The last time I wrote about the van I drove for two years in high school, mockingly dubbed “The Smurfmobile” by friends, I noticed that I only recalled fond memories. This amuses me because when I was driving it, I wasn’t fond of it at all. Not ever. Not for even one moment.
When I was sixteen, I didn’t think fondly of “my” van because it wasn’t even my van; it was my Grandma’s van that she had bought for her drapery business and taken all of the benches out of except the one in the back. It smelled like an old van. It LOOKED like an old van. And to a sixteen-year-old kid, it was about as cool as Dan Quayle. I was perpetually “borrowing” it, even though my grandma had no use for it and had her own little Subaru that she drove regularly, it never EVER was “mine” by any stretch of the imagination.
Yet, I had no reason to despise it. It never broke down, it never failed me, it never caused any issue that I can ever remember. It just trucked along like the old, true-blue trooper that it was.
Actually, twenty years later, I have only good memories in that van. We drove it everywhere. We camped in it, moved stuff into and out of dorms in it, it brought me safely home at 3:00 in the morning after a double shift at Rhodes Bake’N’Serv more than once, and it even saved my life when I spun it into a snowbank by being too damn big for the snowplow driver barreling down on me to miss.
Despite the clichÃ©, to the best of my knowledge, no teenager (or adult for that matter) ever got nookie in that van. While I drove that thing across the western half of the country every winter in a seemingly endless ski-bum odyssey, my passengers were all dudes. Even though six could (and on dozens of occasions did) sleep uncomfortably with three on the floor, one on the bench and two reclined in the captain’s-chairs; none of us were interested in the others “in that way” (again, to the best of my knowledge) and besides, privacy simply wasn’t what the wrap-around windows were built for. A “Love Machine” it was not.
The title of this post might not be the funniest thing anyone ever said about The Smurfmobile, but it was certainly high on the list. Other choice lines were:
- Me: “I’ve ridden four-wheelers with wider tires than this thing.”
Friend: “Dude, we’ve ridden MOTORCYCLES with wider tires than this thing.”
- Friend 1: “It’s like a skier delivery van. When the doors open, skiers just pop right out…”
Me: “Are you saying I drive a delivery van?”
Friend 1: “Aww, dude, ‘delivery van’ would be a step up. When you’re not driving skiers, this ride’s the lamest thing on four wheels.”
Friend 2: “Really? You’re limiting it to four-wheeled vehicles?”
Friend 1: “Well, it’s not a Honda Goldwing.”
Friend 2: “TouchÃ©”
- Friend: “It’s not the wobbly steering that frightens me, it’s the cliff without a guard-rail.”
Minor over-correcting almost causes us to veer into an oncoming truck.
Friend: “No, on second thought it’s the wobbly steering.”
Me: “Really? I’d have thought the lack of seatbelts would be scarier.”
Friend: “…when Matt called it The Smurfmobile I thought he was talking about the color. Now I realize it’s actually a rejected deathtrap built by Gargamel; designed to lure in innocent creatures and then hurtle them down to a horrific death on the rocks below.”
Me: “The repeated pounding as they tumble down makes the meat tender. If you weren’t a vegetarian you might have sensed my trap.”
Friend: “That’s…that’s diabolical. And…believable…terrifyingly believable.”
Me: “Papa Smurf won’t be able to save you this time.”
- Assistant Dean: “You drive that in the snow? Nick, stop listening to The Cure…life is worth living! You’re too young to throw it all away!”
While cartoon characters and ski bums are integral to my memories of that van, that last line brings me to the other thing I associate most with the Smurfmobile: the music on the radio at the dawn of the 90’s. I was lucky enough to have the optional AM/FM Radio in the dash, with giant chrome buttons for the five “preset” channels (these could not be changed) and two chrome twist knobs for volume and tuning. To the best of my knowledge there was only one speaker, smack in the middle of the dash, pointed at the windshield and stereo wasn’t ever a consideration in the design. Acoustically, that truck was heinous. The engine sat under a tin cowling between the driver and the passenger, and when you were driving the radio only had one useful volume level, all the way up.
Since relying on the in-dash radio was less than “a good plan” most of the time, and left you at the mercy of either the only local FM pop radio station or endless AM talkshow drudgery, I kept my trusty Sony Duel-Cassette AM/FM portable stereo right on the console next to me, blasting away every moment I was on the road. It ran on four D-Cell batteries, and I would go through at least eight a week. There were times I spent as much at my local Sinclare station on batteries for the tape player as I did on the gas to get me where I was going.
