Father’s Day Story – A Moment Near Aspen Grove

Note: This story was recorded for “Never Let The fires Die: The Alarm Podcast”, and is available Listen in iTunes or Google Play

The full story in written form is below:

A Moment Near Aspen Grove

We were on our way to Aspen Grove, a small campground in the Sierra Nevada mountains, a high elevation desert landscape in Northern California.  The campground was near Mono Lake, where Clint Eastwood filmed my dad’s favorite movie, High Plains Drifter.  It was also close to Bodie, one of the the largest still-standing ghost towns in the Gold Country, where the California Gold Rush began in the 1840’s.   My dad loved these types of things  the most: history, cowboys, treasure maps, and beauty of the desert wildlife.

“I’m called to these places” he told us over and over.

When the call came, his boys, my brother and I, dutifully joined him on his adventures.

As we drove the last 100 miles or so to our destination, my dad stuck a cassette in the car tape player: Luciano Pavarotti.  My dad listened only three cassettes:  Pavarotti, Julio Iglesias, and  Laura Branigan. On these long trips to the Gold Country, my brother Jeff and I swapped seats half way through the 8 hour drive.  The good half was spent in solitude,  in the back, in the camper, reading computer magazines and listening to The Alarm, The Smithereens, or  Soul Asylum  on a Walkman. The front seat was for sitting up, helping navigate and listening to my dad’s three tapes.

My brother and I took these trips with my dad once a year.  Dad would would spend months planning the route, the location, the camp sites, and where we would search for treasure or artifacts.  His hunger for an adventure was fed by his boredom from his day job working on government contracts at Hughes Aircraft.   He talked often about boredom, and encouraged my brother and I to find a way to fight it when we grew older.   However, my dad’s need for adventure was matched only by my desire to forget about school and work and disappear for a few days in the wilderness.  The destinations were interesting, but the car trips there and back were unbearably long and, ironically given my dad’s quest to alleviate it, boring as all hell.

While in the front seat on a long drive,  conversations with my father were pained and strained, and filled with uncomfortable silence.  He could not hear well in his right ear, and that happened to be the ear that pointed towards the passenger seat I sat in.   At home, I could enter his room, sit at the foot of his bed, and capture his attention long enough to strike-up a conversation about one of his passions.  This was the best way to talk to my dad :  on his turf, discussing his stuff.  Our conversations ranged from JFK Assassination theories, to Civil War battle lore, from Kevin Costner movies,  to the mysterious reasons I had not yet graduated from college.

So for me, it was four hours in the front seat, virtually alone, looking at miles and miles of empty desert, listening to the three tapes my dad allowed in his truck. Not that there was necessarily anything wrong with Pavarotti, or Iglesias, or really, even Laura Branigan.  It’s just that I had no connection to them other than the fact that my dad liked them.  I liked my own music, and my own stuff, and I wanted to listen to it as we drove to our destination.

A little past the midway point on interstate 395, we stopped in the town of Lone Pine, on our way up towards to Mono Lake. Lone Pine was unique in that a local geographical feature named The Alabama Hills was used as the filming location for 100’s of movies and TV shows.  My dad’s favorite movie from his childhood, Gunga Din, was filmed there.   We did not need gas or food at that point in the trip, but my dad usually made some kind of excuse to stop in Lone Pine.  I theorized that it was to feel the “vibes” of the area, an expression he used often to describe when he was making a soulful connection to the world around him.  I was as suspect of the concept then, as I am curious of it now.

Stuck in my own world, I took the stop as my chance to switch tapes on my dad.   When he was out pumping a few gallons of unnecessary gas, I slipped  something into the tape player I thought he might like.   I’d never tried to play him The Alarm for him before that time.    He must have heard them being played in my bedroom 1000’s of times, but he never mentioned it, and neither did I.  They were an 80’s band inspired by punk and and Woodie Guthrie.  They played mostly acoustic guitars and harmonicas at a lightning pace and sang about hope and social justice.  However, if you did not listen closely, they sounded a bit like cowboys belting out vaguely patriotic rock, which I thought my dad might appreciate, at least on the surface.

