“Happy birthday, son. Feel free to crack open one of the beers I left in the fridge.”
Paul McNally didn’t feel old enough to have a son turning twenty-one. When he was Bowie’s age, he never thought he’d be a career Navy man, but there he was, forty-two years old, overseas, and missing another of his son’s birthdays.
“Thanks, Dad,” Bowie answered. “Your beer is nasty and therefore safe from me. I can’t believe you were able to call. What time is it there?”
“Uh, it’s seventeen hundred hours here in Okinawa on Thursday. All’s good in the hood.”
“That’s not exactly the hood,” Bowie said with a laugh. “I’m glad you’re safe, though.”
“It’s good to hear you laugh,” Paul said. “I know it’s been hard—”
“Dad, I’m okay.”
Paul had stood by helplessly more times than he liked, often a continent away, while the kid picked himself up out of a spiral of depression and put one foot in front of the other. Now his son was a few months shy of finishing his associate in arts degree in music and was looking to transfer to a local bachelor of music program. It had taken him longer to finish because of his struggles, but he was going to do it, and damn, that made Paul proud.
“I know, I just hate being away.”
“I hate it, too,” Bowie admitted. “I was worried, you know, with all of the insanity going on. One week it’s North Korea and the next there’s a false alarm in Hawaii….”
Bowie’s anxiety had been through the roof lately. Paul’s sister Penny lived in the duplex unit next door and kept an eye on Bowie while Paul was gone. When they’d talked earlier, Penny told Paul that Bowie hadn’t made it to class this week. Bowie never wanted his dad to worry, and that frustrated Paul no end.
“It’s your job, though. I get it, Dad.”
Paul pressed his thumb and forefinger into his forehead and closed his eyes.
“Hey, go in the top drawer of my dresser. I have a surprise for you.”
“Your underwear drawer?” Bowie asked, horror evident in his tone. “Gross. Do I even want to know?”
“Just go,” Paul said with a laugh. “Hurry, though. I can’t talk long.”
Paul heard Bowie curse, and then something crashed in the background. He could only imagine the mess Bowie’s room would be without his presence. Paul McNally was a military man through and through and had attempted to instill order in their home—more for Bowie’s peace of mind than his own. Kids with anxiety and depression do better in a neat and structured environment. That’s what the therapists had told him. That’s what he’d learned when he did his own research. Kid still had a messy room, but at least he had his own system of organization that worked for him.
“All right,” Bowie finally said. “What am I looking for?”
Paul pictured him opening the drawer to find a sealed envelope he’d left there before his deployment on top of the neat stacks of white T-shirts and boxers.
“An envelope with your name on it, what do you think? You find it? Open it.” Paul couldn’t stand the suspense. He knew Bowie would be thrilled with the gift—and he knew it would provide the perfect occasion for him to spring some news on his son. Some good news for once.
Paul heard the envelope tear and then a crinkle as Bowie pulled out the folded piece of printer paper. His gasp made Paul smile.
“Surprise! Before I left, I got us tickets to the last Warped Tour. It’s not ’til June, but I’ll be back by then and we can go together. They should be announcing the bands in a week or two.”
Bowie sucked in a breath and blew it out into the phone. “This is…. Thanks, Dad. I know it’s not your favorite show—”
“It’s fine. I always like hanging out with you and going to hear music. I miss going to shows with you.”
Paul and Bowie had gone to see live music regularly when they lived in Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, and San Diego. But the past five years in the Bay Area were a different story. They’d been to some concerts, but Paul was gone at least half of those years, and they’d missed other shows because Bowie just couldn’t handle the crowds and noise in the headspace he was in.
“Me, too. I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, kid. You doing okay? Work okay?”
“Yeah,” Bowie said. Bowie had always tried to be honest with Paul, but Paul knew it was hard for him to admit he struggled. “I’ve missed class, but I haven’t missed work.”
Paul’s eyes burned with tears and he sucked in a breath. His son was so damned brave—braver than Paul had ever had to be in his nearly twenty-five-year career.
