Skip to content

Driving to Jacksonville– A Short Story


We started out from the dormitory where my mother, my sister, and I had been living. There was a gate and the car backed up to the gate, a big old Nash that had a dull bluish-gray sheen. The trunk was full, but is was big and we didn’t have much stuff. There were a couple of boxes in the back seat that my father threw in at the last minute.

My father and I got in to the car, my mother and my sister waved goodbye to us, and we drove off. We got on the highway right away, and we were driving along as it got dark and my father concentrated on the road.

I said, “Why are we going alone without my mother and my sister?”
He said, “Because we got a divorce and now you’re going with me and your sister is going with your mother. I’m going to get this great new job in Jacksonville, and we’ll have a house to live in, and a new school you can go to.”

I said, “It must be your fault you got divorced.”
He said, “No, your mother asked for a divorce from me.”

I made myself as small as I could in the passenger side of the car. I tried to hide in the corner of that big seat. I was crying, I know, but I don’t remember that. I cry easily, sometimes even at the doctor’s office. It’s embarrassing, but I can’t help it.

First we drove to Colby, Kansas, 210 miles as the crow flies from Denver, but at a steady 50 miles an hour, it would take over four hours to get there. It actually took five, and our gas tank was almost empty when we got to Colby. I was tired and sleepy, but I stayed awake for most of the time. I got out and walked around while my father filled up the tank. I don’t know how long it took to do it; five minutes. The attendant checked the oil and wiped the windshield with his rag.

The attendant looked at me and then at my father as he handed him the money for the tankful of gas: ten dollars. He went inside to get the change. My father put a nickel in the Coke machine and got a Coke to drink on the way.

After a few minutes, we drove on into the night. I began to get really sleepy, and the warmth coming from the heater vents under the dashboard made me drift into a fitful slumber.
We lived in a house with a staircase, and we drove in a car. I looked out the car window and saw the telephone wires over the street. I must have been about four years old, and we lived in Oakland. Later, we were living in Hawaii. We lived in a two story house and Miss Ogasawara lived upstairs.

There was a hurricane. The day before the hurricane I went to the hospital to have my tonsils out. I felt as if I were falling. After I woke up, my mother insisted on taking me home immediately.

The next day, the hurricane came. My sister and I crouched under the kitchen table. We were looking out the window; we saw the garage flip over and crash to the ground behind the cars.

My father climbed up on the dining room table and chopped a hole in the ceiling with an axe. Water came pouring down from upstairs; the windows were broken and letting the rain in. Miss Ogasawara wasn’t home. The eye of the hurricane came, and all of us were evacuated to the school. This was a big brick building with special glass that looked as if it had chicken wire molded into it. We sat out the rest of the hurricane in the safety of the school.

After the hurricane was over, we went home and found the tree next to the house hadn’t fallen on the house, but to the side. We cleaned up and lived as before. The dragonflies floated over the field again, eating flies.

One day, I was playing with my saw and my hammer. They were steel, and had wood handles. I left them on the ground when I was finished playing. The next day, I came back, and they were all rusted. My father told me, “you see, this is what happens if you don’t take care of your things; you have to pick them up and put them away when you’re done with them, or they won’t last.”

There is a photograph of three of us, my sister, my self, and a neighbor child sitting in front of the house playing with what looks like a tin pot.

After stopping in Colby, KS, we turn southeast with the highway and travel hundreds of lonely miles late at night. Our headlights show the road ahead. There are cars coming, their white lights growing then turning to red and fading away. There is the light from the dashboard, showing the speedometer and faintly outlining my father’s face. He drives impassively, calmly, without want or passion.

I am asleep. I see the lights but I don’t hear the sound of the engine. There is grief lining my face. There is nothing to see except the swishing of the lights that show through my closed eyelids like ghosts rushing through walls and across rooftops. Lost, I float with the ghosts into unconsciousness.

