Takiní My Breath Away
It was the kind of day that people who live in south-western Virginia call a "dog-day". Hot and humid, with no air moving at all. My parents decided to go to Abingdon, about fifteen miles down the road. Gramma needed some things at the Piggly-Wiggly - things they didnít sell at Maidenís General Store in Meadowview.
Mother called me and opened the back door of the six-year-old 1941 Chevrolet. I climbed inside, and I was surprised to see my grandfather sitting in the passengerís seat, where my mother usually rode. Mother, carrying two-year-old Jo Ann on her hip, walked behind the car to get into the back seat behind Daddy.
Papa Joe rarely rode in automobiles - but there he was, in Motherís seat! She crushed her Pall Mall into the ashtray, and exhaled toward the car roof. "Weíre giving Papa Joe a ride to Meadowview. Gramma says itís too hot for him to walk today."
Everyday except Sunday, my grandfather walked the mile and a half to Meadowview. It was a meeting place for the men after they finished their farming chores. They sat on wooden benches in front of Sue Maidenís Drug Store, talked, and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes.
My father lit a Camel, started the car, and eased it backwards down the steep, deeply rutted driveway, into the road. There was a nine-foot-tall rose hedge across the road from Papa Joe and Grammaís house. The sweet smell of the pink, and white florabunda roses filled the car. Mother grinned as she pointed the roses out to me and little Jo Ann. "My sister and I planted those rose bushes when we were in high school. Look how big they are now! Theyíre so thick and tangled that Prince Charming would have trouble cutting his way through them to reach Sleeping Beauty." I looked at the rose hedge, and thought about all the thorns.
The car started to pull away from Grammaís house. "Stop!" Papa Joe called out. "Roll up these windows. The wind will take my breath away." We protested, saying it was much too hot, but Papa Joe demanded that the windows be rolled up. "The wind will take my breath away!"
A compromise was made, and the windows were rolled three-quarters of the way up. Daddy got out of the car to roll up the windows next to me and Papa Joe. It was a dog-day when we started, but now, with the windows rolled up, it felt like a two-dog-day. It was double hot!
Daddy started down the road to Meadowview again. "Youíre going too fast!" Papa Joe barked. "Itís takiní my breath away." The car crawled to Meadowview. Whenever Papa Joe thought we were going too fast, he became agitated. He coughed. He rocked side-to-side. "Slow down! Itís takiní my breath away!"
Daddy seemed worried that Papa Joe might open the door while the car was moving. "Joe. Relax. Itíll be all right. Weíll be there soon." Papa Joe shook his head and huffed. "This dag-gone automobile is goiní too fast! Itís takiní my breath away!"
The fabric on the backseat was stiff and prickly. I whined to Mother. "Iím hot. I canít breathe." She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows; I understood that to mean Be quiet and stop complaining. The car edged its way to Meadowview. I stood up in the back, and silently studied the criss-crossed lines on the tanned skin of the back of Papa Joeís neck. His white wavy hair, damp from the heat, hung in sharp points, and the starched white collar looked too big.
When we reached Meadowview, Daddy opened the back door for Mother. She walked Ďround the car with Jo Ann on her hip and opened the car door for her father. Papa Joe thanked us for the ride, straightened his shirt, and adjusted his gray suspenders. None of the turmoil of the ride was visible on his face. Papa Joe stood tall and straight. Then, his arms swinging, he walked to the worn wooden bench to wait for the other men to arrive.
Mother and Jo Ann joined Daddy in the front seat. As we drove out of Meadowview, Daddy and Mother rolled down the front windows. Wind filled the car. The seats lost their heated prickles and felt soft again. We sped along the road - going up to thirty-five miles an hour - on the way to go shopping at the Piggly-Wiggly in Abingdon.
There were other car trips with Papa Joe, but this one stands out in my memory. Maybe it was the heat and his fierce agitation.
Six years later,in 1953, my father acquired a Model T car. He spent months taking it apart and putting it back together in the driveway of our home in Houston, Texas. Daddy explained how, back in the old days, driving was different. He talked about the crank in the front of the car and showed me how it had to be turned for the carís motor to start. He pointed out three pedals on the floor of the car, but said that they werenít like the ones in our car. He showed me the accelerator on the gear shift instead of on the floor of the car.
