We crossed the two-mile long Champlain Bridge over the St. Lawrence River and turned south on Quebec Autoroute 15 toward the US border. The snow was still falling steadily and the river below was pitch black. Some plowing had been done on the highway heading south past the bridge, yet there were places where the only exposed pavement was two tire-made tracks in the right lane. There were not many cars on the road, and most of them drove steadily about 10 mph below the speed limit.
"It's a good thing Quebecers know how to drive in bad weather," Dad said as he followed a faster car in the passing lane.
"And their snow tires help too," I said.
"Yes, son," Dad added. "Without good winter tires in Canada, you might as well be driving on a skating rink."
As Dad passed slower car, he explained to me, "You can't be shy when you pull out into the snow. You need to keep your foot steady on the gas and move the car firmly into the other lane; otherwise the snow over there will push you back. You also can't pass too fast; otherwise you'll risk getting out of control and hit the other guy."
Dad showed me a neat trick for driving in the white stuff. He quickly oscillated the steering wheel back and forth, "If you jiggle the wheel quickly like this, with your right hand near the top of the wheel, and your other hand lightly on the side, you'll keep better control of the car in snow. If you hold the wheel too tightly, then you risk overcorrecting too quickly when you lose your track, and you can wind up in the ditch."
Later, Dad explained how to pump the car's brakes to stop quicker and safer in slippery conditions [there was no ABS yet on 1970s cars]. "If you slam the brakes, your wheels will lock, and you'll skid out of control." As we slowed down to approach the US border, Dad demonstrated the technique, "You see how that works. You get better braking this way because your wheels keep on turning."
I listened to my father intently, watched his motions, and was glad he was driving. In all his years behind the wheel, he never had an accident, never became stuck in the snow, never slid off the road. Once, he left his car running by the side of a Montreal street on a cold, early-December evening as he crossed over to drop a letter into the postbox. He was gone only a minute, yet a stranger jumped into his car and stole it from right in front of him. We all wondered afterwards if we would make it to Florida that year for the holidays. After a week, the police called saying they found his vehicle left abandoned and on blocks on a Montreal back street. Relieved, Dad had his car back within another week with a new radio, new tires, fresh upholstery, and with a greater appreciation for auto insurance. That was the only time I can ever remember Dad having a car-related mishap.
Heading south on the autoroute, the only light came from the halos of car headlamps going in both directions, and the occasional rural road street-lamp off the highway. As we neared the Canadian-USA border, the crusty snow-covered flat farmland of the St. Lawrence River Valley turned to thick second-generation forests. It was nearly 6 a.m. when we arrived at Champlain, NY, the start of I-87 South, which would take us to New York City. We were among a handful of cars waiting in line.
"Good we left early," Dad reminded us.
We had been through the US border many times before. The rest of us knew to stay quiet while Dad did all the talking with the border guard. The guard wore a big parka and was leaning out of his little border cabana-hopefully he had an extra heater in there on this cold Christmas day. He and Dad exchanged smile-less hellos, and my father handed the US official all our Canadian passports. The guard examined the papers and looking at our pictures for a moment. He said to my father, "I see you and your wife were born in Czechoslovakia. How long have you been living in Canada?"
"We immigrated to Canada in 1949 and became citizens five years later," my Dad responded. "And our two sons were born in Canada," he added as he motioned to us in the car.
The border official now asked a series of questions about the purpose of our trip, how long we will be in the US, and if there was anything we had to declare. To the guard's prescribed laundry list, my father gave his preconceived answers: "We are going to Florida again for two weeks for the holidays," and "I'm bringing over a carton of Canadian cigarettes and a couple of pouches of tobacco for my own use," and "We have no alcohol with us; it's cheaper in your country," (he said that one with a bit of a grin), and "No, we have nothing we'll leave in the US," ("except maybe some money," I figure my dad was thinking to himself.) The US border guard's face remained expressionless throughout their conversation.
Before his and Dad's short, scripted salsa was over, the bundled-up official looked at each of us through the car's open front and frosty rear windows-luckily he did not ask us to open our bulging trunk. He handed Dad back our papers and said with a more upbeat tone, "Welcome to the USA. Have a good trip."
