Since 1979, my wife, Cathy, and I lived in our lovely quad-level home on Grosse Ile, a small island town twenty miles south of Detroit. Our house was paid off and was always a source of pride—to me after growing up in Detroit, and to my wife, who was raised in the government projects of Norwayne (later the city of Westland). We raised our daughter and two sons, and in April 2014, after spending the winter in balmy Huntington Beach, California, far from the snows and subzero temperatures of Michigan, we decided it was time to move. Two of our children had been living out of state for years, our youngest son was in college, and all of the kids planned to end up in California anyway, so we went for it.
I don’t really believe in “win-wins” in life, because there’s always a loss, something given up. But clinging to all the memories of our home was stopping us from having new ones. Also, we needed to move because the long Michigan winters and lack of sunshine had become a real drag to me. And my wife’s susceptibility to pneumonia gave us another good reason to shake things up and head south.
I knew since I was 19 where I had to go. It was Thursday afternoon, November 30, 1967, when the chartered Boeing 707 I was on came to a stop at Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam. Grabbing my overnight bag from under the seat, I made my way to the front and stepped out onto the stairway. The humid, sweltering air rolled over me like a wave. Shielding my eyes from the intense sun, I saw bright green palm fronds, dazzling white beach dunes, and the soft-turquoise expanse of the South China Sea glistening off to the east.
We were driven to the U.S. Army Reception and Placement Center to await orders, but when orders didn’t come, I bugged out and walked to the R&R Center on base. They weren’t busy, so they taught me how to water-ski. We cruised along the shore, past ships at anchor and palm trees swaying in the light breeze. We did that for three days, until orders came assigning me to the First Air Cavalry Division. Those three days were more than enough time for me to fall forever in love with the ocean.
I never forgot that vision, the smell and the taste of saltwater, and the ocean’s warm embrace. It beckoned me to return. But it had to be somewhere in the United States, where it’s safe and warm, with plenty of sun and endless beaches to run on. Florida and Texas were contenders, but Southern California, with its constant upscale buzz of life (and not of stinging, biting insects) topped the list. We decided to get a house in Huntington Beach, “Surf City USA,” just five houses away from a harbor beach, and a mile from the open ocean.
The Atlas moving van was loaded and drove off, and at 11:30 p.m., Wednesday, August 20, Cathy and I pulled away from our home of thirty-five years. We were in our ’98 Dodge van. It was crammed with belongings, and inside a big cage in back was our 14-year-old dog, Sarge. It was late, but we didn’t want just to drive away from our youngest son, Mike, after he had helped us pack all day. So we stopped at a Buffalo Wild Wings for a midnight snack and to say good-bye.
My goal was simply to get out of Wayne County, where I had worked as a deputy sheriff, and make it into Ohio, at least past Toledo. That would be far enough that we wouldn’t turn back because we forgot something or needed to say another heart-wrenching good-bye. Exhausted, we stopped at the first motel we found outside Toledo. The sign on the office door announced, “Rottweilers and pit bulls not allowed! Our 11:00 a.m. checkout time is strictly enforced!” It was a Knights Inn.
We survived the night, and at precisely 10:59 a.m., I jumped into the driver’s seat and headed south. It was humid and already eighty degrees, but with the air conditioner on, we were enjoying our drive through Ohio and swung west on I-70, past Dayton. In Indiana, we hit a series of big traffic jams outside Terre Haute, where there was nothing but woods on both sides of the winding road.
“What the hell’s with all this stop-and-go and no cops around?” I said, setting my Pepsi down.
“I don’t know,” Cathy replied. “I can’t see beyond the curve.”
“You know, when I was a cop, this kind of shit bugged the hell outta me!”
“Yeah. Think about it. There could be a pregnant woman going into labor, or some guy with appendicitis stuck in this mess. Besides, look at all the gas and time being wasted.”
“It’ll probably clear up soon.”
“Probably? We’ve been stuck here a half hour, and there’s gotta be thousands of cars and hundreds of trucks!”
“But there’s nothing you can do.”
“Oh, yeah, there is. Once the traffic crawls ahead, I’m gonna take that emergency crossover,” I said, pointing to the left.
