Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Waxing Nostalgic (page 14 of 14)

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and Other Stories — Part II

Hanging out at the Foxhole Bar in Panama, December 1976. From left, Lee Wilson, Howard, myself and John Grimshaw.

I had been at Howard Air Force Base for just a little over a month before my friend Howard Hakkila arrived. It was great to see him again and we quickly started hanging out and having fun when we were not working.

One of the first outings that Howard and I went on was to take a train from Panama City across the isthmus to Colon on the eastern seaboard side of the country. Actually, we would be heading north because the canal runs south-to-north across the isthmus.

Howard was always adventurous with an insatiable appetite for history. He was quite well read and was always talking about history. I regret that we didn’t have the chance to take more trips around Panama together.

The train itself was pretty archaic, pulled by an old diesel locomotive, which jerked and shimmied when it started moving. Now that was really like stepping back in time. While the journey across the isthmus wasn’t that exciting—taking just a little over an hour to reach Colon—it was pretty cool to feel a part of history traveling along the canal.

A certain spots across the isthmus, the train tracks ran right along side the canal allowing us to watch some ships traverse the canal as they headed out of Gatun Lake toward Miraflores Locks and finally, out to the Pacific.

What made the journey all that more interesting was when we walked to the back of the train and stood outside on the platform as the train snaked its way through the jungle. Kind of made us feel a little special I guess. Howard said that he felt like some politician on a whistle-stop campaign trail standing there on the back of the train.

You know what was really trippy about taking a train across the isthmus was at one point when the train came to this clearing and there was immaculately manicured golf course carved out of all the jungle.

Colon was nothing like Panama City. It was pretty drab and lacked much of the excitement of the capital city. We didn’t spend a lot of time hanging out there. Just checked out some of the colonial-style buildings that were probably built around the time the canal first opened. Most of them housed the offices of shipping companies and were not worth much exploring.

We stopped in at the local YMCA, which didn’t have a lot to offer. After walking around the streets, we stopped in at some local watering hole, had a couple of rum and cokes and got back on the train to Panama City. Howard and I talked about coming back again at night to check out the nightlife and maybe spending the night, but we never did.

Without question, one of our more memorable nights (at least for me) was the night I got inked for the first time.

Actually, Howard and I had both planned to get a tattoo and had even gone down to this tattoo shop just down the street from the Buffalo Bar (which was off-limits to the military) a few nights before to select our tattoos. The tattoo shop was pretty drab—just the kind of hole-in-the-wall shop with its walls covered with a lot of flash of “old school” tattoos—that you would expect to find near some military base overseas.

As for our “first tattoos”—I had my heart set on a tattoo of a flag and Howard, hailing from Minnesota (not to mention his Finnish ancestry) was going to go with a tattoo of a Viking. We told the tattooist that we would be back the in a few nights and would probably be wasted, so we didn’t want to make any mistake when it came to choosing our first tats.

During the holiday season, our supply squadron gave us all a nice Christmas present by having skeleton shifts. I was off the week before Christmas and Howard had the following week off. Back then, most people only worked an 8-4 or 9-5 shift—probably one more reason why so many people had wanted to be stationed at Howard. On the night Howard and I were going to get our tattoos, Howard, who had been off that week, had already gotten an early start drinking with Lee Wilson (his roommate) and an airman who had recently arrived in Panama, John Grimshaw.

I met up with the trio at the base NCO club and tried to catch up with them sucking down one rum and coke after another. It was the day before New Year’s Eve 1976, but you would have thought it was New Year’s Eve the way we were celebrating that night. After we felt that we had adequately prepared ourselves for a night on the town in Panama City, it was time for a quick bus ride that would take us out of Howard, past Rodman Naval Station, across the Thatcher Ferry Bridge and finally the bus stop outside the Ancon Inn.

The tattoo shop was located just down the street from the Ancon Inn and down another narrow side street to the right. While Howard and I went there to get our tattoos, Lee and John headed off to one of the more popular watering holes nearby to wait for us.

