I didn’t know where Stan, this man who had recently married my mother, was taking us. It was August 1961; I was fourteen, and we were driving a rented car around Santa Barbara, California. My mother was in the passenger seat. Leslie, my newly acquired little stepsister, and I may have been playing geography in the back when we passed the San Ysidro Ranch, where Jack and Jackie Kennedy had honeymooned. Stan didn’t like the Kennedys; my own father did, and so did my mother. I wasn’t sure how I felt about them.
I also wasn’t sure about Stan yet. My father was an actor who was known for playing outlaws. The ladies loved him, and he had left my mother for one of them. Stan was a balding businessman fighting his weight who acted, well, like a businessman, a businessman who spoke with a tinge of a New York accent and paid his taxes on time. He was proud that he had lost a major account because he refused to pay a bribe. He’d never leave my mother. But he had recently told me, “Children shouldn’t have so much fun.” In other words. I should learn to work hard.
We drove down State Street, past the courthouse that, with its Spanish architecture, could have passed as one of California’s Franciscan missions. Then we turned west along the coastline. To our left, twenty miles across the water, lay Santa Cruz Island. It appeared closer that day. So did the Santa Ynez Mountains, which reared up on our right, two miles away, their ridges brown with green and gold flecks in the chaparral.
An hour or so later, we started to get hungry. We were supposed to be near the University of California at Santa Barbara, but nothing was around us but citrus trees. I rolled down the back window as far as it could go, stuck my head out, and breathed the thick warm air with its hint of salt from the sea. We were the only car in sight. The fields came up to the road. Stan wasn’t a fast driver, which delighted my nervous mother and annoyed me. I felt we were meandering to nowhere. I was too young to realize that that was the point.
Ahead and slightly to the right was an on-ramp to a highway that had yet to open. A sign said Do Not Enter. This was not a unique sight in the California of the early 1960s, when the state was building freeways to everywhere, even to these orange groves.
The barriers and orange cones did not completely block the entrance.
Stan turned to me. “Let’s see where it goes,” he said. His blue eyes danced with life. I hadn’t noticed how blue they were until now. His face, normally impassive, acquired a hint of a grin.
“Stanley,” my mother said in a nervous voice that I knew so well. Disobeying that sign frightened her. She was a Depression-era woman who saw bad consequences around every corner and down every straightaway, avoidable only by obeying the instructions.
Stan’s grin widened as he said, “Relax. This will be fun.” I agreed and shouted out a “Yes!” when he weaved around the cones and we ascended to the freeway.
Stan almost, but not quite, floored it. The entrance felt like a ramp to a Valhalla in the distance, where the mountains cut the summer sky. We were zooming over new pavement, maybe the first private car ever on that stretch, a concrete ribbon that was wholly ours. There were no oil stains or tread marks, and there were no police cars. We were above the fields, howling north at a speed that made me feel as though we were about to take flight and made my mother yelp that we’d drive off a ledge. She was sure the road wasn’t finished. But Stan relaxed into the ride and said, “Honey, it’s fine.” And the tone of his voice made me believe him and made me happy.
My mother was wrong. Our slice of new highway fed us into US-101 where, on prominent display, was a sign for food. Stan eased us down an off-ramp and within moments found his daughter’s favorite type of place to eat—a “nineteen-cent hamburger pad.” I’m sure I ate two of them, covered with pickles and a bun soaked with ketchup. The four of us shared the French fries.
My view of my new stepfather changed that day. I saw him as a man who’d slip the envelope when the time was right. Over the years he taught me how to do likewise. He was a man I’d grow to love and whose blue eyes I’d never doubt again. They would hold their glint until April 25, 2013, when he died at ninety-six, after traveling many more roads ostensibly closed to the public.
Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in or is upcoming, among other places, California Prose Directory, The Christian Science Monitor, The Coachella Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Eclectica, The MacGuffin, War, Literature & the Arts, Word Riot, Workers Write, ZYZZYVA, and two Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies. Three of his pieces have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. By day he is a judge on the Superior Court in Los Angeles. He enjoys hiking, sailing, travel, and horseback riding. Once upon a time, he was a member of The L.A. Connection, an improv theater group.