Country roads, take me home

Country roads, take me home

I kick back the blankets and willingly rise at 7:00. It’s Saturday morning in early October, and Dad’s driving into town. He does this every Saturday morning, but today I’m going along. After swapping my Smurf pajamas for jeans, a hand-me-down sweatshirt, red sneakers, and a yellow NAPA hat from the auto parts store, I kiss Mom good-morning and head out the door. Dad’s already waiting in our maroon pickup, its paint powdery from long hours in the sun. I’m nine, all knobby knees and buck teeth. My favorite book is Album of Horses by Marguerite Henry, and I borrow it from the school library every Friday when my fourth-grade class has library day. Then I spend the weekend poring over its pages with the devotion of a scribe, memorizing breeds and trying to copy the drawings.

Today, however, I’m not thinking about school or books. Pushing the button on the old Ford’s door handle, I clamber onto the bench seat and slide over the tweed and vinyl upholstery until I’m next to Dad. He reaches for the shifter on the column, pulls it down into drive, cranks the cracking Bakelite steering wheel, and we’re off to town. Wind whistles through triangular side vents that would rattle if not for the folded green matchbooks wedging them in place. The cab smells of hay and oil and Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco. As he drives the back roads, Dad runs through a medley of “The Ninety and Nine” and “Church in the Wildwood” and “In the Sweet By and By,” his baritone accompanied by the steady rhythm of pistons and steel-belted radials and the occasional clack of his dentures.

We turn onto Main Street and Dad backs up to the loading dock at the farmer’s elevator. Two dusty teenage boys begin hefting fifty-pound sacks of oats and corn into the bed, making the leaf springs squeak. In the meantime, we enter the feed store where Dad picks up a coil of barbed wire, insulators for the electric fence, and a bag of circus peanuts. While he pays the bill, I wander the equine aisle and finger halters, lead ropes, brushes, and blankets for the horse that canters through my dreams each night. I want to be a professional jockey, even though my older sister has informed me that I’m already far too tall.

We hop back in the pickup, pull across the street, and park out front of the Wagon Wheel diner. Dad holds the door for me as we enter its pine-paneled interior. There we perch on red vinyl stools at a Formica counter lined with ketchup bottles, salt and pepper shakers, napkin holders, and sugar dispensers. He orders two sweet rolls the size of tractor tires, coffee with cream, and a Coke for me. As we sip our drinks and munch our rolls, we share a Detroit Free Press left by another patron. Dad gives me the sports section and the comics while he scans regional news and the classifieds.

After draining his third cup of coffee and stubbing out his Swisher Sweets cigarillo in the ashtray, Dad inspects the pale green guest check, thumbs through his wallet for a ten, and hands it to Pam, the waitress who has worked here for years. He doesn’t ask for change. It’s time to head home and get busy on our weekend chores, and he whistles as the old Ford thrums along the river road. The sticky tang of molasses and autumn drifts through the back window. Dad coasts up our long driveway then down the hill to the barn. We spend the rest of that day mending fences.

I’m 42 now, the same age Dad was when I was born. He’s gone. Mom, too. I miss them. I miss home. Where the barn nestled is now highway, its divided lanes slicing hay fields and pastures in which I once roamed. The house is still in our family, though it had to be moved to avoid demolition. Dad’s pickup rusts in a scrap yard somewhere.

The town has changed since I moved away. Rural village is now suburban utopia where soccer moms park minivans and luxury SUVs along Main Street. The Wagon Wheel eventually shut its doors, and a pizza parlor opened in its place. The farmer’s elevator continues to thrive, though the feed store is now flanked by a hair salon, a store selling country chic home décor, and a designer coffee shop. And while I enjoy a good pumpkin spice latte as much as the next person, what I wouldn’t give these days for a warm sweet roll, the aroma of pipe tobacco, and the reassuring presence of my dad.