I can still recall the driving trips with the family, and I have to tell you about this one time where I inadvertently tried to drive the old man crazy. I was young, maybe six or seven, and was riding in the back seat of our Ford Fairlane. This was back when smoking was cool, and not something folks got dirty looks for, like they do these days. At any rate, there were ashtrays on the armrests of both the back doors; little metal jobs, that you could pull out of the armrest to empty. When you opened and closed the ashtray, it made a little squeaking noise kind of like, “eeeyeent” when you opened it, and “eenk” when you closed it.
We’d been on the road for awhile when I discovered this awesome little plaything, and was entertaining myself quite well with it. I would vary the speed I opened and closed it, which would, in my opinion, make a quite musical sound. I was actually getting pretty good at it, and thought I’d almost mastered Yankee Doodle. Eeeyeent eenk eee eenk ee eenk eeeyeent… you know, like that. The old man didn’t like it.
“Charlie!” he yelled. “Stop playing with that ashtray!”
I about came out of my skin, and slammed the ashtray shut. Eeenk! I was staring at the back of the old man’s head, and I swear the hair on his neck was twitching. Mom was watching him with wide eyes, and she shot me a glance that indicated I was crossing over into a land I didn’t want to visit. I put my hands in my lap and looked out the window.
A few miles down the road, I noticed my hand moving slowly toward the ash tray. My mind was screaming in terror and my eyes went to the back of Dad’s head, where the hairs were once again flat on his neck. His shoulders had been square and tense earlier, and I noted they were completely relaxed now. My hand was on its own, and paid no heed to any of the information being relayed to it from my eyes and brain.
Holy crap! I thought the old man was gonna wreck the Fairlane! You ever had a parent say, “I’ll stop this car!”? Well, he didn’t even threaten to stop the car, he just did it! He slammed on the brakes and dust boiled over us as we slid to a stop on the side of the road. As he slowly turned to look at me, my brothers and sisters scrambled away from me and huddled in a pile on the other side of the backseat. It looked like a pile of knees, elbows and eyes over there.
Mom was staring at me with eyes so big she looked like some kind of alien bug, and had a hand clasped over her mouth. I couldn’t believe it, but it looked like she was trying to keep from laughing. Here I was facing death at an absurdly young age, and Mom thought it was funny. Truth is, I think that was partly what saved me. The old man saw her trying not to laugh, and I think he kind of got the idea it was pretty funny.
He did that boy-chu-bee-kuh thing, trying to remember which kid he was yelling at then he couldn’t keep the smile off his face, as he stared at me. I was pressing back as hard as I could, trying to mold myself into the back of the seat. I was pretty sure my life was over, and I’m fairly positive the expression on my face was demonstrating my thoughts quite precisely.
The old man finally just shook his head and laughed then turned around and eased back onto the highway.
I left the ashtray open the rest of the way to wherever it was we were going.