Listening to My Life: Hitchhiking to Bermuda

Music Features R.E.M.

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I’m not sure all these people understand…

It occurs to me as I stand here, looking dazed into a sea of semi-familiar faces: I haven’t been in this building since I graduated from high school—20 years ago.

Melanoma tagged my father almost a year ago to the day (at least, that’s when he called to let me know the prognosis); it moved swiftly, making his last months hell. So tonight we’re gathered in the gym of the school where he taught for more than two decades—the same sweaty hardwood where he coached basketball each winter, prowling up and down the sideline, baiting referees with unanswerable questions like “when are we gonna get a gift like that?”—swapping memories, melancholy and occasional snippets of nervous mirth.

Like all places distantly familiar from childhood, the gym looks smaller to me now. I read from the script I’ve written, feel my throat getting tight. To distract myself, I try to focus on the people I know: There’s my former basketball coach, now the school’s athletic director. And there’s the younger brother of the guy who sang in my band: He’s supposedly a desperate drug addict now. But, like everyone else here tonight, he just looks vaguely sad, and nods at me when we catch each other’s eye.

You, I thought I knew you
You, I cannot judge
You, I thought you knew me, this one laughing quietly…

Each person in the family had a job for this event—I’d done the occasional DJ stint, so my role was to go through Dad’s discs to pick out the soundtrack for the evening, locating songs that represented who he was, who he’d been.

For a guy who couldn’t find perfect pitch with a metal detector, and whose singing resembled the death throes of a mortally wounded dog, Dad had great taste in music. His record collection introduced me to artists whose work would captivate me for life: Dylan, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Steely Dan. Picking out a set list from fodder this great felt like shooting fish in a barrel—“Two of Us,” “Girl from the North Country,” (for my stepmother, whose web-footed Pacific Northwest ways offered a stark contrast to dad’s Hawaiian-shirted, Cali-surfer-for-life persona), “God Only Knows,” “Unchained Melody,” R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming,” made more poignant by my dad’s proclivity to poke mock-fun at my love of the band by imitating Michael Stipe’s elongated Southern vowels.

The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago,
Turned around backwards so the windshield shows
Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse
Still, it’s so much clearer…

At the end of the service, the audience was asked if anyone had anything else to say, and a guy I knew growing up as “Uncle Duane” (one of my dad’s many fraternity brothers) stood up and told a mildly profane story about one particular spring break during which my perpetually broke dad bet him that he could hitchhike his way to Bermuda from Long Beach, Calif.

“Mike, I’m sure you’ve already figured this out, but Bermuda is an island chain. You don’t hitchhike there.”

As it turns out—with the kind of “I’ll show you, bastards” aplomb that came to characterize his attitude about life—dad did hitchhike to Bermuda, sending Duane a breadcrumb trail of photographs and postcards along the way, thumbing rides and whatever else to the tune of then-favorites such as Jan & Dean, The Turtles, The Byrds, and The Lovin’ Spoonful.

Sometimes I’ll see a picture of my dad now and imagine the young dude he must’ve been then: wind in his hair, “Surf City” ringing in his ears, Bermuda dead ahead.

Paste contributing editor Corey duBrowa has written for The Rocket, Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, The Oregonian and Rolling Stone.

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