Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

BG 89-91: A quarter century and a mix CD

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

August 6, 2014 Posted by | 1980s, 1990s, Music, Ohio, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maybe I’m all messed up.

So Adam has written some of his own memories of the end of 1989 over at his blog, Random Thoughts Escaping, and while they make for yet another fantastic trip back in time, it forces me admit that at some of the points where our stories about that Dec. 31 can’t both be correct, he’s probably right this time.

As I wrote in an email to him after reading his post: Here’s the funny thing – although in my head and its logic circuits I know your recollection is correct, I can’t fully unseat my own flawed memory of the night. And I think you’re wildly correct in the observation that it was as much us revealing NIN to our friends as you exposing everyone to it that New Year’s Eve. Perhaps that’s where the emotional memories on my part are coming from.

It’s not the first time I’ve bumped into this kind of glitch: While doing some research for Collect All 21! I found my own pretty vivid memory of a conversation regarding Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind coming in direct conflict with the historical reality of when those movies came out and when my family moved out to Lake Township.

Adam nailed it right here in his piece about that New Year’s Eve: This amazing confluence of old and new friends, alcohol and music was somehow significant. It was a mingling of high school and college, Bizarre Love Triangles, and the inherent hyper-dramatic sense of trailing childhood’s end.

This is yet one more reason why I love talking and writing back-and-forth with Adam, whom I’ve known since sixth grade or so: Perspectives and facts shift and change, and even when my memory clouds, it turns out we’re totally in agreement about the important stuff.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, Music, Ohio, Weblogs, writing | , , , | 1 Comment

A Sudden Sense of Liberty.

With 2009 winding down, I’m in the mood to return one more time to 1989. (My three previous visits are here, here, and >digs through pile of cassingles, Swatches and floppy disks< oh yeah, here.)

This recollection – which I’ve had in mind for awhile but was recently jumpstarted by something my friend Adam wrote – is likely to wander and be a bit nebulous (yeah – surprise, right?) because it’s not focused on a single anecdote or event, but more on feelings and associations and tangents.

See, 1989 was the year that I changed my music.

Maybe not changed, really; maybe it’s more like I finally really felt what sort of music I liked.

And though I’m thinking about 1989, I’m going to start further back because a) I feel like it and b) it gives a little background.

I think the first time I was really hit by music that sounded different from “regular” pop music was in spring of 1985 when I was a freshman in high school and “West End Girls” was all over the radio. I associate it very strongly with a weekend class trip to New York City, and the long bus ride and staying up late in a hotel in New Jersey consuming pretty much a whole package of Oreos.

Synthpop was, of course, a real flavor-of-the-moment thing, but this song struck something deep, and I was hooked on the Pet Shop Boys for long after the tune fell off the chart.

That fall, when I was a sophomore, I gave community theatre a shot and auditioned for a North Canton Playhouse production of The Passion of Dracula. (A possible branching moment: There was also a Junior Achievement introductory meeting that night, which I was interested in, and I had to choose between the two.) To my genuine surprise – this was my first theatre experience, outside my freshman year drama class I landed the role of Dracula. This wound up starting about a year-and-a-half of solid community theatre involvement, including dating a girl I met in Dracula who not only encouraged my Pet Shop Boys listening, but introduced me to Depeche Mode’s Music for the Masses and The Cure’s Standing on a Beach. (Oddly enough, the latter did very little for me, which is funny in a way, considering what’s coming up later.)

Now, not having the Internet and blink-twice-to-hear-similar-artists like these damn kids today, I really didn’t expand my horizons in what we used to call “progressive” or “alternative” music. The next song I really really remember stirring my gut was New Order’s “True Faith,” in 1987 – and it’s still one of my all-time-favorite “windows-down-and-crank-the-stereo” songs when nobody’s around.

So, if you look at my cassette collection in spring 1989, there’s not a lot of “progressive” in there – two Pet Shop Boys tapes, The Art of Noise In Visible Silence (almost solely because of the Peter Gunn theme – or as we called it, The Spy Hunter Music) and the aforementioned Standing on a Beach, which I actually sold to Adam for nine bucks, I think. (Also funny because he had found it in my car when I’d bought it a couple years earlier and totally made fun of me buying it.)

