It is remarkable when your strict, suit-wearing, bald, and generally law-abiding dad pulls a gun on some guy in the middle of a daytime traffic jam.
It was 1977. Jimmy Carter was President. The price of gas was up to seventy five cents a gallon. John Denver and Seals and Crofts were popular musical acts. So were Pink Floyd and the Alan Parsons Project. Soft rock was making room for hard and progressive. It was a tumultuous time, and the innocence of the early ‘70s was waning, at least in my life. People were experimenting with new musical sounds, new presidents, and a new type of passive/aggressive anger-releasing mechanism: road rage! Once again, my dad was a pioneer.
It all came about as Dad and I drove down a busy Portland street at rush hour on a hot summer day.
We were in the vicinity of the Lloyd Center Mall, an area with heavier traffic and more congestion than our comparatively quiet Southeast Portland residential neighborhood. Getting around our neighborhood was easy. Over by Lloyd Center, which incidentally was where my dad grew up, there were lots of businesses, lots of cars, and lots of asphalt. It was close to downtown. The Lloyd Center Mall was the center of the congestion, and businesses fanned out from there. Traffic was heavy and it was hot—the kind of day where the pressing heat and traffic have a tendency to make drivers sweaty and irritable and prone to violence. It wasn’t Watts or Bed-Stuy or Southside Chicago, and there were no fire hydrants gushing water on street corners or little kids getting shot in drive-bys, but my nice, normally cordial businessman father was ready to blow a gasket in a medium-sized town traffic skirmish.
We were driving in Dad’s prized 1948 Plymouth—midnight blue, with suicide doors. The thing was gigantic. We had driven over to NE Portland so Dad could run a business errand of some kind, and afterward, we began to make our way back home. It was nearing 5 o’clock. Dad was a planner and why we got caught in the evening rush hour on a hot summer day, I don’t know. Dad avoided rush hours. And traffic. He avoided left turns. He used to say that if he was mayor of Portland, he’d outlaw left turns. “Right turns only!” He would have imposed some goddamn German efficiency on the roads.
God, it was hot. As we drove up NE Weidler, we were moving along with traffic—slowly—stopping and starting, starting and stopping, doing a halting crawl along the busy four-lane boulevard. There was no air conditioning in the Plymouth, and Dad had blankets on the front seat of the car due to the upholstery needing repair, which made things extra uncomfortable and scratchy. The irritability oozing out of Dad was palpable; I could practically see it rising from his bald pate, like the steam escaping from an overheated football player’s head, as we inched along.
It was sweltering, and the blanket we were sitting on might have even been made of wool.
About every two blocks we came to a traffic light. The streets were clogged, the smell of exhaust wafted through our windows, and drivers were jockeying for position, as happens.
I was a kid, in 7th grade in ’77, and not paying much attention to what was happening on our drive. I was gazing out the window, checking out the 7-11 on our right, the Woolworth’s on the left. We were in the real thick of the traffic now. Dad started to get angry about something, which was common, and he began grumbling under his breath about how stupid the other drivers were. Dad was not a patient person on a good day, and his impatience became more pronounced when he was in a car with no air conditioning on a 90-degree day at 5:05 pm, sitting on an itchy blanket while stuck in Northeast Portland traffic “with a buncha dumbshits.”
Dad continued to complain about dumbshits, and especially some dude in the car next to us who was getting in his way, cutting him off, or exhibiting some other perceived driving irritation. Dad’s temperature was beginning to rise, and he continued to mutter under his breath at this dude next door, while continuing to drive more aggressively himself—as aggressively as one can drive in an eight thousand pound car built before the invention of the safety pin.
Dad kept grumbling. Revving up and slowing down. Bitching about the dude who was driving like a jerk.
It’s quite possible that Dad was exhibiting some jerky driving behavior too, and equally to blame for the back and forth taking place between himself and this dude. Perceived fault would probably have depended on who you were to interview.
In any event, a heated driving incident was brewing, and unbeknownst to me at the time, a 1970s road rage incident was about to go down. Things got crazy for a minute or two.
Dad and I continued driving up busy Weidler in the heavy traffic. We kept seeing the dude who had pissed Dad off to begin with. He seemed to be everywhere, at every juncture. We’d move, he’d move. We’d stop, he’d stop. Our cars were connected on a Hot Wheels track. And the dude seemed to be as mad at Dad as Dad was at him. I don’t know what had happened, who did what to whom, but Dad continued muttering and cursing this guy for several blocks.
Things got worse. Dad was getting into it with this guy. I had been sunk down low in the front seat of our tank-car, but hoisted myself up so I could get a better look at what was going on. From where I sat on the passenger side, I saw the offending driver, a beefy, rough-looking dude much younger than Dad, yelling and gesticulating at Dad from his car. I saw Dad yelling and gesticulating back. Our car was close to the dude’s—there was no doubt they were yelling at each other. I noticed more gesticulating from the dude in the car, fingers and hands flying, while Dad continued to speak loudly and curse while also muttering under his breath in between the loud speaking and the cursing. He was working himself into a real lather. We drove on, then came to a stop at the next set of traffic lights. I looked over and saw the dude who had been in a yelling match with Dad. He was again, right beside us. We couldn’t shake him. This guy looked mad. And capable. Like Robert Deniro in Cape Fear-capable. He also looked like a felon. My dad was bald and looked like an insurance salesman, which he was. A fighter, he was not, although he did get pissed off a lot.
