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Life’s greatest lessons taught by ordinary people

In "The Ride of Our Lives,'' NBC's Mike Leonard shares heartwarming and humorous stories about how his family fared during a monthlong road trip.
/ Source: TODAY

In “The Ride of Our Lives,” NBC’s Mike Leonard shares heartwarming and humorous stories about how his family fared during a monthlong road trip he took with his aging parents. Here’s an excerpt.

Chapter One

Walkie-Talkie #1: “Dad . . . where are you?”

Walkie-Talkie #2: “We’re one minute away. We got caught at the light. You’re at that gas station in the middle of the next block, right?”

Walkie-Talkie #1: “Uhhh, yeah but ... ummm ... we have a slight problem ... ”

Walkie-Talkie #2: “What problem?”

Walkie-Talkie #1: “Ummm, Margarita didn’t swing wide enough around the gas pump and we ran into a concrete thing. It tore out the bottom of the RV. What should I do? Margarita’s sitting on the ground crying.”

Walkie-Talkie #2: “Holy crap.”

Less than a half hour into the adventure of a lifetime and the wheels had already come off. Well, maybe not the wheels, but sizable chunks of the rented Winnebago now lay scattered around a convenience-­store gas pump in Mesa, Arizona. Big pieces of splintered fiberglass, twisted strips of jagged metal, and in the middle of it all, sitting on the oily pavement, head buried in her hands, was my sobbing daughter-in-law, Margarita.

It was a distressing, stomach-churning sight. It was also moving. Literally. I was in the driver’s seat of a second rented RV, a much big­ger rig called the Holiday Rambler, and couldn’t stop. The entrance to the gas station was too narrow and I was too rattled. Rolling past the accident site, the troubling scene swept by my eyes like a slow panning shot in the movies. The wounded Winnebago was beached on a con­crete gas-pump island with three of my family members walking around it in a daze. It was four-thirty in the afternoon on the third day of February, rush hour in snowbird season. The street was clogged with traffic and the drivers were getting pissed, mostly because of us.

“That means the trip is over, right, Jack?”

It was the voice of my mother, eighty-two years old, with a Ph.D. in pessimism, coming from the back of the Holiday Rambler.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Marge, nobody died.”

That was my eighty-seven-year-old father, the patron saint of hope, launching yet another flimsy balloon of encouragement into a howling hurricane wind.

Jack and Marge, the package of opposites, the plus and minus charges still holding enough juice to light each other up after more than sixty years of married life. They were raised in the same New Jersey neighborhood, share Irish roots, and make each other laugh. Other than that, Jack and Marge are polar extremes. My dad ex­pects the world to work the way it should. He bought into this life believing the sales pitch that all people were made to be good but then he tears open the package, rips away the bubble wrap, and finds another con artist ready to take him to the cleaners. And it still shocks him. Every single time.

My mom, on the other hand, would’ve been looking out the win­dow and checking her watch wondering why the crook was late. By her calculations the per capita number of creeps and jackasses on the planet is the highest in recorded history, and most of them seem to be in possession of my father’s address and phone number. To deal with that distressing situation and to cope with all the other kinds of in­evitabilities, including but not limited to horrible diseases, fiery high­way collisions, plane crashes, killer bees, and Charles Manson–like home invaders, my mother has developed a philosophy that she calls stinkin’ thinkin’. By assuming that all of life’s encounters will stink, my mother has managed to stay even keeled when in fact things do end up stinking. When they don’t stink she’s pleasantly surprised. To better understand how my parents’ opposing charges influence their outlook on life, I have prepared this sample conversation.

Jack: “We should have my new boss, Fred, and his wife, Connie, over for dinner.”

Marge: “Fred’s an asshole.”

Jack: “Come on, Marge, you can’t say that just because he wears Harvard cufflinks. And why don’t you like Connie?”

Marge: “Connie thinks her shit is cake.”

Oh yeah, my mom swears. She also likes to down a little booze at the end of the day. My dad hasn’t had a drop of liquor in his life. How did they stay together for sixty-plus years? It doesn’t com­pute. Match.com would’ve built a firewall between their applica­tions. Vegas bookies would’ve shut down the wedding-anniversary betting line. It’s the classic mismatch.