“Don’t apologize, son. We both know this is a process, right? You call Mrs. Robinson?”
“I did. I’m seeing her tomorrow. Dad, I don’t want you to worry.”
“I am worried. I wish I could be there with you.”
“It’s okay. Aunt Penny is keeping me fed. I’ve been picking up the kids from school every day when I get off work and taking them out so she gets a break. I eat dinner with them before I go to class….”
“I know it’s tough. You do the best you can, and that’s all I ask, right?”
“Good man. All right, I gotta hang up now. Message me after you see Mrs. Robinson, okay?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry to worry you.”
“I just want you to be happy, son. That’s all. I love you. Be good.”
They hung up, and Paul cursed. Then he pulled up the calendar on his phone. June twenty-third in Mountain View, California. The website said it was to be the last summer-long, cross-country tour for the franchise. He and Bowie had been to two Warped Tour shows in California and three or four back east. Paul’s wheelhouse was more classic rock and heavy metal, but once Bowie started skateboarding, they both fell in love with the culture and music.
Punk, pop-punk, metalcore, and up-and-coming singer-songwriters had made Warped phenomenal over the years, and Paul was sad to see it go, but he was glad they’d be going together. It was an end to Warped, sure, but his impending retirement meant a new beginning for him and his son. One where he was around more. One where he could support Bowie in becoming a man. One where perhaps Paul could find something for himself, although he had no idea what that something might be. He’d been a corpsman and father with no room for anything—or anyone— else…What else was there?
Paul looked at his calendar and frowned. One hundred three days until he’d be back home. He’d turned in his papers for retirement and been told it would take several months to process. And then there’d be the ceremony….
As he tucked into his bunk that night, he thought about his own future for once—not his son’s, but his own—and it presented him with more questions than he was ready to deal with.
126 Days Later….
“I thought you said if we brought canned goods, we didn’t have to stand in line,” Paul grumbled.
“This is the line for the canned goods,” Bowie replied. “That other line is for those who don’t have anything. Besides, they’ll open the gates in fifteen minutes. It’s fine, Dad. You’ll get to see your bands, don’t worry.”
Paul chuckled at Bowie’s attempt to placate him. Paul loved going to shows, but he frequently lost patience when things were not run efficiently.
“Seems to me, having hundreds of kids and parents lined up for nearly a mile around the venue perimeter isn’t the most effective way to screen folks.”
Bowie shook his head and gave Paul a push to move forward.
The bands and their crews traveled overnight between destinations and had only the early morning hours to set up nearly a hundred pop-ups and larger tents and tables for merchandise, organize the nearly seventy bands and their equipment onto six stages, and prepare food for tens of thousands of guests. The gates opened at 11:00 a.m., and the music started immediately. A huge production, no doubt, comparable to a major military exercise or invasion force. And they traveled to thirty-eight cities in a matter of forty-four days. He admired the fortitude they must have. And stamina. Paul hoped that his days of participating in huge undertakings like that were finished.
The line moved infinitesimally and Bowie began to fidget. He chewed on his thumbnail, his eyes darting back and forth. Bowie never wanted Paul to see him struggling, but Paul had become so tuned to Bowie’s mannerisms and behaviors over the years that he was always aware. Crowds were just tough. The Warped crowd was mostly harmless, but any group of people you’re sharing space, sweat, and movement with can become a blanket of terror for someone with anxiety.
“Hey,” he said, patting Bowie on the shoulder. “I can see the gates. We’re almost there.”
Bowie nodded and shoved his hands in the pockets of his shorts. A little reassurance went a long way.
Paul surveyed the crowd with interest and the scrutiny that came along with being in the service. It was as natural to him as breathing. He looked for safety issues, and he knew all the signs of someone in distress. A bunch of young people who likely didn’t hydrate out in the hot sun all day was trauma waiting to happen. Add to that the dangers of crowdsurfing and mosh pits, and venue staff frequently had to deal with injuries. It was all part of the experience, and Paul could relate. What fun was there in being safe all the time?
