Tricked Out on Route 66 by Umberto Tosi




There was a war on – World War II. Hadn't you heard?People weren't supposed to be driving all over the place. That's when my father drove my mother and I from Boston to Los Angeles in 1943. Because, he said, he had to... because, really, California was there.

   I was only six, in short pants. At least we drove across the country in style – in an streamlined beauty, a brand new, black "1942" Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty sedan -- not much different than the those you see in Godfather I, disposable only to gangsters who leave it with the gun and take the canoli. Not so my father. He was Italian, a piece of work that man, but no gangster.

     They were bums, not heros like in the movies even then, not Bogey, or Cagney, or Edward G. I liked those gangsters. Who didn't? And crime didn't pay on the silver screen in the dark where my mother went -- taking me along - to get away from life's harsh confusions.

     But my father never went to movies. Pure baloney, that's all, he said, not worth a kid's 15-cent ticket. He knew some real gangsters, to be avoided, or handled with extreme caution. And for them, crime did pay. 

     Right then, on the road, we road high in luxury, floating, it seemed, in one of Detroit's last passengers build near the end of 1941 before Pearl Harbor when the auto companies converted wholly to military manufacturing for the war's duration.

     The Cadillac stepped us up in class, just the ticket right then for my struggling, least-favored-of-four-siblings, 25-year-old father. Driving it seemed to change my father, making him bolder, and -- my mother complained -- more "domineering." He was drive the Cadillac towards opportunity, I figure now, while she rode next to him away from it. Off to California she went, abandoning a budding career as a much-acclaimed, young opera soprano who had just performed to rave reviews in a lead role at Massachusetts' renowned Berkshire Festival.

     But don't worry, my father and her family told her, the move would be but a temporary sacrifice, to stand by her man, until the war ended, and business back East picked up. Hell, it was almost patriotic. But it was also permanent, it turned out, as did their divorce that followed a few years later, scandalizing both their families back in Boston.

    There were no opera companies in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s, or even 60s.  But she did put together a an singing Gershwin, Kern and Cole Porter ballads at a popular Sunset Boulevard night club called The Florentine Gardens where I got to drink "Buck Rogers" with a red cherry back stage while she sang, the band played and the customers drank, smoked and danced the nights away. Before long, she was also dubbing for the movies (with no screen credits). Just another Hollywood story.  

  The Cadillac wasn't my father's. It belonged to a mysterious guy named Gigo whom I saw only once briefly before we left. (I didn’t know his last name.)

     Gigo had the "ins" out there in California to whatever canners and other suppliers had left -- after shipping to the armed forces -- of peeled tomatoes, tomato paste and puree, olives, olive oil, cheeses, basil and other Mediterranean foods.

   This would prove a godsend for my grandfather and my father’s older brother, because the family firm in Boston could no longer import these items from Europe due to the war. Without supplies their small import-export company was about to go out of business.

     My father, lean, with a thick crop of wavy black hair making him look even taller than his 6-feet 3-inches, didn't smile for snapshots or much of anything else. But he did laugh, in short booming bursts, with mock amazement at "the never-ending-crap" emanating from radios, movie screens, newspapers - especially financial sections -- stock market  listings.

     ("It's all rigged, son, worse than Reno, run by wise guys gambling with everyone else's money pulling the big con. They produce nothing and take all if you let them. Just remember that." Looking back on the past few years, it's hard to disagree.)

      My father talked success even if he wasn't yet. Business, he said, was a game of wits, of personal force, charisma and sharp trading like you held the high cards even when you didn't. And he clung, white-knuckled to every nickel he made too.

     He wasn't yet successful at it, but he would be, something of a minor tycoon for a while during the still-wild days of the 1940s commodities trading out West, a East coast tough-guy, hard-edged, but with a disdain for crooks and gangsters, and eve other businessmen. For a man like that, with 4-F status to keep him out of the war - a result of scarred lungs due to pneumonia and the Spanish flu as a child, plenty of gold remained in California -- money to be made.

    As a boy in the 1920s he had wanted to become a doctor and all his life kept up with medical and scientific news. But then the Great Depression hit and there was no money for med school, barely enough for two years of business college and lucky at that.

