by Chris Olsen
Interstate 94 is mostly empty as I make the commute from Western Wisconsin to the co-working space where I rent a desk in Minneapolis. It’s been a year since COVID shut down the country and while some corporate workers have returned to their offices, many are now working from home indefinitely. This shift in how people work is especially evident on Fridays like today. There are gaps in traffic so expansive it feels like I may have missed a warning to stay indoors and board up the windows because aliens have invaded the planet. But who wants to be inside on a such a glorious June day in Minnesota?
I’m zipping along in the fast lane. I should probably switch to the center lane, especially since no one is there. Before the pandemic, when I made this same trek along with thousands of others, I’d curse the drivers who lingered in the fast lane. But there’s no one behind or in front of me now as I drive 20 miles over the speed limit. So I don’t change lanes. I’m the queen of the road in my 10-year-old Saturn.
Suddenly I think of Dad. Maybe because it just occurred to me it’s the Friday before Father’s Day. Maybe because I inherited my need for speed from him. This tendency presents slightly different in me. Dad never sped on the freeway. In fact, he was quite practical on the freeway. At least when I was in the car with him. Always observing the speed limit. Rarely making lane changes. Steady as she goes. Not me. It doesn’t matter if I’m running late, or well ahead of schedule, I want everyone to get the hell out of my way.
My mind wanders to how much Dad loved drag racing. I imagine it started when he was a teenager. I envision the Thunder Road race scene in the movie “Grease.” Two cars lined up at the viaduct, revving their engines, puffs of purplish smoke and flames shooting from their tailpipes. A signal to go. Pedal to metal. Tires squealing. The first car to reach the finish line gets bragging rights or a kiss from a sweet-turned-sultry girl in black latex pants.
Even in his sixties, even a month before he died, Dad was obsessed with drag racing. He’d drive his souped up 1950s Ford pickup truck with the Pontiac 600 engine to Brainerd International Speedway on Friday nights to race men half his age. Each pass, which is an official timed run from the starting line to the finish line, he’d beat his opponent by several seconds. As the winner, he’d continue taking on challengers until he was eliminated or experienced some sort of mechanical failure. But his truck rarely failed, and Dad refused to give up his spot on the strip. He was the guy known for saying, “One last pass!”
As I approach the St. Paul city limits, something washes over me. Home. It’s the city I grew up in. I moved to Minneapolis for college and lived there longer than I did in its twin city on the other side of the Mississippi River. But St. Paul welcomes me with a warm embrace that I have never felt anywhere else. I wish I felt something close to it for the city I live in now, across another river, in Wisconsin, where I’m building a life with a man Dad never met, but whom I’m certain he would love. St. Paul has my heart and maybe it always will.
Up ahead, in the distance, I spot a 1950s pickup truck—black and burgundy like Dad’s was—and my heart hitches. Dad bequeathed his beloved truck, the one he built with his own two hands, to my little brother, Bill. Bill and I no longer have a relationship. I haven’t seen him since just after Dad died a decade ago. The thought of seeing him now makes my stomach flip. I take my foot off the gas and my car coasts from 75 to 65 and then 55 within seconds. Tears prickle at my eyes. What I wouldn’t do to see Dad driving that truck again. One last pass.
I’m not close enough to see the license plates. Dad’s read PROSLKR. Pro Slacker. It was how he referred to himself after retiring at age 58. And while Printing Press Operator was his title for nearly 40 years, he held the Pro Slacker title for less than 10. At age 67, after years of inhaling ink and solvent on the job and taking cigarette breaks religiously (until he gave up smoking in his 40s), a scan revealed stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to his liver. He died less than two weeks after his diagnosis.
As I lurk behind the truck and to the left, contemplating whether to pass, I feel around in my purse for my phone. Maybe if I take a photo it will reveal there is no driver, that Dad’s ghost is behind the wheel. Always observing the speed limit. Rarely making lane changes. Steady as she goes. As I get closer, I see it’s not Dad’s license plate. The driver is not a ghost or my little brother. It’s an older, clean-cut gentleman who could be my father. I send the picture to my big brother, Bobby, with a message: “Did Bill sell Dad’s truck?”
“Yes,” Bobby texts back. “He needed cash, so I bought it from him.” And then, a few seconds later, “That’s not Dad’s truck.”
As I breathe a sigh of relief and press my foot to the accelerator, I realize how much I miss Dad. I reach Spaghetti Junction, the part of I-94 that weaves through downtown St. Paul and connects with I-35 through a tangled mess of concrete. The floodgates open and I sob. To the right is Regions Hospital, the place where I said goodbye to Dad. He was admitted after I’d taken him to the doctor to learn about cancer treatment options. The doctor said Dad’s vitals were concerning and he would benefit from IV fluids. A few hours after he was admitted, the attending physician pulled my brothers and me into the hallway and said, “Your dad is in renal failure.”
“What’s that?” I asked, feeling like a frightened child, thinking that I should have known.
“His body is shutting down,” the doctor said. “He won’t make it more than a few days.”
Now I’m rooting around my purse for a tissue even though I have never, ever carried tissue in my purse. But tears run down my face in ribbons. I wipe them with the back of my hand. Bobby sends a picture of Dad’s truck and says he’s getting it ready for Back to the 50s, an annual celebration of vintage vehicles at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
“I miss that truck and the guy who built it,” I reply. “I’m glad to know it’s yours now.”
Bobby texts back, “One last pass.”
About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support womxn-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.