A Fungus Among Us
By: Lisa H. Owens
Clearwater and Pensacola, Florida (1975)
It is a happy day in the manager's living quarters at the Royal House Motel. Lois, one of three recently hired maids, has given my dad an old car destined for the junkyard. His days of walking and hitchhiking to Liberty Bible College are over. Our days of bumming rides from anyone who happens to be going our way are over.
Dad, a former NASA aerospace engineer assisting in the design of the steering mechanisms for the original Apollo Space Missions in the early 1960s, is now the manager of a cockroach and rat-infested Florida motel in a back-alley sort of area behind a Roses Five and Dime Store as well as a full-time theology student at a tiny Pensacola, Florida Bible College.
My dad found Jesus in the early 1970's and realized from that point on, God had a plan for his life. He heard the Lord's voice giving him very specific instructions regarding everything from what to eat for breakfast to where to move his family of five for the next chosen career. The voice even told him which stocks to trade on the NYSE. I found it baffling that God would get so personally involved, down to the most minute detail with one person's life, but I was just thirteen, so what did I know?
"THE VOICE OF THE LORD" (the name we began to use to describe the voice) most recently told him to attend Bible College to become a pastor, so, in the summer of 1975, Dad quit his mechanical engineering job with Honeywell and sold the only house we'd ever owned. We prepared to leave Clearwater, Florida to make one final long road trip450 milesin the aged 1960 Volkswagen, that like the house, was the only car we'd ever owned. We were headed to the Royal House Motel in Pensacola, Florida, where a low paying management job that included housing awaited. Dad would begin his theological studies in early fall.
On moving day, we left before the sun came up, the six of us and our un-groomed miniature poodle, Fifi, squeezing into the tiny Beetle. The ride was going to be unbearable in the un-air conditioned car with my sister Julie, who was then eight-years-old, breathing into my hair from the way-back which is what we called the itchy wool luggage compartment that was her designated seat. Dad always said, "Get in the way-back, as he held the driver seat forward and his seat belt down for her to maneuver over and around on her short journey to the wool-lined hollow only meant for a small piece of luggage or a largish briefcase.
By now, she was too old and grown up to sit in such a claustrophobic space, but it was the only option until "THE VOICE OF THE LORD" got around to finding Dad a larger car. She complied, climbing in without complaining even though she immediately began to sound like she had a cold; but it was just the typical allergic reaction she had to the wool beginning to kick in.
"I need a tissue," she snuffled.
"Stop breathing on my head," I huffed and leaned forward only to be stopped short by the back of Dad's bright red hair and the comb-over, sparsely covering his bald spot.
"Scoot back! Now you are breathing on my head," Dad said. Mama looked back my way, briefly making eye contact. Her eyes brushed over the four of us kids, already sweating and irritable before we even made it out of our driveway. She rolled her window all the way down for maximum airflow, then fanning herself with the tri-folded Florida road map, turned away.
In such a small space, in order to make it work, we had a seating order. I sat behind Dad with Fifi in my lap. My brother Greg, who was ten, was directly behind Mama. Five-year-old Jeffrey was mashed in the middle while poor eight-year-old Julie seemed destined to live out her childhood in the way-back broken out in hives. They began to fidget and complain about the heat, so I tried to angle the tiny triangular back window to direct any poof of air our way, but that only blew dog breath in my face, and I silently gagged. This was going to be another very long and cranky drive.
Months after we had gotten settled into the motel manager's living quarters, the Beetle's engine caught on fire, leaving us without transportation. I had mixed feelings every time I passed the parking spot, once occupied by the matte-sky-blue bug, now a graveyard for its charred skeletal remains. That little guy was part of the family and had taken us on some memorable rides for over fifteen years.
The thought of the donated car is exciting though because it is large enough for us. No more packing six people into a car really meant for two. It was humiliating to draw a crowd everywhere we went, the six of us a veritable clown show.
Dad, having put his free car plan into place shortly after we arrived at the motel, as the Beetle became more and more unreliable, is the master of getting things for free, so even though a car is the most valuable thing he has ever elicited; it was not that unexpected.
Within earshot of anyone who would listen usually when he was drenched with sweat from his long walk home after classes he had been hinting about the "car situation" and "THE VOICE OF THE LORD" telling him that he would have a larger car soon. I have to wonder what else he said to finally convince Lois the motel maid and her husband Vern, to just give him the car. Dad's ploys are consistent so imagining the conversation is not that much of a stretch:
Dad: "It is a beautiful day, thank you, Jesus. A little hot though," as he pulls out the folded hankie he keeps in his pocket, blotting forehead sweat.
Lois: "It sure is."
Dad: "I noticed that you have been driving a different car the last few days. Is it a hmm third car for you and Vern?"
