U.S. ROUTE 40
by Randy Ford
During the summer of 1948, young Jack Fisher assumed control of his life. Emancipated, and hard headed, he just turned eighteen. And like so many of his generation, he profited from his parents having survived the Great Depression, but he hadn’t been tested. He didn’t know how strong he was or if he could live on his own.
His parents celebrated the Great Depression, as a time of challenge, challenges met and overcome. The need for thrift, and the remembrance of days before the war when people managed on cream and egg money, times when his mother and dad exchanged butter and eggs for kerosene and gas and called it even, led to a sense of insecurity and a need for possessions. Jack’s inheritance, therefore, was tied to the price of gasoline, sugar, navy beans, fig bars, and gingersnaps. Even after things improved, they were driven by memory of hard times; and from an early age Jack knew that one day he would escape this. He had to escape this.
He didn’t want to be like his pop and waste his life pumping gas. He talked of becoming a bum, which irritated his folks. He was also particularly good at exasperating Margo, his younger sister. The most tragic event of her young life came when Jack disappeared without taking her with him. He ran away without warning her. He could’ve at least warned her. They were close, yet he ran away without warning her. No sister could’ve hoped for a better brother, which made life without him more depressing. She told her friends that he died of cancer.
Teased by constant traffic … traffic of U.S. Route 40, Margo waited for her turn. She too would leave, would leave as soon as she could. As soon as she turned eighteen, she left home. She marked the date on a calendar but felt hampered by limitations placed on her by her sex. Unlike Jack, she felt hampered by her sex. But she had imagination and used it to go places and to get to know people. She liked to talk to strangers, and by talking to strangers she hoped to find someone who had seen her brother.
She pictured Jack traveling the length of Route U.S 40, back and forth, beckoned on by Burma-Shave sign sequences and welcomed by familiar flashing, pulsation signs that blinked “eat,” “drink,” and “sleep.”
Such were the ironies of life, that it was, in reality, his dad’s Asian experience that fired the boy’s imagination. Dangers not spoken of or exploits spoken of in almost a flippant manner, Jack’s dad tended to gloss over the reality of war. Jack knew that it was a harrowing time for him; but how could his dad talk about how it felt to plunge a bayonet into a man or seeing the helter-skelter spilling of blood. Pardon this sin of omission. Rather than the destruction of Manila, he preferred to downplay horror and dwell on his fondness for leggy stage performances and those places where the bitterness of war could be momentarily forgotten. He was very taken by Filipinos and the emotional reception they gave. They were so much more musical than people he knew in Indiana, while the same melodic and rhythmic variations were sung and played. “Aloho Oe,” as he stood and clapped in gratitude.
From the beginning of her patronage of the art scene, Margo was honest enough to admit her roots. Choosing Chicago was deliberate. Pragmatism ruled her thinking. With family near, if sweet life turned sour, she could always return to her small hometown. To announce her enmity toward her parents as her brother did seemed senseless; but, in hindsight, Margo later felt Jack said scurrilous things only to provoke their father and didn’t really mean them. Quite the opposite of her sibling, it seemed essential for her to keep in close contact with her family.
Her passions were kept in check by fear. It meant that she never followed her brother. His occasional letters spawn ideas that he lived an adventurous life, a life filled with exotic adventures, of a free spirit, who wore blue jeans and loose shirts that hid a money belt stuffed with a passport and $10 American Express traveler’s checks. As she read his letters, she gave her imagination free reign. She spent hours daydreaming. She calculated how to travel on a shoestring. She imagined meeting a decent headhunter or penetrating the Amazon without a guide. More than once, having packed a duffel bag, she hesitated and then gravitated towards Chicago, where she became more and more interested in choices that included a son of an Italian immigrant and enthusiasm for art and poets. They were her choices, not Jack’s.
Before Chicago, a highway best defined her life. In place of open land and sky, crickets and cicadas, there was a hodgepodge of contradictory visions. To see beyond constant traffic, signs and telephone poles and be amazed by a landscape of pastures and trees, to detect creosote between telephone poles and catch dim trajectories of birds high in the sky, all of it took an artist’s eye. Gas stations and motels, use-car lots and trailer courts stimulated her.
