One of the things I loved most as a kid was my Grandmother’s 45 record collection, passed on to her from her dad’s business of distributing jukeboxes and pinball machines to taverns in Oregon. She used to ride the route from customer to customer, changing out records in each jukebox. That was years before I ever came along, but those records would become a big part of my life. I was drawn to music and storytelling from the beginning, so my childhood discovery of the old 45’s was thrilling, to say the least. A few were jazz and 70’s disco, but ninety percent of them were old country and trucker songs from the 60’s and 70’s. Story songs full of humor, danger, and tough characters. Bad guys who are actually good guys. Trains, knives, beer, diesel smoke. I mean, this stuff was right up my alley! Stuff like Red Sovine’s Big Joe and Phantom 309, Johnny Paycheck’s Colorado Cool-aid, and Cledus Maggard’s The White Knight.
“Where the hell are we headin’ on this stroll down pothole-riddled memory lane?” you’re probably asking yourself right now in the voice of Sam Elliott while stroking your handlebar moustache. Well, settle yer spurs – I’m gettin’ there.
One summer my dad came and took me to meet his dad – a retired shrimper named Buddy – in Florida. “Grandpa Buddy’s gonna tell you that you gotta be tough,” my dad told me. For a country boy from Oregon who’d never really been anywhere, it was a big adventure. Flying in a plane over America, I stared down at the “circles and squares” of farmland. “Who is this Grandpa Buddy”, I thought to myself? “And what kind of name is that?” Well, imagine my delight and surprise when Grandpa Buddy turned out to be one of the tough characters right out of those songs I loved so much. He’d lived a whole life full of adventure and danger, and had known all sorts of colorful characters. He had enough stories to fill not just a book, but an entire shelf, and he embellished the stories just right when he told ’em, and his voice sounded like a mix of Paycheck and Sovine: deep intonation drizzled with Southern syrup. He talked about a different world then the one I knew, the same world being sung about on the old 45’s. “You gotta be tough,” he said over and over again. Most of the stories ended with that sentiment – it was the takeaway, the moral. And in my mind, he was the coolest, toughest guy I’d ever seen. He lived in the woods on a river full of gators and snakes. He made his own hammocks. He had tattoos, a jeep, nine machetes and an earring. It was probably more like three machetes, but in my imagination it was nine.
Weeks later, returned to my familiar life with my gentle mother in our little country house surrounded by cornfields, I was bored and desolate. I stayed in bed for a whole day and cried and cried. When my mother asked me what was wrong, I told her I wanted to go back to Grandpa Buddy’s house in Florida. I feel bad about saying that to her, but hopefully she understood. Looking back now, I can see what I was actually so sad about: it was that I had learned something about myself, and I didn’t like it.
I had learned that, when it came right down to it, I wasn’t tough.