London Calling: From the Back of a Dodge Caravan

London Calling

Is this the first time I’ve considered apocalypse?

A few years ago I thought I didn’t like music. Classmates debated who was better, NSYNC or Backstreet Boys, and when it was my time for cross examination all I could offer was a shrug. Whatever the secret ingredient to boy band mania was, I had developed some kind of immunity, which left me wondering what sounds, if any, could coax my body into involuntary celebration. The tapping of a foot. A shoulder bob. Sure, I liked Dad’s Tom Petty and Mom’s Marvin Gaye, but those artists belonged to them and I wanted something removed from my parents. Something of my own.

This—the CD playing in my headphones—might be that. Petty doesn’t sing about ice ages or the sun zooming in. I’ve never entertained the end of things before, the idea that all these highways and roadside pastures we zip past could vanish underwater, or the hellscapes from the Mad Max movies I watch late at night when Mom thinks I’m asleep might be nearer than I imagine. The man singing is Joe Strummer. He died a few months ago, right around Christmastime. Nathan, my brother, was torn up about it. He barged in my room—“Joe Strummer died—” like I should’ve known who that was. He told mom while she microwaved a TV dinner in the kitchen. “You know, from The Clash? Should I Stay or Should I Go?” He called dad with the news, searching for somebody who cared as much as he did.

Had I heard this CD a little earlier I might have mourned with him. It’s always a little strange to hear a dead man sing, as if you’re a medium communing with the past. But this is particularly weird, listening to this dead man inform me about the end of the world. The annihilated foretelling annihilation. London is drowning, he says, and I live by the river. He sings the line with tongue planted in cheek, laughing almost, amused apocalypse comes for him so soon. And I wonder, wherever a person goes when their heart stops beating, is he still as unafraid of expiration as he sounds here? Will I ever know such casual abandon?

Brand New Cadillac

In other regions of the country they call May a spring month, but for me and the rest of the kids held captive by the Orange County Public School system, May is forever synonymous with summer. As in Summer Break. As in escape, see you in three months when we’re a little taller and victims of that adolescent plague we call acne. May portents the brutal humidity that dominates Florida’s June and July, but it means more to me than sweat and the absence of curfews. May is the month of my birth and this is the first week of Summer Break, one week after my eleventh birthday, and the CD spinning in my lap was a present from my brother. He chose this CD for a reason, above all the others he could have gifted me. There’s something in this disc he wants me to learn, to perhaps join him in a pursuit of understanding.

I don’t own very many real CDs—the kind that come in their own case with lyric booklets and graphics on the disc. We don’t have the kind of money some of our friends do, who have racks of CDs mounted on their bedroom walls, so Nathan works at the computer in his room like a mad scientist, pirating albums from any outlet he can score them. The fact that this is a real CD—purchased in a store, slapped with a barcode—is important. I’ve held onto it, waiting for the right moment to pop it into my hand-me-down Discman, slip on my headphones, and surrender myself to it.

What better time than now, in the back of Bom’s Dodge Caravan. Bom is what I call my grandmother. Mom’s mom. We’re driving to the Alabama-Florida state line, for a big family reunion on Bom’s side of the family. Fabled people I’ve never met. “Sacred Harp singing runs in the family up there,” Bom says, but I don’t know what that means and when she tries to explain it I understand even less. Alabama might as well be the planet Jupiter.

Mom’s behind the wheel and Bom yammers from the passenger seat as we follow road signs directing us out of the only state I’ve ever planted my feet in. Ariane, my niece who one day I’ll call my sister because that’s easier than explaining why her mother—my actual sister—would ever abandon her daughter in favor of crack, sits next to me. Nathan claims the van’s furthest reaches; the privilege of being oldest, to hide away completely. We left our grandpa at home. He said he wasn’t feeling well but we all knew he’d never come anyway. We don’t know it yet, but when we make it home we’ll find out he has cancer. An apocalypse of the body.

