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Let’s Go on a Barbecue Adventure in Jim & Donna’s Lunar Rover: A 1980’s Chevrolet Astro Van
It’s been a crazy week this week. My neighbors decided to burn their leaves in a pile on top of the cable tv tap for the block that I live on, my mother is in the hospital for pneumonia, I’m just now preparing my tax documents, and my family is in mourning over the loss of my Uncle Dave. It’s not the normal grind I’m used to when it comes to running a business or two on the side, but I will prevail. In the meantime, I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a story I’ve unearthed during long blocks of thought and reflection and it all began returning to me when the environment was just right on a late trip back to Jonesboro from seeing my mother in the hospital in Searcy.
I guess it was in the flat bottomlands and delta between Possum Grape and just north of Newport, Arkansas that I really felt the chill of memories tingling up the back of my spine. There I was, alone in my red truck, with the windows down and the thermometer sitting at a perfect 66 degrees. I had the radio on listening to one of my very long and curated Spotify playlists called “Cool Summer Nights,” a playlist mostly comprised of 1980’s pop and rock music with some relics from the 1960’s and 1970’s thrown in for measure. It was the soundtrack of my life from birth to age 8 and was often blaring through the speakers of my first spaceship, a mid 1980’s Chevrolet Astro Van that my mom and dad drove. The fainting glow of the sun just below the horizon, the rush of damp cool wind from the delta bottoms blowing through my hair, and the beat of the end of an era marching me right along down Rock’N’Roll highway 67 was something I have been missing for a while. I began to visualize myself along with my family in a simpler time; a time before BBQ sauce was a commercial endeavor for my parents, much less Michael or me.
The period marked the upheaval surrounding the inevitable beginning of the fall of the U.S.S.R., Michael and I had a pet snapping turtle named Michael (Duke) Dukakis, The end of the Cold War was nigh, and George Bush was making play for a presidential bid. Dad had already been to Ireland to win the International BBQ Cooking contest once and was returning to do it again. The period was between 1986 and 1989, specifically 1987, with some memories peppered in from other years in the range. The backseat of the van with giant side windows, a sliding door, and no presumptions about knowing how to drive reminded me of an astronaut sitting in a capsule with star fields on all sides. I can remember reclining back in the seat and hearing the radio play thinking to myself that there was no place I’d rather be than right there with my mom and dad as mission control creeping slowly down the gravel roads looking at stars, thunderstorms, coyotes, and deer. We spent hundreds of nights on the St. Francis River Levee fishing, frog gigging, and watching the FedEx planes with landing gear engaged, flying in and out of Memphis like bright white army ants marching to and from a colony, single file and never late.
Some of those nights on the farm ended with a toolbox or cooler full of bullfrogs. I guess it was destined to be in my blood, but Dad was frog gigging when I was pushing my way into the world. I am almost positive it was out of season since my birthday is March 31st and as far back as I can consciously remember, frog season begins on tax day, April 15th, but I digress. Once my brother and I got older there were nights when Dad and his best friend Arthur Lee McDaniel would take us along for the ride. They were masters at frog hunting. We’d roll out in my mom’s van with the night’s sky as our canvas and spotlights as paint brushes. Arthur and Dad would be high-fiving each other in the front seat driving across cow pastures and fields looking for ponds, swamps, rivers, and ditches to catch frogs. Sometimes Dad would just fit as many of the slimy jumpers as he could down the bib of his overalls and hop his way back to the van. Arthur would run and catch the fast ones and put them in his cooler. We’d come home and have dozens of frogs to eat.
Many of those turn rows, gravel roads, and levees ended up back at home where Dad would have a giant smoker or cooker fired up to cook enough for 100 when he needed to cook for 10. I can remember swatting mosquitoes sitting on our screened in front porch watching Dad pull hot aluminum foil apart with his fingers, cussing up a storm, shaking his hands with burns, and basting a big pork shoulder or a dozen or more whole fryer chickens with a mop and a saucepan full of homemade Au Jus. I can still feel the refreshing breeze of the dew fallen grass breaking the monotony of the still of night. The air was fresh and cool with the occasional hint of Au Jus and a slight sting of vinegar, spices, and smoke. The radio was usually tuned to FM 100 or Rock 103 out of Memphis and there was always a Phil Collins or The Police song keeping time and marching through the night. I’d usually lie there in a folding chair or one of my bean bag chairs and keep one eye pried open just watching and listening to my Dad work. After Michael and I finally settled in for the evening it was one of the best times for us to learn the ways our Dad cooked. We’d watch with content until we either drifted off completely or were reluctantly running hand and foot back and forth to the kitchen to grab utensils, pans, ingredients, and so on.
On the nights when we weren’t at home during the summer, we were usually on a river bank somewhere in the mid-south preparing our speeches for the BBQ judges, sharpening our knives, playing flag football with the other teams’ kids, and helping Mom and Dad prepare for judgment day at a regional Memphis in May circuit BBQ contest. While other kids were camping with their parents, uncles, brothers, and cousins, Michael and I were camping at Tom Lee Park in Memphis listening to tall tales of bullshit and trickery from all over the world. When we weren’t in Memphis, we were hanging out in Little Rock, Nashville, and every small town in between. Everywhere a new place, but every person new or old was a familiar face. No matter the venue, we went there via a Chevy Astro van. No matter the mission ahead, the van was our portal to whole new worlds complete with a starry night sky and alien lifeforms all too different from Cherry Valley, AR. As a child of the 1980’s the older I get the more I long for another night under the stars with my family making fun of old drunkards, sometimes punching them in the face, and sugaring up to my older cousins’ new wives or girlfriends.
Before you go, I want to leave you with a recipe for frog legs that will have you hopping onto our online store and buying a few things to get your 80’s montage on while you grill some shrimp and drink Bloody Mary’s with your friends.