In the early 90s, burning your own CD was still essentially impossible from a consumer electronics perspective, and “portable” players were still exotic and expensive. While about half the music I bought in 1992 was on CD, I was buying that format because I had ready access to players that I could use to record the songs I wanted onto cassette tapes. Because the good old cassette was the end-all be-all of portable personal music.
Making a mix tape was a combination of two things, what you wanted to hear and what music you and your friends had to record from. I had a pretty good collection of tapes and CDs by the start of my Junior year in 1992; and I lived in a dorm with 100 of my “closest” friends…so my music selection for a mix tape was pretty good. All of which was evidenced a couple of weeks ago when I found a mix tape that meant a whole lot to me that year. Well, technically, I found the case and the liner-card with the song listings on it. I’d like to imagine the tape itself is still in that lost and nearly forgotten Sony cassette player, wherever it may be.
As I stared at that Maxell 120CR case, and ran my mind over the songs written in terrible high-school boy handwriting, I was drawn back to an event that stands out for me; not because some grave or significant personal revelation that came out of it…but because it was just a really good night. Since I’ve written about some rather weighty subjects and events that occured that same fall, I thought I’d pull out my little map of Memory Lane and walk down a lighter moment in my past for once.
Gem State Academy was about a mile and a half down Montana Avenue from the Deer Flat Wildlife Refuge along the banks of Lake Lowell in Caldwell Idaho. About another two miles down Orchard and around the curve of the lake was a recreation area with fire pits and a sandy beach by the boat dock. For the purposes of this memory we will entertain the polite fiction that a group of high school Juniors (plus two teachers as chaperons) would have intentionally traveled an extra two miles and not just gone to the bottom of the hill and lit something on fire in the heart of a game-bird and waterfowl preserve. Different people remember this differently. Friends of mine swear we went to the rec area; I know for a fact that wouldn’t have been physically possible, which will become more apparent as this story goes along.
View GSA to Lake Lowell in a larger map
Some other fun notes as background to keep in mind: There were 48 kids in my junior class, and if you go with an average weight of 145 lbs (which seems about right and adjusts for the difference between 6’2″ and-built-like-a-Mac-Truck Steve K and 4’10” Sherylin who only weighed 90 lbs if she was carrying a backpack full of books, and Really Big books at that) and do the math, you come up with a total group weight right around 7000 lbs. The load capacity of a 1977 Dodge B-300 MaxiVan is rated at 3500 lbs; and that was when the springs and shocks were in a hell of a lot better shape than they were after fifteen years of regular use.
On the Wednesday night before our first homeleave, each class had a “class night” activity somewhere on or near the school campus. The Seniors went off campus to the home of a classmember nearby, the Sophomores were in the Cafeteria, and I have no idea where the Freshman class was because they were utterly beneath notice, but if I had to guess I’d assume they took over the gym. Like locusts.
Anyway, our class sponsors (read “captive chaperons”) decided that we were going to head down to Lake Lowell and have an evening singing and sitting around, getting reacquainted after a summer apart. It was also the first time we started thinking about things like class elections, leadership and what direction we were going to have “as a group” in the months to come. As I’d been the class president the year before, I had a sort of defacto leadership responsibility, in the minds of our class sponsors if not in the minds of my fellow students anyway.
“Nicky!” called out one of our sponsors, the living embodiment of Hawaiian jovial good nature masquerading as a high school PE Teacher. “Would you mind driving Kari and the coolers down in your Van?”
“Uh, yeah…sure.” At that moment the cassette in the boombox finished rewinding and as I walked around to the sliding side door the first strains of Nirvana‘s year-old but still ultrapopular Smells Like Teen Spirit began to spill out of the speakers.
From the moment I started loading coolers into the back of my van, classmates began to walk up and ask for a ride. While it sort of started as a bit of a joke, it wasn’t sixty seconds before the obvious goal was to fit the entirety of my class into the Smurfmobile. At the same time.
Five guys were on the back bench, with five gals sitting on their laps. Kids kept piling into the space between the bench and the captains chars in front. I climbed back into the drivers seat, and Keri was sitting with her sprained ankle in the seat next to me. Eventually Sherylin ended up sitting in the seat with Keri, and Tami ended up sitting in my lap. I fired up the engine and said a little prayer. You know the van is full when the sliding door won’t close properly so someone is holding the handle “close enough to look legal.”
“Nicky, take it slow eh?” Coach said to me through the open window and a curtain of Tami’s hair.
“Yeah, well, I don’t think I can get going very fast.”
“…It IS downhill…be careful.”
For a coach, you’d have thought he could have come up with a better pep talk.