As previously discussed in my 1989 memories, I began dating a girl from Germany early in the year, and as summer kicked off and her inevitable departure neared, I wanted to do something really amazingly cool before she left, so I bought us tickets to the New Order, Public Image, Ltd. and Sugarcubes show at Blossom Music Center. (Because, you know, a rock concert. That’s big when you’re 18.)

Adam, having recently undergone his own change in music tastes, asked if I’d get a ticket for him, too, so the three of us went together.

Mind you, I had no freaking clue who PiL and the Sugarcubes were. And since I had never bought an entire New Order tape, “True Faith” was still the only song I really knew, though if pressed, I might have recognized “Bizarre Love Triangle.”

But “True Faith” still hit hard and deep, and I knew it would be awesome to hear in concert.

It was. And because it was the only song I knew at the time, it’s the only one I can remember, although I do know that I wore an old beat-up fedora that I found in the trunk of someone’s car and that we danced the entire night on the lawn and had a ridiculously good time with all these oddly-dressed and strangely-made-up people the likes of whom I had never seen en masse, but whose company I enjoyed nonetheless.

This was July, 1989: My first – what would you call it? Punk? New Wave? “Progressive?” “Alternative?” – concert. (Yay Internet: Most of the show can be found, badly recorded but totally appropriate for the era, on the series of tubes.)

A little more than a month later, then, Adam and I started our freshman year at Bowling Green State University, which is really where my thing for alternative music exploded. Adam had a kick-ass stereo system (which, back then, kids, meant having monstrous speakers that took up almost as much space as our refrigerator) and a massive CD collection, and he was also good at meeting people and making friends, so basically, simply by having Adam as a roommate, I found myself round-the-clock immersed in the sounds of Xymox and Alphaville and Bauhaus and Erasure and even more of Depeche Mode and The Cure, and when I want to be there in Chapman Hall again, with those friends and all the ridiculous cliched-but-true freshman year drama and heartbreak and anger and love, that music takes me there.

Music has never again played as big a part in my life as it did when I was in college, and it started that fall.

Another aside to The Cure Standing on a Beach cassette that Adam bought from me secondhand: Until recently, it was, I think, the only place to hear a song called “A Few Hours After This.” I couldn’t have told you the name of that song or even described its sound until the past few years, when Adam cued it up to jog my memory and the damn thing put a lump in my throat the size of a tennis ball because it yanked me so hard and fast back to freshman year.

An article in the campus newspaper about a comedy show on the university’s FM radio station (88.1 WBGU – The Shark!) led me to get in touch with its creators, and the rest of that year, I joined its weekly broadcast, which, in turn, hooked me on the idea of spending more time on the radio and started me on the path to discovering even more music over the next few years, when I was a disc jockey at the station.

And now we come to the end of 1989: I am home on Christmas break, and since my Dad is working New Year’s Eve, my Mom stays home and allows my little brothers and me to invite some friends over for the night.

Some of my close friends from high school, along with my new best friends in the whole damn world from Bowling Green, came over, and we had a freaking blast, the details of which are mostly irrelevant here – except this one: Adam has this tape, right? It’s a new tape that some semi-local musician brought into the CD store where Adam had worked, and we all need to listen to it right now.

So we cluster in the living room of the house where I grew up – and I’m not going to lie, there has been some imbibing, though Mom being Mom, there’s plenty of crash room in the house and nobody’s driving home impaired – and it’s me and my best old friends and my best new friends and we’re all a little wound up and goofy and it’s fantastic and awesome and it’s New Year’s Eve and this is what’s going on in my world the first time I hear Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine on my parents’ tape deck.

And it is effing incredible.

I remember smiling and I remember laughing at things like “…did he just say he wanted to fuck the devil?” (Answer: No. He did not.)

Yes, it’s a damn dark raging album, but the thing was, it was so much freaking fun to listen to. I never became a full-on NIN fan, mostly because nothing else has ever hit me the way Pretty Hate Machine did.

It came along at the right moment; the right crossroads; the right ending to a year.

December 28, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Music, Ohio, Weblogs, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Time and place, shared.

A couple weeks ago, Jenn and I were talking about my then-upcoming 20-year high school reunion.

So, she asked me, if my three or four closest Lake High School friends – and the only people from that point in my life whom she has really met – weren’t going to be there, who was I going to hang out with?

