MY BIG brother Jim and I met on Pine Street in Center City Philadelphia on a midsummer morning.
He was wearing khaki shorts and a green T-shirt that featured Peter Tosh, the reggae singer, smoking a joint. I was wearing chino pants and a blue cotton shirt with a white collar. He was carrying the "Baseball Encyclopedia" and a bag of rusty golf clubs. I had Carlos Baker's biography of Ernest Hemingway and a diary notebook.
We were about to drive together through the grand old mountain tunnels of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, past Cleveland and its belovedly pathetic Tribe, and Toledo, home of the Mud Hens, then across the Indiana Toll Road, "The Main Street of the Midwest," around Jack Brickhouse's Chicagoland and north to Madison, Wis., for our father's retirement party.
And as we met in Philadelphia we expressed our brotherly love without saying a word, by assuming a part of each other's character within the immutable roles of the family.
Jim, golf clubs and all, is the intellectual.
Hemingway notwithstanding, I am the jock.
Our assigned vehicle for this sentimental journey was Jim's 1979 Plymouth Horizon, pale green and compact, a suitable car for a teacher of Cervantes and Orwell at Amherst College in the hills of western Massachusetts, but not exactly the dream machine for a half-continent trip. I had a preference for air-conditioned cruisemobiles for such ventures, but I had no grounds to complain. The only reason we were driving at all was because of my debilitating psychological affliction: fear of flying.
Over the years, like all land-huggers, I carried a shield of rationalizations to protect myself from gratuitous charges of wimpitude. I love trains, I would explain, or I love interstate driving. No one ever believed me. And after the fact, after I'd spent 10 or 20 hours in a car or train to transport myself from here to there in what could have been a two-hour flight, I even found it hard to believe such things myself.
Now, at long last, I have something to show for being an earthly coward. What happened to Jim and me between the Schuylkill Expressway and the shores of Lake Mendota simply could not have happened had we been confined to a soaring capsule above the clouds.
At 9 o'clock that glorious morning we left Philadelphia, and by my lawbreaking reckoning we would arrive at our parents' house in the shadows of Camp Randall Stadium about 13 hours later. Time and place lost all relevance as we brothers, a 38-year-old professor and a 33-year-old journalist, drove down the pike, engaged in an endless match of baseball trivia--the rosters of the 1958 Detroit Tigers and the 1963 Milwaukee Braves and the 1969 Cleveland Indians and a number of other wonderfully mediocre teams.
Three hours later, when we stopped for lunch at a McDonald's in Somerset, Pa., time and place suddenly became relevant. I began recalculating our estimated arrival time as I chomped on my Big Mac.
"Jim," I said, "I don't think we're going to make it tonight."
Jim, naturally, felt compelled to reverse roles. If I was showing signs of concern, he would be optimistic.
"That's funny," he said. "Right before you said that I was thinking this was going to be an easier trip than I expected."
It was 3:15 p.m. when we reached the Ohio line, and I was ready to roll. "Three and a half hours," I said boldly, "and we'll be out of this state." As we moved north to the Lake Erie shore, a fierce thunderstorm pushed toward us from behind. It was just the excuse I needed to move the speedometer another 10 mph to the right.
"I think we're going to beat this expletive deleted storm," I said.
"You shouldn't talk that way about Mother Nature," said Jim. "She always gets you in the end."
But I did beat the storm and the clock, reaching the famed Indiana Toll Road at 6:30. Soon we passed a highway sign that said we were approaching Angola. I asked Jim if he had ever been to Angola, thinking of the country in Africa. Jim said there was a marvelous Union '76 truck stop in Angola. How in the hell would a Spanish literature professor from Amherst know about a Union '76 truck stop in Angola, Ind.? Only a big brother would be right about something like that. We pulled off the toll road for a dinner break and there it was, with rows of big rigs in the parking lot.
