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The Bishop Planetarium
An unpublished chapter from my memoir, Alligator Candy.
This morning, an old friend texted me a story about the reopening of the Bishop Planetarium, the place we’d go to see all the laser light rock shows in high school. We spent a lot of midnights there, catching the Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, and Rush shows. In 1998, I wrote this article for the New York Times about how laser shows work. Around 10 years ago when I was working on my memoir, Alligator Candy, I wrote a chapter about the Bishop Planetarium, but ended up not including it in the final book. Now that the lasers in Bradenton firing up again, I though I’d post it now…
THE BISHOP PLANETARIUM
We were somewhere around Bradenton on the edge of suburbia when the weed began to take hold.It felt like the opening line of our own Hunter Thompson bender, a geeky twist on his famous opening line from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Four or five of us were crammed into someone’s smoke-filled car, cranking a homemade cassette of Rush’s most recent double-live album, Exit…Stage Left, as we searched in vain for the Bishop Planetarium. Outside was darkness, flat Florida nothingness, the occasional orange tree or cow.
It was almost midnight one evening in the early 1980s, and we were teenagers in danger of missing the Rush laser light show. The Planetarium had a strict “NO LATECOMERS ADMITTED!” policy, surely a defensive measure against the caravans of stoners who filled the arena. We had traveled these country roads countless times and for less compelling laser shows: Blue Oyster Cult, U2, Pink Floyd. But Rush would surely be the most epic of all, multi-colored laser beams shooting through a fog, forming abstract and evocative shapes set to our most desirable soundtrack. There would be a shimmering sports car for “Red Barchetta,” perhaps, towering maples during “The Trees,” a spiral of black hole stars for “Cygnus X-1.”
We anticipated the possibilities as we sped down the road, passing the water pipe – a dank musty small white tube, sweet with resin, swirling out smoke. The ominous synth chords of “Jacob’s Ladder” mixed with the sounds of our soft bubbling inhalations. Our watery gurgles would be punctuated with short-clipped nasal bursts, and then, perhaps, a spastic hacking, a popcorning of tiny clouds, a lowered window, an urgent loogie hurled into the night like a real Tom Sawyer. “Catch the spit,” Geddy sang.
To be young and wild and free in the suburbs, at least for us, meant to be stoned. We got high and played video games. We got high and ate McDonalds. We got high and went to Clearwater beach, baking in the sun as Peter Tosh played from a boom box. We got high and went water-skiing on White Trout Lake. We got high and played racquetball in the cavernous courts of the Country Wood Apartments. We got high and listened to double albums all the way through with the lights off - The Wall, Quadrophenia, The White Album - the open gatefold in our hands.
The first time I got high before school, I wasn’t sure if it was a great idea. I parked with a couple friends off the side of a golf course and puffed urgently at a long glass pipe. I arrived at morning physics class and took my seat in the back. “Today, we will be studying the spectrum,” my teacher said, then killed the lights. She beamed a flashlight through a long glass prism. A rainbow appeared in her hand. It looked like the cover of Dark Side of the Moon but fleshly. I decided to do this more often.
I didn’t realize I was self-medicating. It has been nine years since my older brother Jon’s kidnapping and murder, and I was still struggling with PTSD and grief. The pot eased my pain so that I could deal better with the world around me. When I was high, I had a reason for seeing life as absurd, for feeling alienated, detached. These were feelings I long had anyway, but with the pot they seemed more excusable. It was the pot, I rationalized, not me. Weed made me feel less alone.
When we were high, it was okay to feel lost. Feeling lost was a kind of freedom unto itself, a sense of mystery and exploration that filled us with possibility. When we were lost, anything could happen. But the greatest thing about being lost was that the destination felt further away. And the further the destination remained, the longer it would take to get there, and the more fun we could have on the journey. Sometimes the destination had surprises of its own. By the time we finally found where we were going, we would be low on gas but high on adventure. Somehow, we made it inside the planetarium seconds before they closed the door to the latecomers. Inside, we took our seat under the dome of stars, as long-haired teens in black concert t-shirts and faded jeans leaned back in their seats, narrow-eyed, snickering knowingly.
At midnight sharp, the tired announcer’s voice came on the overhead speakers. “Welcome to the Bishop Planetarium,” he said, in a weary monotone. More cheers, and a couple shouts of “asshole” just because. Then came the bad news. “We regret to inform you that tonight, because of technical difficulties, we will not be featuring the music of Rush,” the announcer continued, as the place erupted in shouts of disapproval and dismay. “Instead,” he went on, “we will be featuring the music of REO Speedwagon.”
The lights snapped off as the metalheads screamed “bullshit!”
Then the announcer, with a faintly satisfied tone, concluded, “Enjoy the show!”
Overhead, projections of storm clouds filled the top of the dome, as thunder sounded from the speakers. The thunder continued, drowning out the boos as the crowd and the THC gave over to the experience. There was simulated lightning and simulated stars, flashes of electricity that dissolved the planetarium ceiling. Wait, we thought, could this be cool? Could something cool be happening - despite our disdain for REO, despite the crushing loss of Rush? Yes, something amazing was happening because now we were in the storm for real, there was water, real water, misting down. The rain was inside the building, or, at least, spraying from the small plastic bottles – courtesy of the planetarium ushers, who were squeezing the triggers.