A Dodge Caravan is a long way from the brand new Cadillac Joe Strummer shouts about in my ear, and there’s part of me that would give anything to escape this van with its bench seats and sliding doors, back to my bedroom where the distractions of Summer Break reside, but I’m also thankful, to have nothing but time and this terrain of sounds I never knew existed. A real CD. Shining like the chrome on a brand new Cadillac.


Mom made sure to pack her medicine before we left the house. She keeps her pill bottles on top of the dresser in her room, the ones she takes regularly pushed to the front while older prescriptions out of favor collect dust in the back. With a sweep of her hand she gathered the important ones: the powder blue Valium, her sleeping caplets, and the medicine she takes for migraines, which means she’s planning on getting a migraine while we’re in Alabama—maybe the day of the big family reunion so she won’t have to go, but when Nathan and I ask if we can stay behind she’ll tell us, “No. It’s important. I want you to hear the Sacred Harp.”

Mom goes to the doctor more than anyone I know. Maybe that’s because of the cancer they found inside her earlier this year, when surgeons took out parts of her intestines and her entire uterus. She won’t be able to have babies anymore, but she wasn’t going to do that anyway so I guess it’s all right.

I cried every night Mom was in the hospital, no one bothering to explain to me that the cancer was already gone, cut out, bagged up, disposed of in a medical waste container. Mom came home to us and spent a week in my bed, barely able to move. I’d follow Bom upstairs to give her breakfast and she’d smile at me weakly, promising she’d be better soon. I’d say nothing, waiting until I was downstairs and in front of the TV to cry, cartoons cranked loud enough to muffle my sniffles.

“Dr. A loves me,” Mom laughs. She says this every time she comes home from the doctor. “I ask him for anything and he’ll write me a script for it.”

That’s how she says it. Script. As in prescription. So routine it’s worthy of slang. I once asked her what she took Valium for and she told me, “So I don’t act crazy.”

Anything I want, goes the song in my headphones, He gives it to me. 

I smile when I hear this, watching Mom steer the Dodge Caravan into a gas station so Ariane can pee. We all get out to stretch our legs and I look at Nathan, who’s got a Discman of his own welded into his hand.

“This song reminds me of Mom,” I say.

Nathan looks down at me. “Which song?”

I glance at the tiny digital display on my Discman. “Number four. Anything I want, he gives it to me. You know, like what she always says about Dr. A.”

My brother scowls at me. “What are you talking about?” he hisses. “That song’s about buying drugs.”

Lost in the Supermarket

Yes, I know Mom loves me. She says so every night before she asks me to kiss her on the cheek even though I’ve never been fond of affection, physical or otherwise. Affection is a currency in this family, begged from me, like when Bom instructs me to hug her neck or give her some sugar, or when Dad pleads over the phone for me to repeat “I love you” to him. But am I allowed to love him anymore? He left three years ago—another summer, Summer before 3rd Grade. When I walked into school that first morning back I thought to myself, “I’m a child of divorce now.”

wasn’t born so much as I fell out. Nobody seemed to notice me.

This isn’t Joe Strummer singing. This man’s voice is softer, a feather compared to Strummer’s. I consult the liner notes in my lap and find out his name is Mick Jones. Strummer’s right hand man. Or maybe Strummer is Jones’s right hand man. Or perhaps they’re a pair of hands, tightly interlinked, joined in sonic revelation.

So yes, I know I am loved and I know my mother will never let me starve, even when she calls the automated bank number and the robot lady’s voice says her account, once again, is overdrawn. And this is the month of May, the month of my eleventh birthday, and I’m lucky enough to have a Discman, to receive gifts from those who view my growth as something worth celebrating. But I hear this song about pipes rattling in walls, about listening to arguments like those Mom and Dad used to have, before Dad started swinging his fists to silence my mother, about knowing fear as your first ever feeling, and I understand it more than any song I’ve ever heard. I wonder, for a moment, if The Clash penned this song with me in mind, before the liner notes remind me the album came out in 1979. It’s both a prayer and a curse, to feel so seen in lyrics, but to realize grown men wrote them, meaning I might reach adulthood and still feel the way I feel now.