“Bob, you can’t do that!” said Cathy, my voice of reason. “No one else is!”
“Just watch. There’s no cops, anyway.”
“Aw, quit worrying. I checked the maps, and we’ll head south on Fifty-nine till we hit I-Sixty-four.”
We reached the emergency crossover, and once there were no approaching cars, I made a U-turn, across the median, onto eastbound I-70.
“See, told you, no big deal,” I said, smiling.
“It would’ve cleared,” Cathy replied quietly.
“Maybe, but at least, this way we’re in control of our own destiny.”
“But you could’ve gotten a ticket.”
“I haven’t had a ticket since ’sixty-nine.”
“You got a boatload of parking tickets in college, as I recall.”
“Parking tickets don’t count. I’m talking real tickets.”
“Um . . .”
“Here’s the problem. When I was a cop, we were all vets. You know, former Marines and Special Forces‑type guys––warriors. We ruled the streets.”
“How far do we have to go to the exit?” Cathy interrupted.
“Wait, listen. Now everybody’s got cameras, plus you got all this political-correctness shit. Cops are afraid to do their job, because there’s so many crybabies out there. But when something happens to ’em, it’s ‘Oh, no, where are the police when you need ’em!’”
“I’ll see what navigation says,” Cathy said, looking at her cell phone.
“Go ahead, but you won’t need it. I got it all in my head.”
Several minutes later, we hit Highway 59 and exited southward. “Look at this,” I said. “We’re heading south, perpendicular to the sun’s path, and we’re on a roll.”
“But navigation says we should turn back,” Cathy replied.
“Of course it’s gonna say turn back. How does that thing know there’s a traffic jam?”
“Well, I’ll keep it on just in case.”
“Yeah, sure. Once we get far enough south, it’ll realize that isn’t the most direct route.”
Cathy kept monitoring the navigation on her phone as I drove past farm after farm of cornfields. “Wow, that corn goes from horizon to horizon!” I said.
“It’s beautiful,” Cathy said, glancing left and right.
“I wonder how it would be, living out here.”
“I think it’d be nice.”
“You do? I think it’d drive me nuts.”
“Why?” Cathy asked.
“Well, I love the country, but how would you meet anybody? You know, say, if you wanted to get married.”
“There are churches and schools.”
“I know, but I mean, shit, you’d have to drive fifty miles just to get a beer, and you probably can’t even do that on Sunday.”
Cathy didn’t say anything, and after a few minutes passed, I said, “Hey, Kitty, did you notice there’s hardly any traffic on this road anymore?”
“Navigation keeps saying we should head back to I-Seventy,” she said.
“Bull. We’ve got the sun to our two o’clock, so we’re heading southwest, exactly where we need to go.”
“But shouldn’t there be more traffic?”
“Who cares? We got the road all to ourselves, and I can drive just like we’re on the freeway.”
“But navigation keeps saying, ‘Proceed to the route’!” Cathy repeated, echoing the irritating female voice on the phone.”
“I can hear ’er just fine. Any chance you can ask her to shut up?”
“I’ll lower the volume.”
“Great. She’s stuck on ‘stupid,’ anyway, and I don’t trust instruments when I have the sun. But I wonder why this road is down to one lane?”
“I don’t know,” Cathy replied, and I thought I detected the faintest sullen edge to her voice.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. As long as we’re heading southwest, we’re not wasting time, and sooner or later we’ll reach I-Sixty-four.”
“But it doesn’t look like there are highways ahead.”
“I noticed. And there’s not any houses, either—just cornfields.”
“This is kind of funny,” Cathy said.
“Yeah, like, how can there be so much corn and only this stupid one-lane road?”
The pavement then turned to gravel. “How the hell is this happening?” I snapped. “Didn’t that thing say we were on Fifty-nine?”
“Yes, but it also kept saying to turn back.”
“Well, I’m not turning back. There’s gotta be a road ahead.”
We kept driving on the gravel road until it split in different directions. There was nothing but tall cornfields left and right, and ever-narrowing gravel roads. “Shouldn’t we head back?” Cathy said. “This isn’t fun anymore.”
“Let me think! There’s gotta be a way outta this stupid-ass place, but just in case, I’ll turn the air off so we don’t waste gas.”
