The Talkin’ Der Stuka, Joe Factor, Slow Food, Drunken Midget Blues (a Previously Unrevealed Horribly True Tale)

It’s Monday, July 23, 2001. My wife and I have exactly one week to get all of our material possessions stuffed into cardboard boxes in preparation for yet another life-upheaving move to another state and I’ve only just begun to pack. We’re hitting the road once again because after years of struggle, pain and rejection, my wife has finally been accepted into medical school at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, in Lewisburg, West Virginia. This means for the second time this year, we have to move. And not just across town, like last time, but up a frickin’ mountain. Across several frickin’ mountains, really. And with a squalling cat, no doubt. It’s a great opportunity, though, and one we’ve been working toward for a long time. However, it does mean I have to go back to being unemployed until I can find work in my new town; a new town that is located in a particularly economically depressed area of one of the nation’s most economically depressed states. Also not boding well is the fact that whenever I say “We’re moving to West Virginia” to anyone, the universal reaction I get is one of sorrow and pity. Not exactly sure why, as Lewisburg seems to be a really nice little town, but that whole economically depressed thing might have something to do with it. Our adventures there will no doubt provide fuel for Horribly True Tales for years to come. So while waiting for bad stuff to happen, I thought I’d take a look back at some bad stuff that already happened in a previously unrevealed horribly true tale. It’s the story of the time my former beloved vehicle, the Bent Turd, broke down due to an elemental force of malfunction known as Joe Evans. This particular tale begins in the spring of 1998, mere weeks after the radiator shattering events of “The Talkin’ Utter Desperation Bent Turd Blue Tub Blues.” It may be helpful to peruse the Rules of Joe before reading this story, just to familiarize yourself with how dangerous messing around with the power of Joe actually is. You can find it at:

Joe Evans is many things to many people.  But you know that already.  To me, though, he’s a fellow member of the Manly Bladder Club; my former co-host for Juice & Joe’s Four Colour Theatre, our celebrated, award-deserving radio show about comic books; my fellow co-star in such classic dramatic productions as Damn Yankees, The Boys Next Door and The Disposal; and he was a former roommate in our collegiate collective residence, back in Starkville, MS, which he christened “Da Crib.”  (Many many horribly true tales could and will one day be written about Da Crib.  Not just yet, though.)  Yup, Joe’s been one of my best friends for the past ten years or so.

Back in the late 90’s, when I lived in Tupelo, Mississippi, it was a rare occasion that I got to hang out with Joe.  Even though Tupelo is only an hour north of Starkville, the highway between them is such a boring desolate stretch that making the drive regularly can be taxing on the soul.  It can also be taxing on the auto-repair bill, especially when one’s mode of transportation is an ailing `85 Chevy Caprice Classic that drives, as I seem to recall mentioning before, about as well as a bent turd.  As it so happens, mine was.

One Summertime Friday, I was blessed to learn that Joe was planning to brave the soul-sapping trek from Starkpatch for a much needed weekend of card-playin’, Babylon 5 watchin’, indiscriminant cursin’ and Outback Steakhouse eatin’ revelry.  This plan was marred only by the fact that, as part of my job as morning show DJ at Sunny 93.3, I was scheduled to do a radio remote broadcast in Houston, MS, that evening.  The remote broadcast was at Splash Pool & Spa, of Houston.  It was a fairly important event as the Splash people were holding a drawing for a $1000 spa and the qualifiers in the contest had to be present to win.  This promised to be a mad circus, but possibly an enjoyable one.  Because Joe had been in radio for about as long as I had, albeit in non-commercial radio, I figured I’d drag him along and let him see what a real commercial radio DJ had to put up with during a remote.

