I think part of being an American is having the experience of going on a few road trips. I am about to leave on one tomorrow and it is stirring old feelings. Road trips can be quests for fun, ( with apologies to Clark Griswold), therapeutic, or by necessity. They can be long or short, planned or spontaneous. But inevitably what makes a road trip special is how memorable it is.
As a young child my earliest road trips were our annual treks from our home in New Orleans to my dad’s home state of Wisconsin. It was over 1,100 miles from our house to my grandma’s and it took close to twenty hours to drive that trip if you stopped a reasonable amount of times. When we were home my dad typically let my mother do all the driving, ( surprising considering how she drove, but that is another story), but when we hit the road for the Motherland he took the wheel, and stopping was not on the agenda. Everything was done on the go. We packed all our food and only stopped for gas. The idea was to leave while it was dark and drive as far as we could the first day. There was one problem. Me.
For some reason at my young age the motion of the car had a profound effect on me and I required quite a few bathroom breaks. After awhile my dad had enough. I was now charged to do my business from the back seat out of the open car door on the side of the road. Normally my mom could impose her will on dad but when the pilgrimage to the north had commenced he became the Most Grand Exalted Leader of the Household and was a force to be reckoned with. He did stop the car when we pulled over but he kept the engine running.
Once we got to Wisconsin he became a normal guy again but that didn’t mean the memorable moments were over. At age four one of my older cousins wanted me to move from in front of the television set. I refused and in trying to make me move he twisted my arm around my back and broke it. As a back story my dad was one of nine and all of his siblings had big families. I have over forty first cousins from that side of the family. Anyway I didn’t tell anybody about my arm. It wasn’t out of stubborness, it was out of fear for my cousin’s life. If my mother had found out she would have killed him on the spot and probably a few others if they were in the vicinity.
Every time we went to Wisconsin the whole family convened at my grandma’s and we played an in-laws against the Wautlet’s softball game, as she lived next door to a baseball field.This was novel to me. My mom was Italian so at her family get togethers people just drank, ate, played cards, and eventually started cursing and screaming at each other. In Wisconsin everyone drank too, but it was only beer, and instead of screaming and swearing it was joking and laughing. Instead of cards we played sports, and everybody had to play.
Well I’m four years old with a broken arm nobody knew about except me. My dad calls me to the plate. I soldier up, grab the bat, and immediately drop it. At that point my dad is embarrassed and starts telling me to man up but I couldn’t lift the bat and finally I slumped off the field. I was in pain and had let my dad down. But the worst was yet to come. When we got home the doctor informed my parents of the fact that I had a broken arm. Let’s just say my father was was hard to find around the house for the next couple of weeks and my mother ran up a significant long distance phone bill calling every relative in Wisconsin trying to find out who broke my arm.
At age eleven we were back in Wisconsin and dad took me to an Appleton Foxes baseball game. The Foxes were the Class A affiliate for the Chicago White Sox and playing 3rd base for them was Wayne Francingues.
Wayne Francingues, ( pronounced Frasang), was a God of a man to me. He was from New Orleans and had been the starting quarterback for my beloved Tulane Green Wave. I listened to his exploits on the radio on Saturday nights, read about him in the newspaper on Sunday morning, and later on Sunday watched him on TV on the Tulane highlight show. Tulane would come on first then a replay of the Notre Dame game. Tulane was awful but Wayne could do no wrong.
Dad sent me out to wait for the players and get autographs. I was nervous but he assured me they would be nice, and they were. But when Wayne Francingues appeared my knees were knocking. Dad had told me earlier he would probably give me a ball but I thought he was crazy. I approached my hero and said in my most polite voice, ” Mr. Francingues my name is Merrill Wautlet and I am from New Orleans. May I please have your autograph?”
To my astonishment he was great. He asked me where in New Orleans I was from, why I was in Wisconsin, how old I was, and if I played sports. I don’t even remember answering the questions. He signed my program and walked off and I levitated back to my dad. But then he reappeared out of the dugout. “Hey Sandy come here I’ll give you a ball.” I ran to the fence and as he headed out to third base he came over and tossed it over and into my hands. Hands that would never let go of that ball. Ever. Or so I thought. As dad had predicted Wayne Francingues had been nice and had given me a ball. I always worshipped my dad but he definitely seemed a lot wiser and smarter now than he had ever been. But a black cloud was coming.
