Searching around for a tolerable radio station, I settle for one with a classic rock format. Thirty-eight Special singing, “So Caught Up In You,” and then Golden Earring’s “Radar Love.” I wonder how many times must I have driven this same road on my way to town listening to these same songs 25 years ago?
In those days, I wouldn’t have been on my way to pick up a birthday cake with Thomas the Train painted on it. I would have been going to get my best friend, Stewart, most likely, for another night out on the town. Not this town, but some town nearby, a place with a bar and selection of cold beers on tap, a place with a stage that hosted any number of local garage bands playing loud and passable covers of those very songs we heard all the time on the radio. Pushing 30 but still hanging on to their rock star dreams one weekend at a time, these musicians prowled the stage like tigers in a cage, if only tigers could chain smoke, strike rock star poses, and do a fair imitation of David Lee Roth if the audience had paid more than a couple of visits to the bar already.
I have come to understand nostalgia a little better in the past few years, especially since the arrival of my wife and children in my life. It is easy to romanticize the days of one’s youth, to regard the past as some bright reminder of a time when anything seemed possible, when life seemed completely unpredictable and exciting. Who would you meet tonight? Where would you be tomorrow? What might life be like in six months? A year? Two years? There was no way to know. That was kind of thrilling. It was also kind of sad and empty, but it is easier to remember it as thrilling.
Now, here I am, 25 years down the road, and it’s another Saturday night. But these Saturday nights no longer hold that top-of-the-roller coaster sense of exhilaration. I know exactly who I will be seeing tonight. I know with all the assurance anyone can lay claim to where I will be tomorrow, and I have at least a pretty good idea what life might be like in six months, a year, even two years.
I guess the question is, once you reach this stage in your life, how do you feel about those people you know you are going to see tonight? Do you like where you are going to be tomorrow? Six months from now? A year? Are you able to trade that top-of-the-roller coaster exhilaration for something deeper and perhaps slower? The comfort of a familiar embrace? The playful mischief of a child with a fistful of birthday cake and a thousand places he might wipe it? Your whole family gathered around the dining room table, singing “Happy Birthday” to your son?
Mom has been cleaning out the attic, and has six or seven boxes with my name written on the side in black magic marker. The boxes are filled to the brim with old magazines, textbooks, and various odds and ends dating back to grade school. There is my Boy Scout sash, covered with merit badges. There is a piece of stained wood, with the word “Mafia” burned into it, which I produced in shop class while I was still in elementary school. Why I wrote the word “mafia” is mysterious to me now, I’m afraid. There are several wallets, one with a western scene stenciled across it. There is a ceramic turtle that a boy named Bill Edwards gave to me in 1975. I know so because this intelligence is carved into the turtle’s belly. There is some strawberry incense, and a black light bulb, and KISS posters, twisted up into the shape of telescopes. There are three watches, and one of them still works. There is an old tape recorder that weighs about 20 pounds.
And then there is a letter from someone, written in a girl’s handwriting, although it is not signed. I open it up, and there is just a small slip of paper. All that is written on it is this: “What the hell has happened to us?”
I puzzle over this for awhile, trying to remember, and then put it back in the envelope.
I guess we just grew up.