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In the Appalachians

If you haven’t seen the hit movie “Bozo’s Boy”, or the award-winning television series “Bozo’s Boy in Hollywood”, it’s because they haven’t been made yet, but I was there–born on the day that, according the song and movie, Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. From Billie Joe until “She Blinded Me with Science” I inhaled and often exhaled, and in 1983 lived in a tent at Snag End, the bottom of Snaggy Mountain outside Boone, North Carolina. I could walk to my cousin’s barn, which she rented out for parties. She let me in free, and I helped clean up afterwards.
One night a girl I’d seen the week before made a smartass remark about my wardrobe. Perri was a member of the Numuziklub (new music club) which rented the barn a few times a month. Across from her were a couple of fellows with about twelve teeth between them, and she pulled me into the seat next to her. I saved her from the pirates, and we went home together. That night, and every night since, for over thirty years! She went to Lees-McRae college, nearby, and her family had recently moved from Sanford, Florida. They now lived on Beech Mountain a few miles away. My father’s family had lived in the area for generations, but I’d grown up in Colorado.
Perri smoked, but I’d been vegetarian over half my life and hadn’t smoked in years. I didn’t try to change her, but within a few weeks she’d quit smoking, and eating meat except for occasional fish, and I was pleased. People do what they want, and when they’re ready they’ll listen. Some folks find religion, some want health, some wish to be ethical, some want to keep their boyfriends. I don’t judge unless asked, and even then not one person in fifty pays attention. It’s a nice surprise when they do, but doesn’t often happen.
When adults don’t pay attention it doesn’t bother me. Adults choose their life path, but it annoys me when children have poor health, allergies, mental problems, diseases and parents don’t have the will or awareness to help the kids eat right. Kids who eat nothing but crap have difficulties for life.
We spent a season in the tent, but soon decided to build an earth lodge. For the next couple years we dug dirt and pounded nails. It started as a huge tent made from old carpeting, but I brought leftover plywood and shorty 2x4s from my construction job to make the roof, then covered it with tarpaper and roofing cement. In its final iteration it was well sealed from the weather and toasty warm in the wintertime.
Perri’s mother had been divorced, and had three kids. When she married Ed, the kids called him Daddio, and from then on they were Mams and Daddio. Ed and Janis raised two more kids, then bought an old mill house in Tennessee and moved the 18th-century hand-hewn plank boards to the top of Beech Mountain, where he’d reassembled the two-storey structure and added a basement, sub-basement and a spacious attic. When I met him it was open from top to bottom, with only a small section of floor in the kitchen. He’d fallen and broken his arm, but had only put a little Ben-Gay on it and was sitting at the kitchen table, going over plans. Ed had bought the top of Beech Mountain and subdivided it into what he called the Crest of Beech. In the meantime he and the family were living in a small house a mile away. He was a veterinarian, and had an office in a building which I’d roofed the year before in cedar. Wildly popular in the 1970s, it was supposed to last 80 to 100 years. It had been little used in the south, but I was on several roofing crews who used a new technique, alternating rows of shakes with layers of tarpaper. Unfortunately, tarpaper held moisture, and after fifteen or twenty years the cedar rotted.
Mams worked for the Beech Mountain Club, a homeowner’s association which ran the camp, ski slope, skating rink and other activities on the mountain. For awhile one of the attractions was the Land of Oz, a theme park based on the movie, which my brother and I had auditioned for in 1975. It closed in 1981 or ’82 and Perri got possession of a few items; we still have a small step-stool, but a disco ball disintegrated, leaving behind hundreds of 1/2” mirror squares which still occasionally float through our lives, appearing in a dusty corner or sneaking out from behind a wall.
The winter of 1983 saw some of the coldest days on record. My sister’s husband  Kevin and I often went to the package store in Blowing Rock–until about 1990 Boone was a dry town–and one displayed a huge bottle, a jeroboam of champagne, which had been there for ages. Kevin asked the price. The owner, just in the mood, said, “Tell you what. Give me $10 and you can take it home.” I immediately pulled out $10 and gave it to him for what was easily a $100 bottle of champagne. I left it in the earth lodge next to the stove, but even with a fairly constant fire going and large rocks to maintain thermal mass, the temperature got down to -25º that Christmas, and that huge bottle of champagne was mushy frozen when I rescued it. We opened it on New Year’s Day, 1984, a date which due to George Orwell’s melodramatic 1948 book seemed ominous, but came to be seen as just another somewhat pedestrian year.
Through the spring and summer of that overblown year we lived in and worked on the earth lodge. In May we took a vacation to the Outer Banks, Perri’s Subaru hatchback loaded to the gills. It was a first for us, and we had a lovely time. Highway 64 is known as the road which traverses North Carolina “from Manteo to Murphy”, and we went to Corolla and Duck in the north, then drove south, taking pictures with a couple box cameras I’d brought along. I’d been buying them since I was 12 or so, and with them we took double exposures of ourselves on the beach, “art” shots of our “dream” vacation, and stopped at every lighthouse, where I’d snap Perri from a snail’s-eye view, lighthouse looming overhead. In Kitty Hawk we paced out the flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright. We fought off seagulls at a picnic shelter and visited the site of the Lost Colony, a patch of grass where the English settled in 1587, well before the Mayflower, and were lost to history, likely melting in with the Indians a few miles inland. We bought hats with long bills in front and sunshades in back. We stayed in the Hatteras Hotel, which even at that late date had no television, only a radio, but for $20 a night suited us fine. We rode down the coast and took ferries across the Albemarle Sound, one a short jaunt and the other a journey of hours. We paid 50¢ each to see a fireman’s museum in New Bern and went to another in Belhaven which was based on Eva Blount Way’s collection of strange things–thousands of buttons, weird animal parts in formaldehyde, a 1/4” drill which had electrocuted a carpenter, old magazine covers, more buttons, fleas dressed up as wedding guests, more buttons and more buttons. We moseyed back across the state, stopping at the Rose Hill winery, the Duplin winery and the original town of Washington–known by Carolinians as The First Washington. We saw the world’s largest coffeepot in Winston-Salem, snapped pictures of us underneath it and in June were back in Boone.
We did a lot of work on the lodge and were well set by the following autumn. I worked at the elementary school, Perri finished at Lees-McRae and transferred to Appalachian State to work on a teaching certificate. For Christmas my parents gave us a “symbolic” gift–a light bulb. Instead of running an extension cord down the hill from Kevin and Fran’s trailer, we’d have a real power hookup at the earth lodge! I was overjoyed! My father was helping us!
It didn’t happen. A month or two later, one of my cousins tried to plan a golf course on my grandparents’ land, which now belonged to my father and his five siblings. If they all got together, there’d be enough land and everyone would own a share. This might have been acceptable, but it didn’t work out. The banksters wanted a buyout. As for the power hookup, it was a promise. One he never intended to keep.
I thought the whole was over, but Perri was furious. It was not considered that the two of us had put years of money and sweat into our home and the property. We weren’t asked. It was announced, a given, an aside, that of course our earth lodge would be torn down. She saw it as an outright and complete betrayal, of promises made, a breach of trust.
She was correct.
War Stories
Every generation has war stories, literally or figuratively. They may be keys to one generation understanding another. Or maybe not.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked my father was fifteen. Ned and some friends were playing mumbly-pegs, an Appalachian stick-and-rock game resembling baseball. Everyone rushed in from the meadow and gathered around the Sears Silvertone when the Gene Autry Show was interrupted. The war was daily news, but he didn’t think he’d be part of it.  He was student body president and popular as a debater. After high school he went to Mars Hill College in Mars Hill, NC for a year, then while on summer break the Allies invaded at Normandy and the Army called for volunteers to join the Air Corps. In August 1944 he signed up to become a pilot, but the Army Air Corps had 30,000 more volunteers than they needed. He was moved into the infantry, a depressing development, but he never considered backing out. After 17 weeks of boot camp in Ft. McClellan, Alabama he volunteered to be a paratrooper and was sent to Ft. Benning, Georgia, but before the end of training the Battle of the Bulge began. He got a two week furlough, but on Christmas was in Ft. Meade, Maryland and on New Year’s Day 1945 was sailing on the Queen Mary.
It took four days. Thirty thousand men slept in 8-hour shifts. Waiting for chow took forever, and after tasting it he decided the British didn’t know how to cook, so he survived on cigarettes and candy bars and trimmed hair for pocket change (he later became a barber). They pulled into Glasgow, Scotland, took the train to Southampton, crossed the English Channel and rode in boxcars to Riems, where the Germans in American uniforms had infiltrated. He was assigned to the 35th Division, 1378th regiment, Company B. They went to Alsace-Lorraine, where the snow was waist-deep.
It was a brutal winter. The first night, his outfit was on one mountain and the Germans, across the valley, on another. It was snowing, and the temperature went to 30 below. The Germans were sending out patrols; their black boots marched through the snow past his foxhole and he kept quiet. The guy beside him was coughing, but the patrol passed by.
His feet were freezing. Trench foot. He cut up an army blanket, stuffed it in his boots. From that day onwards, he wore tight shoes.
Not much fighting was going on, so his company moved south, traveling through Belgium and France in trucks. In one little French village a woman and her daughter waved to the trucks and cheerfully yelled out “Boolsheet! Boolsheet!,” which some smartass had told her was a greeting–so the soldiers waved and yelled “Bullshit!” back.
The Germans were retreating. The Americans lined up outside villages to fire their weapons. Ned carried a Browning automatic, which the brass had decided every squad needed two of. It was a pain in the butt. It fired a lot more ammo, but half the time would jam. It was heavy and got very heavy as they marched. One moonlit night about 2 am they heard a sniper and everyone hit the ditch. Ned fell asleep, and when someone killed the sniper, he slept until someone shook him awake. They were lining up to take the next village. Just as he was lining up, a mortar shell landed where he’d been sleeping. A little mound of dirt on the ditch bank kept him from getting hit.
They went into the village at daylight, firing away. In a little gingerbread house there was a man of eighty or so who didn’t care that Ned had a big Browning rifle and wouldn’t put his hands over his head, he just kept cussing in German and pushing him away. They put the civilians in the central square and secured the village.
They’d reached the Ruhr river. Everything was misty and muddy. German burp guns were going off in the distance, shooting out beams like headlights. There was a phone line between the foxholes, and a couple guys named Quinliver and La Bota were in a barn. A little before daylight, Quinliver called and said, “Sergeant, there’s a patrol outside the barn.” The sergeant  asked Ned whether he and Bryant had seen a patrol. They hadn’t. The sergeant asked, had Quinliver?  They didn’t know. The sergeant told Quinliver and La Bota to “let ‘em have it,” and all hell broke loose. At daylight, there were five little cherry trees near the barn which Quiniliver and La Bota had shot to pieces. The sergeant separated them and Quinliver became Ned’s partner.
On the 4th of March, 1945, the soldiers entered a small village which appeared deserted except for an air raid shelter in the side of the hill with a stovepipe sticking out the top. Like most of the officers, the lieutenant was a college kid who’d taken 3 months of training but didn’t know much. A lot of these “ninety day wonders” quickly got shot. The “little lieutenant,” as they called him when out of earshot, was at the mouth of the shelter yelling. Ned told him he knew what to do. He climbed to the top of the stovepipe, put a clod of dirt on it, and 15 or 20 villagers came out. Among them were two soldiers, who promptly surrendered. They said they weren’t really soldiers but had been captured, put into the army and left behind as snipers. They told the Americans the German outfit had pulled across the Rhine, a few kilometers away. The little lieutenant told Ned to guard the civilians, which they didn’t usually do.
Ned leaned back on the shelter, pulled out a K-ration, started eating. The sergeant came along and asked what he was doing. He was guarding the civilians, like the lieutenant told him to. The sergeant growled, “You know better than that! Get your ass back up front where you belong!” He went back.
The last house in the village had a doorbell. Quinliver went to the back door while Ned rang the bell, and inside was a girl of 12 and her little brother, crying, holding their hands up and repeating “Nicht soldaten! Nicht soldaten! (we’re not soldiers!)  Their grandparents were at the table eating dark German bread. Ned picked up a piece and spread jelly on it.  The grandparents, realizing the soldiers were hungry, went to the cellar, pulled out several loaves, and soon the whole squad was eating bread and jelly.
While they were standing in the kitchen, the little lieutenant said to Mahl, the staff sergeant, “Mahl, I don’t know–but I have a funny feeling I’m gonna get it today.” Mahl said, “Aah! Don’t talk that way, lieutenant,” He said, “Well, if something happens to me, you take over.”  There was a chill in the air.
As they left, the lieutenant told Ned and another fellow that it was their turn to be forward scouts.
They were in rolling hill country, and the road forked at the base of a little hill.  The captain ran up with a map and told Ned to go right. Just then, a German flare fired and they knew it was a trap. Ahead to the right was a gravel pit, and Ned dived in.
All hell broke loose. The Germans had a machine gun and a mortar set up on the hill. The machine gunner opened up, but didn’t have it aimed and hit the dirt in front of Ned, who jumped and ran up the bank. The other fellow was hit. The Germans opened up on the company with machine guns on both flanks and a mortar in the middle. A sergeant named Jackson joined Ned on the bank; he started to get up and fire his rifle, but Ned told him to get down. He did. They heard a tank coming and ran the other way through the trees. A Tiger Royal with an 88mm gun came rolling down the road, firing toward the area they’d just left.  The lieutenant was a pile of dirty bloody flesh. Mahl had been killed and most of the company was piled in the road, dead or dying. Ned and Jackson lay on the hill beside the road. Ned knew the machine gunner could see him, the tracer bullets were coming down all around. He kept saying please, God, don’t let me die–then decided if he was going to die he’d read the Bible.  He opened his little pocket Bible at random and read, “fear not the man who can destroy the body, for he cannot touch the soul.”
The firing stopped. Jackson said, “Austin, we can surrender.” They didn’t have anything white to hold up, but held up an old pair of gloves as they left their rifles behind, hands in the air.
There were ten men left. A guy named Bachard walked up to a German soldier, and the soldier asked him, in English, “Do you have a family?” Bachard said, “Yes. I have two daughters and I‘m from Oregon.” The German said, “I have two daughters, too. I haven’t heard from my wife for 3 months. I don’t know what’s happened to them. War is hell, isn’t it?” Bachard said, “It really is.”
The Germans put them in a potato shed. They sent a doctor, who examined the wounded and told them, “Someone will come for you. Don’t leave the building or you’ll be shot.”
They were taken to the next village, The American artillery started up, and they were almost killed by their own artillery fire. They went across the Rhine on a ferry and spent the next night in a home where a German woman fed them barley soup. It was new to Ned, and one of the best things he’d ever tasted. They were then taken to Dortmund.
As prisoners they didn’t have a change of clothes, were covered in lice and were always hungry or thirsty. They spent the night in a railway station in Essen watched by two guards. One of them was an old fellow who’d been a prisoner of the British in the last World War; his name was Willy but they called him Pop. He spoke little English, but they got along well.
They were held in an air raid shelter in Essen, and various Germans with relatives in the States came by to talk. One of the German soldiers, when asked about the American military, said the artillery was excellent, the Air Corps was excellent, but the infantry was a joke.
Leaving Essen, they were simply passengers on a train, with Willy as guard. There was little point in taking elaborate measures this far behind the lines, this late in the war. They went through a tunnel, heard planes above and stopped in a rail center; the American pilots would circle the train as a humanitarian act to let the civilians get out, and all the civilians left the train and ran up the mountain while the prisoners and Willy remained inside. The American P-47s bombed the rail center and strafed the train. When the destruction was finished, the civilians came back and started spitting and throwing rocks at the prisoners, but Willy got some German soldiers to protect the prisoners from the civilians. They couldn’t ride the train anymore and started walking, but Willy made arrangements to have them ride on top of a bus. Willy handed his rifle to Ned as he climbed up to guard them–what was Ned gonna do, start shooting?–and when the bus cleared out they got inside.
School children would practice their English on them, reciting nursery rhymes and asking simple questions. Ned asked them if they could get tobacco, and they gave the prisoners a bag of tobacco. None of the German people seemed to see the prisoners as enemies, just wretches who had even less than they did, and none of them had much. The prisoners got one loaf of moldy, soggy black bread per day, not tasty, but nutritious.
They arrived at the Lindberg prison camp and were interrogated. A German lieutenant who spoke very good English talked with Ned and Ned said, “Lieutenant, I feel very fortunate, because I don’t know anything that could be of value to the German army. You know more about what I know than I do. I understand that early in the interrogation, before you torture us, you’ll be very kind to us to see if we know anything. I wonder if you could give me a cigarette.” The lieutenant laughed and said he didn’t smoke, but called in a captain who gave Ned five cigarettes in a box. They asked what state he was from, he told them North Carolina, and they asked about a paper shortage they heard North Carolina was having. They asked a few questions about gas, and he told them yes, all the soldiers were very well prepared against a gas attack. They asked him if he had any friends in the 15th Army, and he’d never heard of the 15th Army. They told him they weren’t surprised, the 15th Army was going to be the army of occupation.
They were in prison camp for about a week, and every day got a big slice of black bread and potato soup, which was just boiled potatoes in dirty water. The lice would crawl over their skin when it got warm.
One day everyone got a full loaf of bread and were all loaded onto French boxcars. There wasn’t enough room to lie down, only to stand or squat. Each boxcar had a can for water and one to use as a toilet. Sometimes the water can got filled, sometimes it didn’t. They were always thirsty. They spent the next two days inside a tunnel, and when they pulled out they were worried about getting bombed because none of the boxcars were painted PW (Prisoner of War) and the Americans were bombing like crazy all over Germany.
The train pulled into a small village. There were small openings covered in barbed wire in the corners of the boxcar and kids started throwing in tiny green apples. They thought it great fun to hear the prisoners inside scrambling and fighting for the apples. Ned wondered how many people these poor kids had seen in his condition.
Quite a few prisoners lost their minds. They’d cry, and Ned or one of the others would lecture them to be strong and say how everyone was gonna get out and so forth. After seven days Ned had a premonition. He knew they were getting off the boxcar that day, and started telling everyone. Most of the guys thought he’d lost his mind, too, but they got off! Some guys were too weak, and died right there.
They walked for two or three days, sleeping wherever they stopped. They finally walked into a village and the villagers brought out a huge washtub full of soup, which was unusual as Germans rarely gave prisoners anything; they often didn’t have anything to give. The prisoners knew it wouldn’t be long before they were liberated, and on the night of March 29th the guards simply disappeared. A buddy of Ned’s climbed a barn to watch when they heard tanks coming, and they ran to meet the tanks, which were American. The division sent ambulances and trucks for the prisoners and took them to a field hospital, where they burned their rotten, dirty clothes, were de-loused, showered, got new uniforms and ate and ate and ate. They were sent to Paris and spent two weeks in the hospital, where those who could got frequent passes into the city and had a wonderful time.
One day Ned was interviewed by a captain, who put his papers in a basket. When the captain was out of the room Ned saw they were for his next assignment. He threw his papers and the next few under them in the trash, and he and the other two or three guys spent another two weeks in Paris. After a month he was shipped home. It was May 8th, 1945 when the ship left Europe. Germany was out of the war and Ned got a sixty-day furlough. He thought he might have to go to the Pacific, but the atomic bomb ended it. He was discharged in November of 1945, went back to the farm and back to school.
Ned graduated from Mars Hill College, went to New York City and from there summer stock theatre in Surrey, Maine. He never became a preacher, which had been his mother Minnie’s wish. A few years later Boone held a Daniel Boone festival, and from that came an idea to start an outdoor drama like the one currently playing at the coast starring Andy Griffith. A rustic theatre was built on a hill outside town and Ned landed the role of Daniel Boone in “Horn in the West”. My mother Bobbie was his co-star that summer. When she saw her carry a prop anvil off stage he knew she was the girl for him, and after one date he proposed. She waited until he sobered up, then said yes.
Did the war shape my father’s character? Of course. It shaped everyone’s character and affected everything. In the 50s cheery musicals were replaced by dark drama. People drank too much. Method acting, the popular style of the 50s, now seems overblown and out of control, but he along with the rest of the world felt the need for psychological excess. It affected the kids; the “baby boomers” grew up in a world of fear. At age five, six, eight we’d hear a siren and fly under our desks, assume the kiss-your-ass-goodbye position and wait for the bomb to vaporize us. Metal bracelets we all wore reminded us that we’d be little piles of ashes in a few nanoseconds, but whoever swept up would know which crisp was which by our tags. None of us expected to grow up. I thought I’d be lucky to see fourteen–old enough to drive a motor scooter.
But if we grew up, we knew what to expect. We’d be fighting the Russians, on land, on sea and in space. Smart kids would be rocket scientists.
I was smart. I was the smartest kid in the state; my Stanford Achievement Tests proved it. I’d also been promoted a year, making me the youngest, smallest, and physically least matured–easily bullied by students, teachers, the system and especially by my father. He was brutal, which wasn’t uncommon. I knew lots of kids who were smacked around, whipped, beat up by their fathers. Didn’t make it right.
You get what you give. If you want love, give love. If you want honesty and respect, give honesty and respect. If you want to be remembered as a fine person, be a fine person. There are those who think my father was warm, generous, funny. They saw what he wanted them to see. I knew better. He was mean. He was black tar mean.
I couldn’t trust him. He was pleasant when we’d work together. I shined shoes and cleaned up his barbershop as a kid, and we sold Christmas trees together when I was older, but if I did anything well, be it praiseworthy, notable or simply competent, he’d find a way to wreck it.
For me this was commonplace, ordinary. He was thoroughly, completely, predictably untrustworthy. He’d forget a promise before he’d finished saying it. Sometimes this was carelessness, but often deliberate malice. Why? I don’t know, though I’ve thought about it. A lot.
My father was a deeply jealous man. When he saw innocent, pleasant, happy  people he’d make horrid, despicable comments. He once blindsided a polite, cheerful waitress by asking her what it was like to be as ugly as her. He kept it up through dinner, loudly telling his dinner companion, my brother, that if he were that ugly, he’d commit suicide. She ran to the back and cried.
He’s dead now, and I’m relieved. Is that wrong? Should I care? Psychologists say to forgive “for your own good”. Religious leaders quote Jesus and say forgive your enemies, forgive seventy times seven, but if I wave a couple of fingers, make a Jesus face and say “I forgive”, I feel worse, not better. Truth is, I’ve done my seventy times seven. I’ve got no more. I tried to love him. He hated me for it.  I have no obligation, no desire, no more room in my bruised heart. It’s over.
I’ll forgive what was done unawares, recklessly, heedless of consequence. Deliberate maliciousness demands a cussing out, and I’ll be done cussing when I’m finished. If that means spitting over the railing in heaven, so be it. I never did anything mean or vindictive to my father. I trusted him. I got a torpedo to the gut. I don’t need psychology. If he had issues from his childhood, from the war, from growing up in the Depression, he can hang around hell and commiserate with Bing Crosby. I’m done.
After the golf course debacle, I should have shaken off the dust, followed my woman and left forever, but I had a misplaced wish to build a life, a business, to be a loyal son, to do right to my utterly undeserving father and to the Austin family who’d lived in the valley for two hundred years. I hadn’t felt at home until I moved to North Carolina. I’d grown up in Colorado, where I hated school and now knew only a few folks from the old neighborhood; in Hollywood, I only kept up with a couple acquaintances from when I managed our rental equipment yard and played in a family band. I had lots of friends in Austin, Texas, where we’d sold Christmas trees for years and everyone remembered my name, but in Boone I had family. I’d built a home. I felt at home.
It didn’t mean as much to Perri. When the plans for the golf course fell through, like seventy-seven hundred other plans of my father’s, I didn’t think twice. To Perri, however, it demonstrated that whatever we did meant zip to him, that we could never trust him. She was correct, but I was blind. I continued working on the earth lodge, but Perri got one apartment, then another. We stayed in our lodge occasionally, then let friends live there, then the dream died.
Leaving Snag End
I’d towed my Model A truck to the earth lodge at Snag End to work on it with Jake and Kevin. Jake had been living on the property in a bus with his wife and kids and was a great help, but Kevin was increasingly erratic. He and Fran had joined a weirdo cult before they got married, and they’d quit the red-haired loony’s church shortly after the wedding but Kevin had taken up drinking. He’d drink a couple beers late at night for a couple weeks, then start after lunch. Soon he’d be walking around at 9am, beer in hand, a week later a liquor bottle would be half-empty at 11am and by 4pm Kevin would do something stupid. He’d quit drinking for a few weeks and the cycle would repeat.
My cousin worked for the school bus garage in South Carolina. There had been a horrible fiery wreck in Kentucky where a drunk driver, going the wrong way on the freeway, had plowed into the passenger side of a bus. “The Carrollton Bus Crash,” took place May 14, 1988. Twenty-four children and three adults died when its gas tank was punctured and exploded. School bus safety was improved, but rather than re-fit every bus in America, the old ones were sold cheap. We bought one for $600. We had to take out all the seats to drive it with a regular driver’s license, but we wanted to use it to haul Christmas trees anyway. It wouldn’t go over 45 miles per hour and only made four or five miles per gallon, so we purchased a 2-speed rear end for another $250. In top gear it now made 60 miles per hour and got seven or eight miles per gallon.
Perri’s friend Cindy had also worked on Beech Mountain. Her parents knew mine, though I didn’t find that out until later. The winter before we met, she’d had an argument with her on-again-off-again boyfriend of many years. He’d stormed off, wrecked his car and died. For many years afterwards Cindy was involved with one inappropriate guy after another–guys who were married, way older, immature, living at home at 40, etc. One day in the late 1990s she and I had a heart-to-heart talk. She realized she’d been picking guys she kinda knew from the start weren’t gonna work, because it wouldn’t hurt so much when they left–or died. Soon afterwards she found a nice guy. They have two kids the same ages as ours.
Perri went to school and found a part-time job delivering pizzas when we moved into the apartment. She had a habit of hitting me when we disagreed, and one day I’d had enough. I spun her around and punched her in the center of her back. That ended it. People say men should never hit a woman, but neither should a woman hit a man. One day I saw a 250-lb. woman on Phil Donahue sitting by her 125-pound husband and she (punch!) said (punch!) that HE’D(punch!) HIT (punch!) HER (punch!)!!! Nobody noticed that she weighed twice as much, and had just punched him five times.
For six months or so we received a subsidized rent, but when I received a raise of 25¢ an hour the rent suddenly doubled. We cleaned up the apartment when we moved out, It was absolutely spotless, but we only received $40 back on our $300 deposit. If I had it to do over I’d have trashed the place and set loose cockroaches. It was a scam pulled by an out-of-town real estate company on a couple with no money. Totally common.
We moved into an apartment outside town, up a steep hill. It was approximately the same size and rent we’d been paying before, but not subsidized and the neighbors were a problem. Below us lived a redneck fellow named Kenny, who was pleasant enough but worked all the time. His pregnant wife, her mother and no-count brother also lived in the one-bedroom apartment. Kenny had two jobs, but the three of them sat around watching TV all day, drinking soda, chain-smoking cigarettes. Kenny’s wife kept a broomstick handy and banged on the ceiling every ten or fifteen minutes while we walked around the apartment. The floor squeaked, but what the hell were we supposed to do? When our neighbors to the left played music, she’d bang on our ceiling. When our neighbors to the right got into arguments she’d bang on the ceiling. We started tromping around at all hours, for no reason. It didn’t matter anyway.
To our right, our neighbors loved the Doors, and when they got into arguments they’d crank up the stereo. We’d hear Jim Morrison braying “Don’t you love her madly?” interspersed with squabbling from her, thundering from him, kids yelling, banging on the ceiling while we walked on the squeaky floor. We were happy that Kenny’s wife kept the temperature cranked up to 80 and the heat came up through our floor. Our power bill was under $50, while theirs was over $300. We even opened the windows to cool things down, a small but delicious compensation.
I made a lot of jewelry that year and took some classes at Appalachian State University, where Perri had transferred. Over spring break Perri’s brother Wes and his girlfriend got a condominium in Florida (it was a perk from her job) and the four of us went to Disney World, visited Perri’s sister Joy and her friends in Sanford, then across the state to see her sister Glee in Sebring and brother Jimmie in Fort Myers. After a couple weeks we headed home. I wanted to visit my two sisters, who were in Melbourne, but Perri wanted to leave. I assented, but not at all happily. We’d visited with her family for two weeks, and if we couldn’t see my sisters for a day I wasn’t sure I wanted to be with her anymore. She saw my glum mood and we stopped, visiting my sister Genny, her husband Suzuki and my sister Laura.
I’d had a green 1972 Dodge Coronet for a couple years, a great car that didn’t get very good gas mileage, and bought a Toyota station wagon from my brother, who’d become a used car salesman. The Toyota had 160,000 miles but came with a little notebook in the glove box detailing everything that had been done it, a habit I immediately adopted.
We stayed at Mountain Ridge apartments through the winter of ’85. I got a job selling ski tickets at Beech Mountain. It was crazy enough driving up the road home in deep snow, much less up Beech Mountain. One day I had to put on the “chains” supplied by Toyota, little clamps with two chains about six inches apart. The tire would spin and grab, spin and grab. I got up the mountain an hour late and used a full tank of gas. I stayed at my supervisor’s condo that night and thereafter took the four-wheel-drive Subaru while Perri drove the Toyota to school.
On the Beech
Selling tickets was fun. On busy days I’d take in $20,000 or $30,000, one day $50,000, but most days, especially early or late in the season, I’d bring a book. I’d read a book a day, sometimes in Spanish, which I was mastering.
We split from Mountain Ridge Apartments in the spring of 1986. Perri started classes down the mountain in Morganton while I stayed in the earth lodge. We’d bought an Oldsmobile from Suzuki and I suggested to Genny that with the money they should take a vacation out West. They did, and had a great time, but Suzuki wanted to stay in San Francisco while Genny wanted to be a star in New York. They eventually divorced, though she called him, late at night, for years.
I took classes at Appalachian and worked with a couple rock masons on the off days. We built chimneys, walkways, patios, and I’d pick up leftover pieces of plywood and 2x4s from job sites and put them in the earth lodge. By the fall of 1986 it was a solid structure. That summer and fall I sold jewelry, flutes and toys at Mystery Hill, a tourist attraction along the Blowing Rock Highway, and found that my best sellers were stained glass kaleidoscopes. In late 1986 I made one which combined a color wheel and a tumble box, and christened it a Kallistoscope.
For spring break of ’86 we started for a camp-out with my Earth Studies class, packed the Subaru and waited, but nobody showed. It was supposed to be the last weekend of Easter break, not the first. Since we already had everything packed we picked up our champagne bottle with 2-1/2 years’ worth of dimes in it and with the $200 or so and an Exxon card headed north. We drove to Niagara Falls, crossed into Canada, and then called everyone back home, who thought we’d be in Virginia! We touristed Canada for the afternoon and bought souvenirs, then went to Cortland, NY for the day, where I had many friends from frequently hitchhiking through for five years. I’d often stayed with Barb, who was out of town, but Eileen was there, we stayed the night and I kissed her goodbye, for the first, and last, time.
In New Jersey we visited Kevin’s parents while we got the shock absorbers to the Subaru replaced. The mechanic couldn’t believe how worn-out they were. Four years of gravel mountain roads had destroyed them completely, no resistance whatsoever. We tried to pay with our Discover card at Sears, which had issued the card, but Sears in New Jersey didn’t take a Sears Discover card from North Carolina, and we had to arrange a round-about transaction from one bank to another to another to put the money in Kevin’s mother’s bank account to pay the mechanic. We stayed in New Jersey while the car was being fixed and I went out with Kevin’s brother. I ordered my first legal drink of straight liquor, in a bar connected to a liquor store. I was 33 but had never ordered anything but beer or wine in North Carolina and during my five years of thumbing around hadn’t gone in liquor bars. I felt strange ordering “whiskey”, then came the question, what kind? I didn’t know, I was a country hick. I was even wearing overalls.
Kevin’s brother was wild and crazy but friendly and very funny, like Kevin. We rode some three-wheeler ATVs which were popular in 1986 but were even then being abandoned for the far safer four-wheelers. One of the fellows on a four-wheeler hit a guy-wire and it snapped, flailing about wildly. It was fortunate he had a four wheeler, which now had a deep dent in the front. On a three-wheeler he’d have lost his arm, his head, or both. They told a story about one of their friends. A local landowner had stretched a cable across his private road, their friend had gone riding and the cable had taken off his head. The landowner was charged with manslaughter.
Kevin’s parents were gracious and accommodating. They put us up, fed us, showed us around town and gave us a few dollars when we left. A few months later Kevin’s brother got a new job, went out celebrating, did a bunch of cocaine and, because he’d been clean for a year and had a lower tolerance, celebrated too much, and died.
We visited New York City for the afternoon, where my brother’s boyfriend Rob commented on my overalls. It hadn’t occurred to me that they were a fashion statement; they were convenient for travel, but in New York City, for what other reason would I wear them?
Shortly afterwards my youngest sister graduated from Warren Wilson College. We visited her in Asheville in May. It’s a lovely area, tucked into the mountains, and she got a job as a recruiter for the college, where she recruited our sister Genny.
My father asked me to draw the horoscope for a sale of our main tree farm that year, to a fast-talking preacher. I warned him, but it was pissing in the wind. Since we were getting out of the business I rented a shop, and I planned to get started with the half interest he’d promised me, but when I brought it up the promise looked at me like I’d lost my mind. The shop went under, the preacher cut down hundreds of trees, sold them, didn’t pay up, and we got the tree farm back, minus all the best trees. I went back to trimming them, my “half interest” a big fat zero.
I lived in the earth lodge that winter and sold tickets on Beech Mountain again, while Perri found work student teaching in Alamance County and I’d visit once or twice a month.
A few years earlier, I’d occasionally dated a goofy, hilariously funny girl named Terry Smith. I knew her family well; she was a sweet, intelligent girl who’d been off to college but now was back in town. I’d drawn her astrology chart years before, and now she wanted me to tell her about it. I told her to drop by. She came one night when it had snowed and I was stuck on Beech Mountain. She pulled into my driveway, put a hose from the tailpipe into her Volkswagen bus, and was found the next day.
I learned later it wasn’t the first time she’d tried to kill herself. More like the fifth. I’d known her for years, but had no idea.
Perri’s parents had given us a VCR for Christmas, a top-loader with no real remote control, only a tiny box attached by wire, with buttons for play, pause, fast forward and rewind. There was a row of thirteen buttons on the front, and each could be manually tuned into a television channel using a hidden thumbscrew. I’d been practicing my Spanish, and had taped Spanish TV when I could, but only had 2 or 3 tapes. I’d play them all night while I slept, with the sound low and the picture dimmed.
After moving down the mountain Perri took a job at the local mall in a store called Just My Size, for larger women. I moved down in the spring. We’d socialize with her colleagues, sometimes taping movies from cable to watch together. One afternoon we’d seen a movie starring a popular punk rocker, Wendy O. Williams. We thought Steve and Chris had cable, but they’d spent good money to rent a VCR and the same not-very-good movie, which we watched again!
I worked on my kaleidoscopes and by the spring of ’87 had come up with an original and creative design. I’d sold a few at flea markets and acquired a regular customer who had a booth at a flea market and later a shop in Greensboro, the first place to sell my Kallistoscopes and puzzle rings.
My last winter in Texas, I’d caught a bad strain of the flu, and couldn’t shake it, never really felt like I was over it. The next summer I’d be absolutely exhausted after work, and in winter I’d catch it again. None of the pills worked. I thought it was chronic fatigue syndrome, a popular, non-specific ailment, and got interested in herbal remedies. They worked, but demanded a different mind-set. People are accustomed to taking pills, but herbal remedies require what seem to be massive amounts. Instead of one tiny pill four times a day, it’s a full cup of tea every hour.
In the spring of 1987 when the ski slope shut down I moved to Alamance County. Perri had found a tiny house about a mile from school and was student teaching special education. I was trying to make a go of kaleidoscopes and jewelry. My intent to have a profession that didn’t involve working in a particular place, so that I could pack up and move back to the mountains without a lot of complications. I made kaleidoscopes in the back room, drove around the state and sold them. It worked okay for awhile. Sometimes I’d come home with a thousand dollars, sometimes a hundred, but Perri had a steady salary, and as far as I knew we were planning to move back in a few months. Perri had put in for a teacher’s position in Boone. She hadn’t heard back yet, but it was no great surprise in a town centered around a teacher’s college. Sooner or later, her name would come up.
In the fall Perri was a teacher at Hillcrest School, minding emotionally troubled kids in special education, with an assistant Pat, who with her husband Randy and kids Carly and Leah became good friends. Another family was her colleague Loretta, married to Charles, with a daughter Jennifer.
We’d gotten a PCjr. computer from a fellow who worked for IBM; he’d supercharged it and now it had ten times the power of the computers Perri was using at school. A mind-blowing, exceptional 640K of memory.
We got a tree lot at the mall in Burlington at the Sears store–they had an outside garden area, unused after the fall. About a week into the season the Sears manager wanted us to pay the rent and all the expected percentage of the profits, up front, before we’d sold anything. We hadn’t been specific about when the rent and percentage of the sales would be paid, but that was ridiculous. I charged it to my Discover card and put Sears last on my shit list. My parents had a similar problem with Sears. They’d been loyal customers for 20 years, but after moving from Colorado to California were suddenly slapped with a $250 limit on purchases, which meant no washer-dryer combo in their new house. The next year I rented a lot in town from a fellow who’d been a customer and also said to hell with Sears.
In 1988 Perri and I married. On Leap Day we ran off to Danville, Virginia, not telling anyone what we were doing. We’d thought about it years before when we’d gone to Niagara Falls, but the secret plan got out and it didn’t seem so fun. By 1988 nobody suspected, except one of Perri’s colleagues who figured it out on her own, and gave us a nice basket of champagne and sweets. We’d made wedding bands for each other and wore them afterwards, but as both of us wore a lot of jewelry for sales purposes, nobody noticed. It wasn’t until October that my youngest sister asked about my ring. I wore it for several years, but one day when soldering a glob of molten metal rolled off a kaleidoscope and into the open-weave design of the ring, where it badly burned my finger. I stopped wearing jewelry while working, and eventually altogether.
The house we’d rented was four rooms with an open area in the center where the living room, kitchen and bedrooms met. To the back the bedroom had a half-size door for a half-size bathroom. Behind the kitchen was a small workshop, and behind that a deck. The second bedroom we used for a den, and there was a staircase in the den leading to the attic, finished and insulated but with only about 5’9” headroom, in the center, which wasn’t enough us to use comfortably. My sister Fran left her husband Kevin later that spring, though, and it proved perfect for her and her four kids. They’d left North Carolina when Kevin got his fourth DUI and stayed in Arizona while Kevin got ever more crazy. Genny and Suzuki visited them on their western tour, and Suzuki gave Kevin a fancy Japanese knife, since Kevin was working as a cook. Kevin later attacked Fran with the knife and cut off her hair. She took her premature twin baby girls–one on oxygen, the other brain damaged–and two toddler boys and left. When Kevin started calling we bought an answering machine and he filled up its tapes with long, angry, drunken rants. Fran found a place to stay after six weeks, took up with and later married a fellow named Rob she’d known since she was ten. There were now three Robs in the family–my brother, my other brother’s boyfriend and my sister’s husband.
Six months later, Beth came to Boone. I’d been crazy about her, but she’d run off with a guitar player. After twelve years, she’d divorced, in the same month I’d married. We went off and had a long talk together. I had a hard time getting to sleep that night.
In August of ’88 Perri and I took our second trip to the Outer Banks, with Loretta, Charles and Jennifer. I sold a few scopes in a shop in Ocracoke and on the ferry back from the southern islands opened up the hatchback and set several on display. I sold a couple to ferryboat passengers and met a fellow named Roger who owned a frame shop in the little town of Inman, SC. He bought several, and became a regular customer. We visited many places we’d not stopped before; Spot, Duck, the USS North Carolina. We camped out on the beach.
Our dog Daphne was hit by a car that summer. We’d been driving a few miles to the YMCA, playing racquetball and swimming, and sometimes she’d ride along. We’d walked home with her one time when the car had a flat, and some days later we’d left her at home. She decided to find us, and was walking to the YMCA when she was hit. The driver took her to the vet, and she lost a couple teeth but otherwise recovered.
Perri had her own classroom that fall at Hillcrest School, a glorified closet on the top floor of a building which had been built in 1931 and had no air conditioning. The first couple weeks were sweltering, but after September it became a nice cozy room to deal with the dozen or so kids who were too disruptive to stay in regular classrooms. She was happy to be teaching and had a good year, though her whole purpose was to take “emotionally disturbed” kids, who wouldn’t mind anyone else–teachers, parents, nobody–and make them mind her. She was good at it, too, but it’d lead to problems between us.
In the winter of that year I was off selling Kallistoscopes in the Subaru while Perri had the Oldsmobile.  There was an ice storm, Perri couldn’t get the car out of the driveway and the power was out. She was in the cold dark house with the Oldsmobile stuck uselessly in the driveway, and decided to walk to the little store a block away and buy a soda. She got bundled up, put on her boots, headed out, slipped along the ice and tromped through the snow to the little store on the corner–but it was closed because of the weather. She went to the soda machine. It was working–but she only had one dollar bill, and the machine wouldn’t take it. She trudged back home again, glummer than before.
We taped hundreds of movies, because we knew we weren’t going to stay in the little house and didn’t want to pay for cable TV after moving. When we left we had about 400 or 500 movies. We listed them in a booklet we’d printed in the unmistakable dot-matrix computer print font which was universal in the ‘80s. We soon learned how fast we could see every last movie a half-a-dozen times each!
For Thanksgiving ’88 our parents had a get-together. Sam, his boyfriend Rob and my sister Genny were all down from New York; Perri and I were up for the weekend. Genny had offered my parents’ farm as a temporary home for a dog while her friend was out of the country, a big, dumb Irish setter named Leo. Perri and I were in my old room on the former front porch, Sam and Rob were upstairs. On Thanksgiving morning, first thing, Perri and I were awakened by Rob booming out, “Leo, you fat, stupid pig!!!” Rob had come downstairs to breakfast and discovered Leo had stolen the turkey and scarfed up so much that he’d puked all over the floor at the bottom of the stairs.
Our landlord Teddy had had a rough month. He split up with his wife and his brother died in a cycle wreck. He wanted to move back into the little house. We could’ve crammed everything in a jumble into the bus after Christmas, but he gave us an extra month. Perri moved in with her old friend Cindy, who was now living in Burlington. I stayed in the mountains and unsuccessfully tried to show the farmhands down the road how to make parts for kaleidoscopes.
We snuck in to see our new house. It was lovely, built in 1940 on a lot just under 2 acres. There were splendid archways leading from the living room and dining room into the hallway, and the kitchen had been accessorized with a breakfast bar which went through the wall into the den. Except for the kitchen, den and bathroom, which were linoleum, it had wall-to-wall carpeting. A couple of window-unit air conditioners and an oil-burning furnace under a grating in the floor controlled the heat. There were two very nice fireplaces, a large open front porch and an enclosed back porch. It had been remodeled ten or fifteen years before, and city water lines had just been installed, though the well still functioned. The property included a vacant lot to the right, while a small house to the left had been given to a daughter and the lot split off. There had been a well serving both houses, but a new well was dug many years beforehand.
A grapevine in the side yard was supported by a few old pipes torn out when the house plumbing had been replaced. There was a carport and a small cement-block building in the backyard plus a tumbledown wooden shed way out back which had a very large overhanging roof. It looked as if it had been a barn but half had been torn down.
With the bus packed and parked at Steve and Chris’ house, Perri stayed with Cindy and I spent the month in the earth lodge. We moved into our new digs in March. I set up my workshop on the back porch. Perri had applied for work in Boone, but hadn’t heard back. I wanted my work portable, for when we moved back within a year or two. Kallistoscopes, jewelry, toys–these could be made anywhere.We bought the house as an investment which we could sell or rent out when the time came.
Our dog Daphne was around 20 years old by now. She’d arrived at my parents’ house fully grown some 17 or 18 years before, and had adopted us when we lived at the earth lodge. She rode everywhere with me. I took her to work on Beech Mountain and she waited outside the ticket booth. She’d been slowing down and Perri’s father had given us some veterinary medicine, as her heart was failing. That spring my father was also in the hospital; he had quintuple bypass surgery and because our house was a lot closer to the hospital than the mountains were, everyone stayed with us. While he was recovering, Daphne died. We wrapped her in her favorite quilt and buried her under the magnolia tree in the side yard. It was Hitler’s 100th birthday.
Daphne had gotten incontinent in her old age and the carpeting stunk. We’d already pulled up the lime-green shag carpeting in the spare bedroom so I could use it as a glass workshop. Now we pulled out the olive green carpeting in the living room, dining room and hallway, leaving only the main bedroom. Under it all was a lovely oak floor. It seemed strange that anyone would cover up an oak floor with wall-to-wall carpeting, but that was the style. When we visited the older couple who fixed our lawnmower, we started telling the story and realized, halfway through, that they had wall-to-wall carpeting even in the bathroom, undoubtedly considering it the height of luxury!
About six weeks after Daphne died, Perri met a woman outside the grocery store giving away puppies. She found that the pups were born on the same day, and arranged to bring me one for my 36th birthday. Angel came home that June 3rd.
I felt strange about my 36th birthday because I’d noted many years earlier that Marilyn Monroe’s chart and mine were very similar, and Marilyn had died when she was 36. I didn’t consider it relevant that Andy Griffith was born on the same day and was still going strong.
Perri had not been out West since she was a baby, so when school let out in 1989 we traveled to Colorado. I wanted her to see my old stomping grounds and meet buddies from high school. We drove through the never-ending plains of Kansas and finally saw the mountains, way in the distance, at the Colorado line. We got a chuckle from a postcard offered in Kanorado, on the Kansas border, advertising inexpensive accommodations to skiers–the slopes were over 250 miles away!
Many in the East have no concept of Western distances. Some friends from New England planned a trip to Colorado and thought that over the weekend they’d drive to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, since both were but one state away. Yes–but from Denver that’s a round trip of over 2000 miles!
By late afternoon we’d arrived, and Perri wanted to look for a place to stay but I insisted we go straight to Monk’s house. His mother gave us the spare bedroom. We spent several days exploring the mountains, visiting with friends, going to parties with Monk and his siblings. Monk had left the Hare Krishnas. My brother and I had taken him to the temple in Boulder in 1971; he’d joined in March 1973 and left five years later, though he still went to the temple. I’d thumbed through shortly after he’d quit the monk life and we had a few beers, which was the first time since that he’d had intoxicants. Once or twice a year I’d thumb through and keep in touch. He married for a few years Tara, a gal he knew from the temple, then briefly a “wild Indian”, whom I never met. By 1989 he was married to Carissa.
We went by their apartment and had a nice visit. At one point Perri and I were in the other room, passing around a joint, when I heard a commotion in the living room. There was a coked-up guy yelling that Monk owed him money and brandishing a gun. I introduced myself and held out my hand. To shake hands he had to put the gun away, and I explained we were visitors from out of town, that I didn’t know what was going on but it could all be worked out later and  now wasn’t the time for it. He left quietly. Monk and the rest were dumbfounded and grateful beyond words. I didn’t think it was such a big deal. I calmly and sensibly told him to come back later, but everyone else was amazed. For the rest of the night Carissa blatantly tried to seduce me, touching me, flashing me from the other room. She was a good-looking woman, but I didn’t need the drama.
Monk invited us to stay the night, but I didn’t want the complication. In the next few days we visited all the brothers and sisters, sold enough kaleidoscopes and jewelry to finance the trip and visited all the haunts I knew as a kid. We went to Boulder and drove along the timberline, went to the Botanical Gardens, City Park and the Museum of Natural History. It was a lovely visit, and though I’d intended to come back the next year for my 20th high school reunion, we’d seen everything and everyone important and I discovered I didn’t have that much interest in coming back the next summer to meet my old classmates. I’d been living in North Carolina for 15 years, and visiting with a woman in tow who’d never been there I found the difference striking. I’d been very much the hippie, but my hair and beard were now trimmed short, while Monk had gone from the shaved pate of the Krishna devotee to wilder and woolier than ever.
Our clothes were subtly different, too. Perri and I had packed along several brightly tie-dyed and patterned shirts we’d acquired at a “Charlie’s Tobacco Field Festival” my cousin’s boyfriend had put together, a “Redneck Woodstock” where we camped overnight in the bus. We sold a few things but made more money selling kaleidoscope “views” for a quarter each. Monk’s sister Margaret especially loved the shirts, which were common in the South but caused a sensation in Colorado, and she sent us several Colorado themed shirts in exchange. Fashion is like that. What’s common in one region is unknown in another, and when an outsider comes to town, there’s a new fad.
After returning we settled back to life in the country. We had three big pecan trees in the backyard and baby ones sprouting in the field, which I carefully mowed around. In the spring I transplanted them. We fixed up the house, replacing the tiny and inadequate squatty little water heater stuffed under the bathroom with a standard one relocated to the back porch. When the sales girl tried to load it into my car I was apprehensive about helping.
I felt a proper respect for womanly strength and ability precluded my manly desire to load it, lest I be labelled a sexist pig. It was difficult to be courteous to women in the 80s, they didn’t want help. A strong liberated feminist needed a man “like a fish needs a bicycle”. Unfortunately, women who tried to do manly things weren’t very good at it. Such was the ‘80s. Try to help a woman, she’d be pissed. Let her do it herself, she’d be pissed.
I made twelve dozen scopes that year. I’d settled on design elements which made them easy and fast to assemble as well as beautiful and strong. Many kaleidoscopes were made with 150 pieces or more; mine used 25 or 30. I’d found a “coaster/ashtray”, made by a glass company in Indiana, that was perfect for the tumble box, sturdy and distinctive on the end of the scope and with the added advantage of lighting up around the edge when viewed in strong light–but it was soon discontinued, so I bought a kiln and made my own, with “Kallistoscope” and “DJ & PJ Austin” molded into the glass.
A mirror which worked well, front-surfaced quartz glass, is now used with laser readers everywhere but in 1989 was new, different, expensive and hard to cut. I broke a lot of it before I discovered carbide glass cutters.
Thanksgiving was the big occasion in Perri’s family, and we went to Beech Mountain for the week. We did some rock climbing and visited with JB and KC, friends from work. KC had been adopted, later found that the initials for her born name and her adopted name were both KC, and JB simply preferred initials. We had a lovely time and have a souvenir picture JB took from under the table at the bar, featuring KC’s underwear. KC’d been married to Dave, who’d had an affair with a co-worker named Sherri. They split, KC had moved back to Pennsylvania for awhile and was now happy and single.
We filled the bus with trees and took them to Burlington. Our tree lot was next to a little store owned by Richard, who’d bought a tree the year before. He saw my signs and hired me to paint a couple, which tripled his deli business. I camped in a tent and Loretta and Charles watched the lot for a couple evenings in exchange for my editing of Charles’ doctoral dissertation. It had been rejected twice, but after I’d cut it by about half Charles received his doctorate.
We went to Boone for Christmas, and then it was…
The Nineties
Our house had oil heat the first year. We only heated half, but the bill was over $150 per month, so we brought the woodstove from the earth lodge and installed it in the living room. My mother was happy to see the Fisher stove leave; as long as it was still at the earth lodge it could’ve been carted back to the house, and she didn’t want it, given my father’s propensity for accidents. Her hearth had never been constructed properly and the farmhouse was also better insulated than in their first winter, when snow blew through the walls and the water froze in the toilet. She was tired of the aggravation and ashes, but I kept a record and found that we spent one-twentieth as much on heat!
Perri’s family had a reunion that March in Florida. Her brother Wes drove a Budweiser truck and she danced as Spuds Mackenzie for a promotion. Everyone showed up in “Old Calvin Mill” T-shirts and Perri was VERY happy to take off the Spuds Mackenzie outfit, which was way too hot. We stayed with Wes and Helen and their little dog Wilhelmina, who had a freakishly pronounced underbite and whose name was longer than she was. We visited Sanibel Island, passed through Silver Springs, saw Perri’s sisters in Sebring and Sanford, but as we passed St. Augustine I wanted to visit my sisters. Perri didn’t want to. I said drop me off and I’d hitchhike. I meant it. She stopped. We had a nice visit.
My youngest sister Laura had graduated from Warren Wilson College five years before and now was working as a recruiter for Tusculum, a small college in Tennessee. My sister Genny was now graduating and we spent four days in Asheville visiting the local attractions. We explored the Biltmore estate, which can properly be called a castle, and later that evening we met a friend of Laura’s, a recruiter for the University of North Carolina named Robbie, who invited everyone to his “Let’s Kick Dick Nixon Around Again” party, scheduled on his resignation anniversary, August 8th each year. This annual party morphed into a decades-long once a month gathering of a wide variety of friends loosely associated with UNC, including local musicians, merchants, professors and visitors.
There was a balloon festival in Burlington when we returned, and colorful, original balloons filled the sky. It happened every Memorial Day weekend for years, but was discontinued in the late 1990’s.
In August my mother’s family had a reunion in Boone, the first for them in many years. For decades my father’s family had two about a week apart each summer, one for his father’s family and one for his grandfather’s, but they lived in the area. It was new for my mother’s family, who came in from all over, Maine to Florida to California. We spent a week canoeing local rivers, climbing mountains, mining for gems, seeing sights and telling stories. My mother’s family had roots in colonial Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida and Indiana, where a doctor ancestor had gone to practice after the Civil War but instead brought a beautiful young woman back to Florida with her piano. There were at least three versions of how the piano was transported to Florida, including wagons and canals and barges and one involving a hurricane and piano lessons on the high seas, but the truth was that a railroad had already been laid for most of the journey.
In the fall we were back in Swepsonville. Perri was teaching school and in the afternoons took our dog Angel to the playground after hours, where she’d climb the slide ladder and slide to the bottom. This proved a mistake, as one day she went there on her own, crossed the highway and was hit. She was born on Hitler’s 100th birthday and died on John Lennon’s 50th. I mixed up whatever liquors we had in the pantry and called it an Angel–vodka, spiced rum, creme de menthe, cherry kirsch, a little Kahlua, some cream, a few flakes of coconut. Her colors, and quite good.
In December that year my father came down to help sell Christmas trees. One of us would stay on the lot in the bus, which had a bed, hot plate, coffee pot, radio and TV. We got along well enough but when he went back to the mountains he stole my Skilsaw, which had my name ground into the handle in letters one inch high and 1/4 inch deep. I didn’t know what happened to it.
Ringo was born on Halloween of 1990, and we brought him home for Christmas. Our friends Jeff and Sue’s dog had puppies, and he was the smallest of the litter. Their daughter had christened him Bingo, but when we saw he had a “ring go’ round his tail” we called him Ringo. He was so small he could fit in the corner of the windshield behind the inspection sticker and in my jacket when I unbuttoned the top button. I walked him around the perimeter of our property every day and picked flowers for the kitchen. Our property line was well-defined in the back and sides with trees and ditches and we planted a couple dozen “red tips” along the front. The first night, Ringo dug up 8 or 10 in a row. We replanted, but they never came up right. We replaced them with crepe myrtles.
Randy and Pat had a little white dog named Oscar. One day shortly after Angel died they brought Oscar play with the neighbor dog, but he ran into the road and was killed. They also got a Christmas puppy, a small dark cockapoo they named Tangles. Both had been born on Halloween! Thy had a wonderful time chasing each other and digging in the yard. Ringo never stopped digging. He was a wonderful, smart dog, part pit bull and part Walker hound, loyal, brave and protective, but never outgrew the digging. We had a cement block work shed in the back yard and he dug so much under the back corner that both walls were undermined and developed huge cracks.
Since our anniversary is Feb. 29th, which only happens every four years, I always did special things on Valentine’s Day. After many years of heart earrings and heart themed glass boxes and rings with dangly hearts and such, it was hard to think up something original, but I cut a dozen pieces of wood into the letters “U” and “B” and buried them in Ringo’s hole. That morning I gave her a shovel and told her to dig in the corner–and she dug up a biscuit!  Ringo had buried it on top of my project from the night before, but she dug a little deeper and found the wood. I told her it was a “wood U-B mine”.
We took another trip to Florida in the spring of 1991. Chris and Steve moved. We had a bus, so we drove them down. With its two-speed rear end, it went 60 mph down the freeway for several hours. We drove through North and South Carolina, the bus going a little slower, a little slower. We got off the freeway when our speed slowed to 45, and poked along through rural South Carolina looking at all the little houses with the blue lines around the windows and doors–to keep out the voodoo. By late afternoon our bus was making 35 miles an hour and we decided to pull into the parking lot of an auto parts place. It was 6pm, but they were closed for the night. We parked and walked next door to a musty motel, the Chat-n-Rest. We then went across the street to the Chat-n-Chew. After a chat, a chew and rest, I climbed under the hood the next morn, found the gas filter was clogged and got a new one from the parts place. We arrived in Jacksonville and spent a couple nights. While Chris, Steve and their son Jason unloaded their stuff we visited with Perri’s friend Kathy from high school, who lived in Jax with her new husband Gary.
When we’d unloaded, Steve rode back with us to pick up his car and we discovered “bus surfing”. With the seats out, there was nothing to hang on to,  and as the bus swayed and shifted, maintaining balance felt like surfing. The floorboard had hundreds of 1/4” holes where the seats had been attached, and in a rain the spray came through the holes, making the illusion even more real.
My brother Robin decided to take up barbering that fall. The barber school was in Winston-Salem, closer to us than to Boone, so he stayed with us through the week and went home on the weekends for the next 6 months.
We had a push mower for the lawn, and Loretta and Charles gave us another which they said needed repair. I took the cap off the gas tank, which was from a 3-liter Pepsi bottle, replaced it with a real gas cap and it was fine. Now we could mow together, but as we had close to two acres this was still quite a job, so we bought an old Craftsman riding mower.
We visited Florida again that summer. It was Wes’s 30th birthday and we spent a week in Naples, drinking lots of Budweiser, partying and visiting several places in southern Florida, including taking a boat ride which was supposed to end up in the Dry Tortugas but which was cut short because of weather. We visited Perri’s older brother, a chiropractor in Fort Meyers, and on the way back passed through Sanford, where Perri’s sister Joy gave us a dishwasher. It barely squeezed into our little hatchback, and we roped all our luggage on top. We installed it, and it worked fine all week. We then left to visit my sister for the weekend.
When we returned the connection had popped off. The entire house was flooded, except for the one bedroom which was still carpeted. It’d been spared due to our uneven floor, which at 50 years old had settled. We mopped up for a couple days, but it became obvious we couldn’t do it all. We called in the insurance company, tore up the remaining carpet and linoleum and had contractors refinish the beautiful oak flooring underneath. We took out the window to the bathroom and set up a ladder through the window to get in and out, and climbed in through our bedroom window from the front porch. We had a lot of firewood we’d packed onto the bus that year from Perri’s father’s property development, and piled it up to enclose  the front porch. Our furniture was all piled in the bedroom, the front porch or the bus. I made the porch my workshop for the summer while renovations were underway. Once the floors were done, we continued. By now I’d crawled under the house to fix plumbing, put antenna wire to all the rooms, replace the antenna wire with coaxial cable, jack up the house, again and again. I was tired of crawling.
We’d financed the house with three loans. One we signed for, a second co-signed with her parents and a third with mine. Keeping up with three different payments was a pain and we wanted to refinance, but the house appraised at a lower value. After the flood Joy and her husband Howard came to visit, and we renovated the kitchen, the bath, added a half-bath and trashed the 1970s paneling. Underneath was heart pine, and after a few coats of spar varnish it was beautiful all by itself. We put in closets, ceiling fans, display cases. When the house was appraised again, its value was up $15,000 on an investment of $6000, all on credit cards. We refinanced, and paid them off.
I’d planted 100 or so pecan trees, and we started a garden, with a couple friends sharecropping. Bobby was Vicky’s fiance, and though their daughter Misty was seven or eight years old Vicky kept putting off the wedding and they lived apart, she with her parents. Bobby worked the garden that year and the next, but late the following summer he was starting a business with a friend. He was working on the hydraulics to a dump truck, his friend came back from lunch and saw Bobby’s feet sticking out from under the bucket.
The funeral was truly heartbreaking. They’d never married, Misty had no daddy and the preacher didn’t know him. Bobby hadn’t been to church, but the preacher did his best, calling him a different drummer. It was our second funeral for a contemporary since moving down the mountain. We visited Vicky and Misty that night and drank up Bobby’s beer.
In late February 1993 I went to sell scopes in New York City. I stayed with my brother for a week and my sister for another, but sold nothing. I helped Genny clean out her apartment. We filled fifty lawn-size trash bags. She had magazines with unread articles, clothes intended for Goodwill, broken furniture and appliances. She wouldn’t throw away the magazines until I showed her similar articles which appeared every month. When I left, her apartment was in order.
On the train home I conversed with a Puerto Rican in Spanish. I held my own, and we played cards with a souvenir Amtrak deck. He told me the names of the four suits–espadas for spades, corazones for hearts, diamantes for diamonds and flores or “flowers” for clubs. I told him “diamantes para las bonitas, flores para las feas”–diamonds for the pretty girls, flowers for the ugly ones, my first joke in Spanish. We laughed, and a woman across from us shifted uneasily. I asked her, would she rather have flowers, or diamonds?
Seven Years. Itchy.
I’d thought by now we’d finished renovating, but Perri wanted to keep going. Every comment turned into another project. One day I looked out the window and decided our grapevines needed a little more support. I was going to add another pipe to the two pipes laid across a couple of clothesline “Ts” we had. Perri instead wanted to replace the structure with a grape arbor, which involved buying a dozen 4x4s, four panels of heavy lattice, several 2x6s, a post-hole digger, a couple gallons of water seal and assorted nails, bolts and tools. Early in the process she stepped in a post hole and broke her foot, and for the next couple weeks I built the grape arbor and did all the work around the house while she sat with her foot in the air and stewed.
I knew her nasty mood was due to the broken foot, but after ten or twelve days of unrelenting criticism I let her have it. It was the first time I’d been exasperated enough to scream since we’d been in the new house, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Perri had a difficult job, and it was no help that her friend Loretta was a harsh woman. Perri fell into a pattern, coming home after a rough day and screaming at me for whatever caught her attention. I spent more time cleaning (the wrong way), organizing (the wrong way), washing (the wrong way), mowing (the wrong way), trimming trees (the wrong way), making the bed (the wrong way) or cooking (the wrong way), and less working on scopes. Instead of appreciated I was criticized; my business was “my hobby”, I was doing nothing, she everything. It’s a destructive spiral, not uncommon, and often starts after seven years. Right on schedule.
I’d moved to the flatlands specifically because we weren’t planning to stay. Because of that I’d established a crafts business, but she managed the bills, and my contribution was simply thrown into the pot. She’d applied in the mountains but hadn’t heard back. If I brought it up she’d get mad. If I brought up the mountains in any way she’d get mad.
It’s difficult job to teach kids nobody wants. They need love, but don’t get it at home, and teachers aren’t parents. Teachers of the emotionally disturbed don’t even leave their problems for someone else. Next year, same kids, plus or minus a few. Some have terrible stories. One kid lived with his father and stepmother. One day he found out a secret. His father had killed his mother, and had been in prison. I liked him; he was wild and difficult but seemed a good kid stuck in a bad place. He’d stay with us for a week or two and do yardwork. One day trimming the yard he accidentally “ringed” a young tree, which will grow back from the root but the top is doomed. It was a simple mistake, but he turned ashen, shaking as if his execution was imminent when I wasn’t even mad. He was well-behaved when with us, which was why Perri was a great teacher. We talked about adopting him.
Shortly after we were married, she’d gotten an abortion. I disagreed but didn’t feel it was my call. Twice before a girlfriend of mine got an abortion, but neither told me until later. I’d have been happy to marry either one. If it would’ve been a good match is another question, but afterwards it didn’t matter. It was a breach of trust for them to tell me nothing, and the romance was dead.
Perri had plans which didn’t involve a child. My sister Fran had other plans. She knew one of her twins would be brain damaged and had been given the option to abort one, but kept both and led a complicated life.
There are several sides to the question. As a teenager I checked groceries in a store near what was called a home for unwed mothers. Girls came through, bellies out to there, paid with checks and presented a shiny new Colorado driver’s license, replacing one from Texas or Nebraska. They’d show up a dozen times and then disappear, their babies in an orphanage. The lucky ones were adopted, but if they stayed a year they were quite likely to grow up unwanted, unloved, a bother. A problem.
I’m not of the opinion that these poor, lost, luckless souls are better alive and unloved than never born. Foes of abortion don’t deal think about thousands of kids without any parents at all. Adoption wonderful when there’s a shortage of kids and an excess of couples. It’s a terrible answer when there are too many kids.
So are the other options. In ancient times unwanted babies were smothered at birth, left by the side of the road, floated down the river in baskets, sold into slavery. They’d grow up gladiators, street urchins. Populations which had grown large would start wars with their neighbors, kill them and move into their houses.
A crime which was common a century ago is now so obsolete that most people don’t know what it is. A woman running a “baby farm” would take in babies, supposedly to find them homes, but soon enough they’d die of “natural causes”. She’d starve them, smother them, bury them in the field or feed them to her pigs.
Safe, hygienic abortions also, make no mistake about it, save lives. On one side of town girls would “vacation”, shopping in the grocery store around the corner; across the tracks the high school lost a girl or two every year or two for “unexplained reasons”. That said, I don’t feel abortion is “a good thing”. I don’t strongly object to some regulation. The choice shouldn’t be easy or smooth. I think it’s her right, but he should know.
This became contentious. I wanted to move to the mountains and raise a family, but Perri was growing increasingly hostile. We hadn’t heard back about teaching jobs either, though it’d been years.
Still, I tried. I made kaleidoscopes, jewelry, bamboo flutes, fabric hats, wooden toys, made my rounds every few weeks. I brought spring water back from the earth lodge in a dozen 2-1/2 gallon jugs. I did shows, stayed weekends, trimmed trees, rewired the farmhouse. Any occasion or reason I could think of. She rarely came except to visit her family. We’d stay with her family a week, then see mine for dinner on our way out. I didn’t entirely mind this–my father would get quite unpleasant after he’d finished off his nightly twelve or sixteen cheap beers. He was pleasant in the daytime, told funny stories and was complimentary and generous to most people, though my contributions were routinely overlooked. At night, though, he was horrible, drinking, chain-smoking Newports and systematically tearing apart the ego of whatever family member was across the table. It was a sport. He’d incrementally turn a pleasant dinner conversation into something vile, and when his companion felt like crap, he’d won. He’d eat something and go to bed. It was a pattern.
My sister one day wrote him a letter, one I saw little point in. She hoped some day he could meet her children, but with him smoking and drinking didn’t think he would. I didn’t think it’d do any good, but he actually quit, after more than fifty years smoking. He didn’t quit drinking, but he’d only have one beer after dinner.
It made a difference, but it was too late for Perri, and I still wasn’t comfortable. I’d seen it before, and he had hurt me. I wanted to feel he’d changed, but it wasn’t my obligation to believe him and certainly not my wife’s.
There was dissension growing between Perri and I, but it hadn’t taken over our lives. Perri’s harsh friend moved and we became closer to her assistant. The girls would gossip, the boys played backgammon, their daughters played in the yard. I showed Carly and Leah how to make jewelry, and everyone made crafts. Randy and I had both gone to George Washington High School, though his high school was in Virginia and mine in Colorado. We often camped together on weekends.
One weekend Perri’s college friend Robbie visited with his new wife Patti. The six of us discussed astrology, and found that each of us were married to the next sign in line. I was Gemini and Perri Cancer, Robbie was Pisces and Patti Aries, and Randy was Pisces and Pat Aquarius. Even more amazing, all our mothers were Leo, except for Robbie, whose father was.
That Christmas we set up trees in our front yard. The old fellow who’d owned our lot next to Richard’s deli had died and Perri was tired of the hassle, so it made sense to forget the rent, the commute, the schedule, the camping and sell trees from the house. I’d brought 75 trees for the first season, which proved the right amount. I sold them all, then late in the season bought a dozen from a fellow for $2 apiece and sold the last on Christmas Eve. I’d been putting a tree in the earth lodge all along, decorated mostly with old cans, but now I wasn’t spending much time there. It had been ten Christmases. I wanted to make it a dozen, so I put a tree in it for two more years, but it was abandoned. Our entire little community had broken up. Jake, Jody and the kids had finished overhauling the bus and driven down the road. Fran and the kids had left Kevin, and Kevin sold the trailer for a bag of pot. Adam and Karen left their teepee and euthanized a healthy dog. Their buddy Peter had left. Nobody lived in the earth lodge anymore, the dwelling in which we’d invested so much time, so much labor, so many dreams.
Round Robin
My five siblings and I started a round robin. We sent a batch of letters to each in turn and at the end of some weeks we’d exchange our old letter for a new one. It took awhile to establish protocol. The first collected an immense weight of paper and miscellaneous objects. It was lost before it made my mailbox. It’d included  long letters from each of us, the spouses and children, kid’s drawings, pamphlets, cassette tapes. We agreed to limit content to letters from the six of us, plus occasional notes from others. Sam provided postage as his Christmas gift and I kept the archive.
I loved it. Everyone had a take on the family dynamics, and I had a record of the moves, breakups, new loves, new children, new cars, changes in seasons from whatever locations we were in, and all of us were in different locations. I was “down the mountain” in Alamance County, Robin was living in Sugar Grove outside of Boone, Sam had moved to New York City after graduating Yale, Genny had followed him there, Fran was in motion and Laura was in Tennessee.
My archive started in spring 1993. I’d gone to a kaleidoscope show in Kentucky; there were 65 exhibitors, twelve were from California, six from North Carolina and the rest from all over. For my birthday I got a small scooter. It had no pedals and was thus at the time in a legal limbo; the law stated that a moped couldn’t have an engine over 50cc but said nothing about pedals. It had been changed to require pedals, but mine was grandfathered in–important, because for years I became the only guy in town who could drive my motorcycle without a tag, license or insurance; all I needed was a helmet. It also outran all the all the other mopeds, it had shaft drive and I’d modified the carburetor.
I also had a 1959 Studebaker. It’d been featured on a promotional placard for a car show, and I was given one of the brass plates from an old guy, Robert Lindley, who worked on Studebakers and owned hundreds.
I sent the robin to my brother, and it continued on a crooked path. Since Genny and Sam lived in New York, it traveled not in birth order but 1-2-5-3-4-6. Sometimes one of us dropped out or moved, but it continued a confused path. The second round was lost when Genny sent it to the wrong address. She started another, which arrived after I’d sent a copy and Sam had replied.
Our house was back in order. The washing machine had been banished to the back porch and all the carpeting was gone.
Rob’s letter referenced some family conflicts and techniques for conflict resolution. Fran had moved into George Wallace’s former home in Montgomery. When she tore out the shag carpeting in the bathroom there were newspapers from 1975 underneath, on top of marble floors. It’s a huge house now, formed by bricking 3 structures together–the main house, servant’s quarters and a detached kitchen/dining room on the other. It had once been exceptional, but had come on hard times. The foundation had sunk, in places several inches. Doors wouldn’t close, upstairs flooring tilted inwards, the roof leaked, the hexagonal mosaic-tile floors in the fancy 1920s-style bathrooms were cracked and only half the bathrooms worked, distressed parquet floors were covered in lumpy carpet, former breezeways badly paneled, deteriorated brick walkways unevenly concreted over. A sad house, for a man who had met a sad end. George Wallace had been a progressive liberal by Alabama standards, though he became a symbol of old-time Southern conservatism. His famous stand in the university door was intended to prevent the riots and killings which had taken place in Mississippi, and was largely for show. He was shot in the 1970s and ended his life in a wheelchair.
Genny worked at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in New York, but quit, and had some angst over a fellow named Walter, whom she felt like she should like but didn’t. She was in therapy, which she felt was good for her. It wouldn’t always be. Sam had an album, Rock and Roar, Dinosaur”, coming out by sheer chance in the wake of Jurassic Park, and was involved in theatre and music.
Laura had married Tom, the football coach. It was funny; Perri’s uncle Tom was a football coach for Austin High School in Alabama, and he married a woman whose name started with “L”. She’d received a promotion and was thrilled to announce a pregnancy! In March they’d welcome Matthew Cody, or Catherine Dakota, and the robin returned to me.
I was proud of my plumbing. There’d been no way to work on the plumbing without turning off all the water when we’d moved in. I’d bought cut-off valves as I went along, but in the winter of ’92 the only remaining faucet, in the tub, blew out. I was out of town. Perri found a wrench and ran to the front yard while water spewed, and I put in one last valve when I returned. I proposed a number, 1-900-ASK-DAVE, since I was often answering everyone’s practical questions.
In July Rob was in a poetry slam at a coffee house in Boone. He enclosed a few poems, a note from Anne and a “report” from his son Grant on “nothing”. At 100 words exactly, it was a gem:
“Nothing is when you want something and you don’t get anything. When you look at something transparent you think, is there anything there? If you said nothing is there nobody would look around or pay any attention to you. Some people say it as an expression like, ‘Oh, it was nothing’ when they are trying to say I didn’t go through any trouble to do it. If there wasn’t nothing you would have to use words like ‘not anything’ or ‘wasn’t anything’. Think of it this way, ‘If I had nothing, then I wouldn’t have anything at all’. That’s it.”
By August Fran’s brain-damaged daughter Sarah had discovered a fascination with breaking glass, and Fran awoke to find dozens of plates smashed on the floor. Genny was singing professionally, had made an ad for Bloomingdales and was roller skating. One of her rollerskating friends was working on a song called “Brontosaurus Rumors”–my brother’s song! His name was Robert. She worried if they became an item, there’d be brother Rob, Sam’s boyfriend Rob, Fran’s husband Rob and Genny’s Rob.
I’d remarked that I was “The Recorder”, and Sam adopted the sobriquet “The Controller”. We needed rules, and he proposed several. Length of the letters in the robin didn’t matter, but promptness did. Others in the family could contribute to a special “holiday issue”. Also, Rob’s wife Anne was an inveterate, unapologetic snoop, called everyone who received the robin and then broadcast the latest news, so that when the robin arrived it wasn’t any fun. Calling on the phone to find out what was in the robin was OUT!
Laura miscarried in August. There’d be no Matthew Cody or Catherine Dakota. Football season was beginning and Tom was gone all day. Our parents visited Tennessee and swapped stories into the night.
I’d fixed up the scooter and was riding it everywhere. The brakes were no good, but it was easy enough to wear old shoes and stop like Fred Flintstone. I didn’t mention the miscarriage. It was painful to me to talk about kids and I didn’t want to mention Perri’s abortion. Rob commiserated with Laura, then filled us in on his life. He’d wrecked his bicycle, was recovering. He enclosed a long note about his church, which Genny had heard was a cult. He didn’t see it that way, but needed to address a scandal. He and Anne had joined Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). Several church members had tried to buy guns, under assumed names, to prepare for the apocalypse prophesied by Guru Ma, as she was known. For persuasion it underwhelmed, but it explained some of his motivations, though none of us started studying the Ascended Masters. Towards the end of her life Elizabeth Claire Prophet fell into paranoia and dementia.
Fran was dealing with school and psychologists. The teachings of CUT weren’t for her. Too much mysticism. She impressed the bigwigs at work with her grasp of computer software and they invited her to move to Texas, which suddenly led her Alabama employers to be super-nice and ease her workload. She had some issues with the house. They discovered a gas leak in the main heater and had to move into the guest apartment. The fridge and bedrooms were in the main house, but they managed.
Genny recounted a depressing 3 day workshop sponsored by the GBCS for UM, or General Board of Church and Society for the United Methodist Church, and found herself with “White Person’s Guilt”, when average white Americans feel horrible for what people they never knew did to other people they never knew, without realizing that the other other people did horrible things to other others and the other others did horrible things to other other others. No race of people, no religion, no sex, no class or type, is without sin. Lots of it.
She enjoyed New York though. She met Jacques Costeau at a party at Peter Yarrow’s place (of Peter, Paul and Mary) and had some poems published in The Religious Observer.
Sam sent the robin on, it got lost for a week, I sent him a copy of my copy, then the original showed up and he sent it with his contribution and a different zip code. He’d purchased a “Supermind Computer” advertised in Omni magazine. He had a meeting with Music Sales Corporation, who were eager to bring out “Rock and Roar Dinosaur” but hadn’t actually returned his calls. He’d also gotten in touch with the understudy for his role in the Disney film “Mountain Born” many years before, Jamie Newcomb, who had moved to Oregon and was starring in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
He was involved in a murder mystery. A hot dog vendor in Haverstraw had found the severed head of a fellow Sam had known in a garbage bag at a scenic overlook. The last place the middle-aged gay man, Michael Sakara, had been seen was at a bar near where Sam played piano, and his friends had been the last to see him. Everyone was questioned, and Sam asked the rest of us if we had any impressions. I read it and got a flash of a thin fellow, staight blonde hair, who worked in a large building and drove a big light-blue car. His name was something like Mark, but not Mark. Suspicion later fell on a male nurse from St. Vincent’s who drove a powder-blue Buick, whose name was Mike, though in the end the man convicted was Richard W. Rogers, referred to as the Last Call Killer.
Laura was in good spirits. Tusculum had barely stayed open a few years before, and the football team discontinued until Tom was hired, so it was his baby. Early on the team had caught the flu, but afterwards they won a couple, one by 43-13, a feather in Tom’s cap.
For Christmas of 1993 I was again selling trees from the front yard. I worked on kaleidoscopes in the living room and kept an eye out the window. When Pat & Randy visited the kids “sold” trees to each other. One day a fellow I knew from Boone came by. I’d known Alan for at least fifteen years, he was from Boone and had moved to a house on Worm Ranch Road, a mile or two away. He’d been going by Ras Alan and fronted a reggae band. His car was a white 1962 Ford Falcon station wagon with a brown interior–exactly the car I’d driven at 16! He let me drive it for an afternoon.
I was learning banjo. Perri had given me one for Christmas the year before, and it was a great choice. I’d tried to learn guitar, but my left hand was a problem. My middle finger and thumb had been broken, my little finger mangled and my index finger deeply cut through the knuckle, with nerve damage. I’d try a few chords but it was painful. The banjo was less intimidating. I soon got a book of favorite American songs and learned many. It was the first stringed instrument I enjoyed playing; as a kid the cello had been a chore. I could now play drums, harmonica, pennywhistle, bamboo flute and a South African instrument called a likimba, a variation on a kalimba or thumb piano, with an inverted “V” for a top bar which makes the keys sit compactly. Its rosewood resonator box had cracked and I’d tried to buy another, but there was an embargo on South African products and they were unavailable. I tore the box apart, replaced it with oak and had a sturdier instrument. I announced that 1-900-ASK-DAVE had been discontinued due to a low prophet margin, then included some remarks on an interesting astrological aspect, the quincunx. A person will have strong romantic attractions to the sign fifth in line, which isn’t reciprocated since the object of one’s affection is also attracted to the sign fifth in line. It also included some clippings. My scopes had been featured in a fall festival in Greensboro, and I’d been interviewed in the local paper about vegetarians as I was one of the only ones in the county. The article contained a few “vegetarian” recipes–but the first ingredient of the first was chicken stock! I wrote a letter to the editor, pointing out that a chicken was not a vegetable! I’d also been in the paper dressed as Willie Wonka for the second-graders, for which we’d been up all night making a brown top hat. I didn’t like the photo. My eyes seemed desperate, full of false cheer.
We’d been discussing a “Holiday Edition” ever since the overstuffed ground-pounder had disappeared that spring, and Sam the Controller announced that this was the month. Genny started it off with an announcement that her squeeze of four months was off to Australia, and offered a couple scenarios where he either 1) came back or 2) didn’t, and she either 1) took him back or 2) didn’t, but Sam assured us she was fine. He also contended that while the Church Universal and Triumphant wasn’t the Branch Davidians, there was still a peril, as Sufis warn, of gorging on spiritual ideas prematurely, which eliminates their capacity for later impact–which is why Sufis don’t have a “big book of knowledge” and instead say “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. With a short note from Sam’s Rob–La Rocca–the robin was on its way.
Tusculum football had done well in the last half and had beaten Georgetown. Union College had also done well, until they hit Tusculum. The final score was Union 49-Tusculum 80, and Tom won Coach of the Year. She announced another pregnancy, and Tom included the cheery holiday statement, “I think I pass gas better than anyone else in the family!”.
Robin’s letter wished everyone a fine Christmas and included some cheery statements from Guru Ma, whose spirit contacts from history and other planets delivered, in an identical monotone, identical warnings about a coming nuclear apocalypse. Fran’s contribution was short. She and Rob were depressed with the domestic situation; daughter Sarah continued to be a problem and Rob had become a house husband, but Fran was doing well at work and everyone was healthy. Genny was in good spirits, though she noted she was now the only one single among the brothers and sisters; she and her Japanese husband Suzuki had been split up for 3 or 4 years, but she called him frequently until he announced he was marrying again, a gal who looked a lot like her. She was still happy to be in therapy, and was putting on a cabaret act.
February’s letter from Sam the Controller announced that, due to increasing delays from Fran, the robin would henceforth be sent direct to Genny and he’d send a copy to Fran. The “Merry Christmas” edition, launched in November, hadn’t returned until February. “Rock and Roar Dinosaur” was finally released, a cassette and songbook/picturebook combination. From there the robin went to Laura, whom the Board of Trustees had just praised as a “marketing genius”. From nearly having closed, Tusculum now had the highest application and acceptance rate in its history. She listed her wants as a piano, a computer and a long trip to see the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, Old Faithful, etc. I’d seen them but it hadn’t occurred to me that my siblings had not. We’d been to Yellowstone when she was two, and with my father driving had always sped past everything. I hadn’t seen them until I was on my own.
In mid-February we’d debated trading in our Hyundai, which now had 118,000 miles. Perri said there was a noise in the front end. I took it for a spin and good god, I thought the wheel was falling off. I thought perhaps we should trade it in immediately, but I jacked up the wheel, took off the hubcap, wiggled it, started the engine and let it spin–no problems. Everything was tight. Then I spotted–the loose wheel weight rattling around inside the hubcap. I performed a thing-ectomy, which immediately restored our dying car to full and vibrant health.
I’d taken a job as a trailer park handyman. The secretary’s car had a problem. Half of her electrical system had failed, and two or three guys were looking under the hood and pulling at wires. I announced I could fix it and told her to jiggle the key. Everything sprang to life. Another problem at work, a washing machine which wouldn’t turn, I found to be an extra spacer installed where it shouldn’t have been. I knew big problems with minor causes are common when Mercury is retrograde, as it was. Made me look like a hero!
The job was crappy, fixing up old trailers as cheaply as possible. I didn’t like it and didn’t last long. I started volunteering at night school, teaching English to recent immigrants. It was the first time I’d regularly spoken Spanish, and it helped my comprehension immensely. When someone knows English, if there’s a word one can’t think of one can always use English. When someone doesn’t know English it’s necessary to find a way to explain things anyway, using whatever Spanish comes to mind. After three hours twice a week I’d drive to work with random, nonsense Spanish phrases floating through my head–they sounded real, but were jibberish! I also had several VCR tapes, which I’d leave playing while I slept, and I’d buy romance novels in Spanish. Romance novels have several advantages. They’re predictable; the couples will get together, break up and get together again. They’re easy to read; they’re written simply enough for a poorly educated teen to enjoy, and they’re short. I kept a sticky note on the page and jotted down strange words, then looked them up, alphabetize and make my own sticky-note dictionary, containing only words I didn’t know. I’d finish a book and read it again. Eventually I got to be good.
Genny’s contribution changed my focus. She’d written a truly vile series of accusations dredged up by “therapy”, a 20-page rant. Our parents were “monsters”, our family “dysfunctional”, our society full of fiendish and violent Men. It was a common theme of the time, promoted on God-only-knows how many talk shows. Women’s lives were “unfulfilled”, because of Men. Her examples of “abuse” were also petty and absurd. We’d had old coats in the winter, which made us “abused”. There was ice in the toilet bowl one morning, so we were “abused”.
These attacks hurt. I felt they were not only baseless but that my sister was piling onto a tiresome pop-psychology bandwagon. She gratuitously, menacingly and with blatant disrespect “advised” me that I shouldn’t ever have children, because with my “history of violence” I’d most certainly be an “abuser”. In this ugliness I saw echoes of my father, who had no compunctioons about using such “psychological” insults to tear down unsuspecting and innocent people. She was doing the same. I told her I was definitely a misunderstood child, but it was up to ME, not HER, to decide these things and ABSOLUTELY NOT her place to decide whether I should raise children!
I said our childhood wasn’t perfect, that nobody’s was, and that much of her reaction wasn’t due to “abuse” but a lack of deprivation to start with. I’d been in the military, and knew what I needed. She’d been in “therapy”, and knew what impressed a “therapist”. In the military, if the toilet froze you’d dig a hole. If you were cold, you’d build a fire, find a blanket, stuff newspapers in your clothes, not complain about old coats. I said I was overjoyed to have ten fingers and toes, working eyes and ears, clean water to drink. If kids learned through childhood “misery and abuse” to LIVE instead of DIE, then it didn’t matter if they had Nintendo games or sticks, they were better off than privileged New York whiners in “therapy” who didn’t know the difference.
When the robin reached Robin he was in a production of “the Unsinkable Molly Brown” and his sons in a student-written version of “the Iliad”. His second son Jordan was building a balsa-wood bridge in a competition which had started between the physics and mechanical drawing classes in my high school in Denver, when I was there. It eventually went statewide, then nationwide and worldwide.
Genny was involved in another murder mystery in March. A college friend had been strangled in Queens. She went to the funeral mass and got a very creepy feeling shaking hands with the stepfather. It was now three years later. She casually mentioned her friend’s case to a couple police officers and they arranged a meeting with the investigating detective–who’d had the same creepy feeling. Her case was featured in the March 1994 issue of Redbook. Sam had started a new gig at a restaurant named Pegasus to complement his longtime gig at Marie’s, working on a theatre projects and taking accounting. He’d purchased a Powerbook 180 with 10 megabytes of RAM, making it by far the most powerful computer among us, and his English teacher from Watauga High School was visiting. She was everyone’s favorite except me, since I’d never gone there. Laura was doing fine with her pregnancy. She and Tom had refinanced the house and were planting a garden. She too knew Genny’s friend and had the same creepy feeling about the stepfather.
In March it was my turn again. Mercury retrograde had hit me hard this time; all four vehicles were broken down, though my moped was still on the road. Turned out we’d bought bad gas, all at the same gas station, though the Hyundai needed a new engine even though I’d replaced one of the valves the year before. I was pleased with Hyundai valve assemblies, they simply screwed out and a new one screwed in. I replaced the valve in the driveway of my parents’ house in an afternoon. It needed a new engine now, though. The transmission was also starting to pop out of one gear. It could’ve been repaired, but it was cheaper to replace the engine and transaxlethan to repair the components. We’d refinanced the house, paid off all the credit cards and had $2000 extra, but that evaporated quickly. I’d lost my job at the trailer park, which actually rather pleased me. Mobile homes manufactured before the 1970s had absolutely no quality standards. They were built with cheaper and cheaper materials until by the 1960s they had particle board floors and the kitchen counters were stapled through the outer walls. In the early 1970s there were new standards, but since the old ones weren’t being moved they sat in the same place while the floors rotted out and rodents invaded through the holes. Many had mouse colonies under the tubs, the plumbing was garden hoses and clamps and “repairs” were done with duct tape and wire. One trailer we were preparing to rent had a huge hole in the corner of the living room. The owner’s son told me to put an end table over it and leave. I told him it was a hazard a kid could fall through it and break a leg. I scrounged a piece of plywood and started greasing the 4” decking screws. The owner told me not to bother greasing the screws (which meant burning out the drill). We ran outof screws. I went to the hardware store, and the new ones came pre-greased!
Perri and I were fighting more. She was dismissing my dreams as fantasies and there were no calls coming from the schools in the mountains. I wasn’t happy, and felt a need to take action, though I had no idea what kind.
