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  • In the summer of 1965, my father packed up the apartment outside of Warsaw and drove us down to Yugoslavia in a blue VW squareback. The three of us kids were jammed elbow to elbow and knee to knee in the back seat. He wedged the bulky Sears sleeping bags and air mattresses behind us and strapped the tent and his Navy duffles onto the roof rack.

    The squareback was electric blue and sleekly modern, especially compared to the old chrome-finned ’56 Chevy he left back in the States.

    I think he’d expected to live in old Warsaw amid the history and ghosts, close to our school and his embassy sponsored classes. He was teaching Twain to Polish university students. I wish I had his lecture notes or a recording but I’ll have to imagine the wry, cynical, brash American voice of Twain in that time of whispers and hope as faint as fog. But the authorities had other plans. They had a raw new apartment complex in the finest Soviet blockhouse style out by the coal fired electric plant in the corn fields all done in minimalist concrete grey in the new shade beyond pale. So, as soon as he got us settled, he headed across to West Germany and bought his first new car. Most of the other vehicles on the roads on that side of the Iron Curtain were either military or Soviet made or both and all in shades of grey and beige and custard pale. The unabashedly blue, German family car put us in a league of our own.

    When school was out that summer, we made our way south avoiding major cities and destinations, following mazes of country roads, camping along the way to the island of Korcula off the Dalmatian coast in what is now Croatia.

    It was a summer of crystal clear water, of figs and olives, almonds and grapes. A summer of wasps and dust and donkey rides across the narrow spine of the island. We stayed in farmer’s extra house for most of the time, until his brother arrived and he remembered to tell us we’d have to find somewhere else. A summer of shopping in a market in an old walled town. At the butchers they were more likely to chuck an eyeball or a half a brain in the packet to round out a kilo of mutton than a chop. The farmer brought us bowls of dried fish for nibbles and strands of pickled octopus.

    Some summers are like that, seasons that stand alone, out of time, seasons that will never come again. There are many memories, bright and sharp and clear. In my mind they are loose and jumbled as gems in a chest. Occasionally I let them run through my hands in a glittering torrent But there are two memories I carried forward, memories I turn to frequently, memories that stand alone like the pitted marble pillars on those lonely, wind swept hilltops.

    The first is a long stretch of road along the dry and rugged hills above the sea. The road was gravel. Single lane. No guard rail on the ocean side, just a sheer drop to the jagged rocks and surf far, far below. On the mountain side, the naked rock rising like a wall. My father has the wheel in both hands. The road twists and twines to follow the contour.

    Someone asks, “But what if a car comes the other way?”

    My father glances quickly back.

    My mother stares straight ahead.

    The second memory is of the time we took a sight seeing boat out to the smaller islands, stopping here and there. We came back as the sun fought gravity and held day aloft a moment longer. The water was dark, as though the velvet blue of midnight was getting ready to be released. A pod of dolphins rose out of the waves and dove beneath the boat. The tipsy crowd surged to the starboard rail to watch them emerge. The dolphins grinned and cut back beneath the boat again. The crowd huzzahed and dashed for the port side rail. The boat listed sickeningly. The people closest to the rail could have almost reached out and touched the dorsal fins just below the surface.

    The dolphins zigged to the boat’s zag and the crowd scrambled up hill to find them. Uphill became down hill and instead of clambering up they were sliding down.

    When I think of my father, the history professor, taking American history and literature to a brave new world, when I wonder if that road is now paved and railed in, when I think of the rush of people to sights and ideologies, I think of those two memories and that trip and how the sights that stay with us have nothing to do with the guide books and tourist markers and everything to do with the road we take. And sometimes, but not very often, I think I see an electric blue squareback ahead on the road and a kid is looking back at me through the jumble wedged in behind but then they take the curve ahead and by the time I come through the road is empty.
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