Jesus, he sounded like George. His best friend George had been a thrill-seeker from day one back in A-school. Being fellow adrenaline junkies, they became fast friends. Paul had spent many hours in the infirmary with George during their years of serving together. It’s what made them close. George’s need to push every limit had also driven Paul crazy.
George was absolutely not the person he wanted invading his thoughts today.
Groups of musicians made their way through the lines, selling their CDs and merch. Some of them were playing the smaller stages, but Paul heard a scream when a roadie from Hush came through with a sign on a stick announcing that they’d be playing the Left Foot stage at 4:15 p.m.
“I’m assuming that’s where you’ll be,” Paul said, elbowing Bowie.
“I… yeah. I just wonder, you know?”
Paul put his hand on Bowie’s shoulder. “I know, son. Gavin’s death was hard.”
Bowie looked down at his feet. “It’s like, if he couldn’t make it, how’s anyone else supposed to? Gavin was so amazing and so talented and such a good person. He was always posting positive stuff on his socials. Remember the time we met him? Like four years ago?”
Paul’s stomach felt sour. “You never can tell. You remember when George… you know.”
It was so hard to even say the word suicide. George Drummond had been a big part of both their lives. He’d even lived with them on and off between deployments and transfers. When George came back from his last tour in Iraq, he’d been irrevocably changed. No matter how Paul tried to help him and foolishly thought that being there for him through it would count for something, that it would matter, George was still gone.
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
Paul smiled and gave one more squeeze to his son’s shoulder. Then the line moved and the crowd cheered. Many of the kids bounced on the balls of their feet trying to get a peek ahead. Paul and Bowie deposited their cans of food into the giant collection bins, went through security, showed their tickets, and then strolled with purpose toward the dudes with the setlists.
Paul had a system to map out which bands they were going to see on the seven stages spread out across the grounds of Shoreline Amphitheater. Bowie let him have this bit of reconnaissance without too much shit. He told Paul it made the event more enjoyable for both of them.
“It looks like Bowling for Soup is playing at the same time as Beartooth, so we might have to split up for that one.”
“That’s fine,” Bowie said.
Bowie would be okay on his own for parts of the show. He would let Paul know if he wasn’t handling it. Bowie watched all the shows from the sidelines, unable to tolerate the crush of the pit. He knew how to position himself and stay safe, but Paul always worried. He wanted the experience to be fun for Bowie, not add to his stress.
He’d come home from Okinawa three weeks earlier to find Bowie had lost weight, had barely finished his last class with a C grade, and seemed more fatigued than he should have been. Since then he’d made marked improvements, and today he was excited and back to his snarky self. Paul was elated. He lived to give Bowie opportunities like this just to see his precious smile.
“I have another surprise for you,” Paul said with an eyebrow wiggle.
“A surprise?” Bowie’s eyes lit up like they had ever since he was a boy and Paul gave him his first bike, first skateboard, first guitar. The kid hadn’t become jaded despite what life threw at him. It made giving him surprises that much more awesome.
Paul pulled out a piece of printer paper and handed it over. “When I got the list of workshops that TEI was putting on, I had to.”
Bowie’s eyes went wide when he read the paper. “Brains’s Drumming Technique workshop. No way! Dad….”
“You’re a great drummer on your own, but you know, I thought maybe you’d want to hear what your drumming idol has to say.”
Bowie threw his arms around him and squeezed with all his might, which was a lot more now that he was a grown man. Paul coughed out a laugh and tried not to lose it in front of the crowd. He patted Bowie on the back and allowed himself to enjoy the moment. Now that Bowie had turned twenty-one, there would likely be fewer of these moments.
“Come on,” Paul said, giving Bowie a squeeze.
Bowie stepped back with a sheepish grin on his face. “Thanks, Dad. For everything.”
Paul gave him one more pound on the back, and then they headed for the Left Foot stage to watch Black Veil Brides.
