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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Goin’ to California: Part I

In 1982, during the summer between 9th and 10th grade, my family took a trip to Disneyland. This was a pilgrimage we took every other year, piling into our current Volkswagen (Bug/Rabbit/Bus, depending on the year) and sweating out a heroic 24-hour straight-through marathon drive from our home in Seattle to the Tropicana Motel in Anaheim. When we were younger, my sister Jessica and I could amuse ourselves all the way there with a few rolls of masking tape and boxes of Kleenex, using our saliva to stick the tissue to the car windows and each other, performing quasi-mummification ceremonies with the tape, etc. By 1982, however, I was 15 and Jessica was 11, so the masking tape and Kleenex routine was clearly not going to fly. Thus, I asked if I could bring a friend, and my parents consented. I asked my best friend, Eddie, but Eddie’s Dad said “Absolutely no way in hell” so I asked my second-best friend, Jim. Jim’s folks were slightly more lax. Their response was more like, “So… you’ll be out of the house for two weeks? Sounds great. Here’s some cash.” Which was probably followed by, “…and hand me a beer.”

Jessica found this development eminently unfair, and demanded that she also be allowed to bring a friend. My parents said something like, “So… you two will keep each other occupied, and won’t be asking ‘when are we gonna get there?’ every half-mile? Sounds great. Here’s some cash.” Or something like that. So Jessica invited our cousin Erik, a roly-poly kid who had a habit of stealing my clothes and stirring up other kinds of trouble, while always appearing to be completely innocent.


So: Mom and Dad, Me, Jim, Jessica, and Erik. That’s six people to fit in the VW Bus, with all our luggage, 24 hours’ worth of food, etc. But that’s not all. Just a year before, my parents somewhat unexpectedly had had another child – my sister Amber.

Of course, we should have realized that this was all a bad, bad idea. First, the bus – while spacious – was not nearly large enough for 7 people, especially not when two of those people are teenage boys. Beyond that, there were simply too many possible sources of conflict. My sister and I were pretty typical brother and sister, e.g. always on the verge of fratricide. Jim was a bully and despised Erik. Erik was prone to taunting bullies, and was a tattletale to boot. My Dad was determined to drive “straight through,” and my Mom was exhausted and emotional from raising a baby. Amber had the smelliest diapers I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing.

There was one other potential source of explosive conflict brewing: I had been dating a girl from school (Melanie… sigh), but my parents didn’t know that. In fact, according to my parents, I was not mature enough to be dating anybody. I loudly disagreed, and this had been a frequent topic of spirited debate in our home. By which I mean, I was virtually always sneaking around with some girl, then getting caught (usually mashing with someone at the mall), which was always followed by tearful shouting matches over dinner. So I was definitely NOT supposed to be dating Melanie, and needed to keep that fact hidden from my parents and anyone who had any association whatsoever with my parents. Of course, my friend Jim knew, and he associated with my parents on a regular basis. But this fact did not register until much later.

To review: Our blue and white VW Bus was a tinderbox of potential emotional and physical violence.

But none of this even entered our heads. At the time, we could only conceive of one potential deal-breaker: Roger Whittaker. My dad LOVED Roger Whittaker, and we had spent many vacations clutching our ears while he listened to “Durham Town” and “The Foggy Dew” at top volume, slapping the steering wheel and instrument panel to keep the beat. To prevent this atrocity from ever occurring again, we drilled a hole in the bus dashboard and installed a headphone jack and a switch. This would allow Dad to enjoy “First Hello, Last Farewell” while leaving the rest of us in peace. We would, of course, still be subjected to the impromptu dashboard drum solos, but we couldn’t figure out a way to prevent that. Coating every nearby surface with some sort of noise-absorbent foam didn’t seem feasible. Having the headphone jack also meant that Jim and I could listen to Rush, and we cleverly brought along a y-adaptor so that we could both listen at the same time. We were pretty excited about that; I guess y-adaptors were cutting-edge technology at the time. You also have to understand that we didn’t have Walkman headphones or “ear buds” or anything like that in 1982 – these were huge Radio Shack “Realistic” brand “Studio Pro” models. They weighed about four pounds, and looked something like two 16-ounce coffee mugs strapped to your head, connected by a foam-padded set of bicycle handlebars. I would give good money to have a photograph of Jim and me sitting in the VW Bus, our heads nodding under the weight of the mammoth headgear, mouthing the words to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.”

