Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Scrapbook Memories (page 1 of 2)

Rain on me

imagesIt’s another rainy day in Daejeon—the kind of rainy day when you know it’s going to rain on and off all day. There are the occasional cloudbursts, not what you would call “raining cats and dogs” but more along the lines of a swirling, blowing rain that is accompanied by gusts of wind rushing down from the hills and mountains that make up so much of Korea’s topography/terrain.

Now when you talk about some real cloudbursts—when it rains so hard you can’t see anything in front of you—well that reminds me of this time when I was stationed at Howard Air Force Base in Panama and I got caught, better yet, stranded in one of them. I was working in the After Hours Support Unit—this section in the 24th Supply Squadron—where I took supply requests and delivered whatever had been ordered “after hours” (on weekends, holidays, and night). It was a real cushy job, one day on and three days off, but on the weekends or a holiday it was a 24-hour shift.

One Saturday afternoon, this call comes in from maintenance for a C-130 radome (a large, black cone-shaped covering for the radar on the front of the aircraft). This C-130 was from a squadron of Air Force National Guard C-130’s on TDY (temporary duty) rotation as part of the Southern Command’s mission in Central and South America. The radome came in a wooden box about the size of a Volkswagen and I had to use this enormous forklift to deliver it to the aircraft.

It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, and the sky was this lovely azure blue accented with clumps of white, billowy clouds. Just a glorious day on the Isthmus of Panama. I started chugging down the flightline with this img_3374radome, soaking in the sunshine and humidity. Didn’t notice at first how those lovely, fleecy white clouds had turned gray and ominous. And when I did glance up the sky, wondering what the heck had happened to the sun that had been hidden by those clouds, it was too late.

The skies just opened up with a torrential downpour. There was nothing I could do but stop where I was. I turned off the engine and waited. The rain came down so fast and hard,  I couldn’t see beyond the forklift. It rained for about 10-15 minutes and then stopped. Those gray clouds turned white and fleecy and then the sun reappeared along with that lovely azure sky. I swear I could see the steam rising from the flight line.

As for myself, I was soaked but once the sun came out; my fatigues started to dry. I started the forklift and continued on my merry, chugging way down the flight line to the C-130’s. By the time I arrived, about 10 minutes later, my fatigues had pretty much dried.

On the road with The Jerks — Part 3

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When it came to playing out—whether on the road or in one of the bars in La Salle-Peru—the band had a lot of equipment, which required a truck to get to wherever they were playing. The truck used to belong to The Outlaws, a group that Buckacre had opened for in the late 70s. It was just another one of those rock and roll connections and links (not to mention relics) that the band had with the past.


A lot of the equipment was from their Buckacre days including this very sweet, and very large 24-channel Yamaha mixing board. That was a real bear to unload and load into the truck. Usually took three of us to roll it off the truck or to roll it back in. It was even more of a bear to move when we had to haul it up a flight of stairs at some of the clubs we played at like this youth center in Dixon and Mabel’s in Champaign. Then it would take four of us to carry it up (after we had taken it out of the equally bulky and heavy road case).


One hot, summer afternoon we were unloading equipment at Friday’s when we noticed the Julia Belle Swain, this authentic riverboat slowly steaming up the Illinois River on its way from Peoria to Starved Rock State Park. That summer the owners of the Julia Belle Swain were offering these weekly riverboat excursions up and down the Illinois River and had even brought in famed bluegrass artist John Hartford (who was a licensed riverboat pilot) to pilot the ship on its journey from Peoria to Starved Rock.


We knew that John Hartford was piloting the Julia Belle Swain, so when it passed Friday’s on the river, we yelled his name. Sure enough, he was in the pilothouse and could hear us yelling and see us waving. He answered with a few short bursts of the steam whistle.


(Years later, when I was listening to the O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack there was this one track that I really liked a lot. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was by John Hartford. Just hearing that track and putting one and one together got me thinking about the summer of 1981 and waxing nostalgic. I quickly ordered a couple of his CDs and have been a big fan of his music ever since. Sadly, John Hartford passed away in 2001.)

 

After my first trip with the band to Peoria there was another one-night gig at a youth center in Dixon, Illinois. There would another date at the Second Chance as well as T.J. McFly’s in Carbondale (that was a lot of fun heading back to SIU and seeing some of my old friends like Paul Collin) before the highlight of the summer: a two-week road trip. We started off in Peoria at the Second Chance and from there we went to Carbondale and then on to Atlanta. For Al and Dick it was the first time that he put together this kind of tour/road trip since the days of Buckacre. The weeklong gig in Atlanta was a sweet deal arranged by some guy that had once managed Buckacre when they were playing the Georgia-Florida circuit in the 70s.


I think in many ways it was a bit of a vacation for the band, but also I think it was the thrill of being on the road again. I am sure Dick and Al missed being on the road and playing to different crowds. They really enjoyed playing music so much. It was their life ever since they performed together in their first band Rain.


After we finished playing at the Second Chance, we drove straight down to Carbondale. It was right before school started at SIU, so the whole town was buzzing with activity as thousands of students came back which meant the bar scene was going to be quite wild. Like the first time we played in Carbondale, we were back again at T.J. McFly’s, which was located on the main strip, just north of the train and bus station. Rumor had it that Jim Belushi was once the manager of the bar.


It was the largest bar in Carbondale with two rooms for bands to play in as well as a “beer garden” outside. When we played there for the first time earlier that summer, we were in the larger of the two rooms. At the same time we were there, Gary Clemons and Colors, a band out of Peoria was playing in the smaller room. How The Jerks managed to play the larger venue—when Clemons’ tour that summer was sponsored by Warner Brothers’ Records—was one of those rock and roll idiosyncrasies I guess. Maybe there was still some of that old Buckacre magic left.


T.J. McFly’s had arranged hotel accommodations for us, but when we got down there to Carbondale, we had to wait for another band to check out. Obviously they had been up all night partying so they were a bit slow in checking out that morning. So, there we were in the parking lot, waiting for our rooms. When those guys finally got out of their rooms and started loading up their gear in a van, the two bands in the parking lot were like two ships passing in the night.


Dick and Tom knew some of the guys (Tom it seemed always knew somebody that we met on the road; he had also been a drummer with the band Ken Carlyle and the Cadillac Cowboys and had played in bars and clubs throughout Illinois), and was the case when bands ran into each other, some road stories and other pleasantries were exchanged.


