Road Tripping: Southern Comfort

Part 10 of a series. Road Tripping

Destination: Manhattan, Kansas (39° 11’ 0” N  96° 34’ 18” W)
via Nashville, Tennessee (36° 9’ 57” N  86° 47’ 4” W)

Origination: Atlanta, Georgia (33° 44’ 56” N  84° 23’ 16” W)

Traveling Party: Jennifer, Terri (Jennifer’s college BFF), Troy (Terri’s younger brother), Rick (Terri’s ex-Army, reserve police officer boyfriend)

Date: July 1992

My friend, Terri, was a History major at Kansas State and did a college summer internship at Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee. Her boyfriend at the time was living in Nashville doing training with the Metro Nashville Police Department. Always up for a road trip, Terri’s brother, Troy, who was the same age as, and a friend of my younger brother (who couldn’t join us because he was enduring “Beast” training after entering the Air Force Academy after his high school graduation), and I decided to make the trek to Tennessee to pay them a visit.

We left Manhattan early in the morning, made a quick stop to do the Chevy Chase “Don’t you want to look at the Grand Canyon?” tour of downtown St. Louis and the Gateway Arch, and arrived in Nashville late in the afternoon. I’m not sure what glitch in scheduling made us decide to leave that same night for a planned side-trip to Atlanta for a Braves game, but we did. Even though Troy and I had driven for 12 hours straight.

Terri drove a red Dodge Daytona, which was a cool car, but the prospect of squishing into the tiny back seat of a tiny sports car for another four hours didn’t thrill me, so I volunteered my car for the trip. I drove a 1984 Buick Century. I always liked that car, but it had been in my brother’s hands for the better part of a year while I studied abroad in Germany. When I retook possession of it when I returned, it just didn’t seem right. I still have no idea what he did to it, but I maintain that the complete engine overhaul needed a few months later was NOT my fault.

So we drove into the humid, moonlit southern night, and behind the pine tree obscured interstate exits, I discovered the awesomeness of 24-hour fireworks emporiums, which are like Costco, Vegas and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. I’d never before or since seen a roll of firecrackers 20 feet in diameter and four feet tall. We stopped at a motel somewhere outside of Atlanta, and despite oversleeping the next morning because we didn’t realize we were in the Eastern Time Zone, we had a great time at the game.

Fulton County Stadium was not located in the best part of Atlanta. We parked somewhere overlooking some housing projects and when we returned to the car, it would not start. It was hot, we were thirsty, and there was really nowhere to go. Rick looked at the engine and tried to diagnose the problem. I think he came to the conclusion it was a radiator issue and he tried to cool it down and add fluids. At some point I sat down in the backseat and saw something wrapped in a towel. I lifted the towel and there was a very shiny 9mm gun.

I hate guns. It’s probably somewhat irrational because I’ve never shot one and don’t really have anything against law-abiding citizens who own them, but as a personal choice I would never allow a gun in my house. So even though a trained (or in training) police officer and former member of the military was the one who had the gun with him, and had it sitting there, presumably because he was intimidated by our surroundings, it still made me quite nervous.

Eventually we got the car going again and headed back to Nashville. We stopped to check out Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, and the car labored going up some of the steeper grades. If a patient performed that poorly on a cardiac stress test, he would be going in for an angioplasty the same day. But we made the car keep on going. One of the more disturbing things that happened to Terri while I was away in Germany was her acquisition of a taste for country music. On the trip back the song Achy Breaky Heart Billy Ray Cyrus was the hottest thing on the radio airwaves. I think she may have even brought it along on cassette. So that was…interesting. We did make it back to Nashville, and it seemed to be doing all right if we remained on flat surfaces.

Troy and I spent the next day visiting Terri’s plantation and then seeing the sights around Nashville. And then it happened. The car just stopped. In the middle of a busy intersection somewhere in Nashville. It wouldn’t turn, it had no power. Somehow we managed to push it into a nearby muffler place. Some good ol’ boys were at the helm, took a look at it and offered, “We kint do nuthinwititheer. Y’allneedtoseethem Peyup Baws crowsastreet.”

Say what?

After having him repeat himself at least three times, we finally understood that he wanted us to take it to the Pep Boys shop on the other side of the highway. I’m pretty sure Jane Goodall had an easier time communicating with chimps in the jungle. Once we got the car to the Pep Boys they gave me an estimate that was in the high three figures. No small sum for a poor college student. So naturally I rang up the ‘rents and asked them what I should do. I’m not sure if being stranded four states away from home made the conversation easier or harder, or made my parents that much more pissed at me or that much more sympathetic towards me. Either way, I ended up charging it. And then sent the bill to my mom.

They did something to the power steering and the thing was mobile again. We said our goodbyes and headed home. The air conditioner gave out somewhere around St. Louis, which is really the last thing you want on a hot and muggy summer day in Missouri, but like Lewis and Clark, we soldiered on. We were very fortunate to have cloud cover on that long trek across the Show-Me State and beyond.

Troy and I never traveled together again. Terri and Rick broke up several months later. When the engine of my car blew a head gasket, my mom blamed me, but I know it was Chad’s fault. Chad got his a few years later when his hand-me-down car melted down and made other-worldly noises in the middle of Denver. The Pep Boys went national. I’ve still never touched a gun, but I wish I could get a hold of some of those fireworks now. Billy Ray Cyrus faded into obscurity until his daughter, Miley, became kind of a big deal.

© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2011

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