Right as the van eased into motion, the final strains of guitar and feedback faded out and the four harmonizing voices of Queen began the acappella opening of Bohemian Rhapsody. Instantly a dozen teenage boys began to shout “Wayne’s World” and “Party On” and “Excellent” and we pulled out of the parking lot and onto Montana Ave.
What happened next is exactly what you would expect with nearly fifty kids stuffed into a blue van slowly rolling down the road with a classic rock anthem playing on the boombox. We began to sing it word for word. Not well, not even getting the words right, but with enthusiasm. Deafening enthusiasm.
Even compared to your average ground sloth I was going very slowly. Crossing Karcher Road was a bit harrowing, but as soon as we got to the other side of the highway it was (literally) all down hill from there. We crept down the road, going no faster than about fifteen miles an hour. I noticed that every rock, bump and crack in the road seemed somehow magnified; and if the steering had felt loose before, it was barely a means of suggesting a direction now.
Right as we were rolling past the rock quarry the electric guitars began to crescendo and then the pseudo-opera bridge had everyone singing about Scaramouch and the fandango and Beelzebub’s son and “poor me” repeated three times…and then something terrifying happened. Forty-plus teenagers repeated a classic scene from a classic 90’s comedy and broke into faux-head-banging that caused the already questionable steering to completely flee from any semblance of my control.
The springs and shocks were completely bottomed out, the steering was barely able to marshal the bulging tires, and forty kids suddenly creating unpredictable side-to-side motions left us swerving across the road like a sailboat in rough seas. I went for the brakes, with Keri screaming, Tami giggling, and the other forty-five kids either singing, laughing, or praying for their lives depending on how closely they were paying attention to the motion of the van or the scene outside the windows. We slowed to about half our speed, but the downhill momentum of twice the maximum load weight was more than the spring-and-drum breaks could completely overcome.
It was one of the most terrifying minute and forty-five seconds of my life. It was also one of the most exhilarating. I will admit now that the newspaper headline “Entire High School Junior Class Dies In Senseless Van Accident” did cross my field of vision.
The van finally slowed and came back under my control when we got to the bottom of the hill, nearly fifty kids were singing the final refrain of “nothing really matters…to me…” and then one lone voice sang out “any way the wind blows…” and we all broke into the giggles.
After that, Van Halen began the piano and power chord intro to Right Now and several classmates were very pleased with the song selection. All the songs from that album had to be recorded off campus, as the album title “F.or U.nlawful C.arnal K.nowledge” with large block letter abbreviation on the cover was banned from school grounds.
Before the first verse was over we’d gotten to the refuge area at the bottom of Montana Avenue. I pulled off the road and onto the beach, and the tires immediately sunk down to the hubcaps in the soft sand. The door slid open and kids seemed to spend longer figuring out how to unpack themselves than they had spent trying to wedge themselves in in the first place.
Lake Lowell isn’t exactly the most beautiful spot in all of Idaho, but for proximity, it can be a pretty nice place to spend an evening.
After Van Halen we had a couple of songs that were standards, starting with the Red Hot Chili Peppers belting out Give It Away.
And then House of Pain performing what I have to admit was my least favorite song on the tape…almost entirely due to the heinous high pitched screech that punctuates Jump Around.
The next song was something I recorded off of a friend’s tape. Guns N’ Roses two album “Use Your Illusion” set was one of the most memorable things that happened in 1991. Another was “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” in theaters. The combination of those two things had pretty much shaped my last summer, and I think every male between the ages of 13 and 30 at the time knew every word of You Could Be Mine, even though the words basically made no sense. The drum and guitar intro remains absolutely ingrained into my brain, twenty years later.
After that came a song that everyone, and I’m pretty sure I mean EVERYONE in my class knew by heart. It was still a year before Aerosmith would come out with Get a Grip, the follow up to their utterly monstrous hit Pump, and the songs from that album were still playing strong on the radio three years after it was released. I swear every song on that album was gold, but it all started with Love In An Elevator. Essentially it was the entire story of Michael J Fox’s movie “Secret of my Success” in microcosm; it was also pretty much the air guitar and hair-rock anthem for the end of the 80’s.
The next song was special to me, as it was the first song I danced to with a girl at a party. U2 released “Achtung Baby” in 1991, with a desire to prove they could still rock like they did on “Joshua Tree” and “Rattle and Hum.” I’d say that Mysterious Ways proved that pretty nicely.
The next song was duped off of a doormmates’s tape, and got a pretty good number of cheers from the kids milling around the van. The Spin Doctors were still new to the music scene, and “Pocket Full of Kryptonite” was still just starting its climb up the charts when I copied Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong onto the mix tape.