“Where are you guys headed?”


“Where going to Mabel’s.”


“Yeah, that’s not a bad gig. We played there before. Good crowds.”


“What happened to so-and-so?”


“He’s with another band now.”


“You guys ever get back to the studio?”


“Maybe later this year.”


“How long you guys on the road for?”


“Just a few weeks, then just play around town.”


“Good turnout here?”


“Not bad. Guess you guys are getting here just in time. School starts in a few days. Should be pretty wild, huh?”


And then they were back on the road and we checked into our rooms.


When we were in Carbondale earlier that summer, it had been pretty quiet, but with school starting in a few days, the nights the band played at the bar were really wild. For students coming back to school, it probably doesn’t make any difference who’s playing, just as long as the drink specials keep on coming.


Of course, The Jerks were a good bar band. They were as probably good if not better than most bands playing the same bars and clubs they did in 1980-1982. As musicians they were tight—really tight. One wonders if they had been a few years younger, they could have gotten out of the bar/college circuit and landed bigger gigs. One time, Dick and I were listening to a song by this new band, “The Blasters” in his van outside Murphy’s in Peru, Illinois before a gig that summer.


“This could have been us Sparks,” Dick said. “This is the kind of music that we could have been playing after Buckacre broke up.”


Having attended classes at SIU the previous year, it was nice to be back in Carbondale again. Actually, I had thought about returning to school that year, but I was having so much fun “finding myself” as it were, I was in no hurry to get back to school.


One night after we played, some of the bartenders in the bar invited us to some parties in this part of town called Lewis Park. That was pretty wild. One thing about college towns like Carbondale was you could just walk up to any house or apartment where there was a party going on and walk in. Al, who was really into The Beatles, heard one of their songs being played in someone’s apartment and just walked right in and helped himself to whatever alcohol was available.


The band played three nights in Carbondale—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—and then it was on the road again to Atlanta.

 

Oh, Atlanta.

 

 

 

The Jerks on Vinyl

 

On the road with The Jerks — Part 2

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I officially started working with The Jerks in the summer of 1981. I had taken some time off school (okay, I dropped out for awhile) and was pretty much just filling in the time before I went back to school (bumming around with Chris and listening to music).

Chris and I had talked about forming a band and we dreamed about how we could get jobs at Caterpillar in Pontiac, Illinois to buy equipment. Chris’ father—a distinguished guitarist in his own right—even started giving us guitar lessons. Unfortunately, I just lacked the musical talent to play the guitar. Kind of felt a little bit like John Lennon’s friend Stu Sutcliffe when he tried to play the bass for the Beatles.

When The Jerks were not playing at one of the more popular venues in the Illinois Valley, they would often go on the road and play some gigs at places like the Second Chance in Peoria. That was a real sweet venue, a holdover from the 70’s when a lot of these large-sized clubs opened when disco was the rave, but it also doubled as a concert hall for bands.

(There was also a smaller Second Chance in Carbondale; in 1983, it was Carbondale’s unofficial gay bar, but still brought in some bands like The Suburbs.)

By now I had gotten to know the guys in the band pretty well and asked them if I could go with them when they played one of these out of town gigs. I didn’t have anything else going on (Chris had by now given up on me ever learning how to play the guitar) and I thought it would be cool to see what it was like to be “on the road” as it were with the band.

I soon found out how cool and interesting it was when I rode down to Peoria with Dick and Al. They had all these stories about when they were in Buckacre—traveling on the road, the bands they opened for, and the people they got to meet. Listening to them reminisce was like hearing a mini living history of rock and roll. And maybe that was when I first started yearning to travel again; to be on the open road heading somewhere, anywhere.

“Remember that time when we were in the studio in London and Pete Townsend walked in to talk to Glyn Johns,” said Dick one time. “Remember how so-and-so’s jaw dropped when he saw Townsend standing there in the booth? I thought he was going to piss himself because he was so excited.”

I would get to hear a lot of “road stories” all those times I traveled with either Dick or Al or when the two of them got together.

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“Telstar”? “Bionic Man”? “Mr. Mike”?

And it wasn’t just all these road stories, either. These guys were having fun when they were on the road. There was a bit of camaraderie and a lot of joking going around. Dick was always the funniest of them all. He had a wicked sense of humor and loved to joke with everyone.

Early one morning after the band had played at the Second Chance in Peoria, we were taking Al Schupp the rhythm guitarist back to his home. Al lived in this wooded, lowland area just outside of Spring Valley (sometimes referred to as “Sleepy Hollow”) and to get there, we had to drive down this winding, narrow, gravel road, which passed this old cemetery. Dick was driving his van and as we passed the cemetery, he reached out the window with his left hand and banged on the side of the van startling us in back that had been dozing off. That was the same night when Dick joked with Al Schupp calling him “Icabod” Schupp because of where he lived.

When we got to the Second Chance that first time I went with the band, I thought I was just going to hang out with Tom Joliffe their soundman after we had everything set up. Al and Dick had other ideas. Turns out the Second Chance had this lighting system for bands, which was located in a booth above the third floor of the club, way up in the back. Al asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing the lighting—basically turning up and down the lights at the beginning and the ending of their sets—and that is how I got started running the lights for the band.

It wasn’t until a week later, while I was visiting Clare my DJ lady friend at a local radio station when I knew that I was officially working for the band. Al must have known that I was going to be there because he stopped in at the radio station to give me a check for the night that I had run the lights. It was seventy-five dollars for a few hours work.

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Oglesby Celebration Days. The Italian Elvis hadn’t left the park

That summer and fall of 1981 was a wild and exciting time to be in the Illinois Valley and to go on the road with The Jerks. I think things started to really happen a few weeks before on my birthday when Chris, Dave “Bodine” Morgan the bass player for The Jerks and some female friends went to a “50’s Revival Concert” held in the Matthiessen Auditorium at La Salle-Peru Township High School. We were pretty vocal when Bobby Lewis, The Drifters, and the Reagents played that night. At one point during the concert, Bobby Lewis asked to have the house lights turned up so he could see the people doing all the cheering. Alan was also there and ran across the street to his apartment to fetch a Bobby Lewis album for him to sign.

