I’m just not a good writer. My stories always start in one place and end someplace completely different, and although nice folks might remind me that all good tales start in one place and end in another, my stories generally include steep switchbacks and false trails that can leave even the strongest eyes footsore and limping.
You’d think my bad tendencies would have been trained out of me during my professional career, but I only learned enough to recognize my failings; I seem incapable of actually doing anything about them.
That’s why this story begins with my dad’s old Plymouth. It’s another false trail that doesn’t really have much to do with the story, but in a strange way, has everything to do with it, too.
I don’t know for sure, but I think Daddy’s work car was a 1952 or 1953 Plymouth Belvedere. Daddy was the only one who drove that old piece of junk, though on the weekends, my sister and I would sometimes take it on long trips, even though neither of us knew how to drive.
By then that old car’s paint was chalky; if you rubbed against it, your hand or your clothes would come away blue. Susan and I would climb into the front seat, taking turns behind the wheel. Our “children,” we would throw unceremoniously onto the bench seat in back.
Yeah, I agree, it’s deeply disturbing that Susan and I would play husband and wife on our imaginary vacations, but that’s what we did, and we were always going to the same place — San Bernardino, California. I don’t know what it was about San Bernardino, but Susan must have heard the name somewhere and thought it sounded magical, so it was always our destination, even though the car never made it out of our Texas driveway.
Lots of times we’d have to pull off the road and spank our unruly children, which were just a couple of my sister’s old dolls. I don’t have any recollection of that, but Susan told me yesterday that’s what we did, and I have no reason to doubt her. Both of us knew how to give spankings because our parents never spared the rod with us.
Daddy never hurt me — not with his hands anyway — but no kid actually enjoys corporal punishment, so perhaps that explains my motivation for taking my revenge through guerrilla warfare.
I don’t remember the exact year, but it must have been sometime after 1964, which is when the Surgeon General’s report linking cancer to smoking was released, because Daddy had announced that he was giving up cigarettes.
My father always smoked Chesterfield Kings. I can still see those cigarette packs with the exotic logo and little minarets in the background. Daddy probably wouldn’t have known what minarets were — and to be fair, neither would I — but it strikes me as funny today, though of course it was a much different world then.
But this story really isn’t about Chesterfield Kings either, it’s just another of those false trails I warned you about, and as it turned out, Daddy was also pretty good at laying down a false trail.
I guess Susan and I must have been on our way to San Bernardino again, and it must have been getting late in the afternoon because the sun was right in my eyes as we sped west along our imaginary highway. Of course I pulled down the sun visor, and of course a pack of cigarettes fell into my lap. Curiously, it was a pack of Salems.
Even though it wasn’t Daddy’s brand, there could be no doubt the cigarettes were his, and finding them presented me with quite an opportunity. I’d like to say that what I did next was for noble reasons, that I was concerned about my father’s health and wanted to do my part to save him, but I know that isn’t true. What I knew then was that I could do anything I wanted, and there wasn’t a damn thing Daddy could do about it without revealing his own subterfuge. In other words, lock and load, baby, it’s open season!
The first thing I did was to take that pack of Salems, crumple them up real good, then place them back where I’d found them. After Daddy came home from work on Monday, I was watching for a reaction, but there was none.
I snuck back out to his car later, checked the visor, and yep, a fresh pack of Salems!
This time, I removed several cigarettes and dipped the ends into some gasoline from the lawnmower. Yeah, I guess that was a little harsh, and might even have been dangerous, but hey, I was just a kid, and I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I imagined Daddy’s eyebrows might get a little singed, but nothing worse than that.
The next day I was again looking for a reaction when Daddy got home. If he didn’t say anything, I thought I might at least detect some facial charring, but nope, nada! I reasoned that the gasoline had probably evaporated and nothing happened. I decided to get more creative.
Again I found his pack of cigarettes, and this time took some paper clips and straightened them before inserting the wire carefully down the length of several cigarettes. I’d seen cartoons where somebody was given a hot foot, and thought I could give Daddy a “hot lip” if the wire would heat up when exposed to flame.
It was only years later that I found out what happened. Daddy admitted that he’d been smoking one day when an astonished co-worker looked up and said, “What the hell is that???”
Turns out that as the paper and tobacco burned away from my father’s cigarette, that paper clip was seen dangling out the end, and although it hadn’t given my father a hot lip, it did give him quite a shock.
He and his co-worker figured somebody at the manufacturing plant had been having a little fun, so I wasn’t implicated until years later when I owned up to what I’d done.
Well, that’s pretty much the end of my story, but I’d be remiss if I snuffed it out before properly wrapping things up.
Daddy died in 2009 from esophageal cancer. He’d quit smoking many years before — for real this time — so I really don’t believe smoking had anything to do with it. I think it was acid reflux that did him in, but nobody can say for sure.
As for Susan and I, we never made it to San Bernardino. Perhaps we’ll go there together someday, before it’s too late. No doubt we’ll fly, but I still find myself wishing that we could drive a battered old Plymouth Belvedere.