Rob had the best insight into this. He made the very germane observation that  the partners we had all chosen tended to lead us along. Due to our upbringing, our relationships were based more on appreciation of our talents than on love and understanding of a whole person. It felt right. I’d never felt whole. I had little understanding of who I was or what I wanted, even though now I was over 40. He observed, through a tale involving his kids buying candy at Sam’s Club and selling it at a profit, that our parents treated profit-making ventures as “scams”, which had certainly had been the case when I’d sold Christmas trees. My father never felt I was entitled to anything at all, “deal” or no.
Sam had been also been fighting with his Rob. Sam’s Rob had been seeing a truck driver named David. One night Sam was commenting to his boss at the piano bar that he was sorry to be late but had been fighting. One of the customers asked him why, and he said mock-cheerily “the complete dissolution of a twelve-year relationship”. This fellow had just left a relationship of fifteen years. They soon moved in together on Staten Island.
Laura was still waiting on the baby, which by ultrasound seemed likely to be a girl. She and Tom decided on Mary Catherine.
Things had settled some in May. I’d bought a word-processing typewriter from a friend leaving town and remarked how easily it saved a letter and re-typed a copy by simply hitting three keys. It was a great advantage over our clunky IBM PCjr. which had been such a marvel seven years earlier. I printed letters and cards and wrote promotional copy for crafts. It was laughably limited compared to the computers of a few years later, but light-years ahead of the dot-matrix printers of the time. I loved it. A kid left who’d been driving Perri bananas–and by extension me, since she’d drive me bananas when she came home. I was happy not to work for the guy who was too cheap to buy nails to fix his rat-infested trailers while he parked his Jaguar next to the Mercedes he’d given his secretary/lover. Everyone in the park seemed to be divorced and smoked too much, and most of them also drank too much and did too many drugs. I was happy to once again dedicate my days to crafts and my evenings to Spanish. We’d had it out, and had decided it was a seven-year-itch. She’d been tired of seven years in the mountains, I was tired of seven years in the flatlands.
I’d always wanted to move back, the sooner the better, but she announced one day we’d leave in 2017, after she retired from teaching. This was 20+ years longer than I’d intended, and even though our town was pleasant, secure, we had friendly neighbors and room enough to raise a garden, the prospect of staying there while our home in the mountains rotted away bothered me severely.
Robin had been hit by another driver and had some whiplash which was making it difficult for him to work, but had been going to a chiropractor and feeling better. His boys were preparing to go with my mother on a trip across Europe and Russia. She’d won a “Teacher of the World” contest and decided to take the boys with her. Genny and Sam were in better spirits. They’d gotten together to see off the threesome, and all had a great time with Sam and his new boyfriend. Laura was eagerly anticipating her baby girl.
We’d finished most of our remodeling, I thought. We had ceiling fans and a pool to jump in when it got so hot our hair started to melt. There was a fallen-down, overgrown fence in the backyard which made the poison ivy under it difficult to pull up, but I finally bit the bullet and spent a full day pulling the fence and all the ivy out, then took an extremely hot shower and scrubbed hard, which was reasonably effective.
I’d enrolled in Alamance Community College taking Spanish at night, and we gave a party at the end of the quarter. There were 29 folks there, speaking Spanish, German, Chinese, Pakistani and English. There was no trouble with languages. Someone always knew another one.
What Does a Kid Need?
A discussion developed in the robin over what children needed. I felt, as always, that children need food, love, shelter and an occasional hot bath. Running water, electricity, these are nice but lack of television doesn’t evidence abuse or neglect. I found it ridiculous to say that a child “needed” to have brand-name jeans and cable TV and Nintendo. Still do.
By the end of July the world travelers returned, with tales from Amsterdam, France, Germany, Poland, Russia. Rob and Anne picked them up in Maryland but their transmission gave out. Genny had found a new job and her friends at the Church Center gave her parties and lunches and pound cakes and gifts and flowers all week. She then left for San Francisco to sing at a wedding and was met by her ex, Suzuki. They had a long discussion over coffee. Sam’s Rock and Roar Dinosaur album and book had come out. He and Barry (his new squeeze) visited Boone and he autographed copies at Cheap Joe’s downtown. Cheap Joe ran Boone Drug and had been great friends with my father for years. Joe had gotten in trouble in high school for “borrowing” a couple scarecrow-type hillbilly dolls from a bench outside a business called Mystery Hill and setting them up on a bridge overlooking the Blue Ridge Parkway with whiskey bottles in their hands. He later became an artist and started Cheap Joe’s Art Supplies online, which did very well.
Laura obnoxiously pointed out that caring for her newborn son (NOT a daughter!!!) was more difficult than caring for my poor flea-bitten dog. I hadn’t contended otherwise, but gave it a pass, as she had a six-week-old baby boy to deal with, NOT named Mary Catherine, born on the Fourth of July. In the way that some discussions become contentious when you leave the room, however, the next time the robin came around there was a long debate as to what constituted child abuse, and whether running water or its lack was acceptable. It came down to whether a totally theoretical child, of MINE, would be abused, or not, by the mere fact that it lived in the earth lodge, which hadn’t been finished  anyway, and which I hadn’t intended NOT to have running water to start with.
I’d related an idea of printing a book about making a book, starting with nothing–to start with a pair of hands, dig ore, smelt type, use sharp rocks to cut trees, pound them to pulp, make paper, to start with nothing and make a book. The cotton, glue, dyes for the cover would be grown and processed, and the whole process would be photographed, using chemicals which would have to be refined and formulated and cameras to be made. It was nothing more than a dream, but it kicked up a storm of abusive, way over the top replies as if I fully intended to raise my kids in an outhouse. All I’d said was that LOVE was more important than interactive toys, and told of when I received a second-hand repainted bicycle for Christmas and was thrilled with it. Again I received contentious replies, still arrogantly debating whether I should have children. I ended up seriously pissed over the implications of something I hadn’t said, and for the next year the round robin was acrimonious. The parents among us weighed in, the urban dwellers weighed in, and without intending anything of the sort I was defending the right of a hypothetical parent to raise hypothetical children in a hypothetical rural house which didn’t, hypothetically, have running water.
It was a stupid, ignorant debate, but a mark of the fall of 1994, when the last of a long series of outer planets was passing through Scorpio in a truly remarkable series which had lasted over forty years. The outer planets, from Jupiter onwards, spend at least a year in each astrological sign. Saturn spends two and a half years, Uranus seven, Neptune fourteen and Pluto, because of an eccentric orbit, anywhere from fourteen to thirty. It wouldn’t be unusual for a couple of planets to line up, but from late 1953 until the end of the twentieth century there were only a few brief periods with no outer planet in Scorpio. From October of 1953 until the end of the ‘60s there only were 38 days in 1956, 50 in 1957. In the 70s there were 3 years, from October of ’71 to November of ’74, and four months in 1975, then it went twenty more years. Everyone experienced this exceptionally long span. For Americans it’d started with the senate hearings of the Scorpio Joe McCarthy and continued through the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, the fall of the Soviet Union. Six of the next seven presidents served six years or less, three of them were shot or shot at. Scorpio been had affecting things for a very long time, and by 1994 most people were harried, worn out, paranoid. The fear of nuclear annihilation was fading, but 40+ years had taken its toll on the psyche, and delusions were accepted as fact, discussed on talk shows, prosecuted in court. Bus drivers were Satan worshippers who were eating babies! It was “proved” through “repressed memories”!
Before the trailer park I’d worked part-time constructing storage buildings for a fellow whose daughter ran a health food store. It was easy, fun, outside work. Storage buildings was don’t need to meet code. We built them well, but didn’t worry about covering wiring or roofs withstanding a hurricane, we only had to put them on a trailer and set them on blocks in someone’s yard. Afterwards I worked managing his daughter’s health food store when she was out of town, which was frequently. It was a wonderful job. I learned a great deal about herbs, vitamins, supplements, health foods. It was eye-opening to read about prescriptions and their side effects, and to watch people ignore recommendations. They’d ask about a specific health issue, listen and nod, buy a few pills and change nothing. One person in fifty might make an effort. It’s a pleasure to teach them but they’re few and far between.
I wasn’t happy at home, and got close to a co-worker, a cute girl of seventeen who was also vegetarian. I was 24 years older, and nothing happened, but her moon was in Gemini. I saw possibilities; one never knows where life might lead. She went to Michio Kushi’s macrobiotic cooking school in Massachusetts that fall, and wrote me regularly. Her name, like many influential women in my life, was Elizabeth.
Delores was also a co-worker. We shared a tiny checkout booth with cash registers on both sides and were within a foot of each other for hours at a time. When you’re physically that close to someone you can’t help but get to know them well. We flirted some, and compared notes.
She was a Jehovah’s Witness. I’d always thought Jehovah’s Witnesses a little weird. They’d had crazy ideas about the end of the world in 1984, and when it didn’t happen I tormented them with questions when they came to the door, friendly enough but designed to make them squirm. When we worked side-by-side I found that, yeah, it was a little strange, but religion isn’t logical, rational, sensible or reasonable. It’s always mystical, fantastical, eerie, weird. People buy into religion according to their comfort level, but live their lives and deal with practical things regardless of creed. They have domestic disputes and carnal desires and cars that need alternators and nephews getting into trouble. Delores had started attending the temple when she met her first husband. He later bought a Harley, took up with a biker chick and they divorced. She met her next husband Marty through the temple, but he only showed up a few days a year.
Marlene, who ran the health food store when she wasn’t on vacations, also held a fringe religion. She identified as Christian but observed a Saturday sabbath and most Jewish dietary restrictions and holy days. I loved the business and did it well, but Marlene had a suspicious nature and trouble relating to men. She had no sex life that I knew of, male or female, and often wore her father’s cast-off clothes–so much so that I asked Dolores if she even owned women’s clothes. Marlene always said it was to save money, which seemed a poor reason, but she was almost pathological about money. She was the cheapest woman I knew, though her family was comfortable. She wasn’t particularly interested in her health nor that of her customers. Though she avoided pork, she stuffed herself with fast-food burgers when nobody was looking.
Perri and I went to a Halloween party at a friend of Cindy’s. Dave was a painter of custom motorcycles; it was a wild bunch. We were dressed as twin bearded ladies, with identical shirts and skirts. She’d put on a fake beard and I put on lipstick. At the party a girl said to me, “I’ve never kissed another woman before”, and I said, “I haven’t either”. She kissed me.
Not just a peck. We were both surprised by how suddenly passionate this silly kiss was. My wife wasn’t happy and neither was her boyfriend. It was a symptom of something deeper.
Because I was working that Christmas, I had to hire a fellow to watch the tree lot three days a week, so we didn’t make much profit. Afterwards we went to the mountains. My mother had hired a carpenter to fix the kitchen floor, and he was available over Christmas week, so he tore out the floor while she left to spend the holidays with Laura and Tom. Perri and I arrived, dog in tow, and left Ringo with the dogs at the farm house while we visited Perri’s parents. Anne came to feed the dogs, walked into the kitchen and stepped right through the floor. Ringo heard the commotion and came to investigate. She grabbed him and climbed out, unhurt except for some nasty bruises.
My father’s holiday letter talked about changing himself. He found it difficult but gratifying and said he, like the rest of humanity, lived within illusions dictated by environment, that many thought patterns were knee-jerk responses to stimuli. He said the sight of Newt Gingrich on TV caused great squirts of bile to flood his intestines, but the Dalai Lama soothed him. He wanted Newt Gingrich to meet the Dalai Lama, and hoped that Newt didn’t pee on his leg.
Perri was happy 1994 was over. Hillcrest school, which had been built in 1930 and had no air conditioning, had moved to a new building over Christmas break. She was thrilled with the new school and happy to be without one of her most troublesome kids, who’d been placed in an institution. Robin had received a new computer from Santa, a Macintosh Performa 360CD, but by exploring the hard drive and clicking on everything had installed so many programs that he had very little memory left, and a week later had to use a word processor to contribute to the holiday robin. Anne and the boys sent a page each and Noelle, the youngest, a picture of a bird. For New Years Robin had taken up Tai Chi and loved it. He was now working days in the barber shop with our father and nights in a restaurant, where he shared a bottle of champagne with Kim Basinger. “The Winter People” was shooting down the road, in fact part was shot in our friend Cindy’s old cabin. Kim had come to Stonewall’s restaurant. He was her waiter. At the end of the night she’d left a little champagne in the bottle, which he polished off.
Robin also had a troubled relationship with our father. When I was old enough to stay out late enough to avoid him, my brother was next in line for his drunken dinner table assaults. My youngest brother and the three sisters skated through, safe in their little world while my father spewed bile in the kitchen. My brother said that he’d changed a lot and that he hadn’t seen him drunk in years. I wasn’t so sure. I’d also worked with him. He was easy to work with. The ugliness came at night.
Genny’s 33rd birthday came at the end of January, and she was in high spirits. Sam and Barry had just returned from a whirlwind tour of Italy and Switzerland, and Sam used up all his adjectives describing it.
Tom had a new job in February, football coach at Wofford College, and he and Laura moved to Spartanburg, SC. I was rewiring my parents‘ house. A fellow who had driven into their front yard one night was doing a lot of work on it as well. The farmhouse was on a popular back road to Blowing Rock, where the bars were, and Dave had crashed into the briars. He was a carpenter seeking work and a place to stay. My father let him work on the house in exchange for free rent on the trailer which had replaced Kevin and Fran’s down the road.
That we had the same name was an irritation. I’d hear my father praising Dave and realize it was him, not me. He’d dismiss what I’d done, crediting my work to others who’d done a small portion. Jeff had worked on the greenhouse, but he’d put in 3 hours to my 60. He’d say Uncle Lewis put in the bathroom, not him and me. The rock wall I’d taken all summer to build in the front yard was a “repair”. When I painted the roof he never bought the last gallon of paint and it became something I “hadn’t finished”, which Dave replaced. Dave deserved the praise my father repeatedly gave him, but it irritated me greatly when I’d hear him talking about what Dave had done and realize it wasn’t me, and that Dave had exchanged labor for rent, while my free labor from the goodness of my heart was being ignored. My brother’s next letter dealt with this. It was difficult for us to finish things, because our father, he noticed, would start things but abandon them, and if we continued he’d tear them down to make “improvements” which never happened. It was difficult for either of us to take pride in our accomplishments, because we got no credit and they didn’t stay finished anyway.
I rewired the house as a Christmas present that year, because it needed it, and saw my Skilsaw on the back porch. I hadn’t seen it in over a year. It had my name ground into the handle, in letters an inch high and a quarter-inch deep. He’d stolen it.
Genny was scouting for a new job and enjoyed being single. Sam had moved in with Barry on Staten Island while his old boyfriend Rob lived with David in Manhattan. They were still friendly. That they didn’t live together made it easier on both. Rob was working with Broadway singers and Sam had quit piano playing in smoky bars, freelancing as a “party pianist”. Laura was getting accustomed to her toddler taking his first steps. She loved her new neighborhood, and though she didn’t like local schools it was hardly a concern while Austin was under a year old.
I was less satisfied, and expressed my frustrations. I was making little more than minimum wage at the health food store. Marlene was far more interested in money than in health, and was paranoid as well. When we’d run the rental yard in Hollywood we’d figure a loss of 3 to 4 percent due to bad checks and the like was normal. If losing more than that, your policies were probably ioo loose, if less you’d miss a lot of business. When selling Christmas trees we were even less concerned, taking checks without much bother; none of the trees would be worth 10¢ on on December 26th. Marlene took two forms of ID and called the bank on every check. She got only one bad check that I ever knew about, for about $15, and put sticky notes on the back door, the desk, the cash drawer and the bathroom mirror warning us about Cherry Smith. She was one of the first businesses to have a credit card verification machine  and  wouldn’t take cards if it was down. She’d tail her customers, and recommend way more than they needed. She’d mark the price up 400 or 500% on products recommended for serious illnesses such as cancer, on the theory that cancer patients were going to spend it on medicine anyway. There was a monthly newsletter from an association whose sales started on the first of the month, but she wouldn’t pass out the newsletters for at least a week. When they were gone, a week or so later, she’d immediately pull off the sale tags. Items on sale were marked with a dot of a certain color. Most would go on sale once or twice a year, yet many of the bottles had over half-a-dozen dots, making them over five years old. Some food was so old it had changed color, but she wouldn’t throw it out. I’d set the old stuff in the back room, where she said she was going to send it back, but three days later it’d be on the shelf again. The ketchup was particularly nasty. The first half-inch was a black crust, the rest a pale orange. I saw it back on the shelf and decided  I was tossing it and anything else that was that bad. Over the next couple of weeks I got rid of a dozen or two superannuated jars of  sauces and was fired. I didn’t care. I was disgusted. The health food store went downhill, Marlene’s father died a short while later and Delores bought it for next to nothing. She threw out over half the stock.
I was tired of the town, too. I didn’t want to be in the flatlands, and had only come down because Perri had planned to take a job in the mountains at the first opportunity. The opportunity hadn’t come and Perri wasn’t pursuing it. I found it a flat, hot, preachy little town, where great philosophical discussions bogged down in creationism vs. evolution and whether Satan’s influence would strengthen as the millennium approached. I didn’t like the yard decorations. Cement chickens. Plywood butts tending flowers. I didn’t want to raise a family there, not that it looked like we would. I didn’t care about local history or local politics. It wasn’t a good place to sell crafts, and I didn’t like the earth lodge  being abandoned and the trees badly tended.
Perri didn’t see it that way. She had a good job, friends, and had already decided a lot of things with or without my input. She’d been dealing with disruptive children that nobody else could handle and for nine years had been making them do what no one else could. All day it was her way, not their way. It didn’t matter what they wanted, they did what she told them to.
It was her job, and she brought the attitude home. She told me what we were going to do, where we were going to go, what I was going to wear. I tried to make decisions or talk over plans but was summarily slapped down. My kaleidoscope sales were doing OK, but when I ordered supplies she wrote the checks.
We decided that I’d take over half the finances. I’d handle the house payment and she’d take the rest. I did what I said, sold enough scopes to make the payment, ordered supplies and had about fifty dollars left. I thought we’d have a nice night out to celebrate. I cleaned up, dressed up and planned to take her to her favorite restaurant.
Things Blow Up
She came home and I was in a great mood, the first time in quite awhile. I greeted her at the door, spiffed up and ready to go.
It was not to be. She immediately grilled me and discovered I’d deposited the $800 into the wrong account of our two at the bank. She said I couldn’t handle money and took the rest. She then told me she’d been to her favorite restaurant at lunch, she didn’t like the way I was dressed and that she and her friend had other plans anyway. I went from feeling terrific to terrible in five minutes. I stayed home and cleaned up around the house.
She came home and started again. It was unbelievable that I’d put money in the wrong account. This kaleidoscope thing wasn’t a business, it was a hobby. I couldn’t take care of business, I couldn’t handle money. She didn’t want to hear about the mountains anymore, either. I was abusing her when I talked about moving. We’d move in 2017, when she retired, and I wouldn’t mention it anymore. And how were we ever going to have kids, if I couldn’t handle money? She was already taking care of a child. Me.
I shut up for a week or so. She wrote the check to order supplies, but she wrote it on a credit card, which bounced. It was the second time she’d bounced a check to that supplier. I got a money order and she said she’d mail it. She didn’t. I brought it up, she blew it off. She didn’t want to hear about it any more. And I should get a vasectomy. And she didn’t want anything to do my family.
Well, that finally, finally did it. I’d had it. I was re-folding the laundry–she didn’t like the way I’d folded it–and I completely exploded. I screamed and screamed and threw laundry around–I knew if I touched anything else I’d break it–and screamed some more and some more, that she was NOT going to talk about my family that way and she WASN’T going to tell me I couldn’t handle money and she WAS going to pay for the supplies and we WERE going back to the mountains and my scopes were NOT a hobby. I kept screaming and throwing laundry and finally stormed out of the house.
In my socks. In the snow.
I didn’t know where to go. It was February, 1996. It was cold. It was snowing. I was in a T-shirt and socks. I walked a half-mile down the road, stopped and looked at the tiny snowflakes swirling and sparkling in the air. I turned around and came back.
Everything was quiet. She’d put away the laundry, and was making dinner.
Dinner was excellent. Potatoes with rosemary. Spinach with spicy tofu and sesame seeds. Mixed veggies, lightly fried. We didn’t talk much.
I was calm, but I knew I’d lost my sanity. I was croaking like a frog. I couldn’t speak. My head throbbed; I was certain I’d blown a blood vessel on the left side of my forehead. I wasn’t angry. I couldn’t be. If I started getting worked up my head throbbed even more. It was painful enough keeping calm.
I didn’t go to our bed that night. Somewhere, sometime, I’d read that you shouldn’t go to bed angry. What a crock. All that means is that whoever is the most tired gives up so they can sleep. It was the first time I’d slept on the couch.
When we got up the next morning, things were better, sort of. I’d obviously frightened her. She was sweet to me. I couldn’t talk. I had a headache.
Things weren’t the same. I’d settled down, but I was unbalanced, and knew it. We had our second wedding anniversary a few days later–the 29th of February, so we had actually been married eight years–and Perri’d started making plans to move back to the mountains. She’d renewed her job application–she hadn’t heard back because the application had to be renewed every six months, but she hadn’t renewed it in ten years. She was trying–but I was crying.
There was something wrong with me. I kept my temper down because I had to. If I got agitated my head would throb. I worked in my shop, made scopes–but suddenly, for no reason, would burst into tears in the middle of the afternoon, great heaving sobs that drained my energy and left me a wreck for the 20 minutes–then I’d get back to work.
I drank too much. I hadn’t drunk anything until evening for years, except on Saturdays, and I’d always go a couple days a week without drinking–but now I’d take a tug off the liquor bottle in the afternoon, to calm down and take the edge off my despair. I’d met a woman, Teresa, who’d admired my kaleidoscopes and was learning how to make them. She’d cut glass pieces, I’d buy them from her and take her crafts along when I’d sell. For awhile I was in a band with her husband, but she and he were breaking up. I’d call her and we’d talk and cry for hours. I’d also been making kaleidoscope kits for my old girlfriend Beth, who’d written me occasionally for years. She wanted to sell kits, so I put together parts and instructions and sent them to Arizona. I’d gotten a PO box down the street to use for business, but now it became the address I’d use to write her. I knew she’d been crazy too, many years before, and desperately needed someone who could relate. We’d now known each other for 20 years, which seemed incredible. I’d send off kits and a letter, she’d send a check and a letter. I’d saved our correspondence for years, but had burned it all a year before and now only had one remaining letter from earlier times, which had escaped by hiding in a book. It was written not long after she’d married the guitar player, and was full of references to how she’d wanted to be with me but couldn’t, that she’d married Luke because she had to, she was trying to fly but her wings were clipped, she was the temple prostitute in a past life who was now tethered to the ground, the domestic Goddess. I was her Wizard, but Oh, the Karma which befalls the Wise One–and signed “Love & Light, Beth”.
And my heart had been tethered to hers in some way, all those years, through all those letters. Her son had told me “I love you, Dave Austin” when he was four. He grew up, she had two daughters with the guy in the shiny suit and wrote me heart-wrenching letters for seventeen more years, eleven married and six divorced.
I tried hard not to write every day. She’d had a boyfriend for a year, but  called me in the middle of the day when he wasn’t there and my wife was working. I told her what a mess I was, how hopelessly crazy, how I knew she’d been there, knew how I felt. It was a comfort to talk. I’d lay in the middle of the floor and cry.
I needed to get away for awhile and a friend suggested I drive with him out West. John was an older fellow who knew me from the health food store. He worked with stained glass and I’d shown him how to make kaleidoscopes. He wanted to leave his wife, and I wanted to make a business trip out of state. I made a dozen Kallistoscopes and we left on April 17th. Two days later in Eagle Pass, Texas, I sold my first large stereoscope, which gave me enough to help with the gas and support myself. On the 21st we arrived in Tucson and at 7 am I first saw Liz, as she was now calling herself. She’d broken up with her boyfriend when she knew I was coming, and she let me stay at her place. After a month I wrote a letter to include in the robin:
Hi Sam!
And everyone else on down the line, since I want this letter included in the robin and my address right now is sort of uncertain–
I left Swepsonville on Apr. 17th, which makes it one month today–I’ve been staying in Tucson with an old and loyal friend, Liz, I knew I needed to see her because a couple months ago I lost my mind and I knew she’d been there before and I’ve known and trusted her for twenty years.
I left not knowing exactly what I was doing; I badly wanted to take a trip to the West again because I’d been 8 years away, and also I wanted to try selling kaleidoscopes on my own. I knew Liz knew the market in Tucson and I also knew I badly needed to hear her perspective on life, so I came to Tucson first. I didn’t expect to be staying here more than several days; I knew she had a boyfriend and a life. However she broke up with him the same day I left so when I came we had more time to talk than I’d anticipated. We really had some seriously unfinished business to talk through anyway because we are old lovers and I never really wanted to give her up but she ran off and got married, and that’s really why I spent the next six years or so thumbing around the country, because I never really wanted to marry anyone else. She was married for eleven years and got divorced 5 months after I got married. If I’d have seen her 5 months earlier I doubt if I’d have gotten married–but anyway for the next 8 years we stayed in touch and she wrote me several honest & painful letters about what all she had felt and done and what she was up to and in general they really tore at my heart because I never really and truly forgot about her.
Anyway a couple months ago me & Perri had another big fight over money & finally decided I would make the house payment and use the rest for supplies for kaleidoscopes, etc. I fulfilled my end of the bargain when I went out selling when I made $800, made the house payment and had $250 left for supplies & a little extra I figured we could go out to dinner on that night etc. & I was feeling really good when Perri walked in.
Well, she told me I’d put the house payment in the wrong one of the 2 accounts we had with NationsBank & I obviously couldn’t handle money & she’d have to make my order for me & I’d have to hand over the money & she didn’t want to go out to dinner because she’d already gone out to that restaurant for lunch & so she took my money & went out to dinner with her friends.
It happened so fast I didn’t know what hit me. I’d had a great day & done everything right and inside of 5 minutes she had trashed my day, insulted me, robbed me and split. I felt like I’d been mugged.
To add to the insult she didn’t get the order in for a couple weeks while I ran out of supplies to finish anything, meanwhile still riding me about the next month’s house payment. When she did put in the order she sent a check drawn on a credit card which didn’t have enough to cover it which blew another week as well as boogering up my account with Delphi Glass for the 2nd time. Then when I came to her with my concern she told me she’d take care of it after the weekend, but by the next Tuesday or Wednesday she hadn’t done it & I mentioned it again & she sort of casually said, “I have more things to think about than you”, and blew it off, then started ragging me about how I’d folded the laundry. Well that was a long ways from the only reason for what happened next but it was  one straw too many for me. I started screaming at her at the top of my lungs and kept it up for probably five solid minutes and throwing laundry around and completely lost my mind. I said I was not one of her 9-year-old brats and she had better learn to respect me as a man and my family was just as good as hers (an old, old fight) and she did not have the exclusive right to decide for us if we were going to have children or not without consulting her husband, and she knew I hated the flatlands but she had kept me there for ten years anyway, and on & on. I’m sure I was purple I was so mad and I’m sure I popped a blood vessel because for weeks I got pounding headaches whenever I got worked up. I left & walked down the road & back for 20 mins. or so & when I got back had her write out a check then & there for an order & send it off & then a weird kind of calm settled over me–but I knew I was mentally unbalanced. I had completely lost my equilibrium and was totally out of touch with my emotions and I knew it. I was a wreck. It was a nervous breakdown. I started crying every morning and writing long letters, mostly to Liz because I knew very well she’d been there and could understand better than anyone about going thru that sort of thing. I knew I had to see her & planned this trip partly for business, true, but also to be able to see her, because I knew I’d never really be able to get myself straightened out again otherwise & she was the one person I knew that I trusted and felt could help.
So I’ve been here for awhile longer than I’d planned but I’m getting a lot of kaleidoscopes made up & making a few contacts & feeling a whole lot better. I don’t know what I’m going to do from here but I’ll get around to some more states pretty soon & probably pick up my car in Colorado & get back to NC before too long. I don’t much know what the future might be but I do know that I’m glad I came. You can go on & on about counseling, etc. but everyone needs to do what they think is best and I think I have done what is best for me for the time being and thus for everyone because I wouldn’t be any good for anyone the way I was. I feel like I have rediscovered something about myself I’d been out of touch with for a long time.
Much Love–Dave
P.S. Someone else needs to make the copies this time!     DJA~
I had too much faith in my lady love. When I’d arrived, she’d been suspicious and cool, which seemed odd–the woman who’d been signing every letter with “Love” or some variation–never “sincerely” or “best wishes”–for seventeen years. We got along, but she seemed to want me to prove something, which was simply strange.
I found out much more about her. She’d been married at 20, had a son and left her first husband. She told me he’d forged a sword and to make it magical needed a ritual sacrifice. She’d run from him and I’d met her. She’d made a business arrangement with Luke under the apple tree–this is what she’d called it, had always called it, what they’d agreed to. He’d raise her son if she’d have his kids. Her son, 4 years old, had hated this choice–”NO!”, he said, “ANYBODY but HIM! George! David! Anyone but LUKE!!!”–but marry they did, moved out West and sent me a Polaroid shot of the cutest, happiest baby girl I’d ever seen. Four years later they had another daughter, one she didn’t want. They’d been thinking of splitting up, but he got a vasectomy and they stayed together for a few more years. He started fooling around and they had an incredibly bitter divorce. I arrived eight years later, but they were still furious with each other. He’d remarried, changed his name and tried to reverse his vasectomy. None of it worked–they didn’t have kids, he left her and changed back his name. Liz remained single and bitter, drank too much and kept the girls on weekends.
I’d been trying to sell scopes and rings in Tucson, but it was the end of the season and Liz wanted me to get away more anyway. She’d been introducing me and sometimes fixing me up with her friends. I took a sales trip with a fellow she knew. We were away for a week, camping out and visiting interesting little towns. I sold enough to pay for the trip but little else. A few days later I took a bus to California and met up with John, whose prospect wasn’t working out either. I visited a couple friends, whose romantic lives were also in turmoil; there was something in the air that spring–and John insisted I drive his  car back while he flew home to his wife. That was fine with me, and I picked up my stuff in Tucson a few days after my 43rd birthday.
While I was gone all hell had broken loose. I’d gotten along with the son, who was now in his twenties, and the older daughter, who was 17, but the younger one, age 13, had been a challenge. I’d babysat with her the weekend before I’d left for California, when Liz was out of town. The daughter stole some pot from her mother’s purse, which I didn’t know about, and when Liz grilled her she said I’d been peeping, as a distraction. I was out of state, an easy target, and the daughter didn’t want me there anyway. When I rolled back into Tucson Liz was furious, but it was clear to me it wasn’t working out anyway, so I packed my stuff and left without a fuss.
I continued on to Colorado. I’d planned to fix up the 1962 Falcon which I’d given to Monk many years before. His father had made it into a sort of pickup and driven it for a few years. He now offered it back if I wanted it. Since I had a car, though, I didn’t immediately need it. I visited for a week, staying mostly with Monk’s mother. I’d say Monk had gone downhill in the intervening seven years, but he’d already been at the bottom. He was still married to Carissa, though they’d separated a few times. Still lived in a little apartment on the wrong side of the tracks, still dealt drugs and used cars. Carissa was a masseuse.  She claimed that she wasn’t screwing the customers, though everyone knew she was. I took her to appointments. When we were alone she was all over me, and suggested we get a room. She was good looking, luscious actually, and I was sorta-kinda single, but she was still my best friend’s wife. I didn’t want to go there. I told her I needed my money for the trip home, which was true.
I spent the night at Monk’s apartment, Some friends had brought over crack. I traded them a few silver rings and shared it with Monk and Carissa. I’ve never cared for crack. It’s mediciney, not very pleasant and doesn’t last long. Carissa wanted more, and more.Didn’t want to give up the crack pipe. In the morning Monk offered me a place on the couch to stay as long as I wanted, but I left.The next few days I visited with his family while a car appearing to be an undercover narc incompetently followed me around. I sold a couple scopes and had money to get home, but there were be a couple small scopes missing. Monk later confessed that he and Carissa had taken them to get more crack.
Three years later Carissa was arrested for trying to hire someone to kill Monk. She needn’t have bothered. He died a year afterwards.
I spent the next week moseying, toured my old hangouts, took a drive to Boulder, saw the house we’d lived in when I was a toddler. It seemed incredibly tiny. I went to Central City, explored the mountains, then at night started for Kansas (the best time to drive across Kansas). I stopped in Topeka, spent some hours in Kansas City and went to St. Louis, where I spent most of the day. It’s lovely in the springtime, hell in summer. I then drove to my cousin’s house in Knoxville, spent the night, and on to my parents’ house in Boone, where I stayed the weekend. I arrived back in Swepsonville on Perri’s birthday, hoping to surprise her, but she wasn’t there, having gone to Florida to visit her sister. She’d changed the locks. I broke a small window and crawled in.
Things Settle Down
I went about my business. I returned the car to John, who’d reconciled with his wife. I rode my moped and got a job landscaping with Delores’ husband Marty. Perri came back a few days later. It took awhile, but we worked things out.
There’d been a real turning point for me that spring. I was living with Liz and once in awhile calling back to Perri, mostly yelling. I’d told her I wanted a divorce, and we’d decided who’d get what. I was still furious, even though Liz was proving to be less than trustworthy, clean and reverent. I’d found Liz would tell a tall tale if it got her what she wanted, but Perri never would. Perri called me one day nearly in tears and asked for my permission to buy a lawnmower with the credit card we’d decided was mine.
It was the first time she’d ever asked my permission.
I found it touching, and her simple and heartfelt honesty a sharp contrast to the woman I was with. A few days later it was my birthday and we talked until the battery on the phone went dead. It wasn’t a reconciliation, but it went a long way.
I signed up for Spanish classes at night school and volunteered at the Catholic church to teach English to recent  immigrants a couple nights a week. I joined the chess club. She found a job teaching the profoundly retarded rather than the emotionally disturbed. The change was wonderful; she’d often say she felt she’d been dying in the old job, that it was draining her, wrecking her physical and mental health. Taking care of children, some of whom couldn’t talk, some in diapers at age 10, all needing gentle loving care, brought out a tenderness in her which she’d lost.
There was a lot of stuff to move around. Before I’d made my Quest to the West, we’d made plans to move back to the mountains. We’d moved stuff to the attic, on the bus, in the earth lodge, a tent, a back shed and at my parents’ house. There was stuff in our Subaru, under the carport, in the Studebaker. Perri’d also moved all her stuff from school, which was stored in the tool shed and the attic.
Robin had also been having domestic difficulties. Anne had a trust fund, and spent it on things she wanted while Robin worked. She did little but talk on the phone and drink Coke. Robin announced one day he wasn’t going to both work and clean the house. She said she wouldn’t either, and for twelve years the dishes stayed in the sink, the clothes stayed on the floor. They went out to eat. Grant, Jordan and Noelle visited their friends’ houses. Their friends didn’t visit them.
They decided to make a new start, and hired Perri and I to clean house in summer 1996. We started in the corners of each room and pushed everything into the hallway. By nightfall it was so crammed we couldn’t see over the pile, and had to go room to room through the windows. We threw out well over a hundred bags of trash. My brother paid us a hundred dollars, and as part of the deal we also kept $138 we’d found in loose change.
There’d been a hurricane that summer, and though it did little damage to our house Marty and I had plenty of work and plenty of firewood. We worked together until Christmas, mowing lawns, trimming trees, doing construction and working on cars. Perri acquired a Volvo, and felt very much the professional.
After Christmas I reconnected with John, my partner on the Quest to the West, and we built storage sheds as well as kaleidoscopes together. He’d seen the sheds I’d made with Marlene’s father and decided we could do it too. Some months later I got a job supervising a crew of Mexican immigrants in a print shop in Durham, 12 hours on the night shift, 4 days one week and 3 days the next. It was the first job where I spoke Spanish full-time, and I was not only the supervisor but something of a god both to my crew and to upper management, as nobody would get anything done if I didn’t interpret. It was a temporary job, though, which under the rules of the time could be forever temporary, and was physically demanding. Needlessly so. We were supposed to stay on our feet for the entire twelve hours. All chairs had been banned from the floor. It was a great opportunity to socialize after work with Mexicans, though, and at 7 in the morning we’d buy a case of beer. When you work from 7 pm to 7 am, seven in the morning is after work. I still made kaleidoscopes and storage buildings on my days off.
After six months I’d had enough and found a better job, closer to home, supervising a Spanish-speaking crew in a print shop, though this print shop printed fabric. It was slower paced and far more pleasant, but after two months I was laid off. I then found a job in a plant which glued huge rolls of paper. I was part-time safety inspector and part-time Spanish supervisor, though I only had one fellow to supervise.
Ringo and I daily walked around the property, picking flowers. One day Ringo found a HUGE caterpillar who’d eaten ALL the leaves off one of my baby pecans. It was as big as my thumb. We named it Swepsonzilla. It was a Hickory Horned Devil, which becomes a Royal moth. That spring, we saw Hootie and the Blowfish with our friend Lori and her temporary boyfriend. Lori had married a prisoner she’d met as a prison counselor, but while he was locked up was going with a fellow named John. It was a Lori Story. Lori always did the strange and dramatic and wrong. She was nearly 30, but for awhile had a boyfriend who was sixteen. John wanted to stay with her, but they split up because she was married.
We spent a week in Florida that spring, and when we came back Perri got a bus license and became a driver for a multiple-handicapped children’s camp for the rest of that summer. We took one other quick trip to the beach, staying in a condo on Oak Island as a promotion. When Thanksgiving came we visited Perri’s parents in their new house in Athens, Alabama, then came home and sold trees.
The Volvo heater core had sprung a leak, and I had to tear out the entire dashboard to repair it. About six months later, a woman pulled in front of Perri and it was totaled. We refinanced the house yet again in the springtime, and pulled out enough extra to buy a four-year-old Toyota truck, basic but well-maintained.
When Lori’s husband Michael got out of prison in the spring of 1998 we went to the beach for a quick weekend. Lori’s parents had a beach cottage, and while there we took photos pretending we were in the movie Maximum Overdrive, shot in the area, which my father’d been in. Perri played Stephen King being cussed out by the ATM, I played my father the bridgemaster and Michael his stupid sidekick. We played cards with the cards from my wallet. We found a slice of watermelon in the market and used camera angles to make it look like a truckload, and Lori was an excellent stand-in for Marla Maples as she got creamed by the watermelon. Ringo was conscripted to be the goblin on the front of the diesel rig, for which we’d substituted our little pickup. A napkin became a waiter’s pointy hat at the diner, and various items were flung into the air and shot from strange angles. Great fun!
That summer Perri and her mother took a trip to Florida together, without the rest of the family. Her mother had never stopped at South of the Border, on I-95 at the South Carolina line, which she thought tacky, but they had a great time.
Teresa, who’d been my employee, had left her husband and moved to Idaho with a new husband. I’d traded a nice stereo Kallistoscope to her for a silver flute, but she had a piano that needed a home, and I traded her the flute back for the piano, which was sitting in my workshop when my sister Laura expressed her desire for a piano that September. We traded the piano for Laura’s flute!
We sold trees again, but my heart wasn’t in it. After nearly twenty years of selling, I’d made enough to make the house payment, which for me was a mark of achievement. My father’s response was to joke that that we needed to “renegotiate our agreement”, since I was making too much money.
It wasn’t really a joke. I didn’t trust him. I loaded a couple dozen trees on my pickup for a few years but otherwise abandoned the enterprise and never did business with him again.
I may have been recovered, domestically, but Robin was warring with his wife, and Fran, who for her work had gone to Panama with the kids while her husband Rob remained in Montgomery, was having an increasingly hard time handling Sarah, brain damaged, obstinate, ten years old and quite strong. She had a Panamanian maid, but as she was the only one who spoke Spanish and only there for a few minutes morning and night, everyone expected her to air all their complaints at that time. Genny had moved from New York to the trailer at Snag End, and Sam was in rural New Jersey, having left not only Manhattan but Staten Island.
We’d been much better, but I still wanted the children we hadn’t had, nine years into our marriage. That summer I was skimming through the paper and saw the list in the paper of all the babies born locally that week–and all of them, a dozen or more, had parents younger than we were. Later that day, Perri knew something was wrong, and I showed her the column. I was sobbing. I knew that if we didn’t have children, we were going to break up. She’d avoided the issue for fourteen years, taking birth control pills, getting an abortion eight years before, scheduling her fertile days, trying to talk me into a vasectomy, even talking about getting her tubes tied, but this, for me, was the end.
The Porno Biz
A new job. I’d been hired by a woman named Sheila to start a Spanish department at Adam & Eve, the sex toy and porno-by-mail company.
Before I was out of training Sheila was gone. Her daughter had been a casualty in an office war, and Sheila quit. I’d been introduced to all the departments–the folks who wrote the catalog, the website geeks, customer service–but on the second day of the second week of my three-week training the black girl teaching the class came in looking white–and announced that the entire customer service department had been fired. From now on, everyone would “multi-task”. In 1998 nobody had discovered how many tasks one person could simultaneously do wrong. Instead of just doing one job at a time, we’d do everything, all the time–phone orders, ten-key mail order entry, customer service over the phone, through the mail, etc. etc. etc. I was also expected to do all this in Spanish as well as English. The elimination of the customer service department was part of this “transition”, and since Sheila had also resigned, the Spanish department–her baby–was in limbo. Everyone outside of customer contact wanted my help, but I was supposed to be “multi-tasking”. If I wasn’t answering phones in Spanish, I was doing it in English. Beside the phone was a big stack of little cards marked to receive or not receive a catalog, or not marked at all, in which case we sent another card. When the cards ran out, we had stacks of letters with ads torn out of magazines. These contained checks, or didn’t, or credit card numbers, or didn’t, or cash, for which we’d send back a check with a note that said we didn’t take cash. If these were finished we had stacks of mail with customer service questions. We’d work on these piles of paper until the next call came, which we were supposed to answer in 3 seconds. I had all the foreign language items as well–not only Spanish. We had a girl who spoke French–coincidentally, we shared the same birthday, and she was the only other vegetarian. I kept a big stack of phrasebooks on my desk in Spanish, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, even Russian and Tagalog. Most of the foreign correspondence wasn’t complicated–we didn’t send anything outside of the United States and Canada, so the bulk of my notes said “sorry, we don’t ship to (Italy, the Philippines, Brazil). My biggest problem was the Spanish speaking customer who had a question about an item. We didn’t have access to the website (tell me about it!) so everyone but me transferred these calls to the warehouse. Since nobody in the warehouse spoke Spanish and there was no way to see an item online, I placed the customer on hold and ran to the warehouse. Several times a day I was taking care of a customer service problem when I “should have been on the phones”.
It quickly became obvious to me that multi-tasking was multi-screwing-up. I told management I needed a certain amount of time to devote to Spanish, nothing else, and if I had to punch that damned calculator all day I was going to kick it through the window. I got an hour at the end of the day for Spanish. There was no Spanish keyboard available, so I brought in an old portable 1930s Spanish-language typewriter and typed short descriptions of several items and made a 2-page Xerox copy list, which saved me literally hours on the phone and quintupled our Spanish sales.
Perri’d become pregnant, finally, in September of 1998. We had a scare in October. I’d given blood, and it had been rejected. Perri opened the letter, and it said I needed to get tested for AIDS.
Well, it scared the crap out of both of us, naturally. Fifteen years together, she finally gets pregnant and now she needs to know if I have AIDS, if she has AIDS, if the baby has AIDS. I had to take several expensive tests before I found out that I had indeed had an immune deficiency illness, many years earlier, described as a “cousin” to AIDS–probably babesiosis. It sounds like an addiction to babes, but it’s tick-borne. When I’d filled out the questionnaire to give blood it’d asked my medical history for the previous ten years. I’d had a case of the flu which recurred and never really went away, but that had been more than ten years before. I spent a lot of money on prescriptions, which did almost nothing, and finally tried large quantities of herbal extracts and remedies, which worked. Nevertheless, the antibodies were still there, fourteen or fifteen years later. I was told I could give blood in the future if I let this be known, but I never will again. It was expensive, scary and I wasn’t treated fairly.
In 1999, after the new year, John and I started building a workshop so that the baby could have  the spare bedroom. We fixed up the house yet again. Perri wanted central air conditioning so we sprang for that as well. John had wanted to put in the labor on the workshop for free, as a gift to us, but after a fight with his wife we gave him $700. He soon left his wife, again and for good.
Perri was overjoyed to be pregnant and preparing for the baby, but when I described her joy in the robin Laura took offense to a particular phrase, that men liked to be a knight in shining armor for a fair maiden. This struck me as particularly silly, because she’d married a football coach, and who in modern times is more the knight in shining armor than a football coach? For whatever reason, she wasn’t interested in scrawny, bespectacled accountants.
There’d been an ad about that time for MasterCard or Visa, showing what “one strong woman” could do–the idea was that she could fix up her house, but how? By hiring twelve strong guys. The commercial didn’t show “one strong man” hiring twelve women to do the plumbing and masonry and drywall, it would’ve been ludicrous. Fire departments anywhere, affirmative action or no, are 99% men. Construction is over 90% men. Thus shall it always be.
It bothers me when the Air Force or Army or Navy or Marines put women in combat, not because women can’t do the job, because for the most part they can. Once a woman is captured, however, she can be raped and violated and used as a sex slave, which will be repeated 67 times a day on the news all day long for twelve days, and then 600 strong males–knights in shining armor–will get their nuts shot off saving the fair maid. None of the armed services would send in 600 women to save a man. Brave knights save fair young maidens from dragons, because that’s what brave knights do. Brave young maidens will never save fair knights. They save babies, not knights. To say anything else is a line of crap. Spout it for a hundred years and it’s still crap. When the shooting starts, knights do the fighting, just like in fairy tales, and maidens hide with babies in the caves. That’s the power of myth. They’re fated, and inevitable. The Knight in Shining Armor saves the Fair Maid, the Princess kisses the Toad, Beauty saves the Beast and the Wicked Witch is carried off in a tornado. One can kick and scream and say “NO!!! My life is NOT that way!!!”, but sooner or later one looks around and realizes one has indeed been the Wizard, or the Dragon, or the Fair Maid, or the Ugly Duckling or the Wicked Stepmother. It’s too bad this is only seen in the rear-view mirror. It’d save a lot of kicking and screaming.
When my marriage was out of balance and not like the myth it was supposed to be, I had to leave on a Stalwart Quest. I didn’t know The Answer, but I’d been getting letters for twenty years from an alternate myth in a parallel universe–for if we’re not caught up in one myth, we’re caught in another. In this other world I was the Powerful Wizard, not the Obstinate Child. I didn’t see that in her myth she was the Temple Prostitute, which she had clearly and honestly told me, but I didn’t believe. I’d still get occasional letters, and she’d apologized for the scene when I left Tucson, but now I had a Fair Maiden and a Babe On the Way. Now, as the bearer of the Mighty Sword of Truth, I had to tell her the rest of her Myth–that the Truth was that she truly became the Prostitute she’d claimed to be when she married not the Wizard she loved, but the Turd in a Shiny Suit who offered her a Business Deal. There’s only one word for a Business Deal involving Sex, topped with any amount of Frosting, and Wizards have More Important Things To Do than consort with Prostitutes. I don’t remember which myth that is, but it’s one of the classics. You can look it up.
The spring went by quickly and the baby came late. On May 7th, a week after he was due, we checked into the Women’s Hospital in Greensboro, and though the delivery had already been planned for that afternoon, Perri had gone into labor the same morning. At 6:54 pm we welcomed Edward Zephram Austin. Taurus sun, Aquarius moon, Scorpio rising.
The Babe
The name was something new. For years Perri and I had thought that Mercer Calvin would be a good name. I’d always thought the Mercer an elegant little car, and Calvin was her maiden name. As the time approached, though, she felt the name was from her past, not something she wanted to use. She wanted Theo Mercer, but I didn’t. I liked the initials MCA, but didn’t care for TMA. Initials weren’t something my parents thought about much; mine are DJA, which seemed okay, but then came RAA, SMA, FEA, GMA and LAA. Robin didn’t care for RAA, Sam saw his name scrambled, Fran’s brought her embarrassment when she went to Spain with her initials embossed on a giant handbag, because FEA means “ugly girl” in Spanish.
I thought one common name and one more unusual would go together nicely. Edward was her father’s name, and Ned mine, and as Ned is a common nickname for Edward, we chose it. That left a middle name. Some weeks before he was born we were watching a Star Trek movie and learned that Zefram Cochrane was the inventor of warp drive. We had our middle name, and the initials EZA. An added allure is that a few years from now the inventor of warp drive will be named after our son, not vice versa!
We’d thought a choice of nicknames would be nice, but Edward was a serious baby and nothing else fit. He wasn’t an Eddie or Ed or Ned or Ted or Audie. Occasionally we’d call him EZ, but mostly he was simply Edward.
Everyone sent their congratulations. Several people came to visit the hospital–Randy, Pat, their kids Carly and Leah, Lori and my brother Robin’s family. Perri and Anne had had a game going for years. Anne hated Joe Camel, the cigarette mascot, and Perri’d hide a Joe Camel cup-holder in her house when we’d visit. She’d send the kids looking for it and return it on her next visit. Joe appeared all over. When Robin and Anne moved into a new house Joe was waiting, courtesy of their realtor, and when Anne had a temporary job Perri had a friend mail him to her, in a stranger’s handwriting and with a different return address. It didn’t matter, Anne knew what was inside, and sent it to Perri without opening it!
When Anne arrived, I was holding a fake bundle with Joe Camel in Edward’s place, but she rushed right past it. She didn’t look at the baby, she wanted to see Perri!
Perri’s life was now all about diapers and breastfeeding and lack of sleep. We’d bought a WebTV unit shortly before he was born and she started an email list and sent out “Edward Updates”. Cindy, her friend of over 20 years, had her first baby, a girl, 3 weeks later. She and Ally lived about a half-hour away and visited often, sharing toys, clothes etc.
We’d moved our bedroom from one side of the house to the other during the initial renovation. Now we made my workroom a nursery and moved my glass and tools into the newly built workshop out back.
Edward initially had gray eyes, but within a couple weeks they were brown. This followed the family pattern; all of his cousins, both on Perri’s side and on mine, had brown eyes. I was the oldest of three boys, followed by three girls, and all the children in my siblings’ families as well were boys followed by girls. My brother had two boys, then a girl; my first sister two boys, then two girls, and my youngest sister two boys. This also applied to the cousins on my mother’s side of the family; of the four, one cousin had two boys, another, one girl, and a third, two boys. None of the brothers, for two generations, had an older sister, and none of the sisters a younger brother.
Edward as a baby was a prize. He was quiet, and studious, and loved bananas. Perri tried to teach him sign language, which she’d studied and used as a teacher, and eventually he picked up a few hand signs, but he had his own. “More” wasn’t his two little fists touched together, it was a hearty slap on his high-chair table.
When Edward had been born I’d bought a box of cigars. When I’d been a child, even well into my twenties, almost all men passed out cigars when a baby was born. I found it difficult to give them away. I bought a few chocolate and bubble-gum cigars to mix in with them, and went through about five times as many candy and gum cigars as I did real ones. I didn’t pass out the last cigar for almost a year.
Edward was a cheerful baby, despite his serious countenance. When something surprised him he’d cackle almost uncontrollably. When he was 2 or 3 months old he had a little round-bottomed bird with a bell inside that tinkled and righted itself when pushed over; I showed it to him when we were lounging on the bed. He laughed all afternoon.
He was always strong. When first born he arched his back and held his head up, and he never cared much to crawl, preferring from an early age to grab things and try to stand. Our house has two wide archways , between the living room and the parlor, where we put hooks to either side and hung a bouncy chair, which he loved. He’d walk until the chair pulled him back & spun him around, then bounce and walk some more. I’d sit in the recliner next to him and play the banjo. He loved it. I won a small banjo-type ukulele in a costume contest at work, gave it to him and he’d play along with me. He had a large futon in one corner of his room and lots of toys, but his favorite was a nubby foam ball. When he was four months old, I asked him if he wanted it and he said, very clearly, “ball”–his first word. When he was old enough to have a set schedule I’d play songs for him at bedtime, not only on the banjo but also the guitar. I’d initially found the guitar too intimidating. I’d broken or badly cut every finger on my left hand at some point. My thumb, pinky and index fingers lacked flexibility. When someone would show me guitar chords I’d be stymied, but once I learned banjo chords I picked up a guitar for $17 when Sears closed down its catalog warehouse in Greensboro and learned to fudge a few chords. I bought a book with a couple hundred classic American songs and learned quite a few, though playing many chords in a non-standard way. I wasn’t great, but that wasn’t the point. I’d play a few songs, strum a bit in minor keys and Edward would be fast asleep.
In the fall Perri’s sister Glee and her new-ish boyfriend David came up from the coast to escape the approaching Hurricane Floyd and stay with us for a few days. Perri sent an email to the rest of the family:
Glenda and David were united in Holy Matrimony on Friday, September 17, 1999. The double ring candlelight veranda wedding (on our front porch) took place at 9:20 pm. Dave Austin officiated. Edward Austin and Perri Austin, the bride’s nephew and sister, respectively, were witnesses for the happy couple. Perri also served as ring bearer, photographer and caterer.
The bride wore a lovely shade of blue jean. The groom was attired in jeans of blue. We all wore blue jeans, except for Edward, as Glee and David had not come prepared for a wedding, but for an evacuation.
An intimate surprise reception followed. A small cake of white trimmed in blue and purple was adorned with the couple’s names and a ribbon (I ran to the store, bought a small cake and had their names put on it while they were out buying rings, so it was a surprise). The gala affair was made more festive by the party poppers (confetti). Gifts included a phone card and wedding album (they had been using a phone card while staying here, so I thought it a good idea to get them another one, so that they would have enough minutes to contact family. Also I didn’t want to get them anything “house-like” as a gift, as they are not in a situation in which they need “stuff”. I took pictures, had them developed the next day, then put them in a little photo album).
After a two night honeymoon in Swepsonville, the couple safely returned to their home in Newport, NC.
It was the first time Edward put his signature on anything. He was four months old, so I helped him hold the pencil, but it still came out a scrawl.
Perri continued the “Edward Updates” on WebTV. I ordered a new, internet capable computer through work at $25 per paycheck for 2 years–an Apple. It arrived–the G3 unit, keyboard, mouse–and no monitor. The very same day, the G4 was introduced–so I called them up, said I couldn’t use a computer without a monitor and, by the way, we didn’t want the G3 now–so as it turned out, we bought the first really modern computer, on its first day.
My wife was nevertheless concerned about viruses, so for the next year or two we continued with WebTV for the internet, though according to a calculation I’d made based on a list of viruses known to infect Windows vs. those for Macs, if a virus were to infect a Windows machine once a week, a Mac would catch one every forty years.
We have a video of Edward unwrapping a gift at his first Christmas. He tore the bow off, played with it, tore away the paper and played with it awhile, opened the box and played with the box top, took out the tissue paper and played with that, then pulled out the present and threw it to the side. He also got a toy that you’d put balls on top and bop them down through a series of inclined planes, then they’d pop out at the bottom. This would delight him for hours.
The Millennium
As the end of 1999 approached, everyone’s mind was on the next millennium, which had recently been christened Y2K. Computer people were going nuts, psychic hot lines burning up, millennial doomsday survivalists laying in supplies of wheat and beans and ammunition and everyone, everywhere, preparing for a huge party. Perri and I had a supply of wheat and beans and such which my co-traveler friend John had given us–he’d been a Mormon and had packed a year’s supply of food in his basement but had hardly used any of it, in fifteen or twenty years. He gave it to us, along with a kitchen-sized flour mill. We had three five-gallon drinking water jugs and a water filter, and the extent of our further Y2K preparation was to buy a fourth jug.
When the millennium came it was low-key for us. We had a seven-month-old baby boy, so we bought a few party hats and a bottle of champagne. When the millennium rolled around we lit off a few firecrackers I’d illegally imported from South Carolina, popped open the champagne and all had a little, even Edward who had a drop I gave him on the end of my finger, then things continued they way they always had. The world was still there the next day, and we had five extra gallons of water.
At work things were again in crisis. I’d been doing well, but all I was getting was grief. After the first year I was ready to quit, loaded up all my stuff (except for a few clippings and such I left on my desk to look like I was still there), took my vacation time, all my sick days and prepared to walk in the next day and quit–but Allah be praised, Hilda, the main source of my problems, had been fired, along with her troublemaker friend Barbara, who’d been stealing from the company even as she tried to get me fired (she spoke Spanish, but so poorly that she caused more problems than she solved). I decided to give it another shot.
A year went by, and I thought things were going along okay, when my “team captain” Heidi, out of the clear blue, announced that she didn’t care what schedule I’d worked out with management, I could “multitask” with everyone else or punch out and go home without pay. I went to her supervisor and told him I’d been doing a good job for the company, handling a lot of work that nobody else could and getting very little in the way of either compensation or respect. I told him that whenever I took a customer service call in English which had been transferred to me from some other associate who spoke English it would tie up the Spanish line for 20 minutes and I’d have six Spanish calls in a row asking why they’d been on hold. I told him that Spanish was customer service and I didn’t intend to tie up my line with customer service calls that a dozen other associates could handle, and that I did intend to punch out and go home, that I had vacation time coming and I was going to take it, right then, and decide whether I wanted to come back or not.
Well, Heidi’s ultimatum had worked–on her. While I was on vacation I received the single snottiest, bitchiest, pettiest, most infantile, unprofessional email I’ve ever received from anyone, anytime, anywhere. I forwarded it to several choice people, and that was the end of her. Dearest Heidi, I hope you are multi-tasking in hell, groveling and licking the puke off the floor.
When I came back, I was given a raise and made head of the Spanish department (which consisted of one guy, me). I was given the option to set up my schedule the way I saw fit and no customer service calls in English. Since I didn’t spend time on problems which other associates could handle, I made more sales, a lot more money and was way more happy.
I bought a 1982 Honda for $300 and put another $1100 into repairs; I figured it was a good deal, as I now had a Honda with new tires, brakes, etc. for $1400. About six months later, a woman hit me and her insurance gave me $750. I fixed it for $65 and drove it for another year, then sold it for $600. A year and a half’s transportation for $115.
We told the family that Edward was a whiz on the computer; we had to watch him or he’d whiz on it. He’d also figured out particle physics–he could spread particles all over the house! He was an airplane pilot–the bouncy chair had given way to an airplane swing in the archway–and while he piloted his plane he’d play on the ukulele while I strummed the banjo or guitar. As for reading, he’d pick up books, flip through them and babble on with great expression, though it was difficult to tell what language he was speaking. We called him “Mister Boom-Boom”, because he’d say “boom-boom-boom-boom” as he crawled all over the house.
On his birthday we gave him one special present–a box of cereal which had been sold for a short time called Millennios, which we’d stuffed with mementos of his first year–a time capsule, to be opened when he was ten.
No hurricanes came through that year, but summertime was stormy. In 1996 Hurricane Fran had ripped off our back storm door, a single 3’x6’ piece of tempered glass. I’d put it back and in 1999 Hurricane Floyd ripped it off again, laying it down in the back yard. That summer I was mowing and a wayward pebble did it in.
There was a tornado which passed through one morning when I was on the way to work, an unusual one which hugged the ground horizontally rather than forming a vertical cone. I saw it coming while pumping gas; I thought I’d finish and mosey on inside but it came on way too fast. I ran towards the low cement-block building, and by the time I got inside the rain was blowing sideways and the power was out. The wind came from the back and blew so hard the doors on the front were sucked wide open. Outside the side windows, all was a nasty gray with particles flying through it, very dark. It looked like the static on a TV screen but much darker. The girl behind the counter screamed and hit the floor while I and another customer looked at each other in astonishment.
When the tornado had passed we couldn’t leave the parking lot; there were trees across the road to either side and the power line was down. We waited for a few guys to show up and help us move the trees. The freeway was closed, and I went on the back road for three or four miles, stopping and waiting for help whenever another tree was across the road. Finally it was just me, one old farmer, and a huge oak tree, and I decided to see if the freeway was clear. It was, but blocked behind me, so I cruised on the empty freeway the rest of the way to work. My three-mile detour had taken me an extra hour, but it made little difference. The power was out and pretty soon the phone lines too, so we all went home. I spent the rest of the day cutting and loading firewood.
The pickup was a tight fit for Perri and I with Edward’s car seat in the middle; it was a manual transmission but when I shifted gears I had to go from first to third to fifth. We put a car carrier in the bed of the truck for our stuff when we’d go up the mountain to Thanksgiving or Christmas. It was now clear that my father would sabotage any decent profit I would’ve made selling trees, but I loaded up my pickup and sold a couple dozen out of stubbornness. This continued as a personal goal until I’d sold trees for twenty-five years, then I packed it in.
The new millennium arrived for real, some would say, on January 1, 2001, though the big parties and the doomsday predictions were over and the bags of beans everyone had packed away were a joke. The Y2K bug had been a mosquito. I was making more kaleidoscopes now that I had a dedicated workshop. I’d come home from work, put in an hour or two and Edward wouldn’t know the difference. When Papa arrived home, of course, no more work would get done that day.
One of the fellows at work had a son a few months older than Edward, and we started hanging out together. Like most couples with kids our age, they were younger, but most couples our age had teens or older, and we didn’t have as much to talk about. When your kids are in diapers and theirs are driving there just aren’t as many stories to swap. I’d thought Steve & Kim to be good friends, and we’d see them a couple times a week. Their son was bigger, though, and not well disciplined. Steve had been in the same department as me but had gotten a job “upstairs”. He soon started sending an email list under the persona of a perverted, angry, profane clown named Rimme. These were somewhat funny but sarcastic, offensive and generally disgusting. They got longer and angrier; it became clear Rimme the Clown was taking up more than Steve’s break time and he was fired. It became a downward spiral for Steve as he got and lost one crummy job after another. I still considered him a friend and tried to help him out, letting him borrow my car, giving him our extra refrigerator, but as his personality deteriorated we didn’t want his kids hanging out with ours that often and began turning down some of his invitations. We’d see them once a week, but maybe not twice. One day we’d been out of town for the weekend and when we returned there was a long, extremely ugly, absolutely disgusting rant on our answering machine, calling us fat country fucks and a dozen other things. We let Randy, our mutual friend, listen to the tape and told him Steve would never, ever, ever be allowed in our house again. Steve thought it would be no big deal, and Kim called wanting to patch things up, but Perri told her there was no way possible as long as she was married to Steve. They divorced, but she moved to Florida and we lost touch.
We had another friend Steve from work, however. Second Steve encouraged me to play the guitar, and I got to be reasonably good. He joined the Navy after hearing my stories, and afterwards moved to New York City, where first Steve was living. I saw they were facebook friends, but later they weren’t, which was no surprise. I didn’t ask what happened. Didn’t need to.
Edward was a toddler now, getting into things. We had cement steps leading to the back door, with a railing made of 1” galvanized pipe. Edward took to swinging on this pipe, and seeing as how it was cement on one side and a 4’ drop on the other I reluctantly fenced the gap and wrecked one of his favorite swings. He also had a habit of running out the back door to the old shed and climbing a rickety ladder I’d leaned up against it to access a wood rack. I fenced in a good-sized area of the backyard and connected it to my workshop so that he couldn’t get out, and he had a huge playground where we kept a picnic table and enough distractions for him to keep himself occupied while I worked.
I stayed at Adam & Eve until the spring. I’d been promised a transfer at that time, but when it didn’t come through I used up all the flyers I’d laboriously Xeroxed, trashed the special customer lists I’d made, took my stuff and quit. They had to hire 4 people to do my job.
I started with a company 3 miles from home, Always Vinyl, and loved it. I rode around town, made estimates, drew plans for vinyl porches, railings, fences and decks. The pay was almost as good and I was five minutes from home instead of half an hour. If I wanted to come home for lunch, I did. I learned AutoCAD (computer assisted design), construction techniques for vinyl and building to code. It was a small company, there were 3 of us in the office and 3 or 4 more in a warehouse across town. I’d run around with a tape measure, punch the information into the computer and come up with a materials list, a plan and a price. I’d leave at 5:30 and be home by 5:35.
April Fool!
Well, when things change, they change fast. On April Fool’s Day, at 11:28 on a Sunday morning, there was a light fog. I needed to return some movies to the video store. I debated taking Edward, but decided it’d be a hassle strapping him in. Some few dozen yards down the road there was a traffic light, which I stopped for, and when it turned green I headed across, eastbound. BAM!!!
A northbound truckload of inebriated Mexicans found my truck with theirs. They slammed into my right rear so hard it spun the truck completely around, knocking off the wheel and scattering parts all over the road. I came to rest in the left lane on the other side of the intersection, having completed an entire 360º spin. Nobody was seriously hurt in either vehicle, but I was more hurt than any of them. When the truck hit I held onto the steering wheel as I was slammed into the car seat on the passenger side, pulling the muscles in my right shoulder and aggravating an old injury to my neck, then when the truck spun around and abruptly stopped my left shoulder slammed into the cab stanchion, damaging it as well.
The insurance company lost on that one. The driver was picked up for drunk driving and on his release immediately split for Mexico, never to be seen again. He’d been on the road exactly two days. The insurance company wanted to settle with me for $5000, but I contacted a lawyer and got twice that.
For a couple weeks I couldn’t even turn over in bed without severe pain–when both shoulders and your neck are out you’re pretty near helpless–but I did put on a neck brace and go to work, though I was fairly worthless for anything but AutoCAD and typing, but it only lasted a couple more weeks, because the company went under.
I automatically received unemployment, but I couldn’t have worked if I’d wanted to. With my settlement we had enough to live on and buy another car. We looked around and found for sale the prettiest, cleanest car I’d ever seen outside of the showroom floor, parked by the side of the road. It was a 1989 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance. What the French had to do with it I don’t know, because the stickum on the window said it was “Made in Texas by Texans”. It had only 77,000 miles–almost exclusively highway miles. The previous owner, who’d passed away a few months before, had not allowed any smoking, eating or drinking in the car. The mechanic gave it an absolute thumbs-up. We’d had him check out another car, newer and a thousand dollars cheaper, but he said that while the other was a fine car, if we didn’t buy the Cadillac he’d buy it himself. It had a small V8 engine–an Oldsmobile 307–and was slightly underpowered but got about 25 miles per gallon on the highway, with regular gas. I used the absolutely pristine second set of gold-plated keys–issued with the vehicle and never used–to drive it home. Two days later Perri and Edward drove it to Alabama for a visit, and for the next six weeks I had peace and quiet while they visited her parents in their new house.
Genny welcomed a baby as well. Tristan’s one month anniversary was also his cousin’s 17th birthday, and my father’s 76th.
I was on unemployment for 8 months. The settlement for the wreck helped out, and I’d made kaleidoscopes in my workshop, but most of all I was thrilled with the opportunity to hang out in the backyard with my boy, cutting, foiling and burnishing glass pieces, swinging him in his airplane, watching him play in the grass. It was a marvelous time, never to be recovered. He had preferences; like any two-year-old, including me, he had a favorite hat–a yellow hard hat just like his hero Bob the Builder. Of all the cartoons, Bob the Builder was best. It was true that Bob didn’t pay a lot of attention to safety, hanging off the side of cement trucks and such when they drove to the mayor’s house, but he had a wonderful attitude–”Can we do it? Yes, we can!”–in comparison to Dragon Tales, with one dragon always afraid of everything. The message a toddler got wasn’t that there was no reason to be scared, but that even a huge dragon would whine when any stupid thing happened. Teletubbies were simply puerile, and Barney didn’t know the lyrics. It was especially grating to hear Barney-addicted toddlers disputing their parents’ versions of well-known songs, claiming that Barney didn’t sing it that way and implying that their parents didn’t know better. Caillou was a whiny little four-year-old going on two. There were other good cartoons–Oswald the Octopus, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, Franklin the Turtle, but Bob was best, and far and away our favorite. Edward walked around in his hard hat, pockets full of tools, and knew if we asked “Can we fix it?” the answer was “Yes we can”! Perri got a part time job straightening out computer problems for the school while I stayed behind with the boy. It was an idyllic time I’d eagerly anticipated for over 20 years.
I’d been pissed at the smug, self-satisfied statements of parents who had children at a younger age, as though it took wisdom and dedication to make a baby, and highly annoyed at parents who’d say, loudly, that children were a pain in the ass, or they had no intention of having any more, or that I’d hate when they were teenagers, or a dozen other things. I’d spent a very long time matching stories of what someone’s kids did with stories of what someone else’s kids did, feeling empty and alone. Now my boy was walking and breathing and I treasured every second. He didn’t misbehave, much, and I hated to paddle him, only did once or twice and never again, never wanted to, never needed to. I’d tuck him into bed and scare away the monsters with monster spray, which was sold in the grocery aisle as air freshener. There was a crew widening the road in front of our house and we spent many days watching the big yellow machines move dirt. We took photos by the pound and videos by the mile and read books about fairies and princes and went to the zoo and the aquarium and visited with all our relatives and friends and showed everyone what a fine young fellow he was.
That Day.
The summer passed, and I recovered slowly. I mostly puttered in my workshop, cutting glass and trying not to lift anything heavier than Edward. One day after Perri and I had been up late, going over old photos, I went to my workshop and turned on the TV. There was a building on fire, and a few seconds later, an airplane hit the building beside it. Perri was walking out the door, and I called to her as she headed towards the car. Some of the photos we’d been sorting not ten hours before had been of ourselves, posed together on the top of that very building.
I spent the rest of the day in my workshop, Edward playing contentedly on the floor and the TV tuned to PBS. The kiddie shows played all day. I didn’t change the channel. I was exceedingly grateful they didn’t show endless news, remembering when I was young and Kennedy was shot and there was nothing else on for days. Edward was too young to have known the difference but certainly would have known his papa was distracted and anxious. It was worse for my brother. Six months before, he’d left his life in Manhattan, where he’d lived for 20 years, and one of his regular gigs was playing piano in the restaurant at the top of the towers. He had a great many friends who were now dust.
And Life Goes On
I had a large pile of small glass pieces I’d accumulated and decided to use all these scraps in a special edition line-up that year. When the Christmas season came I had 50 exceptionally beautiful scopes that sold like crazy. It was good, because I’d been low on money; unemployment and insurance payouts run slim after eight months. We still had a good Christmas. We didn’t need to hide anything, just turned the pictures on the boxes to the wall. When Edward’s pedal-power excavator and the other presents showed up on Christmas he didn’t notice that the boxes were gone. It was the last Christmas we could get away with that.
After the new year, I got two jobs in two days. Wrangler Jeanswear had shifted its production to Latin America. They laid off 3000 people and hired one–me, because I spoke Spanish. I also got a job two nights a week with Alamance Community College, teaching English to workers who only knew Spanish. I was to begin both jobs the first week of January, but there was a record 3-foot snowfall that weekend so I started with Wrangler the next Monday morning and ACC Tuesday night.
The round robin arrived. Robin was concerned about Lizard People taking over the government, Genny’s son Tristan turned one, Sam got a digital camera and Laura was happy not to have to move again, just yet.
Perri had taken up pottery, a special sort called Maya Ortiz, and was making beautiful pieces. I ran electricity to the bus so she could have her own workshop. But as for me, my truck died, then my dog died.
My truck, a 1972 Ford pickup I’d bought the year before, blew its engine a few miles from home. I bought a 1994 Chevy pickup from Perri’s Maya Ortiz pottery instructor which had originally been sold in Panama and was exempt from emission equipment; a big sticker under the hood said so.
Ringo had been in failing health and died on Easter morning, March 31, 2002. He’d lived 11-1/2 years exactly, as he’d been born on Halloween, 1990. Perri wanted to tell Edward he’d died, but he was such a little guy. I told him the Easter bunny needed a helper, and we decided Ringo could go with him. I didn’t see the point in introducing the little fellow to tragedy before he’d turned three, and I think it was best. There was no bringing back the dog, so he might as well have been helping the Easter bunny. I buried Ringo in the early morning in one of his favorite quilts, in the side yard where we’d buried Daphne in one of her favorite quilts thirteen years before. It was the best end I could give him. He was just a dog, but damn, it hurt.
Anne’s health continued to be a problem. She was on dialysis. Robin had a vending machine business that wasn’t doing so well, largely because Anne couldn’t help, and there was drama in the barber shop. Genny was enjoying her blue-eyed boy and taking classes for a teaching certificate but wondering about her second marriage. Sam loved rural New Jersey. Our parents visited, his high school English teacher in tow, and they’d taken a helicopter ride around Manhattan, which he highly recommended, calling it depressing but exhilarating–depressing to fly by Ground Zero, exhilarating to see all the activity going on at the site. Laura and Tom were settling into the football season in Trion, Georgia and enjoying the enthusiastic following for high-school football there, though annoyed that their house in Cumming hadn’t sold.
Edward was three now, with energy to burn and a three-year-old’s sense of humor. We were proud of his use of meter, rhyme and metaphor when he recited his poem:
Edward’s eyes are brown, Papa’s eyes are blue
Mama’s eyes are brown, Like brown poo-poo.
He had a yellow bouncy ball with a handle and bounced all over the house. Perri had set up “school” for him in the school bus along with her potting supplies. I was still sore on wet, cold days, but there hadn’t been many of them until September, when I pulled out my hoodies. I’d had neck pain since the 70s, but not so much before my April Fool’s Day wreck. Now not only my neck but my shoulders hurt. Left side one day, right another. I’d been in good shape after working the rental yard in West Hollywood, and better shape when I got out of the Navy. For awhile I could hold my breath and do 60 push-ups, perch on my arms and catch my breath, do 60 more, catch my breath and do 60 more, then 60 more, as long as I wanted. I did over a thousand once, just to prove I could.
Now, I couldn’t do half a dozen. My shoulders weren’t up to it. I’d also been sitting at a desk for years, and weighed over 200 pounds. I wanted to be under 200 for New Year’s 2000, and for one brief shining moment I was, weighing in at 198 on the millennium. I did it the next year, and the next, but it was getting tougher.
Robin had checked into a hospital for chest pains, but he was all right. He used a CPAP machine at night, and Anne was still on dialysis. Genny split from her second husband Seth, and she sounded unbalanced. We all planned a show for our parents’ 50th anniversary in October, Sam playing the piano and everyone singing songs from our Hollywood days. Laura had received her teaching certificate from the state of Georgia, after a convoluted now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t bureaucratic snafu.
Perri had a surprise for me in October. Edward had drawn a turtle family for Mama. This turtle is Papa, he said, this one’s Mama, this one is Edward and this one is my baby sister. She asked him and he was quite sure, this was his baby sister. There were glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling in Edward’s room, and three in our bedroom–two large ones for Mama and Papa, and a small one for Edward. I came home one night shortly afterwards and when I hopped into bed there were two small stars on the ceiling! Edward had been right!
Work was going well. I got a $1000 per year raise, but of the four companies I’d represented, one had gone bankrupt and we’d cut loose another, so I was only handling two.
The anniversary weekend was a great success; we rehearsed beforehand and put on a good show. There was a minor dust-up when Fran wanted to bring Sarah along and announced that Sarah would be singing, loudly and off-key, no matter if she were in the program or in the back of the church. Sam and I both responded that there was no point in putting on a show if we knew beforehand it was going to be crap. There was a lot of guilt-tripping thrown around, but Sam and I said absolutely not. Sarah played in another room while the program went on and was content. It was the first time all six of us had sung together in thirty years. A couple of times there’d been five of us, but not six. Edward was on stage with us, and loved it.
There was only one person missing, Ned’s sister Daisy. Her husband Alf, the uncle who drove us in antique cars when we were kids, had passed away that morning. Nobody at the celebration was told until it was over. Sam had come from New Jersey for the event, but his partner Barry stayed behind, and Barry’s father died the next morning.
The show was wonderful, though.
Edward was big enough to trick-or-treat. Perri’d joined a group of mothers with toddlers called Time Out Playgroup and they had embroidered T-shirts. All the kids went trick-or-treat together; Edward liked dressing up in costume and going out with his little friends, but when it was time to go to a stranger’s door we practically had to push him. Once the candy dropped into his plastic pumpkin, though, he was transformed. He was on a mission. He ran to the other houses! We had to wait for the other kids!
My Sister’s Ride, Again
The robin for the rest of that year was taken up with a discussion of sister Laura’s ride of nearly forty years before–the physics involved, the plan, even which sister was involved. Rob had remembered it as Genny’s ride, but Laura confirmed it was indeed her who flew through the air and landed in the bunny poo. Sam didn’t remember boosting anyone onto the rope from the stairway, and Genny accused Rob and I of deliberately trying to harm our little sisters.
It was a baseless accusation, and we were quite hurt. My sister had turned an exuberant childhood experiment into a burning, blinding example of brotherly betrayal. We’d told our little sister to hang on, as she’d done hundreds of times before, and it seemed that a younger sister who’d shown no predilection to let go of a rope she’d been told not to let go of, wouldn’t, and would return safe and sound to the arms of her brothers after a thrilling and memorable ride. It had a scientific value too–we’d be able to see if it was possible to ride the rope to the garage roof. That our plan on second thought may have been more dangerous than it was on first thought was not surprising, as all of us were kids. The discussion continued for months, with several of us sending pictures and diagrams and models and analyzing distances and the heights of the tree, picnic table and garage roof. Genny continued spewing vitriol, telling of plans she had for a “Penis Park” where people could stroll and see all the hateful and horrible things MEN were responsible for throughout history, and arrogantly accusing Robin and I of deliberately attempting to kill our little sisters. Shame on you, I told her. We had the judgment of children, because we were, and children don’t have good judgment. If she didn’t trust her adult brothers, that was her problem, and I thought her “therapist”–whom I was certain had pumped her full of this crap–should be imprisoned for malpractice. I asked her what “hidden agenda” the “therapist” had, reminding her that if her problems went away the “therapist” would lose money while Genny drove away her family, spouse, everyone who loved her, and became a fearful, whimpering, poverty-stricken Dobby the elf-slave.
We were comfortable that winter. There’d been an ice storm in December which knocked out the power for a few days, though with a woodstove for heat, cooking, hot water and a couple lanterns to read by we were well set. There was plenty of firewood around the county too, free for the taking. Santa brought Edward a big wooden train table, which he loved. We quickly learned the best policy was to hot-glue the track to the table. Perri got materials to make scrapbooks from one of the mothers in the playgroup, and I got a scanner for photos, several books and a full set of twelve harmonicas from Sam, one for every key.
2003 started, remarkably enough, on January 1st. At Greenwich midnight, 7pm local time, we shot off the illegal fireworks I’d brought back from Tennessee, shouted “Happy New Year” and Edward went to bed. We stayed up ‘til midnight and had a glass of champagne. We knew by now that we’d have a baby girl in May or June, and had settled on the name Clara.
At work I’d won hockey tickets to the Carolina Hurricanes. Edward had a blast, and brought home a souvenir hockey stick. One gal won tickets to the rodeo, though she had no interest in seeing it. She was told they were given randomly, like a drug test, and asked if she could take a drug test instead!
We walled off the breakfast bar and added shelves and a pantry to the kitchen, then added a lovely folding glass door. When starting work we found under the 1970s paneling and 1940s wallpaper the same lovely heart pine that was in the bathroom, which we then sanded and varnished. Perri painted a “rug” on the floor with flowers, vines and a checkerboard pattern. We walled off half the back porch to enlarge the den and put a doorway through, added a window and painted it in colors Edward chose–red, orange and yellow. We added a “padded cell” playroom closet with rugs on the wall, then went to the nursery and painted  birds and bugs and flowers on its walls. It was getting expensive. I told Perri we weren’t going to put in one more dime, and finished it by using all the scraps. The last day, while we were talking on the phone to Cindy, the space shuttle Challenger broke up.
Perri’s mother came to visit in May. Clara Kate (Clara Kallista) was expected on May 24th but actually arrived at 2:36 am on June 11th, 2003. She was born in our nursery, in a pool of warm water, attended by a midwife and her assistant. We went to bed, Clara Kate in her cradle, Perri’s mother on the futon in the living room. About 6 am, Edward ran into our room and excitedly announced to us that he had a baby sister! Perri’s mother left a couple days later, my mother came that weekend and we had 40 or 50 other visitors.
I took a couple weeks off from Wrangler to enjoy my baby girl, making kaleidoscopes to supply a couple galleries I’d been neglecting since I’d taken on two jobs. Clara Kallista (Kallista is Greek for “most beautiful”, and we also call our scopes Kallistoscopes), or Clara Kate, was a happy and exuberant baby. Her brother, now 4, was thrilled pushing her stroller and stayed nearby most of the day. The play group had a wide range of activities, and the kids visited farms, went swimming, rode the carousel, visited the zoo. A wonderful summer.
The stand for Edward’s cradle was rickety and broken, so we suspended it instead by chains from the ceiling next to Mama’s side of the bed, which worked better anyway. A little push would gently rock the cradle, for a much longer time. We took walks to the corner store a mile away, Clara Kate in the stroller and Edward walking, riding, holding his sister. We’d identify the trees on one side of the street going there and on the other side coming back. There’d been a general store halfway to the corner, but it’d been taken over by a fellow named Ron who worked on TVs. Perri and I had bought TVs from him and had him work on a couple, one a 1952 model. He puttered around and replaced a few parts but never got it working and I took it back 2 years later. A few weeks afterward I drove by and the whole place was gone. The building didn’t exist, nor any of the hundreds of TVs in it. I didn’t know he’d died. I knew vaguely that he’d had health problems but he was only 60. His wife had asked TV places in the area but none wanted the stock, and she didn’t think to simply put a sign out front. I’d at least have taken out the tubes; perhaps I’d have taken over the shop and sold antiques and crafts–but in the blink of an eye it disappeared. They bulldozed it, had a bonfire. A hundred years of history, gone.
There’s a piece of Swepsonville history in our backyard. According to an old fellow there was a ball field there. There certainly used to be something, because there’s a long line of bricks just under the dirt on a ridge which angles across the back field, cutting back at a right angle, terminating in a hump which was particularly hard to mow until I dug up a brick corner post which had been grown over. The rickety shed in the back also had an unusual design, 8’x16’ with a door, open window and a roof with an eight foot overhang. There was a long water pipe going to it. A concession stand? At least one major league ballplayer came from Swepsonville–Dusty Cooke, born in 1907, who played for three major league teams between 1930 and 1938–the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Reds, and then managed the Phillies in 1948. Did he play in my back yard? Probably.
Swepsonville was a mill town. The mill burned down in the 1880s and again in the 1890s, but was rebuilt both times. In 1989, the abandoned mill burned again. Fire trucks from all the surrounding counties came, the twelve-alarm fire was seen from the freeway three miles away and made the national news.
The round robin next arrived with news  that Anne’s grandfather had passed away. Her father had died in a car wreck when she was a toddler and she’d been raised by her grandparents. It was the start of a long string for Robin’s family. Her mother, who’d outlived her stepfather as well, passed away that summer, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
Sam was doing well in New Jersey, working for a health foods distributor and playing piano gigs. Genny had separated from her second husband and had her hands full with her toddler. Laura and Tom’s high-school band had come dragging in after half-time at a game and Laura related why. One of the kids in the minibus had farted, and the smell was so horrible that another kid threw up. The smell caused two more kids to throw up, and one of them was a girl with a medical problem which made it impossible to stop throwing up without special medication. The bus pulled off the road and four more kids got sick. Three police cars, two fire trucks and an ambulance arrived. The girl with the medical problem was taken to the hospital. The chaperones weren’t happy to be stuck cleaning up so much puke, but got really angry later when they learned the police, who were trying hard not to laugh, had put a copy of the report in a special scrapbook of “funniest police reports”. The kid who’d farted was claiming it until the police arrived, then he denied it. He became a minor celebrity in school, and though the local papers didn’t run the story, the papers in the rest of the state did.
Edward was in biddy league soccer that year, which was a hoot. The four-year-olds would chase and kick the ball with only a vague notion of what to do with it. The coaches finished every play with a pep talk ending “WHERE’S THE GOAL?”, and they’d shout and point “THAT WAY!”.
We went to Alabama for Thanksgiving. Since her parents had moved there, where her father had grown up, Thanksgiving had become very big indeed. Edward’s cousin Luke had been born with blue eyes–the first of the Calvin grandchildren with blue eyes, and the first born after the millennium. This now meant that of the seventeen grandchildren born to Perri’s parents or mine before the millennium, all were brown-eyed. All the rest, born afterwards, had blue or hazel eyes. There’s another coincidence. Among our kids and all their cousins there’s never been a boy-girl-boy or girl-boy-girl. If the sex of the children changed it stayed that way. On my side it’s more pronounced; I’m the oldest of three brothers, followed by three sisters. Among the children of the six of us, there are no boys with an older sister and no girls with a younger brother. My cousins on my mother’s side follow the same pattern; my uncle’s daughters both had two boys and my aunt’s daughter one girl.
So we went to Alabama for Thanksgiving, and Edward surprised everyone. When there were 30 or 40 of us gathered in a circle, someone asked who wanted to give the blessing, and Edward, 4 years old, announced, “I can do that!” He proceeded to take charge, telling everyone to bow their heads and say “Amen” when he was finished–and then said, “God is great, god is good, and we thank him for our food. By his hands we all are fed, thank him for our daily bread”. It was exceptionally well done, amazed everyone and was short. There was nothing to be said after that but “Amen”, and everyone filled their plates. Perri and I were left stunned and immensely proud.
Santa, 2003
Mams and Daddio came for Clara’s first Christmas. It was her turn to play with the bows and simple toys while her brother got a telescope, a science kit and Legos. Clara and Edward posed for a lovely Christmas session at the store and later with Santa and Mrs. Claus. It was a cold, snowy Christmas but everyone was safe and warm.
We’d bought a time-share the previous summer and now owned the last week of April at Massanutten Mountain in Virginia. When we went to visit our daughter was not quite one. It was the week before “prime time”, less crowded and more fun. We were offered a discount card on activities if we listened to a sales pitch, and while the salesman was explaining the wonderful new features, Clara Kate took her first steps! She strolled the 3 or 4 steps from Mama’s chair to Papa’s, and from there the sales pitch fell on deaf ears; we couldn’t have cared less, and he blew it by not making a big deal–”Oh, how sweet! Now let me show you…”. We spent a lovely week in the water  park, swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, jacuzzi, steam room. We took classes in glass etching, tie-dying T shirts, we played mini golf, ping pong, we walked the nature trails, rode the ski lift and simply watched cable TV. I brought my banjo and a clarinet I’d picked up for a dollar at the school sale and serenaded the geese and ducks from the balcony.
When Clara Kate arrived we’d decided it’d be nice to have a deck. We went to the lumberyard, chose a plan and built it with far sturdier materials and extra supports. We added a gate, so the little ones could play without wandering, and a 75’ clothesline. I had jury duty when we were finishing up. We put a guy away for 20 years, for pedophilia. I came back after my long weekend and put a second coat of stain on the deck. It’s surprising how often one will take part in a life-changing event, then do mundane, ordinary things.