I was four when we moved to Hawaii, and six when we went back to California. We flew to San Francisco, and my mother, my sister, and I moved in with my mother’s mother. I don’t know where my father was at that time; I didn’t know that my parents had already gotten a divorce before they left Hawaii.

My mother argued a lot with her mother. One night someone upstairs was making noise and my grandmother started banging on the ceiling with a broom. She was angry, at the upstairs neighbors and at my mother.

Outside her house were pink and yellow sticky flowers with thick green leaves. My grandmother told me these were chrysanthemums.

We moved to Davis, where my mother enrolled in the University of California, Davis for graduate school. I learned how to ride a bicycle in Davis. My mother put me on the bicycle and I rode straight; I couldn’t turn. I rode across the parking lot and into the middle of an outdoors basketball game but I couldn’t turn aside.

We moved to Denver and there I started seeing a lot more of my father. Apparently he had been working and going to school at the University of Denver the entire time. My mother, my sister, and I first lived in a nice brick house which had a basement bedroom where my sister and I stayed. At Christmas I got an Erector set, and my mother made stuffed animals for us.

My mother stitched a large number of stuffed animals; my sister arranged them all on her bed so that there was just room for her to lie down surrounded by stuffed animals. We clung together, uncertain about the future and what would happen to our parents.

There is a monotonous series of towns that we drive through in the deep night-time: Hayes, Salina, Junction City. Kansas City is always another hundred and fifty miles away. Darkness envelops us; all we can see is the pavement ahead of us, dim in the headlights. Buildings and trees are mere shadows on the side of the road. We travel in a dim tunnel, flooded grey.

One day my father told me that we were going to move to a new place, that it would be good for me. I had already had a number of tests of intelligence and creativity, part of his thesis for his doctorate in psychology. He was studying at the University of Denver to get his PhD in psychology. He said that because he was getting a doctorate, he would be able to take this really good job in Jacksonville.

I only found out years later that my father had told my mother that he had gone to a judge to change their child custody agreement. He said that he had gotten custody of me and left my sister with my mother. He said the judge had ordered him to pay child support to my mother for my sister. That was part of his motivation for taking me with him when he moved to Jacksonville.

The part about going to a judge was all a lie; he had never gone to a judge, but he felt that telling her that would make it easier for her to comply with what he thought was right.

He felt that my mother wouldn’t raise me right and that I would be intellectually stunted if he left me with her. My mother told me that I didn’t have to memorize the multiplication tables, that I was too smart for that, and I should be studying other things. In fact, I finally did learn to memorize the multiplication tables and it took just a few minutes of study. After memorizing the tables, I was able to do all those things, multiplication and division, in my head, and that made things a lot easier.

It is early morning. The sky is just beginning to turn grey. We run out of gas a mile from town. My father sets off into town, carrying a gas can. I am left by myself in the silent car, starting to get cold. Time passes, and I am restless, no longer sleepy. I feel abandoned.

Finally, my father returns with the full gas can. The sky is blue all over and the sun is about to appear on the eastern horizon. He pours gas from the can into the filler neck of the car. He gets in and turns the key; the engine turns over but doesn’t catch. He stops, then tries again. This time the engine catches and comes to life.

As a faculty member, my father was allotted housing, a first floor apartment in a house owned by the college, across the street from the library. The second floor was occupied by a language laboratory, where students listened to taped lessons in their chosen language.

The first thing I noticed when I lay down in bed was that the sounds from the language laboratory could be heard through the ventilator shafts, which were large and made of sheet metal. Even at night, it seemed, I could hear people talking in French, Spanish, German, Russian, or unintelligibly in some unknown language.

Later when I was really upset, after we had been in Jacksonville for a few months, I started thinking about how I could get back to Denver. I knew it was eight hundred miles, but I thought, “If I start walking now, maybe someone will pick me up and take me along.” I thought of all the cold and snow on the way, but I was so upset I just wanted to get up and start walking back to Denver.