Another bout between my parents was the last thing I needed as I gripped the steering wheel and scanned the road ahead for a suitable exit route. The rising chorus of car horns was starting to unnerve me. Mesa’s rush-hour motorists seemed to be having major problems with the way my RV was taking up both lanes. We were now two blocks past the crash site and in a desperate attempt to find a wide driveway, or an empty lot or a cliff to drive off, I cut my speed again, this time down to ten miles per hour. The car-horn octave level shot into the Roy Orbison range. It’s not easy trying to navigate an ocean liner through a rolling city sea of ticked-off people.

I had picked up the gigantic Holiday Rambler only a few hours earlier. It was thirty-seven feet long, twelve feet high, with a huge curved windshield and a large, round, bus driver–type steering wheel. The helpful folks at the dealership had given me an hour-long lesson on how to operate a rig far bigger than the Winnebago, but all that went out the window when the rubber met the road and hostile peo­ple started shaking their fists at me. How were they to know that I’m not an RV guy? I’m not even a car guy. I drive cars, but I don’t know cars. Manifold? Carburetor? If it’s under the hood, it’s over my head.

Last year the front headlight went out on our Volvo wagon.

When I drove it up to our small-town service station, two blocks from my Winnetka, Illinois, home, the young mechanic asked me to get back in and pop the hood. I didn’t know where the hood popper was. I really didn’t. Masking panic with a cocky nod of the head, I found a lever and pulled it back. My seat reclined. The mechanic, with disdain written all over his grease-smeared face, walked over, opened my driver’s-side door, reached down near my left leg, and pushed or pulled something. The hood popped. Then he went back to the front of the car and yelled, “Switch on the brights.”

Crap.

Looking down at the two levers sprouting from each side of the steering-wheel pipe, I flipped a mental coin and went with the one on the right. Blue water sprayed onto my windshield. The mechanic told me to get out of the car.

That’s the kind of idiot who was now at the wheel of the S.S. Fi­asco as it lurched through a raging urban shitstorm. With the lead ves­sel already on the rocks, it was now up to me to somehow save the day. Three blocks past where the Winnebago had gone down, I spied a Doubletree Inn with a large driveway leading to what appeared to be a nearly empty back parking lot. To guarantee a sufficiently wide turning radius, I cut our speed to four miles per hour and edged far­ther into the oncoming traffic lane before swinging the nose of the RV back to the right. This maneuver caused the Roy Orbison car-horn choir to morph into a deafening Phil Spector-esque wall of sound. Concerned about clipping the elevated Doubletree Inn sign with the vehicle’s high back end, I glanced over my right shoulder just in time to catch a glimpse of my mother giving somebody the finger.

We cleared the sign, made the turn, and rolled to a stop in a va­cant corner of the hotel parking lot, where I turned off the engine and rested my forehead on the huge steering wheel. All was quiet. For five seconds.

“Jack, do you think the man at the gas station can fix it?”

“For crying out loud, Marge, those guys can’t fix a Slurpee. You know that.”

Of course she knew that. She also knew that my father would take the bait and respond, as he always does, totally unaware that he had been duped once more into becoming an unwitting mule for another load of my mother’s stinkin’ thinkin’. Now he was the one mouthing those negative words — nobody at the gas station can help us — and that’s when my resolve started to weaken.

I had always prided myself on staying positive and toughing it out, but these were extreme circumstances and the urge to feel sorry for myself was overpowering. What harm could come from a small dose of self-pity? Lifting my forehead off the steering wheel, I leaned back in the driver’s seat, stared out the front window, and softly muttered two simple words: “Why me?” That’s all it took. Within seconds I was in a full-blown stinkin’ thinkin’ funk, convinced that our trip was doomed and that I was a weapon’s-grade fool for let­ting a stupid dream take over my life.

At least I think it was a dream. It happened a few months earlier, in late November, after going to bed feeling sad about my aging par­ents. They aren’t wealthy and had just sold their condo outside San Diego, moving to a less expensive rental home in Phoenix. They were going back to familiar territory, or so they thought, having lived in Scottsdale, Arizona, twenty years earlier. Two decades of explosive growth, however, had rearranged the metropolitan area, changing it from top to bottom. My dad signed a year’s lease believing the real­ estate agent’s pitch that the house was an easy walk to everything. Maybe for Lewis and Clark. It was a disheartening situation made worse upon arrival when my parents discovered that eleven moving boxes had been stolen, as well as most of my mother’s jewelry.