Mams and Daddio came for Edward’s fifth birthday and stayed the week. We bought a Jump-o-line blow-up trampoline, and all the mothers from playgroup came together at the park down the road. The kids had a wonderful time. I bounced a bit with Clara, but her main activity was walking, between Mama, Papa, Edward, and slamming full-tilt into the side of the Jump-o-line. Later that week we had a picnic at Mackintosh Lake, where everyone rode paddle boats. One of the mothers, a gal from Switzerland, brought along a unicycle and several juggling items. I’d had unicycles in California, but through the years they’d been given away or sold, so it had been 20 years since I’d ridden one. I did all right, and juggled reasonably well, but not both together. She and her husband eventually joined the Cirque de Soleil, and I resolved to get another unicycle.
Edward’s friend Reade had a birthday that August, and we went to the Burlington Indians baseball game. Edward had been to a Greensboro Bats game and Carolina Hurricanes hockey, but this was a first for Clara. The kids ran on the field and met the mascots, and Edward was thrilled to win five “Billy Bucks” in a contest.
Later that summer we went camping with another playgroup family and took a hike on Hanging Rock. Edward walked the whole way, and found a red lizard; Clara Kate rode in a backpack and was tuckered out before we made the top. There were shallow caves to explore and trees to climb, and at the summit Clara Kate was wide awake again to view over 100 miles of mountains. Playgroup also visited the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, which had drums to bang on, xylophones, elaborate mechanical toys, gardens, animals, bug and science exhibits. Two weeks later it was the Burlington city park, where they rode trains, cars, the carousel and played on the playground while the adults made lunch in the gazebo.
After summer it was time for soccer league again, and Edward as before was #4. Clara came to watch her brother and explore the surroundings with Kelly Ann and Rebekah, the younger sisters to Edward’s friend Reade. In October everyone went to the Lazy 5 Ranch in Mooresville, an exotic animal park with over 750 animals from six continents, and everyone took a horse cart and fed the animals over the side.
I lost my job at Wrangler that September. I’d been managing fewer contractors as the work migrated from Latin America to China, and since I didn’t speak Chinese, that was that. I left with a pretty good severance package plus unemployment, and medical & dental for the rest of the year. I was happy with Wrangler even though I’d been let go. Many companies try to make it difficult on employees, hoping they’ll quit, saving a few bucks but building animosity. This is a mistake. I still like Wrangler and buy their products, because they treated me fairly, but I was once again out of a job while my child was a toddler. It’s a wonderful thing to spend time with your little one, but it’s nicer to have money than not. Once more I made up large numbers of kaleidoscopes and flutes in the workshop while my son and daughter played in the fenced-in yard or on our new deck. On rainy days I’d cut and foil glass with PBS on the TV or tapes of Bob the Builder or Veggie Tales. I like Veggie Tales, though sometimes the Christian message is heavy-handed and the story lines strained. Banishment to the Isle of Perpetual Tickling isn’t execution.
We went to Alabama for Thanksgiving again. I faxed in my unemployment papers for 2 weeks and half thought about moving, as the terrain is more mountainous in the area, but the local job market wasn’t very robust. Daddio was hard of hearing and some thought he was losing his sharpness, but I thought he was mellowing and thinking for himself. He was voting for Kerry instead of Bush, though most of his relatives were old-line Alabama conservative. One of my brothers-in-law brought up the election and all I said was that Bush deserted his post in time of war but Kerry didn’t. Daddio agreed.
We’d been down there just a few days and got a phone call. Robin’s wife Anne was getting a kidney transplant. They’d been talking about it for some years and some in the family wanted her son Grant to donate a kidney. I told him not to. It would be a great physical limitation on him for the rest of his life, and I knew she hadn’t been taking care of herself. She’d never stopped drinking caffeinated soda pop, she’d merely changed the brand. Robin had once been drinking a glass of water, Anne took a sip and asked him what it was. She didn’t recognize the taste of water! She got very little exercise, and I knew she wouldn’t last without some changes, even with a new kidney. The question became moot, however, when they found a donor kidney.
She didn’t make it. She died in the hospital, the day before Thanksgiving. We were in Alabama and couldn’t make the funeral, but went to a memorial on her 48th birthday a couple weeks later. An old-timey mountain music band played and a good time was had by all, considering the circumstances.
Christmas was a bit slim but the kids were little, and thrilled with what they got. Edward was too perceptive for us to leave boxes in plain sight so the gifts stayed stashed until they went under the tree. I’d sold at least a few Christmas trees every year for twenty-five years, but this year hung it up.
It was a fun New Year’s; again at Greenwich midnight we shot off fireworks and yelled “Happy New Year!” and got them in bed at 7 pm. The next morning I was building a fire and got a call–Robin’s younger son Jordan was dead.
Well, I dropped everything and went to the mountains to be with my brother. He’d now lost his wife’s grandfather, her mother, his wife and his son in the space of just over a year. He was distraught, of course, but handled it well.
Jordan was 20. At a college New Year’s party, he had too much fun, fell to sleep on the porch and froze to death. He was the latest in what had been a rough run for the Watauga High class of 2000. He had lost ten friends, one also named Jordan. When I was driving up the mountain I saw a spot where several memorials had been set up for Jordan. The other Jordan.
I stayed with my brother four days, and finished off the bottle of Lagavulin, my favorite 16-year-old single malt Islay Scotch whisky, of which I drink perhaps a bottle in two or three years. We also shared a bottle of rum and some beers with his friends and a long string of young women who came to the door crying. When I was sure he was in good hands I went back to my own wife and family, still out of work but in a happier household.

