By Kevin S. Giles
Some years ago, before Facebook took over, I began exchanging emails with several of my high school classmates. It was spontaneous and informal and hardly inclusive — the only test of anyone’s involvement was whether they could sustain dozens of emails a week or even dozens in a single day.
We became known as the Hooligans (courtesy of ranking Hooligan David Hunt) after we decided we should name ourselves. It was a young-kid club thing but the name fit. Hooligans, we were. We talked about anything and everything. Fast cars. Late nights at the Rustic Drive-in theater. Sports. Childhoods and schools in our hometown of Deer Lodge, Montana. Playground antics. Shenanigans. Bravado real or imagined. Girls, of course.
These friends (many of whom I’ve known since first grade) inspired me to write a “coming of age” novel, Summer of the Black Chevy. The setting? Our hometown, of course.
From the beginning I wanted to write a story that captured the essence of Deer Lodge, back then, without making it a thin-disguised diary of my past, or anyone else’s past. Hooligans and Hooligan wannabes and anyone else should rest easy. It’s fiction after all.
Instead, Summer of the Black Chevy is an exploration of a teenager’s wonders – and of his fears that someone close to him will die. We all remember those twin conflicts, don’t we?
In real life, I knew little about death as a boy. Some of my oldest relatives died but they lived far away and I hardly knew them. When I was a senior at Powell County High School my father suffered a near-fatal heart attack. I sat all night on the stairs to my second-floor bedroom, hoping the phone wouldn’t ring because it would mean the hospital was calling to tell us he was gone.
Soon after graduation, my good friend from Boy Scouts, Denis Smith, died in a car crash while driving to work. We had hiked together into Camp Arcola in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness and slept under the stars and cooked over a campfire high in the mountains. When I was 30, one of my best friends from high school died from leukemia. Bob Finch was a founding member of the band Life’s Little Pleasures, a Renaissance man whose mind always searched for adventure. A few years later, a gunman murdered my high school classmate Bruce Plattenberger in a commuter train robbery in Chicago. Bruce was a leader and a star athlete. We had become close friends our senior year in high school. In the summer of 2014, two more childhood friends died. Rick Dues was an original member of my “Old Gang” group of close friends. He died of a heart attack after a run on the beach. A couple of weeks later, complications from diabetes took the gentleman Bill Haviland, the penultimate angler and Montana conservationist.
As we grow older we learn that death is real, sudden, heartless and often unmistakably despairing. It’s also part of life. We find hope in carrying on, in fulfilling our life’s purpose. It’s important to dream.
In its essence, Summer of the Black Chevy is an exploration of these themes. The novel takes us back to when life was full of promise. In our young teenage years we blushed with the excitement of wanting it all. We didn’t carry the burden of paying the bills, of shopping for groceries, of tolerating unpleasant bosses and enduring other soon-to-come adult responsibilities. We ran free, as kids do in small towns, driven by our imaginations. The Hooligans reminded me how close we stuck together in Deer Lodge, Montana, that the town was our world, and that it didn’t take but the first few of those thousands of email messages to bring us all home again.
(Kevin S. Giles wrote the novel Summer of the Black Chevy, and Jerry’s Riot, the examination of Montana’s 1959 prison disturbance. He also wrote the biography Flight of the Dove: The Story of Jeannette Rankin. He is one of those Montana writers who finds stories in the woods and valleys and streams and small towns of western Montana.)