Back then, most of the bars that had live entertainment usually had bands on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights. On the other nights, a lot of us would hang out at Friday’s Saloon. One time, Bodine and I had to go to Champaign to pick up some JBL monitors for the band. Once back in the Illinois Valley though, our first stop was Friday’s. Almost every night that I was there, we would keep on drinking and partying into the early hours of the morning and then, if we were up for it, we would usually head up to the Golden Bear Restaurant to satisfy whatever hunger pangs we had. For me, it was usually a Patty Melt or a Rueben Sandwich.

You know, when I think about it, the summer of 1981 was kind of like being in college without having to go to class.

The Jerks did not go on the road that much, maybe once or twice at the beginning of that summer. The real money was made at Friday’s or 3 N’ Company. They were always guaranteed a good take at the door and they packed in the crowds whenever they played.

One of the highlights of that summer occurred in June when they played at the Oglesby Celebration Days. It was this five-day event of music, food, 10km race (which had national notoriety) and a carnival. It was only their third concert in the Illinois Valley that was open to the general public. There were a lot of teenagers who had heard of The Jerks, but had been unable to see them.

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Bodine

The only thing was, The Jerks would not be the only band playing that night. On the main stage that night was “The Italian Elvis” and The Jerks would be on a smaller stage. They would go on first, followed by “The Italian Elvis” and finally they would play again.

After we got set up, Al asked me if I wouldn’t mind introducing the band. He thought it would go over well with the large crowd already gathered in front of the stage. I even got to choose the band’s first song of the set: a rocking rendition of “Hey Little Girl” originally recorded by the Syndicate of Sound and later updated by The Deadboys.

“Say something really raunchy and wicked,” Al said before I walked out on stage.

And that’s what I did, remembering how the band KISS was introduced on their KISS Alive album.

jerks004Tom Joliffe — soundman

“Alright…alright, you wanted the raunchiest and you got the raunchiest,” I screamed into the microphone, “the raunchiest, rocking-est band in the Illinois Valley…THE JERKS!”

And then as Al hit the first chord on his 12-string Rickenbacker, I leaped into the crowd and started dancing.

Chris was there, as were a few other regulars from Friday’s and they joined me. However, a few songs later, the power went out. By the time, the power could be brought back on; it was time for “The Italian Elvis” to take to the stage. Everyone was pretty bummed out, but the band would be able to play one more set after Elvis had left the park.

The following Sunday, I went to the Majestic Theater with Clare to watch Stripes. We got to the theater and a little late, just before the movie started. As we looked for a place to sit, someone yelled, “Hey there’s that guy in The Jerks! Wow, you’re so cool!”

Ah, a little taste of fame goes a long way—even if you are just a roadie.

Eureka, Baseball and Greek Town — Part 2

The next day, it was an early start for those of us heading to Chicago (I have recently gotten in touch with one of my former classmates who went to the Chicago that day, Tina Blisset). We left early enough to get to the city, park and make it to the entrance to Wrigley Field where Kevin was already waiting for us with our tickets. I have been to a few Cubs’ games, but there has to be something really cool and special to watch a game from the centerfield bleachers on your birthday.

On that day, the Cubs were playing the Reds and it was a rather historic occasion to be able to watch Pete Rose play in one of his last seasons.

Now the thing I liked about going to a ballgame with Kevin is that he is very vocal. He really gets into the game and loves to razz the players. When Red’s player Eddie Milner tried to score on a hard hit single by Rose and was thrown out at the plate, Kevin let Milner know about his base running when he went out to centerfield at the end of the inning. 

(Kevin, his brother Luke and I also went to some Peoria Chief’s games that summer and the following summer where we got to watch rising stars like Mark Grace, Joe Girardi, and Rafael Palmeiro play. And yes, we let the opposing players know how “well” they were playing.) 

The Cubs did not let me down (not to mention the rest of my birthday entourage) on my birthday by beating the Reds. 

If my memory serves me right, after the game we stopped off at this Punk/New Wave record store that was next door to the Metro, a music venue just up the street from Wrigley Field. (It was either this time I was in Chicago with Kevin or later that summer.)  

Anyway, there was this woman working there who I knew from SIU (I had gone out with her roommate Christine) and the year before, I had run into her at a Cure concert in Chicago that I had gone to with Chris Vasquez. Turns out her boyfriend had ditched her at the concert and she was feeling pretty bad. She had no ride back to Carbondale and no money.  

I had gotten a backstage pass from one of Chris’ friends and seeing her looking so sad and depressed I gave it to her. I figured she needed it more than I did. 

We were both surprised to see each other again and after we got caught up on what had happened the past few months, she told me that she ended up hanging out with the band on the road a for a few weeks before coming back to Chicago. 

“Thanks for that backstage pass,” she said. “You really saved me that night.” 

“I’m happy that everything worked out for you.” 

It did. She had eventually found her way back to Chicago and was getting her life back together. I wonder whatever happened to her? I wonder whatever happened to other people who I knew from SIU in the fall of 1983 like Savich? (He was the inspiration for Sexton, the main character in Going After Sexton, a short story I wrote for my Creative Writing Thesis at Western Illinois University.)

That’s been one of the more bittersweet underpinnings to my life, all those people walking in and out of my life; or was it me walking in and out of their lives? It seems the older I get, the more I think about this. 

And then it was off to Greek Town. 

Before Kevin had come to Eureka (the same year I started) he had taught speech and theatre at a performing arts school not far from Greek Town. He had been quite active in theatre in Chicago that included working on a play that starred Willem Dafoe (at Wisdom Street Bridge) as well as working on another production with one of Chicago’s more famous theatrical/artistic directors Robert Falls. (I saw Falls’ production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo starring Brian Dennehy at the Goodman Theatre later that year. What an unbelievable production!) 

Kevin recommended Diana’s, one of the more famous Greek eateries. How famous? Judging from the autographed photos of Anthony Quinn and other Greek notables who had eaten there, I guess it was quite famous.  It was also the first time I had Greek food (other than the gyros Chris Vasquez and I used to indulge in at Athens Gyros in the Peru Mall before it closed in the mid 80s) as well as Roditys Wine (as well as some shots of Ouzo that I had already had before).  

