A MAN OF SPEED by Peter Nolan Smith

Father’s Day has complemented Mother’s Day since 1910, although the holiday remained unofficial for decades and most Americans treated Father’s Day as a joke, until LBJ proclaimed the Third Sunday in June as Father’s Day. Richard Nixon made it permanent six years later.

“The only thing I get for Father’s Day are bills,” my father said at a dinner on that day in 1971.

He was right, even though I recall giving my father a tie on several Father’s Day.

After I passed the legal age for drinking, he received a bottle of wine, which we drank together with my mother.

He was lucky, because most fathers get nothing for Father’s Day.

1 in 6 according to one survey.

Of course some fathers were total bastards and none of their kids celebrated Bastard Day.

My father was a good man. He raised six kids the best he knew how and I loved him for his many sacrifices to better my life.

Some of them were in vain and my father liked listing my failures on various occasions. The list rarely changed from time to time.

“You’re sloppy with everything. You traveled the world like a tramp.”

“Our family traveled the world. My great grandfather had died in a ship wreck off Rio.”

“Their travels had purpose. You were just a hobo.”

It was the truth and I accepted his accusations without any defense.

After my mother’s death we flew to France, Ireland, Utah, the Olympic Peninsula, Montana, and Wyoming for long road trips.

My father was an excellent driver, but his foot was heavy on the gas and we argued about his speeding. He was never wrong and refused to give up the steering wheel in fear of having to permanently surrender his license.

One of our last trips was to Quebec.

“Why Quebec?” My father usually picked our destinations.

I told him about the Manicouagan crater.

“It’s the largest ‘visible’ impact crater on Earth. It hit the earth over 200 million years ago.”

“And we want to go there why?”

“There’s nothing like it in the world. I tried to get there in the winter of 1991.”

“There are two seasons that far north. The season of good driving and the season of bad driving.”

“It’s definitely bad driving north of the border. ” I had been willing for continue north, however my English friend Philippe had been an illegal alien and had refused to cross the border. “I turned back at Fort Kent.”

“And you want to go now?” My father was increasingly more comfortable staying at home

“It’s almost always day that far north. No snow either.”

“I don’t know if I’d like the endless day. I like my sleep.”

“Me too, but we’ll have a good time.”

“Doing what?”

“Driving, playing cards, eating good food, and drinking wine.”

“Okay.” My father was an easy sell and two weeks later we headed north from Boston.

July 2000 was a warm summer, but his new Mercedes had superb AC. We reached Quebec City in one day and stayed at the Hotel Frontenac in Quebec City, where we dined on crepes and sipped white wine overlooking the Plains of Abraham.

“Our ancestors fought with the British under General Wolfe.”

“I know.” I was a registered Son of the Colonial Wars.

“So if we won that war, why don’t they speak English?” He was talking about Les Habitants.

“Because they’re French.”

“They’re not French. They’re Canadian, which is almost American.”

“They don’t think that.”

“That’s, because they’re too stupid to know when they’re beaten. You know our ancestors fought here with the British under General Wolfe.”

He had a new tendency to repeats things.

I played my part and said, “I know.”

The waiter arrived before we had to relive the previous dialogue.

Having lived in Paris, I ordered the wine in French.

The waiter ignored me and my father told him, “I want a Mer’Lot.

It was one of his favorite jokes.

The waiter laughed in anticipation of a good tip.

My father would not disappoint him.

“I thought you could speak French.”

“The Quebecois speak an ancient Gallic dialect.”

“And you speak French with a Boston accent?”

“Maybe I do.”

“You know our ancestors fought here with the British under General Wolfe?”

“I know.” I sighed knowing I had not heard the last of General Wolfe.

We finished a second bottle of wine and he told the waiter, “We’re going to see Lake Manicouagan.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s the biggest impact crater in America.”

“Okay.” The waiter shrugged with the same smirk everyone wore on hearing our destination.

“No one seems to be impressed with Lake Manicouagan,” my father commented, as we took the elevator to our floor.

