The Day Howard Johnson’s Died*, Part 1

It’s surprising how big round numbers of historic significance can sneak up on you. The day I wrote this–December 31, 2016–is the thirtieth anniversary of my first major move as an adult. It was a cross-country move from Indiana to Virginia. It was career oriented. It was a game-changer and a life-changer. It opened my eyes to cultural differences I was unaware existed. All it required was the sacrifice of a Chevy Vega.

I have no pictures of me from that time. I wish I did, especially of the Vega. Fortunately the Power of Google allows me to show you a substitute for the Vega. Here it is:

Imagine this car with a dark-green vinyl top and about 47% more rust, especially around the driver’s side front wheel well, and you have my first car. I called it the Flaming Turtle. For the ’73 year a two-barrel Holley carb was offered as a performance option, kicking its horsepower into the three-digit zone at a whopping 110. The combination of that two-barrel carb and the natural weight decrease of excessive oxidation made it a delightfully ass-hauling machine. It hauled my ass quite well over the ten hour drive.

It didn’t haul my ass without some assistance, of course. Unable to pull a trailer of any kind, I had to settle for mounting a U-Haul rooftop carrier to it. You don’t see those much anymore. The Power of Google produced only one picture of the type I had, in fact, from a “Throwback Thursday” page on U-Haul’s website:


Too bad I couldn’t  have a VW Bus to make the move with as well. In the ’80’s, nothing  would have set apart a budding young air personality quite like having a VW Bus. Alas, the Vega was all the character I could afford (free, from my parents, for driving to college a few years earlier).

The move was from my first job in radio to my second, back when I still believed a successful radio career for an iconoclastic loner was a practical, possible thing. I’d grown up in Indiana, gone to college in Bloomington, had plenty of family still in the state or close to it, and had no desire to leave it. So I happily accepted a radio job inside my home state to begin my career, figuring if it was good enough for Sid Collins–original Voice of the Indianapolis 500, look him up–it was good enough for me.

Where I had started was the property of a man who preferred things done a very certain, very specific way. He would have you believe this was his unique way, time-tested, infallible, and needed by a wayward nation without moorings; but in reality it was spelled out in The Blue Book of the John Birch Society, and after having read it, I decided this was not the direction my life needed to go. So I looked for opportunities elsewhere in Indiana.I found none. My employer’s reputation preceded itself. It was possible to escape it in-state, but you had to know someone else, and I was young, and did not.

So I researched and found there are companies who, for a fee, will work with talent of all levels of experience. Somehow, without anyone figuring out what I was doing, I managed to produce a passable demonstration tape and send it to one of these companies. They had me placed within a month’s time. I gave two weeks’ notice. The owner reluctantly let me go, noting where I was going was a scant 40 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., “The Disneyland of the East.” Being one of two others leaving, the staff threw us all a “Has-Been” party. This would be our tie to the stuff of legend this station, and this owner, really was, having its origin from a popular on-air personality who engaged the owner constantly in philosophical discussions over what was right and proper for a personality to discuss over the air. The personality left not only the station, but radio altogether, for something with more sound economic potential so he could feed, house, and clothe his family.

“Looks like you’re a has-been now,” the owner said to him upon receiving his notice. “Too bad. Oh, well, I’m sure we gave you a few fond memories.”

The staff threw him a party and gave him a T-shirt with “W— HAS-BEEN” stenciled across the front. Ever since, all who left the station received the same. I may still  have mine someplace.

The same weekend a brother with a pickup truck came to get the furniture I couldn’t take with me, and a few days later I rented the rooftop rack for the Vega, stuffing it full of personal belongings, then stuffing the trunk full of personal belongings, then stuffing the back and passenger seats full of personal belongings. Finally I stuffed my person into it and aimed the car towards I-70. I was off. I was out.

I’ll write more later. Right now I want to kiss off 2016, much like I wanted to kiss off 1986. Let’s hope this next one is better than we have any right to expect. Excelsior.