"Can you imagine?" my dad would say, and then we knew our family was about to move - again. A former high school dropout and runaway, my dad had turned his life around and married his childhood sweetheart. When the Korean War broke out, he had developed a talent for mechanical drafting and got a job in Colorado. He talked about his life from that point on as if it were a hero's journey. "Can you imagine?" he said when he told Mother about the new job. "They're going to pay me to go to school!"
John Kennedy delivered his "Ask not ..." speech, and I was just starting second grade when Dad announced an opportunity for a career change. He was going to work as an aerospace engineer, fulfilling his dream to be part of the space program. "Can you imagine? We're being transferred to South Dakota!" Then he began to list all the things we'd get to do: camping in the Black Hills; a visit to Mount Rushmore; a trip to Deadwood City where Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane made history.
I'm told that when he took me to a dinosaur dig in the Badlands outside Rapid City, S.D., I pointed to a worker and said solemnly, "That's what I'm going to do when I grow up." Dad answered, "Honey, you can do anything you want. I'm the living proof."
It was the summer before I started fourth grade when Dad was promoted again and we moved to a suburb of Little Rock, Ark. One night after the move, I was taking a walk with him, telling him about my new friend who liked Nancy Drew mysteries as much as I did. We stopped under a huge sweet gum tree to watch fireflies sparkle in the humid air around us. "Did you ever imagine we'd live in a place as beautiful as this?" he asked me.
We were still reeling from the Kennedy assassination when Dad came home, saying once again, "Can you imagine?" He hugged my mother. "They're going to pay me to move to California." But when I listened to them talk happily far into the night as if California were the Promised Land, I wanted to cry. I didn't want to move again. I loved my Girl Scout troop, and I was in the breathless throes of my first crush.
I was very sad when we packed again and began the long car trip west. We rolled into Arizona on New Year's Eve. Dad's car developed engine trouble and it had to be towed to what Mother's stories would refer to later as "a wide place in the road."
Yes, the gas-station owner said, he could fix the problem, but he'd need a part from Tucson, and he was closing for the holiday. He suggested we check into the dingy motel next door (which his sister operated). He told us that if we needed groceries, we'd better get them soon, because his brother-in-law was also closing until after the New Year's celebration.
I grumbled when I noticed the motel pool was cracked and drained. Dad really tried to cheer me up, offering to buy me a comic book - or even two comic books. But I wanted my Nancy Drew mysteries, now packed into a moving van somewhere. He said I could have a soft drink from the motel vending machine, but all that was left was orange soda, and I told anybody within hearing distance how much I hated orange soda.
Mother, tired and stressed, gave me two choices: I could shut up, or she could slap me. Dad and I were shocked that my genteel mother had said "shut up." When Dad suggested a walk, I quickly followed him out the door.
The silhouettes of the saguaro cactus looked like eerie giants with curved prickly arms. When we started to walk away from the lights of the "town," I mentioned to Dad the possibility of running into rattlesnakes.
"We'll stay on the pavement," he said, and kept walking. He was quiet, the way he got when he was thinking or praying. After a while he said, "You know, California is a wonderful place. Can you imagine-"
But I cut him off. "I don't want to move to California!" I wailed. "I want to be with my friends. I don't want to be the new kid anymore."
Dad nodded, but he didn't say anything else until we started back to the motel. Then he said suddenly, "Did I tell you about the ocean?" I let out an exasperated sigh. "During certain seasons," he continued, ignoring me, "there are tiny animals in the water that light up when the waves roll up on the beach at night."
I thought about this. "Like fireflies?" I asked.
"Sort of like fireflies, except underwater. And the beaches," he said. "Can you imagine a place so warm you can swim in the winter?"
We walked along in silence.
"And I'll tell you something else," he said. "They have boats with glass bottoms."
"Glass bottoms?" I asked.
"Yep, so you can see the fish that swim under the boat."
Now that was something to try to imagine.
"And then, of course," he said softly, "there's Disneyland."
So I spent New Year's Day in a dusty little motel with no pool, drinking orange pop. I watched the parade on TV and flipped through the comic books. Mother and I were friends again. I was in a better frame of mind, wondering how a boat could have a glass bottom. Wouldn't it break?
We arrived in California a couple of days after New Year's, and we never moved out of state again. We rode in a glass-bottom boat and we marveled at plankton-lit ocean waves. We went to the beach year round and I discovered the dinosaur fossil collection at the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits.
A few years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, I enrolled in a college close to home, studied paleontology and archaeology, and began a life that did not include moving every few years. I visited ancient ruins in Mexico and pyramids in Egypt, though; and when I returned to recount my own hero's tales, my dad would listen intently.
At the story's end, he'd smile, nudge Mother, and ask, "Can you imagine?"