As our Toyota pickup with the Lance camper on the back rolled out of the Lone Pine Exxon station, the first strums of Absolute Reality (acoustic version) came out of the stereo.   I chose this song because:

1: It was up-tempo, but acoustic,

2: I liked it,

3: It was the first song on the tape.

At Lone Pine became a small spot in the rear-view mirror, I nervously listened to the song play, trying not to look at my dad’s reaction. At first, he said nothing.  I took this as a good sign.  Then after a couple minutes he started in.

“I do not like his voice” he said.

My dad was referring to Mike Peters, the lead vocalist for The Alarm.  While no one could confuse Mike Peters with Luciano Pavarotti, I liked his vocals abilities very much.  He had a warm, hard  tinge to his voice, almost raspy, but not quite a growl.  He did not scream like a punk singer, nor did he have a  fey falsetto like many of his new wave contemporaries.  His voice was right in the middle. and he sang his songs like he meant them, and he wanted you, the listener to understand that he meant them.  It was a genuine sort of earnestness that I could then and still now, completely identify with.

However, my dad saying “I do not like his voice” translated to “turn it off”, and so I did.

The truth was, my dad’s interests and opinions dominated much of my life.  While my mom kept very quiet about her beliefs (besides carting us to Catholic church as often as we would allow), my dad was very outspoken about what he thought about the world around us, and it had a huge affect on my life.   Long before I formed my own alternative opinions, his right-wing politics became my own.  He only ate organic food and avoided wheat, dairy and sugar, so the diet in our house was formed along those lines.   The movies he liked were the movies I watched.   He liked model trains and stamp collecting, so I did too . He liked the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Dallas Cowboys and rooting for the “underdog”, and I was inclined to go along with him.  He liked backroads, ghost towns, and looking for things that helped him connect with the past, and he taught me to like those things as well.   This was not necessarily bad thing mind you, but it also left little “space” for differing opinions or ideas in our family dynamic.  

This lack of  “space” had  a physical manifestation as well.  We were a family of six sharing a tiny house with one bathroom.  My brother and I shared a 10 x 10 room for 24 years together, piled on top of each other as we  grew from  20” long, 3.5lb twins, into 6’ tall, 165lb college students.  My dad talked often about adding onto the house so we would have more room, but it never happened.  As he got older, his own hobbies sucked away most of the disposable income in our household, and that became his priority. By the time I was a teenager, I was still sleeping on the same “bed” he made for me when I was three years old” : a piece of old styrofoam laid over a wood board, and our bathroom had a huge hole rotting hole in the floor.  However, his bedroom drawers were filled with the priceless Civil War artifacts he collected,  hidden away for eternity.  

Funny though, if you give a kid a little space he will still run with it.    My brother and I filled our tiny slice of personal area with things that were totally our own that we bought with our own money from jobs at: the public library (me), a record store (my brother).  Posters of bands, records tapes and CDs, books and magazines about music, a guitar and amp, a tv, a stereo system,  all manner of videogame and computer consoles, disks, cartridges and games, plus a rotating stash of candy my dad never knew existed, but we feared he would one-day uncover.   These were all things that I could call my own, and the one thing that stood above them all was the rock band that caught my attention when I was 13, and had been my saving grace for my childhood: The Alarm

The Alarm was one of the few things in the world I had discovered myself.  My older sisters had not introduced me to them, my mom had not sent me to a class to learn about them, and my dad had not played them for me. I was the one who saw their video on Video 1 with Richard Blade in 1983, I was the one who spent my Confirmation money on their first album Declaration in 1984, and I was the one who listened to it every single night in 8th grade on an old tape recorder and giant headphones.  They were my band, and I kept on following them even after my fickle school friends grew-up and moved on to other things.   I collected the all records, and when there was nothing else to buy,I collected the live tapes, and then the press releases, and posters and t-shirts, and anything else I could find that would solidify The Alarm as my band, something I discovered myself.  