My parents didn’t deserve that treatment. They’re goofy but good-­hearted people, oddly matched yet oddly perfect for each other. They raised four boys in a happy home, lived decent lives, had lots of friends, and always went out of their way to be nice to people who needed a lift. Now the tables were turned and they were the ones in need of a boost. That was evident when they called on the evening of my fifty-sixth birthday. I expected Mom to open the conversation with a mention of my special day. Her first words, instead, were “This place is shit on wheels.”

As funny as that sounded, it hurt me to think that my parents, a couple of silly, fun-loving live wires who rose above their humble Paterson, New Jersey, beginnings to make it through a depression, a world war, and more setbacks than they deserved, had now mistak­enly steered their creaky old barge into the wrong dock. Too old and too shaken to back it up, they suddenly realized that they were stuck, one stumble away from the nursing home with no one in their neighborhood to talk to and nowhere to go.

Sleep that night was difficult. I live thousands of miles away, have four children of my own, a mortgage, and a busy life as a feature correspondent for the Today show on NBC. What could I do to change the facts? My parents were getting very old, and nothing good happens to people who have lived past their expiration date.

Then, at 3:00 A.M., my eyes snapped open. The solution had come to me in the middle of the night, rumbling in from my subconscious from who knows where. It was a gigantic RV and I was driving it. The dream immediately turned into a plan. I would rent an RV — no, two RVs — round up some of my grown children, drive to Arizona, pick up my parents, and give them one last lap around the country. I would take them to places they’d never seen before: the mountains of New Mexico, the bayous of Louisiana, the ocean cliffs of Rhode Is­land. I would take them to places they would never see again: their old neighborhood, their college campuses, their parents’ graves. Fi­nally, before circling back and driving them into the sunset, I would take my mom and dad to Chicago for the birth of my daughter Megan’s baby — my first grandchild, their first great-grandchild.

I got out of bed that morning filled with excitement. Maybe I couldn’t solve all of the problems caused by my parents’ ill-advised move, but I could do something. I could give them adventure. I could give them mobility. I could give them a month of my time.

The hell I could.

What was I thinking? I’d never driven an RV. Where would I get one? How much would it cost? What if we crashed? What if one of my parents fell or got sick? What if NBC refused to let me take the time off? What if Megan’s baby arrived early?

I couldn’t do it.

No, I had to do it.

At breakfast that morning my wife, Cathy, tried talking sense into me. She used logic, listing all the potential pitfalls, from the age of my parents to the financial implications for our children if they were to go on the journey. Our oldest son, Matt, and his wife, Mar­garita, our youngest daughter, Kerry, as well as Megan’s husband, Jamie, are all part of the family video production company. Taking them on the road would mean shutting down the business and cut­ting off their source of income. Brendan, our youngest son, would have to drop out of college for a semester.

But Cathy knew that her logical objections weren’t making a dent. We were approaching our thirty-fifth year as a married couple and she had seen that look in my eyes before. Out of the blue, some career-altering idea or lifestyle-changing concept would pop into my head and I’d take the leap. There were lots of failures, some costly, but more often than not things worked out, at times in a big way. It wasn’t just an urge to be different, it was ... and I hate to say this because it’s going to sound like New Age self-help crap ... as if I were being commanded to take those chances.

There was another factor that caused me to take those running leaps of faith. It had to do with the way I came off the assembly line. World War II had just ended and the demand for babies was boom­ing. In our family manufacturing plant, Jack Jr. was the first to roll down the conveyor belt, followed in quick succession by me and then Tim. Labor problems forced a shutdown for five years before issues were resolved and Kevin was born. Due to limited natural re­sources, the Leonard boys were manufactured using mostly standard­-issue parts. Average height, average build, average looks. Questions have been raised about the materials used to make Kevin, because he was the only Leonard to get good grades in school. For quite a while my mother thought that she might have taken home the wrong baby, but then Kevin started to look more and more like her father, generating a mixture of relief and concern.