I had no answer. And this kind of sat funny in my stomach and brain the rest of the night, so I let it wander around in my head the next morning when I went running.

Why am I going, exactly, I wondered. I’ve generally stayed in touch with those closest of my high school friends, and even the ones who aren’t nearby it seems like I still get to see every couple years. Online, I’ve casually kept up with a few others and renewed a few acquaintances.

I didn’t go to the 5-year or the 10-year reunion, and the 15-year get-together was just a bring-the-kids super-casual cookout behind the old elementary school.

This one, though, I’d been looking forward to since it was announced, which I guess isn’t all that surprising, since I’m frequently nostalgic and a regular fare for the taxi drivers down on Sentimental Street. (See Ranger, Night.) And while I find it relatively easy to think generally favorably of high school the further I get from those years, I also know that many of the best moments were spent with friends who weren’t coming to the reunion. (And yes, I do vividly remember the sucktacular times as well, but they seem to matter less and less.)

Part of it, I think, is that where I grew up, the place I always called home even when I lived a thousand miles away for most of a decade, is a big part of who I am. Maybe it’s partly because once I started first grade, my family never moved from our house south of Hartville, and I spent my entire childhood in Lake Local Schools. Even as I’ve gotten older and the world has gotten bigger, the easier it seems to be to connect with those people who shared this particular corner of it for awhile.

And there were at least a couple people coming to the reunion who I knew I wanted to see, even though I had no clue whether those catch-ups would be five minutes of stilted small talk or the hours-flying-by sort of conversations that are awesome and fun.

What I wound up telling myself while I was out running that morning was this: Don’t be left wondering.

I’d much rather be there, I told myself, than not go and then wonder if I should have. If it sucks, it sucks, but I find that sort of thing far easier to put behind me than a case of the Coulda Shoulda Wouldas.

So this past Friday morning, I squeezed in one more work-week interview in the morning, and then I generally fidgeted about the house and get ready for the overnight trip to Salt Fork State Park.

Not long after lunch, I hit the road.

To get myself in the proper state of mind along the way, I’d piled the passenger seat with CDs loaded for an All-Eighties drive.

The soundtrack for the drive south (GORGEOUS afternoon), radio loud and the windows open the whole way:

Selections from Journey: Greatest Hits (Digression – Other than being fascinated by their video game, I can’t say I was actually a Journey fan in the 1980s. Yes, I knew their music, but I never owned an album or recorded a Journey song off the radio or MTV. It was only during a Spring Break trip to visit Adam in 1991 that I realized how much Journey I’d absorbed in the 1980s and how strongly it pulled me back to those years.) – Any Way You Want It, Faithfully, Ask the Lonely, Separate Ways, and (duh) Don’t Stop Believing, which was cued up for my initial acceleration onto I-77 southbound.

Selections from U2: Rattle & Hum (because I couldn’t find my Joshua Tree CD) – Desire, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Pride (In the Name of Love)

Selections from John’s Homemade Late-Night Solo-Driving CD No. 1: The Buggles: Video Killed the Radio Star, Pet Shop Boys: Always on My Mind, New Order: True Faith, The Kinks: Come Dancing, The Hooters: And We Danced.

The drive flew by, and when that last song ended, I had just exited the interstate for the two-lane state route to Salt Fork, so I just shut the soundtrack down and thought.

I got to the resort a little after 3 p.m., with not quite three hours until the reunion was scheduled to start. Put my stuff in the room, walked around a little bit, considered taking a swim, didn’t, and then plopped in a rocking chair looking out over the pool and kind of zoned and maybe half-dozed for awhile.

I never stopped wondering what to expect.

Walking back to the room, I ran into the first of my former classmates in a stairway, and the minute or two we spent saying hello eased my mind somewhat.

I went out and sat on the balcony which faced a grassy hillside and the woods just beyond. After a bit, a deer came out of the woods and was eating the grass along the treeline about 100 yards away.

A little later, people on the balcony above me started throwing corn chips and bread to a buck and two does which had come right up to the building and were close enough to my porch that I could see their ribs and whiskers and hear them crunching as they ate.

Every so often, I would walk to the exit near my room and look out at the cluster of picnic tables for the reunion and see if anyone was out there. I can’t exactly say why I was nervous, but it still seemed a very real possibility that the whole night would be a stutter-step of short, uncomfortable reintroductions and me wondering why the hell I was here anyway.

