"I'll do the first leg," my father said hopefully, keys jingling in his leathery hand. He'd taught me to drive, about 35 years ago. I've had trouble relinquishing the wheel ever since.
"I didn't fly all the way to Florida so I could be a passenger," I announced.
"I'm taking the back," my mother said agreeably, staking the safest ground.
Father's Day was to be spent on the road -- me driving my folks back from extended winter in Florida because the doctors said my mom's pneumonia made air travel a little too tricky.
So Friday I flew down to West Palm, where I stayed overnight at my folks' before hitting the road bright and early. They indulged my two demands: I wanted to briefly float in the warm ocean waves and eat a grilled fish.
"Be careful," my parents said in unison as I stripped down and took off for the beach. Riptides, sharks, undertow -- all lurked beneath the surface.
They didn't warn me about the jet ski, which nearly took my head off.
The fish was less of an adventure - an excellent onion-crusted yellow tail snapper washed down with a German wheat beer at a place in West Palm that must be crowded in season. This year my folks were anything but snow birds. They saw parts of all four seasons. I was hoping a rocket trip north would land them to Philadelphia in time to celebrate Father's Day with my own children.
"Your presence is your present," mom, soon to be 80, said poetically.
In the family tradition, I went to bed in the day light and got up in the dark.
About 5:30 a.m. my dad squeezed my toes through the blanket. This is how he used to wake up my brother and I when it was time to go to work with him at the hardware store at some equally ungodly hour.
After my firm correction of dad's announcement that he'd be starting the driving, I took the wheel about 7 a.m. and pointed the Avalon north. It had a fancy navigation system that worked swell, once we got the mechanical lady to stop describing every street we passed. I'd lined up a playlist called "White Trash Rock" that offered plenty of Skynyrd and Southern Culture on the Skids to set the pace. Had forgotten the part in "Polk Salad Annie" where the "gator's got your granny."
We were to push through to South Carolina, maybe farther if we were fortunate with traffic. We weren't so focused on making good time. We larded a couple hours onto the trip so we could drive west, through Charlotte, then the Blue Ridge in Virginia, slicing pieces of West Virginia and Maryland before surfacing somewhere west of Harrisburg. We wanted to enjoying the mountain breezes through the air conditioning.
What was wonderful was how quickly the arguments stopped. Historic soft spots in my personal development were gratefully skirted in conversation. I steered clear of any criticism of my parents' choices. We were all being adults. I'd brought two books on tape -- "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the new one from the "Kite Runner" author. We never needed them. The talk was plenty lively.
We talked about their first drive to Florida, how they drove on Dayton Beach in my grandfather's 1946 or '47 Dodge four-door sedan, two kids about 20 getting to know each other on their honeymoon. It was a five-day trip in either direction. My dad didn't get another break from the hardware store for another decade. They stopped at an alligator farm in St. Augustine. ( I think that's where the stuffed alligator in my boyhood cabinet came from.)
"Alligators live a long time," my mother said. "I wonder if they'd remember me."
We avoided a detour to St. Augustine, but hit the usual targets -- Bush, the war, whether plans for Iraq were in the desk, if not on the table, even before 9-11. We chewed on health care, public education, the whereabouts and quirks of every relative, close and distant. It was delicious, even if we had to cover 1,240 miles over two long days.
Each afternoon dad took the wheel, while I napped off lunch. I'd do the mop-up shift.
For weeks I'd dreaded the trip - how long it would be, how slow it would be, how uncomfortable it would be. It was none of those things. For a kid who's lived away from his parents since about the time he learned to drive, it felt again like home.