Saturday, April 21st, 2007, dawned crisp and clear, with a pristine blue sky stretching unmarred from horizon to horizon. I had been looking forward to this day since March, when my best friend Russell first suggested that we go to Thunder Over Louisville together.
Thunder is a relatively new annual tradition in Louisville, first begun in 1990 as a way to kick off the traditional Kentucky Derby festivities. It takes place two Saturdays before the Derby itself, and it inaugurates fourteen days of citywide entertainment, culminating with the fastest two minutes in sports. It consists of the country’s 5th largest air show, which takes place all afternoon and into the early evening, and ends with the largest annual fireworks show in the United States.
According to the official estimates, as many as 1 million people turn out for Thunder Over Louisville. Roughly 700,000 on the Kentucky side, and another 300,000 on the Indiana side. Considering there is only about 1.2 or 1.3 million in the Greater Louisville area, these figures show how many out-of-towners converge on the city on this day. A 2001 estimate stated that the 1-day show brings in about 31 million dollars for the local economy, and I suspect it is probably a lot higher than that by now.
Russell and I arrived in downtown Louisville at about 2:00 on Saturday. The capitalist parking lot owners were out in full force, with some lots charging as much as $45 for parking. We passed those lots by and found a “cheaper” lot a few blocks farther on where we paid a measly (!!!) $20 for parking. The lot belonged to a funeral home, and the director was in the parking lot taking cash and directing us into the appropriate slot, which was probably not too terribly unfamiliar to him, what with sliding bodies out of morgue trays and all. He offered to let us use the bathroom inside if need be, which I thought was kind of him, even if we had just paid him twenty dollars to park our car on his pavement. No death calls today, please! I’m making more money committing anal rape in my parking lot!
As is his tradition, Russell had brought along a bottle of Jim Beam to help liven things up a bit, but there were too many people around to safely carry it with us, so we decided to leave it in the car and come back for it later. We began the 25-minute walk to the main festival area, which was situated on the river right in front of the Louisville Bats baseball stadium. Even as far out as the stadium, a number of people had blankets and chairs set up, not feeling the need to get any closer to the mass of humanity that was slowly converging on the riverfront. Police were everywhere, and a line of ambulances sat idling along the street, ready to whisk away the inevitable heat stroke, heart attack, and broken bone victims that must surely appear when so many people are in one spot.
We entered the festival area, which was situated underneath and around the JFK Memorial Bridge. Rows and rows of food stands lined the main drag, consisting of everything from the typical fairground hotdogs and corn dogs, to Greek gyros, barbecue, and sirloin tips. Even this early in the afternoon, it was already quite crowded. To our right, nearer the river, the various branches of the military each had interactive displays, complete with a rope ladder to test your climbing skills for the Navy, a pull-up bar to test your upper body strength with the Marines, and some kind of obstacle course to run for the Army.
Naturally, Russell and I directed our attention directly at the Chow Wagon. This was an enclosed area near the center of the festival grounds where alcohol (as well as more food) was sold. You had to purchase a 3-dollar Pegasus pin to get in, and then you had to show your ID and get a green bracelet to show that you were 21. None of the food stands or beer stands in the Chow Wagon take cash; instead, you had to purchase food tickets or alcohol tickets: 50 cents for a food ticket, and a dollar for a beer ticket. A 20-ounce beer cost 6 tickets and your basic Oscar Mayer wiener, grilled black, would set you back 4 tickets. A gyro sandwich cost a whopping 12 tickets. Once you got your Pegasus pin from the vendor outside, passed through the turnstiles showing your pin to the guard, obtained your green bracelet from the ID booth, and purchased your tickets from the ticket booth, you then took your tickets to your food/beer stand of choice and bought your food and/or drinks.
Russell and I went through this highly convoluted and complicated process (which is clearly meant to weed out any drinkers with less than a Ph.D in Physics, although somehow the white trash still managed to get through), and finally got 2 frosty Bud Lights, which we summarily downed with gusto.
