We're driving home from the Airport. It's late August, a few weeks before the start of school. Heat waves shimmer above the black top in the distance. Huge clouds, that look more like foam on a beach than clouds, appear on the horizon. My Sister Michelle, my brother Pat, Dad, and I, are in the car. He drives slowly home. I am maybe 9, 11 at the most. A lot of my memories of my father are of him sitting behind the wheel of our car. Most of our conversations took place like that. I'd watch the side of his face for a clue to his mood. Smooth and solemn was normal, but crow’s feet spreading across his right cheek were preferred. Today, he's not only smiling, but trying to control his laughter. We're driving back from O’Hare Airport just outside of Chicago. The circumstances of what-for and why, have been lost to memory. More than likely we went to watch planes land. We did a lot of that growing up as a family. We went to Navy Pier in Chicago to see the giant cargo ships. We went to a railroad yard to watch freight trains from a run-down bridge, that we lovingly nick named, "the rickety old bridge". Trust me, this was good entertainment back then. Standing on a bridge held together with little more than warm tar, and a soft blacktop surface, as we watched slow-moving engines shove empty box cars around in the heat, was a perfect day.
We pull up to a stop light. The windows are all rolled down, just like most of the cars around us. That stands out in my memory. You could be at a red light and a complete stranger would be a foot away in the car beside you. They'd turn and smile, or simply just nod. You could hear the radio station they listened to, catch a bit of conversation, or make awkward eye contact - all without glass between the two of you. We tend to think of the world as being a little smaller when we were young. I once went back to my grade school after being in Junior High for just a year. I walked into the gym and was stunned at how small it had become. I think this is different. The scale and pace of life was both smaller, and more open back then. I can't explain it any better than that, either. I fear falling into nostalgia, but I clearly remember a freedom back then that's been traded for iPhones, rolled-up windows, and everyone staring at movies running on little screens. When I imagined the future, I pictured everyone somehow more close, more happy, more perfect. I never saw that all these devices would isolate us in the midst of each others' company.
My sister holds a squirt gun in her lap. It's a square angular thing with the words, "quick fill cap" printed on the side. Super Soakers were still a decade or more away: this model, with a large screw-on cap that could easily be held under a faucet, started the squirt gun arms race that ultimately lead to those, I guess.
We are all struggling to keep straight faces. She raises it slowly to the lip of the window, waiting for the light to turn green. It’s an eternity. A childhood's worth of Christmas morning expectation crammed into a minute. The light turns green; my sister raises the gun slightly above the window, aims at the driver in the right turn lane next to us and pulls the trigger three times before lowering it again. The cars around us move forward, but as we do, we see the driver reach to his neck and then look out the window in bewilderment.
It is supremely funny to all of us in the car.
What makes it more than just funny is my Father being a willing accomplice. At first my sister hides it from Dad. When she gets caught, he does the responsible parent thing of warning her about how someone might crash. 'Course, he says all this with a smile. This was also before road rage stories flooded our urban legends and evening news. This was still completely innocent. At the next light, he points out an open window. When we realize he's giving us permission, a thrill goes through the three of us. Dad is in on it! We promise to only do it at stop lights and not while the car is moving. We pull up to the next light and this time, I'm handed the water pistol. The driver sits shirtless in his wreck of a car, Rush or some 70’s band pounding from the stereo. My Dad can’t do it, so I get in position from the back seat. It will be a tricky shot. I aim just as the light turns green, and try to hit him diagonally through his open back window, from my open window behind my Dad.
“It pulls a little to the left,” my sister advises me. I crouch down. The “target” is air drumming, his head going up and down in time to the music. Again, the wait feels impossibly long. My brother is giggling next to me and my dad is whispering to “…be quiet.”
The light finally flashes green. I aim and squeeze the plastic trigger. The first shot misses.
“To the left!” my sister says, a little loud.
I correct my aim and the next two streams of water hit him behind his right ear and shoulder. Even as we pull away, none of us can help busting up. He goes into a fit, thrashing around to find the source of water. Cars behind him begin to honk. As we pull away, he sees us cracking up. We hear the start of what I can only assume is a "fuck you!" That makes us laugh harder.
For the entire two hour ride this is what we did. Like bank robbers, we perfected our technique. Dad would even slow down to make sure we would hit red lights. He was the getaway driver every time.
When we pull onto the little street we live on, we're disappointed it's over. I didn't know that the moments like this were coming to an end. In a few short years, I wouldn't want to be caught dead with my Father. The ability of fun to stop time, completely, for an afternoon, would happen less and less too. Those massive, billowing clouds that would collect in the corners of the Midwestern summer sky, would lose their fascination for me. Looking at trains, planes and ships would be lame. But for that afternoon, everything felt as if everything was where it should be. It was perfect.