Michael Jackson on Country Radio

Two paragraphs from the book in progress. In this scene I am driving down a country road in a pickup accompanied by my youngest daughter:

Normally the truck would be rolling on blacktop, but the county is resurfacing and reshaping the curves along this stretch, so they have torn up the asphalt. Gravel rattles in the wheel wells, and dust is barrel-rolling from beneath the back bumper. Given time and good spirits in the company of a child I believe you should converse with that child, but right now Jane’s thumb is well-planted and furthermore I can cultivate in her worse habits than the love of watching farm fields slide past an open truck window to the tune of yesteryear’s country music legends, so I punch the radio button and dial up Moose Country 106.7. In a real cultural neck-snapper I get neither Conway nor Loretta nor Patsy nor Merle but rather a special news bulletin declaring that 20,000 people have at this moment gathered at the Staples Center to memorialize the lately deceased pop star Michael Jackson.

I can offer no original observations regarding the sad tangle of Mr. Jackson’s abbreviated existence, but having come of age in the era of Thriller, I – yes, even I, a rhythmless clodhopper from rural Chippewa County, Wisconsin – absorbed enough of his oeuvre so that the radio chatter loosens a scatter of sublimated memories. The squirmiest of these are tied to my university days, when I followed Michael’s specific lead in terms of couture and clad myself in shoulder-padded jackets, redundant buckles, and profligate zippers. (In these my rumpled years I sometimes find myself caught in the sights of self-appointed style Samaritans. “Once I wore parachute pants,” I declare, and they retreat.) I remember also the reverberating high school locker room where we boys – wearing actual football shoulder pads secured by functional buckles – psyched ourselves for battle with the Birchwood Bobcats by playing “Beat It” repeatedly on Marcus Jablonski’s boombox. The boombox was the size of an air conditioning unit and so accessorized that it might have been mistaken for the chrome-plated grille of a tricked-out Peterbilt. Again and again we listened to the Eddie Van Halen riff and Michael’s snarl, doing our best to achieve fever pitch. This being the Golden Age of the Cassette, all attempts to whip ourselves into a bloodthirsty frenzy were necessarily incremental, as we had to pause every four minutes and eighteen seconds while Marcus rewound the tape.

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