We walked back and forth between the family car (now a 1947 Packard Clipper) and the Model T. Daddy talked about carburetor mixture adjustments and spark advance levels. He compared the pedals of both cars. I reminded him that my bicycle had pedals, and so did flowers. Daddy nodded and commented that flower petals were spelled differently. And he continued, pointing out the three pedals on the floor and three levers on the steering column, and so on. He seemed determined to have his ten year old daughter understand the workings of a Model T. He talked on and on, while I pondered why the word for flower petals sounded just like the word for bicycle pedals or pedals on the carís floor.
One hot day, as I sat under the Chinaberry tree, watching Daddy work on the motor, handing him wrenches and oily cloths, he chuckled and started to tell me a story.
"Iíll never forget the time that Papa Joe drove your Uncle Searleís Model T car. I was still a student at Virginia Tech and I was sweet on your mother. I used to hitch-hike from Blacksburg to Emory to see her. Must have been in 1928 or Ď29. One time her brother Searle was visiting. He had moved to Canton, Ohio and had driven all the way back to see his family. Not many people had automobiles back then, and Papa Joe decided that heíd like to try driving Searleís. He planned to drive to Meadowview, show his oldest sonís automobile off to his friends in town, and then come back. Uncle Searle explained all the levers and pedals to his father, and Papa Joe took off.
"Well, about ten minutes later, we saw Papa Joe driving back from Meadowview, and we wondered why he was back so soon. But he didnít stop; he went right past the house, toward Emory, a mile and a half up the road, the other way. Well, Searle figured that maybe no one was in Meadowview, and he wanted to go to Emory. Ten minutes later, Papa Joe drove back from Emory, and he didnít stop this time either. He kept right on going toward Meadowview, which was a mile and a half the other way. Papa Joeís house is half way between Emory and Meadowview.
"The third time that Papa Joe drove by the house without slowing down or stopping, we figured there was a problem. Those Model Tís were pretty simple machines, but they were always breaking down, and people were constantly diddling around with them. Fixed them themselves with bobby-pins and chewing gum.
"Well, Searle, your mother, and I all went down to the road and waited for Papa Joe to come back. Ten minutes later he did. He nodded to us, and then he just kept on going. You know that Papa Joe never would let on if he had a problem, but he did look a tiny bit flustered.
"We thought that he was probably getting the levers or the pedals mixed up, and he didnít know how to stop the car. So the next time he went by, Searle ran next to the car and hollered ĎUSE THE HAND BRAKE, PAPA! The hand brake!í Papa Joe frowned. The next time he passed the house, he yelled, ĎThe gol-dern brake wonít work!í His chin jutted out. The car didnít stop.
"And so Papa Joe drove back and forth between Meadowview and Emory. Searle tried to run along beside the car to help, but he wasnít much of a runner, and nothing seemed to work. Papa Joe always looked straight ahead, and nodded to us.
"We ended up just standing there on the front lawn - waving to Papa Joe every time he drove by. Papa Joe drove back and forth between Meadowview and Emory until the car finally ran out of gas half-way back home from Meadowview!
"Well, Searle figured that the clutch pedal must have broken, and the ignition switch must have failed to shut off the car. And the hand brake had burnt out. Like I said, those cars could have a lot go wrong with them. The real secret of driving a Model T was to figure out how to adjust all of the controls at the same time.
"When your Uncle Searleís Model T finally ran out of gas, Papa Joe walked home, straight up the hill, and into the house. Didnít speak to anyone. After he washed up, he called to your gramma, ĎOlí Woman, whatís for supper?í Papa Joe never drove a car again, and he never wanted to hear about any reasons why the car wouldnít stop."
When my father told me that story, I finally understood why Papa Joe didnít like riding in a car, and why he felt like it was takiní his breath away!
And, my father did get his Model T to run. We celebrated by riding around the block in it. Mary Lou Anderson, her brother Bobby, our neighbor Elaine McElroy, and me. Daddy sat proudly at the steering wheel, and the car went just the right speed! The next Summer, 1954, we left Houston (and the Model T, which had been dubbed "Betsy") behind, and moved to Worcester, Massachusetts.
Coda: My writer-friends sometimes comment that storytellers are too preach-y. But I canít help but add this thought: Maybe weíve all been driving like Papa Joe: going back and forth, getting nowhere, and not willing to consider any problem. Maybe weíve been driviní so long that we just think we know how to work all the levers and the pedals. And weíre all just hopiní that weíre not too far away from home when the dag-gone thing stops.