This is a slightly overdue flashback.
In the fall of 1990, I was a sophomore at Bowling Green State University, and my friend Dave – whom I’m pretty sure I’ve known longer than anyone who’s not related to me – was a sophomore at Miami University. Prior to the start of the school year, James Taylor announced a concert date at Miami U. shortly after fall classes started, and Dave got tickets for me and my friend Jennifer.
Something came up, though, and Jen couldn’t make the trip, so she loaned me her car (Bob – for Bucket Of Bolts), and I invited my high school friend Amy, who had just started her freshman year at BG.
It was about a three-hour drive from Bowling Green to Oxford, a great concert, and an all-around fun trip. I have a few snapshot memories of specific songs – “Never Die Young”, “You’ve Got A Friend”, and the show-closing “Steamroller” – and remember having a really good time seeing Dave and catching up with Amy on the drive. Looking back, I realize what a bridging sort of night it was, where faces and voices of high school past and college present and future swirled and collided and ricocheted.
After the concert, Dave & his friends offered us each a place to crash if we wanted, but Amy and I both needed to get back for early classes the next morning, so we hit the road north again.
It was pretty cold, which I remember because Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” came on the radio, and both of us were all “VOLUME UP, WINDOWS DOWN!” To this day, when I’m alone in the car, that rule still stands, a quarter-century later. It’s been bent here & there, of course – but even in the dead of winter, I will blast the heat and crack the window just enough to get some outside air swirling through.
Twenty-five years ago this month, I started my freshman year of college at Bowling Green State University.
Tonight, I drove a few miles out on some of the narrow, field-lined roads here in Lake Township. The sun hadn’t completely set, and there was an unusual (for early August) bit of coolness to the air, even though the corn is tall yet. Perfect night to put the windows down and crank the CD I burned a few years ago and labeled BG 89-91. It’s a mix of songs that take me back the most powerfully to my favorite years at BGSU. The songs are not all from those years, but they’re definitely among those that I listened to the most, and which still dig up the deepest memories and impressions of the friends and the places and the times.
My drive wasn’t long enough to get through the whole CD, but I had a few in particular that I wanted to hear, and as always, they mixed heartbreakingly well with the smell of the fields and the lingering pink-orange clouds.
Here they are, in the order they appear on the CD:
New Order – Blue Monday
Real Life – Send Me An Angel
Depeche Mode – Strangelove
Pixies – Dig for Fire
Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart
Depeche Mode – A Question of Lust
Yaz – Only You
Don Henley – The Boys of Summer
The Cure – A Few Hours After This
My grandmother Joan (pronounced “Jo-Ann”) passed away yesterday. This is one of the earliest pictures I can find of the two of us, and I realize today that in this photograph, she is only a few years older than I am right now.
Here are some things to know about my grandma, Joan (Engle) (Booth) Schoenberger, who was always kind of quietly amazing:
She was from Massillon, Ohio and counted Paul Brown among her high school teachers. (For the record, she always told me he wasn’t a particularly good teacher, because he was constantly focused on something else.)
Her first husband – my paternal grandfather – died when he was only 34 years old, so my grandma raised my dad and my uncle on her own, a single mom in small-town Ohio. Only as an adult and parent did I begin to grasp how difficult that must have been.
She moved with her boys from Massillon to Upper Sandusky, Ohio, and became a librarian.
She loved to read. And while my parents and Sesame Street encouraged my reading habit early on, it was visits to grandma and the unfettered access to the shelves of Upper Sandusky’s Carnegie Public Library that fed my addiction. Even though we lived across the state, grandma would let me check out stacks and stacks of books, and I still remember some of them, like The Gollywhopper Egg and all the Bobbsey Twins mysteries. There was an old painting of a man hanging on one of the walls, and I remember grandma pointing out that his eyes followed you creepily. Grandma was also responsible for unknowingly introducing me to Blue Snaggletooth. (This library connection stayed strong: When I was in college and obsessively seeking All Things Ray Bradbury, I went to the Upper Sandusky library on a search for “The October Game,” and found it in a collection there. The librarians didn’t know me, but they let me check out the book despite having no library card and having a home address some 110 miles away, because I was Joan’s grandson. And she had already been retired for awhile.)
Grandma always laughed and said that she wasn’t very sharp, but get her in a game of Oh, Hell and she would begin every hand with a woe-is-me reminder that she had no idea what to bid or to play, and then she’d rack up the points while simultaneously thwarting your bids and insisting the entire time that it was all luck.
She was fun to hang out with.
I was at her wedding: My mom’s father had been a widower since the early 1970s. He and my grandma Joan were married in the 1980s, throwing our family tree into giddy chaos.
