Drive, She Said

Short-listed Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Lyra Halprin

“Dad, everyone is passing us,” I say, watching a Chrysler New Yorker whiz past. It is July 1967 and we’re on the San Bernardino Freeway, I-10, heading east out of the Los Angeles area on our way to Colorado to visit cousins.

“The manufacturer says we’ve got to keep it below 45 for the first thousand miles,” Dad says, hands on the wheel at ten and two o’clock, just the way the books recommend.

On this smoggy midmorning, even my dad’s usual attention to rules can’t keep the four of us from feeling excited. This is our first driving trip that doesn’t involve Highway 99. Until the 1970s, Highway 99 is still the main north-south artery of California, our personal“hallway” between the two parts of our lives: the family farm Dad runs in Yuba City 500 miles north of Santa Monica, my pianist mother’s musical headquarters in Southern California.

The driving trip is a deviation from our routine of living in a tiny apartment near the farm all summer and returning to our house in Santa Monica days before school starts in September.

My 12-year-old sister and I are thrilled. I’m 15 and filled with unidentifiable urgings and restlessness, and buy cool Seventeen and Surfer, which I display on the car’s rear window deck.

“B’dear,” Mom says – short for “But, dear” – the term of endearment she saves for Dad that I love to hear. “We really are going too slowly.”

She wiggles her bare feet with red-polished toenails on the dash of the blue Buick station wagon. It’s equipped with water bumpers, an innovative safety device that deflects the force of collisions. My father loves them. I hate them. They are yet another unusual, and in this case ridiculously bulky thing/idea/religion/political belief that makes us stick out. We are liberal Jews at a time when there were very few in conservative Santa Monica and if there were others in redneck Yuba City, I didn’t know about them. Dad is a farmer who lives half the time in each location and my Santa Monica school counselor doesn’t believe me when I say my parents are still married.

Somewhere on that trip, I ask Dad what his dream car would be, thinking of the sleek iridescent green Jaguar my journalism teacher owns, my friend’s father’s pink Cadillac with bizarre but elegant fins, or our violist friend’s tiny light blue MG.

“Do you mean which one would have the best gas mileage?” Dad asks.

“No, Dad, just which one would you like the best,” I say.

Dad fidgets uncomfortably, hands on the steering wheel, looking at me in the rearview mirror.

“Would it be one that I’d use on the farm?” he asks.

“Dad, any one that you’d really like to have,” I say, staring at his worried hazel eyes in the mirror.

“I’d have to know how I’d use it,” he says, finally.

This is the man who often swims a mile out in the Pacific Ocean, and drilled 48,000 holes a foot wide and eight-feet deep to reclaim our compacted flood-damaged farm soil. He marched against President Johnson at the Century Plaza Hotel in 1967, writes letters to every U.S. senator exhorting them to avoid using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and goes to my nude life drawing classes with me in a studio next door to the Pussycat Theater. Yet he simply cannot allow himself to have an imaginary favorite car.

From the back seat, I wonder if it is kosher to want practicality in a beautiful package – or OK to ignore the practical entirely in the face of skin-prickling delicious design. My parents drive cars until they are worn out and are cautious with long-distance toll calls but they make sure we live near outstanding schools. I know, too, they put caution aside when they purchased the Henry Miller table and Eames chairs with sensual curving backrests for the dining room.

I look at the cars speeding by us; I know I want a beautiful car, and someone who understands desire out of context – a car without a purpose, speed without a destination.

Our trip to Colorado exceeds expectations and seems to go by in a flash, especially after the station wagon passes one thousand miles and Dad drives 65 mph.

When I finish high school, I begin college at UCLA, seven miles from Santa Monica. Feeling restless, I transfer my sophomore year to UC Davis, a day’s drive up the same Highway 99 we use to get to the farm, and only an hour from Dad when he’s there.

Davis’ campus is green, expansive and peaceful and includes dairy barns and horse arenas. It was the right backdrop for the 1970s mashup of the feminist health guide “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” playing in my head.

And I met a boy who drove a 1969 Camaro with a flowered roof.

I read once in Seventeen magazine that some infants are born “star children.” When they’re babies they hardly cry, they always smile for photographers, and as adolescents their bouts with acne are never severe. They get along with most people all of their lives. Alan fits the bill. He simply looks happy. It helps that his green-blue eyes crinkle when he smiles, and his clear skin sets off his strong shoulders and still-short blond hair.

“Hi, I overheard you had too many watermelons,” he says as I open my dormitory room door in answer to his knock. He grins, looking at the pile of small dark-green melons. His teeth are perfect, with no fillings.

My roommate and I knew we had to do something about the sweet luscious fruit my father dropped off. I return Alan’s smile, my face flushed as pink-red as the inside of the perfectly ripe melons. Whatever he wants, I know I will consider it seriously.

“Oh, wow, yes, I’d LOVE you to take some of the watermelons,” I say.

