Some of my very favorite childhood memories involve long car rides with my dad. Just the thought of sitting in the backseat of his big gold Buick Skylark makes me smile to this day. That car was built like a tank, and nothing was cooler than driving it a little too fast on a winding country road, windows rolled all the way down as the radio blasted the hottest music around. Weekend drives were a thing, especially on Saturday afternoons, once lunch was devoured to the beat of American Bandstand, of course. I loved the trips that involved a stop at a shopping mall about forty minutes away, or the excursions to play miniature golf, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. It was never about the money spent back then, and honestly, everyone around me seemed to be equally broke, so it was all about the experiences. The family time together was really what mattered the most.
I guess it makes perfect sense that the most memorable drives with Dad were often wrapped around music. Trips to the record store or to a radio station were , but on one occasion, he got to see the inside of the newest, hottest station around—not because of a friend working there, but because I’d won an album that had to be picked up. That trip turned into one of my all-time favorite drives.
The year was 1985, and Q-102 was a local northeastern Pennsylvania radio station that prided itself in playing “Today’s Hottest Hits.” Basically, any video that was in moderate rotation on MTV was sure to be heard every few hours on Q-102, and my friends and I all loved it. I listened whenever I was at home, and the DJs really did become a regular fixture in my life. My dad always talked about DJs that he loved as if they were a part of the family. and once I plugged into Q-102, I totally understood. Chivon in the afternoons felt kind of like an aunt; Mr. T., who took requests every night, seemed like the cool teacher that everyone loved; and Dave, the guy who answered phones, well, I was pretty sure he could have been my older brother. I mean, I talked to him enough times while making requests, and I knew he wasn’t that much older than me, so why not think like that?
The summer of 1985 was kind of an awakening for me. My best friend Carrie spent a lot of nights at her grandparents’, in part because they only lived two blocks away from my house. My mom liked Carrie a lot, her not going to the same church as us. While that seemed to be a big part of the criteria for friendship as I got older, Carrie managed to get a pass. Thank , because my nights at her included a lot of firsts for me. Like the first beer that we hid out of sight and drank together behind the locked bathroom door. Okay, we half of it, dumped the other half down the drain, and then panicked because we were positive her aunts would smell it.
Carrie’s aunts were both engaged and still living at home. They were : one was pure sweetness and the other was kind of a badass that had a pile of porn stashed under her bed. No, we didn’t go looking for it, we just kind of stumbled onto it while looking for the glitter body makeup and neon nail polish that we were allowed to use, but once we found it, the curiosity kicked in for sure.
I some interesting experiences with Carrie that would never have happened at my own house, but for the most part, we were stationed at her grandmother’s kitchen table with a big boombox, of course, listening to Q-102. Her grandparents owned a little restaurant, and after dinner, they spent their evenings at the dining room table counting money before retiring to their chairs to fall asleep in front of the living room television. They were a comfort to have nearby, but we loved to hang out in that tiny kitchen.
Her aunts would set up an ironing board in the corner near the bathroom and chat with us while alternating ironing their clothes and putting on makeup. Clearly, it was a system that they had down to a science, and they both always made it out the door, usually going in opposite directions, dressed to the hilt, and always on time. Once they left, Carrie and I would grab the phone from the dining room and drag it into the kitchen right next to the boombox so that each time Mr. T. said it was time for someone to win an album, one of us was already dialing.
“Q-102, caller four, try again.”
“Q-102, caller seven, try again.”
The failed attempts were endless, but that didn’t stop us from dialing. And truth be told, what happened on the other end of the phone was usually a busy signal, because in 1985, everyone was trying to win music from their favorite DJ.
One Friday night in early July began like all the others, but our luck quickly changed. Corey Hart’s Boy in The Box album was the first giveaway of the weekend, and as soon as they announced it, Carrie dialed. The phone rang several times and in an instant, Mr. T. was on the other end telling her that she was caller ten and taking down her information. As soon as she hung up, we ran out into the living room to tell her grandparents, who had absolutely no idea what we were talking about. As her grandmother said, “That’s nice Carrie, very nice.”
Once we settled ourselves back in the kitchen, I absolutely had to win an album too. I wasn’t sure how to make that happen because so much luck seemed to be involved, but I had to win. I was the radio girl. My home life revolved around music, and as an only child, I really found myself clinging to the things I loved. I loved music and I loved Carrie, so I had to win. A few albums were up for grabs, and they were grabbed by someone other than me because all I seemed to get was a busy signal when I dialed the phone. I tried to comfort myself with the notion that they weren’t albums I really wanted anyway.