What I have always liked and admired about Kevin is how vivacious and jovial he is when he is out with friends. It’s hard not to smile or have a good time when Kevin is in the room, or in this case a Greek restaurant screaming “Oh Pa!” (similar to “cheers”) when the saganaki was lit and the flames from this flaming cheese dish nearly scorching the ceiling. 

I was really glad that I could get together with Kevin on my birthday. He would have a major influence on my life while I was at Eureka. 

It was just too bad we had to drive back to Eureka that night.

Eureka, Baseball and Greek Town — Part 1

There are a lot of cool things that a person could do to celebrate their birthday besides just getting hammered or having a party with all the trimmings. Sometimes, you might even end up doing something that you never imagined you would do.

I might not have had the chance to have a big birthday bash, but I have been fortunate to do some pretty cool stuff on my birthday with some people that I have been lucky enough to know on this long, strange journey through life. It’s the people who have defined me that have made everything worthwhile.

In less than two months I will be celebrating my fiftieth birthday. Sadly, I do not anticipate doing anything special for this “golden” birthday. With my Mom quite ill and being away from On and Bia, I have a lot more to worry and think about then what I will be doing come May 28. Although I might be having a rough go this second “tour” of Korea and my life—as I turn 50—kind of falling short of youthful dreams and aspirations, I have much to be thankful for, including some very special birthday memories. 

In May 1986 I had just finished my first year at Eureka College. It had been a bittersweet year, one marred by the tragic death of a close friend of mine in December, just a few days before the term ended. On the other hand, I became very good friends with Kevin McQuade an instructor at Eureka (Speech and Theatre) whose brother Luke was my roommate. I have been blessed throughout my life having known some very wonderful people and Kevin is right there at the top of the list.

I had decided to spend the summer at Eureka working in the cafeteria and making a little extra money as well as catching up on some much-required reading. My birthday that year was my “golden” birthday because I was going to turn 28 that year. It was Kevin who came up with the idea of meeting in Chicago (he was going to be in the city for a few days with his wife who worked for some small company) and taking in a Cubs’ game and having dinner in Greek Town. He would even spring for the tickets! I just had to get up to the city.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a car, (Eureka is about 150 miles southwest of Chicago) but one of my friends offered to drive. We would be joined by two of my classmates who were excited to take part in my birthday celebration in the Windy City.

The day before my birthday, I had to work in the school cafeteria. Although the cafeteria was closed until June when the college hosted a variety of summer camps, the food service operation at the college did a lot of catering events. On that day, it was a catering event for the Rotary Club, which was having a small fundraiser for the college. As it turned out, it would be one of the sweetest catering gigs that I did while I was at Eureka.

All that another classmate of mine, Sam Harrod (who was a direct descendant of one of the founding members of the college) and I had to do was load up a van with the food (steaks, potato salad, and baked beans) a half-barrel of beer, as well as plates utensils, and other implements of cutlery and then drive to Lake Bloomington a little over an hour away.  

Once there, we would set up everything and the members of the Rotary Club would do the cooking. After the event was over, we would bring everything back to the college, wash all the dishes and put whatever food was left back in the cooler. Like I said, it was a real sweet gig.

So, we get out to the lake, set up everything and then just waited along with the food service director. He was a pretty likable guy and really cool when it came to these events by letting us take it easy when there was nothing to do.

And that is exactly what we did. We were not just going to sit around waiting for everyone to eat their steaks and drink their beer. One of the Rotarians, who lived in one of the lakefront homes, had a boat and started taking other Rotarians for a quick cruise around the lake. With nothing for Sam and I to do, we were also invited along and got to enjoy some of the beer we had brought for the event.  

It’s a good thing we didn’t have to do anything else until the event was over because that beer was going down mighty smooth. Nothing beats some cool suds on a warm, late spring afternoon on a boat—well maybe—like some cool suds at a ballgame with a hot dog smothered with mustard, onions, and relish, but I would have to wait until the next day for that.

When we got back to the lodge where the night’s event was going to be held, a few of the Rotarians had already started to grill the steaks. There was still nothing for Sam and I to do, so we helped ourselves to some more beer and waited until everyone had their steaks. Then, Sam and I could eat and wash down those thick, juicy steaks with more beer.

Once everyone had finished eating, Sam and I proceeded to clean up everything and load it all back in the van to bring back to the college. We had to wait around for a while, but then it was back in the van and on the road back to Eureka. When we got back there, the food service director was really cool about what to do with a lot of the food and beer left over: he told us to take it. That was pretty cool I think.

While Sam and I were washing up the dishes and putting some stuff away, two of our classmates showed up. They knew it was my birthday the next day and wanted to take me out for a few drinks.

In Eureka, there were only two bars, the Chanticleer, which was actually a supper club at the north end of town, and the Outpost on the south side of town. Eureka was (and probably still is as far as I know) a “dry” town, which meant that alcohol, could not be sold within the city limits. However, Eureka’s tiny urban sprawl soon spread past these two watering holes putting them within the city limits. Thankfully, no one wanted to challenge the city ordinance and the two bars were allowed to flourish.

The Chanticleer was our preferred hangout, and that is where we headed. It was nice to get together with a few people (I even had a bit of crush on Kathryn White, one of my classmates who showed up that night) on the eve of my “golden birthday.” I have a lot of find memories of the two years that I was at Eureka College, and many of those memories were the times I spent with classmates and professors at the Chanticleer.

Paul banging on the wall and other weird scenes inside the gold mine

I am not sure what I am going to do with this. At first I thought it might be a great introduction to a collection of short stories or a story in itself or something like Hemingway’s In Our Time to transition from one story to the next. Maybe it could be a long prose poem or just an essay. 

What would college life be without some craziness to add a bit of variety and spice to one’s academic endeavors? 

For me, it was the three semesters I spent at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale—in the summer and fall of 1980 and again in the fall of 1983.  

Although I didn’t know it at the time when I first started attending classes in the summer of 1980, SIU had a reputation for being one of the top party schools in the nation. Not that it would have made any difference when it came time to choosing a university to attend when I got out of the Air Force in May 1980, but I most certainly would enjoy that so-called party school reputation to the fullest. I might have been a film major, but what I really majored in was having a good time. 

I might have only attended SIU for three semesters, but I packed in a lot of memories to last me a lifetime. I also got to meet some really cool and special people like Paul Collin who I was able to track down a few years ago and now we stay in touch quite regularly. Other than David Siegfried (from David and the Happenings), there’s no one else from that period of my life that I keep in touch with. 