Although the all-important music problem had been solved, the prospect of a 2000-mile round trip in that bus still didn’t sound too great to Jim and me. After some thought, Jim had a brilliant idea: Wouldn’t it be RAD if he and I flew down to Los Angeles and met my family there? We floated this risky proposition, fully expecting to hear a flat-out nix on the idea, but surprisingly, my parents went for it. “So you guys won’t be in the car all the way to L.A.? Sounds great. Here’s some cash.” Actually, I think we both saved up our own money, but anyway…

So Jim and I got our tickets, my parents drove off in the bus, and I stayed alone at home for a couple of days, playing Rush on my dad’s stereo at maximum volume. For the first time in my life, I could experience the full effect of the mysterious button labeled ‘LOUDNESS’. Indeed – it definitely added loudness. A young friend of my parents, Charles, was charged with the job of looking in on me, keeping me out of trouble, etc. Happily for me, Charles had problems of his own (long story), and I never saw him.

Finally, the day came for Jim and me to fly from SEA to LAX. I couldn’t drive, so my stalwart guardian Charles showed up at school to pick me up – on his motorcycle, which was awesome. Charles looked dangerous, or at least unhealthy: weather-beaten leather jacket, five o’clock shadow, and bloodshot eyes. While Charles revved his engine outside the schoolyard, I dramatically kissed Melanie goodbye (so now Charles knew, and he was also friends with my parents!), and we sped off. “Shouldn’t we be wearing helmets?” I shouted above the traffic noise and wind. “Yeah, but it was kinda crazy last night. I think I left my helmets at a buddy’s house. You cool with that?” rasped Charles. So at least I had something on him, too. We made it to the airport with minutes to spare.

Of all the events surrounding this trip, this part might be the most embarrassing to me. Jim and I were so jacked about flying alone that we decided to, uh, “dress cool.”

ME: Tight grey polyester slacks and vest (open), off-white button-up shirt (with top 2 buttons undone), skinny black tie (loosely knotted), panama hat, gradient-tint sunglasses, and maroon satin jacket (white racing stripes on sleeves, sleeves pushed up to elbows).

JIM: Grey polyester slacks, white shirt, black faux-leather windbreaker and motoring cap (you know, the kind with the snap-down brim?).

There’s no delicate way to put this: We looked like fucking dorks.

In our minds, however, we were super-smooth and ready for action. From the moment we got on the plane, we were making small talk with the passengers seated around us – particularly a couple of gorgeous women in the seats behind ours. “Yeah, we’re just flying down to L.A. for a couple of weeks,” I said as casually as possible, sipping my ginger ale. Then there was a contest, to guess the combined weight of the crew. Jim won, and we were due a prize. When the flight attendant came to give us that prize, we were initially bummed: It was a basket full of those little airline bottles of alcohol, and we were quite obviously too young to drink. What to do? After a brief pause, Jim had a stroke of sheer genius: “Why don’t you give our prize to these two attractive ladies seated behind us… with our compliments.” Eyebrows working overtime, he leered grotesquely at the women. Later, the flight attendant felt sorry for us, and gave us a trash bag full of snack peanuts, plus about a thousand of those plastic pin-on “captain’s wings” they usually give to kids from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We were already popular for dressing cool, winning the weight-guessing contest, and gallantly handing over our prize winnings. Intoxicated by the crowd’s adulation, we handed out the plastic wings to all the children on the flight. “Here ya go, kid,” I said to a boy who was maybe five years younger than me. As he unenthusiastically took the plastic pin and tiny package of stale peanuts, I looked over at the women seated behind us and winked meaningfully.