Creepy Jack
I continued to sell kaleidoscopes, and in March found a customer service job for AT&T cell phones. It was a long drive but I enjoyed the work–at first. AT&T was a great company, and had I been hired a month earlier I’d have been direct hire, but procedures had changed and for 90 days I was a temp.
Towards the end of the 90 days, AT&T cellular was bought by Cingular, and they hired me on temp for another 90 days, even as others were hired direct. The job quickly went from one I enjoyed to one I hated with a passion. AT&T had perks and benefits and a number of policies which made it easy to satisfy the customers. They had a lot of business customers, and tried to keep them happy. With AT&T, we came to work in blue jeans and everyone got a free phone at the end of training, with a free limited plan, which we could expand any way we wanted at discounted rates. We had access to every cell phone website in the world and were encouraged to learn about all the companies, their technologies, band widths, service plans etc. and find out how they differed from AT&T domestically and internationally. When a customer had a problem we could wipe out $500 on our own authority. If they had a plan they liked they could keep it, whether it was currently offered or hadn’t been for years. If anyone wanted to quit the company, we made it as easy as we could and told them to come back when they got tired of the other guys. Many did.
With Cingular’s orange creep “Jack” logo on the wall, our blue jeans were out, though the customers wouldn’t have known if we’d been our underwear. Jeans were made a special treat, Fridays only, to associates who had the best numbers on a long list of “goals”, which kept going up. Cingular’s tag line was “raising the bar”, and everyone had to be “better”, every week. There were daily emails with daily changes. Someone was clearly obsessed with wardrobes; several times a week there were updates on which sandals, shirts, pants, skirts, jewelry, hairstyles, etc. were “appropriate” I had to buy several pairs of pants for this creepy job when I had dozens of perfectly good jeans from my days at Wrangler, in a rainbow of colors, tucked away unused. There were no rewards for meeting the numbers, you just got to keep your job another week, and as I was on my second 90 days as a temp while everyone else around me was a direct hire, my restrictions were particularly onerous. I couldn’t request a day off. If I were more than 15 minutes late I’d be fired. I couldn’t buy a phone for 6 months, since I’d been 3 months a temp for AT&T and 3 more for Cingular, though everyone else already had one. The employee plan for Cingular phones was worthless anyway. Employees BOUGHT the cheapest model USED phone and got a local plan, with twenty minutes a month. There were no upgrades, either to the phone or the plan. Since local calls didn’t include my home a few miles away, I made long-distance calls home from the pay phone in the break room at exorbitant rates.
Customers were treated the same. A Cingular customer had “roll-over” minutes, but after a couple months they’d disappear. If you decided to change your plan in any way whatsoever, that initiated a new two-year contract, and if you cancelled before the end it was an additional $175 per phone. We had a lot of customers who’d had two Cingular phones for two years and decided to move on, then found that since they’d added time or took off texting a week after sign up, they’d only fulfilled a year and 51 weeks of their “new contract”, and now owed $350 for disconnect–something I couldn’t change, as we could only wipe out $250, even if it was only a day early. This led to a lot of demands to speak to supervisors, who would tell us to “take charge of the call” and send us back to the upset customer, who would then be stratospherically pissed. We’d argue for another ten minutes, then try to get a different supervisor on the line, again.
Tech was handled the same way. AT&T had staff members in the building who could handle almost any problem, but Cingular had a call center in Washington State where the tech people came on line ten minutes later, told us to tell the customers to do the same five things we’d already told them to do and hang up. We’d call tech support again, wait again, plead with them again to please take care of this customer’s problem, again, which occasionally they’d do. We had no access to the internet, either, except the same Cingular site available to customers. When Katrina hit I talked with reps from other cell companies, and they were obviously more relaxed and had far more information available than we did. I resolved to find a job, any job, with one of them. Or anyone else.
I was nearing the end of my 6 months as a temp–by which time I was one of 2 from a class of 60–and nobody could call me at all, for any reason. My wife wanted to tell me my father was in the hospital, called Cingular in Greensboro but got Washington State, who absolutely would not transfer the call at all. My father got heart surgery. I asked for half the next Friday off to see him before visiting hours were over and was denied in a particularly nasty way, which meant that instead of driving an extra 20 miles after work I had to drive 60 miles on Saturday. I was certain I was going to quit, but the absolute final straw came when we were again refinancing the house and I needed verification of employment. Nobody gave me a number to call, for three days. I continued asking, and the supervisor, full of attitude, finally gave me a website address where I was to go and pay $12. They’d tell the bank I worked there–a week later.
I then received a call, from the clear blue sky, from Rent-A-Center, where I’d completely forgotten that I’d applied several months before–and got a job, starting the next Monday. I told Cingular nothing. I didn’t show up on Monday, called an hour late and said I wouldn’t be coming in, ever!
Rent-A-Center wasn’t a great job, but compared to Cingular it was heaven. I worked over 50 hours a week and only had one day off at a time. We worked late Saturday, took Sunday off and came in early on Monday. My other day off was supposed to be Tuesday, but they had all kinds of excuses why I was “supposed” to work that day as well. Fortunately I’d told them before I started that my wife worked that day and we didn’t allow babysitters. It didn’t stop them from telling me I needed to come in, but I never did.
There were three stores in the area, the first managed by a fellow who didn’t care about the ten rules posted on the wall. I realized one day he’d made me break all ten of them on the same day, and the next time I was out of town I called the district manager, who transferred me that afternoon. I worked at a second store for the rest of the week, then at the store I’d preferred anyway. It was run by a young guy, and despite the long hours was a fun place. It wasn’t boring–we’d drive trucks all over and pick up items from out of town, sometimes 100 miles away. We’d pick up and deliver living room sets, bedroom sets, refrigerators, washers, dryers, stereos, computers and most of all the gigantic, immensely heavy television sets which everyone wanted before the hang-on-the-wall type was invented, and nobody wanted afterwards. We’d haul these boulders up and down several flights of steps or into trailers where we had to remove the doors and people would pay more each week to watch the big TV in the den than they did on food. Theoretically the TV would be paid off after a certain amount of time, but this often stretched out for additional months or even years and in the end cost 2 or 3 times what they’d have paid in a store. This was a different class of people, with their own way of thinking. I could understand renting a refrigerator or washing machine; these appliances weren’t just conveniences. It was also understandable when folks would only be in town for a few months, had friends visiting or a business need. What wasn’t sensible were the large numbers of people who made very little but spent half their paycheck at Rent-A-Center, when they could have bought everything outright from Goodwill. The huge TVs weren’t available, but even a fairly large TV at Goodwill would have been $35 or so and saved them literally thousands of dollars. It’d also save aggravation, because when they missed a payment we’d pick everything up again until they made back payments and late fees. One fellow with a club close by decided to pay daily, rather than by the week or month, and every time he missed a day it’d be another $10 late fee. After a year or so he decided to trade his TV in, and by the time he owned the obsolete behemoth he’d paid over $12,000 for something that by then sold for $200.
The saddest part of the job was seeing how these people, who had little, spent the rest of their money. Everyone put cigarettes and beer on top of their list, followed by fast food. Most of their trailers and apartments were crammed with KFC buckets, pizza boxes and cockroaches. One customer’s walls were covered with congregations of cockroaches a foot square, in the middle of the day. It stunk so bad that if I’d gone in I’d have puked. My co-worker and I had to remove the trailer door to get the refrigerator in, then he had to install it while I waited outside. I saw the manager of this store a few years later, and he said it’d been like working for Satan. I had to agree. I left after two years, but occasionally I’d drop by to see how things were going. I’d still recognize the customers, but none of the staff.
Robin was having a tough time getting over the loss of his wife and son, but in July I called back to talk with the family of my old friend Monk’s sisters, as I did from time to time. They told me that their sister Luanne had also lost her husband, in April. I told Luanne to call Robin, and they talked for hours. They’d been sweethearts in the second grade, but had been out of touch for 30 years. Luanne had been married for 28 of those years, Robin for 25. I’d known Luanne’s husband rather well, but Robin had never met him, nor her his wife Anne. Luanne soon came to North Carolina. They stayed together, answered sympathy cards, settled estates, fixed up houses and got everything going smoothly.
Genny increasingly seemed mentally ill. She saw stalkers everywhere. She’d been living in a trailer up the road and talked about people walking across the roof. She flipped out when neighbors recognized her. She moved into the upper floor of our parents’ house, then repeatedly insisted that one night someone had come into the house, hung around in the front hallway for forty-five minutes and left. When I analyzed the story, her only evidence was that her dog, dreaming, had made a “wff” sound a few times outside the door she was cowering behind. She insisted  Tristan had mental illness, allergies, on and on. He was running wild, not eating well at all, and my feeling was that Genny caused most of his problems through her timidity, fear, and violently hateful attitudes towards men.
Sam moved to Roanoke that summer. He and Barry had taken a trip through Virginia while visiting Asheville, and had decided to take a side visit to Harrisonburg, where Rob and Sam had visited some years before but Rob had spent the whole time grumbling. He and Barry loved the area and found a house near downtown, built in 1915 and recently renovated.
Tom had taken a coaching job with a high school in Kentucky, but Laura didn’t like it and yearned to return to Georgia. I didn’t go with Perri and the kids to Alabama for Thanksgiving that year, since I’d just taken the Rent-A-Center job, but they had a great time and were home for Christmas.
Robin got a job teaching skiing at a local resort, which was interesting because he hadn’t known how to ski, but he stayed one lesson ahead of the class and everything worked out. Sam and Genny both had problems at work in the first half of 2006. Sam and Barry were both eventually hired at Verizon in Roanoke, and Genny was on unemployment. She was fighting her ex-husband for custody of her son, who was still screaming, breaking things, violent, disrespectful. wild.
That spring I bought a Geo Metro from a fellow at work. I gave him $100,  put about $300 more into it, and got 40 miles a gallon. My 1972 Ford truck still sat in the side yard.
We went camping with a family from playgroup who’d by now become good friends, Keith, Tami, and their kids Jacob and Andrew. While we were cutting watermelon, Edward stated that he was six, wasn’t a baby anymore and should learn how to use a knife. It was true. I showed him how.
Professional Astrologer
I gave an astrology talk that summer at a local bookstore. There’d been an astrology class offered through Appalachian in 1974, but ten people had to sign up and only six showed. We had a long discussion, however, and I talked for a long time afterwards with a pretty gal named Sally. She and I occasionally telephoned each other, but I hadn’t heard from her for several years when she found the number to my parents’ house, they gave her mine, and we started visiting again. Her sister Nancy now lived close by and was involved in a group which met once a month at a bookstore. She invited me to speak and I prepared a talk called “Patterns of Compatibility”, which dealt with the geometrical relationships between astrology, architecture and such things as how honeybees build their hives and why the bubbles in a glass of beer form into triangles and hexagons. The talk was a huge hit, and I stayed at Nancy’s house while we talked way into the night. I called in sick at work–which was the only way to get any time off at Rent-A-Center, except to call in dead–and one of the things I mentioned to Nancy was that I was supposed to pay for a mattress we’d picked up from a woman’s house. The woman had rented a mattress, we went to get it and her mother told us which one. She was wrong. It was a muddy night, and we’d gotten a couple droplets of mud on it. The woman wanted a new mattress.
Nancy had been a corporate lawyer for Philip Morris, and helped me write a letter explaining that I’d been informed by a responsible adult on the premises which mattress to pick up, that we’d attempted to call the shop but they hadn’t answered the phone and since the woman’s mother was acting as proxy and we acted in good faith, were not responsible for her error and weren’t obliged to pay. I became a hero at work and the district manager, a big guy who liked to bully people, was demoted and transferred to a much smaller market many states removed.
In the summer I got another call from someone I hadn’t talked to in may years. Tom had kept in touch with Jake and Jody, but had pretty much disappeared from our lives when we left Snag End. One day Tom got in touch through email and Facebook. Tom told me Jake had committed suicide some years before, but had no details. Fran also lost a family member. Sarah, the twin who had been born brain damaged, had finally been put into a home. She’d been left briefly while the tub was filling and had turned off the cold. The hot water was of sterilizing temperature, she was badly scalded, went to the hospital for a month and on August first, died. She was eighteen. Another memorial, five in three years. It wasn’t the last.
There’d always been a quickie market on the corner a mile away, but this summer a Dollar General went in across the back field. At first Perri and I wondered if we should move, seeing commercialization coming so close, but it proved a wonderful convenience as we could walk to pick up groceries and sundry items several times a week.
Sundry is an interesting word. It’s not often spoken, but used to be painted on signs everywhere, usually in the plural. When I was a kid I thought that sundries were various fruits which had been dried in the sun–raisins, prunes, apricots and such. My mother as a teenager had seen “sundries” advertised but never knew what they were. She and her brother went into a store and asked to buy some sundries. They found out.
I’d heard a story from the fellow who sold me my Model A truck, in California. He said it was one of three on the West Coast, and that one more had been destroyed in a flood. It had an extended chassis and had been one of four custom-built in 1931 for the Helms Bakery in Long Beach. It had the same wheelbase as a Double-A truck but was not a Double-A. Many years later a friend at work told me he’d seen a story on cable TV about a fellow in Germany who owned a similar truck, which he’d purchased in California. The German said there’d been only four in the world, and that one had been destroyed in a hurricane, one had gone to Canada and disappeared and one had gone to North Carolina and disappeared. I tried to find the show he’d seen, but had no luck.
I told this story to a co-worker at my new job, he researched it on the internet and told me almost the same thing–that there’d been four trucks, one had been wrecked, one went to Canada and disappeared, one went to North Carolina and disappeared, and one went to Germany. I tried to find this information myself, but wasn’t an internet geek. There the story remains.
My father was fading fast that winter. He was on oxygen and acting bizarrely from time to time, though usually coherent and in good spirits. He was receiving hospice care, and I’d hung a TV from the ceiling above his bed where he’d watch all day with the volume turned up. The greenhouse I’d worked so long and hard on, which he’d never allowed me to properly finish, had rotted under soggy sheets of plastic and had been torn down, but a contractor had built a small one right outside his window. He only puttered around in it a few times, as it was a major effort, but Robin planted a bunch of vegetables in the dead of winter. Hardly any of them would make it to spring but it cheered my father to know something was growing.
Sam and Barry were settled into their new house and new jobs, but Laura and Tom were in their third house in under a year. They were back in Georgia, and had a large backyard which faded into the woods. They saw turkeys and deer and a feral cat which begged at the door but never came in. Tom had been selected as coach at the Georgia All-Star football game, a great honor, even though his team that year had a less than stellar record of 4 wins and 7 losses.
I’d traded the old banjo that Sam had used in the movie “Mountain Born” to Robin that Christmas for a kid-size violin. The bow was worn out, but we purchased a kit and re-strung it. It turned out well, and we gave it to Edward. Perri had also given me a tiny violin ornament to hang on the tree. Edward had a magic set from Santa, and that afternoon took the ornament and said, “Hey, Papa! Watch this!”. He put it in a box, covered it, waved his wand and pulled out a full-size violin!
We had other projects. We took apart an old wheelbarrow and saved the tub to build a flying machine. It’s not finished yet.
Clara Kate was proving a chatterbox, sociable and thoughtful even at 3. She got down my mug one morning, filled it with water and brought it to me, not because I’d asked but because she thought I’d looked thirsty.
I was still working at Rent-A-Center, but getting tired of it. I’d broken a bone three times–a toe in 2005 when a washer fell on it, a thumb in 2006 when a heavy shelf fell and in 2007 a pin which I’d been complaining about for months popped out as I was climbing on the lift gate of a truck, causing me to fall and crack an elbow and rib. I was on light duty the next week when a phone call came and my wife told me to come home right now, but wouldn’t say why. My father had passed away. It was February 10th, 2007.
We went to Boone the next day and spent a week. We finished the bottle of Lagavulin I’d bought 2 years earlier after the death of my nephew. Rob and Luanne took care of many details. Luanne’s father had passed away the previous Thanksgiving and between them they’d dealt with nine recent deaths. They organized the sympathy cards and made sure everyone in the family had a chance to read them.
We learned details about our father’s life and times we hadn’t known before. A cousin mentioned that when my father had been reported missing in action in Germany he visited my grandfather, then in his 70s. She was shocked at how feeble and old he seemed. He was getting around with a cane, his voice was quavery and he seemed at death’s door. A month later news came that Ned had been liberated, the cane disappeared, he had a spring in his step and all was right with the world!
It was difficult for me to sort out my emotions. I could charitably say that my father had been a mixed bag, but the truth was I’d been furious at him far, far more often than I’d ever had thoughts of love. I’d try to think nice things but there wasn’t a lot there.
I thought of the funny things. When we’d gone to Texas he went to the radio station and made commercials about Booger the dog–half Great Dane and half wolf or something, he said–who was always out for a walk when anyone asked to see him. He said that we were small tree farmers–four feet tall with boots on. We sold those trees like wildfire. I remembered that we’d gone so many places and done so many things–we’d played in a band in Hollywood, ran a rental equipment business where I learned to use, repair, maintain every tool and machine imaginable, plus gained the confidence that whatever the job I could handle it, whether sanding a floor, pouring cement, maintaining a jack hammer, sharpening a chain saw. We’d learned how to trim trees, grow a garden, buy and sell in the stock market, install a toilet, patch a roof.
Still, the overwhelming feeling when I’d try to think these good thoughts was the torpedo to the gut just when I thought things were going well. I knew that no matter what, I wouldn’t be able to relax and enjoy my accomplishments or the fruits of my labor. I’d gotten along with him in the last twenty years better than I had before, but only because I’d utterly stopped believing in him and didn’t get involved when he’d try to lasso me into another project. He’d recently wanted to graft and grow Japanese maples; I watched how he did it but never intended to get into the business. I couldn’t trust him. I knew that, somehow, he’d wreck it. He’d disrupt my plan, tear something down, steal it, block it, neglect it, leave it in the rain, let it break, give it away–and I wouldn’t get credit. He’d corral me into a project, get me started, then when I’d feel like I was accomplishing something he’d find a way to make it come to nothing. I’d be left with ashes in my mouth. When I painted the roof, he never bought the last gallon–something I knew better than to do myself–and made a joke of “the ‘T’ house of the August moon”. When I put in a nice reflecting pond under the willow tree with a couple lawn chairs and a table, a pleasant spot to relax and have tea, he tore it down and threw together a cement-block-and-plastic monstrosity the very next day, claiming that the water flow to the half-acre pond in the meadow would be obstructed, though my kiddie-pool-sized pond obstructed nothing. He destroyed it because it was something I’d made which was beautiful. That was the end of it. I tried to say I loved him and missed him, but it left me with a sick feeling in my belly. It wasn’t true. What I felt, truly felt, was relief. I was happy he was gone.
At the end of 2006 Monk and Luanne’s father Edwin died, and at the beginning of 2007 my father died. My family wasn’t greatly disrupted because my father left everything to my mother, and though our middle sister raised a stink it was for now resolved without a war. It was different with Monk’s family, and my brother was involved because he was living with Luanne. There was a trust set up to administer much of the property when her father Ed died, but there were many complications, not the least because their mother had dementia. The family split into factions. Monk had died eight years before, but much of his estate had not been resolved, as it was largely tied up in used cars of uncertain title which had been acquired years before at police auctions. Some of the titles had been cleared, some hadn’t, and many ended up in the hands of his father when Monk repeatedly went to the nuthouse or into the Krishnas. These in turn had been “sold” to one of the sisters when their father was applying for food stamps and couldn’t keep them as his property. A further trust had been challenged by the eldest surviving son, who’d been married three or four times and whose mother Marion lived with him. I tried as best I could to stay neutral, which was a lost cause. I was a bit more sympathetic to the eldest surviving son than Luanne. He’d worked with his father on several ventures and had little to show for it, though how much was attributable to his father and how much to his own spending habits was debatable. The youngest son, who’d also been in the nuthouse a few times, made a few dollars by selling parts from the 200 or 300 cars, which weren’t his, but neither was it clear for a time whose they were, though two were technically mine. The court awarded all the cars to the third sister, and she sold them all. The resulting fight inclined her for a time to the eldest brother’s point of view, and the eldest sister was also on his side for awhile. Luanne and Rob cleaned out the house their father had lived in and found junk packed to the ceiling in every room. I’d been in there many years before, the only guy from outside of family he’d ever let into the house. In cleaning it they discovered many of their things hidden away. Silverware of theirs, still packed in its box. Christmas presents from other members of the family for their kids, still wrapped. It seemed Ed stole whatever he wanted from the family, whether he could use it or not. It didn’t surprise me much. My father did the same.
Edwin had received 100% disability after World War II. This was a Catch-22. If he ever workedhe’d lose his disability pay, and if he lost it he’d have a devil of a time getting it back again if he tried to work but couldn’t. Ed was wounded when his ship was sunk in the Pacific. He floated for days in a raft and many years later had an operation which removed a vertebra in his back. He was continually inventing things and starting businesses, but his suspicious nature limited their success.
The eldest brother started filing court cases and all the rest of the family had to show up in court for one thing after another, over 20 times in the next couple years. When he lost every case and every appeal he packed up his girlfriend and mother, moved to Florida and started over.
Like so many times, including in my own family when Robin’s wife died, lawyers got more than anyone else. People who work in professions where trust and integrity are important are often the ones who abuse it the most.

Home School
We officially set up a home school, Austinwood School, when Edward was six. I taught the kids history and Spanish in the morning before work, and Perri taught them math and English in the afternoons. I’d taped an instructional soap opera called “Destinos” which went through 52 episodes of Raquel searching out members of a family who, since the Spanish civil war, had scattered to Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Puerto Rico and the United States. After 20 minutes of story there was a question-and-answer session. They soaked it up.
After we returned from the mountains I found a job which was supposed to be full-time selling ad space for the weekly paper, the Alamance News. In practice the job was considerably less, as I spent my day looking for businesses that might want to advertise, writing them down and bringing them back for an OK before making a pitch. It would’ve worked fine if my boss had looked over the list and crossed off a few, but he’d approve at most one in three. Since he’d spend most of his time hanging out at the courthouse, I wouldn’t see him for a week, sometimes two. I’d bring longer lists, he’d OK fewer prospects. I tried not to go back to the same businesses until at least a month had passed, but I couldn’t. Pretty soon I’d go back every third week and hang out for a half-hour just for something to do. I should have been checking on twenty or thirty a day, but only had fifty a week. I worked four months, bringing in a smaller and smaller paycheck, until one day I hadn’t seen him in three weeks, gave him a list of over 300 businesses and he okayed 26. I’d signed a non-compete agreement, meaning I wasn’t supposed to work for any other papers in the area for at least a year afterwards, but I wrote a letter “to whom it may concern” stating that the agreement was for me to have a full-time job, that I hadn’t been allowed to do it and I considered the agreement null and void. I applied to a few other jobs in the area and made crafts again, while my wife fixed computer problems part-time for the school.
Our roof started leaking and I didn’t have money to fix it, but was painting all the cracks with several gallons of black mammy, hoping to get through another couple winters, when a fellow drove up and offered to put a roof on my house if I’d give him the 1972 Ford truck now sitting in my side yard with a blown engine. I instantly agreed, and bought some roofing shingles and a few supplies on credit. I’d been ready to sell the truck for a few hundred dollars, but got a new roof instead, plus several hundred extra shingles. He’d over-estimated the shingles by about a third, but I didn’t care.
While job-hunting I’d heard good things had developed at the company I’d worked for six years earlier–Adam & Eve–and applied. I was greeted warmly, with the easiest job interview I’d ever had–”this is just a formality, we really want you back”. I joined a training class that was already underway.
It was partly desperation–our mortgage was two months behind, our credit cards maxed–but it truly was a different environment than the one I’d left, at least initially. I enjoyed being back. I knew quite a few faces from before and they were happy to see me. There was a real Spanish department, 24/7, and we had a real Spanish catalog, not just Xeroxed sheets. The internet had been completely unavailable to us before, but now we could take a look when necessary, eliminating the need to regularly run to the warehouse.
The Scouts
2008 was the year Edward officially became a Boy Scout. He was too young by a year, but to form a full troop he became a boy scout at 9 instead of 10. This was appropriate, as he’d also unofficially joined the Cub Scouts a year early, attending Tiger Cubs at 4. He’d been a Wolf and Bear and Webelos, took part in the activities and had a wonderful time. The scouts met in the same building as Time Out Playgroup. I’d missed most of the Cub Scout activities due to the insane number of hours required by Rent-A-Center, where the only guaranteed day off was Sunday. When I worked with the local paper I had plenty of time for Cub Scouts, but when I went back to Adam & Eve my schedule again limited my evenings, though I had every other weekend off and went to some of the campouts. It was a good troop; Troop 40, which by coincidence had been my troop number as a kid. I’d been disappointed with our troop, but Edward’s had something going on every week and many weekends. They built catapults, had boat races, were in the Pinewood Derby, where Edward nearly every year won Most Original or the like and finally won for fastest car, an actual trophy for an actual accomplishment. I never won a trophy, and was really happy that he’d won in a competition. He would have gone to the regionals but was visiting his cousins in Alabama. He’d done well as a scout, earning dozens of merit badges, pins and belt loops.
I was in a bowling league once. The first year they  passed out a great many trophies, about 3/4 of which went to the same 5 or 6 people, who were first in one category or another. None to me, who’d been second in several. It made no sense to me–why give 3 or 4 trophies to the same guy and ignore 2nd or 3rd place in anything? The following year I won first place in a couple categories but they passed out cash prizes instead. I won about $80, but I’d have preferred a trophy. Any trophy. My wife has one for “most improved swimmer”. She places little value on it but I’d love to have my name on it. I don’t know if a kid can avoid receiving a trophy now, it’s not like when I was growing up, but a trophy for something is better than nothing. I received a couple pins from Junior Achievement, one for perfect attendance and one for $100 in sales. I was the only kid to receive two, but pins aren’t trophies.
The Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts were good for him, but the program got bogged down in church politics in late 2008 and the troop disbanded. We tried to find a suitable one nearby but couldn’t. It was a shame too, because that winter Edward and Clara Kate were trying to retrieve something from a neighbor’s pool, the ice on the surface cracked and Clara Kate went through. Edward saved her life. I wanted to send the story to Boy’s Life for inclusion in a comic-strip treatment of scout heroism they do each month, but to be in Boy’s Life he had to be a scout, and through no fault of his own he wasn’t, they wouldn’t have printed it and he wouldn’t have gotten the award. He couldn’t even subscribe.
Then again, scouting was losing some of its luster. The other troop in town was connected to one of the most evangelically poisoned churches around, and while faith has always been a part of the Boy Scouts, professing a faith to a rigid, scary, dictatorial branch of Bible thumpers who won’t shut up is way worse than belonging to nothing. The other possibility was a troop about 15 miles away, a very good troop but too far to drive.
When Robin would go to Colorado, he’d leave his car for me to drive, because he didn’t want his daughter driving it. Noelle was hard on cars. In the winter of 2008 he left it with me while Perri and the kids were in Alabama–they went for Thanksgiving and returned before Christmas–but towards the middle of December Noelle’s car gave out and Robin let her take the Nissan. I’d been brewing beer and had saved several bottles I’d promised to give him when he came back, which I sent with Noelle in the trunk of the car. She put the 6-pack of 22-ounce bottles in her fridge, but Genny saw them and, since Noelle was under 21, made a fuss. Noelle put the bottles in the trunk of her non-functional car, and on a warm day they exploded–which wouldn’t have happened had they stayed in the fridge. The result was a huge smelly mess in Noelle’s car and no beer for my brother.
2009 started out cold, and there was enough snow to make bricks by packing it in a cooler and building a kid-sized igloo. A couple years before we’d built an igloo out of the ice in the pool; this year the pool ice was thick enough to walk on, and we have several pictures of me and the kids “walking on water”.
In the spring of that year our Mennonite group decided to plant a community garden on our extra lot. We tilled a wide area and planted tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, lettuce, beets, corn.
My mother and I had discussed, later in the year, our plans for the property. I mentioned a dream I’d had for ages, of setting up a Mountain Mechanical Museum, maybe on the hill in back of the farm. I didn’t know. My plans were vague and I hadn’t mentioned them, because I knew I couldn’t rely on support from my father; even had he told me to start building I’d never get the front door open before he’d find a reason to tear it down. When I mentioned the idea to my mother, she said the house would be a good place for it, and I had a place to park my modest dream.
Then my sister heard about it. I was particularly annoyed at Christmastime. Genny had a habit of periodically writing everyone asking for money for home improvements, and I’d beg off, knowing that 1) I didn’t have the money, 2) had already done more than my share, 3) the money would go into a black hole anyway. This year she sent an email, saying she’d decided what our mother’s Christmas present should be and asking for donations, stating “if everyone kicked in $35, we could all buy her (specific nice thing for $200) instead of (all the crap you all were planning to give her), but if any of you don’t contribute it’ll be $40 for each of the rest of us”. It was guilt tripping and blackmail. $35 was no big deal to her, but to be fair, if my mother got a $200 gift, didn’t my wife deserve one too? My mother-in-law? Father? Father-in-law? My kids? She was single, lived at home, paid no rent, water, power or babysitting. I had bills and a mortgage. I’d been thoroughly broke and months in debt when I’d started back at Adam & Eve, part-time, four months before, with a family to support. What she’d suggested would not only have superseded and belittled the present we’d already bought, but also blown a huge hole in Santa’s budget. Even more galling, to me, was that while my sister was laying a guilt trip on us, her son Tristan, all by himself, had more toys and more expensive toys than both of my kids put together. I kept my mouth shut, and gave everyone the presents we’d already bought.
We left a few days early for our week in Massanutten that spring and went to Washington, DC to see my sister and her new boyfriend Ray, stopping first to see the battlefield at Fredricksburg. It was the most moving part of our trip, and I wrote a particularly heartfelt letter on Memorial Day:
I know memorial day is a day to hang around in your underwear and drink beer, and it’s sort of a downer to mention it, but I just saw the story of Eddie Hart on UNC-TV; he was killed in action in Germany on the same day Roosevelt died, and I didn’t realize until tonight that he was in the same battalion as my father–the 83rd, although it would be a big surprise if they ever met, as my father was in Company B and Eddie was in Company G, and my father was captured in November of ’44 while most of the action covered in the story takes place some months later. In any case I visited Fredericksburg a month ago, and it was an almost surreal experience–you climb the hill where the fighting took place, and there are the graves of over 15,000 soldiers,
over 12,000 unknown. The graves of the known have a round-top tombstone, but the unknown have a little granite marker about 6″ square with a number on it–and often another number underneath. It looks as if about half the graves have a name on them, until you start looking at the little markers, and some of them have a number on top and no number underneath–one guy buried there. Go along the rows, though, and you start seeing 2 and 3 underneath the number–2 guys, or 3, buried there. Go a little further to where the fighting got more intense and you see 4 and 5 and 7. Finally at the top of the hill the markers say 9 or 11 or 15, and you’re standing on a spot where fifteen guys are buried, nobody knows who, and likely none of them lived half as long as I have now. The next day we went to Washington DC; in the morning we saw the Bureau of Engraving and watched millions of dollars being printed right before our eyes, then went to see the memorials and waited to meet my sister, she works in DC. They have a wall at the WWII memorial with a star on it for every soldier lost in the war, and believe me there are lots of little gold stars. After that we went to the Vietnam memorial; at first I thought I’d read through all the names until I came to Dave Tiffany–I’ve mentioned him before, he was my friend and was in the Memorial Day issue of Life magazine, 40 years ago today; he’d moved away to California the year before and I didn’t know he’d joined the army (though I knew he’d planned to) and when I was thumbing through the magazine came across his picture–David Lewis Tiffany, 19, Riverside, California. He had just turned 19, not more than one or two weeks before, and now he was in Life magazine, in the One Week’s Toll of the Dead in Vietnam, Memorial Day issue. I had a general idea of the sector in which I’d find him, but it soon became clear I’d spend the rest of the day looking if I did it that way so I went over to the registry and looked him up–he was on something like the 28th panel, 12th line from the top, and I had to jump to touch his name.
We had a really good vacation; I hadn’t had 2 weeks off in 5 years or more, and even though I was getting over the swine flu enjoyed myself thoroughly, swimming every day, playing my banjo on the porch–and I’m damned glad I’m here today and not some marker in a field somewhere with “USN” on it.