By 1950, to attract motorist off a newly constructed freeway, her father ranchified their gas station. The expense generated new business, but in no way could he compete with big truck stops of major oil companies. For the first time, Margo’s mom didn’t have to help with business. For the first time in her life she didn’t have to work. Since she didn’t have to work anymore, she kept an immaculate house and watched soaps. He insisted that their house be kept immaculate. It was only fair. He insisted on cooked meals, so between cooking and housework she watched soaps. So she lived a dream.
The utterly familiars soon lost its charm for her. So unhappy she was and ignorant of reasons for her malcontent that she often became irrational and irritated. She held onto her anger, her hurt feelings because her husband didn’t see her anger and hurt feelings. She didn’t talk about it. They didn’t talk. Depression debilitated her, and they didn’t talk about it while Margo was given run of the house. Margo’s mother recalled a simpler time, a simpler time when outdoors didn’t mean parking lots, junkyards, or billboards.
To cheer a teary-eyed woman up, Margo engaged in non-stop chatter. This turned into long rambling stories and gave her a reputation for being windy. It was true that she had a host of imaginary friends. And she had been on many imaginary adventures. Yes, it was true that she trained fleas and cockroaches for her mother. And her mother’s acceptance of her circus was always remembered as a triumph. There followed battles. They fought over opening windows, which was compensated by an invasion of no-see-’ems. Here was an idea, an idea that in its final stages grew into a three-ring extravaganza, with troops of trained June bugs, flies, spiders, daddy longlegs, katydids, hair bees, gnats, and dragonflies. Margo wanted to entertain her mother. She wanted to give her mother a reason clap and laugh.
Margo took her mission seriously. Before the first McDonald’s, before Disneyland, she turned their couch into a ride in the shape of a turtle, a ride that took them many places, through jungles and across seas. She also created rides in the shape of elephants and camels and birds. To Borneo, Hong Kong, Manila, except she placed maples and oaks in Borneo, ignored the hilly terrain of Hong Kong, and placed meadows of alfalfa near Manila.
So Jack, adios. To hell with Jack! But what did Indiana mean to him? What did his family mean to him? How could he run away? Look at all he missed. Margo’s wayward brother missed his sister’s adolescence, when she moved in a fast lane and gained a reputation for smoking and making out. Confused, and in extreme situations in conflict with her peers, she was labeled a misfit. Then she turned to making music and writing. In the spirit of Swinburne, and decadence of another century, a poet was born. And it embarrassed her plain-talking folks.
Margo sought controversy. Whenever possible, she acted outrageously. True to form she formed the Top Hat Gang, a circle of friends unto-themselves. That these girls weren’t pregnant amazed everyone. Unfortunately for Margo, her parents would’ve been happier with her having a child than with her proclamations of free love. In Indiana, family values were important, very important, which set the state apart from neighboring Chicago. Curses and vices of Chicago were well documented.
Now, ruin of more than one Church of God girl was reported from the pulpit. These grim lessons clearly illustrated what could happen if certain things were allowed. Hence, Margo’s mother worried about her daughter’s fall from Grace. It became particularly upsetting whenever she heard words like slut and tramp used. So, to stop the finger pointing she stopped Margo from seeing her best friends. Up until she graduated, the deprived teenager suffered the consequences, while her mother’s hysterics had little, if anything, to do with the Top Hat Gang.
Meanwhile, U. S. Route 40 continued to change. From an industrial base centered on grimy, smoke-belching, multi-storied, brick mills, such as once flourished along the river, to factories in prefabricated, horizontal metal buildings, Richmond changed. As Richmond changed from shopping at Greenfield’s to shopping at malls with acres of parking lot, families were irrevocably altered too.
To stay competitive, Jack and Margo’s dad relied on service. It meant he opened and closed the station. Yes, in order for his standard of living to modestly grow, he spent long days and nights away from his family. Human experience gives ample evidence of dads such as him, who would never deliberately be absent, but had to work long hours to make a living. Circumstances called for loyalty to his business. No wonder anger griped Margo’s mother. For the loss of her youth, and imprudence of marring young, she secretly kicked herself.
Yet again Jack’s dad had to enlarge his business. This included an office and service bays, a larger display room and larger storage spaces, room for tires, batteries, and accessories. Some stations, owned by major oil companies, were bigger. They simply replaced old stations with little more than huge canopies, but he held on by pouring more sweat into his business.
