I don’t know whose idea it was to run Nebraska east to west, but they would have had second thoughts if they’d been stuffed with my dad and I inside the dusty cab of his ’68 Chevy pickup in the blistering hot August of 1972, bucking across the heart of America along I-80 on our way to the glorious mountains of Colorado. It’s just so long run lengthwise like that.
It was my twelfth summer and Gerald Ford was president and gas cost fifty-nine cents a gallon. The latter two of those things mattered to my dad, but the only thing that mattered to me was those distant Rocky Mountains and the streams that tumbled out of them; streams that my little mind imagined were just brimming with big trout, each one finning patiently in the frigid current and waiting for my well-presented imitation fly.
But here we were stuck in Nebraska at 55 mph, and Nebraska wasn’t much better than Iowa, which was yesterday, and baking in that hot sun and staring out the window at endless rows of corn this little kid from Connecticut started to doubt Colorado was real and worried maybe this whole dream fishing trip thing was just hot punishment for not cleaning his room.
We stopped in North Platte so my dad could see the railroad station, which he had last visited on a troop train during WWII on his way to the Philippines where he would get malaria and sleep lightly because the enemy was sneaking around in the jungle with knives.
While in that little prairie town we happened upon a magical old hardware store — my father flits around hardware stores as a moth flits around a barn floodlight. Dark and brooding and wonderful, with creaky floors and aisles rimmed with stacks of wonderful stuff right to the ceiling. I headed for the small fishing and camping section while dad roamed in search of an oil filter. And there I found it: the world’s most amazing slingshot. It was called a Wrist Rocket, and I immediately fell for the hype on the packaging.
My attempts at making homemade slingshots were always somehow disappointing, inaccurate, and hurt my wrist — the whole Y-shaped-stick-and-rubber-
bands thing; but this engineering marvel promised to be the sling of my dreams. I imagined soda cans crumpling and springing up from stumps as if blasted by a bazooka. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, but eventually I heard dad’s shouts bouncing off the towering rafters of the old store and so I ran toward him and when I found him I began to chatter on about the Wrist Rocket. But Colorado was just 80 miles away, he said, and he had his oil filter and his sights set on a mountain sunset; and so he steered my scrawny shoulders with his big hands out of the store and toward the truck, despite my scuffing sneakers and pleading complaints.
And so westward we chugged, the interstate stretching ahead, a ribbon of shimmering black leading to the hoped-for purple mountains of the true west, even though I was quite sure they weren’t there…and I couldn’t get that magical slingshot out of my head. I was quiet and pouty and I slumped against the door and when my dad asked me if anything was bothering me I shrugged and said, “I just wish I could have shown that slingshot to you. It was so neat, Dad.”
That old Chevy had no air conditioning and even with the windows rolled down the heat just pumped in in waves and the endless road hummed underneath us and soon I drifted off into a sad, sweaty sleep, my shoulder bumping against the doorpost.
I awoke as I heard and felt dad downshift, the old truck growling and rumbling and leaning in a long arc down around an exit ramp. The centrifugal force tipped me back upright and as I looked out the bug-streaked windshield I didn’t quite understand what was going on. The sun seemed like it was on the wrong side of the truck now and the town we were coming into looked oddly familiar. My first thought was that Colorado looked just like Nebraska and that Nebraska looked an awful lot like Iowa and that all these western towns were just copies of each other and I had so wished for more. After a few turns down side streets my dad crunched the truck to a stop in the gravel in front of an old hardware store that looked just like the one we’d left an hour before.
Then I knew. Can still see dad smiling. Can still feel his hands on my shoulder as dad steered me back up the front steps and held open the big door.