My granddaddy had his first heart attack when I was in kindergarten. The doctors told him he had about six months to live if he didn’t change everything about his life: quit smoking, take early retirement, start exercising, and eat better. With too much good life left to lose, he did all these things and more. Coupled with the fact that in the 1980s cardiac medicine made a great leap forward and many new treatments and medicines were soon available to him, he actually lived until I was a teenager.
But his eminent death loomed in every shadowy corner of our
lives like a boogie man. It shook my parents, who are both extremely close to
their families. Desperate with the idea that today might be the last, my
parents shaped our lives around time spent “at home,” meaning their hometown
and not one of the string of places where we were living.
We trekked back and forth across the state about every other
weekend from the time I was in fourth grade until I was a sophomore in high
school. Sometimes when my grandfather was particularly ill, we went every
weekend. And then he would bounce back as the result of some new treatment and
our visits would slow to once a month or so during the calm between storms. Add
in holidays and birthdays and other traditional family-get-together times, and
we racked up a lot of miles.
I grew up in the car. The sound of tires on the highway is
as familiar to me as my own pulse. To this day, I’m fairly certain I could make
my way from Pawhuska to Okmulgee without a map – just on muscle memory, or like
a homing pigeon – and it’s been more than 25 years since l lived there. I can spend
days on the road before the long hours of sitting and not being able to read
start to wear me out. In fact, speeding down the interstate at 75 miles an
hour, headed into the unknown, lost in my own thoughts as the country whips by
my window, is probably when I feel most at peace.
My brother was my companion in the backseat, but we always
joked that he was asleep by the time we pulled out of the driveway. When he
finally got his license at 16, my parents teased him that he didn’t know how to
get anywhere because he always just woke up wherever we were going, like he’d
been beamed there by Scotty. Sometimes my parents up in the front seats would
get into one of their epic debates on current events or philosophy, and I would
chime in if I felt brave, but mostly we listened to music.
Classic rock radio. Your FM station for the greatest hits of
the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Doo-wop, rockabilly, the blues, Motown, swamp rock, British
invasion, Laurel Canyon, funk, and singer/songwriters. The glove compartment
was full of cassettes that we played until the frayed tape snapped. The Beach
Boys, the Hollies, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Paul
Simon’s Graceland. We listened to Jan
and Dean in a Sonic Drive-In in Bristow while we watched the classic car clubs
cruise Route 66. Plus, my dad loved bluegrass and my mom had a thing for
hammered dulcimers, so they compromised on a set of tapes of old time music
called Shakin’ Down the Acorns that they
referred to as “the Travelin’ Music.” My brother and I referred to it as Kissin’ on Your Sister and dreaded
having to listen to it, but now I’d love to get my hands on a copy just for old
time’s sake. And heaven help him if my dad tried to slip a side of Flatt and
Scruggs past us, even if it seemed like we were all asleep! But it was a great
coup for me when I was finally able to convince them to play my copy of U2’s Rattle and Hum and my dad admitted it
wasn’t too bad really.
I received a valuable education in the car on those weekend migrations.
I can recognize “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by the Band from just a
couple of the opening notes. I know the difference between western swing and
rockabilly. I can sing the lyrics of almost any Beatles song you know. I can
name that tune in less than five notes. While they had me trapped in the car, my parents passed down their love of songs
and a sprawling knowledge of the American musical canon.
A strange tangle of “negotiations and love songs” (Paul
Simon) shape us, make us who we are. Circumstances beyond our control,
emotional reactions, the decisions of others, fear, love, death, and whatever
song plays next on the radio. Sometimes we give up one thing to get another. Often
when we feel that we are losing something, as it slips through our fingers we
are actually gaining something else – two hours in a bubble with you and Emmylou
Harris as we hurtle into the heart of America.
and the cotton wool heat
66 a highway speaks
Of deserts dry
Of cool green valleys
Gold and silver veins
Of the shining cities
In this heartland
In this heartland soil
In this heartland
Heaven knows this is a heartland
-- "Heartland” Rattle
and Hum, U2