Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Becoming Memory" Flash Essay Series

The High Lonesome Sound
In the early days of our family when it is just me and no car air conditioning, my parents drive all night through the Southwest to escape the heat of the day. It’s the beginning of the aerospace industry, and my father follows the jobs around the country with his GI Bill engineering degree—Riverside, Long Beach, Norfolk, Maryland, and eventually Cape Canaveral. We’re in some kind of Chevrolet coupe, of course, second-hand.  That’s what he always drives. In later years, I’ll associate the rounded lines and grinning grills of the early 1950s models with the possibilities of family.
In the mornings, we pull into a motel where I amuse myself with books and dolls while they sleep. My mother wakes late morning and takes me to the pool so my father, the driver, can get a few more hours’ sleep. After lunch in the car, he’ll tell jokes and sing loudly in what he calls his “whiskey tenor.” “When the moon hits the eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore,” he sings, never finishing a whole song.
We drive through the afternoon and evening, the desert landscape rolling by. After a long sunset, the funnel of the headlights reveal just what was necessary to know of the road ahead. My parents talk through the night quietly or not at all, my four-year-old self witness to this dashboard light intimacy.
Eventually I climb into the rounded window shelf above the back seat, just cozy enough for a small child,  and hypnotize myself with the passing lights that fade away into the darkness as the radio plays softly and my father sings along from time to time. Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Flatt and Scruggs, music that is always best with a bit of nighttime static behind it conveying great distances, distances traveled and those left to go.
I’m too young to understand the situations they’re singing about in those songs, but the music tells me everything  I need to know. The “high lonesome sound” drifts around the car while the hot air pours through my father’s window, his elbow languishing on the door. The singer’s plaintive story-telling, the dobro’s call, the pedal steel guitar pulling long and low, the fiddle alternating between joy and sorrow—this is life, I come to imagine, or at least my father’s idea of life. I learn about loneliness and longing and loss, real or imagined, from that radio. I hear how they wrap around each other in harmony and travel with us through the hot night on invisible waves of air. 

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