Inside the Chow Wagon
There was a cover band with a female singer playing Country Hits of Your Grandparents’ Generation and throwing in an occasional Electric Slide just for shits and giggles. Honestly, they weren’t that bad, but I could have done with a band playing more upbeat music from the last 20 years or so, as opposed to 1960’s and 70’s hits of Patsy Cline and Linda Ronstadt. When they mentioned that they would be playing a set following the fireworks show, Russell and I gave it some serious consideration, but then decided to go insert fishhooks into our eyeballs instead.
At 3:00, the air show started. It was hard not to realize when it began, because it started with a double afterburner F-22 Raptor streaking across the sky, followed by a roar that made the eardrums buzz. The F-22 was followed by a series of other deafening jets, before some more serene propeller planes took over, flying in formation and performing various tricks.
After standing in the sun for while, draining two more beers, taking some pictures of the planes, and then walking around the waterfront for half an hour or so, we decided to head back to the car to crack open the Beam. It was in the upper 70’s outside, and not a cloud in the sky, so we were losing a lot of fluid to sweat, and replacing it not with water, but with beer. So even with only a few beers apiece, we were both feeling pretty good. I’m not much on bourbon, especially after I’ve already had beer, but Russell loves it, so I decided to be a trooper. For his sake.
We hiked back to the car and were disappointed to find that there were still some funeral home personnel lingering around the parking lot. So we sat in the car for a few minutes, finished the pack of cigarettes we had started earlier, and then, all stealthy-like, poured a bunch of bourbon into the Cokes we had purchased before walking out of the festival area. There was no reliable way to carry the bottle with us without getting caught, so we decided to leave it permanently in the car. For this reason, we made what would be our only mixed drink quite strong. Bourbon with a splash or two of Coke, really.
As the day wore on, the crowds began to swell. By the time we returned with our illicit drinks, the mass of humanity seemed to have doubled. Where the Chow Wagon had been a slight reprieve from the heavy crowds outside earlier in the day, by 5:30 it was as crowded as any other area we had been in. Unfortunately, after walking back inside, the guards made us pour out our drinks, which we had only half finished. It wasn’t because he knew there was liquor in it; apparently you simply aren’t allowed to bring beverages in from outside, even if they were bought at a festival stand. We were too buzzed by this time to realize we could have just walked back outside and finished the drinks before entering the Chow Wagon, so instead we dumped them unceremoniously into the garbage.
Since we were now without beverage, like two newborns without pacifiers, we immediately went to buy more beer, but had to stand in a line stretching to Memphis to buy tickets. When we had finally rescued the Bud Light from the keg and had it safely in our hands, we returned to the place we had been standing earlier, against a wall right in front of a small waterfall that provided a nice cool breeze.
I sat for a while, having been drained of energy by the bourbon, while Russell stood and presumably tried not to look drunk.
I finally stood back up right about the time an older black man, with a few missing teeth, curly hair tied into a very short bun/ponytail behind his head, and wearing a slick green suit with a yellow turtleneck, leather shoes, and no socks, walked up, complaining that someone had stolen his cigarettes. He had stood up, he said, to dance a little to the music, and when he turned around, his cigarettes were gone. He wasn’t mad, though, because that’s just the way life goes sometimes. I offered him some of ours, but he declined, assuring me that the lady next to him had just sold him five cigarettes for a dollar – an act which he found to be immensely kind and generous, apparently forgetting that you can get 20 for about $2.50 at any corner gas station.
