Stay Right, Except to Pass

I was recently heading out of town on a two-lane highway through mostly farmland and forest. Due to poky drivers, I needed to pass a number of vehicles to get to my appointment on time. It’s always a safety challenge to get out there in the left lane and try and zip around as many dawdlers as possible when you see a truck in the distance heading your way. It’s either exhilarating or nerve-wracking, depending on your frame of mind.

To my father, back in the 1950’s, it was always the latter. Case in point, I remember a trip as a kid, our family vacation drive from Chicago to a cottage on a lake in Wisconsin. With the interstate highway system still in the planning stage, nearly every road outside of the city was two lanes. July 1959, our old man loaded up the significantly preowned Buick for the journey north. We all climbed in, with the we including my mother, father, and little sister in the front seat and my older brother, older sister, grandmother, and me, plus all the luggage that wouldn’t fit in the trunk, in the back seat.

All the windows were wide open to catch the wind as we rolled along in the ninety-degree summer heat. The wing windows were open too, those little triangular pieces of glass in the front of the front passenger doors, which made for some excellent entertainment. Periodically, a large bug, like a cicada or a dragonfly, would hit one of the out-turned wing windows, get sucked along with the airflow just above the dashboard, and exit through the window on the other side. I liked to stand up, lean over the front seat, and try to snag the critter as it rocketed past my little sister. When successful I would hoot and howl and then accidentally drop the crushed thing in her lap. She would scream and burst into tears. Our old man would yell over the wind and her bawling, “Pipe down. And sit down, you’re blocking the rear-view mirror. For chrissakes, what do you think, I have eyes in the back of my head?” Mother would add, “Neal, don’t use such language. We could all die in a fiery crash if you’re struck by lightning.”  

Adding to the racket were the rear fenders. After years of exposure to Chicago winters and the mountains of rock salt dumped on the highways to melt the ice, the cheap metal fenders had so many holes you could see the nearly tread-bare tires right through them. Which also meant that most of the welds holding them to the frame had disintegrated. Whenever the car reached forty miles an hour, the fenders would start to slap against the frame, a sort of a rhythmic banging and clanging. The higher the speed, the more the slapping. Like a couple of percussionists along for the ride.

When we came up behind a slow-moving car, all talking or yelling would stop. We would all stare at the car in front and know the “passing ritual” was about to begin. Father would turn the wheel slightly so the Buick would inch out into the left lane where he could see if anything was coming our way. Sometimes that meant a quick turn back into our lane as another vehicle rushed past us. Other times it meant he would hang slightly over the yellow line, peering ahead to gauge the distance between us and an oncoming truck. If there was even a hint of a chance to pass the guy in front of us, our old man would go for it. That meant he crushed the accelerator to the floor, swerved out into the left lane, and started rocking back and forth in his seat, as if his movement would help propel our car faster. Blue smoke poured out of the tailpipe as the oil consumption skyrocketed in the old engine. The needle on the speedometer inched up: 55, 57, 61, 64. All of us sat still in the howling airflow as the oncoming truck closed the gap between us. We all looked to the right. We were even with the car we were passing. Our old man would shout, “Dumb bat, slow down and let me in!” As an aside, I never knew what the term dumb bat meant. I mean, are bats usually terrifically smart and this was an insult? I personally thought they were just scary. None of us had the nerve to question his most frequent epithet.

Now our massive chrome grill was inching ahead of the guy beside us. The occupants in the car we were passing were also fixated on the truck barreling toward us. The speedometer inched upward: 66, 69, 71. Our eyes got bigger as the truck continued on, the driver flashing his headlights as a warning to us to get the hell out of the way. Our old man was rocking faster and now talking to himself. “Come on, you rusting hunk of scrap iron, you lousy bucket of bolts. Put us over the finish line. Hell's bells, show some pride.” He glanced over to see if he had any clearance at all, then swerved to the right, usually cutting off the other driver, resulting in a vicious horn blast, the sound being seconded by the truck driver as he roared past us. All of us would slink back in our seats, exhaling what seemed like the first time in minutes. Our old man wiped his forehead on his shirtsleeve, smiled to himself, and said, “Nothing to it.”