It's been a pleasure to read the account from our man Therbs about his travels in Europe back in the day, along with the allegedly Clumsy Natalie's trip through SE Asia. Good stuff, and recommended reading for all.
A lot of folks, especially from the Southern Hemisphere, seem to have the urge to trudge across Europe, sit and drink in their off-hours, and stay in cramped little bunkrooms with others of the same age and hygiene level.
When I graduated from school, we had an organization that would help us do the same thing. It was called the United States Army. In addition to all of the above, we could get the opportunity to blow up and/or shoot stuff. And if I could have gone in as a major, and I wouldn't have borne than a passing resemblance to John Candy's character in Stripes, I might could have gotten in on all that.
So in honor of everyone who's been on or are planning a long trek, I present the first of what could be a series on the Great American Roadtrip of 1986, every word of which is completely and totally true, at least as I remember it.
1986: Me and my friends Stevo, Zeppo, Rocko, Jimbo, and TC decided we were going on a road trip across America to find ourselves and get that one last big fling out of our systems before settling down and becoming marginally productive members of society. We planned a journey across the length of the nation. It was going to be great. We’d pick up some booze and chicks along the way and live the big life. A grand plan-until we pooled our money and realized how much money we had among the six of us.
OK-looks like we go as far as $125 will take us. And we could stretch that out some by camping out, eating roadkill, and selling blood on occasion.
We packed all of our gear in my often-trusty Renault Alliance, L’Attracteur des Femmes, and set out from our old home town in northwest Illinois. It was a beautiful morning on that first day. We determined that we’d get on the road at the crack of dawn.
As we all know, any group of people vowing to do anything ‘at the crack of dawn’ won’t get going until 10:30 in the morning at the earliest. My group was no exception. We came close and might have made it if we hadn’t had to help Jimbo. Seems his parents had a piano that just had to be moved to the second floor of their house, their garden weeded, the back gate fixed, and the garage painted. Amazing, the way Jimbo puts chores off until the last minute. He really needs to work on not procrastinating, and I told him as much.
‘Yeah’, Jimbo said. ‘I’ll get right on that-later’.
By the time we got his tasks squared away, it was 1pm. Better late than never. We loaded up the car and pulled out of his driveway, with the soundtrack to This Is Spinal Tap blasting out of the factory-installed speakers. We drove through town looking for all the world like a portable horde of refugees. Amazingly enough, some folks actually came out and waved good-bye to us.
‘That’s weird’, TC said. ‘Everyone’s waving good-bye, but it looks like relief in the faces of those two people we just passed.’
‘Yep’, I replied. ‘Those was your parents’.
I’d hoped that when we hit the road, we’d settle into the kind of deep intellectual conversations we were famed, we who would become leaders, nay, moguls, in the petroleum service, agricultural product preparation, and design fields.
‘How do they do it?’ Stevo asked.
‘How do who do what?’
Stevo held up a bag of peanuts.
‘How do they salt them in the shell?’
‘They hire a little man.’ Rocko said. ‘He’s related to the Keebler fucking Elves. How the hell should we know how they salt the damn things?’
I piped up.
‘You better not be getting any peanut shells in the car! I cleaned out the frickin’ back seat the other day!’
‘Looks like you shoved it all on the floorboard’, TC said.
‘Hey, Rocko, I heard you finally got it on with Velveeta Ramshekel the other night down at Marquette Park. Big Al said he knocked on your window with a flashlight when he saw the car rocking.’
‘You’re a fuckin’ drillrod, Zeppo! She’s my cousin!’
‘Hmm. ‘Inbred’ is such an ugly word. I prefer ‘closed-cycle eugenics’. Jimbo spoke up, only to receive a smack upside the head.
As the guys started in, I realized that the discussion wasn’t going to be as intellectual as I’d hoped.
Beer, I thought, that’ll calm them down. No it won’t, Other Brain Half thought. One time a drunk Zeppo tried to stab Jimmy Randomnutz with scissors during a particularly wicked game of Uno. Oh, yeah, First Brain Half replied. Better try a diversion.
That was the great thing about both Brain Halves-they’d argue a bit and come up with a solution. In many ways, I suppose I should have listened to them more often.
In all the rush to prepare for the trek, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d forgotten something, but couldn’t remember what it was.
‘Which way we headed?’ TC asked. TC had the uncanny ability to get lost in his own apartment. It was a bit later in life that he joined the Navy and became a navigator on a frigate, proof that the military carefully examines a person’s skills and experiences then places that person in a field that is the direct opposite.