Her house was always a special place to visit, whether it was for a holiday, or the Wyandot County Fair, or just because we were going over for the weekend because Mom and Dad needed to take care of something in Upper.
This chair belonged to her.
When I attended Bowling Green, my friends and I would stop in and visit her from time to time on the way to Columbus. She usually offered to buy us dinner at the local bar – The Pour House – which served excellent wet burritos.
I am so very glad that Kelsey knew her great-grandma well, and that the two of them got to share each other’s company for 15 years.
When I read my copy of Giant John – which I’m pretty sure is a library discard my grandma gave me – I will always hear her voice.
The lump in my throat has snuck up on me several times since I heard about Ray Bradbury’s death this week.
Thinking about how his name first meant something to me when I was a little kid and I watched (but didn’t understand) the TV adaptation of The Martian Chronicles, but it was 1979, and I ate up anything science fiction because I was still drowning in the wake of Star Wars. Thinking about being older, then, and recognizing his name when I found Fahrenheit 451 at a library’s used book sale. It scarred me in the best ways possible, and I wanted more.
Thinking about being at Bowling Green State University in 1990 and 1991, which is when I really started scarfing down Bradbury stories by the handful, sitting in the stacks on the first floor of the library. This is where I met those bratty kids from “The Veldt” and the time-traveling hunters in “A Sound of Thunder” and the inventor of “The Toynbee Convector.” (It was also in this period when I read a review of Bradbury’s collections that featured a description of “The October Game” as the most chilling story that Ray had ever written. It would take me a long time to track down a copy, but I still remember finding it in the Upper Sandusky library on a visit to my grandmother’s, and feeling icy water down my back when I read the story alone in a quiet den.)
Thinking of “The Lake,” one of my favorite Bradbury stories ever.
Thinking over and over again of a train and a bridge and a poem and a story and, finally, the time Ray Bradbury sent me a letter.
In December of 1990, my friend Tobi took me to Five Mile Bridge, west of Bryan, Ohio, to watch a train thunder past. Years later, I wrote the following in Crossing Decembers – and though my novel is fiction, this part is pretty close to reality as I remember it:
I wrote about the [train] in that green spiral notebook, but that was a two a.m., hurry-God-please-don’t-let-me-forget-a-nanosecond rush of howl and sigh and adrenaline.
The next night, I fell asleep trying to recreate the train, the bridge, and her eyes in my mind.
After I soaked it into my blood for a week or so, one night while my roommate was out, I shut off the lights and sat down at my desk by the window, where a bright pink-orange glow came in from the floodlight on the outside of the building.
Tree branches clicked in the wind, and over an hour or two, I wrote a poem I called “For Kallie: A Night at Five Mile Bridge.”
The next morning, on my way to the cafeteria, I stopped by her room. I was pretty sure she’d be at class already, so I slid the poem in an envelope with her name on it under the door.
Late that afternoon, I was alone in my room again and there was a quick, soft knock at the door.
When I opened it, Kallie was standing there, shaking, and her eyes were wet.
Before I could even say hello, her arms were around my neck, her sweet hair like spring, her body quaking, and in one of her hands was single sheet of paper, folded in thirds, with my poem typed on it.
Jump forward a few years to late summer, 1995. I have just sold my first piece of fiction, “Heading Home,” to Florida magazine for $100. Having practically memorized large chunks of Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, I found myself thinking about the part where Ray wrote that the greatest reward a writer gets is when someone “rushes up to you, his face bursting with honesty, his eyes afire” at how your work connected with him. And I thought about Tobi, and then, since it was well past midnight, I wrote Ray what I’m certain was a rambling, barely coherent letter about these thoughts bouncing around in my head.
I mailed it the next day and forgot all about it.
Two weeks later, his response landed in my mailbox, and I remember that my hands just started shaking when I saw the return address. Inside was a one-page typewritten letter, with a few errors and one ballpoint spelling correction.
At the top of the page were these images:
And below, a short note, reading in part:
These celebratory cats are Bradbury cats and they are celebrating John Booth and his first story sale and the night his girl friend flung her arms around him and wept because of the beauty of his poem!
Much luck in the coming years from Win-Win, Ditzi, Dingo and Jack, the Bradbury cats, and from
(Oh, how I love this part – )
Over the years, I’ve opened that envelope time and again, always carefully unfolding the letter and imagining that maybe the tiniest remnants of typewriter dust from Bradbury’s fingernails are still settled in the weave of the paper, quietly crackling with static electricity and magic.
It’s my daughter’s 15th birthday today, and she is celebrating it in awesome fashion: performing with her high school orchestra at Walt Disney World. In lieu of cake, I believe there will be generous portions of Star Tours, Tower of Terror, and Rock’n’Roller Coaster served.
