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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"When Things Become Automatic"

Chapter 15-C (last installment of this chapter)
Continued from previous posts...

The return trip that Mom began back to our house in Roseville was about 18 miles and typically took us just under 30 minutes to drive. Mom was about to drive 4 miles west on 23 Mile Road then 12 miles south on I-94 to the 11 Mile Road exit. From there she would zig and zag down tightly-woven streets lined with nearly identical three-bedroom brick ranch homes. It was only these last two miles that left any options at all, but in the two years of making the trip, a groove had pretty much worn in her mind and she always took the exact same streets without thinking. When you drive a certain route repeatedly, it becomes automatic, and you sometimes reach your destination without remember the trip at all.

Mom had begun her trip home just before the avalanche in the well. She had waved at us as she passed slowly by. It was a life-long habit of my hers to get every wave she could out of even a brief farewell. Through the decades to follow, I and my siblings (and eventually our wives and children) would wave goodbye on the same long driveway a thousand times, but those departures were a different setting entirely. For one thing, by the time we were married, there was a house and a front porch with a swing, with lamplight shining through the front window, amenities that were years away on the Saturday of the sixth crock.

But that wave… Mom's wave changed little through the years. There was always a smile and typically some mouthed words we could never quite hear from a distance. These were never simple words like “I love you” which can be easily lip-read. Mom would mouth or shout entire unheard sentences of seeming importance that either forced her listeners to come closer or prompted them to smile and nod as if they knew exactly what she said. My brothers and I often took the latter choice, because stopping for clarification would only generate a longer good bye.

Squinting in her direction, Dave said, "Sure thing, Ma," I asked him what she said, "I have no idea..." he muttered and waved with a smile.

On that particular July evening,as our mother drove slowly past in the ’64 Country Squire with the windows down (it had no AC), she was simply watching her three boys at a distance as she had that afternoon, and the same words came to mind though she knew we wouldn't hear them: “I remember you boys in the sandbox on Lapeer—now look atcha.”

We waved absentmindedly back at her.

At the end of the driveway, she turned right on the dirt road (where our mailbox would someday be) then left onto 23 Mile Road. Her mind was not on her driving. In fact, she was in a trancelike state. (It would be a frightening thin to know how many drivers stare down the passing road whose minds are miles away.) In this case, her distraction began with thoughts of the sandbox on Lapeer /Avenue, in Port Huron. She often watched us play from the side porch.

The house on Lapeer Avenue was the second house Dad and Mom owned, but it was the first one they lived in for any length of time (six years). Kathy and Paul were ages two and one when they moved in (but since they were not a year apart they share the same age for a month), and my brother Dave and I were born during the next two years. Lapeer represented our family's toddler years where Mom had two or three of us in diapers at the same time. It was from that house on Lapeer that all but I had gone off to school from that side porch door. Kathy was the first to go. She used to walk to kindergarten alone. Imagine walking four blocks at age five—unattended! She met up with some other kids along the way, but still… few parents would do that today, but Mom had little choice what with the three boys still at home. And now Kathy was going off to college alone like a grown-up kiindergartener. Mom knew she‘d be there at home when she arrived, probably sorting through the “college clothes” on her bed. First to go again. Mom didn’t want to think about it.

All these thoughts raced through her mind, but she was only three miles down 23 Mile Road. She adjusted the rearview mirror to see if Jimmy was still asleep in the back seat. He was, but the fact did not stop her from saying aloud, “I’m so glad God brought you to us, Jimmy. I don't know what I'd do without you.”

Having a toddler when you're 40 years old sometimes made her feel young, sometimes made her feel old, but it always made her feel, and that is a good thing.

Her mind again went back to Lapeer: Us four older kids like stair steps on the porch smiling at Mom’s camera. Kathy playing “dress up” with a wedding veil in the driveway. Paul, the reluctant groom, sitting beside her, smiling as if he knew he'd someday regret being in that photograph. Days in the sprinkler or at the beach, and finally having only Tom with droopy diapers to change. Always taking pictures and saying "smile." Even now in the car her thoughts were so interlaced with her favorite pictures that the memories themselves seemed to be in black and white fragments of time.

She looked again at Jimmy in the mirror and remembered summers long past when she had four kids in the old ‘39 Ford (the same car in which Dad taught her to drive). Sometimes after a long day at the beach and the ten minute drive home we'd all be conked out by the time she turned onto Lapeer. The thought of it made her smile....

It was then it happened. The car violently jolted as if it had run over a railroad tie that was still lodged under the car. It was as if the engine exploded and the car slowly ground to a halt in the right lane of 23 Mile Rd. A Car behind her beeped and swerved around her.

What happened? She was frozen rigidly in place, her left hand gripping the steering wheel, her right hand on the column stick shift, which she had just downshifted to a lower gear to turn into the gas station ahead on the right.

But wait a minute. The little thingy over the steering wheel had an orange thingy pointing at the letter “R.”

“Oh, Don!” she screamed, “What did I do?”

