February 28, 2004

"What I'm asking you is, how much is it worth to you?"

We shouldn't have tried to drive to Greensboro last night, but it was only snowing lightly in Carborro, NC, and getting a jump start on the next day's drive is always nice when you can swing it. But we weren't too far down the road when the snow started coming down pretty hard. People at the club had said that everyone over-reacts to snow in North Carolina, and that we should probably be OK. We hadn't planned to go too far, but we soon found ourselves driving blind in the middle of a blizzard. The only way we could tell where we were in the lane was by watching the mailboxes to the right.

I had dozed off in the back of the van. I woke up suddenly when we hit some ice, swerved violently, slid for a while, spun out and finally careened off the road. Time slowed down, as it does in such situations. And as so often in such situations, I was surprised to discover myself contemplating the prospect that these could be my final moments with an oddly acquiescent detachment. So this is how it ends, is it? How interesting.

This easily could have turned into one of those "they all died in a tragic van crash" stories. We could have flipped over. We could have hit something. We could have been hit. In the end, however, the van barreled up an upgrade, almost crashing into a parked, snow-covered car. We just missed it. Then we rolled back into a deep ditch.

We weren't dead, but we were stuck.

The back end of the van was buried in a snow drift. The snow was coming down harder than ever. We tried everything we could think of, but there was no traction and we couldn't move. None of our roadside assistance plans would send anyone out. They called 911 for us, and said the highway patrol would be there in "eight hours or less."

While we were wracking our brains trying to think if there was any trick we hadn't tried yet, a big, souped-up 4x4 pickup pulled up on the road behind us. The guy stepped out and gestured at our van with his half-empty bottle of Bud Light.

"Looks like you boys are in some trouble. I got a line, and I could pull you right out there, no problem."

We looked at him dubiously. It seemed unlikely. Our van is really big and really, really heavy when loaded up, and it was stuck between two steep slopes.

"What I'm asking is," he continued, "how much is it worth to you?"

We didn't know what to say, and just stared at him dumbly through the near-opaque curtain of falling snow. He ran a finger down his mustache, first on the left side, then on the right.

"I couldn't do it," he said carefully, "for less than..." He paused and eyed us challengingly. "...fifty bucks."

Hah. That wasn't what I'd expected him to say. I had been anticipating something along the lines of "how much you got?"

We didn't have any other options. "Dude, if you can pull us out for fifty dollars, you've got a deal."

We heard a loud "hooie!" sound, and another guy stumbled from the truck, Coors Light in hand.

"Don't worry, boys. We'll pull that sumbitch out there right quick."

What followed was pretty hilarious if you took the right attitude. (Which isn't easy when you're standing in a blizzard freezing in your Converse All-Stars at 1 am in the middle of nowhere, but still...)

The sumbitch, as we had surmised, wasn't going to budge easily. And our fate was in the hands of two enterprising, drunken yokels who seemed inordinately excited to be offered $50 for rolling around in the snow and mud, tripping all over each other and slipping and sliding every which way in an elaborate Petticoat Junction slapstick routine. And that was just when they were trying to attach the hook and line to their own truck. It didn't look too promising.

In fact, the first attempt to tow the van up the hill was worse than a failure. Bud Light's pickup ended up getting stuck too, wheels spinning, right alongside our van. From within, we heard Bud Light's voice saying over and over: "God dammit! God dammit!" Coors Light stood by laughing like a maniac. We tried pushing the truck from behind while he gunned it. (I considered asking the guy how much that was worth to him, but thought better of the idea.) No luck. Now we were both stuck.

The silence of the night was broken only by a regular cry of "God dammit!" Like the call of a distant, anguished bird. God dammit! God dammit!

Another truck pulled up, and yet another guy stumbled out, beer in hand. He called out to Bud Light, one drunken good samaritan to another:

"You need me to pull you out? I got a line, I can pull that sumbitch right outta there..."

At this rate, we were going to end up with several sumbitches stuck in the same ditch side by side, everybody owing each other fifty bucks.

Eventually, though, after about thirty minutes of spinning and pushing and rocking, he managed to get his sumbitch out of the ditch.

At this point it was plainly no longer about the $50. Bud Light was proud of his truck and he just wanted to prove he could do it. Plan B was to try to pull it out from behind. Again, it seemed unlikely. It looked like all that would happen was that the back end of the van would get pulled deeper into the snow drift. Coors Light wasn't too worried about that, though. He rolled in the mud and snow underneath the van's back end, trying to attach the hook and line to the body of the van, as he couldn't reach the axle, squirming and grunting, pausing only to utter the obligatory "God dammit" at regular intervals. The whole apparatus slipped off around 10 times. He tripped and rolled down the slope himself a few times. At one point, Bud Light came within inches of backing up over Coors Light's whoopin', guffawing, snow- and mud-covered head. God dammit!

