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A long road ago

My boyhood was highlighted by an epic adventure that reoccurred once in every two months. This was when Dad and Mom loaded everything in the car, including me and Pat, our Boston bull terrier, and set out from Indiana for the distant country of Kentucky. That's where my folks had roots, and at least six times a year they were drawn by the old sod just as surely as moths are drawn to flame.

As we pulled away from home, I settled down in the back seat of the '49 Windsor Chrysler, I was armed with comic books (Bugs Bunny, Superman, Plastic Man, Captain Midnight and yes, I should have saved them), potato chips and candy bars. As the car eased up Fourth Street Hill, which later became Highway 41 through some sort of miracle, my nose was pressed against the left window and Pat's against the right. All through the journey we respected each other's territory except for the times she snoozed with her head in my lap.

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Suddenly the buildings fell away. The Chrysler's fluid drive effectuated a smooth change. Gears meshed, the journey was happening. As we crawled over the green countryside, gradually escaping the pull and the rank sweetness of the Wabash, I liked to imagine that I was an intrepid explorer in quest of new lands. I was Balboa or Cortes or DeSoto, looking for oceans of gold or new empires!

But first, of course, we had to get Romney and Crawfordsville out of the way. Then the journey really began. Suddenly Fincastle fanned out on either side of our ship. To the prosaic eye it was just a little cluster of gas stations and clapboard shacks, but my heart pounded as we sailed through. I knew what it was , if all the rest of the world were ignorant. It was the point of no return!m Fincastle would yield to Greencastle, and after that: Gosport, Bloomfield, Loogootee (pronounced GOA- Tee) and all those dim lands in the southern latitudes, where probably we would be set on by brigands. Who could guess what we might run up against in Schnellville, if by some chance we made it that far? shudderingly i drew Pat close, and swore to protect her as she licked my nose.

When fantasies of swashbuckling began to pall, I watched little rain drops that spattered the windshield. They were fat, and exploded with dear little plops. I liked to put out my hand and feel the burgeoning moisture. By the time we reached Spencer (where the weather was warm; I fancied they were prey to tropical storms down there) I was reduced to counting the oncoming cars and being a sportscaster. "It's a '47 Studebaker, folks! Look at that nose, it's really a Studee. That makes the score Chevy 17, Ford 12, Packard 2, Hudson 1, pickup trucks 12, clunkers 8, Dodge 3, Studebaker 1. This game is not over by any means! Ford will never give up!" However, Chevy always won, and I generally gave it up long before we got to Rockport near the Kentucky border.

The Burma-Shave signs were always fun. These were little quips printed on four signs that appeared perhaps a mile apart, whose purpose was to persuade male motorists they ought to be clean shaven. SHE WISHED TO BE HELD/SHE GAVE A WHISTLE/BUT SHE WAS REPELLED/ BY HIS AWFUL BRISTLE and then, another mile down the road, the triumphant last sign: BURMA SHAVE! I thought this was great poetry.

And more than Burma Shave signs i remember the people whose images were projected through the windows. These were Indiana folk who flourished in 1948. They were among the first people that I ever observed systematically, though with a boy's eye, and I shall retain their aura for the rest of my life.

There were the farmers. Middle aged men with bib overalls and blue shirts, who stood in their fields and wiped away sweat with the backs of their hands. The corn was tall and straight and waving in the stiff breeze. But the farmers, who were apt to be short and bent, did not bend. Their feet were planted in the ground, and I in my passing ship felt strength exude from their pores along with sweat. Once a farmer waved at me as i was whisked along on Highway 41. I waved back eagerly, and kept him in my field of vision till we rounded the curve. Then for some reason that i didn't know I pretended that part of me stayed with him on the land, and that part of him came with me in the purring Chrysler.

And there were women. They exist this moment just as I first perceived them during these Marco Polo days. Indiana Woman, as I saw her all those decades ago , was brave, implacable, not to be withstood. She was attached to the land as surely as were the gigantic stalks of corn.

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Children teemed. In the little towns they rode on Schwinn bicycles, in the field boys went barefoot or shod in sturdy clodhoppers. I saw a girl my age in Jasper who was wearing a blue frock. Her light brown hair sort of rippled in the warm breeze, and I had no way of understanding that I would pay her the compliment of remembering, all these years afterward, that she was beautiful. There were boys who were digging a well with their father on a tiny farm near Huntingburg. One sat astride a massive plough horse and threw a desultory salute whan i waved frantically.

And suddenly the sun was declining to my right. We shot through Rockport and darted acros the flatlands toward the Ohio River, and Kentucky. There was the country where i was born, and how it tugged at my spirit. Western Kentucky! All these long years afterward, when I have seen so very much of the world, i can't think of that patch of country, with its strip mines and piney woods and steep hills, without a deep stirring that is surely of the soul.

If I close my eyes, it comes to me the way it was at the end of a Marco Polo day. Red clay that stretches from Owensboro to the banks of the Green River . . . the headlamps of my father's powerful ship burning brightly as we crept cautiously along the narrow snake of a state highway . . . hills and woods, a stream, a few little shacks and sheds known as Punkin Center. At the end of my journey I was utterly untired.

We drew up at Aunt Kate and Uncle Ebb's house, just over the wooden bridge. Hot biscuits and fried chicken waited for us, and fried potatoes and gravy and fried apple pies. Pat leaped and bounded and raced down a ravine. My folks were tired, but happy smiles lit their faces as they felt the caress of the country that spawned them.

In a few moments i was racing down the holler, looking for Dan jones and Norman Logsden. I wonder where they are today.


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