Dad put our car in gear, and we were on our way. As we departed "our home and native land," I sat up straight and felt myself perk up about having crossed the frontier without a hitch. "Look out US of A, the Simkovitses are here."
The US was less than an hour's drive from downtown Montreal, but it felt like another world. Dad picked up speed on the interstate, "See how the US highways are wider, better plowed, and have less cracking and buckling than our roads in Quebec. In our la belle province , we don't have the kind of money that the US spends on its roads. And, just like in France, the Quebec unions are so powerful that they close down the whole construction industry for two weeks in the summer-in the middle of their prime season-so that the workers can take a vacation."
I jumped in, "And there are a lot more billboards here too." The Marlboro cowboys, Camel humps, and Captain Morgan pirates that showed up all along the east coast gave me an opportunity to read and day dream about other things than what was in my comic books and sci-fi paperbacks.
I opened a map of New York State to keep myself occupied as well as to help Dad with any directions or distances he might ask for. "Just over 30 hours more of driving," I said with a smile.
Steve was looking out the side window at the lightly falling snow from his sardine can of a back seat. "Ya! We're almost there."
The snowfall subsided. "Funny how it stops snowing south of the border," I said to no one in particular. "Maybe that's how the Americans chose where the border should be when they defeated the British in the American war for independence."
"Had they made it 50 to 100 miles further north, there would have been no Canada," my brother chimed in. "I don't think the British would have retreated to Chicoutimi or North Bay."
I said nothing. Considering those places were even more like the North Pole than our ice- and snow-bound Montreal, it was one of the few times I agreed with my brother.
Morning light started to form towards the east over Lake Champlain. Dad looked towards his left and said, "Soon it will be daytime." I was the only one who heard him because Mom and Steve had fallen asleep. Content to provide Dad some company, I stayed awake while he drove and they snoozed.
My father had been a business owner from the time my older brother was born. Four years after coming to Canada with Mom, Dad started and built a record-player and console-stereo manufacturing company, with RCA Victor being his biggest customer.
My brother and I rarely saw our father at home when we were kids. Six days a week he left the house and went to work before we were up for school, and he came back at night usually after we were in bed. My dad also took the day of rest literally, for he spent most of Sunday snoring on the couch in front of our living room's blaring RCA TV console-a non-production sample he said he "bought for peanuts" right off of RCA's showroom floor. Dad did awake for Sunday supper-a Hungarian feast of beef goulash, stuffed cabbage or chicken paprikash that Mom served us in front of the Ed Sullivan Show and The Wonderful World of Disney-before he nodded off again during Bonanza.
Once a month, Dad took us all out for church on Sunday mornings into the city, followed by lunch in Montreal's Chinatown for yummy sweet and sour chicken, gooey garlic spareribs, rich chicken fried rice (on which we generously doused the sparerib sauce), and buckets full of Chinese tea to wash it down. Afterwards, widescreen Cinerama movies at Montreal's downtown Imperial Theatre, or duckpin bowling at Laurentian Lanes nearer to where we lived, would fill out the afternoon before we headed home for another round of Sunday night television and, on these days, Mom's leftovers from the week.
It was Mom's job to cook for, clean up after, and oversee homework for her boys. Six days a week, she raised us pretty much on her own until Dad sent us to boarding school in rural farmland Quebec for our high school years. Our annual trips to Florida were one of the few times we had Dad to ourselves, especially after he quenched his tiredness by snoozing on a lounge chair either by the pool or on the beach during our first few days there.
We drove down I-87 as the dawn grew. My father pulled out his pipe and tobacco pouch, asking, "Can you please clean and fill this for me, son?" My chest swelled as I followed Dad's instructions of scraping the bowl with a special pipe tool he carried in his pants pocket. "Just pour the burnt tobacco into the arsh tray," he said with a grin. "Then blow into the mouth piece to make sure nothing is stuck there."
After cleaning and blowing, I opened Dad's leather tobacco pouch and placed a few pinches of moist brown fibers into the bowl. "Don't pack it too tightly; otherwise, I'll have to suck too hard," he said with a wink. He handed me his gold-plated Dunhill lighter from his Cardigan vest pocket, "Here, can you light it for me, son?"
It felt good to be Dad's assistant-he could not light his pipe without taking both hands off the steering wheel. He sometimes did light up on his own while guiding the wheel with his knee, but this morning's snowy road conditions were not the time to perform such a trick.