A few minutes past six, I decided to head out. There were a few people out there now, though I couldn’t recognize anyone from a distance. I made a beeline for the bar, because I knew I could use a beer here. And while I was standing there, I spotted a guy I was great friends with for a couple years coming toward me, grinning. And just like that, I got the feeling that the night was going to be OK.

And it was OK plus infinity over dinner and beer and music and drinks and the next almost nine hours. (Incidentally, I thought it was incredibly fitting for our Class of 1989 to have a “don’t-dress-up-we’re-having-ribs” kind of reunion. It just fit well.)

The specifics of these people and moments and talks are not what matters here, because nobody’s recollections will be the same, and we’ll all attach our own significance or lack thereof for better or worse.

What I’m keeping is this: Twenty years out of high school, we’re all in such different places, not just geographically, but socially, vocationally, politically, mentally, emotionally, and parentally, and yet this one slice of a single day was a great reminder that we once lived and breathed in the same time and space, and that even if we didn’t occupy specific moments in each others’ lives, having a small corner of the universe in common is not an unimportant thing.

It was after three a.m. by the time I got back to my room, and I decided to have a glass of ice water and sit on the steps outside and kind of exhale and wind down. The picnic table area was in darkness, and the place was mostly still.

Exhausted as I was, I had trouble falling asleep and staying there.

I was up and showering at 7:30 a.m., and I brewed a bland cup of room coffee to take on a walk around the lodge and scout out breakfast. I hadn’t figured on running into anyone, really, given the late night most of us had, but I bumped into a classmate and her husband, and the three of us wound up eating together in the restaurant and talking about school and life and kids and home (they still live in the same area, too). That we weren’t even close when we were growing up was wonderfully irrelevant.

After breakfast, I walked around a little more, ran into a couple more people here and there, chatted and said goodbyes.

For all the nerves I’d had less than 24 hours before, I was finding it kind of tough to leave.

I packed up my stuff, checked out, and sat back on one of the lobby couches overlooking the pool and had parting conversations with people as they came through, even spending a long time talking to a few people I hadn’t gotten a chance to say hi to the night before.

A little after 11 a.m., I walked out the side door to the parking lot, got in my car and headed home, windows down, late summer air swirling.

The plan for the drive back was to ease the mental adjustment by shifting the soundtrack back toward the present.

But you know what?

I put Journey in again and turned it up as loud as it would go.

September 7, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, Current Affairs, eighties, Music, Ohio, Travel, writing | , , , , , | 3 Comments

1989: Point of origin.

I’m a big fan of exploring how things are connected in almost unnoticeable ways, how paths turn, how events and people link, and the resulting unpredictable chains.

And among the events of 1989 is the first point on a particularly important, if convoluted, line in my life:

See, as that year began, I was just beginning to seriously date the German exchange student at our high school.

Because of that, I met my wife Jenn – almost five years later and a thousand miles away.

Here’s the deal:

In July, 1989, I stood on the observation deck at the Akron-Canton Airport and watched this girl’s plane take off as she headed back to Germany. Yes, it had been inevitable; yes, I took it hard anyway.

The next month, I began my freshman year of college at Bowling Green State University, and while that semester is full of its own 1989 mile markers, here’s the one relevant to this story: I still wasn’t over my German girlfriend.

So by the time the school year ended in spring, 1990, I was already planning my first trip overseas.

I went home from BG intending to work my ass off and save every penny for an airline ticket and funds for a month-long visit to Germany in July.

At the time, I worked at the big Children’s Palace toy store at Belden Village mall, my holdover job from the previous summer and two Christmas seasons. Mostly I stocked and straightened shelves, but I worked shifts in the warehouse now and then, and occasionally donned the Peter Panda mascot outfit during big sales. Problem was, Children’s Palace wasn’t close to a full-time job: Shifts were mostly four- or five-hour afternoon stints, maybe three or four days a week. It was all they could give me, but the paychecks I was getting weren’t going to come near to funding my trip

So I swallowed my pride and did what I swore I never would: I applied for a job at McDonald’s.

From the time I was old enough to work, I had vowed never to do fast food. Between the ages of 15 and 19, I worked as a summer camp counselor at the YMCA, did mini-golf groundskeeping and batting-cage maintenance, held two busboy jobs and then landed at Children’s Palace.

