2019 has arrived as inevitably as planned. Wherever you are, I hope the new year has been treating you well. For me, it is yet another reminder of the cold hand of death closing ever so slowly around my throat, but hey — that’s part of the fun, right?
At this time of the year, a lot of people enjoy reminiscing of years past, and I notice a lot of my friends on social media are saying things like, “Man, am I glad we didn’t have Instagram back when we were kids!” Yes, think of the embarrassments we have saved ourselves by being born and growing up in the time before publicly preserving one’s every thought and action for the ages was possible. I, however, being a very negative person by nature, can only think of all the great memories that have been lost to the obscuring mists of time. I can still remember one particular episode… (cue wavy screen and harp music)
The year was 1994. A young and lustful Bill Clinton was diddling interns in the White House while good, God-fearing Americans were distracted by Seinfeld and criminal athletes like Tonya Harding whacking people with crowbars and O.J. Simpson fleeing police in a white Bronco. My friends and I had just started our college careers, and we were young and indestructible. So we did a lot of drugs.
Now, when I say “drugs,” I don’t mean the hard stuff like heroin or the opioids that are so popular today. The drugs we did were the hippie’s choice variety — mostly cannabis and, on the rare occasions when the Grateful Dead were around, mushrooms (if we were lucky), or LSD.
On one particularly chilly late-autumn afternoon, a friend of mine — let’s call him Shecky — and I were driving around the frosty back hills of northern Pennsylvania, smoking weed from a bowl (a small pipe, for those of you not hip to the lingo), and griping that our other friend — let’s call him Tom — had rejected our invitation to go get high and drive around. Where did he get off? We were on break, we had nothing to do, and we had the whole day planned — smoke weed and cruise around on the lazy roller-coaster-like Pennsylvania back roads — and it wouldn’t cost him a thing! He was a famous tightwad, and here we were, generously offering him free weed and a ride to wherever, just laughing and being young and mirthful without a care in the world. How dare he refuse?
So it was just Shecky and I, who had only recently become friends. We had known of each other since high school, but we never really had socialized until that first year of college. We had hit it off like old pals, however, and were having a merry old time cracking ourselves up as we drove around, high as kites. Now before you get all judgy, keep in mind that I was not driving. I didn’t even have a driver’s license back then. And Shecky, like most people, actually became a better driver when he was high. Many people who smoke the weed attest to the fact that the effects of cannabis are very different from the idiocy-inducing effects of alcohol, and many say that they become more focused when they are driving. I have ridden with many a stoned driver in my wild and crazy youth, and not once did any of them so much as run a stop sign or forget to signal a turn.
But I am not writing this to debate the effects of cannabis on the human brain. I am merely sharing a story from my youth to illustrate why I often wish we had had cell phones with cameras and clouds and social media back in the glorious 1990s. If we had had such wondrous technology, I would have proof that what you are about to read is true. I could share a photo or even a video of our escapades on that crisp November evening. But we did not have such technologies, so now you’ll just have to take my word for it. See? See, that’s why I am writing this, so keep your opinions about weed to yourself. This is about technology, damn it!
Where was I? Oh yes, high as a kite and cruising around the rolling back hills of Pennsylvania with my new friend Shecky. Who was driving. I sat in the passenger’s seat, loading up another bowl to smoke. Anyway, as we cruised, we drove past a used car lot somewhere on Route 15, and this used car lot’s owner had recently purchased a sales gimmick in the shape of a gorilla. Not a real gorilla, mind you, but a mechanical one. At least, its arm was mechanical. It was designed to sit outside a business, such as a used car lot, and wave its arm at traffic while it grinned and held a sign advertising whatever the latest deals were.
As the grinning gorilla caught our pinkish eyes, we both exchanged a wordless look and just burst out laughing. We were giggling so hard, Shecky pulled off to the shoulder near a bridge until we could collect ourselves and make the fateful decision to turn around and drive by it again for another look.
As we drove by a second time, both of us stoned and amused beyond words at the site of the grinning gorilla waving at nothing, our eyes also noticed that the used car lot had a new addition to the inventory. At the back of the lot we could see the yellow top of a short bus. You know the short bus — the one that brought the special kids to school. The one that was the subject of many a put-down (“You came to school on the short bus, didn’t you?”) or threat (“I’ll hit you so hard, you’ll wake up at the back of the short bus!”).
So there we were — high, bored, and confronted with three simple facts: 1) There was a grinning, waving gorilla. 2) There was an unclaimed short bus in close proximity to said gorilla. 3) Shecky’s uncle owned this particular used car lot, and thereby anything that was on it.
Oh, and one other thing: We were still offended by our friend Tom’s refusal to join us in our evening’s shenanigans. So offended were we that we made Tom the focal point of the hilarity that was developing in our baked little brains. We soon had a plan. At first, like most diabolical schemes, it was just a funny idea, something to postulate upon in a strictly hypothetical sense for some laughs. But as the idea developed, and as our laughter only grew rather than dissipate at each mention of the idea, it became too funny to resist. The idea moved from the realm of the hypothetical to the realm of, “Wait, we could really do this.”
