Finally, the hail lightened up and I pulled onto the shoulder of the highway. My daughter had stopped crying by then, so I was able to think about next steps. We had gotten such a late start that I knew we would barely make Nebraska before midnight, but I was determined to get out of Wyoming no matter what. I jammed the headlight back into place with socks and duct tape the mechanic had given me when we left Laramie. Its beam now cut across the other headlight’s beam so that the truck was cross-eyed. I could clearly see what was happening on the right shoulder. At least it wasn’t swinging wildly against my door.
We reached a town called Sidney, Nebraska and found a motel with a huge sign that said “Air Conditioning.” We didn’t care even in the throbbing heat. All we wanted was a place with clean sheets and a shower. Fortunately, they had both. We got back on the road early the next morning. My plan was to cross Nebraska quicker than you can say Warren Buffet. We didn’t make it, though, and spent the night at the same hotel in Lincoln that my wife and our other daughters had spent two days earlier. The clerk recognized the name and asked if we were related. “They had a parakeet in a cage,” he said gleefully. “Yes, that’s my wife,” I said. “The parakeet’s name is Fred, named after Father Ed, our parish priest.” He looked at me.
I failed at differential equations in college. It’s the only course I’ve ever failed. Even now, years later, I’m still not sure what a vector is except that it has something to do with direction and gets a laugh when you use it with “Victor.” That didn’t stop me from sitting down and calculating the rate of acceleration required to make up for lost time so that we would get to our rendezvous point in Bloomington on the agreed-upon day. And even then the “Minivan Team” would have to lounge around for half a day waiting for us to bring up the rear.
I coordinated all of this through my mother at our Jersey command center. My wife and I checked in every morning and night, although that didn’t always work. It was a difficult process. Sometimes the connections were weak. Once a tornado interrupted the call. Then my mother would mix up messages and numbers, which led to all kinds of confusion. One time her pencil broke and I said something I shouldn’t have. She came back with an ultimatum: either keep my mouth shut or hire a secretary. So I kept my mouth shut (see When Your Mother is Don Rickles).
The next morning we headed out early again to cover the remaining 500 miles. The route would take us through Omaha, Des Moines, Iowa City, and Davenport into the great state of Illinois, where we would turn south onto Interstate 74 to Bloomington, lovely Bloomington. More importantly, our two teams would be reunited and our family whole again after the Laramie fiasco. As the patriarch of the expedition, that gave me great satisfaction. Somehow or other, the old man had pulled another rabbit out of his hat.
Five hundred miles in a Penske truck, even on the interstate, is no picnic, especially with a gash in its side, its radiator mount damaged, tears in the roof where I had gutted a rain gutter, a smashed front end, and a crumpled fender that went clear to the driver’s door. Its trailer hitch also had gotten twisted when the frat boys pulled the truck out of the rut in Laramie. Somehow, the hitch had plowed into the asphalt street for a few feet before the truck broke free. When we pulled into gas stations the truck squeaked like a rusted gate and hissed like a locomotive.
But then, guided by my daughter’s navigational system (a map), we drove up to the front of the Doubletree Inn in Bloomington, parked the truck, and practically fell out of the cab, exhausted. I stretched while my daughter ran to the lobby. She came back a few minutes later. “They’re not here,” she said. “Of course they are. Ask the front desk to call the room.” She left again but came back with an even more dejected look. “They’re not here.”
I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure I went to the lobby mumbling about having to do things yourself if you wanted them done right. But, sure enough, I checked with the clerk and there was no record of my wife. I had them check and double check. Then I asked if they had seen a woman with a parakeet in a cage. They looked at me and shook their heads. Then they looked at me again.
Over the next hour I exchanged a dozen calls with my mother, who relayed messages between me and my wife. “She’s in the back. You have to go to the rear of the motel and you’ll see her.” I went to the rear of the motel only to find an idling big rig. “She said park in the front so she can see you.” “I’m parked in the front. Tell her I’m waiting in the lobby.” “Okay.” After another half hour I called again. “So, where is she?” “I don’t know. She said she’s in the lobby.” “But how can that be? I’m in the–” Suddenly, it hit me. I remembered our first night at the doppelgänger Hilton in Reno. I hung up, went to the now suspicious hotel staff and asked if there was another Doubletree Inn in Bloomington. It had to be that. “Why, no, there isn’t…I’m sorry…”
I turned and walked out with my daughter, who was slurping a vanilla milkshake from a fast-food place we had stopped at. I really had no clue what was going on. My daughter didn’t even ask. “I’ll just wait in the truck,” she said sadly. I nodded, sighed, and gave up. But then, as I looked at the streaked sunset and the waves of heat in the distance, I had a benzene ring moment. I call it that after the German chemist August Kekulé who, legend has it, solved the riddle of the structure of the benzene ring while boarding a bus. I thought the bus an apt image.
I went back to the front desk. By now, they were ready either to call the police, or take up a collection for this guy and his daughter. “So, tell me,” I said, trying not to sound crazy. “Just humor me, indulge me…” “Yes…?” “If there isn’t another Doubletree…is there, maybe, another…Bloomington…?”
The guy looked at me. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and a green blazer that looked like it belonged on a golf course. “Well, not in Illinois, but there is a Bloomington, Indiana. It’s about two hundred miles from here.” “I see. Now, tell me–and this is the critical piece–is there a Doubletree Inn there, too?” He checked his computer. After considerable click, click, clicking, he answered, “Why, yes, there is…would you like me to see if your wife is registered there?” “Now, that’s a terrific idea,” I told him.
A few minutes later I rushed out to the Penske where my daughter sat reading her novel with her feet dangling out of the window. I told her that her mom and sisters were enjoying the pool at the Doubletree Inn in Bloomington, Indiana. We wasted no time and hit Interstate 74 east. As I drove along, smiling, I kept thinking that I had pulled another rabbit out of my hat. I had done it again. And, seriously, this time it could have been much worse. I could have driven to Bloomington, Minnesota.
Image credits: feature by VisitBN; lobby by Doubletree by Hilton; postcard from Legends of America; map by Google Maps. For the full story of Bloomington, go to Nine Lives. See also Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”