“That’s, because none of them have ever seen it.”

“A big rock in the middle of a lake hundreds of miles from anything.”

“Exactly. We night be abel to get there tomorrow if we drive fast.”

“Fast?”

“100?”

“Why not?”
“You keep saying that.”

We entered out home and he fell asleep searching the TV for WHEEL OF FORTUNE. I read Kenneth Roberts ARUNDEL about Benedict Arnold’s invasion of Quebec. Our ancestors had also fought in the Revolutionary War. I put down the novel and shut off the light. Tomorrow we had an early start.

The following dawn we skirted along the northern bank of a foggy St. Lawrence. My father was behind the wheel. The shore was dotted with fiords and falls. Whales gathered at the river mouths. I snapped pictures.

“Can you stop a minute.”

“What for?”

“To take a picture of a whale.

“If you’ve seen one whale, you’ve seen a thousand.” He stepped on the gas.

“I’ve only seen one and that was off the coast of Hawaii.”

“Your great-grand-uncle killed whales.”

“Aunt Bert’s father.” She had lived to a 103.

“Her father slaughtered a blue whale for her eighth birthday.”
“I know. Maybe she saw hundreds, but I want to see one closer.”

“If you’ve seen one whale, you’ve seen a thousand.”
p>Traffic on the North Cabot Trail was light and my father enjoyed flying at 110 MPH on the empty road

“Why are you in a hurry?”

“I want to watch WHEEL OF FORTUNE at the motel.” He enjoyed this simple pleasure, even if his show was in French north of the border.

“Baie-Comeau is only two hours away.”

“You been here before?”

“No, but our ancestors fought under Wolfe in Quebec.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Nothing.”

“As usual.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that you wasted your life.”

“How?”

“I can’t begin to count the ways, but there was the time you drew submarines on the bedroom walls and set fire to the woods.”

“I’d didn’t do it.” My older brother Frunk was a pyromaniac. I was simply his acolyte.

“Then who did?”

I said nothing and my father put on a classical music CD. Mozart filled the silence to Baie-Comeau, where the road turned north to Lake Manicouagan. We stopped for the night at a small hotel overlooking a crystal blue bay. We were a mere two-hundred miles for the crater.

After signing in, the manager asked where we were going.

“Lake Manicouagan.”

“Why?” He regarded us with bafflement. “There is nothing there.”.”

“It also has the biggest impact crater in North America.”

“And also biggest Maringouin in Quebec.” The manager shrugged with a smirk.

“What’s Maringouin?”

“Mosquitoes, but savage mosquitoes.”

“How savage?”

“You’ll see in Lake Manicouagan.”
W

We ate fresh salmon in a small restaurant, where the locals sat outside eating corn around a bonfire. We returned to the hotel and I opened a cold bottle of Frontenac Gris. The two of us admired the glow of the near-endless light of summer, although the stars were fighting to be bright through clouds of merciless mosquitoes and blood trickled the bites on our heads.

“You still want to see Lake Manicouagan?”

“It’s only two hundred miles away.” I held the map, which was useless for killing the swarms of mosquitoes.

“On a dirt road.” My father was from Maine. He knew dirt roads.

“With bigger mosquitoes than this.”

I slapped my forehead. A glut of blood dripped on my shirt.
“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Me too.”

We retreated inside the hotel room and finished the wine. My father watched his show. His snores kept me up until midnight. I fell asleep reading ARUNDEL. Kenneth Roberts failed to mention mosquitoes, because Benedict Arnold had invaded Quebec in the winter.

Early the following morning I examined the bites in the mirror.

“What do you think?” My father was scratching at his lumpy skull.

“We’re so close. It seems a shame not to try for it.”

“There’s nothing there, but more Maringouins.”

He was right and I agreed that the vicious mosquitoes would drain our veins like vampires.

“So what now?”

“There’s an ferry crossing the river at 8am.”

“How far?” He checked his watch.

“Thirty miles.”

“Let’s go.”

My father never dropped below 100 and we made the ferry in time for the 8am crossing.

