In the summer of 1977, when I was 18, my best friend Brad and I drove 1400 miles across the country in an old Oldsmobile Cutlass. We had no plan other than to see America. We started off in New England, headed to Washington D.C. and then down through the Blue Ridge, Virginia, North Carolina. We jutted back out to the coast to Charleston, South Carolina, where we body surfed in the ocean and swam among porpoises.. We went down to Statesboro, Georgia, where we drank in a juke joint and ended up watching two local heroes duel in a street race. We crossed the Florida panhandle, went through Alabama and Mississippi, In New Orleans a Louisiana lawman with mirrored sunglasses threatened to lock up for sleeping in a park. We drove clear across Texas, with a stop in Juarez, Mexico where we bought colorful rugs and switchblade knives. At nights we slept in the car, sometimes paying $5 to stay at a KOA campground so we could use the showers. Once a week we splurged on a motel. We headed west across New Mexico and stood on a corner in Winslow Arizona, We hung out with hippie chicks at Mission Beach in San Diego, and then drove up highway 1 to San Francisco where we spent a night drinking wine in an alley off Mission Street. We headed back north through the redwood forests, and then said goodbye to the Pacific on a misty driftwood beach in Washington state, before headed back across the Rockies and then east through Wyoming where we bought cowboy hats during the Frontier Days rodeo. We crossed the Badlands, and then stopped in Milwaukee to visit the breweries before heading home in one last straight shot all across Middle America’s fields of waving grain.
Early on in our trip, we had installed a cassette player in the car and bought five cassette tapes. Marshall Tucker (Fire on the Mountain), The Outlaws (Hurry Sundown), Charlie Daniels (High Lonesome), the Allman Brothers (Eat a Peach) and Jerry Jeff Walker (A Man Must Carry on).
The tapes were the soundtrack to our summer. They spoke of a way of life. Searching for a Rainbow. Freeborn Man, The Ballad of Billy Bonney, Blue Sky, and Getting By. That summer forever shaped my life. Seeing the great wide spaces of America opened up possibilities for me that made me refuse to be contained to anyone else’s life or vision for me, but my own. In later years I hitchhiked across the country, rode buses and trains, took time off from school, tried to write novels, and experienced as many adventures as I could find. That summer on the road laid the groundwork for me to become a paramedic. Nobody could tell me I couldn’t do what I wanted, and the EMS life was the road life, always on the go, each stop a different lesson. I never felt I had to grow up and stop doing what I loved,
Jerry Jeff Walker who sang to us on summer nights as rolled down the highway, died last week. His songs were as guiding to me as anyone’s. He was from Austin Texas and was best known for “Mr. BoJangles,” a song about a dancing drifter, but the songs I remember him most for was “LA Freeway, Derby Day, One Too Many Mornings, Railroad Lady, Rodeo Cowboy (Boarding on the Insane) and Getting By.” Even today when I play his music, I feel ageless. By that I mean I am both the eighteen year old boy I was then, and the sixty-two year old man I am now. Here’s “Getting By by Getting By”:
Just gettin’ by on gettin’ bys my stock in trade. Living it day to day..
On the album he sang a Bob Dylan song that had the line:
Down the street the dogs are barkin’, And the day is a-gettin’ dark
It is one of those lyrics I just sing out of the blue and leave it at that. I sing it when I pause to reflect on life’s slow movement from morning to night. My kids are used to it. When I was telling my daughter about Jerry Jeff’s passing and she asked me what songs he sang, I said, you know how I always sing, “Down the street the dogs are barking, the days getting dark?” She nodded. “That’s one of them.
“You sing that all the time,” she said.
Jerry Jeff sang that line in a way that made it not a lament or regret for life’s passing by, but as an appreciation for being alive. It recognized the intimacy of quiet moments, as he lays next to the woman he has shared a long time with.
My daughter had four basketball games on Saturday, two with an older team where she is a role player, and they won both and she played really well, holding her own, scoring four points in each game, playing solid defense, and making some great passes. In the evening, she played with her own age group team and was as dominant as I’ve ever seen her. She was the top scorer, had some dazzling assists, played stifling defense, and when the games were over, went by herself and thanked both the referees (like I taught her) and said good game to the other team’s coach and players. Her coach told her after how proud he was of her for the progress she’s made in becoming a true leader. On Sunday, her town recreational soccer team won the senior division championship in a dominating 1-0 game. She played goalie the first half and only touched the ball once, booting it halfway down the field to start a counter attack, and then she played forward in the second half in which she had a number of good plays and shots on goal. It was a sweet victory for them as last year’s season ended with tears in a heart-breaking 2-1 loss to an underdog team in the semi-finals.
She napped most of the afternoon and into the early evening. She was understandably tired. I sat next to her on the couch for a while, marveling at how big she had grown, and how in not too many years, like her older sisters, she will leave us and go off on her own. I was hoping we could play some sports together that afternoon, but she looked so peaceful. Rather than wake her up, I went down to the local baseball field by myself, and set up a batting tee next to my bucket of balls, and drove baseballs deep into the approaching dusk just like I used to when I was young.
Jerry Jeff Walker 1942-2020.