See also: The Blind Date
It’s 1986 and four people are rolling through Europe in a rental car.
I don’t think Debbie was depressed on that trip, although I seem to recall she married a dentist afterwards. I knew almost nothing about Debbie at the time, and today, after 27 years and innumerable blows to the head, I know even less. I’m reduced to making up stuff. Debbie may not have brought great joy into the existence of Herman Melville Fidge, TA, but in the summer of 1986 she never gave him, or me, or a single Frenchman, or even a single Italian, cause for complaint. Not every Texas girl with freckles and 80s big hair is so blameless.
The highest tribute a senator of ancient Rome could give his wife was to have inscribed on her headstone: “She gave me no reason to complain.” [Ed: are you trying to get us in trouble?]
As for the interrogations and negotiations about seating and tenting arrangements Herman claims I made, I don’t know, I may have said something. He makes me sound like I was singing Todd Rundgren’s “We Gotta Get You a Woman” the whole summer. Possibly. It was the 1980s. Who in good conscience really remembers the 1980s? I also feel obliged to point out that on that road trip, as self-appointed Director of Romantic Encounters — as the Key to Personal Happiness Between Two Very Different Human Beings — I made an excellent pastry chef.
I do remember a couple of things. The first was that the rental car could go a hundred miles an hour without breaking a sweat. Every other car I’ve been in rattled when you so much as opened the door. To drive an American-made car at 100 mph was to “shoot Niagara,” as Thomas Carlyle says somewhere: it was to hurtle over cataclysmic falls inside a wine barrel with fragmenting hoops and splintering wood. Not this rental.
“Over-engineered,” said Herman.
I remember, too, how Herman would add under his breath whenever I drove, “And thank God.”
(A side note. I have always thought of myself as a reasonably good driver, perhaps because I have driven so many hundreds of thousands of miles over the years, from the Persian Gulf to Normandy, from Nova Scotia to the Redwoods, across West Texas half a dozen times, without once directly causing serious physical injury to myself or to another living thing, other than that damn squirrel in Las Vegas back in 1972. But when I think back on that 1986 trip, and connect up Herman’s locked jaw with similarly locked jaws from other passengers in other cars on other trips, I’m not so sure of myself. I suppose it hardly matters at this point. However, it may comfort people to know I have driven only 28,953 miles in the last six plus years, which averages out to 12 miles a day. So I’m doing what I can for public safely.)
The other thing I remember about the road trip of 1986 was that our gal Sal, er, Debbie was just as nice and non-aggressive and uncomplicated as Herman says. She was nice, with all the blank, unchallenging, unquestioning passivity the term implies. She was not a wild chick. I never saw any tattoos. (Nor did Herman, for that matter).
While I was obviously a village idiot, and my wife at the time to everyone except me an obvious bundle of strained semi-hysterical nerves, and Herman an Olympian figure burdened with hyper-awareness and far too much knowledge about everything from baroque trumpets to operating a Bobcat, our girl Debbie was perfectly normal. A casual observer would have seen this at a glance. Had we driven through Bulgaria and a Bulgarian policeman pulled us over (while I was driving), three of us would have been ticketed as “complex social organisms dangerous to the State,” while Debbie would have received a medal for model behavior. She was just that nice.
And of course, no matter how much I gurgled fantastically about rocking Fiats in the Piazzale Michelangelo (“imagine yourself in a Fiat, in Florence!”), or the romance of seduction conducted in a tent scrunched in the rain on a rocky French campground, no matter how much I sketched and suggested and coached, how much of an ass I made of myself, there was, I see now, absolutely no chance in hell of Herman and Debbie “starting the fire,” as Billy Joel phrases it.
Debbie probably thought she was safer with the three of us than if she had toured Europe while guarded by a phalanx of eunuchs. Lord knows what she must have experienced as a single woman on the Houston dating circuit in those days. My match-making shenanigans were so silly they were beneath notice; and of course she had taken the measure of Herman Fidge the moment she had laid eyes on him.
She had come along on the trip to experience Europe. Period. And Europe was the palace of Fontainebleau and the gold shops on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. She had signed on with us to see Europe with people she knew were trustworthy, and although one of us might embarrass her now and then, would do her no harm. She knew what she was doing.
As for Herman Melville Fidge, TA, aka The Fourth Wheel, he was blameless, he was courteous, he was polite, and he kept his hands in his pockets during the entire 15 day trip across France and Italy, removing them only to handle the steering wheel or to take the two photographs a day of Europe he had allotted himself. Herman is a gentleman. Herman is kind and noble and self-contained, and eminently reasonable. He is my best friend and has been the best friend I have had in my entire life. Four hundred years ago Herman was an advisor to Pope Urban VIII. Had you been on that trip with us, and watched Herman deal with impetuous, head-strong if well-meaning fools, you would agree that Herman Melville Fidge, TA, is an immortal being, kind of like The Wolverine, but The Wolverine who has advised caution to the papacy. This is not to say that Herman had to employ in the summer 1986 the same diplomacy skill set he had employed in the Cardinal Bellarmine/Galileo affair four centuries ago. After all, in 1986 he was on vacation. But he was gracious and saw to it that there was no unnecessary friction, especially between himself and Debbie. Perhaps in the end Herman would say that the difference between Gumby’s romantic fantasies and Galileo’s mathematical fantasies is only a matter of degree. One lunatic will overturn millennia of perception, while another lunatic will only annoy the crap out of a couple of people for two weeks.