My mother parked the truck on my foot three hours after my father told me that he loved me. It was March 1965, I was 20 years old, and that was the first time my father ever said anything like that to me. The half-ton pickup truck parked on my foot was also a first.
Tom Brokaw titled his 1998 book The Greatest Generation. They were citizens, the NBC news anchor writes, "who came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America - men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today. My parents belong to the Greatest Generation, and my father is one of the 67,960 World War II veterans currently residing in San Diego County. Brokaw reflects on how people like my parents married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinct generation, the Baby Boomers, while "always staying true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith." Brokaw accurately locates my parents and me in our respective generations, but his eulogy to a passing epoch does little to explain what happened on that long-ago spring afternoon. It is physician-poet William Carlos Williams who gets it right. "The pure products of America go crazy," he writes, and yes, on that afternoon in March, 36 years ago, driven to a point of desperation, my parents and I, each ill our own way, were indeed mad.
York Mitchell is my father. The word carries Victorian associations of formality and patriarchy; "Father" is an ancient oak tree offering shelter against an uncertain world. For me, "mother" is a word with more active associations. It is the wind passing among the oak's deciduous leaves, a river of green air that combs life through that tree's stolid presence. A father is only a little less special than mom. (Our first word, after all, is usually a cry meant for her.) Peggy Mitchell is my mother. My brothers and I have always called her "Murr," a child's slurring of "mother" that is pronounced like "purr." l called her "Murr" that evening in March in front of the Greyhound bus depot.
It was not quite seven, the sun was descending beyond Broadway on the further edge of the blue bay, and she was double-parked. Anxious about the traffic, she'd left the truck running while I buzzed her cheek, jumped out, and pulled my suitcase from the back. Standing near the front of the truck, I said something that she, her foot on the gas and prepared to leave, did not hear. "What?" she asked, looking at me through windshield.
She yanked up on the hand brake to halt the truck's slight forward movement.
Whatever I'd just said was forgotten. The wide gyre of thoughts was instantly reduced to just one ridiculous image that surely would have been funny if it were not that the half-on truck was on my foot.
"Murr," I said, framing my words carefully, "the truck is on my foot." Comprehension did come to her at once.
"What?" she said again.
"Murr&mdash!" my voice wrenched tighter, the volume upped so that I was close to yelling, "the truck is on my foot!"
The mocha brown 1962 Corvair truck-was snub-nosed with an automatic transmission and motor in the rear. It featured two panels, one at the back and another that dropped open on the passenger side. At the time, the advertising campaign made much of this second panel. Television ads featured an elephant climbing into the bed where, as I recall, it trumpeted. It felt like the truck was holding an elephant now.
She got the message. With panic breaking apart her features in chunks like a sugar cube dissolving in hot water, said, "What do I do?" Her voice was low, the tone almost conversational, but her gaze was bright and unfocused like a drunk's, and her mouth was an anxious smear.
"Drive forward," I said. "Take your foot off the brake and drive forward."
"Okay," she said. "Okay." Popping the hand brake and gripping the steering wheel, she leaned forward and pressed her chest against the wheel as if this gesture might help to propel the truck. Then she laid her foot lightly on the gas. The engine gently revved, and there was a slow forward motion - no more than a couple of inches - and the truck made a slight but noticeable dip as it rolled off my foot and onto blacktop. She groaned, "Is it off?"
I wiggled my toes inside my sneaker. The toes worked fine, and from what I could see, at that darkening hour my sneaker showed only a faint smudge of the tire tread. (At the age of 20, I was almost as worried about my white sneakers as I was about crushed bones.)
"It's okay," I said. Switching my suitcase from one hand to the other, I stepped onto the sidewalk. "See, I can walk. It's fine." I had reached the door to the bus terminal with its logo of a lean silhouetted greyhound when she came to her senses. "Go to a doctor!" She was leaning across the seat and calling through the passenger window. "As soon as you get to school, go to the doctor! Do you hear me?"
I yelled back a promise and then, waving, disappeared into the terminal where I gave in to the urge to limp. Standing in line to board the 12-hour nondirect bus to San Francisco, with a stop in Oakland, my foot was hot.and my toes felt splayed and flattened out like cookie dough. Stopping to one knee I slipped off the shoe and inspected the sock for blood. There was none. The foot showed no Swelling or discoloration, so I decided to forget about it. After all, mind is said to triumph over matte (however discomforted), and in my case it was easy because I had something important to mull over. My father had said he loved me. More than 36 years after the events of that day, it is this announcement that leaves me slightly breathless and hurts in a way my foot never did.