But never, I said, McDonald’s.

Yet here I was, desperate for the cash to reach Europe, and needing it now, since the summer vacation clock was already ticking.

I told them I could work as many hours as they had to throw at me, whenever they needed me, and I could start right this second.

That’s how I found myself pulling a dime past minimum wage, working mostly the opening shift, 5 a.m. to 1p.m. five days a week. I came home afternoons feeling shellacked in grease and smelling like french fries.

But I was socking away the money I needed for that trip to Germany.

I can imagine nothing else that would have gotten 19-year-old me to work at McDonald’s.

So flash forward another academic year, and now it’s April or May 1991, and my best friend Ivan and I have decided that we’re going to get an apartment and stay in Bowling Green for the summer, since I’ve got some classes I want to take.

Before we’ve even told our parents, we have gone out and found a place to rent, though neither of us has work lined up. There are enough weeks to do that, I’m guessing, before the end of the school year, and I figure my parents will be OK with the idea as long as I can find employment to support a few months’ worth of rent and utilities.

As the school year winds to a close, I am failing in this quest.

After the last day of the semester, I am heading home for a week before I have to return to BG for classes. We have signed our lease, and I have no job.

The desperation kicks in again, and I stop at the McDonald’s at the eastern edge of campus, walk in, and ask for the manager.

“I need a summer job,” I tell her. “I’ve worked at McDonald’s back home since last summer, I know grill and drive-thru and register, so you won’t have to train me. I signed a lease for an apartment this summer and I can’t go home without telling my parents I found a job, and I can start next Monday.”

She hired me.

What happened at this McDonald’s was that I met another girl. And we started dating at the end of summer, just before school resumed. This is, in fact, That Girl from the “Dark Times” chapter of Collect All 21!, and while the next few years of my life will mostly suck, the key role she plays here is that our move to Florida in March of 1993 is totally her idea.

Oh, I wanted to go someplace after I graduated in December of 1992, but never Florida.

And yet that’s where we moved in March 1993, after a weekend scouting trip to Orlando where we both got nowhere with job interviews at Walt Disney World, but she got hired at a McDonald’s where a former co-worker was managing.

I walked into another McDonald’s just down the street from the apartment we’d picked out, gave nearly the same speech I had in the BG store a couple years before, and walked out with yet another job waiting for me.

After we’d been down there a few months, I took a second job at a local buffalo wing restaurant, quit my job at McDonald’s to help a new owner run the wing place full-time, and then began a part-time job at Disney World, having landed a job as a tour operator at the Disney-MGM studios.

That’s not important to the story, really, but this is: The wing company’s new owner wasn’t able to keep his financial promises, and when I realized it wasn’t working out and that I couldn’t survive on just my two or three days week at Disney, well…

I walked into my fourth McDonald’s in as many years – just a couple miles from my previous one, to which I did not return due to some bad blood over my departure – and put myself up for hire, no training necessary.

And again, the manager brought me on board immediately.

And it was here, at the McDonald’s on Lee Road in Orlando, where I found myself working regularly with this crazy funny cute punkish girl with these shining eyes and bizarre sense of humor and a laugh that just weakened me every time she let it loose.

If I hadn’t dated that German exchange student; if I hadn’t been so driven for cash that I walked into that first McDonald’s; if I hadn’t been able to use that experience to land my next summer job and meet that girl who convinced me to move to Florida – then, how in the world would I have ever, ever EVER crossed paths with this fanastic gorgeous creature who tied her hair with a pink scarf and loaned me her coat to sweep the parking lot on a chilly morning?

Of course I married her. Life goes through all that work to make something happen, you don’t ignore it.

August 29, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Ohio, Travel, writing | , , , | 3 Comments

1989: More Things That Mattered To Me

In early 1989, the year I graduated from high school, my dad lost one of his kidneys to cancer, which was another one of the things from that year which served as a marking post for pathways to come.

Four years later, Dad passed away due to the re-emergence of that cancer, this time in his lymphatic system. He died a week after his 46th birthday.

I was 22 years old at the time, living in Orlando, and mired in what I wrote about in Collect All 21! as The Dark Times. When I realized how sick Dad was after calling on his birthday, I made the trip back up to Ohio.