In all the commotion, Jimmy had rolled to the floor off the back seat and was now standing groggily on the big hump that ran down the center of the car. “It’s okay, Jimmy. Go back to sleep. Mommy just broke the car a little bit.”

"What have I done," she whispered, now in tears, but the answer was in the “column stick shift” still clenched in her right hand. This was not the old '39 Ford; it was a '64 Ford Country Squire with an automatic transmission. She'd been driving "automatics" for years. She knew that she just put the handle thingy in “D” for drive and the car did all the rest automatically. Not since the mid-Fifties, had she driven a car with a manual shift on the column. What had she done? She now knew the answer: she had shifted the car into “Reverse” at 50 MPH.

Just under the huge bump in the floor beside her right foot was an automatic transmission, a few hundred pounds of metal gears, servos, and fluids. [The huge center bump disappeared with front-wheel-drive cars.] Those gears were now hopelessly ground down and broken off from a ten second attempt to mechanically change directions at high speed. All but “second gear” was ruined and had the car not stalled, it too may have been lost.

Mom put the car in park and turned the key. It started. She moved the control arm to “D” but nothing happened. She moved it down to “1,” and nothing happened. She put it in"2" and to her surprise the car began to roll forward. She turned into a gas station on the corner intending to turn around and drive back to the property. She knew involving any kind of “paid help” would upset Dad. The only problem was that when she put the car in “R” [Reverse], that gear did not work. The car could only go forward in 2nd gear, and fortunately she was able to drive around the back of the station and back onto east-bound 23 Mile Road. The RPMs of the engine began to whine at around 15 MPH, wanting to do no more damage, Mom went no faster.

Twenty minutes and two hankies later, Mom was pulling into our long two-track dirt drive and idling slowly toward us, just as the sun was dropping out of sight and we were “calling it a day” at the well.

“What’s Mom doing back?” I asked.

“I don’t like the looks of this,” Dad sighed, walking toward the slow moving car. He turned back toward us, held one finger subtly upward, and whispered, "Not one word about what happened in the well."

Inside the car, Mom was crying and Jim was waving from the back window.

“I’ve really done it this time, Don,” Mom cried out the window on Dad’s side.

"What did you do, Bev!" Dad said in a descending whine, trying hard not to add "this time" to the end of his question, but it still came out in the tone.

"I don't know? The gears won't work," she sobbed.

It was not her intent to lie. She knew what she had done to cause the problem, and she would eventually get to that part, but having already "shifted gears" abruptly that evening, she wanted to ease into her blame.

"What do you mean 'the gears don't work'?" Dad moaned.

"I don't know. This is all the faster it will go, but it's my fault..."

"Wudjadu, Bev?" he slowly slurred.

"I was going along fine. Everything was working. Then I shifted gears and... it was bad, Don. It felt like something exploded under the car."

"Wuduyamean 'you shifted gears'?" Each question had the same melodic moan of defeat. "This is an automatic, Bev. You don't shift gears while you're driving."

"I know, but I forgot and downshifted—or thought I downshifted—but I put it in "Reverse."

"You what?" there was no melodic moan.

"I put it in "Reverse."

"What? How fast were you going?"

"I don't know. It was right there on 23 so I guess around fifty."

"What? You didn't. Tell me you didn't."

"I did, Don."

"Get out of the car, Bev!" Dad demanded, "You boys take the stuff to the barn."

Dad did not want an audience as he tested the gears which of course didn't work, I walked backwards watching as Dave and I carried the ladder.

"Second gear works. That's good." she sobbed.

"Bev, it's an automatic. It WAS an automatic. Now it's a one speed."

"I'm sorry, Don..." Mom cried, walking beside the car as Dad drove it slowly back to the barn.

"What did you do, Bev?" he shouted again.

"I told you, Don." The banter continued up and down the crest in the two-track beside the barn.

By the time the Ford rolled to a weak stop in the spot where it would sit for the next three weeks, Mom stood beside the car repeating apologies and picking with her right index finger at the back side of her upper left arm. It was then I saw drops of blood from scabs near her wrist and right forearm as well.

"Mom, It's okay." I said, not knowing whether or not it truly was, and fully aware of the risk I was taking by butting in.

"Okay?" Dad said turning off the car and slamming the door. "Okay, Tom? The transmission is ruined! This is the car we were going to take on vacation. We'll never get it fixed by then. Do you know how much a transmission costs? Okay? Do you know we'll lose a day just fixing this thing? Okay? Do you have any ide..."

Then he saw the blood on his wife's arms, and stopped mid-rant.

"Bev..." he started, but no other words were there, "Bev..." he started again then released a heavy sigh that summed up this grueling day. Finally he said, "It's getting dark. We'll leave the station wagon here. I'll call around about a used transmission, and we'll get to it when we can. I ... I'm sorry." He pointed at her arms and added, "You need a hanky there, Honey. Please don’t pick."

