7) early September 2005; Akron, Ohio, or Mt. Clemens, Michigan Early one evening before we left for a show I wandered into Colin’s hotel room* where he sat enrapt by a news report detailing Hurricane Katrina wiping New Orleans – a major American city – off the map FULLY FIVE DAYS EARLIER and we hadn’t heard a word about it. Colin and I both sat staring incredulously at the T.V. screen as I said, around a mouthful of Hostess orange cupcake, “When did this happen?” “I don’t know,” Colin replied absently, glued to the TV by the sight of thousands of people stranded in the New Orleans Superdome.
It brought into sharp focus the rock & roll bubble we would occasionally find ourselves in on the road: Days and days of van drives, middle-of-the-night-gas-station-meals, soundchecks, dark, loud bars and motel rooms we didn’t occupy long enough to even turn on a television, let alone watch the news. (By contrast, on our last tour in June 2012, every second member of the band had a laptop, smart phone, or tablet, so everybody was connected to the planet ALL THE TIME. My, how quickly times change. I already miss the old days of seven years ago.)
Colin and I sat there for I don’t know how long, watching the misery and devastation play out. We might’ve even caught the Kanye West “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” incident as it was happening. I wouldn’t swear to that though, the chronology seems wrong, and I couldn’t find online what date that took place. We might have just seen it another night as that tour progressed. Finally Biggie came in, cutting our hurricane disaster reverie short with a “Let’s go, ladies, van call in five minutes,” pronouncement. “Have you SEEN this, Biggie?” Colin said, pointing at the screen. “Yeah, it’s New Orleans. That happened DAYS ago. Where have you two been?” He shook his head at us, walked out of the room. Colin and I got up, grabbed our stuff, walked out to the van and back into our rock & roll bubble.
*Technically it wasn’t just Colin’s room. Usually on the road we all camped six to a room. On nights when we had the luxury of TWO hotel rooms, we divided into The Snoring Room – Biggie, Dave & me – and The Non-Snoring Room – Colin, Joe & Pooch. It was not lost on anyone that this arrangement meant the frontline of the band – the guitar players – had one room and the backline – drummer & road crew – were relegated to the other.
8) Saturday, June 18, 2005, Valdosta, Georgia We were on our way to Jacksonville, Florida, from Atlanta, Georgia. Somewhere north of Valdosta, Biggie could no longer keep the van at our normal highway cruising speed of 70 mph. Twenty minutes later, he couldn’t keep it at 60 mph. By time we hit the outskirts of Valdosta, we were doing maybe 50 mph, maybe less. We got off I-75, made it into a Firestone Service Center about 5:45 on a Saturday evening. The place closed at 6 pm. No way IN HELL did that Firestone manager want to deal with our sorry rock & roll asses, but he was an extraordinarily nice guy and got one of the mechanics to come out in the lot and look at the van. (They were not about to take it into their building, thereby taking responsibility for it.)
Mechanic-guy crawled under the van, determined the catalytic converter was shot, and a long back & forth conversation ensued between Biggie, Colin and manager-guy about how we had to get to Jacksonville, Florida, that night for a gig and couldn’t they please stay late and fix the van. Manager-guy tried to explain they probably didn’t even HAVE the right catalytic converter in stock at the station, we’d just have to stay over and they’d try to find one and order it Sunday morning. He was telling us where there was a motel close, just up the street, when I spied a puddle of liquid forming under the front part of the van. “Is that from the catalytic converter?” I asked. The mechanic who had been under the van previously crawled back under, put his hand in the liquid, sniffed his fingers and announced, “No, this is brake fluid, you’ve also got a broken brake line.”
That was quite enough for manager-guy. It was then 6:20 pm, I’m sure he just wanted to get home to dinner and his family after a long week, and he said quietly, in a smooth Southern drawl, “I’ll see you in the morning, boys,” and walked away.
He was barely out of the parking lot when Biggie was on his cellphone, calling Dave Cook, the band’s go-to mechanic and miracle worker. (I’ve often wondered why they had me in that van instead of Dave Cook. He certainly would’ve been a lot more valuable.) Biggie sketched out the problems, filled Dave in on what the Firestone guys had said, and asked what we could do on our own, just to get to Jacksonville. (Which was, to Biggie, just a tantalizingly close 125 miles away.)
To make a long story short, Dave dispatched Biggie and Joe to a WalMart store adjacent to the Firestone to buy a drill, duct tape and some brake fluid: the drill was to be used to make holes in the catalytic converter to allow in more oxygen and the duct tape was gonna be used to shore up the broken brake line just long enough for us to reach Jacksonville. It was like something out of that movie Apollo 13 where they had to fix a spaceship with just the materials on board the rocket. As dusk fell on Valdosta I watched Biggie work on that van like a man possessed. I walked over to Colin where he sat reading on a concrete parking block and said, “He CANNOT fix that brake line with duct tape. That is not going to work. I’m not getting back in that van.” Ever the optimist, Colin replied, “It COULD work. We’ve had stuff like this happen before,” but I could tell from his tone that even he didn’t believe it himself.
It was almost dark when Biggie finished drilling the holes and taping up the brake line. He poured the extra brake fluid into the reservoir to replace what was puddled in the parking lot and I tried to figure how I was gonna get to the Valdosta Greyhound Station to get a bus for Columbus without shaming myself in front of the guys. By divine providence, when he rolled the van a few yards and put the brakes on to test the line it immediately broke apart again and dumped the fluid right back out. I think he was getting out of the van to give it another try when Colin and/or Joe said, “That’s it, Biggie. Call the club in Jacksonville, we’re not gonna make it.”
We got the guitars out of the van, walked up the street to a motel (sound familiar? see previous blog) and Colin said, “You’re not coming out with us anymore, are you?” “I don’t know, Colin, I just don’t know,” was my reply. There was a dive bar almost right next door to the motel. I think I stayed behind to mull over my future with the band while the guys went out for drinks. As always, they made fast friends with the bartenders and patrons. I think they briefly considered hauling the gear up the street from out of the van and playing at that bar, but it was too small.
The next morning Biggie and I got up bright and early to get the Firestone guys to write up work orders for the van. When they put it on the lift one of the mechanics said, “Who drilled holes in the catalytic converter?” “Uhhh, I think it was already like that,” Biggie replied innocently. “Not when I looked at it last night, it wasn’t,” said the mechanic who had crawled under Saturday evening. At any rate it was going to take Firestone a couple of days to get a replacement catalytic converter. Everybody had to be back in Columbus on Monday for work or, in Joe’s case, for his teaching assistant gig at Ohio State, so Biggie had them just fix the brake line. The manager of Firestone explicitly warned us not to drive all the way back to Ohio without a functioning catalytic converter and probably made Biggie sign something to that effect, to remove his liability. He also told us not to shut the van off on the drive, or it probably wouldn’t start up again. He further advised us to keep all the windows open on the trip home to forestall dying from carbon monoxide poisoning.
We did in fact drive all the way back to Ohio in that van, with all of the windows wide open to try to dissipate some of the carbon monoxide pouring in from the holes in the catalytic converter. I think I lost a LOT of brain cells on that ride. About all I remember of that journey was crossing the bridge from Kentucky into Cincinnati and freezing my ass off on that chilly night, as it got colder & colder in the van with the windows open, and I hadn’t brought any warm clothes with me since it was summer and we were gonna be in the South that whole trip.
As I recall we made it home about 5 am Monday morning. I had a carbon monoxide headache for two days afterward. The next road trip we had a new van. More on that later.
© 2012 Ricki C.