Goodbye, Wichita Lineman
Posted on August 9, 2017
Glen Campbell died on my birthday.
Driving home after birthday greetings, giggles, jokes, and toasts with my writing tribe, I thought how there was never a time I didn’t like Glen. He wasn’t anything like a heartthrob; he was just the consummate performer and he, or somebody working for him, knew how to pick a song.
When I heard Wichita Lineman for the first time, I had just finished my first year at San Jose State and decided to set out my sophomore year in Lewistown, Montana. The California college system had decided I was an out-of-state student, even though I hadn’t left California when Dad took a church and teaching position in Montana during my senior year at Pittsburg High School. I had to pay out-of-state tuition–in arrears–before they’d give me my grades.
I’d broken an engagement. I was emotionally adrift in a place as foreign to me as the moon. Mom and Dad did their best to take care of me. Dad and I decided to drive to California in his brown Dodge station wagon to move my “things.”
I don’t recall what we moved but I remember the car was full from the rear door to the front seats. We drove straight through Nevada, with only occasional stops for meals and a few naps.
We stopped for breakfast in the little town of Blackfoot, Idaho. We’d been on the road for about twelve hours, just about two-thirds of the way home. I know it was Blackfoot because we started talking about the Blackfoot Native American tribe before we hit the city limits. Mom and Dad had taken three little boys from Great Falls as foster children at Christmas time and they were “half-American Indian and half Chinese.” At that time, there was no information about their tribal heritage; we could only speculate.
“Is it possible the boys might be Blackfoot?” I asked.
“I suppose so,” Dad said. “Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve heard Cree, Creek, Blackfoot, Lakota. I don’t think anybody really knows.”
When Dad pulled in the gravel parking lot a little before 6:00 o’clock, we noted on the sign outside that the place was open from 6:00 a.m. one day until 3:00 a.m. the next. Our waitress, also one of the owners, brought coffee to the table before we sat down. She said their long hours gave them the after-bar business, and it was the only early-morning breakfast spot within a good radius. She and her husband took turns sleeping for more than the three-hour break, allowing for one of them to always be onsite. She seemed happy–and proud.
“Whatcha gonna eat this morning?” she asked.
Dad sighed. “Whatever you want to cook. I’m more interested in this coffee.”
“How about some bacon and eggs–or would you rather have ham–our ham is good–or I’ve got some good kielbasa, and how do you want those eggs?”
I answered this time. “Bacon and eggs, scrambled, and toast.”
“I’ll try some of that kielbasa,” Dad said. He didn’t say how he wanted his eggs and she didn’t ask.
“I’m gonna bring you a pot of coffee,” she said, on her way to the kitchen window. She didn’t hang her order on the clothes pin line, just handed it through the window to her husband and whispered.
She turned toward the jukebox against the front wall of windows and fished some coins from her apron. “We need some music. I won’t play anything too rowdy.” Then she picked up a pitcher thermos from behind the counter and set it on our table.
“I like him,” she said. “Glen Campbell. By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
I nodded. “I like him, too.”
“He can sure play that guitar,” Dad said.
When she left, I said, “Funny how he sings traveling songs.”
“All of them?” Dad asked.
“Well, Gentle On My Mind is about a guy jumping trains. And this one is he’s on his way to Phoenix.”
“Hadn’t thought about that.”
By the time the steaming plates arrived, we’d all moved on from Glen Campbell. I don’t remember what else played. The man stepped out of the kitchen, reached behind the jukebox, and turned the volume down.
While we were eating, the place filled up with working men and two more waitresses tied on aprons over white polyester dresses. There were no other women except for me. I felt obligated as the new target of ogling and sat up straight in my chair. A new waitress removed our dishes and we poured the last of the coffee.
“Are we rested enough to get on the road?” I asked. “I’ll drive.”
“Yeah. Let me finish this cup of coffee. We better hit the restrooms before we leave.”
About that time, a burly bald-headed guy at a table yelled, “Hey, Jack, turn that up.”
“Jack” stepped out of the kitchen again, wiping his hands. “I’m busy back here,” he said. But he turned up the music and we heard, “And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.”
“Make it play over,” Mr. Burly said. “That song’s about me.”
Somebody across the room said, “This ain’t Wichita,” but Jack pulled the plug on the machine. “Somebody needs to get over here and feed it some dimes. I’m busy back there.”
Our waitress sat her coffee pot on the top of the jukebox and fished out some more coins. “Alright, I’m paying,” she said, “but somebody needs to get over here and pick out.”
Burly obliged, pulling up his Duckheads as he punched numbers.
Dad reached in his pocket and laid some bills on the table. “We better get going.”
“Shhhh, shhhh,” I said, “that’s Glen Campbell. That’s his new song.”
I got up and headed for the ladies’ room when I heard, “…and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” I didn’t cry until I got in a stall.
I feel the same way about Glen Campbell that I remember feeling when John Denver died. I didn’t know how much I’d miss him until he was gone. Wichita Lineman ranks right up there with the best songs ever written and, without doubt, Jimmy Webb, its penman, in the top ten songwriters, maybe five. He lucked out, or maybe he was just smart, when he chose Glen Campbell to interpret his songs.
Trish Yearwood sings a Hugh Prestwood song called The Song Remembers When. The song testifies to the way that music can instantly–and intensely–give rise a memory that hasn’t shown itself in years. Funny, the woman in the lyrics says she was “standing at the counter, waiting for some change” when it happened:
Still I guess some things we bury
Are just bound to rise again
For even if the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when
Yeah, and even if the whole world has forgotten
The song remembers when.
I know what she means.