But in the cab of the truck, on our way to Aspen Grove, things were different.  My dad’s presence was overwhelming.   This was his space, and I was just visiting,  I admired him very much for not being a fence-sitter.  He had strong beliefs, and even if I had grown out and away from most of them, I did not necessarily want him to change himself.   He had come to his conclusions by living his own life in his way.   He was also not debatable.    If he did not like the song, it was time for something else.  

I put his Laura Brannigan tape in, and we listened for a while.  All the way past the site of the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp, and through the town of Independence, Brannigan sang her sweet, energetic pop songs.   I let the tape run out, and then inserted another cassette with The Alarm on it.  We were just outside of Big Pine when The Alarm E.P. made it past the leader and first few notes of The Stand started to play out of the speakers in the cab of the Toyota.

The Alarm E.P. might be my favorite record ever recorded.   It was five slices of what made The Alarm great, and what made them stand-out among their contemporaries.  On that record, they sounded like no other band that came before or after.  The sound was at once punk and pop and folk played with carefully crafted, wild abandon.  It combined harmonicas, barnstorm stomping, electrified acoustic strumming, military style snare drumming, and hoops and hollers into a mix that defied description. If I had to find one, it might have been the Battle Of Little Big Horn, Custer’s Last Stand, if it was thrown into a blender and set to music.  To me, the sound was imperfect, organic and life affirming.  The minute I first heard it back in 1983, I knew I had found a missing part of my soul,  raggedly shoved into place,  and for the first time in my life, I felt like whole person.

However, that was my own reaction. My dad’s was something else entirely. As we continued on our journey,  and the spirited glory of The Alarm’s music spilled out of the tape player, I waited for a clue to his inner thoughts.  As The Stand led into Across The Border he spoke.

“I do not understand this music you and and your sisters like. It’s too fast. It has no melody. “

My dad’s thoughts were now on record.

I stopped the cassette and took it out.  Nervous and frustrated, I  fumbled a bit putting it back into its’ case.  I opened Julio Iglesias and put it on instead

At least there was a tenuous connection to The Alarm with Julio.  The image of Alarm guitarist Dave Sharp wearing a Julio Iglesias t-shirt in the Strength tour program from 1986 was burnt into my brain.  I’d  spent countless hours in the 80’s laying on my bed, leafing through it, listening to various Alarm albums and  and wishing a tour would come through our town.

To me, the “image” and images of The Alarm were almost as important as their music: western outfits, red exploding poppies, religious symbols, massive guitar arm swings, and mile-high electric-shock hair, just to name a few.  When I was 14 years old in 1984. starving for meaning and belonging, I ate that stuff up.  The Alarm’s identity  became my identity.  Always an outsider looking in,  I wanted to live in world where The Alarm was the biggest, most important thing going, and the messages from their music (interpreted, perceived or otherwise) were understood and enjoyed by everyone equally. By aligning with The Alarm I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself.  This was my secret frame of reference.  It was perspective I wore like shield to help me through high school and beyond.

Julio Eglesias serenaded all the women he loved before in the front of the pick-up as we approached Bishop, CA, on the i395.  As we drove, the amazing scenery shot-by at 75 MPH. To the East was the parched dry lake of the Owens River Valley, its’ river-fed life-blood diverted to water the suburban lawns of Los Angeles 100’s of miles to the south.  To the west were the high rocky peaks of the Sierras, once an impassable obstacle to Manifest Destiny, now a virtual playground dotted with ski resorts and hiking trails.  This part of Northern California, with its’ ties to history and wide-open spaces, had become a place of refuge for suburbanites.  People like my dad, who worked tough modern jobs with little reward, building important, government contracted, secret machines all year-long just so they could come here and spend a few days pretending that the industrial progress of their employ had never occurred in the first place.