I ignored the dude for a moment, figuring we’d shake the guy, Dad would calm down and we’d be home soon. I reached into the glove compartment where Dad kept his stash of chocolate. I found a melted Hershey bar. In a Ziploc. Dad yelled some more.
I did not see or notice what happened next, but something triggered for the dude, because in an instant, he was out of his car and walking. Hitching up his pants by his belt loops. Walking fast and purposefully. Toward us. Toward Dad. So pissed off, he had left his own car, still running, in the middle of a NE Portland street! Who does that? He was obviously insane! My dad was just crazy. And what about safety?! Passive-aggressive road-enraged people are supposed to feel safe in their vehicles as they swear and gesticulate at their fellow road-ragers! Drivers are supposed to stay in their vehicles! This was 1977. There were unwritten rules of the road then, and one of them was: Everybody involved in a traffic altercation stays put and keeps the anger inside! People weren’t beating each other up or committing murder in road rage incidents yet. Road rage was in its infancy! It was play-acting! All in fun.
The dude was close now, looking big and inflated under his sweaty shirt. He was younger and stronger-looking than Dad. His chest was much, much bigger than Dad’s. He was coming around the front of his own car toward ours, heading straight for Dad’s driver’s side window—striding over to come have a chat with this man in the old car—leaving his own vehicle unattended on one of the busiest streets in the city.
As the dude continued walking toward Dad’s side, and with our old Plymouth idling like a beast in the middle of stopped traffic, Dad reacted. In one move, Dad reached under his seat with his right hand, and calmly and deftly pulled out a handgun.
A gun!? What the hell? I didn’t know my dad kept a gun in the car! Who was he, Al Capone? Not since Dad had me and Andy shoot magazine cut-outs of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in the basement of the house on Sherrett Street had I seen him with a gun in his hand. Jesus. This was getting weird.
Dad took the gun and carefully placed it in his lap, barrel facing away from me. The gun was small and fit easily into his palm. I just froze and watched.
With his left hand, Dad rolled the window up so that just a few inches clearance remained. He kept the gun pointed sideways toward the door, and below the line of the window so nobody else would be able to see it from a distance. Dad had gone temporarily nuts, but he wasn’t about to wave a handgun around in a gangster car in the heart of NE Portland. He was smarter than that. Dad kept his finger near the trigger of the gun and on his lap as the dude continued to walk toward our car. The dude’s intent when he got out of his car was obviously to intimidate Dad, and who knows what else. Dad’s apparent intent in bringing out the gun was to say to the dude, “Dude, I have a gun.”
Dad kept his eyes trained on the dude as he huffed toward us. My dad’s intensity was at an all-time high. He was AMPED. I was paying close attention at this point, but it all happened too fast for me to get scared. I was simply watching. Silently. I knew Dad had it under control. The dude was big and scary, but we were in a huge car and we had a gun. As the dude approached Dad’s window, just steps away, Dad said through clenched teeth, something like, “Try it, you son of a bitch.” Actually, this is exactly what my dad said, as I remember that line distinctly. Dad speaking this line was more for Dad’s benefit, as the dude would not have necessarily been able to hear him, being several paces away from our window at the time, and the window being cracked just a few inches. Dad’s threat was more of a stage whisper. An element of theater. A pep talk from Dad, to Dad. Adrenaline talking. Super intense German-American bald man who doesn’t like being intimidated holding a gun talking.
The dude approached Dad at the window in a menacing manner and was about ready to say something, for sure, but he suddenly stopped short. As he peered in, he caught sight of the handgun and the bald man in the shirt and tie holding it.
Just as he registered that he was dealing with a possible insane person—what with the handgun and also the veins in Dad’s head clearly visible now—the dude’s entire demeanor changed. His chest un-puffed. The aggressive stance and intimidating stare melted into a look of shock and surprise, and then, morphed further into what appeared to be the base instinctual survival notion of “what the fuck.”
It was now the dude’s turn to freeze. He blinked a couple times, and appeared to be thinking. Thinking of ways to not get shot at, perhaps. No longer trying to scare the shit out of my dad with his puffy chest and clenched fists and beefy thighs. No longer reacting in anger. Suddenly, there was no more looking at Dad menacingly. No more eye contact with the gun. No words spoken. The dude paused for two seconds, blinked again, and rotated his body slightly toward his own car. He then began to check the air in the tires on the passenger side. Because lots of people do that: check on their tires in the middle of a traffic jam. He looked at his tires, and saw that they were all filled up good. He may have reached down and touched one of them for show. Tightened the little rubber caps on the air nozzle thingies. Shrader valves, they’re called. Yep, tires were all filled up nice.
This was some bad luck for the dude. He picked the wrong old man to try to start a fight with today. But his tires were at the appropriate air pressure.
The dude turned—looking smaller now—and walked back to his car. Back to his car which was still idling in the middle of NE Weidler. Dad un-tensed a bit and carefully put the pistol down.
Traffic started moving and we crept slowly up Weidler, heading for home. I absent-mindedly licked my chocolately fingers.
Bald man with the gun wins. Violence deterred.