Thursday, June 19, 2014

Planes, Trains and 18 Wheelers

I loved "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," the 1987 comedy starring Steve Martin and John Candy. My son, Owen, has loved trains for many years, and recently has become enamored of plane spotting. But I think at 12 he's a little young to watch this R-rated film.

I thought of the movie after watching Owen over the last several days bounce out of the house with his camera every time he hears a plane overhead. He snaps pictures, and then zooms in on the screen to see what type of plane, and what carrier. If he can't tell, he can always check the radar app on his phone. It's pretty amazing how technology has made easy what surely used to be an exercise in futility, as plane spotters would have to buy trade magazines, visit the public library to check through Encyclopedia Brittanicas, hack into air traffic control or spend loads of money on telephoto lenses for their cameras.

Owen and I have traveled to South Boston's Castle Island a few times in recent weeks to watch planes take off and land at Logan Airport. The planes are so low, you can almost hear people complaining about having to turn off their electronic devices.

And of course the two of us have traveled countless miles on Boston's subway system over the last several years, and driven far and wide so he can take pictures and videos of commuter, Amtrak and freight trains.

Sometimes I wonder, "How can he enjoy looking at the same planes and trains over and over?" Then I harken back to when I was his age, and obsessed with semi trucks and boogie vans.

Here's how I described my fascination with 18-wheelers in the road trip memoir I've been working on for the past two years:

I knew Peterbilts from Kenworths, Macks from Internationals. I liked conventionals better than cabovers. During my bus ride to junior high school every day my heart skipped a beat when I saw the gleaming red-white-and-blue tractor with the double sleeper sitting in the parking lot of a factory in the center of my town.

I would ride my bike, sometimes alone, other times with my buddy Pat and his younger brother Bryan, about half a mile to the main drag through my hometown and anxiously wait for big rigs to drive by. When I spotted one, I'd give the signal for the driver to blow his air horn, and whoop it up whenever they complied.

Spotting trucks was my favorite game while on family road trips.

One time, I had my mother drive me about 10 miles into Granby, so I could take a picture of a Peterbilt that I'd noticed on a previous drive. Here's the picture:

I still keep an eye out for big trucks when I'm on the highway.

Around this time, ages 11-13, I discovered custom vans. I bought magazines and ogled the tricked-out rides (and bikini babes), and looked for boogie vans wherever I went. Connecticut's Farmington Valley wasn't exactly a hotbed of vintage vans with waterbeds, wet bars, fur-covered steering wheels and murals straight off the cover of Heavy Metal magazine, but I saw a few here and there.

On a family trip out West in 1977, when I was 12, I snapped the picture below in Salt Lake City.

I guess it's no surprise that in 1988, when I was almost 23 and nearly a year out of college, I bought a van with my buddy Andy. We got it into running shape, but didn't have the money to remodel the inside to look a celebrity's living room, or hire somebody to paint a scantily clad Amazon riding a war steed on the side.

We slapped a Grateful Dead sticker on the front before picking up my friends Pete and John and going on a four-month road trip.

I got rid of the van a long time ago. The Greater Boston area, where I've lived for the past 20+ years, is thin on old custom vans, unlike Southern California. But I still love seeing an old boogie van, or watching Fu Manchu fans' homemade videos once in a while to rekindle my passion.

Yesterday, one of my neighbors asked Owen if he wanted to be a pilot or train engineer when he grows up. He said he wasn't sure. Chances are he won't be either of those things, but I'd put odds on the fact that he'll have a passion for planes and trains for the rest of his life.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I'm excited for HBO's new series, "The Leftovers":

When I first heard of Tom Perrotta's book, which the series is based on, I thought it odd that the author of spot-on high-school popularity contest spoof "Election" and suburban parenting-and-affairs story "Little Children" was taking on Christianity's Rapture fantasy.

Those who believe in the Rapture are certain that Jesus Christ will return to Earth, and deliver Christian believers to Heaven. Those left behind, as it were, will face the end of times, the story goes.

The concept has gotten a huge marketing boost in recent years with the "Left Behind" book series. Nicolas Cage stars in the movie created from that series, which hits theaters in October:

My wife read Perrotta's book last year and highly recommended it, although she didn't tell me much about the story. I finally got around to it last month, and was expecting it to have more of a relationship to Christianity than it does. The book has about as much to do with the Rapture as Justin Bieber does with maturity.

Just as "The Sopranos" was less about the Mafia than it was about screwed-up mobsters, "The Leftovers" isn't really about the disappearance of millions of people around the world, but rather about how the remaining 98% of humanity deal with this shocking event.

I'll be done with this excellent book by the end of this week. Then I'll start reading as much press as I can and watching trailers to get myself psyched up for the HBO series.

Perrotta is co-writing the 10 episodes with Damon Lindelof of "Lost" fame. The series stars Justin Theroux, Liv Tyler and a bunch of people I don't know.

I loved the movie adaptation of "Election"; I never read the book. I liked the movie of "Little Children," but enjoyed the book more. "The Leftovers" is so rich and detailed and has so many wonderful characters, I've got high hopes for HBO's treatment. I hope I'm not let down.