they lived. I mentioned boys.

One boy, in particular: Tom, my fifth-grade crush. And I also appealed to the soft hearts and sentimentality of my friends; I kid you not, by the end of my speech, one of my classmates was in tears.

"I want to be president of our club for a couple of reasons," I began. "First of all, I wasn't here last year, and I really missed all of you. You are very special to me." I paused dramatically and made eye contact with the two weepiest girls in the class, the ones who cried at the end of the novels our librarian read aloud to us every year. "It would mean a lot to me to come back and be your president.

"Also, as you know, I have a crush on Tom. But he doesn't know I exist." (He did know I exist, because I was kind of a creeper, but they didn't need to know that. Yet.) "Maybe if I'm president, he will notice me, even though I am not the prettiest girl in the class. Because I will be a leader. And I will also be sitting right in the middle of the merry-go-round every day. Thank you for your vote."

I won by a landslide.

The first order of business was to give us a name. If I do say so myself, I more than lived up to my presidential promise with this task. I decided to name us simply, "85 G." There were 8 of us, and we were in fifth grade, and we were the elementary graduating class of 1985. And our teacher's name was Mr. Goering. That's too many 8s, 5s, and Gs to let go to waste. I exercised my mandate.

So much so that I decided to have our first business meeting at my house. Which is where it all went wrong.

Only two girls could show up, and I wasn't allowed to have anyone inside the squalor pit we lived in, so the three of us met outside on a cool, damp day. As usual, I over-prepared by having an agenda to follow when what the two attendees really wanted to do was goof off in the side yard. I also didn't account for the fact that I was at war with my former best friend who lived across the street, and she was outside taunting us and making fun of me for thinking for once that I was maybe perhaps popular.

Just when she went inside and we thought we had gotten rid of her, she came out and flipped me the bird. And I ended my political aspirations as so many do, with a spectacular show of bad judgement. I flew into an unaccustomed rage, ran across the street and grabbed her by her shirt collar. I had just backed her into the brick at the side of her house and was giving her what-for when her mom hollered out the window and stopped me. She threatened to tell my mother, and even presidents live in fear of their mothers. Everyone was shocked, and maybe a little in awe. I didn't get bullied by anyone again until after Christmas; word spread fast that I had resorted to almost-physical defense and everyone treated me with wary respect until they realized that I weighed 60 pounds soaking wet and couldn't do any real harm, anyway.

The club disbanded the next week, either because their leader had been involved in a scandal or because we were fifth-grade girls with the attention spans of cats, one or the other. And I eventually made up with my frenemy across the street a few weeks later when she showed up on a day off from school with the ingredients to make homemade peanut butter cookies. We were both home alone and she wasn't allowed to use the oven when her parents weren't there, so we whipped up a batch of cookies in my kitchen and buried that hatchet. The cookies turned out pretty good (if you didn't mind cat hair in your cookies), as did the the friendship.

My further political success, however, went the way of the Mondale campaign. I ran for secretary or treasurer of things a few times, but never won (my middle-school NHS sponsor chastised me following one election when I didn't vote for myself and lost by a very small margin. The fact that it never occurred to me to vote for myself shows I am not ambitious enough for politics.)

The middle of the merry-go-round might be a good place to be for a while, but it's not near as comfortable, or have as nice a view, as my couch.