We continued on from Fredericksburg to a motel outside DC and in the morning took the Metro; it was early and not everything was open, but after breakfast we went to the Bureau of Engraving and took a very enjoyable tour watching them print money, and the kids got shredded cash souvenirs. We had an hour to explore before we were to meet up with my sister and went to the Holocaust museum, but decided the kids were too young for it. We talked briefly with a very pleasant guard, who later that year was shot and killed buy some crazy fanatic. I was sorry to hear of his tragic and unnecessary end. What was accomplished? Nothing.
We went by the Washington Monument and took silly pictures of me wearing it as a hat and Edward holding it in his hand, then met up with my sister at the World War II memorial. We should have coordinated a little better, because the memorial is huge, there were thousands of people there and it took a long time to find each other; we had a cellphone but the battery’d run out. I then went to the Vietnam memorial to find my friend Dave Tiffany’s name, but it was a long walk to the memorial and Perri and the kids decided to hang out. At first I simply looked over the names but very quickly knew it would take hours that way, and went to the flip chart guide to find out which slab and row he was on. I found him, and had to jump to touch his name.
I went back to the Lincoln Memorial and the reflective pool and looked around again in the crowds for Perri, the kids, my sister and finally found them, then we all went to lunch at a lovely little deli just down the street from where my sister worked at the Justice Department. After lunch we went to the Smithsonian Institution, where we once again got lost among the miles of exhibits and multitudes of people. I got separated from the rest at The Hope Diamond, but we’d all agreed on a meeting place and shortly moved to the park, where we had a snack and watched a fellow try to set up a pigeon trap using a box, pencil and string, which didn’t work. Edward in particular was tickled with the absurdity of the contraption, baited with a french fry. I’d been sick with the flu for several days before we’d left and had no stamina; I dozed off in the afternoon sun while the others got acquainted with my sister and her new boyfriend Ray. We went to a movie, which I mostly slept through, then had dinner and rode the Metro back to the motel.  In the morning we headed to our condo in Massanutten. They’d made improvements–they always seemed to be improving something–and we had a fun week.
One of the things the resort does every year or two is to invite us to what amounts to a sales pitch, sometimes over a special weekend later in the year and sometimes at the beginning of our stay, and for listening we get a lot of free coupons to various activities. We went to the water park and took classes in glass etching and beading and played some mini-golf and went to a couple of restaurants and did a lot of hanging out in the condo overlooking the golf course and watching cable TV. Clara Kate and Edward loved the cartoon network. One night a fellow put on a show for the kids. He held the Guinness Book World Record for blowing up balloons in a certain time, which he’d trade off with a clown in Germany. He invited Edward on stage to help him with a trick and Clara Kate told a joke in front of 200 or 300 people–”What do you call a fly without wings? A walk!”. He gave her a balloon dog with a leash and Edward got a balloon hat.
A day or two after returning from Massanutten, Perri and the kids left for Alabama. They stayed through the month of May, and had originally planned to be back by my birthday in June but stayed a couple extra weeks and spent both Edward’s birthday, May 7th, and Clara Kate’s, June 11th, in Alabama while I enjoyed peace and quiet. I’d bought a scooter the previous Christmas just to have a means of transportation if the Cadillac broke down, because I didn’t want to be stranded while the rest of the family was 1000 miles away.
While we were traveling I read over a letter my mother had sent, which I thought unfairly attacked me. Genny had been asserting “I wanted everything”, based on my father’s worthless promises. I’d indeed been promised plenty, but it meant nothing, and I only desired a fair distribution, whatever that may have been.
She’d also written a book, which I hadn’t seen but mother hated. I read it over, because Genny thought I’d be the most objective. I probably was, but I didn’t like it either. It was essentially two books, one reviewing her romance and breakup with Suzuki, which was thoughtful and well-written, though I thought she should have stayed with him. The other started out funny, but brought up the same old crap. Our father was a monster, our mother a monster, her two oldest brothers, monsters, all served up with sour spleen and monster sauce. I’d thought she was over it, but it was an endless tape loop from her years of “therapy”, stirring and bubbling. It bothered me. It had to stop.
When she’d split from her second husband Seth she decided the trailer was unsafe. Alone at night, she’d see stalkers everywhere. She told wild, insane stories about people walking across her roof. Her son was totally out of control and she didn’t discipline him. He ate nothing but crap, and her and his stuff now so filled the two large bedrooms upstairs that they weren’t used. The junk had taken over the living room, the computer room, part of the main bedroom and was starting to invade my mother’s study. The back door was blocked with piles of her stuff. When Perri and I stopped by after Massanutten we saw to it that a small TV was installed in Tristan’s room so he had no reason to lounge in the living room, and all his stuff went back in his room. We took all the junk from the back porch, the living room, the study and the computer room and made her either haul it upstairs or throw it away, set up a yard sale for the nicer items and made the study into a music room, with a piano, a comfy couch and pictures of the grandkids on the wall. My father had canned a huge amount of food as well, and Perri and I filled the trunk of our car.
The round robin was lost that year, and lost again. In December of 2008 I started it once more, revising its confused order to the more logical youngest to oldest. I began by recounting Thanksgiving 2008. While Perri was in Alabama, Genny and I finally took my father’s ashes to the top of the mountain. We’d delayed so everyone could get together to make the hike, but it had been nearly two years. I finally made the decision to make the hike myself, and Genny came along, which was a mistake. When we got to the hilltop, instead of a nice ceremony and a few words, Genny called everyone she could reach from her cell phone to find out if they wanted some of the ashes. Nobody did, but she insisted we save some back for the two siblings she’d failed to reach. I thought it ridiculous, as they hadn’t expressed a wish for any such thing, but we sprinkled most of the ashes and trudged back down with a few still in the box. She planted a tree with some of them on the mountain, flushed a few down the toilet in accordance with a wish he’d expressed, and the rest sat on a shelf until I scattered them in a field.
Once again Genny wanted to buy mother a Christmas present that she’d decided on, each of us to pitch in. I’d had enough. I exploded in the Christmas round-robin. I felt I’d been insulted, belittled, joked about and accused of motives I didn’t have, and stated that I would have no part of, and resented, having my Christmas list hijacked. I further said I was tired of hearing how greedy I was, that I’d been promised plenty, but that we all knew that my father’s promises, any of them, would disappear in a flash and he’d look at you as if you were insane for believing them, that we’d all lived with the premise that a promise was never, ever, ever a promise, no matter if it had been reiterated forty times for forty years, and that this was a sick, sick way to live.
People are entitled to believe in promises. They adjust their lives and actions based on promises, and if a promise is broken that is, and should be, considered a sin. It’s a reasonable human expectation. A promise is a promise. The entire structure of civilization is founded on the notion that people will keep promises. It’s the breaking of a promise which is a sin, not the trusting in a promise.
We grew up with a different dictum, that a promise can be broken at any time, for any reason, and never means a goddamned thing.
When there’s no expectation that a promise will be fulfilled, there’s no promise which can’t be superseded, at any time, and nobody knows what to expect, nobody knows what they’ll get, everyone wants everything but expects nothing. Everyone throws a thousand pieces of spaghetti against the wall, hoping that someday one or two will stick. I said I had no interest in surfing into a guilt trip so that Genny could steal the credit for everyone’s love of mother on the cheap. I said I wanted to fix up the old home place, too, but not to pay someone else money I didn’t have. I’d already put my sweat and labor in countless improvements without any pay or acknowledgement whatsoever. I reviewed all the events of my life, starting at age 7, of how my father beat me and whipped me luntil he drew blood for no good reason and how when I’d tried to be even-tempered and pleasant he’d pick at me and pick and pick and pick while I was at the dinner table, while I tried to be nice, and he’d insult and accuse until he found a soft spot and I’d explode, and it was all a sick game, I might as well have been a trained seal. It was sadistic, disgusting, and even then he wouldn’t let up, and I’d stare at the flecks in the linoleum floor and feel like hell.
I recounted how I’d worked at Pete’s Rental in Hollywood 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, for months without a day off, driving an hour there and an hour back, and how I’d wanted to buy a car after my Falcon had been wrecked, found a ’59 Chevy sedan delivery I really liked, bought it, came to work one day and he had sold my car–forged my signature and sold it. Which wasn’t even the only time–he sold a Studebaker truck I was buying, after I’d put a deposit on it but had yet to straighten out the title. He stole my toolbox from the cab of my 40-year-old truck before I started on a 2000-mile journey, and I limped along with nothing but a vise grips and a screwdriver. I mentioned when I joined the Navy how he took all the stuff I’d carefully packed away and tossed it in the rain, wrecking a beautiful antique radio among other things. How I’d been promised 50% of the tree business but ended up with less than minimum wage and nothing when he’d sold it. How Perri and I built the earth lodge, working for over two years and using thousands of dollars of our own money, then receiving a “symbolic” gift of a light bulb for Christmas, only to be told a month later that the earth lodge would be torn down. How after 20 years of selling trees, with my mythical 50% ownership regularly receding or disappearing, I’d managed to make enough one Christmas–and by the way so did he–that my half of the profits, which he shared–had finally been enough to make my house payment, and though he hadn’t worked the trees for years he then remarked that I was making “too much money” and that we’d have to “renegotiate our agreement”. After recounting the 48 intervening years of this shit, I noted that my sister, at the tender age of 46 living in her mother’s house on her mother’s dime, was the one calling me greedy and amoral, while telling all of us what she thought we should pay for a Christmas present she had chosen.
The robin went to my youngest sister, who sent a chatty note, then up the line to Genny. My mother decided she needed to reply, and said she basically agreed with what I’d said, but it sat for six months waiting on Genny.
Genny and I took a trip together to Chicago that April and patched up most of our differences. She had friends in Chicago, a lesbian couple who had a very nice place in the middle of town. Her friend’s partner was a transplant surgeon and they did very well. They’d adopted a baby boy and Sarah stayed with him while Daniela worked. Sarah gave her two-year-old car to Genny, and Genny bought tickets to Chicago and invited me along. We stayed a few days, had a lovely time and drove back.
We talked there and back, and by North Carolina were getting along pretty well. I did, however, come away with a couple realizations, in that when she’d come from many years in New York she’d been paranoid about things which were simply part of small town rural life. A fellow in a black pickup came by as she walked down the road and asked a question which revealed that he knew who she was, and she flipped out. She found a beer can and cigarette butts in the yard, and flipped out. A critter had walked across the roof, and she flipped out. Her dog made a few “wffs” while dreaming, and she flipped out.
That said, we were both in a better mood. The only flare-up we had in Chicago was when the four of us went to a restaurant around the corner, run by a small vegetarian religious group. Daniela and Sarah were talking about intrusive people, and I made a comment that my sister-in-law Anne had been intrusive, which seemed obvious. Genny said she wasn’t. I said she certainly was, at which point Genny remarked that she was dead. I said just because she was dead didn’t mean she hadn’t been intrusive. When Anne came to visit she’d rummage through our underwear drawer, and you don’t get more intrusive than that. I didn’t mean anything negative by it. Anne was intensely curious, and I didn’t hold bad feelings about her personality quirk. It could be convenient, or a pain. She’d spent her life on the phone. When we had news she’d broadcast it, but it annoyed us when she’d call, we’d finish, call another family member and their line would already be busy–with Anne telling them our news. Perri loved the show “Mystery”, which played Thursdays at 8pm. For years, she told Anne to call at any other time–but no matter, she’d start watching, Anne would call. She’d share updates about Fran’s first husband Kevin until one day I said the only news I wanted to hear about Kevin was that he was dead. It was a game. Nobody would tell her a juicy tidbit, and we’d see how long we could keep it secret. It had been the same with my father. Tell him a secret, it wouldn’t last the hour. Her son Jordan was particularly good at not revealing anything. He’d be on the phone with a friend, say “Oh really? Wow!” and so forth. As soon as he hung up she’d be on him like a tick, peppering him for details. Jordan would say, “he’s having peas for dinner”, or the like. We always felt she’d be good as a private eye but missed her calling. Intrusive, yes. Hateful, no.
Anyway we left Chicago and shared the driving. By the side of the road in a rough-looking steel town was a fellow who looked like a laid-off steelworker selling roses. I bought 3 from him–one for Genny, one for Perri and one for mother. She dropped me off at my house, I gave her some boy clothes and a spare soy milk maker.
Perri and I had learned how to save money. Perri had learned to cook vegetarian, which can be cheap or expensive, but what makes it cheap is a large array of kitchen gadgets. We had a mill and a breadmaker, so as to grind our own wheat and make bread for about 15¢ a loaf. A soymilk maker makes nut or grain-type milks for about 25¢ a gallon. A water filter ($40 for a new filter every few years) assures spring-water quality almost for free, and a distiller I picked up for $50 made distilled water (or spirits). We even got a soda maker, and using only healthy ingredients it was a dime a quart. As an experiment, we added up how little we could spend to make a nutritious meal for four, and spent $3.
I picked up the robin on a visit to the mountains that summer, where it had languished for six months, and sent it to Fran and Ray, where sat for two more. Things had settled down since the death of her daughter and the subsequent breakup of her marriage to her second husband Rob. Rob had always seemed a decent guy, but far too distracted–largely due to dealing with Sarah. He was a thoroughly nice guy, but absolutely overwhelmed by everyday life. Sarah was big and strong but had the mind of a toddler. Fran went to work and Rob minded the kids, but the house was a wreck, and he completely blew the most minor of tasks. He overdrafted the bank account regularly. His car was impounded five times within a month because he failed to renew the registration. Even re-stringing a guitar seemed to be beyond him. After Sarah was gone there was little reason for them to stay together, and Rob went away to live with his parents at fifty. He got a job as a security guard and his parents arranged for a divorce lawyer while Fran sent along $100 a week. Soon enough they divorced.
By the time my letter of December reached Sam it was October, and its 35 stationery-sized pages had assumed mythic proportions. Sam jumped in. He was on unemployment, fighting termination from Verizon–they eventually settled with a nice fat check–but had discovered one of the nicer challenges that I’d known about unemployment–unstructured leisure, which is not at all what one thinks it will be when one wishes for more free time. One can turn to philosophy on an unstructured afternoon. He and Barry had set themselves up with a low overhead when moving to Roanoke, and now he found he could get along fine on a lower income as well, though the need to live frugally was a constraint.
My mother’s reply to my letter had mentioned that my father’s plans and promises were simply dreams, and his own plans never got anywhere either, because when a small project was mentioned he’d have bigger plans. She’d mention painting the bathroom and he’d talk about adding two more rooms. He was going to build three A-frame cabins on various parts of the property; he cut the lumber and left it out to season–and rot. She brought up the Browning quote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp…”, but said it would’ve been better if he’d reached for something he could grasp. It seemed to me to be a useless sentiment, too–if one can’t grasp what one is reaching for, what’s the point in reaching?
But reach he did, and completed very little. Small improvements were postponed because BIG improvements were planned–and so neither small improvement nor big transformation happened, and often small and adequate was torn down and undermined in favor of–nothing. Castles in the air and clouds.
On receipt of my letter Sam recalled a business proposal our father had given him to take some Christmas wreaths that the Coffeys, sharecroppers for my uncle, were making. Sam could go to New York florists for orders. Nobody asked what the wreaths would cost to produce or ship, what the mark-up would be, what price the market would bear, how many wreaths the Coffeys could make and how quickly, when they’d have them ready–but Sam in his spare time was supposed to make presentations to merchants he didn’t know on behalf of vendors he also didn’t know based on information he didn’t have. Which is, of course, the reason for writing things down. Drawing up an agreement brings up all the reasons a bad idea is a bad idea, and gives everyone involved in a good idea a clear understanding of what is expected of them and what they’ll receive. Sam was accused of being “too selfish to help the less fortunate”.
They had a confrontation shortly afterwards. Genny, after moving to New York, had brought along some tapes called “A Course In Miracles”. Unfortunately Genny didn’t have a VCR, an expensive novelty at the time, and she wanted to watch them on Sam’s VCR–but there were sixteen or twenty hours of Miracles and Sam was too busy to watch the tapes, which he found insipid anyway. Genny complained that she couldn’t get Sam to watch the tapes with her, and our father called long-distance to tell Sam he was “selfish”–for not watching several hours of tapes which he didn’t want to watch and didn’t have the time for. This was the umpteenth time, and the last, my father had accused him of being “selfish”, because Sam told him that unless he could respect what he chose to do with his time, his space and his life, he could get the hell out of all three. That was the end of the accusations about Sam being “selfish”.
The robin then passed to Robin, who was doing better. He and Luanne had been together for three years, sometimes in Colorado, sometimes in North Carolina, sometimes somewhere else, sometimes separated by distance. They both had houses they’d inherited, fixed up and rented, which provided a certain amount of income and freedom. Robin was barbering and riding a bicycle to work. He also had some words about Our Father, who Wert in the Kitchen, Twelve Pack as his Bane. After I’d more or less disappeared from the dinner table, spending all my time at Monk’s house, it was left to him to hang around the kitchen when father was on his eleventh beer, putting up with the put-downs while Sam and the girls played in the other room. It was almost a duty to him; he’d hang around and say nothing while father ran out of ammo and was reduced to asking, “What’s wrong with you, Rob?”, over and over. There was no answer, because it was the wrong question. The question had always been, What’s wrong with you, Ned? He’d either sit and pick at someone or stew until he got a good head of steam. It was one or the other. He was funny, and generous, and lovable to his friends, but to his kids he was mean, dishonest, unreliable, violent. He made unlimited promises to his kids, selectively forgetting them before they left his mouth. None of the siblings were as involved in his plans and promises as I was, but all learned how to be better parents, by being exactly who he was not.
Rob’s parenting style was gentle guidance and honest respect. His wife Anne, though they had issues as spouses, gave them liberal indulgence and watchful supervision. They were rarely spanked, as they felt a parent’s superior strength should be used to help, not enforce conformity to a parent’s preferences There’s a risk, though. When children have a choice, their choices can, in fact, kill them. Jordan lost ten of his friends and his mother in the five years before he died, which seemed an extraordinary number for a small-town kid who hadn’t yet turned 21, and because of that he valued friendships a great deal. All his friends were his best friends. He took recreational drugs on New Year’s Eve, slept on the porch that cold night and froze to death before anyone noticed where he was.
The Glory of Sight
In November 2009 I noticed one evening a small spot to the right of my right eye’s field of vision had disappeared. I didn’t think much about it. About four or five years previously I’d stepped on a rake and, like everyone’s seen in five hundred cartoons, was whacked across my face with the handle–but the rake wasn’t sitting tines-up, it was tines-down. Instead of the fulcrum forming a first-class lever, this formed a third-class lever. My foot went through the yoke, and the rake when it flew up had triple or quadruple the force. I was staggered, and I thought for a second I’d pass out. For two or three days there was a shadow in that eye, but it went away and the eye doctor thought it OK. For the next few years I’d occasionally see a bit of shadow if I was tired or sleepy, but with rest it’d be fine. On this evening, though, the spot didn’t go away, and a day or two later the bottom of my field of view was strange and discolored.  my eye doctor told me to go immediately to the hospital. By the time I got there more than half my field of view was compromised, and I was scheduled for surgery the following Monday.
I was suddenly glad I was a veteran! I’d rarely mentioned it since I’d left the Navy 35 years before. Through the 70s, 80s and 90s it wasn’t something one mentioned. People had mixed feelings about the military. Only since the attacks of 9/11 had people started appreciating veterans; usually they were neutral at best. It felt strange to receive discounts and hear people thank me for my service on Veteran’s Day, not that I’d done more than float around the Pacific on Uncle Sam’s boat. I’d always felt obliged to say I was a Vietnam-era veteran and not a Vietnam veteran, meaning I was in the Navy when the guys were coming home and not going over, trying to establish that I wasn’t as crazy as “real” Vietnam veterans.
Monday morning at 6 am Perri drove me to the hospital. My field of view was now reduced to one little pizza slice in the upper left corner; everything else was a  vague grey shadow even in bright light, like looking at a faded, underexposed black and white photo in a dark room. They took me to the operating room, put me out and I went home that afternoon with an eye protector and a bottle full of narcotics. They’d stabbed me in the eye and tack-welded my retina with a freeze wand, then told me to lie on the couch on my right side for a week. My eye looked like a little bloody red ball of Play-Doh. I went back after the week and the eye checked out OK, but I still had to lie on my side and couldn’t travel to the mountains or ride on a plane–nothing that involved a change in air pressure. I had a gas bubble in my eye, which would absorb in a month or so. Perri brought me books-on-tape from the library; I couldn’t do much else but listen. Reading was out, TV was painful, I couldn’t lift anything over five pounds or even strain on the pot very hard. All I could do was lie on the couch, listen to the radio or a tape, eat something mushy and pop another pill.
We had a bunch of folks over for Thanksgiving weekend. Genny nearly ruined it for mother, telling her they’d have to go back to the mountains in two hours to mind Genny’s dog. We put our foot down and told her she was staying the weekend and if Genny needed a dog-sitter she could damned well find one on her own. They stayed for three days. It was a real family gathering. Genny and Tristan only showed for a few minutes, but my niece Noelle, her brother Grant and his fiance came by, as well as my cousin Carol, who lived a few miles down the road. Carol had a horse from the time she was little, and the horse had died the year before, but she had a half-interest in another horse. Her mother, also named Carol, had been incoherent for some time and in a rest home where our uncle Pete visited every day, but she was too confused to travel.
I was glad I’d floated on that government boat more than 30 years earlier. A detached retina would’ve set me back $12,000, but I didn’t pay a nickel, just a few dollars for narcotics. “Don’t say I never gave you anything”  is used when one has been given something of questionable value, and until then summed up my feelings towards the Navy. I’d joined for all the right reasons–I was patriotic, cared about my country, wanted to do my part and needed the work. It was at the tail end of the “Vietnam era”, though, and honestly, the Navy didn’t need me. The war had ended, there were clearly twice as many guys in the military as necessary and I was greatly distressed by the vast waste of time, talent and especially money that I saw. When I was told to throw away a $1200 guage which I could’ve fixed in half an hour for less than a dollar, I was done. I took the most efficient way out, which amounted to getting in trouble for one penny-ante thing after another. Because my discharge was under honorable conditions I collected unemployment  for a year and went to school on the GI Bill for two, figured I was even and didn’t think about it again until 35 years and one defective eyeball later.
I went back to work after Thanksgiving. It surprised me that driving wasn’t a problem but that looking at a computer screen was. The gas bubble in my right eye jumped around like a flea on a griddle and I wore dark glasses for some time. Christmas was skimpy that year, but  Our Apple G4 was still working fine, but after ten years there were so many things it couldn’t do it was like driving a Model T on the freeway. Some friends gave us a newer computer, I sold a few kaleidoscopes and a girl in Japan I’d known from almost my first day on the internet sent me $100. I sent her back a very nice kaleidoscope.
To list all the places my kaleidoscopes have been takes awhile. They’ve gone to several states in the USA, to Canada, Costa Rica, Argentina, Spain, Chile, England, Australia, Japan, Germany, Finland; other crafts of mine are in Africa and Russia and above the Arctic Circle. Those are the ones I know about.
The robin was captured by Laura after the new year and stayed in Georgia until May. She’d been laid off from middle school and hired by her old boss to teach English as a Second Language at the elementary school. She loved the classes but hated her new principal, whom she assessed as a “racist jerk”. A side effect of her frustration was a spectacular garden, which she’d tended so as to work off her annoyance. Her kids were well and Austin was ready for a driver’s license, which he was excited about and his parents weren’t.
The big event that spring was the marriage of Robin’s son Grant to his girlfriend Joie. I presided at the wedding. As a minister, I have a pretty good track record. As far as I know, all my marriages–the earliest in 1975–are still going strong, excepting one at which the couple didn’t have a marriage license. I presided at the vows, but they didn’t want the “piece of paper”.
It was wonderful. Grant and Joie were married under an apple tree in full bloom. The band included a stand-up bass player from Grant’s band plus his father Robin on violin, sister Noelle on guitar, me on banjo and my mother and three sisters singing. After a couple of songs I accompanied my my daughter on guitar while she sang “A, You’re Adorable”, which stole the show. I went to work but got off early and went back to the party, where my son found a Carolina chameleon, which he kept as a pet and named Shim, because we weren’t sure whether it was a boy or a girl.
On my birthday that year I was doing a little maintenance on my car. I had the day off and had been getting phone calls all day. About 7 pm I got a call from Laura. I thought she’d wish me a happy birthday, but Tom had died! He’d been jogging, sat down in the locker room and fell over. He was always a big guy, but seemed to be in good shape, though his diet could have been better. He’d been born on Valentine’s Day in 1952–the day before my childhood best friend Monk. Monk had died at 48, Tom at 58.
I went to Georgia the next morning and stayed until Monday. It was amazing how many people came to the funeral and memorial. Friends and family arrived from Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, the states where he’d coached, and the entire Armuchee Indians high school football team showed up in their uniforms.
My brother had a tree fall on his house that spring, and the quote to fix it was several thousand dollars. I looked, decided it wasn’t that bad, and told him I’d give him my shingles at cost if he didn’t mind the color, which was close but a bit lighter. I had a large pile of high-quality shingles left over after my roof replacement 3 years before, and was eager to get rid of them. He agreed. There was some minor structural work, but not near so much as it had appeared, and we did it in the space of a long weekend. I’d quite overloaded our Expedition taking shingles up the mountain; I drove 50 mph in the right lane for most of the distance, but it got hairy at times. When I was finished I left him a few extra squares and he gave me a few yard implements, including a lawnmower and the unicycle I’d tried to talk him out of a year or two before.
Perri and I had long been a part of a group which met on Thursday nights. Some were friends from our now-defunct playgroup. It was more of a meeting than a church. While the kids played we had free-ranging discussions, basically but not exclusively Mennonite. I was familiar with a tangentially-related Quaker group particularly insistent on being called the Society of Friends rather than the Religious Society of Friends, as they maintain Quaker thought is a belief, not a religion. One of the central Mennonite themes is to help others, and we’d often gone with others to feed the homeless or fix up a house. I had a storage shed in my backyard on which I’d replaced the roof and patched it several times. The recurring problem was because the roof was too flat and wouldn’t drain. It was again leaking badly after a hard winter, and one of the group suggested that could be a project for the Greensboro Mennonite church. Over the space of a long weekend we all emptied the shed, tore off the roof, put on a new, sturdy, gabled roof, shored up the masonry walls, shingled it, painted it and did some yardwork. The church took care of the expense except for the shingles, of which I still had several.
When we were done it was painted a cheery white and yellow with a sandy beige roof, but there was more to do. I left the fellow who’d done most of the planning–a contractor in “real life”–with a nice kaleidoscope and started on the other projects. My workshop hadn’t been painted, and I gave it two coats of white with a brown trim. I’d had a carport beside the tool shed which the winter had not been kind to, which I pulled down and rebuilt. Just as I was finishing the rebuild  my ladder collapsed and I cracked a rib. I was getting up and Perri called me from the kitchen. The power to half the house had gone out.
It wasn’t a great surprise. Our house had been wired in 1940, 70 years before. Some additional wiring had been added in the 1970s, but the original remained. Part of it, somewhere, had failed, and we ran extension cords from one half of the house to the other. We’d already invited a friend for Thanksgiving, and had to step over extension cords but it came off OK. Perri talked with her sister, and she and her husband John decided to come up from Florida to rewire our house. He was an electrical contractor and brought along his tools.
For the next month the six of us lived with all our furniture piled into the center of each room. We laid out pads in the basement crawl space and pulled up the flooring in the attic. December came in cold, enough that even with a space heater the electrical tape didn’t stick, something new for John from Florida, who only wore shorts. He thought it defective, but when I warmed it up it was fine.
Electricity is hard for most to understand. It’s invisible, almost magical. It’s a little like plumbing, but not really. What it’s more like is the high-pressure steam used to power ships in the Navy. Superheated steam, at 600 or 1200 pounds per square inch, has to flow through insulated pipes, and leaks are not only a nuisance, but dangerous.
Electricity, however, doesn’t flow inside a wire but on its surface. The larger the surface area, the more it’ll carry. For most household wiring bell wire is used; it’s sturdy, withstands heat and won’t flex with the current. Household current naturally has a vibration, a . Just like a guitar string vibrates when plucked, an electrical wire vibrates. In the USA this is 60 cycles per second. This produces a specific note–a low “B” hum–which can be heard if the current is strong or the sound amplified. This vibrational flexing also leads to metal fatigue, which in household appliance cords is alleviated by bunching several small wires together. When wire is heated and cooled enough, though, smaller wires fail, which leads to faster and greater failure in the rest. The spot of maximum fatigue is next to the plug or at the point where the cord enters the appliance, which is why appliance cords have “boots” on either end. The greater the number of smaller wires in a cord, the greater the amount of current it can carry relative to its size, but also the greater heat buildup where the current meets an obstruction such as a smaller cord or a defective connection. The insulation around a cord also acts as a heat sink. A spliced area should have just as much or more tape or other insulation as was there was originally; a splice should be wider than the cord, not narrower, and splices in house wiring should be made within a junction box so as to isolate and dissipate heat.
In 1940, house wiring was rudimentary. There’d been a light and a socket in each room but not much else. In our house there’d been two circuits, one for the kitchen and one for the rest of the house, and a single telephone, centrally located. None of the wiring had a ground, and switches were installed with scant regard to which side was hot and which neutral. The wires were copper coated with tin, which seemed a good idea as it made soldering connections easy, but a problem developed with screw-tightened outlets and sockets. With repeated heating and cooling, tin became tin oxide, and far less conductive. With the natural 60-cycle vibration inherent in alternating current, the connections loosened ever so slightly and the gradually worsening conditions led to greater heat buildup than the sockets were designed for.
Most splices in non-load-bearing wires are now connected using screw-on nuts instead of soldering, as the nuts not only guarantee a large surface area for connection but also provide separation between splices and a heat sink around each. There’s nothing wrong with other types of splices if they’re done correctly, but one can’t see inside a connection to know it’s done right.
In house wiring in the United States there are two wires providing power to the main box, coded red and black. Either is connected to a neutral, coded white. Hook up red and black and you get 240 volts, which is used for stoves, hot water heaters, clothes dryers and large air conditioners. Hook red or black to white and it’s 120 volts. Regular circuits in a household are hooked to a circuit breaker with a red or black wire to the outside and a neutral bar in the center, which is a grounding connection. Electricity comes through the hot side, the smaller tang on a polarized plug, and returns through the neutral, which is larger to assure a more certain connection. The operation of appliances is generally the same no matter which way the hot and neutral are connected, but if a switch cuts the neutral rather than the hot, the hot wire will be hot even if the switch is off. Anyone working on the wiring can still receive a nasty shock.
If there’s a separate grounding post, this will be the longest of the three, so as to make certain the ground is the first to connect and the last to disconnect should the plug loosen. The ground, which is really a spare for the neutral, can be attached to metal plumbing pipes, a stake driven deep into the ground or to the same center bar as the neutral in the main box.
The need for a grounding wire wasn’t well established until well into the 1950s. At first, grounding outlets were only required if outlets were located within 8 feet of water pipes, for reasons that became clear to me and my friends when we’d touch my refrigerator handle and the water faucet at the same time. A few years later grounding was required in kitchens, bathrooms and outside outlets, and an adaptor was available that converted a 3-prong grounding plug into a 2-prong plug with a green wire or tab to connect to the screw holding the faceplate of the outlet, which only grounded the connection if the outlet box was metal and connected to a metal conduit. Sometimes it was, sometimes not. In most wiring from the 1930s and 1940s the wiring was woven fabric treated with a rodent repellent, so that even with an adaptor connected there was no ground. It wasn’t until the 1970s that grounding receptacles became standard throughout a house, along with polarized plugs for double-insulated items–i.e., items with a non-conductive plastic casing, rather than metal. Even so, grounding adaptors were still available, and widely misused, until the 1990s.
As we started exploring the guts of the house, I with my cracked rib doing very little, we found something strange. The house had supposedly been built in 1940, but the bathtub was dated 1941. I’d also noticed the southeastern half of the house had a far better foundation than the northwestern. When Edward and John started replacing wiring, it was routed oddly. The circuits and breaker box installed in the 1970s were logical, but in the original wiring, one circuit went to the refrigerator and, originally, a well pump under the house, while the other passed over the kitchen, went to a ceiling light and outlets in the parlor, the living room and porch light, then underneath into the crawl space, from whence the two bedrooms and bathroom were hooked up before once again going overhead to the kitchen ceiling. It seemed the house must have been built in stages, the kitchen, parlor and living room finished first and the rest added later at considerably less expense.
The wiring from the 70s also had problems. The interior fusebox remained and a breaker box added outside. Because copper was getting more expensive, the contacts on the 70s breaker box were aluminum–again, something which seemed okay at the time. Aluminum was much lighter and cheaper than copper, and had been used for many years in high-tension wires. There were certain things about aluminum, though, which proved unsuitable for house wiring.
Without special connectors, aluminum wires pit and oxidize, leading to greater resistance, greater heat and a greater chance of fire. It was abandoned for house wiring, but for years was still used in circuit boxes. A special paste was spread on the contacts, but the paste wouldn’t last forever. The contacts corroded and breakers failed. This process accelerated when the breaker box was in the weather, but it was safer there when the breakers failed. The corroded tangs in my breaker box were useless. Over several years the extra tangs were filled up, and full-size breakers replaced with skinny ones which fit two in the same space but generated more heat, corroding faster. By 2010 there were no fresh tangs left, and though the wiring failure wasn’t in the circuit box, the box needed replacing.
John, with Edward as apprentice, pulled out all the wiring. Edward climbed under the house, passed tools, pulled wires, installed junction boxes and learned a great deal about electricity, more than I’d remembered myself. I’d taken a course on the GI Bill which qualified me as a Class B Electrician, a category which had later been eliminated. In the intervening years there’d been several amendments to code and new types of equipment which John knew well. He did it right, putting in a whole-house emergency breaker outside and installing an enormous new breaker box on the back porch, with copper contacts throughout and twenty-five separate circuits, one for every room and every appliance. We replaced every receptacle, switch and socket. After working under the house and in the house we went to the attic, whose floor I’d pieced together from plywood scraps. We piled everything to one side, took up the floor, replaced the wiring, piled the stuff to the other side and replaced all the nails with screws, which electricians prefer. We put a few lights and receptacles in the attic and reorganized the storage. At Christmastime we were still cramped, but most of the work was done. I gave John and Joy my most elaborate stereo Kallistoscope, and a day or two later they were on the road. We spent the next few days cleaning and organizing and by New Year’s were comfortable in our newly rewired home. It had taken over a month and several thousand dollars, which we’d again put on credit cards, but was worth it.
Winter 2011 was a cold one and it snowed several times but we had plenty of wood. Sam had found a better job closer to home. Fran was divorcing her second husband and arranging to revoke her first husband’s rights as heir of record, as she hadn’t seen him in years and he hadn’t paid child support. She’d had to contact him when Sarah died and was surprised he was still alive. Robin and Luanne had fixed up her Colorado house, returned with her departed husband’s jewelry supplies and were making earrings and necklaces by the truckload. They’d taken a jaunt to Florida, spent time at the beach and came back to care for Robin’s house in Boone. It had been used as an upstairs/downstairs apartment for years, which had been grandfathered into the town ordinance, but the city lost the list of exceptions and tried to fine them several thousand dollars. After a thorough search the letter appeared.
Perri and the kids went to Alabama in April to help her mother recover from knee surgery, and they returned in June. They had yearly tests to take. Home schoolers have to meet standards and in North Carolina are tested once a year by assessors. Perri knew one in Winston-Salem whohad two daughters Clara Kate’s age, and we went for the day. We toured an interesting excavation outside Salem. Bethabara was a farming community settled by Moravians in the 1750s, with the intention of moving everything to what later became Salem. Most of the buildings were dismantled and moved in the 1760s, leaving only foundations. They were forgotten for two hundred years, until a farmer plowed up several piles of rocks. The records of the abandoned settlement still existed, though nobody had known where it had been, so all of the buildings were identified and tagged with little plaques. Some of it has been reconstructed, and people dressed in period clothes explained it all. Very interesting.
Genny’s son Tristan also took his tests that day, and met us at Bethabara. While the others took a tour, I stayed behind with him learning some tunes on a penny whistle I’d bought at the little museum. Tristan and I explored. There was a large barn filled with tools of the period and on the grounds was a reproduction  of a palisade fort constructed for defense during the French and Indian War, enclosing an acre or two of the gray stone foundations. Some were for single men, some for women, some for families, there were communal kitchens and the like, with vegetable and medicinal herb gardens to the side. In the center was a bell, rung for various activities. Tristan was relatively well-behaved, a welcome improvement.
Perri’s birthday was shortly afterwards, and the kids and I made her a puzzle ring. It’d been awhile since I’d made jewelry, but Perri wanted a new ring. I showed Edward and Clara Kate how it was done and let them do much of the work. After that there was a crafts fair in the mountains. Robin and Luanne had signed us up, but when we got there the “crafts fair” was advertised as a “big yard sale”. After two hours it was clear we weren’t going to sell much, so we left and played guitars all night, making up drinking songs and planning a tour of Australia, an Astro*Carto*Graphy “hot spot” for Robin and I.
Robin’s son Grant had a small house down the road and was expanding it to three or four times its size. In the new living room was a picture window with a 2’x 6’ opening overhead. He commissioned me to make a stained glass window, the largest piece I’d ever tried.
I decided to make it in 3 panels. In Grant’s yard there was a geodesic dome used as a studio, and I made a stylized dome for the center panel, with Grant and his wife Joie smiling within. To one side was a day scene in springtime, to the other a night scene in winter. It took a lot of planning and sketching and time, and though I had stained glass on hand it wasn’t nearly enough. For the springtime there was a big sunburst in the corner. By chance, I’d dropped something on a light blue panel I was planning to use and shattered it, but the cracks fanning out from the middle made a perfect start for the sun’s rays fanning out across the sky. The rest of the sky was taken up with clouds and progressively darker blues, while the mountains and trees below were done in greens, with a pond and creek in aqua winding through. The nighttime side featured a sky in progressively darker shades of purple, with the moon and several stars done in a striated clear glass. The mountains were angular and the trees rounded in the springtime, the reverse in the winter, with angular, conical, snow capped trees and round mountains, an icy pond fed by a frozen brook between them. The dome was yellow and orange near the sun, fading into deep brown shadows. Grant installed it reversed from the direction I’d intended, with the sun and springtime to the right and the winter to the left, matching the location of his house. It looked great.
Clara Kate had acquired a new pet over the summer, a box turtle she named Michell, for whom we built an enclosed area with a small pond and plenty of shade. Perri read up on box turtles and decided to build him a spot across the yard, a bit more in the sun and out of the flood plain (such as there was), next to the glass shack. We now had four pets–a parakeet couple named Millie and Dixie, a turtle and Edward’s Carolina chameleon Shim. For some years we’d also kept two of our neighbor’s dogs, which I didn’t mind as she tended them, though they’d periodically escape, showing up tired and hungry in the evening. Towards the end of summer only one came back, and as one of her other dogs had died she took the remaining dog to her pen and we were out of the dog business. It may have led to a larger number of deer checking out our garden in the middle of the night, but the dogs never scared off that many. A fairly good deterrent seemed to be to periodically sprinkle cayenne pepper over everything, and pee along the perimeter late at night.
Laura was doing well. It’d been over a year since Tom had died and she was moving on. She was pursuing a master’s degree with the intention of teaching technology to grades k-12. Her two boys were in high school, and both in band camp for the summer. They were checking out colleges, one of which was Berea College in Kentucky. I knew Berea, and loved it. All the students receive a full scholarship, but all need to demonstrate financial need. They could go there if Laura was poor enough, which was iffy.
I don’t mind the family leaving for six weeks or so once or twice a year. The kids  visit their cousins and Perri helps her parents, who are getting older–her mother in 2009 was 79 and father 81–while I hang out in the house and leave my clothes on the floor if I feel like it.
Men are fundamentally different from women in this. No matter how much women think men could or should care about certain things, they have other interests. Women do more housework because they want a clean house. Men don’t care so much.
Women may see this lack of interest in the condition of the home as something deliberate on a man’s part, but that’s a mistake. Men like other things. Sometimes men’s interests may seem childish, but it’s entirely wrong to think a man is a child. He may put up with being treated as one and even appreciate it occasionally, but he’s not a child and sooner or later will not consent, at which point a woman will learn to respect him as a man, or lose him.
In the summer of 2009 we were invited to a condo in Myrtle Beach for the weekend, and Robin, Luanne, her daughter and granddaughter came along. We had a place to stay at the resort as long as we attended a sales pitch, and they got a motel a few miles away. We had a great time. The resort had plenty of amenities–a pool, tennis courts, etc., but the main attraction of course was the beach. Our friends Randy and Pat had gone to a promotional weekend and purchased two weeks. They traded out their weeks nearly every year and went all over the country, but we’d been happy with our relatively unpopular week at Massanutten and had never exchanged. Massanutten was close to home, and uncrowded in our “off” week. We once visited Mount Vernon, where George Washington lived, and had been in the midst of thousands of jostling tourists while trying to get a glimpse or feel of what it must have been like in Washington’s day, which was impossible. At Massanutten in the “premium”–and far more expensive–weeks, there were three or four times as many people, which complicated everything. Other attractions were also less crowded in April, the staff less overworked, in a better mood and more willing to help. The same went for Myrtle Beach in the summertime–we had a great time at the condo feeding swans, playing guitars and going to the beach, but far less fun going to town, jostling in the crowds. We contemplated buying a week at the beach but decided against it. We returned to Swepsonville well relaxed and my brother and his people went back to the mountains to fix up his house.
Robin & Luanne did a lot of fighting with lawyers. A local judge, who’d seemed to my mother to have been one of the good guys, had instead proven to be in cahoots with a couple shady lawyers who’d raided the trust fund Anne’s grandparents had set up for the grandkids, treating it as a personal piggybank. Robin had his run-ins with the law–he counted a total of 9 times he’d been in jail for one minor thing or another–but that didn’t mean he was hopeless in legal matters.
That fall several Mennonites went for a campout at Hanging Rock. We split up during the day but came together for a large communal dinner. Afterwards we sat around the campfire and played guitars. One couple–Jeff and Clare–was very interesting. Jeff knew some riffs and shuffles I was unfamiliar with, and Clare’s father, like mine, had been in television when she was a kid. We chatted around the fire as it burned to embers.
The next morn was Sunday, and the group assembled for a service, with guitars and clarinets and drums and horns, but as we started the park ranger told us not to play, which was something new, as they’d done it for some years without a fuss. Keith and Tammy thought it was probably the ranger’s preference rather than a camp rule. I didn’t care. Sunday service never appealed to me anyway. We all sat around instead and discussed our lives, which was more interesting. Several of the folks had been missionaries in various parts of the world, and many had grown up in faraway places. One family was from Ethiopia, and several had recently returned from Morocco, Egypt, China, Peru.
Another Marriage
In 2010 Frances and Ray had been together for more than a year, and now that both were divorced were free to marry. The ceremony was in a ballroom in Asheville with dining and dancing afterwards. Perri and I came the day before and toured the Biltmore House  with the kids. Biltmore is essentially a castle, built by George Vanderbilt just before the 20th century. He’d toured the castles of Europe and wanted to build something magnificent in America. In the 1890s he built his own railroad to haul in marble and lumber. It was a working farm as well as a residence for George, his wife and child and whatever visitors came to stay, of which there were many. There was a bowling alley, a swimming pool, a workout gym, changing rooms and servants’ quarters by the dozen. He was progressive for the time, seeing to it that the staff was well provided for. There were vineyards for wine and acreage for vegetables and fruit trees and game for hunting. Dinners were always sumptuous and almost entirely supplied from the grounds, which were developed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park. The mansion has remained in the Vanderbilt family and was a private residence until the 1950s, when it was opened to the public as a sort of museum. After the tour we moved on to a display of Tiffany stained glass at one of the galleries in the village.
Louis Comfort Tiffany invented copper foiling. Before his time glass pieces were surrounded with a lead channel, the lead soldered at the seams and filled with grout. The Tiffany technique made for much more slender and elegant channeling around the stained glass and correspondingly a much greater transmission of light. It was a superior lamp shade, and Tiffany set up a studio in New York City, where he sold them for what would amount to a year’s pay for most people. He based most of his designs on nature–leaves and flowers and branches–and made lampshades both for kerosene lanterns, which were still widely used, and for electric lamps, which were relatively new.
After the Tiffany exhibit we stopped at the blacksmith shop, and he put on quite a show. He began by playing a tune on the anvil with his hammer–the first “heavy metal music”, he said. He proceeded to show how to fire up a coke fire. Coal, when partially burned, turns to coke, which produces a hot fire without smoke or fumes. He heated a steel bar, cranking a hand-powered fan to add heat and pouring water around the edges, which sounds counter-intuitive, but above 1500ºF water breaks into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, producing an even hotter fire. When his rod was heated to a bright yellow he banged it into a leaf shape on the anvil, adding small pieces, shaping the leaf’s veins and details. He then cut it from the rod by beating it over a sharp edge, heated the stem, beat it slender and added a curve to make it into a fob for a keychain. A very interesting  and informative presentation, after which I asked him a few questions. He’d grown up a few miles away in Tennessee, and had been a blacksmith all his life, making his first leaf when he was 15. He never wore gloves–he said when you don’t wear gloves your hands make their own gloves–and had been working at the Biltmore, demonstrating blacksmithing, maintaining the estate, for fourteen years. I showed him my puzzle rings.
Perri and I stopped for a picnic in the park before going to the local Aldi’s grocery and the Goodwill. Aldi is a German chain which operates in the most minimal way possible and offers great prices; I needed a pair of pantsl because I’d mistakenly packed my son’s pants for the ceremony instead of mine. The Goodwill in Asheville was a good one; we got several very nice shirts, a set of ruby-glass goblets and gave $1 for a jigsaw puzzle we’d seen selling at the Biltmore that afternoon for $12. The ruby goblets were particularly a prize; I’ve always picked up colored glassware to use around the house, with the intention of using any broken glass in my kaleidoscopes. There’s plenty of green, brown, blue and yellow available, but red glass is expensive and rare. “Red” glassware is usually a thin film coating over clear, useless for kaleidoscopes, as the coating flakes off and sticks to the inside of the color wheel.
About Television
We went back to the Holiday Inn to make a few sandwiches for dinner and watch television. Since the kids were born we haven’t had cable TV, so television’s something of a treat for them, though when I was in my 20s we didn’t have a television in the house at all. No computer or internet, either, so it’s not the same for them, as they see a fair number of shows over the air, pulled up on the internet or on DVD, plus movies and games.  From late 1973 to about 1985 I didn’t watch television, and feel it was a great advantage. I learned many skills I wouldn’t have bothered with had I been sitting in front of the boob tube. Instead of watching Laverne & Shirley, I was making ever more elaborate puzzle rings from silver and gold. I learned to sew, to make bamboo flutes, wooden toys. I made metal sculptures with an acetylene torch, learned how to throw pots, paint signs. The only disadvantage was that when I heard a joke, it’d almost certainly have been told on Saturday Night Live or Happy Days or Saved by the Bell, and what I found fresh and funny and new would’ve been heard by others several times before. My cultural references stopped. When everyone was breathless over Who Shot JR, I didn’t have any idea who JR was and when my friends said “Dyn-O-Mite!” I had no clue why. I made things and read books, I didn’t watch shows. Working at the school I cleaned up and on my lunch hour read kids’ books. When I sold ski tickets I read a book a day. In the afternoons I’d bang out rings, sew hats, play harmonica. I’d read a book while lying in bed instead of watching Jay Leno.
We’re not anti-technology. I think it was great for me not to have a TV all those years, but we have one now, in our bedroom with an over-the-air antenna. In the living room we have one hooked up to a DVD, VCR and Netflix, and the kids have devices to play games. They can use them whenever they’ve done their schoolwork and chores, but we have control.
Edward has an X-box, which I had to take apart a couple times to open the DVD drawer. I finally removed the entire plastic case. The warranty is, of course, voided, but since when is a warranty worth the hassle? On most fairly cheap items the “shipping and handling” charge is equal to the original price! This is no warranty at all, and should be clearly stated on the package. Harry Truman once proposed a law that whoever manufactured a product would be required to provide replacement parts for 25 years. I have hundreds of VCR tapes which I have no intention of trashing, but they’re only playable on VCRs, which are less and less available. I pick them up for $5 or $10 at the thrift store, but if one craps out it can’t be fixed. I once picked up a fancy VCR which originally sold for a thousand dollars and was worthy of the price–case of cast aluminum, solid steel parts–but was made before remote controls, so it sold for $1. I used it for years but when a minor part wore out it was unavailable at any price, and a VCR which had given good service for fifteen years was a piece of junk for want of a $2 part. By then a new VCR sold for $25, but it was plastic. It wouldn’t last a fifth as long.
It’s a mixed bag. Had Harry Truman had his way, no new VCRs would’ve been available at $25, but parts for quality VCRs would have kept most out of the landfill. Electronic products have a short life, but why is debatable; many are simply obsolete. At the school sale there were entire pallets stacked with computers, shrink-wrapped, 6 feet high, for a dollar. No takers. Huge, heavy, fancy rear-projection TVs which sold for thousands were five years later selling for $100, and cell phones more than a few years old are worth nothing at all. Twenty-five years is too long to be practical, but five or ten would be nice.
I propose a similar law. No crazy screws. All products should be serviceable with regular tools. I like puttering with old mechanical things, and they don’t have screws with a triangle on top. I’m glad to see them in demand, too. Typewriters I picked up for $5 years ago are being refurbished and sold for hundreds. Old box cameras I paid 59¢ for as a child are $50 and up. Antique sewing machines I’d buy for $20 sell for hundreds. Old toasters, coffee pots, fans, clocks, movie projectors, adding machines sit in the corner of my attic. My wife isn’t always happy, but love me, love my junk.
Fran’s letter was written on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. She and Ray had just returned from a lovely honeymoon in Jamaica and she was the happiest she’d been in years. Ray had found a job after almost a year, and she’d put the chaos behind her. Her oldest son, his wife and daughter lived close by, her daughter not many miles away and her second son was doing well in school. Sam was happy with his new job, for an accounting firm, but Barry was dealing with Verizon termination #2, but with Sam’s income, the second job loss didn’t hurt so much. Robin held the robin until November, which was National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write a  50,000 word novel in a month, and in 30 days he had a first draft. Not necessarily a good novel, he pointed out, and described his as “horrendous”, involving telepathic mind-controlling space aliens and too many plot twists to follow. Luanne had discovered ultra-couponing, and they’d seen a candy display at the pharmacy with candy at 99¢, buy one, get one free.  In addition, there were 50¢ coupons on each package, so after the coupons, they were–free!  He bought them all–a dozen bars or so–for a few cents in sales tax.
I continued my memoirs and decided I’d be all scribbled out at 1000 pages.  I typed 130 pages and took it to the mountains at Thanksgiving.  My sister’d also been writing a book, a new version, balanced, fair, well written. She related a hilarious tale from the first grade. Seeing that her friends with bag lunches could trade sandwiches and desserts, she decided she wanted a bag lunch as well.  It became a test of her mother’s love. Mother failed miserably. Instead of making a sandwich, she had Genny make her own sandwich.  Strike one.  She packed an apple for dessert, worthless for a trade.  Strike two.  Finally, she packed it in a grocery bag instead of a lunch-sized bag.  Strike three, her mother didn’t love her! She was so overcome by emotion she sat under a pine tree, cried and was late for school.  When she arrived the teacher saw she was upset, but instead of telling the teacher that her mother didn’t love her and her lunch bag was too big, she said three boys had chased her.
Well, the principal was called – a huge man – and vowed to “get to the bottom of this.”  Genny couldn’t identify any of the mythical bullies, since there weren’t any, and it was resolved with Genny promising to identify the bullies and praying to God not to tell Santa Claus what a bad girl she’d been, lying about her lunch.
We all read to each other, and mother cleared up a few details I’d scrambled.  It was interesting to hear the same incidents from three perspectives, and the unfamiliar details in the lives of other family members. My project was a retelling of my life, a time-lime, with detours for philosophy, the outline rudimentary. At eleven I’d started a diary, and I maintained a journal or record until my late twenties. I stopped because they didn’t seem to do me much good. Page after page of failed romances, I felt like hell.  It didn’t occur to me that the hell was a psychological tape loop installed by the manufacturer, that there wasn’t a plan my father wouldn’t overturn, that any business, project dream or romance would end with a torpedo to the gut.  It surprised me that writing memoirs worked so strongly on my emotions. Scribbling on paper reminded me of the endless treacheries, guilt mongering, worthless promises forgotten before they were made. My own lack of willingness to forgive.
It’s popular to state one should forgive whether another deserves it or not. It didn’t work for me. He’d aced me out of every family activity; I was in none of the plays–Life with Father, A Christmas Carol, Peter Pan–in which everyone else participated. I didn’t go to school with any of my siblings. I was in none of the movies, commercials. I was eighteen before I took part in a family production, the band, and at the pinnacle of our success my father slapped away my first fan. He gutted me, for no reason other than I was liked.
I’m better than he was. I respect my kids. I don’t hurt them, steal their things, feed them rancid and insulting “insights” dressed up as psychology. I treat them right, don’t tear them down, don’t give their things away, sell them without consent, belittle their accomplishments. If I make a promise I try to keep it. A couple years ago I was given a van and thought about selling my Cadillac, which I’d promised to Edward. I saw that he’d be hurt if I sold it, and didn’t. That was the right thing. It made me feel good. Pretending a forgiveness that I didn’t feel, didn’t.  Truth counts. I count. I have integrity. I believe in myself, my essential honesty. That means something. It’s important. Powerful.
I can forgive my father for stealing my tools, wrecking my pond, keeping more than his half of profits, breaking promises. What I won’t forgive is intangible. The contention that others should be forgiven for one’s own comfort–well meaning and truthful as it is for many–is to me the same oppressive crap I was forced into agreeing with when I’d signed up for algebra instead of wood shop.  What is liberating to me isn’t forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it. I did that for years. I made excuses. My father was a prisoner. His father was a tyrant. Etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. and etc. I forgave him and forgave again, again, again. Still felt like crap.  The truth was, I did forgive him, for everything except that which he took which had no value to him, to anyone but me. My glory.
I won’t pretend to give it a pass. Forgiveness, like respect, is earned. Whatever there is of karma or limbo or heaven and hell or purgatory or repentance, that is for his soul, not mine. I have no guilt for what I don’t feel. He never made things right. That’s the truth, and it gives me peace. The universe can forgive him. It’s not my responsibility. When the fires of hell burn out, he’ll be forgiven.
Back to the Future, Sort Of
Christmas came on December 25th, surprising no one. We didn’t have a lot of money, for the fifth or sixth year in a row, but money is the least of considerations at Christmastime. We spent $100 or so at thrift stores and discount outlets, and made several of our presents for each other. Edward made a  cute pillow with a funny face, long arms and legs for Clara Kate. Perri made multi-color monkey pillows for the kids which wrapped around their necks. I’d planned to make hats, but the others had tied up the sewing machine for so long and I didn’t have the time. The weather was mild, the house peaceful and warm.
On the final day of 2011 I’d scribbled one thousand pages of  this narrative on twelve legal pads, and after four years and uncounted retellings and rereadings of favorite episodes as bedtime stories, countless questions to my parents, siblings, cousins, friends as to what happened that time so many years ago, and who was there, can you get in touch with them, how did it happen, was that before or after the other thing? At the end of all that, in the hours before the New Year, for no reason other than a thousand pages seemed a good place to stop, I wrote–

My Parents Met Onstage

I hadn’t been born. It was an outdoor drama, “Horn in the West”, and they were the stars of the show. When my mother carried off a prop anvil which had carelessly been left onstage after a scene change, my father knew she was the girl for him! They were married in October, and I was introduced to the cast in June.

My story up to age 18 is covered in the big hit movie, “Bozo’s Boy”, which has yet to be produced. In the meantime you’ll have to read the book.

My parents had moved from North Carolina to New York that fall to star in several hit Broadway shows, including “The Mikado”, “Kiss Me Kate”, “The Seven Year Itch”, and “Oklahoma!”. They didn’t star in any of them, though, and returned to North Carolina after my birth, where the part of Three Week Old Baby was written into the script to take advantage of my talent. After the success of my inaugural season, we moved to Colorado, where my father starred in several kiddie shows on TV until, as part of a negotiating strategy, he told the management to shove a plaster giraffe up their ass. They elected not to, and my father instead took a lucrative offer as Third Chair in Harold’s Barber Shop. He moved up quickly, nine years and five kids later buying the shop from Harold and renaming it The Mayfair.

My youngest brother at the age of eleven made a movie for Disney, and when my father visited Disneyland he found a Magical Kingdom and decided the family should move. We bought an equipment rental yard on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, and my father, brother and I drove out in June. The rest of the family followed at the end of the summer.

Everyone Comes to Hollywood

It was late August when they arrived. My 1930 Ford Model A was towed behind a U-Haul van, my blue 1964 Falcon Futura behind the family’s yellow 1965 Ford station wagon, and everyone else came to California–as my youngest brother put it in a song, “A car and a van and a Model A, Going their westward way.” The caravan pulled into a little house at 8601 Barr Lane in Garden Grove, and I drove my own car to work instead of the company truck.

Very soon my parents bought a much bigger house in Granada Hills, at 17541 Minnehaha St., from the performer Bo Diddley. It had a huge swimming pool, five bedrooms, a recording studio, a guest house, a wrap-around driveway, a fountain, a guest house which became my room and a couple utility buildings which became my brother’s, but we couldn’t move in for two months because of escrow complications. We crammed into the little house which my father had rented from his actor friend Burt Douglas, who had a regular gig on the soap opera All My Children.

My parents hadn’t wanted my brothers and sisters to start school in Orange County and then leave a few weeks later for Granada Hills, but that’s what happened. Then as now Orange County was right-wing politically, which didn’t suit any of us. I didn’t like being surrounded by the city, my brother didn’t want more run-ins with the cops, and my other brother and especially my three younger sisters didn’t know or appreciate the minutiae of suburban southern California teenybopper society. It was a relief to everyone when we left for the San Fernando Valley.

I liked the Valley. Frank Zappa and others made fun of it, but it wasn’t so surrounded by the city. I drove through the Hollywood Hills to get to work, on Benedict Canyon, Coldwater Canyon, Beverly Glen and Mulholland Drive, and on weekends could go to Topanga Canyon and find beaches which were, if not deserted, weren’t crowded either. I was learning to relax, for the first time in my life. I grew my hair longer, and made a couple macramé headbands to keep it out of my eyes. I wore the clothes I liked. I read a book called “Better Eyesight Without Glasses” and quit wearing glasses. My brother, new to glasses, also quit, and for awhile I borrowed his weaker glasses while my eyes adjusted. I made a floppy hat out of colorful scraps when I couldn’t find one big enough to fit my big head. I started studying astrology in earnest. For the first time I considered that maybe I didn’t want to go straight back into college at warp speed. Maybe I should smell the flowers first.

It wasn’t without bumps, though. I knew only one person in California close to my age. Jan was a year older, but as I’d been promoted in the first grade, everyone I’d gone to school with was a year older. She was going to school at the University of Redlands, a couple hours from LA but a thousand miles from Denver. She was in college with a guy who’d gone to the same high school for the same three years as I, but when we met, he and I vaguely recalled a few mutual acquaintances. It was a big, anonymous school.

Jan surprised us a month after we’d moved to Granada Hills, brought her guitar, stayed overnight and went with us to the beach the next day. I had her phone number and on Sundays when I was alone at the  I’d call her from the back room with a list of topics to bring up sitting on the desk and talk for a little bit from my crib sheet, then sit for some minutes more, silently, when I ran out of stuff to say. I felt like a complete weirdo but she was very patient, it was sort of a ritual. I went to visit her one weekend in Redlands and she and I drove around, visited a few places, held hands and cuddled a little bit, but never kissed. My parents thought we had a romance going but it was never even close. She was way more experienced. I was 18 but might as well have been 12; I’d been promoted in the first grade, was younger and smaller all through school and had no girlfriends at all. She’d had boyfriends for five or six years.

I’d been living in Granada Hills for a month or so when I saw a 1931 Model A truck pull into a gas station. I stopped and asked the driver about his truck. He was a Model A mechanic and had been getting it ready to sell. I got his number, thinking he could work on my car.

Two days later, my mother was driving my Falcon. She stopped for a stop light and was creamed in the rear by a fellow who didn’t switch lanes in time. The rusty old nasty water that had accumulated in the bottom of the air conditioning unit beneath the dashboard hit the fan and sprayed everyone in the front seat with what appeared to be blood, but fortunately wasn’t. The rear end was crunched badly; the wheel well was dented tight against the rear driver-side tire, the bumper was dragging the ground, the frame was bent and the trunk lid permanently popped open. It was totaled for insurance purposes and suddenly I needed transportation. I called the fellow with the Model A truck. He wanted $650 for the truck and a few extra parts; I gave him $600 with a promise to buy the rest in a week and had my second Model A.

It had a story to go with it. The cab had been switched by a farmer who had used it as a pickup truck, but the chassis had been custom-built by Ford in 1931 with its frame extended 18 inches, making the wheelbase the length a Double A truck. There’d been four built for the Helms Bakery on Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach and one had been wrecked, so it was one of three on the West Coast. I got the original panels and cowl, but the body was rough, the chassis sagged and the wheels had been slapped on from much later vehicles. I went to work, chaining its front and back ends between a Lincoln and my now-wrecked Falcon, jacked up the bowed part of the chassis and left it for a week.

When the chassis was straight, the body didn’t fit! The fenders had been bolted into a new set of holes  and now pointed up and out ten or fifteen degrees! I bolted them into the original holes. Off came the cab and the homemade pickup bed. I was for awhile driving a chassis, with nothing more than a cowl, a windshield and two doors. It didn’t even have a proper seat, just a cushion to sit on while I held on tightly to the steering wheel. Dangerous, of course, but by summer’s end it had fenders, headlights, horn and most of a cab. some of the parts exchanged from my other Model A. I bought three 19-inch wheels and tires for the front and spare; the wheels on the back were from a 1930s car and though they were fatter they looked good on the truck.  A further consideration was the steering gear, made for skinny 19” tires. With wider treads, the steering was stiff, needed frequent adjustment and wore out faster, but in the rear they gave better traction.

I had to replace the horn/light switch, which on a Model A is located in the center of the steering wheel. A long sleeve goes to the base of the steering column; if it  gets bent the lights can turn off or go from bright to dim in a turn. Nowadays there’d be a recall; in the 30s you’d pull it out, straighten it, buy a new one or live with it.

There were plenty of things you’d live with on a Model A. This is true of any old car–a friend of mine once made a listed what a friend should know before driving his Volkswagen, filled up a sheet of paper and started on the back–but driving a Model A was always an adventure. To start it you’d climb in the driver’s seat, reach behind the steering wheel, set the throttle lever on one side, the spark advance on the other, reach under the gas tank in the dashboard, flip the gas valve, reach to the far side of the passenger compartment, twist the choke button to set the gas/air mixture, put the key in the ignition switch, flip it on, step on the clutch, put the transmission in neutral, step on the starter button and fiddle with the choke, gas pedal and throttle until the engine started, set the spark advance forward and fiddle with the choke and gas pedal a bit more until it ran smoothly.

That was on a good day. On a bad day the engine wouldn’t start, and you’d have to troubleshoot.

It wasn’t uncommon for the battery to be dead. Outside of the obvious–the lights had been left on, the starter had been cranked until the juice was gone–there were several other possibilities, one of them particularly frustrating. There was a cut-out switch on the top of the generator to prevent overcharging the battery, but it’d stick at times and quickly drain the battery while the car was parked. The only way to know it was stuck would be to look to the ammeter on the dashboard; if the ammeter was on “discharge”, you’d have to open the hood, give the cut-out switch a sharp whack and check it again.

There could also be a worn spot in the fabric-encased wiring which would short out against the frame. You could feel under and inside the chassis for a hot wire, and wrap a little tape around the bad spot. Maybe there’d be a broken wire or loose connection to the generator, or corrosion preventing the battery in its cradle below the floorboards from charging. In any case, it’d be time to pull out the hand crank.

It takes less power to run an engine than to start it–less than just about anything else on the car, especially with Model A wiring.  If you can start the engine it’ll run, unless the battery’s stone-dead and the generator trashed. The brake light’s dim, the horn doesn’t blow, turn on the headlights and everything might shut down, but if it’ll crank, it’ll run. Experienced Model A drivers would keep the crank in a handy spot and tie a wire to the choke so as to be able to manipulate it from the front. You’d set the hand brake, put the transmission in neutral, push the spark advance lever all the way to the top, pull the throttle down a little, flip the gas valve open, adjust the gas/air mixture from inside the cab, grab the crank and go to the front of the car. You’d slip it into the special hole below the radiator, pull the wire attached to the choke and with four fingers–but NOT your thumb– wrapped around the crank, pull up sharply. With luck it’d start on the second or third crank–rarely the first–but sometimes it’d take a lot more fiddling with the choke, spark advance, gas/air mixture and–particularly if you’d forgotten to push the spark advance lever all the way up–it’d fire too soon in the stroke and kick back forcefully (the reason not to wrap the thumb around the crank, which tugs the forearm down while the crank comes around and smacks it with enough force to remind one why not to use the thumb!).  If none of this worked, you’d either pull up the floorboards and hook up jumper cables, remembering that the Model A had a POSITIVE and not NEGATIVE ground, and to disconnect a 12-volt battery IMMEDIATELY when the engine caught so as not to fry its feeble little 6-volt system. The other option was to push the truck, hop in, stuff the transmission into 2nd gear and pop the clutch. It was surprising how easily the truck started with one of these methods. I often went months at a time with a broken starter or weak generator.

In the fading summer of our second year in Hollywood I took the truck to the beach. There’s a beautiful 8mm film of my siblings and Jan with hair blowing in the breeze as they cruised down the freeway sprawled on the truck’s flat bed, unencumbered by seatbelts or seats or sideboards or any restraints at all, lounging on pillows and towels or hanging onto the cab and riding on the running boards, a beautiful California afternoon. We drove through the hippie town of Topanga and continued on to an uncrowded beach. The beaches in California tend to slope steeply into the ocean and the surf is more powerful than is found on the east coast, which makes it fun to crash through and body surf. It was a lovely day. I shook the sand out of my sneakers and into the cab of the truck, purposely planning to drive one day from coast to coast and mix the sand of the Pacific with that of the Atlantic. It’s got a couple hundred miles to go.

In October of 1971 I lost my virginity, sort of. I was driving home from work after a long hot day and saw a hitchhiker–a girl! I picked her up. I asked where she was going. She said, “some private place”. We went to the nearest alley as she grabbed and massaged my crotch and pulled off her panties. She easily unzipped my jeans, pulling down the zipper with one hand as she explained that she did this for money–but I told her that though I was eager enough, I only had two dollars in my wallet and needed gas to get home. She smiled and gave me a goofy look and in a fake Brooklyn accent asked, “Yah gottah quaddah?”

Oh yes, I had a quarter. I fished it out, we started fumbling around and HONKKK!!!  Someone was behind us. I moved the truck to another alley. More fumbling. HONKKK!!! Someone in front of us. Moved the truck again, to a quieter spot. She climbed on top of me and we got started this time. HONKKK!!! In back again. I pulled up my pants, pulled down my shirt and drove on. I told her I couldn’t do this anymore. I felt bad, but I was freaked out, a nervous wreck anyway, and the circumstances didn’t help. I dropped her off, went to the gas station and drove home. When I took a shower that afternoon I felt tingly all over. It was the first time I’d ever seen a naked, unrelated woman in the flesh; the first time I’d ever put my thingy in her warm wet place, felt her nipples rub my chest, first time any woman had been physically interested in me. My life changed. My attitudes changed. My confidence grew. It was wonderful. 

I was someone I hadn’t been before. I’d never been athletic in school; I’d been smaller and younger, so what was the point? I wore glasses and studied science and math because I was supposed to, but I wasn’t happy being the kid genius, I was depressed as hell.

My plan had been to take a year off before college, since I was 16 when I’d graduated anyway, but when the year had passed all I knew was I didn’t want to wear a lab coat. I didn’t have a plan. I was floating–not drifting, as down a lazy river, but floating, as in face down in a pond. I couldn’t imagine college or any professional career as anything but pressure, distress, tension, heartache, despair. I avoided the decision. Avoided everything. I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a rocket scientist, but I didn’t know what or who I was. I’d discovered that my night job in the hippie part of town had given me a cachet in my suburban neighborhood, but I’d left Denver too soon to take advantage of it. Girls were starting to notice me, once two cute girls had learned my name and exclaimed, “YOU’RE Dave Austin? Oh, I’ve heard about you SO many times but you’ve always been asleep or working or…”, and went on for awhile with the reputation, the celebrity status I’d achieved in the neighborhood as a mysterious unseen wizard, without me realizing it.

I don’t know where or if I’d have gone to college after that summer but it didn’t happen. We packed up and went to Hollywood.

My youngest brother Sam had skated through the fights Rob and I got into with our father, who yelled at me when I was around, and Rob when I wasn’t. Sam was acted in plays, made 8mm movies with our three younger sisters, practiced the piano.  I liked the piano, but when I plunked out a few notes, Sam ran in and took over. My parents let him, “reminding” me I had “homework.” Now we’d have a family band.

I took up drums, and did very well. My brother Rob played guitar, Sam piano, and our sisters danced and sang.  We got a choreographer. We rehearsed. We did well in Hollywood, our greatest triumph being the Troubadour.

The Troubadour is a music hall in West Hollywood. They had a talent night each Thursday, featuring a dozen bands. The best three each week came back on the final Thursday. We did. The best band for the month was then invited to perform at the end of the year. We did. We were one of the best twelve of the year!

There was a problem, though, for me. After the first show a fellow came up to me and told me I was FANTASTIC! My brother had suddenly slowed the beat in the middle of a song, and he enthusiastically told me how GREAT it was when I’d INSTANTLY picked up on the new beat – but I didn’t even get a chance to respond. My father, who’d been standing beside me, jumped between us, grabbed him around the shoulder and moved in, physically, walking him away, shoving him along, saying yes, he’s a good drummer, but–shooting me a dirty look while my fan made several attempts to tell me how great I was, talking over his shoulder, praising me. Praising me. My fan. My father stole my fan from me. My first fan.

I played at the end of the month, but I felt horrible. I had ashes in my mouth. I was empty. Spent. I left the band. For the year end performance Rob brought in a couple of friends. I couldn’t play drums anymore. I spent my off-time riding a unicycle and juggling, vaguely planning to join a circus. It was many years before I realized that why I felt so bad had nothing to do with performing. I’d always wanted to be the best, fastest, most capable, a performance artist in whatever job I’d had. Bagging groceries, running a cash register, playing drums, I was the fastest, the best–but in the family band I was nothing, nothing. Sam and the girls were the stars. Rob wrote a few songs. I was just a drummer. Replaceable. Disposable.

The Valley

Girls my age never seemed to find me attractive; they needed to be at least three years older or younger. At eighteen, I attracted the older sisters of my friends, and the friends of my younger siblings.

The first young and pretty woman who took an other than academic interest in me was my high school sociology teacher. I’d been practicing writing with my left hand, as I felt the need to improve my dexterity, and she had a hard time reading it. I was delighted to come in after school and read it for her. We discussed life, school, dating and such in a relaxed, candid, humorous way. Nothing remotely improper took place, but to an undersized kid of fourteen, flirty conversations with a beautiful gal of 23 were a revelation.

Mindy’s cousin Judy, who had the same name as my sociology teacher, was  also nine years older and about the same age as the hitchhiker I’d picked up a few weeks before. She’d been a nun, but had recently married and was about five months pregnant. We talked philosophy and astrology, and she found me interesting. 

It was a small Halloween party; Mindy, Joni, Judy, my brother, a couple other folks and I were at Judy’s house, and we had some beer and wine coolers. Joni had on a Wonder Woman costume and announced to all that it’d be pretty well impossible to grope her in it. I bet her I could. She sat on the arm of the couch and invited me to try. I spiraled a finger inside her shiny leotard, up and over the red panty hose, inside her frilly pink panties and fumbled around until I found her warm wet spot. Joni scooted off, but Judy, who’d been watching, quickly took her place. We had a short conversation, mostly about astrology, and she was much more forward with me than any girl I’d known before. After chatting she invited me into the bedroom.

Her breasts were full and round, her nipples dark and large. Mindy opened the door to use the spare bathroom, and Judy shooed her away. I was very quickly on top of her and in her, which for me was still unfamiliar territory. She had a little bit of a belly, which I didn’t mind at all, but she got to thinking and said we shouldn’t be doing this. I wasn’t thinking anything at all, but I tried to reassure her. I didn’t phrase it very well and she thought I meant it was OK because she couldn’t get pregnant, which wasn’t at all what I was trying to say. She settled down, but the mood was gone. We pulled on our clothes and rejoined the party. Everything was fine, but after the party broke up I never saw Judy again. I talked with Mindy a few days later. I told her I was drunk, she said Judy was too. We had a nice conversation. I told her I liked the blouse she had on, which had a little peep-hole in the cleavage. Things heated up with me and Mindy, we went to my house and quickly stripped down and did it, two or three times. She was a little stiff and nervous and I was too, but we were both exuberant and happy nonetheless to be naked together and doing it. I really appreciated my separate little guest house. Mindy and I talked and pranced around naked and nobody heard or bothered us.

So, finally and joyously, I was indisputably, in every way not a virgin. It  was the fall of 1972, or what passed for the fall in the San Fernando Valley, where a few sparkles in the air is a snowstorm that’s talked about for weeks–and fall was when I met my first real girlfriend. Tumbling around with Judy and Mindy and Joni was nice, but outside of a desire to party none of us had much to talk about. I liked them, a lot, but we didn’t have that indefinable spark.