What does it mean to get lost in a supermarket, to find yourself dazzled by colors and lights but feel isolated, to sit on an elementary school playground and confess to your friends that no, you don’t hear what they hear when Backstreet Boys come on the radio, to say “I love you” to those that ask for your love and feel ashamed when you succumb to their demands?

This song lends no answers, but it does provide assurance that to feel lonely is to feel real, and I’m not sure if that frightens me. I glance behind me—the Caravan’s hinterland—where Nathan sits and I wonder if he feels what I do when he listens to this song. He likes to shut himself in his room and lock the door, put on headphones or play his guitar unbothered. I’m curious if that’s a reaction to the loneliness he feels when he’s among people, if self-imposed isolation is better than the involuntary. Maybe it’s time I start locking my door when we get back home.


The TVs at school weren’t working when those planes crashed into the Twin Towers. All the kids knew something was wrong with the way Mrs. Bowermeister kept getting calls from other teachers, how she swiveled around in her desk chair and whispered with her hand cupped over her mouth. By lunchtime we knew something awful had happened and it had occurred in New York City, that labyrinth of skyscrapers and yellow taxis most of us had only ever seen in movies.

After lunch, Mrs. Bowermeister told us. I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was, let alone the Pentagon. We sat in silence with the radio reporting the destruction until the bell rang hours later. We left our mourning at our desks, sprang from the classroom with book bags in hand—kids again—energized by another school day’s conclusion. At home the TVs waited, where we finally watched what the rest of the world had already seen.

Two months ago, I sat in front of the television and watched the United States military invade the city of Baghdad. Night vision cameras cloaked the city in algae green. Missiles streaked across the sky, outshining my rarest Yu-Gi-Oh cards in holographic quality. Explosions flashing like disposable cameras.

Perhaps one day there will be studies and news headlines about my generation—what it does to the landscape of a person’s brain for the most pivotal memories anchored to their childhood to be those of terrorist attacks and incendiary displays of imperialism. Dad used to tell me about coming home from school and turning on the TV so he could listen to the body count roll in from Vietnam. Maybe this is the way of America, to give its children a trauma to gather themselves in. No better soil to ground yourself on than one fertilized in pain and the faceless dead, to remind yourself of what you were too young to be slaughtered by, the literal bullets you dodged and the ones still capable of striking.

Nathan says he’s afraid to turn eighteen next year, afraid of a draft. At school kids talk of becoming soldiers, prideful. They lift imaginary guns over their shoulders and pucker their lips like they might kiss somebody, but it’s not a kiss that leaves their lips: “DO-DO-DO! DO-DO-DO!” Imitation of an AR-15. Their friends fall, skewered with imaginary rounds. Laughing. And sure, I’ve got toy guns back home but lately I haven’t wanted to play with them.

It’s the best years of your life they want to steal.

It’s Jones singing again. The words leak through my headphones, somewhere between a whisper and an incantation. There’s a chance these lyrics aren’t about the recruitment commercials that corner me whenever I turn on the TV, but how can I not apply them to images I see on the news every night?Boys no older than my brother digging through a car on a desert roadside with rifles pointed at a crying woman in a hijab who insists she’s not in possession of any dangerous weapons.

Strummer, he says I can use my anger, channel it into something productive and powerful. Mom says I’m angry all the time. When I lose my temper she tells me I’m just like my father, the man who once cracked her skull with a telephone. She knows this will make me angrier. She smiles when she says it, waiting for the words to tip me into a place I can’t return, when I resort to slinging my fists into the nearest wall. “See? I told you.” It’s only when I feel the pain of impact—bone against plaster—that I stop and relinquish myself to tears. Is this the kind of aggression they mold soldiers from?