You make me proud every day, Kels.
(And hey, movie trivia buffs: Kelsey shares a birthday with her stunt double (5:32 – 5:48) in The Meat Locker.)
I had this game for the first computer I purchased as an adult – an IBM PS/2 with a 486 processor – and while I rarely played full games, there was much fun to be had just setting up and watching all the animated battles, like R2-D2 taking on a Scout Walker, or C-3PO knocking off the Emperor. The game was released during the Dark Times, shortly after my move to Florida, so, as with other bits of Star Wars‘ re-emergence into pop culture in the early 1990s, my memories of playing it are tied to strong emotions and a particular sense of time and place.
The pencil drawings I purchased illustrate Boba Fett’s death at the hands of Yoda, as seen at the 4:24 mark of this compilation clip.
At the time, I didn’t have the means to compile these into a video, but I was looking at these drawings today and realized that’s a much easier process than it was five years ago, so, here you go: (Looks best at 720p.)
Each element of the battle was animated separately – so Yoda and the laser blasts and even the crater at the end are not seen on these pages.
Each drawing is on a 10.5 x 12.5 sheet of paper, which is slightly larger than my scanner will handle, so to keep things aligned, the leftmost few inches of each page fell outside the scanned area. In most cases, this was blank, although there are a few pages with reference numbers that aren’t visible here, and there may be one drawing toward the end where a few bits of the explosion go out of frame.
I also created a version which holds each frame for a second to allow for a little closer look:
The sheet which begins the video came with the set and – for the viewers who noticed that there are drawings numbered 1, 1a, and 1b – clarifies that there are actually 42 all together.
Hey future-dwellers: Crossing Decembers is available as a $4.99 eBook through the iTunes Bookstore, so if you’ve read any or all of it online and enjoyed it, why not pick up a digital edition you can keep for your very own?
(The paperback edition is, of course, still available through Amazon.)
John Scalzi’s blog post from Tübingen, which touches on the European intersection of the very, very old with the almost-tomorrow new, reminded me of these pictures I took of a house in Ratzeburg, Germany a couple decades ago:
It is fall, 1989, and I am a freshman at Bowling Green State University. When I begin the year, REM is on my radar only as that band who sang “The One I Love” and “Stand.” Although I am introduced to piles of amazing new alternative music that year, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” is the only REM song that comes into heavy rotation on my all-time favorites list, and I buy Document on tape at Madhatter Music Co. just for this song. Several years later, after my dad died, I got behind the wheel of the 1982 Corvette he had bought when I was a senior in high school, not long after he’d lost a kidney to cancer. It was the last time I drove that car, and I removed the T-tops, put this song on the tape deck, headed out between the cornfields and sang at the top of my lungs while the wind pulled drops from the corners of my eyes.
It is my sophomore year at Bowling Green, 1990-91. A girl I know introduces me to the beauty of Reckoning, with its Harborcoat and its Seven Chinese Brothers and Don’t Go Back to Rockville, and she lets me make a copy of her CD onto a cassette tape. These songs are tied to memories of my single-occupancy dorm room in Rodgers Quad and parts of the summer of 1991 where I’m living in an upstairs apartment with my friend Ivan and driving my beat-up Mazda station wagon around northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan, and this is my second-favorite REM album.
That same year, I become good friends with a girl who loves Out of Time. We also hang out in the summer of 1991 and go dancing a couple times at the local alternative nightclub. On one trip, we wind up bouncing around to “Shiny Happy People”; on another visit, I try unsuccessfully to convince the DJ to play “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” She smiles and makes it happen.
When Automatic for the People is released in October of 1992, I am submerged in the Dark Times and am in an unhealthy, destructive, alienating relationship. She gets pissed off because I go and buy this album the day it comes out, while she is at work. Over the next year and a half of my early twenties, this album will sit in my bloodstream, brooding and slow and angry and sad. When I move to Florida with this girl, Automatic keeps me company on those beautiful nights when she is at work and I sit on the back porch of our crappy apartment with a chemical-smelling mosquito repellent coil burning next to me on an overturned bucket while I try – and fail – to become an alcoholic writer who doesn’t write very much.
Somehow my Out of Time friend and I remain in touch, and when she visits me once on a trip to Florida, we talk about how great Automatic is, and how “Nightswimming” is the best, best, best REM song ever, and that’s the last time I see her alive, and this is the last REM album she will ever hear.
No other album hits me like this ever again. It occurs to me now that it is very likely none ever will, given how closely I associate it with that time of the chaotic tides of life and emotion – and of course, I am still in its grip when I emerge from the dark times and meet Jenn. When we listen to Automatic together, the world gets better.
