We conjure the past in the aromas of an exotic brew of memory and physical sensations. Every time I smell cookies baking in the oven, I think of my girlfriend when I was 16, back when dad was overseas serving a year-long hardship tour in Korea, and we lived in a rented house on the western edge of Leavenworth, Kansas. Her mother always had cookies in the oven, and she used to sit in a slat-back chair next to the open kitchen door, chain-smoking and fanning herself, trying in vain to escape the heat from the stove and the oppressive humidity that rose from the Missouri River like an invisible fog. My girlfriend’s name was Fawn, and the first time I uttered it in the presence of my mother, she winced. I took that as a signal to conceal the minor detail that Fawn’s father was a two-time loser doing 8 years for fraud in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, as I did the fact that she lived down on Osage Street near the river, where the kitchen was the only room in the house with an overhead light that worked.
I’ll never forget the night I took Fawn to the sophomore prom at Leavenworth Senior High School. At 16, I had a Kansas license to drive only until 9:00 p.m., so my mother had to drive us. We made the turn onto Osage around 14th Street, and by the time we reached 10th, she braked hopefully as we approached the best house on each block. By the time we passed 7th Street, she gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, and when she stopped at the broad north-south boulevard that was 4th Street, she asked impatiently if we had missed it. Squirming nervously, I told her to keep going. When we pulled up in front of the dark shotgun on the river side of 3rd Street, Fawn was waiting for us in a simple, floor-length sheath of pink satin her mother had hand-sewn from a Sears and Roebuck pattern she cut on the kitchen table. Fawn was at least an inch taller than me, and wearing low satin heels that matched her dress, with her hair done in a French twist, she was statuesque. Standing there on the rotting, falling-down porch of an unpainted shotgun house with hard-packed dirt for a front yard, she looked like one of those swans in a Tennessee Williams play who sweep through shabby rooms depending on hot air and feigned elegance to keep them afloat.
Fawn waved to us and stepped inside to tell her mother that we had arrived. As I opened the car door, my mother reached across the seat and grabbed my wrist. Mom’s face was drawn tight and drained of color. It was the first time in my life that I heard someone actually hiss, a form of speech I had encountered only in books. Listen to me. You are not going to marry that girl! Do you understand? Get that idea out of your head! I said something like, gee, ma, I’m only 16. I’m too young to get married, besides…
She interrupted me with another cat-like hiss and clutching my wrist, she said she didn’t care how old I was, I wasn’t going to marry that girl. Ma, her name is Fawn, I said. She tightened her grasp. I don’t care how pretty she is! Truscotts don’t marry Fawns!
Angry at her outburst and offended that she didn’t trust me — she didn’t even know me — I pulled free of her grasp and got out of the car. On the porch, Fawn took me around the waist and kissed me on the lips, right there in full view of her mother and my mother and the whole town. She smelled of fresh baked sugar cookies and carnations from the corsage I had delivered to her that afternoon. I kept my back to the street avoiding what I knew would be my mother’s disapproving gaze. Through the screen door, I could see Fawn’s mother in a zippered house-coat, puffing a cigarette. On the wall behind her glowed one of those neon beer signs distributed to delis and bars. This one advertised Coors with a back-lit photo-panel of a mountain stream. I could hear the whirr of an electric motor turning a set of plastic drums that made the water look like it was moving. I thought the Coors sign was cool, and Fawn’s mother told me she would give it to me when her husband was released from prison and they realized their dream of moving to Colorado. Fawn told me not to listen to her, that her mother and father had been talking about Colorado for as long as she could remember, and she knew enough by now to realize that moving there was never going to happen. Still, I coveted the Coors sign, and for years afterwards I looked for one like it. In 1972, I found its twin hanging as “found” art on the wall of one of the first galleries on West Broadway in SoHo in a show of neon works by Dan Flavin. The price was $1500. I was flush from a recent check from Oui Magazine, a lesser title in the Playboy tits and ass portfolio, and I thought of buying it to hang as kitsch in my loft on Houston Street. But then I thought of Fawn’s mother and realized that $1500 would have made her dream come true and set them up for at least a year, and I spent my Oui Magazine check on a stereo instead.
I ushered Fawn into the back seat of our 1955 Plymouth station wagon, her satin dress making a soft woosh as she slid across. She said something cheery to my mother, like, Hi Mrs. Truscott! My mother grunted in reply. Clutching my hand, Fawn exuded a stream of excitement, and wondered what all her friends would be wearing and how they’d done their hair and who was coming with who and who would be breaking up that night and who would end up with who by midnight. I listened to Fawn with one ear and waited for my mother to say hello to her with the other, and then I looked in the rear view mirror. She was holding her compact close to her face and executing some sort of elaborate make-up ritual with a powder puff which concealed a tiny piece of Kleenex with which she was wiping away tears. That summer we left for Carlisle Barracks, and I left Leavenworth with a broken heart and Fawn behind in the family’s shotgun with a broken heart, but the image of Fawn on the porch of that shotgun house, and the way she smelled, and the hiss of my mother’s voice, and the sight of her tears in the rear view mirror have stayed with me.
The past is a bicycle lying on its side in the middle of a grassy yard in a subdivision, a tattered net dangling from a basketball hoop, a combination lock like the one on your high school locker. The past buzzes and dings and thwacks in the flashing lights of a pinball machine and rumbles from the glass-pack mufflers on a flathead Ford. You can taste the past in an ice cold Coke straight from the bottle, in a squirt of mustard on a hotdog, in a schmear of cream cheese on a bagel. A past you never really knew can even be conjured from the whispered voices on the other side of a motel wall.