As we got out of the car, I suggested that Jim might think twice about walking into such a place wearing a T-shirt that showed some reggae singer smoking a joint. Jim was not at all concerned. We were served dinner by a friendly waitress who had absolutely no idea how far we were from Chicago. After dinner, Jim went off to play Donkey Kong in the video game room and I paid the bill.
"Excuse me," said the cashier. "Where did your friend get that Peter Tosh T-shirt? Does he know Peter Tosh?"
I wasn't sure, but knowing my big brother, he probably did.
"I guess so," I said.
"Wow," said the cashier. "What a great T-shirt! You know Peter Tosh was in here just last week. He sat right over there."
That's the way life is with Jim.
With a lucky brother, a full stomach and a replenished gas tank, I hit the toll road again, finally convinced that Madison would be ours before midnight. I held that conviction for 10 minutes.
We were two miles east of Elkhart when the car sputtered and smoked and died. Mechanics Jim and I are not. In fact, an honest recitation of events must reveal that neither one of us could figure out how to get the hood up. It was Jim's car, so I presume he was slightly more embarrassed about it than I was, which was not really all that much, since neither one of us would have known what we were looking at under the hood anyway. But intuitively I knew that this problem was more than overheating or a lack of oil. I knew the engine was burned out.
For the next half-hour we wandered aimlessly back and forth along the grassy bank by the side of the road. The sun quickly fled this forlorn scene, replaced by a night-raiding patrol of mosquitoes. The assessment of blame and guilt was quickly dispensed with. Jim said he knew I must have been riddled with guilt because I had driven his car into the ground. He said he wanted me to know that he didn't really blame me for it, that I had been acting in character by driving so fast and he would have thought less of me had I been more cautious. I said I didn't feel one bit of guilt, that his clunky little car would have died anyway.
We were both sort of lying.
The first person to stop for us was a trucker hauling an empty load back to Chicago. The fact that it took this trucker about 60 seconds to figure out how to get the hood up pleased us both immensely. It was a darn tricky little hood.
"Yeeeup," said the trucker. "She's dead."
"Yeeeup," I said.
The three of us stood looking at the engine for awhile. There wasn't much more to say. Jim, who prides himself on his ability to talk to anyone about anything, told the trucker far more than I thought he would want to know about who we were and where we were going and why.
"I don't like Madison," snorted the trucker. "I like Boston. I've always wanted to go down there to Washington Street in the X-rated 'Combat Zone' ."
I'd never heard anyone say they didn't like Madison before, and my home-town pride was so deep that I felt an urge to defend it even then. My standard defense involves the four lakes in town, and the progressive politics and the university, but now my mind was cataloging the features that might turn this skeptical trucker around: the Dangle Lounge on Main Street, the Whisky A-Go-Go on the Beltline, the Geisha House Massage Parlor on the square. Maybe he'd tried them all and found them wanting, I thought, so I didn't argue.
Soon a state trooper pulled up behind our dead car. He sized us up in 15 seconds (it was too dark for him to see the joint in Peter Tosh's mouth) and said he would call a tow truck in Elkhart. We thanked the trucker as he moved swiftly back toward his cab. "One more thing," said Jim, who had planned to enforce a strict no-smoking ordinance on our trip and was no doubt disappointed that I hadn't even tried to light up so far. "We need two cigarettes."
The trucker gave us his whole pack of Marlboros and moved on.
Ten minutes later the tow truck arrived.
"Good evening, gentlemen. What can I do to help you?"
This was our introduction to Danny, a 19-year-old Elkhart resident who claimed he had been driving a tow truck for five years and who would be our gracious host for far longer than we realized.
I told him our engine was dead. He looked at it.
"You are correct, gentlemen," he said.
As Danny hooked the car to the tow truck, Jim and I rounded up our traveling gear--two suitcases, the "Baseball Encyclopedia," the golf clubs and even some white golf shoes (I didn't know Jim had them!)--and climbed up onto the front seat of the cab. Danny joined us shortly, flicked on all sorts of flashing lights on his Simonton Lake tow truck, and the three of us lumbered on down the road to Elkhart, Ind.
