Issue # 51
June 29, 2001
The Moment Before Everything Changed

By Rich Wilhelm

Eddie Rabbitt once sang about how he loved a rainy night. He couldn't have picked a rainier night than the very early morning hours of August 19, 1990. I was sitting in a tent, hunched over a notebook and writing by flashlight with a wallet-sized credit card-shaped pen given to me a few years earlier by a new student at Temple, who had just arrived in the U.S. from China. I had given him directions and, although he barely spoke any English, he shyly gave me this small pen as a thank you gift. I had carried it with me ever since that day.

I certainly wasn't writing anything profound. It was typical journal stuff for me at the time: I didn't like my job, I wanted/needed a girlfriend, I was worried about the situation in Iraq (Operation Desert Shield was just on the horizon), blah blah blah. I was, literally and figuratively, not a happy camper. The rain fell and fell and fell. It wasn't a downpour, but a maddeningly consistent rain that promised not to stop for hours. The tent wasn't leaky, except near the "door" flap, where our feet lay when we tried to sleep.

Sleep is what my friend Rick was trying to do while I wrote. I was camping with Rick, his wife Michelle, and her family. Everyone but the two of us was sleeping peacefully in the camper nearby. I don't remember whether there was no room in the camper for Rick and me or whether we were intentionally trying to rough it, although the thought of the two of us inexperienced campers roughing it still brings a smile to my face nearly 11 years later.

I wound up my doleful, "woe is me" journal entry and lay down to catch some Z's. It wasn't long though, before Rick whispered, "Are you still up?" Indeed, I was. We agreed that the rain, the constant buzz of 35,000 crickets and the incessant giggling of pre-teen campers nearby were combining to make the sleep situation hopeless. Obviously, the only logical thing to do was to drive to Mister Donut.

And so it was that we got dressed and left the relative comfort of the tent for the dark and wet walk to Rick's car. Once inside, we headed out of Francis Slocum State Park, bound for glory...and donuts. We drove through the small, silent towns of Wyoming and Forty-Fort to a Mister Donut on the outskirts of Wilkes-Barre. Here we sat down with donuts and drinks (I'm pretty certain I had at least one vanilla frosted donut and black coffee, I don't remember what Rick had), I opened my notebook and we began to brainstorm at 3:00 in the morning. We were trying to write some liner notes for our project.

Oh, I didn't tell you about the project, did I? Well, why don't we leave Rick and me at Mister Donut for a few minutes while I tell you about...

THEY MIGHT BE TWIN PEAKS

Back in April 1990, Rick mentioned that I might want to sit down to watch the debut of a new television show produced by David Lynch. The show was called Twin Peaks and, because I had not been paying much attention to television at the time, I had not heard of it. But I did sit down to watch the first episode (which was also directed by Lynch) and found myself immediately entranced as I sank into the weird and darkly comic world of Special Agent Dale Cooper, Sheriff Harry S. Truman, the beautiful but unfortunate "wrapped in plastic" Laura Palmer, and a cast of hundreds more. We all became Twin Peaks fans that night. I went to bed and had dreams directed by David Lynch.

Around the same time, Rick and I had been immersing ourselves in Flood, the recently-released third album by a surreal alt-pop duo called They Might Be Giants. In early May, Rick and I saw TMBG for the first time at the Chestnut Cabaret. Seeing TMBG live (John Flansburgh on guitar and vocals, John Linnell on keyboards, accordion, the odd saxophone and vocals, backed by pre-recorded rhythm tracks) was an epiphany for both of us. Besides which, they just plain rocked.

At some point, Rick noticed that there seemed to be certain thematic similarities between Twin Peaks and They Might Be Giants, and he had the thoroughly brilliant idea that it would be cool to record a cassette tape of TMBG's "greatest hits" with snippets of dialogue from Twin Peaks episodes placed in between each song. As an enthusiastic creator of silly theme tapes (I was especially famous/infamous for my Clawz the Metal Santa hair-metal compilation series at the time), I readily agreed to help Rick with the tape.

We met over the course of several weeks and carefully matched up phrases like "Ed, you waitin' for those drapes to hang themselves?," with songs like "They'll Need a Crane." These sessions would take place at Rick and Michelle's apartment in Clifton Heights. I remember driving from my parents' house in Boothwyn, listening to TMBG and the Pixies, the other musical obsession Rick and I shared at the time, full blast on my car stereo.

Eventually, the tape, which we called They Might Be Twin Peaks was completed and we began to think that we should come up with some kind of artwork for it and dub copies to give to unsuspecting friends. This part of the project led us up to the Wilkes-Barre area just a few weeks before the camping trip. Without mentioning specifically what it was, Rick told me there was something I needed to see near Michelle's family house. The surprise turned out to be a giant fez at the entrance to a Shriner Country Club.

