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Dad Was a Traveller
Some say you spend your entire life preparing for the inevitable moment when you have to speak at your father’s memorial service. Today is that day and now is that time. Given that lifetime of preparation, I hope you’ll indulge me — grant me the luxury of a little of your time — as I take you on a ride through Dad’s life as seen from the perspective of his younger son.
The first really concrete, vivid, fully-articulated memory of my father was in 1969 when he came home and announced that instead of doing the sensible thing, and flying to a conference to present some of his medical research findings, we were going to drive there. He pitched it as a fun, family adventure. The catch? It wasn’t going to be a few hours to Ottawa or Toronto, and even an international junket to New York or Boston. No, all those destinations were strictly for dilettantes. The five of us, Mum and Dad and the three kids, were going to shoehorn ourselves into our brand new Dodge Dart — thankfully equipped with the relatively rare luxury, for the time, of air conditioning — and we were going to drive to Mexico City. From Montréal. In July.
But Dad still wasn’t satisfied. He always said if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. So instead of, y’know, just coming home after that subtropical odyssey, we would strike west to the Pacific Coast and follow it more or less northwards to Vancouver. We would visit aunts, uncles and cousins in Sacramento and Seattle along the way and establish family ties we would have for the rest of our lives. After the extravagance of a day, or maybe two, in what would eventually become the family home town of Vancouver, we finally turned eastwards toward Montréal and Spruce Crescent and home. Nearly 9,000 gruelling miles over a scant five weeks.
They broke the mould on Dad’s particular kind of crazy shortly thereafter.
However, the trip proceeded almost entirely without a hitch and created a panoply of rich memories which have remained with us as the years rolled by and right up until this day. All those stories will have to wait for another time and place to tell because there are simply too many. From that trip, however, flows one piece of advice from Dad for which I’m only too happy to be the messenger: if you want to really get to know each other, take your kids on a long road trip. In fact, I think Dad may have had a secret plan. Perhaps he subconsciously thought if the five of us could still stand each other after five weeks locked in a small steel box while being slowly poached in the Tropic of Cancer heat, there was a fighting chance we might actually stick together over the long haul.
If that was Dad’s super secret plan, it seems to have turned out pretty well in the end.
One of the stories Dad loved to tell — or more accurately, one he loved to have told to him so he could laugh himself into incapacity—was partially a consequence of that personal Carrera Panamericana. Within a year or two, Dad got the band back together again for another epic road trip as we left Montréal for our new home of Vancouver. This was intended to be a sort of holiday, sure, but it really was the weapon of choice for getting from M-to-V as fast as possible to start our new our lives on the West Coast. So in addition to the five original members, we added some backup singers consisting of our miniature dachshund Quits and our cat Tom, a regal Russian Blue.
Quits, that glorious little soul, was an excellent car dog. Actually, the car was incidental. Anywhere we were was good enough for her. A week or two on the road to wherever? Sure! “Just so long as you’re there,” she might have said.
Tom, on the other hand, could best be described as an anxious traveller. The problem was seemingly solved when we figured out he was quite comfortable when placed in a luxuriously proportioned cardboard box perforated with lots of little airholes and lined with his familiar blanket. These holes had to be numerous enough and big enough for him to breath easily, but not so big that he could see outside. That was the key. Ignorance was bliss for Tom. The only problem left to solve was where to put the huge cardboard box? With the trusty Dodge Dart full to the brim with the ephemera of a growing family leaving town for good, the only place for Tom’s hillbilly ‘chateau de chat’ was on our laps in the back seat. Mercifully, our canary Alfie had already passed and our tropical fish days were still in our future otherwise they too would have been back there on our laps, as well.
All was well as we passed through the featureless, tree-lined highways of western Ontario. Once in a while we would hear Tom scratch away at the inside of the box, but otherwise he seemed content. Then one claw appeared in one of the tiny air holes, with which he could tear the hole slightly larger. Then two claws appeared and then a whole paw which he was then able to rotate around the rim of the hole making it slightly larger with each pass. Then, which by this time must have been near the Manitoba border, a yellowy eye appeared in the newly enlargened hole, and blinked in the unaccustomed light. What happened next is the stuff of Gannon family legend.
The cardboard coloured thermonuclear explosion was something on the order the worst of the head-spinning-around-360-degrees scenes from The Exorcist. Tom’s box hopped back and forth across our three laps in a completely unnatural, demonic way combined with the most blood curdling yowls and hisses which could be imagined, short of him actually starting to speak in tongues. By the time we hit Winnipeg, Dad knew that a suddenly homicidal, deranged cat combined with three increasingly agitated and sniffling children was no longer a tenable, backseat annoyance. Rather, it was a full blown crisis worthy of an appropriate retaliatory strike.
