NOTE: I recently made a pilgrimage to old Home Leave territory. Here’s a look at why Winona MN matters so much. Excerpted from When the Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories: Growing Up in the Foreign Service, under completion. ~JKAL
The next day we left New York City and headed for the Midwest in a blue American car bigger than two Fiats put together. The rental was included in the Home Leave coverage by the Department of State, and it was a special deal because someone was waiting for the car in California. It even had a black and yellow California license plate, which stood out in a field of sunflower yellow and navy blue New York plates. Mom explained that in America, each state had its own plates, unlike the uniform European plates, the cars being associated with a country by the sticker on the bumper. It felt great to be a pretend Californian as we climbed in.
It was just the four of us again, Dad driving, Mom talking quietly to him, and Susie and I tucked into the back seat, me on the left side, her on the right side, headed off into an adventure. Instead of the Italian blue book country guide, Mom had an American map open on her lap; a hotel guide was at her feet. As we pulled out, Dad grumbled to himself, concerned about this American car’s unknown quirks, not solid engineering like the Mercedes.
The road was as wide as the Autobahn but cars went very slowly here, even my father, although my mother’s hand reached for the glove compartment now and then when he speeded up to pass a truck or pokey driver. Not many of them passed us, Dad saw to that: let one of them try and we’d hear “language.” The highway slipped under us, the distance measured in double and even triple digit miles: translated into kilometers, the number got even bigger. The hills of western New York rolled out into a long flat strip of Pennsylvania and the license plates switched to red and white.
We counted state license plates for a while, delighting in the designs and colors, so much prettier than the plain old black and white of European countries. By lunchtime, we’d moved on to the easier game of car colors, me counting the ones on the other side of the highway and Susie getting our side as we caught up to a car or truck. Of course I won, but she never figured out why. As the day went by, we left behind the nearly all the New York cars and cars with powder blue plates from Ohio started appearing. Children in the back seat of a car from California waved at us as we drove past them. I waved back, glad for my blond hair. We waved like crazy when we caught up with a car from Minnesota.
No one knew we were from Italy.
Ohio became Indiana. Mom played Hang Man with us, Susie and me guessing and Mom writing: writing and reading in the car gave me a stomach ache. We all played Twenty Questions, each of us taking turns thinking of an Animal, Mineral or Manufactured thing, counting questions and saying Yes or No. Susie sometimes had whisper the thing into Mom’s ear to be sure her answers were right, otherwise we could go for miles down the wrong path which made Dad and me real mad. When we got tired, Mom’s arm reached over the seat back, her red-tipped fingernails making soothing circles on our backs.
As the sun began to lower itself right into Dad’s eyes, Mom found a place in the hotel book where we could stop for the night. It was called a motel. Instead of a real building, it was a line of single rooms like boxy train cars, each room facing the highway. Ours had two double beds like normal and a TV: we watched an American show, the novelty of undubbed English as delightful as the very short commercials. Italian commercials were long, with a story and singing, and you had to guess what product they were selling.
In the morning, Indiana became Illinois. As we neared Chicago, Mom turned her watch back one hour: we hadn’t even gone to another country and it was earlier already. When we passed the sign saying we were in Wisconsin, Dad turned off the highway.
“Time for your first A&Ws!” Mom said. “This is where your father and I had lunch when we drove down to Chicago from St. Paul.”
My father pulled into a parking lot next to a concrete building that looked kind of like a garage except with a window where the door would be and a long canopy sticking out. A big brown and orange sign said “A&W Root Beer.” Dad pulled up alongside another car under the open air roof and rolled his window all the way down. Leaning out a little, he pressed a button on a machine that stood between us and the next car; I noticed that the machines were set up all down the parking spot.
A voice squawked from behind the perforated portion of the machine: “Hi! Welcome to A&Ws.What would you like?”
“Four California cheeseburgers, four fries, four root beers,” Dad said, only it sounded like rut beer, just like he said we were under a ruf. It’s South Dakotan. He rolled his window halfway up.
Susie said, “I don’t want a California cheeseburger. I want a Minnesota one.”
“That’s a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato. Let’s go wash up,” Mom said, meaning we went to the bathroom, and also washed our hands. When we got back to the car, a girl in a brown and orange uniform and army cap was hanging a tray of food right on Dad’s window. We climbed into the back seat and reached for the warm paper bundles he handed back to each of us.
“Careful with these, Janie.” Dad handed me two big glasses with handles, heavy with froth like the beers we saw grownups drinking in Garmich only darker. I gave one to Susie and took a big sip out of mine. It was icy and sweet and tangy all at once, and I felt a tingly mustache linger on my upper lip. I sunk my teeth into the gooey layers of hamburger, cheese, lettuce and tomato and gooshy American bread and tossed in a salty tender strip of potato and then another shot of the root beer. It was wonderful.
Mom bought cheese curds at gas station next door for an afternoon snack, and Dad pulled back on the highway. I sucked on my salty fingers as the sun arched lower in the sky. We crossed the Mississippi and were suddenly in Minnesota. Dad left the highway and headed up alongside the river. The road rose high, the Mississippi glinting below in the afternoon sun, brown and wide and strong, interrupted here and there by beige streaks of sand.
“See the sandbars, girls?” Mom said. “Maybe we’ll go out in the Rexstead’s houseboat this weekend. And there’s a barge.”
A long slow boat pushed its way along the river. Looking for barges. Watching for sand bars. Imagining a house floating on the river. Chewing on a rubbery cheese curd and wishing I had another mug of root beer. Wondering what Grandma was making for supper. No one in Italy has supper, just people in the Midwest, which is where we were now. Where we were from.
“Here’s Sugarloaf,” Mom said as the road veered away from the river. The mountaintop rock stood out against the evening sky like a sentinel. “And Lake Winona.”GooThe road wound down to where the lake began. “Here’s the Hot Fish Shop, girls,” Mom said.
Good Walleye,” Dad said. I remembered the picture of Mom and Uncle Jim fishing on the lake. She had on blue jeans and a plaid shirt like a kid. No ladies wore blue jeans in Italy.
We drove away from the lake, past a huge pink pig. “Piggly Wiggly,“ Mom said. Enormous arches of dark-leafed trees stretched across the street like in Meet Me in St. Louis only with smaller houses. We shuddered across railroad tracks and then we were there.
“478 Wilson Street!” Dad said.
I tried to reconcile the small house with the image in my mind from three years before, in winter. It didn’t look right until Grandma came out the porch’s screen door and down the three stone steps with her arms wide open and her cheeks all smiley. (To be continued….)