At age fifteen I should not have been trusted with something as dangerous as a fork, yet the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles issued me a driver license. All it took was two visits to the beehive hairdo lady at the DMV: one for the written exam, and again a few short weeks later for the road test.
Missing was some sort of critical thinking/judgement exam. Here are some sample questions:
- You are driving sixty-five miles per hour when the center portion of your Big Mac falls into your lap. You should:
- A) Steer with your knees while reassembling your sandwich
- B) Safely pull to the shoulder and clean up your mess
- C) Apologize to your girlfriend for getting special sauce in her hair
- Your friends claim that you cannot get your car up onto two wheels. You:
- A) Agree
- B) Tell them that a car is not a toy
- C) Find a high curb and get to it
No such test existed, however, so I was licensed to drive with one restriction: I could not drive after dark. Apparently the State of South Carolina realized the Jekyll and Hyde nature of fifteen year olds. While the Sun was up our hands were at ten and two, piloting our vehicles in accordance with not only the law but with the courtesy inherent to safe motoring.
But once the Moon rose our eyes bulged from their sockets and our tongues wagged over our sharpened teeth. We grew, too, until our oversized green heads loomed through our sunroofs and our gnarled claws gripped enormous Hurst shifters. So my shenanigans were limited to daylight hours. It was the only way to avoid a case of Rat Fink-itis. Unfortunately school also occurred during the day. You can see my dilemma.
Skipping school didn’t used to be particularly difficult. I get an automated email now when one of my kids doesn’t check in to a given class on time, but back in Old Timey Land my school didn’t even bother to notify parents unless the kid exceeded his or her allotment of twenty sick days per school year. That’s a month of sick days, and now that I had a car and a license I planned on taking all of them.
Mostly I pissed these days away just puttering around town. I looked older than fifteen, so nobody questioned what I was doing out. I took advantage of their age assumptions and bought Playboy. I kicked around Smith’s Music House, a pawn shop stuffed with Kay, Silvertone, and Vox guitars that I was too stupid to buy. Sometimes I just went back home and watched game shows and Love Boat reruns and jerked off. I mean, not to Love Boat. Usually. Julie the Cruise Director was pretty hot.
What I really liked to do on skip days was hit the movie theater. Everything about a movie theater midday is perfect: dark, quiet, empty, and for two hours I can live someone else’s perfect life where everything is neatly resolved in the last act. Sometimes I wonder how many days in aggregate I’ve spent alone in movie theaters, escaping life until the house lights force me back to it.
And so one Friday found me alone in a movie theater, staring at the Universal Studios logo and listening to the heavy boom boom bap boom boom boom bap bouncing off of the walls. Boom boom bap is the beat of the Eighties. Every shitty pop song from that decade features this simple pattern, but the one and only time that it hit me in the gut was hearing The Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat” opening Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
The Fast Times soundtrack doesn’t really do much for me. I’m neither a Jackson Browne nor an Eagles fan, and the album is heavy on former Eagles. Joe Walsh, Don Henley, Don Felder, and Timothy B. Schmidt all have cuts on the album. Poco, Jimmy Buffett, Donna Summer — the only cool tracks on the album are The Ravens’ “Raised On the Radio” and Oingo Boingo’s “Goodbye, Goodbye.” But the real problem with that soundtrack is that it doesn’t include the essential Fast Times cut: “Moving In Stereo.”
There are only a handful of film moments that are inextricably linked to their accompanying songs: Bogey growling for another round of “As Time Goes By;” Rocky conquering the library steps to “Gonna Fly Now;” and wet, slow motion Phoebe Cates cracking open her bikini top to The Cars’ “Moving In Stereo.” If you think I’m exaggerating simply play that song for any forty-something male. Don’t make an event of it, just slip it into the rotation. He will freeze like a dog picking up a distant whistle, and then his eyes will glaze over. Don’t bother talking — he isn’t there anymore. “Moving In Stereo” might be the only song scientifically proven to increase bloodflow as well if not better than Viagra, and the effect persists until Brad the Pirate is interrupted mid-Phoebe fantasy.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High was huge, but I don’t think my fascination was that of my peers. Sure, I loved the nudity and Spicoli was awesome, totally awesome, but the big draw for me was the world depicted in the film. Ridgemont was the kind of place where you could buy scalped tickets to Blue Oyster Cult or Cheap Trick. You could wear shorts to school, and the movie theater had a balcony. The baseball field sported real dugouts and the high school was two-storied. Kids surfed and skateboarded and hung out shirtless at All American Burger. Fast Times depicted the California childhood I longed for rather than the South Carolina life I lived.
