By Brian M. Howle
Last issue I began to recall one of the neatest things that ever befell me occurred only because I had – at the time – an incessant need to collect as many different T-Shirts as possible, including the hordes that the local radio stations provided like cheap cotton crack.
It was the Summer of 1978, right here in good ol’ Myrtle Beach. In one of my many calls to WKZQ 101.7 FM to win yet another free T-Shirt, my DJ buddy “Shotgun” Stone clued me in to a new contest: Simply write a Jingle for Beach Buff, and win a trip to Atlanta to see Jimmy Buffett live at the Fabulous Fox Theatre.
Well, sure enough, I won the dang thing.
But this was no ordinary radio giveaway, my friends. It was a completely paid trip for two, for two days and one night at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Atlanta, complete with limo service and a liberal food/room service budget.
Jimmy Buffett was recording a live album that weekend, and we would be there enjoying it all in the beautifully restored, art-deco acoustic masterpiece – The Fox Theater.
But wait, it got even better: Joe McVay himself – owner of Beach Buff – was so impressed with my little composition, he upgraded the contest. We now had three days and two nights to stay in Atlanta’s Hilton Hotel. The food tab was increased to $500, and we received additional limo service and $200 cash to live it up like a couple of big dogs.
Man, that would buy one boatload of T-Shirts.
Of course, there was a caveat to this dream trip: We had to fly to Atlanta from Myrtle Beach on Piedmont, the Yugo of Airlines back in the day.
And of course, I had a major case of world-class, never-flew-commercial-because-of-it fear of flying.
So, when the Thursday morning of the flight arrived, I had made arrangements with my physician to deal with all that fear-of-crashing stress.
Oh yes, I was prepared.
I mumbled through the pre-flight, live-on-the-radio interview with DJ Brian Phillips between handfuls of Valium. I vaguely remember pounding home the importance for folks to enter contests in order to win, since all I wanted was a free T-Shirt in the beginning. But hey, if you don’t enter, then dammit, you can’t ever win. Sorta like, “you can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat!”
Well, the time neared, and that boarding gangway to the waiting airliner was like The Green Mile.
My future ex-wife was a real trooper for the ordeal, I have to admit that right up front. She was the only one who knew how terrified I was.
Now, the most popular means of dealing with the fear would be by consuming large quantities of alcohol before and during the flight. But yours truly had developed an allergic reaction to alcohol a few years prior to all this, so that’s why I had gone the pharmaceutical route.
As the creaky jet rumbled down the runway towards the Atlantic Ocean, my left hand was trying to rip the armrest from my seat, and my right hand was trying to crush my sweetie’s left hand. I was in an aisle seat, as I didn’t particularly care to have a window seat for observing our impending crash into the waiting earth. When the pilot put full power to the engines, my blood pressure shot up and everything went fuzzy white.
A minute or so later, when my vision returned, we were high above Myrtle Beach, banking towards the West-Southwest and Atlanta.
Well, the seat still had a left armest, and my sweetie still had a functioning left hand, so maybe there was hope.
They announced that seatbelts could now be unfastened (Oh, are you sure? It’s so reassuring to know that seatbelt will keep me from rocketing through the twenty rows of seats in front of me in the event of a 600 mph impact) and that (say it with me), we were now “free to walk about the cabin.”
Well, it was more like being “free to walk about the tubular coffin,” but no one took them up on the offer.
As my breathing and blood pressure both eased off a little bit, another little signal light for my body went off in my head. Something that I should have addressed before boarding the plane, but nooooooo, I had to spend some quality time with radio boy, remember? And now?
Time to potty.
We had seats near the rear of the plane (hey, I read the newspaper – most survivors seemed to wander around the crash site after climbing out of the still-intact tail section), so it wasn’t that far of a journey.
Honestly, I didn’t know if I would be able to walk the ten feet to the restroom or not; partially due to the paralyzing fear, and partially due to the amount of tranquilizers that I had consumed.
But I steeled myself, kissed my honey goodbye and headed down the tiny aisle. I could feel the eyes of every person on that flight on me, as I wobbled along, eyes focused straight down on the floor.
Ya know, they really shouldn’t be allowed to call it a restroom. It should be called an Emergency Relief Closet, because there were at least four closets in my house that were bigger than this thing was. And I had a teeny, tiny little house.
Well, there was business to attend to, so I just went ahead and tended to it. My breathing was pretty close to normal at this point, and I was just about to level off and feel like maybe, just maybe, I would survive the flight.
