A Happy Idiot

I had the most interesting wave of nostalgia come over me yesterday.  I was waiting in the car line to pick up my children from school, listening to the radio as usual.  Normally I listen to sports talk, but this is a really “dead” time for sports (unless you’re into the NBA).  So, I scanned the dial, looking for music.

Sure enough, one of the classic rock stations played Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out / Stay”.  Now, my years of loving Jackson Browne are long past; he’s too much like me.  He uses too many words and takes himself far too seriously.  That being said, I believe his song “The Pretender” is the greatest song ever written about that awkward time in life, when the college years are over and one realises that in order to survive, one’s idealism will be beaten down into compromise.  It’s sad and hopeful at the same time; it’s the stuff of life.

That period in life came earlier forme than most, which I’ll get to in a minute.  But, back on point, I can’t think about Jackson Browne without remembering the happiest, most exciting pre-marriage period in my life.   

I didn’t go to college right out of high school.  I was one of those who fit into the financial aid loophole at the time: my parents didn’t qualify for grants, there were too many financial difficulties for loans, and they, nor I, could afford tuition,room and board and books outright. Besides, I was young and stupid, and had what I considered a “good job”.  Why, I thought, would I ruin a good thing by going to college?

I had been working at what is now called Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theater since I was 15 years old.  I was “assistant chef” (yipee!), which meant I made a little above minimum wage, which at the time I thought was wonderful.  I was a fixture there from 1979, when I was 15, till 1983.  I saw a lot of people come and go; this was where I met Ford Prefect and hatched the idea of starting a band.

In fact, this was one of maybe three major turning points in my life (so far).  It was here that I got over the horrible high school experience.  It was here that I developed a passion for music and performance.  Being surrounded by right-brained artsy types had quite an influence on my 18 year old, impressionable mind.  I had several people teach me piano technique, which, being self taught, was a Godsend.  And it was here that I befriended Debbi the bartender.

I have to call her that because, embarrassingly, I can’t remember her last name.  Ford remembers her, I’m sure – and if you want to tell me, please do it tonight in person, we don’t want to “out” anyone.  Back then, Chaffin’s Barn had no back theater, that area was the area for the waiters to hang out between intermissions, and also held the bar.  This was where Debbi held forth; it was her domain.

She was beautiful in her way, bleach blonde and leggy, yet you could tell that she had experienced a little more of the 70’s than was healthy.  She was the kind of woman who today would have quite a few tattoos and piercings, I believe.  She could be gruff and down right mean if you got on her bad side, or got in her way while she was trying to work.  She was “old” (I’ll even bet she was 30!).  Like everyone else at the place, she was an aspiring singer. 

I owe her a great debt.  I didn’t even realise it until recently.

No, this isn’t a “Summer of 42” story. (For you youngsters, Summer of 42 was a movie in the 70’s, and I think a book, about a young man’s sexual exploits with an older woman)

Anyway, the work at The Barn came in spurts. It was heavy during dinner, then everyone waited whist the play was going on.  Intermissions were insane; there was a very short time to fill drink orders and clear tables.  Then came the cleanup at the end.  But there was a good amount of downtime while the actual play was being performed.  During this time,the waiters would hang out in the back room with Debbi.  My work was done, but I didn’t have anything better to do but hang out with the waitstaff.  It was during this time that all of us got to know one another pretty well.

I have no idea why, but Debbi decided to take me under her wing.  Perhaps she considered the young, geeky kid “safe”;  most women have used that term to describe me at one time or another (I hate that, but that’s another story).  But, whatever her reasons, Debbi decided to show me the world, as she knew it.  Boy, did she widen my horizons!

She took me to a midnight showing of The Song Remains the Same.  Another tie, we went to see Let There Be Rock.  After a lot of warnings about what I was going to see, she took me to my first screening of Rocky Horror.  That was quite an eye opener.  She planted a big, fat kiss on me one New Year’s eve; with all the people around, I pretended to faint.   On my 19th birthday, when the drinking age was 19, she took me to see Jackson Browne at the Municipal Auditorium (thus the triggering of nostalgia yesterday), then bought me my first “legal” beer at the Gold Rush.

Damn, these are good memories. 

Since I didn’t spend my late teens and early 20’s in college, I lived Browne’s song The Pretender much younger than many of my peers.  And Debbi was a big part of that.  I will be forever thankful to her. 

One of my favorite memories ever: when I was 18 or 19, several of us decided to stay after work and play cards.  The competition for pennies was tough, and we got quite involved.  The card game went on into the night, accompanied by good conversation, chain smoking, and whole albums playing on the radio (they used to do this late at night).

We looked up,and it was 6 in the morning.  Whoops.  I was still living at home; I have no doubt my parents were worried sick.  Certainly my dad was going to let me have it left and right when I arrived at the house.

Debbi drove me home.  She had a beautiful black Trans Am, with the huge eagle logo across the hood.  Sure enough, when we arrived, my dad was waiting at the front door.  I braced myself for what was sure to be a knock-down, drag out fight of epic proportions.  As I approached the door, however, my father did not look at me at all.  After all these years, I realise why now.

I was his weird kid – geeky and awkward; I have no doubt that he even worried about my sexual orientation.  My brothers he understood perfectly, but me?  He had no idea what to do with me, and I’m sure it worried him to death.  So, imagine his surprise when his 18 year old son stays out all night, then arrives at dawn in a sports car driven by a beautiful 30-something blonde.

He just stared at her.  Not glared, stared, in a bewildered fashion.

As I passed him, his eyes finally met mine.  Instead of screaming at me, a wry smile came upon his face. 

We never spoke of it again, but our relationship was different from that point forward.

So, if you ever are in my presence, and Jackson Browne comes on the radio, don’t be surprised if I get a faraway look on my face and smile. 

Such good memories on my way to becoming a happy idiot.  Thanks, Debbi.


4 Responses to “A Happy Idiot”

  1. Barry Says:

    That’s a really great story! 🙂

  2. newscoma Says:

    I love this story.

  3. Jan Says:

    What a great story, you should write a movie about it, narrating (sp?) through it, center it on your relationship with your dad and your growing up years with the perfect ending.

  4. Susie Says:

    I am so proud to be the friend of such an incredibly talented “happy idiot”! 🙂

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