For most of us, the past is a place – your home town, the street you grew up on, your childhood bedroom, maybe the baseball diamond where you hit a little league home run, or the gym where you tried out for and won a place as a cheerleader, or the wooded lane where you had your first kiss. Places have power because we have put down roots there. Places define us the way terroire defines wine. We are where we came from.
But for me, the past isn’t the place I came from, it’s places I left – it’s the sensation being in motion: a blur of blue sky and blacktop un-spooling in a rearview mirror, the whoosh of wind past an open car window, the hum of tires at speed, the smell of oil and gasoline and asphalt and hot steel. The laws of physics apply: objects at rest tend to stay at rest; objects in motion tend to stay in motion. We were always in motion. When I was 18, we had lived in 22 houses, apartments, duplexes, military barracks and one non-air-conditioned Quonset hut during a stifling hot summer in San Antonio.
I could make a list of my past: countries and states and Army posts where I lived; schools I attended; maps I studied; roads I took; towns I passed through; people I knew. It would be a list of dawns and midnights, departures and arrivals. A school year that began in Kansas ended in Germany. Sports taken up in Kentucky are dropped mid-season in Georgia. Friendships born in the fall are forgotten by spring. Wallet photos of girlfriends from Pennsylvania are taped to the inside of Virginia high school lockers and finally discarded when a Virginia girlfriend steps in. Mountainsides are skied, every bump and tree and stump and icy patch memorized for a winter and never seen again. Quartermaster cots and pillows are issued, slept on, and turned in for new ones at the next post, and the next one, and the next one. Only sheets and towels are shipped ahead, unless the assignment is overseas, when even linens and dishes and pots and pans and glassware is left behind. Gain, lose. Arrive, depart.
Travel is what you do when you go for a visit and return home. Moving is emigration: you’re not going home. We left for Europe on the General Patch, a World War II troop transport ship. Stateside, we drove – mom and dad in the front seat, kids in the back. We left in Fords and Chevrolets and Plymouths and Volkswagens and we drove for days and days in open-windowed cars on two-lane highways that hugged the contours of the land from one sleepy town to another. My father was behind the wheel in sweat-stained khakis, and my mother was forever leaning over the front seat into the back, wisps of blonde hair blowing across her face, changing one of our diapers, or handing us a bottle, or refereeing a fight. The days were long and invariably hot, since Army reassignments almost always happened during the summer. The brood reached five during the first 18 of our moves, and with even more children aboard, frustrations were as numerous as miles. Driving through New Mexico on a coast-to-coast trip in the early 50’s, the family dog was accidentally left at a gas station, tied to a picnic bench. Wilting on scorched seat-covers in blasted desert heat, exhausted from days on the road, 100 miles passed before anyone noticed the dog was missing. Frank and I begged our father to go back for him. Swearing that he would take out his .45 and shoot the dog if he so much as made a peep for the rest of the trip, he finally doubled back to pick him up. It was the only time in my life that we ever turned around and went back for anything.
I was reminded of the countless days I spent in the backseat of a car as I drove along a stretch of Interstate 40 east of Gallup, New Mexico recently. I had an assignment from FORTUNE magazine to write about the business of Formula One racing, and I had promised my seven year old daughter Lilly that I would take her with me to the F-1 Grand Prix in Indianapolis. We were supposed to fly, but the magazine wouldn’t cover her airfare and it was too expensive to fly, so we drove. I-40 ran alongside Route 66, the same road we were driving on the day we forgot the dog at the gas station, and the land we passed through hadn’t changed much. It was hot and dusty and barren and there were long stretches when we were driving through “the middle of nowhere,” as Lilly described it to her mother on the cell phone.
Late on the first afternoon of the trip, with desert mesas of New Mexico showing off their pale reds and dusty pinks in the soft western light of the setting sun, I hit the seek button on the radio, looking for some music. Nothing but cowboys and Jesus, Lilly had observed when we passed through Arizona earlier in the day. I glanced in the rear view mirror. Lilly was asleep under a quilt in the back seat, hugging Bluish and Purplish, two terry-cloth “ travel bunnies” she had brought with her. She was still recovering from the effects of an anti-nausea medication her mother had given her that morning
It was the first time Lilly had been away from home without her mother, and that morning as we stood next to the car saying goodbye, her mother and I could see that she was fighting back tears. Suddenly Lilly turned pale, and her mother asked if she felt sick to her stomach. Lilly nodded, and her mother rushed her inside to the bathroom. I waited impatiently, cleaning the windshield and re-arranging the car and checking to make sure we had plenty of ice in the cooler. There were 800 miles of road ahead of us. We had to make Albuquerque that night if we were going to get to Indianapolis on time for practice day before qualifying day and then race day. Finally they returned, and clutching her stuffed rabbits, Lilly bravely buckled herself into the back seat. I climbed behind the wheel and turned the key. My Volkswagen GTI rumbled to life and I slipped it into gear. Just as we started down the driveway, I heard a shout. I stopped and rolled down the window, thinking we had left something behind. “The problem with you is, you’re good at leaving,” she said, leaning in the window. She gave Lilly a final hug and kissed me on the cheek, and we were off.
Years earlier, one of the sergeants in my platoon at Fort Carson, a grizzled lifer with 15 years of Army service, at least a couple of which had been spent in the stockade, said the exact same thing to me. Another place, another time, but the Sergeant was right, and so was my wife and so was my mother. Truscotts don’t marry Fawns, and Truscotts are good at leaving. It matters not whence you left, but who you left behind, and whether or not you’re coming back. The laws of physics apply. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. We make decisions, we act, and we are defined by the consequences to others.