To everyone's amazement, though, eventually it worked. Bud Light's pickup groaned and stuttered and finally pulled that sumbitch right back on to the road, just as promised. After a brief, exuberant hollering session, they agreed to guide us back to the main road. We followed, going slow, and eventually ended up in the parking lot of a little roadside bar. Roadhouse 54. 5.4 miles from the highway, they said.

"You boys look like you could use a beer."

Well, maybe so, but what we really wanted was information about where we could find the nearest motel we could reach by a relatively non-treacherous road. "Come on in, we'll talk about it." Hmm. With some trepidation we followed Coors Light and Bud Light into the bar. The locals gave us a rundown of the local motels, ranked by the number of bugs we were likely to encounter in each of them. (The word "bugs" was always illustrated by a firm slap on the bar, followed by a scraping of the palm on the edge: the universal sign of squashing bugs with your bare hands.) We paid Bud Light his well-earned $50. We had had our suspicions about him, but he turned out to be a pretty good guy, and we were lucky he came along. If it hadn't been for him, we might still have been there, trying to dig the sumbitch out. An older, wild eyed guy at the bar was talking to us pleasantly, though I couldn't make out a word he said. It sounded like he was making jokes and laughing at them. We tried to look neutral, but mildly amused here and there, hoping it would all match up. We must have hit it pretty close, because he stayed happy, all smiles. He finally left with a sixpack to go, just like in the song.

All the people at the bar were very friendly, though it was kind of a weird scene. Good, old, kind of crazy southern hospitality, I guess. As we were leaving, I glanced up at an enlarged xerox copy of a cartoon that had been posted on the bulletin board. "Did you hear about the Chinese couple that had the black baby? They named him SUM THIN WONG." I couldn't help wondering which of these nice folks had found it charming enough to think it would be neat idea to post it publicly so that everyone could enjoy it. Culture clash. Weirdness. A land of many contrasts. Nice people with their disturbing cartoons. I don't get it, can't get my mind around it, but then, I'm from California. It's a different world.

We bade farewell to Bud Light, Coors Light and the entire Roadhouse 54 gang. The bar girl called out: "I surely do hope we meet again under more favorable circumstances." Right back at ya, babe. And I even almost kind of meant it, too, somehow.

The surreal epilogue: as we were stumbling toward the van at 3 am, still a bit dazed and overwhelmed by the experience, not quite having our bearings yet, my cell phone rang. It was a phone interview that had been set up earlier, with a commercial radio station in Houston on a late night show. I had forgotten all about it in the excitement. The DJ was a really nice guy, eager to help us promote our show at Fitzgerald's. I did the interview in a daze. I hardly remember what I said. He played several songs, including, to my surprise, "Tomorrow is a Harsh Mistress." I stood there in the falling snow, hearing the bridge blasting from my cell phone's tiny speaker. "With each passing day, a world destroyed..." Boy, oh boy.

And so we survived North Carolina and our own foolhardiness to live long enough to play another little show at another little club in another little place in the middle of another great big nowhere. Myrtle Beach, SC, that is. Chances are, it won't be that great of a show. (And it wasn't--ed.) But I don't care. I'm just glad to be alive. (Yeah, it sounds weird to hear myself say it, too.) As for the van, we're going to be a bit more careful with that sumbitch in the future, I can tell you that.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 28, 2004 08:53 AM | TrackBack

Wow. Usually it takes a little more time to reflect on something like this before turning it into an entertaining story. But damn, Frank, you spin a mean yarn. The setup sounded eerily like "Doc Hollywood." Though I guess in your version, the judge would sentence you to teach the young rock n rollers how to craft catchy melodies and witty lyrics.

And regarding "Tomorrow Is A Harsh Mistress," I once heard it used as the bumper music on a nationally syndicated sports talk radio show (Jim Rome's show). Not what you had in mind when you wrote it, I'm guessing.

Stay safe out there and keep spreadin' the good word . . .

Posted by: Ethan at February 28, 2004 11:18 AM

Holy sumbitch Frank! As we used to say in the old days: Te Deum and Deo Gratias. Dominus Vobiscum. Godfather Paul

Posted by: paul at February 28, 2004 02:29 PM

After a few paragraphs, I worried this would be one of those late 19th century realism stories that conclude with the author revealing he actually *had* died. For the record, I'm glad it didn't.

That story was quite worth your $50. Thanks, next one's on us.

