Driving in the rain is one of the best things in the world, right up there with beer and turkey legs and em-dashes. So imagine my delight when I found a video on my old phone of me--driving in the rain at night. Of course I posted the found video to Youtube, where it joined one of me driving in the rain during the day that I posted several years ago. And another of me enjoying the sublimity of a sudden thunderstorm....
Look at all this—stuff. I came across it at the tire repair place—a collection of objects the repairers had pulled from sad injured tires.
“Nails are everywhere,” the lead repair guy said.
But I’m not worried about the nails—it’s the deer antlers that alarm me.
And the axe head.
I’ve had more flat tires than anyone I know. There are probably several reasons—mainly, I guess, because I’ve driven many miles over the years. I was formerly a professional driver, a cab driver, and tires would go out on a fairly regular basis in the cabs I drove. Also, for a while I lived across the street from the facility where the Austin laundry chain Kwik-Wash repaired their washing machines, and the street and alley were littered with little machine screws, and it seemed like every month or so I had to pull those damn things from my tires. And also—in my impoverished youth I drove a lot on lousy cheap used or recapped tires.
The worst flat I ever had was in June, 1994. It was the day OJ Simpson went missing. I was driving north on I-35 to attend a writing workshop at the University of Iowa when my right front tire blew out. Man, that sucked. It was about 105 miserable degrees that day, and I-35 was as usual scary busy and I had to crawl around on the hot gravel changing that tire worried that some fool was going to smash into my pickup on the shoulder…though eventually I got the tire changed and I made it to a motel room in time to see OJ’s low-speed chase.
Flat tires make appearances in my writing, of course. Here, in the story, “Bad Guts.”
“Why don’t you just change the tire?”
Anyway—boom boom boom. Flat tires have always been a part of my life.
So I wasn’t too surprised when I looked at my car the other day and saw this:
Yes, that tire is flat. Unfortunate, right? But—I know what to do. Change the tire!
But then I was faced with--this:
Yeah, the spare was flat, too.
Luckily the guy across the street heard me cursing at the Tire Gods and came over with his portable air pump, and we got some air in the spare and I got back on the road.
But—it could have been worse!
Yeah—three flat tires at once. May, 1983. A personal record!
Second summer session was over and my dad was driving us back home to West Virginia. We left the morning of August 7th. I remember looking at the headline in the Minneapolis newspaper, reporting on the fallout of the smoking gun tape, which had been released two days earlier. Didn’t have time to read the paper, though—we got in the car and headed off. I was—excited. Thrilled. I felt this tightness in my chest—I can almost call it back now. I was thrilled—I was happy. I loved history, loved politics—I loved the stories that came from out in the material world. I was a kid but I was smart enough to know I was living in weirdly historic times—Vietnam, riots, moon landings, assassinations—Watergate! I was thrilled. It was an amazing time to be alive.
We drove on all day, listening to the radio news updates—there was a lot to say but not much action. The votes for impeachment were there. They weren’t there yet. Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott were going to the White House to deliver the bad news. No, they were going later.
Sometimes we listened to music. At one point “American Woman” came on.
“Who was that?” my dad asked.
“The Guess Who,” I said.
“No, not the Who!” I said. Kinda teenaged snarkily. “The Guess Who.”
“I don’t know, goddammit,” he said. “Just tell me.”
I thought he was making a joke. He thought I was being a smartass. I sort of was. That’s the way things often worked between us.
Spent the night someplace in Indiana. Drove on the next day. More news all day long, none of it good for Nixon.
I really loved Watergate. I’d watched the hearings all the way through the Summer of 1973—I was watching the day Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House tapes. I had a Sam Ervin t-shirt. I had a crush on Maureen Dean. I’d been off with my dad closing up the lake place when Nixon staged the Saturday night massacre, a cold October night, and when William Ruckelshaus came and gave a talk at the college the next winter, I attended and got his autograph. When the first tapes were released they were of course famously redacted, and Rolling Stone had a contest to fill in the missing expletives. My mom happened to see my entry before it was safely in an envelope and freaked out—”You’ll get arrested! You can’t send obscenity through the mail!”
I sent it anyway. Ha.