With baby factories working triple shifts, orders would occasion­ally get screwed up. A mislabeled part might fall into the wrong bin and bingo, you’ve got a pretty girl with mousy hair or a hulking man with a chipmunk voice. Things must have really been out of control during the 1947 shift, because I came off the line pro­grammed with the live-for-today sense of urgency clearly designed for the crate of cicadas awaiting the next insect run. Cicadas, of course, have good reason to buzz through life like there’s no tomor­row, struggling through a seventeen-year underground confinement with the knowledge that their fun in the sun would be over after three measly weeks. Then they’re dead.

My cicada-like urge to capture the moment was apparent from an early age, as I hurried my brothers to the sledding hill before the snow melted or to the ball field before the skies opened up. It seemed like a curse at first, this clock ticking inside me, but as the years ticked by I gradually realized that the nagging gut-level discomfort causing me to fear the end of the day was also prompting me to make the most of what was left of that day. The curse had become a blessing, and with the clock counting down the days for my mom and dad, that persistent ache to do something about it caused me to make the call and rent the RVs.

In the predawn hours of a January morning, about two months after the RV dream, I kissed my wife goodbye and hustled out to the Winnebago parked in the driveway of my Win­netka, Illinois, home. It was the cold­est day of the year, minus twelve degrees, forcing Matt, Margarita, Kerry, and Brendan to move quickly as they loaded in the last of the supplies, great clouds of mist blowing from their mouths. My itch was becoming tempered by apprehen­sion. None of us knew a damn thing about RV travel and yet there we were, poised to shove off into the darkness. For a mo­ment I imagined Columbus must have felt the same type of anxi­ety as he watched his men hoist the sails. Then I remembered that Columbus didn’t have to ask his crew to explain why those big sheets were tied to the tall poles, just as he didn’t have to worry about bucking the waves while his father yakked in­cessantly and his mother flipped off the skipper of a passing pi­rate ship.

Grateful that the engine jumped to life on the subzero morning, I slowly backed the Winnebago out the driveway, tapped out a few short farewell toots on the horn, and drove away. Our journey had begun. In four days we would be in Arizona, where the other RV and my parents awaited. From Phoenix we would travel to New Mexico, then head east through Texas and Louisiana before moving north, then east again. The schedule was tight, but we figured we could make it as far as New England before turning back and heading to Chicago for the arrival of Megan’s baby, due in a month. I was hop­ing that the joy of welcoming their first great-grandchild into the world, coupled with the memories of the cross-country journey, would lift my parents’ spirits long enough to ride out the one-year lease on the Phoenix rental home. After that we would work on get­ting them relocated.

I looked to my left and saw the silhouette of Chicago’s skyline fading into the distance with the sun just peeking over the horizon. The highway traffic was moving slowly in both directions. Sitting next to me, Matt stared out the window. Kerry and Margarita were flipping through magazines at the dinette table. The last I saw of Brendan, all six foot four of him, was less than a minute after we shoved off when he planted one of his size-fifteen running shoes on the back of my seat to boost himself up to the bed above the cab. Picking up my cell phone from a traylike console near the dash­board, I dialed Megan’s number, knowing that she’d already be out of bed. A first-time mother entering the final month of pregnancy is used to seeing the sunrise.

“Hi Dad, what’s up?”

“You’re up. And that’s not normal for the Megan I used to know.”

“No kidding,” Megan replied. “This baby better be born on time. The no-sleep routine sucks.”

“Like you’re gonna get sleep after the baby arrives?”

“Yeah, I know, but at least I’ll have a reason to get up. Now there’s nothin’ to do. I was just watching some low-rent preacher on one of the cable stations.”

“Oh man,” I said, “that reminds me of something funny that happened when you were about four. You were playing with a holy card and turned to Cathy and said, ‘Mom, do you love God?’ And Cathy answered, ‘Yes, I love God. Do you love God?’ And you went, ‘Yeah, I love God but I hate his beard.’ ”

Megan laughed as I continued reminiscing. “Then right before Kerry was born you went shopping with Cathy and started badger­ing her about buying baby bottles. Cathy told you that she didn’t need bottles because she was going to be nursing. You didn’t know what nursing was, and she explained it as best she could while walking down the grocery-store aisle. Cathy said that you were quiet for a minute before blurting out, ‘Can you get juice from those things?’”

