This morning while driving to the library, I turned right on a green light. The opposing traffic was, appropriately, stopped at the light. I would never have noticed this unremarkable fact, save for an unexpected movement that caught my eye. The car at the front of the line waiting in the intersection was occupied by an older man in a sensible four door, gray sedan, a fact I noticed only when he began to open his driver’s side door. For a brief moment I considered the possibility of a Chinese Fire Drill-type situation involving his small fluffy dog in the passenger seat. He didn’t get out though. He leaned out the door, hocked up a big loogie (official medical term), leaned back in pulling the door behind, and went on about his business. And I was suddenly back to the front seat of Grandpa Bier’s car, on the way to St. Mary’s School.
Grandpa Bier drove me and whatever of my siblings were at St. Mary’s to school every morning, except for when he and Grandma were in Florida. During that 6-8 week stretch we were forced to rely on my mother and were uniformly late. Grandpa’s routine was strictly punctual, and after dropping us outside the doors at the bottom of the hill, he would go to mass. If there was a Kindergartner in the mix that year, he’d hang around the parking lot and drive them home after the morning session. If there weren’t, he’d go to the Janesville Oasis for a coffee. Years later my youngest brother, Patrick, recreated this scenario before heading to high school, and his morning coffee klatch somehow received recognition as an official high school club, The Breakfast Club.
Anyway, the driving provided an invaluable service to my mother, his daughter-in-law. I believe he maintained his presence as a morning fixture int he gravel driveway until mom started driving the kids to school herself. This coincided with her return to the parochial school teaching force and swift ascent to the barely secular title “Sister Jan.” When Grandpa drove, I always rode in the front seat because I was oldest and age restrictions played to part in seating assignments. In fact, some of my happiest car memories as a grade school were spent perched on the armrest between two adults on the front bench seat. But when Grandpa drove, I occupied shotgun an experience of intimate proximity and uniformly stony silence.
There was no idle chit chat in the morning drive; apparently that was saved for coffee time. Instead, Grandpa waged a years-long battle, attempted to secure a clear reception of WGN news out of Chicago. He clearly entertained the belief that the static was not due to distance or broadcast strength. Rather, it had something to do with the heating system. This belief manifested as frequent shifts between gentle adjustments to the tuning dial and violent slams of the hot/cold control lever back and forth in an attempt to clarify what was never more than spotty reception at best. He’d pause occasionally: to retrieve a toothpick from the trim over the window, to yell at squirming miscreants (almost uniquely confined to the time when we also drove our cousins to school, a.k.a, “The Karl and Tim Era,”), and expectoration. Whenever we reached a stop sign or stoplight, he’d predictably open the door and produce a generous loogie, a sound that echoes clearly in my memory. My dad figures that his prodigious phlegm production had something to do with his history as a smoker, a persona that I have no recollection of as he quit right around the time of my birth. Probably his slow decline into various stages of heart failure didn’t help much either.
I don’t recall him every saying “have a good day” or “I love you”. His drop off procedure in front of St. Mary’s school was a thing of beauty, a no-nonsense slamming on of the brakes signalling that we’d better all bail and bail quickly before he lifted his foot again, distracted by his ongoing warfare with WGN radio. We’d catch up with him later at mass, which we schoolchildren attended on Wednesdays. We were encouraged to disperse among the regular attendees, a group of 20-30 mostly retirees. For a good 15 years, Grandpa’s entourage included an ever-changing cast of characters with various shades of blonde hair and the Bier cheeks. During the handshake of peace I’d get my hug and remember that, despite the strangely-punctuated silence of the car trip an hour or so ago, I was his Dolly.