We've all had those moments when we are reading a book or watching a movie and we'll stop and say to ourselves, "Oh yeah, like that could really happen!" But, let's face it, sometimes life does take a surrealist kind of turn off the beaten path. In those moments, we know that reality can indeed be stranger than fiction and we don't need Rod Serling along to narrate the journey.
Such was the case one Saturday morning in April of 1981. My mom had decided it was time to make a pilgrimage to Tuscaloosa, Alabama from her home in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. These trips to visit with her family were routine. Unfortunately, my dad had to work that weekend. My sister, Patti, and I did not want Mom on the road by herself. (Remember, these were dark, ancient times before cell phones, and GPS systems). Although Patti nor I felt particularly compelled to roll with the Crimson Tide that weekend, we made a pact, agreeing that since neither of us wanted to go, we should both go. After all, misery loves company. And I figured the more, the unmerrier, so I dragged my daughter, Jenny, (who was only four years old at the time and, therefore, had little to say on the matter) along for the ride. So it was we found ourselves unwilling wayfarers snaking along the narrow curves of State Road 331, heading north on a humid, gray, cloudy day. Could it get any worse?
Of course it could. I was sitting in the back seat with Jenny going through my mom's collection of cassettes. (I told you these were dark, ancient times!) All she had were a bunch of short hand transcriptions from the office and one Oak Ridge Boys tape. I begged my mom to turn around and let me go back and get my tapes. She refused, saying that it was bad luck to turn around on a road trip. Well, I mumbled something about it being incredibly bad luck to be stuck in a car for six hours with only one Oak Ridge Boys tape. (And before anyone goes coming down on me for dissing the Oak Ridge Boys, let me say that I have absolutely nothing against the Oak Ridge Boys -- it was just that I was sick of that song, "Elvira." I mean, I couldn't turn on the radio without hearing that song. It was all over the TV. My life in 1981 was saturated with that song! Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow!) For the first three hours we listened to the Oak Ridge Boys. At the top of the fourth hour, I opted for the short hand transcriptions.
Well, it was during that fourth hour that we stopped at a McDonald's in Montgomery. (I was feeling a little guilty about dragging poor Jenny along, so I thought I would placate the kid with a Happy Meal). By the time we ate and made it back to the car, the sky had gone from merely gray to bruised and spitting, rain dribbling like saliva from those dismal clouds. That was when my mom's powder blue Buick decided it wasn't going anywhere. The car wouldn't start. Mom kept turning the key in the ignition and pumping the gas pedal. She was rewarded with a grinding noise. After a few minutes, she conceded defeat and ran back into McDonald' to use their phone.
By now my sister, Patti, who happened to be in her last trimester of pregnancy, by the way, was feeling more volatile than the rolling clouds above us. Patti had always had a flair for colorful language, but during her pregnancy she had become most fluent in profanity. Oh, the things my sister said sitting there in that parking lot on that rainy Saturday morning! "$#!!* piece of $#*+!" she extolled. "Oh, Mom thinks she has something here -- she's got a Buick! La di da! What she has is a #*!*$!!* piece of General Motors $#!+!"
During this diatribe, Mom crawled back in the car. The rain had gotten harder and she was soaking wet. "Someone in the restaurant recommended a good garage," she said. "It's just up the street, so the tow truck should be here soon."
"$#!+!" was Patti's response.
"You know," Mom said, shaking her head, "this car was acting funny all last week."
"What?!!!" screeched Patti. "You knew this car was 'acting funny' and you came off in it anyway?!!!"
"I had to," Mom insisted. "Our other car was dirty!"
I could see the veins bulging on my sister's neck from the back seat. Her face was red. She was blubbering. "And you tell me I don't have my priorities straight!"
I couldn't help thinking we were all going to laugh about this someday. But not that day, though. Jenny was already bored with the Happy Meal trinket she had gotten minutes before and was whining to listen to "Elvira" again. The one good thing that had come out of all this was that as long as the car wouldn't start, there would be no music.
The tow truck showed up about a half-hour later and towed us to the garage. We all piled out of the car while a very nice young man climbed into the car and positioned himself in the driver's seat. He tried to start the car, but to no avail. "Might be the battery," mused the nice young man.
"It's not the #*!#*-+#* battery!" Pregnant Patti was frothing.
The nice young man was clearly befuddled and much agitated by Patti's hostility. He did something under the hood and played with the ignition until he finally got the Buick to whimper. After a few false starts, the engine roared to life. He drove it around the block while we waited in the garage. When he returned a few minutes later, he left the car running out in the rain. He told us it was probably the starter and we would be fine as long as we didn't turn the motor off. He was dismissing us. On top of that, we had to run through the rain to the car. Patti had clearly miffed the nice young man and that was his revenge. Blustering, Patti waddled to the car like a duck. Mom, Jenny, and me made a run for it. We were almost at the car when Jenny slipped and fell face first into a mud puddle. When it rains, it pours.
So, it came to pass that we found ourselves back on road, limping out of Montgomery and on the home stretch. The highway was desolate. Jenny sat in the back seat of Mom's Smurf mobile with mud drying on her face and cuss words streaming out of her sweet little baby mouth. (She was giving my sister lessons in profanity, Patti actually taking notes). Mom was eerily quiet. Through it all, "Elvira" blared through the speakers. Finally, I snapped. I couldn't take it anymore -- I was sick of that song! Not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings, I took it all out on the Oak Ridge Boys. I said terrible things about their music, things I didn't mean. And while I was still disparaging the band, my mom looked in her rearview mirror and said, "Oh, my..."
"Oh, my...what?" I asked.
"It's the Oak Ridge Boys." Mom responded.
I turned and looked out the back window. Sure enough, a big tour bus with "Oak Ridge Boys" emblazoned above the windshield was following us. I smiled and waved demurely. The driver waved back. A bunch of guys came from the back of the bus and waved. I threw kisses. Mom and Patti both called me a hypocrite. I told them I was being practical -- we were out in the middle of nowhere in the rain in a car that could die at any time. I was just making friends.
Those wonderful Oak Ridge Boys followed us all the way to Tuscaloosa. I kept waving and sang "Elvira" as loudly as I could. Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow!
Life was sure strange.
Oh, one interesting little side note -- when we got to our destination in Tuscaloosa, nobody was home. Did I say life was sure strange?