I held onto that ball everywhere I went, along with my program full of autographs of future major league stars. On our way home I kept it with me but I made a fatal error. I went to sleep. My mom had been collecting goldware, ( place settings that were goldplated), that you got everytime you filled up with gas. I don’t want to digress on how tacky that crap was. Let’s just to say that my mom really liked it and leave it at that. Early the next morning while I was still asleep she took my ball, my program, and her precious goldware and put it in a brown paper bag in the car. My dad then went behind her and thinking it was trash, threw it out.
I was then awoken and groggily lead to the car, as it was still early in the morning and dark out. Still half asleep I began asking where my ball was and was promptly reassured by my mom that it was in the car and safe. I curled up in the back seat and went back to sleep.
I woke up just outside of Jackson, Mississippi. I immediately looked for my ball. Panic stricken I called out, “My ball is gone!” My mother told me it was in a brown paper bag in the back seat. At that moment I thought I could see my dad shrink several inches. I looked in the back seat. No bag! My mom looked at my dad. “Whitey?”
Dad confessed, and all hell broke loose. I’m crying, my mom is yelling and cussing, telling dad to turn the car around. For the next three hours my dad endured a personal torture that no man should ever go through. Years later I concluded that my dad thought he was tossing out just that goldware and that allowed me to forgive him. I mean that was some cheap junk.
In college I took many a great road trip. As a freshman I drove Tony Bird, Tommy Zentner, and Richard Wilson to Mardi Gras. A trip that should have taken six hours took ten because of all the pit stops to get beer or make room for beer. Richard is now my investment manager. My fraternity brothers and I would pile into Jimmy Burke’s Volkswagen beetle convertible and drive twenty miles to the Texas border so we could buy Lone Star beer and inevitably would have it all drank before we got back to school.
One Mardi Gras James Rivera was driving myself and Bob Everett to New Orleans. We had left at 3:00 A.M. and were going down Hwy 71. It was dark and not another car was around. James was driving five miles below the speed limit because had had accumultaed so many speeding tickets that another one would cause his insurance to be canceled.
Bob and I thought the odds of seeing a trooper that late at night were monumental and we began to urge James to drive faster. Finally he caved under the pressure and sped up. Suddenly way in the distance was a solitary pair of headlights. We told James not to worry that it was probably some isolated car but the minute we blew past it we saw it make a u-turn.
James slowed down and in a stern voice said to Bob and I , “WE ARE GOING TO A FUNERAL!” At that point the flashing lights hit us. James pulled over and burst out of the car. Bob and I saw James gesturing and apparently pleading his case that we were a car of grief stricken young men trying to get to the bereaved. He then pointed at the car and the officer shined his flash light on us only to see Bob and I each holding a can of beer. Under the circumstances we did what any gentleman would do. We toasted the officer by raising our beers to him. Hey, everyone grieves differently. James stormed back to the car, threw the ticket inside, and we proceeded to drive twenty miles below the speed limit the rest of the way. He was also, for some strange reason, irritable the rest of the way.
Of course after I got married I had to take my new bride to Wisconsin but it was a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia that really tested our covenant. On the way home we went to Appommatox to see where the Civil War ended and then the plan was to drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville, North Carolina. Except I had never driven through mountains before.
What I thought was going to be a three hour trip turned into a six hour trip. We couldn’t go faster than thirty miles an hour and there was no other way to go after we got on the mountain. Beautiful views became reminders of the personal Twilight Zone we found ourselves trapped in. When we finally reached Asheville we got a suite and went into separate bedrooms.
I think going somewhere by car provides so much more to a vaction experience than flying. You become personally engaged in your surroundings and you have control. You can come and go as you please and you get that tinge of excitement when you cross a state line.
So tomorrow I leave for Chicago with my buddy Chip Naus on another trip to the midwest to eat steak and hot dogs, drink beer and watch the Cubs play. I will be met up there by my cousin Jace Cuccia on Friday. My Uncle Dennis Wautlet and my cousin Dave LeBlanc will be joining us on Saturday to watch the Cubs. Dave is one of my favorite cousins, even if he did break my arm forty eight years ago.