With a new and magnificent station, with full service and self serve, he started a new decade with great expectations. These he more than realized. Having the good fortune of having matured when opportunity existed on every street corner, and when rather like a comet the automobile epitomized an age, he fought gas wars with his prices announced on billboards. He won these wars. He won these wars by undercutting competition, but was overcome over the loss of a son who left in the middle of a church service.
Jack’s dad had a ritual. An early riser, Jack’s dad followed the same ritual most mornings. Before sunrise, along with two farmers and their sons, a truck driver and a policeman (all of whom he had known since childhood), he opened the Coffee Pot Restaurant. He always ordered the same thing: (you guessed it) tons of coffee and bacon and eggs. Here were like-minded men, who counted on each other. Besides a few words about grandkids, these friends communicated reams without saying much. No formalities were ever exchanged. Had Jack stuck around he would’ve been one of them.
Ted, Don, Max, and Ruby would be friends until the last two died off. In the Coffee Pot, even that early, there were always people coming and going, preoccupied with their activities, and blind to what other people were doing. But in this circle, feelings weren’t so well hidden: for example Jack’s father’s feelings of sadness and envy. With the loss of Jack, he envied his friends and the relationships they had with their sons. He saw their respect for each other, as shown to parents in earlier times, when boys and their dads went places together, which generally happened more on the farm than in the city. And he envied them for it.
After Jack ran away, his father’s tolerance for wholesomeness diminished. His contempt and anger also grew and was projected onto his friends’ sons. It just took looking at them, and his anger grew, anger and resentment grew. And it began to poison him. It poisoned him, and it was unfair. With these feelings came an awareness of what he was missing. .
Thoughts about the passing of his youth made him long for his son; memories from his childhood, of riding with his grandpa in an old wagon pulled by a team of mules, and of his dad shucking corn, it all hurt. It hurt to think that he had been too busy working to pay attention to his son.
He no longer had Jack to go coon hunting with. There was no one left to train his dogs. How much more could they have done together and taught each other? About the best places to go and the best weather for coon hunting: early fall when weather might get bad and snow fell and where there were a lot of trees and you could catch stragglers before they ran and hid and to know what a good coon dog was all about. Now that was what Jack’s dad’s had in mind.
Throughout long months of fearing the worse, and during a crisis filled with self-incrimination, this was when his family needed him the most. He could’ve taken Margo fishing and instead of buying his wife a new washer and drier could’ve paid her more attention. It would’ve helped them all. It would’ve been something that he would’ve been tickled and proud about.
He searched all cities and towns along U.S. 40 and never gave up. Thinking he knew his son, he thought Jack wouldn’t go too far, so he, in those first days, drove west as far as Terre Haute. He asked at every gas station, restaurant, and grocery store. He distributed fliers and offered a substantial reward. He followed every lead and prayed that something dark and sinister hadn’t happened. He did all this because he loved his son.
To him his wife seemed occupied and ill at ease. To ask more of her seemed too much to ask. So he left her at home. This made her feel useless. This made her feel useless and made her think her husband was an unemotional man. And she hoped he would change. In her mind, their failure was a typical failure, as typical as anything she saw on television. Her lack of excitement in life was well established and rooted in pretended happiness. How could he be happy when Jack was missing? All his searching he therefore did alone. He went alone to protect his wife from each disappointment.
But then, as he crisscrossed the state, he began to accept his son’s disappearance. He came to a conclusion that it was natural for a young man to seek his independence. He was sure his son ran away, but he couldn’t be completely sure. He kept hoping. Having grown up in a community nurtured by a national highway, with this road stretching clear across the country, San Francisco had to have been an attraction for his son. Whether you’re talking about trolley cars or the Golden Gate Bridge, here was a city that was more of a magnet than Indianapolis or Terre Haute. While at the same time, all roads in Indiana lead to Indianapolis, Indianapolis where a changing skyline was synonymous with prosperity, and where anyone skilled at gamesmanship could become an entrepreneur. Indianapolis had everything, from new buildings to opportunities any young person with ambition might’ve wanted, or as Jack’s father often said, “Indianapolis is a lovely city,” which he thought should’ve attracted his son and kept him close to home.