They say when you look back, you don’t remember what a person said, but how they made you feel. What I remember most about the summer of 1980 is the pure joy, happiness and love of hugging and wrapping my arms around my dad.
In 1978, my dad took a job in Miami, FL, after what one could kindly call an “acrimonious” divorce from my mother (more on that in a minute), and we moved some 2,000 miles from Fargo, ND, to South Florida to live in a 2 bedroom apartment in Kendale Lakes.
In the custody fight, I chose to live with my dad and so, at age 10, my sister and I were split. My dad and I drove from Fargo through Minneapolis and then Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, Orlando and to Miami, in his gray 1977 Thunderbird with gray velour seats, hauling a matching gray motorcycle trailer full of what belongings we could fit around the Honda Gold Wing he’d bought the year before.
Not long after we arrived, he joined a “motorcycle club” of middle-aged motorcycle enthusiasts who would go for long Sunday morning group rides to breakfast. They’d occasionally get together as well, for cookouts, camping trips, and other gatherings. They kind of became our tribe. They were mostly married couples, with the husbands doing the driving and the wives riding on the back. In our case, obviously, I was the rider on the back — but was part of the family all the same.
The photo above was taken in about 1980, when the club hired a professional photographer to take portraits of the members with their motorcycles.
What I remember most in this photo is that stupid red windbreaker I’m wearing, with its sharp-cornered collars, that would constantly sting my cheeks as they would flap in the highway wind; my terry cloth collared shirt from J.C. Penney (worn only on nice occasions and for pictures, of course); and that large cross I wore around my neck, which I had bought at the K-Mart down by the roller skating rink, because I had watched “Salem’s Lot” too many times and felt it would be my best protection against vampires, even though I also secretly wanted to be one so I could live forever. Thank you, Stephen King.
I had my own helmet (which you can see on the backrest), with custom pinstripes from a local Bismarck artist named Milo Trusty (whom I would encounter nearly a decade later, as a wrestling coach, when I wrestled for Bismarck High School), and even earphones I rigged to my Sears version of the Sony Walkman, so I could listen to FM stereo in my helmet. I sat on the back of that motorcycle for hundreds of miles. They say when you look back, you don’t remember what a person said, but how they made you feel. What I remember the most of all that time was the pure joy, happiness and love of hugging and wrapping my arms around my dad.
It wasn’t long after this picture that my dad remarried, sold the motorcycle, and we became a blended family. I had a new stepbrother and stepsister, and the days of just my father and me, together on his motorcycle, would forever become just memories.
Later, in college, I would be assigned to read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” written by a then-University of Minnesota professor, Robert Pirsig, which described in great detail a lengthy motorcycle ride across North Dakota(!) and Pacific Northwest by the author with his then-preadolescent son on the back.
Many passages of that book were almost, at times, like someone had tapped into my life and was writing my childhood. It held, in many ways, snapshots of my life.
About 15 years ago, just before my dad retired and moved from Florida to California, I flew down to Tampa with hopes of revisiting some of these same highways with him. Something to book-end these memories and maybe, even, give me some closure I’ve been seeking for much of my life. It didn’t happen, but maybe that’s part of the story, as well.
It’s funny. A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend shared a New York Times article by Taffy Brodess-Akner. It was a think piece about the TV show “Thirtysomething,” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/arts/television/thirtysomething-tv-rewatch.html), and while it started all about the show itself, it took, what I thought to be, a remarkable unexpected turn into the author’s past about how she continues to mourn her parents’ divorce some 30 years later. She talked about it as her and her sister’s divorce, as much as her parents’.
It’s a grieving I know well.
I try very hard to not dwell on the past — try to follow that familiar mantra of not living in the past or the future, but the present — but that’s the funny thing about memories and big Hallmark holidays like Father’s Day. They take you back to those imperfect places and times that were, through your own lens, perfect to you. That long embrace you don’t want to let go.
But time goes on, and as we get older, we come to realize no moment ever lasts, of course. And the moments you least expect often become the moments you most treasure 10, 20, and 30 years down the road of life.
I miss this time with my dad.
I’m thinking about that today. And I’m thinking too, about now, and how I try to be so mindful about the fleeting moments I spend with my own daughter — knowing that they are moments that will pass too quickly for me, but will hopefully be something that she remembers 10, 20 and 30 years from now as moments special for the rest of her life too.
Sweet dreams, kid.
Troy Melhus is a writer based in Saint Paul, Minnesota.