Danny Heitman’s “At Random”: Recalling the man in the carpool line

If you think like a teenager, maybe there’s only one thing worse than being dropped off and retrieved from school by your dorky mom or dad.

I’m talking about arriving and departing from campus in a vintage station wagon driven by your grandfather.

That was my lot in life during my boyhood, after my mother’s father offered to shuttle my siblings and me to classes each day.

The station wagon wasn’t one wagon, but a succession of them — two, maybe three secondhand models that my grandfather owned in his later years. But they’ve merged in my mind as a single, singularly unglamourous vehicle, filed somewhere in the recesses of the past as the Uncoolest Car of All.

The cruelest irony in all of this, I suppose, is that my grandfather had once driven the Baddest Car in Town — a patrol cruiser complete with siren and flashing lights. As our town’s chief of police, he’d spent a long career rising early and working late, driving streets and back roads to keep his friends and neighbors safe. He’d retired when I was little. I can’t imagine, after all those years behind the wheel of his police car, answering the clock of another day’s shift, that spending his golden years in carpool duty was a dream gig for him, either.

But he volunteered as the family chauffeur to make our household life just a little easier. My father left the house before dawn on weekdays to work construction jobs far away. My mother owned a florist shop that kept her behind a sales counter much of the time. We could have taken a bus or walked to school, but my grandfather would have none of that. He deputized himself as the transport officer of our early education.

What he was teaching me, I later came to understand, is that love doesn’t often express itself in the grand and momentary gesture. It more commonly makes itself known in small, repeated acts of selflessness, executed every day of every month of every year — until you realize, looking back over the long stretch, that this daisy chain of kindnesses has been a lifeline extended from one heart to another.

I wasn’t smart enough to grasp that truth until I signed on for carpool duty myself, pulling into the school’s driveway in a minivan that my kids found atrocious.

This Father’s Day, we honor the men who’ve quietly loved us with little expectation of glory or reward. We embrace the fathers and grandfathers still with us, remember those no longer here.

My grandfather has been gone for a quarter of a century now — alive, I hope, in some better place. I imagine, when the time comes to close my eyes for the final time, that I’ll spot an elderly man in a station wagon on the other side — waiting, as he always did, to carry me home.

Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.