I was a junior in high school before I first attempted to take the bus to school. If you lived more than two miles from school, the district would provide a school bus for students. This was a new experience for me. I was nervous. I had always walked to school, but the idea of not being cold in winter or arriving to school sweaty in June was enticing.
I walked the two blocks from my house to the bus stop. I stood a few feet away from the other kids who mingled in their peer groups until the bus arrived. Everyone lined up and began boarding the bus. When I reached the top step, the bus driver, who resembled Edith Bunker, yelled at me.
“Where’s your money?”
I was startled. I didn’t have any money. Why did I need money?
“Fifty cents,” she said. “Or three tickets for a dollar.”
“But I live more than two miles from school ma’am,” I said. “The bus is supposed to be free.”
I didn’t understand. My house was 2.1 miles from the school. The bus driver furrowed her brow and frowned at me, repeating her “fifty cents” mantra. She may have looked like Edith, but she wasn’t nice. I’m sure the real Edith would have let my ignorance slide for one day.
I received reduced lunch at school. I knew even then it was a stretch for my mom to provide me with the quarter to pay for lunch. There was no way she could afford to pay for me to take the bus to and from school every day.
I turned around and pushed past the kids waiting behind me. I began walking to school. When I arrived at Middletown High School, I entered through the band room door. I opened the large cabinet assigned to me and leaned my stick bag against the snare drum I used in marching band. I had spent the previous two years playing quads and was promoted to snare over the summer. I took off my backpack and exchanged the the items in it for the items I needed for class until Wind Ensemble 5th period when I would return to the band room. I completed the process again after Wind Ensemble for the rest of the day and a third time before walking home at 2:23 p.m., three minutes after school ended.
When I returned home, I grabbed a Golden Delicious apple and headed to my room to sort out what I was going to do. I missed half of my freshman year, so I didn’t attend school. During the second half of my freshman year and entire sophomore year, a family friend dropped me off a few blocks from school. He had to pass the high school on his way to work, but was no longer able to do so.
I asked my mom if it was okay if I could take my Sony Walkman with me to listen to on the way to school. She was hesitant at first. I had asked for a good cassette player for Christmas the year before. I didn’t receive it. We didn’t have a lot of money. I knew I wasn’t getting one, but I hoped anyway. I had shown my mom the Sony WM-F10 II FM/AM Stereo Cassette Player one day when we were in Playtogs, a cheap department store in town. The Walkman was behind a layer of glass in a display case. My mom seemed disinterested, especially when she saw the $150 price tag ($358 in 2021). It was so out of our range that I should not have even hyped myself up or considered it a possibility.
I didn’t get it for Christmas. My mother, however, had not forgotten. She saved up for it. On my 16th birthday the following July, I received a picture of the Walkman from an ad in the paper, wrapped in birthday paper. She had not finished paying for it on layaway, so I would have to wait another month before I actually received it. The Walkman came with the understanding this was my only birthday gift and it was likely going to also be my only Christmas present.
As a teenager, I was disappointed I couldn’t have it now, but this way of giving gifts was also not unusual in my family. I rarely got the gifts I wanted. I got the gifts I needed. If it was a “want” my mom often had to save to afford it.
She was hesitant to let me take it to school. She didn’t want it to be stolen. I had to promise I would keep it with me all day and never leave it in my “locker” in the band room. It was a huge responsibility to make sure it was always safe.
I went up to my room to decide which album I was going to take to school. I had decided it didn’t matter because I could always swap out the album with something else any day I wanted to. Over time, with my paper route money, I had purchased cassettes all of Led Zeppelin‘s catalog, Rush’s “Moving Pictures,” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” My classmate and fellow drummer, Brian, was wealthier than me and owned far more LPs than I did. He would copy them onto a blank cassette tape and take them on band trips. His theory was if someone stole his cassettes, he still had his records at home. He made me several mix tapes, with bands like Deep Purple and Steely Dan, as well as full albums, including all of Rush‘s catalog.
After some consideration, I settled on Led Zeppelin’s “In Through the Out Door.” The album received mixed reviews when it was released. Fifteen-year old me didn’t care about what pretentious music reviewers thought. She listened with her ears and her heart. While there are songs on every Led Zeppelin album I thoroughly enjoy, I rarely skipped a song on this one. It would turn out to be the only album I ever listened to on the way to and from school.
