The memory was in there, but it probably would have never come out were it not for the finale of Breaking Bad.
We were a road trip family. My dad loved travelling, and the only way to do it with a lot of kids was to pack them up. In the 1980s, you weren’t a road trip family without a few cassettes. There were never more than a few. The very place you most wanted to use them, the car, was the worst place to keep them. The heat melted the tape, making it soft, causing it to wind around the wheels of the cassette deck, making it nearly impossible to safely remove it from the player. I had talent. I could put a pinky finger through the plastic hole of the cassette and wind inches—maybe even feet or yards—of displaced ribbon back into the tape, thus saving the recording. I performed this operation on the way to Florida, on the way to Virginia, on the way to Pennsylvania, on the way to Massachusetts. I performed this operation on the Marty Robbins “Biggest Hits” cassette more than once.
Until the finale of Breaking Bad, I didn’t remember that one. I remembered Kenny Rogers “Greatest Hits.” I’ve heard “The Gambler” and “Lucille” too many times since the 1980s not to remember that one. I remember Neil Diamond “The Jazz Singer.” That recollection wasn’t allowed to leave my memory either. Pop culture has kept it far enough to the front so that I can’t forget it.
Marty Robbins, though, was gone. It stayed back there, almost 30 years ago, back in the station wagon or the beat up old camper that we graduated to. Until the finale of Breaking Bad. I heard the lyrics, perfectly recited, to El Paso coming out of my mouth. I saw the cassette, I saw the image of Marty Robbins. Then, I saw the camper, I saw my father driving, I heard him whistling to “El Paso” and saying things like, “Good Ol’ Marty Robbins,” when he switched out the “Jazz Singer” and put in “Biggest Hits.”
The places we ended up on those trips—Disney World, Boston, Philadelphia– seem blurry. My memories of them are built around the photos we took and still look at every few years. “Yes, this is the day we arrived at Disneyland.” “Oh, here we are at the Old North Church.”
Hearing El Paso, seeing the Marty Robbins cassette tape—those brought back memories of a life lived, not a trip taken.
I struggle with the memories I am creating for my children. We had one particularly disastrous summer the first year that our kids were old enough to travel without killing us. They could walk without strollers, they could go a couple of hours without having to go to the bathroom, they could be entertained for a few hours at a time with a movie or electronics. When we entered this phase, we were so excited to have some ability to rejoin the world we’d been a part of prior to having kids. We went to hotels, we went camping, we went to the beach, we went to the mountains, we went to the coast, we went to the zoo, we went on a plane. We went crazy. On the phone with my brother, I recited the things we had done that summer. “ I want them to have great memories of summer,” I said. “It’s important to create that for them. We had good memories of summer growing up.”
He didn’t say much. He only said something like, “The memories I have of summer are going for ice cream and playing basketball after dark. Those memories seem okay.”
Thanks to Breaking Bad, I can remember most of the lyrics to El Paso. I remember how quickly I used to be able to stick my finger into the plastic gears of Marty Robbins “Biggest Hits” and wind that warm, soft cassette ribbon back into the cartridge after it had gotten eaten by the machine. I remember being a hero to my dad after I’d fixed that cassette tape so we didn’t have to listen to only Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond. I remember “Good Ol’ Marty Robbins.” Those memories do seem okay.