Posted by: Dave Bug at February 28, 2004 03:21 PM

That is funny. Seems like it could be the basis of a new TV show. California punk rockers leap frog thru time in their big blue magical van, never knowing what zany situation they will be dumped into.

Posted by: Kent Duffy at February 28, 2004 03:23 PM

damn. i'm pretty surprised that there wasn't a single (and obligatory) reference to nascar!

best road story i've read in years. how about another? (kidding, of course).

Posted by: resident jason at February 28, 2004 03:33 PM

Yow! Glad to hear you're ok. Though, I'm with Kent on the TV show idea -- I'd watch that in a heartbeat.

Posted by: shannon at February 28, 2004 03:53 PM

Wooooo, doggies! It's always amusing when Californians try to drive in snow. I'm glad you're all right, Frank. Though it might have been more entertaining for the station if you'd had to do the interview while stuck in the snow.

"Culture clash. Weirdness. A land of many contrasts. Nice people with their disturbing cartoons."

Welcome to humanity, baby. Let me guarantee you that if that was the most disturbing cartoon up there, things have come a long way and are looking up. After all, the subtext of the joke is, "It is amusing when adultery is exposed by the birth of a child of a different race. Oh, and Chinese people have funny names." No one is being called subhuman, nor is it suggested that said subhuman's death would be a laff riot. For a redneck bar, this is a definite step up.

When should we expect the song based on this incident, with choruses of Godammit! and Sumbitch! ?

Posted by: Angie Schultz at February 28, 2004 05:50 PM

Glad to know you're all ok. THe show was awesome! The weather afterwards which almost proved fatal to all who were driving (I myself had to pull into Durham, the exact opposite of wherever you were, and get a hotel). I htought i could drive the 3.5 hours back, we got maybe 30 minutes down the road.
YOur story was more amusing than mine though!!

Posted by: Liz at February 28, 2004 06:05 PM

Very happy no permanent damage was done. I had a comparable experience in college, in which I was driving a rental car full of debaters and the person next to me decided all of a sudden to give the wheel a half turn at about 70 m.p.h. (I think she imagined we were careening into the center divider or something), causing us to veer across 4 lanes of the Mass Turnpike and end up off the shoulder having made a 100 degree turn without getting hit. I remember a similar moment of calm clarity ("Ahh, a spinout, I'm supposed to turn INTO this, right?") and afterwards thinking that we should by all rights have been dead. Since we were on an interstate in New England, no one bothered to stop to check on us -- Yankees don't like to but into other people's business

The other thing it reminded me of is the album art from "Milk, Milk, Lemonade," with the MTX punk rock van. If you market a little sno-globe with that picture in it, I PROMISE to buy one.

Posted by: Nick at February 28, 2004 06:59 PM

"At this rate, we were going to end up with several sumbitches stuck in the same ditch side by side, everybody owing each other fifty bucks." -- frank you crack me up.
it sucks to hear bands admit when shows suck when on tour. i had no ride to the connecticut one, i hope that show went well.

Posted by: Lee at February 28, 2004 08:07 PM

"At this rate, we were going to end up with several sumbitches stuck in the same ditch side by side, everybody owing each other fifty bucks."

Agreed, now if that isnt the funny sentance of 2004...

Posted by: Danny at February 28, 2004 09:13 PM

"At this rate, we were going to end up with several sumbitches stuck in the same ditch side by side, everybody owing each other fifty bucks."

Agreed, now if that isnt the funny sentance of 2004...

Posted by: Danny at February 28, 2004 09:13 PM

See, what you really need is a nice Canadain girl from a city that has winter for 6 months of the year to drive for you ;-)

Posted by: Lynn at February 28, 2004 09:35 PM

yep boy,that's my people alright we're a little
insane maybe somewhat prideful,but good helpful folk nonetheless. i was born in Fayetville,NC
lived there 2 years of my life before my parents moved,so i guess i don't really know if the former
is all that true. nonetheless i'm also glad you
guys are okay. be careful next time.


Posted by: just me at February 28, 2004 09:44 PM

Dear Dr. Frank,

I live in Charlotte NC, which is 2 1/2 hours from Carborro. I didn't get to go see you guys because of the snow...my tickets are still on my refridgerator...it was a really crappy day because not only did I not get to see MTX, but I found out the day before that I had skin cancer, and I was really looking forward to something fun....

I'm beginning to think it is a sign from some divine entity because due to car trouble I couldn't see MTX the last time you were here (I think that was maybe 5 or 6 years ago).

Sigh. No, there's no point to this post...But I'm glad that you guys survived your southern adventure in the snow.

Posted by: kit at February 28, 2004 11:02 PM

Make that two orders for the official MTX snowglobe.