My California childhood remained a fantasy, but Gary couldn’t say the same. Just a year earlier Gary and his newly divorced mother left the promised land and now lived in a trailer way back off of the road that wound behind Holden’s Grocery. Gary retained his California cool, though — his Vuarnets and Vans, his corduroy surf shorts and easy-going cadence. He was Hal the Drummer’s cousin, too, all of which added up to a loose friendship.
He called me mid-afternoon one Saturday: “Hey, come pick me up. Let’s go to the mall.”
“Okay, but I can’t stay too long. I can’t drive after dark.”
“Cool. You have a tape deck? I got the new Oingo Boingo.”
“I’ll bring my boom box.”
Cruising with the top down, wearing my buddy’s Vuarnets, “Grey Matter” blaring from the speakers. What a cool album. I still think “Reptiles and Samurai” is better served as “Red Piles Of Samurai,” but what are you going to do. We did what there was to do at Westgate Mall. We talked to Mickey at Record Bar and Jill at Camelot, hit the arcade, stopped by Cosenza’s in the food court for a couple of slices from Luigi or his son, Pasquale. We found a couple of girls to chat up, and before we knew it the Sun was hanging low.
We ran to my rickety MG and hustled back to Gary’s place. By the time I dropped him off dusk was clearly setting in, so I tore down the road that wound its way back to Holden’s Grocery. Without warning the MG erupted into sparks and hideous screeching noises. It bucked like a wild horse and was no easier to steer or stop. I had no option but to grab onto the steering wheel and ride the beast out, hope I didn’t roll when I hit the ditch as I had no seat belt or roll bar.
I glanced to my left, and pacing me just inches from my door was a black, hulking mass hunchbacked and coiled, Death waiting to leap into the driver’s seat and take me to that great Ridgemont High in the sky. Or my left front wheel, newly liberated from my car and making a run for it. It hit the ditch and flew into the dense woods. The three-wheeled MG eventually ground to a stop. I walked the rest of the way to Holden’s Grocery and called home. My father arrived a few minutes later with a pickup, a tow rope, and a head full of rage.
“What the hell are you doing driving after dark?”
“You weren’t? What the hell do you call this?”
“It wasn’t dark when I left. If the car hadn’t broken down I would’ve been home in time.”
“Don’t talk back to me, boy. If you were responsible you would’ve left with plenty of time instead of trying to cut it so close.”
We were back to the MG now. “Goddamnit! Son of a bitch!” He slapped the fender, squatted and shone his flashlight on the exposed brake rotor. “Why the hell did you lock up the brakes?”
“I was trying to stop.”
“You destroyed the goddamned brake rotor. Where’s the wheel? Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“It rolled into the woods.”
“Son of a bitch! Why didn’t you look for it?”
“I have a spare.”
“These goddamned wheels are expensive. We’re not leaving it in the goddamned woods.” With that my father and his flashlight jumped the ditch and stormed into the woods.
I don’t know how long I sat there alone in the dark in the middle of nowhere, maybe twenty minutes. Eventually the flashlight beam reappeared and my father barked: “Don’t just sit there like a dumbass, get over here.” He stood on the far side of the ditch, flashlight in one hand and the runaway wheel in the other. “I’m going to throw this across the ditch. You catch it, or at least keep it from rolling away. You think you can handle that?”
I didn’t answer. He heaved the wheel toward me. I blocked it with my body, made sure it landed flat. Then the flashlight beam went spastic — up, down, left, right, all at once — and my father screamed. The beam was still now, laying in the bottom of the ditch alongside my father.
I don’t remember how we got him out of the ditch, but I clearly remember bearing the bulk of his weight on my skinny shoulders as he screamed and hobbled back to the truck. I don’t remember whether I drove him home or to the hospital, nor do I remember how or when I got my deathtrap MG home. But I can never forget how for many years I was reminded that my stupidity, negligence, and irresponsibility broke my father’s ankle.