A lesser man than Dad would have suggested that setting Tom ‘free’ at the nicest looking farmhouse, or the local home for homicidally deranged cats, would be a kinder fate than continuing with things the way they were. Not Dad, though. That cat was coming with us, damn it. He might of thought “I’m a trained, prescribing physician and I’m bloody well going to prescribe!” He did just that, writing out a prescription for adult dosing of Phenobarbital, a powerful sedative normally used to treat epilepsy. Something may have gone wrong with the imperial-to-metric conversion or 20 pounds may have been a bit more than Tom actually weighed but whatever dose Dad eventually came up with worked a treat. We didn’t hear a peep out of Tom for the rest of the trip. “Is Tom dead and did you kill him, Dad?” a fragile voice from the back seat might have asked.
When Tom finally woke up about a week later in his new home in Vancouver he was never quite the same. He was much more aloof. He gradually decamped for the elderly lady’s house across the street lured by fresh salmon and birthday parties. On Tom’s occasional return visits to the ancestral home, he often made a beeline for Dad’s lap where he would do that weird claws-extended kneading thing that cats do. Dad’s love for his family extended effortlessly to it’s furry, feathered and finned members and Tom knew that. We all did. As Tom stared into Dad’s eyes, it was as if was saying “so about another hit of that Phenobarb, Dad?”
There are so many more stories I could tell you about Dad. Taking delivery of a huge sailboat without the superfluous luxury of a mast or learning to fly gliders to solo standard in under two weeks or telling somebody off for dumping their ‘ashtray’ into his beloved Metolius River all come to mind. Each one of them would tell you a little bit about who he really was. But I’ll finish with one that will do that but also one that is particularly dear to me.
My early career path wound its way, ironically, back through Winnipeg. I had purchased a car which, which based on I was earning at the time, was a ridiculous and totally unnecessary extravagance. It was a shiny, silver, bar-of-soap, pod of a car called a Renault Fuego complete with an intercooled, turbocharged two litre engine. It was capable of breaking any city speed limit in second gear, leaving three spare for highway driving. The Renault was in Vancouver and for reasons I cannot recall it had to be in Winnipeg in the shortest time possible. Dad cut me off mid-sentence when I started to ask him if he… “Sure!” he said for what he knew was going to be our version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Our mission impossible, should we choose to except it, was to drive the Fuego non-stop, through the night, and then put Dad on a plane back to plane to Vancouver as quickly as possible.
Off we went replete with matching Renault racing jackets. All was well as we scampered through the mountains. When we hit the prairies and night began to fall, we took turns entertaining each other pushing the speedometer needle farther and farther to the right on those endless, arrow straight and empty prairie roads. I think Dad won that duel at a little over 160 kilometres per hour. He was a ruthless but thankfully not reckless competitor and I knew when I had met my match. Incidentally, driving too fast on arrow straight, empty prairie roads is still something I still do from time-to-time. “In my Dad’s honour, officer.” Which, trust me, doesn’t actually work.
Dad and I finally decided to stop for a 20 minute nap at a gas station somewhere in Saskatchewan at around 3.00 am. There was absolutely nothing around for miles except for one little doghouse and a couple of gas pumps. Actually getting any gas was was not an option as there did not appear to be an attendant. Or maybe he was in the back having a nap himself waiting for somebody — anybody! — to buy some gas.
The Renault had one really interesting, undocumented feature: every once in a while — it seemed to prefer empty stretches of highway with no Renault dealerships for about a thousand miles — you would turn the key and there would be nothing. Not even a hopeful click. That early spring night, in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Saskatchewan was absolutely the perfect conditions for this to happen. And it did. Thankfully there was a pretty sure fix. If you pushed the car fast enough you could jump start it. The motor would catch and all would be well.
So Dad and I got out and began to push the Renault down the highway. Slowly at first but actually quite quickly after a bit as we tried to get over a small rise just past the gas station which we knew we give us the gravity-fed acceleration sure to do the trick. It was about this time we realized we had finally roused the gas station attendant. Based on his timing and from his perspective what he would have seen was a weird, UFO-like car not driving past his gas station but rather with the two of us running behind it like we didn’t precisely understand the role the car played. Of course, the attendant did what every Saskatchewinian would do under the circumstances. He yelled out to us “is there anything I can do to help?” Dad stopped momentarily, turned back to him and yelled “no, we’re fine, thanks!” with a jaunty wave as we passed out of sight into the inky, unlit Saskatchewan night, four way flashers still flashing.
We finally made it to Winnipeg in 28-and-a-half hours. But this is the part of the story that provides one more piece of the puzzle about Dad. After the two of us had been locked together in that Renault for 28 straight hours with no sleep and then only a couple of hours thereafter at destination, the best we could come up with for the spare day before his flight was “should we take a spin out to the Lake of the Woods?” It actually took third party intervention by my boss at the time to put the kibosh to that ridiculous idea.
