It was “that song,” so I turned it up, because I had to.
My hand reached out and I twisted the knob as far to the right as it would go, bobbing my head to the intro, and then filling my lungs in anticipation of matching, word for word, the singer on the radio.
Then I began to sing, knowing full well I sounded like a sad, sickly toad if there was such a thing as a giant, aged-spotted toad who could drive a truck and had mastered English to the point it could croak along with a song on the radio. But I didn’t care, because it was “that song,” and I had to do what I had to do.
My elbow was propped out the open window and I could smell freshly mown grass with a hint of wild onion mixed in. It was 70 degrees or so, and the sun was shining as the world sped by at 60 mph with “that song” spilling from the speakers and offering a three-minute gift of bliss to sound-track an already pretty darn good day. So, of course, I sang along with “that song” and went with it to where it took me, because I had to.
I was a senior in high school and had long hair, and I’m pretty sure I was lean and good-looking and I’m also pretty sure I knew everything. There was going to be a party, and I was doing all of the things a 17-year-old master of the universe has to do to be a senior in high school at a party on a late-spring Friday night. I forget all of the rituals, but there is preening in front of the mirror involved and phone calls to friends and practicing prepared speeches of preemptive innocence (lies) to parents in case they decided it was their business to know where their teenage kid was going to be.
And then I’m in a clunker of a car with four of my friends, and the windows are down, and the pine woods on both sides are silhouetted in front of a starry, starry sky as we’re pulled along the two-lane blacktop in front us by a silver stream of headlights.
“You’ve got to hear this!” one of my friends says, turning in the front passenger seat a bit to look at those of us in back. One side of his face glows a golden yellow from the dashboard lights.
He shoves an 8-track tape into the player and presses fast-forward, then reverse, then fast-forward again. Then he presses play.
And then we hear “that song” for the first time — and we are stunned.
When it’s over, he holds down the reverse button and presses play again.
By that fourth time, we are all bobbing our heads along with the intro and filling our lungs in anticipation of matching, word for word, the singer on that 8-track tape.
We turn left off the blacktop and onto a rutted dirt road and follow it until we see through the gaps in the trees the light from a distant bonfire, and then we turn right into an open hay field. There are 20 or 30 cars and pickups parked in a wide, loose circle facing that roaring fire, and my friend finds a space among them and parks. Then we all spill out to bask in the wonder of that night.
There is a lot of laughter there, and calling out to friends from across the circle. There are orange sparks in the sky and other sparks in teenage eyes. There’s the smell of just-mown hay and burning pine. There’s beer there, and Boone’s Farm wine, and bell-bottoms and hip-hugger jeans and Keep on Truckin’ T-shirts and Daisy Duke shorts and pukka shell necklaces. There’s horseplay among some and strutting from others. There are shy smiles and quick glances and outright overt signals. There are backseat secrets in the shadows beyond the light from the fire. There are beginnings that night — and endings.
And more than once that night — more than 10 times, probably — we hear “that song” streaming from speakers, forever becoming part of our lives. We all sing along and give absolutely no thought at all about what weird control it would have over us decades down the road.
Because we are all lean and good-looking and know everything, and the word “future” has no real meaning, but next Friday night — only one week away.
I drift back to the present as the song ends and the announcer on the radio gives the name of the artist and the year the song was released.
I turn the volume down and marvel a bit that it’s been 43 years since that night of the bonfire, and I curse a little at whatever force in the universe it is that keeps nights like that from lasting forever.
But just then “that song” comes on the radio again, but it’s a different “that song,” and I think about how the first time I heard it, Love-Weasel was by my side one late spring night, traveling south to Georgia with me to meet my family for the first time. Her face was bathed in blue from the light of the dashboard, and she was singing along with “that song” and the pine forests on each side of us were silhouetted against a starry, starry sky as we followed that silver stream of headlights along a two-lane blacktop toward a future that’s lasted almost 40 years now.
I twist the knob on the radio all the way to the right and sing out loud.
I had to.