WRONG WAY, RITA!

wrong way

In the summer of ’64, on our way home from a job at a dude ranch in the hills outside Santa Rosa, I had a bright idea: “Let’s stop in town to see Aunt Rita. She’ll probably spring for dinner!”

“Dinner?” said Kevin, my work buddy whose old red station-wagon was loaded with our stuff. “Sounds great—almost anything would be better than the grub at camp.”

That wasn’t quite true. We’d been eating free-range beef all summer long. But I really wanted to see my great-aunt. She had often taken me to the movies—Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments,” Mario Lanza in “The Seven Hills of Rome,” Elvis Presley in “Flaming Star.” She was a cool old lady.

Soon Kevin and I were banging on the door of Rita’s 1890 gingerbread, built by her dad around the same time as the old stone church with the big loud bell across the street. When she came to the door I could tell by those smiling eyes shining out of her wrinkled face that she was delighted to see us. “What’s this?” she says, raising her hands as though to hug us both, “Two handsome young men to take me on a date?”

“Would you like to go to dinner?” I laughed.

“Sure would,” she said. Then she saw Kevin’s battered station wagon at the curb. “But I’ll do the driving!”

A minute later she was backing her “new” car—“only four years old!”—out of the carriage shed. As the big bell in the church across the street rang five times to signal the hour, Kevin and I beheld Rita’s ride—a 1960 Ford Edsel. Although the car was in mint condition, it was still homely as hell, owing to a bunch of shapes that didn’t quite mesh—a sporty grill, cumbersome fenders, and boxy cockpit that became a monument to blockheaded design the instant it rolled off the assembly line.

Nobody would ever accuse Rita of being pretentious. Paying no mind to fashion, she wore clothes that hid her lumpy body, protected her from the elements, and didn’t smell too bad. She actually liked her Edsel.

“Climb in, boys!” she said, and soon we were rolling down the road to her favorite diner a mile or so out of town. As she informed us of the offerings—the fried chicken, the cole slaw, the cherry pie—she somehow managed to get on the wrong side of the highway, no doubt thinking this the quickest way to Carly’s Smorgy. We could see the big red-and-yellow sign.

Kevin and I freaked out. “You’re going the wrong way!” we cried.

“Nonsense!” she shot back. “I’ve been going down this road my whole life!”

Well maybe so. But this particular stretch was now a divided highway, the rural rush hour had begun about the same time the church bell rang, and several cars were coming right at us.

“Oh, botheration,” mumbled Rita, and neatly—confidently—drove her beautiful Edsel over to the shoulder, which allowed us to make our way unimpeded to the restaurant.

“Best damn dinner ever,” said Kevin as we headed home with full bellies.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Thank God we lived long enough to eat it!”

 

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