Late in 1972 I met a girl from my brother’s circle, named Liz. I was 19, she 16. She was different! Both our fathers had been in Germany in the second World War–mine on the American side, hers on the German.  She wore glasses. I told her I used to–in fact I’d only completely stopped wearing mine a few months before. We talked about eye exercises and astrology and a number of things. I told her I didn’t wear leather and was a vegetarian, and she surprised me by telling me she had been, too. Late in the afternoon I kissed her, a luscious, wonderful, amazing kiss! I tingled all over! I had a girlfriend, an actual girlfriend! The next time I saw her, three or four days later, she was vegetarian again, had quit wearing glasses and didn’t wear leather. I saw her often after that, we’d kiss, make out and she’d gladly let me feel her body. That was as far as we got before I had to leave California.

It was unfortunate that I had to move back to Colorado, but the rental yard had been sold, I had no means of support, few acquaintances in California and my parents were moving the rest of the family to North Carolina at the end of the January. I went to stay with friends in Colorado while she finished high school. We had a yard sale, I sold my four-door Model A and my 1964 Futura (I sold the air conditioning from it for $25 and the car itself, which not only had been wrecked but needed a clutch, for $5). I packed my TV, my Lambretta scooter and the rest of my stuff on my 42-year-old truck, said a tearful goodbye to Liz, promised to write and left California on the last Friday in January. A couple hundred miles down the road, I discovered my father had stolen my toolbox.

I don’t know why. They were my tools. He knew it. He had his own tools, but he stole mine, from the cab of my truck, before he left. Spitefulness? Petty jealousy? Pure ugliness? Beats me. He was a piece of work.

So I drove north to Lancaster and started east. Before I left California I was stopped by the highway patrol; my plates were the wrong kind for me to be hauling stuff in the truck. He contended it was a commercial activity, I’d need commercial registration, etc. etc., but as it was all my own stuff and I was leaving the state he let me go. I drove through the night into Arizona, pulled over by the roadside and got a few hours’ sleep, but discovered I couldn’t start the truck in the morning. I knew the problem–the engine was out of adjustment for the change in altitude–but I had no tools to work on it, save a vise grips, a pair of pliers and a single large screwdriver, my father having stolen the rest. An Arizona cop came by, we talked a bit about the truck and he gave me a push. It started, and I resolved to park it on a hill afterwards. I stopped for breakfast at a Denny’s restaurant in Flagstaff just at sunrise. I spent a long time in the parking lot, watching the colors change from indigo through magenta and pink and red and yellow, with shades of blue and orange and green filling the mountains and valleys, and thought seriously about staying right there. With $300 in my pocket, I could’ve rented a place, found a job, fixed my truck and stayed right there. I thought about it for a long time, but I’d already planned to go to Denver and get an apartment with my best friend, so that’s what I did. What would’ve happened if I’d stayed in Flagstaff that 29th of January in 1973 is one of my great unknowns.

I spent the rest of the day being a tourist in Arizona, seeing the places my father’d always breezed past at seventy miles an hour–the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest. Chatted in the tourist shops, gabbed with the few folks poking around in January. The truck wasn’t hard to start when it was warm, though I had to use the hand crank. I made New Mexico late that night, and pulled off at the top of an entrance ramp for the night. It was a very cold night indeed. I woke up, freezing, and tried to start the truck so as to produce a little heat–there wasn’t a heater in the cab, but a little residual heat would seep through the floorboards. I couldn’t get it started, so I stamped around and shivered and napped fitfully. At dawn I rolled down the ramp and the truck started, but a few miles down the road the right front fender, which had been flapping for awhile in the breeze, tore off. While I went back, picked it up and secured the headlight rail, the engine died, and I couldn’t t start it. A cop called a tow truck, who towed me about twelve miles down the road. I borrowed a couple tools and got the truck running. The guys in the gas station all wanted to talk about my 1931 A-model truck and while chatting one remarked that they’d like to have a TV in the place. I gave them my TV in exchange for the tow bill as another fellow pulled up. Dan turned out to be a Bizarro-world reflection of me, a curly-haired blonde hippie of 19 whose name started with “D”, in a 1949 Dodge truck with starter trouble. It occurred to me that  “1949” and “1931” added up the same, numerologically; in fact 4+9=13, which was the reflection of 31, and “DODGE” was numerologically the same as “FORD A”. We were going in opposite directions, driving the same route (indeed the only sane route to take in January) to destinations an hour north of the other’s starting point, both of us leaving a city we’d lived in for a couple years for a smaller one where we’d grown up–he was moving from Colorado Springs to Lancaster and I was leaving Los Angeles for Denver. We were both leaving our families, planning to stay with friends, both trucks had starter trouble and both had small motorcycles on the back. Both of us were the oldest in the family and had younger brothers named Rob, and we’d left on the same day. He had a friend a few miles down the road in Santa Fe, so I gave him a ride, which was how we learned we had so many things in common. We drove around Santa Fe until his friend showed up, had a cup of coffee and I left. Santa Fe had a confused set of Route 66 signs, and in trying to stay on the highway I circled around and saw him and his friend coming out of the coffee shop. I stopped to say hi and ask directions, and as I started off again my fender fell off the back. I came around and we loaded it on the bed, so I saw him three times before I was on my way.

As we loaded my fender on the back of the truck, Dan gave me a gram of hash to take with me. I took a toke towards sunset and on the open road in the twilight I was flying, at 55 miles per hour, reading notes in the patterns of the trees on the mountainsides which asked me what I was going to do when I got to Denver and such.

I continued into southern Colorado that night and again parked on an entrance ramp. At sunrise the engine wouldn’t crank. Another cop drove up. I told him what was happening but he didn’t intend to help in any way. There was a little bump where I’d parked, and with the extra weight on the back I couldn’t budge it by myself. Fortunately another fellow in a truck came by, showed me pictures of his own Model A and gave me a shove with his pickup. The engine fired up and I drove the rest of the way to Denver. I parked in front of Monk’s house late that afternoon. It was the last day of January, and very cold. I stayed on his couch that night.

About noon the next day, I got the truck started and drove to the local Model A shop, where they helped me set the timing and adjust the carburetor to the Denver altitude. I got a job cleaning up at the Air Force base where Monk worked, starting the next Monday. We drove to work together and during our time off mostly discussed religion. He’d been going to the Hare Krishna temple and chanting, but as for me, as always, I went to the temple on Sundays, ate the food and argued with the devotees. They could never understand why I didn’t want to join the temple. I was a vegetarian, knew as much about Eastern philosophies and religions as any of them, did a bit of chanting & dancing, but I couldn’t buy the small point of doctrine that we were all FINITE grains of sand in an infinite ocean. Every week it’d come to this. One of the devotees would sit across from me while we were eating and discuss the point, but I’d simply say the sand grains have to be infinite for the ocean to be infinite. A larger and larger pile of sand is still a finite pile of sand. To find infinity, you start with infinity, I’d say. If you cut infinity into sand grains, each grain is infinite, I’d say–but the devotees never saw.

Monk Becomes a Monk

Monk and I saved up our pay that February and looked for an apartment to move into. We went to a couple of places–one was the wrong neighborhood, another was a fellow who wanted repairs in exchange for a low rent, but when we fixed it up our rent would go up–which we decided wasn’t much of a deal. We found an apartment in a building called the Cavendish a few blocks from downtown, on Pearl Street. It was around the corner from the Molly Brown house; the “unsinkable” Molly Brown, who’d been on board the Titanic. We rented an efficiency apartment, all we could afford, but rolled in an extra bed and planned to get a larger place the next month. My stuff was still on my truck and I moved in on Sunday. Monk was planning to move on Monday, but at the temple that night Monk decided to become a devotee.

Well, I was in, but without Monk’s half of the rent I had $1.36 left to last me until payday. I bought some dried lentils, split peas, rice and had enough left over for a 5¢ pack of unsweetened Kool-Aid. For the next week I ate lentils, lentils with split peas, rice, lentils with rice and split peas, rice with lentils or split peas with rice, all washed down with water or vaguely tart, pinkish Kool-Aid. I was happy beyond words when on Friday I had money to buy a few groceries. I bought bread, apple juice, mayonnaise, mustard, tomato, lettuce, cheese, avocado, etc. and ate real sandwiches. I came to love cold lentils, tomato, lettuce, mayo and brown mustard on wheat bread.

One Friday night after work I visited a co-worker at his apartment, we had a couple beers and smoked some grass, as we called it. An hour or two later I left for home. It was about midnight, but I stopped by a grocery store I thought might be open. It wasn’t, so I drove through the parking lot and made a left turn onto Colfax Avenue.

Unfortunately, Colfax Avenue was divided–two lanes one way, a cement divider and two lanes on the far side. I discovered, too late, that I was driving in the far lane of the wrong side. A car blasted its horn. Next chance, half a block later, I made a left turn–the quickest way home, but I was rattled and I ran the stop sign at the next corner.

There was a cop waiting, lights off. He flipped them on, then his flashing red-and-whites (blue lights were in the future). I spun the steering wheel hard right into the nearest driveway, an apartment complex parking lot. I parked in the first open space, shut off my lights and sprinted into the shadows as the cop cruised slowly by. I kept walking; my intent was to come back in twenty minutes. I strolled over to Colfax Avenue and kept walking. A fellow in a Dodge stopped, asked for directions and offered me a ride. I hopped in and told him my story. He was new in town and thought I might know some after-hours club where we could grab some drinks and talk to women. I didn’t know any such places; being under 21 (and looking it) I only knew 3.2 beer joints. He handed me a beer, and we drove a few miles out of town and back again. He had some grass, mixed with a little hash in a briar pipe, and by the time he dropped me back off in town I was flying high. He let me off and I walked around looking for my truck, but I didn’t know exactly where it was. I couldn’t call my friend; I didn’t know his phone number, nor his exact address. I walked home, several miles, and couldn’t get in touch until Monday. I took the bus, walked around an hour or two but couldn’t find my truck, so went back to the apartment and watched TV on Sunday. On Monday night we looked for the truck, but it was dark and we arranged to look again in the daylight. On Tuesday we drove around for a half-hour and finally pulled into a little side-street which turned out to be a dead end. My friend made an exasperated remark and started to turn around, when off in the parking lot, several spaces down, I saw the cab of my truck peeking out! It’d been lost for 3-1/2 days!

I was getting tired of cleaning up at the Air Force base. I got off work too late to have a social life, my best friend was a monk and spring was in the air. One day when I was shopping I met a fellow in the hardware store. He seemed like a nice guy and offered me a job landscaping. I gave my notice at the base.

Lambert Landscaping was based in north Denver, where lots of new houses were going up. He paid better than the cleanup crew, but I soon found landscaping was weather dependent, and sometimes any-other-thing dependent. Some mornings I’d go to work, some mornings not. At first I worked every day and even regularly picked up a certain hitch-hiker who’d give me whatever cigarettes he had left in his pack. I was smoking again, if someone offered me a cigarette, though I bought none. I quit, yet again, after a month or two.

On my days off I’d tune into the Watergate hearings, watching on a small portable TV. Late in the afternoon I’d go out, and one day the one day the gal from the next apartment over was sitting on the porch and said hello. I visited her that afternoon. Shirley was five years older, divorced and far more experienced than I. She worked, she told me, as a party girl in a nearby bar, talking to men and getting them to buy her drinks, which they served her alcohol-free. This satisfied my nonexistent curiosity about what a “party girl” was, then she and I and Donna from across the hall watched TV for awhile. Shirley made everyone sandwiches, then Donna left.

It was a small apartment, and Shirley and I had lounged on the bed while her friend sat on the couch. After her friend left Shirley hiked her skirt above her panties and suggested I come closer. She planted a big open-mouthed kiss on me, unsnapped my cut-off jeans and pulled them down. I was instantly excited as they dropped to the floor. I hadn’t worn underwear–a hippie thing–and so was instantly ready, but stopped long enough to pull off her panties as she wiggled her dress over her head. She had small breasts and didn’t need a bra, though nobody wore a bra at that time anyway. She was wet, and I was stiff. It didn’t take long. We lounged around awhile, then she rose and got a damp towel. She did a few housekeeping chores as I watched her move, naked, then she brought me a cold drink. We watched TV, then did it again. She had to go to work, so we shared another wet kiss and I left for my apartment.

When I kissed her I knew she smoked, but she denied it and said the cigarettes on her windowsill were left by a friend. I saw her every day that week, and when I kissed her I knew she’d quit. I really liked Shirley, did her sewing, drew up astrology charts and walked around the neighborhood with her, but when she started to talk about love I told her, gently, sweetly, honestly as I could that no, I didn’t love her, that I wasn’t sure what I felt about anyone. She was sweet and kind and caring, and I really, really liked her, a lot, but I didn’t want to say I loved her when I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t. That was good enough for her; she hugged me and kissed me and said with great enthusiasm that she really liked me, too, and that’s how things stayed through the fall. I’d see her a few times a week; sometimes we’d go to lunch and sometimes when she had a male visitor she’d turn me away. I didn’t mind; I’d visit her the next time.

Donna would often be at Shirley’s. I wasn’t particularly attracted to Donna, but certainly wasn’t repelled. We’d sit around and tell stories, including our sexual adventures. Donna told me about a boyfriend who liked to jack off on her boobies, and Shirley in a roundabout way mentioned a 3-way, but I was way too dense and naive to understand. It simply sounded strange to me, and never happened. I wasn’t ready.

At least for a few years.

The summer continued. I worked when I could and watched the Watergate hearings when I couldn’t. I’d been writing to Liz in California and she sent a few letters, but not nearly as many as I’d have liked. Despite my domestic arrangements my heart still belonged to Liz, or would have if I hadn’t left. We were inexperienced, and love was a great unknown.

I was finding out things about my employer in the meantime. He seemed a nice guy, but he had a temper. We worked sometimes with two of his young sons, and he’d rage at them, mercilessly, for hours. His name was Bob, his older son Bobby. Bobby was twelve, and when he’d rake dirt or roll sod Bob would hound him, screaming at him to work faster, faster, faster–though Bobby was going as fast as he could. Eventually Bob would punch Bobby in the shoulder, hard. The younger son was named Billy, and Billy got his share of screaming too, though not as many punches. Bob’s wife stayed at home with the other four kids, harried, not happy. Bob had been in prison years before, but I never found out for what. He was 37, and looked middle-aged. He smoked too much, had a pot belly, was graying and balding and the way he raged on all day long I was sure he was headed for a heart attack.

In modern terms, he abused those boys. It wasn’t unusual. He was going to beat up on his boys until they fought back, which I’m sure they did. I took Bobby aside one day and told him that quite soon he was going to be bigger and stronger than his dad, and one day Bobby was going to get smacked around once too often and beat the crap out of his dad. Bobby looked at me with the gratitude reserved for a hero; that only a beaten-down 12-year-old can have towards a 19-year-old who tells them they’re going to turn out all right. I knew I’d changed his life.

Bob’s Landscaping wasn’t well-organized, and got to be less so. Some days we’d get to the job (there was a fellow from Casper, Wyoming whom I’d pick up in the morning) and wait around on Bob til noon. One day we went to Bob’s house and he wasn’t there at all. After waiting a half-hour or so I hot-wired the ’49 Chevy truck and we finished the job.

Towards summer’s end I wasn’t working enough to pay the rent, nor was I paid consistently. I had to do something.

My brother visited California that summer. He went to the old neighborhood for a few weeks and rode the bus back through Denver. Liz came with him. It was lovely to see her again; she stayed a week and we explored the town together. We slept together at night; my brother stayed with a friend.

I was out of money. Rob and I decided to drive to North Carolina. He cashed in his bus ticket, Liz went back to California, my brother and I started East.

Neither of us cared to drive straight through. Our father always did, and we were heartily sick of that habit. We set a course which took us through several states we’d never seen–from Colorado to Nebraska, south through Kansas to Oklahoma, through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. We wanted adventure. We attracted attention; everyone had a story or a question about a Model A. In Nebraska a cop came up to tell us about the road and the towns ahead; in Oklahoma we stopped to read the map in the headlights (there wasn’t a light in the cab) and a couple cops pulled up to chat and help us out. I was accustomed to this; I’d been driving Model As for nearly four years, but it was new for Rob, who’d previously had nothing but bad experiences with cops.

We had a little trouble in Arkansas. The generator gave out in the middle of the night, the lights dimmed, I started moving slower. I passed an exit where there appeared to be nothing and went to the next, where I was pulled over by the flashing red-and-yellow lights of an Arkansas state trooper. I pulled over and shut off the headlights but left the engine running as I explained to the trooper that I wasn’t going the minimum 55 mph then required on the freeway (MINIMUM, not MAXIMUM), due to electrical problems, that I couldn’t shut off the engine for him because I probably wouldn’t be able to start it again; that I pulled off at this exit instead of the last one because I saw a building. He wasn’t happy, but let me go, and my brother and I crashed in the cab, in the parking lot of a factory. In the morning I pulled the generator and we attracted attention from some of the guys who worked there. One of them said he had a Model A generator at home, and at lunch he sold it to us for $10. I put my “new” generator in the truck while Rob drove, and fiddled with the old one. The new generator was charging, but the ammeter needle jumped all over the place. After an hour or two it quit. I put the old generator back in. It worked fine as I cleaned up the “new” generator, adjusted the brushes, put it back together–then my original quit, again. I swapped them out and worked on the old one, then a couple hours later swapped them out again. I finally did some major surgery on the old generator, pulling the old wire a full turn off the fields, scraping the end bare and wrapping it around an exterior screw. When I switched the generators for the sixth time, the original worked! It was fine for the rest of the trip, and for a long time afterwards.

The $10 generator, and a trip to the parts store for tape, wire etc. had put a kink in our piggy bank. We bought a large bag of peanuts and a gallon of apple juice, then reserved the rest for gas. From that point on we drove straight through, yet again. I drove, he slept, he drove, I slept.

The tailpipe and muffler to a Model A are one piece, which attaches to the manifold on the passenger side. Since the floorboards are just that, boards, it’s drafty. If you have to turn around at some point and find yourself bouncing through a ditch that’s a little deeper than it looks, as we did a couple hundred miles from our goal, the tailpipe can get caught on an obstruction and bend the connection to the manifold so that the exhaust gases draft through the floorboards. I took some metal tape I’d bought to do work on the generator (serendipity!) and wrapped over the connection as best I could, but the air in the cab was still polluted, even with both windows rolled down. I periodically woke up my brother to make sure he was OK, and he did the same. We arrived in Boone, NC in the early morning and went to a friend of Rob’s to take showers. Jerry’s apartment was in a long, low building near downtown Boone, supplied by a well. It had the charming habit of running out, not of hot water, but of cold. Rob took his shower, but while I showering the water suddenly went scalding hot. I slammed it off and jumped out, covered with shampoo. I had to wait half an hour before I could finish, covered in suds and goo, and then barely finished before the water went hot again. A couple years later the landlord discovered the entire complex was made of wormy chestnut and was worth ten times as much if he tore them down, so he did.

Rob and I climbed back into the truck and started the 3 miles home, but before we’d gotten halfway the truck quit and coasted down the hill, out of gas. With our last bit of momentum we pulled into a gas station. I had a penny and he had a quarter. We started to pump our last pocket change into the tank when our aunt, uncle and cousins pulled out of the motel across the street. They’d been visiting for the weekend and were leaving for South Carolina, but saw us at the last second. My uncle filled the tank and we all went back to visit for another day. It was supposed to be a surprise that I was coming back, but my father had let the cat out of the bag and all my aunts and cousins were at the house to greet us. He never knew how to  keep a secret.

On the Farm

I unloaded the stuff from my truck and packed it into the little bedroom upstairs where my brotherhad stayed with his friend Arthur. Arthur’s parents had split and he came to North Carolina for six months, lived with my family and after summer vacation he and Rob visited the old neighborhood in California, Arthur to stay.

The old farmhouse had seen better days. It’d been unoccupied for a time after my grandmother had gone to live with my aunt in town. It’d been patched up for some summer renters, but when my parents moved in, January of 1973, was barely habitable. Snow blew through cracks in the walls and the old oil heater in the living room kept one person warm, if that person were sitting on top wrapped in a blanket. The floor had rotted through in a few places, including the bathroom, and had been patched with pieces of plywood. Winter routine was to sleep in long johns, run to the kitchen, make coffee and breakfast and take turns sitting on the heater. My father had set a television aerial way up on the mountain, but the signals for the two or three stations available were so weak and snowy it wasn’t worth the trouble. Everyone listened to the local radio station and little else. The radio station had only recently become legal–for decades, WATA had operated from the middle of downtown Boone with no license at all.

It was a huge change to arrive in September to a town of three or four thousand. I’d lived in cities of half a million plus, but here the “night life” was a single restaurant which closed at 9:30 and didn’t serve beer. The population was overwhelmingly composed of people who’d never been more than a few hundred miles from home. There were a half-dozen beer-and-wine bars in Blowing Rock, eight miles down the road, and a single ABC store which sold liquor. Blowing Rock had held a referendum on alcohol sales a few years before. It was scheduled for February, with the hope that summer residents, who mostly supported sales, would be out of town. Enough of them came back to pass it. Beer was sold warm, however, on the ridiculous theory that maybe nobody would drink a warm beer driving home.

I didn’t know many folks. I had lots of family who knew me, and my brothers and sisters’ friends knew I was their older brother, but I knew none of them. I’d be introduced to to a complete stranger and they’d tell me they were my third cousin from this or that branch of the family, whose uncle had married my grandmother’s brother’s daughter, none of whose names I recognized. I’d drive to the bars and meet girls and knew none of the places they’d been nor what many of their favorite activities were, and sometimes I could hardly understand the dialect. I asked a cute girl one night where she was from. She said “Washington”, and I asked her, “D.C. or the state?”, which seemed a normal question, but she curled into a ball and shyly said, “Washington, North Carolina”, in a way which made me want to pull my foot out of my mouth with pliers. I’d never heard of Washington, North Carolina–or “the first Washington”, as they proudly call themselves. I had no idea where it was, nor any of the places she knew around the state. I could see she felt like a total hick, and there was little I could do to change it.

That was how things were. I wasn’t up on local lore, had little in common, didn’t look, dress, talk or act like a local, and couldn’t find a job. I spent most of my time fixing up the old farmhouse and reading books. I moved out of the claustrophobic bedroom I shared with my brother–the first time I’d ever shared a room–and into an even tinier camper propped up on blocks in the driveway–cramped, but mine.

There were dozens of animals. My father had bought three ponies, a cow, two goats and some chickens. They’d brought my dog Linus, who’d been with us for years, and acquired more dogs and cats.

It was chaos. The chickens perched on chairs on the rotted-out back porch and crapped on everything, the goats climbed on the front porch and crapped on everything, the cats crawled under the beds and crapped in the corners, the ponies broke out and ran everyone ragged, the cow got out and hid in the woods, and the dogs barked at and chased after everything and everyone at all hours.

A Fortune Teller

I’d been working in the rental yard in Hollywood on a slow Sunday. In the parking lot behind us there was a flea market going on, and a dark haired, dark eyed beautiful girl at a card table telling fortunes. She told me a few generalized things–that the situation I was in with the blonde-haired older girl, whom I hadn’t mentioned, would be resolved, that my life was going to be unsettled for a few years and that I’d do a lot of traveling. I pressed her for details about the blonde and she wisely declined to say much–but then started in a direction I hadn’t expected. She saw me in a year and a half or two years across the sea, possibly Hawaii, maybe in the Navy, on a ship named after an Indian princess, something almost, but not quite, Pocahontas. It seemed a fantasy to me, but I was intrigued and asked her if she planned to set up again. She wasn’t sure but said I’d definitely see her. I gave her a dollar and pocket change and went on with my life.

I didn’t think much about it that balmy day in 1972. I was a California hippie, a drummer in a pretty good band, with a job in which I was learning how to use about every tool on the planet. I was strong for the first time in my life, stronger than most guys I knew. I was healthy, and not wearing glasses anymore. I was a sun-bleached blonde with a great tan, attracting female attention for the first time ever. Why would I want to change?

But life changes. A few months later the railroad called in our lease and we had 30 days to get off. It wasn’t exactly a surprise; still, Pete’s had been there for almost thirty years on a 30-day lease.We found a lot in West Covina and tried to make a go of it, but when my grandmother died and my father inherited the farmhouse the way forward was clear. He sold off everything, packed up our two biggest trailers and with two trucks moved back to the farm.

So that January I moved back to Denver and that fall to North Carolina, where I found myself stir-crazy in a little town with nothing to do, no job and no prospects. The house was decrepit–to take a bath hot water had to be siphoned from the sink with a bucket and a tube. I read books when there wasn’t enough money to buy the materials to do the work to fix the house (my father was once again a barber, but barbering was slow in 1973), and so November found me living in a camper in the driveway and reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William Shirer, a massive book. It was the first time I’d investigated the second World War in depth, and it so blew my mind that when I finished its 1600 pages I immediately flipped it over and read it through again. I did very little else for a week, and when I was buttonholed by a fellow coming out of the post office, a fellow in an Army uniform who started talking about the weather and such but soon started trying to recruit me into the Army, I thought about it for a week or so, talked with my father, who as surprised as I by the thought, and decided to join the Navy.


On December 28th, 1973 I signed up. The Navy recruiter got a bonus for getting me in before 1974, but it was nothing to me. The Army recruiter should’ve got the credit.

I rode the plane to the Great Lakes training center with four other North Carolinians. The five of us were split up and became members of two different companies, of about 100 guys each.

We arrived in Chicago just after Christmas. We brought nothing but the clothes on our backs. Uncle Sam was gonna take care of the rest.

Nineteen seventy-three wasn’t a good year for fashion, and none of my woven purple or striped lime green civilian duds obstructed the fierce, bone-chilling winds blowing from Lake Michigan. I was wearing dress-up half-boots made of a new synthetic miracle plastic which froze like iron around my ankles and slipped all over the ice. My shirt and pants, in common with the rest of us from the South, were 100% polyester, the chunky and scratchy kind whose great selling points were that it didn’t shrink, fade or need ironing. After a year or two, it proved so horridly uncomfortable that 100% polyester was universally abandoned, and wrinkles became a fashion statement. I’d bought a new winter coat before I’d left, adequate for North Carolina, but it failed to cover my polyester-clad butt, which in the cold was soon as purple as my pants. We arrived on a Friday and shivered all weekend in the civvies we’d worn flying in, but took cheer waiting in the interminable lines seeing the pea coats and knit wool caps we’d be issued on Monday. On Monday afternoon, New Year’s Eve, we went to get them–and both were out! We got baseball caps, flimsy little windbreaker jackets and raincoats instead, which even all worn together were still totally inadequate. At least we were all  suffering equally now–the guys from New York, Ohio, Minnesota were now wearing the same two layers of cloth as those of us from North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia. It was about ten days before we got pea coats and something to cover our ears.

On Jan 1, 1974 I made a new year’s resolution to quit smoking–yet again. It was easy this time; there was a lounge which was the only place smoking was allowed, where we could go only a couple of times per day. The smell was overwhelming, nasty even by 1973 standards. I stayed in the compartment with the six or eight guys who didn’t smoke, and in a week or two had no desire.

Our company, number 440, was the very last formed in 1973. Based on certain tests, one fellow was chosen as Recruit Chief Petty Officer and wore a chief’s stripes, three chevrons with an arc over the top. Four more guys wore three chevrons with no arc–First Class stripes–and were in charge of various aspects of life in boot camp, including Educational Petty Officer or EPO. A few more were chosen for Second and Third Class stripes, squad leaders and such. I started with two stripes.

The company commander of 440 was a nasty little man, five feet tall and a hundred pounds, with a voice that could cut gravel and a personality to match. He was a gunnery chief with an armful of gold hash marks, representing over 20 years’ service without getting into trouble. Before we left boot camp he’d have neither his chief’s stripes nor his gold.

I managed to stay out of his way and keep my squad in line–not that it was difficult–for the next couple weeks. A few guys dropped out or were held back for various reasons–one was too young, another flunked the physical–and some decided they wanted the hell out and did whatever it took to get their general discharge and go home. Our EPO, another North Carolina guy, climbed into the bunk with another recruit who wanted out, where they were found in the morning. He was replaced as EPO by another of the five North Carolinians, a two-striper like me. By that time I’d been held back myself; I supposedly needed glasses, as did another of our gang of five, and along with a couple other guys we were placed in company 004, one of the first formed in 1974.

I loved Company Four, and found it ironic, this being 440 reversed, sort of. Our company commander was the reverse of the nasty little gunny; a big genial fellow with a spring in his step. We soon had another round of tests and the stripes were shuffled around. I gained a stripe and became EPO for Four, our recruit chief switched with his assistant for the loss of a stripe and an easier job, and the remaining fellow from our group, still in company 440, became Company Clerk. Five of us had flown together from North Carolina, and at the end, from the eight sets of first-class stripes passed among 200 recruits, all five of us wore 3 chevrons out the gate!

Boot camp wasn’t exactly fun, though after joining Company Four it was all right. I was older than most, at 20, which was nice. In school I’d always been the youngest. There were only two guys older than me. One fellow was 31 and had been a chief in the Turkish navy. He’d married an American girl, and received special permission to join the American navy, whose normal cutoff age was 29. Ozkan, or Oscar as we called him, seemed all business, but knew how to game the system. He’d line up in back of the squad when we went to chow and slip undetected onto the rear of whatever squad led the way that day, saving himself ten or fifteen minutes of waiting in the cold. Those of us with stripes on our shoulders would be noticed; we could do no such thing. If our squad was sixth in line, we’d lose twenty minutes of lunchtime. Some guys skipped the meal and hung out in the compartment on the days their squad was at the back, but not me.

There were lots of classes to attend, some interesting, others dull as dirt. I loved the classes on hardware–which ship did what, how they were constructed, propulsion systems, types of instruments, maintenance. We learned the rudiments of what each rating did and suffered through pep talks about joining the sub service or flight crew or the Alaska station, none of which appealed to me. I wanted to be a quartermaster and learn navigation, but was told I’d have to wait 6 months for quartermaster school, but several other ratings were available right now, if I didn’t want to spend that much time in boot.

This was deceptive. I might not have been in boot camp all that time, but that was the impression I got, and I didn’t want a discharge, which was the other option–not exactly leaving in disgrace, but it would’ve been a letdown–so I signed up as a Machinist Mate. It sounded interesting, working on engines and related components, but I didn’t realize Machinist Mates spent almost all their time in “the hole” or engine compartment. It’s incredibly hot and muggy on a steam-driven ship, and you never see your ship pulling into or leaving port. When you’re on deck relaxing you’re in the open ocean, but as soon as you see land, way off on the horizon, it’s down in the hole until you’re docked an hour later.

But I didn’t know. Boot camp was extended two weeks for the holidays and for me another week when I “needed” glasses. We went swimming a few times a week, and were divided into categories based on ability. I was in the “low” category, in that I could swim reasonably well–we’d had a swimming pool in the back yard in California–but I was slower than most.

There was another category, non-swimmers, of which there were a surprising number who’d joined the Navy. Lots of them were black guys, one or two Hispanics, but not white guys. The non-swimmers had to learn to take off their pants, tie knots in the legs, FWOP them full of air and flail across the pool. Only one or two guys couldn’t manage it.

Only once did I handle a gun. This was the Navy, after all, not the Army or the Marines. We filed off to the shooting range, took ten shots with a .22 in standing position, ten in kneeling position and ten lying down. I did well; I’d picked off hundreds of flies with my BB gun as a kid.

Towards the end of boot we had Service Week, a week spent helping run the base. When we’d arrived we’d spent three weeks with our Service Week recruit, as he’d gotten shafted over the holidays for two extra weeks. He seemed utterly poised to the rest of us, though he continually told us he was just a little further along in training. Now it was our turn to be self-assured, as we saw how far we’d come.

We went to various places. I started in the “gedunk” cleaning up and hanging out in the bowling alley at night, where I and one other recruit would manage to sneak a strictly contraband beer or two after hours and talk with the regular sailors from the base or the fleet. After a couple blissful days, however, I was suddenly reassigned to the galley, to wash thousands of clanging, banging steel trays coming down the conveyor covered with grease and chunks of rice. I got through breakfast and partway through lunch before I sat down, covered my ears and refused to budge until they came and got me.

I talked with the shrink for a little while, told him it wasn’t so much the banging and crashing. It was the never quite getting done. Almost finish one set of trays and here would suddenly come two or three or ten more clanging through, loudly, unexpectedly. I didn’t mention the biggest reason, that I was vegetarian and hated smelling like gravy. Boot camp was stressful enough, getting up early, doing hundreds of pushups, etc., but the smell was too much. He said it’d be OK if I wanted to go into the bathroom and cry. I did for a little while. The next day I went to work in the “deep sink”, where I and another guy wore rubber aprons, boots and gloves and used high pressure hot water to wash huge vats used to cook 50 gallons of beans at a time. It was relatively quiet, warm, not as much fun as the gedunk, but the fog and steam were pleasant in midwinter.

By the end of boot camp we’d become a unit. It’s subconscious. We trusted our buddies. If something needed to be done we’d say so and and leave it, secure they wouldn’t screw it up. Unconsciously, we’d walk along chatting and slip into a marching step. General Robert E. Lee, after the war, marched in parades for the rest of his life consciously and purposely out of step, deliberately enjoying the privilege of a civilian.

After Service Week, one side of the compartment had a liberty weekend. They came back the next morning thoroughly trashed and barely able to roll out of their bunks. The next weekend it was our turn, and about a dozen of us took a train ride to Kenosha, Wisconsin. We all wore “bus-driver” dress blues–the uniform chosen by Elmo Zumwalt which everyone hated but all recruits had to wear. We all got drunk and were propositioned by “party girls”. Recruits are a good source of income for them. It always has been, and always will be. A fellow from Kentucky and I were walking along when a couple black girls drove by and asked us if we wanted a date. We said yes, piled into the car and went back to their apartment. I settled with the two of them for $20 apiece, and the plumper one asked me who was dating who. I reached over and pinched her on the butt and she laughed and said to her friend, “he just pinches”. I was tongue-tied, still inexperienced, and hadn’t socialized with a woman in six months. Our date lasted about ten minutes, after which we shared a towel and one of her beers and talked about what it was like to be in the Navy; I was too shy to talk about much else. My friend and her roommate soon emerged from the other room and we all washed up–the Navy had shown us plenty of films about what happened if you didn’t–and parted ways. It was a lovely afternoon. My friend asked me how much he owed me, I told him $20, and he told me I should have “jewed them down” and offered them $10 apiece. Personally, I didn’t care. I was satisfied. 

After our liberty weekend, we were slow to roll out as well. The first-class in charge of the compartment, always a loudmouth, started telling us all to get out, and I, also a first-class, told him to lay off, that none of us had bothered his side the weekend before. He came over, screamed at me and pushed me down. I got back up and nearly punched the fat red stupid turd, but maintained my composure and told him that not a damned one of us was going to leave until we were damned well good and ready. He blustered and shouted and waved his hands, but I went back to my puttering around and told him in a low, menacing voice that I was not leaving and HE couldn’t make me. I stayed in the compartment while his team cleaned up around me. None of the rest left until we were damned well good and ready, and I didn’t leave at all. I gained a lot of respect that day.

One of the few perks of wearing three chevrons was not standing watch. I filled out papers and coached the clueless, but didn’t stand watch. It rotated among the rest of the guys. There was always one guy in the compartment on duty, four-hour shifts all day. There were Eleven General Orders of a Sentry, but the main one was to challenge everyone who came to the door and shout “Attention on Deck!” when anyone who wasn’t a recruit walked in. I’d been on the rotation earlier, and the recruit chief and a few others had taken to the habit of filing into the laundry room late at night for an unauthorized smoke break, in an unauthorized room, at an unauthorized time. There were conflicting duties for a sentry at such a time. The smokers outranked me, and I wasn’t supposed to leave my post, but I was also supposed to notice what was going on. I walked the five steps to the laundry room and told them they were all on report. They piled out and threatened me six ways to Sunday but I told them that I was the sentry, I was on duty, I was supposed to report what was going on and I would. They angrily filed off to their bunks and the atmosphere was tense the next morning when I made my report. I didn’t mention it, but told them later that I had no intention of getting in trouble. The late-night smoke breaks were over.

I was chosen as sentry one final time. It was our last week, and the top brass came to inspect the company. It was the first and only time since I’d been bumped up to EPO, but I’d been chosen on this most-important-of-all occasions because I’d been teaching the rest how to do it for 2 months. It was early morning when I started watch, just at sunrise. Our compartment was on the second floor of the compound, a blocky, E-shaped building three stories high. I was standing in the middle wing of the “E” facing northeast, while the other wing blocked the sunrise across a narrow courtyard. On this morning, the sun streamed through both sets of the low, squat, rectangular windows of the third-floor compartment just as the Star-Spangled Banner started to play, precisely timed as the sun’s rays split through the building, It illuminated me full in the face from the first note until the last, and as the song passed on, so did the sun. I took it as an omen–of what, I don’t know, but we aced the inspection, all the others, and for the final week of boot camp our company carried around all of the several achievement flags. For me, the best was the academic flag, which we’d never won, mainly because a group of seven guys from an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood who’d joined together decided to flunk together so as to remain a team with a couple of their pals who’d flunked the week before. This meant that in the final week my company was the best, academically, in the competition. As EPO, I got to carry the flag, a final, parting glory–and we got an additional “Color Company” flag for carrying all the others–red, blue, yellow, green and the multicolor “Color Company” banner, a grand slam.

So we did well, finally, and when graduation came I told all the guys as soon as I got out the gate I was starting a little bonfire and burning my stripes, but I didn’t. We got our regular stripes–mine was red as a “fireman”, the deck apes got white, and blue, green etc. stood for “airman”, “submariner”, whatever. Most of us had a single hash mark; a few who’d had training before boot camp had two or three, one or two who’d had some college had a single chevron and Oscar had a chief’s stripes, three chevrons with an arc over the top! The one person at graduation who had fewer stripes was the nasty little gunny, company commander of 440. He’d gotten pissed when he’d asked a couple of recruits, against regulations, to do some personal errand. They’d refused and he’d made them pick up two huge, heavy ordnance shells, decorations at the entrance. and run around the compound several times in the ice and snow. One had slipped in the dark and broken his arm, and nasty little gunny was broken a rank and lost his gold. He appeared at graduation with 3 chevrons and an armful of red hashmarks, outranked by our fellow recruit Ozkan Ozkosar!

There were a few companies in boot who’d come from other countries; they spoke different langages and marched in a different manner, some clicking their heels, saluting with palm outwards, etc. We’d seen them around the base but had little interaction with them; they’d come from Saudi Arabia and several other little countries and wore uniforms which varied in small details. Oscar knew which countries a lot of these guys were from and the rules they had to follow. In the Turkish navy there’d been an incident in an American port, where a couple sailors were hung for murder on the deck of the Turkish ship–in full view of some American sailors. This had caused a diplomatic incident, and was one of the reasons Oscar was happy to leave the Turks and join the Americans.

After graduation, we once again had liberty. A few of us went to Waukegan, Illinois and caught a movie, but this time didn’t get so trashed. We’d learned that the bus driver uniforms had a bad habit of ejecting the wallets of anyone who sat down, and that leaving them in the jacket pockets when going off to dance was a bad idea too. One of the last things most of us did before leaving was to buy the OLD uniforms to wear home!

Boot camp was over, and I returned to North Carolina for a week or two. I didn’t go out much; I felt like a skinned rabbit in my boot-camp haircut, even when I wore one of my home-made hats over it. Pretty soon it was time to go back for “A” school, to the same base, where I’d learn to be a Machinist Mate.

“A” school was more relaxed than boot camp, and the weather was better too. We’d go to class early but had our evenings free; there were two of us to a room instead of 100, and we’d occasionally see women on base, walking by or sitting on a bench. Outside of the few who gave us our shots or whatever (the worst was the cholera shot) there were no women in boot camp. Here they’d walk around with their hair shining in the sun. We’d take buses into town and occasionally a train to Chicago or Waukegan.

Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day is not to be missed! Green everywhere, even the river is green. I spent the entire day in Chicago. I bought one green beer, which was refilled several times as I hung out on the street. I was a master at Fooz-ball; in the afternoon I went in a bar and put a quarter on the table. I’d often do that, put a quarter down and play for beers; usually I could stay for a couple hours and get drunk on one quarter. I was excellent on the offense, and preferred the German tables over the French, especially when playing defense. I’d shoot a little pool too, usually for a dollar a game, but would rarely do better than break even.

Soon enough, “A” school was wrapping up. I’d been issued a blanket when I’d arrived; it’d been stolen early on, but I hadn’t needed it. Towards the end of school, I knew I was going to be charged for it, saw one sitting next to an open door and ran off with it. I suppose I wasn’t the first, or the last, in that chain.

The Ponchatoula

A week or so before “A” school was over, I got my orders. We’d filled out some forms, asking in a general way where we’d like to go and what type of ship we’d like to be on, but had no guarantee. I’d marked mine for the Pacific and checked all the ships that weren’t carriers or sub. When my orders came through, my destination was marked “QPH”, and I had no idea what that meant. I asked and was told that it meant Pearl Harbor, Hawaii–and then looked over and saw the name of my ship. The Ponchatoula. An Indian princess–and the past came back, slapped me in the face and took my breath away! The Gypsy girl had been right, in every detail! I’d gone from a California hippie to a Navy sailor, in a year and a half. The situation I’d been mooning over with my blonde not-a-girlfriend had shortly after been resolved with a kind but definitely discouraging note; I was heading for Hawaii, and my ship was named after an Indian princess–with a name similar to, but not quite, “Pocahontas”! In fact, exchange the “s” in Pocahontas for the “ul” in Ponchatoula, and it’s an anagram.

I guess it’s no surprise a fellow christened Davy Jones would find himself living on a ship, though didn’t occur to me at the time. After another short vacation I flew to San Francisco, then Honolulu. I had a window seat, and watched the sun set over the Pacific. Since we were flying southwest at a speed approaching the movement of the sun, the sunset lasted for hours. Nowhere else can the sunset be as spectacular as on the western coast of the Americas. The sun sets into a vast expanse of water, the biggest on the planet, and the water breaks the light into the subtle but distinct colors of the rainbow in wide bands, bathing the horizon in reds and oranges and yellows, continuing through a small band of green to blues and indigoes and violet as the sky recedes to the far side of the meridian, the stars and planets blinking through.

We were greeted with leis, and had an hour or two to grab a bite before continuing to our ultimate destination, which we’d learned only a few days before was not Hawaii, but Guam. It was quite late when we left for Guam and we all slept through the very long plane ride, where Tuesday became Wednesday at the date line and gives Guam license plates the tag line, “Where America’s Day Begins”. Despite that it’s much closer to Asia and Australia than the California coast, Guam is still the land of the dollar bill.

An important strategic island during World War II, Guam is largely jungle. Agana is the capital, which has a quirky feel due to its being bombed nearly out of existence in the war, bulldozed into the sea and rebuilt according to a grid plan laid out by the Navy with no account for the vagaries of the established property lines. As a result, oddly-angled buildings sprang up on the rectilinear city blocks, property owners building on the trapezoids and triangles left to them when their lots were bisected by the new street plan, and parking lots angled in strange ways to match.

My ship was in overhaul when I arrived in Guam. The facilities were inadequate to refurbish a tanker, but the new base commander had previously been the captain of the Ponchatoula, so his drydock was chosen for the renovation of his former ship.

The Ponch had been there for over five months, and the crew wasn’t happy about it, because Navy rules said that if a renovation was gong to take more than five months their wives and families would be flown over. The Ponch was nearly 20 years old and had just been through a war. It should’ve been clear to Navy brass that the overhaul would last longer than five months, but now the sailors wouldn’t be able to see their families for what in the end was nearly a year. I was greeted at the quarterdeck that first day by a fellow snipe, standing watch in his greasy utility uniform, with a heartfelt “Welcome to the most Fucked Up ship in the Navy!” Sandy was his nickname; he’d been aboard for three years and had the attitude typical of short-timers; do what you have to do and nothing else, because pretty soon you’ll be gone.

Because the renovation of the engine room was nearly finished, There wasn’t much left for machinist mates to do. The bilges had been mucked and painted, the cracks in the hull welded and the huge turbines renovated. We did a little painting the Navy way, pouring gobs of red lead paint on the bulkheads (“walls”, to landlubbers), pushing it around a bit with a brush and letting it flow down and fill in all the cracks. Paint on a ship is for protection, not looks. In the closed compartments below decks the lead fumes from the paint made us loopy and drunk. I spent much of the time singing stupid songs from the 50’s at high volume. When working at the rental yard I noticed that a particularly high percentage of painters were drunks, and thought it likely lead in paint was the reason–alcohol would wash the lead out of the bloodstream.

We didn’t work every day; we were on “port” and “starboard” duty days. Those of us in the bunks on the port (left) side of our compartment worked one day and had the next day off, while those on the starboard side worked the other days. As a result there were a dozen guys or so from the engine and boiler rooms whom we only saw occasionally, and another dozen or so who’d regularly hang out together. I’d have said we partied together, but there were about forty guys to every girl on Guam, and without both sexes around, it’s hard to call hanging out a party.

One of my first days on Guam I went swimming in the pool on base; I was only in the water for 20 minutes or so but got fried. The sun is intense at 8 degrees from the equator and I’d been bundled up all winter. I haven’t made that mistake again.

I never wore the “bus driver” uniform after boot camp. I’d bought a complete set of the old uniforms–Dixie cup hat, dress white jersey with bell-bottom pants, wool dress blues with 13-button pants, blue jean dungaree pants, button-up blue shirt. I didn’t like any of the new uniforms, dress nor utility. Nobody did, in fact the Navy itself featured the old ones in their recruiting posters even after the new ones were issued. They were one of Zumwalt’s ideas. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt was the new head of the Navy, and most of his ideas were great. He sent out what became known as Z-grams, which changed many aspects of Navy life, which were the reason I’d chosen the Navy. We could wear beards, and the haircuts weren’t extreme, but the new uniforms were horrible. They were based on the officer’s uniforms, but cheaper looking and undistinguished. Nobody knew if you were a sailor or a doorman. When you were on liberty the shirttails would untuck, you’d abandon the jacket and “bus driver” hat and your wallet would plop right out of your pocket. The old pants had pockets which were nigh impossible to pick, a great advantage to a drunken sailor, as most sailors are shortly after arriving in port after weeks at sea. The new pants practically picked their own pockets. You’d sit down and when you got up your wallet or keys or change would be lying on the chair. To put your stuff in your jacket was no better, it was stiff and uncomfortable. Sooner or later you’d leave it on the back of a chair, and there was always someone noticing. The hat couldn’t be folded up and stuffed in a pocket, either, so you had to do something with it. I didn’t wear my new style dress blues a single time after I’d bought the old style uniforms, and never wore the dress whites at all. I took them apart at the seams and sewed the pieces into a jacket and hat. I had lots of free time and when I didn’t feel like spending money I’d find a quiet spot and sew. I got to be quite good. I needed a hat big enough to fit my head; the largest I could buy was still tight. I’d made a few with an old sewing machine but this was the first time I’d designed one rather than sewing together random scraps. I pulled the bell-bottom from a pair of dungarees over my head far enough to seam around the bottom and have a hidden inner hat band I could pull over my ears and neck if needed, put six darts around the top, took a long strip of cloth from my white uniform pants, sewed it into a much larger cylinder and gathered it to fit, sewed it on, gathered the remaining edge and sewed it an an inch and a half above the first. I covered the raw top edge with an inch of denim and sewed white piping over that. It was blue and white, not too floppy, and the extra inch-and-a-half in the brim would scrunch up and hold my head firmly but not tightly. The brim could be compressed upwards for summer or pulled down for fall and looked sharp either way. The brim was also accessible from the inside and made a very large secret pocket. I was so pleased with the hat that I made a matching jacket as well. I took a pair of dungaree bell-bottoms and used the legs for sleeves, incorporating a hidden drawstring just in back of the wrists to tighten up the loose fit when needed. I took the remains of my white pants and covered my back, then my torso with material from the legs. I left it collarless, with a deep cut in the back of the neck so that when it was unbuttoned the sides naturally fell back instead of flopping around in front. I put a couple of secret pockets inside (I put secret pockets in everything), took the contrasting blue denim pockets from the dungarees and sewed them sideways on the outside, with the darts pointing back instead of down. It was sharp and distinctly original. The only part I was dissatisfied with was the odd little curve under the arms, a difficult, counterintuitive cut, but I noodled with that and fixed it too.

While home on my short leave after boot camp, not wishing to display my boot camp haircut too widely, I spent a little time with my sewing machine and whipped up a comical, conical hat with a brim formed of twelve triangles. One of my shipmates, from South Carolina, liked it I sold it for a couple bucks, my first crafts sale. He called it his “go to hell hat”, as in “if you don’t like it you can go to hell”, and wore it quite often.

The first couple weeks on Guam I hung out with shipmates, drinking beer, exploring and occasionally pestering coconut crabs, large hermit crabs found all over the island. Pour a little beer on them and they leave their shell and scurry off to find another. A reasonably harmless bit of fun.

After some weeks a few of us met some hippie types who lived on the outskirts of Agana. Those of us with port-side duty would hang with them one day and our starboard-side shipmates the next, so that a dozen of us knew the same guys but had completely different stories. Guam was a place where those who wanted to get away from everyone who was getting away from it all would go to get away; the furthest reaches of the outer fringe of the edge of America. We didn’t meet many Guamanians, who largely kept to themselves, but there were several Americans who lived in shacks on the edge of town or in the country. Many lived in houses with no windows. There was no need; a couple of screens sufficed, with shutters or curtains which could be closed for privacy or during bad weather. The top two feet of the living room wall would be open to the air, the roof overhanging by 3 or 4 feet. In the evenings they’d burn incense coils to keep away bugs.

One guy lived a mile or two outside of town in a house he’d built himself, out of scrounged leftovers. One room was made of old beer cans cemented together, another was made of embalming fluid bottles he’d gotten from the local undertaker. In his backyard he’d accumulated a quantity of junk, shoved into old cars and low sheds or sheltered from the weather in old washing machines laid on their sides or refrigerators with the locking handles removed. When I was little there’d be stories in the paper a couple times a year about some kid playing hide and seek who crawled into an old refrigerator, which locked behind him and suffocated him, or near-misses where the other kids opened the fridge and he tumbled out, blue. There was a popular campaign to remove the doors from old refrigerators before discarding them; it seemed to me far easier and more doable to disable the latches. Removing the doors required tools and some technical knowledge; disabling the latch took a screwdriver or a hammer, and the fridge could still be safely used for critter-proof storage. Eventually everyone agreed with me. It won’t be the last time.

None of these guys had locks on their doors. There was not much to protect nor reason to protect it. If anyone wanted to break in they’d get little of value and would still be on a tiny island surrounded by a thousand miles of ocean. Policing such a place isn’t difficult.

It was an interesting island to explore. You couldn’t run, but it was easy to “bungle”, to hop and swing from roots and branches and move along nearly as swiftly.There were signs of the war everywhere–chunks of rusty and indeterminate metal next to overgrown and forgotten holes in the ground, pieces of rope and rubber and rotted fabric in places you didn’t expect, and when you’d bungle a little way into the jungle all of a sudden there’d be a clearing and a cement airstrip as wide as a rural Texas highway hidden under the forest canopy, a hole through the trees over that way and another one over there, where the planes came through, with a burned-out cement-block shack next to each end and parking spaces angled off between the trees. The fight for Guam was a tough one, and the signs of it still quite visible 27 years later.

There was a little island called Rat Island we’d walk to, with nothing on it but trees and rocks and, presumably, rats–but it was separated from Guam by a mile of coral reef, flat as a board and smooth on top. You could walk way out, in water that barely wet your ankles. No need to bring snacks; there were tropical fruits and stacks of coconuts which could be broken open and eaten at any stage of ripeness. Young coconuts contain oodles of tart coconut milk, which sprays out under pressure, and the coconut meat attached to the thin white shell is a snot-like jelly which you scoop out with your fingers. The older, sprouted coconuts have an “apple” inside which has the texture of a watermelon, but white and not as sweet. Coconut milk is used by all the bakers on the island; it’s much more available than cow’s milk and turns all the bread and pastries a bright lemon yellow.

I spent my 21st birthday on Guam. It wasn’t a big deal; the drinking age was 18 but I went out and got drunk anyway. When I’d turned 18 it wasn’t a big deal because I couldn’t vote, and aside from a month or so in Colorado before I moved to California, couldn’t drink either. Registering for the draft could’ve been a big deal but mine was the first year that practically nobody was drafted; months before, when my lottery number came up 315 (out of 366), I knew I wasn’t going. I was classified 2-H, or “not currently eligible for military service”, and when my draft card came I went outside my door and symbolically burned it, a totally meaningless act which made me feel better. By the time I’d turned 21 all the laws had changed. Eighteen was now the big deal; you could vote at 18, drink at 18, and the draft was totally a non-issue. I came back to my bunk after my 21st birthday celebration and sometime during the night puked over the side. I hadn’t even tried to pick up a girl; there were very, very few around. One evening a guy named George got all duded up, though, and as we waited on the bus into town we asked him what was up. Turned out the youngest, geekiest kid on ship, a bespectacled, squeaky 17-year-old named Martin, had met the captain’s daughter, and they were going steady. We were happy for Martin, who needed a girl more than anyone else, but it was also a huge challenge to George, who was a little older than the rest of us and simply SPIT out, “hey, if MARTIN can do it!!!—”.

The only other guy in our compartment who had any luck with girls on Guam was another 17-year-old, who grew a scraggly goatee and, a few days before we steamed out, sneaked into a bar and picked up a girl who was 25, claiming he was 26 and had just gotten out of the Navy, when in fact he was 17 and had just gotten in.

I’d arrived on Guam on May 3rd, which was a four-hour day for me, as I’d crossed the date line in the early morning. At the end of July we headed back to our home port of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The plan had been to go to Australia next, but the extra four months of overhaul had scuttled that schedule. I’d flown in at about 600 knots, around 650 miles per hour, but we steamed out at 20 knots, about 22 mph.

We were in the Pacific the entire last week of July, and because of the dateline went through July 29th twice, the 18th birthday of my first real girlfriend, Liz. I hadn’t seen her since Denver, nearly a year before, but I’d written her a few times. Now, in the middle of the Pacific, I was a thousand miles away and had no way to contact her. She’d been confused at heart since my brother’s visit to California the previous summer and had been writing him as well, which contributed to my decision to join the Navy.

It took nine days to steam from Guam to Hawaii, which was a lot of time to lounge on the afterdeck and look at the clouds. I always seemed to see more in the clouds than the other guys–where my friend would see a duck and a horse I’d see a donkey with a pack molded to its back being chased by a duck wearing a propeller and going for the crate of apples in the pack.There’s a lot of time to look at clouds in the middle of the ocean; it’s either clouds or water. The clouds are always changing, and the ocean changes too, though much more subtly. The sea colors are different, more green or blue, clear or cloudy, and the waves get bigger or smaller or sometimes vanish completely and the sea really is as smooth as glass. Little bits of stuff float past and a few fish jump and fly away. The whitecaps change character, too, as the water becomes saltier. A dumbass once called me a dumbass for remarking how salty the water was away from the land, but it is indeed saltier. He was wrong.

We had a few diversions when we were out at sea. A destroyer pulled up beside us for “underway replenishment” or UNREPS; we shot a line at it connected to a cord connected to a cable connected to a superstructure which suspended the giant hoses we used to replenish fuel while underway. The water was choppy and angry between us for the hour or so it took, and when finished the destroyer kicked in its engines and completely circled our tub in about 5 minutes, going 45 knots to our 20.

We had drills, too. The man overboard drill didn’t go well; the crash-test dummy was sucked into the propellers and chopped to pieces. We secured hatches, ran up ladders, assembled on the afterdeck. We also had mail buoy watch.

Everyone had their share of watches; we’d go around and check temperatures and oil levels and fill out papers. It was usually like checking the temperature on your fridge once an hour. Some watches were exclusive to the engine room and others were shared by everyone on board. The most coveted was the mail buoy watch. You’d sit on the fantail in a life jacket and watch the world go by, looking for mail buoys.

There’s no such thing as a mail buoy, of course. It’s one of those jokes played on newbies in any profession, like a left-handed monkey wrench. You put a monkey wrench in a newbie’s right hand, tell him it’s the wrong kind and send him to the boss for the left-handed version. The boss takes the wrench from his right hand, places it in his left, and that’s a left-handed monkey wrench. Grocery caddies are sent for bag stretchers and buggy pumps. Sailors look for deck levelers and are told to watch for mail buoys.

I don’t know how it was on other ships, but we had mail buoy watch scheduled in just like any other. It was shared among all the departments, so nobody got it very often. Nobody complained, it was the most pleasant duty on board.


After nine days at sea we pulled into Pearl Harbor. We put on our dress whites and flew all our flags. The Ponchatoula was the largest tanker of the fleet, the flagship for the AO class. We were AO-148. Guns boomed, the band played, we all lined up on the port side and saluted smartly as we pulled in. It was the one and only time I was on deck as we pulled into port.

Most people know about Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attacked on the morning of December 7th, 1941, but many don’t know that the first casualties of that day were actually Japanese. The Japanese had sent midget subs into the harbor before the attack planes arrived, but the new, green skipper of the USS Ward, on his first day of command, spotted one and sank it an hour and a half before the planes arrived. Six aircraft carriers had been steaming towards the harbor, undetected, for almost two weeks. The transmit keys had been removed from all their radios, to insure the carriers didn’t radio their positions even by chance. The Zeroes launched, and the radar men on Oahu saw the planes coming–but they were dismissed as an approaching group of American B-17s, and the Japanese achieved complete surprise.