Just as I was about to stand up and make my way back to my seat, God decided to remind me of His immense power, along with His sense of humor.
You see, He knew that I was preoccupied with breathing and all that, so He knew I didn’t notice that the “Fasten Seatbelts” sign had come back on.
We hit some turbulence, and much like Tom Hanks in the initial crash sequence from the movie Castaway, I was pretty much pinned to the ceiling in the flash of an eye. Then, just a quickly, I was slammed back down to the floor. And just to make sure I was paying attention, the whole choreography was repeated. Several times. Sorta like lather, rinse, repeat.
They say that your life flashes before you eyes when you think your demise is imminent. In my case, all I could think of was, “Oh great, I’m going to die in an airliner restroom with my pants around my ankles.”
Deep into my personal relationship with God, I barely heard the “ding” that went along with “you are now free to move about the cabin” when it was announced. One thing was for sure – the medications in my bloodstream had been immediately neutralized.
I immediately stood straight up, replaced my trousers to their upright position and made a beeline back to my seat, where my sweetie smiled and gleefully announced, “You missed some turbulence while you were gone!”
Yep, she was a hoot, that one.
Well, I delved deep into my carry-on bag and retreived another replenishing handful of Valium, because although the flight to Atlanta was only about 55 minutes in duration, we had only been airborne for about 15 minutes.
Well, all that help in relaxation began to kick in just about the time we were landing in Altanta, and none too soon for yours truly. I never felt the “skeet” of the tires when we touched down, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. My ex had been downing cocktails all flight long, so we were just about on even par with our relative , um, “conditions.”
We hunted down our luggage on the big Luggage Carousel from Hell, then stumbled out into the snarl of airport traffic in search of our ride.
And there, on the way out of the terminal, was a sight that I never, ever in a zillion years thought I would ever see: A limo jockey with one of those little signs that read, “Mr. Howle.”
I approached the poor, unsuspecting driver and slapped him on the shoulder while pointing at his little sign. “Oh yeah, cuz, that would be me. Take us to the Hilton, and there’s an extra $20 in it for you for every pedestrian you mow down on the way!”
I don’t think our driver fully appreciated sarcasm as a means of comedic introduction.
So, after he tried to make that $20 several times, we were wheeled up to the big, bad Hilton, where the bellboys took a step back when we rolled out of the limo. Eventually, a young one felt brave and gathered up our bags as we checked in. After we were inside our room, he was still hanging around, and my sweetie whispered that he was waiting for a tip.
“Oh, sorry man,” I said, as I escorted him into the hall. “Here’s your tip … never unroll a condom before you intend to use it.”
I’ll never forget the look on that kid’s face as the door slowly swung shut.
We only spent half an hour in our 19th floor room, because at this point it was time to take the limo over to the Fox Theatre for the big show. Once again, we rolled out onto the Atlanta street from the limo and approached the ticket window, where I told them my name and received a little manila envelope with our tickets and a little note from Cecil Corbett, who was promoting the show.
I was sure glad that the concert wasn’t for another two hours, because I could barely see my feet, much less anything more than 4 feet in front of me. I shuffled over to one of the ushers and showed him our tickets, in hopes of being shooed in the general direction of our seats, which I was positive would be waaaaay in the back, since it was a radio promotion giveaway and all.
When the guy put his little flashlight on my tickets, he suddently straightened up and gave me that, “Yes, sir! Right this way, sir!” deal. I was somewhat confused. Well, now more than before he did all this “yes sir” stuff.
We walked and walked and walked, and when he pointed his flashlight to our seats, that was when I finally looked around and realized that we were seats 105 and 106, dead center front row in the gorgeous Fox Theatre And two microphones for recording the audience response were three feet in front of us. Oh yes, we are on that album.
Well, needless to say, that show was outstanding. Jimmy had broken his leg a few weeks before the show and was on crutches or a stool most of the night, but by the time he reached the final few songs, he ditched the crutches and stomped on that bad leg like he didn’t feel any pain whatsoever.
Sorta like my flight. Jimmy and I were of the same mind.
So now, 30-some-odd years later, the future ex-wife is gone, the old job is long gone, and even Piedmont Airlines is gone.
But in the deepest recesses of my closet, there hangs one mint condition “Cheeseburger in Paradise” 1978 Tour T-shirt.
The previous article was originally published in the August 24, 2006 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.