Whether he or I liked it or not, my dad’s job in the defense industry gave me a relatively comfortable life.  Weird and tumultuous at times, sometimes dangling just a few notches above the poverty line, but still safe.  On the other hand my dad’s upbringing was anything but.  He did not talk about it much, but it was trips like the one to Aspen Grove when he would let his guard down, and tell my brother and I the secrets of his past.  They came in snatches of anecdotes, instead of long-winded stories.   Among shaggy dog jokes and penny poker games lit by a camp fire, we heard tales of his own father’s violent anger, of being sent away from his parents to live on co-op farm when he was four years old, about trying to make ends meet in the great depression,  about fighting in World War II, working in coal mines, getting robbed in San Francisco, and trying to make-it as a TV actor in the 50’s.  There was nothing romantic or reverent about the way he told these stories.   They all had a twinge of pain, guilt and lessons learned.  I hung on these stories throughout my childhood, trying to piece them together to understand who my father really was as a person.

If the moments I had to understand my father were few, the moments I had to earn my his respect and approval were even fewer.  In many ways, I always felt like I let him down.  For every soccer goal I scored for him as a coach, there was a flubbed tackled of missed pass that he seemed to remember more fondly.  My dad loved to ride motorcycles, but I was never very good at it.  My dad loved to shoot guns, but I never had any proclivity for it.  I did share a love of  the outdoors and hiking and camping with him,  however, that was just THE START for my dad.  A vacation trip like the one to Aspen Grove was not for idle camping and hiking.  We were there for business.  We were there to look for treasure, discover artifacts, feel “vibes”, and prospect for gold.  Vacations with my dad were work.  The “real” work he wanted to be doing instead of his drafting table prison sentence 400 miles to the south. Like I said, he planned this trips for an entire year.  He was desperate to break the monotony of his life with some kind of adventure. He wanted us to get up early, dig some dirt, pan for gold, dig more dirt, get wet, get dirty, and then dig some more. I have to admit, it was fun, at least for a little while.  A couple days maybe, but not for a week or two. My brother and I worked so hard at school and our part time jobs, we just wanted to rest on vacation, read some books and magazines.   That’s all I really wanted to discover: some peace and rest.  My dad though, had other ideas.  Deep into the second ½ of his life, I figured he was searching for meaning the only way he could manage:  on vacation from work, two weeks a year.

We would be at our destination within an hour and I still I really wanted my dad to like The Alarm.   I wanted him to like something that I liked. I wanted him to understand who I was.   I had tried to understand him by watching Clint Eastwood westerns with him, by reading his conspiracy theories, sampling his politics, and by attempting to enjoy his past times. Now I just wanted to find one thing of my own that he would accept as legitimate.

I may have still considered The Alarm mine, but by time were were on that road to Aspen Grove in 90’s, they had long since broken-up.   The Alarm music that most inspired me came from their “rough around the edges” period in the early 80’s.  Back then, they were a punk inspired new-wave band with a lot of interesting things to say, and a lot of interesting ways to say it.  They helped tear down the walls of album oriented rock in an era before the term “alternative” was ever coined. However, as they progressed through the years and became better musicians, with a more refined sound, the edge to their music, the part I most identified with, disappeared.   When punk broke again with Nirvana in 1991, they found themselves as part of the establishment being torn down, on the other side of the “alternative”.   They broke-up soon after, and left a huge rift in my own personal musical landscape that I have never quite filled since.

So, at that moment, I decided to pull out all the stops.  I found my absolute favorite song by The Alarm from their Strength album,  The song I knew would be my last, best, chance to get my dad to understand why I liked them so much.  I had held it back, because I wanted to have some ammo to fight future front-seat battles, but with time running out, it was now or never.

I cued it up, and it started to play.