So…then we drove on through Ohio, news all day. Nixon was going to speak that evening. What was he going to say? He was going to resign. He was going to fight on. Goldwater and Scott finally delivered the bad news. No votes in the Senate…he was going to go…probably. We stopped off to see my aunt and uncle. Dad I think wanted to visit some but I was afire to get to Cox’s Mills and sit down in front of a TV and watch it all happen. I was anxious. Had to see it. We headed on, Just after we crossed the river into West Virginia, “Whipping Post” came over the radio. What an odd song to hear! AM radio reception was always bad in West Virginia, bursts of music filtering through the mountains between bursts of static, but the Allman Brothers came through the static that once. How often did you hear non-hit Allmans on the AM radio? Very strange. I told my dad that I bet Nixon felt like he was tied to a whipping post…
We got to Cox’s Mills in time for the speech. Our family had been Republican since there were Republicans—we all wanted to see what was going to happen. My dad thought Nixon was getting what he deserved. (My dad had been county Republican Chairman until he resigned in the spring of 1973—over Watergate, he said. But it occurs to me as I write this that that was also the spring my parents were divorced, and my dad had other problems then, too. So maybe Watergate was an excuse?) My grandfather was more upset over Nixon’s tax cheating than he was about the break-in and coverup. My grandmother wanted to see Nixon cry.
“I just want to see him cry, is all,” she said.
The speech came on. It wasn’t much of a speech.
My grandmother was in the other room. She called out, “Is he crying yet?”
Nixon didn’t cry. He just quit. And that was that. The news had people on talking about stuff, but I don’t remember what anyone was saying. I felt kind of let down. I went to bed at some point and slept late and missed Nixon’s farewell speech the next morning—I don’t think he cried then, either. I slept late but woke when a big thunderstorm blew in. Then the power went out.
“The son of a bitch’s only been gone a half-hour,” my grandfather said. “The country’s already going to hell.”
Life was empty after that. No more thrilling news. I was deflated. A couple of weeks later Rolling Stone arrived with its coverage of the resignation, and there was a wonderful Annie Leibovitz photo of Dan Rather sitting in front of the White House looking depressed. I remember he said he felt like rock fans did when the Beatles broke up. I was a rock fan and a politics fan, too, and I understood.
I have a few new publications to list and brag about….
“Baby Never Grew,” a short story at Chagrin River Review. It’s a story that was written for my West Virginia book-in-progress, and then got cut. Maybe I’ll put it back in—it’s worth reading!
“Something Else Finally Happened,” a short story at Amarillo Bay. A story about a writing class—yes, I’ve been in a few of those over the years….
“Beset by Demons,” is in the anthology/journal Tales from the Concrete Highway, published by Workers Write! A cab-driving story, with some bad behavior in it….
I also have a West Virginia story, “Guernsey Cows,” that has been accepted by Kestrel. It won’t come out until the fall, though, and so I’ll hold off bragging about it until then….
The original scary bridge....
I hate crossing bridges—this may be a metaphorical problem as well as a literal, physical one, but since I’m not feeling particularly introspective right now let’s just say that bridges suck….
The bridge that scared me most as a kid was the old suspension bridge that ran between Belpre, Ohio, and Parkersburg, West Virginia. I would always force my parents to stop at the Sohio station on the Belpre side to get Lifesavers candy—I was a kid, somehow I thought the candy would keep the big scary bridge from collapsing. And maybe it did—it never collapsed while I was crossing it. That’s it pictured on the above and to the left—it was torn down in 1980 and replaced with another scary bridge. So much for progress.
On my recent trip to New Orleans I crossed that damn Mississippi River Bridge at Baton Rouge not once but twice—an enervating experience. After the second crossing, my friend JR said “See? You can do it!”
But that’s not the point. Of course I can do it! I just don’t like doing it….
And so the packing for my impending move to Kansas continues, and I came across this t-shirt:
My psychic powers tell me, dear reader, that you have two questions about this object.
The first question is, How Did You Acquire the Shirt?
In October of 2000 I was driving the cab early one morning, and I got a call to the emergency room at St. David’s Hospital. When I pulled up, a guy and two young women came out and got into the car. The guy was wearing a jacket but no shirt, and was carrying this shirt and a plastic bag. One of the young women told me he’d been in the ER to be treated for alcohol poisoning. The plastic bag was a vomit bag. I told them that if he vomited in the cab, there would be a $100 cleaning fee. The girl said he was all vomited out and empty.
So I drove them all back to the frat house, while the young women cooed over “poor Steve.”
Poor Steve indeed. I told them that "Back in my day, we didn't get alcohol poisoning!"
They didn't say anything--either they were speechless, or unimpressed.
And when I cleaned out my cab at the end of shift, I found that the guy had left the shirt behind.
The second question is, Why Did You Hang Onto the Shirt for So Long?
It was a perfectly good shirt. I washed it and even wore it a few times. Then it went into a box the last time I moved. I think for me objects acquire a sort of flypaper-like stickiness that holds onto memories—in this case, a memory of the cab days, and a memory of a drunk-ass kid who couldn't hang. Though there is also no doubt some laziness involved, and a poor job of packing during my 2003 move.
At any rate, I'm pretty sure that I can retain the memory without the shirt.
And the shirt is now in the dumpster….