REM releases Monster in 1994, I am working in the composing room of The Orlando Sentinel. I associate this loud, feedback wail sound with working the second shift and staying up to go to Denny’s until 3 a.m., and Jenn and I sharing our first home – half a duplex with a 1950s kitchen and a scrubby front yard on a busy street. Nearly a year later, we get up one morning at 3:30 a.m. to drive to the nearest Ticketmaster outlet and camp outside the doors to await the sales of REM tickets to a show in St. Petersburg. We are the third or fourth group in line. Months later, we attend the only REM concert either of us will ever see, on the band’s last tour with Bill Berry. “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” is the show-opener, and hearing those chords still gives me memory-induced goosebumps, and that song will never sound the same to me again. Jenn and I dance and scream and smile uncontrollably and get married eight months later.
There are other albums, and songs which make me grin kind of sadly (“Electrolite”) and others which beg me to roll down the car windows and say the hell with hearing loss (“Let Me In”,”Living Well is the Best Revenge”), but none which pull at me as completely as those I listened to almost 20 years ago.
Which is why, last Wednesday, after hearing about REM calling it quits – and I love, by the way, The AV Club’s description of Automatic as “the Pet Sounds of the alternative era” – I was glad to have an evening appointment which meant a half-hour drive each way out on some dark, quiet roads. Perfect for cracking the windows and singing along: The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder…
I jumped at the chance to read and review the new 20th Anniversary Edition of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire – my copy arrived last week and I just plowed through it so I could get this GeekDad piece written in time for the book’s release date.
And while I wrote a little bit at the beginning of that review about my introduction to the book back in the summer of 1991, there are many other memories tied to that summer and that book and what was going on in my life. Because while that summer was fantastic in so many ways, it also holds hidden in its gleaming moments origins of my Dark Times, which I wrote about in Collect All 21! –
When I was a freshman at Bowling Green State University, I went to my first Big Lots store. High on a shelf I found a whole stack of Star Wars record totes, sized to hold vinyl 45s. This was the fall of 1989, mind you, so grabbing one of these for 50 cents was a treat and a trip and many, many times since, I’ve realized that I should have gone back with a five-spot and bought a pile of them. I used it to collect my pens and pencils and desk clutter and that’s what it’s still for almost two decades later.
It was a good farewell to the ’80s and a great way to start the ’90s, stretching myself out in the flatlands of northwest Ohio. Between the old and new friendships, regular fights and tears and ridiculous joy, I can’t think of another time in my life where everything in every moment seemed to matter so much. It still feels very close and very real.
And yet within a few years, I’d made some stupid relationship decisions, alienated most of my friends and family, and moved a thousand miles away from everyone who mattered to me while my Dad was dying of cancer.
At the same time, there’s a thread of Star Wars running through the whole period, particularly during the years I call (only half-jokingly) the “Dark Times.”
The last good summer, 1991, my friend Ivan and I lived in a crappy, boxy apartment in BG to take summer classes and enjoy a little independence away from home. We had original Star Wars trilogy posters above the little black-and-white television set in the living room were we watched a lot of “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
That summer, my buddy Aaron came up for a day or two and told me about this book he’d started reading called “Heir to the Empire.” Aaron had never been a big reader, so I knew this had to be something special. I was hooked immediately, and I remember lying on an overstuffed, worn blue couch underneath the sole window in the living room reading while the hot breath that passed for a summer breeze wafted faintly through the apartment. Ivan scarfed the book down as quickly as I did – I think we may have even read the same copy simultaneously, passing it back and forth as we came in and out of the house from classes, summer jobs and WBGU radio duties.
[W]hen Aaron brought me that Timothy Zahn book, long after our sequel-writing and Star Wars RPG-collecting days had faded, I was psyched like I hadn’t been in a long time. A long time.
I’d never stopped being a Star Wars fan, but that book, that summer, was like hooking the jumper cables to the Landspeeder up on blocks in the back yard.
Over the next couple years, then, I coped with things (both the crap I brought upon myself and life’s punches over which I had no control) in large part by immersing myself in the resurgence of Star Wars, questing through comic stores and nostalgia shops and flea markets for old toys and books and at the same time eagerly awaiting the release of new Dark Horse comics, new Topps cards, and, of course, the other Timothy Zahn books.
Which means that even now, when I look back at what were without question the toughest couple years of my life, I find that I vividly remember those small moments of, well, not joy, necessarily, but relief and solitude and reminders of happiness and other, brighter days. And in the same way that flipping through a 1970s-era Marvel Star Wars comic can throw me back for a second or two to those endless-possibility elementary-school days, from time to time, the pages of Heir to the Empire strike bittersweet chords that have little to do with a galaxy far, far away, and everything to do with my memories of a personally chaotic time and place in my little corner of this planet.