I carefully struck Dad's Dunhill and hovered the flame over the pipe bowl, as I had watched my father do many times before. Thick fumes filled my mouth and throat as I inhaled the growing red glow of the tobacco. I let out a few coughs, yet kept them as quiet as I could so as not to disturb my mother or brother. The only consolation to my gagging was the scent of the pipe smoke; it was much sweeter than my father's putrid cigarettes that smelled like something rotten burning on a stick. Dad cracked open his driver's window once more to suck out the thickening smoke, and he took the pipe from me. Half smiling and half serious, he said, "You know, if I ever catch you smoking, I'll punch your nose."
"Yes, Dad," I responded, having heard his line many times before.
Dad and I talked quietly (actually it was more him talking and me listening) while Steve and Mom continued to catch up on their beauty sleep. "It was crazy busy in the company before the holidays," he started. "Everybody wants their orders out before Christmas. We had to hire extra people off the street. It resulted in some big headaches, and I had to fire some troublemakers, which made things even crazier in the factory. Luckily, we managed to get most everything out before the holidays."
He took a couple of more puffs from his pipe, "The bloody union tried to get in again; but I showed them," he said with a small grin (Dad never liked to show his yellowing teeth, along with the sizable gaps between the front ones.) "Some of the new people we hired turned out to be union organizers. They walked around the plant during breaks and lunchtimes to talk to the employees about joining."
"How did you find out?"
"Some of my long-time employees came quietly to tell me. And can you believe that it was the frigging French pipefitters union. Those guys have nothing to do with what we produce."
"So what happened?"
"The union reps try to sign up as many of the company's employees they can, and then take a vote in an open meeting of everyone," Dad explained. "If more than 50% of the people vote for the union, then the union would become the middlemen between me and the employees."
My father's face turned serious and his voice became a little louder, "Once those people get their hooks into you, you can't get rid of them. You would later need a 100% of the employees voting against them to get them out. Some bastard even sent me threatening letters saying there would be some kind of sabotage in the plant if I don't give in to the union demands. But we never figured out who it was, and could not tie it to the union. Otherwise, I could have put the guy in jail."
Dad paused for another puff, and his grin came back. "But I showed them this time," he repeated.
"I took some of my long-time, loyal employees off hourly wages and put them on weekly salary. This way, when the union rep came to count the employee punch cards [that hung on the wall in the factory lobby entrance] against who they had signed up, they thought they had their 50% in favour. Yet, when they took the actual vote in a meeting, they only got 33%.
"Now they have to go away and leave us alone for at least a year; or they might never come back," he added with a hopeful sigh. "And I will have to be more careful about who I hire. Those French union people are bums. They really don't care about the employees but only about their bloody union."
Smoke billowed out of my father's mouth (and maybe his ears too), "And, the people I fired are going to take me to labour court, with the union paying their way. But I would rather have that, and pay a fine, than those frigging bastards telling me how to run my business."
My father's crudeness sometimes got under my skin, yet his shrewdness as an entrepreneur impressed me. My dad was one for plotting with his business advisors and colleagues over drinks at their favorite Russian bar or Hungarian restaurant, and for scheming in his dreams in how to turn tight situations to his favour. "How could those damn union people think they could get away with causing trouble for my dad and his company?" Later, as an adult I reconsidered, "Dad was lucky to have gotten away with his entrepreneurial shenanigans."
Dad now asked me about how my last year at boarding school was going, what subjects I liked, and who my best friends were. I told him, "School's good; I got high marks again in math, physics, chemistry and geography, as well as great SAT math scores-I'm somewhere in the top few percent across North America." Before he could ask me about my weaker subjects of English, French and history, I named a few of my classmates he might recognize.
"You know," Dad interrupted, "languages have been so important in life. My own father put me into private school in Kosice for high school, like I did with you and Stephen here in Canada. It was a Hungarian school, yet I also learned Slovak and Ukrainian. Without having those other languages, which are related to Russian, I would have been killed by the Soviet troops when I defected from the Hungarian air force in 1943. The Russians were killing many captured Hungarians because they saw them as spies for Germany. Knowing Ukrainian saved me.