I spoke with several travelers about the drive to Gaspe.

They warned against speeding.

My father ridiculed their advice.

“I’ve been driving over sixty years and never got a speeding ticket. Not like you.”

“It’s a miracle you haven’t.” My last moving violation was on the Mass Pike for driving 85 in a 65 zone. The year was 1975.

“Not a miracle. Just good driving.” He exited off the ferry like he were chased by clouds of bebittes, which was another Quebecoise word for mosquitoes. I supposed they had more.

Towns were clustered closer together on the south bank of the St. Lawrence. My cautions about his speeding were dismissed by his nasty rancor and he swore at me for opening the map.

“It doesn’t matter where we are. Only where we are going.”

“I want to stop and see the sights.” The chances of my coming this way again were nil.

“There’s nothing to see, but trees and sea.”

My father motored past every stunning vista with a vengeance. He was the captain. The Benz hit 90. No other car came close to that speed. I studied the long straight-aways with binoculars and spotted a police cruiser in the distance.

“Slow down. There’s a cop car coming.”

“Slow down for what?” All he saw was open road.

“A cop car.”

“So what?”

“He’s going to stop us.”

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” My father had never used that type of language with me or anyone else.

Something was rattling his brain.

The police car passed us, then 180ed in pursuit. The siren was loud and the light were flashing.

“He wants you to stop.”

“So I’m stopping.”

He pulled off the road and recited a list of my many sins; not delivering my newspaper route fast enough, losing a scholarship to high school because I didn’t believe in God, getting arrested for a high-speed chase, drugs, drinks, and not giving him grandchildren. If that provincial trooper hadn’t knocked on the window, my father would have covered my every trespass since birth.

Worse his accusations were spot on target.

“So much for not getting a speeding ticket.”

“Like always you don’t know shit.” My father put down the window.

“Why are you talking like that?”

“Like what?” He didn’t hear the words and put down our windows.

The hills to the south were covered with a pine forest. The air smelled of cut wood. Somewhere men were working lumber. My grandfather had put himself through Bowdoin College chopping trees in the northern woods.
The trooper asked for my father’s license and registration in Quebecois.

“Is there something wrong, officer?” My father respected the law.

The officer said in French that he had radared the car at 90.

“Le Limite de Vitesse est 60. I will have to take your father into custody.”

“Really?” I asked in French. “Cuffs and all?”

“Oui.” He was dead serious.

My father smiled with a practiced innocence.

“So if you arrest him, you’ll take him which way?”

The officer pointed in the direction of Gaspe.

“Excellent.” I figured booking and arraignment was a two-hour ordeal and I could use the break.

“What if I pick him up in 3 hours?”

“We are not a baby-sitting service.” He didn’t want the responsibility of a man in his 70s and said, “I will give your father a warning. No ticket.”

“C’est pas vrai?” I was disappointed by his decision to let off my old man.

“Roulez moins vite.”

“Yes, officer.” My father understood that he was supposed to drive at a slower pace.

The officer returned to his cruiser and wheeled away from us in the opposite direction.

My father smiled with satisfaction.

He pulled off the shoulder and was soon up to 90.

“I told you that I wouldn’t get a ticket.”

“You told me a lot of things back there.” I slinked into the seat defeated by his escape from justice.

My father talked of our watching bears eat at the town dump, a vandal throwing a rock at our station wagon at South Shore Drive-In, and my coming home late after a night with Janet Stetson. I had been 15. My father had picked me up at 3 in the morning.

“You hit me.”

In the face.

“You should have called home. Your mother was worried.”

“Sorry.” I had said it then and I said it now.

“Save your sorry for hell. You sinned with that girl. You didn’t care about anyone. All you cared about was sex.”

This turn in the conversation was as unexpected as a verbal barrage of curses.

“You’ve been a bum all your life. You should have been working. Instead you traveled the world. To do what? To be a bum.”

“Mom said I was her eyes and ears on the world.”

“Only a mother can love a bum.”