The next song definitely came off of one of my favorite tapes…but I can’t even begin to explain why it was on this mix tape. I was a pretty big Information Society fan, and the album “Think” was my favorite (of the two that were out at the time) with a ton of great songs. The song on this mix wasn’t even in my top favorite songs on the album…so why it got included I have no idea. Years later though, I’ll say that A Knife and A Fork is a great dance tune, but still an odd choice for what had so far been a pretty rock-centric mix.
I wasn’t a huge Peter Gabriel fan before his album “US” came out. I knew he’d been the lead singer in Genesis before Phil Collins (and before I’d been born, but whatever), and his song “Sledgehammer” was classic; but it was Steam that really caught my attention. And a lot of people’s attention. I think I bought “US” at the same time I bought the blank tape this mix was on, and it probably had a lot to do with me putting together a new mix tape.
The next song was actually copied right off the radio. If Tom Cochrane‘s album was out, I didn’t know about it, but Life is a Highway was a great piece of fluffy driving music, which was perfect for a mix tape primarily listened to while commuting back and fourth to school.
The last song on the first side spooled out exactly as the sun was setting. I didn’t have the Mr. Big album, but I’d say half my dorm had the cassette single for To Be With You, so finding one to copy wasn’t eaxactly a challenge.
With a fire starting to build, we sat around near the open door to the van, singing along to the chorus and watching the sun set over the lake.
The tape flipped over, and the second half was much more “my” music and less “popular” music. Don’t get me wrong, they were for the most part songs that charted (with a couple of glaring exceptions) or were otherwise notable…but some of them were hardly pop music by the popular definition.
The first song on the second side came from a disk I remember buying from the import section of Hastings for the absolutely exorbitant sum of $28. I had to use more than half of a gift card from my birthday to get it, based entirely on the one time I heard the first single play on the radio. The euro dance act Enigma had jumped out of obscurity with the 1990 release of “MCMXC A.D.” in France, and the first single, Sadeness Part I, started to chart in the US in early 1992. I remember how cool Gregorian Chant was for about a year after that album hit the air. I still like Gregorian Chant.
The next song was the first of two on this side from the “Boomerang” soundtrack, though I had bought the album it came from sometime in my Sophomore year (and about listened to it TO DEATH). While P.M. Dawn was supposedly a rap duo, they were about as rap as MC Hammer, which is to say, not much by modern standards. I liked a lot of their songs, but I’d Die Without You was my standout favorite.
When this song came on, I distinctly remember Keri leaning back and looking up at the stars starting to twinkle into the night sky.
“..I tend to dream you when I’m not sleeping…” she sang along with the music. She looked over at me, sitting in the open doorway of the van she had thought she was going to die in. “I love everything about that line.”
“Me too.” I said, listening to the music stream from the tinny little speakers. “If I have to take apart…all that I am…is there anything that I would not do…”
The next one was another song from the “Use Your Illusion” albums, this one from the second one, and it is probably Guns N’ Roses most memorable song from the 90s. Also, one of the longest. While I would like to say that November Rain was somehow a deep and significant song for me, I have to admit it wasn’t. I think the video is more memorable overall. In the words of Regina Spektor, “the solo’s pretty long, but it has a nice refrain.”
To my knowledge, the next song didn’t chart anywhere, ever. I will also say that in my circle of friends, it got a TON of play. Everything from “Pretty Hate Machine” got a ton of play, but half-way through Nine Inch Nails debut album came the haunting Something I Can Never Have, which basically created emo angst-techno out of nothing but a Moog syth and really bad day.
I remember everyone near the van quieted down and listened to the song, it was such an arresting piece of work. On one hand, I did take some flack from the sponsor for the f-bomb in the last verse; but on the other hand, I’d say that about a dozen people borrowed that CD over the next couple of months to copy that song to their own mix tapes.
The next track really segued in well, as the start of Areosmith‘s Janie’s Got A Gun is in basically the same key with the same vocal quality between Trent Reznor and Steven Tyler. And it’s also kinda sad and creepy…but in a much more “rock” kind of way.
And then the closer of the trilogy of sad songs on the tape. I was never a huge Metalica fan, and while the “Black Album” was a truly great piece of work, it wasn’t something I ever bought in high school. I just copied the three songs I liked onto various tapes and called it good. Of all the songs Lars and Company have ever cranked out, I do think that Nothing Else Matters has touched me the most.
