08/02/2012 09:49 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

Makin' Good Time

There were a few times up in Michigan when our entire family drove to Mississippi to visit my father's siblings. These trips were not minor affairs because there were no Interstate highways and daddy's car was an old Studebaker with a snout nose and a rattling engine. Before we headed south, he tied a canvas water bag to a bumper and a large spare tire over the radiator grill and the bags and boxes that passed for our luggage were stacked and strapped to the roof. A $12 hotel room was an absurd luxury so we were destined to drive through the night.

And we dreamed of making "good time."

I never knew until much later in life that good time might be an important concept and achievement. Well, at least it was for Southerners. Or maybe just daddy's family. But I've been hearing about the glories of good time for decades while spending my life south of the Mason-Dixon. No southern trip is worth taking unless you make good time. And there is no finer compliment to receive from friends and family at the end of your journey than to hear those lovely words, "Well, y'all made good time, didn't ya?"

We often did. But there were many close calls and distractions and a few failures. On one trip we were approaching the small southern Michigan town of Coldwater, the Studebaker's profile much like that of Steinbeck's Joad family trying to reach California, when the engine stopped. No stuttering or misfiring or new noises; just no more RPMs and no power to the drive train. Because I was so young, I don't remember how daddy managed the situation but several hours later we were back home in Flint. None of us were too depressed since losing out on Mississippi time has never been too traumatic. But in future years when anyone in our household got home later than expected they were always asked, "Where've you been? Coldwater and back?"

But some times we made good time. And there is nothing more glorious and prideful than accomplishing good time. I can still see my father beaming with happiness the first time his sister Lizzie told him he had made good time. His old car had trundled through the Kentucky and Tennessee hills with the windows open and his children fitfully tossing and trying to get comfortable in the back seat. The windows were open to the southern night, headlights playing along the yellow line, and his arms curled over the wheel chasing good time. We rolled into Aunt Lizzie's farmyard by mid-morning the next day and she came out to greet us.

"Well, James," she told daddy, "y'all look pretty tired."

"We are, Elizabeth," he said. "We've been driving straight through."

"Is that right? When did y'all leave?" This was the important moment. Daddy knew his performance was about to be analyzed by his sister. Did he measure up? Had good time evaded him?

"We left out of Michigan yesterday mornin', right about this time," Daddy said.

Aunt Lizzie grew pensive and looked down the cornrows. She was doing her ciphering and quickly realized we had been driving 24 hours. Her judgment was pronounced.

"Well, James, it looks like y'all made good time."

Daddy beamed. "Yep, yep, I reckon we did. I drove all night. We wanted to get here and make good time."

"James, I think y'all made real good time."

There was a moment of silence to honor this achievement until Aunt Lizzie, in a flannel T-shirt and men's shoes in the dead of a Sturgis, Mississippi, summer, invited us out to look at her garden. We were sweaty and tired but nothing was more important than an assessment of her peppers and tomatoes.

"James, why don't y'all come out and look at my garden? I've got some tomaters and peppers that are the biggest you ever did see for this time of year. And my roasting ears has already made."

"Is that right?" Daddy asked. "Let's go get us a look see." He could not say no. He had been bestowed the honorific of having made good time. To decline Aunt Lizzie's offer was to risk having her wonder later in the day if we actually had made good time, which would throw into jeopardy the happiness of the entire trip.

The tomatoes, indeed, were plump with a few lingering streaks of green and the bell peppers were bending their vines. We stood there in the sticky morning sun and admired their biological abundance, four kids, daddy and ma, and the eccentric aunt who had just beknighted our journey. We all needed to pee and I wanted to make good time to the bathroom.

"Ain't they somethin', James?" Lizzie asked. "I don't think I ever did see any growin' like this when we was kids comin' up."

"No, I don't reckon," Daddy said. "They sure do look nice for this time of year."

We finally turned toward the house and conversation stopped. I hoped my aunt had been sufficiently pleased with our wonder at her vegetables but I knew that the world was sane and stable as we approached the wooden steps at the door. She turned to daddy for final clarification.

"So, y'all left about this time yesterday, James?"

"Yep, we did."

"Well, I don't think there's any doubt about it, then," Aunt Lizzie said. "Y'all made good time."

And the word went forth across the land.