I was as at the prison and we were writing about lying— about liars and lies told —when an instructor came by the classroom and said that the education building was being shut down, and the inmates needed to return to the units. So I gave everyone a homework assignment and the students left and I began packing up, when one of the students stuck her head back in the classroom and said, “It’s raining! You’ve got to see this!”
We’ve been in a hard, hard drought this year, and then, as of today, 23 straight days of over 100 degrees. It’s been rough.
I went out into the hallway and the instructor said, “Well, it’s trying to rain. Been a long time!”
One of the rules of the institution is that in times of thunder and lightning, inmates are restricted to the units, and so my students went all excited back to the barracks. I closed up my briefcase and went outside—and was half-blinded by dust. We’ve been so dry there’s not much but dirt and dust in this area, and the storm winds were picking up the dirt and blowing it around. I signed out at the security station and went to my car. A few drops of mud came from the sky. There were sudden blasts of cool air—cool!—from downdrafts, followed by the buffets of hot air. I could smell rain.
I drove back through the neighborhood—the sky was sort of open to the north, and stormy in the east and south. In this photo, looking north, you can see a field of dead grass. Texas right now is a sad, khaki-colored state….
Then it really started to rain! Amazing. I made a video of my drive home….
(Remember, I was a professional driver for six years—don’t try this at home!)
I stopped by the grocery store to get some supplies, and people were lined up under the awning gazing heavenward with looks of wonder on their faces.
Readers in damp climates, don’t take for granted the miracle of water from the sky.
And—why not?—some rock and roll….
Just hope I don't have to wait a long time to play this again.....
Years ago I was driving across Tennessee and came down toward Chattanooga just at dusk, and it looked so pretty looming up out of the impounded waters of the Tennessee River. I was moved—and I thought of moving there. I told a girl I knew then about my dream of Chattanooga, but she was unimpressed.
“You probably won’t be any more happy there than you are here,” she said. “Or unhappy.”
Which might have been true. Heck, was probably true. I never found out, though, for I never ran away to Chattanooga. But still—the main impulse is right, I think. Sometimes you just have to pack up and go. Hit the road and leave everyone and everything behind….
Janet put on a jacket and gathered up her purse and a battered Rand McNally road atlas. Seven times in the last eight weeks she had dropped Jay off at Steve's, then set out on long drives out of town, driving eight or ten or twelve hours, thinking, thinking, stopping late for a motel room—twice sleeping in the front seat of her car—then turning back in the early morning and heading home. Each drive—to Dalhart, Clovis, Carlsbad, El Paso, Big Bend, Wichita, Little Rock—she saw as a dry run, practice for when she really left town for good.
The opening scene with Janet and her son is taken from one of my earliest memories, a morning when I was sitting at the table with my mom when we were startled by a sonic boom….
“It's when a plane goes faster than the speed of sound,” Janet said. “You know what that is?”
Jay shook his head.
“Okay, let's say that airplane came busting through the wall just now”—Janet pointed with her cigarette at the wall just behind Jay—“and I yelled 'Get down, Jay!' But no matter how fast I yelled at you, the plane would still run you over, 'cause it would be going faster than my words.”
Jay twisted around in his chair and looked at the wall, as if judging the likelihood of a jet bursting through it at any moment. Then he turned back to his cereal and began eating, every now and then looking up at his mother. He didn't say anything.
Janet thinks, “…at the speed of sound, you could get a long way away, maybe before anyone even noticed you were gone.”
Several people have pointed out, correctly, that Janet’s decision to flee—to bolt and leave her kid behind—would be a selfish one. But sometimes we write about selfish people, and sometimes we are selfish people. Life is like that.
There are jets--RF4Cs, in fact--in this story, and so I'll run this video again....
I drove to Conroe yesterday—drove through the much needed downpour of rain, thunder and lightning sublime!—for the annual Walt Whitman Birthday Celebration (Walt's birthday is of course the 31st, but this is Texas—we can celebrate it whenever we want). It's a great event: Lone Star College brings in Whitman experts for an afternoon lecture/discussion—this year, CK Williams—and then, in the evening, writers gather at a pub to read Whitman poems.
I read “An Old Man’s Thought of School”
An old man’s thought of School;
An old man, gathering youthful memories and blooms, that youth itself cannot.
Now only do I know you!
O fair auroral skies! O morning dew upon the grass!
And these I see—these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning—these young lives,
Building, equipping, like a fleet of ships—immortal ships!
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the Soul’s voyage.
Only a lot of boys and girls?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a Public School?
Ah more—infinitely more;
(As George Fox rais’d his warning cry, “Is it this pile of brick and mortar—these dead floors, windows, rails—you call the church?
Why this is not the church at all—the Church is living, ever living Souls.”)
And you, America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future—good or evil?
To girlhood, boyhood look—the Teacher and the School.
Drove home under clear night skies with a bit of moon up there—also sublime.