I put a spare AA battery in my backpack in case the battery in my Walkman died. I placed the cassette into place and rewound it to the beginning. I was ready for the next day at school.
My routine was the same every day. I woke up at 12:50 a.m., drive down to the Times Herald-Record with my mom to pick up roughly 200 papers for my newspaper route, deliver the papers and get back home by 4:30 a.m. I would sleep until about 6:15 a.m., get up, get a shower, and be out the door by 6:35 a.m.
Nearly every day, I wore a white, Fruit-o-the-Loom t-shirt and blue jeans. This made me cool for about 10 seconds in 1984 when Bruce Springsteen’s album “Born in the USA” came out. I put on my blue and white New Balance sneakers, making sure not to tie them, lest I be more uncool than I always was. My fellow bandmate, Glen, eventually became a tattoo artist. In 10th grade, he took my Levi’s blue jean jacket, which took me a year to save up the money to buy, and painted the back in black and white with Led Zeppelin’s name, Swan Song Icarus logo, and the band’s four symbols. Sadly, I had to sell the jacket my senior year in college so I could purchase food to survive.
I put my backpack on over my jean jacket. My headphones dangled around my neck as I bounded down the stairs.
Mom would yell something about not running in the house, followed by an “Okay,” by me. I would get my lunch money from her – usually a beat up quarter – shove it in my pocket, and put my headphones on while I walked out the front door.
I jumped off the porch and headed down Wallkill Avenue with “In the Evening” already blaring in my ears. Only the first few measures of the song were played before I turned a swift right onto Knapp Avenue and a sharp left a block later onto Wickham Avenue, which I would traverse for the majority of my two-mile journey to school.
The nice thing about going to school, was it was all downhill. If I was behind schedule, the downhills and level ground made it easier to run. The top of the hill began at the old armory, which was also WALL radio station.
By the time I reached Thrall Park, “Fool in the Rain” was playing and I shuffled along to music. It’s my favorite song on the album and remains one of my all-time favorite songs to this day. I tended to space off any potential dangers for the six minutes and eight seconds it was flowing through my ears. It was the only song I would sing to out loud during my trek to school.d
There were mental checkpoints on the way to school, particularly the Carvel ice cream shop on Cottage Street where I had to be extra cautious as I maneuvered through the six-way intersection.
By the time I passed the 211 bagel shop, I was already listening to Side 2. “All of my Love,” would cause me to slow my pace as I always thought about the heartbreak behind the song. I didn’t often go in the bagel shop, despite their fantastic garlic bagels with garlic chunks baked in, because the junior high chain-smokers were in there before school. Their smoky haze was more than I could tolerate.
The bagel shop was my cue to hang a right and head down Wisner Avenue, passing the junior high and the softball fields where I spent parts of many summers. Baseball and softball were large sports in town and I played games in at least four facilities every year. As I took my final turn onto Gardner Avenue extension, I would tap the blue mail box with my right hand and think about how I was only two blocks from my old home.
“I’m Gonna Crawl” was playing and some days, I felt like doing just that. I was often sleep-deprived from a variety of things, including nightmares, working overnight, and marching band. The song is about a man looking for his lady, but my teenaged brain just wanted to crawl back into bed.
I tended to walk to the beat of “In Through the Out Door.” This allowed me to step into the band room at 7:10 a.m., just as the bell rang. If I was late, it didn’t matter. The band director left the door open and would give me a pass to first period. In my senior year, Dr. Whitelegg let me stay and practice since I didn’t actually have a first period class.
On the rare occasion I did take the bus, it took 35 minutes longer to get home than walking. Mean Edith telling me I needed money to ride the bus was a blessing in disguise.
The only thing better than listening to Led Zeppelin on the way to school was flipping the cassette back to Side 1 for the walk home. I wore out two cassette tapes of “In Through the Out Door” in high school. The money was well-spent as it was a peaceful way to begin my day and a respite from the chaos of the things I endured at school.
Picking a favorite Led Zeppelin album is impossible. They are all great in their own way. “In Through the Out Door,” however, will always be special to me as the uniqueness of each song held my attention away from the chaotic world I lived in.
I walked to school in every kind of weather, but I liked the rain the best. “I’ll run in the rain till I’m breathless/When I’m breathless I’ll run till I drop, hey/The thoughts of a fool’s kind of careless/I’m just a fool waiting on the wrong block…