“I’ll hold my breath, you count,” I said, sucking in a huge lungful of air and puffing out my cheeks. My sister knew the drill and she started right in.
“One, two, three...”
“What’s going on back there?” Dad interrupted.
“Dan’s holding his breath.”
“Well tell him to stop or he’ll pass out.”
A shadow darkened the car and for a moment I thought I had passed out, but it was just one of the long, dusky, neon-lit tunnels under the Alleghenies. As we emerged into the light on the other side, I saw that everything was as it should be.
It’s a long way from New Jersey to Indianapolis, but every Thanksgiving we loaded up the car and made the trip. President Eisenhower did not sign the Federal-Aid Highway Act until 1956. My family’s trips predated the new broad highways of the interstate system, but no two-lane state road ever deterred the Wolls from attending my mom’s family gathering. My sister and I rode in back, free to climb around and play. Seat belt safety was not yet a thing. As we rolled out of Haddon Heights, New Jersey and crossed the Delaware River Bridge, Mom and Dad began the rosary. I never knew whose idea it was between the two of them but participation was mandatory. The call and response of Hail Marys was rote and trance-like but it marked the beginning of every long trip our family took. The beaded mantra and the St. Christopher medal on the visor must have worked because our two-tone blue and cream Buick Super with the distinctive vanity holes on the fender was unstoppable. Dad kept on driving through the night. When we finally arrived at Grandpa’s farm outside of Indianapolis (the farmland is a suburb today) cousins awaited.
Kids get tired until they reach a point where fatigue is channeled into energy and fussing. We crossed the tipping point somewhere in Ohio and were ready to explode by the time the car pulled into the driveway of the old brick farmhouse. We raced up the big porch to meet all the cousins, one a boy. Albert Junior. The adults headed off to the living room and kitchen for loud stories, laughs and cans of Schaefer, advertised then in a memorable but dubious jingle as “the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” Lots of cigarette smoking in those days too. Albert Junior and I were turned loose on the farm which was great fun for a kid from New Jersey. We climbed around in the barn, jumped off the hay mow, played with the animals and engaged in minor mischief like throwing cow chips at each other.
Minor mischief included Uncle Sonny’s white Dodge pick up truck—a beauty of a workhorse sporting a homemade truck bed enclosure of one-by-four boards which made a slatted enclosure for small animals or bales. We were ten years old the year of The Great Truck Accident. It was a cold Thanksgiving, but Albert Junior and I were playing outside.
“Hey Dan, y’ever drive a truck?”
“I don’t know how.”
“It’s easy. C’mon.”
As a farm kid, he had been driving trucks and tractors since the time he could reach the pedals but it was rocket science to me. He drove us around the farm road in Uncle Sonny’s truck and then offered me the wheel. I had never been behind a wheel and had no idea how to use the long stick jutting up from the floor. He loosely shook the greasy shifter left and right and then pulled it down into first.
“Let up the clutch when you’re ready … there, that pedal on the left.”
I wasn’t ready but I did it anyhow and the truck bucked forward. Lurching along, barely able to see over the dash I was unable to figure out the cause and effect relationship between the steering wheel and our direction. The truck was driving me.
“Use the brakes, Dan!”
I got mixed up and tapped the gas. Our course was irreversible. We tilted sideways, bounced around in the cab as we picked up speed, clipped a power pole and careened into a muddy field. Albert Junior and I bumped around like two bobble-head dolls. Then there was silence in the cab broken only by a snap and pop as a high line wire fell down. Lights in the surrounding barns and houses went out. We had taken out the power. Soon, grown ups arrived. The only voices raised were warnings to stay away from the downed power line.
Albert Junior’s dad, Uncle Sonny, was a hulking man with a heart as big as his body. He filled a room with his personality. He didn’t laugh, he roared. Sonny delighted in pulling pranks on the unsuspecting. Once with no warning, he jumped off my dad’s sailboat in his street clothes. Aghast, my shocked dad could only say, “I wondered why he took his wallet out and set it on the deck.”
Sixty years later in my mind’s eye, he remains a carbon copy of smiling curly haired Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke, only larger. He was a Battle of the Bulge veteran and had survived a horrible river crossing. My mother told me he had had to hold a gun on his own men to keep the boat going forward through merciless defensive fire from the far shore. The steel helmet with the rim around the ears, the Luger, the German officer’s sword in his trunk were playthings to Albert Junior and me. I was old enough to know about World War II from shows like “Victory at Sea,” but it seemed like ancient history. To Uncle Sonny the contents of that trunk were recent memories, 10 years fresher in his mind than the 9/11 Twin Towers attack is in ours today. His raucous sense of humor and infectious laugh hid a mind dealing with larger demons than a banged up truck and downed power lines.
I loved the guy. There were no scoldings, spankings, or recriminations. The electric oven went dead, milking stalled, but the family handled it. Albert Junior and I helped push the truck out of the mud. The reunion went on over candlelight.
It was Thanksgiving on the farm.
Dan Woll is a Wisconsin author of fiction and non-fiction, including the recent thriller Paperclip.