This Week In The 80’s: The Longest Summer of My Life
June, 1985. It’s a boiling hot day in the Texas panhandle. I ride my Huffy 10-speed up to a stop sign intersection that greets me like the gates of Hades. Beyond the intersection, the street I’m on looks like it extends on out in front of me until it disappears into the panhandle flatlands.
As I stare into the distance, all I see is dirt. All around me. This town is dirty. There’s a livestock slaughter yard at the other end of town and when what little wind there is blows just right you can smell it. It’s so hot, holy hell it’s hot. And flat. I can actually see the heat rising up off the earth into the cloudless Texas sky. Exasperated, I huff, curse under my breath and turn around to ride back home.
Welcome to Dumas, Texas.
It’s not hell but I could probably see it from that intersection if I squint hard enough. It’s the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school and, due to circumstances beyond my control, my family had to move here right after school ended in May. We move from our house in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, into a little three bedroom apartment. Our house wasn’t palatial, by any means, but my bedroom in this apartment is half the size of my room back home. There are kids a plenty my sister’s age in this little complex. There are also adults for my parent’s to socialize with. Me? I’m alone. There’s no internet, no email, no texting. If I want to stay in touch with my friends back home in Oklahoma if have to use the phone (long distance charges are outrageous) or write and mail letters (it’s called snail mail for a reason). It’s incredibly isolating. What I don’t know as I sit at that intersection is that, by some good fortune, my family is able to move back to my hometown at the end of the summer. But right now, I’m fifteen, friendless and bitter.
In what is probably a peace offering to make up for the fact that we had to move, my dad springs for cable TV and for HBO. He also buys us our first VCR. You know the kind with the “remote” that had the 20 ft. cord? Yeah one of those. As I am the only one who sits down and figures out how it works, I’m the only one who ultimately uses it all summer. Two of the first things I remember recording are Purple Rain and Live Aid. Purple Rain debuted on HBO that month so not only did I watch it just about every time it aired but I recorded it as well. The movie and soundtrack had been out for at least a year and of course I had heard all the singles on the radio but I had never seen the movie because it was rated “R”. Watching the movie gave me a new love and appreciation for the soundtrack and I end up listening to it all summer.
Live Aid was amazing. The day it aired we had a family trip planned to the metropolis of Amarillo, Texas, the location of the nearest mall. Before we left, though, I popped a tape in the VCR, set it on the slowest speed and recorded eight straight hours. Then recorded another four hours on top of that! I dragged the VCR to my room that night and watch on my little 12″ television into the wee hours of the night. I was initially excited about watching Queen and Duran Duran but ended up loved it all.
This is the summer I fall in love with music. If I’m at home, I’m in my room listening to the radio or cassettes but mostly watching MTV. The VJ’s were my friends and I knew when each of them signed on and signed off. (side note: as I write this, it suddenly makes sense why I latched on the 80’s XM station during the pandemic. Isolation led me once again to befriend my old friends – the original MTV VJ’s – who are all now on that station every day). In addition to Purple Rain, I spend the summer listening to 7 Wishes from Night Ranger, The Power Station and No Jacket Required. The top 40 charts are really good this summer as well, so much good music. I also discover an AOR radio station in Amarillo that features “full album Friday” where they would play a album from beginning to end with no interruptions. I recorded several albums straight from the radio that summer. I also figure out a way to attach my Walkman to the handlebars of my bike so now I have music with me all the time. The danger in that is not only can I not hear cars around me but the cord of my headphones is so short I can’t turn my head easily. Best Buy isn’t nation-wide yet and there isn’t a Radio Shack around to buy a headphone extension cord. In an moment of technical brilliance, I sacrifice an old pair of headphones and splice some of its cord into my current headphones and viola! problem solved. It’s janky looking but it serves it purpose perfectly.
It doesn’t take me long to figure out there is truly nothing to do in Dumas, Texas. There’s a newly built YMCA just up the road but there’s never anyone there my age. There’s a public pool but it looks like animals bathe there on a regular basis. My parents try to get me involved in a church youth group but I walk in the first night wearing a Stryper concert shirt and people stare at me like Ren McCormack on the first day of school. (but if we’re being honest I wore the shirt for that exact shock value).
There is, however, a little two screen movie house – The Evelyn Theater – that also doubles as the town’s movie rental establishment but their movie selection is severely limited. So much so that you’re only allowed to rent two movies at a time. I remember renting The Empire Strikes Back and E.T. as well as The Last Starfighter and Night of The Comet. As far as the actual theater goes, don’t let that picture fool you. Those screens were TINY. I did, however see three of the greatest movies to come out of the 80’s in those little sardine cans: Weird Science, The Goonies and Back To The Future. Since I only went to the matinee showings those theaters were never full. Popcorn was served up in little paper sacks and soft drinks came in Styrofoam cups.
I got to go home to see my friends once that summer. Early in August my parents let my sister and I know that we were moving back home to Oklahoma so some would say that all’s well that end’s well. I’ve never been back there and doubt I ever will. I’ve used Google Earth to look up parts of town to see what it looks like now and, unsurprisingly, it hasn’t changed much. For years now, though, one of my favorite quips has been “I spent three years in Dumas, Texas, one summer.” I still believe that. It was and still is the longest summer of my life.