January 20, 2003

Somewhere Near Shelby

You are here. The point of the red arrow marking your spot puts your existence into the context of space... in a department store, on an interstate system, amongst the sameness of unfamiliar city streets. If you don't know where you are, it's darned hard to figure out how to get where you're going. Fortunately, most of us, most of the time can say where we are. But exceptions happen. Here's our family example.

Our fledgling teenage son had been granted the keys to the car. How was Nate going to 'grow up' if we didn't let him stretch his wings, we said, as we debated the merits of him taking the longest car trip alone in his short driving career. He assured us that even though he was going to the next town up the interstate fifteen miles east of us, a route he barely knew, he would be following so-and-so who lives over there to the party. Not to worry. He'd be home at 11:00.

By 11:15 Ann was wringing her hands. It was winter late on a Sunday night. It was raining. And now it had become a darker and more foreboding world because our sixteen year old son was fifteen minutes late. He had always been good to call if he would be late. I feigned interest in a magazine. Ann made no pretense of normalcy and was well into the "what if's" that mothers do so well, some better than others. Soon it was almost midnight. No call and the silence was painful. Time rose around our feet, trapping our moments in a viscous swamp of uncertainty and concern.

RING! Instantly Ann had the phone. It was Nathan. I watched her face for signs of relief; her brow stayed furrowed, her voice lifted a bit perhaps, but still tense. The friend that Nate had followed up the interstate was going to stay late, so Nate, wanting to get home as promised, struck out in his car alone, to retrace the way over that he had taken a few hours earlier. Somewhere he must have missed his way to the interstate with all the new construction. And it is this part of the story I'll never forget. Ann wishes that I would.

"Okay Nate. Thanks for calling us. We're glad you're okay. Now, where are you?"

There was a pause at the other end. "Uh, see, that's just it. I don't know. I've been driving and driving, I don't have any idea what direction, and there's like nothing out here anywhere. I just pulled off on the side of road to call you." His cell phone promised to drop our frail connection at any second. "How do I get home from here?" he asked, expecting a nugget of fatherly wisdom as a quick fix.

And here's where maternal impulse rushed warp speed past logic. There is an unwritten policy that during times of great crisis in our family, to just do something, anything, and do it now!

"Go find him!" she wailed. "Fred get dressed right now and go find our boy!" and she began forcing me into a shirt as she pushed me half-dressed toward the door.

Now the last thing I wanted at this moment was to appear calmly rational and thus be accused of being uncaring and indifferent to the catastrophe du jour. For reasons I don't understand, reason and parental protective impulses are seen through some eyes as being two problem-solving philosophies that are diametrically opposed. (The 'Mars and Venus' thing really stands out prominently at times like this.) I tried to find the right words to say to her to make her understand that if I didn't know where to start looking, my chances of finding him were gonna be pretty slim. He'd come home, and then I'd be lost. That somehow didn't seem like much of a solution to our problem.

He had not seen any road signs other than little county roads. I told him to drive until he saw a hiway sign with a number he could tell me, and I could find it on the map. This would at least give us a reference point. We waited an eternity for him to call. "I'm on hiway 17". North or south, he hadn't a clue. Either way, he would come to an intersection eventually and then we'd have something. We waited forever for him to call back.

"I'm at the intersection of 17 and 10 and a sign says "Shelby 5 miles". We waited another eternity for the next call. He called from Shelby from a diner. He had clear directions, plenty of gas, was charged now with adrenalin like we were, and would be home in 45 minutes. This brief period of parental terror was going to have a happy ending after all.

The story ended but it has never been forgotten. Like many family stories, it is ripe with allegory and symbolism. When Ann calls and asks me how my day has been, all I have to say is "I think I'm somewhere near Shelby". She knows what I mean. And I say it a lot these days.

Posted by fred1st at January 20, 2003 06:15 AM | TrackBack

Beautiful, harrowing story Fred.

Made my palms sweat thought my child is still just eleven and not driving yet. We live in Houston, so letting her drive even a noderate distance by herself will involve the infamous Houston Freeways...

And know what you mean about the Mars/Venus thing. Heidi both admires and villifies my ability to show rationality in midst of wrenching crises.

Posted by: Cody at January 20, 2003 10:51 AM

For Christmas, I drove the 4 hours home - it was the first time I've ever driven back, and to make matters worse, I was driving alone. Dad said Mom hadn't been able to sleep for three nights (which might not entirely have been a joke)! He'd drawn me a map, so I didn't get lost. Huzzah for dads!

Posted by: irene at January 22, 2003 05:31 AM

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