The Day Joe Strummer Saved My Life

In August of 1987, exactly 8 days before the start of my sophomore year of college I faced a personal crisis that threatened to undo my entire life’s plan.  It was music, specifically the music of Joe Strummer and the Clash, that miraculously provided a timely solution to an impossible situation.

*

In the winter of 1982, during my senior year of high school, my father suffered a tragic economic collapse.  His life’s work, as an independent supermarket owner on the South Shore of Massachusetts, dissolved under a mountain of debt in early December of that year.  As a result, my parents went into a financial tailspin that they would never fully recover from.  I was the youngest of 4 children, the only one still living at home, and I immediately knew this turn of events would change my plan to attend the University of Rhode Island in the fall of 1983.

After spending the subsequent two years unsuccessfully saving for college by working as a landscaper, roofer, and other manual labor jobs, I had joined the Army National Guard.  Thanks to the glorious G.I. Bill, I finally managed to get to an affordable college in the fall of 1986.  In order to save money that first year, I commuted from my home town to the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth (a 50-minute one-way drive on a good day). For the entire first year of college, I borrowed my brother’s car to attend school.  That car was available only because my generous brother, a member of the US Navy, had training requirements and deployments that entire year and didn’t need his car.

However, in the summer of 1987, my brother had returned from the sea, picked up his car and headed off to a naval base.  This left me with a dilemma:  how was I going to get to school in the fall of 1987 for my sophomore year?  Sure I was working and yes, I was pulling in a small monthly check from my one-weekend-a-month National Guard duties, but I’d never been able to save enough cash to cover room and board at college.  Likewise, a combination of youthful irresponsibility and low salary had left me with no real hope of buying a car either.

It was the summer of great discomfort.  I was already 3 years behind my high school friends, most of whom graduated college months earlier in the spring of 1987.  Now I was faced with the bleak prospect that I would not return to the University in the fall.  Barring a miracle, I would be home in September without a car, without any hope of completing my college degree, and without a future.  I skillfully navigated awkward conversations with friends throughout June and July, pretending that everything was fine; and “yes, I was looking forward to returning” to school in September.  Despite my charade, by mid-August I was sure of one thing:  there was no way on earth I was going back to college in September.  Sure, I was enrolled – but I knew, with certainty that I would not be in class on the first Tuesday after Labor Day.

**

On the last Sunday in August, reality loomed just 8 days away.  Reality, a monster that plagues all men, was shadow boxing and eagerly awaiting his chance to knock me out cold.  I was resigned to my beating, hopelessly playing out my remaining summer days.

Music has always been an important part of my life.  It has always brought me joy; and more importantly it has brought me escape.  So, on that last Sunday of August, I did something that defied logic.  I went to the record store to buy an album.  It was completely irrational; it was futile; it was stupid.  But with Otter’s voice in my head, “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part,” I headed to the mall with the intent of buying Black Market Clash by Joe Strummer and the Clash.

I lingered in the “Musicsmith” a (now defunct) music sanctuary in my local mall.  I spent an hour flipping through vinyl LPs, which was the best way to shop.  You poured over the vinyl selections and then you bought a cassette for the boom-box in your bedroom.  Of course, on that day I knew exactly why I was at the store.  I needed a new cassette of Black Market Clash because, as anyone who has owned tapes can attest to, they get eaten from time to time.  Black Market Clash a collection of killer non-album singles and B-side tracks by Joe Strummer and the boys.  Soon, I’d be home listening to Armagideon Time with the lyric apropos to my predicament:

“No one will guide you, through armagideon time.”

As I waited in line to pay for Black Market Clash, I noticed that the guy ringing the register was a classmate from high school days, Dan Heggerich.  Dan was a good guy – lots of fun; we were friendly in high school but I hadn’t really talked to him in years.  I dreaded the inevitable conversation about college.  To make matters worse, last year I’d seen Dan on campus at the University of Massachusetts (he was an engineering student) so it was a guarantee that he would ask something like “ready for school?”

I considered putting back the Clash cassette and quietly escaping.  But I had to hear Joe Strummer sing.

“My daddy was a bank robber, but he never hurt nobody…”

I decided to fake one more conversation.

***

Dan:  “Cheetham – good choice with the Clash.” He took the cassette from me.

Me:  “Well, they are my favorite.”

Dan:  “Ready to go back to school?”  (There it was.)

Me:  “Yeah.  How about you?  You going back too?”

Dan:  “Yup.  But I am not living there this year.  Need to save money so I am going to commute.”

[What?  My mind clicked and whirred.  Did he just say, commute!?]

Me:  “Commute?  You mean you are driving to campus every day.  A 50-minute commute every day?”

Dan:  “Yeah – kinda sucks.”

Me:  “Actually it might be the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”

****

Dan and I drove to school together every day that year.  We became good friends and had lots of laughs. The Heg-Man, as he came to be known by me, saved my sophomore year.  When I reflect on that day – even today I can’t believe it.  It was/is a miracle.  If I had not gone to a record store when it made absolutely no sense to do that, I would have never made it through college.

Go figure.

Yes, Dan Heggerich is a hero in this story – I can never repay him.  And yes, I agree, God works out beautiful chance encounters for us all on a daily basis, and I can never thank Him enough.

But when I look back on August 1987, I still say it was the day that Joe Strummer saved my life.

R.I.P.  Joe

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

P.S.

Here’s The Clash with Armagideon Time from Black Market Clash

http://youtu.be/6enAv2SEA38

Oh, and just in case you were wondering about that “Otter” quote:

http://youtu.be/_h4DZeBleLs

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One thought on “The Day Joe Strummer Saved My Life

  1. Great piece, Chris!

    Before I read it, I thought for sure that you would be talking about selling that signed Clash poster…

    Hope all’s well w/ the Cheethams these days.

    Like

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