“You can’t talk to me like that.” I had worked all my life but not as a member of the 9-to-5 society.

“Why? Can’t you stand hearing the truth?” His face was red.

“Stop, Dad.” I was worried about his heart.

“I don’t have to stop. This is my car. I can say whatever I want, you dirty bum.”

The speedometer was at 100.

“Maybe you can, but I don’t have to listen.”

“Then you can get out of the car.”

“With pleasure.”

My father stomped on the brakes and veered onto the shoulder.

“Get out of the car, you bum.”

“Pop the trunk. I want my bag.”

“Get out. Now.”

I obeyed him and stood on the asphalt waiting for him to tell me to get back in the car.”

Instead he hit the gas and drove east.

He had a funny sense of humor, but the Mercedes disappeared over the next hill.

“Damn.” I tried his phone with my cell. There was no service. This was not a joke.

I had the binoculars and a map.

I was two miles from Mont-Louis. The another road cut south from 132. Either way I was over forty miles from Gaspe. I stuck out my thumb. No one stopped for hitchhikers in the 21st Century and I started walking east.

Ten minutes later a provincial cruiser stopped on the shoulder.

It was the same officer from before.

I explained what happened and he said in Quebecois that driving long distances with family was a little like ‘le fierve noir’.”

“Black fever?”

“Qui, cabin fever.”

“Vous avais raison.”

He told me to get in the cruiser and we rode to Gaspe at 100 mph. No one drove slow this far north.

“What make you so sure he will be there?”

“He will be there.”

“You don’t know my father.”

“Peut-etre, but I know Gaspe.”

We topped a rise and below us lay a stunning archipelago of jagged rocks dotting the boreal blue Atlantic.

“Gaspe.”

I spotted my father’s Mercedes before a small restaurant overlooking the bay.

“Bonne chance.” The officer left me and cruised back west.

I entered the restaurant. My father was sitting at the window. A glass of white wine was in one hand and a photo of my mother was in the other. He lifted his head and said, “Your mother would have loved it here. You know she said you were her eyes and ears on the world.”

“I know.”

I sniffed the air.

“What’s that?”

The waitress said it was a bouillabaisse of wild salmon, native oysters, and fresh shrimp.” He signaled for our server and said, “Deux plates du bouillabaisse.”

Neither of us had tasted anything better and we drank two bottles of Seyval Blanc toasting my mother, our family, the Red Sox, and traveling the world.

The day lingered long in the northern latitudes and we walked along the cliffs of Gaspe in a shimmering dusk.

There were no mosquitoes.

“Sorry about before. I’ve been losing my temper without any reason these days. Must be getting old. Whatever I said I didn’t mean.”

“I know.” My fight with him had ended decades ago.

“You’ve been a good son.”

“I could have been better.”

“Everyone could have been better. We can only do what we can do. Nothing more.”

It wasn’t an apology.

We knew each other too long to need those.

It was more a passing of the baton.

He was old.

I was 51, which is closer to 80 than 20.

“I wish your mother was with us.”

“She is, because I am her eyes and ears.”

My father pressed his hand into my shoulder.

“Maybe next year we’ll get to Lake Manicouagan.”

“Mom would like that.”

“I know.”

He had loved her more than us, because she loved us all more than she loved herself.

That evening I kissed my father’s head before going to bed. The face mirrored mine.

“You know our ancestor fought the French?” My father shut his eyes.

“A long time ago.”

Tomorrow we would drive to Maine.

My sister’s camp on Watchic Pond was 500 miles away. We were both at home on the lake.

My father would do the majority of the driving through the endless forests of New Brunswick and the potato fields of Aroostock County.

Those roads had been built for a man like my father.

He drove fast and even better he didn’t get tickets.

One Comment

  1. RAY
    Posted November 10, 2015 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Peter.. I enjoyed the story..please keep writing them and i will keep reading them..Your Dad was a Cool Guy..I Like when you write about family and friends and Your life experiences..It makes me both happy and sad.. Peace My friend.. Ray

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