58. Light at the End of the Tunnel

Published on 4 January 2024 at 11:38

© 2024 Robert Sickles

When my brother Roger’s lovely wife Diane died many years ago, I flew back to New Jersey to spend some time with him that October. After the memorial service and several gatherings of friends and family, it was time for me to head home. But he wasn’t ready to let me go. Roger insisted that instead of taking me to the airport, we should drive back to Seattle together. Brothers on a road trip, I loved the idea!  

Roger and I are half a generation apart in age and grew up in such different situations. I have only pieces of memories of his life at home with the family; I was a little kid through his teen years, and was in the 2nd grade when he left home and joined the Navy. Our cross-country trip was really the first time the two of us had done anything together that I could recall.  Roger filled the tank and cleaned the windshield, and we were off. Our journey turned out to be both a pleasant distraction and an emotional experience.

First off, I discovered that my brother liked to listen to the jabber on his CB radio, and surprisingly, I became familiar with trucker lingo.  This filled the spaces between our conversations. Roger alternated between reliving his trauma of standing watch as Diane got weaker and slipped away, and then feeling liberated now that his watch was completed. He said he’d done plenty enough grieving during Diane’s illness and he couldn’t stay for long in mourning. I think he knew I would support him in looking forward, that he needn’t feel guilty for talking about moving on with his life.  We talked of his anger and loneliness; and when he was in the right space, I offered the thoughts of acceptance and peace.

Our trip took 6 or 7 days, riding mostly on America’s miracle highways, I-80 and I-90, practically from his door to mine. We stayed in budget motels and ate at truck stops. After long days of driving, we might pass some evening time in a tavern or lounge along the way. Ordering a couple of beers, it was entertaining to strike up conversation with fellow travelers, a waitress, or some locals. At one place in Indiana, a guy at the bar named Mike was asking about Roger’s cool truck and where we were heading. In a playful mood, I told him we were two of 5 brothers (a lie) and that our mother loved trucking so much she named all her sons to rhyme with “truck.” (another lie) “Well, we gotta get going, Mike.  I’m Huck and this is my big brother, Chuck. Pleased to meet you. Safe travels.” He started to ask what the other three brothers’ names were, but Roger and I got up and headed for the exit. I looked back to see Mike scratching his cheek, his forefinger moving in the air like he was going through the alphabet, trying to figure out what other names rhyme with truck. It made Roger laugh, like he hadn’t had a good one in a while. 

In Michigan we met up with our cousin June who did her best to show us that urban-renewed Detroit was a happenin’ place back in the 80’s. Decades of downtown decline had been stemmed. The Renaissance Center was a pretty forward-looking tribute to the city’s wealth and industry, and the move to save and restore the old Fox Theater was a beautiful touch. In a couple of days, we got our fill of sightseeing and dining, then said farewell to June and continued on our way.

West of the Great Lakes, the towns and landscapes change from state to state, the verdant success of Michigan gradually fading to harder times of South Dakota. In October, for hundreds of Dakota miles, the mind is distracted from a stupefying vision of stark corn stubble, collapsing barns, and gaunt cattle by the appearance every few miles of silly signs advertising the wonders of Wall Drug in Wall, SD. As our curiosity built, and it was time for a rest stop anyway, there is no way we’d skip the detour to Wall for a look-see. This “drug store” is actually an entire town block that encompasses museums, rides, life-size animated dinosaurs, gifts shops, restaurants, and a saloon. It’s a hokey Old West theme park. I suppose somewhere in the place there is actually a pharmacy.  Roger and I looked over the shops, had lunch, shrugged at each other and got back in the truck.

After the town of Wall, South Dakota becomes much more interesting for sightseeing. The Black Hills look like they are intended for large-scale sculpture, every granite outcrop already comes in the shape of a huge head. We visited Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monument, two of America’s most oddly juxtaposed monuments to famous leaders of the past. The irony was hard to miss—four smug Presidents watch over the Black Hills, sacred land to the Sioux people; and down the road the enormous figure of Chief Crazy Horse points toward his people’s homeland, a pained expression on his face—and it’s in Custer County, of all places.

Another 300 miles later in Montana, you are in a lonely range of rolling hills, of prairie grasses dotted with small woods. A small cemetery and a stone monument are dedicated to Custer’s Last Stand, at the Little Bighorn Battlefield.  The chilly October wind moaned through the headstones, and made waves upon the last standing gray grasses. There’s such a heaviness in that place. Roger and I both felt it was haunted.

My brother saw some of the world in the Navy, including a bit of Southern California when stationed near San Diego. But he stayed pretty close to northern New Jersey all his life. I hoped that his first trip across the wide-open West was going to open his perspectives, and I think I was right. He got a boost crossing the Mississippi, and couldn’t get over how vast the ranchland and fields of grain were. Big Sky Country was astounding to a man who was used to wooded hills and snug towns with narrow streets. He agreed with everyone else who’s ever driven across Montana—it’s damn big! He was impressed by the Rockies and the giant forests west of the Cascades. Meanwhile, as I did my best at listening and support, I saw him gradually recover from the shock of having Diane die in his arms, and he began to rebuild his spirits. While driving under a long snow shed in the avalanche area of the Cascade Mountains, he said quietly something about the light at the end of the tunnel, and I just smiled to myself.

During our trip, Roger and I found something that hadn’t been given a good chance to develop. We had moved past our familial cordiality into a loving brotherhood. The kind that comes with laughter and tears, hugs and heartfelt words.

He stayed with us in Washington for a while and tinkered with the idea of moving out West. I would have loved that, but he had miles to go, family back home to comfort him and loose ends to tie. He also talked of selling his home and acres, leaving the printing business and taking up farming! Long an avid gardener, I agreed he might be onto something.

After a proper visit, Roger drove off in his truck to explore some more on his own, then headed back to his New Jersey home. Sell the place he did, and remarried and bought land in Pennsylvania. In his 50’s he designed a new home, hired Amish carpenters to build a barn and took up farming for a good while. At 85 now, he works steadily in the paint department of Lowe’s. This guy will always land on his feet!

I love you, Roger. I salute you as one of the most resilient people I’ve known.

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5 months ago

Great voyage!!

Kathy M
5 months ago

I loved the story of the Sickles brothers becoming more than just brothers! What a great week of travel for Huck and Chuck.

Carol Christiansen
5 months ago

Seems to be a walnut in my throat, a bit of choking emotion! Great piece, Robert. C/D here for the weekend. Both of them holding up well.

5 months ago

Another great story, and a another family member you never mentioned to me before. Are there other siblings?

Camille Fastle
5 months ago

Yes, there's Buck, Puck, and Knuck (short for Knucklehead).