‘Well, I’ll tell you’ I replied. ‘We’re going to East Dunleith to…Ambassador’s Gentlemen’s Club! Remember when JP came home on leave and talked the place and the dancers up?’
That got everyone’s attention. No doubt a suave, debonair bunch like us would likely turn the heads of the dancers!
‘I know a shortcut that’ll get us there before you can count out your ones!’ Now I knew every highway, road, and cowpath in this part of the state, and could lose anyone, including occasionally myself.
We ground over the gravel, over hills and creeks and past one old farmer on a worn-out Allis-Chalmers who I’m sure didn’t see other people on a monthly basis. We went behind the ordnance depot and past Veeblefetzer’s Landing. The road narrowed to something approximating a wildlife trail in the New Guinea jungle. The trees and brush started to encroach on the twin ruts.
‘Y-you sure th-this is a road?’ Stevo asked. The ruts started to go up a bluff. The drop on the left went straight down to the river, and on the right was the bluff with a series of old lead mines hewn into the rock. I put on my best tour guide voice as we approached the summit.
‘Now, we’ll be going down Holy Crap Hill, named by the first person to take a wagonful of lead down it. You’ll see that despite the name, it really isn’t all that bad. All it takes is a steady hand and…’
The Renault picked up speed on the descent. 5, 10, 15…
‘…a light touch on…’
20, 25, 30…
‘…the brake…’ I mashed the brake pedal. Clear to the floor. Now I remembered what I’d forgotten! The master cylinder on the car needed to be fixed! Oops!
35, 40, 45…
Someone was trying to drive up the hill towards us! OK, think, think! The guys were starting to become a bit concerned.
‘WE ALL GONNA DIE!’ they chorused.
50, 55, 60…
It was Zeppo who saved the day.
‘I know! I saw something on MacGyver the other night! Or, I think it was MacGyver, but it might have been The Fall Guy. No, it was MacGyver…’
I remembered as I pulled the emergency brake handle out of the console and furiously pumped the brakes that the first thing to do in an emergency was to remain calm.
‘JEE-SUS, MAN! SPIT IT THE FUCK OUT!’ I yelled calmly.
‘See, he was on this plane that was in a dive, hurtling toward the ground…’
60, 65… and the other driver was plodding forward inexorably.
‘And what he did was…’
‘BAIL OUT!’ Rocko screamed. Stevo and TC threw the back doors open and jumped. It was the damnedest thing. Those doors being open acted like a speed brake on an airplane and slowed the car down to a crawl. That and putting the old Alliance into the rut that passed for a ditch to avoid the other driver.
‘…open the doors on the plane and used them like a speed brake. You guys saw that one? Guys?’
Stevo, Rocko, and Jimbo picked themselves up from the road, none the worse for wear. The other car pulled to a stop on the hill, red and blue lights flashing...
Red and blue lights? I saw the big ‘SHERIFF’ on the white Caprice. Who the hell ever heard of law enforcement coming around here? Maaan....
Out of the car emerged a tall fellow with slicked-back gray hair. It was Deputy Guenther. We all knew him from high school when he moonlighted as a school bus driver. He showed his good humor on the very first day carting us to vocational school when he said ‘I was told not to take any shit from any of you!’. He was a real joker.
‘Well, well. I mighta known it was you fellas in that junk heap.’ He looked right at me.
‘Thought I told you about taking that mobile accident out on the public roads! You punks are gonna drive me to drinking…’
‘We can’t’ TC piped up as he got to the car. ‘Yankee put the car in the ditch.’
‘Don’t get cute…’ Guenther warned.
‘He isn’t.’ Zeppo whispered. Guenther pretended not to hear him. The deputy let out a sigh, rubbed his temples, and shook his head.
‘You’re lucky I was headed toward Old Man Peschang’s cabin to see if he wanted to go fishing this weekend. You clowns grab your gear and get in the car. I’ll drop you off back in town, although I oughta make you walk back.’
We all piled into the cruiser, older but wiser…well, older, anyway. Our great road trip suffered a bit of a setback, but there were a lot of great endeavors in human history that didn’t work out so well on the first try-the invention of the airplane, the first rockets, my asking Kimberly Muesli to prom. But it doesn’t mean we’d give up. No sir. We were young, determined, and not smart enough to listen to good sense or do anything like planning or preparation. That was what made this country great-it’s a land of people that do first and think later!
Eventually we’d get the road trip rebooted. But I’ll leave it here for now.
And it really happened just like this. Honest. I reckon it's not a quick fling on the Riviera, but we weren't all that cosmopolitan. You want that, go check out my mates Therbs and Clumsy. Now they know how to live!