Glad you lived to tell the tale. Snow business is your life?

Posted by: Wes at February 29, 2004 02:42 AM

Dr. Frank, I love the way you write.

...and I'm glad you kids are ok. :)

Posted by: Merrie at February 29, 2004 03:32 AM

I'm just glad that the phrase "squeal piggie squeal" never ended up in the story. Frank, again, thanks for telling us these great stories for free when I'm sure a book publisher would go bananas for this stuff. Don't beleive me? If Bruce Campbell can do it, then so can you!

Posted by: Channon at February 29, 2004 04:56 AM

That was a great story. Dr. Frank is a very good storyteller. I'm glad no one was hurt and we can now laugh at it and enjoy the story.
Totally off subject and a little bizarre - where would you get a jacket like the one Dr. Frank has been wearing at the shows? It's the brown leathery looking one. Does that kind of jacket have a name? Ok, that was weird, but an info would be appreciated.

Posted by: jordan at February 29, 2004 07:00 AM

Hang in there kit;everybody loves you

Posted by: mike at February 29, 2004 10:09 AM

The real world is really fucked up. Terrific story.

Posted by: Johnny Glue at February 29, 2004 08:59 PM

Speaking of tourbus-hijinks TV shows, over the weekend we had a big idea for a new TV show about rockers & their vehicles. Basically, the hero band would be all driving around in their bus, but they'd be followed from town to town by this creepy rival/upstart band, who would eat & drink & sleep at all the same places, show up to the club and try to elbow their way on the bill ... "just 20 minutes," etc. The gimmick is that each time the stalker band would be in a totally different disguise, playing different genres of music. (When working this part out, Coulter recalled that one of his old surf-punk bands once wore big fake mustaches on stage, on a night that ended in a riot.) There would be chase scenes, mild violence, guitar solo showdowns. We'd call it "Shadow Band."

Glad you & the boys are alive.

Posted by: Matt Welch at March 1, 2004 12:18 AM


i'm glad that big, blue, buffalo-master on wheels didn't sustain any crucial damage. that van is like the 5th member of the band. it's a plastic, smurf with a sunburn blue, beauty. i'm sorry that the inner u.s. is taking it's toll on you left coasters. stay in one piece. peace.

Posted by: lukeblack at March 1, 2004 04:43 AM

Matt W.: An essential thing to think about, when dreaming up TV show ideas, is what the "jump the shark" episode will be, circa season 7 or so. Perhaps a tour stop could be a Harlem Globetrotters game.

Posted by: Dave Bug at March 1, 2004 04:38 PM

Reminds me of a story. Austin, Texas straddles one of the six Colorado Rivers in North America, and one of the major bridges is on Congress Avenue, the main street through downtown that ends at the state capitol. One winter they got some snow and freezing rain, and the bridge got to be nearly impassable, with a cluster of a dozen cars and trucks coming from each direction disabled on the bridge, pointed in all directions, and unable to move.

A lady who'd recently moved to Austin from New Jersey was stuck behind this mess and decided to get out of her car and survey the scene. The Texans were all gunning their motors and spinning their tires as one would if he didn't know how to drive on snow and ice. So she asks the lead car if she can try and drive it, and after some jawboning they let her try, and she just gently drives it across the bridge, where she gets in a car heading the other direction, and drives it across.

This continues until all the cars in front of hers have been cleared, but by then a TV news truck has showed up to interview her about her amazing feat. She declined to give her name on account of too many people were already calling her a Damn Yankee and she didn't want to stoke the fire. I don't know if she ever said "sumbitch", but some of them Austin boys most likely did.

Posted by: Richard Bennett at March 1, 2004 06:51 PM

yeah jersey. how come people hate us so...

Posted by: david at March 3, 2004 01:37 AM

Not much I can say that hasn't been said before, Glad everything turned out alright.

Posted by: Rich at March 3, 2004 10:26 PM

that really is a great story

Posted by: anne at March 4, 2004 05:59 PM

yes, you should've stayed. damn the grumpies.
i have a nice shot of ted.

Posted by: david at March 7, 2004 03:57 AM

You do a real disservice to yourself at the beginning of the story by misspelling Carrboro. I can only assume you were speaking of the town directly west of Chapel Hill, NC. If I am mistaken, please disregard.

Posted by: UNC student at September 5, 2004 06:55 AM

Great story, even tho there's a slight slam at my neighbors and one of my favorite biker bars. If you want redneck, you could have ended up at the Ossippee Ski Lodge about 15 miles from Roadhouse 54. It's so classy a sign in the parking lot reads "Use the bathrooms inside".

Posted by: Billy at October 16, 2004 05:52 PM