Where I’m going for spring break

I never go home for spring break. Sometimes I plan grand excursions, and sometimes I stay put to catch up on chores. But the last place I would ever spend my vacation would be at my parents’ farmhouse outside of Motley, Minnesota — a town where last year’s movies are still showing and barking dogs can be heard miles away. I can’t find fine coffee and witty repartee in Motley — just the El-Ray Truckstop and my father, who likes to criticize the liberals he sees on TV.
I don’t come from a close-knit family. I don’t have personal, highly animated phone conversations with always-understanding parents. When I ask my mom how she is, she says “fine,” and that’s about it. Dad worries a lot. Always has. When I was in high school he worried that my grades wouldn’t be high enough to get me into college — he never went to college, but he wanted his children to have the opportunity. When I was an undergraduate he worried that those grades would be meaningless, as I drifted toward a literature degree with no job in sight. And last summer, when I was broke, depressed and nowhere near completing my master’s degree, he worried that I wouldn’t finish my program and convinced me to continue — even though he’s never even seen a master’s thesis.
And since I became the owner of the Olds Delta 88, the car that has been owned by every member of my family and maintained by my father, he worries about that too. When I call my parents, dad usually wants to talk about my car. That’s understandable — dad’s job as a state trooper has made Drive safely! a mantra my family has endured for the past quarter-century.
But I don’t know anything about cars. I want to talk about other things. I’m saving for a trip to Europe this summer (Dad is suspicious of my travel plans. “That’s an awful lot of money …” he says). I’m job hunting. Spring finals are approaching. I don’t have much time to talk to my parents, especially about something as minor as an automobile.
“I know you don’t want to talk about cars all the time,” dad told me once, “but cars are important. I don’t know what you do in school. I know you’re thinking about lots of other things, but you’ve got to keep your car running too. Every day your car’s running, that’s money in the bank.”
Whatever. Dad can talk about cars all he wants — I don’t have to listen. Sometimes his harping makes me angry, and recently I haven’t spoken to him at all. Last month I finally completed my master’s, and I didn’t tell my parents for three weeks. I didn’t feel like following good news with a half-hour grilling about whether my car’s starter was working or if the radiator was holding up in variable temperatures.
My automobile, and my family, were the last things on my mind on Friday when I got into my car, turned the ignition, and heard nothing.
This couldn’t be happening, I thought. My car always starts — I have to get to work! I turned the ignition again, and still — nothing. Maybe the battery was dead. But jumper cables didn’t help, and I had to call Gopher Towing. Gopher took the car to Gary’s University Service on Como, and there it sat. I found a ride to work, and at the end of my shift I learned that late-night bus service from my job in St. Paul to my apartment in Minneapolis is a convoluted mess. On Saturday, the mechanics at Gary’s said my starter was shot, my battery was shot, and it would cost almost $500 to get my car running again.
And I’m saving for Europe. And I’m looking for a job …
I picked up the telephone. “Hello, Dad …”
I don’t know anything about cars. Dad does. I described what had happened. I told him what the mechanics at Gary’s thought. “I’d like to take a look at that,” he said. Dad has a spare battery. He replaced the starter in 1992, and could probably do it again. When did I need the car? he asked. Not for awhile, I said. Really, it wasn’t a problem. “If you’re busy …” I said.
“I’ll be down tomorrow,” he replied.
The next day I met dad at Gary’s. He had brought the flatbed trailer he built himself for occasions like this one. He was taking my car to Motley. He looked under the hood, tried connecting some wires, and turned the key. “It looks like that battery’s gotten old, and yup, the starter has problems,” he said. Also, my radiator was leaking, and one of my tires was ready to blow out. He didn’t say anything, but it was clear I hadn’t been checking things like he had told me.
He hitched the car to a winch and pulled it onto the trailer. I wanted to help him, but he did all the pulling and securing. I stayed out of his way and watched, realizing that an advanced degree was absolutely no help in understanding what he was doing. I don’t know anything about cars.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “If it costs $400 to repair and this is a $500 car, it’s just not worth it. How are you getting to work without it?”
I told him about the bus system and my shift at work that ends at midnight. “It’s no big deal,” I said, thinking about revised work schedules, smaller paychecks and shortened travel plans.
“You’re still going to Europe, aren’t you?” he said.
“Yeah.”
“Then you’ve got to have a car.”
He finished the job, and we drove away. I offered to buy dad lunch when he was finished securing the car, but he said no. “Tough to park a 30-foot trailer,” he said. I said I was sorry he had to come down. He said things like this happen, and he said he knew I had other things in my head than my car. He asked if I’d give him a copy of my thesis; he didn’t ask why I hadn’t called him when I got my degree. He said he’d look at the car in the next couple weeks. I said “Thank you.” I was glad he was there. I don’t know anything about cars.
And some days I wonder if I know anything at all. I don’t know why I react so negatively to spending time near Motley, Minnesota, where my father built a farmhouse for his family. I don’t know why I don’t always take good care of the hand-me-down car (“It’s money in the bank”), and I don’t know why I forget to appreciate someone who’s spent his adulthood picking up speeders, administering breathalyzer tests and fixing automobiles so his children could do things he doesn’t fully understand. And I don’t know why I neglect to call someone who will drop everything to help me on a day’s notice. I suppose I have other things on my mind. Sometimes it takes a breakdown to remember what’s important.
There won’t be any grand excursions this spring break. I’m saving my money, and I don’t have a car. But I’m planning to hop a Greyhound, and I’ll get dropped off just outside of Motley. I’ll bring a copy of my thesis. Maybe I can help dad fix the Olds, even though I don’t know anything about it.
Maybe I’ll catch one of those movies I missed last summer. My parents have a new dog — I’m sure people can hear him miles away. There isn’t any fine coffee or witty repartee in Motley, Minnesota. Just the El-Ray Truckstop and my dad.
And there isn’t anyplace I’d rather be.
Alan Bjerga’s column appears Wednesdays in the Daily. He can be contacted at [email protected]