Dad: "What? Is that uhm wood panel on the sides? Is it a Pontiac? Do you even have room in your driveway for a third car?"
Lois: "Yes. It's wood paneling. No. It's a Plymouth and our driveway is big."
Dad: "I have been praying for a car. The Lord told me, ‘George, you won't be walking to Bible College much longer. I have a car waiting for you.' I am believing, in the name of Jesus, that there is a car out there with my name on it. I claim it. Hallelujah!"
Lois: "Okay. You look pretty hot, George. You should probably go inside."
Coincidentally, Vern shows up two days later driving their old Impala. He extends his hand holding car keys toward my dad, "You can have this car."
My dad shouts, "Glory!" Vern rides home with Lois, once her shift ends, in their new station wagon.
I guess I never really paid much attention to the car Lois was driving to work before because this thing is rough. Not safe to drive on the highway or really any road. It is big though and will easily accommodate the six of us with room to spare.
It is a sort of ecru color with some rust spots and those big church-pew-like bench seats front and back. The windshield has a long crack running diagonally across the entire width, but the scariest part about it is the front driver's side door. It won't close. In fact, anytime the car makes a left-hand turn, it flies open. All the way open. I am beginning to think my dad actually did Lois and Vern a favor by taking that car off their hands before one of them ended up falling out into the street.
The six of us stand around the car. Dad cocks his head to one side, and in an attempt to get it to shut, gives the driver's side door a push with his foot. The bottom edge drops little rust deposits on the ground. Dad's eyebrows shoot up. He opens the door all the wayas far open as it will gothen slams it hard. Metal clinks and a tiny piece of the door trim shoots out and bumps his shin. The door is still not fully closed.
The wheels are turning in Dad's engineering mind, and he heads to the janitorial closet, just off the motel lobby, and disappears for a while. When he returns, he is carrying a long piece of heavy-duty rope. He opens the driver's door again and slides in behind the wheel, the length of rope still in his hand. He gently pulls it shut behind him and wheels toward the inside door panel with a vengeance. His arms are moving furiously as he maneuvers the rope up and down and side to side as if weaving a macramé plant holder. I see his face redden and at one point, cranking down the window, he yells "Water!" When Dad says "Jump!" we ask, "How high?" My brother turns and runs for the kitchen returning with a jelly jar of tap water thrusting it toward him. Dad grabs the glass, upends and guzzles, then hands it back empty. We nod in solidarity as Dad cranks up the window, exits, closes, and then out of habit, locks the door The door isn't even closed, I think, rolling my eyes upward toward the heavens.
Dad strikes a carpool deal with his friend Ben, a fellow theology student. My dad will drive mornings, stopping to pick up Ben's three kids and drop all seven of us off at Liberty Christian School, the school affiliated with the college, on his way to class. My poor mom would be abandoned to man the motel switchboard and check-in any guests crazy or brave enough to want to stay at the cockroach-infested Royal House. Ben would be the after-school ride home, which was a much better deal for him, since he was driving both ways before.
On the first day of the carpool, my stomach feels a little queasy worrying about the driver's door and rope situation. Greg, Julie, Jeffrey, and I tentatively approach the car. Being the oldest earns automatic shotgun so I sit in the front. I notice that the dashboard is glistening with moisture and there is a light fog on the inside of the windows even though everything was buttoned up semi-tight (there was that one inoperable door) and locked when we left it the day before. I touch the glass to my right and pull my finger back wet. I quickly scribble "HELP" then look to my left.
Dad is behind the wheel tying the loose end of the rope, in what appears to be a granny knot, around his waist after carefully threading it up, under and around the steering wheel. The other end, the end he had previously used the macramé technique on, makes a figure-eight from the window crankto the door handlethen up through the little armrest affixed to the inside door panel. He gives the door a flat-handed push and nods his satisfaction that the door remains fast. Even though I am fearful of him falling out while making a hard left-hand turn, my dad, having been a pilot in the air force as well as a rocket scientist, knows all about safety and tying fancy knots. Still, I rotate away and add "SOS" to my window message. "THE VOICE OF THE LORD" doesn't seem to care very much about our comfort or safety.
"Why is everything so wet?" Jeffrey, always inquisitive, speaks up from the backseat.
"It's Florida. It's humid," Dad says.
"But why is it wet inside the car?" Greg asks in a concerned voice.
"Must be because of the crack in the windshield," Dad says, pulling out the hankie and clearing a head-size spot on the glass in front of him, the rope somewhat hindering his movement.
Three voices behind me shriek in unison as fingers point skyward, "And WHAT is that?"
Wrapping my arms around my head for protection, I gaze up at the ceiling. It is covered with a slick, mossy green and black growth.
Dad glancing up then back down, chuckles, "Oh. It's just a little fungus among us." He snugs the rope a little tighter around his body, cranks the engine, and off we go.