Mike Leonard is a lucky man. It’s not everyone who gets parents like Jack and Marge. At eighty-seven, Jack is a pathological optimist with an inexhaustible gift of gab. Marge, Jack’s bride of sixty years, though cut from the same rough bolt of Irish immigrant cloth, is his polar opposite–pessimistic and proud of it. What was their son, Mike, thinking when he took a sabbatical from his job with NBC News so he could pile these two world-class originals along with three of his grown kids and a daughter-in-law into a pair of rented RVs and hit the road for a month?
Mike was thinking that he wanted to give his parents the ultimate family reunion. And so, one February morning, three generations of Leonards set out on their journey under the dazzling Arizona sky. Thirty minutes later, one of the humongous recreational vehicles has an unplanned meeting with a concrete island at a convenience store. Thus begins the adventure of a lifetime–and an absolute gem of a book.
In the course of their humorous, often poignant cross-country tour, from the desert Southwest to the New England coastline, the Leonards reminisce about their loves, their losses, and their rich and heartwarming (and sometimes heartbreaking) lives, while encountering a veritable Greek chorus of roadside characters along the way. The home stretch finds the clan racing back to Chicago, hoping to catch the arrival of the next generation, Jack and Marge’s first great-grandchild. Through it all, Mike pieces together acentury of family lore and lunacy–and discovers surprising sides to his parents that allow him to see them in a whole new light.
Mike Leonard has captivated millions of television viewers with his wry and witty feature stories for NBC’s Today. Now he brings that same engaging charm and keen insight to the foibles and passions of his own blessedly unique family. By turns uproariously funny and deeply moving, The Ride of Our Lives delivers a lifetime of laughs, lessons, and priceless memories.
This edition’s exclusive DVD features never-before-seen footage from the trip as well as candid family video and photographs.
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Mike Leonard’s entertaining video features regularly appear on NBC’s morning show Today. He and his wife, Cathy, are the parents of two daughters and two sons.
To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau at www.apbspeakers.com
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 second 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.
In the right corner, at five foot two, 105 pounds, wearing a white floppy hat, denim jacket, denim shirt, denim pants, and white sneakers over pantyhose . . . with an undefeated marital fight record of 973–0, all but three of those victories by knockout . . . the pride of Paterson, New Jersey . . . The Cynical Cyclone . . . Marge Leonard.
And in the left corner, also from Paterson, New Jersey, at five foot nine, 160 pounds, wearing a dark blue jacket trimmed in white powdered doughnut crumbs and brown coffee stains, winless in sixty years of fighting but still battling . . . The Smiling Slugger . . . Sugar Jack Leonard.
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-six feet long, ten 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.”
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 keys 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 ...
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