     Driving cross-country 3,000 miles beat selling novelties, Italian canned tomatoes, cheeses and olive oil to mom-and-pop stores up and down New England, freezing in winter, perspiring profusely in summer all for six dollars a week, sometimes being paid in 5-gallon tins of a Vermont maple syrup -  a story he told over and over every time the kid in the back seat asked for a new toy -- and probably just to remind himself, really, never to go back home. I would miss those pancakes with the maple syrup after we got to California and the best mom could find at the time was Karo.  

     My father, though, I noticed, sat tall and look like he belonged behind the bone wheel of that Fleetwood, seeming at ease and as close to outright happy as I'd ever seen him  -- in his white shirt and tie, dark slacks, sun glasses, a set semi-scowl that threw people masked a the joker that he could be -- that off the scent and kept potential adversaries (that included everyone) from spotting him as a Trickster, wily as the Road Runner later to appear against this Southwestern backdrop. 

      Gigo – the kind of suave Italian guy people used to call a “mustache Pete” – had come from Los Angeles to Boston on the train to cement the partnership. While there, he bought this fine, Cadillac Fleetwood. Such late model cars were very scarce, being the last of the domestic cars Detroit built in late 1941 and early '42 before converting their production lines completely over to building tanks and other war vehicles as the USA went into full combat footing after Pearl Harbor.

     Gigo left his rare-found Caddy to my father to drive back across the country back to his home in Los Angeles. He needed to get back to the West Coast to close a deal quickly and booked a transcontinental flight, also difficult for a civilian at the time. Plus passenger flights not only were scarce but cost a small fortune then, plus too 12 hours coast-to-coast not counting several stops along the way.

    Nevertheless, it none of this seemed to matter to Gigo who wore a diamond pinkie ring and flashed a greenbacks around freely, something duly noted by my cash hungry father coming out of the Great Depression. Pop said gold could still be found out west in the Golden State.

     It would be a 10-day trip for us in the Cadillac, virtually all of it on two-lane roads, many in poor condition due to heavy truck traffic during war mobilization. My father had saved up OPA rationing coupons and bought a few more on the black market, enough to get us there, I heard him tell Gigo.

     They spread maps out on the kitchen table of my grandmother's big brick house in Boston, as if planing an invasion. I climbed up on a chair, fascinated, to peer over them. The roads would be best from Boston to New York to Chicago, starting along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From the Windy City westward we took Route 66, the nearly 2,500 miles all the way to Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean, and stayed in bungalow motel courts each night along the way as well.

     Despite hard times and the war, my father commented that a lot of people were on that road then, workers, he said headed for the airplane plants in California (where my father got a job as a welder at Lockheed in Burbank building P-38s. We also saw military convoys looking all secret and ominious -- just the big trucks, no waving GIs like in newsreels.

     Then there were the farm trucks, tractors and combines behind which we would languish, my father waiting for the chance to jump out into the opposing lane, kick in the passing gear and hope to beat out whoever was coming from the opposite direction while my mother yells, "are you crazy?"

     From the back seat I stared at billboards having taught myself how to read them all. (Billboards were allowed aplenty along roads then.) Best, though, were the signs advertising  a never ending series of odd roadside attractions just before and after every one horse, speed-trap town: rattlesnake shows, genuine Indian blankets, carnivals, side shows, hand-carved totems, leather goods, fortunes told... all embedded -- like pieces of gravel caught in tire tracks -- within the grandeur of the vast Southwester desert, canyons, impossible bluffs and gigantic skies with huge rows of flashing thunderheads threatening to march on us at any moment.

     All the way, my parents bickered about everything -- where and when to stop and for how long. My father favored the fewest possible detours.

     And, having no idea this trip would be so long or where we were going, I remember asking over and over: “When are we going to get there?” And with good reason: I was car sick most of the ways from soft, floating, luxury ride of the heavy Cadillac sedan.  

     I still can’t sit in the back seat of a car without becoming nauseated. There was no Dramamine that I know of then. The only effective remedy was for me to keep the back window rolled down and hang my head out of the speeding car like a Labrador retriever, mouth open, breathing in the all the headwind I could get.

