All my life, I’ve gazed up at my father from below, even as my two younger brothers grew tall enough to admire his bald spot. And the one time I did see down into his eyes, they brimmed with fear. Fear for my safety, fear for the safety of my brother asleep in the backseat, fear for the structural integrity of the car we were in—especially since I’d just smashed it into the curb going 60 miles an hour—and fear for his own life.
Everything in that instant happened in slow motion, then again at high speed.
Freeway, feeder, traffic—everything outside my silver 1991 Honda Civic disappeared as it sailed through the air. I stared into my father’s eyes, searching for the comforting gaze I’d come to know for 15 years. He stared back instead with wide, hollow eyes devoid of consolation. No solace, no anger. Just fear.
I was a kid in learner’s permit purgatory then, unable to legally drive without a licensed driver sitting beside me but perfectly capable of driving on my own. Or so it seemed before my Japanese import became an airborne projectile while exiting the Gulf Freeway near the Sam Houston Tollway.
Two ruptured tires, broken shocks, a bent rim, and a couple of shattered psyches later, we sat recuperating in a nearby parking lot. Thousands of vehicles rushed by, the drivers completely unaware they’d just whizzed past the final moments of a once-promising life. The world around me disintegrated into apocalyptic nothingness, and so I did what kids everywhere do in the face of apocalyptic nothingness—I burst into tears. Finally awake, having slept through the chaos, my brother scratched his head dumbly in the back seat. And my father? I looked over expecting the shouts and gesticulations of a frustrated, adrenaline-juiced maniac, barely able to keep his balance on a knife’s edge.
He was laughing. My large, lovable yet imposing dad was laughing so hard he could hardly breathe.
I grew up in the shadow of the Gulf Freeway—first near Gulfgate, the city’s first shopping mall, and later just outside what would eventually become the Sam Houston Tollway. No matter where I turned, the concrete behemoth that is I-45 South was always there, lording over me like an older brother ready to give a noogie. I couldn’t view the downtown skyline without seeing it. Escape was impossible.
As I aged, so did the freeway. In a way, we grew up together, albeit with a few minor physiological and senescent differences. The Gulf Freeway’s life began on September 30, 1948, whereas mine found its start in 1985. The Gulf was a large and expansive freeway, while I was a meager six pounds and one-half ounces. Women named us both. Originally dubbed the Interurban Expressway after the railroad that connected Houston and Galveston, Mayor Oscar Holcombe held a contest to rename it, with Heights resident Sara Yancy submitting the winning entry. My mother named me, sans contest. (My father debates this point.)
With all growth comes pain. As the city’s population steadily increased during the postwar period, so too did the Gulf Freeway’s width and traffic. Small side roads and stop signs gave way to massive feeders and stoplights. Meanwhile, with each birthday, I grew wider, taller and hungrier. Much to the city’s and my parents’ utter delight, we both became more expensive to maintain.
But I was always in its shadow, always aware that the freeway’s colossal lanes and ramps would one day be my proving ground. For years I watched my parents successfully maneuver it. They managed the daily commute as well as anyone else, if not better, so why wouldn’t I? With their help, the gulf between me and the Gulf would narrow. I was already skimming the auto classifieds.
When it came to driver’s ed, Mom handled book knowledge while dad taught street sense. We started small—turning the key and checking mirrors—but the lessons quickly grew in complexity. I mastered the intricacies of mnemonic driving, never changing lanes or making turns without SMOG: signal, mirror, over shoulder, go. Dad made me say it out loud, even requested it at random to make sure I was paying attention. If I ever forgot, he’d remind me. (This continued long after I’d earned my license and become, you know, an adult.) Like most novice drivers, I let the lessons and tricks of the trade pile higher and deeper. Combine that with youthful inexperience and fast highway traffic and you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Or a flight.
“It’s not that you weren’t paying attention,” my dad said, “because you were. You were just trying to pay attention to everything.” He was right. By the time I exited the freeway, I was SMOG-ing on an endless loop, my hyper-attentiveness completely unnecessary since the Fuqua exit, like most on the Gulf Freeway, dedicated an entire lane to exiting vehicles. But this was not the time for second-guessing. This was the time for sitting in a parking lot awash in confused frustration and a father’s cackling even as his son’s first car, the not-expensive-but-not-cheap culmination of a teenage boy’s promises and dreams, was ruined. I’d broken my promises and dashed my dreams. I was a dead man. Hell, I was dead before I’d even had the chance to become a man.
And all Dad could do was laugh. His face beet-red, tears streaming down his face and wetting his beard, he towered over me, and not only because the car now had an incredibly obvious lean on the driver’s side. He could barely get out of the Honda, which made him laugh even more, an almost hysterical guffawing which only further convinced me of my imminent demise.
“Why are you laughing?” I said angrily.
As it turns out, it was laughter of relief, relief that his sons were okay, relief that the car was still intact and more than capable of salvage, relief that he’d be alive long enough to make sure everything progressed according to his and Mom’s plans. Two new tires, a wheel, a few adjustments—in those days, that’s all it took for everything to be okay.
Exhausted from the rush, Dad sat down to catch his breath. Behind him, the Gulf Freeway loomed, still oblivious to it all, its shadow even larger than before. I walked over, still fearful of both man and highway, still expecting my father’s wrath to show itself at any moment. But when I looked down into his eyes for the second and last time, all I saw was love. No anger, no fear. Just love.