I never was one for plans. Plans always seemed to fall through and this was no exception. I had no choice but to leave with no money to get anywhere. I was as good as stranded with no one to ask for help and no one expecting me. I was alone.
Ohio in the winter, it was dark and cold, the kind of cold burns the nostrils. I found myself at a gas station; I would be driving all night so I needed to fill up now while I could. After spending $600 on the Trans Am, I had to plan for the cross-country journey that was coming. I figured that it would take four days minimum and with the money set aside for gas, I only had $10 allotted for food.
After some thinking, I collected myself and decided to head south, any freeway that said south would work as far as I was concerned.
When I stopped for the night, I could feel every lump in the old warn seats of the Trans Am. It had an old musty smell to it, as an old home might have. I slept covered in the clothing that I had in my sea bags, it was all I could do to stay warm. With no money for lodging, I slept in the car; I never slept for long.
It quickly became apparent that the Trans Am could not handle the trip. The owner of the car before me decided it was a good idea to rip out a much-needed piece that directed air through the radiator causing the car to overheat. This coupled with the leak in the radiator that I would later find out was caused by the fan he had screwed into it caused me to stop, every two hours, like clockwork, to add water and let the car cool down.
Three-gallon jugs of water soon found a home in my backseat along with my clothing and everything that was my life. All of which I condensed down to two sea bags and a small backpack. Five years in the Marine Corps and this is what I had to show for it.
My one and only stop would come in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It is home of the national corvette museum, which is free for active duty military, so I did not have to spend the little money I actually had. It would be the only place I stopped to enjoy anything about the drive home.
The same day however, at another, larger rest area I found a map of the freeways and with it a clear way to California. Now I had somewhat of a plan for the next few days instead of driving and hoping.
You do not realize how quickly you start to talk to yourself when you are the only one around to talk with; I had no radio, so it was only the sound of my voice to keep me company. Fresh out of the service I had trouble connecting with people. To make matters worse the only time I talked to anyone was to order the food, twice a day from the dollar menu at taco bell.
Conversations with myself became the normal thing during the trip. I would point out things, or make suggestions for if I ever came back down. Each state had its own smell coupled with different, but eerily similar view of the landscape. Like life was on a sick repeat; as far as I was concerned, it was.
After I hit Texas, I made the only two phone calls I would the whole trip, since I was just days away from my destination. One to my father, ‘Gabriel?’ he started.
‘What are you doing, are you overseas?’
‘Where are you?’
‘Are you still in the service?’
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’ll explain when I get there, but I need to talk in person.’ I said, all the while twirling the cold metallic cord of the phone in my fingers.
Somewhere in New Mexico, I met with a problem. While driving I heard a loud pop, I stopped at the first exit and I found that my rear tire had lost most of its tread. I was not going to make it far on that.
Desperately needing help, I place the second phone call [in shame] to my grandmother.
‘Gabriel, how good to hear your voice’ she exclaimed, it had been more than a few years since we last spoke.
‘Grandma you know I hate to ask for help…’ I explained to her the situation and after bargaining with the only auto shop in town, I would put the tire on the rim, balance it and take it on and off the car myself. He would sell me a used tire for $50 and let me use his shop.
It was not an easy feat; I had changed tires for years before going into the service that was not the issue. However, this time I would be doing it without being able to walk or use my left side very well, war wounds as it were. Nevertheless, I managed to do it.
Because of this, the plan changed. I was to stop by my grandmothers to say hello because I would have to pass through Las Vegas to get to San Diego and tell her thank you. I did not get much of a choice since she was giving me the money, so I agreed to do it and I am a man of my word.
I spent two nights in Las Vegas with my grandmother, one when I arrived at 10:00 in the evening and the next because I spent the day paying respects to my Uncle as well as franticly trying to make plans for a place to stay when I arrived in San Diego.
The journey was long but almost a week from the start of it, I made it to California. When I arrived, at my father’s it was dark already, the crisp ocean breeze greeted me when I stepped out of the car, and it was warm, even in the winter. It was home and I felt like a weight was lifted. The illusion was soon shattered however.
Walking up the driveway with my cane, I found myself stopped in front of his doorway. The light was on, as always. Cameras, those were new but he was always paranoid. The paint had faded from what I remembered, like coming home from Disneyland and realizing that nothing in the world is quite as colorful or vivid.
I rang the doorbell and my heart sank I knew what was about to happen. But I had to hold out hope anyway. His wife answered the door, ‘Dad home?’, the only two words I ever say to her.
When he came to the door, he looked me up and down. It had been 6 years, at least, since we had been this close to each other the only other time was my Uncles funeral which I did not stay after for the family.
‘What happened to you?’ he asked with his usual disdain
‘I was hurt; I just need a place to stay for a few weeks.’ I started, ‘just until my paperwork catches up to me.’
The eyes, he gave me the eyes and I knew what that look meant. Shifting his weight at the door, he was not even looking at me; he was looking through me.
‘Sorry, we don’t have room for you, try a hotel.’ He said as he was shutting the door
It would be a few weeks until the error in my paperwork was resolved so I would again be paid or start physical therapy.
As for where I stayed, I slept the only place I could, the car.
It was a fitting welcome home, at least for my life.