Hell is other people. In cars.
June 12, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
I used to dread vacations when Dad was in charge. His idea of taking time off as a family was to pile into the car at the crack of dawn, drive until lunch, eat, and then drive until sunset. And we couldn’t talk. As a teenager I discovored Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous quote “Hell is other people.” I thought that was all cool and edgy, but then I learned that Sartre—an outspoken atheist—is said to have recanted everything on his deathbed and gone back to Catholicism. For a long time I despised him for his fear. Now, I don’t feel anything about Sartre one way or the other, but I believe that hell can be other people, if you’re in a car with them.
My gut told me that Dad got his marathon-driving fetish from his parents. Sure enough, last night I found five pages of notes that my paternal grandmother Angelina wrote documenting a trip she took August 12 to 23, 1941, from Remsen, Iowa, to Albany, New York, and back.
This is Angelina in 1918, when she was sixteen.
Like Dad she was very remote. I met her several times but never got to know her at all. In the car trip to Albany, she took her son Ken, her sister Clarinda, her brother Clarence, and her mother Clara. They were visiting Angelina’s sister Rosalie and her family—husband Millard and son Ronald.
I met Great-grandmother Clara but have no memory of it, since I was just a baby. The only thing I know about her is that in 1967 she died peacefully in her sleep at the age of eighty-six. Tim and Paul were visiting Grandma Angelina when they got the news. Angelina began screaming at the tops of her lungs, scaring Tim and Paul, who were only seven and six respectively.
It was an open-casket funeral, and my brothers were in the front row. After the mass, as they tried to wheel out the coffin, they dropped it on the floor. It was closed by that point, so Clara didn’t fall out, but Angelina began screaming again. When Tim and Paul told came back to Venezuela, they told me about Clara’s death.
“She got up in the middle of the night, went to the bathroom, came back to bed, and then…she died.”
Clara lived alone, so there’s no way anybody knew what happened her final night. This was just something that my brothers overheard or were told. Death was a favorite topic of conversation in Dad’s family. Here’s Clara at seventeen in 1897.
The August 1941 car trip is amazing. They went from Remsen to Minnesota, Minnesota to Canada, and Canada to New York (Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany). Then they toured the Adirondacks, went to Fort Ticonderoga, Princeton, Trenton, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Mount Vernon, and Gettysburg.
In this photo taken at Rosalie’s house, Clara is on the left, then Clarinda, my uncle Ken, cousin Ronald, and Angelina. Ronald grew to be six feet, seven inches tall and died of meningitis at the age of twenty.
I don’t know what’s up with Ken’s single dark lens. He was six in 1941. That was the year he climbed to the top of the Remsen water tower, some four hundred feet. Dad—who was thirteen at the time—had to climb up to where Ken was and coax him back to earth.
Ken was a notorious wisenheimer. I’m certain that in this next image, he’d just said something that cracked up all the adults.
My great-uncle Clarence is on the left; behind him is Rosalie, Ronald’s mother. That’s the only photo in existence of Clara smiling. Even Clarinda on the right is amused, though she’s trying hard to hide it. In her seventy-seven years, Angelina smiled for the camera maybe nine times. Ken looks pretty cocky and proud of himself. I wonder what he said?
The end of the car trip is what’s apropos to my father. Angelina, Ken, Clara, Clarinda, and Clarence drove from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Iowa City, Iowa, in one day. That’s eight hundred forty-seven miles—across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois—in August, in some kind of late-thirties sedan without air-conditioning. They left Gettysburg at 7:45 a.m. and arrived in Iowa City at 12:45 a.m.
Reading Angelina’s travel notes gave me a terrible nightmare. I had to drive Tim’s 1975 GMC Jimmy somewhere in a hurry. He hadn’t given me permission, but I’d taken it anyway. As I flew down the freeway, I knew that he’d be very upset with me when he found out that I’d stolen his car.
Beside me on the road was our huge, yellow 1972 Ford station wagon. Alexandra Wentworth was driving it.
I slid over to the passenger seat of the Jimmy, rolled down the window, and climbed out. All the windows of the station wagon were open, so I jumped from the Jimmy and landed in the middle seat behind Alexandra. Then I climbed into the back seat and hunkered down. Tim’s Jimmy continued on by itself.
In the station wagon, I wondered what in the world I was doing. I didn’t know Alexandra Wentworth, and now Tim’s car would certainly crash. Before I jumped into the station wagon, I thought that freeways always went straight. I hadn’t realized until too late that without a driver, the Jimmy couldn’t turn corners. Lying on the floor in the back seat of the wagon, I remembered that freeways twist and turn. Tim’s car would be demolished, and it would be my fault.
In the driver’s seat of the station wagon, Alexandra suddenly held up her left leg and grabbed it by the ankle. She wore platform shoes with golden glitter all over them.
“How do like my shoes?” she asked, glancing back over her shoulder at me and grinning.
“Watch the road!” I shouted.
“You watch the road,” she sneered and slid into the front passenger’s seat. She sat sideways with her back against the door, folded her arms, and whistled a little tune, smiling and glancing at me out of the corners of her eyes. Now nobody drove the station wagon. I’d lost Tim’s car and was going to be killed. The station wagon drifted out of the lane we were in and headed for an eighteen wheeler. I closed my eyes and took off my shoes and socks.
Instead of hitting the big rig, we ended up on the shoulder of the freeway. I opened my eyes when we crossed the rumble strip. Up ahead, a white sedan was stopped in the middle of the freeway, parked perpendicularly. A gigantic black Newfoundland dog knelt in the road behind the car, its forelegs broken so that it had two extra joints in its limbs. There was an Asian man beside the dog, holding an Easter basket full of green plastic hay.
“Oh my God!” Alexandra shouted. She threw herself into the driver’s seat and stopped the car. I looked for Tim’s Jimmy, thinking maybe I could run after it and jump back in to keep it from crashing, but it’d disappeared.
Alexandra rolled down her window. “Do you want me to call 911?” she asked the Asian man. He said something unintelligible, gesturing at the kneeling dog and holding up his basket.
It was time for me to put on my shoes again. They’d become black ballet slippers.
My socks were now pink cotton and came only to the ankle. They were like sheer gloves, with elasticized tops. I pulled them over my feet and followed them with the slippers, feeling like the biggest idiot ever. Not only had I destroyed Tim’s car, now I was wearing women’s dance shoes. Then I realized we were backing down the shoulder at eighty or ninety miles per hour. Alexandra had turned around in the driver’s seat so she could see out the rear window. She steered with one hand.
“What’re you doing?” I shouted at her. “You’re going to kill us!”
“Oh, just shut up,” she said distractedly, as if I didn’t matter in the slightest.
Mom sat the back with me, writing in a green notebook. She was about twenty-five, hazy and indistinct.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I said.
She stood; since there was no room in the back seat, she had to bend double, looming over me.
“Here,” she said and handed me the notebook.
The pages were filled with dots and dashes—Morse code. I was supposed to learn Morse code as a Cub Scout, but I hadn’t bothered. I hated being a Cub Scout. It was all about competition, something completely alien to my nature. Mom was my den mother; to make sure that nobody thought she was showing me favoritism, she let me flounder.
Now I couldn’t read what she’d written to me in Morse code.
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