Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Road Map as Story, The Story as Road Map

For someone who had not traveled much beyond his Santa Monica, California, place of birth, a trip anywhere within the Greater Los Angeles Basin was an adventure.  Given how your awareness of such things as trips and transportation coincided with your moderately wealthy parents feeling the accelerated sting of the Great Depression, the fact of your father's then automobiles added dramatic stakes to such outings.

Both parents were good at neither making light of the family economy nor over emphasizing it.  As a consequence of their even-handedness, you didn't come to realize for quite some time that any number of these automotive ventures in the now forgotten Wyllis-Knight, the clangorous gray Dodge you and your sister referred to as "The Old Dodge," or the car that seemed to try your father's patience most, a bulbous and cantankerous Chevrolet, were trips to pick up gifts from individuals who were once in your parents' employ, or trips to shop at venues run by these individuals, where purchases could be put on a tab.

With one or two minor exceptions and one major one, involving your father's pursuit of an adventure that "would get us out of all this and back to a more comfortable life," you were aware of the effects of the Depression on your parents, but not of their greater fears.

On one of these Depression adventures involved a drive over what was not yet the Pasadena Freeway, when the cantankerous Chevvy overheated with great, spewing éclat.  Here, you realized for the first time that your father was a considerable reader.  

Shaking his head at the stalled, boiling-over Chevvy, your father was reminded of the newly published novel by John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.  He compared the Chevvy to the Joad's Old Model T Ford.  "It starts, and farts, and then it quits."  This was also the first time you'd heard the word fart used at home.  You were feeling quite remarkable with those discoveries.

Your big adventures of travel did not come for another year or eighteen months, when you were abruptly squeezed between your mother and sister as paying passengers for a couple who would take you as far as Washington, D.C., whence you would be met by an individual your mother referred to as "an old family friend," who would drive you in a vehicle that made your father's older cars seem in memory like sleek Buicks or La Salles.

At the time, gasoline stations gave away free road maps, which you collected as a way of documenting the enormous differences between where you were and whence you'd come.  These maps became your reading material.  You studied them, making note of the things you'd have to remember in order to get back to California.

In actual time, you were only away from California for a scant four years, but those years were a significant portion of your life.  Things were happening in California you could only read about, but not experience at first hand.  Would you ever get back?  Would you ever be able to catch up.  Would your Los Angeles friends recognize you?

You were headed to the hinterlands, that mythical place your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins referred to as "Back East," because so many of them had come from there and had seen California only as visitors.  In those years of being Back East, you were in a mysterious landscape, where the light was different, the seasons more pronounced in their personalities, the brand names different from those you knew.  The people were different, grayer, driven, more touchy.

After your homework was completed, you turned to a gift from your sister, inscribed to you and dated, Christmas, 12/25/41.  The gift was a Rand-McNally Atlas of the world, which, only today, you consulted, taking a look back at the dreams, plans, and imagined adventures of seventy-five years ago.

Sometime mid morning today, you reached the point in your puttering with what you call The Hundred Novels Project, until a better name and clearer purpose appear, where you know you will soon be at the three-by-five index card stage.  A card for each of the hundred novels that, as you put it earlier, knocked you senseless for a time, drove air from your lungs, caused you to gasp, caused you to reel with the dizziness of seeing some writer put some effect to use in ways that stunned you.

You're already thirty novels into an overflow list and, just in case, have a blank page with the heading, Novels So Awful That You Learned Important Things from Them.

You also have a page with potential sections:  (1) The Journey; (2) The Search; (3) The Puzzle to Be Solved; and (4) Stranger in Town.

A Hundred Novels and countless road maps, each becoming a metaphor for the other.  Novel or road map, the depiction is of a world you enter, often in quest of meeting the risks you've taken on all these young and middle-aged ventures, with an array of mean, generous, and daft individuals.  You, who have been and still are mean, generous, and daft, spend large chunks of your days and nights scheming for ways to make sense of the journeys, by which you mean ways to make story of them.

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