He and I began chatting. I learned that his last name was Cooper, and I won’t make any attempt to recreate his first name, as it was nothing I had ever heard before and sounded either tribal African or otherwise made up. He was not an evangelist, he told me, but he was simply called to show God’s love. God, he said, was allowing him to have a few beers because he had just graduated from culinary school. That very day. It was a gift, he assured me, and it was not something he would do again, because he didn’t want to take advantage of that gift. He’s not a crack cocaine user, he doesn’t do all that yellow rock. That’s the past. God has transformed his life. How has God transformed his life? Well, he went from a double-barreled shotgun pointed at his mouth to the man you see today dressed in these fine clothes. You see, it happened back in 1998. He found out that his wife was “sucking dicks” for money. His kids told him. He’d come home and his son would say, “Daddy, Mama had those men over again today.” She was sucking dicks for cash. He was so distraught, and so high on that yellow rock, that he decided he couldn’t live anymore. He came home, put a round into a double-barreled shotgun, chambered it and cocked it, and then stuck it in his mouth. But before he pulled the trigger, he prayed. Suddenly a bright light glowed around him, so bright he had to shield his eyes. It was coming from behind him, and he turned to look. He heard a voice that told him everything was going to be okay. This was, apparently, God, not the yellow rock talking. He felt a sudden peace in his heart (as opposed to the piece that had been in his mouth). He put the gun down, lay back, and slept better than he had ever slept in his life, waking up the next morning feeling like a new man. Ever since then, he’s been working to overcome his drug and alcohol addiction (hadn’t had a drink in two years, he said, until God gave him the gift of beer that day as a reward for graduating from culinary school), and he was working at the YMCA as a cook, with his new degree. He was currently in “transitional living,” which was his phrase for “living in a homeless shelter,” working at the YMCA and the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army, he admitted, was where he had gotten his nice suit, because “you know, I gotta get mine, too.”
While this 45-minute conversation of testimony and the Divine Reward of Beer was going on, Russell, I found out later, was sneaking puffs on a joint from a girl standing next to him who had gladly produced it. By the time Mr. Cooper finally left (he was going home because he couldn’t get drunk on God’s Reward that night – he had bible study and church on Sunday), the joint was gone, and the girl walked away about the same time. Damn my luck.
We stood around for a while longer, until Russell accidentally spilled his beer down the wall in front of the waterfall. We decided it was time to head toward the main lawn area, which is the best viewing area for the fireworks. It was about 8:15.
The main lawn area was like Woodstock, without the mud. Just a sea of bodies, lawn chairs, blankets, and coolers, stretching for as far as the eye could see. It probably took us half an hour just to get through the crush of bodies and find a 5-foot area of grass where we could stand.
Thunder Over Woodstock
It was at this point that all the Obligatory Patriotic Bullshit started. Since I went to Thunder Over Louisville with Russell back in 2004 or 2005, I had known this was coming, but I had been dreading it all the same. It started with two helicopters flying in the dusk sky, spotlights illuminating the fluttering Stars and Stripes hanging down from their landing skids. A deep, heavy voice – the kind of voice you hear at those overly dramatic EPCOT exhibits: rich and deep, penetrating, dripping with the weight of historical importance – began giving a soliloquy on American history. “From a farmer-turned-general who would lead This Great Nation through its Revolution against the Forces of Tyranny, to the Kentucky-born president who would Emancipate the Slaves, and to the selfless actions of the Greatest Generation in the War to End All Wars, America the Beautiful has stood as One Nation Under God, never faltering in the Face of Adversity, but always Standing Up For Freedom...” blah, blah-blah, blah-blah. This, naturally, was followed by a rousing rendition of God Bless America, followed, as could only be expected, by an equally rousing rendition of Your Favorite Song and Mine, Proud to Be An American. Because hey, at least I know I’m free.
There was a group of teenage girls not far from where we were standing. They weren’t the slutty teenage type, but looked, instead, like a group of girls from a church youth group. During God Bless America, they were doing sign language to the lyrics (I mean, does anything scream CHURCH more than sign language to a patriotic song?), and for the word “bless” they made a cross with their fingers. Now, I don’t know sign language, but I was betting that motion wasn’t the word for “bless.” I looked it up today, and sure enough, “bless” is done by placing both fists on the chin, thumbs back, and then moving the hands downward, palms open and toward the floor. So these kids had learned sign language to God Bless America, but had learned “bless” as two crossed index fingers.