I first met Paul in the autumn of 1980 when we both were living in Freeman Hall, an off-campus dorm not far from the university and, interestingly enough not far from, believe it or not, Beveridge Street where there was always one party or another happening on the weekends. 

Freeman Hall was one bizarre, wild place to live. Paul lived next door to me on the ground floor, which was where most of the zaniness happened. It was your typical off-campus dorm where your die-hard party animals were usually on the first floor. Maybe that is why some people in Freeman Hall often called the ground floor the zoo. The weekends got pretty wild. 

Sometimes when I came back to my room after another wild night out, I might have played my music just a little too loud which usually prompted Paul or his roommate Mark to start banging on the wall to get me to turn down the music. Or maybe it was the other way around. The walls were not that thick. 

If I am not mistaken one of us might have even punched a hole in the wall allowing us to see into each other’s rooms. 

Paul was one of the actors in my first student film, which was pretty lame when I think about it now. I am surprised that I was even able to talk him into even being in it. 

In the movie, which also starred Miles, one of my suite mates, Paul pushed Miles around in a shopping cart. I swear after I finished the film I kept on seeing shopping carts everywhere. If I am not mistaken, one day someone had rolled one up to my dorm room. I have often wondered if Paul had done that. 

It was Paul’s room that I burst into on December 8, 1980 to tell him that John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York. Paul, who was sitting on a beanbag chair studying, looked up at me and said, “Now I know the world is going to end. Someone shot a Beatle.”   

On the Road with The Jerks — Part 1

For almost a year in the early 80s I was sort of a roadie and light technician for The Jerks, a rock band in the Illinois Valley.

How I ended up working for a band that had briefly tasted fame (as another band) in the 70s cannot be told without first looking back at an exciting time in a local music scene. At it’s most basic and rawest grassroots level, it is what rock and roll or any kind of music that is played by musicians day in and day out in small clubs and bars is all about. 

The Jerks was comprised of three former members of the legendary Illinois Valley band Buckacre that in the 70s had recorded two albums under the guidance of Glyns John and had opened for such performers and bands like Jimmy Buffet and The Outlaws. When Buckacre broke up in the late 70s, two of the band’s founding members guitarist Al Thacker and drummer Dick Verucchi formed a new, hipper band in tune with the resurgence of live music in local bars. 

For a brief period in the 80s, The Jerks, which played mostly New Wave covers and classic 60s rock were one of the Illinois Valley’s most popular bands drawing enormous crowds wherever they played. Originally called “Hamburger and the Works” when some people thought the “new wave” music covers they played made them sound like jerks, the name stuck. 

The first time I saw the band play at Friday’s Saloon in Peru, Illinois was one cold, wet autumn night in late October 1980. I was home for the weekend from Southern Illinois University (SIU at Carbondale) and had heard about this band that was quite popular in the Illinois Valley. To be sure, a few days before I came home there was a feature article about The Jerks and other bands in The Daily News Tribune, which among other things described a “resurgence in rock and roll.”

According to this article many local bands were playing the local bar circuit again after disco started to die out in the late 70s. The Jerks, along with other bands like Longshot (which was comprised of the other former members of Buckacre) were generating a lot of excitement in the local bar scene in the Illinois Valley. 

That weekend I went down to Water Street (appropriately named Water Street because when the Illinois River crested whenever there was a lot of rain or flooding, the street was usually under a foot or two of water) in Peru where one of these bars, Friday’s Saloon was located. It was located in a cluster of buildings at the far end of the street, (past a few factories and other industrial complexes) which also included the Delta Queen and The Red Door Inn, a popular Illinois Valley eatery (now since closed). Rumored to have been a “speakeasy” during Prohibition, Friday’s had become a popular hangout for younger crowds (many who could get in without having their ID’s checked) and was the “official home” of The Jerks. 

I guess that’s what made the place special, located on Water Street along the Illinois River, past all these factories. If you were to stand in the street (which at one time had been a brick street) and look east you could see these factories rising up underneath the Peru Bridge (U.S. Route 51, a major North-South artery—before U.S. 39 was completed—ran across the bridge). At night, and especially when it was raining there was an almost surreal aura to the place. This was a working-class neighborhood and I suppose it was only fitting that the three bars located on Water Street—Friday’s, the Delta Queen, and Murphy’s Bar (which had been a grocery store years before) rocked on the weekends.

Whenever The Jerks or Longshot played Friday’s it was an exciting time to be down on Water Street. During the heyday of this “resurgence of live music” in the Illinois Valley, people would be lined up outside waiting to get in. Inside, it was just wall-to-wall people. You had to fight your way through the crowd gathered around the bar to an adjoining room where the bands played.

When it got too crowded inside, many people walked across the street to the Whistle Stop, a passenger train car which had been converted into a bar and waited until the crowds thinned out. 

I got to Friday’s too early that Friday night in October; The Jerks had not even taken to the stage yet. The bar was not too crowded; there were only a few people sitting at some tables near the stage. One person in particular stood out. He was standing near the entrance to this second room. I didn’t know it at the time, but the man was Bruce Kowalski, a.k.a. Bob Noxious. He had his own radio program “Alternative Opposites” at a local radio station and was known for doing a wicked rendition of “Gloria” with The Jerks. Later, when we got to know each other, we would end up hanging out a lot. 

I left early that night before The Jerks even played. However, I was back down at Friday’s the next night, and this time I got there later when the band was playing. For the rest of my life, I will always look back on that night as when I re-discovered rock and roll. I guess it is true what they (whoever they may be) say when the cosmic tumblers click and everything falls into place or maybe it was even an epiphany of sorts because after that night, my life was never the same. 

Actually, I had already been really getting into the college music scene at SIU since I started attending classes there in the summer of 1980. SIU was always considered by many to be one of the nation’s top, albeit “unofficial” party schools and when it came to some of the musical acts which played there, SIU was bar none. There were always some big-name bands playing either at the university or in some of the bars. That autumn alone, The Pretenders, Elton John, Jeff Beck, The English Beat, and Off Broadway had played on campus; concerts by Kansas, Ultravox, and Polyrock (playing at the legendary bar T.J. McFly’s) would follow in the weeks to come. 