And though I didn’t manage to re-track my life overnight after his funeral, saying goodbye to Dad was a sort of two-by-four to the head that hurt like hell, but also opened my eyes and started me thinking an awful damn lot about what really matters.

Bizarre thing is, I’ve never considered it in that way until just this moment. I’d like to think that even if Dad had never gotten sick, eventually I’d have come to my senses and righted my ship, but who knows how much longer I’d have stayed stuck in those bleak, draining years? Too much longer, and maybe I’d have alienated my friends and family beyond the point of reconciliation, and my life now would be very different.

It didn’t happen immediately or easily, but in the year after Dad’s passing, I did start getting my act together and started trying to mend fences and build bridges and apologize and forgive and generally not be a self-involved stubborn jackass anymore.

All this, of course, was four years (short in some ways, bitterly long in others) distant from 1989, but that year is where the roots lie.

I remember not going to school the day of his kidney surgery, spending the time at the hospital where Mom and Dad worked, and talking to Dennis, my dad’s friend and fellow anesthetist, after the surgery.

There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that Dad would be OK. I wish I could say this was some sort of deep-seated conviction or faith, but the truth is, I don’t know whether it was genuine certainty and optimism or simply a refusal to deal with the darker possibilities.

At any rate, for a few years, he was OK, and things were mostly normal.

We went to Orlando that year for Spring Break, as usual, although we stopped along the way instead of making our usual straight-through overnight run. And while we were there, another bit of fallout from Dad’s kidney cancer manifested itself. This one, though, was a good bit: Dad was Corvette shopping.

Apparently, owning a Corvette had been a longtime dream of his, so, fresh off his bout with cancer, Dad was in a buying mood. And we were looking in Florida because, he said, cars down there never had to contend with winter road salt.

He wasn’t looking at the post-1983-makover editions: Dad wanted, you know, one of the cool Corvettes, when they still had the big, swoopy front fenders and the pointed noses.

“Seriously, how freaking awesome it would be if he got one and I had to help drive it back from Florida,” I remember asking my buddy Aaron, who joined us on these trips.

That didn’t happen, but not long after that vacation, Dad got his Corvette: It was an ’82 – the last year they made them in the old-school style.

I remember the first time he let me drive it, out on State Street, on the wide-open stretch west of Alliance. Dad was encouraging me to punch it a little and I was nervous as hell and afraid to blink, but I gave it a little boost, and there was an adrenaline rush and me grinning and grinning like an idiot, Dad sitting in the passenger’s seat watching and smiling.

That year, for either his birthday or Father’s Day, I got Dad a pair of leather driving gloves.

The Corvette was so long it barely fit in our garage, and even though Dad insisted on covering it every night with an old Peanuts bedspread, he was never selfish about the car: He’d let me take it out to get ice cream, or to go pick up my brothers from one practice or another, or even to just go drive around.

Once, just barely creeping out of the driveway, I backed over a toad. I felt horrible. It’s a gorgeous night, friends and neighbors are hanging out, I’m a high school senior with Corvette keys in my hand, and I’m standing in the yard with a lump in my throat over this freaking toad.

The car had removable T-tops and a cassette player and a loud-ass speaker system, and I tell you this: There’s probably nothing you can do on any stereo setting that will ever make music sound as good to me as it did mixed with the wind whipping around while I had Radio K.A.O.S. or The Pet Shop Boys cranked, or, depending on my mood, maybe a little Moody Blues or James Taylor’s Greatest Hits. And if “The Boys of Summer” came on the radio? Hot damn.

I drove the Corvette on prom night and took spins around the block with friends the day of my graduation party. (The block in question was a five-mile route with a couple stretches out among the cornfields, so, yeah: benefits of living a bit beyond the suburbs.)

Eventually, cars became just a way for me to get from place to place, and road trips became about the journey and not the wheels. Every so often, though, I’ll see a silver early-1980s Corvette, and Jenn will notice me looking at it a little longer than I need to.

August 21, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Music, Ohio | , , , | 3 Comments

Summer Skeeball: A Piece of 1989

I’ve been thinking about 1989 a lot lately.