I got sick and had a fever, and I wanted to see my mother, but she couldn’t come. I felt really small, like a bug on the bedspread, and everything was as big as mountains. I walked and walked along the spread, and I was still in the same place. Then everything reversed and I felt vertiginous as the scale seemed to slide back into place.

I was on the bed, covered with a sheet and a blanket, and my head was on the pillow. I felt normal again, but I didn’t know what day it was. It seemed as if it were 1968.

We drive on, through Kansas and to Kansas City. We cross the Kansas River, and we are in Missouri. Most of Kansas City is in Missouri, but there is no time for sightseeing. We drive straight through the city, stopping to fill up again with gasoline.

The Nash Ambassador has an integrated heating and ventilation unit that was innovative for its time. There is no air conditioner; this option cost $345 and was optional, although Nash was first to offer an integrated front-end air conditioning system in 1954, the year of my birth.

Now, I am eight years old and it is 1962. According to Wikipedia, on September 12, President Kennedy makes a speech in which he “ reaffirms that the U.S. will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” On August 27, Mariner I is launched. I don’t know what day it is, just that school has already started and I am two days late.

I sleep through much of the trip, although my dreams are troubled. I imagine that there are many serious problems ahead of me, and I only want to stay here, alone, in this traveling space, never stopping, never arriving.

I wanted to get a cat, but my father said no, you can’t have a cat. He decided I should have a dog, as that was a more manly type of pet. We went to a farm outside of town and he got me a puppy, a beagle. We tried to keep him in the house, but he couldn’t be paper-trained. Nothing would induce him to poop in the right place.

One day the dog pooped on the floor right in front of the front door. My father came in from class and stepped right into it, almost slipping on it. That was the last of the dog. My father gave the dog to our neighbors across the alley, who kept the dog tied up in the back yard.

I wanted a monkey, but the man at the pet store said that they were nasty and would bite you. He seemed to know what he was talking about. He suggested hamsters

My father got me two hamsters, a boy and a girl, and I played with them a little bit. Sometimes they got out of their cages and I had to go looking for them under the sofa.

One day I was playing outside by the stoop, a concrete projection from the side of the house by the kitchen door. A small gray mouse was darting in and out of a hole in the base of the stoop. I spent some time watching the hole and the mouse’s movements.

The first mouse I caught died almost immediately. I think that I hurt it when I was catching it. The second mouse survived and appeared well. It was in fact small and grey, with tiny whiskers sticking out of his face behind his nose. I decided that the mouse was a he, although I had no way of knowing.

I only knew from what the man at the pet store said, not from personal observation, that my two hamsters were a boy and a girl. So the sex of the mouse was indeterminate.

I introduced the mouse to my hamsters. That is, I showed them to each other at a distance of a couple of feet. I was not sure, but I thought I saw a tiny black flea flying from the mouse to the hamsters. Or maybe it was my imagination. The next day, all three were dead. I don’t know whether I imagined the flea then or afterwards.

After Kansas City, we are driving in full daylight. We travel through interminable canyons of tall, tasseled corn. The road hums as the wheels caress it.

Next stop is Columbia, 120 miles east of Kansas City. I don’t know it now, but a couple of years from now my mother and sister will be living here and I will fly down from Springfield in a DC-3 to make my first air trip. It seems that I am only just begun on a long road trip, by plane, train, and automobile, even by foot, from San Francisco to here, with a few stops on the way.

Before we drove to Jacksonville, my father began dating a woman that he met in his psychology class (he was a student instructor, already having his master’s degree.) He had already been divorced from my mother and moved to another city, so he didn’t think there would be any conflict with her any more.

After he got the job in Jacksonville, he proposed marriage to her (although he had already made sure of her by taking her to bed.) She was very taken with him and accepted.

During the Christmas vacation, they got married while I stayed with my mother and sister. My mother was crying and I didn’t know what had gone wrong, but much later I realized that she was crying because she still loved him and didn’t want him to get married again. She couldn’t live with him because of the arguments so she had asked for a divorce; but she couldn’t avoid him completely, depending on him for money, for one thing. After the divorce, she only asked for child support for myself and my sister. Even so, it was hard on him.