Additionally, there were some pretty hip and cool bands like David and the Happenings playing some of the local bars. 

I had met some friends for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in La Salle before heading down to Friday’s. With a couple of Mai Tai’s under my belt and a few bottles of beer I was primed for the night and ready for about anything. By the time we got there, the place was packed and jumping. While my friends tried to get served at the bar, I just followed the music, weaving my way through the crowd. 

Inside the adjoining room the air was heavy with smoke and perfume. A large group of people was standing in the back while others were sitting at tables on either side of the room. The dance floor was crowded. On a small stage at the front of the room The Jerks were playing a cover of a new wave hit by the English band The Vapors.

The band was good, but it was the energy of the crowd, which really struck me as I stood there in the back and listened to the music and felt all this energy and excitement. It was then that I noticed one of my old friends from high school, Chris Vasquez who I hadn’t seen in over four years, dancing near the front of the stage. While we were probably not the best of friends when we were in high school (we had only hung out just a few times) we were in a few classes together. Later I would discover that we had once hung out when we were in elementary school. 

Suffice to say that night I ran into Chris at Friday’s was the beginning of a very strong friendship that has lasted to this day. We have had our differences now and then, but I can honestly say that Chris has always been able to count on me over the years, even when some of his other “best” friends have turned their backs on him. Who knows, if I had not gone down to Friday’s that night and bumped into Chris we might not have ever become as close as we have. 

Chris had already been a regular at Friday’s and following The Jerks whenever and wherever they played in the Illinois Valley. It was hanging out with Chris that weekend and again in November when I was home for Thanksgiving, which allowed me to become somewhat of a fixture in the music scene. I’ve never fancied myself as a trendsetter or anything, but I am sure that I probably brought a little of that SIU New Wave scene with me when I was back in the Illinois Valley. 

Looking back, it was all just a lot of fashion—I was never much of a punk—and I suppose some people would have written me off as some poseur. Throw on some vintage shirt and a skinny tie with a few New Wave pins on a black suit jacket and you were dressed for the evening. Maybe if there were any saving grace it might have been that I was really into the music scene at SIU and a lot of the wildness that went along. 

When I came back home again for Christmas, I was out every night The Jerks were playing. I’ll never forget the day before Christmas Eve when the band was playing at Murphy’s. A snowstorm had hit the area and the streets were practically deserted. There was hardly anyone out that night, but with The Jerks playing, Murphy’s was hopping. 

As much as I liked Friday’s when The Jerks played there, Murphy’s was actually a better venue for bands. It was just one big room with a real stage in the back. There was plenty of room to dance and the bands that played there sounded better. The problem with bars like Friday’s and Murphy’s though was the owners really didn’t know how to run a bar and take care of the bands that played there. Sure, the bars made a killing at the door when bands like The Jerks and Longshot played there. 

What’s most interesting is how that one night back in October would change everything; at least how that night took me down another path that I would end up following for the next couple of years. Had I not gone home that weekend who knows what might have or might not have happened. 

From Carbondale to Daejeon

You just never know who is going to stumble across your blog on the Internet and then either write to you or leave comments on one of your postings.

Sometimes it’s not unusual like when an old friend who you thought you might have lost touch with writes you or leaves a comment; other times it’s someone looking for information about how to contact Jimmy Wong or information about teaching English in Korea.

Then there are those times when someone comes across your blog and sends you an email that really catches you off guard and surprises you.

Like the email I received a few months ago from David from the band David and the Happenings.

Talk about a trip down memory lane. The last time I saw David and his band was a party in Carbondale back in March 1981. I had gone to Carbondale with Chris Vasquez and Dave Scholle to pick up my stuff from my dorm room at Freeman Hall (I had “dropped out” of SIU a few weeks before) and ended up staying in Carbondale for a few days. While we were there, we caught The Romantics and The Rockats at Shryock Auditorium (The Rockats blew away The Romantics) and ended up going to a few parties were David and other people I knew from SIU were at.

I never really knew David (who was the brother of James Chance of James Chance and the Contortions fame) that well, but I had seen his band a number of times when I was attending SIU from the summer of 1980 to the spring of 1981. The first time I saw his band was at an outdoor concert at the beginning of the semester; then again later in the Student Center right before Thanksgiving. They were a pretty outrageous and tight-knit band known for David’s vocal stylings and stage presence, which might have reminded one of Iggy Pop. If you were into the New Wave or Alternative Rock Scene at SIU then you probably caught them playing one of their gigs around town.

When I had gone home for Thanksgiving in 1980 I hung out with Chris and one of his friends Colleen who was going to SIU at the same time I was and who also knew David and the band. Then, when I came home for the holidays again at Christmas, Chris, Colleen, Dawn (a friend of Colleen) and I went to Chicago to see David and the Happenings play at this punk rock club called The Space Place and another time at Tuts.

That Tuts gig was a bit of a downer because David’s band came on after Martha and the Muffins, a band that Chris and I really wanted to see. We pretty much screwed ourselves on missing the band by partying with Colleen and some of her friends too long before the concert (“Don’t worry, I know the bouncer there and I will be able to get you guys in,” Colleen said).Well, she knew the bouncer all right, but what she didn’t count on was the club following the fire code to a T. By the time we got there, the place was packed and they weren’t letting anyone else in (after Colleen had managed to talk her way inside). So, Chris, two other girls and myself ended up hanging out at this small blues bar until Martha and her muffins finished and we could finally enter Tuts.

The Space Place, on the other hand, was an interesting club and we had no problem getting in and seeing the band. The club itself, located somewhere on the North side of Chicago (if I am not mistaken) had been converted from an old warehouse. It was big and roomy and on the night we saw David and the Happenings and some other bands, it was packed.What I remember most about that night was the bouncers who looked liked professional wrestlers wearing white tee shirts with “security” scrawled on the front (which looked as though it had been hastily written with a black marker earlier in the evening).

A couple of skinheads showed up to cause trouble and these bouncers—standing around the stage—pounced on them and started beating the shit of them right in the middle of the dance floor as one of the bands played.Later that night, Chris and I went to a party where the band was and we stayed up all night. The next day, a Sunday, we went to Wax Trax Records on North Lincoln Avenue, the coolest and hippest record store in Chicago.

