“I’ve been everywhere”
Continuing on from yesterday’s blog, if spring time represents our birth and growth in life, then summer is a continuation of that growth, as we mature and become stronger as people and learn more about the world. It is also when real life issues inevitably start to intrude. Things become real. But it is also the time we probably have the most fun in our lives. As I mentioned in the introduction, this series has become more autobiographical than I had imagined originally. In previous blogs I have touched on some of the years I would consider to be part of “my summer.” For that reason I will touch on some of the times I have not already mentioned. It covers a pretty large span of years as a result, from pre-teen all the way up to my early thirties before it all came crashing to a halt as you will soon discover. Summer in my mind is full of exuberance, dumb mistakes (that somehow remain good memories for some reason), figuring stuff out, and lots of laughs and good times.
When I was thinking of the markers to set for my own timelines in these Four Seasons blogs, I spent a good week or so reconstructing the key periods in my life. Though the actual teen and college era years might seem like the logical place to start for summer, I have pushed it back slightly further. More specifically to the summer of 1979 when I turned 11. That was the summer that Clan Doyle undertook their greatest adventure-a 5 week long summer drive across country and back. Though there was no Wally World as a prize at the end (for fans of the Vacation films), there were numerous prizes in exploration of this vast and varied country. We set out once school let out for the summer which interrupted the best Little League season I ever had. Yes, I estimate I was batting an average of .195, which for my readers around the world who may not know much about baseball translates to being abysmal! I do remember filling in at third base for one game where I promptly mimicked the great defensive playing of New York Yankees great Graig Nettles, guarding the line against the line drive and making spectacular Nettles patented instant replay worthy (in my mind) plays diving for the ball and protecting against an extra base hit. Again, apologies to my non-baseball watching readers but it was the pinnacle of my achievements in the sport I love best and I am damn proud of it. Sadly I was not drafted by the Yankees and my baseball career was soon over.
Forgive me, I digress. So in that sultry summer of 1979, Mom and Dad, together with my two sisters piled into the Ford LTD station wagon for five weeks travelling across America. Much planning had gone into the trip before we left and there were lengthy discussions and disappointment when people’s choices would have to be bypassed. So sad as we were that there would be no Colorado or Pacific Northwest, no Montana or Yosemite, we still saw a lot of great places. Chicago and up to South Dakota through the wonders of the Badlands, before moving on to the Black Hills where we stayed in a cabin by a lake near Mount Rushmore. Then on to Yellowstone and the Tetons in Wyoming and the unforgettable town of Emblum, Wyoming, population 10. From there it was on to Salt Lake City and across the desert to Reno, Nevada before spending about 2 weeks in California. Starting in Sausalito and San Francisco and winding our way down to Los Angeles and San Diego, with stops along the way to see the Redwood forest, and Disneyland.
Eventually we moved on to Arizona, passing through Yuma (the hottest place I have been in my life, I believe it was something like 115 in the shade…in the late afternoon) and on to the wonders of the Grand Canyon. Then on through the unique colors and landscape of New Mexico and the gradual race to home passing through parts of Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and on home. Through all those travels there were only two mishaps with the car that I can recall. When all was said and done the five of us made it through inevitable family strife, long miles of driving and cheap motels, unique and beautiful landscape, encounters with buffalo, tourist kitsch (“Stop at Wall Drugs in 40 miles. Wall Drugs coming up in 10 miles…and so on), amusement parks and California ocean, Native American creativity and more long miles we finally arrived home to New Jersey.
All those long miles made for a long list of cities and towns to circle on a map. When we were back home I think we tried to trace the journey made with a continuous line colored with marker. From New Jersey across to the west and back, passing through towns like Gary Indiana, St. Paul Minnesota, Albuquerque New Mexico, Amarillo Texas, Little Rock Arkansas, and hundreds more. I doubt I heard Hank Snow’s classic song “I’ve Been Everywhere” (which is itself adapted from Australian songwriter Geoff Mack’s original version) on that trip, but for my money it is the benchmark of an American travelling song as it rattles songs off from east to west and north to south. Which is surprising since Hank Snow was originally from Nova Scotia, Canada. I am pretty sure I did eventually hear Snow’s version of it in my 20’s, but it wasn’t until I heard Johnny Cash sing it on the album Unchained, part of the American Recordings series that it really resonated with me.
