Better Road

This book was my first, and only, foray into the word of non-fiction. I was unfortunate enough to have spent my early twenties in Bloomington, Indiana. I say unfortunate because I have always hated anything affixed to the state of Indiana, and I always will. The only things I treasure that came from there are my wife and two sons, but we have adopted a new home and are more than willing to leave the Hoosier State in the dust.

Back in my earlier days there were some rumors going around in the early nineties about the shocking news that long time guitarist Larry Crane had left the Mellencamp Band under less than congenial circumstance. Even in a town the size of Bloomington it seemed that every had their theories, but neither offended party was talking so soon enough the chatter died down. I let my curiosity wane as well, but as is the case in most things that I do, I still retained the residue somewhere up there.

I don’t recall exactly what got me thinking about that particular situation about twenty five years after the fact, but about four years ago I started to think seriously about it again. On a whim I sent a personal message to Mr. Crane on Facebook, and to my surprise I got an answer. Unfortunately, I was forced to use an intermediary and never spoke with Larry personally. After I had written a sort of fictionalized account of what I was going to do, our correspondence grinded to a halt. After about nine months I thought that I would give the book one more try, and again to my surprise, Larry’s new manager Lisa responded. Evidently they had fired the other manager and were willing to go ahead with the project.

My family and I spend a snowy, freezing February week in Indianapolis and I talked with the ex-Mellencamp guitarist for the better part of it, trying my best to get the facts straight. It was a struggle since my subject was less than forthcoming on many matters so I had to fill in the blanks a lot. I eventually completed the novel and my wife and I edited and formatted it, and by the end decided that I will never do another self published work again.

 

Excerpt from Better Road: The Musical Life of Larry Crane

 

Nothing causes more agony in a young boy’s life than waiting. The night before the family was to make the short trip from their home in Seymour to Aunt Dottie and Uncle Don’s had been sheer agony.  Ten year old Larry awoke that morning full of fire and he paced around the house as the rest of the family completed their morning rituals and prepared for the day out. Seeing his cousins was always good fun, and although he had many friends from school and the neighborhood, being with family meant so much more than his other acquaintances did.

After what seemed like hours his Mom and Dad finally moved their brood toward the Buick Special Wagon out in front of their modest dwelling. Everyone settled into their usual places in the large sedan; Charlie driving with his wife Patty in the copilot’s seat and Larry and his big sister Margie occupying the rear seats. None of them used their seat belts since cars back then were built more like battle tanks than the plastic and aluminum cans that we drive today.

The gas guzzling engine purred away as the normal sights of the heart of Seymour, Indiana passed by outside of the window. As was the norm, Patty Crane chatted good naturedly with her husband about one subject then another as the quiet driver nodded and replied sparingly in the correct places. For him to have done otherwise might have very well brought the ire of the fiery, sandy haired mother of his children and reserved Charlie was not about to let that happen. In the back seat Larry was trying his best to stifle the urge to pester Margie knowing that getting in trouble this day would bring more dire consequences than usual. The thought of having to sit in the car while all of the other kids had fun around him kept him from acting on his boyish impulses. Instead he looked out into the bright morning and traced the family’s route in his mind.

The twenty minutes that it would take to drive from town out to the fly speck of Waymansville where his mother’s family had homesteaded so long ago might as well have been a trip to the moon. The bored youngster counted each and every turn and landmark as he always did when they made the journey north and east. The concrete sidewalks and storefronts gave way to seas of green that surrounded the two lane road. Emerald carpets of winter wheat would soon be turning golden and would give way to the fledgling files of the umbrella like sprouts of the young corn. As the endless rows grew taller the boy could see the orderly parade of his toy soldiers in their strengthening stalks and swore that their tassels were shining bayonets swaying in the summer wind.

Hope sprang up as the car made a right angle and left the blacktop behind them. Plumes of dust bloomed behind them as the gravel road gritted and popped beneath the tires. Salvation arrived as the old home place came into view. Aunt Dottie and her children were milling about the yards as the Buick slid in to the driveway and came to a halt. Larry exited the car like a gung ho Ranger on D-Day, and was soon the midst of a grand reverie.

That day went pretty much the same as all of the others that the family spent together until Larry began his inspection of the interior of the home. Patty’s side of the family had been exceedingly poor when she was a child, but the activity that they all shared was getting together and playing music. She had been introduced to various instruments over the years and her Aunt Dottie had carried on the tradition. As the nosy ten year old peeked and prodded his way through each room he came upon something magical. There leaning in the corner was a collection of components that would shape his life forever after.

From the moment that he picked that box guitar up and held it reverently he knew that there was something special and powerful about it. The smooth contour of the instrument easily fit his own, and as he sat down and strummed that first note a fire flickered inside of him. His eyes widened in surprise as the gentle pluck of the string reminded him of a song that had been playing on the radio lately. Right away he knew the tune and he then set to work recreating it. Before long “Hey There Little Red Riding Hood” sang out from the bowels of the collection of wire and wood, and he could not have been happier about it. That would be the first time that he used the musical ear that he no doubt had inherited from the Woodruff clan, but it would certainly not be the last.

