Thursday, February 6, 2014

The long drive home

The horrific weather we've all endured lately has kept most of us worrying about furnaces and water lines, shoveling both new and drifted snow, and digging deep in drawers and closets for long underwear, thick gloves, wool socks, and warm hats and scarves. But there's one thing I haven't had to do. Something I am, by the way, entirely grateful for.
I haven't had to go to work. Or go much of anywhere, really.
While most schools have cancelled during the worst of the weather, that's not the case for a lot of businesses and other workplaces. So many folks have had to hit the road in weather and conditions that have been downright dangerous.
Life threatening, even.
And while I admit I've felt a little guilty padding around in my jammies and slippers when others are out braving the elements, I know one thing.
I've paid my dues.
I commuted from Galva to Peoria for almost 25 years, long before we owned any kind of four-wheel drive vehicle and, for most of the time, well before cell phones came into common use. I clearly remember nights filled with dread as forecasters predicted snow, ice, wind and sub-zero temperatures, knowing full well that I'd have to go unless the roads were officially closed by the authorities all the way to the Peoria city limits, no matter what. This was especially true in the first job I held in the big city, a copywriting gig at a Peoria advertising agency.  The two guys who owned the place seemed kind of wary about my decision to commute from Galva, rather than immediately pick up and move to Peoria, thinking, I guess, that I might not be entirely committed to the busy days and nights that often accompany life in the ad biz.
So they made it clear they expected me to be on deck bright and early each morning, and equally available for the client dinners, long meetings and stuff like nighttime television shoots that often occurred after regular business hours. That first winter on the job could easily have, as I recall, been known as "the year of the never-ending ice storm," with steady occurrences of ultra-slippery glare conditions that turned the roads between here and there into an absolute, terrifying nightmare.  I would leave early in the morning so as to safely crawl the fifty miles to downtown Peoria, and arrive with white knuckles, stomach cramps and a blazing tension headache. Once I finally got there, I'd feel almost normal for awhile. But by mid-afternoon, I'd start stressing out all over again as I worried about the drive home.  My kids were just itty-bitty boys when I started my long-term commute, but before you knew it, they started growing up, which meant all the more reasons to want to head home at night, as they got heavily involved in sports, music, theatre and a zillion other activities. By the time they got into high school, the number of events increased even more and the travel times grew longer. Much longer.
I learned that the journey from Peoria to, say, Joy, Illinois (the home of the now-defunct Westmer High School, where both boys competed back in the day) is approximately equivalent to the trip between the earth and the moons of Saturn.  i discovered that nearly every little town that hosts a small high school, a gym and a football field, is kind of hard to get to, especially when you're running late from the start. But most of all, I realized that the drive was absolutely, positively worth it, whether I was racing to make the opening kickoff at some far-flung high school field, or just heading home for a rare quiet evening with my family.
My work friends were amazed that I kept making that 50-mile drive, year after year.
Sometimes, I was, too.
I still remember being surrounded by a loose herd of cattle on a lonely country curve, or the time an overanxious young buck bashed into the side of my car, then scrambled back to his feet, gave a snort and leapt over the nearest fence with wings on his feet and love on his mind. I remember close calls with fast-moving thunderstorms, swirling white-out squalls and the black skies of tornado alley. And an April night when a late-spring blizzard trapped a bunch of us along highway 78. We sat for a couple of hours as the deep, wet snow piled around us until, finally, a truck at the head of the pack decided to give it a try.
A bunch of us followed, busting through drifts and spinning up hills all the way to the LaFayette turn. All the vehicles except that one big truck stayed straight towards Kewanee.
He turned west, and I followed.
But when we got to LaFayette, he turned off.
I was alone.
Absolutely alone.
I'll never forget the drive the rest of the way home that night. The drifts were so high they literally broke over the hood of my car.  The soft, sloppy snow provided very little in the way of traction, as I spun and slid and slipped my way down the lonely road.
Finally, finally, finally, I saw something in the distance.
The lights of home.
I still remember the waves of relief that washed over me as I pulled in the driveway that night.
I opened the door, slammed it behind me, and kicked the snow off my shoes.
"You O.K.?" she asked.
"I am now," I said.
"I'm home."

1 comment:

  1. You know John, isn't it strange, that just yesterday I was thinking about you. And I was thinking exactly what you wrote about today. It is strange. I was thinking about your commuting to Peoria...I didn't know about the trips to ballgames etc. but that goes with the kind of life we live as parents. Our daughter was involved in sports for at least 6 years and we were never home from Sept. until way into May. So glad you persevered. But, as they say, we were younger then. Best to you and Megan.