An underground VHS videotape of “Bam!” was floating around America long before YouTube existed (Ignition, page 22). Everyone who got one made ten copies and passed it on, each round getting blurrier than the round before. My grainy copy came from racing poet Dan Gerber, and that is a story in itself.
Gerber was living in Key West with his now-wife, Debbie, and his wonder Lab, Willa, and had been bragging up his high-tech, carbon-fiber, flat-bottom fishing boat. He suggested I take a road trip down to paradise and go fly fishing for the wily bonefish.
(Just so we’re all straight on the subject – no, there’s nothing cool about cars and Key West, which is why Gerber doesn’t live there anymore, having thrown it over for a place more conducive to racing his vintage cars. However…)
It was 1995, and I decided the timing was perfect to follow a working tour of the 24 Hours of Daytona (Vile Gossip, May 1995) with that road trip to the end of Florida. It had been ungodly cold in Daytona, so I was really looking forward to going 400 miles south for some fishing. I could taste the margaritas. Ha. The mercury was bouncing around in the 40s when I arrived, sinking to a record low of 43 degrees on February 9. We went out on the magic boat anyway, with Dan poling around in the crystal-clear shallows as I cast out a few flashy saltwater fly-fishing lures. But as far as the eye could see in every direction, the water was utterly devoid of fish. Way too cold for their delicate sensibilities. They had decamped south.
So, that night we went to a cocktail party at the wackadoodle little Key West-y cottage of Dink Bruce, one of Gerber’s literati pals, whose father, Toby, just happened to have been Ernest Hemingway’s right-hand man in Key West. That not being quite enough to hold the interest of the average quirky Key West denizen, Dink also had an extensive collection of erotic art on every wall, the bathroom collection being particularly horrifying to my prudish little self. I wasn’t feeling too worldly at that point, the exact point when we were all ushered into the bedroom to watch a grainy video made by a documentary film crew in Longview, Texas, as they asked a guy on the street for directions.
But wait; hit that Pause button. There was a late arrival to the party. It was Charles Kuralt.
I’m not usually stunned into silence by anyone, but this was a towering figure so embedded in the fabric of my entire life up to that point that I was struck mute. Far too many people know nothing about the man who traveled America’s back roads looking for stories to tell on his weekly CBS television show, On the Road. It began in 1967 as a segment on Walter Cronkite’s nightly news and continued, with occasional interruption, until 1984. By then, Kuralt had traveled more than a million miles while filming 600-plus episodes of On the Road, and he’d won three Peabodys and ten Emmys, among other awards. In 1983, Newsweek called him “our beloved visiting uncle” and “de Tocqueville in a motorhome.”
We understood. My family were intrepid road-trippers, piling into the Rambler station wagon on most Sundays to go wherever Dad felt like pointing us. We already lived on a dirt road in the country, but Dad always wanted to go even deeper into rural Michigan, searching for roadside farm stands, cider mills, steam-engine festivals, farm auctions, county fairs, or just a nice roadside park, where Mom would unload the metal Scotch-brand cooler full of sandwiches wrapped in Cut-Rite wax paper, hard-boiled eggs with little wax-paper packages of salt, and a thermos of Kool-Aid. How my parents managed to enjoy a ride with every seat in the wagon (including the coveted rear-facing seats) full of their little stairsteps is beyond me.
We loved those trips and learned early that everywhere was cooler than home. We religiously tuned in to watch the soft-spoken bear of a man with a poet’s voice, who believed that “the everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines.”
He was in Key West working on his book, Charles Kuralt’s America, every chapter a month in the year, spent in his favorite place that month. Following January in New Orleans, he loved February best in Key West, and he was there for research. Maybe Gerber’s friend Dink wasn’t an ax murderer after all.
Charles Kuralt said hello (It was him! It was that voice!) to everyone gathered in the bedroom, and he joined me (me!) on the bed, where we sat shoulder to shoulder against the headboard.
And that’s how Charles Kuralt and I watched “Bam!” together.