Early one morning in late June of 1985, my family squeezed into the cab of a U-Haul truck, all four of us packed in like sweaty, slimy sardines, and began the long trek from Huntsville, Alabama to Vallejo, California. This was yet another move in a series of moves we made over the course of my high school years that total so many my brother and I struggle to keep an accurate count. We’re going with somewhere between eight and ten.
During the previous two years when we lived in Huntsville, we spent a chain of about eighteen months as a homeless family relying on the kindness of friends, a few family members, and people we barely knew to keep a roof over our heads. This wasn’t a well-known fact within our community there, but it was our reality. We moved from house to house, living in the empty homes of travelers while they were away.
We spent those months in a kind of weird quasi-homeless state – paring down our belongings with each move – so that by the time that hot summer day in June rolled around, everything our family of four owned fit in the 15′ U-Haul truck my father rented for moving day.
I really struggled with this move.
But really, really struggled.
But I had learned the hard way two years earlier when we moved from Tennessee to Alabama that struggling to adapt was not an option and would be met with a heavy hand by my father, so I put on my game face and got to it.
Once we were loaded, with our creamy yellow sedan hooked to the back of the truck and my dad’s lawnmower tied to the top of the car, the four of us – my father, my mother, my brother and me – piled into the cab of the U-haul and off we went.
It was starting to really warm up in the South.
Southern heat creates its own special kind of suffering. The air is thick with humidity and this oppressive moisture only increases with the rising temperatures, so there is a melty, sticky, wetness about you that is the definition of gross.
Did I mention that my father decided to shave a few pennies off the cost of the U-Haul rental by opting out of AIR-CONDITIONING?
And did I mention that we were driving from Alabama to northern California by way of the entire Southwest region of the United States?
Yep. It was a grand ‘ol time.
The trip was meant to take about two-and-a-half days – driving hard.
It took us twice that.
My 10-year old brother and I played the hell out of the one cassette tape we had between us – Petra’s Beat the System – passing the Walkman we also shared back and forth as we took turns listening to the whole album before passing the Walkman over to the other to listen. Sometimes we mixed things up, and I only listened to one side of the tape before passing it to Patton for him to do the same.
We had a lot of hours to fill, ya’ll.
Boredom is hard, but boredom while you are squeezed into the cab of a U-Haul truck with no air-conditioning and nothing but desert to stare at for hours on end is mind-bending.
And not in a good way.
Actually, the boredom was often welcome since there was plenty going on that I wanted to avoid inside the close quarters in the cab of that truck. After two years of getting dragged behind Dad as he drank his way out of jobs and out of all the good graces we, or anyone, had to give him, we were barely tolerant of his presence. The tension that existed within the bodies of the four people in that truck was palpable, and it was my job to find a way to turn this trip into a fun, family adventure instead of the devastating loss that it really was.
But c’mon… you can only play the Alphabet Game so many times. And when you play I Spy in the desert you really only have like three things to “spy.” The game is over before you’ve hardly started.
About an hour into the drive, it became clear that my father had failed to think through all the details involved in moving a family across the country. In fact, it was clear that he’d done no planning at all. We had a route mapped out thanks to our handy Rand McNally Atlas, but he’d spent much of the money given us for the move on God knows what, so we were going to be short on what we needed for gas, for food and for our nightly stops to sleep along the way. Every time one of us needed something that cost real, actual money as we traveled, Dad became more sullen and resentful of our presence on this road to nowhere.
I’m a pretty creative person, but even I was running out of decent fodder for distraction when, at dawn on our third travel day – just outside Tucumcari, New Mexico, our U-haul truck broke down. Our little family of four found ourselves stranded on a deserted highway in the legit middle-of-nowhere New Mexico.
Sorry, Tucumcari – but, wow.
Dad popped the hood like he knew what he was doing (he did not), checked the oil stick (he loved doing this), and fiddled around with a screw here and there before announcing that the truck was dead (it actually was). He then handed Patton and me orange flags and set us on the side of the highway to hitch a ride back to town.
I was no longer bored.
It actually didn’t take too long before someone pulled over to help us out. I’m guessing we made for a pretty pitiful sight. My 140 lb., 5’8″ tall father smoking cigarettes next to a broken-down U-Haul with his two young kids and wife standing on the side of the road waving those orange flags like our lives depended on it.
Our lives did kind of depend on it. Stranded in the desert in the middle of the summer is no joke.
Eventually a nice, old gentleman in a blue pickup pulled over, tinkered a bit with the truck, then offered to drive us back to Tucumcari to the U-Haul lot there. After spending two long days in the cab of a truck, it was thrilling to be placed, along with my brother, in the back of this man’s pickup. We held on to the sides and grinned while the desert wind washed over us.
Well before my brother and I had had our fill of riding in the back of the old man’s pickup, we arrived at the U-Haul lot. We sat in the shabby, little U-Haul office while dad drove out to the stalled truck with a couple of mechanics. They were back more quickly than anticipated, but only to switch over to a tow truck since they’d determined our truck was out of commission.
They weren’t happy.
Turns out my father had cut a few more corners than we thought in order to save on the costs of the move.