This was indeed perfect, since TMBG was known to wear fezzes onstage and had actually mentioned Shriners in their classic love song, "She's An Angel." We posed for pictures at 7:00 one Saturday morning (we'd driven up the night before), after having picked up donuts and coffee at Mister Donut. At one point, a relative of Michelle's drove by and slowed down when she saw us. Amazingly, she didn't ask why on God's green earth we were up at the crack of dawn taking pictures of The Giant Fez. Instead, she helpfully informed us that there was a Giant Fuzzy Fez at the top of the hill.

MEANWHILE BACK AT MISTER DONUT...

...Rick and I sat, probably a little bit damp from the rain, and probably wearing shorts, TMBG t-shirts, and baseball caps. The radio at Mister Donut was tuned to an oldies station that kept cranking out great and oddly appropriate songs like "Last Night I Didn't Get To Sleep at All," "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," and "Rainy Night In Georgia." The waitress was saying things like, "Next time you'll get a stale one for busting me like that." One of the other customers that night was a man with no arms, which Rick and I silently acknowledged to each other, since a one-armed man was a featured character on Twin Peaks. We later found out that the Man With No Arms had most likely been a high school classmate of Michelle's dad.

We didn't know what to write for our liner notes at first, but soon ideas were flying and my wallet-pen was racing across the notebook. Turns out the notes we wrote had little to do with Twin Peaks or They Might Be Giants, but everything to do with where Rick and I were at that moment [stay tuned: the TMBTP liner notes will be next week's Dichotomy column]. Ultimately, we wrote about the idea of "living life with a capital 'L'," which is what we thought TMBG and Twin Peaks somehow represented. And, I guess, what we knew in the back of our minds we were doing at that moment.

After having our fill of donuts, Rick and I headed back to the car around 3:30, but we weren't ready to head back to camp yet. Instead, we drove past the Shriner Country Club to get a night view of The Giant Fez; we drove through the main square in Wilkes-Barre; drove completely around Harvey's Lake (which we had done just a year and one week before, the night before Rick and Michelle's wedding, while listening to Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever in its entirety); drove up to Michelle's house to go to the bathroom (the door was locked though--I don't remember what we did about having to go to the bathroom); drove over to our friend Joe Albert's house in Pittston, where we left him a note complaining that he wasn't awake to see us; and drove through my friend Kurt's hometown of West Pittston. Finally, we drove back to Mister Donut to pick up a dozen donuts to take back to camp.

Throughout this trip (which took the rest of the night--we got back to camp after sunrise), Rick and I talked. We talked about everything. Silly things, serious things, everything in between. I don't remember specifics, but even if I did, that would be between Rick and me. That night was one of those rare opportunities where a couple of young adult men were given a practically unlimited opportunity to have a good, honest conversation with each other and, fortunately, we grabbed the opportunity for everything that it was worth. The whole time, the "classic rock" station on the car radio was playing blocks of Rush, Heart, Loverboy, Journey--music that might not be particularly profound, but that played some kind of role in the friendship Rick and I had shared since meeting as college dorm floor mates back in September of '85.

By the time the Journey block hit the airwaves, our conversation had degenerated into pure silliness, as I related to Rick the following story, which, like every other word in this column, is entirely true:

Once when I was working at McDonald's during my high school years, Shelly McFarland, the drive-thru cashier, walked solemnly to the food bin area and sadly announced to the grill crew,"Steve Perry, the lead singer of Journey, died today in London, England." She then returned to her duties, leaving those of us in the crew to mourn a tragic loss for high school students everywhere, although of course we found out later that Steve Perry was nowhere near being dead.

This story provoked giddy hilarity in both of us as I told it and prompted us to begin to write an imaginary obituary for the "late" Mr. Perry, which we were still working on as we pulled back into camp.

There are moments in life that occur just before everything changes. The last time Donna and I were in Bar Harbor, I experienced just such a moment. That night with Rick at Mister Donut turned out to be one of those moments also: although I had absolutely no idea anything was about to change, in just over a month I'd get a new job, which is where I would meet Donna.

The changes that I experienced from that point on were wonderful and happy, though not without a fair amount of pain, heartache and confusion, both for Donna and me, and for some of those around us during that time. I am happy to be where I am now, but when I think of my life just before those big changes, I think of Rick and me at a Wilkes-Barre Mister Donut on August 19, 1990 at 3:00 in the morning. I can't think of a better way to have spent those last moments before everything changed for me.

(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print a hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2001 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)

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