I think seeing David and the Happenings—then and when we saw them in Carbondale afew months later—really had an influence on Chris when he finally got around to putting his band together The Libido Boys in the summer of 1981. David and the Happenings was the kind of band that Chris wanted to have or be in; he wanted to have a really strong stage presence with a band that could back him up musically and who were not afraid to take chances. What Chris really needed to do was put a band together and get out of the Illinois Valley.

I would see David and the Happenings one more time, a month later in Chicago. Chris and I were trying to put something together to have the band play at Friday’s Saloon in Peru and were in contact with Pete Katsis, the manager of the band at the time. However, the owner of Friday’s wasn’t too keen on bringing a band in that he didn’t know too much about and never got around to returning phone calls. We had even made these posters of the band and put them all around town (We could have even made a little money off the gig being promoters and all—who knows where that could have led us?) to generate interest, but the owner backed down at the last minute.And that was the last time I had thought about the band until now when out of the blue I get this email from David.

Pretty cool how a one sentence blurb about his band on my blog could bring me back in time to Carbondale in 1980 when life was wild and interesting.

(Thanks for the pics David!)

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and other stories — Part 1

Path between the Seas — Panama Canal Zone, 1978

I have to confess that I wasn’t too crazy the day I found out that I had orders to Panama.

At first, on that cool Denver morning at Lowry Air Force Base in the summer of 1976 when our orders for our first duty assignments were passed out, I didn’t even know where I was going. All my orders said were Howard AFB CZ Zone. None of my sergeants that morning knew anything about the base. It wasn’t until later that day when I asked one of my instructors that I found out where I was going. Although I might not have been too keen on going overseas then, by the time I left Panama two years later and the years since, I have fondly looked back on the time I was there.

During the two years I spent in Panama I got the chance to meet a lot of cool and interesting people—some who had previously served in Vietnam before coming to Panama—while others, like my good friend Howard Hakkila had only been in the Air Force for a short time.

I first met Howard the day we both had to get our yellow fever shots at some Army hospital in Denver. Turns out we both were in the same technical training school and chances were we would probably end up working together. We did. For the first couple of months we both worked together at the Base Service Store stacking toilet paper and handing out tools before I was transferred to another section. Guess I must have complained too much that working at the Base Service Store was like working at K-mart.

When I arrived at Howard Air Force Base in September 1976, I was part of this wave of airmen being assigned there after the Tactical Air Command had assumed control of the base (previously it had been under the auspices of another command). Later I would discover that most of the personnel assigned to the base prior to the arrival of all these airmen were E-4 and above, many who had come to Howard right after American’s involvement in Vietnam.

As soon as I walked out of the commercial airliner that brought all military personnel to Panama from Charleston Air Force Base, Howard’s tropical charm with its manicured grounds and massive white buildings with ocher terracotta roofs was like nothing I had ever seen before. It almost was though I had literally stepped back into time. Too bad someone from my squadron didn’t know about time: no one was at the terminal to meet me and I had to wait for almost an hour before someone was sent to pick me up.

My first month at Howard was one extreme after another—with a lot of sensory overload thrown in for good measure. However, it started off as bit of a downer.

When I was taken to my room the first day I arrived, I couldn’t believe that this was the Air Force that I had joined. Those beautiful looking tropical buildings that had appeared so lovely when I espied them from the MAC (Military Airlift Command) Terminal were not so inviting once you were inside.

Built sometime during World War II (or so it seemed) they had at one time been these large open-bay barracks. Then, someone got the idea that the airmen stationed at Howard should have their own rooms, so a block of rooms was built on either side of a central latrine with additional rooms at each end of the building. If you were lucky enough to get a room on the end, you would have a window. However, for most of us hapless airmen, who were assigned to one of these rooms in the middle, there were no windows.

Okay, so I would have a room with no window. At least air conditioning (which he had no control over) was steadily pumped into the rooms (except a few times when the power plant that supplied the air conditioning broke down), which keep us cool. And if I really wanted a view, all I had to do was step outside and look out one of the windows, which ran the length of the barracks. Had a nice view of the parade field that dissected the middle of the base.

Then, I got to meet my roommate who would be one of many interesting and colorful characters that I would meet while stationed at Howard. Except, he was perhaps too interesting for my liking, at least for being my roommate.

Establishing his territorial claim to the room, he had taken over the back half of the room and turned it into his own private boudoir with lots of blacklight posters, beads, and the constant smell of incense burning (no doubt to camouflage his propensity for some burning some of the local herb).

Sadly, we did not hit it off too well. After informing me that this was his “crib” we hardly ever saw much of each other.

We did have one small run-in, which was no fault of my own. Not long after I arrived, the First Sergeant inspected our room and gave us a number of demerits—which included everything from mold inside the refrigerator to garbage in the trash can. Not wanting to get on the bad side of the First Sergeant (who had a bad-ass reputation in the squadron) I freaked out over the demerits we got, but my roommate assured me that the First Sergeant wasn’t that serious and not to worry about it.

The inspection was on a Friday and that night, like almost every Friday night that I was in Panama, I started off at the NCO club before heading downtown Panama City for another night of drinking and debauchery—crawling back to my room and in bed sometime early in the morning.

I had only gotten a few hours of sleep when there was a thunderous knocking on the door, quickly followed by the door being thrown open. Rubbing my eyes, and wondering who in the hell would be knocking on the door at this hour of the morning, I could just make out the silhouette of this gargantuan figure standing in the doorway. Espying the stripes that ran up and down the figure’s arm, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was in big trouble.

“Get your asses out of bed,” bellowed the First Sergeant, “and get ready for inspection!”

Inspection, what inspection I thought as I groped for my glasses at the side of the bed, relieved that I had not brought any woman back to my room.

In his hand he held a copy of yesterday’s inspection report and waved it in front of my face as I approached him. I could hear my roommate stirring in the back of the room.

“You were supposed to have this room in inspection order,” he said.

I wanted to say that it was Saturday morning, but looking at my First Sergeant in front of me wearing heavily starched fatigues with sharp crease marks on the sleeves that could cut paper, my instincts told me better.

My roommate though, beat to me to the punch. Finally out of bed, he was mumbling something about that it was too early in the morning for this kind of shit.

