My parents ignited my love of the open road. Listening to early stories of their road trips, the adventures and misadventures to and from Camp Atterbury in Indiana, where my father and the rest of the 28th Division trained before going to Germany during the Korean conflict, left me with a passion for the road. Camp Atterbury in southern Indiana was about a six-hour drive from our hometown of New Castle, Pennsylvania, unless a man named Art Parshall was piloting his Rocket 88 Olds. Then it could be done in five and a half hours. These road trips were taken in the days of two-lane blacktop when they had less than enough leave time to make it home and back. I was an early disciple in craving the Americana that is commonly associated with “the road” today; the Coke sign, petroliana and folding maps all make me weak in the knees.
Like those old days and the signs that represent them, sadly Mom and Dad have also faded from the American landscape, passing recently just one month apart.
They may not have been transportation pioneers, but they certainly embraced it. Mom not only drove, but drove a stick and a motorcycle. None of these attributes were widespread back then, but seemed normal growing up. Dad was always busy inventing things that were already commercially available but not for a price he wanted to pay. He made several attempts at inventing “sanders”—a device that incorporated a funnel and large ball bearings that was used to dispense sand for traction under a car’s drive wheels. Getting them to dispense sand was easy; getting them to stop, not so much. He had the same issue with the automatic garage door operator, which he crafted from a gas station bell system. The door would go up when you drove over the airline, but he never did perfect making the door go down automatically.
This Goldbergesque tendency also applied to motorcycles. Dad was always concerned about being visible to other motorists when he was on a motorcycle so he connected his headlight and running light up to a flasher that he would activate when he felt he was in a dangerous situation. He did this in the early ’70s way before hi-viz meant anything to anyone. He also added a high mounted taillight to his bike’s sissybar.
I think Dad enjoyed engineering and building things more than he enjoyed using them when they were finished. One unfortunate Lambretta was a test mule for a pull-behind trailer for people, and a homemade sidecar. I’m sure he spent more time building these two accessories than we ever spent riding in them. Once Dad had to unhitch the trailer due to a flat tire and left us on the side of the road while he went back home to grab a spare tube! What a strange sight we must have been on that country road.
Dad skied behind motorcycles, made them into snowmobiles and took road trips back to Camp Atterbury where it all started. When Dad and I took a road trip on a bike we would often leave at night, for no reason other than that it was more fun. The first time I ate with chopsticks was on a motorcycle trip with Dad to Detroit to check out the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
Dad’s crowning achievement was his Fiero convertible. He engineered and constructed one since Pontiac never did. It was complete with a watertight, manually-activated top, too. Joe from Joe’s Garage in West Pittsburg did much of the work and Marino’s Upholstery did the stitching. The car looked factory and took a successful pilgrimage back to Indiana without incident.
Dad built his own high-wheeled bike and his own chain-drive unicycle. He ran 13 marathons including Boston twice as a qualified participant. He raced a horse nine miles on foot and lost. He bet he could ride a unicycle up the steepest hill around and won.
Dad taught both my sister and me how to ride from an early age. One of his tried-and-true techniques was to tether us with a rope tied to the spark plug wire so he could disconnect our power if we panicked. Despite this precaution, my sister once drove a bike right into a corrugated fence at a local ballfield, but was unhurt. I gave Dad a wild ride, too. One sizzling summer on a tarred and chipped road, I overdid it on the rear brake and left a 30-foot skid mark as Dad frantically regained control of the bike from the back seat. I was probably 10 years old.
Our last pilgrimage with Dad to Indiana was in May of 2009 to enjoy the time trials at Indy with my son Jay. The trip naturally included a detour to Camp Atterbury and a photo at the Camp Atterbury Rock.
In the end, Dad travelled vicariously through television, American Pickers being one of his favorite trips.
To lose both of my parents in such a brief timeframe has left my head spinning, but the memories, traditions and values they left our family with will carry us through. It’s hard to fit 176 combined years of life experience into one column and even harder still to believe they are gone.