Joe arrived in town without incident and we whiled away the afternoon goofing off.  I had calculated that the hour of 4:05 p.m. would be a good time to start pestering Joe to hurry up so we could leave, but my actual target departure time was 4:25 p.m., as I knew from years of experience that it would take at least 20 minutes to get him to actually move.  That would leave us plenty of time to hit the ATM, hit a fast food restaurant, get over to the radio station to pick up the Sunny 93 van at 5 and get to Houston by 5:45 with plenty of time to set up for our 6 p.m. remote, the first on-air break of which wasn’t until 6:17.

I learned several valuable life lessons that day.

Lesson #1:  Never calculate anything based on the predicted behavior of Joe.

At 4:35 p.m. we were only just stepping into the driveway in front of my festering hellhole of an apartment.

“What do you want to take?  The Turd or Der Stuka?” Joe asked.  Der Stuka was the name of Joe’s Volkswagon Golf, christened so because its many engine and suspension problems combined to make a horrifying noise that was not unlike the German fighter plane of the same name.  Being a Volkswagon Golf also meant that while the German automotive craftsmanship of its air-conditioning system was a thing of efficiency, power and beauty, door handles that actually opened from both the outside and inside of the car weren’t as big a priority for its designers.

“Let’s take the Turd,” I said, proud that my vehicle was still driving impressively well after its recent radiator replacement and catalytic-converterectomy.  By my count, we still had plenty of time to hit all our planned stops even with our delayed departure.

One of the unfortunate side effects of a visit from Joe, however, was my car’s tendency to self-destruct in his presence.  Perhaps it’s due to the Joe Factor; that mysterious field of energy that surrounds Joe in which normally stable objects are likely to spill, explode, combust, spoil, fall apart, spill, receive nerve damage, spill, break, spill or begin speaking in tongues.  The last time Joe had come to town, the Turd’s battery went into a coma in a grocery store parking lot and we were forced to spend a blistering four hours replacing it.  My confidence that we would not have any automotive problems on this visit was ill-founded.

While getting moolah at the ATM, I caught a familiar whiff of anti-freeze.  Couldn’t be coming from the Turd, I concluded.  I’d had that radiator fixed already.  It must have been coming from one of the other cars at the drive-through teller tubes, I reasoned.

Lesson #2: It’s always the Turd.

A quarter mile down the road, just as I was pulling onto the entrance ramp of Hwy 45, I noticed a loud clicking sound that seemed to be coming from the engine of the Turd.  I tried to come up with some rationalization for the sound, other than it being the same hideous clicking noise that it made the last time it overheated due to having no coolant in its radiator.  The engine temperature light conspired to dash my hopes.  By this time, we were already more than half way to the radio station so I figured maybe, just maybe, I could make it all the way.  Nothing doing.  The car was starting to over-heat and was driving slower and slower and slower as we went.

“Should we pull over and check it?” Joe asked.

“Hell no!” I shouted.  From my overheating experience a few weeks back I knew if I stopped to check anything the car would never start again and we’d be stranded for sure.  If I was meant to be stranded, it would have to be a lot closer to the radio station than we were, engine-wear be damned!  Amazingly and against all expectation, we made it up the exit ramp for Green Street, which lead right to to the radio station’s home street of Gloster.  We had nearly made it to Gloster when the Bent Turd gave up the ghost and shut itself off.  I coasted the Turd along the side of the road until we reached the gravel drive of Patrick Home Center, in which we rolled to a steaming halt.  Sure enough, the engine was just hissing with heat and stink of burning oil.  Up to this point, I’d been cursing like an Admiral on the U.S.S. Tourettes, but as I looked down at the pinging engine I found I didn’t really have the energy to say more than a few half-hearted blistering curses.  I slammed the hood and began stomping down Gloster toward the radio station in silence.  Joe followed.

Sunny 93’s production director and afternoon DJ, “Clark Kent,” was waiting outside as we came wheezing up the hill, ten minutes later. (And yes, everyone, including Clark, is fully aware of how completely lame that choice of on-air names is.  Marginally moreso than my choice of Erik Winston.)

“Hey, where ya been, Erik?” Clark asked.  “You know you’ve got a remote, right?  I tried calling your house to remind you, but you didn’t answer.”

