Thursday, September 23, 2010

Steve Strong: One Last Summer, Before Growing Up

“Johnny! Check it out, slow down.” “Turn up the 8-track.” “No. Forget the Beach Boys. Lay rubber.” “Yeah, peel out. That’ll get their attention.”

It was the summer of 1974. My buddies Johnny and Steve had just graduated. I had my senior year still ahead of me. We were three long-haired, teenagers, crammed in the bench seat of 1966 Ranchero. Well, not actually a real Ranchero. It was a 1966 Chevrolet station wagon that had a chopped-off backend which was cut down and converted into a sort of pick-up bed with the original station wagon back door serving as a tailgate.

It was Johnny’s car. As funny as that wannabe Ranchero looked, at least Johnny had a car. Steve and I were resigned to borrowing our folks’ car anytime we had something to do in our little town.

Johnny spent his money on the Ranchero where it would have the most impact. He did his own custom body work, and the three-toned paint job featured metallic blue quarter panels which faded to sky blue doors, and then faded back again to the metallic blue rear end. The rims and wheels were new, and cost more than the rest of the vehicle was worth.

In our little group of three, we each had our assignments. Johnny’s dad was a lawyer, so naturally we thought of him as the rich kid. He had a swimming pool at his house and a freezer in his garage full of steaks that we were allowed to have any time we wanted one. He owned the car, so he was the driver. Steve could play any musical instrument and had perfect pitch, so of course he directed which music we would consider cool, and which music was off limits.

Me? The previous summer my girlfriend had broken up with me in a most public manner when she discovered I had been kissing her little sister. This gave me some sort of god-like status among my friends. I was the only one of us three who had been on a date or kissed a girl, so I was the designated guy who would do the talking if we found a group of girls who seemed impressed by the car.

The problem for us was the town itself. Fremont, Michigan had 3,400 citizens and was proud to be called the “Baby Food Capital of the World.” Gerber was headquartered there, but beyond that, there wasn’t much else.

We were a good 45 minute drive away from anything that would interest a teenager. The nearest McDonalds was in Muskegon. Instead of the normal fast food hangouts, we had an A&W with carhops on roller skates that was only open from May through August. We had a movie theatre that sat 60 people and played movies from two years ago. We had the only stop light in the entire county, and it had a sign on it that said “No Turn on Red.” Honestly! Was that really necessary?

So there you have it. Johnny driving his car with the three of us in that single seat. Steve in the middle so he had control of the music. Me at the passenger seat window so I could talk to people.

Up and down Main Street we drove. From the high school, straight through the stop light, and to the park. A total of 4 blocks. We would turn around at the park and perhaps lay a little rubber by the cannon to mark the territory.

Other boys were thinking the same thing and we’d give a respectful wave as we passed each other. Up and down Main. Up and down Main. Turn around at the park, give a wave, and do it again.

After an hour or so of that, it gets old. Not only that, but even if there were girls in the park or on the street, did we really want to talk to them? I mean, these are the same girls we went to school with, and if we were interested in them we would have just asked them out in the first place.

So, when my dad told me he was driving out to Michigan to pick us kids up for our summer visit with him instead of flying us out to Seattle, I thought, “What the hey… it might be fun to do the road trip with my dad, his wife, her two daughters and my two little sisters.”

It turns out this was to be my summer of station wagons, because my dad showed up in Michigan with a three-seat station wagon with the suitcases on the roof. We were already packed and eager to go, so we hopped in the vehicle and were off.

It was already determined that Dad and his wife would ride in the front seat with my youngest step-sister. The back seat would have my two sisters and the older step-sister. That left the back end of the car for me.

The last row of seating in that station wagon seemed to be a design afterthought. It was a hideaway rumble seat that when set up, faced out the back window. I immediately decided I loved it. For the next 3,000 miles I enjoyed seeing where we had been.

My Dad decided it was best to leave the radio off for the entire trip, which of course, was a blessing to me. Who knows what kind of music I would have been subjected to. As it was, I made my rumble seat my private castle, and I nuzzled in among the pillows, boxes and camping supplies and read book after book.

As I looked up from time to time I saw the Great Mid-West passing by. I started reading The Valachi Papers just outside of Chicago. I thought that was fitting, even though Joe Valachi was a New York City mobster.

I looked up from the cosa nostra initiation long enough to see the Badlands go by. I took an hour nap, and when I woke up, the Badlands were still going by. So I guess it wasn’t a great stretch for whoever named that region. That was really some boring, bad land.

Mt. Rushmore was cool – for the 30 minutes we were there. Then it was back in the car and into my cocoon in the back.

I finished The Valachi Papers as we were pulling into Cody, Wyoming. Needing a new book, I was impressed by the locale to buy a paperback called Billy the Kid and Outlaws of the Old West, which I read for the rest of the trip.

I saw a demolition derby in Wyoming. I saw Old Faithful in Yellowstone. And I saw a moose in Montana. But more importantly, I learned that Billy the Kid escaped from custody using a shotgun hidden in an outhouse. How cool is that?

When summer was over, my Dad flew my sisters and me back to Michigan where life hadn’t changed one bit. Having graduated, Steve went to work for his Dad sharpening drill bits in a small machine shop. Johnny went to a trade school in Big Rapids, Michigan to study auto body repair.

And me, I had one more year of high school. Although the three of us had big plans for getting out of Michigan, Steve and Johnny never did. Steve ended up taking over his Dad’s business, and he lives quietly in Muskegon with his wife and son.

Johnny finished his tech degree and with his rich dad’s financing, opened up an auto body repair shop. He married, and had five sons – each name beginning with the letter J. He lost his home last year in the mortgage foreclosure crisis.

Sometimes I think back about those days when the three of us were a team, and they both thought I was so worldly and wise. They still think about me that way now. I guess I’m worldly and wise because I had the good sense to get up and leave that little town.

I had no idea at the time, but that would be the last two-month summer vacation I would ever have. The rest of my life would be about earning a living, getting college degrees and supporting a family.

When you look at me today, you may see an old man – an overweight guy with thinning hair and out-of-control children. But when I look in the mirror, I can still see that skinny, long-haired innocent. I’ll be forever riding with friends, making each other laugh, and rocking out to the sounds of the Beach Boys.


  1. Great blog Steve! It made me think of those days in Fremont, and your friends. Did you know I had a crush on Johnny that whole time? Funny.

  2. oops, that looks bad. That was my post...not Phil.