I’m not sure what was worse – listening to the soliloquy and the songs, or watching all the shirtless, sunburned white trash saluting, waving miniature flags, singing, and slow-dancing with their trashy girlfriends with expressions of deep meditation on the Greatness of Our Country and the Sacrifice of Our Troops.
Thankfully, God herself finally intervened and made the fireworks start, thereby ending the Orwellian fervor of Patriotic Bliss that was happening all around me.
Fireworks are, well, fireworks. You can see the pictures, although it doesn’t do them justice.
Atom with nucleus.
There were two areas of fireworks, with the main one spread right out in front of us, covering the majority of the sky. They were being shot from the bridges and from barges on the river. You could feel the concussions in your chest, and sometimes the sky was so bright it was like stadium lights had been turned on. The show lasted about half an hour, ending first with a faux climax, and then starting up again in an utter blitzkrieg of colored fire in the sky.
When the show was finally over, Russell and I made a quick exit, hoping to beat some of the mass of humanity back toward Main Street. Once there, we made our way to Stevie Ray's, which is a blues bar dedicated to the memory of Stevie Ray Vaughan, a great rock n’ roll blues guitarist. We went there after our Thunder experience in 2004 or 2005, and we had had a great time. Turns out, the same band was there, a local blues powerhouse called The Predators. I can say, without any question, that this is the best local band I have ever heard anywhere in any city at any event. The lead singer has an amazing voice, the band as a whole is tight and accurate, they perform without the slightest sense of tension or urgency, and the lead guitarist is hands down the best electric guitarist I have ever seen perform live, with the exception of Alex Lifeson of Rush. He seems to be as good as Stevie Ray himself, and the tone and timbre of his guitar is identical to Stevie Ray’s. They played, naturally, a lot of Stevie Ray’s music, but also played a lot of other songs, ranging from 1960’s Motown hits to modern rock songs. The last time we went, they even played Prince’s “Sexy Motherfucker,” which is hardly a blues-style song, but which they performed flawlessly.
The place was pretty crowded, but we were able to find seats at a table on the patio. The crowd swelled very quickly, and soon a group of very attractive 20-something couples were sitting all around us. You know the type: guys and girls who look like they just stepped out of an Abercrombie ad. They were all pretty drunk, and kept hitting the table and knocking their drinks over. Two beer bottles were spilled on the table, a third bottle crashed to the ground and shattered, and a vodka and cranberry was dropped to the floor, splashing my legs. That all happened in about 30 minutes’ time.
It was so crowded that we were unable to get another round from the waitress, so after about an hour, we went inside, ordered another round from the bar, and found an empty table near the stage that someone had just vacated. By now it was well after midnight, and I was pretty tired and drained. All day outside in the heat and sun, nothing to drink but alcohol, nothing to eat but a $4 burnt Oscar Mayer wiener, and about a pack and a half of cigarettes. I didn’t even finish the second beer, but left it about two-thirds full on the table. We paid our tab and left.
On the way home, naturally, we stopped at Taco Bell and bought about 4 pounds of food. We got home and binged it right on down, chased with a glass of water and, for Russell, a couple of hits on the bowl (that’s slang for “he smoked pot”). His brother Chad came over for a little while, but we were already so tired and half asleep that I don’t remember much after he showed up. I know he had beers with him, but Russell and I both declined. I’m not sure when he left.
I actually wasn’t that drunk by this time. Following my last Chow Wagon beer, which I finished about 8:00, I only had the 1.4 bottles of beer at Stevie Ray’s, and that wasn’t until between 10:30 and 12:30. But, as I stated earlier, I was simply drained from a day in the sun and a day of drinking, and, especially, from all those damn cigarettes. I woke up several times during the night with a pounding headache and racing heart – the typical Night of Drinking effects that I always get – but felt pretty good the next morning and was not hungover.
And that’s the long and short of my weekend adventure.
Who wants to join us next year?