“Car… broken… Stalled on… side of…  road…. Walked here…” I managed, stomping past Clark, who was still asking questions.

I hadn’t pre-loaded the van earlier in the day, and there’s a heap of stuff we have to take to remotes.  I’d been making a laundry list of it in my head during my run/hobble: I needed advertising copy, the station’s ancient bag cell-phone, the ancient bag cell phone’s power supply box, bumper stickers, T-shirts—both for giveaways and one to replace the one I’d sweated through during said run/hobble—the ice-chest, and a couple cases of two-liter bottles of woefully flat soft-drinks.  I would still need to buy ice for the ice chest, though, not to mention which was yet another delay in an already dissolving master plan.  We threw everything in the van and hit the road.

“I’m hungry,” Joe said.

“Me too,” I said.

There was a Hardee’s on the way to Houston in the little town of Verona.  We decided to pop in there real quick.

Lesson #3:  Hardee’s is never quick; Hardee’s in Verona even less so.

We pulled in behind a truck at the drive-through line at Hardee’s.  After a couple of minutes we decided that it was pretty strange that the driver of the truck wasn’t actually giving his order to the speaker, but instead seemed to be waiting to be asked what he would like to order.  Another minute passed before some noise was emitted from the speaker and the man began to order.  The ordering process was taking an unnecessary amount of time considering that he’d had at least 3 minutes to make up his mind already.  Finally he pulled around to the next window and we pulled into his place.

For a long time nothing happened.  No garbled voices issued from the speaker nor was there any indication that Hardee’s even knew we were there.

“Hellooooooo?!” I shouted.  After a while there was a very very low sound from the speaker.  I could barely make out the words but was pretty sure they were “Hold on.”  The low voice eventually returned to the speaker and said something that might have been “May I take your order” but might also have been “May a diseased rat crawl out of our freezer and die in your ass” for all I could tell.  I didn’t care. I just wanted food.  We gave our order to the speaker and waited.

“You get that?” I shouted.  A low noise sounded from the speaker but no words could be heard.  I took that as confirmation and drove around to the pickup window where our friend in the truck was still waiting for his food.  A bitter, curse-bejeweled eight minutes later and he still didn’t have his food.  As far as I know, he’s still there waiting for it, cause I wasn’t sticking around there any longer.  It was already 5:15 p.m. and Houston was at least 40 minutes away.  I pulled around the truck and, with teeth bared, waved like a madman at the Hardee’s employee in the window as I sped out of their parking lot.  I hoped they would be terrified of the bad publicity I could potentially bring them as a powerful media personage, but rather doubted they had ever had any good publicity to compare it by.

Now there are several ways to get to Houston, but since I’d only been to there once and had taken the Natchez Trace to get there, that was the way I decided to go.  To get to the Trace, I made a right turn in the middle of Verona.  We drove for a couple of miles until we came to a giant “Bridge Out” sign that was physically blocking the road.  It might have been helpful to have included a similar sign, two miles, back in Verona, preventing people from going out of their way to learn this information.  Evidently, signs is `spensive so no one had done so.  There were no obvious detours, so we turned around and headed back to Verona.  Before we could get there, the big giant bag cell phone rang.  It was Gwen, the general manager of Sunny 93, calling to inform us that we needed to get to Houston as quickly as possible because Doug, the ad-sales guy in charge of the Splash Pool & Spa account, was going to be late because he had to go pay a visit to one of the station’s many delinquent clients.

“What a coincidence, we’re gonna be late too,” I said.

“What?  You’d better not be!”

I explained the situation with the bent turd, our run/hobble to the station and our mad dash to leave town, our inability to get to the Natchez Trace and the fact that after a solid 20 minutes we were still in EFFing Verona.  (Of course, I omitted the part about spending 15 minutes waiting for food we never got at Hardee’s in Verona.)