"The Russians put me into POW camp near Odessa by the black Sea. There I learned their language and became a go-between among the people in the camp. Then, when I came to Canada in 1949 after the bloody communists took over Czechoslovakia, I learned English; and within a few years was able to start my own business."
He gently put his right hand on my left arm, "You are very lucky here in Canada that you only need English and French to get along. So do your best to be good in those two languages. You and your brother are also lucky that I was able to send you to Tours [a university town in France] last summer to learn good française French, not the patois they use in Quebec that the farmers speak. So please don't lose what you have."
"Yes, Dad; I'm trying."
I looked out at the oncoming traffic. Languages did not come to me as naturally as they did to my father. Even high school English was a struggle, considering I had hardly spoken it when I entered elementary school. Mom had talked to my brother and me only in her native Hungarian until the day our school teachers told her, "Mrs. Simkovits, please only speak English to your children." Mom tried, but she was never comfortable or adept at her new country's tongue, so she regularly reverted to Hungarian and Slovak. I was glad to be heading into engineering school in the coming fall. The less reading and writing I had to do, the better. As with most of my high school chums who were leaving Quebec, I was also looking forward to attending Queens University in Ontario, or MIT in Massachusetts, where French was not important. I had enough of a time with English, so why muck it up with something else?
My father took a few more puffs of his pipe, opened his window a tad more, and asked me to turn up the car's heater a bit. "I hope you stay in touch with your good high school friends after you graduate; for it's just as important who you know as what you know."
Dad raised his pipe, "If I had not known Mr. Dumouchel, the head buyer at RCA, the way I did, then I might not have been working for myself today. When I showed up there looking for a job in 1953 (the year your brother was born), Doumie [what his close friends called him] instead gave me a purchase order for 500 record players and told me to start my own company."
I had heard the story before. Dad had left his former employer, Phonosonic (an RCA competitor), because the owner had reneged on a deal. My father had abilities in purchasing, cabinetry-making and electronic repair, so he talked Phonosonic's owner into becoming the first company in Canada to manufacture record players. While RCA and other major home-entertainment companies imported their products from the USA, Phonosonic's products were made more economically and on time by my father's crew in Montreal. Yet Phonosonic's owner did not deliver on a production bonus that my father had negotiated with him on a handshake, so Dad walked out. He then went to see Mr. Dumouchel for a job.
"Doumie knew me from the consumer electronics shows. He liked my character (I was always positive and a hard working), and I respected him like I did my father," Dad said. "After I told him what happened at Phonosonic, Doumie said, 'Johnny, I can't give you a job, but I can give you a purchase order. Go and start you own company and make product for us.'"
My father put his hand on my arm once more, "That's how our Montreal Phono got started, you know."
"Yes, I know," I said quietly. I continued to stare down the highway at cars that were turning off their headlights lights in the waking morn. I did not share my doubts though I wondered if I could ever be the war survivor my father had been, as well as the business entrepreneur he had become.
Dad turned on the car's radio to a low volume, and we listened to Christmas music. A Nat King Cole rendition of a Christmas song played, seemingly in sync with the windshield wipers going back and forth. The wipers pushed away any leftover precipitation and car spray to the beat of:
Chestnuts roasting over an open fire .. swish swish
Jack Frost nipping at your nose .. swish swish
It sat there watching cars heading to a warmer south (or the less fortunate ones pointing towards a colder north), anticipating the outside air becoming warmer each time we stopped for gas, and watching the world go by at 60 to 70 mph, or even 80+ when Dad could see an open road and no speed traps or cop cars in either direction.
The sky was still cloudy but brightening. Mom shouted out from her back-seat cavern, "Anybody hungry?" She leaned forward and showed her motherly smile, "I made lots of good things for us."
Dad wanted to waste little time or expense to reach Florida. It was not an option to stop for meals unless we ran out of food in the car, which was not possible with Mom in charge of that department.
Mom rummaged, poking her hands in and out of the shopping bags all around her and at my brother's feet. One container or plastic-wrapped package at a time, she opened and unwrapped the food she had spent hours the previous days preparing. She found the items she was looking for, and she passed them around to the rest of us, always taking the last for herself.