If you go back to Part 11 of this blog you can read about my own history with Johnny Cash, but to sum it up quickly here if you have not read that particular blog, Johnny’s music never really did anything for me until those American Recordings came out. I’ve Been Everywhere closes out the Unchained album, and even though Johnny had performed it many times before, this version is by far the best. When I had my a ha! moment with the importance of Johnny Cash’s music, this song quickly became one of my favorites. It was then that I began equating it with that summer of 1979 and that car journey, so I feel it is a fitting choice for the start of my ‘summer.’ Of recognizing the world surrounding me and trying to come to grips with the differences that were not quite so different when you really got down to it. I have not been everywhere yet, but I sure as hell will give it try someday.
“All things to everyone, run runaway”
Just a few years later I started high school, which for me was an hour plus bus ride each way to a private boys school. Those years had the usual sort of teenage moodiness and awkwardness that most of us encountered in some way. My experiences were no better or worse than others, but there was one activity that helped sustain my time those four years-running. At that time in 1982 running was becoming more popular. From casual joggers to the increasing popularity of marathons and triathlons there was a running boom going on. When I was younger my sisters and I all did competitive swimming but by the time I was ready for high school I had stopped. I am not sure what made me want to run, but some of it was probably due to being so small in size. Even if I had somehow bulked up, I would still have been too small for football. Basketball was completely out, and hockey and soccer were sports that did not mean much to me then. I guess I wanted to just be competitive with some sport, and there were no size limitations in running, or any real equipment I needed to acquire. No play books or physical contact. Just long miles and all that loneliness of the long distance runner stuff. So for four years I ran cross-country in high school, which was infinitely more enjoyable to me than running track.
Our practices were interesting in many ways because there is not much to practice…you just need to go out and run. The coaches did vary these over the course of a week. Monday’s I seem to remember being a long mile day, usually about 10 or so. Once school was out we changed, did our stretching and began running a preset course, winding our way between main roads and side streets, tacking on the miles as we went. Unless it was extremely hot out, there was no water to be had. If you allowed yourself to fall behind and lose sight of the other runners, then you had to hope that you remembered the route for that day. Other days we did track workouts, or ran together as a team in a single line (known by its non-politically correct title, Indian File). A comfortable pace would be set, and the last runner in the line had to sprint up past everyone to take the lead after a signal was made. Then the newly placed last runner would do the same, and the procedure would be repeated again and again until the predetermined mileage had been completed.
Worst of all was our ‘Temple Of Doom” workout, memories of which I still hurl epithets at to this very day. We would leave at a light pace from our school heading to a temple, approximately two miles away. That was the easy part. Once at the temple we would catch our breath and wait for everyone to get there (i.e. the coach….in his car!) The temple was actually up on a large hill from the street, and had a winding switchback road to the parking lot at the top. To the side of this gradual incline were a series of grass ridges that rose up, leveled off, then rose again and so on all the way to the top. So we would have to attack those hills, not stopping until we got to the top, where we would proceed to jog down to the bottom again along the road, where our coach would be standing there with a fiendish look upon his face. As soon as he saw us, and with a blow of his whistle we would attack the hill again, and repeat this process about 10 more times before we got the signal to go back. Which meant another 2 mile run. You can see why it was called the “Temple Of Doom by now I think.
Despite not being a top runner, the lessons learned on some of those workouts stuck with me through the years. I had to learn to simply be strong and get through the pain, and not reward myself until I was finished, such as not having so much as a sip of water until the workouts were finished. I had to learn self-reliance, and to use my brain when we set off on these long mile runs that looped through unfamiliar territory. You had to pay attention. I bet the kids who run cross country these days do so with a smartphone in their pockets to help with navigation! The competitive side of running was one thing, but it was in those practices that I learned to be tougher on some levels. Emotionally I was not tough yet, but being left on my own, which is what running is all about at the deepest level, I felt a physical toughness. It did not show in my short and scrawny body with flaming red hair, but I felt it.
The musical accompaniment for this little time of life is dedicated to my mom, who had the unenviable task of driving far out of her way from her job every fall afternoon to pick me up after practice. As I have mentioned in other blogs, my musical tastes were pretty simple in those days, and being the early to mid-1980’s I was of course heavily influenced by MTV. Though there is much from that era that I would rather forget, and some that I will never publicly admit to actually liking, there are a few things that have remained favorites. One such song was ‘Run Runaway’ by Slade, a band that were completely unknown to me at that point. Somehow between all the synth-driven New Wave music dominating MTV and the radio, this song became a hit. Despite having been around as a band for some time, it was Slade’s first U.S. hit in fact. I am certain the reason it resonated with me is because underneath the power chords it had a folk element, a point that the video also drove home.
It was a few years before I had my folk and folk rock epiphany and went full on into exploring that type of music, but in some ways, this was actually the starting point, though I did not realize it at the time. Some 12 years or so later, when Canadian band Great Big Sea did a very folky version of ‘Run Runaway’ it all came together. Probably because of that folky element to it, when the radio went on during those car rides home from cross country practice and that song came on, my mom professed to quite liking it, power chords and all. So thanks mom for picking me up from all those practices after school, and for liking this song. It is a happy reminder from that time.