"Gentlemen," said Danny, "it looks as though you'll be here overnight. We have several fine sleeping establishments in Elkhart--Holiday Inn, Ramada Inn. What is your preference?"
"Holiday Inn," I said.
Jim recited, word for word, the Holiday Inn slogan about no surprises. He always remembers slogans word for word. It is part of his genius.
Before going to the Elkhart Holiday Inn, Danny stopped off at his auto shop on the banks of Simonton Lake, where he had to unhook our car and get a truck into the garage before another summer storm struck. We were greeted there by mother and child Doberman Pinschers and a mechanic named Joe. Jim loves anyone named Joe, and this Joe was no exception. This Joe, wearing only cutoff shorts and Docksiders, said he spent most of his time 20 miles north in Michigan, where he had been selling and building log cabins since he was 14. Jim told him who we were and where we were going and why, and Joe took to his story with a little more interest than the trucker, so Jim kept talking. He told Joe how the state trooper had sized us up so quickly and was very friendly.
Joe looked at Jim's long red hair and the T-shirt featuring reggae singer Peter Tosh smoking a joint and the rusty golf clubs. (I had long since hidden the White Golf Shoes in my suitcase). Then he looked at me, wearing chino pants and a blue cotton shirt with a white collar. "You're lucky," said Joe to Jim, "that you had your brother with you."
Danny emerged from the back of the shop.
"Are you ready, gentlemen?" asked Danny, moving toward his tow truck.
Jim turned to his new friend Joe and asked rhetorically: "Do you call everyone gentlemen, too?"
I think Jim would have been heartbroken if Joe had said yes. Joe just laughed, and Jim felt good about the fact that he loves anyone named Joe.
We gentlemen reloaded our goods back into Danny's truck, placing the golf clubs in the back with the heavy chains, and drove through town to the Holiday Inn. I think Jim was reciting, word for word, the Holiday Inn slogan to himself as we strolled through the lobby to the front desk. Danny came in with us and did the talking with the clerk, perhaps assuming that Jim and I did not know the language of Elkhart. Danny told the clerk who we were and where we were going and why.
"Sorry," said the clerk. "We don't have any rooms. The twirlers are here. The twirlers are everywhere."
On July 21, 1983, northeastern Indiana was host to the national baton twirlers contest. Jim and I looked around. The twirlers must have been in bed, but their presence was indeed everywhere. On the bulletin board next to the front desk was a large sign which warned: "Attention Twirlers. No Twirling in the Lobby." Outside, the Holiday Inn marquee read not "Welcome Jim and Dave," but "Welcome Twirlers."
Jim and Danny and I concluded that there was no room for us in Elkhart on that night. Danny said he would take us out to the Elkhart Airport, where we could rent a car and push on to a twirler-free outpost. Valparaiso, perhaps. As we made our approach to the airport in Danny's wrecker, our path was blocked by a tree that had fallen on a car. Danny got out and kibbitzed for awhile, then returned to tell us that the guy towing the tree-crushed car was a real amateur. Jim and I had by now accumulated enough experience in the business to agree with him wholeheartedly.
As Danny attempted to circumnavigate the tree-blocked road, a call came over the radio. "Gentlemen," said Danny, his face brightening considerably. "We've got ourselves an impound!"
When the police call Danny for service, nothing gets in his way. The quicker he responds, the more business he gets. And when there are two cars to be towed, the first wrecker on the scene gets his pick of the mangled offerings. Danny figured he could get to the scene of the accident in downtown Elkhart in five minutes. When we hit our first red light, Danny's smile disappeared and a new determination overtook him.
"Gentlemen," said Danny. "Hold onto your hats. Elkhart's finest is right behind us."