So far, the trip was going great. But when we actually reached Disneyland, something snapped. At the remove of 20-odd years, I can’t possibly parse out the exact sequence of cause and effect, but the vacation began to inexorably spin out of control.

First, Jim and I were 15 and just plain dumber than fuck. On Space Mountain, we snuck through an unmarked door and down some hallways in the shell of the building before we got caught and chased out. Then we discovered that if you didn’t pull the Space Mountain lap bars all the way down… they wouldn’t lock! So we zoomed through the pitch-blackness of the ride falling all over the plastic seat of the rocket, only held in place by our white-knuckle grip on the loosely flopping restraint bar. We even partially stood up at one point, until a steel girder or something whizzed past our heads at 90 miles an hour. Then we sat down right away. On the Autopia gas-powered-go-karts-straddling-a-guide-rail thing (which Jim insisted on pronouncing “Auto-Pie”), we drove into a tunnel, stopped the car, got out, and walked away, just like Michael Douglas in the movie “Falling Down,” except he was on a self-destructive odyssey of white suburban rage, and we were just a couple of 15-year-old idiots goofing around at an amusement park. As the cars piled up behind our abandoned (but still electrically humming) vehicle, we traipsed across the miniature landscape, splashing through tiny rivers, tripping over diminutive houses. Some Disney thugs gave chase, and Jim and I got separated. About two hours later, Jim stepped furtively out from behind a papier-mâché mushroom in Fantasyland, and we continued to wreak havoc.

We thought it would be cool to have our picture taken with some fine-looking ladies (high five!), so we started approaching every woman we saw and simply asking, “Can, uh, my friend take a picture of me with you?” The women who worked at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm were obliged to be courteous to the public, so we have a whole roll of pictures showing us posing with waitresses, ride operators, and janitorial staff.

We had less success with women not contractually required to be polite. Undaunted, we hatched a new plan: One of us would surreptitiously sidle up next to a female – perhaps while standing in line for a ride, or waiting to purchase cotton candy. When one of us had achieved reasonable proximity to the female, the other would jump out with a camera and take a picture. We would then flee. Thus, we have several blurry photos of me or Jim standing next to (or at least within a few feet of) women who might look shocked or angry, if their faces were visible in the frame, and not distorted by flash and movement. The fact that we were 15, and that we didn’t mean any harm, doesn’t make it any less creepy, I know.

When we weren’t sexually harassing the woman who operated the Matterhorn, we were jumping between boats on It’s A Small World. Or stealing my parents’ bus.

One morning, Jim and I woke up early, snagged my Dad’s keys, and moved the VW Bus to another parking lot behind the building. When everybody else woke up, I asked, “Hey, Dad, where did you park the bus last night? ‘Cos I thought it was right out front, but now I don’t see it anywhere…” We were able to keep up the ruse for another half-hour or so, until I started giggling. As it turned out, Jim and I were the only people who thought that was funny.

Back to the main plot thread: I was never worried that Jim would spill the beans about Melanie, because he also had a secret girlfriend. Her name was Traci, so Jim bought this souvenir baseball hat – the kind with bull horns, in keeping with the “Wild West” theme of Knott’s Berry Farm – and had it personalized with the cryptic iron-on message “T & J.” This, of course, stood for “Traci and Jim.” Jim brazenly wore this hat throughout the rest of the trip. Suspicious, my Dad finally asked what “T & J” stood for. I held my breath; how was Jim going to get out of this one?

“Oh, you mean on my hat?” responded Jim off-handedly.

“Yes, Jim, on your hat.”

“It stands for Trustworthy and Juvenile. Which I am.”

No one, and I mean NO ONE, actually bought this explanation. But, then again, no one really knew what the hell Jim was up to half the time, so nobody pursued it. Regardless, at that moment, the die was cast. My parents were suspicious and cranky, Jim and I were defiant and horny. In Anaheim, California, all hell was about to break loose.

On to Part 2 >>>

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