“Convoy,” C.W. McCall, 1975.
Wait, you’re thinking, what??? That goofy one-hit wonder novelty from the birth of the disco era, featuring lingo that is as arcane and indecipherable to our generation as selfie, retweet and search engine optimization would be to theirs? You’ve lost it, G. Well hey, I never said they were all going to be great songs, just songs that evoke strong memories. And this one certainly does – memories of a specific point and place in time, the basement of the first house I lived in.
That warm, reverse-L-shaped retreat with the stone fireplace at the end was as much a product of its era as this song, with the wood paneling and vinyl flooring that has been left mercifully in that long-past time along with puke green appliances and bell-bottomed trousers. It was also a place of celebrations; birthdays, Christmases, really, any excuse my father could find to have people over for drinks and laughs. As was common to a lot of finished basements at the time, it had a bar in the corner opposite the fireplace nook, framed in brown faux-leather padding and stocked with treasures: curious samples of exotic liqueurs retrieved archaeologist-like from shops discovered on overseas jaunts. And to a five-year-old boy far from the eyes of his parents and looking to impress cute little blond Cathy, as irresistible to open as the Ark of the Covenant. What flavors! Rich kirsch, smooth creme de cacao, some other unknowns rather bitter to a palate that shouldn’t be entertaining such tastes for another fifteen years, but no inhibitions are present in that moment. Another round, Cathy? (I should postscript this by adding that I have no recollection of events immediately following this incident, aside from never seeing Cathy again, which you can hardly blame her parents for.)
But aside from that one memorable-and-yet-not venture into pediatric alcoholism (oh come on, like you don’t have a similar story), that basement was my retreat, affording opportunities for play not present in the glorified cubbyhole that was my bedroom upstairs. I could tear up and down the length of the room on tiny legs and tumble harmlessly into the walls, practice golf drives with Swiss-cheese-inspired plastic balls, and most importantly, score any monkeyshines with songs retrieved from my father’s enormous record collection, in particular, a favorite from the ranks of those old K-Tel hits-of-the-year compilations that were popular for parties (to my younger readers, this is what people did before the shuffle option on the iPod).
And so we come to “Convoy.” The epic tale of truckers who go by the handles of “Rubber Duck” and “Pig Pen” leading a drive to New Jersey while eluding the “bears” trying to shut the enterprise down, it was a song I enjoyed acting out with my collection of toy cars as the record creaked and popped away in the background. Didn’t really matter that none of the ragtag assortment of Hot Wheels or Tonka trucks resembled anything described in the song (except perhaps the “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus”), many an occasion would find every plastic wheeled conveyance lined up along the floor from one wood-paneled wall to another, and the stereo blasting out McCall’s monotone narration.
It’s fascinating how as kids we have this capacity for mimicry, that we can latch onto particular things and repeat and recreate them endlessly. It calls to mind the notion of the tabula rasa, that we are blank slates waiting to be written upon, and that we cannot abide the void, that our hunger to etch something on that big empty space is insatiable. We latch on to anything we can find, in subconscious hope that enough input will lead to a critical mass and subsequent explosion into a personality that is uniquely ours. In this case, it isn’t just the song, it’s the place, the year, the recollection of my dad helping me line the dinky cars into place and singing along with the chorus: “We got a great big convoy, riding through the night. We got a great big convoy, ain’t it a beautiful sight.”
It was indeed.