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For a time when I was growing up, my father was in charge of fuel transport at Cape Canaveral, before it was renamed Cape Kennedy. After the Korean War, he'd studied engineering and the Army had paid for his training. My father felt it was his duty to pay the Army back, so for a while we lived in Florida near the space center and my father thought about fuel.
We lived in a small, flat, pink house on the edge of a small swamp and in that house my parents fought a great deal. The main thing they fought about was that my mother hated living in Florida. She could find nothing charming about the dog races or the coconut palm that grew in our front lawn. She hated the humidity and the merciless sun. We had been moving from city to city since before my brother, Trevor, and my sister, Eleanore, were born, and we had finally settled down, my mother thought, in St. Louis, when my father took the job with NASA.
We drove to Florida in our station wagon with a trailer hooked to it along a road that stretched from the Canadian border to Key West, and the day we arrived my mother threatened to pack us all up and move back north. She waved at my father and threw him a kiss as he unpacked the van. "Go ahead. You stay here. I'll wait for you, I promise." But he'd just taken our kitchen chairs out of the van and headed toward the pink house we were to live in, acknowledging her plea only with a minisalute.
Unlike my mother, my father loved Florida. He loved the ocean breezes, the constant season, and our front lawn. He loved to cut the lawn, trim the hedges. He said it relaxed him. He said that the lawn and house should be neat and pass inspection, just like a soldier's bunk and beard. My father liked to trim the lawn every day when he came home from work. He had a crew cut then, because he worked for the Army, and my mother used to tease him because his head looked like the lawn.
My father's job was highly technical, and we were warned, whenever we were bad, that it was also highly dangerous. Though I've never understood the fine points very well and always lost interest when they were being explained to me, my father was the one who saw to it that just the right amounts of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen were fed into the spacecraft. At any moment, we were told, our father could be blown to bits, and how would we feel if we hadn't been nice to him in the morning before he left the house.
Actually his work was somewhat dangerous. He was the engineer in charge of transferring fuel from tanks to spacecraft. He told us, when he took the job, that he was to the space launch what the anesthesiologist was to an operation, but my mother, who'd had her share of disappointments, was less impressed; he was, my mother once said, a sophisticated gas station attendant.
The year we moved to Florida was the year I was old enough to get my driver's permit and to begin learning how to drive. My father told me that driving a car was a very difficult, important task and that he was going to teach me. The family car was an old Ford station wagon with fake wood paneling and it smelled of babies and our dog, Oscar. Oscar was big with bad breath and an odor about him that could not be gotten rid of, which we later recognized as the smell of incurable disease. Oscar was old and dying and the car stank of him as my father taught me how to drive.
My father always came home from work early in the midafternoon and did a half-hour of calisthenics. "All right, Janet," he'd say to me, "count the first sixty." And he'd do sixty quick sit-ups, then make me pound on his belly to show me that it was taut as a drum. Then he'd mow the lawn, and when he was done with that, he'd say, "Now, young lady, ready for your lesson?"
The first thing we did was drive to the Sinclair station and get the car filled up with gas. I would drive and my father would sit beside me, the driver's manual open on his lap, waiting for me to make a mistake so that he could read me the rule I'd just broken. "You did not properly signal your right-hand turn before you entered traffic." He was a difficult man to please and I always wanted to do well. I approached my lessons with the solemnity of a novice embarking upon her vows. I'd drive slowly into the station, where a green-eyed boy in overalls with grease all over his face filled up our tank.
It was crucial to my father that the tank be filled at all times. He wouldn't even drive to the beach, which was half a mile away from our house, without a full tank. It was a kind of theme in our childhood. We knew that any quiet nap in the car, any terrific joke or great story someone was telling, could be interrupted by a sudden need to stop for gas. And if we complained, my father would say, "You'll see. Some night you'll be out on a dark highway or driving down Alligator Alley, and someone will have forgotten to fill it up for you the night before. Then you'll appreciate this." But it wasn't just the car that had to be filled. It was the little motor on the lawn mower. It was the bathtub and coffee cups. My father had a real horror of empty spaces.
After the car was filled up, my father would say to me, "All right, now, we're going to work on a right-hand turn into a left-hand lane." Or we were going to work on parallel parking or passing a moving vehicle on a two-lane highway. Whatever it was we were working on, we wouldn't go home until I'd mastered it. When we went out for the parallel parking lesson, I didn't get it right until ten o'clock that night. "What are you doing?" my mother screamed when he brought me home, exhausted and starving. "Getting her ready for the Marines?"
My father smiled, opening a bottle of Scotch and pouring three fingers. "My little Janet is tough," he said. "She can take it."