No one ever told me I could craft anger into something useful, distill it into fuel to propel me forward, away from the fear I feel when the kids at school make their machine gun sounds and when the television promises me that if I’m hungry enough for blood then one day I’ll have the chance to spill some and earn praise for it.

Mom threatens me with anger management classes. I know she’ll never send me so I let her say it. Perhaps there’s some truth in what she says, that I should learn how to manage the rage stirring inside me, but maybe Joe Strummer is also right—maybe I don’t have to let go of this volatile side of myself; perhaps that is the only thing that will keep me alive in a world that wants its children slaughtered.

 Death or Glory

So maybe this is why Nathan chose this particular CD for my birthday. I’m beginning to understand this is more than music but a blueprint to living. When Summer Break ends I’ll take my first step into Middle School, a prospect which both terrorizes and exhilarates me. What I know is this: Middle School will change me one way or another, the way it made Nathan start playing guitar and using curse words. Curse words like fuck. Like the fuck in this song. He who fucks nuns. 

I read through the lyric booklet as the track plays in my headphones, pausing, rewinding, making sure I absorb every syllable. Every guitar chord. And fuck, could Mom please take it easy on the brakes? Next birthday I hope I score a Discman with anti-skip.



Am I hearing that correctly?

He who fucks nuns will later join the church.

I look around the van. Ariane’s fiddling with her GameBoy and Nathan’s reading and Mom and Bom are bickering up front and no one’s heard the fuck I heard. What does it mean to fuck nuns and join a church? I’m one of the few boys in the neighborhood who isn’t forced into a button down shirt on Sunday morning and carted by my parents to church and for that I thank the Lord. Mom talks a lot about churchgoers. “They sin all week then try to repent on Sunday.” She hates the church even though she sent me to Vacation Bible Camp when I was 7. I’ve started to suspect she wanted me out of the house for a few hours every day.

But it’s not the nuns Strummer warns against, rather those who curse them like my mother. He confirms something I’ve known for a long time: no one is telling me the truth, or the truth they believe in is a diaphanous thing. You only have yourself, this song tells me, and whatever values you find worth cherishing. Hold onto those ideals; most will leave them behind as age corrodes their souls. There is only truth in who you can be.

I clench the lyric booklet and the song skips again as the Dodge Caravan strikes another pothole. The pages in the booklet guarantee seven more songs. It’s almost overwhelming, the promise of so much more personal revelation.

I’m still unclear on what Sacred Harp singing is, but I know it has something to do with church. I’ve only been inside a church a handful of times. The idea of entering one makes me nervous. And I’m still contemplating apocalypse, but not in the end of the world kind of way, but a rapture of myself. In three months’ time I’ll be in 6th Grade. A severing from the kid I was in my elementary years. I want to arrive different on the morning of the First Day. Unrecognizable. I want to be angrier and smarter and cooler and I want, after all this time, to believe in something.

Perhaps what I’ve been missing by not going to church like the other kids in the neighborhood is what I find in this lyric booklet: to lend yourself to a truth you didn’t know lived inside you until it’s stirred awake by a minister’s preaching—Strummer and Jones in my case, channeling the almighty.

Death or Glory, the song’s called. A choice. Apocalypse or salvation. Yes, glory. That’s what I’m after.


  • Travis D. Roberson is a New York based writer originally from Central Florida. His work appears in Pithead Chapel, Juked, Maudlin Houses, and a number of other publications.

  • We bring ourselves to what we see in space. In 1895, Percival Lowell popularized the idea of canals on Mars, suggesting the presence of intelligent life. This first image is from his book Mars as the Abode of Life (1895). The second set of images are an imagined map of Mars by Eugene Anoniadi, a Greek-French astronomer who initially supported the canals, but later dismissed the idea in favor of the regions depicted here—Antoniadi’s image is here redrawn by illustrator Lowell Hess in the 1965 book Exploring Mars (via Tom Ruen.) The third image is by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona and was widely thought to look like a bear, though it is in fact a hill with a v-shaped collapse and two craters surrounded by a circular “fracture pattern” in the rock.