I have this strange, displaced memory of driving up from the Texas coastline to San Antonio with my father in his old white Mercury Cougar in the mid-1990s. It’s typically a three hour drive across long stretches of remote and desolate flatlands, crossed by dried-up creek beds and small ranching towns, with occasional gas stations flung far and few apart. Closer to Corpus Christi there are cotton fields and twisted mazes of refineries, the flaming spires of which would light up the night if we left the coastal city after sundown.
But this time, in this ethereal memory, it’s a stormy-looking afternoon turning to dusk, and the storms might explain our early departure from the beach. The air conditioning feels cool and makes the salty sea air feel like a sticky paste clinging to my flesh as the AC dries it away. But what stands out most in this memory—aside from the fact that my father and I are alone; my sister is usually with us—is that we’re listening to a live broadcast of a Van Halen concert from some outlying Texas city, Houston or Dallas or somewhere.
I never really got into Van Halen. They felt kind of uncool by the time I got into music in the early 90s (I was too busy with REM, Nirvana, Beck, Weezer, etc.). My father was a casual fan and my aunt was a huge Sammy Hagar fan, but for some reason on this darkening trek north to escape incoming storm clouds, we’re excited to make this musical discovery and my father turns it up. I recognize most songs, to my surprise, and I recall thinking even then that it was weird how much I enjoyed the experience, sipping on my soda leftover from a Whataburger dinner.
I recall specifically looking at him as he drove, how I could see the setting sun fighting through layers of purple-black clouds blanketing the prairie treeline beyond his profile, the music playing, the miles ticking by. And then, just like that, it was night, and stray lights from small towns and lonely ranches dotted the horizon as Van Halen kept going, and going. I can't remember the year or anything else about that trip, but I remember feeling like my father and I would make that trip a million more times in my lifetime, but knowing even then that it would never feel quite the same as that one trip.
And while we've been there since, a number of times, each time we go I worry it might be the last. We're both getting older, dodging medical mishaps and maladies as best we can. When the day comes though (and I hope it doesn't for a long long time) I truly fear the prospect of ever having to drive to Corpus Christi and the beach without my father behind the wheel. It wouldn't feel right stepping onto the sandy beach without him, eating at Snoopy's Pier without him, filling up the gas tank and heading north as night falls over the refinery lights without him. That random Van Halen concert stamped something permanent in my mind, the feeling that this has to go with that, that one thing can't exist without the other. Sometimes I dream of my father and I on that road at night, happy and tired and listening to music, and I want it to go on forever. It won't, but it will, at least until neither of us is here to remember that one drive home beneath the stormy night skies of Texas.