Although that day was special to the ten year old Larry, at the time it wasn’t the moment of epiphany that many older artist have had that set out a career track before them. Actually it was quite the opposite in Larry’s case. Baseball was really first place back then. He was a gifted pitcher and could throw the speed ball fire like no one else in his Little League. Many times the young hurler imagined himself in the big leagues looking in at the catcher’s signal of a fast ball high and tight, striking out his opponent, and then gazing to the stands to see his Mom and Dad beaming back at him from just behind the dugout.  At the time those dreams were more visceral than playing guitar in front of thousands of screaming fans.

Baseball wasn’t just performing with his team on a Saturday morning either. Perhaps the best times that he had were tossing the ball around in the backyard with his dad. It was the smell the well-worn leather of his glove, the exquisite thump of the ball as it hit the webbing, and the rough against smooth texture of the horsehide and its stitching. The father and son games of catch in the backyard were so much more than those obvious feelings, behind it all was the love that his father tossed to him and he caught so easily. Charles Crane worked exceedingly hard to provide for his wife and four children, and did it willingly. Although he worked the third shift he always took time out for his son, and that fact was not lost upon young Larry.

Charlie and Patty were always supportive of whatever their children decided that they wanted to do in life. There was hardly a time that Larry would look up into the stands at his games and not see his parents there cheering him on. That kind of unconditional support made it easy have the confidence to excel at anything that he put his mind to. School game easy for him and he sometimes thought about being a physician or go into another profession when he got older. The combination of natural intelligence and the work ethic that he learned from the example of his father buoyed him in those early years as he decided what to do with his life.

Larry started working outside of the home at eleven or twelve. He had a job sweeping up at a hobby shop around that age, and by all accounts he took his occupation seriously and was well thought of by his employers. The biggest job of his young years was delivering the newspaper that he started when he was about thirteen. Most kids that age mess around with a little route after they get home from school for a little bit of pocket change, but that was far from the industrious teenager’s schedule. Most mornings he was up before the sun, pedaling his bike down to the spot where the freshly printed papers were trucks heaved out the passing trucks by the bushel for him to deliver. The soft newsprint felt smooth as he broke the bindings that held the bundle together and slid a bunch into the canvass bags that hung around his neck. Most mornings the sun would just be peaking up as he kicked his two wheeler forward and began slinging the news at his still sleeping customers.

Margie had turned sixteen the year that the paper route started and she had been so excited about getting her driver’s license. On the days when the rain or snow as unbearable she would hear a soft knock at her bedroom door. “Sis, could you drive me on the route this morning?” as sheepish voice would say. Being the good big sister that she was the two of them would soon after be in the family car for the next couple of hours together.

As if the A.M. route wasn’t enough the hardworking teen took on another after school let out each day. If most boys that age had a nickel to their name it would be burning a hole in their pocket to be liberated, but Larry took practically every cent that he made from his toil and put it in a glass jar in his bedroom. He wasn’t positive what he was saving it for, but someday it would no doubt come in handy.

As is the case with most things in life that become a drudgery through repetition the daily grind of the paper route grew tiresome. Add to that the fact that paper delivery boy doesn’t exactly pay a hefty salary for the work that is required so his days in the news field were indeed numbered. One snowy morning it all came to a head. As the door clicked shut behind him he had a premonition that it was going to be a bad day. The wispy flakes had accumulated thickly on the roads and sidewalks to such an extent that it made riding through it a hazard. Although his tires were by no means bald they were not exactly made for the job that they were being asked to do. After he picked up the papers and jammed them into the overstuffed packs, the exhausted boy pedaled hard through the snow encrusted neighborhoods before him.

The sacks were somehow heavier that morning and the wind burned his already chapped cheeks, turning them even rosier than they already naturally were. The snow kept coming and didn’t look to be stopping any time soon as he made his way down an incline, his feet and legs ready on the breaks should he need them. Without warning the front tire hit an unseen obstacle under the powdery coat of snow and Newton’s laws came into dreadful affect. The hapless victim’s life moved in slow motion as the bicycle came to an abrupt halt, tipped severely forward, and pitched the rider head first toward mother earth.  The lad’s hands came out to catch himself, but his full weight was too much to bear, and his spongy parts connected with the unforgiving world below him.

It was tough to catch his breath for a good half minute, and when he began to recover and realize what had happened, the understanding of it all had an immediate impact. Larry pushed himself up and began rubbing and wiping his abused parts, the anger more palpable as he surveyed the mess of ruined newspapers and his damaged ego.  The chapped red of his cheeks was replaced with a chapped ass as his emotions boiled over. He stomped and growled, cursed and howled out there at the accident scene, and his disgust with his chosen profession was too much to overcome. Suffice to say, those papers found a new home that morning and Larry found a new job.

Soon enough the money that he had worked so hard to make would pay great dividends as it would help him purchase his first guitar.  That acquisition would become his joy and his obsession for the rest of his life. A whole new world was opening up for him and without the youngster realizing it he would send him on a journey that would eventually take him around on a path that he had never even dreamed of before.