When Howard and I got to the tattoo shop there were no customers inside so I went first. I sat down behind the wobbly wooden counter and rolled up my sleeve on my right arm. The tattooist used a toothpick and tattoo ink to draw the outline of the tattoo on my arm. Next, he sterilized the needle by dipping it in some rubbing alcohol and then lighting it with his Zippo lighter. A car battery that he had rigged up on a small shelf behind a chair that he sat on when he did a tattoo powered his needle-gun. Before he started to work on my tattoo, I had Howard run to a bar down the street to get me a rum and coke. Drank a lot of rum back then as well as Cerveza Panama.

The buzz of the needle-gun was too much for Howard, who after bringing me my rum and coke, decided to stay outside as I the tattooist prepared to begin doing the outline of the tattoo. I could see Howard through the doorway holding onto a wooden utility pole as if he was going to pass out. He didn’t hold onto it too long—before he said something about wanting to join Lee and John—but promised he would be back. He never did come back.

Well, there was no turning back now and a lifetime of getting inked was about to begin.

After I got my tattoo, I eventually caught up with the trio at the Fox Hole Bar. The photo of all us that night sitting in the FoxHole is one of the more memorable photos I have in my possession.

Are You A Stooge?

It was 30 years ago today when I started my Air Force basic training at Lackland Air Force Base.

Anyone who has ever served in the military at one time or another is bound to have at least one or two interesting stories about basic training—whether something that might have happened to themselves or somebody else.

When it comes to having or telling such stories, I am no exception with at least one thing that happened to me my first night in basic training.

Let’s just say that I was asking for trouble by what I decided to wear on the day I reported to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in June 1976. Whatever possessed me to put on an orange “Three Stooges” T-shirt that morning when I got up in the Avenue Motel in Chicago, I’ll never know. Ironically, I had cut off most of my long red hair a week before because I didn’t want to stand out too much when I got to basic training. I guess if I had been really worried about standing out, I would have given more thought to my wardrobe choice that morning.

There were eighteen of us—including myself and six other guys from the Illinois Valley—leaving from Chicago that morning enroute to San Antonio and our home for the next six weeks: sunny, scorching Lackland Air Force Base. Those of us from the Illinois Valley even made the front page of the local newspaper. The day we left, there was this F-111 aircraft display at the Peru Mall and the local Air Force recruiter seeing a potential windfall to attract more recruits, came up with the idea to have us pose next to the aircraft. “Off They Go” was the catchy headline someone came up with for the photo. Three months later, only two of us would still be in the Air Force.

When we got to San Antonio’s airport we were met by a very friendly sergeant who made us feel welcome by telling us exactly what he thought about all us new recruits. Doesn’t make any difference what branch of the military you serve in, you are lower than slug scum as a new recruit.

After being herded onto buses along with other recruits who had flown into the airport, we were taken to an inprocessing center on Lackland where more friendly sergeants greeted and welcomed us. During our inbriefing, one of the guys I came down with from the Illinois Valley raised his hand and asked one of the sergeants if all of us from the Illinois Valley would be put together. Back then, the Air Force had this seemingly innocuous recruiting ploy—the “buddy system”—to get more people to enlist. You and a friend would join the Air Force and then do basic training and maybe, if you were lucky even technical school.

However, once we were all there sitting together during our inprocessing at Lackland, reminding one of the sergeants that you had joined under the “buddy system” maybe wasn’t such a good thing to bring up at the time. Nothing like calling more attention to yourself when all you wanted to do was just get through what was most assuredly going to be a very long night. Give the guy credit though, that was a pretty brave thing to do. I know I could have never done something like that. Then again, I am the guy in the orange “Three Stooges” T-shirt, remember?

“The buddy system, huh?” bellowed the sergeant.

The whole room got quiet.

“Okay, we’ll make sure all you “buddies” are put together.”

Hey, the Air Force wasn’t so bad after all. And that’s how the “Chicago 18” as we were collectively called all ended up in the same basic training flight. Whether or not the Air Force had this arranged when we all left Chicago or if it was decided right there during our inprocessing I’ll never know, but all of us “buddies” were going to spend the next six weeks together.