Megan is a six-foot-tall, blue-eyed genetic combo plate of humor, generosity, impatience, and compassion topped by a great mound of curly brown hair that falls to her shoulders in awesome ringlets. It’s a striking hairdo, fashionable yet timeless. Before leaving on the journey I came upon an old photo of a pretty woman in the 1920s, her hair just like Megan’s. The woman in the photo was my mother.

“I talked to Moose and Spoose last night,” said Megan, referring to my parents by nicknames hung on them years ago by my brother Tim. Mom became “Moose” because at five foot two she’s anything but that. Dad got “Spoose” because it rhymed with moose and looked like “spouse.” Against all odds the silly names stuck, and now all of my mother’s correspondence comes marked by a rubber­stamped image of a large, antlered Bullwinkle.

“And I said to Spoose,” continued Megan, “ ‘Next time I see you I’ll be in a hospital bed.’ He said, ‘I’ve seen you there before.’ He was talking about the day I was born. Spoose and Moose got to see me when I was hours old, so it’ll be cool when they get to see my child when it’s hours old.”

“What did my mom say?” I asked.

“Oh, I had some good laughs with her, but she didn’t say any­thing about the baby. It’s weird. I thought she’d be really psyched.”

“I thought so too,” I responded. “Maybe she’s just nervous. Are you scared, Meg?”

“No, just excited. The doctor says that everything’s the way it should be. The baby seems quiet lately, but I think that happens near the end. I just hope that he or she doesn’t decide to come early and you guys miss it.”

“Meg, there’s no way we’ll miss it.”

The conversation with Megan made me feel good about riding to my parents’ rescue, maybe because I haven’t always been the one to do that. I’m not a saint or the perfect son. On countless occasions I’ve ducked their telephone calls. Why would I want to hear my mom talk about the gall bladder problems of somebody I’ve never met? How would my life be made better by listening to my dad’s six-hundredth lecture on all the societal problems caused by people wearing their baseball hats backward? My annoyance stems from a universal truth. As people age, their physical size shrinks while everything else expands in a scary way. Talkers talk more. Com­plainers complain more. Small idiosyncrasies blossom into bizarre screwball behavior.

Every birthday added a new layer of eccentricity to Mom’s already quirky personality. When living in California she once re­sponded to the noise coming from an adjoining property by stand­ing on her balcony and hurling an egg through the neighbor’s open window. In her own living room she hung a big, framed photo­graph of herself and my dad with a group of people that included a man she didn’t like. Mom solved the dilemma by taking a big wad of gum out of her mouth and sticking it on the man’s face. The gummed-up picture stayed on the wall for years.

While Mom was hiding people’s faces with chewing gum, Dad was chasing people into hiding after chewing their ears off. Some­how his conversational “off” button got jammed and since it’s such an old model, we can’t figure out how to unjam it. Grocery-store baggers, traffic cops, bankers, house painters — it doesn’t matter, anybody with a pulse is fair game. He’s not picky about the subject matter just as long as it has something to do with the plight of the little man. That’s his mission in life, to spread the shocking news that the little man is getting a royal screw job. Through the years we’ve tried to tell him that this is not a major scoop, that the little man has been getting his butt kicked forever. It’s the law of the jun­gle and it’s been on the books since Caveman One swindled Cave­man Two out of the lucrative Termite Pie distributorship. My dad, however, thinks he can repeal that jungle law simply by swinging through life on his righteous vine yodeling to everyone within earshot for the butt-kicking to stop. It never does. Tarzan Jack keeps swinging, though, swooping down to grab the little man by the waist before turning around just in time to catch the trunk of the tree flush in the face.

And yet there I was, poised to drive a rented RV into the belly of the beast. Every eccentricity, every annoying habit, every repeated story would only be magnified as the miles clicked off and the hours piled up. To be trapped with my parents in a rolling tin can for a whole month would surely come at a cost, especially to my sanity, but this was payback time and I owed a lot. You can’t put a price tag on a happy childhood. It’s a gift, and for the Leonard boys it came wrapped in a colorful package.

