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Drive, Daddy, Drive

Desiree Cooper

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Papa's got a brand new car
(Courtesy Desiree Cooper)
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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)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Renee H

    From SoCal, CA, 07/03/2008

    My dad turns 80 this year. He, my mom and my three siblings would pile into a car, I remember a green Pontiac station wagon, and head to Temple TX (his home) then Iota LA (her home). We'd pack food that didn't spoil - fried chicken, bread, whole fruit because he wouldn't stop. My parents would take turns driving. My mom, who passed away in 2006, was light-skinned and to an unknowing person might look white or Mexican. For this reason, my dad always had his pistol under his seat. We would get a stern talking to before the trip began. If there was trouble, be quiet. Let Daddy talk. If he had to get the pistol, get down on the car floor. If we get out of the car, don't speak to anyone unless one of them indicated it was okay. I don't remember any problems, but I do remember once my dad went into a restaurant to ask if we could be served a meal and the person inside told him to inquire at the back door. Other than that, I remember fun times, singing songs, having time to talk to my parents who worked very hard when we were at home, and anticipating the visits to our extended family.
    Thanks for the great story.

    By Kristie White

    From VA, 06/30/2008

    Wow...this is amazing to hear and be able to see history. Des you have done an "awesome" job making history reality and sharing the memories with us.

    By Roz Fehr

    From Reston, VA, 06/30/2008

    Your story was quite moving for me and it reminded me of many trips I took back in the 1960s and 70s with my family. I am African-American, too, and my father is a retired letter carrier. Every two years my mom, dad, two sisters and a brother took a long trip in conjunction with the Letter Carrier's national convention. My dad was always a delegate from his union local.
    The convention was a week but we sometimes would take two weeks driving to get there.
    One exception was 1964. I remember going to Miami on the train from Kansas City so we wouldn't have to drive and find a place to stay or worry about where to eat.My dad decided that.
    On another trip, a long trip from Kansas City to Boston, when we drove East, we drove far into the night sometimes, or slept in the car until go to a place where he made a reservation.

    My father alway planned ahead and made reservations at Holiday Inns. They must have been one of the first motel chains to desegregate? I never remember being turned away from one.

    Anyway, I loved hearing your father on the tape. My dad just turned 90 and he has the same quiet dignity.He took care of us, shielded us from as much of he ugly stuff as he could.
    And because of that I remember what we got to do as a result of those great driving trips. Walking along the Charles River in Boston, climbing the steps in the Statue of Liberty, seeing the Washington Monument glowing in tghe night-time sky night, gaping at the immensity of the Grand
    Canyon. That is what I remember, and that is because my father protected us from the ugly stuff. And because of that, I have nothing but fond memories of the trips and a love of travel that my husband and shared with our son. I will always be grateful to my dad for that.
    Thanks for such a poignant story.

    By John Starbard

    From Kirkland, WA, 06/30/2008

    Ms. Cooper's story was captivating and meaningful in many ways, and it was told beautifully. She and her father gave us a considerable amount to sort through on a Saturday afternoon. Yet I was moved also by the poetic moment her father gave us when he described the feelings and the sights of starting out on the road in the earliest hours of the day. His imagery conveyed the expansiveness of the awakening horizon and the cool, smooth freedom of the expansive Buick. Those few words were as majestic as the distinctly Americn chords of Aaron Copeland, and it was elegant.

    By G. Baines

    From Petersburg, VA, 06/29/2008

    Thanks for sharing some of your family values, these values are needed so much today.

    By eileen yoffe

    From baltimore, MD, 06/29/2008

    Desiree Cooper's interview w/ her Dad & story of her family trips was one of the most touching and heartbreaking I've heard. I was in college in 1971 and to think that other Americans were suffering the effects of segregation that recently made racism come alive for me. I was also very touched by the apparent quality of Ms. Cooper's family life which it seems sheltered her from what could have been the otherwise devastating effects of that racism. Her success as a radio program co-anchor speaks well of her family experience.

    By manuel moreno

    From La mirada, CA, 06/28/2008

    thank you for sharing a wonderfull story. I am a father and can wait to share special moments with my kids.

    By RC Williams

    From Chicago, IL, 06/28/2008

    That was such a beautiful gift to share. Thank you for such an incredibly personal story.

    Family vacations are still some of my fondest memories and the curtains in windows of the station wagon are wonderful; we had the same.

    thank you for the memory

    By Cindy O'Reilly

    From Monrovia, CA, 06/28/2008

    Thank you for sharing your story with us. I listen to NPR and am tempted to respond to stories all the time, but this is the first time I immediately dropped what I was doing to post a comment and thank you. Your Dad sounds like a wonderful human being. I am embarrassed and ashamed of the white folks who acted with such stupidity then. I think we've all come a long way, but this reminds me that there are still people alive who have very vivid memories of this intense racial segregation. Your Mom and Dad did a great job getting you kids through that period by keeping the positive memories stronger than the negative ones. He reminds me of my white Dad. Just a good, gentle family man.

    By Larry Lane


    What a great story, great family, and great car -- my hat's off to Ms. Cooper's dad! One of my fondest memories is a cross-country trek to Fort Sam Houston in a new '66 Pontiac hardtop with my wife and 2-year old daughter, and quiet sunrises en route.

    By mark bell

    From Chicago, IL, 06/28/2008

    Very nice piece....I've been spending time with my 96-year-old Dad and this was a nice way to introduce him to my Saturday routine. It had been years since he heard anyone mention the "Green Book" which was the "roadside Bible" of the Black traveler in the days of Jim Crow. He was most tickled about the comment about how the mere act of passing a White motorist on the road could be viewed as an act of aggression or defiance.

    My personal recollection of road travel in the late 60's and early 70's includes my first true encounter with racism in, of all places, Central Illinois. En route to Ohio we stopped for breakfast at a Holiday Inn and was forced to wait for seating since the "Colored Section" was full. To the eyes of an precocious, city-born eight-year-old it did not make sense that there were no seats on one side of the restaurant while the majority of the "other" side featured several vacant booths. When I pointed this out, you would have thought that my voice of innocence would have stopped a clock. The frazzled manager diffused the situation by seating us as quickly as possible and sending us on our way. Needless to say, may parents spent the next fifty miles drilling on the ways of the world outside of my big-city experience.

    By Wanda Way

    From Grass Valley, CA, 06/28/2008

    My family enjoyed 1960's road trip vacations from California to the South to visit my mother's family. While listening to Desiree Cooper's description I realized how different my family experience was. We dove about unimpeeded because we are white.
    My southern uncle told me about a black boy who was lynched in a big tree because he got off the bus in a "white" town. It happened in the 1940's. I remember thinking that "the south" couldn't possibility be part of America because I went to school with black kids and we were taught American values. Thank you Desiree for sharing your insights from your family road trips.

    By Katie Ball

    From Orlando, FL, 06/28/2008

    This was a tremendous piece. I loved the quiet, poignant tone and I really connected with it on a number of levels despite having a drastically different relationship with my own father. Can't really give higher praise than that! Ms. Cooper covered a lot of ground without ever rushing, without ever preaching and it was a pleasure getting to know her a bit better. Looking forward to more...

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