Then came the “piss test” to make sure none of us were under the influence of any mind-altering or mind-expanding drugs. We were all herded into a large latrine and ordered to urinate. With everyone jockeying for urinals so they could urinate on small litmus-like strips of paper, the scene inside the latrine was pretty chaotic—like the restrooms in the late innings of a ballgame at Wrigley Field.

The problem was, I couldn’t pee to save myself in a fire. I had gone to the bathroom on the plane and as I stood there in front of the urinal, I couldn’t even squeeze out a drop. I was so desperate that I was about to ask someone if they had some urine to spare. I wasn’t alone though. When most of the crowd had thinned out, there I was still standing there with a handful of other new recruits who either were very shy when it came to relieving themselves in front of other men, or like myself, had nothing to give.

No problem because another friendly sergeant approached us and said that we could come back tomorrow with our drill sergeant. I was certain that my drill sergeant whoever he was wouldn’t mind bringing myself back to the inprocessing center for my piss test.

After we were fed in a nearby chow hall we were finally taken to our barracks. Fate was again with me that night because as soon as the bus we were on stopped in front of the barracks, I was the first person whose name was called to get off.

The barracks were on the second floor with an open area underneath for recruits to fall into formation. It was dimly lit and I as I stood there waiting along with the other recruits who continued to file off the bus, I could make out some figures emerging from the darkness. As they moved closer, I could make out their distinctive “Smokey the Bear” hats and the sound of their metal cleats on their combat boots clicking on the concrete floor.

Before I knew what happened, one of my Training Instructors—T.I.’s—was standing in front of me staring at my orange “Three Stooges” T-shirt and yelling at me.

“What are you? A stooge?”

It was only then when I realized the serious wardrobe mistake I had made that morning.

“No sir,” I said meekly.

What the Training Instructor uttered next might sound a bit cliché after similar utterances made by drill instructors in countless military movies like Stripes.

“Don’t call me sir. I work for a living,” my T.I. barked staring me down with the rim of his Smokey the Bear barely touching my forehead.

This was just the beginning.

“I think you are a stooge.”

“Yes sergeant, I am a stooge.”

Around this time a cadet from the Air Force Academy who looked just as threatening as he glared at me joined my T.I.

“Take off that shirt and turn it inside out Stooge,” ordered my T.I.

If there ever were a record for someone to take off a T-shirt, turn it inside out, and put it back on, I would have set it that night.

“Where are you from?”

“Illinois, sergeant.”

“Illinois? Do you mean to tell me that you came all the way down here from Illinois just to piss me off?”

“No sir. I mean no sergeant.”

Yes, I definitely made a good impression with my T.I. that night.

We were out there for what seemed like an eternity (as cliché as that might sound) standing in formation, playing “pick them up and put them down” with our suitcases, being yelled at and in my case, being reminded that I was still a stooge.

Of course, right about now I was beginning to worry about having to tell my T.I. that he had to bring me back to the inprocessing center for my piss test.

On the Road with The Jerks — Part III

It’s the summer of 1981 and I am helping out
The Jerks when the play out on the road. After a
a few out of town dates in Peoria and Carbondale,
the band travels to Atlanta.

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.

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) 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), 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.

On the Road with “The Jerks” — Part II

The Jerks playing at the Second Chance
Summer, 1981
I officially started working with The Jerks in the summer of 1981. I had taken some time off school and was pretty much just filling in the time before I went back to school. 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.
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, the people they got to meet. Listening to them reminisce was like hearing a mini living history of rock and roll.
“Remember that time when we were in the studio in London and Pete Townshend walked in to talk to Glyn Johns,” said Dick one time. “Remember how so-and-so’s jaw dropped when he saw Townshend 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.
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 a gig on the road, 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.
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.
Back then, most of the bars that had live entertainment usually had bands on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights. On the rest of the 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.
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.
“Alright…alright, you wanted the raunchiest and you got the raunchiest,” I screamed into the microphone, “the raunchiest, rockingest 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, Clare and I went to the Majestic Theater 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.