As a little boy I would often walk uptown at the end of the day and wait for all the worn-out commuters to step off the train. My dad was the only man in a suit who was never too tired to race his son home, high-stepping down the small-town sidewalks, weaving through the crowds of businessmen, all the while calling the race like a hyped-up Olympic sportscaster. The course was three blocks long and we ran it a lot, even on the hottest days of summer. My dad was a good ath­lete and fast runner and I was only seven or eight, but somehow I always managed to eke out a win, always in a dramatic, come-from-behind photo finish. When Dad went on an occasional business trip, Mom would sometimes take us for an after-dinner spin around the neighborhood. The family vehicle must have been purchased from a fleet of used cop cars, because it had a powerful searchlight that could be ro­tated and controlled by a dashboard­-mounted handle. After dinner Jack, Timmy, and I would be quietly going about our normal business, perhaps trying for the umpteenth time to fit marbles into Kevin’s nostrils, when my mom would walk in and say, “Hey boys, wanna take a ride through the neighborhood? Maybe we can beam the searchlight into the Nevards’ house and see Hugo in his underwear again.” And sometimes we would see him half naked, touching off an explo­sion of high-pitched giggling from the backseat of an old sedan as it cruised down a quiet, tree-lined suburban street, a young, red-haired woman at the wheel, pounding the dashboard in hysterical laughter.

Businessman Jack.

Half a century later I’m the one at the wheel heading for a ren­dezvous with two old people waiting to embark on their last great adventure. There was little conversation as the Winnebago de­scended from the mountains that surround Phoenix and the neigh­boring communities. It was my turn with the CD player, and John Prine’s lyrics filled the silence:

“The scientific nature of the ordinary man/Is to go on out and do the best you can.”

The song is relatively new, but hearing Prine’s voice brought me back to our Arizona days. Cathy and I moved to Phoenix after get­ting married, and three of our four children were born there. We stayed ten years, spending most of that time struggling to make ends meet while raising our kids and listening to John Prine sing about people just like us. I was the common man doing common jobs: con­struction, sales, retail, and the list goes on. Before Prine found his niche as a songwriter he was a mailman. We knew that he knew ex­actly how we felt. My niche would eventually be found, but not until the age of thirty, when I landed my first TV job. A year and a half later, NBC came calling and off we went.

Another thought came to mind as I drove the Winnebago down the winding mountain road. It was the memory of our second child, the first girl in the Leonard family. She had curly brown hair and bright blue eyes. Even as a toddler her sweet, independent manner, coupled with a sense of humor, gave her a special glow. When she was about two years old we went to a friend’s house for a barbecue. The family had a pool. After dinner some of the men started playing a game of water basketball in the shallow end. I joined them. Cathy stayed inside with the other wives and a huge crowd of children. It was dark. One of the men threw the basketball to me, but the pass sailed over my head and into the deep end. Dipping below the sur­face, I pushed off the side and propelled my body toward where the ball had landed, staying underwater the whole time. There was something ahead of me, obscuring one of the underwater lights. As I glided closer, the object came into focus — first the dress, waving in the currents, then the little red sandals, and finally the face. It was my daughter. Grabbing her by the waist, I quickly lifted her body above the surface. Water gushed from her mouth. A moment later she started crying. Nobody had seen her leave the house or fall into the pool seconds before the ball flew over my head. What if that pass had been good? What if I’d caught it? Those were my thoughts as I stood trembling in the darkness, my arms wrapped tightly around my little girl.

Another generation had passed, and now two RVs inched down a narrow Phoenix street toward an old couple standing by a row of suitcases. The clock was ticking. There was no time to waste. If all went as planned, they’d be in Chicago when the little girl who fell into the pool, my daughter Megan, gave birth to their first great­-grandchild.

This was to be my gift to them.Their final hurrah.Their last lap.The ride of their lives.Thirty minutes later, the Winnebago was in pieces.

Excerpted from "The Ride of Our Lives: Roadside Lessons from an American Family” Copyright 2007 Mike Leonard. Reprinted by permission of Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.