I’M SITTING AT a tire shop waiting for my car to be outfitted with a new set of tires. Expensive stuff, but it was time, after four years and nearly 41,000 miles. If my plans involved driving around Houston for the next six months, I would have kept the old tires, but driving across the West on those baldies does not seem to make sense.
Doing this brought back something that I hadn’t thought about in a long, long time: the rituals involved when we went “up north” every summer to work in the fields, and repeated in the fall when we drove back to Texas. Oftentimes it involved getting a new car (used, of course), a task left up to my father. He never told us he was going out to get a new car, he just showed up with it one day and parked it in front of our house. He was the one who made the financial arrangements and I’m sure he got royally screwed every time – not because my father was dumb (although his knowledge of finance and automobiles was very limited) but because anybody who bought a car from any dealer was inevitably screwed, either in the price paid for the car, or in the financing. Along with the car, he also brought the installment payment book, which he handed over to my mother and it was up to us to make sure the payments were made because he wouldn’t be bothered; he had better use for his money.
The cars would generally last us a couple of years and then we’d get a new one. I think I remember most of them. The first I remember was a 1952 dark green Plymouth. That was a followed by a yellow and white 1953 Dodge and a dark brown and tan 1954 Chevy. I think that was the last car my father bought. By the time that one was ready to give out, my sister Mariana had gotten her teaching degree and had gotten a job in the local school and could afford to buy a car. It was a beautiful blue Ford Fairlane, 1963. Brand frigging new! Smelled so pretty. Rode beautifully. After my sister married she left the car behind and I inherited it, and took it to college in San Marcos. Drove it to California several times. In its last couple of years it was always running low on transmission fluid and every time I added fluid it would somehow get into the engine and thick black smoke would spew from the tailpipe for several miles. Embarrassing as hell. After I got my first job (teaching also), I traded that sucker in for a brand new bright yellow Ford Pinto. I was so proud; it was the first Pinto in town.
BACK TO THE rituals. It started with my father demanding several hundred dollars from my mother so he could go get the car lubricated and the oil changed. We never questioned the amount he asked for because we assumed that it cost that much to perform those two simple tasks. It was only until after my sister got her car and she started taking care of its maintenance that we realized that all these years my father had been cheating us of a hundred dollars, or more, each time.
When we were up north and ready to head back, after we’d been paid for the work we had done all summer, we usually took a day to all go to the nearest larger town (anything that had a JC Penney qualified as a big city for us. In North Dakota it was either Grafton (where I was born) or Grand Forks. One year when we worked near Casselton, we went to Fargo instead, because it was nearer. While my mother and the kids would be shopping for school clothes, my father was supposed to be taking care of the car, with the money my mother had given him.
By the time we returned to the parking lot several hours later, my father was waiting for us in the newly lubricated car. He too was lubricated. Well lubricated. He looked happy and usually had a joke or two he was eager to share. We listened to those jokes (some were funny, actually), while my mother seethed with anger. Inevitably, as we loaded our purchases onto the car, my mother would do a little poking around and she would find a pint or two of whiskey, which my father had stashed under the spare tire or other place my father assumed was secure. But my mother had a sixth sense when it came to finding my father’s alcohol and she was never satisfied until she found it, unscrewed the cap and poured the brown liquid on the gravel or pavement.
PERHAPS THE MOST important ritual, at least as far as my mother was concerned, was the blessing of the car on the Sunday before out scheduled departure. She made sure that we would all attend the same Mass and then, after Mass, we’d join other families in the parking lot and wait for the priest to come by to sprinkle holy water on the car, and on ourselves, and utter a few prayers.
Then came the night before departure. My father would back up the car to the back door, open its trunk and doors and my mother would go to work, methodically packing all that we would need in our home away from home – clothes, household items, kitchenware, blankets and pillows. By this time my father was usually in bed, dead drunk.
Most of our clothes would go into a huge military-style duffle bag, which would be stuffed between the two seats, leaving barely enough room for two people sit on either side of it. The rest of us, the youngest, would all climb onto the bed formed by the union of the backseat and the duffle bag. Often there would be a rack on top of the car for more of our belongings, and the trunk would be packed tightly.
Among the things that were included in the belongings was an empty can of Folgers of Maxwell House coffee, into which we kids would pee whenever we needed to so that we didn’t have to be stopping all the time. The pee would be tossed out the window, as the car was moving, and by the time we got to where we were going, there was a smelly splattering of pee all over the rear right side of the car, something I’m sure didn’t please the gas station attendants.
We only used the coffee cans only for peeing. If one of us had to shit before we needed to refill the gas can, we would park on the side of the road and we’d find the nearest tree or bush behind which we would do pull down our pants and do our business.
When the car was finally packed, we’d all go to sleep, only to be wakened up a few hours later for coffee and a light breakfast before we all climbed into the car. For some reason, 4 a.m. was always the hour for taking off — never three, never five – which assured that we would take off in the dark. I always stood outside before we left and looked up at the stars and think, will this be the last time I see these stars? I always feared that a terrible accident would happen and that there was a good chance that we may never make it back to Texas. (We did have an accident once, in Utah, but we all survived.)
FINALLY, THE TIME came for us to leave and we would all cram into the car (cars had a lot more interior room back then; entire large families like ours had no trouble fitting into those cars). My father would start the engine and we’d roll out of our lot, into the street. When my grandfather was alive, he’d usually be awake to bid us farewell. After he died, nobody was around to see us off.
There was the usual departure chatter (“Did you remember to pack such and such? Did you close the doors? Did you turn off the gas?), and then, as the car settled into a steady rhythm on US 83, the talking stopped and the only thing we could hear was the engine’s hum and the car’s rattles. Until my mother sighed, crossed herself and said, En el nombre sea de Dios.

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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2 Responses to Leaving

  1. Ann Chapman says:

    🙂 Always love your stories! You should gather them together in a book. With recipes included, of course.

  2. suzanne anderson says:

    Leaving early in the morning helped to avoid the heat. It could be so hot and dirty traveling in the summer. Hard life Juan, hard life.

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