We moved to California in the summer of 1965 when I was seven years old, six of us crowded into Daddy’s big old sedan: my sisters and my brother, Joe, in the back seat, and I – the youngest – sitting on the bench up front between my parents. Maybe the car had seatbelts, and maybe not. Certainly they weren’t required by law. I don’t remember much about that trip, except that the car broke down and had to be towed.
I believe we drove back to Tennessee on vacation the following year. It wasn’t a trip for the faint of heart, certainly not in a car with no air conditioning. After that, we drove to Tennessee almost every winter until I was married a year out of high school, possibly as many as nine cross-country trips.
All of those trips blur together in my memory. We left at night to avoid crossing the desert in the heat of day, although that may have only been the year we drove back in the summer. In December, snow and ice were more of a concern. That’s why we took what Daddy called “the Southern Route” – probably Route 10 to Route 20 to Route 40, because I remember that it took one-third of the trip just to pass through Texas, and I remember crossing the Mississippi River between Arkansas and Tennessee – and that he drove almost nonstop the entire distance, drinking coffee to stay awake and complaining if we asked to stop for a bathroom break that didn’t fit his schedule. We ate at a lot of truck stops.
I covered a lot of miles lying under a blanket in the back seat of one car or another, listening to the all-night radio and watching the stars out the car window. Orion was the first constellation I learned to recognize with any confidence. On the return trip, east to west, it was as if we were travelling together. All these years later I know that if I can only locate Orion in the winter sky, I can get my bearings.
Intellectually I know that Orion is just a random grouping of distant suns that ancient humans imagined looked like a hunter striding across the sky. On a deeper, emotional level, he’s an old friend. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve always loved dogs and Orion has two – Sirius and Procyon – following him across the sky! (It also doesn’t hurt that he was the son of Poseidon, the God of the Sea, and I also love the ocean.) After almost fifty years he’s a constant and comforting presence – at least during the winter months!
(NOTE: I’ve since learned that the legend says Orion was exiled after raping the daughter of the king. My old childhood friend would never have done such a thing.)