The thing I will always remember most about my high school days is the cold. Standing outside at the bus stop early on a winter morning, shivering as I anxiously shuffle from foot to foot. I wasn’t alone though, there were about 4 or 5 of us miserable souls all bundled up and waiting on the bus. The most dreary, maudlin part of it all though is that most times, when the bus did finally show up, the rickety yellow clunker’s heater would be busted, leaving us kids to fend off the cold for another half hour or so. I loved that bus though, with its ripped and worn pleather seats, we were both products of the public education system and that created an irrevocable bond between us. The one saving grace though, the lone lighthouse in the middle a raging tempest, was the bus’ car radio, and every morning it played the same station and the same programming; Paul Strong and the Power Morning Crew.
When I tell you that they played the jams I mean, they played the jams. Not just current top 40s (although a great deal of it was) but also some oldskool cuts here and there. For all of us trapped in that little tin can torpedo, it was the only thing that got us smiling, that took our minds off the frost and the chill, the bus driver included. It wasn’t just the music, the playful banter between the radio show hosts got everyone laughing or, sometimes even, acquiescing to a well-made point, usually with the verbal concession; “too true, too true”.
By far the most charming and entertaining of the troupe of hosts was Paul Strong. Every morning, seemingly without fail, Paul was there with us. He sat in the seat across the aisle, he was at the back of the bus horsing around with all of the guys, hell, he was even driving the thing. A disconnected voice, detached from its body but a comforting and familiar presence. I’d often try to imagine what he’d look like, painting images of the hosts in my head as they laughed and conversed.
They made small talk into an art form and I made conjuring their images my own little craft of sorts. I felt just as much of a participant in their morning shows as they were.
A few years ago, and many more since high school, I was working at a small barbecue joint in Westerville. It was winter and the old friendship of the cold bit deep into me as I biked to work every day. I’d wrap a scarf around my face to keep out of the wind and bundle up as tight as possible in an old peacoat. Despite these seemingly flawless efforts I still arrived to work every day, freezing and practically riddled with frostbite.
One day as I came in through the back, tapping the snow off of my shoes and unbuttoning my coat I could sense a bit more liveliness in the kitchen. A friend of the owner’s family was helping out today. He was all smiles and he seemed nice enough so I shrugged, took off my coat, and set to work preparing food. Eventually though, something kept catching my ear. I tried politely not to ease drop on their conversation but there was something familiar about his voice, a casual crispness to his tone that I couldn’t quite place. That’s when he noticed me, grinned and introduced himself as Paul. The realization was almost immediate; oh my god I’m shaking Paul Strong’s hand.
Paul continued to work off and on, usually mornings, to give the owners a hand here and there. He looked nothing like I imagined all those mornings ago and, if I’m being completely honest, I practically felt it was a personal betrayal. How dare he snuff all of my perfectly good mental sketches by not looking like any of them. It was a complete affront to my art. Besides being guilty of the very heinous crime of not looking how I wanted him to look, we generally got along pretty well. I am embarrassed to admit that it reminded me very much of those days on the school bus. The winter raging outside, music and laughter inside.
One day, as I wrapped my scarf around my face and crawled into my peacoat, I went outside to hop on my bike only to discover that it was missing. Absconded off in the middle of the night, most likely by some vicious and terribly cruel teenager with bad hair and worse taste in music. I sighed and trudged the 2 miles to work in somber angst, muttering to myself the whole way about how society was full of sociopaths and degenerates or something else to that effect. Paul eyed me carefully as I got to work that day, “what happened to your bike?” he asked. “Stolen by some cretin degenerate high schooler,” I replied.
He seemed to accept that answer, nodded knowingly, and we didn’t bring it up again.
A few days after that, the cold started to break. The world had a sun again and, while it wasn’t quite warm enough to not wear a jacket, I felt comfortable enough getting rid of the scarf. The walk to work was tolerable, enjoyable even. I walked in the back like usual only to see Paul, grinning his typical Paul Strong grin at me. “How do you like your bike?” He asked. I groaned audibly, “I told ya’. The thing got stolen. Cretin, degenerate high schoolers and all that.” He laughed, “No, no, that one.” He pointed over by the storage shed in the back parking lot and leaning against the front rail was a mountain bike he had brought in to give to me. I didn’t know what to say and he just laughed.
So yeah, Paul Strong gave me a bicycle once. I didn’t really see much of him after that and before long I was shuffling along to another job. I never forgot it though and I never will. So, to Paul Strong, if you’re out there; thanks for the bike and, most importantly, thanks for keeping a poor kid’s mind off the cold.