During the summer of 1948, young Jack Fisher assumed total control of his life. Emancipated, and hard headed, he had just turned eighteen. Like so many of his generation, he profited from his parents having survived the Great Depression, but as of yet, his capacity for resilience and self-sufficiency hadn’t been tested.
His parents celebrated the Great Depression, as a time of challenge, challenges met and overcome. The need for dogged thrift, and the lively remembrance of the 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 strong sense of insecurity and a need for possessions. His principle inheritance, therefore, was tied to the price of gasoline, sugar, navy beans, fig bars, and gingersnaps. Even with the advent of better times, they were driven by the memory of hard times; and from an early age, Jack knew that one day he would try to escape.
He didn’t want to be like his pop and waste his life pumping gas. He talked of becoming a bum, which particularly 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. 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 the constant traffic of U.S. Route 40, Margo waited for her turn, when she too would leave, but felt hampered by limitations placed on her by her sex. On the other hand, she had her imagination and used it to go places and to get to know people. She liked to talk to strangers, and by doing it she hoped to find someone who had met her brother.
She pictured Jack traveling the length of Route U.S 40, back and forth, beckoned on by the Burma-Shave sign sequences and welcomed by the familiar flashing, pulsation signs that blinked “eat,” “drink,” and “sleep.”
Such were the ironies of life, that it was, in reality, his dad’s own 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. The boy knew that it had been a pretty harrowing time; but how could his dad really speak about how he felt about plunging his bayonet into a man’s body, or the helter-skelter spilling of blood. Pardon this sin of omission. Rather than the almost total destruction of Manila, he preferred to downplay the horror and dwell on his fondness for leggy stage performances and those places where the bitterness of the war could be momentarily forgotten. He was very taken by the Filipinos and the emotional reception they gave. They were so much more musical than the people he knew in Indiana, while the same melodic and rhythmic variations were sung and played. “Aloho Oe,” as he stood and clapped in speechless gratitude.
From the very outset of her patronage of the art scene, Margo was honest enough to admit her roots. Choosing Chicago had been deliberate. Pragmatism ruled her thinking. With family near, if the sweet life turned sour, she could always return to her small hometown. To, therefore, openly 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 most essential for her to keep in close contact with her family.
Accordingly, her passions were kept in check by fear; that meant she never followed her brother. His occasional letters spawn the idea that he lived a life filled with exotic adventures, 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 allowed her imagination free reign. She spent hours daydreaming and calculating how to travel on a shoestring. She imagined meeting a decent headhunter, or without a guide penetrating the Amazon. More than once, having packed a duffel bag, she found herself hesitating and then gravitating towards Chicago. Thus, she became more and more interested in choices that included the son of an Italian immigrant and enthusiasm for art and poets.
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 the constant traffic, the signs and the telephone poles and be amazed by a landscape of pastures and trees, to detect creosote between telephone poles and catch the dim trajectories of birds high in the sky, all of that took an artist’s eye. The very bleakness of the gas stations and motels, the use-car lots and trailer courts stimulated her.
By the 50’s, to attract motorist off the newly constructed freeway, her father ranchified their gas station. This expense generated new business, but in no way could he compete with the big truck stops of major oil companies. For the first time, Margo’s mom didn’t have to help with the business. Since she didn’t have to work anymore, she could keep an immaculate house and could concentrate on her soaps; so during those years, she lived a dream of being a full time housewife.
Consequently, the utterly familiar lost its charm. So unhappy she was and ignorant of the reasons for her malcontent that she often became irrational and irritated. She held onto her feelings of animosity. Depression debilitated her, and Margo was given the run of the house. Margo’s mother recalled nostalgically a simpler time, when outdoors didn’t mean a parking lot, an auto junkyard, or an endless series of billboards.
To cheer the teary-eyed woman up, Margo engaged in non-stop chatter. This turned into long rambling stories and gave the girl a reputation for being windy. It was true that she already had a whole host of imaginary friends. And she had been on many imaginary adventures. Yes, it was true that she reciprocally trained fleas and cockroaches for her mother. Her mother’s acceptance of her circus would always be remembered as a triumph. There followed battles over opening the windows, which was compensated by an invasion of no-see-’ems. Here was an idea, which, 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. Of course, the girl hoped she could give her mother ample reasons to clap and laugh.