It was so awesome, and we were so defenseless to the awesomeness, that even the steeliest metalhead in the audience couldn’t help but let out an approving woooot, a jean-jacketed arm fist bumping the air. As the first green laser shot over our heads, and the low octave synth chord built, we were right there with it, elbowing each other to share our incredible surprise that maybe, as much as the music sucked, the totality of the REO laser light show, our quest to get here, and the fuzzy feeling in our brains was creating some kind of peak moment, something we’d remember long after the pot wore off. When Kevin Cronin began to sing the words to the song, we settled in for the ride. “Ridin' the storm out,” he sang, “Waitin' for the thaw out. On a full moon night in the rocky mountain winter.”
But escaping the reality of my brother’s murder through drugs and alcohol had a dark side, a trapdoor of doom that could open unexpectedly. No matter how free we felt from our parents, our teachers, our bosses, the law, we weren’t free from the force of gravity.
The first close call came when I heard that a close friend of mine drove through a convenient store. He was just 15, his parents were gone, and he decided to take a short drive to the store for some goodies. As he pulled up to park, though, his flip flop got caught in the pedals, and he was unable to brake – crashing through the front wall and plate glass window. He sat behind the wheel, as the bricks and snacks poured down over his hood. Fortunately no one inside was hurt, but my buddy would be stuck paying off that debt for years (a convenient excuse, we all thought, when he claimed couldn’t chip in for beer money).
Another time, I was in the passenger of my friend’s car, as he went speeding around a turn in the neighborhood, But quickly we realized he had taken the car too wide. In one of those awful flashes of mortality, a flash in which everything spins upside down, we were jumping over the curb, and heading right for the house. Somehow we clipped a bush, and managed to screech to halt – leaving an inadvertent burn in the yard behind. This time the reckless driving wasn’t funny, it was frightening, and we drove home in silence.
But another time was the most harrowing of all. My friends and I had spent the evening at some party, swilling rum from a flask and sneaking out for the occasional puff of a joint. Sometime after midnight, we hit the highway for my friend’s house. I climbed into the back seat and stretched out unbuckled, while my other friend stumbled into the passenger seat, and the driver got behind the wheel. I remember feeling the speed of travel, seeing the blur of lampposts passing, as I drifted in and out of sleep until I was awoken by a screeching sound I will never forget. I’ve often heard that crashes come in slow motion, as if the world was adjusting its gears so as to better sink the sheer awfulness of the moment into your memory, a permanent reminder, perhaps, of how suddenly life could go away.
When I opened my eyes, I could see our car careening off the highway, taking an exit entirely too fast, so fast that my friend couldn’t turn his wheel fast enough, so fast that the car, a new Honda Accord, smashed head on into the small cement wall of the overpass, a moment in which I actually asked myself a question in syrupy mind-time – is it possible for a car to flip over this wall and land on the highway below? – and then felt my body hurling through the scattering words as I flew forward into the back of the passenger seat. And then it was over.
We were saying “oh my God” and “oh shit” and “holy shit, are you okay? Are you okay?” and then someone, I think it was me, shouted that we needed to jump out of the car because there was smoke, and maybe the whole thing would blow. The moment I moved, I could feel the pain in my ribs, a searing soreness that could have been anything – broken ribs, a collapsed lung, I had no idea – and then we were running away from the smoldering, broken car, incredibly awake and impossibly sober.
The rest of the night was a blur, but the next thing I knew I was waking up in a trundle bed in my friend’s house, he was up in his bed, and my other buddy was crashed in a sleeping bag. I saw baseball trophies, and a pet turtle sunning itself in a terrarium. We were alive, sore, but alive. I hadn’t even broken a rib, or incurred a bruise, as far as I could tell. Neither had the other guys. My friend who was driving broke down crying. “What am I going to tell my parents?” He said.
But his parents didn’t come down on him very hard, if it all, as far as I could tell. Neither did my other friends’ parents, and neither, I think, did mine. Now, granted, we might have left out the part about how we’d been drinking and smoking, or maybe no one probed that possibility, or, if they did, let it pass. I don’t recall. The general sense was a sense of unbelievable relief and appreciation, a gratefulness that everyone was okay and, most certainly, a promise to never drive like assholes again. A promise that, as far as I was concerned, I kept whenever I was in a car.
As a way of controlling the experience, of processing the trauma, we returned to the junkyard the next morning where the car had been towed to film the aftermath on my friend’s huge Betamax camera. There it was, the Honda Accord, smashed and squeezed so much that we renamed it the Honda Accordion. We filmed the sequence gamely, pretending, at first, that our buddy was simply showing us his sweet new ride. “Hey, what kind of car did you get?” I asked, from behind the lens. “A Honda Accordian!” he replied, leaning against the trunk proudly. From the angle of the camera, the car seemed intact. But as I slowly panned around, the crushed front end came into view, and my friend leaned into view. “Just a little fender bender,” he said with a smile, as I zoomed into the twisted metal.
In the moment, it was funny, but the trauma remained. For months, if not years, afterward, the crash haunted me. It happened every time I was in a car that was pulling off a highway to an exit. I would see the turn coming, feel the wheels spin, feel the air leave my lungs. As the flashback took hold, my fingers would claw at my seat. Whatever bubble of safety that had once occupied my brain in such moments had been ruptured. I had experienced the reality of an uncontrollable car, the forces of gravity, the impact against the thin wall between life and death, the wall my brother had passed through. And now that I knew that something like this could happen, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.