Duane Eddy’s twangy guitar rakes the smoke-filled air as my eyes adjust to the dim light. The jukebox is playing his hit from ten years earlier, “Rebel Rouser,” but nobody in the Alibi at 3 o’clock on a beautiful Florida afternoon looks like much of a rebel rouser. I spot the broad, square back of my father’s plaid cotton shirt hunched over the bar. I hear him, of course, from across the room, and I can tell by the tone of his voice that he’s repeating himself, his pointed finger punching the words in between each pointed pluck of Eddy’s melody line.
“Hey Buck,” the bartender jerks his head toward me, an almost eighteen-year-old in short-shorts and matching top trimmed in the same polka dots. My father lets go of the bar long enough to turn toward the door.
“Lee-Lee,” he says in semi-ironic joy, calling me by the nickname that no one else uses. I feel warmly acknowledged.
I’m here because this is where my mother told me I could find him. Almost a year has passed since the divorce went through—irreconcilable differences—and my mother has remarried. I’m leaving for college in a few weeks thanks to my new stepfather’s contribution, and I want to see my father before I go.
I never heard of the Alibi before, never called here asking for him at dinnertime. I would have gone looking at Bernard’s Surf, the more upscale place where the Cape Canaveral rocket engineers hang out. My father hasn’t been a rocket engineer for a while, not since he lost his government Security Clearance. Now, he’s introducing me around, his arm draped across my shoulder. I don’t pay attention to what he’s saying, just hear a tinge of the proud papa and an almost inappropriate joke. “Hi honey,” growls the one woman at the bar. It’s clear most of the fellows couldn’t care less, and the introductions take about the same amount of time as the two minutes and twenty-one seconds of “Rebel Rouser.”
But one guy, Tinch, straightens himself up a bit to shake my hand and slur into the sudden silence, “Your dad talks about you all the time.” It will be later I learn that his daughter is the young woman my father is shacking up with, a secretary at the Cape six years older than me.
The next song up is a rhythm-and-blues, the kind you’d expect to hear on a bar jukebox anytime during the fifties or sixties, bumper pool in the background and a Schlitz sign illuminating the scene. The kids would be sitting at a table sipping Shirley Temples with the mother, who would probably be nursing something.
The unacknowledged soundtrack of my growing up, Duane Eddy bent sound across the guitar’s low strings, the strings that usually carry the bass line. A rockabilly guitarist, his singular single-note melody style was a popular music innovation in an era of one innovation after another from scientific to social. Eddy played a different kind of guitar lead at a time when everyone wanted to play a different kind of lead in the world. The tremolo slid down and dirty, a wavey echo through the naughty but nice decades, a fitting accompaniment to the Cold War, canned green bean casserole, and the appearance of the Pill.
Eddy made his twangy sound known in the long echo across the high desert of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (“yippee yi yay, yippee yi yo”), the aggressive noir drive of “ Peter Gunn,” and “Theme from A Summer Place” with its syrupy romantic longing. Eddy always told it to us straight. No harmony, no fancy riffing, just a note whining down a bit with a small stroke of the vibrato.
In 1963 Paladin rode in on the same true melody line when Eddy recorded the instrumental version of “The Ballad of Paladin.”
“ ‘Have gun, will travel’ is the card of a man,” the deep vocals of the television program’s theme song told us. Paladin was “a knight without armor in a savage land.” He was a different kind of lead on a Western TV show, not like that do-gooder Matt Dillon or even my heart-throb Davy Crockett.
With Paladin, there was a certain underlying ambiguity in his actions that matched the age we lived in, a kind of a cross between an old-fashioned hero and the newer anti-hero, the kind who messed up his life but still did the right thing with the height of cool. Paladin was a paid assassin—an outlaw, really. He dressed all in black, refined and classy, always wearing a narrow black cowboy tie, and a black hat.
Paladin was enough most weeks to bring my father home from the bar in time to watch with us. We sat in front of the black and white set in our Florida room, my father stretched out on the rattan couch, my little brother wearing his cowboy outfit and sitting on top of him and me on the floor. Paladin, after the knights errant in Charlemagne’s court, paragons of chivalry, heroic champions, supporters and defenders. What girl didn’t want her father to be a paladin?
My father played out his cowboy self with a .22 pistol the year we lived in Sunnyvale, for my father’s job at the new Satellite Test Center. The smell of wet cement block in our apartment complex was even stronger than in our two-year-old subdivision back home in Florida. Some Saturdays, my father would take my brother and me out to a gravel pit in the hills for target practice. I remember aiming for those concentric circles off in the distance and the kickback, relatively small, that made my ten-year-old arm jump.
It was that Thanksgiving my father shot himself in the thigh practicing his “quick draw,” like we had seen so many times on TV, my brother’s plastic holster strapped to his leg, Jim Beam by his side. The women folk were back at the house helping my aunt clean up dinner when my uncle brought my father hobbling in, blood streaming down his leg. They didn’t bleed on television shows in those days, and we all stared in fascination. “He got me. He got me. The S.O.B. got me,” my father, the great kidder, moaned in mock agony.
By 1968, though, I was sure I didn’t have any interest in Duane Eddy, especially in the decade-old “Rebel Rouser.” But it was still there in the Old South of Florida during the Civil Rights Movement, the kind of song whose first two bars would be played by your high school band sliding into a round of “Dixie” when your team scored a touchdown. That twangy sound and driving beat meant Friday night football mixed with a bad-boy call, an outlaw of cool, taking off on the road, and the new cowboys of the waves – surfers. My girlfriends and I could hear it in our surf anthems of “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris and “Pipeline” by The Ventures as we sat on the beach listening to our plastic transistor radios. “Gnarly,” we would have called it then, and that guitar sound owed a debt to Duane Eddy. We might have just been the surf bunnies smeared with baby oil for the best tans and pretending to watch our boyfriends on their boards, but we knew the rebel drive pulling us forward.
I don’t stay too long at the Alibi, just long enough for a Coke with cocktail ice. The jukebox is quiet. There is nothing much to talk about, really. He asks about my brother and his surfing, and my new stepfather. There are no lyrics to “Rebel Rouser,” no directions on how to think or feel or what the real story is.
No one comes in or goes out of the bar. The sunlit dust motes dance in front of the rattle-y air conditioner above the door. My father gets off the stool and walks outside with me into the relentless sunlight, gives me a hug and a kiss. “Okay, Lee-Lee,” he says in that sing-song fatherly way. “Don’t forget your old man.” I think about how I can always pick up on the first six notes of “Rebel Rouser”—da dune; da dune dune dune— and the next six just mirroring the first in a kind of lonesome anticipation.