Dates hold little significance for me these days. Unless I have to catch a plane, I have a deadline, or something is already booked and paid for on my credit card I pay little attention to dates anymore. I have no need to; I mark the passing of time in very different ways now.
However, days for me are a little different than dates. I have a routine that takes place in more or less the same order every morning. I wake up, hopefully have a relatively accessible and clean place to pee, I put on water to boil, grind coffee, and open my computer.
I brace myself for potential bad news, first from family and then from the rest of the world. I’m far away and I worry too much. But my family is well and the rest of the world? Well, my cursory glances at the news continue to reassure me that the Republic hasn’t burned. At least not completely.
Then along came October 2, 2017. The opening of the computer part of my morning ritual showed me that the flames are rising. More than fifty people dead and five hundred injured at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas. How the hell does that happen? Why am I even asking that question anymore?
This isn’t about gun control. Hell, it is not even up for debate with me. Those who know me know my stance on the issue. But what some of you might not know is that I grew up in the country and guns were a regular and normal part of my life. I learned at a very young age how to clean a gun, how to properly load and shoot a variety of handguns, rifles and shotguns, and I’m still a very good shot, or at least I was the last time I went to a gun range.
So while I spent yesterday like most people did, watching the Facebook arguments and reading the “What We Know Now” articles I had no way of knowing that October 2, 2017 was about to get a whole lot worse for me.
CBS was among the first site to report that Tom Petty was hospitalized, brain dead after suffering a heart attack the previous evening, probably about the same time the gunshots were first fired in Vegas. Soon other reputable news sites reported that he had been removed from life support and was dead. Facebook exploded. Videos of everyone’s favorite Tom Petty songs flooded my feed. I scoured the links being shared, still not quite sure what was going on. But what I did know was that I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t accept that one of MY guys had died. It’s not time yet.
This is in no way meant to diminish the deaths that occurred on the Las Vegas Strip. Senseless death in any form is just that, senseless. Cruel, harrowing, and beyond comprehension. But, despite the fact that it took the news outlets hours to actually confirm his death the simple fact that it was imminent brought up some powerful memories for me.
Memories of Tom Petty and guns.
The 1980’s were a confusing time musically. The staid rock and roll of the 70’s was contending with punk rock on one side, glam rock on the other, and had new wave right on its heels. MTV was in its infancy and 8 track players were not uncommon in the Ford pickups that rolled into my driveway, the boys behind the wheel feigning casual disinterest, a cheek stuffed with Copenhagen, and something cool blasting from the tinny speakers.
In the little corner of my 16 year old world music was everything. It defined your style, it designated who you would hang out with, and ultimately it would be a representation of you. New trends had trouble taking a foothold in the country during the 1980’s — little has changed in that regard — so we listened to what it seemed like we had always been listening to.
Rock and roll.
Rush, Yes, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Black Sabbath, and more would roll out of those speakers when we went out. Free from parents and always hoping to be one step ahead of the cops we’d drive out to the lake carrying our music along with us. In many ways it was all we had.
But there were also the guns.
Those Ford pickups I mentioned almost always had gun racks mounted in the back window of the cab and those racks were rarely empty. But in those days of carefree recklessness and guns galore I rarely paid any attention. What else are you going to do with empty beer cans but line them up for target practice?
However, one memory of that time lives in my head, as tangible and real as anything I have ever known and the soundtrack of that memory is Tom Petty and gunfire.
It was another summer day at the lake, hot and still, cicadas screeching at the cloudless sky. I was clad in cutoffs and an artfully ripped up T shirt from a .38 Special concert. My legs were long, lean, and brown and my dusty bare feet were swinging as I perched on a tailgate and swigged from an icy cold something. Coors or Budweiser would probably have fit the bill. A song came on and I began to sing. I knew all the words by heart.
It was American Girl by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
And as gunshots and laughter rang out behind me I sang, tipsy and beautiful and so impossibly young.
“After all it was a great big world, with lots of places to run to.”
It was than one line, in one song, written by one man who had no idea how much that song and that line in particular would change me. One girl. One girl who wanted more than life in the country. More than getting pregnant, marrying one of the boys shooting at beer cans behind her and staying there in that small town.
That song has been my touchstone since that hot summer day, so long ago. Every word rings true for me and those words speak to my wanderer’s soul. They also take me back to a time in my life that was so deceptively simple; I needed nothing more than music and my friends. But I always knew that somewhere in that quiet and still place in my heart I had more in store for me. And I was right.
So as I reflect on October 2, 2017 I mourn in so many ways. So many people who should have had a great time at a concert were terrorized and died instead. And one other man, hundreds of miles away in Malibu, suffered a heart attack that would end his life as well. A life that intertwined with mine in so many ways and I’ll continue that dance as long as Tom Petty is on my playlist.
I am that American girl.
Jeannine Thigpen says
Beautiful. I had tears in my eyes as you described sitting on that tailgate, young and beautiful. I too was that girl. The setting was the redwoods of N. Cali but the yearning and the *knowing* were the same. I’m so happy (and a titch jealous) in the deepest part of my heart that your wanderlust is being satisfied. I hit that open road when I was 17 and it has been work, work, work ever since. My free-falling has been replaced with the day-to-day stability of the 9-5, were did that American Girl go?! I’ve raised an amazing young man and he is out making a life for himself, perhaps it’s time that I start running down my dream again.
As for Las Vegas, I think the media is out-of-control and gives a platform for these glory seeking, 15 minutes of fame, riotous crowds that just want to make a name for themselves. You see them standing around, eyes following the camera trying to stay in frame. It is spinning and spinning out of control and as someone who hears the constant ugliness and entitlement of man 40+ hours a week I can say that it’s much worse than you know. We think these high profile incidents are as bad as it’s gets, yes, they’re horrid but so is the homicide, domestic violence, robbery, rape, child abuse etc, that I hear everyday. Savages.
Music has changed so much and growing up I don’t ever remember artist like Tom Petty singing about shooting and violence like it was something cool. It was about loving your fellow man, peace and having a good time…coincidence?