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.

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