Forget cut grass and sea breezes: The most evocative smell of summer for me is the composite odor of a hot vinyl dashboard, roadside food, caged animals, automotive air freshener and my father’s Royall Bay Rhum aftershave — all inhaled while rocketing down the highway in the back seat of a Ford LTD station wagon for destinations known or (more often) unknown.
The summers of my childhood were largely defined by long-haul family road trips, when my father (a career Marine Corps officer), mother, sister and I (along with an assortment of dogs, cats and plants) would vacate one home, pile into the car, and set off on a long, one-way trip to a new life with a new home in a new town. Summer was the season of change for us, and somewhere during each one of those summer road trips — as my sister and I sat in the back seat, sticky with melted chocolate and potato-chip grease, hypnotized by the power lines that appeared to oscillate up and down as you stared at them — there was a tangible crossover moment, a faint psychic “pop” as the last cord attaching us to our departure point snapped, and we began to feel the gravitational pull of our new destination.
During years when my father didn’t have a new assignment, we’d pile into the car anyway and drive down to visit relatives in North and South Carolina, just because it somehow wasn’t really a summer if we didn’t have that car time together. And if there were no necessary trips lined up, my father would often make some up anyway, just to go drive somewhere with us, to go see what a road on the map looked like when we were actually on it, to figure out the best way to get from here to there, even if we didn’t need to go there for any particularly good reason.
Who knew what we might find if we just got in the car and drove? Maybe a great new place for chili dogs. Maybe a battlefield where one or more of our ancestors fought in the Civil War. Maybe a miniature-golf course with great soft ice cream and a layout simple enough to allow the kids to be competitive with the adults. Maybe a town with a funny name. Maybe a mountain my father climbed when he was a boy himself. Maybe an old airplane. Maybe a stray cat that my mother would pick up and bring home and keep in our basement until she could find it a home. Or maybe nothing at all . . . which was fine, really, because the chocolate still melted just the same way, and the potato chips were just as greasy, and the power lines oscillated up and down anyway, whether we got anywhere worthwhile at day’s end or not.
My mother recently asked me about my earliest childhood memory, and of course it took place during the summer in the back seat of a car, which at the time I had to myself, since my sister hadn’t been born yet. I had a pinwheel, and was letting it spin in the breeze created by the open window in those pre-air-conditioning days. My mother turned to tell me to be careful not to let it blow out the window . . . just moments before I lost my grip on it and it sailed away, gone almost before I realized it. What sticks with me to this day from that memory is the sense of shock I felt sitting there, realizing that something perfectly secure and happy — a summer road trip, no less — could change so suddenly, a whim of fate and physics taking something from me, just like that.
I relearned that lesson on a completely different scale nearly 40 years later, when I received a phone call at work telling me that my father had been critically injured in an auto accident. He was out running errands, preparing for yet another road trip to the beach, when another driver blacked out, crossed the median on a marsh causeway and hit him square on, front bumper to front bumper at high speed, fate and physics in full force again.
Once the full gravity of the situation became clear to us all, I hopped a plane and flew down to South Carolina from Albany. I was there, holding my father’s head in my hands, with my mother and sister and a trusted family friend beside me, when he died the next day. After his funeral, though, I didn’t fly back home to Albany. I got behind the wheel of a rented car and I drove that trip, taking a variety of routes that I’d never taken before, visiting some towns with funny names, passing a few battlefields and miniature golf courses, stopping along the way to have a chili dog or three in his honor. It was September, the end of summer. That was fitting and apt.
My father taught me how to drive, and he taught me how to love driving, and he taught me the value of loading my family up, buying all the junk food we can eat and going somewhere, anywhere, to experience what summer looks (and smells) like from the inside of a car.
Just hold onto your pinwheel, kiddo.