Perhaps actually wanting a particular album adds another element of luck to the equation, because when Heart’s self-titled album was announced, my reaction was different. The record had just come out, but the video for “What About Love” played on MTV every hour, making it one of the biggest songs of the summer, and so I dialed. “Q-102, caller four-try again.” I dialed again. “Q-102, caller seven-try again.” My fingers slammed the buttons on the phone; I had to win. “Hi Q-102, who’s this?”
Oh my god, I was caller ten. Dave put me on hold, and then I heard Mr. T in my ear, “Q-102, Hi Catie, guess what? You are caller ten! Yay Catie, you’ve just scored yourself a brand-new copy of Heart’s album! What do you think of that?” What did I think? Oh, so many things. I the tenth and I won an album to add to my growing collection. Most importantly, this was now one more thing that Carrie and I had in common. Winning something off the radio was the most normal thing in the world, so maybe it made me normal too? In truth, my scramble to win was probably more about proving that I could fit in and be like everyone else than it was about wanting my own personal copy of any piece of music.
Just like that, I’d won. It seemed like the simplest thing to do after the fact. If you call enough times, you’ll eventually get through and win, but man, it felt like a high-stakes, Olympic-level challenge to a middle school kid. The victory of it was just as sweet as a gold medal too.
In order to get our records, Carrie and I had to have an adult accompany us to the radio station to pick them up a few weeks later. That’s where Dad was more than happy to oblige. I mean, the moment I told him that we had won, he interrupted me to tell me he would take us to pick up our albums. Dad loved radio so much, and any possible glimpse at a studio that he couldn’t normally access was probably one of the best gifts that anyone could give him.
Those few weeks of waiting seemed to drag on forever, and while dad tried to play it cool, I think he might have been even more excited than I was. The ride to Q-102 was miles on a busy road with a lot of lights, which only added to the excitement and anticipation. Dad turned the radio to our station and continued to drive as Carrie and I jammed out in the back seat. Since it was the hottest station around, you would think it would have been in some sprawling studio space, but we past it a few times.
As it turned out, Q-102 was tucked into a tiny office building connected to a grocery store in a borough that was about five miles wide. Not that any of that mattered, because once we walked into the lobby, the three of us were standing in musical heaven. Behind one closed-door was the production equipment (which made Dad’s heart skip a beat), and behind another was at least one DJ that made both Carrie’s life and mine infinitely better. Mr. T. had to be in there because he was on the air, and if we were even luckier, then maybe , the afternoon jock, was still in the studio too. It’s amazing the one-sided relationship that you can develop with a DJ and how close you can feel to your favorites without knowing anything about them.
Then there was all the fantastic music living inside of this building. To some people, music is a passing detail, but to me and dad, it will always be absolutely everything. It’s the thread that triggers all kinds of personal memories while connecting us to people that we’ll never meet. One single song can emotionally bond complete strangers for life in under five minutes, and I could feel the power of that inside the doors of Q-102.
The three of us sat down for a few minutes as we waited for the woman at the front desk to go and find our prizes, and we were still, but very aware. Dad’s eyes were darting across every inch of what he could see, totally scoping the place out, as I heard a familiar voice coming toward the lobby. One of the doors opened, and there stood a curly-haired guy with glasses talking to someone that was still out of sight. It was Mr. T., the night DJ who took and played our requests and dedications. Carrie and I looked at each other but dared not speak a word. I’m not sure what I was expecting him to look like, but whenever he made a mistake on air, he would say, “Clean your glasses, Mr. T.,” so it was to see that he glasses.
The woman from the front desk finally returned with Corey Hart and Heart in one hand and some paperwork for Dad to sign in the other, which he did as and I stared at our albums. Once outside, everyone started talking at once. We Mr. T.! This mystery voice on the radio now had a face and glasses, with jeans and a gray shirt that I could easily picture. He wasn’t a complete mystery anymore. Dad started talking about bits of equipment that he’d caught a glimpse of and had recognized. It made no sense to me, but I knew from the way he was talking that Q-102 had technology that impressed him.
Why is it that the car ride home always feels so much shorter? I mean, sometimes that’s a great thing, but this was one of those rides that I wanted to last. It was starting to get dark; the windows were rolled down, and Dad had Q-102 blaring, but this time it was different. It felt more personal. I got to share the coolest experience with my best friend, but it was more than that. Up until this night, Dad had been kind of on the outside. Sure, he was on the radio, but this wasn’t “his” station, he was a rock guy. After standing inside that building and taking it all in, Q-102 was on his radio a lot more often, especially at night when Mr. T. was counting down the “Top Eight at 8” and taking requests. Maybe he respected the job that he did, or maybe he knew that this station would eventually turn into a bit of musical nostalgia that we would share for decades to come. Either way, it was the definitive moment that meant I was well on my way to becoming my father’s daughter, one vinyl record at a time.