     That set up a constant struggle between my parents and myself whenever the ambient temperature dropped and they wanted that back window closed. “No, no,” I’d yowl, terrified. “I’ll be sick.” After I threw up a few times on Gigo’s plush, red leather back seats and lush carpeting, they relented and let me have my way. My mother would just put on her fur coat – muskrat, not mink. Father could not afford mink.

     I had thought of this in terms of what I knew up until then, like a drive out to the next town, perhaps to see one of my mother's aunts and for my father to stop at a few grocery stores to leave off samples and make a sale or two of cheeses and olive oil for my grandfather's family firm in Boston.

     But this trip seemed to stretch out endlessly. Worse yet, my stomach roiled at the constant bickering and frequent yelling matches between my parents, my father usually prevailing by dint of his loud, deep voice and hot, explosive temper, that also erupted frequently at other drivers on the road even for what would seem the slightest lapse of driving etiquette.

    Years later as an adult, I liked to joke to people who inquired about traces of my Boston accent, that “my parents abducted me to California when I was a kid.” In retrospect, that's how it felt. The farther they got from their temporizing families, friends and community, the more argumentative, fearful and uncivil they seemed to become.

      For years after that, I had recurring nightmares of being trapped on a runaway train, bus or airplane hijacked by a crazy person, careening through dangerous territory always on the verge of crashing. I didn't understand the why of these nightmares, having forgotten the moments of holy terror my tiny self experienced sitting in the red leather back seat of that Cadillac with my wild-eyed father at the wheel.

   But terror alternated with giddy enthusiasm for new sights, feelings of great adventure laughs and lots of the kind of food kids love along the way from diners and hot dog stands.

     And there was the sheer thrill of the open road and how this great, purring machine rolled at high speed – the wind on my face when my parents let me roll down a back window and stick my head out like a panting dog to stave off car sickness.

 My father loved "open up and floor" the Caddy whenever the highway allowed. The Caddy's new engine was by now well broken in –to see what it could do, He let it fly out on a flat, straight stretch of two-lane road in the middle of New Mexico. I leaned forward, resting my elbows on the back of the front seat between my parents so I could see the dashboard and the highway ahead.

I laughed excitedly as the needle on the speedometer swung all the way around past 100 and bounded crazily against 110, the last number on the speedometer. My mother didn't look at the speedometer, but told my father sharply to slow down. I jumped up and down in the back seat  -- no seat belts to restrain me in those days -- and squealed, "Faster, faster, faster… wow, pop! Faster"

      Before long we heard a siren behind us, and saw red lights flashing and looked back to see a highway patrol motorcycle cop gaining on us. My father slowed instantly and started pulling off to one size. Before we rolled to a stop he told me sharply: “Lie down back there on the seat and pull that blanked over you and don’t move until I say so. You got that?”  

     I obeyed. I was way more afraid of my father than any cop, or anyone else, for that matter. I heard my mother grumbling as my father brought the Caddy to a stop on the shoulder of the road. He rolled down his window and the patrolman appeared.

      “Sir!," said the burly copy after looking at my father's license. "Do you know why I’m stopping you?" The patrolman had deep voice and spoke very deliberately, seeming to savor his every utterance and with a slight Southwestern drawl.  "You realize how fast you were going? I clocked you at 90.” (So much for that lying speedometer. I was disappointed. I thought we'd topped 100. 

     “I’m sorry, officer,” I heard my father tell him. “This a terrible emergency. My boy in the back seat there is very sick. We’re rushing him to a hospital.”  

     I cocked one eye open and could see the tall, wiry cop bending down to get a look at me through the back seat window.

.  “Oooooh,” I groaned, loudly enough for the cop to hear me, and held my stomach. It didn’t take much acting skill because I was barely recuperated from a near-fatal burst appendix that had hospitalized me for two harrowing weeks in Boston.

     “Please, officer,” my father implored. “I’ve got to get going to that hospital!”