On the road with The Jerks — Part 1

The Jerks, Dixon Illinois 1981

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.

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 and the bar when bands like The Jerks and Longshot played there.

Birthday Memories, 1986 — Baseball & Greek Town

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 1986 I had just finished up 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.

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 cafeteria 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 and utensils 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 awhile, 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.

The next day, it was an early start for those of us heading to Chicago. 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.

Birthday Memories — “On The Beach”

My birthday in 1979 was a lot of fun. And it should have been because it was my twenty-first birthday.

Back then, I was in the United States Air Force stationed at George Air Force just outside of Victorville, California. I had been at George for only eight months and had met some real cool people. It was kind of weird adjusting to life back in the States and the “real Air Force” after having been in Panama for two years. Although I had been looking forward to returning to the States, back then I was beginning to wonder if I should have stayed in Panama longer.

It was the Friday night before my birthday and I was working the swing shift in a supply section assigned to maintenance when two of my friends stopped in to see what I had planned for my birthday. That year, my birthday fell on a Monday, which also happened to be Memorial Day—a three-day weekend for us. Other than checking out this base festival on Monday, I didn’t have anything else planned. They suggested that we get together at one of their friend’s house in Victorville (who happened to have a swimming pool) the next day and maybe head down to Los Angeles for the night.

Sounded like a great plan.

After work that night, we kicked off the celebration by just hanging out in the barracks drinking and listening to some music. There was a lot of cool music coming out around that time. There’s no doubt that 1979 was a watershed year for music and the beginning of what would end up being the “New Wave” era, but that is another story for another time.

The next day, we got together as planned at this guy’s house in Victorville. Spent part of the afternoon hanging out at the pool swimming and drinking. I don’t remember clearly if we had decided that we were definitely going down to LA for the night or not before we had gone there, but that is what we ended up doing.

Along with the two friends who had first talked about going to LA, six more friends joined us. We piled into two cars, picked up some beer and other refreshments and munchies and headed on down the highway. We didn’t have any idea what we would do once we got to LA though. Someone mentioned something about camping out on a beach all night and that seemed like the thing to do.

We were all pretty tanked after having spent the afternoon drinking and shouldn’t have been on the road at all, but when you are in your early twenties, you feel a little invincible. Well, we took that to the next level because after we came down from the Cajon Pass, the two cars we were travelling in pulled up along side one another as we passed beer from one car to the other. Crazy.

How we managed to stay in sight of each other and not get separated (at a time when there were no mobile phones) as we proceeded down the freeway I’ll never know, but we finally made it to our destination, which turned out to be Huntington Beach. Speaking of tanked, we probably should have thought about filling up the gas tank in one of the cars before we left base because one of the cars we were travelling in ran out of gas. Back in 1979 there was a mini oil crisis of sorts and you could only buy gas on even/odd number days according to your license plate number. Unfortunately, it was the day we couldn’t buy gas, but fate or some good Karma must have been with us that day because the car ran out of gas not far from the beach and literally coasted into the parking lot of a Pizza Hut. As for our plans for the night, we had no choice but to spend the night on the beach.

Well, we probably couldn’t have picked a better place to run out of gas because by now we were all quite hungry, so pizza was in order to satiate our appetites and prepare us for what promised to be a long night of drinking on the beach. After we filled our bellies with pizza, the car that still had gas took some us down to the beach and then went back to pick up the other guys.

There was a section of Huntington Beach that was open to the public all night and that is where we set up camp for the night. On the beach were these huge concrete urns for making a campfire, so we picked out the best one we could find which was the closest to a convenience store across the highway from the beach. We had drank all the beer we had brought from the base and would need to replenish our provisions soon.

However, when it came to getting a campfire going, there was nothing on the beach that we could use for firewood. So, we had to do a little recon and see what we could find to get a fire going. Then someone came up with the crazy idea to use (actually steal) some wood from this wooden fence around an oil drill across the highway from the beach. It was one of these temporary construction-type fences made up thin wooden slats. So, there we were, darting across the busy highway, pulling off as many wooden slats as we could carry (and making sure to remove every other one as not to call attention to our firewood heist) and then darting back across the highway to the beach. Just a few trips and we had enough firewood to last the night.

