The cop pulls me over at 1 a.m. just after I leave Norfolk, Virginia. In a car designed to roar along at 130 mph, I'm doing 50...in a 65 zone. My right turn signal's been ge-dinking away for no obvious reason. I look like a drunk trying to look inconspicuous.
My dog, Rosie, is barking six inches from my ear. She's a big dog with a big mouth in a small car. The cop flashes his light in my face. He has to shout so I can hear him. "Everything all right here?"
Everything all right? The World Trade Center's a week-old pile of smoking rubble, the Pentagon has a big black hole in its side, I just put my husband on a ship full of Marines bound for the other side of the world, and my '78 Corvette's freaked-out alternator's been boiling its battery for the last four hours. But it got me to the naval base at Norfolk, by God, where I've just managed to see my husband one last time before he deployed.
"Yes sir," I say, "other than my alternator, everything is all right."
A short while before, my husband had hugged me goodbye. Standing inside the circle of his arms, I had felt small and safe, and in that moment, everything was all right.
I've always wanted a Corvette. Three years ago I went out and bought one. A Midnight Blue '78 coupe, white-leather disco interior, L82 engine with the heads bored out, four-speed transmission, and big bad rumbling mufflers. It's my Happymobile.
I've always wanted to drive across the country. The night my husband ships out, not knowing where he's going or when he'll return, I'm in need of a little happiness, a little peace of mind. So I put Rosie in the Vette, hit the gas, and don't look back.
While my husband's ship churns eastward across the Atlantic, the dog and I move steadily in the opposite direction. With a new alternator under the hood, we rumble through the candy-colored forests of a northern autumn, then down and across the prairie states.
At first, the peace I'm seeking eludes me. Rosie is able to just zone out while we're driving, but me, I'm thinking about things. Things like, before I left, I had to give my cellphone number to the battalion's volunteer coordinator. If something happens to my husband, the military has a policy of delivering that kind of news only in person. With my cellphone number, they can find me. I picture myself answering my phone on some long empty highway across the prairie, pulling over and waiting there with the wind blowing till a distant speck grows into a nondescript government vehicle that slowly grows larger, and closer, and finally stops.
Of course, what do I have to worry about? My husband is the battalion's combat chaplain, a non-combatant. Chaplains carry no weapons, they're never armed. There are others with a lot more reason to worry-the wives of the men who lead companies into battle, the mothers of the boys who carry the guns.
But this is what I'm thinking about-brooding about-in Iowa, after the sun sets, while a dirt road rolls out of the dark and into the headlights, flat and straight and white. In the rearview mirror, dust billows red in the taillights. Watching the miles roll away, for a few minutes I'm able to live in this moment of the road's white noise and no other. I'm not where I was and I'm not where I'm going. I'm not brooding on the past, I'm not worrying about the future. I'm just here, Zen-like as the dog. When I hit a bump it's like waking from a flying dream.
The dog and I roll on west. At dusk in the Big Horn Mountains, we hit snow. We aren't supposed to hit snow. The road disappears beneath the drifts. This is all uninhabited national forest, nothing but dim, white-frosted trees. I'm about to hunker down in the car with my dog-furnace and my sleeping bag when I see something through the swirling snow: two small neon signs, "OPEN" and "Miller Lite."
The Vette slithers to a stop. It's a hunting lodge. It's a rip snortin' miracle.
Later, on an empty stretch of Nevada highway, I open it up. At about 94 mph, the L82 kicks out a spurt of torque that presses me into my seat. I drop back to 75, mainly because I'm not anxious to go deaf. There's not much noise insulation between me and the engine in this old Vette.
South of Lake Tahoe, we hit miles and miles of steep, twisting mountain roads. The fiberglass body barely leans as it swings through the curves. The T-tops are off and Rosie's nose is an arrow into the wind that whips back over the windshield. After we coast through a valley, we do it all over again, climbing to 10,000 feet over Tioga Pass before dropping down into Yosemite. I can't think about anything but the road and the wheel, it's just me and the car, a mind clearing blast. By the end I'm high on adrenaline. Rosie grins and pants. The Vette didn't even break a sweat.
I guess this is why I'm on this trip. I have no control over where my husband goes or what happens to him. But with my hand on the wheel, my feet on the pedals, deciding where I want to go as I go-it gives me the illusion that I control my life.
By the time American jets start dropping bombs on Afghanistan, we're floating south along the cliffs of the Pacific Coast Highway. Fog rushes up the cliff sides and curves over the highway like a breaking wave, so that we shoot through a pipeline of clear air. By the time people start to die of anthrax, we've turned for home. Approaching Hoover Dam, I pass an electronic sign:Passenger Cars OnlyHoover DamThen I Pass Another One:All Trucks,Cars With Trailers,Exit Now.
I watch the car ahead of me pull its trailer right on past the exit, headed for the dam. Red alert sounds in my head. I wonder if I am witnessing something. I wonder if I should grab my cell phone and dial 911.
It turns off on a side road.
Suspicion. Hysteria. According to the radio, I'm not alone in this. It's a not-so-brave new world.
There was a combat chaplain in Vietnam who would crawl out on his belly under fire to get to the wounded and dying. Then he would raise himself up on his elbows to speak or pray with them. Someone asked him why the hell did he raise himself up like that and make himself a target? Because, he said, he had to look those boys in the eyes and make sure they saw the love of God. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously.
On my husband's ship, a few of the young Marines write letters to their families, bring them to my husband. He agrees to keep them in his safe with a note saying that if he is killed, too, only the letters of others who have also been killed should be sent home.
These days, thanks to my Vette, I'm able to let that go. Driving past the eerie flames of petrochemical plants in east Texas, I can zone out like the dog, enclose myself in the white-noise bubble of the present moment. I leave brooding and worrying behind. I'm not where I was and I'm not where I'm going. I live in this moment, where the miles roll away and the passing scenery soothes or astounds.
The last stop is the Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Gleaming Corvettes glide past American flags and union men and women, some in jeans and t-shirts, some in clown faces or witch's hats. They'll turn out 135 Corvettes on this, the last day of public tours "due to the present situation." It's Halloween, and after six weeks and 12,000 miles, Rosie and I are almost home.
My husband will be gone seven months before he sees home. Just before Christmas, he will step off a C-130 transport plane onto the tarmac at Kandahar Airport. Along with his Marines, he'll a spend a month in Afghanistan, sleeping in a tent in subfreezing weather, avoiding landmines, watching tracer rounds light up the night sky during an enemy attack, and running to comfort the injured after an accidental explosion. Later, he'll be in Pakistan, waiting to hop a ride on any available C-130 when one goes down nearby, killing all on board. But he will return home. And when he does, the Vette, the dog, and I are waiting for him.
Editor's Note: Krisen, Rosie, and their '78 Vette appeared in last years "Salute to Corvette Ladies" (September 2001) on page 40.