“Look man…come down here…he got down there, he says what you want?
I could be predictable at this moment and choose to discuss my college years as the next life stage. Academia and late nights cramming for exams. Research and writing lengthy papers for your Latin American Politics class while simultaneously reading The Brothers Karamazov for your Russian Literature class, and trying to come to grips with Aristotle in Philosophy class, all while lugging around your copy of H.W. Janson’s 1000 page History Of Art book in your backpack. But as I say, that would be predictable I suppose (though I reserve the right to open up the topic again in another blog!). This intermission is based around that other element of college life, and I think that element can perhaps best be summed up in a visual sense by this little clip-
Yes, I refer of course to beer. That magical elixir that sustained college life and provided moments of happiness and relaxation from our alleged academic activities. Much thought was devoted to beer in those moments of downtime. Where to get it, and how to acquire it via subterfuge, or if that was not an option, how to properly compensate a legal drinking aged associate for buying it for us. What rotgut brand could we afford the most quantity of. We also had to consider how to pay for it and what sacrifices would need to be made later in the week. How to smuggle it into our rooms. How to dispose of the evidence. These were all major considerations. From humble beginnings tasting it as a young lad and happily finishing off the dregs of Dad’s cheap beer with his permission, up to the sophisticated craft beer varieties today, that elixir has provided me with many happy times, though nothing will ever top my college era for sheer enjoyment.
Song wise there were many choices I thought of using here in recollection of that time. I could go the country route with someone like George Jones singing ‘White Lightning.’ Another option was to choose an Irish drinking song. Something like the Dubliners doing ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ or The Clancy Brothers singing ‘Whiskey You’re The Devil.’ All of the above are tried and tested songs. But I wanted one that I remember playing at the time and for a moment I struggled with a song that was actually about drinking that I listened to at that time. A scroll through my Ipod reminded of the perfect choice that we did indeed play back in the day-the mash-up of two songs into the epic House Rent Blues/One Bourbon, One Scotch & One Beer by George Thorogood & The Destroyers. To describe this song you really only need one word-badass. That dirty guitar playing coupled with a tight band make this enjoyable from start to finish. I am not a bourbon or scotch drinker myself, so I have not experienced this combination first hand. But when I hear this song, I think of college days and nights that usually revolved around beer on some level. Happy times!
“I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive in here, brother I’m alive”
After four years college was over and real life began. I got a job that was meant to be a holding pattern until I found something more substantial. Efforts were made, but I eventually settled in and enjoyed the job by and large for a number of years. I have touched on some of these years in other blogs so I will just sum them up by saying that time passed really quickly after graduating in 1990, Before I knew it we were in a new century and I had moved into my thirties. One particular incident effectively ended my ‘summer’ and changed me in some ways. It is not something I often talk about, and even to this day I still cringe a little bit at the memory of it. But the real story is about what happened just a few days later and gave me one of those heavy doses of reality that inevitably happens to us all.
It was the summer of 2001 and I was looking forward to a vacation I had planned to Ireland. It had been 5 years since my previous visit, and I was excited to be heading back. Unfortunately, shortly before I left, I came down with a bad cough I get occasionally which grew worse once I got to Ireland. The cough was so hard and heavy that my body would momentarily shut down (a very short fainting episode in essence), causing me to blank out completely for a few seconds. It happened a few times while I was in Ireland, but a trip to the doctor while there did not alleviate the problem. My poor cousins had to put up with this the entire time. Considering I had just met a few of them for the first time because they had grown up elsewhere, I can only imagine what they thought of their American cousin who was passing out all the time! To make matters worse, it rained hard for almost the entire vacation and it was not a particularly restful or relaxing vacation.
So I flew home and returned to my apartment, which was on the top floor of a walk up. I knew as soon as I entered the building that something was wrong. There was a musty smell of dampness in the air and as I started climbing the stairs there were big swathes of paint peeled off the wall. Okay I thought as I kept climbing…maybe something happened to the lower floors only but as I kept climbing it got worse. Even more paint was peeling, both from the walls and the ceilings. The smell became worse. With trepidation I opened the door to my apartment and found it had been flooded. Later I found out that they had been repairing the roof when a summer storm came and dumped a lot of water on the roof that was in the process of being waterproofed. I lost carpets and furniture, though thankfully all my electronics and my CD’s were left untouched. But all around me was damaged. A fine welcome home.