For Dad, though, there was no trip that making it a little bit longer didn’t make it just that little bit better.
It’s reasonable to say that by the time he finished driving, which was well into his 90th year, Dad would likely have taken most of the trips he would want to take. That is with the exception of just one which I think there still may be time to put right, in a way. Dad loved flying or anything that flew just as much as he loved the siren song of the open road. That rubbed off on generations of our family. We have all embraced flying in our lives in one way or another. This went so far as, through the combined efforts of many of us here today, the production of a wonderful RV-6 homebuilt aircraft. It’s quite magnificent, I must say.
Dad said to me on many occasions that he had wanted to live long enough to have a ride in that airplane when it was finally finished 23 years after it was started. Dad came within a hair’s breadth of actually seeing it fly. Sadly, however, he was not able to live out that dream of getting the ride for which he hoped all those years.
So I’m going to take this opportunity to ask a favour of my nephew Alex, who did the lion’s share of the work finally finishing up the RV and recently piloted it into the sky for the first time. When those test hours are flown off, Alex, could you please strap Dad’s earthly remains into the passenger seat and take him for that one trip he had always wanted.
There is only one other thing I would ask. No matter how long you plan on taking for that flight, can I ask you to please make it just five minutes longer. Because that’s just what Dad would have wanted.
The ancient Greeks believed the Earth was the centre of a universe filled with stars punctuating an endless blackness. They also observed some of those stars restlessly meandered around instead of being fixed in the sky. They gave them the name πλάνητες ἀστέρες (planētes asteres) which translates roughly to ‘wandering star’. It’s also the basis of the modern word planet. Of course, while providers of many gifts to our modern society, the ancient Greeks had it fundamentally wrong. Turns out that every planet needs a star to anchor it and guide its motion through the universe. In the case of this planet, our little blue marble of Planet Earth, the Sun also positions it perfectly to give life to all that we know and love.
If, as a very young man, Dad wandered through his personal universe or in the unlikely event he thought he was the centre of it, all that changed when he was just 23. At that tender age he had his own Copernican epiphany and found the star around which he would blissfully orbit for the rest of his life. He met my mother. She was just 19 and they were engaged soon after. They were married for 65 years. They wasted no time and as a consequence along came my sister Tina just 11 months after their wedding. Then three years after that my brother Patrick, and then finally me, the lone native born Canadian, seven years later. Three little moons added to our compact family solar system.
It is impossible to overstate how much you meant to Dad but suffice to say, Mum, you were the source of everything that meant anything to him. It is therefore impossible to overstate how much you must miss him so I won’t try. I hope it’s enough to know that we all know that, at least, and all our hearts are broken, too. Dad’s loyalty to you was unwavering until his very last breath. His love for you is immortal. It’s here in this room with all of us and in all of us. Your attentive, inexhaustable care of him over the years likely resulted in 30 years of life he would not otherwise have had. Really important years where we got to know him as adults and where he saw his grandchildren grow up and flourish and see the birth of his first great-grandson. Years when the two of you could take those amazing trips together while also looking after each other. For all of that, Mum, we have a debt to you we cannot hope to repay. So I’ll just say thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
On the happier occasion of Mum and Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary, I was provided the opportunity of saying a few words honouring their half century together. At that time I had just finished reading North Star Over My Shoulder by Bob Buck. The author speaks eloquently about how the North Star, wherever he travelled, was just over his shoulder and was the source of orientation and guidance throughout his life. I liked that metaphor so much I told Mum and Dad at that time that they were like my North Star. No matter where I was, I could peek over my shoulder and the two of them and all the gifts they had given me would be there providing orientation and guidance in my wanderings through my personal universe.
I’m going to update that a little. I choose to think that Dad is one of those stars up there and when I finally figure out which one, I will be able to peek over my shoulder and he’ll always be there providing orientation and guidance. Or maybe he’s a new planētes asteres until such time that we all meet and are once again happily in each other’s steady orbit.
In his later life, Dad was not formally religious. However, I always believed he thought we must all go somewhere after we are finished our travels here. It’s a philosophy I share. Furthermore, it means that as we honour him today it’s not simply the end of his long, crazy ride through our lives. It’s also the beginning of Dad’s next great road trip. I think if he were here now, his own heartbreak at having to temporarily part ways with all of us would be ever so slightly tempered with just one thing. I think he might look around the room, give us all a big wink and then pull us really, really close. He would then whisper in our ear:
“Where are we off to next?”
©2018 Terence C. Gannon
Patrick Gannon’s greatest road trip reached its final destination when he passed away peacefully on September 18, 2018 in Richmond, British Columbia. He was 89. Should his spirit move you to do so, in lieu of flowers, a donation in his honour can be made to the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, British Columbia. The ducks there miss him every day, too.
Also available on Not There Yet podcast, read by the author.