Lesson #4:  Always omit the part about spending 15 minutes waiting for food you never got at Hardee’s in Verona.  You can save time by simply saying you went to Hardee’s in Verona and everyone will naturally assume that you never received food.

Gwen said she’d call Doug and tell him to skip the delinquent client and book it to Houston pronto.  Someone had to be there to assure the Splash guy that all the dough he was dropping on this remote and drawing was not going to waste.

Meanwhile, I had 30 minutes to drive at least 40 miles, I didn’t know exactly how to get there and I still had to buy ice!   Earlier in the day, Clark had suggested I go to Houston by way of Okolona (“Where the Wind comes Sweepin’ Down the Pain!”), some 20 miles to the south of Tupelo.  I wasn’t exactly sure which road to take to Houston once I got to Okolona, but I was gonna worry about that later.  Just getting there was more of a chore than I had hoped.  Being around 5:30 on a Friday meant that there were plenty of people on the road.  None of them seemed to be in any kind of hurry.  Despite this, we made it to Okolona in record time.  There were, of course, no signs in Okolona telling how to get to Houston, so I stopped at a convenience store where I hoped to find ice and directions.  Joe found the ice while I found a clerk who gave me the impression that she was just passing time as a clerk until her appearance on Rikki Lake came through.  Her directions for how to get to Houston consisted mainly of pointing a finger in the general direction of the four way intersection outside and saying “Go that way.”  She asked why my radio station was going to Houston, as opposed, presumably, to staying in scenic Okolona.  I told her.

“Splash Pool an’ Spa?” she said with disdain, stopping short of actually ringing up my ice.  The clerk turned toward a large woman sitting behind the chicken heat-lamp case.  “Hey, Patricia.  Ain’t that where you got yore pool?”

“Whuuuut?”

“I said, ain’t that where you got yore pool?  At Splash Pool and Spa?”

Patricia was silent for a moment. “Yayuh.  I think that was them.”

“I wouldn’t give a dog’s butt for them folks,” the clerk assured me.  “Patricia’s been having all kinds’a trouble with her pool and they won’t send no one out to do nothing about it.  Wouldn’t give a dog’s butt for them.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yeah.  Beats all I ever seen.”

“Crooks!” Patricia said.

I hoped she was wrong, because if there’s one thing I hate doing it’s shilling for crappy businesses.  The chances that she was mistaken were actually pretty strong, since there are like four pool places in Houston, though.

The clerk finally rang up my ice, but only after I loudly dropped it on the counter to provide an audio reminder that there was business to be transacted.  After further dire warnings of the crooked, dog’s butt deficient nature of Splash Pool & Spa from both the clerk and Patricia, Joe and I bolted for the door and hit the road that presumably lead to Houston. Fifteen miles later, we found ourselves stuck behind a drunken midget.

Okay, he might not have been a midget, but he was at the very least a short drunken man and at the worst a drunken child.  Whichever the case, the drunken midget wannabe was swerving his beat up Lincoln all over the road at the breathtaking speed of 40 miles per hour.  There was a second car between the drunken midget and our van and this guy was having an impossible time passing the drunken midget due to all the swerving.  We didn’t fare any better because we couldn’t even pass the guy who was trying to pass the drunken midget.  It was an infuriating situation for a variety of reasons, but—and perhaps I should be ashamed to say it—the only reason I gave a damn about at that point was that he was making me even later than I’d already made myself.  Eventually the drunken midget swerved off the road and, coincidentally I’m sure, onto another road, freeing us to violate the speed limit.

As we were approaching the Houston city limits, at 6:04, the giant bag cell phone rang again. This time it was Clark wondering if we were set up yet for our first break, scheduled at 6:17.

“No,” I said.  “We’re not even in Houston yet.”

“You’re not in Houston?”

“No.”

“Well where are you?” Clark asked, ever the voice of calm.

“We’re… close to Houston.”

“What road are you on?”

I clenched my jaw.  “I have no idea!  We’re close to Houston, all right?!”

