Dad and I were vagabonds. It’s a lifestyle he’d been living for years, and one I had begged to join since I was 4. Now that I was 13 and on the run from a cruel Mormon stepfather, he and I had finally joined forces and had quickly become two of the best tool hustlers in the Midwest.
Every morning at six, we’d gas up at a 7-Eleven and treat ourselves to a Diet Dr. Pepper to get our juices flowing.
“What’s our saying?” Dad would yell as he turned the key in our old brown Dodge pickup.
“The early bird gets the worm!” we would shout in unison.
It was the early 1980s and the oil boom was in full-swing. Our sales strategy consisted of driving the back roads of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Iowa looking for prospects. We kept our eyes peeled for the lone gas station attendant or a do-it-yourself mechanic working on his car. But what interested us most were the oil rig sites where, at any given time, a group of two or three migrant workers could be found taking a smoke break or digging into the sandwiches they’d brought from home.
“These guys have so much money in their pockets they are just waiting for an opportunity to spend it,” Dad would say as we pulled up to a job site. “Well, they are about to get their chance.”
Whenever Dad or I spotted what looked like a good prospect, Dad parked the truck, hopped out and initiated a conversation.
“Is it hot enough for you, today?” he would ask, or “I think it’s quitting time, don’t you?”
If the guy responded positively, Dad would make small talk for a couple more minutes to warm him up. Then he would casually mention that he was liquidating some tools and ask if the guy would like to take a look.
I always waited for the designated moment to bring out the merchandise. Sometimes Dad just looked over at the truck and gave me a quick nod. On other occasions, it boiled down to time.
“If I’m still gone after five minutes, bring me a wrench set,” he would say as he left the truck.
When it was time, I grabbed the agreed upon tools from the back of the truck, ran to Dad’s side and flashed my warmest smile. When our prospect saw that Dad had a daughter with him, it usually softened him up and he was willing to spend $15 even if he didn’t need a wrench set. Unlike my siblings, who viewed our father as a stranger who rarely visited, I understood Dad and his need to be free. But it was during those long hours on the road that I really began to see what drove him.
Dad filled me with stories about his childhood. He told me about growing up on a farm in a four-room shack without heat, running water or even an indoor toilet. Each morning at 4 a.m., Dad helped Grandpa feed the pigs and milk the cows. Then he headed off to elementary school while Grandpa traveled sixty miles to a construction job — which barely netted enough to cover the basics for a growing family that would swell to 11 children.
“I would read these books on slavery and about how slaves were given a rundown shack and a little food in exchange for their labor,” Dad told me as we drove down the road. “Then I would look at my dad and realize he was a slave. He worked so hard every day and all he got in exchange was barely enough to put a shack over our heads and feed us. I decided that I was going to do whatever it took to escape that life. “
To others, Dad and I might have looked like slaves ourselves. Each day we were forced to earn enough money to survive until the next and rarely took time off. When we had a good sales day, we rented a room at a Motel 6. When we didn’t, we crashed in a rest area or a truck stop parking lot.
We spent 12 hours a day in a hot truck without air conditioning. But to Dad and me, it was paradise. Each morning we headed out on an open highway, the truck taking us wherever we wanted to go as we belted out the lyrics to Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” our theme song. And unlike the never-ending home church sessions and suffocating, rigid lifestyle I faced at home, Dad and I had only one rule: sell tools.
With the pressure always on us to make money, we rarely had time for entertainment. But we occasionally took a break and treated ourselves to a movie or a steak and baked potato at Shoney’s. We also had a standing weekly date with the TV show “Dallas.” Dad loved the main character, J.R., both because he was a savvy, ruthless businessman who had millions of dollars, and because Dad’s name, Jerry Ricks, shared the same initials.
“You know what time it is, don’t you?” Dad would say each Friday night, a few minutes before the show was to begin.
“It’s Dallas time!” I would call out.
If we were at a motel, we kicked back on our beds with a can of Diet Dr. Pepper a piece and flipped on the TV. If we were spending the night in the truck, we found a truck stop lounge, plopped down on one of the couches, and lost ourselves in the lives of J.R., Sue Ellen and the rest of the Dallas gang.
Our time on the road together ended when I started my junior year in high school. Dad and I had a run-in with the law that had shaken both of us and made me rethink our lifestyle. But more than that, I was now sixteen and wanted to date and hang out with friends. Dad was also ready to move on. He had met a woman we both knew would take my place on the road.
Our lives drifted apart. He got married and eventually so did I. We both started new families and settled in different parts of the country.
Dad’s now almost 72 and at 44, I’m the age he was the last summer we traveled together — with a 12-year-old daughter of my own who’s a lot like I was back then.
I called him the other day to tell him I would be in his city the last week in June. We’d had a rare, explosive argument a few weeks earlier and I knew we were both hurting. We needed to recapture the magic of our time together — back when it was just the two of us, a truck full of tools, an open road and Willie Nelson singing on the radio.
“How about if we have a dad/daughter date, just you and me,” I said into the phone, feeling myself yearning for the past. “I’ll take you out for a nice dinner and maybe we can even rent a motel room, just like old times.”
“Yes. Absolutely,” he said, the heavy weight lifting from voice. “We need that, you and me. We really do.”
He paused for a moment and I knew what was coming.
“Maybe I should load up an old truck with tools and you and me hit the road for a week or two. What do you think about that?”
I smiled at the up-tick in his voice.
“Yeah those days were really something, weren’t they, Ingrid?” he continued, his voice trailing off. “Whatever happens in life, no one can ever take that away from us.”
Happy Fathers Day to the person who taught me to go after my dreams and to stand back up, brush myself off and keep on going no matter how many times I’m knocked down. Love you, Dad. (Note: This essay first appeared in Salon in June 2011.)