For breakfast, Mom's car kitchen included already-shelled hard-boiled eggs with freshly cut deli rye bread, as well as small cartons of orange juice and glass jars of apple juice with which to wash it down. Later, for lunch, she had prepared a stack of buttered (mayonnaise and mustard was only for Americans) wheat- and rye-bread salami and ham sandwiches. They were covered by a big slice of green pepper or a sour pickle, or were accompanied by carrots she had peeled and cut. She also had made a big container of fried battered chicken (just like Quebec's own Poulet Frit Kentucky) that we all dug into. In addition she brought our Eastern European favorites, like fried potato pancakes that were scrumptious cold. She had packed a yard of thin, spicy Debrecen kielbasa Dad had bought from a Hungarian butcher he knew in the city as well as a big container of thick, breaded ground-pork, -veal and -beef burgers called "fa-sirt" (meaning "the tree wept" in our native language-and not even my parents knew how Hungarians came up with that one.) Each of us could put down two or three of those yummy fa-sirts in one meal. We never had food "just enough for one tooth" (an expression Mom used for finger sandwiches and small tarts.)
"Be sure you all use napkin to eat with. I don't want food all over the car," Dad said.
"Yes, Dad," my brother and I responded, almost in unison.
Mom packed our favorite Cadbury's Dairy Milks and Rowntree's Coffee Crisps for dessert, along with some dense chocolate brownies she had baked. She liked to bake as much as she liked to cook for her family. She could never get those brownies quite right, for they shrank to less than half their risen height as they cooled in the pan. Nevertheless, I enjoyed their chewiness; they stuck to the top of my mouth and it took ten minutes of tongue work to get them off my teeth.
Dad usually avoided sweets, preferring to grab his pipe or cigarette, saying, "You guys can afford those things better than me." Dad was right; my brother and I had grown out of most of our childhood chubbiness through our private high school's mandatory sports programs, as well as our school's lunches of bland shepherd's pie and nutrition-less grilled-cheese sandwiches. Those meals boasted so little nourishment that kids would faint on our boarding school practice fields during afternoon sports, or crash dead-tired on their dorm beds afterwards.
Mom brought a bag of soft drinks, cans of Coca-Cola (she pronounced it Tsotsa-Tsola in her Hungarian accent) and Seven-Up for us kids. When I asked for Coke, my brother wanted 7-Up; and when Steve grabbed a Coke, I went for the other. Mom also brought big bottles of L'eau de Vichy (Dad called it "wishy water"; he drank it right out of the bottle). A French mineral water, it was my father's favorite carbonated drink. It settled an acidified stomach bred by late nights of Eastern European restaurant and barroom entertaining.
Car meals entailed a lot of reaching over and across our seats for hard-boiled eggs, fa-shirt, sandwiches, potato pancakes, fried chicken, rye bread, sodas, mineral water, pickles, carrots, green peppers, a salt shaker, and lots of napkins to hold our food. Mom held onto her one cutting knife. Arms went every which way; it was amazing that no one got hurt. We never had a major spill, for I would have remembered a loud "Hesus Maria" from Dad or a piercing "Isten orizz; God forbid" from Mom. Only when my brother and I held onto our stomachs, begging, "It's enough, Mom; I had enough," and Dad saying, " Elég Nusi , jól laktam; Enough Anna, I lived well," did my mother repackage our breakfast leftovers into their plastic or wax-paper wraps, and neatly repack them into their rightful shopping bags. With her job done, she resettled into her back-seat nook and looked out again onto the world outside her window, until the next time.
"Remember when it used to take us 36 hours over two-and-a-half days when we first drove to Florida twelve years ago?" Dad said as he finished his breakfast. He downed the last bit of his dry kielbasa-a favorite food he could eat at every car meal-wiped his slightly greasy mouth and fingers on a napkin, and then handed it back to Mom for collection and later disposal. "It's about four hours less driving now; and when the Interstate south will be fully done in a few more years, it will be less again by another few hours."
It had been over fifteen years since the start of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. Most East Coast sections were now complete. Mom had less to worry about-there were fewer crowded primary roads through the NY State Adirondacks and in the American Southeast for Dad to negotiate.
"I can't wait until the highway is fully finished," Mom shouted out from her crowded cavern. "The way you and that Needer drive on busy two-lane roads, I could get a heart attack back here."