With the help of my dad I cleaned up over the course of the next few days, even though I was still battling the bad cough. After airing it out as best as I could, I left the apartment and stayed with my parents while I went back to work as I did not want to drive with that cough. I went to the doctor again who put me on a strong dose of anti-biotics and almost overnight the coughing stopped and I began feeling better again. After a few days of no further incidents I began driving again and I was feeling more like myself, the memories of the bad vacation was fading, and I was gradually getting the apartment back in shape again. At the time I lived in Manhattan, but commuted to New Jersey for work. On a Sunday night, after I finished work I drove home, via the same roads I normally traveled on. Then it happened.
Even though I had not had a coughing fit in almost two weeks, on a winding uphill road I remember a slow and gentle cough starting. The next thing I remembered was coming to and not knowing what was going on. Glass was breaking. Metal was twisting. Worse than that I felt like I was moving despite being strapped in with my seat belt but it did not seem to be in a normal way. Eventually it stopped and passersby came to check on me. I had no idea what had happened but I could see there was no blood and I was able to move with no pain. While waiting for the ambulance and the police to get there the people who were in the car behind me recounted what had actually happened. When I began coughing I had blacked out momentarily, just as I had in Ireland. At that exact moment the car was going uphill around a slight bend in the road. When I blacked out the car hit the curb on the side, which jolted the car, causing it to flip over twice before coming to rest on all four wheels facing the opposite direction that I had been heading. The sensation I felt when I came to was in fact the time when the car was being flipped. An odd sensation that though it does not give me nightmares, is something I hope never happens to any of you reading this. More troubling to me once I was able to think again was the realization that if this incident had happened 10 minutes later than when it did, I would have been on a highway, or even the George Washington Bridge, one of the busiest bridges in the world. I realized that had been the case, I might not have been so lucky. Real life indeed.
In the days afterwords, as I recovered from the few minor cuts and bruises I had I was really feeling sorry for myself. This was my own personal lowest moment. A bad vacation, sickness, a flooded apartment, a car that had been totaled and almost a brush with death. I remember sitting there just numb for a day or so before I convinced myself to go back to work. I may have clocked in to the job, but in my head I was clocked out. I was moody and short tempered with everyone. Then that day happened, that beautiful sunny Tuesday that was September 11, 2001. I watched like everyone else, horrified at what was happening in the city I love and in Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. Very quickly the moodiness and feeling sorry for myself left my mind. I remember waking myself up with an imaginary slap across the face saying, ‘YOU ARE ALIVE.’ Vacations are a luxury, you can take another one, I told myself. Sickness can be healed, apartments can be repaired, and new cars can be purchased. You can do these things because you are alive. It was a very real time for everyone with a lot of emotions swirling and I was no different. But it helped remind me after my own rough spell what was really important.
I did not have to think hard about the song to use for this part of my life. From the first time I heard ‘I’m Alive’ by Iain Matthews that simple refrain became something of a mantra whenever I think about those days. Since his early days singing with Fairport Convention on to his own bands Matthews Southern Comfort and Plainsong, as well as a lengthy and varied solo career, his music has always explored the more emotional side of life. Though he has always been a fine interpreter of other people’s songs, his own songs are often very relatable to situations in your own life. All delivered with that crystal clear voice that has somehow remained unchanged in almost 50 years as a professional singer.
Difficult moments like what happened to me can be hard to relive, or describe to others. Though 14 years have passed writing this just now stirred up some emotions. When I watch movies that involve big violent car crashes, with lots of noise, I often tighten up inside at the memory. The beauty of music quite often is that you can use any line, from any verse, or chorus as your own form of mantra to help you through a difficult time. To ease my own mind when those moments ‘I’m Alive’ by Iain Matthews does a great job. It also contains one of my favorite lines of all time, and I am including books and movies when I say that. Iain sings “I’m just a little shy of Surf’s Up, but I’m deeper than Twist and Shout.’ Along with that mantra of I’m Alive, this line helps me sort things out in my head.
It is a circular path on some levels. Maintaining youthful “summer” tendencies but stepping back from total immersion into that life is a good path to take. So is looking for meaning, but still knowing how to enjoy yourself. It almost feels like summer within that one line, which is filled with fun but ends with the realities of things to do when it is over. After that accident I have tried to combine these two elements in my life better. Though I sometimes need a reminder, a listen to this song helps me get there again.
Next up tomorrow is autumn, all about romance, marriage and changes. Be sure to read it right here.
I’ve Been Everywhere-Written By Geoff Mack
Run Runaway-Written by Jim Lea and Noddy Holder
House Rent Boogie-Written by John Lee Hooker
One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer-Written by Rudy Toombs
I’m Alive-Written by Iain Matthews
All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
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