“These guys crack me up,” Paul said, shaking his head.
Paul and Bowie liked a lot of the same music, but they often argued over whether this band was just ripping off that band or whether that band sounded better than this band, and on and on. Paul loved those conversations. As a self-taught musician, Paul knew enough to appreciate how hard these kids worked, and he respected their talent on a level only another musician could.
“They’re good… a bit over the top maybe. They look like Mötley Crüe and KISS had a baby.”
Bowie rolled his eyes. “Whatever, dude. What do you have against makeup?”
Paul shrugged. “Nothing, I guess, if the music can stand for itself, which theirs can, but sometimes the theatrics just feel like too much.”
Bowie raised an eyebrow. “Would you say that about Slipknot?”
Paul raised his hands. “No way. They definitely have the chops. Plus, they’re some scary motherfuckers.”
After Black Veil Brides played, they climbed the hill and hurried into the stadium section to watch The Maine. They were a bit mellow for Paul’s taste, but that was Bowie’s request. They grabbed some food on their way back to the Mutant Monster White Lightning stage to see Motionless in White, one of their favorites in common, and then it was time for them to split up.
“I’ll meet you back here.” Paul waved as he walked off toward the Left Foot stage to get his geek on with Bowling For Soup. A little nostalgia was good for the soul.
He laughed and bobbed his head to “High School Never Ends,” and was just starting to groove to “Girl All The Bad Guys Want” when his phone buzzed. Concerned it might be Bowie, he pulled it out and grinned to see Melissa’s contact on the screen.
“They’re playing your song,” he shouted into the phone, and then held it up for a moment and backed out of the crowd. He pulled his Bluetooth headphones out of his pocket—he’d brought them in case he needed ear protection—and they connected with his phone.
“Oh my God, is that Bowling for Soup? Oh! That’s right. You guys are at Warped Tour today. I’m sorry. I just wanted to let you guys know that I’m coming to town around the Fourth of July to visit some college friends, and I thought maybe we could have dinner.”
Melissa made an effort to be a part of Bowie’s life and she and Paul remained friends. She’d been the mom who popped in every few months when Bowie was little, and then once he became a teenager, she tried to be like the “cool aunt” with him.
Bowie was so damned mature. He accepted her attempts to connect and took them in stride without expecting more than Melissa could give.
“Sounds good. Let me know when you have a firm date, and I’ll add it to the calendar.”
“Of course you will,” she said with a laugh. “You probably put in the calendar when you’re going to take a shit.”
“Not necessary,” he said. “My body clock is set to ten and six for bowel movements.”
“Ew,” she shrieked, and he laughed.
“You brought it up! But on a serious note, I wanted to let you know….”
It felt weird telling her before he’d had a chance to tell Bowie, but phone calls from her were rare, and he figured she should know.
“What is it? Is everything okay?”
He didn’t think they had the kind of relationship where she worried about him. She cared for him as much as she was able, but… it was complicated.
“Yeah, sorry. I’m, um, I’m retiring. End of July.”
The crowd roared as Bowling For Soup started in on their last song, “Stacy’s Mom.”
He laughed. “Wow? That’s your response?”
“No, I just… wow. Being a corpsman is who you’ve always been. The military has been your life, except for Bowie and your sister’s family, but wow. Just… wow.”
Her words echoed his exact thoughts now that the date was rapidly approaching. He should have told Bowie by now.
“So what are you going to do? I mean, I know you’re an old man, but—”
“Bite your tongue, woman,” Paul said. “And I don’t know. I’m going to take some time to figure it out.”
“I guess. Wow. Okay. I’ll call you, and we’ll make a plan for some time around the Fourth, got it?”
“Got it. Thanks, Melissa.”
She snorted and said goodbye.
Paul clicked over to his calendar app and added her in for the second of July so at least he’d be expecting a call from her. He attempted to recapture the magic of Bowling for Soup, but the song ended and it was time to use the restroom and find Bowie.
Wonder how he’ll react to the news.