George Needer always knew which exits and turnoffs to take (which he had written down for us on a slip of paper for our trip without him), and how fast one could drive over the speed limit in each state without getting pulled over for a speeding ticket. He had told Dad, "Be careful not to drive more than 5 mph above the limit in South Carolina and Georgia. Those poorer states need the money, and there are speed traps all over. The cops there have quotas and will catch you if they can." Though Dad usually avoided the traps that caught unsuspecting newbie travelers, he was stopped by a cop once or twice on pelting rainy nights and got a verbal warning for pushing just past the speed limit.
George taught Dad some driving tricks to use on busy, two-way roads where drivers slowed to below the speed limit as long caravans of cars followed a "local-yokel, Sunday- or woman-driver, old fogy, fuddy-duddy, slow poke." To complement my father's car-passing on straight roads where he could see far ahead, George had told Dad to watch a half-dozen cars ahead as we approached long bends. "Johnny, if you see a car up there jump out to pass in the bend, it means that no one is coming the other way. You can then follow the guy even though you can't yet see around the corner. When you see that car jump back into our lane while we are still in the curve, then you must jump back as soon as you can, for you know someone is coming the other way."
Needer was a master at this, flooring my father's Olds accelerator as he followed the passer up ahead-with his 5 mph rule flying out of the window during those passing moments. George sometimes left only a few seconds to spare before an oncoming car or truck zoomed past us in the other direction-luckily, they slowed down when they saw George coming. He drove like a cowboy riding a powerful metal steed, and it gave me a rush to sit next to him, watching us take over two, three or more cars (or the equivalent in RVs or trucks) at a time.
I relished it when Dad made these maneuvers himself, my heart pounding as he pulled out of traffic into the oncoming lane. "Yes! Okay!" raced through my mind as we left another fogy, young or old, behind us. Mom pleaded in Hungarian, "Isten orizz, Janny, please don't drive so fast. Don't be crazy like that fool Needer."
With a strong tone, Dad replied, "Ann, I know what I'm doing. I don't want to be stuck behind these old ladies."
My brother and I said nothing. He kept his nose in a Popular Science magazine and I watched the cars up ahead. I wished Mom wouldn't bother Dad when he was working so hard. I could see the satisfaction in his face as he won an edge over the slower drivers who followed a snaking row of vehicles meandering slowly south.
Over the years, I worked to quell some of Mom's "passing" fears by becoming Dad's co-pilot. I had learned to read roadmaps (which we bought during gas station stops) by studying them together with George during our long front-seat hours. Learning from his instruction, I found parallel secondary roads that allowed us to bypass traffic on the main routes.
Speeding down an almost deserted byway I had located on a Carolinas map, Dad said, "Good boy, Harvey! Find us another shortcut like that one!" My back-seat brother could never one-up my front-seat navigation.
From the time I was a kid, Mom sat in the back seat. When our family went to Sunday church in Montreal or to visit relatives and friends around the city, or when we went out for Saturday night birthday dinner celebrations or for Sunday afternoon drives into the Laurentian Mountains, my brother and I sat on the front bench seat with Dad while Mom had the back to herself. When Steve and I became too big to have the "three boys" up front, or if my brother and I poked each other one too many times (with Dad bellowing his Hesus Maria or Isten orizz cry to our brother-bugging ways), Steve and I traded-off on the front seat spot. He got it in one direction and I the other. When one or both of his sons sat next to him, my father was less likely to raise his voice. Mom took advantage of his more easygoing state to ask questions or make requests that otherwise might irritate him.
Settled into her backseat cockpit, my mother placed her summer purse of beige plastic with gold-metallic trim on her lap. It matched her hair and outfit. She reached in and pulled out a couple of recent, hand-written letters from her Czechoslovak family. My father's stomach was now satisfied from our car breakfast, and it was a good time for her to catch him up on the latest goings-on from home-he could not rush away as he did six days a week to get to his company's factory. Dad listened to her intently as she read and summarized family happenings in their native tongue. She switched to Slovak when she did not want my brother and me to understand.
A letter from Mom's Kosice sister, Irene, talked about how difficult it was to buy western goods in Czechoslovakia. Mom said, "They have a hard time getting things like radios, TVs, watches, even good cigarettes and tobacco, without having dollars or [German] marks. The government doesn't bring enough of those things in from Russia, and Russian products are like 'made in Japan' [referring to their poor quality]. The only way to get even a decent toaster or mixer is with hard currency on the black market or in TUZEX stores."
