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Driving with Jim Pepper


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It was a dark and stormy night. No really, it was dark and it was stormy. I was driving home, maybe halfway from Leicester, Massachusetts to Nashua, New Hampshire. Ordinarily, it was maybe an hour-and-a-quarter's drive, but in this rain it would take at least two hours, I guessed. It hadn't been a particularly snowy winter, but as spring approached it seemed that nearly every weekend that I made that trek it was raining. Raining hard.

There are stretches along the noisiest, most crowded highways in Massachusetts where you can almost forget that you're surrounded by semis, minivans, U-Haul trucks, canoe-topped station wagons, pickup trucks and those obscene monstrosity SUVs - you sail over a gentle hill and suddenly all you see stretching out in front of you, and to either side, is green forest. It's as if all the towns - Marlboro, Stow, Boxboro, Acton, Littleton - are mere interruptions dropped here and there and hidden among the maple, pine, oak and birch-covered hills. Hawks and crows patrol the roadside, watching the frenetic traffic buzzing by - busy people, on their way somewhere, or on their way back from somewhere, and doing it again the next day, and the next... It's easy to imagine those roadside hawks shaking their heads and thinking, "What's the hurry? Why so frantic? Chill out, people. Sheesh." After all, when's the last time you saw a hawk in a hurry? And then there's the crows, squawking as if they barely have the patience to deal with us, even as they gladly pick at the carcasses - squirrels, racoons, hedgehogs, the occasional deer and fox - left behind on the highway by all the speeding cars and trucks.

But on this night, there was just darkness and rain.

I remember exactly what time it happened. And I definitely know how hard it was raining. It was 10 minutes before 11 at night, and I was on I-495, heading north through Boxboro (a town that, like its neighbors Marlboro, Westboro and Southboro, after some 200 years or more, still can't decide if the town name is spelled with "-boro" at then end, or "-borough"). Nothing to be seen through the windshield but the hint of a wall of dark trees on both sides, lots (and lots) of water in front, white divider lines blinking their way under my tires. And nothing beyond the feeble reach of the headlights - even their beams seemed waterlogged and heavy. Eric Jackson was winding up his "Eric in the Evening" jazz show on WGBH radio out of Boston; he had just announced his last call for listeners to pledge their contributions to the station's spring fund drive and receive a "Jazz All Night" t-shirt. I couldn't resist.

Jackson had been playing several recordings by Jim Pepper that night, an impromptu tribute to the Native American saxophonist that made it so much easier for me to deal with driving through the rain and the dark. "Witchi Tai To" and "Hello Young Lovers." "No More War Dance" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." That almost surreal repertoire of his.

With one hand on the wheel, I groped around on my seat, flicking old peanuts and chewing gum wrappers out of the way, feeling for a pen. Finding one (and hoping it wasn't yet another dried-out one), I quickly stuck it between my teeth and went back to the gum wrappers and peanut shells to find a piece of paper to write down the station's number.

Ten minutes left. And I needed to find a phone somewhere in this rain-soaked forest.

The exit sign read Boxboro (although the town line sign just past it snootily proclaimed the more "colonialistically correct" Boxborough), and the little symbols said there was a gas station there. Five minutes left. Can I make it? Now the sign says gas stations to the left and the right off the ramp. But what are chances of one of them having a phone? Worse yet, what are the chances of one having a phone that actually works? And what if it's the one to the right that has a working phone, but I turn to the left? Who cares, no time to worry about these things - I dropped the existentialist mind patter and let the van take itself around the corner, to the left, where I quickly found the Mobil station a mere hundred yards away.

There was the phone, on the outside wall, between the men's and women's bathroom doors (with the usual broken locks). Totally exposed to the elements and idling truck motors (just who was the genius who decided it was a better idea to have public phones completely open to all the road noises and weather? Where the hell did all the telephone booths go, anyway?).

Inside myself, I yelled at the obsessive voice that's always pondering these kinds of details and got myself back on track. I pulled in and parked right by the phone. I was pledging for that t-shirt. For Jim Pepper. And, oh yeah, "to support my local public radio station." But I have to admit, it was mostly for Jim Pepper and that black t-shirt.

I think the rain knew what I was up to and was determined to make me work for it. It seemed like the downpour started coming down twice as hard as soon as I stepped out of the van. Before I could take a breath, before my feet even hit the pavement as I dove into the airborne deluge, there was already a rushing river, a tidal wave, a Niagara Falls cascading down the back of my head and under my collar. For a moment, I flashed on the image of me, the gas station, and the phone all being swept away in a sudden, great flash- flood that made the Mickey Mouse "Sorcerer's Apprentice" cartoon look like a minor household mishap. I think I even saw Noah for an instant, on the highway, waving from the bow of his interstate Ark.

With the phone number on the slip of paper held firmly between my lips, and the receiver wedged between my shoulder and ear, I fished around in my jacket pockets and found a lone quarter. I dialed. A young woman's voice answered.

"Do I have time?" I blurted out. "Can I make a pledge and get the t-shirt?" Water pouring off my nose and spraying from my mouth. God knows what it must have sounded like from the other end of the line. She laughed and said "Sure."

"Tell Eric that this is for Jim Pepper - from Bill, standing in the rain to make this pledge."

She took down my information, told me to look for the pledge card in the mail in another week or so. I was to put my check in the envelope, mark the size shirt I wanted, and won't I please mail it back as quickly as possible, OK? "Sure sure," I told her through the splashing and inhaled rain. "Just make sure to tell him - this pledge is for Jim Pepper from Bill, standing in the rain."

She promised to tell him, and said maybe he'd even read it on the air if there was time before he signed off for the night.

Soaked, waterlogged, every wet step squeaking in my sneakers, but victorious against the storm, I waded back to the van and headed for the highway. The last Jim Pepper tune of the night was winding down, the show was about to end. I had gotten my pledge in, promised my support to jazz on night-time public radio, got my t-shirt reserved - and did it for Jim Pepper.

When the song ended, Jackson came on to thank his listeners for supporting the fund drive. But before closing, he had one last announcement to make.

"And we have one final pledge tonight - for Jim Pepper ... from Bill Standing-In-The- Rain. Thank you, Bill."

Thank you, Eric. And thank you, Jim. From Bill, who doesn't mind the rain so much any more.

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