“This is the reason we tell you to leave early for remotes.   You’re supposed to be there at least a half hour before they start.”

Now I knew good and well that I was at least partially responsible for our lateness due to my foolhardy attempt to wring food out of Hardee’s.  But that was where it ended.

“That’s right, Clark.  My car overheated and I ran a half a mile to the station, hit a fallen bridge and then had to drive behind a drunken midget the whole way for my health!”

“Say what?”

“Nevermind!  I’ll call you when I get there!”

Lesson #5:  Never deal with Clark when you’re pissed.  He can always find a way to make you even angrier.

After reaching down-town Houston, I began to regret not having paid attention during Doug the Ad Guy’s seminar on how to find Splash Pool & Spa.  I remembered a landmark or two, but neither of them really looked like they did in my head, so I drove past them.  If it hadn’t been for the mass of people standing around a spa, practically in the middle of a side street, I might have missed the place.  Doug the Ad Guy was already there, running interference with the client and the herd of qualifying listeners.  I breathed a sigh of relief, backed into the parking lot and tried not to run over anybody.

It should be understood that Sunny 93’s out of town remotes are accomplished through no great technical means.  Essentially the DJ phones the radio station on a cell-phone, which is then piped through the sound board and sent out over the airwaves.  We don’t actually need the big speakers and antennas and road rack sound system at all.  That stuff’s pretty much just a glorified stereo system that lets us play our signal at the remote for ambiance and to let the DJ know when the commercial breaks start so he can get ready to call the studio.  To do that, though, he needs a working cell phone.  Sunny 93’s big clunky bag phone came with a plug-in power supply the size and weight of a fat brick.  The power supply plugged into a standard power strip attached to an extension cord which had to be plugged into a local power outlet in order for any of this to work.  The tricky part is that there are TWO such power supply bricks at the radio station, only one of which actually works more than intermittently.  They’re identical in appearance, are unlabelled and are almost always in proximity to one another on the storage shelf.  You can guess which one I grabbed on my way out the door that afternoon.

Joe and I dumped the contents of the van on the ground and I began hooking up the phone while Joe searched for an outlet.  I hoped  to have everything working by the time my first break hit.  By my internal clock, I had two minutes.

Lesson #6:  It’s always less than two minutes.

It was sticky and hot outside the van.  The contest qualifiers, who were presumably valued listeners as well, were watching the whole process, fanning themselves with whatever paper they could scrounge.  I tried to look pleasant and smile and not appear at my sweaty wits end as much as possible.  One of the qualifiers came over to say hi.  I recognized his voice before he could finish introducing himself.  He was Lloyd the Über Listener.  Lloyd loved Sunny 93 and listened to us all day, every day.  He won nearly every contest we had, as often as we would allow him to.  And while such listening habits are the stuff of a programming director’s dream, actually meeting someone who does nothing but listen to the radio all day is not without a high degree of creepiness.  After all, it takes people of a certain stripe to be so devoted to soft hits format radio.  Lloyd was their king.

I had just hooked the cell phone into it’s power supply brick and then plugged the brick into the van’s power strip, for which Joe had found an outlet, when Lloyd shambled up to shake hands.  Unfortunately, despite having plugged everything up correctly, the little light on the power-supply brick had not turned on and no sound was coming from the van’s speakers.  Something was very wrong.  I couldn’t tell when my break was about to start without our signal through the speakers, and I couldn’t have the speakers nor the cell phone without power.

Lloyd was still trying to press his hand into mine and I realized that being a polite, smiling, friendly DJ and getting my equipment running before the first break were probably mutually exclusive concepts at my stage of sanity.

Lesson #7:  Always be polite, smiling and friendly to your listeners.  Unless they really piss you off.

I quickly shook Lloyd’s hand and asked him to excuse me while I went back to plugging cords.  So far I was remaining calm, but I so wanted to launch into my usual fit of cursing.  How could I, though, what with God, Lloyd and everyone else watching.