"Ya!" Dad said with a hint of annoyance. "The communists carry out their own legal black-market trade through those government-controlled import stores. They're hungry for western currency, want to take it away from the population, and hope that people like us here send TUZEX dollars back to our relatives over there to spend in those stores."
Mom came back, "Irene is asking if Bus ['Busch', the last name of Irene's husband] can come to Canada to stay with us for a few months next year. He wants to make some dollars painting portraits for us and our friends."
My mother took a breath into a frozen silence, said something in Slovak, and then added, " Mit gondolsz , Janni ? What do you think, Johnny ?"
Mom's brother-in-law was an artist who created oil paintings and portraits, as well as images in stained glass. He lived and worked in my parents' home town. His stained glass images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and various Catholic saints were in churches across eastern Slovakia. Our talented Bus could also take any color or black-and-white photograph of a person or couple, and within a few days, in his spare time, turn a photo subject into a remarkable likeness on canvas.
"Didn't Irene just finish staying with us for six months this past year?" Dad asked.
"That was just for a visit. Bus wants to work," she quickly responded. She took another breath, "They could really use the money. One Canadian dollar to them for food and clothes there is like ten dollars to us here."
"So then I'd have to find customers for him?" my father asked with a little displeasure.
"Irene says that he'll make a portrait of you and me first to hang into your office. All you need to do is let your friends see it when they come to make business with you. You can then ask them if they wanted one for themselves. Bus only wants 100 dollars Canadian for each portrait; and he'll do one free for us."
Dad's eyebrows and mouth tightened; I could see him thinking. He came back after a moment, "Maybe he should do one for each of us." Was my father signaling that he wanted only a painting of himself in his private business world, and that Mom should extort a second free one for herself from her brother-in-law? " Beszéljünk inkább errol késobb; Let's talk more about this later," he said, and he kept his eyes focused on the road and cars up ahead.
Mom said nothing more for now about Bus's visit, but she was certain to bring it up again. She laboured hard for her older siblings and their spouses. She had survived WWII in Budapest with them. She and ten close relatives, including her father and nephew, had used fake identity papers to hide across that city before and during the 1944-45 Soviet siege. They all survived, yet (as I would find out some years later) nearly all their Kosice cousins and their families perished in Hungarian labour camps, or in the Auschwitz death camp, or committed suicide before being sent away to those places. After the war, most of Mom's immediate family stuck together and moved back to Kosice, living as neighbors in the same city apartment building or blocks away. If Mom had to, she would pay Bus herself for the second portrait, and let Dad obtain the free one for his referral services.
Portrait of Dad, painted by Max Bus from an old black and
white photograph that was taken in the 1960s. Dad liked the
portrait so much that he paid Bus $100 for it.
We were a couple of hours south of the Canadian border, and the snow fall had totally subsided. The morning sky was cloudy but brightening each passing mile. The roads were dry through the rugged and frigid New York Adirondacks. The pine trees along the highway were laden heavy with white this Christmas Day. Walls of ice hung down sheer cliffs where waterfalls flowed three seasons of the year. The snow had been well-plowed off the road, and sat in high banks along the edge of the highway. Dad was pushing 80 mph on the interstate. I was reminded of his speed every so often because he had set the car's speed-control beeper (a high-end car feature in those days) at 80. It buzzed almost every time we went downhill, interrupting my reverie in the snowy soft-wood-tree filled mountains.
I turned around from my front seat perch and said to my brother, "Steve, how about we count license plates?" It was a game we played to see how many different state and provincial plates we could identify on passing cars. A point was given to the first to spot a different plate.
"There's NY State," Steve said as he looked out the side window at a faster car whipping passed us, starting the game off to his advantage. "And we have Quebec on our car," he added with an annoying smile. "I now have 2 points."
Our game kept on going for the whole trip, or for as long as my brother and I stayed interested. We each had to stay vigilant for different car plates both along the road and at gas station stops. Dad sometimes helped me out by quietly pointing to a different plate with his eyes, or a nod, or an index finger before my brother spotted it. "There's Vermont on that truck up ahead," I chimed in with a grin. "A point for me."