The next song is another one I can’t really explain. While I can say that I don’t know of a single mix tape I ever made that didn’t have at least one song by Sting or The Police on it…why I chose THIS song is completely beyond me. I might have been going for another sort of desolate, introspective song to keep with the theme; but honestly this is like my fifth favorite song from the “Soul Cages” album, and I have no idea why Mad About You made the mix.
I know exactly why the next song made the tape, as it was one of my favorite things ever recorded and I would listen to it so much that I could time the eighteen seconds it took to rewind to the beginning by counting one-mississippi, two-mississippi, etc. Don Henley wasn’t really a rock star, but man did I love “Dirty Laundry,” and “All She Wants To Do Is Dance,” and “Boys of Summer,” and “Sunset Grill”…so when his new album came out in ’89 I was almost as stoked as my dad was when he bought it, the first CD he ever bought for his brand new CD player that Christmas. I loved that whole album, but for my entire teen years The End of the Innocence was one of my personal anthems. I knew it word for word, and it crept into my subconscious at strange times.
As the song was ending we started gathering up our things and getting ready to head back up to campus. I stopped the tape and we started rocking the van back and fourth and using branches to give the wheels some traction. After about half an hour of pushing, swearing, pushing, digging, and more swearing, we finally got her free of the sand and rolled back onto the relative safety of Montana Avenue. There was no way I could carry everyone back up the hill, so everyone but Keri and a couple of other girls started walking in front of me in the glare of my headlights. In a moment of complete perfection, the other song from the Boomerang soundtrack (this one actually recorded from the soundtrack) started playing. I’ve never been a huge Boys 2 Men fan, but I will say that The End of the Road sure takes me back. It WAS the song of the fall of 1992.
We sang, as a group, loudly. All the way back up the hill.
As we got back to the school parking lot the last strains of acappella harmonizing perfection died away into the night, creating a perfect bookend to the sounds of that night.
As I helped my last passenger climb down out of the van, Miss V heard the opening bars of Tori Amos tinkling on the piano at the start of Silent All These Years. The look in her eyes as they met mine was a combination of surprise and bittersweet memories blending together. Shared history from earlier that year washed up around us like a warm wave on that chilly fall night.
“I haven’t heard this in months.” she said, still holding my hand and staring up into my eyes.
“It’s still one of my favorites.” I said.
“Sounds too much like a bad day. Like something I didn’t say to someone that I should have.”
“I’m sure they knew what you meant. What didn’t get said. What did.”
She gave me one more bittersweet smile before withdrawing her hand from mine and turning to walk away, back towards the girls dorm on the other side of campus.
I carried the boombox, still playing, with me back to the guy’s dorm. Though I wasn’t supposed to play music that could be heard outside my dorm room on campus, the soft sounds of the last two songs on the tape seemed pretty safe as I walked back across the lawn to the side entrance by the stairs. Enya was someone that my parents had been listening to for a while, since at least their last trip to the UK two years prior. Her new album, “Shepard Moons,” had the title track from the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman movie “Book of Days,” but that was hardly my favorite song on the album. I was much more partial to Caribbean Blue, and that was what was gently playing as I walked into my room and closed the door behind me.
The last song on the tape was really just a short time fill that matched well with the song by Enya, probably because she was the cousin of half the people in the band Clannad. Their song Theme From Harry’s Game had been featured that summer in the Harrison Ford movie “Patriot Games.” I’d actually had it on tape for a several years by then, another artifact brought back by my parents from England, and the renewed interest in it just proved to me what a great song it was.
I listened as the last few bars finished out and then the tape went into that unique white noise that only cassettes that had reached the unrecorded end could make.
I thought about that night, about laughter and music, memories and sunsets, bonfires and starlight. At the time I had no capacity for capturing the important moments of my life as they passed by, but I knew that these had been some truly special moments. Not profound, not significant beyond a warm feeling and the smile on my face, but special none the less.
As those thoughts were running through my mind, the first notes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” began again. I leaned over and stopped the tape, one time through was enough for one night. We had shortened classes the next morning, and then home for five days of rest. Of course, I had shifts at Bake N’ Serve and the radio station that weekend, and my friend Michelle was having a birthday party on Friday night. A friend of hers was coming up from California, and she wanted me to meet her. It wasn’t going to be much of a vacation for me, but I hoped that something good might happen.
Forty-Eight hours later my whole life would change; but the memory of that Wednesday night will always be good music, good times, good friends, and the anticipation of life laid out before us. The 90s were just getting started, we were half-way done with high school, and the whole world seemed like it was right there in front of us, ripe for the taking.
[Word Count: 5100]