There aren’t many marks left from the attack, except those which have been carefully preserved. Hawaii was never invaded and fought over as was Guam, where the reminders were everywhere. There are bullet marks in the old barracks, and a memorial spanning the USS Arizona, where over 1000 sailors sleep forever a few feet underwater and drops of oil seep out all day every day, as they’ve been doing for longer than I’ve been alive.

For the next month, as for the two months previously on Guam, we were on port and starboard duty days. We explored Oahu. A couple of the snipes had grown up in the area, and several lived on the island. A Hawaiian machinist mate named Glessner had a sports car, and a couple of us completely circumnavigated the island one Saturday. We left about 10 am, set a leisurely pace, stopped in several places and were finished about 4 pm. We drove through Honolulu and over to Kaneohe on the other side, body-surfed on the North Shore, ate in a little café, hiked to a waterfall, went by Glessner’s house and were back to the base for supper, which was always great on the Navy base. After nine days at sea, chow gets monotonous, especially for a vegetarian. The last couple of days at sea I had rice, chocolate pudding, tea and little else, but when we got to port there were fresh fruits and veggies, juice to drink and real butter. There’s an inter-service rivalry about butter. The Army and Air Force use margarine. The Navy and Marines, butter.

Outside of a bit of maintenance in the engine room, cleaning out the gunk from our sea voyage, there wasn’t much we needed to do, and on our duty days we’d sit doodling in the log book and reading paperbacks. The paperbacks were unauthorized, and we were careful not to be caught reading on duty, but it was child’s play to figure out if someone was sneaking up. In the engine compartment–the size of a 3-story house–all the hatches are both watertight and airtight, which meant that if anyone opened a hatch when the air pressure was uneven, there’d be a whoosh and the change would alert us a good 15 seconds before anyone could descend the ladders (stairs) to the second level, where we were on watch. We’d set the intake fan on low, the exhaust fan on high, and that was that. A couple of the short-timers even put empty soda cans on the handles of the hatches, which dislodged and clanged loudly down the ladders when someone tried to sneak in. By the time a chief made it down the ladder the book was gone; checklist in hand, you were going about your business. The checklist was a particularly useless bit of busy work when the ship was setting in port; the temperatures and pressures on the 25 or 30 gauges you’d check every hour never varied by more than a click and even the most conscientious would only make a couple rounds, checking everything when starting watch, copying or “radioing” the next couple and checking once more before leaving. The less conscientious would radio everything; there was really no way to tell, and it didn’t matter anyway, any more than would checking all the light switches in your home once an hour.

When we were on Guam, the only dope most of us could find were sticks of pot wrapped and tied around a sliver of bamboo called Thai stick or Buddha dope. There were a couple guys who chased down opium or heroin, and there was also betel nut; legal on Guam though not in the states at the time, but which isn’t much stronger than coffee. Most of us smoked dope. Not much of it–Buddha was way stronger than anything available in the states; it was enhanced with opium and a couple tokes did me in at a time when most weed took a full joint. It was so strong that after awhile I was really happy to run into a little dirt-weed Mexican, which was like enjoying a beer instead of a fifth of tequila.

Pot had always been part of the Navy experience, even in boot camp. In boot, there’d been a landing in the staircase between the first and second floor with an anti-drug poster set into grooved boards top and bottom. One day I got sick of looking at it and flipped the poster around to the blank side. Behind  the poster, sitting on the grooved board, was a nice fat joint, which I scooped up and shared with another recruit later that evening. 

We had plenty of Buddha dope on the ship, which we’d hide in various places. I had an animal crackers box which wedged perfectly into the I-beam next to my bunk and which I covered with a towel. In all my time on the Ponch nobody figured out where I kept my stash, though I could access it in seconds. Everyone else was continually worried about accessing their stash, losing it to someone else who found it or getting busted in a surprise inspection. I had special pockets sewn into the inseams of all my pants and when in my civvies I’d also hide it inside the hollow brim of my hat, accessible only from behind the sweat band. When on the boat there were several places it was safe to smoke. A favorite was the escape tunnel which led from the bilges up to the deck. There were only two points of access–a hatch on the bottom level, and another four decks above. We could take our checklist, go to the bottom of the engine room and get high in peace. If anyone opened a hatch in the engine room we’d shut the bilge hatch and climb the ladder as if making our rounds, chewing spearmint gum, and if anyone opened the deck hatch we’d scoot out and secure the bottom. In general nobody even tried to bust anyone. It wasn’t worth the effort, and would have meant little but a free pass out of the Navy, which most of the guys wanted anyway.

On Hawaii the situation was the same, except that there was a lot more available than buddha sticks, opium or betel. Hawaii had a truly vibrant and cosmopolitan civilian population, unaffiliated with the military, and a couple of public parks where one could pick up about anything if one looked hard enough. I hadn’t used any psychedelics for three or four years, but a lot of the other sailors had. I was out one night with a buddy when a hit of windowpane acid fell from his hand. We were looking for it on the sidewalk, at night, when a cop walked up and asked us what we were doing. We told him we were looking for my buddy’s contact lens, and he shone his big flashlight on the sidewalk. My friend found his windowpane, which he scooped up and popped in his mouth (to “clean his contact”). We thanked the cop, and went on our way.

I bought a bicycle for $25 when we were on Oahu, which was all the transportation I needed. A couple times I rented a Mazda to try out the rotary engines, which was was something new, Four of us went for a ride, and I let everyone try it. Late in the afternoon a fellow named Norris was driving and, at a confusing intersection, made an illegal turn. The cops pulled him, and quickly and in a panic he asked me if he could borrow my license. Without thinking, I gave it to him and he pretended to be me. We looked enough alike that he pulled it off, but not without a tense couple of seconds when he gave the wrong date of birth. He got a ticket, and I made sure that he paid it without going to court; he naturally didn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole anyway. Turned out when he’d joined the Navy he’d had a provisional permit, good for two weeks, from his home state of Louisiana. It had expired about three years before, but according to Navy regulations was still valid as long as he was in the Navy. He hadn’t wanted to pull out his long-expired, two-week paper permit to show the cops, though it would have been perfectly legal, so he borrowed mine. According to the laws of Hawaii, it was legal for me to drive on my license from North Carolina, Navy or no, as long as it hadn’t expired; there was no residency requirement one way or the other, but for him to drive on mine was obviously illegal, anywhere at any time. In any case the ticket got paid, and that was the end of it.

I rented a rotary once more, but it had a fuel pump problem and was slow going uphill. After that I rode the bus, which was cheap and efficient in Hawaii, or rode my bike. I often biked across the island on my days off. There was a mountain range on the Waikiki side, then a long, wide valley dotted with portable roadside stands which chased the ripening pineapples, then another ridge of steep, round-topped mountains, followed by the lush greenery of the North Shore. I’d start in the morning on the dry Waikiki side with a water bottle and by the time I reached the North Shore I’d be loaded up with mangoes, dates, coconuts, passionfruit and whatever, all of which grew by the side of the road. I’d put them in a carry-all I’d made from a pair of cut-off jeans, which hung perfectly on the bar between my legs. By the time I got back to the base, usually in time for dinner, it’d be loaded full.

Well, eventually our month of port & starboard duty days ran out and it was back to normal workdays. When in port we had regular hours but at sea we’d have eight-hour days with four-hour watches, which depending on what we were doing could amount to twenty-hour days. If a watch started at midnight we’d get off at four, get four hours of sleep, then work 8-4 and stand another watch from 4-8. If the ship were then pulling into port, refueling a destroyer or doing pretty much anything except steaming along in open seas we might again be up til midnight. We were usually sleep-deprived for weeks at a time.

I began to see why so many guys had a foul opinion of the Navy. I noticed a pattern. The guys who’d been in the Navy for six months or so were gung-ho, patriotic, proud to be serving their country and stoked about being a sailor. After a year they were less enthusiastic, and by a year-and-a-half most of them really wanted out, sometimes kicking up a fuss. They might go to Captain’s Mast (known as Article 15 in the rest of the service) and receive a $150 dock in pay, 2 weeks’ restriction to ship, lose one stripe, spend “3 days” in the brig on bread and water (which really amounted to two nights and one full day, give or take a few hours) or some combination of these. After that, they’d keep their nose clean for awhile. By the time two years had rolled around, most guys took the view that they might not like it, but they’d already put in half of their four-year tour and the rest was downhill. Four years, in other words, was just about the perfect amount of time for an enlistment to run. Guys who’d been in for 2 years or more were resigned to their fate and rarely caused trouble. They’d cope in other ways; some stayed stoned, some found other creative ways to slack off. Some went AWOL for  carefully calculated amounts of time, which would get them transferred to other ships but not court-martialed, and a few would try to get discharges by various accepted means, filling out reams of paperwork which rarely accomplished anything.

I probably would’ve been one of these guys had it not been for a couple of incidents. About eight months in, I was still gung-ho, dedicated to the Navy and the idea of service to my country, but I’d been getting pressed pretty hard. One of our chiefs, a little guy we called Oly, liked to push my buttons. Once he’d gotten onto me about wearing an old pair of dungarees that I’d first cut off and made into shorts, then sewed the legs back on when the laundry was down and I was out of clothes to wear. I’d have changed if I had anything to change into, but I didn’t. He said some snotty thing, I got mad and chased him out of the compartment. He may have outranked me and may have had a silly skull-and-bones tattoo on his forearm that was supposed to make him look tough, but I was about six inches taller and fifty pounds bigger than him and he split really quick when I got angry. We got along after that–our boundaries had been established–but one of the other chiefs, a guy we called Grody, didn’t like it. I didn’t have any direct contact with Grody, who was in a different department, but he’d shoot me dirty looks.

Well, a couple weeks later I was with a group. We were going surfing, a first for me, and they’d passed the quarterdeck without incident, but Grody was on watch. He decided a barely visible, quarter-inch frayed spot low on the leg of my jeans was reason enough to stop me. Because my friends had already piled into the car, I went back, put a single stitch in the leg and started off again. He told me to go back, sew it up–and also cut my hair. I’d have sewed my jeans, but the haircut was something else entirely. Firstly, my hair wasn’t that long; secondly, he’d said nothing originally, and thirdly it meant I’d entirely miss my ride. Added to that, it was pretty clear that whatever I did Chief Grody wasn’t going to let me off the ship anyway, as long as he was on watch–which meant four hours from now. Instead of trying to please the penny-ante princess, I went down to the next deck. When I thought nobody was looking, I stepped off onto the dock in an obscure place. From way across the parking lot, an officer yelled out. I was busted. I went to Captain’s Mast that Monday, and was restricted to the ship for two weeks.

Well, that could’ve been the end of it, but I was given an assignment a couple days later to check what was wrong with a pressure gage which wasn’t reading correctly. I pulled the data sheet for the part and found it was a simple device. There was a pool of mercury in a well, with a leather bag filled with mercury sitting in it attached to the bottom of a glass tube. Take it apart, replace the leather bag, add a little mercury and it’d be fixed.

I reported to Oly. It’d be fine, I said. “No, Austin, shit can it,” he replied. I protested. A leather bag, maybe a quarter’s worth of mercury, it’ll be fine, I repeated. “Shit can it,” he insisted. “Don’t mess with it, shit can it.”

I looked down at the data sheet. The pressure gage had cost $65o and change in 1956. We were going to throw it out and get another, at probably twice the price or more, over a dollar’s worth of materials and twenty minutes of my time.

What am I doing here?, I thought.

Suddenly, I wasn’t a dedicated sailor anymore, doing something worthwhile for myself and my country. I was a cog in a wheel. I was capable, well-trained and willing to do such a simple repair, but my skills, knowledge, expertise weren’t needed, valued or even acknowledged. The Navy was going to blow a thousand-plus dollars, for nothing.

My loyalty, patriotism, desire to do the good and worthwhile thing for my country, my team, my ship, my Navy drained right out of me. I suddenly had no desire to be there whatsoever. I started thinking not of ways I could be of service to my country, but of ways I could get out, as soon as possible. I didn’t know it, but I’d already become a short-timer.

Our family had attended the local Quaker meeting house (which is entirely different from a Quaker church) for about 3 years before we’d left Colorado. We were never considered members, but I identified myself as a Quaker and still do. Among the various varieties of Christians I agree most closely with Quaker belief, but a group which won’t embrace the faithful after three years isn’t for me, and so when replying to inquiries from others I say I’m a Quaker more from convenience than from conviction. I listed my religion as Society of Friends when I joined the Navy–though it’s not a religion but a belief–because I really didn’t have another, and it seemed to me that it might prove better or advantageous in some vague way to list some religion rather than none.

After the rejection of my offer to repair the pressure gage, however, I realized that I had an actual history, corrupted as it may have been, as a pacifist. I’d been disappointed by the Quakers, but disillusioned by the Navy. I decided maybe it was time to push the point.

It was clear I wasn’t necessary in the Navy. The war was over, and there were clearly more guys in the Navy than the Navy needed. If we’d been in combat it would’ve been useful to have 250 guys on the Ponchatoula, but as it was, 100 would’ve been sufficient. All of us were doing busy work and little else, counting the days before going home. There weren’t any new guys coming onto the ship and the Navy was lowering its recruitment quota; we were leaving through attrition. I’d considered applying for conscientious objector status when I registered for the draft, but my lottery number had made it unnecessary. Now, I filed the paperwork.

Towards the end of my two-week restriction we were at sea on an atomic attack drill, waiting for annihilation with our collars pulled up and our pants tucked into our socks. We’d been pulling 20-hour days and I was tired. I sat down in an obscure corner of the lower deck, plugged my ears with pieces of napkin and briefly rested my elbows on my knees, my palms covering my eyes. At that moment a couple officers came by doing inspection. I heard them, saw their shiny shoes walking away, and was on report for sleeping, though I hadn’t been. I went to my second Captain’s Mast.

I was sent to the brig, for three days on bread and water. The brig was on base and I reported there about 5 pm. I was given a stack of white bread, which I didn’t want, and decided a 3-day fast wouldn’t hurt me a bit. The first day was no big deal; I caught up on my sleep. The second day I sat in my cell. I had an ankh I’d been wearing that I’d claimed was a religious symbol; I didn’t feel religious but it was cool to have a geegaw to look at, to think about its 3000 year history and the history of the world–how many ankhs were sitting untouched for all that time in the darkness of a pyramid, etc. and taking an occasional sip of water. The Marine guard came towards the end of the day and said a few things which were meant to be intimidating but I kept cool. It’s been a long time since I’ve been intimidated; it comes from having pushed back at my father when I was fourteen, I suppose. If one takes up the challenge and doesn’t back down, one rarely has to prove oneself. One stands one’s ground and smiles a little until the other guy feels  foolish, and that’s that. It’s not so much turn the other cheek as don’t turn.

I got out of the brig, looked around and saw the same stuff. A Navy which was winding down, but wasn’t acknowledging it; a ship full of guys who were either resigned to their fate or actively trying to get out. Sandy’d been for a long time trying to get a discharge, in a straightforward and honest way. He’d been deceived, undercut and skewered into one more year of service, and was now smashing things and throwing parts overboard when nobody was looking. We didn’t have proof, but we knew it was him. McMillan was AWOL, and would be for almost a month. A first-class named Donnell had been in for 17 years, but couldn’t be persuaded to re-up even for a bonus of a year’s pay, chief’s stripes and retirement in 3 more years. Chambers had applied for conscientious objector status, but it was unlikely either of us would hear anything for six months to a year. It occurred to me, though, that I’d just had 2 Captain’s Masts in a row, and the rule was that they could kick you out for 3. Most guys would get a Captain’s Mast, keep their nose clean for awhile and some months later get another. In this way they might go up before the captain half-a-dozen times in a couple years but remain in the Navy. I didn’t intend to do anything hurtful, but I started thinking of ways I might once more find myself in front of the captain.

I didn’t like wearing leather, and hadn’t worn any for at least three years before joining. The Navy uniform, however, included a few pieces. The hat brim in the new dress uniform was leather, but it didn’t fit my big head and I’d already torn it out. The shoes were a different matter. I looked around for non-leather shoes, but even in shoe shops there were none close to resembling standard black Navy shoes in a non-leather product of any kind in 1974. I bought a pair of rubber boots, cut them off to the standard size and wore them with my uniform. They looked all right, and I wore them for a few days. My own chiefs Oly  and Shearn didn’t care, but Grody thought otherwise and told me to change. I told him I wouldn’t. I didn’t believe in wearing leather, and wasn’t going to change my shoes. I went before the captain, was fined $150 and restricted to the ship for another two weeks.

Greer, the fellow who’d bought my hat, had earlier transferred to Grody’s department to get out of the engine room. He listened in on the chiefs when they ate lunch and told me that all they talked about nearly every day was me. I found it amusing. I was doing my job and not causing trouble for anyone; I was even getting along with Oly. I just wasn’t changing my shoes.

Chambers had refused to load ammunition. Not me. Everyone’s different. Loading ammo onto a ship involves the whole crew. Everyone picks up a shell, which is in a canister about 8 inches diameter by 2 feet long and weighs 20 or 30 pounds, carries it from the deck to the hold below the guns and gives it to the gunnies to stack. An oiler has only a few guns; for the most part it relies on other ships for protection and generally stays as far away from the action as possible. Still, the loading takes most of a day for a crew of 250; a small crew for a Navy ship of that size, but since it’s a floating gas tank and basically nothing more, that’s all that’s necessary. I didn’t mind loading the shells. I wasn’t shooting the guns. Everyone follows their beliefs according to what makes sense to them and what they feel in their own heart, and everyone’s beliefs and actions contain contradictions. I was a conscientious objector who didn’t wear leather but didn’t mind carrying ammo. Chambers was a conscientious objector who didn’t mind wearing leather but didn’t carry ammo. There was a Marine chaplain who’d talked with us in boot camp who seemed to me to be the most screwed-up guy I’d ever met. With one breath he’d talk about God and with the next the thrill and blood lust of stalking and killing a buck. Everyone draws their own lines.

Well, I didn’t change my shoes, again. Went to the brig again. Saw the same Marine guard again. He tried to scare me again. I didn’t care again. I went in around suppertime, didn’t eat the bread, stayed the next day. Around ten the next morning they let me out.

This time I didn’t go back to the ship. While I was away, the ship had gone out on maneuvers and wasn’t in port. For the next four or five days I stayed in the dorms on base, trimmed the captain’s lawn in the morning and had the rest of the day off. While my shipmates were sweating through their 20-hour days with collars turned up and heads hung down, I was on vacation. I spent the week that way. There was a sandwich shop I’d drop by in the afternoon to talk to the girl behind the counter; one day she was perched on her stool, screaming. The place smelled strongly of bug spray and I ran around the counter to help her out. A huge cockroach was buzzing around behind the counter, the size of my thumb. It was banging into things, absolutely coated with bug spray, which looked like white icing on a cake. It couldn’t fly very well due to the weight of the spray; I caught it with a napkin and took it outside to die in peace, then came back inside and hugged the cute little black girl as she cried and shook like a leaf.

A couple days later my ship came in. My vacation was over, but they didn’t welcome me on board. I was handed a packet of papers over the side and went over to a couple of offices on base for the afternoon. They were processing my discharge. When I came back to the ship I was restricted for the rest of the week, but I didn’t care. The Navy had taken another $150 out of my paycheck, but I didn’t care. There was gossip about an undesirable discharge for me, which seemed a stretch. I didn’t care.

A fellow named Gavin had written a poem in the logbook while I was out, celebrating how in six months he was going home to New York, and I wrote one of my own:

I don’t know quite why this all happened to me

Was it ‘cuz of my shoes, which came out of a tree?

They cost me a bundle, but that doesn’t matter,

Of four years or discharge, well, I’ll take the latter.

Whenever you’re out, please come by Carolina,

We’ll talk and we’ll toke and enjoy a life finer,

Than ever an admiral dreams in his sleep.

The Navy made promises, but which did it keep?

The rest of the week went by, and life went on. McMillan came back, for a day, and went AWOL again. A new guy was assigned to our compartment; he stayed one day and also went AWOL on his own personal quest to get out of the Navy. I met him once, never saw him again. A third-class named Barton, whom I liked but who’d taken a few too many acid trips as a civilian, broke up with his wife; she’d left him while the Ponch was at sea. He came back, and she and all his stuff was gone, including his uniforms. I gave him mine, except for a couple of sets of dungarees and my Dixie-cup hat dress blues. A lot of guys were short; a young red-haired guy named Allard went home to help his mother and got a hardship discharge. A black guy named Smitty, nice guy, spent all day every day walking around in a heroin haze. Rod Austin was getting short; we were both in the engine room but his uniform was stenciled Austin, R. while mine was supposed to be Austin, D., though I put DJ Austin instead. Rod and Sandy had passed each other on the street once; they were both from Ann Arbor but hadn’t realized they’d met until both had been on the ship for about 3 years. Taylor and Groleau were leaving soon, both as E-2s; Taylor had never tried for the E-3 rating and Groleau had been busted all the way down to E-1 a year or two before, after getting in a fight and ending up in a Filipino jail. His second hashmark was restored after awhile but he never tried for the third; he was short anyway. A tall thin fellow named Curry would be in Tennessee in a few months, a few miles from me. Taylor, Glessner, Martin and Curry were all part of a Jesus-freak type group in Honolulu; I visited a time or two; it was pleasant, but there was a little too much smiling and sweet saccharine laughter. They sat in a circle, drank a little wine, one of the guys proposed to his girl and she said yes. It was wonderful, beautiful, but fantastical, unreal, like living in Disneyland.

The night before I was to leave a fellow named Whitey came over from the boiler room compartment and was screwing around with a few of the machinist mates; this was a bit unusual but it was fun to get to know him. A little later that evening, I was heading up to chow and something compelled me to turn around. Whitey was going through the hatch to the boiler room, closing the hatch behind him like all of us had done thousands of times before, but I felt something strange going on. I couldn’t put my finger on it; I had a weird feeling and didn’t know why. I stood there for a couple seconds, then went up the ladder.

It was the last time I ever saw him. The next morning I got up, packed my seabag and went up to the deck for the last time. Beside me and my seabag was Whitey’s seabag. He’d been killed that morning in a car wreck. He’d been staying off-base with a third-class named Grayden. Grayden had been driving to work. Whitey was a passenger. Somebody’d run a stop sign, and they’d been T-boned. Grayden was a little bruised up. Whitey was dead.

We left the ship the same day. I was happy to be carrying my own seabag down the gangplank.

I got on the plane and left Honolulu that afternoon. It was early afternoon when I left, but this time we went the opposite direction and sunset lasted what seemed a few seconds. It was past suppertime when we landed in San Francisco. I had the same assortment of teas and herbs that I’d carried to Guam, where customs had searched all my stuff, but in San Francisco nobody even looked. I checked into Treasure Island–what a name, huh?–to await my discharge, and stayed for several days playing spades in the barracks, going to chow, watching TV, reading the paper, hanging out on the patio when it wasn’t raining. I wasn’t technically restricted to the island, but I had no money, not even a quarter to ride the bus into town. I went off to meet with a couple women who sat behind desks and asked me questions, and later that week had my discharge. It was a general discharge under honorable conditions, which is all I wanted or expected.

There are 5 classes of discharge–1) Honorable, given to those who’ve served their time without getting into trouble, 2) General under honorable conditions, which includes everyone discharged early for other reasons than criminal misconduct, 3) General discharge under less-than-honorable conditions, for those who got in too many fights, 4) Undesirable discharge, for big-time troublemakers, and finally 5) Dishonorable discharge, generally reserved for criminals. There used to be a line on the papers reserved for nasty comments from the brass, with codes detailing, specifically, the reasons for the discharge. This tradition had been eliminated some months before, by a law called DD214, but my papers still had the box. All it said was “refer to DD214”.

Often, and I could even say most often, the biggest changes in life come about from the littlest things. I wanted something a tiny bit different, someone else wanted to stop me for no truly good reason, and everything blew up.  I quit wearing leather because I hadn’t worn it before I joined the Navy and didn’t feel comfortable wearing it anyway, I wore the closest thing I could find – black rubber boots, cut to size. One chief wasn’t happy, and I wore them straight out of the Navy.  It’s all in the details.

A week on Treasure Island. I got paid. I left.

Back to the Real World

I had about $400 in my pocket, which was more than I’d expected, but I didn’t complain. I went into San Francisco, bought a few civilian duds, a bus ticket home, and as a souvenir of my first day OUT of the Navy, a small tattoo of a gemini sign on my left hand, below the pinky. I went to Walnut Creek to find Liz, whom I’d occasionally heard from but hadn’t seen for a little over a year. I arrived at her house in the afternoon. Her granny was there, but no one else. I tried to have a conversation and tell her why I was there, but she knew only German. I wanted to help around the house, but it was hard to know how.  I looked around; she had dozens of clocks, set to different times. Not different hours, completely different times; 20 minutes early on this one, three hours and 45 minutes late on another. She told me something in German about the clocks, which I didn’t understand; I set some of them to the correct time and she became quite cross.

After awhile Liz’s father arrived; it was the first time I’d met him. He said a few gruff words in German to granny as she chattered on excitedly about this total stranger who had arrived and re-set her clocks. Her father told me to make myself comfortable, and that Liz would be home shortly. She arrived a little later, we had dinner and talked on the porch. She didn’t know why her grandmother set all the clocks to different times, either. We chatted awhile but it was clear we’d both moved on with our lives, and we parted amicably. She gave me a ride to the bus station, and we said our goodbyes.

I was sitting in the bus station that evening and got into a conversation with a fellow. I mentioned my Model A and he said he knew a guy who had an old car for sale–a 1940 Lincoln or something–that he was thinking about buying, and he offered me a ride to go see it if I’d tell him what I thought of it mechanically. That was fine by me, and we rode out into the California countryside. It was an hour or two away, but when we got there the car had been sold, and he suggested we keep going to Lake Tahoe, where we could do a little gambling. I drove awhile and he drove awhile and we got there in the early morning. We got a room and a few hours’ sleep and then went to the casinos. I had about $175 in my pocket after the bus ticket, new clothes, a gift I’d gotten for Liz and my new tattoo. We ate a cheap breakfast, then went to play blackjack. I did well, and my new friend won some too. We grabbed some lunch and returned to the tables. My friend was losing his focus, and when he hit a 21, left to watch a show. I was still doing well gambling, drinking free drinks, and after awhile was up about $500. At the time you could pick up a decent used car for around $600, so my goal became to win enough to buy a car, cash in my bus ticket and drive home. I was within about $40 of $600 when the whiskey sours started kicking in and the cards turned. A couple hours and six or eight drinks later I’d lost what I’d accumulated plus the $175 I’d started with. I was flat broke, but didn’t care; I had my bus ticket home, and I was a civilian! We returned to the room; the next morning my friend gave me a few pieces of scrip to gamble with and went back home. I won about $10, called it a day, bought a few groceries and caught the bus out of town. I couldn’t cash the ticket for the portion of the trip I hadn’t used without hassle, because a bus drivers’ strike had started against Greyhound. I shined it on, accepted a ticket on Trailways, rode to Denver and went by my old neighborhood. Monk was in the Krishnas now; I left my seabag at his family’s house and went with his sister to the temple, to eat prasadam and review the year. I didn’t get much response about the old days; he was totally intoxicated by Krishna, sleep deprived by the schedule they were keeping and rather jealously guarded by the other devotees, who knew me well. The Krishnas never understood me. I’d been a vegetarian much longer than most of them and knew a great deal about the Hindu and Eastern philosophy, I’d been coming to the temple for five years, but wasn’t any closer to becoming a devotee than I’d been at 17. I liked the vegetarian food and loved that I didn’t have to ask what was in each dish. I enjoyed the philosophical discussions we’d have, though I frequently disagreed. I didn’t agree that everyone was caught up in illusion or maya, or that maya equaled suffering. I didn’t believe one had to separate oneself from the world and deny the desire to find happiness, or that the desire for the pleasures of the world, including love and sex, was illusion and suffering. I didn’t believe there was a great divide between the finite and the infinite or that the world could be finite while God or Krishna was infinite. I saw nothing wrong with participating in the world, and I knew which sages had been householders and which had been monks. Part of the contention of the devotees was that every soul found Krishna in its own manner according to its karma, and that no soul or method was superior to another, but in practice devotees always thought it best to live in the temple. I loved when the swamis would visit, because they’d understand me much better than the devotees. They understood, really understood, that what works for one won’t always work for another.

The following day I went by the Mayfair barber shop, where Joe the barber was now in the first chair. He’d grown a few dark mustache hairs, which was as much facial hair as his Indian blood allowed him. We went to his house that night and played a little poker with his friends, speaking as much Spanish as English. We smoked a little pot, too. It was a surprise to me when he pulled it out, but it was very good. It was the only time I ever smoked with any of the barbers. The next morning we returned to the barber shop. My funds were depleted, so he gave me a few dollars for the road.

When I got to the bus terminal downtown I had to find my Greyhound ticket once more, which I fortunately found crumpled up in my pack; otherwise I’d’ve been stranded. I rode Trailways to Kansas City and had a couple of hours layover but not much money to spend, so I walked the streets. It seemed a fun town, which was a different impression than I’d had the half-dozen times before, when we’d driven through it at warp speed. It was then on to St. Louis, where I arrived in the middle of a beautiful fall afternoon. It was crisp, cool, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and once again I had a couple hours free. I intended to ride to the top of the recently-finished archway, but for some reason it was closed. I strolled over anyway, to lie down in the grass and enjoy the afternoon.

I surprised a fellow there who was lying down smoking a joint, and we initiated a little onyx disc I’d bought in San Francisco by smoking the remainder of the roach down to nothing. St. Louis was entirely the opposite of when as kids the temperature was 104º and we were rolling through in a little oven of a microbus, with everyone enjoying a heaping helping of heat rash.

I got on the bus that afternoon and saw a cute girl across the aisle. We got into a conversation and I sat down next to her; she was married, but we had a long talk and cuddled up together through the night. It was the first time in about a year I’d had any contact with a woman. She’d been away from her soldier husband for awhile, and wasn’t sure if they were going to stay together. We traded addresses and parted ways in the morning. I never heard from her again.

There was one more long leg of the trip for me. That evening I was dozing and was awakened by the smell of smoke in my face. The guy across the aisle from me was smoking, in the non-smoking, front section of the bus. I told him he needed to go to the back of the bus to smoke. It was a little bold on my part, but it was definitely the law, though the law was widely ignored in 1974.He simply finished his cigarette, without a care in the world. Thank god, I say, that the customs as well as the laws have changed.

I arrived in North Carolina late that night. My brother drove me home and I was once again in a little bitty mountain town of 3000 souls or so, with nowhere to go after 9:30 at night except eight miles down the road to Blowing Rock. I didn’t have a job, but thanks to my general, rather than honorable, discharge I received unemployment benefits.

It was a good thing, because it was no easier to find work in Boone than before. I was a dedicated vegetarian now, and avoided restaurants, meat markets, the local leather processing facility, etc., but there were few other jobs available in the economic downturn of 1974 and ’75. I got a few days’ work planting trees or cutting tobacco or putting in fences but there wasn’t much available. I had a lot of free time, and with no television to distract me learned to sew clothes, make toys, repair mechanical things. We hadn’t had a working television in the house since the family had moved back from California, and didn’t for the next eleven years. It was certainly best for me .In the next few years I learned hundreds of skills, read thousands of books and stayed active and strong.

In March my father and I went to New York City for a couple weeks. He had a part in a play, and I wanted to see the city. I’d spent a week visiting older relatives when I was seventeen, but they didn’t get out much. I wanted to see the city of my birth with my father, and explore places I’d been as a baby. I’d been there eight days when an infant; both the hospital and the old factory building my parents had lived in for a season the next year had been torn down, so there was really only one place I’d lived still standing, and that for a day only, a brownstone building where they’d had an apartment. We went to the block they’d lived on, but he was unsure which building it’d been, they looked pretty much alike. The loft they’d lived in the next year had also been torn down, so for me there just wasn’t much there, though the visit was interesting.

The play was an artsy transmogrification of a gothic Appalachian tale, self-consciously cute and melodramatic, with a fine performance by the lead actress, Kate Kelly, drowned in a generalized turgid pathos. My father had the same opinion, but the woman directing was an old friend and we held our tongue.  Actors from outside the south drawl too obvously; the dry Appalachian dialect is soaked in the swamp water of Biloxi or Savannah. The plot involved spells and haints and pregnancy and voodoo and what all, and was a complete mess. Kate Kelly was cute, but the play was a wreck.

We spent two weeks in New York. One morning our truck was towed–we hadn’t moved it across the street in time–and we went to pick it up, but the registration papers were in North Carolina. My father made the perfectly reasonable case that if we wanted to steal a vehicle we’d do better than an old farm truck from North Carolina, and they released it.

I went out once while my father was out. I walked a few blocks and realized I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know the address of our building and had only seen it a couple times. After a 20 minutes walkabout I found it, and never told anyone how close I’d come to being “Lost in New York”.

My father wanted to pitch a show while he was there, and needed to go to the ABC building.  We went to the area, but he wasn’t sure which building it was.  I pointed it out.  He asked me how I knew. I was coy, and told him I just knew.  Hew said he’d ask someone. I told him he didn’t have to. He asked me again how I knew.  I pointed to the big ABC logo above his head.  He’d never thought to look up.

When we came back from New York, my brother and I decided to rent a house on the edge of town.  It was a small house belonging to an old woman called Mom Angel, who was in her 80s, and shaky.  She didn’t have a lot of family or friends, and visited us nearly every day.  It was interesting getting to know someone from such a different world.  She used to play the guitar, but was now too shaky to manage it.  My brother and I had bedrooms upstairs and an extra room for drums and music.  Several of his friends from the high school came by – he’d graduated – and it became a place to hang out when they were playing hooky.  I suppose we could have gotten into trouble, but we didn’t – for that, anyway.

We put together a band, and it was OK. I played the drums, my brother played guitar and wrote songs, a friend of his named Kevin also played guitar and a couple other guys joined in from time to time, with varying levels of commitment. I decided on April Fools’ Day that I wanted to play something more portable than drums and picked up a harmonica.  I figured “Dixie” would be a good song to start with, and I sucked and blew and moved the harp around for several hours until I could play it passably well.  I then tried a second song, “Amazing Grace”, and quickly found I should’ve learned it instead, because inside of ten minutes I had it pegged.  I then learned a third song, “Me and Bobbie McGee”.  That one took longer than “Amazing Grace”, but not as long as “Dixie”.

We had a little party that evening–we often had little parties after school–and I announced to group that I’d learned harmonica.  They asked for a tune, and I played “Dixie.”  That was pretty good, a couple folks said, and asked for another.  I played “Amazing Grace”.

And then a girl asked if I could play “Me and Bobbie McGee”.

Well, yes I could! Of all the songs in the wide world, I had one more in my repertoire, and that was it! I played it for the crowd, said that was enough for now and put the harp away.

A tip. If you don’t know a lot, stick to what you know.  I learned a lot of songs on the harmonica, just a few on many other instruments. I don’t have to be a virtuoso. Lots of people can’t play at all.

We had an idyllic summer in our little house out back. I had a bicycle, my brother had friends with cars, we’d catch a ride when needed.

Our kitchen was bright and cheery.  On the windowsill we placed the coffeepot, a double sink was below it.  One day my brother and I were having fun kicking a tennis ball across the kitchen floor in a caroming, fast-paced 2 man variation on soccer.  My brother made a wicked shot, I blocked with my knee, the ball bounced off the cabinet and PING – disappeared!  The coffee pot was wobbling, we looked in the sink, it wasn’t there.  It wasn’t anywhere else in the kitchen. Finally we looked in the coffeepot.  There it was!  From across the room, I’d banked a steeply angled shot off the cabinet, and aced it!

Our friend Kevin, now living in the music room, got us a gig. Saturday, at his mother’s flea market. It was me, my brother, Kevin and a bass player. Kevin got posters printed, put an ad in the paper. He called the band “Connivin’ Ivan”, which I thought was all right–but what it was supposed to be, he explained later, was “Knivan Ivan”, like, you know, Evel Knievel, but with the “Kn” in front (so obvious! How could I have missed?).  What was printed in the paper, however, was “Knivin’ Ivan,” transforming a mediocre and confusing name (shades of the One-ders!) into Evil Ivan, knife-wielder.

Well, we set up our stuff and waited for the bass player.  He didn’t show.  We had the bass, so we asked a friend who’d come to see the show to be in the band. He didn’t know bass and didn’t want to try, so he played drums while I plugged in the bass, turned it off and faked it.  It was my first paid gig (the money we’d made in California was plowed into dance lessons and such). I made $20, for pretending to play!

Kevin was a successful rock and roller for the next ten or fifteen years. He played with the Spontanes and others. After years of touring, he went back to school, got his GED and graduated college in his late 40’s, with a perfect 4.0.

Along with our hooky-playing high school visitors, there was a fellow a couple years older than I who lived catty–corner across the field.  His name was John, his initials were JA and we got to know him well,  I thought–but one day I saw his record albums marked “JA” and joked that all I had to do was put a “D” in front and they’d be mine. The next day his full name was scrawled across all his albums.  He had a paranoid streak.

John lived in his parents’ basement. He claimed they needed him, not without justification.  His parents were older and his father had macular degeneration, which is often the result of smoking. His father smoked a pipe occasionally but his mother chain-smoked cigarettes and their house was shut up tight.  The tobacco smell was strong by 1974 standards: now I’d call it an overwhelming stench.  None of them were in good shape. John had several extra pounds and complained of numerous ailments. He had a few complaints, but John simply liked to try new drugs and finagled a variety of prescriptions.  He’d sit listening to music and take combinations of pills and liquor, deciding which went better together and how much of each for the best effects.  He had certain obsessions–the Kennedy assassination, the Nazis–but far and away his most common topic of conversation was the Manson murders.  I liked John, but his habit of cross-referencing conversations back to Charlie was annoying.

John saw me as more experienced–he’d visited California, I’d lived there for two years; he’d had a couple jobs, I’d had a dozen. He was a little older but I’d been more places, done more things.  He’d ask me for advice like a puppy, so it was hard to stay mad at him; he was obviously lost but the reasons for his failures were as clear to me as if they’d been tattooed on his forehead.  He admired Charlie in a twisted way; a little bitty guy who had such power over a group. He wanted that power, but when he thought he was hiding his motivations, asking leading questions, I’d know every time.  We had a friendly dispute over which of us had a horoscope chart more like Charlie’s. Charlie had sun in scorpio, moon in aquarius and taurus rising. John had sun in aquarius, moon and rising scorpio. I had sun in gemini but moon in aquarius and taurus rising like Charlie.  I didn’t mind talking about the Manson family time and again, but every time he discovered someone was aquarius, or taurus, or scorpio, he’d bring up Charlie. If someone was from California, he’d bring up Charlie. If anyone was named Susan or Lynette, he’d bring up Charlie. I told him time and time and time again that most people at parties didn’t want to talk about Charlie, that Charlie was a downer. He’d still bring it up.  One night at a party and he asked a pretty girl how tall she was. Five-foot-two.  I knew what was coming. Charlie was five-foot-two. I told him nobody needed or wanted to know that Charlie was five-foot-two.  It started a big argument, and the gal giving the party kicked us both out.  For the next couple weeks my folks got hang-up phone calls, dozens per day, and one night someone threw a fist-sized rock through the window of our Suburban.  I knew it was him.  He eventually owned up to the phone calls but insisted he didn’t throw the rock. I told him I knew he did it. I didn’t believe him. I was taking classes on the GI Bill, and at night school we had an argument in the hallway.  One of the instructors tried to mediate, but I told him I didn’t care what John said.

John maintained for years that he didn’t break the window, but I didn’t believe. It didn’t really matter, a broken window in a car which was junked years ago, but I wasn’t accepting a lack of objective proof from him as sufficient.  His manners and actions had made it reasonable for me to believe he’d thrown the rock, and his tendency to be smart ass and challenging about what he had or hadn’t got away with and what I could or couldn’t prove made him unconvincing.  There was no logical reason for me to believe that anyone else had done it, and plenty of reason for me to believe he did. My trust in him was broken. He could protest and maintain his innocence, but I didn’t believe and wouldn’t pretend to.  It would’ve been easier socially to let it drop, but it would’ve been a lie.  He’d bring it up and I’d tell him it was no big deal, not to worry about it, but I wouldn’t say I believed him. He stopped talking about Charlie at parties, though.

Winter came and we were all low on money. I was still on unemployment. The benefits had been extended twice, which I figured was payback for the Navy taking advantage of my naive devotion to my country. My brother had taken a part-time job in a burger joint. He was still vegetarian, but serving meat to people all day long, something I’d resolved never to do. Kevin worked for his mother at the flea market but wan’t bringing in much, and by the time rent and food were covered not a lot was left.  The power was turned off, but the garage was connected to Mom Angel’s house and we ran an extension into the living room, enough for a heater and a couple lights.

Kevin and my brother brought in a little money dealing drugs as well, not much. A pound of weed now and again, an ounce of bluish “mescaline” powder, a few grams of hash or a new product in a vial called “hash oil”.  Kevin had an older brother with connections in Florida and my brother knew some folks who ran a freak store in town.  We sold enough to cover our consumption, not much more. Not enough for the power bill or to buy furniture. One night, late, Kevin told us he’d seen some stackable chairs he thought the motel was throwing away, and suggested that we pick them up.  I wasn’t sure, told them I wouldn’t, and went to bed.

The next morning we were awakened early, by the police.  They searched our house, found the chairs and confiscated a small jar; I’d bought it when preparing to go camping with my Boy Scout troop at age 11. It held small chlorine pills for years; eventually I dumped them out and used it to carry around a couple joints’ worth of pot.  I lost the screw top one day and carved a cork stopper for it. I loved my stash jar.

While the cops were searching I played with some chess pieces. There was a 10 ml. vial of hash oil sitting on the chessboard. I knocked it into my shoe and pushed it under the coffee table.  It’s unlikely they’d have recognized hash oil; there was a blown-glass pipe sitting on a tray in the living room which we told them was an oil lamp and they set it back down.  The three of us were carted off to jail. My brother told them he needed to pee and emptied a baggie of pot in the urinal.  We spent 20 minutes in jail and were bailed out. Kevin moved out and my brother and I waited until the rent ran out.  Rob had asked his girlfriend to marry, but they were young–he 19, she 16–and her parents sent her out of town until her ardor cooled. They split up after the arrest.  It went the other way for me. A friend of my sister’s became interested in me, now that I was a bad boy.  She was warm, soft, willing, wet, and we played around in the afternoons, but she had a boyfriend in the army, and married him six months later.  

Court came. Charges against me were dismissed, as I was asleep, but my brother and Kevin threw themselves on the mercy of the court, a stupid idea. The owner of the motel, who was indeed trashing the chairs, claimed an inflated value of $25 apiece (new ones were $12), so as to make the “crime” a theft of over $100 and a felony. Her gratuitous nastiness didn’t go uncompensated. The motel went downhill, and some years later she was tied up and robbed by a couple fellows with shotguns. Karma.

My brother seemed to get into trouble more often than I, though we didn’t live much differently. He’d get caught, I’d slip out. I even broke out of jail–or at least it was called jail. At my high school graduation party a corner in the gym was set aside, and a friend of mine named Craig paid a dollar (for charity) to lock me up for twenty minutes. Two minutes later the jailer was distracted, I nudged past him and slipped away to freedom.  Towards the end of the twenty minutes Craig saw me and gave chase, and for the last 30 seconds I was a fugitive from charity jail, on the run, laughing like a monkey.

My brother moved to Myrtle Beach after the court case. I enclosed my parents’ back porch and moved in. The plumbing was horribly antiquated, though we didn’t worry about leaks; the the town’s water pipe crossed our land and we received free water “in perpetuity”. The water pressure was exceptionally high, though; the old faucets broke down and were hard to replace. We’d installed an in-line valve on the hot water line to the ancient tub, but it too failed and we siphoned hot water into the tub through a tube set in a bucket in the sink.  My father wasn’t inclined to fix it, but my uncle across the road had some supplies he’d bought at auctions. He and I replaced the floor in the bathroom (the toilet had been propped up on boards), rearranged the layout for sink, toilet and tub, installed a shower, tiled the bathroom wall, put in a skylight, new wiring and paint.  That summer I started painting the roof, which was quite rusty.  The porch roof, front and back, I painted a bright yellow, then climbed to the top of the steeply pitched roof and painted across the ridge as far down as I could reach.  I tied two ladders over the ridge, painted a wide stripe down the middle and ran out of paint.

There it stayed.  My father wouldn’t buy more paint. We had a big yellow “T” on the roof, and two rusty squares to the sides. I didn’t feel it was up to me to buy paint. I was doing the work, and further felt if I’d finished the job on my own my father would find a way to wreck it, as he invariably did when I completed any project. I never knew whether he didn’t want things finished or simply didn’t want me to finish them but the result was the same.  Projects would never, ever be finished unless we hired someone, usually at my mother’s insistence. It was a weirdly mean streak. I’d start projects, work hard, spend time and money, finish or almost finish and he’d undermine or destroy them.

I really hated him for this.  It was so very unnecessary, and ugly.  I hated him. He’d credit my work to others, damage projects I’d completed, stole my tools, broke any and all promises or agreements with me on a whim.

He wasn’t this way to everyone. He was genial and generous and funny to his friends, but sometimes unexpectedly he’d turn exceedingly, exceptionally, gratuitously cruel.  My brother was with him once when he asked a soft-spoken, hard-working, pleasant waitress, for no reason at all, what it was like for her to live her life as such an ugly woman. He kept it up. He said he didn’t know if he’d want to live, if he were as ugly as she.  He asked similar “questions” of other blameless people time and again, “giving” his “insights”, calling it “honesty”. It wasn’t. It was ambush. Nasty, mean, ugly, evil, despicable.

I never understood that petty crap, that vileness. I wanted to love my father, but I had nothing. The most positive emotion I could muster was indifference. Not love, not pride. Emptiness.

I stayed away as much as possible, it was a long-established pattern. I avoided my father with his nightly drunken pontifications. I stayed at friends’ houses, dorm rooms, camped out, slept on the bed of my Model A. I worked construction, cut tobacco, sold jewelry or drew astrology charts when I needed money.

The old house needed plenty of improvements, which my uncle and I worked on when my father wasn’t around. We enclosed the front porch, and when my brother returned from his summer at Myrtle Beach one of the new rooms was mine and the other his. My brother had hitchhiked to the beach with our friend Marcus after the court case and lived there for six months, before he got into trouble for peeing in the ocean and returned to Boone.

The house was slowly becoming comfortable. We’d given up on television; the set sat unplugged in the corner, covered with magazines and dust. My father’d had insulation blown into the walls, then put paneling backed with reflective foil on the living room walls and installed a brand-new Fisher Mama Bear wood stove. One night when the temperature was below 0ºF my father bet my mother a quarter that he could hat it up to 90ºF inside, a bet he easily won. It was so hot that we opened the windows and let the zero-degree wind blow through.

We sold off animals, a few at a time. My sisters’ ponies, the cow, the bull calf and two goats. There were still chickens. One spring day my mother’d been baking, left the back door open and went to the living room. She opened the kitchen door and screamed OH! the CHICKENS! and a dozen chickens, who’d been contently pecking at crumbs on the counter, simultaneously burst into confused, higgledy-piggledy flight, knocking over jars, flying into walls, spreading dust and feathers everywhere.

My father built a chicken coop.

We had dogs and cats, too. And rats. There was a rodent problem, which a growing number of cats were supposed to take care of but didn’t. When there were 21 cats, my father’d had enough. He took bagfuls of cats down to the creek and drowned them, including one old tabby named Mama Cat.

Well, the rest of the cats may have been no-count, but it was a mistake to drown Mama Cat. That very night, a beagle broke into the chicken coop and killed them all. Mama Cat had been keeping him away. She had no fear of dogs, she’d jump, bite them on the back of the neck, swing onto their back and claw with all four paws–but now, she was gone and the chickens too.

That was the end of the critters, except for strays and a couple dogs. My father spread rat poison and the house stunk for a few months, but they were gone too.

Summer of ’75

I had plenty of free time that summer, and often played tennis with my younger brother Sam, who’d won a scholarship to Yale for the next fall. We played a few sets nearly every day. Early in the summer he skunked me 6-0 in a set, and I didn’t manage to return the favor until the week before he left.

As 1975 drew to a close I found a job washing dishes at the college. I’d hang around the college square talking astrology, and people would buy me beers in Blowing Rock or I’d win them at Fooz Ball. I was finding my “sweet spot” romantically. Girls three to six years younger or older liked me. Those my age, not so much.  I’d sneak into campus dorms or bring them back to my house. We’d go to the hayloft when it was warm or my room when it was cold. We’d camp out or stay at one of several friends’ houses. It was more cuddling and kissing than real involvement. I still couldn’t keep a girlfriend.  My journal filled with fantasies and dreams of girls with whom I never had more than an awkward kiss. I liked to exchange clothes. I’d trade a T-shirt for a cap. I’d patch a pair of their jeans for a piece of jewelry. My journal’d go on for pages about a girl I found interesting, interspersed with comments about half-a-dozen others, and a few weeks later a new girl would fill its pages. At 22, I was still a juvenile.

I washed dishes for a few months, but one day my name wasn’t on the schedule so I immediately walked out.  They offered me my job back. I quit a few days later.

I signed up for the GI bill and went to night school. I wanted to be an astrologer, enrolled in a writing-class-by-mail and sent articles to magazines, which were rejected. I wrote an astrology column for a local paper. I drew up charts and wrote interpretations, largely influenced by Llewellyn George’s “The A to Z Horoscope Maker and Delineator”. I signed up to teach an astrology course at the community college, but only 8 people showed up when 10 were needed. I kept in touch with one of those eight, though, for over 30 years.

I took shop classes – welding, machining, electrical wiring – and spent my weekends doing dangerous things. Jumping off waterfalls, walking on the handrails of bridges, spelunking.  I rode motorcycles, crashing a couple times, pushing my limits, trying to master them. I was careful, though. I’d walk on the railings of bridges, but made sure my footing was secure, the railing was clean and dry, there was no wind or traffic passing by, and I’d favor my balance towards the roadbed and not the drop off. Dangerous is different from foolhardy. Only once did I slip towards the drop off, and my arms were already prepared to catch the railing. It’s a trick I learned riding the unicycle. If you’re going to fall, control it. Plan where and how you’ll land.  It works well when driving also. Be aware of your “out”. Don’t get boxed in.


I bought a Honda XL350 motorcycle in 1976.  I later decided that it was too big for a trail bike and its center of gravity too high for a road bike, but I had fun.  I laid it down a couple times. The first time I carried a passenger, two weeks after I’d gotten it, there was gravel on the road as we approached a stop sign and the girl and I went down.  We got some road rash, but laughed about it later.  The second time could have been more serious.

I was riding up Winkler’s Creek Road, as I’d done thousands of times. The hatchback ahead of me hit the ditch. For a split-second, I thought–he’s not getting out of that ditch. I’ll pull up beside him to offer help–and lightly hit the brakes. He was an inexperienced driver, though, and wrenched the car back into the road. Suddenly, I was looking at the bottom of a car standing sideways on 2 wheels, ready to fall on top of me.  I leaned the bike over and had just made it to the middle of the left lane when his car slammed down. My front wheel clipped the bumper, sending me sprawling.  I hit the pavement, got a fair cut on my chin and all the bones in my back and neck went F-W-W-W-WHIT! I stood up, woozy and disoriented, took off my  helmet and laid in the hatchback as folks gathered, making a fuss, asking if an ambulance had been called. I didn’t feel it necessary, but with all the chatter around me finally consented. At the hospital, I waited an hour or more before they checked me out and let me go.

The wreck actually helped me. I’d injured my neck four years earlier slamming into coral in Hawaii, then a year later hit a tree on my bicycle. That autumn I’d been lollygagging around the house one cold, damp afternoon with a stiff neck. Towards evening I tried to work out the kink, and gave my neck a slight jerk as I’d done hundreds of times before.

Lightning hit! It traveled down my spine! Into my arms! Up to my brain! I saw a bright white flash, and pain took over my body. I was bent over for days.

A month earlier, I’d jumped off Elk River Falls in Tennessee, about a 50-foot drop. I met a red-haired fellow who played in a band two weeks later, we’d gotten acquainted and jammed a bit on harmonica and mandolin. After two more weeks he slipped, fell off the falls, broke his neck and died–the same afternoon I’d been at home adjusting my neck.

I had a stiff neck for about two years, but the cycle wreck removed the bone spur which caused most of the pain. It occasionally bothers me when it’s cold and damp, but I’ve learned to wear a hoodie and forget it.

A state trooper interviewed me after the wreck. He was a New Jersey smart ass Yankee and gave me a ticket for something–speeding, unsafe movement, I don’t remember. I appeared in court on my 24th birthday but, to his credit, he dismissed the case. I found out later he’d just come from a wreck over the hill, where a woman had been killed.  The ambulance had been occupied, by me, and as I’d been waiting in the hospital, annoyed, everyone was trying to save her. It bothered me, I felt guilty.

Some months after my court case, the trooper who ticketed me was involved in a dust-up with local authorities. He was transferred and fought the transfer, claiming it improper.  Some comments were made saying if he didn’t lose his attitude, “someone was going to shoot him”.  The remarks were denied by the parties involved, but rang true to me, and I wrote a letter to the editor. The case was dropped and the trooper said that he felt badly that so many people had felt that way. He quit the patrol, settled down the road from our farm, bought some rental properties and became a good neighbor.

There were more projects.  The front yard had a rock wall with steps in the center, pillars to either side and a walkway leading to a rock landing, but through the years the mountain had washed several inches of mud into the front yard, completely obscuring the walkway, and stepping stones laid over it.  The pillars and much of the wall had fallen and one of the steps had migrated to an odd angle.  I spent the summer digging out the rock wall, wheelbarrowing a couple feet of soil to the side yard, replacing the wall, steps, discovering and rebuilding the hidden walkway. I’d built twenty feet of rock wall, raised the old walkway and rebuilt the steps. It was obvious on which end of the wall I started, but it got better. I was later hired as a rock mason and built many of the chimneys, walls, patios and terraces in the area.

We’d decided to grow Christmas trees and planted them on the mountain behind the farmhouse and on 18 acres down the road. My father had also bought an additional tree farm. It was in the shade of one of NASA’s least successful projects, a giant windmill on Howard’s Knob. We now had several thousand trees.  Initially, everyone in the family tended them, though soon enough the planting, trimming and mowing became my job alone.

I also designed a greenhouse for the business, and worked on it for weeks. A friend helped for half a day, which was generous of him, and my father talked often about the work Jeff had done on the greenhouse, not mentioning I’d designed and built 90% of it. He didn’t let me finish the job. He bought glass but didn’t let me install it, covering my beautifully designed geometrically unique greenhouse in ugly old moldy used plastic.

My father placed no value on any of my work. He was angry, rather than pleased, when I made beautiful things, and ignored or destroyed them. I never figured out why. It was as if he’d decided when I was two that I was a rocket scientist, and anything else, he’d wreck. I may have done well as a scientist, but as a child genius I’d been shoveled into so many classes against my will that I thoroughly detested science. It was heartless, soulless, evil. Four additional years at university sounded like pure distilled essence of hell. I went to night school, and took shop.

Shortly after leaving the Navy a friend introduced me to a fellow who lived above the pizza parlor. It was a strange place to live, but since the pizza place closed at 9:30, quiet at night. My Navy regulation haircut hadn’t yet grown out and I felt like a skinned rabbit. My friend and I went from there to another house in the country, where I met a woman whom I immediately identified with. She’d lived out West, as had I, had been vegetarian for nine years, as had I, and she knew astrology, as did I. She knew all three, the only person–not the only woman, the only person–I’d ever met with whom I could converse freely on all three topics. She was so fascinating it was scary!

I didn’t know where we were that night. I was along for the ride, in a friend of a friend’s van, visiting his friend. The woman I met was a friend of his friend’s friend, a friend five times removed.  When we left that night, before I’d wanted to (but I had to, or I’d have lost my ride), I didn’t know anything but her first name. She was staying with her friend, and didn’t have a current address or phone number. My friend knew the fellow who knew her friend’s address, but by the time I tracked her friend down, she’d left town.

A year later, she was back in town, a waitress in Blowing Rock. I went by the restaurant, she’d give me free salads, I’d give her books, she’d trade me others. We’d talk about Eastern thought. She felt we’d been together, in a temple, in a past life. I’d been the grand wizard. She’d been the temple prostitute.

Reincarnation appeals to me, but not as a specific soul. As one lives, one’s matter is constantly dispersed throughout creation–as breath, as pee, as fingernail clippings. After death one becomes compost, fish food, smoke and ash. No longer a single body. A part of the creatures, plants, the planet, the universe. Another person arrives, formed from these and other atoms.

We’re all formed from what came before, and become whatever comes after. More of some, less of others. Ten parts wizard, one part prostitute, three percent donut salesman, six-seventeenths airplane mechanic. We’re focused when we’re here, dispersed when we’re not, but not gone. Physically, we’re the trees we’ve fertilized and the works we’ve left behind. Mentally and spiritually we’re the memories, advice, examples our contacts take with them through their life. It’s reincarnation, but unfocused, dispersed. We first enter the primordial soup from which souls are distilled. From random tessellations of structure and crystals of experience, we form a life.