We met briefly days earlier during a “dorm crawl” when residents wandered through the floors checking each other out. I stopped at Alan’s open door.

I smile at the brightness of the room. Alan’s bedspread is radiant orange; his roommate’s yellow. I never thought orange and yellow were good colors because my mother said they made our skin look sallow. We also didn’t eat Mexican food because it made her burp. Easy commandments to test.

Although we were both raised in Southern California, I am surprised to meet someone else who spends a lot of time in Northern California – me, at our farm on the Feather River, he at his grandparents’ farm two hours north on the Sacramento River.

“Yeah – Highway 99,” he says. “I’ve traveled it often.” We share a knowing smile.

Most people don’t notice the rich soil and poor towns of the Great Central Valley along the highways that connect the cities of Northern and Southern California. But my family and Alan’s regularly traverse the long open stretches and know the crops and weather that determine the fortunes of its residents. Alan’s family just drives faster.

I load Alan up with as many of the sweet, crunchy-wet melons as he will take. Later he tells me he’s mortified to find several he gave away smashed in the dorm courtyard after a rowdy weekend.

That first Thanksgiving I fly south. Alan offers me a ride to the airport in his flower-topped car, as he, too, is flying home – to Redlands, east of Los Angeles.

“Did your car come with the flowers?” I ask.

“The dealer sold me a Camaro with a brown body and cream-colored roof,” he says. “I drove it to a self-serve car wash and the vinyl paint on top started to peel as I sprayed it. I worked hard to buy a car as powerful as my brother’s Mustang – and there were the flowers!”

He calls the car Elaine, after Elaine Robinson, the seductive mother in “The Graduate.”

We leave Elaine at his uncle’s house along the Sacramento River near the airport. I can’t believe there are homes tucked along the river road, with small docks at the end of their long narrow lawns.

“You can waterski right from here?” I ask, walking to the end of the dock in his uncle’s backyard. The dark green water flows south toward the Delta and San Francisco, and then links to canals bringing water to Central Valley farms and Los Angeles lawns.

“You bet,” Alan says, standing along part of what is left of the riparian forests that line the rivers. The rich river woodlands, with their understory of tiny grapes that creep up the tall cottonwood trees, are home to osprey and my favorite white egrets. The fluffy airborne seeds of the cottonwoods float along the rivers, which is why the one that flows along our farm is called the Feather, or Río de las Plumas.

He calls me over winter break when we’re in Southern California.

“So, do you need a ride back up to Davis?” he asks, telling me his girlfriend broke up with him.

“Thanks, but I’m flying,” I say, glad to squeeze every moment out of my time home.

I want to remember my winter break. I cured my virginity with my quasi-boyfriend, who was not much more than a helpful science fair partner in this endeavor. Like Alan, he is also blond, but a washed out, brooding writer/math whiz kid version. He does not exude brightness and has a wreck of a car.

Alan says he and his brother are going to make at least one trip to Laguna Beach for spearfishing.

Spearfishing? I’m impressed Alan drives 70 miles to the beach from Redlands. I’m beginning to realize Alan doesn’t mind driving anywhere, a startling and appealing concept.

Winter quarter is rainy in Davis, but my classes stimulate me. One fiery black history instructor becomes a lifelong inspiration. A veteran of the civil rights movement, he shows me the historical context for current events and points out connections among outcast groups. I can see why Jewish progressives, including family friends, are among those who joined blacks on the Freedom Rides in the South. Dad is thrilled to have me living near the farm, and starts a tradition of going to my classes with me once each quarter. I am proud to introduce him to my teachers and begin to realize how lucky I am.

At the end of the term, a group of us from the dormitory drive home in several cars down California’s new north-south artery, Interstate 5. The wet winter is over, strawberries are ripening, and tiny green cherries, peaches and apricots are visible in the orchards surrounding Davis and throughout the fertile Central Valley.

I get a ride with a UC Davis basketball team member, and entertain the carload with a running commentary on the crops we pass. We speed along the highway, dropping one student off in the nondescript town of Modesto, another in Merced near the road leading to Yosemite National Park. We continue south through miles of dry land and fields of cotton.

As we approach the oil fields of Bakersfield 100 miles from Los Angeles, the driver of my car notices a car gaining on us in the rear view mirror. Within minutes, a brown Camaro with giant Peter Max flowers on the roof rolls by, driver’s window down, a cheerful Alan waving at us. The laugh that comes out of me is fueled by delight and a thrill that perhaps my presence in our Pace Car has spurred on Alan, driver of Car No. 2.

“We left 15 minutes after you did,” Alan says, smiling gleefully as the two cars stop at the only McDonald’s for miles, at the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains. “I figured I could catch up with you.”

