My father drove the 600 mile round-trip every weekend.
“It was 1960,” he says, fiddling with the woodstove. “Mumma and I had been married a couple of months, and 600 miles a weekend is small potatoes when you’re 21 and in love.”
He pokes at an unruly log, steps back to consider the flames. The darkness presses against the windows of their garage/extended living room, a clean, comfy space with carpet-remnant flooring and hand-made, wood-scrap cabinets. I pull the crocheted afghan closer.
“Chandler, Minnesota, was down in the southwestern corner of the state – over by Pipestone? – an area far too far from my bride, but what could I do? Uncle Sam needed me.”
He sighs. “Highway 23. Every weekend, Highway 23.”
He chuckles. “Of course, I had to be careful. We’d go out on the weekends, sometimes I’d even play in that little three-piece I was a part of in them days. I’d be lucky to get more than five, six hours of sleep the whole weekend.”
“Paul!” my mother shouts from inside the house. “Are you telling stories again?”
He winks at me. “No, mumma,” he calls.
My father wanders over to the fridge. “So anyway,” he says, “come January, I think it was, I get caught in a blizzard.” He looks over at me, visibly calculating my age. “You want one?”
I nod, and he grabs two beers.
“This was a real blizzard,” he says, popping the can open and handing me one, “back when snow was snow and the roads weren’t always plowed.” He takes a deep pull from the can and frowns. “My 300 miles back to the Air Force base – a trip that should’ve taken maybe four hours in that Rambler I had – was pushing on to seven.”
He takes another drink from his beer. “Eventually,” he says, “I was forced to stick my head out the window, just to keep myself awake. Of course, then I was pulling icicles from my eye lashes, but it beat the alternative, if you know what I mean.”
I do know what he means. I nod and take a drink.
“Of course, you can only stick your head out the window so many times before even that doesn't do the trick; and I’m realizing that I haven’t seen another car in almost six hours when up ahead of me, way off on the horizon, I see a shape.”
He wanders over to the woodstove, opens its door. A roaring fire lights the bottom part of the room. A cat wanders in and flops on to its side, yawns lazily.
He pokes the fire, throws another piece of scrap wood in.
“This shape,” he says, shutting the door, “is getting larger, and I’m thinking ‘what is this’? I mean, it doesn’t seem like a car or a truck to me.”
He sits down in his chair, a recliner, puts his feet up, retrieves the beer can he left sitting on the end table.
“And it gets larger and larger, until suddenly I see what it is.”
There is silence. The fire in the woodstove crackles energetically.
“Well?” I say. “What was it?”
“It was a hand,” he says. He looks at me, eyes narrowed, nodding. “A hand. A hand shot down the center of the road, palm out, and commanded that I stop.”
The cat leaps into my lap. “ A hand,” I say.
He nods. “A hand.”
I smile. “So what did you do?”
He slaps his thigh. “What did I do?! Well, I did what you do when a hand flies down the center of the road at your car! I stopped!”
It is silent again.
“I pulled over,” he says quietly. “Turned the car off, pulled a blanket over me and slept.”
He takes a pull from his beer.
“Slept almost an hour,” he says. “Too cold, of course, with the car off, but you can’t sleep in a driving snow with your car running, it’ll kill you.” He stops. “You know that, right? That you can’t sleep in a car while it’s snowing with the car running?”
I smile. “Yes, Dad,” I say.
He nods. It is his duty to remind his middle-aged daughter of the dangers of covered tailpipes, of unrefrigerated potato salad and playing with matches.
He stares toward the wood stove. “That hand saved my life.”
I smile toward the wood stove. “It wasn’t an actual hand, though, surely,” I say.