Lloyd, was not only an Über Listener but an amateur radio engineer as well.  He was attempting to be helpful by asking if I’d hooked up our microwave antenna yet.  As he understood it, that’s how things were done now-a-days.  We didn’t have any such creature.  But even if we had, we didn’t have any damn power to run it with.

Fortunately, Joe was there.

I know, that’s a rare combination of words to be associated with Joe, but his presence, despite the Joe Factor, was actually helpful.  He noticed that a cord had come loose from the back of the road rack and that fixed our sound problem.  The speakers came to life and we were in the middle of a commercial.  Hearing commercials was my cue to call the radio station and be ready for my break, which occurred after all the commercials had played.  Sunny 93 was mostly run by satellite feed and timing the breaks properly was essential and not easy to alter at the last moment.  If I didn’t call in, we could easily wind up with a minute of dead air and a pissed off Spa guy who was paying out the nose for that time.  And because I’d grabbed the broken power supply brick, the phone was dead and I couldn’t call in.

Most DJ’s faced with this situation would have simply unplugged the bag phone from the power supply, walked around to the driver’s seat, plugged the phone into the cigarette lighter jack and then turned the van on and called.  Not me.  My first thought was, “Doug’s got a cell phone!”

I dove past Lloyd and into the herd of listeners who were glutting the parking lot and the store’s doorway.  I had to practically fight my way through them, no longer caring if they found me polite, friendly or smiling.  I was expecting at any moment to hear the remote tones play over the speakers signaling my first failed remote break of the day.  Inside, Doug was behind the store’s counter, using his cell phone.

“DouggetoffthephoneI’vegotabreakintwentysecondsandIcan’tcallthestationfromthevan!” I shouted.

“What?”

“I need your phone!  Now!  My break is in under 10 seconds!”  I didn’t actually have any idea how many seconds I really had, but it might have been less than 10 for all I knew.  Doug got the gist if not the actual message and hung up on whoever he was talking to and passed the slim little phone over.

I made a break for the van, where I’d left my page of remote copy, frantically dialing as I ran.  I fully expected that with my luck the phone line would be busy.

It was.

Dammit, Clark was probably trying to call the van phone and was tying up the line.  I hit redial and this time it began to ring.  At the same moment, I heard remote tones play over the van’s speakers followed by silence.  The break had started without me!  Then, from the phone’s receiver I heard a click.  I hoped that click meant Clark had flipped the switch that opened the call to the airwaves.

“Sunny 93.3, this is Erik Winston broadcasting live from Splash Pool & Spa in Houston…” I cheerfully said into the phone.  My voice came out of the van’s speakers at the same time.  Whoo hoo!  Clark had opened the connection just in time!  Granted, it was a bit of a gamble on his part, since it could have been any old yahoo calling in and not me.  For all he knew, it could have been Lloyd.  Still, it had worked and I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for Clark’s gamble that I nearly lost my ability to speak coherent sentences.

The rest of the remote went pretty well once I’d had a chance to cool down.  Lloyd, it turned out, was not nearly as creepy as he could have been.  And while he didn’t win the spa, he was happy enough to drive away with a Sunny 93 T-shirt, which he would no doubt put in a drawer next to the half dozen or so other Sunny 93 T-shirts he had won over the years.  The store’s owner was also very happy with the remote and struck me as the kind of businessman I might give a dog’s butt for after all.

After the remote was finished and we had packed up the equipment, Joe and I retired to the Hardee’s of Houston, where we received our meals right on schedule and grill fresh.

As for the Turd, rather than attempting to fix it ourselves, we had it towed to my usual mechanic the following morning.  The mechanic said a radiator hose had come loose but that the engine was no more worse for wear than usual.  He fixed it up and gave me a knowing wink that said he knew I’d be back to see him before long.

Lesson #8:  Owners of cars that drive like bent turds always come back.        

Copyright © 2001 Eric Fritzius

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