Kevin Kling is a writer, performer and storyteller. He currently holds an Original Works Residency with MPR.
Whenever my father had something of great importance to tell me, he did it in the car. The facts of life, in a '67 Mustang. Moving to the country, white Mercury Comet station wagon. Divorce from my mom, metallic blue Chevy on the way home from a fishing trip. And although most of these talks were planned, sometimes he would simply take his eyes off the road and look directly at me and say:
"Listen to me now, if you ever get a chance to be an astronaut, grab it."
"OK, Dad," I said. "I will."
Now, I knew where this came from. My dad grew up on a farm, milking cows, slopping hogs, driving a tractor, never going anywhere except over to the next row. But when he was 16 he learned to fly from the Clarkson brothers, barnstormers and crop dusters, Crazy Cornsons they were sometimes called. And when Dad turned 17, he lied about his age so he could join the Navy. He wanted to fly, and the Navy was still accepting pilots.
Unfortunately, Dad put on his application that he could type 60 words per minute. The war had already ended in Europe and the soldiers were returning home in droves and needed to be processed. So Dad spent the duration of the war behind the controls of a Smith Corona. "Kev," he said, "never learn to do something you don't want to be saddled to for the rest of your life."
One day my dad turned to me in an '82 Chevy and said, "Kev, I'm going to Europe. I always wanted to go there, and I'm not getting any younger."
Up till now my dad's travel was the Midwest and that was it. I knew he liked to travel, but I always felt it was for the sake of movement, not to actually get somewhere. This is why being an astronaut made perfect sense. Space travel is the ultimate in traveling for traveling's sake, but Europe — that's a destination. I could tell he had his heart set on it, so I offered my tried-and-true advice.
I said, "OK, Dad, lookit, you're going to England, bring an umbrella. I know this sounds crazy, but once you get wet there, you never dry off. I don't know why. And don't eat the food, any of it, especially in Scotland. I ate something there once, and I'll never laugh at the dog for licking the garage floor again."
He said, "But I got to eat."
I said, "For godsakes, Dad, people from Scotland go to England to eat. Oh, yeah, and be sure to learn the language, a phrase or two. I've traveled the world over on two phrases. If you learn these, you'll be fine. One is, 'I'll have another beer, please,' and the other is, 'Sorry about the carpet.' You can go anywhere with those."
"Well, Kev," he says, "I'm pretty sure they speak English in England."
"Ho, that's what you think," I said.
As the trip approached, I became increasingly worried. Have you got everything — passport, umbrella? You got money, pounds? You gotta bring pounds. Oh, god, I was a wreck until he returned.
But when I picked him up from the airport my dad had this huge grin on his face. "Kev," he said, "I swear it's the best time I've had since Nixon was in office. Lookee here!" And he handed me a stack of photographs. I've never even seen my dad use a camera.
The first photo was a cow, long matted hair, brown, staring right at my dad. The second photo was a cow, looked like the same cow but a different angle. The third picture was a cow, the same cow, the fourth, fifth, sixth, finally I said, "Dad these are all pictures of a cow." He said, "Oh, that's not just any cow, Kev, that kind of cow is where all the cows in this country came from, that cow is the great-great-grandmother of all cows."
Now my dad was bursting with pride. I continued looking through the stack of cow pictures from my dad's trip to Europe, and I realized my dad had gone somewhere: he'd gone home.
The last picture was of a woman mowing her lawn. I said, "Dad, what's that doing in there?" He said, "Look at that lawnmower, Kev, isn't that the darndest thing? I wanted to get more of it, but I ran out of film."