The night my father told us a man was going to walk on the moon was the same night I heard my parents fighting in a way that frightened me for the first time. It was one of those sticky, hot Florida evenings, though every evening in Florida was the same, it seemed; only some were hotter than others, and my father always insisted we eat dinner, unless there was a downpour, on the patio. So we sat, night after night, in the dark, swatting the mosquitoes under the stars, which my father gazed at as if he were somehow closer to them than the rest of us were. He listened to us chatter on about our schools and our lessons. He listened to my mother talk about what had happened at the grocery that day while he drank his Scotch and watched the stars.
He liked to ask us in the midst of whatever we were talking about what important work we had done that day. If we told him we had solved a math problem that had been plaguing us or gotten a part in some school play, he seemed pleased, but he always managed to turn whatever we told him into an occasion for a lecture on good work. "Work is what counts in this world," he began his discourse that evening. "I grew up during the Depression." The Depression, we knew, had ruined his father. "I know what it is not to have work. Let me tell you, you've got to have a skill. Just do one thing better than anybody else. That's what counts."
He sat up very straight and puffed up his chest so that he seemed to grow before our eyes. We all turned toward him, which was what he wanted. Then he leaned forward and whispered, "Something incredible is going to happen ..."
Trevor flung his arms onto the table and bounced in his chair. "What? What?" He was twelve and the middle child; everything he did then seemed excessive. Eleanore, who was the youngest and copied whatever Trevor did, also began bouncing, shrieking, "What? What's gonna happen?"
My father hesitated, looked very serious, took a deep drink. Then he looked up at the sky. "A man is going to walk on the moon." He tapped his index finger against his sternum. Kennedy had recently taken office and one of his promises was that man would reach the moon before the end of the decade, but it never occurred to us that our father would have anything to do with it.
Our mother was swatting mosquitoes and passing plates around. "Janet," she said, "finish your chicken. Trevor, eat your salad. Eleanore, quit mushing up your potato like that." I could tell she was annoyed, because she referred to us individually like a drill sergeant.
"How?" Trevor almost shrieked. "How's he going to walk on the moon?"
My father looked placidly at the sky. "He's going to go up in a spaceship and it's going to land on the moon. And I'm going to see he gets there."
"What about Schlecter?" my mother said. "I'm sure he'll have something to say about this." We knew there was a Colonel Schlecter, a man we'd never met but had been raised to hate, who stood in the way of our father and success. If our father got a man to the moon, it would be only because Schlecter gave him the goahead.
Ignoring her comment, he pointed in the direction of the moon. We all looked. It was a lovely, golden moon that was almost full but not quite. We were enjoying looking at it, imagining our father sending someone all the way there, when our mother suddenly stood up and took the drink out of his hand. "For Christ's sake, Jim," she said, "I can't stand having you fill their heads with this nonsense."
"What do you know about it," he snapped.
My mother looked at him and sighed. "No man is going to walk on the moon and you're certainly not going to be the one who sends him there."
She sat back down again and patted her hair, which had turned frizzy in the Florida sun. My father threw his napkin onto his plate, got up, and let the porch door slam behind him as he walked into the house. We finished dinner in silence, none of us daring to look up or to watch our mother, fidgeting nervously with her fork.
Our father, she had told us many times, was a dreamer and we had to take what he said with a grain of salt. In all fairness to my mother, she had been engaged to an insurance broker when she met my father and her parents had approved of the marriage to the insurance broker. But then my father returned from the Army and arrived in Milwaukee one night. He was friends with her brother, and he swept my mother off her feet. He promised her he was going to be rich and do great things. He told her he had a great career ahead of him as an engineer. He promised her she'd see the world and he'd be a faithful lover. He'd only been able to come through on the last.
When we went back into the house after dinner, mosquito-bitten and sweaty, I saw my father in the middle of the living room, lifting weights. He did this often, but this time he seemed to be doing it with some special force. His face was red and puffy and he kept breathing in and out, gasping for breath. His muscles were strained beneath his T-shirt; I thought it would rip in half.
The day my father taught me how to pass a moving vehicle on a two-lane highway, I almost killed us both. He'd come home from work a little later than usual and seemed agitated. He said something important was going to be happening down at the space center soon. He seemed so upset that I suggested we forget about my driving lesson that day, but he said, "You've gotta stick to it. If you don't stick to it, you'll never learn."
We let Oscar jump into the back seat and drove off to the Sinclair station, with its dinosaur sign out front. The green-eyed boy in the blue overalls with grease on his forehead waited on us. "Fill it up, Mr. Hamilton?" the boy said.
"Fill it up," my father said, without raising his eyes from the driver's training manual.
The boy took the hose and put it in the gas tank and I felt the car begin to take in the gas. The smell of gasoline was in the air. My father sat beside me, flipping nervously through the manual, his nails bitten down to the quick. As he turned the pages, I saw red scaly spots on his hands from rubbing. I wondered what made him do that and decided it was the pressures of being a fuel transport engineer.
