In 1990, I was 12 years old. But forget that. It’s not really important. In 1990, Ghost was the big movie, the band Warrant released “Cherry Pie,” the chic wore massive hoop earrings and Converse all-stars, Cheers and The Golden Girls were popular, The Young and the Restless was the soap to watch, and slap bracelets were huge. Forget that, too. Not only is it not important but I had to look all that up. I don’t know it first-hand because I was a home-schooled kid who didn’t know anyone and had just relocated across the country with a mother and dad old enough to be my grandparents.
I don’t know how other kids feel about moving but I hated it. Then I loved it. Then I hated it again. Loved it. Hated it. Loved it. The cycles continued but eventually the periods of “loving it” lasted longer and the periods of “hating it” were relegated to days when the pollen count was high. Eventually what pushed me more into the “loving it” zone was the opportunity to pursue two interests: reading historical fiction and biographies side-by-side and hanging out in the jacuzzi at the new house, simultaneously.
The new house was really quite amazing. It was big, but so was the last house. The shocker was that it had only two bedrooms in a 5,000-square-foot home. On the other hand, the former owner was a bachelor and I don’t know that he needed many guest bedrooms if you get what I’m sayin’. One of the first orders of business in the new house was to add more bedrooms. Fortunately, my mother knew just the guy, her ex-husband.
My mother has the distinction of being the first of John’s seven wives, as well as the only one with whom he’s had children. He’s been around since I was a kid and at one point in my childhood I was so close to his parents that I called them ‘grandma’ and ‘grandpa.’ When Mother and her “new” husband of 20 years needed work done on their house, they invited John to bring himself and his trailer home up to the ranch to live and remodel the place. This was either a very odd or a very modern situation. The neighbors couldn’t decide. Neither can I.
Regardless, when John moved up he brought his trailer home, his Suzuki Jimmy, his metal detecting and UFO identification equipment, his CB radio, and a full library of pirated VHS porn and audio cassette music.
Stop what you’re thinking right now. This is not that kind of story.
Dad didn’t allow anything more contemporary in his home than Frank Sinatra so this was quite something. Truth be told, I still feel a guilty little thrill when I listen to rock and wonder, “what would Dad think?” However, John, my mother’s ex-husband, kinda thought in his quiet way that my dad is a fuddy-duddy. Early in his stay, he surreptitiously brushed the back of his hand against his mouth and face and called me over in his mumbly tones:
“Hey, I see you got a stereo. Where’s your music?”
“I only have a couple of tapes and some of Dad’s records.”
“Ask your mom if you can come over to the trailer and borrow some of mine. I have a lot. Steppenwolf, Beach Boys, Michael Jackson…come over any time.”
And just like it was a backroom drug deal, but with the blessing of my mother, I was given license to pick through John’s motor home filled with media.
What his collection lacked in quality it had in variety and quantity. John made no effort to have good music. He just dubbed everything he could get his hands on and added it to the library, the packrat of stolen tunes. The only legal collection of music he had was a TIME|LIFE series of classic love songs on cassette. If you are wallowing in unrequited love or virginal 12-year-old loneliness, this is the perfect set for you, my friends. I plucked them from their faux wood towers and I ferreted them across the yard to the house.
This was the soundtrack to my summer. Me, in shorts and a tee, hanging out in the unheated jacuzzi enjoying whatever sunshine was afforded by a Montana summer, with a book in hand and the stereo plugged in on the deck playing Love Songs According to the TIME|LIFE Distributorship. It had a little of everything: Barry Manilow’s Mandy, Crystal Gayle’s Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, Can’t Live by some melodramatic gent who covered Badfinger’s original, and more. Given I was all about Tudor queens that year, maybe listening to all these songs about love was appropriate. I still remember what I was listening to when I first read about Anne Boleyn’s beheading: Love Will Keep Us Together by The Captain & Tennille. (Seriously.) These audio-cassettes represented approximately 95% of all the music I knew composed or performed after 1960. The remaining 5% was composed of television advertising jingles.
It was a pretty good summer for being in a new place. It was one of the few summers I remember not wanting to end. When it did, though, it was with me starting school. Not just a new school, but school period. For the first time in 12 years, I was going to a real school with other children. By the way, it was high school where I’d be the youngest one around. Did I mention I was going to start in AP classes and half my schedule with in junior classes? That was scary. But school in general was pretty exciting and I was a little psyched.
To prep for the big event, Mother took me clothes shopping at Sears. This was before the days of ubiquitous Target stores and the town was too small for a JC Penny bargain basement (thank God for small mercies). Mother had the inspired idea for us to share our wardrobe so I started school with all the white athletic socks, penny loafers, elastic-waisted pants, and button-down short-sleeved pastel shirts a girl could ever need. I don’t know if there’s a female equivalent of Urkle but I would’ve been a contender in that casting call.
The first few days of school were difficult and I stuck out. You know how some women use childbirth as their baseline for pain? (“It didn’t hurt that much when I suffered that compound fracture in my tibia. Childbirth was muchworse!”) Those early days of forced social interaction have been my life’s baseline for being in difficult situations. (“Being seated at dinner next to my senior vice president with a lazy eye was horrible but early high school was much worse!”)
One afternoon, Mother and Dad were late picking me up. Who am I kidding? They were always late picking me up from school, sometimes to the tune of four or five hours late. Terra, easily the prettiest girl in the freshman class was hanging around in the lobby too, snapping her gum, playing with her spiral-teased hair, listening to her boom box with Jennifer. Terra glanced my way.
“You like these guys?”
“Who are they?”
“TNKOB. New Kids. They’re so cute!”
Mike, another freshman in the lobby, piped up. “Hey, what do you call one fag?”
Terra, Jennifer, and I shook our heads dumbly. Mike chimed in, “Oh. What do you call two fags?”
Again, we shook our heads. Mike said, “Oh, oh. What do you call three fags?”
And so on it went until we got to, “What do you call five fags?” He paused for the punchline: “Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhh.” Mike guffawed. I smiled weakly and didn’t get it. Jennifer said, “that’s stupid, Mike.” Later I learned it’s apparently the opening line to “Hanging Tough.” Yes, my friends, this is what passes for high school humor in Montana.
Terra rolled her eyes and turned back to me. “So what kind of music do you like?”
I was paralyzed. I wasn’t a very streetwise kid but I was pretty sure these kids were not singing Broadway tunes with their dads in the car on the drive home. I fumbled and came up with the only tune that came to mind, straight from John’s TIME|LIFE audio cassette of love songs.
“Well, I really like that song that goes,” and I started to sing, “a few special moments, that’s all that we shared.”
Terra nodded. “Hey, I think I know that one. Keep singing it.”
You’ve got your family and they need you there.
‘tho I’ve tried to resist being last on your list
but no other man’s gonna do
so I’m saving all my love for you.
“That was cool,” Jennifer said. “You have a pretty voice.”
I blushed. “Thanks.”
“I really like Whitney Houston, too.”
I knew enough to just nod and agree. “Yeah, she’s awesome. I like all her music.”
So there you go. I don’t often write about the relevance of music to my life or about celebrities. I leave that to the other experts out there. But there was this one moment where happening to know the “right” song by the “right” artist briefly helped me connect with the “right” crowd. That happens so rarely in my life that 22 years later, I still remember it.
Whatever it’s worth, Whitney, thanks for that.