We drove back to Jacksonville, the three of us, after Christmas. I had met Vicki, my new stepmother, before, and I had thought she was very nice; in fact, I preferred her over the other girl that my father had suggested to me for a new mother. I’m not sure, but I think he was pleased with my choice because he preferred Vicki too.

Many years later, Vicki told me that Ted had laid down some rules for her to follow. She told me that he had said that she should never touch me, not even a hug or a kiss. I was to be kept in the dark as much as possible with regards to her and she was to stay fully dressed whenever she was around me.

Nonetheless, Vicki and I developed a close friendship and we played word games and other little amusements. I don’t remember exactly what we did but I learned to communicate with her and she was very affectionate.

When we got back to Jacksonville after Vicki and my father had gotten married, we opened the front door to find the apartment completely filled with steam and water all over the floor. The pipes in the bathroom had frozen and burst, and there was a natural ice sculpture with icicles hanging from the ceiling. Apparently the heat had been left off while we were gone and it got so cold that the water in the pipes froze. When it thawed, the pipes that had broken open started spurting water everywhere.

When I went to school, I found that classes had already started, and I was a few days behind. Everyone stared at me. I was not surprised to see a few black faces in the class, although I had never seen a Negro before. My father had told me that there would be black people here and explained that they were exactly the same as everyone else except that their skin color was darker.

He told me to treat everyone the same. I didn’t understand at first what he meant, but later I realized that not everyone thinks the same way. I ignored what other children said and treated all of them the same. The black people that I came into contact with seemed to appreciate that and were friendly.

I got into trouble one day when I passed a note to Stuart Freiburg that had a naughty word in it, “shit” or something like that. The teacher sent me home with a note and I had to explain it to my father.

He said that there are several words that people don’t want to have heard in public, and it was just a social convention. He said that I should not use those words with other people, but when I was grown up, it wouldn’t matter so much.

At first, I thought my father was an evil bastard, even though he seemed to know everything and could worm anything out of me; but after several years I began to question his judgement. The place where he succeeded the most was in making me get good grades.

He paid me, for example, ten cents for every “outstanding”; if I got a “satisfactory” I got nothing. If I got a “needs improvement” then I lost ten cents. We got report cards every six weeks and there were some thirty or forty marks on each card. There was a chance I could get as much as three dollars on a single report card.

After he instituted this system, my grades picked up rapidly. Within six months, I was making two dollars or more on every report card.

My best friend in grade school was Lynn Ruby, a short, slight kid, with dark hair; we hung out together because he appreciated my wit and we were both ostracized by the main kids at school.

I was bullied mercilessly, starting in second grade in Denver, and only getting worse year by year into junior high school, when I finally became very tall and popular with the girls. Then the teasing finally stopped.

One of my first antagonists was Stuart Freiburg, the son of a physics professor. He was also a friend, as witnessed by the fact that we were caught passing notes to each other in class. We would hang out on the playground together or sometimes get into fights.

Once my father apparently got angry over the fights I had with Stuart. He was having problems with Stuart’s father in faculty meetings. My father offered me five dollars to break Stuart’s nose.

I punched him but I only broke his glasses. My father gave me a dollar for that.

Between Columbia and St.Louis, there are rolling hills and forests. The last light of day is fading in the west as we reach the suburbs, cutting north of St. Louis, passing through St. Peters, St. Charles, Hazelwood, and Florissant; we pass across the Mississippi River on a giant bridge into darkness that is Illinois.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Steagall permalink
    2016-01-10 01:56

    Lynn Ruby is on Facebook. He is one of my friends. I am sure he would like to hear from you.


    Richard L Steagall



    • 2016-01-10 13:40

      I have gotten in touch with him through Facebook and he has contributed a few lines. He was involved in music from high school and has been a musician ever since. He has apparently had a fulfilling career.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: