These days when I listen to the radio, I mostly leave my dial on NPR—I like in-depth news, interviews with authors, some light jazz, or Chopin. But every once in awhile, I tune in to a classic rock station and almost without fail, I hear those magical beginning chords of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” And just like that, I am transported back to the late 1970s, back to my high school years in the southwest end of Louisville, Kentucky.
As a military kid, I’d lived all around Europe and the U.S., so my dad’s retirement in Valley Station was just another in a long series of moves. But unlike Department of Defense schools on military bases, my new school was filled with civilians who’d never known the challenges of changing schools, and/or countries, every year. It was tough to be the new kid amongst those who had been together since kindergarten, even tougher to be the slightly chubby girl with no aptitude for cheerleading or sports.
I’m not sure when I first began listening to hard rock. I remember freshman nights at the local roller skating rink, where I wore blue sparkly eyeshadow in an effort to fit in and look “tough” (but was secretly horrified by classmates who showed me the hickeys they got in dark corners). I would glide around the rink to the strains of Bob Seeger, Elton John, and The Who while secretly wishing for some boy to ask me to skate with him.
By the time I turned 16, I’d become part of a group of girls who wanted more than what our working-class neighborhoods had to offer. We were all good students who didn’t want to wind up married at 18, working at the local Ford plant, living in a tiny ranch off Dixie Highway, and thinking a night out at Shakey’s Pizza was a real adventure. My three friends and I wanted careers in far-flung places like San Francisco and New York City. They wanted to be lawyers and politicians; I wanted to be travel writer for Vogue. We sneered at the pop and disco music that our classmates listened to as we listened to WLRS102, the hard rock station in Louisville. We liked the defiance inherent in rock, a defiance against what the 1970s expected of young women. Mixed in with this defiance were un-articulated longings, the naive first flushes of sexual desire, and the lead singers and guitarists who embodied those innocent lusts.
After school, I’d ride my bike—my parents would have laughed had I asked to use the one family car—to my best friend’s house, and there we would spend hours listening to vinyl records on her small turntable, the kind that came in a box with a handle. We’d listen to Foreigner, Ambrosia, and Head East, arguing which of their long-haired lead singers was the cutest. It was easier, safer, less complicated, to have crushes on guys we weren’t likely to meet, and they were—at their great distance—far more interesting than the jocks and potheads who went to our school.
I loved all those singers, but I fell the hardest for Robert Plant. “Stairway to Heaven” became my song, and I would make everyone else be quiet in the car when it came on as we cruised through McDonald’s after Friday football games. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what the lyrics meant—they struck me as vaguely Welsh myth with a dose of Tolkien thrown in—what mattered was that to me the song was a talisman of good luck, a promise that I was destined for real adventures beyond the sad strip mall/discount store boundaries of Valley Station.
My best friend knew some boys in a local band who lived in the Newkirk Road area, a place totally different from ours, and she would occasionally work the light table for their local shows. I was invited along. We got into clubs by saying we were “with the band”—a heady lie. They would do covers of other bands. One night they played “Stairway” just for me, dedicating the song from the stage. I truly thought I had gone to heaven, even more so when the lead singer gave me a ring from their broken tambourine. I wore that ring on a chain around my neck for years.
Call it coincidence, call it accidental—it seemed every time my song came on the radio, something good came into my life. I heard it on my way to a party where I was kissed for the first time, at 17, by a boy with long dark curls, a chambray shirt, and a guitar. I heard it one night at McDonald’s when we met a group of boys from a neighboring high school, one of whom became my best guy friend. I heard it the night I went to the college fair and discovered I could afford to “go away” to Murray State.
Sometimes a song becomes a favorite because of a memorable event or person. For me, “Stairway to Heaven” became my song because it represented all the good turns my life took and was a symbol of hope for the future, hope that I’d escape the working-class neighborhoods of Louisville for good.
And I did make my getaway, though not quite to the exact future I had imagined. I dabbled at various types of work all over the country until I decided to go to grad school and get my MA in English. I wound up teaching at a community college in Georgia. But, I never really felt as if I’d achieved my dreams, especially after my daughters left home and I wound up divorced, broke, and near despair.
Yet on one of my darkest days, I turned on the radio. When I heard those familiar guitar chords, I was reminded of how far I had come, and I set to work to change my life once more. I took a monumental leap of faith by retiring early and moving halfway across the country to an uncertain (but hopeful) future.
I know I made the right decision, though I am no longer as certain as my teenage self about what comes next. What I do know, however, is that no matter what happens, I’ll remember my favorite line from my song: “Yes, there are two paths you can go by/But in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”
Monique Kluczykowski is a Pushcart-nominated poet, former assistant professor of English, and world wanderer who currently lives in Iowa City. Her essays have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Women in Higher Education, and The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Her most recent poems appear in StepAway Magazine, Cactus Heart, The Magnolia Review, Two Cities Review, and The CyberToad Review, and she has a short story forthcoming in The Carver School of Medicine’s The Examined Life Journal.