We drove back into town until we found a payphone. A call was placed to Shecky’s uncle. Shecky’s uncle was also bored and had a twisted sense of humor. Arrangements were made. For a cut of our weed, he would help us out. Now the thing about school buses (or maybe just the short ones?) is that they are equipped with PA systems, so that the driver can alert wayward youths to the presence of the bus, or whatever. We wanted to use this PA system to broadcast a short simple message. The message was recorded around 7 p.m. that very evening in the production booth of the college radio station. Shecky and I had keys to the radio station because we both worked there, and we were both in the same Voice and Articulation class that was required to be on the staff of the radio station. We had used the production booth before to produce station identification bumpers, and so it did not take us long to find the sound effect we needed, and to add a voice to back it up. Soon we were armed with a “cart” — a short 8-track tape sort of thing that would run on a loop — and on our way to meet Shecky’s uncle at the car lot.
Now I won’t bore you with the details, but were this an 80s film, this would be the montage portion. We rigged an old 8-track player to the short bus’s PA system. Actually, Shecky did this. He worked at the local sound shop, installing car stereos in the trunks of people’s cars, so he was knowledgeable in the ways of wiring vehicles for sound. As it happened, he had the easy task. It took his uncle and I a good forty-five minutes to separate the torso of the mechanical gorilla from its legs and prop said torso up behind the wheel of the short bus. We had to place it on a small wooden crate to position it so that it could “see” over the steering wheel and get its mechanical arm out the small driver’s side window. Once we had it set, and the tape was ready to play, we carefully removed the gorilla and sat him behind the bus’s driver’s seat so that Shecky’s uncle could drive the bus. There was some question as to who would drive it, as I had no license, and there are rules about driving school buses. Could Shecky have legally driven it without a commercial license if there were no children on board and it was after school hours? I still don’t know. Luckily, his uncle had the proper credentials and was laughing just as hard as we were when we set the bus up for a test run in the used car lot.
Anyway, soon we were on the road, Shecky’s uncle and the top half of the mechanical gorilla in the short bus, and Shecky and I leading him to Tom’s house in Shecky’s car. We slowly, and as silently as we could, pulled the bus into Tom’s driveway just before sunrise. We set the gorilla into position, grinning mug peeping over the steering wheel, waving arm extended out the window. We hit the flashing safety lights on the bus, turned on the PA, hit ‘play’ on the 8-track and we got the hell out of there.
As we drove away, we could not stop laughing at the sight: A short-bus, driven by a waving gorilla, and the sound of a car horn followed by a salutation: *BEEP! BEEP!* “Come on, Tom! It’s time to go!” On a loop. Fuck the neighbors, this was gonna be hilarious!
Shecky and I dropped his uncle with some of our weed back at his car at the car lot and went back to Shecky’s apartment to await the outcome of our plan. We didn’t have to wait long. As soon as we walked into his place, we saw the message light flashing on his answering machine (again, technology was different back then). Two messages were waiting. We hit ‘play’ for the second time that morning. At first, there was nothing, just silence. Then we heard Tom say simply, “Dude… what the fuck?” We started howling with laughter. We laughed so hard that we missed the second half of the message until we played it for the second time. “What… what the actual fuck? What is that?!” The second message was silence, and the sound of a phone rattling around, and then we could hear in the background, “BEEP! BEEP! Come on, Tom! It’s time to go!” He was holding the phone out the window to capture the audio effects. Then he came back on the line, pleaded “What the fuck, man? … Bigfoot drives a bus?!” and then he hung up. And that was the last message.
Shecky and I sat in chairs, doubled over with laughter, tears streaming down our faces, for what felt like a solid twenty minutes without oxygen before we called him back. We were able to calm him down, and promised to come up right away to dismantle the PA system and remove the bus from his driveway. As it turns out, the reason he had not accepted our invitation to drive around and get high was that he had his own plans for getting mental that lazy November night. Tom had dropped acid. He was still tripping, but was coming down, when he heard the waving gorilla calling to him from the short bus.
Terrified that someone was on to him, he had been hiding in his house, afraid to venture outside and become part of the spectacle that was drawing curious attention from the neighbors that were home that week. Luckily, they were not angry. Rather, they were amused. When we arrived, we found our glorious calling card still honking and waving away in the driveway. We made short work of the PA system, and yes, we even posed for a picture in front of the bus with the gorilla smiling through the windshield. We were too giddy with the success of our little prank to ever give the photo a second thought. Within the hour, Shecky’s uncle had come out to reclaim his grinning gorilla and short bus, and life on Tom’s street had returned to normal.
We sat around Tom’s house, laughing as he retold the story of how he had heard the horn and looked out of his bedroom window to discover the surreal sight of a gorilla driving a short bus. He said, “It was like all my childhood nightmares had come to get me. There was no fucking way I was ever gonna get on that bus!” Hilarity and invincible college mirth eventually gave way to exhaustion, and we left Tom to attempt sleep. On his way home, Shecky dropped me off by my dormitory. After a cheerful goodbye, I stood there in the falling snow, grinning and waving my left arm mechanically up and down. He honked twice and waved his arm out the window as he drove away.
I don’t see those guys anymore. I live in a different country and our lives have generally gone along very different paths. If I ever do see them again, though, I know exactly how we will greet one another: Grinning, waving, and saying “Beep! Beep! Come on, its time to go!”
And no, I have no idea what ever became of the photo we posed for. It was on film, so as far as I know it never even got developed. See, that would not happen if we had had digital cameras, Instagram, and a cloud.