American Top 40 PastBlast, 3/3/73: Loudon Wainwright III, “Dead Skunk”

Third grade was my first year at Walton-Verona Elementary School, in Verona. We’d moved to the area from Stanford in June 72. I found myself one of almost forty students in Mrs. Turner’s class. That year gave me my first experiences in riding a school bus; along the way I got a tiny taste of being bullied and took a shot of a sort at songwriting.

When we started that fall, Amy and I rode Bus #3. Our driver was Mr. Gibson, who attended our church. Mr. Gibson’s morning route went up Beaver Rd., the street off US 25 immediately to our south, before it came to ours. We had a view of the last quarter-mile of Beaver from our living room window, so we could see the bus go all the way out to pick up the brother and sister who lived at the end, then slowly back up to turn around. At that point we knew we had five minutes to walk out to the corner of Bedinger and Plum, where we’d meet up with Rebecca, one of Amy’s classmates, to climb around our yellow ride. Within a couple of years, Mr. Gibson got a brand new bus, #4.

My neighborhood was toward the end of the route and students of all grades were on board, so it was usually plenty crowded from the time I got on board until we reached the junior high/high school. There, younger kids deposited at the high school by other buses would climb aboard, and we’d get on I-75 North to take I-71 South toward Verona, about six miles away. We did the reverse in the afternoons, depositing some young ones at the high school and taking on 7th-12th graders for the route home.

There was a guy on that bus ride from the high school toward home who apparently didn’t care for the cut of my jib. He was a few years older, probably in sixth or seventh grade in 72-73—we’ll call him Jack, which is not his real name. I’m pretty sure that Jack grew up without many advantages; my mind’s eye sees that his clothes were well worn and that he often looked like may not have bathed. He never actually hit me, and because we got to his house well before mine, he didn’t get the chance to taunt me away from the relative safety of the bus. But he did sit in a nearby seat and tried to intimidate me with some frequency. The worst, and possibly final, thing Jack did happened when he managed to sit next to me as we pulled out of the high school. Out came a pocket knife, and then out popped a blade, pointed at my chest. I think he was just trying to scare me (it worked reasonably well!), to show me who was boss. You kind of wonder how the older males in his life had treated him, were treating him.

I don’t remember the particulars of what happened next. I’m certain I told my parents about it, and they must have talked to someone at the school. I have to believe that Jack still rode my bus, but I think the worst was over, even beyond third grade.

I seriously didn’t remember there were 39 kids in Mrs. Turner’s class! Pretty sure that was decently larger than my first- and second-grade classrooms in Stanford. There were only two third-grade classes that year; I believe we were split into three groups for the remainder of elementary school. Turns out that, for various reasons, only 18 of those 39 graduated from W-V in 82—a lot of the attrition was due to folks moving away, a few right after third grade.  I think I remember names for all but two of these folks—I’m asking my FB friends to see if we can put a complete and accurate list together. The composite photo is a real treasure—such smiles, such innocence! Our futures were still waiting to be written.

One of my first friends in Walton was Dwayne. He lived on Beaver, and was also one of Mrs. Turner’s thirty-nine. He’s the second male in the bottom row in the composite—Tony, the HS classmate with whom I’ve kept closest touch, is the first male in that row (yes, I’m in the very middle). Dwayne was always pretty easy-going and often able to see the humor in almost any situation; he was one of my group of good friends in high school. He was definitely one of the people I wanted to hang around on that bus ride home, and he wound up playing a big role when I tried out my first (only?) fragment of a song.

Mom always listened to James Francis Patrick O’Neill on WLW in the mornings as we were getting ready for school.  JFPO was quite the showman, and I have a lot of fond memories of various skits he put on. But of course he played some music, too, and I’m betting that’s how I first heard Kate McGarrigle’s one-time husband’s one hit record—it seems like something O’Neill would give a spin.  I probably didn’t hear it more than once or so (can’t imagine that our Top 40 station was playing it), but the phrase “dead skunk in the middle of the road” must have REALLY caught my attention. The melody and other words hadn’t stuck, however; before long, I filled the absence of repeated listening with my own tune and lyrics:

WRHScoreDeadSkunk

While this may not be exactly the music I “composed,” it’s darn close. I’ve carried it around in my head for 45 years, and was able to pick it out on the piano pretty quickly this week.  I’m sure it says something about nine-year-old boys that I didn’t consider that Wainwright was singing about roadkill and not hunting or target practice.

One day on the bus home from school, I shared my “song” with Dwayne. I take it he was at least as familiar with the real tune as I was, and he liked what I’d done. For some short period of time, it was a hit: I’d sing, and Dwayne would play-act the role of the skunk, first taunting the shooter over his lack of accuracy and then keeling over after the fatal bullet was fired.

On Thursday of this week I went to Florence on some business. I had a bit of extra time on the front end, so I exited I-75 at Walton to drive around a little. The high school isn’t very far from the exit, so it was easy to drive past it. I then followed a good chunk of the route old #3 would take on its way to drop me at home. Down past the spot where Jack showed me his knife, then past Dwayne’s house and all the way out to the end of Beaver Rd. There’s a shortcut now to get to my old neighborhood from Beaver that bypasses US 25, so I cheated and used that. It seems I wind up driving by the house where we lived in Walton every couple of years, and it never fails to surprise me how small and close together everything now seems on Bedinger. I get that I was much smaller when we moved there, but I was nineteen when we moved away. I stopped in front of the old place, to see how good the view of Beaver is now.  Between maturing trees and houses springing up over the last thirty-five years, we’d have a much harder time checking on the bus today.

To be honest, I don’t know that I heard the real “Dead Skunk” (at #34 here, heading toward #16) much again, if at all, until about five years ago, when I started listening to AT40 rebroadcasts. Doesn’t mean it hadn’t been on my mind off and on in the meantime—it certainly has a bit of a special place in my musical landscape.

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