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April 21, 2009

Travels with Uncle Chet: Driving is no cup of tea


NEW BERLIN _ We were driving slowly down state Route 80, determined not to jar a load of heavy metal steps.

Traffic was heavy for a Sunday afternoon, but I'd waited until the road was empty before turning onto it. Now, in the mirror, I saw a red car about a half-mile back, moving up fast.

The precious cargo on the truck bed behind us was part of a spiral staircase, an expensive, drawn-out project that has to be done before summer or I'll look pretty stupid. Buddy, our eight-year-old, and I had packed the load carefully at the paint shop. The fan-shaped steps were resting on a scrap of rug so they wouldn't slip on the bedliner, and they were all separated with cardboard dividers.

We'd covered the load with a blue tarpaulin and tucked the edges under the steps, but as I stepped on the gas, trying to stave off that red car, the blue vinyl flapped violently, threatening to fly away.

I eased off the accelerator. The red car closed in, the driver flicking his lights on and off impatiently.

I stared, couldn't see him clearly behind the sun visor. A man, a man in sunglasses.

``Is your seat belt on?'' I asked Buddy, who was riding shotgun.

``Yes.''

``Because we've got a wiseguy behind us.''

``A wiseguy?'' The boy twisted back as we rounded a curve in Pittsfield, barely 20 feet between the silver truck and red car, moving in tandem like a motorboat and a waterskiier on a short rope.

Then the man hit the horn: a tap and a loud blast. My heart jumped, teeth clenched, hands tightened on the wheel.

``Who IS that idiot?'' I mouthed aloud, deliberately slowing while cars were oncoming and there was no way to pass. There, let's go slow, even slower, you dirty ...

``What's an idiot?'' asked Buddy.

``Someone with a bad brain.'' I glared into the mirror.

``Does that guy have a bad brain?''

``Bad manners, anyway,'' I muttered as the road straightened out near New Berlin. There the red Camry shot by us, the driver shaking his right fist in a rude parting gesture.

I returned the favor.

``What's that mean?'' asked Buddy.

``Many happy returns,'' I said, angry, but anger quickly morphed to amazement as I saw the car pull over up ahead. The driver got out, walked to the back of his vehicle.

Did he want to duke it out?

``Lock your door,'' I ordered. Did I still have that baseball bat behind the seat? I was planning to idle by, take a good look. Then I got one, and the joke was on me. The road rager with the gray mustache, standing at the rear bumper of the new car was none other than Uncle Chet.

We stopped and got out.

``You had no idea.'' He grinned and we shook hands.

``True,'' I said. ``Whose car is this?''

``Alice's new one, and by the way, I didn't give you the bird. I knew you thought that, but I was just waving,'' said Uncle Chet.

``He said you were an idiot,'' said Buddy, ``which is someone with a bad brain.''

``I imagine he did,'' said Uncle Chet. ``And speaking of bad brains, I went to a tea party last Wednesday up near Albany and you never saw such a sappy protest.''

``I tuned it out,'' I said. ``I was on vacation.''

``Fox Noise must have paid people to go,'' he said. ``Here are all these wingnuts who never squawked at a trillion bucks to bomb Iraq and build it up again, never squawked at Bush's record deficits, but supposedly they're up in arms over paying for high-speed rail and health care reform.''

``I heard it flopped,'' I said.

``If this is the best the Grand Old Party boys can do, they may be dead,'' said Uncle Chet. ``They need to stand for something, and in a hurry, because like Lincoln said, `You can't fool all the people, all the time,' and I don't think they're fooling anybody.''

___

Cooperstown News Bureau Reporter Tom Grace is traveling with his Uncle Chet, who he says is imaginary. Grace's column appears every other week.