By now everyone had made it down to the beach, we had a roaring fire going, and had stocked up on enough beer and munchies to get us through the night. It was turning out to be pretty cool weekend, which as far as I could tell was only going to get better.

There weren’t too many people on the beach that night and those who were didn’t pay much attention to us. We were kind of off by ourselves on the beach, away from other people doing the same thing as us.

Then Keith showed up.

We were just drinking and talking and enjoying the cool night air, when we spotted this figure come out of the darkness and approach our campsite. He was a young man, with long hair and a few days beard growth on his face, dressed in jeans and an over-sized long-sleeved shirt and carrying a knapsack on his back. One of us invited him to join our little party.

He turned out to be a rather interesting and colorful person (and it didn’t hurt that he had some herb in his possession which he was more than kind of enough to share with us) who was hitchhiking across America.

“So, what do you do Keith?”

“I’m hitchhiking across America.”

“That’s so cool man. When did you start on your journey?
“A few days ago.”

“Wow, so you’ve just started. That’s cool. So, where are you from?”

“Far out.”

Must have gotten sidetracked or wasn’t in too much of a hurry for some serious travelling.

Keith asked us if he could crash out at our campsite for the night, which we were more than happy to accommodate his request considering he was so generous with his herb.

We stayed up for as long as we could before crashing for the night which was just stretching out on the beach on some blankets that we had not forgotten to bring. Actually, we didn’t get that much sleep. We ended up lying there on the sand looking up at the stars.

In the morning, when most of us started to gather our senses and think about food, we discovered that Keith had disappeared some time during the night. We hoped he found his sense of direction and was now headed on his way across America.

As for whatever breakfast we were going to have that morning, two people in our group who had already did a recon of some small cafés across the highway came back with stories of cheap eats and a cornucopia of culinary, albeit greasy spoon delights. After we loaded up everything in the one car, we headed across the highway and stopped in the first café we saw. Judging from all the surfboards propped up against the front and side of the café, it was definitely a favorite among surfers. If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for us.

Sure enough, the small café was packed with surfers, many in dripping wet suits who had already ridden their waves for the morning. There was only one table open, in the back next to the kitchen. We must have seemed like strangers in a strange land as some of the surfers eyeballed us as we weaved our way to the table in the back. Not in the mood for your standard breakfast fare of eggs, bacon and toast, we decided to blend in with the locals by opting for their breakfast of champions: a hamburger, fries, and a Coke. As for the taste, what I remember most was that it was as greasy spoon as you could get without the FDA issuing some health warning.

After breakfast, we still had to gas up the car that was still sitting in the parking lot of the Pizza Hut. Once we had done that we were back on the road again. Someone suggested checking out Lake Arrowhead nestled in the mountains north of San Bernardino before we went back to base. Seemed like a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, once we got back on the expressway, we got separated and only the friends I was with made it to Lake Arrowhead.

We still had all this beer from the night before, so we found some secluded spot and kept on partying until all the beer was gone. After practically being up most of the night and going non-stop since yesterday afternoon, our fortitude started to wane a bit. What we needed more than anything else was a few hours of sleep to recharge our batteries, so we decided to cut short our sojourn in the mountains and head back to base.

And that is exactly what we did. And later that night we were at it again. Just a few of us got together in the barracks and sat around drinking and listening to music.

The next day, Memorial Day and my twenty-first birthday, a bunch of us in the barracks got together and had a small cook out before we went to this park on base where a festival was being held. Two guys who lived in my barracks were one of the musical acts that afternoon and we wanted to get there early to get as close as we could to the stage (a flatbed truck). We were all pretty hammered by the time we got there and I don’t remember much. All I do remember was that when I was sitting close to the stage, there was this big gust of wind that knocked over one of my friend’s cymbals, which fell on top of me. Everything after that was pretty much a blur.

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