Margo took her mission, therefore, seriously. Before the opening of the first McDonald’s or Disneyland, she turned their couch into a ride on top of a beetle, a ride through a jungle, or so that she and her mother could journey to Borneo, or sail the South Seas…. through many countries, friendly and hostile….through harbors and up rivers, spending many hours imagining future horizons….following railroad tracks and tramping across the country, wading streams, riding elephants, or camels, or even 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. What did Indiana mean to him? How could he have run away? 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 ferocious conflict with her peers, she was labeled a misfit. Then she turned to making music and writing poetry. In the spirit of Swinburne, and the decadence of another century, a poet was born. 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. With respect to her poetry, 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 the thing, which set the state apart from neighboring Chicago. The curses and the vices of the city were well documented.
Now, the 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 to continue. Hence, Margo’s mother worried about her daughter’s fall from Grace. It became particularly upsetting to her whenever she heard the words slut and tramp used. So, to stop the finger pointing, she stopped the girl from seeing her best friends. Almost up until she graduated, the poor, 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 also changed. As the town 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 had to rely on service. That meant his customers demanded that he open and close the station. Yes, in order for his standard of living to modestly grow, he had to spend 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 cold and uneasy jealousy griped Margo’s mother. For the loss of her youth, and the obvious imprudence of marring young, she secretly kicked herself.
Jack’s dad, yet again, had to enlarge his business. This included an office and service bays, a larger display room and larger storage spaces, room for the sale of tires, batteries, and accessories. Some stations, owned by major oil companies, were bigger. They had simply replaced old stations with little more than huge canopies, but he held on by pouring more sweat into his business.
With this 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 the age, he fought gas wars with his prices announced on billboards. He won these wars by undercutting the competition, but was overcome over the loss of a son who left in the middle of a church service.
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 would open 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 could communicate reams without saying much. No formalities were ever exchanged. Had Jack stuck around he would’ve become 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 they’re own 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 the farmers and the relationships they had with their sons. He saw their obvious 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.
After Jack ran away, his father’s tolerance for wholesomeness diminished. His contempt and anger also grew and was projected onto the farmers’ sons. From merely looking at the two young men, his resentment grew. It began to poison him, a reaction that was unfortunately unfair. With these feelings came an increased awareness of the past.
Thoughts about the passing of his own youth made him long for his son; memories from his own 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 much attention to his son.
He no longer had Jack to go coon hunting with him. 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 the weather might get bad and the snow fell and where there were a lot of trees and you could catch stragglers before they could run and hide and to know what a good coon dog was all about. Now that was what Jack’s dad’s had in mind.
Throughout those long months of fearing the worse, and during this crisis filled with self-incrimination, was exactly when the rest of his family needed him the most. He could’ve taken Margo fishing and, instead of buying his wife the newest and latest washer and drier, could’ve paid her more attention. That could’ve really been something that he could’ve been tickled and proud about.
Nevertheless, because of the worrying, many people who knew the family and of Jack’s disappearance, especially because of his efforts by distributing fliers and offering a substantial reward, could tell that the father desperately wanted to find his son.
He searched the cities and towns along U.S. Route 40 and never gave up. Thinking he knew his son, he thought the boy wouldn’t go too far, he, in those first days, drove west as far as Terre Haute. He asked at every gas station, restaurant, and grocery store. He followed every lead and prayed that something dark and sinister hadn’t occurred.
To him his wife seemed occupied and ill at ease. To have asked more of her seemed like too big of a deal. As far as she was concerned, she felt useless. She viewed her husband as an unemotional person and could only hope he would someday change. In her mind, their failure was a typical failure, as typical as anything she had ever seen on television. The lack of excitement in her life was a well-established fact, rooted in pretended happiness. All the searching he therefore did he did alone. He felt obligated to protect her from each disappointment.
But then, as he crisscrossed the state, he began to accept his son’s disappearance. He came to the conclusion that it was natural for a young man to seek his independence. Having grown up in a community nurtured by a national highway, with this road stretching clear across the country, the final attraction for his son had to have been San Francisco. Whether you’re talking about the 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 seemed to lead to Indianapolis, Indianapolis where a changing skyline was synonymous with prosperity, and where anyone skilled at gamesmanship could still become an entrepreneur. Indianapolis had all of the incentives, 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.