Jim and I turned around. Hugging Danny's back fender was another wrecker. It was none other than Danny's former employer and currently his toughest competition in this very competitive towing town. The drag race began. Forty, fifty, sixty miles an hour we stormed down Elkhart's narrow streets, swerving around slower cars, flying through the darkness, the competition at our heels. Jim and I started laughing with joy and apprehension.
"Danny," said Jim. "You have no idea how far drag-racing a tow truck in the darkness of Elkhart, Indiana, was from my mind only yesterday."
I was thinking something slightly different. What a fitting irony it would be, I thought, if my fear of flying would lead me to an early death in a drag-racing tow truck in Elkhart, Ind. One-hundred yards ahead I spotted the likely scene of my departure from this earth--a very large bump in the narrow road where the railroad crossed.
"Danny," I said. "Why don't you slow down just a little?"
Danny responded like a gentleman. He slowed down just a little. It was enough to let his competition roar past on the left. I was alive, but I felt terrible. The wimp riding shotgun had let Danny down.
Fifteen minutes later, we were hauling the wreck back to Danny's shop on the shores of Simonton Lake. Jim and Joe were delighted to see each other again. Joe told Jim that if all else failed we could stay with him in the trailer behind the shop. I found the yellow pages and started making some calls. The airport was closed for the night. The rental car option was out. There were 15 motels and hotels listed in the Elkhart area. I called every one of them. Every one of them was packed with twirlers. I started calling hotels and motels in South Bend, 12 miles down the toll road. South Bend, it turned out, had some action of its own. The Studebaker Museum was opening there the next day, and classic car buffs from all over America were gathering for their national convention. No rooms.
So desperate had I become that I started telling the motel clerks who Jim and I were and where we were going and why. The last clerk I talked to in South Bend sounded sympathetic.
"I'd really like to help you, dear," she said. "But between the twirlers and the Studebakers, northern Indiana is booked solid."
"Do you know of anyplace we could stay?" I asked.
There was a long pause.
"Well, I guess you could try the Night Fall Inn down in Osceola."
I called the Night Fall Inn down in Osceola.
"We've got one room left, honey," said the woman who answered the phone.
I told her who we were and where we were going and why. Then I asked her if we could reserve the room.
"Honey," she said. "I haven't reserved a room here in 30 years."
"We'll be there in 10 minutes," I said.
Joe and Jim were talking about Coke machines when I broke the good news. Danny was asleep in the trailer. John, the boss, who was just as gracious as Joe and Danny, volunteered to take us to the Night Fall Inn, though he said he wasn't quite sure where it was. I told him it was right next to the drive-in theater in Osceola.
"Oh, that place," said John.
As we drove down the road on our way to the Night Fall Inn, Jim and John talked about Elkhart. John said the city is the national headquarters for most of the big RV and trailer manufacturers in the country. The recession hit Elkhart very hard, he said, but a few months ago the industry picked up again. I am the journalist, not Jim, but I let him do the reporting. I wanted to find a place to sleep.
The Night Fall Inn looked just like one would expect, and the woman who had answered the phone looked just like she sounded. She was about 50 years old, her face hard but kind, and she had a platinum-blond beehive hairdo.
"That will be $25," she said, handing over the keys to Room 7. "The adult movies are on Channel 3."
Adult movies? No wonder the twirlers hadn't infested the Night Fall Inn. As I searched the premises for a pay phone to call home, a woman approached and inquired: "Excuse me, honey, are you the trucker?"
"No," I said, and stepped inside the splendor of Room 7 of the Night Fall Inn in Osceola, Ind. I read Hemingway and my big brother Jim watched the movies for awhile. Jim is not a sleazeball, he is just the Original Moviegoer. He loves anything on film. But even Jim had to admit that nothing on Channel 3 matched the rest of that day's adventures.
At 3 o'clock the next afternoon, after taking a bus to O'Hare and renting a cruisemobile at the country's busiest airport, we arrived in Madison. There was plenty of time to prepare for our father's party for his retirement as editor of The Capital Times, and to polish a story that we would tell that night, and retell the rest of our lives.