“Do you think Sarge will be okay?”
“Ah, he’ll be fine. He’s got everything he needs, and he knows we’re here.”
“But . . .”
“Look at how tall this shit is! It’s gotta be eight feet! I remember Uncle Charlie telling me about all the different kinds of corn. You know, sweet corn, field corn, whatever. If he was here, he’d know. Can you imagine if a pilot had to punch out and land in this shit? He’d go nuts trying to find his way out! Poor guy, he’d end up in four hundred cans of Del Monte corn!”
Blinded left and right by corn, we followed another gravel road till it suddenly stopped. “Christ, that’s one big-ass river! Now what the hell do we do?”
“Maybe we should turn back,” Cathy said.
“Well, yeah. I mean, it’s not like we have a choice. Which way does that thing say we should go?”
“It says you have to turn right and follow that road,” Cathy said, pointing to another gravel road, behind us.
“Damn! We’re lost, Sarge doesn’t give a shit, and following that thing is gonna put the sun to my left, which means we’re heading north. Hell, I had better luck in triple-canopy jungle.”
“But we don’t have a choice.”
“Choice, shit, we’re off the grid! I bet cops don’t even patrol this place, because their guys keep disappearing.”
“Bob . . .”
“Okay, I’ll turn, but do we have any more granola bars?”
“How about any unmelted Hershey bars?”
“Wow, you just keep the good news coming.”
“I have carrots.”
“Forget it. The sun’s gonna set in an hour, and when it does, if clouds roll in we’re really gonna be in a fix.”
After driving another half mile, I said, “Hey, Sweetie, I wonder what’s the name of that river? Does that thing say?”
“It says it’s the Wabash River.”
“Well, I can see why they grow corn here. That river is half mud! I wouldn’t wanna swim in it. But with all that crap in it, it sure seems to make things grow.”
We headed north along the river till we came to another fork in the road, and Cathy said, “Bob, look! There’s a guy on an ATV to your left! Why don’t we ask him which way is out?”
“Aw, I don’t know. We don’t need his help.”
“All right, don’t go nuclear. But you talk to him.”
He saw us approaching and pulled to the side of the road and stopped—fortunately, on the passenger side of our minivan. Cathy said, “Sir, I’m sorry, but can you help us? We were driving south on Fifty-nine when we got lost in this.”
He grinned and said, “Where you headed?”
Cathy smiled and said, “Huntington Beach, California.”
He was a big outdoorsy-looking guy. He laughed and said, “That happens because there’s no sign where the highway splits. I’ll talk to my wife. She’s driving out, and you can follow her.”
“Thanks so much!” Cathy replied.
He drove a couple of hundred yards to his small manicured home on a two-acre clearing of crisp green grass. In front of his home, by the road was a tall metal sign with the words “The Last Bullet” and a painting of a rifle bullet. He spoke to his wife, who was just pulling out of the driveway in a station wagon. Then he drove back to us and said, “Just follow her and she’ll lead you out.”
“How far is it?” I asked.
“About eight miles.”
We followed the station wagon along the narrow gravel road paralleling the Wabash River. Looking at the river and the endless cornfields to the right, Cathy said, “This looks like a scene out of Deliverance. Do you think they could be leading us into a trap?”
“Nah, don’t worry. We got three loaded pistols. Besides, that guy looked like a retired cop or soldier. You could see it in his eyes.”
We continued following the wagon till we reached a highway. The lady stopped, rolled her window down, and explained the directions we had to take to get back onto Highway 59 and I-64. We expressed our thanks, turned the air on, and drove off.
After that one hurdle, we stopped in Oklahoma to visit our daughter and her family. Then we followed historic Route 66, detoured to Meteor Crater in Arizona, and made our way to the California coast, finishing our 2,300 mile journey at my favorite watering hole. It was Wednesday night, August 27, when we arrived in front of O’Malley’s On Main in Seal Beach to meet our eldest son and his fiancée. As we stepped out of our van, I smelled warm salt air and heard the heavy, rhythmic beat of ocean waves slapping on the shore. I was home.
Cathy in front of our Huntington Harbour home.