I picked up a copy of the inspection report that was still on the desk from yesterday and looked at the demerits we got. Okay, mold in the refrigerator that would have to be cleaned, but when I saw a demerit for garbage in the trash can, what I said next even surprised me, no shocked me.

“Where else are we supposed to put the garbage?”

Ouch. If I wanted to make a lasting impression on my First Sergeant and be forever in his graces, I definitely pushed the right button.

“Get your asses dressed in your uniforms and report to my office in five minutes,’’ barked the First Sergeant as he reeled about and stormed out of the room.

I quickly threw on my uniform, but my roommate didn’t seem phased by what had transpired.

“Don’t worry Miller,’’ said my roommate, “it’s all just an act.”

Five minutes later I am standing in front of my First Sergeant’s desk getting a good ass-chewing, the likes of which I had not had since I was in basic training the previous summer. If it was just an act, the First Sergeant was having one heck of a performance. 

Ten weeks at Del Monte — Part 2

It was the summer of 1990 and I was spending my first summer in the Illinois Valley since 1985. Two of the big summer movies were Die Hard 2 and Ghost. Iraq invaded Kuwait in August and almost overnight the United States was starting a massive military buildup that would become the First Gulf War. My very dear friend Michelle Mignone—who I had not seen since 1988 when we spent a week together in Chicago—was home for the last part of the summer. Sadly, it would be the last time we would see each other. I took the train down to Macomb a few times and hung out with some friends. Fans of the off-the-wall and already cult TV program Twin Peaks were anxiously awaiting the fall season to find out who had shot FBI Agent Cooper. 

I taught an adult education class for Illinois Valley Community College (actually at a church in Streator, Illinois. One very hot and humid afternoon while driving to class (I enjoyed taking the back roads from LaSalle to Streator through small towns like Leonore and Lowell) in my grandparent’s car I had a blow out (probably a good thing that I had taken the back roads on that day instead of the more heavily traveled Route 51). While I was fixing changing tires and cursing the weather, an Illinois State Police car pulled up behind me. The State Trooper was a female with a broken arm. She asked if I needed any help. I thought that was kind of funny. No, I told her. I was just about finished. Okay, she said, I will follow you into town. That was pretty cool of her. 

I applied for a teaching position in Malaysia; had gone through two interviews—one on the phone and the other at Concordia near Chicago—and was waiting to find out when I would be going (I felt so sure of myself).  

And now I was going to be working at Del Monte for a few weeks. 

Things were definitely looking up for me. 

I never let on about my educational background and that I had taught in Japan and at IVCC when I went out to Del Monte. Of course I did mention that I had gone to college on the application form but I didn’t mention anything about my work experience. However, I think someone must have noticed because on my first day of work, I was told that I would be working outside and responsible for keeping track of the amount of corn (tonnage) that was dumped by trucks every hour (which in turn gave the shift supervisors inside some idea as to how much corn was being processed) as well as making hourly and nightly reports. In addition I would also help the tractor drivers who pushed the sweet corn onto these conveyor belts that led into the plant. I would also be working nights from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am. 

The plant had just about finished packing lima beans for the season and now had turned its attention to sweet corn. Mendota is famous for sweet corn and every August they hold a Sweet Corn Festival (with all the corn being donated by Del Monte). And once the festival is over is when the Del Monte plant begins its around-the-clock sweet corn pack—first with corn from surrounding communities and, by the end of the pack around the middle of October, with corn trucked in from as far away as northern Wisconsin.  

I was really fortunate to get on the night shift because the supervisors I got to know and work with were pretty cool. They took an immediate liking to me for some reason (maybe they had found out about my application) because they were really cool to me. And I just wanted to keep a low profile and not let on that I was only going to work as long as it took to find out when I would be leaving for the teaching gig in Malaysia. I just wanted to do my job, make my money and get on with my life, which of course was going to be back overseas. 

Sometimes I have wondered how things might have played out differently if I hadn’t applied for that job in Malaysia? I did quite well teaching over the summer at IVCC and I probably could have taught a class or two there in the fall. I know it would have only been part time and not exactly what I wanted, but it could have seen me through a year or two. Who knows? I was just so obsessed with getting back overseas that I might have missed out on some other opportunities (later, I would find out just how many). 

My job was quite simple: I had to tell the truck drivers where to dump the corn, keep track of how much sweet corn was “pushed/loaded” onto two long conveyor belts (which were actually in a shallow concrete groove) on either side of this monstrosity piece of machinery that cleaned the corn of any stalks and other chaff before the slender, green-sheaved ears of corn went inside, and give the two tractor drivers breaks now and then. Knowing how much corn was dumped and how much was still left outside soon made me quite popular with people who wanted to know how long we would be working on any given night especially after the last trucks dumped their loads. (In the beginning we worked all night, but later we were able to finish early). Also the night supervisors who wanted to know how much corn was processed at any given time, made it part of their nightly routine to ask me how much corn had been unloaded during the shift. I got to know a lot of people that way. 

There were a lot of people employed at the Mendota plant and I could see that many of them were migrant workers from Mexico. I don’t know how many were legal or illegal, but someone told me that when—then President George Bush senior was running for office in 1988 and stopped off at the plant, many of the illegal workers were supposedly kept inside, away from the press. Whether that really happened or not, there were a lot of Mexicans employed at the plant (in fact I even noticed two of my former students from the adult education ESL class I taught that summer). Many could not speak English very well and many were given the most dangerous and difficult jobs inside (like working the cutters—these huge steel blades that cut or sliced the corn off the cob). 

Some employees were between jobs or working at Del Monte for as long as it took to find something better. There were a couple of ex-cons who had just gotten out of the joint and took the first job they could get. One night, one of these ex-cons who drove one of the tractors said he was going to get something from his car and never returned. There were some rough-looking types who obviously had some issues about something and were just waiting for the wrong person to cross their paths. 

For some people, this was all they had for now. This was what put food on the table and paid the bills. These were people not looking to get out, just trying to get by for now. There were a number of single moms working there and when I saw these women it reminded me of when my brother and I were younger and our mother worked at Spiller and Spiller in Peru, Illinois. Later I would find out that our mother and even our father had worked at Del Monte. 

I didn’t realize this at the time though.  I was just working there until I left in a few weeks, maybe a month. For now, I was just going to do my job and keep a low profile. The thought never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t get hired to teach at the school in Malaysia. 

It should have.

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