The green-eyed boy dipped his squeegee in water and began wiping the windshield. The windshield was dusty, and the squeegee made a squeaky sound. As he wiped, the window became clearer and I saw his gentle eyes. His body stretched smoothly across the hood of our car and I smiled at him. "How're the lessons coming?" he asked. My father handed him his credit card and the boy smiled back at me. The pump clicked as it came to a halt. I wondered if the boy could go up in smoke at any moment, the way we'd been told our father could.
We drove out onto a narrow strip of highway that cut across Florida like Alligator Alley, and my father told me I was going to learn how to pass cars that day. He explained, the way he always did, in meticulous detail, how I was to keep my eye on the road ahead, accelerate, pass the car, wait until it appeared in my rearview mirror, put on my turn signal before returning to my lane, and so on.
My mind wasn't on turn signals and acceleration as I sped along the road. Rather, it was on the green-eyed boy who'd leaned across the windshield and smiled at me. And it was his face I saw ahead of me, not the oncoming car, as I tried to pass on a two-lane highway.
"Step on it, Janet!" my father shouted. Oscar hung between us, panting, and my father with one swift movement, a movement as graceful as any I'd ever seen, hurled the dog into the far reaches of the station wagon, grabbed the wheel, and floored it. Somehow he managed to get us back into our lane, amidst the screeching of brakes and the beeping of horns, as a Mustang, traveling at breakneck speed, swerved to avoid crashing into us, head-on.
My father drove a few more feet, then got the car off the road, pulled over, and shook me. It was the only time in my life anyone had ever laid a hand on me, and I think it stunned both of us. He put his hands on my shoulders and shook me until my head wobbled back and forth and I thought my arms would come loose. "What were you thinking about?" he shouted. "Not the road, that's for sure. Not about driving. Don't you ever again drive without having your mind on it, do you understand me? Do you understand?" All the time he spoke he was shaking me; I was amazed at the strength in his arms.
He made me get in the back seat, and, as Oscar blew his sour breath into my crying face, my father broke the speed limit and drove us home. When we walked in, my mother took one look at me, then at him. "She goddamn almost got us killed."
He began drinking earlier that day, and later in the evening, as we all were watching television, my father leaned down near me, and his breath stank the way Oscar's did. "I'm sorry," he said. "I lost my temper."
That night as I drifted to sleep I heard my parents fighting in their room. It was one of those awful, hot nights, and Eleanore and I were sleeping with our door open, but I couldn't make out what they said. Then the door to my parents' room slammed and heavy footsteps pounded down the stairs. I waited all night for the footsteps to tiptoe back up the stairs again, but they never did.
The day I got my driver's license, the boy from the pumping station asked me out. I'd gone to get the car filled up for a solo ride, and as he leaned across the windshield, removing some bird droppings, he said, "Wanta go out tonight?" His name was Tim and he was a high school student from Daytona. He drove a souped-up car with a lot of horsepower. He picked me up in a seersucker suit, with all the grease carefully removed from his hands and with his hair slicked back. My father didn't recognize him as they shook hands and Tim escorted me out the door. "You drive carefully now," my father said.
We ate a pizza and saw a bad Western. Then Tim asked if I wanted to go for a ride. He pulled me close as we drove along a strip of unlit highway that cut Florida in half. The wind whipped through the palms, and the moon had never seemed so bright as it did that night. I threw my head back against the seat of the convertible and watched the sky until we ran out of gas.
The car just sputtered and died somewhere on the strip, and there was nothing in sight. Tim and I sat, with our arms around each other, waiting for a car to pass. The highway was dark and the night balmy. We listened to the radio and he kissed me until an old couple in a jalopy came along. We flagged them down and they drove us, creeping along at twenty miles an hour, to the nearest gas station.
It was midnight when I walked in the door. My father sat, staring at the television, a glass of Scotch in his hand. "I don't want any explanations," he said. "You will simply never be late again in your entire life. Is that clear?"
"It's clear, but ..." I wanted to explain about driving down the road and the wind in the palms, but he raised his index finger up to his face.
"No buts. Get to bed."
Tim later told me that my father drove to the gas station the next day and stared at him for a long time. As he handed Tim his credit card he said, "You're the one who took my daughter out last night." And he drove away.
When he got home, he walked in and screamed at me, "What were you doing out all night with a gas station attendant?"
My mother stepped in. "He's a nice boy," she said. "There's nothing wrong with her going out with him." It was four in the afternoon, but she wore a bathrobe and had her hair in little pincurls all over her yellow head. Her hair had turned to some kind of straw in the Florida humidity, and all she did was sit home and put rinses on it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bus of Dreams"
Copyright © 1985 Mary Morris.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Bus of Dreams,
Orphans of the Storm,
The Watermelon People,
The Hall of the Meteorites,
Losing Your Cool,
The Banana Fever,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,