Driving mix tapes were fun, and you can't beat having überbytes of music on an MP3 player, but the randomness of radio can turn a pleasant driving moment into one-a-them epiphanic experiences.
One of my all-time favorite driving radio experiences came in the summer of 1990: Highway 85, east of Bakersfield, 3:00 AM. I'm driving my '65 Impala sedan, which was equipped at the time with its miraculously-still-functional factory AM radio, and I'm twiddling the tuner knob in an effort to find something worth listening to. Between a thunderating Spanish-language radio preacher and Barry Manilow, I catch a couple seconds of what sounds for all the world like the voice of James Ellroy.
A little background here: I've been a slaveringly devoted fan of Ellroy's work since the mid-1980s, when he was an obscure crime-fiction writer with a hard-on for twisted Southern California downward-spiral narratives, and I've ripped off plenty from Ellroy's style for my own writing. I rejoiced when he finally hit the big time (in terms of book sales) with The Black Dahlia in '87, and I counted the days until the release of each of the following books in what became known as the "L.A. Quartet."
L.A. Confidential was the third book of the Quartet, and it had been released just days before; could I be tuning in some distant station broadcasting Ellroy reading from his book? Yes! With jeweler-like microscopic adjustments of the old Delco's tuning knob, I brought the author's voice back, buzzing out of the crappy dash-mounted mono speaker. He was reading from Chapter Eight, in which we learn the truth behind Lieutenant Ed Exley's alleged World War II heroism:
A little Shinto shrine, tucked into a clearing covered with camouflage netting. Dead Japs on pallets, jaundice green, emaciated. Every man ripped stomach to ribcage; ornately carved swords, blood-caked, stacked neatly. Mass suicide—soldiers too proud to risk capture or die from malaria.
Three trenches cut into the ground behind the temple; weaponry nearby—rifles and pistols rusted out from heavy rain. A flamethrower wrapped in camouflage cloth—in working order.
He held it, knowing just one thing: he would not survive Guadalcanal. He'd be assigned to a new platoon; his scout run dawdlings wouldn't wash. He could not request an HQ assignment—his father would deem the act cowardice. He would have to live with contempt—fellow LAPD men wounded, awarded medals.
"Medals" led to "Bond Tours" led to crime scene reconstructions. He saw his opportunity.
He found a Jap machine gun. He hauled the hara-kiri men to the trenches, put useless weapons in their hands, arranged them facing an opening in the clearing. He dropped the machine gun there, pointed toward the opening, three rounds left in the feeder belt. He got the flamethrower, torched the Japs and the shrine past forensic recognition. He got his story straight, made it back to battalion HQ.
Recon patrols confirmed the story: fighting Ed Exley, armed with Jap ordnance, french-fried twenty-nine of the little fuckers.
The Distinguished Service Cross—the second highest medal his country could bestow. A stateside bond tour, a hero's welcome, back to the LAPD a champion.
Then I lost the signal. Still, it felt like winning the lottery, and it was my favorite driving radio moment. What's yours?