Alan’s drive to catch us is the match to my tinder-dry readiness to enjoy life. I don’t even remember how I severed my connection to the guy back home. I do know that when we return to Davis after spring break, Alan and I are inseparable. He is with me when I pick out a shiny new bicycle to replace my 10-year-old dented Schwinn. I want something like his iridescent red Gitane 10-speed he calls Lucretia McEvil.

With money I earned changing irrigation pipes on the farm and working the desk at a Santa Monica beach club, I buy a gleaming, white, 10-speed Peugeot road bike with black-and-white checkered racing trim. I call my fastest possession Gracie Slick.

The day after I bike the bike, I introduce Alan to the farm and my father. Alan puts Gracie on the bike rack hooked to his Camaro with its mag wheels and we make the drive on backcountry roads in 45 minutes flat; it routinely takes Dad and me an hour and a quarter.

I spot my father’s station wagon, the one with the water bumpers, turning from the highway into our main dirt road. We follow Dad into the farm until he notices us behind him and stops the car. He greets me with his wide smile and a hug, and shakes Alan’s hand.

“Look at that flowered roof!” Dad says. “And look at that bike!”

I can barely stand it; I get Alan to take my bicycle off the car’s bike rack. I need to show it to Dad even before we get to the post-flood farm“headquarters,” the shed and trailer.

Dad is as excited as I am, and urges me to lead our caravan to the center of the farm: Peugeot, Buick with water bumpers, flower-topped Camaro.

By the time summer rolls around, Alan makes the 60-mile trip from his Redlands home to Santa Monica almost every weekend. The first day he visits, I answer the bell to find a smiling guy with sun-bleached hair and a yellow and blue tank top crowding my doorway. He looks as if he’s just pulled up on a surfboard, with a lightness that is palpable.

That summer is the best of my young life. We bodysurf in Santa Monica and I take Alan to the merry-go-round at the pier; I feel a different appreciation for special places of my childhood. I have a memory of us in a small grocery store on Montana Avenue near my mother’s house, long before the street is a shopping destination for the rich. I’m wearing a sleeveless turquoise leotard from a Davis dance class with cut-off shorts. My skin is tanned and pink from a day in the waves, and my cheerful partner is picking out something to contribute to my mother’s home cooking. I have a sudden image of what we look like – happy.

When we drive back to Davis together in the fall, I feel almost none of the homesickness from the year before; I am with someone who seems like family, only even more fun. Alan is like my dad in his kindness and enthusiasm, but allows himself possibilities Dad can’t imagine. It dawns on me it’s not“either/or” when choosing a man. My heart is growing with love for two kind and decent men – with very different cars.

We head north on I-5, the miles not feeling so tediously long.

“Want to go 100?”

I look at Alan in disbelief. Go 35 mph over the speed limit in a flower-topped car on a busy highway? My face breaks into a smile; I realize I am in a beautiful car with a beautiful driver.

“Yes!” I cry.

There are no highway patrol cars in sight. Alan floors it.

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20 thoughts on “Drive, She Said

  1. Lyra,
    What a wonderful story….its true and its you, cousin! Until now experiences, precious and personal and happily shared .I do remember a couple of rides with your mother in that car (a Kaiser?)and the water filled bumpers, that Saralee drove without too much complaint, emphasizing the safety factor and ignoring the fact that it was one damn ugly car design and hard to drive. Alan’s sense of adventure and endless possibilities came home to me when he told the story of getting one of your dogs out of the animal shelter when it was closed and after hours! Memories of car trips along the stretch of California is iconic…CA, cars , the Central Valley and young love go together.
    Maashi

  2. Thanks for sharing, Lyra. Now I know why you are such a lovely friend!
    Try sending this to the Click ‘n Clack boys on NPR. They will love it!
    Happy, Joyous & Healthy New Year to you, your kids and that blonde guy.
    Love & Hugs, nancy

  3. What a great story, and what a treat to get to know more about those years before I knew you. Your dad’s reluctance to envision a dream car is so similar to the way I remember my dad. Why imagine? It just wouldn’t be wise to be so impractical and selfish!

  4. Lyra, I like your story. it certainly brings back the feel of Davis dorm days and being on the cusp of adulthood. I remember meeting Gracie Slick. Thanks so much for sharing a tale that really brings past experiences to life. Hugs! Suzanne

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  6. OMG–this is terrific! So many fabulous specifics!

    Displaying Seventeen and Surfer magazines on the car’s rear window…Mom calling Dad B’dear…the water bumpers (which I never thought of as ugly), Dad’s practical answers regarding his dream car…the phrase, “skin-prickling delicious design,” your keen understanding that “they put caution aside when they purchased the Henry Miller table and Eames chairs with sensual curving backrests”…Alan as one of the “star children.”

    And what hilariously perfect names: Elaine Robinson, Lucretia McEvil, Grace Slick. You bring back the dust and the smells of the farm road and so much more. What a happy summer–adventure, romance and speed. Wow, Sis. Thanks for sharing this. It’s absolutely wonderful.

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