There are moments in your life that stick with you for the rest of your life. We all have them. They can be moments of love. Or moments of heartache. They can be moments of joy. Or moments of sadness.
These moments become snapshot etchings in your head. You don’t think about them all of the time. You might rarely think of them at all. But they’re always there, planted somewhere deep in your memory bank.
Maybe it was your first kiss. Or your first break-up. Maybe it was the day Ryne Sandberg hit two home runs against the Cardinals. Or the day that an easy ground ball rolled between the legs of Leon Durham.
Some moments gnaw at you more than others. The moment that inspired me to write Cheeseland was one such moment.
That moment occurs in the book in Chapter 7, page 43, when the narrator, Danny, who had passed out in the passenger seat of a car after partying all night long at a concert in East Troy, Wisconsin, finds himself in a semi-conscious state after the driver of his car crashes the vehicle into a parked car outside of a tavern in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The chapter begins this way:
Eddie Van Halen’s scorching guitar on “Runnin’ with the Devil” pounds out of the 120-watt Pioneer stereo that Lance had installed in the Cherry Bomb.
Lance insisted that I have that stereo system. No other would do. In Lance’s world, there was no debate when it came to audio equipment. Listening to music—and, by music, I mean rock ‘n’ roll—through an inferior stereo system was sacrilege. When he removed the stereo the manufacturer had put in my car six years earlier, Lance held it at arm’s length as he dropped it into the trash bin. “Good riddance,” he said. “Now we rock.”
Funny that I’d be thinking of that now, as blood trickles out of my forehead and onto the curb under the flickering light of the All-Niter Bar & Tap. I’m staring up at the whites of the eyes of a gray-haired black woman, who is kneeling beside me.
She’s praying. “Be our light in the darkness, oh Lord,” she says in a tender, soothing voice, “and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Who is this woman? Do I know her? Where the hell am I? And what the hell happened?
“Be our light in the darkness, oh Lord . . .” This strange old woman repeats this same prayer over and over again, as if she herself is in shock.
In the distance a deep, gravelly voice echoes in the still of the night. “You smashed up mah cah! You smashed up mah cah!”
That scene from the book is fiction, but it is not far from what really happened to me in the early morning hours of September 9, 1979. The previous day two buddies and I, ranging in age from 16 to 18, had made a trek from the south suburbs of Chicago to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where we set up camp at Big Foot Beach State Park, named not after the legendary sasquatch but rather an early Potawatomi leader in the area.
From the campground, we traveled 15 miles on Highway 120 to the Alpine Valley Music Theatre, in East Troy, where, that evening we were to see a rock concert featuring the Pat Travers Band and Rush. I believe we paid $9 to sit on the lawn.
At the time, I had just begun my senior year in high school. In Wisconsin, then, the legal drinking age was 18. Many teens like myself would cross that state line to enter into a world where the line between adolescence and adulthood was blurred.
My memories of that day and night are lost in a haze of alcohol. I recall waiting in the parking lot at the end of the concert for one of my friends, who finally showed up shrouded in a blanket that he did not have before the concert.
I drove that 15 miles back to Big Foot campground in my 1973 Dodge Charger SE, the vehicle depicted in the novel. If the three of us had all retired into our tent, as we should have, then Cheeseland would never have been written. That of course is not what happened.
Instead, I made the mistake of handing my car keys to one of my buddies, who wanted nothing more than to get a bite to eat. I hopped in the passenger seat next to him while my other friend, the one who had acquired a new blanket, chose to crash in the tent.
What happened next, I can’t fully explain. The next memory I have of that night is the moment that I depict on page 43 of Cheeseland. To this day, I still struggle trying to piece together all of what happened. How was it that my friend ended up driving from Lake Geneva to Kenosha, a distance of 30 miles, just to get a burger? How was it that he crashed into a parked car? How was it that I survived with the only physical injuries being the scrapes and cuts from where my forehead had smashed into the windshield? I suppose that when I embarked on the journey of writing Cheeseland I was, in some way, searching for these answers and more.
The rest of Cheeseland, from the point of that car accident at the beginning of chapter 7 through chapter 28, is pure fiction. All that happens before chapter 7, except for the depiction of the rock concert and the Dodge Dart, is likewise pure fiction. Just how much of that opening scene of chapter 7 is pure fiction, I honestly can’t tell you.
When I write fiction, I always begin with a “What if?” moment. Now you know the moment that led me to ask “What if?”
I have to wonder if someone out there is still looking for that blanket. But maybe that’s for another novel.