Friday, June 13, 2008

The House of Cash on Wheels

There we were, Alex, Tilly and I, strolling past the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame en route to the Great Lakes Science Center when we saw it, parked on the esplanade and glimmering in the Juneday sun. Long, silver and, most of all, black.

Johnny Cash's tour bus has made its final stop in Cleveland.

As Alex is the biggest June Carter fan in the known universe, we naturally dropped six bucks for the tour. The driver swung open the door and we ascended into the bus that Johnny Cash and June Carter rode for thirty years. Four cabins replete with endless gadgetry, leather, wood, velour. A bus? Hardly. This was a very narrow rolling haven, about which Johnny wrote:

I have a home that takes me anywhere I need to go, that cradles me and comforts me, that lets me nod off in the mountains and wake up in the plains: my bus, of course. We call it Unit One. I love my bus. It really is my home too. When I make it off another plane through another airport, the sight of that big black MCI waiting by the curb sends waves of relief through me – Aah! – safety, familiarity, solitude. Peace at last. My cocoon.

And how cool it was to explore this cocoon occupied by Johnny, June and their son John Carter. Ever since I read Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie, I've held a mild fascination with miniature homes like Unit One and how people cram everyday life and as much comfort as possible into such confined spaces. Johnny spent more than half a million dollars equipping his ride with televisions, stereos, antennas, intercoms, full kitchen (complete with rotisserie) and plush blue furnishings for June's quarters. Want more? He illegally felled trees in Jamaica for the paneling in his own mostly black compartment. His table was made from wood taken from a house that served as U.S. Grant's headquarters during the Civil War. Excessive? Maybe. The way I figure, Johnny and June did a whole hell of a lot more good for the world than bad. Maybe we can forgive a little (lot of) indulgence on their part. At least I do.

Now, I don't want go all corny and say how, ooh, we could just feel the presence of Johnny and June, but there was a very definite charge inside the bus. Memory? Music? I don't know, but it seemed to me that a lot of stuff happened inside Unit One, a lot of energy accumulated, good times, bad times, three decades and hundreds of thousands of miles worth of life. The Cash/Carter house in Hendersonville, Tennessee burned down in 2007. What a blessing that Unit One survives.

So to conclude and commemorate our visit to Johnny and June's home on wheels, I would like to attach an essay that I wrote last year for a contest on No, I did not win. The theme? In 100 words or less, what does Johnny Cash mean to you? Not an easy challenge, but here's my answer:

What is Johnny Cash to me? No more and no less than he is to anyone who has ever needed a father, a brother or a friend. He’s a cellmate, a sinner, a saint. He’s an angel, an outlaw. He’s there to share a boxcar, a needle or a beer. He’s the judged, never the judge. The hanged, never the hangman. He’s the one who can see us through hell and back, because he knows just how to get there and how to come out again. And if there is a heaven, he’ll be the first to greet us there.


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