He’d rented a truck one-size down from what had been recommended figuring we’d just fill it to the rim and toss what didn’t fit.
We did that, and we tossed what didn’t fit, but the truck was still overloaded.
He broke the truck.
U-haul wanted to hold my father responsible for the truck. As the men discussed the situation with my parents, the increasing agitation in all of their voices made me feel nervous and embarrassed so I grabbed my brother’s hand and we darted outside to explore the parking lot.
We wandered through the parked trucks, weaving in and out as we tried to create new games to distract from the fear that threatened to grab us and take us down.
It’s difficult to describe the nature of the fear that wove its tentacles around us.
For sure we were afraid of our father’s rage.
And embarrassment fueled his anger like little else.
But more than his anger, we were afraid of the chaos that gathered around him.
We were familiar with it, but afraid of it.
And sick of it.
The “Who broke the truck?” argument didn’t last long, and somehow my father found a way out of culpability. He really had a knack for this. He was giddy when he found us amidst all those trucks, which felt out-of-sync with the frustrating news he had to give us.
He had “arranged” for a bigger truck.
But U-haul would have nothing to do with the transfer of all of our things.
This meant that we had to move it all ourselves.
All. Of. Our. Things.
And there was a piano in that truck. My piano. An old, but fully restored upright piano given to me by my grandmother.
A piano weighing about 500 lbs.
Did I mention that my little family consisted of four small humans? My father was 5’8″ and weighed maybe all of 140 lbs. My baby brother was just ten years old. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say I was likely the strongest of the four of us.
Physical strength was not on our side.
It was easily 110 degrees in Tucumcari that day. Dad pulled the new truck next to the broken one, we set up the ramps, and then began the process of moving the boxes…ignoring the furniture – particularly the intimidating upright piano that had been difficult for the six grown men who had loaded it onto the truck just a few days before.
I whispered to my mom, “How are we going to do this?” as sweat dripped off our faces instead of the tears that we knew could not be released.
I honestly don’t remember what, if anything, she said in response. I have the sense that she just kept on moving since we both knew that if we couldn’t move the little furniture we still owned, we’d have to leave it behind… including my treasured piano. That felt unthinkable.
But as she was apt to do, it wasn’t long before Mom was chatting with various other travelers stranded in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Mom was quick to make friends with every stranger she encountered. And not just a “Hey, how are you today?” kind of friend. No, she was on a first-name basis with you the second the two of you made eye-contact for the first time. Within five minutes, her new friend was tearfully telling Mom the story of her life… and they were likely both tearing up if they continued talking for another five.
Mom had a way with people like no one else I’ve ever known. Honestly, without this way that she had, I’m not sure we would have been as generously embraced by each new community we landed in as we really were. She was something.
So on that hot, miserable, the-world-is-ending afternoon, Mom became friends with the mom from another family stuck at U-haul for the day.
I guess getting stranded in Tucumcari was a thing?
And then, without meaning to, Mom so charmed her way into the hearts of this family that they willingly rolled up their sleeves and got to work helping us move to the new truck.
Total strangers who happened to have two strapping tweener boys in the family. Once they got involved we were able to make short work of moving what remained in the truck.
We were back on the road by late afternoon. I watched the sun set on the horizon as I geared up for a long night. We had to make up for the time we’d lost, and there was exactly zero dollars for an extra night in a motel. In fact, early the following morning we pulled into a gas station and waited while Dad called his soon-to-be new employer to ask for an advance on his wages.
I don’t know how Dad’s employer responded to that request. But I do know that while they were on the phone, he delivered some bad news to my father.
The house we planned to live in for the year or so we would be in northern California was no longer available to us.
We had nowhere to land when we arrived.
And even though this turn of events wasn’t exactly my father’s fault, I decided in that moment to let go of the childish notion that my dad could ever be counted on for anything.
Harsh, I know.
I wasn’t wrong, though. He never became a reliable, consistent or faithful father.
But being right can feel really wrong, and I’m still untangling the web of confusion and despair this decision created for me. My road to wholeness is continually made more challenging with its own broken down trucks, stolen items and crappy motel rooms.
And yet the journey continues.
After another long day of driving, we finally pulled into Fresno, California in the late afternoon of the fourth day. We were absolutely exhausted, but the end was in our line of sight, and truthfully, we were getting kind of excited now that we were actually in California.
Come to think of it, Dad must have been given that advance – or was promised it, because that night we parked the truck behind the motel and went out for a proper dinner.
The next morning, as we approached the truck to load up for the last stretch of the trip, we noticed two things: 1) the aforementioned lawn mower which had been strapped to the top of the car was gone; and 2) whoever took the lawnmower also tried really hard to take our car.
For the love.
Welcome to California.
When we finally arrived at our destination – Vallejo, California – we moved into a cottage of sorts that someone arranged for us to stay in until we found an apartment. It was a tiny one-bedroom house that we filled to overflowing with ourselves and all of our things. We quite literally stepped on each other trying to navigate our way through the house.
But it felt a whole lot better than the cab of the truck where we’d spent the previous five days.
At least we were somewhere.