My 20th high school reunion is coming up, for one thing. And we also just took a weekend road trip and stayed with one of the friends I made during my first week as a freshman at Bowling Green that same year. Besides the standard milestones of graduation and starting college, though, there are other events that year which have stuck with me, either because they marked small forks in a path that turned out to be major course corrections further down the road, or because they’ve just echoed in ways I couldn’t have foreseen.

This one involves a skeeball.

By mid-August 1989, high school was two full months in the rear-view mirror. My best friend Adam and I were getting ready for our move to BGSU while our other closest friends were taking off for various parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. It had also been five weeks since I’d watched my then-girlfriend pass through the Akron-Canton Airport security checkpoint to catch her plane home to Germany.

I’m pretty much an 18-year-old in an emotional blender, whirling around these weird weeks between everything I’ve ever known and whatever’s waiting in college.

So the girl down the street and I decided summer would be best wrapped up and celebrated with a day at Cedar Point. Amusement parks and fairs, especially at night, are among my favorite places in the world.

The day before the trip, she backed out.

I stuck to the plan, though, and, for the first time in my life, went to an amusement park for a day flying solo. And having grown up within a couple hours of Cedar Point (in fact, I’d already been there once that summer, just after graduation), there was pretty much nothing new waiting for me, so I set out to make it just a relaxing day of riding – mostly coasters – and people-watching.

And this turns out to be fun: I ride coasters; I walk around; I make pretentiously-voiced observations in my notebook because, you know, that’s what I do. Midafternoon, when the sun’s high and I’m getting a headache, I just stretch out and take a nap on a bench, listening to the bumper cars and the Wildcat coaster, and am surprisingly refreshed afterward.

So a little later, toward dinnertime, I think, I’m in line for the old wooden Blue Streak (where, just one summer but seemingly a lifetime later, I will spot Trent Reznor and chat for a minute), and there’s a girl behind me in line who’s making eye contact as the queue winds back and forth.

Now, mind you: Spending a summer evening with girls you’d meet at an amusment park was one of those unrealized ideal daydreams for me. It never happened, of course, because actually talking to a girl I’d never met just didn’t happen in my world.

But now, there’s this brunette and her friend in line, back and forth, back and forth, and there’s a smile now, and then, good God, she just said a quiet, “Hello,” when we passed that last time!

Simple manners? Just filling the awkward space? More? I have No. Freaking. Clue.

After the ride, I kind of dawdle in the general vicinity and see if they’ll catch up to me or anything, but they don’t.

Oh, well. With that boldness which only comes with an absolute certainty that I’ll never see them again, I resolve to speak up if our paths do cross once more.

And then they do.

It’s after sunset now, and the moon is rising over the lake, which reaches the horizon in almost all directions, and the girl from the Blue Streak line greets me like she knows me: “Hey – where’d you go?”

And just like that, Nicole (that’s her) and Markie (her friend) and I are hanging out and laughing and taking on the Demon Drop and stopping on the midway to marvel at the awesome lunar eclipse that’s unfolding overhead. (Yes, seriously: Aug. 17, 1989.)

We talked a little bit about summer ending and heading to college in a couple weeks, but mostly we just wandered and rode and enjoyed ourselves.

Under the fluorescent lights of an arcade, we wound up playing a few games of skeeball – which I’ve always loved – and I won a cheap stuffed starfish barely bigger than my hand, and of course, it belonged to them.

And then, this happened: The skeeball machine I was playing spat out an extra ball. A tenth ball, there in the chute.

Now that, I said, is a souvenir. And as they laughed and nodded, I grabbed it and stuck it in my backpack and we speedwalked out onto the midway.

They dubbed me the Thieving Poet.

We stayed late, and then said goodbye, and that was it.

I kept that skeeball for years, and pretty quickly it became a personal symbol of more than just that Cedar Point trip.

All through college, in my dorm rooms and apartments, it sat on my desks, a wooden lightning rod for memory and a reminder of that summer between endings and beginnings, of energy and possibility and small, random things that matter. It inspired a short story during one of my creative writing courses – one a particularly feisty professor actually liked – and years later, I wrote it into what is probably my favorite scene in Crossing Decembers.

The skeeball is no longer in my possession. Hasn’t been for more than 15 years now, and if you read the book, you can probably figure out where it went.

Besides: I’m never really going to lose it.

August 13, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, Books, eighties, Fiction, Games, geek, Ohio, writing | , , , | 7 Comments


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