My brother said nothing more for now as he looked forward and back out his window, his eyes alert for passing vehicles.
The mountains, rolling hills and dense white forests soon gave way to the flatter lands and small towns of the Hudson River Valley. South of Albany, we turned off the interstate into our first gas station around 9 a.m. Mom said, "Okay everybody; go to the bathroom and don't touch anything. Put toilet paper down on the seat, and make sure you wash your hands because these places are always dirty." My mother was a bit of a clean freak, yet we (including Dad) abided by her hygiene and housekeeping rules, otherwise she might get riled. Mom was a caring mother who fed, clothed and cleaned up after her boys, yet her Isten orizz could rupture an eardrum if she became annoyed.
My father looked at the gas station's price sign and said, "Gas is cheaper here, even though our Imperial gallon is 15% bigger. Look! It's less than 40 cents a US gallon for high-test." He then looked at me with his eyes wide, "Harvey, it's time to get out your paper and pencil."
To pass the time on our interstate voyage, at each fill up Dad asked me to figure out our gas mileage and to keep tabs on our total gasoline costs. (George had instructed Dad to fill-up the car's gas tank the night before we left Montreal; this way we would know how many gallons we had used when we next filled the tank.) I liked numbers as much as Dad, and worked to calculate our gas mileage and costs along with him. I used a pad and pencil while he figured things out in his head. We competed to see which of us could arrive at the answer first. Most often, he won our little algebra duels.
When I was younger, Dad liked to tease me with silly math riddles to pass the time on long drives: "If you have two coins that added to 55 cents, and one is not a nickel, then what are the two coins?" Seeing a confused look on my kid face, he said, "Son, if one is not a nickel, the other one is."
My father had harder puzzlers for me now: "Your car gas gauge is broken and you want to figure out where the quarter-tank mark is on your cylindrical gas tank lying on its side in the back. What you have to measure the gas level is only a yard stick you can dip into the tank from an opening on top. You want to know where the quarter-tank mark is because you plan to refill the tank whenever it gets that low."
I struggled with the puzzle for a while, then said, "Gee, Dad, I know there has to be an easier way to get the answer than what I'm trying to do with my high school geometry. It seems simple, yet it's complicated."
A smirk formed on my father's face. "Okay; I'll give you a hint. You had a take-out pizza for dinner last night, and the pizza's empty carton is sitting in the back seat."
After another moment of pondering, I said, "Okay Dad, now you really got me. What the heck's the answer?"
Dad smiled. "First you take the circular corrugated cardboard that was under the pizza and pretend it's a cross-section of the cylinder. Then you fold it exactly in half, and cut it on that seam so that you are left with a half-circle cardboard. Do you get that?"
"I've got the half-circle cardboard," I said. "But it's not necessarily the same size as the gas tank cylinder."
"You'll see in a minute that it doesn't matter it's not the same size," Dad responded." The answer we come up with for the pizza carton will just scale up or down to whatever the size the cylinder is."
"Okay, Dad. Now what?"
"Then you find the point where that half-circle cardboard balances on the tip of that pencil in your hand. That point is the geometric center of that half-circle. Do you understand how that works?"
"Yes, I think I'm getting it. If you now draw a straight line through the balance point that's parallel to the half-circle straight side, then you have split the half-circle into two equal halves. Each side of that line would have as much cardboard area as the other."
"Exactly! And that line would also indicate where the quarter-tank mark would be on the tank when you put the two half-circles back together to form the cross-section of the cylinder. The quarter-tank mark would now be about 4/10ths of the distance from the bottom to the top of the gas tank. You can now use your yard stick to scale that measurement up or down to the actual gas tank. Have you got it now, son?"
Dad let out a manly giggle. I looked at the drawings and math scratchings on my paper, and thought, "He got me good on that one."
Dad's tone now got serious, "I really hope you apply to MIT this spring and pursue electrical engineering. I got my electrical Masters when I was 19 years old, you know."
"Yes, Dad, I'll apply there, but it's a hard place to get into. And, most of my high school friends who are going into engineering will be applying to Queens in Kingston, where Steve is studying."
"So apply to both and we'll see what happens."
It would be many years later, after I finished my Bachelors and Masters in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, Mom would tell me that Dad was not an electrical engineer as I imagined, but only a master electrician.