Painting Summer's Passing...
When I was a kid my Dad painted on cars...mostly on vans. I remember him painting on perfectly fine automobiles whose owners had decided that they needed just a smidge more paint on what was already a pretty thoroughly well painted vehicle. He did custom pin-striping and detailing in both the driveway and at various truck-ends across the country. What the hell is a truck-end? Good question. It's basically a weekend where dudes in vans gathered to show other dudes their vans. To a small boy, it was camping, with a strange and usually drunk assortment of unique 70's type characters hanging around, and ridiculous murals on the sides of ridiculously pimped out vans. To my Dad I'm sure it was much more than that. It was recreation, escape, and probably (sorry Dad) a way to cling to the freedom and irresponsibility of youth. He was, after all, just a young, young man when my brother and I were born. Truck-ends were my Dad's way of riding the wake of what the sixties left for young men who didn't leave for wars or the West Coast. Plus people paid him to take a steady hand, a fine paint brush, and an assortment of paints, and skim long curving lines above their wheel wells, or around their tail lights. Even I know that anytime you can get paid to wield a paint brush you take it, even if it does mean surrounding yourself with people in bell-bottom jeans who smell of marijuana and sweat.
My brother and I made a lot of friends on those summer weekends, and my family has a lot of photographs from that time (if my father ever digs them out of the Tutankhamunesque tombs of assorted junk and valuables he has amassed in garages, warehouses, and one barber shop over the years). Labor Day always reminds me of those times when my Mom would pack up the van and the family's collective bags as my brother and I were off at camp or at a friends, and my father was at work. The instant we arrived at home we were set on a maternal assembly line to get clean and fed, while my father followed our harried lead with a splash of Brut cologne and flick of deodorant (wildly grown up trappings to an eight year old boy) and then tossed a few last minute things into the already packed and running van (probably an ice and beer packed cooler)..vroooom, off to Watkins Glen, NY, or Milan, MI or wherever all those bell-bottomed marijuana smelling sweaty people were with their ridiculous vans that needed even more ridiculous pinstripes and tail-light accents. It was a fun way to grow up.
Eventually the nights around the campfire got colder, and the crowds thinned out and you knew it was almost time to go back to school. Strange how eventually the whole world that we lived in felt the same way. The scene soon faded and left my Dad with only a garage full of memories and only real camping trips (the kind with smores and Coleman stoves instead of Doobie Brothers concerts and coolers full of Strohs) with family members and friends. The oh-so interesting sweaty, marijuana smelling, bell bottomed van enthusiasts and half-anarchists that the sixties left numb and grasping for meaning by customizing what was once the lamest of Detroit assembly-line creations, the van, were gone. They were spending more time at work, more time at home, and more time regretting the previous decade's mistakes and missed opportunities. If the seventies were anything they were desperate and regretful for the people who didn't get what the sixties were selling. A good job and a moderately expendable income tempered the times. For my Dad, and for the rest of us, there must have been one last Labor Day that ended one last summer where the world hadn't caved in and gotten too mundane and too real. Surely both symbolically and in reality, there was one last truck-end on one last Labor Day weekend that ended it all...an Altamont for the automotive infatuated and real-life assuaged.
Summer's over, and just as I remember, this weekend isn't just the start of the end, it is the end. Eventually no one wants their van pinstriped, and no one wants to load the cooler up, and certainly the van isn't packed and running in the driveway when you get home. It's been a long time since I saw my first boobs at a truck-end, and since I first found excitement in weekends and the road, and I'm sure my Dad can tell you how long it's been since he's thought of anything or anyone from those caravan days between growing up and wishing that you hadn't. Labor Day will always feel like the end of more than just summer for me. It feels like the end of a lot of great things. I can't remember the last time I saw my Dad leaning over waxed and polished Detroit steel, his pinky finger pointed awkwardly out, the heal of his palm dragging across the gentle bend of a shining quarter panel and a tiny brush trailing his steady hand. I used to like watching him do that. He was good at it. Sometimes the memory makes me wonder just what it will be that Zoey remembers about me. I'm quite certain that it won't be bell-bottoms, sweat, and the smell of marijuana, but those weekends in the company of madness and Mag wheels taught me a few lessons... the weekends never really need to end, not if you don't want them to, and hippies don't transition into other irresponsible forms of citizenry very well. I also learned that even when Labor Day says it's over you don't have to put the paintbrush down. Even now, after all these years, I think I'd like to watch my Dad paint up a quarter panel or trim a tail light. Maybe it's weepy nostalgia, or maybe more, I dunno...all I'm really sure of is that all of my best childhood memories happened before Labor Day, and a lot of them, despite me rarely saying so, with my Dad. A lot of those memories answer a lot of questions about who I am and how I see the world, that little paintbrush did more than leave clean, straight lines...it painted a lot of memories.
Happy Labor Day folks...you too Dad. I'm thinking that a camping trip might be in order.