My dad never asked for directions. Never. He always knew the best way to get there, especially when he didn’t. One spring day, we were preparing to go to Milwaukee to eat at our favorite Chinese restaurant and do some Chinese grocery shopping; we lived in Oshkosh, about an hour and a half north of there.
As we packed up the car, Dad announced that we were going to take a new way to Milwaukee. A faster way, he said. We’ll go north to Appleton, swing around Lake Winnebago, and catch Interstate 43 South. We can drive faster on the interstate and we’ll get to Milwaukee in no time.
My mom, brother, and I stared at him. “Dad,” I said. “Appleton is thirty miles north of here.”
“Right,” he said. “It’ll be a shortcut.”
“How can going north to get south be a shortcut?” I asked.
Even my brother, who always defended my dad, said, “Usually, the quickest way to go south is to go south.”
But no matter. Dad had announced the plan. So we finished loading up the car and hopped in: north we went. And as we trekked our thirty miles to Appleton, an odd silence fell over us. Would it happen? Would it work? Would a wormhole open up and take us, mysteriously, to Milwaukee?
We got to Appleton right on time, but there was no Interstate 43 there to slingshot us to Milwaukee. Instead, Dad had to turn east onto Highway 10, which wound its way through Brillion, Reedsville, and Cato – very fine and slow-going towns – as we made our way to Lake Michigan.
The clock in our car had never been so watched.
Dad swore at the stoplights and especially at the stop signs. Mom had the map on her lap, but he didn’t consult her. We were going to Milwaukee. Nothing else was needed.
We were on the road for an hour when we finally got onto the interstate, and the four of us breathed a collective sigh of relief – kind of. According to the clock, we had precisely thirty minutes to go from Manitowoc to Milwaukee to tie our normal time.
Usually, Dad drove five miles above the speed limit, but not that day.
Mom, who followed Dad’s route on her map, sat in silence. We all did. The only sounds were the sounds of the road, the heater in the car, and Dad muttering to himself from time to time.
When the half hour was up, Dad was gripping the steering wheel with both hands. We were just south of Sheboygan. Nobody dared mention this – we hardly dared to breathe. For in truth, not only was my dad’s reputation on the line, but also his power to define reality. By the time we got to our restaurant, we were famished, but the food tasted funny and unsatisfying.
I don’t remember us ever talking about that fateful trip, which revealed the limits of my father’s navigational instincts. I also don’t remember that trip delivering any great humility to my father. The thing that did change, though, was my blind faith in my father’s assertions. And I made sure to learn how to read a map. Because you never know when it’ll be your turn to find the quickest route.
February 2021 marks “Wisconsin Life’s” 10th anniversary on Wisconsin Public Radio. As part of the celebration, “Wisconsin Life” producer Joe Hardtke tells us why he chose to share this story as part of the celebration.
“I love the idea of radio sound as an Easter Egg. It doesn’t distract from the joy of the entire Easter basket, but it does give you an especially memorable treat when you find it.
“I’m recording this next to the Rock River. The way the birds dance with the current here sounds like any other river to most ears. But if I heard this in a radio story, it takes me there. It’s a magic transportation device.
One example of that is the lead foot that hits the gas in Crystal Chan’s story about her dad’s shortcut from Oshkosh to Milwaukee. Who hasn’t heard their dad’s foot produce that sound? That’s why it’s my pick for my favorite ‘Wisconsin Life’ piece.”
(This story was updated on March 24, 2021)