Only those who navigated this country's tedious roads before the days of the Interstates will remember the gritty satisfaction of grinding out 100-mile chunks along tortured hauls like, say, the 600 miles from Washington, D.C., to Indianapolis.
This was my particular route one sunny Friday in July, in the early 1960s: I had just achieved a relatively high-speed phase of this effort along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But my quiet satisfaction was suddenly erased in one dark instant of truth. If I were to glance behind me, I knew I would not see my suit hanging in the back seat. It was still in my closet at home - 150 miles ago.
This was not according to plan. I had an all-day conference Saturday, and in the rock-ribbed, conservative world of that day, I simply had to be attired in suit and tie. There was no alternative.
Recovery schemes raced through my mind. I would arrive at my destination too late in the day to buy a new suit. Besides, such a purchase would severely press my immediate finances, which at that time had not been liberated by credit cards. This economic constraint weighed heavily against my pulling off along the way somewhere earlier to find a department store. Plus, I didn't want to lose my momentum in eating away at those 600 miles.
Possessed of some little animal cunning I'd developed while recovering from other personal foul-ups, I was soon onto an angle. At the next Turnpike stop I called my wife's office. When she got to the phone, she announced, "You forgot your suit." There was no argument from me.
"Here's what I need," I said. "Put it in a suitcase, drive over to the air-cargo office at National Airport, and have the suitcase shipped to Indianapolis, where I'll pick it up."
Barbara could have chosen this opportunity to fill me in on items of related interest at her end, but she did not waste time. She was a legislative aide in an Oklahoma congressman's office, and had a track record for bold, quick action in times of need. I was still to learn how quick and how bold.
It was 11 o'clock Friday night when the suitcase arrived at the Indianapolis airport. Apart from losing an hour or two of sleep, I was spared the ignominy of feeling hundreds of wrinkled noses pointed at my rumpled sportshirt and jeans at the conference the following day. A decent recovery, all things considered, I would tell myself later that Saturday evening, as I pulled an all-nighter driving back to Washington.
After picking through heavy fog for much of the last 100 miles home, I was numb from fatigue when I finally arrived about sunup Sunday. As I crawled under the bedcovers, Barbara began filling me in on events of interest from Friday in Washington, while I'd been driving to Indiana. The words only vaguely sunk in, at that point. But they would sink in, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, "soon, and for the rest of my life."
Barbara offered three news items:
(1) Upon realizing I had forgotten my suit shortly after I left, she had phoned the Maryland State Troopers with a description of my car, to flag me down. They reported to her later that morning that they hadn't been able to spot me. (My foot was prone to be heavy on the accelerator, so it may have been just as well.)
(2) Ratcheting up her effort, Barbara then phoned a morning talk show we listened to often on WRC radio, called Hardin and Weaver, to page me over the air about my suit. This resulted in Weaver, the wisecracking half of the morning team, to cheerfully advise me - among other things - "Hey, Terry! Barbara says to come home. You forgot your pants." But I missed this new experience of being talked to over the radio because I was tuned into a classical music station that morning.
(3) The dominoes had started to fall, though. When Barbara arrived at National Airport's air cargo office later on Friday, requesting that the suitcase be shipped to Indianapolis, the clerk at the counter intuitively asked, "Are those Terry's pants?"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor