Drive, Daddy, DriveJUNE 28, 2008
- Papa's got a brand new car
- (Courtesy Desiree Cooper)
- View the Slideshow
- Rudy's Barbershop
- New Langston Hughes Poems Discovered
- Coming to America
- Weekend Soundtrack: "Shattered" by the Rolling Stones
More From Desiree Cooper
This summer, we've been bringing you stories about discovering America the old-fashioned way: the road trip. Weekend America co-host Desiree Cooper recalls the many trips she took with her father behind the wheel, and the lessons she and her brother learned from the back seat as the countryside sped past:
I'm a military brat. In the summertime, my family crisscrossed this nation often as we traveled from bases in Colorado, New Mexico or Florida to my parents' hometown in Virginia. We mostly made those trips in our two-tone green 1954 Buick Special. Dad loved the chrome. It was the first new car he ever owned.
"To get it in and drive off the lot -- it was like, 'Wow, this is my car, and it's smooth and a good ride,'" he says about it now. "Roll all the windows down and it was just like a convertible, you know. So it was cool."
I remember my brother Bill and I playing "I Spy" with the license plates on those trips. I remember my father pointing out the cliffs in West Virginia, the oil wells in Texas or the rushing Mississippi and saying "Son, that's a dangerous thing," to my brother. My father seemed to love those trips more than any of us.
"Driving is moving in a sense of comfort, security and carefreeness," Dad says. "If you leave a place early in the morning at the break of dawn, that's the best time. Everything is sleeping and just beginning to wake up. You see a car here, you see a light over here. There's a sense of peace and tranquility over the whole city."
But it wasn't always peace and tranquility. We were a black family often navigating the South in the mid-'60s. "Now, ah... There were some logistical problems associated with traveling for black people" -- that's how my father describes the problems we faced on the road.
It's just like my dad to call racial segregation a "logistical problem." It was much more than that. Driving across the country meant going without basic necessities. My brother and I would sleep in the back seat of the car, while dad and mom would sleep sitting in the front seat.
And as for the bathroom? "You don't get a shower," dad tells me. "Push come to shove, you go into the colored bathroom -- that's your choice. Unless you get fed up and... go down the road another 20, 30 miles until you come to a rest area. And find a way to use the bathroom or wash your face."
Both of my parents had grown up with segregation. But it was another thing entirely to drive through towns where you had no way to know who was friendly and who wasn't.
Thomas Sugrue is a sociologist and historian who has written about driving, race relations in the United States and the touchy road etiquette for black drivers. He explains how African-American drivers prepared for long-distance trips: "A savvy traveler would have had a copy of their Green Book for motorists, which is the guidebook to hotels, restaurants and other accommodations that were friendly to African-American travelers."
Even the rules of the road were different: "If an African American passed a white person, that could be perceived as a racial slight," he says.
There were times when we risked getting a hotel for the night. Like in 1963, when we were driving through Louisiana. It was getting dark. My father saw a gas station beside a motel and pulled in.
"When I was pumping the gas, I looked in the window of the motel," Dad remembers. "Big sign said 'vacancies' and there was an attendant standing there looking out the window. When she caught my eye, she turned away. So I go there, and before I could open that door, the 'vacancy' sign had been turned around. No vacancies.
"But I went in anyway and said I want to get a room. She said no vacancies, I said sign said there was -- you just turned it around. I just turned around and left. And I was wearing a uniform. When I traveled, I always traveled in the United States Air Force uniform because that's going to give me an advantage. They could see I was serving my country. I thought it would be an advantage -- but it was not an advantage."
How does a man remain a man when he's treated that way? My father kept his dignity by remembering his responsibility to the family -- and by getting back into his car. "The security of the car was something that gave you a sense of equality," Dad says. "You didn't worry about who was out there because you had your family, and as long as they're safe, the world is irrelevant."
But it wasn't irrelevant. It was real. I remember our last trip across the country. It was 1971. We stopped at a diner in Little Rock. They didn't want to seat us. Our hot chocolate was tepid with hard marshmallows floating on top. It was so humiliating, we left without eating our food. I asked my dad how he felt about that moment. How did he deal with it?
"You're confronted with undesirable experiences, but you're already conditioned to..." was his answer.
What I'm really trying to ask him is, why didn't he do something? I'd seen him stand up for himself and us hundreds of times before. Why not then? He doesn't give me the answer I want. Instead, he talks about how he and mom were always in control of the situation, of their feelings.
That's when I realized: He wasn't trying to be a freedom fighter in those moments. He was there to look out for us. In his mind he did do something -- he kept his cool. He got us out of there without incident.
I ask him what he thinks my brother Bill and I learned from the back seat on those trips. "I think that you got a sense of togetherness, a sense of family," he answers. "I think that you got a sense of responsibility. You didn't get in that car and expect your mother to drive. You expected me to drive, and that was instilling in you the concept of what a father is supposed to do."
My dad is almost 74. His eyesight is failing. Yet this summer, he talked about driving from Virginia to New Orleans for our family reunion. I talked him out of it and made some plane reservations instead. Each time I do that, I know I'm not just robbing my father of a leisurely road trip. I'm robbing him of the dignity he feels when he's behind the wheel. I'm robbing him of being my dad.
- Music Bridge:
- Butteryfly Effect
- Artist: Dave Douglas
- CD: Keystone (Greenleaf)