The mournful harmonica opening of Spirit Of ‘76 came out of the tinny Toyota speakers.  My dad said nothing, but I saw one of his eyes open wide.  He used to play  his harmonica for us  when we were little kids.  He was quite good at it, and I knew he loved the sound of the instrument.

Then the vocals came in,  some of the best sung vocals The Alarm ever produced.   

Well I find myself in reverie

bout what we might have had

And what might have been

We had something going once

That was such a long, long time ago

I could see in his cold, blue steel, eyes, the lyrics were taking him back to someplace only he knew in his head.   I watched and waited. As each note passed, I realized I might have found the right song.  I might have just imagined it, but at the moment think I saw a smile start to crawl across his face.  His head nodded.   I’m pretty sure he nodded anyway.

He liked it.  I liked it too.  No words were exchanged between us, but something had happened.

It was way back in ’76

Our friendship formed of pure innocence

We first met in mathew street

Where we heard something that would set us free

A sign stands over a door, it says

“four lads who shook the world”

In the depths of those heady nights

We would dream of those bright lights

Oh my friend, oh my friend, oh my friend

And then the song changed.  The slow part broke into crashing guitars and a rock beat.    My dad fell back to his every day poker face as quickly as it had lit-up when Spirit Of ‘76 started. He did not say anything, but he did not have to.  This part of the song was not his part.  This was the music of my sisters, the music I liked, the music he did not understand.  I self-consciously listened to the rest of the song.  I did not want it to be over.  I was hoping to see his face light-up again, and I waited for it.  When he did light up once more, it was during the bridge when the song slows down for a few contemplative seconds.

Mersey lights shine in the distance

Same as they did for us then

Mersey lights shine bright in the distance

Where are you now my friend?

With those few lines, I could see relevance to the lyrics and music in my dad’s eyes.  I could have imagined it, but to this day, I believe it was there.    It seemed that I had finally found one moment in a song that was worth the effort of trying to play music for my dad.    At that instant, I wanted the song last forever, so I could stay in this place I had discovered, a place where I believed my dad and I truly shared something in common.   A place where I had found something of my own,  something  I discovered on my own, that my dad then discovered he liked just as much as I did.

When the song finally ended, I took the cassette tape out and turned off the radio.  We were just passing the turn-off to the 120 at Lee Vining. We were near Aspen Grove. We would be at our camp site in minutes.    We sat quietly the rest of the way.

We drove into the Aspen Grove campground, and found a nice site by the river.  We all loved camping next to a river.  The sound of rushing water was the most soothing thing I could imagine.   We made camp, and made a fire. We cooked hot dogs and marshmallows, and listened to the “music of the rushing water” (the way my dad so perfectly described it ) as we played poker for pennies in the dying light of day.   Later in the trip we did all the things my dad loved: fished for trout we threw back into the river, used metal detectors to (never) find buried treasure, explored old dirt roads looking for ghost town sites, and shot cans and bottles with hollow point bullets from a 45 automatic.  

When we drove back home a week later, I had my four hours in the front seat to kill, but I never  directly tried to play my dad The Alarm again.   Not on that trip, or any other.  Instead, I lived in reverie, recall a single moment, real or imagined,  when I chose to believe that we both enjoyed the same music at the same time for the same reasons.   

And what I would give today, to have just one more trip to the gold country, with my dad, sitting in the cab of his truck, navigating the i395, while negotiating our relationship.   But at least I have that moment.

That is one moment I still hold dear to this day. A moment when I so badly needed to make a connection with man who I knew as my father, at that point,  for 23 years  but never really knew as person. A moment in the cab of 1-ton Toyota pickup truck hauling a Lance camper with my brother inside, speeding down a highway towards a middle-class refuge. A moment that occurred only once in my life,   near a small campground in the Sierra Nevada mountains, a high elevation desert landscape in Northern California.   

A moment near Aspen Grove.

-Steve Fulton



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