     “Yes, sir,” said the patrolman with a mock salute to the brim of his gray Stetson. “I’ll get you there, right up the road. Just follow me.” With that the cop strode back, mounted his motorcycle, pulled in front of the Cadillac, turned on his red light and siren, and raced forward with us speeding behind him.

     “Renzo!” My mother exclaimed. “Now we’re in trouble! Why did you tell him that story! What are we going to do?”

    I jumped up I the back seat and started crying loudly. “I don’t want to go to the hospital!”

     “Quiet! He shouted and swung an arm around at me. “Get down. Stay down!”

   My mother turned to console me. “Don't worry. It's just a game. You don’t really have to go into the hospital.”

     “Quiet!” said my father to her now, and then back at me,      “Stay down! Pull that blanket back up over you!”

     “But I’ll be car sick. I’ll throw up.”

     “Quiet! No you won’t.”

      I clutched my stomach and wailed: “I don’t want to go to the hospital. They’re going to cut me open!” I wailed.

      Finally, we came into the outskirts of a small city, still racing behind our police escort with its siren blasting, red light flashing, and right through several red lights. At last, there was the hospital.

     After a couple of wild swings, my father succeeded in landing an backhander swatting me back down on the seat as he turned the car into the emergency driveway of the hospital right behind the patrolman’s motorcycle. He pulled to a stop in front of the emergency entrance right behind the state cop.

      I raised my head slightly, opening one eye. The patrolman stood up astride his bike, looking at my father, and he waved a hand at the hospital door, his siren now off. My father, stalling for time smiled, nodded his head in exaggerated fashion, mouthing a “thank-you” while he waved back at the officer.

     After a tense moment, the patrolman nodded back an okay. Then he sat back down on his motorcycle, revved and pulled away. My father got out of the car, feigning to take me inside the hospital. “No,” I started to scream again. From a distance, I could see the cop glance back wave at us once more just as he pulled from the semi-circular hospital drive back onto the highway.

      My father waved back lamely with one hand above the roof of the car, while with the other he clenched by belt in two large finger from behind preventing my escape as I tried to dash from the back door of the car. My father waited like that for a few moments, then pulled me back into the car and got back behind the wheel of the Cadillac.

     After a few more minutes to be sure the patrolman would not return, my father slipped the Cadillac into gear and pulled out himself down the highway westward, in the opposite direction than taken by the motorcycle cop.

    I was so relieved that I wouldn’t have to go to the hospital and be cut open I forgot to be car sick for several hours until we stopped for dinner and to find another bungalow cabin motel for the night in the next town.

      It was enough for one day. A few days more and we made L.A. and stayed on Route 66 right through out to Santa Monica, our destination, where I would get my first look at the Pacific Ocean, of all I knew was that it was big, but looked the same as the Atlantic.

      Today you'd call the whole car swap deal a "win-win" at least from my father's point of view. Gigo got his Cadillac. My father bought a car he could afford -- his first in California, where old cars lasted longer because of the mild weather – a 1930 Model A Ford sedan that had a horn that actually.

     Gigo, although trim and only in his mid-40s, died in a Fresno motel of a heart attack less than a year later. I heard my father tell my mother “he died in the saddle,” and I wondered how it was that he was riding a horse in a motel. There was no going back.

     Not only my parents, but my life took a very different course from where he would have headed growing up on Boston, like my cousins, soon to be born as baby boomers just after the end of the war – a stable, traditonal, suburban growing up each in one house, one neighborhood, the same parents, no divorces, no step parents – and a narrower range of experiences, and encounters.

     Boston and Los Angeles seem much closer now than they were then, when only film stars, industry barons, political leaders and the military flew and the rest crossed the country like we did, or three days and nights by train. But I knew nothing of this yet. This was a story, then repeated thousands of times in that wartime decade, though perhaps without a police-escorted detour.  

It was the closest my father ever got to being a doctor. He died at 82 sometime in 1997, in his home, a lovely one on a hill overlooking San Francisco bay. I didn't find out until five years later. We'd long since been estranged.   

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Smart, crisp story told with a master's eye for detail. Brings a seminal era into sharp focus, showing how the past seamlessly stretches out before us: a continuous route from where we were to where we are now. Excellent read.