Mom reached down the neckline of her blouse to the upper edge of her bra where she almost always tucked one of her many hankies. And though we'd seen her pull a hanky from there a hundred times, Dad acted as if it were funny and “faked” surprise, which made her laugh as she blotted the blood from her arms. It was not a true laugh, but a "thank you for making me smile while I'm crying" sort of chuckle, followed by a sniffle, followed by a blowing of her nose.

It was then she took a deep breath and attempted to explain that she had momentarily thought she was driving a column-stick like the old '39 Ford. It was an explanation none of us bought at the time, but we were young and had never seen a "manual shift on the column" much less driven one.

For years after than night—make that decades—we joked about Mom putting the car in "R" for "Race" while going 50 MPH. Mom always laughed right along, and when she could finally get a word in edgewise she'd begin her earnest explanation thinking for a moment it was the other car, the first car they had, the one she drove when we were all little. Yeah, right, Mom.

Only as an adult, when I had children of my own, and days began to blur too smoothly into years, and the patterns of life and the ebb and flow of living became more and more automatic—some time after age 40, when I reached for a light switch in my house that wasn't there (and never was because the place I reached for was where the switch had been in the house in Roseville)...only then when it was almost too late to matter... only then did I know how utterly believable Mom's explanation was.

Three chapters to go. Chapter 16 coming next weekend.

In the meantime, thanks for stopping by. A week ago tonight I wrote about Coldplay and shocked some of you that some of their songs struck a chord with me. Perhaps this post sheds some light on why the words to "Fix You" seemed like a haunting reprise of past moments in my life when I either encouraged or was encouraged by my mother at some low point (like that night she put the car in "Reverse.".


Blogger Dr.John said...

Sometimes it does take a long time to understand.

17/2/09 4:56 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Dr. John,
Understanding how my parents who were quite the "opposites" balanced each other out in the ups and downs "in sickness and in health" was probably the best gift of all.

17/2/09 10:17 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

Another amazing chapter and this is one of my favorites. I can really feel for your mom, as I've reminisced about past sandbox adventures, to the point that I was functioning on automatic. I survived without ruining a transmission but I understand how easily one can get lost in pleasant memories. Your mom was one awesome lady, and your dad again brings back memories of my dad, as he defused the situation with laughter. Laughter is always good medicine and that is a BLESSING indeed!

18/2/09 10:45 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thanks for saying such nice things about my mom. Thanks for "getting her." Here is a blessing for you: back in the fall of 2007 when I was writing about the table, Mom's husband Bob would print out the chapters including the comments and Mom was amazed that you (and some others who could relate to her) took such interest in common everyday things about a total stranger. You do the same for my father each time he reminds you of your dear husband. I just wanted you to know that your comments are very encouraging in a process that is cathartic for me but perhaps of uncertain worth to others. So thanks for sticking with these chapters.

18/2/09 9:44 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

You know during the transition phase from "three on the tree" to automatic transmissions Chrysler made the engineering decision to have dash board mounted push buttons to prevent what happened to your mother.

It was not that rare of an occurrence no matter what mom thought.

All I can say is, hand of God, because if I remember correctly first and reverse share a planetary gear set and first should have been destroyed as well.

19/2/09 3:58 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

This is the second time your mechanical expertice has helped me in a story. First time was back when we were writing about the wheel falling of this same station wagon a five years later, and now this.

This is the truth: As I was writing this, I remembered that the only gear left was 2nd gear, but I also remembered that she could only go around 10-15 MPH before the RPMs noise scared her so that seemed like first gear to me so I that's what I wrote. (If Dad were alive he could have told me.)

So one more question: There was only one gear that worked. Could second have survived? And is it consistent with what you recall that if she had only 2nd gear, would that start to "whine" with RPMs at 15 MPH?

You are now my official mechanical resource!

19/2/09 6:16 AM  
Blogger the walking man said...

Second could have survived Tom. The gear set for second is different than first/reverse and third could have been inoperative because the road speed would have not gotten high enough to shift automatically (around 38mph).

If I were to guess about what exactly happened I would say that when she went to reverse, your mom blew out a servo, sort of a hydraulic piston that operates the bands which lock up different gear sets. Second and third would have worked because the servo survived and would have been able to get the car moving as hydraulic pressure increased.

20/2/09 5:16 AM  
Blogger the walking man said...

The whine would have been the fluid rushing through the cracked servo as it built pressure to hit the second one. The actual whining would have been the mechanical spinning of the input shaft and planetary gear set of F/R.

20/2/09 5:18 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thanks, Mark,
That makes perfect sense to a non-mechanic like me. I do know we bought a rebuilt and dropped it in the week after vacation. Dad had a choice: finish the well and have that "monster" done when we went to Canada or spend the next Saturday pulling the transmission and coming back from Canada to go down that well. He chose getting the well done and then shifting gears to "car repair" no pun intended.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here--that's explained in Chapter 16 along with yet another personal tragedy before we cross that bridge to Canada.

20/2/09 8:23 AM  

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