Beth was way more experienced than I. She was youngest in a large family, and had lived with her much older siblings, away from her parents, for years. She’d been married, had a toddler named Ben, and had traveled to numerous states and foreign countries hiding from her ex-husband. She was only six and a half months older than I, but it might as well have been ten years. I drew her chart and her son’s, whose chart closely resembled mine. Her son and I both had a Gemini sun and planets in a grand sextile, an unusual configuration resembling the star of David. I saw her every day for the next few weeks, and on the 6th of April I kissed her.

I was crazy about her, crazy being the operative word. She always had business out of town. She’d leave, show up a few days later. I didn’t ask what she was doing, didn’t know, didn’t care. She’d be back, we’d be together, she’d leave again.

She was smuggling dope.  She’d go to Colombia dressed as a society girl and sew a few ounces of coke into Ben’s teddy bear. Ben would pitch a fit if anyone tried to take away his old bear. It worked well. When she’d come back there was coke all over town, which I could take or leave. I’d snort what was passed around, but didn’t chase it, and if the door to the den closed, I stayed in the living room. I didn’t shoot up.

I got on with my life, but stopped chasing women. I got a job at Blowing Rock Elementary washing dishes in the daytime, went to school at night. In June I rented a room in a rural house. A few friends had a shop a block down the street from the restaurant, and I rented one-ninth of it. In front on the right was a jewelry shop run by George from above the pizza place, his wife Wanda, George’s army buddy Chris and Chris’ girlfriend Sam. In the back room was another bsiness run by Allen and his girlfriend Lisa with their buddy Bill. Sam and Chris had been staying in a little front room to the left, but got an apartment, so I and another former sailor, who went by the nickname Tea, rented it.  Our part of the rent amounted to $17 each per month, which we paid from our GI Bill checks.  We called it Charts and Ching. I drew charts and Tea read the I Ching. He knew Chinese and we decorated the place with his wall hangings.  I was there every day. Tea came once or twice a week. Beth left Ben at the shop most days, where I’d usually watch him, frequently by myself. George and Wanda broke up and left the business that summer, Chris and Sam had classes, Allen, Lisa and Bill were often gone to concerts or craft fairs and Tea only showed up occasionally.

The year continued. I’d go to the shop, go to school, go home, start again in the morning.  I’d do an occasional chart, read a palm, throw tarot cards or toss the I Ching, with which I preferred using the traditional method, counting bundles of yarrow stalks.  It gives more time for contemplation and conversation, which is what it’s about.  Outside of the technical aspects, reading a fortune involves a lot of talk. Everyone has a technique, and whether it was I Ching, palmistry or charts mine was to start slowly and follow a defined ritual. I’d sit directly across from a client, ask questions, find their concerns and put them at ease.

Calculating astrological charts by hand is tricky and requires concentration, but I could chat when the preliminaries were in place. There’s a lot told by a person’s manner and bearing, even before the chart is finished. A quick glance in an ephemeris reveals the placements of the planets and important aspects, and the rest is fiddling around the edges, finding the degrees of the moon, planets, house cusps, placing the planets in the houses.  Charts fit into patterns. Planets may be clumped together, spread all over or contained loosely in one half of the chart.  Sometimes one planet is particularly prominent or isolated, which is itself a quick clue. I knew the planetary placements on the date and time a client entered, which told me more, and what to expect in my own chart that day, which told me still more.From there I could move to specifics.

If clients wanted palm readings I’d have them place their hands flat on the table, palms down. There are correspondences between the hands and an astrological chart, and I’d note the positions of each finger in relation to the others, the length of each finger and the spread of the space the client maintained between them. After seeing what I could I’d take their hands, together, in mine, feel their texture and look at the differences between the palms. I’d then take one or the other and explain the palm, from the outside in. The center finger, being the longest and its tip the furthest from the body, represents the furthest traditional planet, Saturn. The thumb is closest, representing the moon. The other planets are in-between, in order of distance from the earth. The pads or “mounts” on the palm, and their relative prominence, then reveal themes in life, which I’d explain, always working inwards towards the wrist. After these preliminaries came the lines and their significance.

I’d introduce the tarot to a client wanting a card reading, but wouldn’t explain much.  I’d ask them to think about their questions while they put the cards in order, in whatever order suited their fancy.  This was very revealing. Some were uncomfortable putting them in order, asking dozens of questions. Others simply separated them into suits and piled them up. I’d observe and ask questions. It was deliberate and delicate. They were my cards, and I treated them with reverence. Slowly and carefully, I’d shuffle them as we discussed the client’s concerns, and they’d tell me when they thought we were ready. I’d then explain the spread, which was my own variation of a Celtic cross, and the meaning of the first position. Only then would I lay out the first card. We’d discuss it and go to the next. At the end I’d ask for more questions, and if there were none pick up the cards in the same order I’d lain them down.

I rarely used other types of divination, but I’d follow the same thoughtful, thorough path. On principle, I’d never lie. I’d be diplomatic, but wouldn’t tell it like it wasn’t. Difficult things need to be said, and one should never be afraid of the truth. If a client has a short lifeline it’s important to tell them so. It doesn’t necessarily foretell a short life. Sometimes people take care of themselves, change their lifestyle and their life span; it’s not often, but it happens.  A girl of fourteen that I met had a very short life line. I told her so. She already knew it. Her heart had a genetic defect, and her teenage brother had already died. She could’ve died as a teenager, too, but lived to be twenty-eight. Not old, but older than her brother.

The same goes for other indications, in the palm, in the chart, in the cards. People deserve to know. They do pay attention sometimes, though most often people shop around for comfortable answers and go with what’s convenient.  There is and will always be an expert, a survey, a Bible verse, a scientist, a grandma who says differently. Some know what they’re talking about, some parrot what they’ve heard on TV. Often the most knowledgeable in one field is the most ignorant in another.  I wouldn’t hire a brain surgeon to wire my house, why would I want a physicist to advise me about astrology?

The shop puttered along for almost a year, and I took up jewelry making in the last few months. Chris & Sam had been vacationing in Mexico, while Alan, Bill and Lisa were ski instructors for the season. I was watching the shop, and since the house I’d been living in had a water problem, I’d often stay overnight in a sleeping bag. With nothing else to do, I got into Chris’ tools and tried my hand at ring making.

Some older cousins had given me a puzzle ring when I was 15. They had puzzle rings for wedding bands, and I’d been so fascinated by them that they’d sent me one as a birthday gift. I’d worn it in high school, but one day in science lab took it off to wash up and forgot it. An hour or so later I went back, but it was gone. It could’ve been stolen, but was more probably knocked to the floor, came apart and was swept up as trash.

Anyway, with time on my hands, I played with paper clips and figured out what to do. One evening at 5 pm started trying to make a ring. I’d welded, but knew nothing about soldering silver except what I’d seen in the shop. I soldered, banged and twisted wires all night, cut and re-soldered them, banged some more, twisted, filed, polished and by 6 am had a god-awful looking ring–but it was mine, I’d made it. I tried again. This one took 3 or 4 hours instead of 13, and looked much better. I ordered some tools and silver, and by the time Chris and Sam came back had a dozen or so. I gave them as Christmas gifts–I didn’t think they’d sell.

The romance with Beth sputtered along.  She’d show up occasionally when I didn’t expect, appearing unannounced at night school or calling me from out of town. I wanted to wait her out, and didn’t have anything better to do.

She crazy needed to marry, according to her. She wanted another child right away. Her son was four, and she wanted any brothers or sisters to be close in age.  It seemed ridiculous to me–what difference would six months or a year make? I’d have been happy to marry her, but not in a rush. She got involved with one guy after another, bouncing around, a couple weeks with one, then another. I wasn’t happy about it, but couldn’t change it. One day in late summer, I hadn’t seen her for three weeks or a month. I was in the sun working on my truck when a beautiful German girl drove by and asked me directions to a party. I ended up riding with her and her roommate and spending the weekend.  It was the first time in over a year I’d gone out with other girls, and I really needed to.

Irmalee didn’t want to stay with me after our weekend. I didn’t understand why, but wasn’t surprised. I went back to my house in the country, depressed, and the same night Beth climbed through my bedroom window. I was happy to see her, but thoroughly confused. The last time we’d talked she’d said our relationship was too serious, that I was too serious. She needed a shallow, meaningless relationship. We’d sort of halfway broken up, but now here she was. We had a long, disjointed talk about spiritual needs and such, ending inconclusively.

This didn’t seem spiritual to me. I didn’t understand how she could talk spirituality, karma, responsibility, marriage and then run around looking for shallow, meaningless relationships, but that was her plan.  She said she loved me, respected me deeply, that I was her wizard but she wasn’t worthy of the wizard. I said yes she was, that I loved her too. She still left.

In the end she found a guitar player in a shiny suit.  She came to me one day with their charts, asking if they’d be good business partners. Any astrologer knows a partnership is delineated similarly to a marriage, and I knew what was happening.

They had certain things in common. Both had been married before. He was an Aquarian named Michael, like her first husband, though he went by Luke. This disappointed George, who’d also been interested in her after Wanda had left–with different guy named Luke! They left town to marry, and I wrote a letter of congratulations, though my heart wasn’t in it.

She sent back a very strange letter, saying it was something she had to do, that she was trying hard to fly but her wings were clipped, reiterating familiar themes. She was the temple prostitute. I was the grand wizard. Oh, what karma befalls the wizard, etcetera. Signed, Love & Light, Eliza-Beth.

It was a very weird letter to receive from a newlywed, but so it was. I got on with my life, but I was empty. I met a very nice girl, an art student named Sylvia, and we had a relationship which lasted into the fall, but she had complications too, she was depressed over her brother commiting suicide the year before. I was hurting, we were both hurting, and it went nowhere. I was heartbroken.

Kyle and Del that New Year’s knew three self-styled Original Avery County Women in a crossroads called Crossnore, and we drove over to visit. Nora, June, and Karina had lived in a cabin just over the county line and the conversation between Kyle and Del as we headed there was all about how June and Karina were lots of fun but Nora wasn’t interested in men; she’d just divorced, probably wouldn’t want to talk with any of us, etc. etc.–but when I showed up Nora and I talked for hours, had a great time and ended up “ringing her chimes”–she had a set of chimes attached to the headboard of her bed–all night. Nora and I “screwed in the bicentennial” in 1976, and remained friends thereafter.

I had to do something radically different, but didn’t know what. I continued with school and my shop. I’d have loved to have been in a band, had it not churned up so much indigestion.  I certainly wanted to see more places, though. I’d been to about twenty states, but many we’d passed through stopping only for gas and potty breaks.  I wanted to explore. One of the Avery County Women, June, gave me some addresses of friends in Cortland and Ithaca, NY.


By the spring of 1978 I was ready. In March I’d left the shop and finished with school. I was ready to leave, pack on back. I’d bring silver and had figured how to pack exactly twelve items–a hammer, ring mandrel, file, pliers, polish in a sock, flux, three sizes of silver wire and three types of silver solder. I’d pack a basic, but complete, astrology book, a knife, clothes, a sleeping bag, a pad to put under it and two sturdy leaf bags duct-taped end-to-end for a weather barrier to sleep in. I had cologne, soap, a comb, toothbrush, harmonica and several other items. I was ready to go to Denver. I made plans once or twice which fell through, but in May Kathy, the girl who’d rented my room on the porch when I’d moved to the country, decided to check out a communal farm in Summertown, Tennessee, and my friend Bobby and I went along. We stayed there a couple days. It’d been started by a caravan of California hippies a couple years earlier, and was very interesting indeed. Everyone was vegetarian and everyone worked. You could work wherever you wanted to, but you worked. We transplanted tomatoes and took part in discussions, but they had lots of rules that none of us were interested in following. Kathy went north to see her family while Bobby and I hitchhiked west. We were in Denver by the following afternoon.


It was great fun showing Bobby where I grew up. Monk had left the temple, moved to San Diego but was now visiting for a couple weeks. We stayed at his house for 3 days while Bobby learned about the West. At first he was annoyed. He’d walk around town, nod at people, wave, say hi–and they’d turn away. He was used to small-town life. I told him people were friendly, but their customs were different. I explained that if he nodded at people, it implied that he recognized them. Strangers were disoriented, and would look away. He still grumbled. Finally, we sat down at a bus stop on Colfax Avenue. There was a black fellow there, drinking something from a paper bag. We said howdy, and he shared his bottle–peach brandy.

We went around town with him for an hour or so, met some of his friends and scored half an ounce of really good pot, which had been decriminalized in Colorado. Bobby finally understood what I’d been saying, and quit complaining.

Later that Saturday we went to a wedding party given by some of Monk’s friends. I surprised myself with some social faux pas on my part. I’d been five years away from the city and was now more of a hillbilly than I’d realized.

The next afternoon we were sitting on the porch at Monk’s house and, without plan, everyone from the old days gathered. My first date, Monk’s sister Carole, came down from Wyoming for the weekend. Brother Dick and his wife Wendy (whom I’d known since high school) showed up from out of town, Luanne and her family drove over from Aurora, and Margaret, Ruth and Jim appeared, completing the family. Our old friend Wayne came by from a few blocks away, where he lived in his parents’ basement, and while we were sitting on the porch the last member of our old gang, Tom, drove in unannounced from Fort Collins. It was all of us. Even Paddy the dog was there, the puppy who was now 13 years old. We talked over old times, and Tom remarked that it’d probably be 15 or 20 years before all of us could even pull off such a gathering if we’d planned. We all knew he was correct. It never happened again. That was it.

After three days in Colorado I hitchhiked home while Bobby left for the West Coast. He was gone for 3 months in the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia. I’d have explored more, but had to get back, as an acquaintance had planned to buy my motorcycle but never paid, and I had a date with the magistrate. The motorcycle was back when I returned but he had to pay me $10 for a little bit of damage to it, which paid my filing fee. In all, I was gone nine days.

As it turned out, Beth and Luke had visited North Carolina during that time. I was rather pleased that I wasn’t there. I didn’t want to see either one of them.

When back in town I did craft fairs, sold rings and tended to Christmas trees for a short while, then headed for Canada. I’d learned to lighten up, and packed about 30 pounds less. I went first to my brother Sam’s apartment in New Haven, Connecticut, where I stayed a few days and had a marvelous time. I continued to my uncle’s home in Sudbury, Massachusetts, then painted his house, made rings and stayed two or three weeks. From there I went to Maine to find a friend of a friend in Bar Harbor, but she was out of town and I continued on to Cadillac Mountain to watch the sunrise where it first appears on United States soil. It was windy, cold and very dry that year, and No Fires Allowed was posted. As I hiked up the mountain I decided it wouldn’t be any fun to camp without a fire, so I turned around and found a sheltered place to sleep.

I rolled out my sleeping bag and pad inside the leaf bag barrier, loosened up my pants, took off my shoes, stuffed them into my pack, put my shoulder bag inside the sleeping bag and used my backpack as a pillow, my arm hooked through the straps.  It would’ve been difficult to steal anything while I was asleep, but I slept in hidden places and certainly didn’t look like I had a lot of cash to flash.

The next morning I hitched to Calais, Maine, which I’d seen featured in the Reader’s Digest. It was a little town where community services were shared with the town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, over the Canadian border. The article was illustrated with a picture of two fire trucks, one from each side of the border, putting out a house fire together.

I crossed the border and spent a very pleasant afternoon in St. Stephen. I’d brought along $100 to prove I wasn’t a vagrant, in old currency that I had no intention of spending. I had several silver puzzle rings I’d made during my stay in Massachusetts, and sold one to a Canadian fellow for Canadian money, with which I bought lunch and went to a movie. The movie was horrible–a low-budget “snuff film” called “Jeannie’s Teenage Fantasies”–and Iwalked out, the first time I’d ever done so. I hung around in the park awhile, then towards dusk put out my thumb. A little ways out of town, I looked over and down a long driveway saw a small house, a cheery fire burning in its fireplace. Very picturesque–but there was something odd about it. The fireplace looked to be three feet off the floor–and the fire was getting brighter. I realized–the house was on fire! The living room was full of flames! Soon I heard sirens, the St. Stephen fire truck pulled up–and then the Calais, Maine fire truck! They’d driven straight out of the pages of Reader’s Digest!

The house was hopeless. They sprayed a little water around to keep the fire from spreading, then pulled it down.

As I watched the show, a Canadian kid walked up. We talked a bit, and he told me to wait. He returned about fifteen minutes later with a nice full bag of fresh green homegrown Canadian pot, which I enjoyed for the rest of my Canadian adventure.

I slept under a bridge that night. Bridges are wonderful places to crash. There’s a flat place up under the roadbed just wide enough for a sleeping bag, well sheltered from the weather. In the morning I started across New Brunswick.

It was disorienting seeing speed limits of 100 or 110 when in the USA the national limit was 55. The Canadian speed limit was higher, of course, but also measured in kilometers, so it still only amounted to 60 or 65 miles per hour. My first ride explained a quick way to tell iles per hour–multiply the first digit of the speed limit by six. Eighty kilometers per hour is thus about 48 miles per hour.

My next ride came from a uniformed Canadian soldier, wearing a beret. We traded military experiences and discussed the differences across the border. At the time gas in the states was about 65¢ a gallon. It sounded crazy when he said that in Canada it was a dollar a gallon! That was a Canadian dollar, of course, worth about 85¢ US, and a Canadian or Imperial gallon, which was five quarts. The actual price was about equal, but a buck a gallon still sounded fantastically, incredibly expensive.

I arrived in Fredericton in the afternoon and went in a beverage house, which was a class of drinking establishments in New Brunswick. A beverage house would serve women, a bar would not. You could sit at a table and drink all day, but couldn’t stand up with a beer in hand. To move to another table you’d either finish your beer, call for the waitress or ask the other customers to pass it along. There was also a white line around the top of every glass–a foam line, where the beer had to touch. I met a bilingual fellow in the beverage house, and we had a conversation with a couple of girls in French–he translating for me, they practicing their English. I knew Spanish, which helped me figure out a few words but was otherwise useless.

After a couple beers my new friend drove me to Moncton, a good stretch down the road. We went to a party; he’d thought I might stay there, but they spoke only French and I was a fifth wheel, so he took me to an “auberge de jeunuesse” or youth hostel. For a few bucks I had a place to clean up, do laundry, sleep and breakfast in the morning. I strolled Moncton the next day, and bought a train ticket to Campbellton in the evening. About 5 am on the last day of August, I arrived, looked outside and there was frost ringing a puddle in the gutter! The days were long, that far north, but the nights were cold.

As I caught rides down the St. Lawrence Seaway through French Canada, I learned a lot of history and politics. The English won the French & Indian War in the 1760s and split up the French families, sending some members to France and others to Louisiana, which in the 1700s was like sending them to the moon. Many French hid out in the backwoods, which were wide-open and thinly-populated, or came back after the war, resettling Quebec.

New Brunswick is one-third French, but Quebec is three-quarters, and the French are in charge. French Canadians are different in a lot of ways. They live in little bitty houses and have great big barns. They don’t bother much about drinking beer in public, and even then beer bottles carried a hefty deposit of 10¢, with the interesting result that while people still discarded their bottles, there wasn’t a litter problem. A bottle by the side of the road was simply a dime for the next guy. There was a free and easy attitude about peeing, too. I saw several drivers pulled to the side of the road, letting it fly. I met a girl once who swore it wasn’t so, but I was there. They had a seatbelt law, years before the United States. One driver had a ten-dollar bill on the dashboard. It was for the passenger, he explained to me in gestures and broken English. If we got stopped, it paid the fine.

Quebec is a huge area, almost as big as Alaska and many times more populous. It’s been officially bilingual for centuries, but there’s a strong undercurrent of French pride which boils up when the English assume too much. The French do things their own way. In Quebec City, the French definitely ruled. I didn’t spend much time there, but it was clear. All the stop signs had STOP spray-painted over, leaving only ARRÉT, and the English on most other official signs was defaced as well. I went into a bar in Quebec City and the waitress pretended she didn’t understand English at all. Not so a few hours down the road, in Montreal. A street festival was going on when I arrived, and there was music and dancing and carrying-on until the sky was dark, which at that latitude in the late summer was around 10 pm. I found some bushes to roll out my sleeping bag behind and was awakened by the sunrise about 4 am. It was time to head back to the states.

Leaving Montreál

The next morning I caught a ride through a little piece of Ontario and down into New York State. I had a couple friends of friends to find upstate, and about six weeks to enjoy the area.

One of the Original Avery County Women, June, was from upstate New York, and left me addresses of her friends in the area.  The first was a couple who lived in the wilds of Cincinnatus. Neal drove a train. He and Joellen had a farm, a sawmill, two kids and a third on the way. I helped out for a week before heading into Cortland to find another gal. June’s friend worked in a local bar but wasn’t set up to take in a visitor, so I hung out and met a local named Maggie, who put me up for the night.  The next day I met Maggie’s friends. A gal named Barb, a year younger than me, had a son who was 7.  Her boyfriend Al was in California pitching a cartoon series–the Corelians–that he’d dreamed up, and she was happy to have a man around the house. I cleaned up, fixed up, told stories, slept on her couch.  I met lots of folks and very much enjoyed the area.

After three weeks I called up another friend of June’s.  Eileen lived in Ithaca, she was four and an half years older and had a toddler, Jubal, barely learning to speak. She’d lived in Colorado, but had left two years before, when her fiance had been killed in an accident. Eileen had a boyfriend but no long-term plans. I slept in Jubal’s room, cooked, cleaned, minded the baby. We had had friends over and strolled around town together. One day she was making lasagna and left me while she went out. I made a sauce using everything in the kitchen–tomatoes, onions, garlic and olive oil, of course, but also walnuts, apricots, raisins, coconut, yogurt and a blue billion other things. Her friends talked about the sauce for weeks, for years, every time I came to town. I couldn’t duplicate the recipe, of course.

About October first, I headed back towards New Haven to again visit my brother. On the road, for the first time in years, I dropped a hit of acid a driver had given me. It was cold, damp, rainy, dark. A fellow picked me up, we started talking and then and there decided to drive to Florida.  He packed a few things in his MG and we were off to Ormond Beach, where we arrived about twelve hours later.  I wanted to see Key West and continued towards Miami the next morning, but caught a ride to Orlando and decided to explore the area where my mother grew up. About noon I was sitting by the side of the road. It was blistering hot. I crossed the street to hitch back out, but an exceptionally cute girl had seen me, and had already turned around to pick me up. She liked my jewelry, and we drove around town looking for places to sell it for the next hour. Her name was Amy. She had two small kids and lived with a roomie in a suburban ranch house, where we ate lunch. We then went to the topless bar where her roomie worked, had some drinks and she dropped me off at the same spot where she’d picked me up. I asked her what town we were in and she said Kissimmee, so I did. I corresponded with her for awhile but we lost touch, which was a shame.

I thumbed around the back roads of Florida for a few days, stopping here and there to make jewelry, sleeping in the bushes, eating the occasional grapefruit off the tree. A cop once picked me up, told me I couldn’t hitchhike there and gave me a ride to the city limit. In Miami I was told that Key West was a pain this time of year, so I turned around and worked my way up the coast. I passed through Savannah and on to Atlanta. I’d been dropped off in downtown Atlanta, and as I put down my pack a girl on the corner asked me where I was coming from. Her name was Virginia, and she was visiting from Virginia. She took me to her hotel room to clean up, and while I was showering she joined me. We had a lovely afternoon.

I had one more friend of June’s to meet. She worked in DC, and her name was Flo. From the beltway a fellow in a beige Oldsmobile gave me a ride to Flo’s place in Silver Spring.

Bert had narcolepsy. He transported blood for a couple hospitals, but would start to babble and fall asleep, so he needed a co-pilot. For the next week or so I rode with him in the daytime and visited with Flo and her friends at night. When I left, Bert was taking me to the freeway but started to nod off. I took the wheel, with no idea where I was. When I saw the Washington Monument, it seemed  a good place to visit for a few minutes, but when I returned the police had awakened him and he’d driven off–with my pack!  I called Flo, she came for me and in the morning I called the numbers of blood services and hospitals until I found the one he worked for. The next day, he came by. Bert had college buddies in North Carolina he wanted to visit, so we ambled through Virginia, stopping every hour or so to eat or explore. We arrived in Winston-Salem at suppertime. I expected him to drop me off, but he insisted that I drive his car to Texas! I’d thumbed out of Boone in July, and returned in October, driving a car!


I wasn’t in Boone for long. A couple days later I headed for Texas to look for a place to sell trees. My father had a friend in Laredo, so I drove there, picking up a hitchhiker on the way. We went to Jude’s house, and he took us over the border to eat tacos and drink Mexican beer. Bill and I stayed at Jude’s while investigating the area.  One night we met a fellow named Pancho who lived on a ranch some miles out of town, and with his friend Rick we all went to Nuevo Laredo.  Outside town there was a red light district. We drank Coronitas and danced with Mexican whores, but weren’t there for sex, just to explore. I was really taken with a cutie named Maritza, she was smart, educated, friendly, beautiful and funny. In my journal that night I declared my intent to marry a Mexican whore!

After returning, we discovered we’d gone both ways across the border with a box of shotgun shells in the rear window, in plain view. We could have been busted, either direction.

We had a wonderful time and stayed in the barracks for the field hands at Pancho’s that night.  There were two coolers next to the counter, one full of beer, the other liquor, and two cafeteria trays on the bar, one holding pot and the other dried peyote.  We all partook, then crashed in the bunks.  In the morning Pancho’s mother came through, saw the scene, picked up an empty bottle, shook her head and smiled.

The ranches are long and skinny in that part of Texas.  Because water is at a premium, the holdings start at the river’s edge and go for miles across the desert.  We drove into town that afternoon, some miles on the dirt road and a short stretch on the freeway, and went back to Jude’s house.  He’d been a wonderful host, but three or four days into our stay told me we’d totally surprised him. My father hadn’t mentioned I was coming.

It was becoming clear that Laredo wasn’t the best place to sell trees.  It was small, dusty and didn’t have a strong Christmas tree tradition.  The first weekend in November, I left for Austin to meet a dog.

Willy was Johntee’s dog. John was a Charleston native like Beth.  His last name started with T and he went by Johntee. He’d lived in the North Carolina mountains for awhile, and had left Willy with Beth while getting established in Texas. I met Willy but not Johntee, though I had his Texas address. Jude lived on a street of the same name. Several streets in Laredo and Austin share names. It had a deja-vu feel.

Johntee wasn’t there when Bill and I arrived in town. Bill went off to explore, and while I was parked across the street a girl asked me where I was from.  She was Jean, and she had to move out of her apartment across the street. She had no place to stay for a couple days, so I offered the back seat of my car. She slept there for a couple of nights while we found her a place.

Johntee showed up that evening. We played blues and jammed with friends, then visited afterwards over beers and burritos. I found temporary work cleaning out storage sheds at Texas Instruments the next morning; it was exceptionally interesting. There were electro-mechanical adding machines for room-sized computers, their number keys hooked to servo units with wiring harnesses. There were digital-display vacuum tubes, reel-to-reel storage tapes, punch cards, high-quality 4-track tape players, all headed for the trash. All obsolete.  The job was supposed to last 2 days but lasted 4, and I filled my trunk with interesting junk.

I checked for tree lots, and found a good spot just north of the freeway on Airport Boulevard. I knocked on the door of the house next door and nobody answered, but a fellow from the neighborhood strolled by. He told me a crazy old lady lived there, and that I should hang out awhile and try again.  I sat on the curb, played my penny whistle and knocked again. No response. I was set to forget about it, but needed to pee. It was secluded, so I watered her tree, and when I turned around she’d answered the door.  Mary indeed proved to be an old crazy woman. Her house was filled from socks to eyebrows with old newspapers, piled-up junk, and a dozen or two cats, but she was sweet, and rented me her lot for a very good price.  I drove back to North Carolina with Bill in tow and we spent the week before Thanksgiving readying trees.  We cut 600 white pines, put them through a cone, wrapped them with twine and after Thanksgiving rented a U-Haul truck to drive to Texas, towing my brother’s 1968 Dodge Coronet to drive back at the end of the month.  Austin was a popular destination that year and there was a $250 surcharge, so we drove it later to Waco.  The next year U-Haul redlined the whole state of Texas, so we contracted it to somewhere in Louisiana, paid the extra mileage, lost our $75 deposit and still came out over $100 to the better. It became our modus operandi.

Selling trees was really, truly fun.  We were Austins in Austin, and everyone remembered our names. My father made a radio commercial on the local country station, adopting the persona of a friendly hick. He said he was a small tree farmer–just over four feet tall, though he usually wore boots. He had 2 boys and a dog named Booger, who was part Great Dane and part wolf. Everyone came to see Booger, but Booger was always out for a walk.

We had a good location and the best trees in town. The business in Austin had been dominated by trees from up North, cut in October before the snows and trucked down on huge open trailers.  After two months and a thousand miles of highway wind, the trees were tinder-dry, brittle and sharp to the touch. Tree handlers wore thick leather gloves and long sleeves.  Our trees had been cut just before Thanksgiving and packed in a closed van, covered with snow. They were fresh and fluffy and soft. We’d push the trees into people’s hands. They’d instinctively pull back, but were amazed when the fresh white pine needles didn’t sting at all.  We’d then take a small branch, tie it in a knot and tell them to take it with them to all the other tree lots.  Nobody could match it, of course, and it caused a sensation.

I took off one day the whole month, and had to fight with my father for that. Jean had come by, and by the 18th things were slowing down, so I visited Johntee and a few friends. By the 22nd we’d sold over 500 trees, and those left were small and scraggly. On our last day a fellow came by needing a dozen trees to hide materials on a building job. My father gave them to him, told Mary he’d sold them at a “special rate”, and she tucked away the last 50 in a corner of her lot. We arrived in North Carolina two days before Christmas.  Bert had picked up his car while we were gone. I’d planned to visit him again, but not long afterwards got a letter from his mother. He’d passed away.  I never saw him again.

I hung around Boone until February, then left for Denver with my brother.  I didn’t stay long, but wanted to visit certain places I’d never entered when I’d been under 21.  One close by was called the Satire Lounge.  It was kind of a dive, but I wanted to see it.  I stopped in for a beer and a girl sat down next to me.  Kay was very drunk, and passed out in my arms. I looked after her until closing time. She was weaving, and I offered to walk her home but she refused. She started across the street, immediately stumbled into the path of a passing pickup and was hit.  I ran over. She had a deep gash in her scalp, and I could see her skull, but I calmly told her what had happened. The ambulance and the cops arrived at the same time. I talked to the cop and told him no, it was not the driver’s fault, then went to the hospital and held her hand for several hours while they stitched her up.  Her brother showed up, thanked me and took me back to my brother’s apartment, where I slept for a long time.

The next day, I left for Boulder to see Paul, a friend who’d nearly been electrocuted in my kitchen a few years earlier.  He’d rented a metal detector that morning, went looking for coins, found a few pennies and lots of bottle caps. I asked to try it. About 2 steps away, next to his front sidewalk, I found a 1910-S dime!  He’d been looking all day, and inside of 3 seconds, not 3 feet away, I found a rare, valuable, silver dime! I tried to give it to him, but he insisted I keep it.

Paul had been in a military school before I left for North Carolina, but he’d grown his hair out.  We spent the day wandering around Boulder, catching up on life, visiting friends. A day or two later my brother dropped me off at the freeway.  Before I’d reached the bottom of the entrance ramp, I had a ride.  We went into southern Colorado, stayed the night in a motel, and  my driver dropped me off in the morning. As I was pulling my out my pack I stuck out my thumb.  He stopped, and I had a ride to Los Angeles!  I’d spent less than a minute hitchhiking, and got from Denver to LA!

While I was living by myself in Colorado, my brother Rob’s buddy Arthur had moved to Boone. His parents had split up. He lived with my family until high school graduation, then moved back. Arthur picked me up and we spent the next week looking up old friends. It had only been a few years but almost everyone in the old neighborhood had left. There was only Kenny, across the street, and the next door neighbor Jennifer who was now a teenager. She recognized me, but I didn’t recognize her!

My mother’s first name is Dorothy, and her aunt from Georgia always called her Dottie. In one of those frequent, travel-related coincidences, I discovered the woman who now lived in our Minnehaha Street house was named Dottie, and came from Georgia. She was also a teacher, and resembled my mother.

The neighborhood around Pete’s Rental had also changed. The shack had remained for a year or more, but was now gone, replaced by a large building containing offices and a bus garage.  None of the other businesses remained either, though 3 blocks away the Troubadour still stood.

Arthur was a sound man for various bands and eventually became an electrician.  He lived in a ramshackle ranch house in Encino, with several roommates. One was a delectable red-haired girl who liked dry off in front of the fireplace after a shower. Julia, all wet, inspired in me many fine wet dreams.

After a week at Arthur’s I hitchhiked towards San Diego to see Monk, intending to see Tijuana as well. On my way I met a fellow who was covered in tattoos, which was something of a rarity in the 1970s. He was friendly enough, but as we talked I realized he was nuts. He had skulls, guns, knives, manacled hands, WHITE PRIDE on his back arms. All he talked about was crime or criminals. While in prison he’d met Sonny Barger, who ran the Hell’s Angels, and gave him extra pudding. He’d written reams of bad poetry, which he quoted for me, dealing with revenge, armed robbery, Nazis, adventures in prison. He said he’d been beaten up the night before by some Army guys who’d given him a ride but had taken his pack, with his fighting chain, gun, buck knife, extra clothes and $300 inside. I thought it a good thing, but didn’t say so. I was glad I had a film canister full of cayenne in my pocket, and a knife I could open with one hand. When hitchhiking, I’m friends with everyone but keep an open eye.

I pulled out my map book and showed him how to get to Mattoon, Illinois. He memorized the highways. I offered to write them down, but he didn’t want to bother.

As we waited by the freeway, a cop stopped and ticketed us. It was the only time I received a ticket for hitchhiking, and I don’t think I’d have gotten one had I not been with Mr. WHITE PRIDE, but that’s life. We split up. He went one way, I the other. I got a notice in the mail months later. but never appeared in court, so I suppose I’m wanted in California. They haven’t extradited me yet.

I didn’t see Monk, nor Tijuana. I thumbed along instead to Boulevard, where I stayed on a farm with a couple of Bahais outside town. It was the month of Ramadan (the month I was born), so we didn’t eat anything until sundown, then had a big bowl of grains for dinner. Very good. On St. Patrick’s Day they dropped me off at a bridge next to the freeway. By law I should’ve been at the top of an entrance, but there wasn’t much traffic and the driver recommended that I stand to the far side of a concrete divider, off the roadbed and so at least borderline legal. I caught a ride from there to Highway 98, where I hiked along the side of the road for several hours before catching another. Late in the afternoon a uniformed Marine picked me up. He was a Mexican national who’d joined the military to gain US citizenship. We rode to the Arizona border, and just before sunset he stopped at the exit to drop me off. I didn’t know it then, but in the next half-hour more threads would form linking to other parts of my life than any several years put together.


Three drunk Mexicans, in a van, butted him in the rear.

He wasn’t happy, and started a fight with all three.  They were screaming in Spanish, spitting, punching, kicking. I was in the fight whether I wanted to be or not. One little guy was making a nuisance of himself. I grabbed him by the arm, swung him and threw him about 15 feet down the road, where he lay, spread-eagled, not wanting to get up. The others saw it was now two-on-two, and paused. I made some remark about cops. Cops, they understood! Everyone jumped back into their vehicles and drove away. The three drove over my pack, which tore it up a little. I picked up everything, tied it together and started across the road.  As I stood on the median between the two states, the Arizona cops drove up on one side and the California cops on the other.  The Arizona deputy drove up first, and out popped a girl! A pretty girl, in a sheriff’s car, with a single bubble-gum machine on top.  She asked me about the fight, and while I was telling her the details, the California cops arrived. Two big guys. They had a cage in the back, a rack decorated with shotguns and a light bar with twenty or so blinking lights across the roof.  I thought, I’m sure glad I’m in Arizona, flirting with this chick, instead of ten feet away in California, being grilled by the World Wrestling tag team.

After telling her who was driving what, their appearance, etc. all the cops drove off. A few seconds later, my driver showed up, looking for a pair of glasses.  Twenty seconds earlier, he could have told his own story to the cops, but I’m not sure he wanted to.  We looked around and didn’t find them, but I found a utility razor blade which had been pounded into a short length of copper pipe, which I picked up as a souvenir.

I was glad to see the end of California.  Coastal states are a pain to hitchhike in, because most drivers are local, driving only to the next town. Inland, many folks are journeying hundreds or thousands of miles.

It was dusk now, and I went to the bottom of the entrance ramp, legal in Arizona. Three guys were already there – one from Scotland, one from Wales, one from Arizona.  They’d seen the cops, and I told them my story.  They pulled out a pipe filled with hash, which we passed around.  We exchanged adventures and the three of them left to hop a freight train.  I was alone, the sun was setting and traffic had slacked off, so I pulled out my penny whistle. I heard a shout, “Hey Hitchhiker!”. By the river were several folks next to a campfire.  “Ya want some grub?!” I scampered down the hill.

A motley crew. Some folks lived in buses or step vans, some had tents.  On the fire was a huge pot of beans and a variety of dishes.  They were seasonal workers, picking oranges and grapefruits. We sat around the fire, talking and playing music into the night.  I pulled out my sleeping bag, slept under the stars, and in the morning they gave me a huge bag of fruit.  I went back to the freeway and after twenty minutes caught a ride with a Vietnam vet.  We ate oranges and drank beer all the way to Tucson. I got another ride late in the afternoon and crashed on his sofa.  After breakfast I was on the road and the next night was back in Austin. Jean had moved once more, but I found her at work and we spent the week  together.

It was late March, tree-trimming time, and I had to head out, dropping in on one of my South Carolina cousins on the way. It was the first time I’d talked with her, away from the family. We smoked some pot and I stayed there for the night. She took me to visit her work, which was an eye-opener. She and her husband worked in a state facility for the profoundly retarded. Fully grown men and women, behaving like infants. Some could say a few words, but many couldn’t talk at all. Occasionally one would take a notion to run around naked, grinning and giggling.  She was even-tempered and matter-of-fact, but I wouldn’t have wanted the job even for good money.  She and her husband broke up later. I wondered if work had affected their marriage, but they had other issues which my cousin hadn’t broadcast.

I returned to Boone on the evening of April Fool’s Day and was immediately invited to a party, where I met a “kissin’ cousin”. I’d grown up thousands of miles away, and had never kissed a girl who was just a little bit kin.  Margo was related through my grandfather’s brother’s family, which made her a fourth or fifth cousin, and was niece to another relation. I saw her for awhile and we kissed a few times, but nothing more developed.

In April and May I was in Boone.  I received a weird letter from Beth in Arizona, again full of talk about the karma which befalls the wizard (me) and her life smothering in domesticity and so forth, enclosing a picture of the cutest, sweetest, happiest baby I’d ever seen.  I wrote her back – I’ve no idea what I said – and made plans to leave town again, to go away, far away.

There was another kink in my plans.  I’d been visiting a friend, Samson, who went by Sam. I’d leaned my bike on the fence in front of his apartment while he made martinis and I rolled a couple joints.  A knock came on the screen door. There were 2 cops standing there, one a regular Boone cop and the other a high school kid dressed up in a blue uniform for Career Day.  Sam, in the kitchen, yelled “Come on in!”, and they did.

I was caught, green-handed. We went to jail. My mother bailed me out 20 minutes later, but Sam spent the night. 

That same weekend, I went to a party near my house, and the kid who had been in uniform was there, underage drinking. He filled me in on the details.  The neighbors on the far side of the fence had called the cops, and he was along for the ride.  When the court date came late that spring, the cop didn’t show and all was dismissed.  Sam called the cops on his neighbors half-a-dozen times in the next few months, for every bogus reason he could dream up.

On the Road Again, Again

I left again in the early summer. My brother had written a musical and it was performed by the Yale Dramat for graduation, one of a very few times the play had been written by a student.  Sam had done well at Yale, and had joined Skull and Bones. My family drove to Connecticut, where Fran stayed for a summer class at Yale before continuing at Michigan State. I met Sam’s friends and his girlfriend Patience, then went through Vermont and New Hampshire just to add them to my list, staying the night in Brattleboro with college students in a big house. The next day I caught a ride with two girls from Panama City, Florida, and got their addresses.  There was a fellow I’d met thumbing in Arizona who lived in Cohoes, NY. I saw him pitch and win a baseball game, then stayed for dinner and slept on his porch.  His mother made me sandwiches to take along, and I spent the day enjoying Cohoes and Troy, NY, across the river.  Both towns were a little shabby but had their charms. Troy claimed to be the home of Uncle Sam, and had painted all the fire hydrants with patriotic themes and personalities for the recent bicentennial. Cohoes had spruced up  to match.

I got on the road and arrived in Cortland in the late afternoon.  Barb was laid up with the flu, and I immediately opened all her windows, made her tea, swept up, did laundry and generally took care of her for the next week. Her son Noel was in a play at school, and did well as Uncle Rat.

Barb filled me in on what had happened in Cortland.  Maggie, the first girl I’d met, was living with Al Rice in Rochester. Al was Barb’s squeeze the last time, but he’d been off in Hollywood. She and Maggie traded off men, Barb said. They’d been romantically involved with a number of each other’s boyfriends through the years. I spent a few more days in Cortland.  A botanist friend of Barb’s named Phil picked and cooked for us the red spotted mushrooms which decorate fairy tales, amanita muscaria. They contain a toxin, which cooking destroys. Everyone had a good trip.

From there, I went to Ithaca to find Eileen, but she wasn’t at her previous address, so I hung out on the Ithaca Commons. A tall black girl named Mia started a conversation with me, and we went to a sandwich place for lunch. While we were on the terrace, a guy I knew from Cortland walked by. Eric worked in the art museum at Cornell, was an ex-boyfriend of Eileen’s new roommate, and though he hadn’t met her yet, he was to marry Maggie! I stayed the night at Eileen’s, and in the morning caught a ride to Binghampton and a second to Rocky Mount, NC.

I was in Boone until August. Establishing a Christmas tree shape in small trees is work, and we had thousands. Pines grow like crazy in every direction, but can only be trimmed in a two-week window in the early summer. Firs and spruces, left to themselves, will grow fat around the bottom and send up sprouts in the center, which compete with each other. The tree grower manages the sprouts and trims the sprawl at the bottom. All trees need constant mowing between the rows and under the boughs when small, so I was busy.

I joined a grocery co-op which acquired an old building downtown.  For reduced prices on groceries I worked a couple days a month, which was quite fun.  I sat on a bench, added up items, calculated tax and gave a total, all in my head.  There was no cash register, and I didn’t use the calculator.  Like any skill, adding up numbers mentally gets easier with practice, and I did it well.  One day a customer came in with several items. I called out each price and kept a running total – “59¢ plus 43¢ is $1.02, 77¢ more is $1.79, $1.19 on that is $2.98, 35¢ more is $3.33, three percent tax is 10¢, total $3.43” He didn’t believe me.  He aggressively insisted I couldn’t do it, took the calculator and added up his total–exactly the same, to the penny. It’s always fun to confound a skeptic.

I was sitting at a table one night, drinking a beer and minding my own business, when a fellow I vaguely recognized sat across from me. He started a conversation, and after a few preliminaries turned it to astrology.  I hear you know how to draw charts, he said.  Well, yes, I said.  Can you tell me what my sign is?, he asked.  Well, I don’t know, I replied. He became hostile.  “I’ll bet you can’t,” he declared, and I thought, he’s getting hot, over a matter of no consequence. I said he was likely a fire sign–Aries, Leo or Sagittarius, and started explaining why. He cut me off. “You tell me what my sign is!” he screamed.  “You can’t do it!  Astrology is bullshit!  You don’t know what my sign is!  You can’t tell me! You can’t do it!”

Well, jeez, I thought, this guy flares up quick.  I was quite sure now that he was indeed a fire sign. Leo, the fixed sign, wouldn’t flare up that quickly, which left Aries and Sagittarius. Aries, the cardinal sign, probably would have come on strong initially, and started the conversation with a challenge. Sagittarius, the mutable sign, seemed the best fit, as he started cool, then suddenly flared up.

“Sagittarius,” I said.

Whoosh!  It was like the air rushed out through his ears. He physically deflated. He made one more, feeble, attempt– “Well, what’s my birthday, then?”

I had nothing to lose– “December 3rd”, I said, as it was directly opposite my own birthday.

I missed by a week–his was December 10th–and had I actually thought I may have divined the proper date, as he was sitting a bit left of directly opposite. But you work with what you have. Every time I saw him afterwards I called him Sagittarius.

Sunny Days

It was a summer for weddings. I officiated at a wedding ceremony, my first. I’d sent a postcard to the Universal Life Church a few years before and was ordained, “for free, for life, without question of faith”. This fit me precisely. Who can judge the faith of another? I’d ministered in a wedding before, but there’d been no ritual, I’d simply asked a few questions and pronounced Wiley and Debbie man and wife as we drove down the road in the back of Jay Johnson’s truck, all of us high as a kite on a combination of chemicals Wiley had purchased for the occasion.

This was a hippie wedding. I wore my homemade blue and white denim suit, blue and white denim hat, white shirt with homemade blue denim bowtie, blue jeans and white sneakers. The vows were based on one suggested by the Universal Life Church, with amendments by the wedding couple.  The only thing missing was a license, which they both derided as “just another piece of paper.”

Both had been divorced. Del had left a wife and kids in California. Cathy had been married the year before to a guy we all knew as Tony Lombardo.

Tony, Cathy, George, Del, Beth and a few others had all lived in a big house in Blowing Rock. We all understood that Tony had some vague Mafia connections, which he didn’t want to talk about. His family was from the north of Italy, but he was hard to pin down. Cathy had me draw their charts, but Tony said he didn’t know his precise time and place of birth, as his parents had been at sea in the North Atlantic. When Cathy had me draw the chart for their newborn baby Liza, I saw immediately the connections between mother and daughter, but few to the father. George remarked, with Tony sitting there, that Cathy and Tony weren’t to be married long, a prophecy I’d tried to avoid stating so baldly and directly but which quickly came to pass.

Tony had always been upstanding in his dealings with me–I’m sure he thought it’d be bad luck to tick off the wizard–but had ripped off several others and was increasingly paranoid. One day when his wife unexpectedly entered the room he swung around and pointed a shotgun at her, and the marriage was over. Tony, Cathy and Liza all left the house that night. When the divorce was initiated we found that his real name all along had been John Smith. He was from California.

Two weeks after Del and Cathy’s wedding, my brother was married and I was best man. Rob’s fiancee’s family was bitterly divided. Anne’s father Grant had married, at nineteen, a girl from “the other side of the tracks.” Grant was an only child whose parents owned more land than anyone else in the county, but Susie’s owned nothing. Anne came along while Susie was sixteen, and two years later a sister Dana, but by then Grant was dead, killed in a wreck while road racing. Grant’s parents took Anne to live with them before Dana was born and never gave her back. There was a fierce battle in the courts but Anne remained with the grandparents and Dana stayed with Susie, now eighteen. They grew up separately, and the wedding was the first occasion when many of the members of the two families had spoken. Anne passed out a sea of corsages and tried to get everyone to socialize, which was somewhat successful.

Like any wedding, it had its moments. The flower girl saw the full church and lost her nerve, making a beeline for the nearest pew. My brother Sam played “Annie’s Song”,  but it was the wrong one. The preacher called both bride and groom “Robin”, but the wedding came off well and the newlyweds left for Denver the next day.

I had an invitation to the Rockville Regatta in August, from my Texas friend Johntee, who was back in Charleston, SC. I’d planned to hitch out on the first weekend, but heard of a class at a large farm in Valle Crucis, NC, which was billed as an Earth College. Several students lived and worked there, more or less under the tutelage of a free-spirited professor named Bob. The was a one-day class I wanted to attend was on sharpening tools, so I visited overnight.  The class was a waste of my time, given by a pontificating fool who insisted on a perfectly flat, square whetstone, a certain stroking motion, a particular type of oil, etc., any of which I couldn’t imagine Daniel Boone worrying about on his treks through the wilderness. I already knew how to use a wet or oiled rock to sharpen an axe or knife, then strop it on my blue jeans.  One of my Texas cowboy customers later remarked that the hatchet I used to trim trees was sharper than his pocket knife.  Marcus was at the class also, and he sucked me back to Blowing Rock, where I stayed the night, heading for Charleston, S.C. two mornings later than I’d intended.

Almost all my rides were in the back of pickup trucks–at least six–and I arrived in Charleston that evening.  I found Johntee and we explored the Charleston night life. It was one of the wilder towns I’d discovered. One bar was open to the weather. It was in the corner of an old building, and there was no glass in several of its windows. It was particularly impressed with its “decor”, eaturing “artworks” made by the customers.  A male skeleton made of dowels and rope with a huge “extra” bone looked down from the rafters over the women’s bathroom, which was walled off from the bar but open to the top.  Other  creations, in varying levels of depravity, hung from the rafters, on the walls, sat on the bar. At closing time there was no way to lock the bar; the liquor was placed in a safe and everyone went home.

We attended the Rockville Regatta that weekend. I left my pack in Charleston, which meant I had one shirt and pair of shorts for the weekend.  The shirt was OK, but the shorts were tight and frayed. In typical hippie style, I hadn’t worn underwear, and was starting to get overexposed. I borrowed a needle and thread and sat in the living room, bare bottomed but mostly covered by a small towel, and sewed them up.

One of Johntee’s guests liked what she saw. Jeannie talked with me the rest of the afternoon, and later that night we crawled into the back of Johntee’s step-van, where we curled up and slept together.

Johntee’s van had belonged to the post office, and had a right-side drive. There was only one seat, but the dashboard was deep and one could sit to the driver’s left, back facing traffic. To appearances, the driver was facing backwards, but Johntee on the “passenger” side was actually driving.

Charleston has been established for centuries. Johntee’s ancestors had been there since the 1600’s, and so with many other folks I met there, both black and white.  In Charleston parlance they were “been-heres” (pronounced in the local deep-southern dialect as “Benyas”)  while others, whose grandparents may have grown up in the area, were still “come-heres” (“Cumyas”), who “came here” sometime after the Civil War.  If one questions why a third-generation Charlestonian is still a “cumya” the answer is “nunya” or “none of your business,” stated in a genial, friendly but firm manner.

The reason I’d chosen to go to Charleston was pretty simple. It was where Beth grew up. I wanted what’s popularly called “closure,” though I think the concept is crap.  It’s nice to know the origins of events in one’s life, but rarely provides psychic comfort. It doesn’t satisfy. The gal I thought I knew and loved had left and lived half a continent away, with a beautiful baby. I surmised she’d found a measure of domestic bliss, even though I received letters from her every some-odd months invariably signed “Love”, “Love and Light”, “Much Love” or “Love Always”, which told tales of uncertainty and drudgery and desperation.  It made no sense to me, and I didn’t know how to respond.  She referred to me as her Wizard and warned me of the Karma which befalls the Wise One–the Capitalization was Hers.  I didn’t feel like a Wizard, and certainly wasn’t a Wise One in Romance. I couldn’t imagine what she told me, that they’d made a business deal, agreed to under an apple tree, for him to raise her son in exchange for her bearing his children. It wasn’t even on my radar, a deal like that. I thought people married for love, to call it a “deal” was an inside joke, certainly a “deal” involving the manufacture of children. I believed, contrary to what she repeatedly told me, that she had some measure of love for the shiny-suited guitar player to whom she’d sold her ovaries. Seeing Charleston was interesting but did little to heal the devastation I felt, though sea breeze, summer sun, watching sailboats race and drinking beer was an excellent distraction.

Heading south again, I passed through Savannah and continued down the coast to Miami, a flatter, east coast version of LA, with Cubans instead of Mexicans. I’d again intended to hitch to Key West, but had a hard time catching rides. It was just as well. There was a severe water shortage that summer, and tourists had  been advised to leave.  I caught a ride to Daytona with a Hell’s Angel. He was driving a van with a bad valve, and we popped along at 40 mph to Ormond Beach, where I called the fellow who’d given me a ride from Binghampton to Rocky Mount the year before. I stayed with Rick and partied with his friends for 3 days, then headed across Panama City, where lived the girls who’d given me a ride from New York state into Vermont. Rosie’s husband’s  birthday was the same as mine, June 3rd, and Pam’s boyfriend’s was the day before. Rosie and her husband had tried to start up a para-sailing business the previous year, with boats, waterskis and hang gliders, but had been beaten down by the authorities.  Someone else had started one this year and people in the Gulf flew by their patio all day long. Rosie and Pam had lots of friends, but their guys were both out of town and I never met either.

One fellow told me where to pick psilocybin and said we’d go out the following morning. He left about 3 pm, came back a couple hours later and asked if I was ready. I was surprised, but said OK, and we drove to a nearby pasture. He parked a couple blocks away, explaining that cops in the area watched for cars parked by the road, and we headed out.

Psilocybin grows in cow pies, but you can’t just shake out the spores. The cow eats mushrooms, and a few days later new ones sprout in the field.  I’d harvested and enjoyed amanita muscaria, the red mushrooms with white dots that elves dance around, and was eager to try these little white ones that bruised blue.

By the time we reached the pasture the sun was going down. It was rush hour, and the traffic was heavy. My new friend remarked at the traffic and the gradually darkening sky, saying he’d never seen it so dark at this hour, or seen so much traffic. Maybe there was an eclipse. Maybe all these people leaving the city were fleeing. After some other frankly weird comments I figured out that he’d left the house, taken a nap, awakened at 5 pm and thought it was 5 am. Everything followed from there. It was too dark now to look for mushrooms, so we left.

The next morning Rosie’s father came by to see the girls and, seeing evidence of the previous night’s party, offered to ride me out to the freeway, as much, I surmised, to protect his daughter as to help me out, but I didn’t mind. I caught rides to Baton Rouge, where I stayed with a fellow who worked dinner theatre, then in the morning back to Austin. When I found Jean she had a boyfriend named Fidel but let me stay the week. I helped her friend Rex deliver papers and checked in on my other friends, then headed to Arlington, Texas, where I met a crew from St. Louis who were selling water conditioners. They’d rented a big suburban house for the summer. When I awoke, one of the roommates had been driving in the country at 3 am on Sunday, got a flat and discovered his spare was flat, too. There were no phones or traffic, so he decided to hell with it. He drove on the flat ‘til the flat gave out, drove on the rim ‘til the rim gave out, drove on the hub ‘til the hub gave out and scraped on the spindle all the way home.  He said he’d sprayed a “rooster tail” of sparks 40 feet long.  Looking at the destruction–the nut holding the front driver’s side wheel bearing was scraping the ground–I was sure he had. I helped with the laundry and such, and we all went out to a club or two. One in Dallas wouldn’t let in anyone wearing a T-shirt. It was the first time I’d been in a club that had a dress code.  I borrowed an extra shirt from one of the guys.

From Texas I went north to Oklahoma. Liquor by the drink was unavailable, anywhere, any time. It was the only remaining such state.  There was also a law that girls could drink at 18, but guys had to be 21.  This, of course, simply meant girls bought beer for boys. It was 3.2% alcohol only, so almost everyone drank 16-ounce “tall boys”. One of the first rides I got in Oklahoma was in the back of an El Camino, riding with another hitch hiker. The driver passed me a tall boy out the window, the hitcher told me “this fellow is wild”–and we flew down the freeway. I could see the speedometer through the back window, and we were well over 100 mph when he hit the shoulder of the road and fishtailed.

The bed weaved, the tires squealed, we scribbled skid marks across the center line. Oddly, I wasn’t scared. There wasn’t much else I could do, so I simply looked for the best place to jump. I wanted to jump up, back, a little to the side, and to land sitting on my butt if I had to. I didn’t want to be under the vehicle, or tumble. It wouldn’t have been pleasant to scrape along the pavement at 120 mph, but I might have told the story. Fortunately we recovered, and kept whizzing down the highway. I drained my tall-boy and started another. By the time I’d finished my second we were in Norman. A fellow there put me up for the night, and gave me a nice flannel shirt in the morning. My next ride took me back into the panhandle of Texas, and I walked most of the day through the wheat fields before I caught a ride to Spearman, then walked a long ways further. My next ride had an AMX Javelin, made by American Motors, its last gasp before being taken over by Chrysler, but what a car! He drove through the plains of Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle even faster than the El Camino. We drove 120 or 130 mph all the way to Colorado Springs, and the AMX ran quiet and confident and smooth as a baby’s butt all the way. I was happy to be in a car, not the bed of a truck, and despite that we were moving twice as fast as traffic and passing on the shoulders, I felt secure. I took off my shoes and curled up in the front seat with my legs resting on my pack, crossed up against the dashboard. I wasn’t just more comfortable that way, it was safer.  I didn’t wear a seatbelt if my driver didn’t, which most didn’t, but I figured if we wrecked I’d prefer to hit my feet instead of the dashboard or windshield.

I got to Boulder that night but Rob and Anne had moved, and I slept by the creek.  I found them the next day. I’d sold all my rings in Texas and was now out of money, but my brother gave me $20 and a half a dozen rings I’d earlier sold him at wholesale. He had a ’68 Dodge, the same one we’d driven back from Texas at Christmas. It was a good old car. It took a lot of abuse, but still ran fine.  He got an undeserved ticket, for not having it licensed in Colorado, but his grace period hadn’t run out. Prior to his court date, the car was stolen. He told the judge, and the case was dismissed.

I then went on to Denver. It was Sunday, and I dropped by the Krishna temple. Monk was there, but not as a devotee. He’d married, and I met his wife Tara. She had a huge, Krishna-themed tattoo, which started under her left breast and continued to mid-thigh. They were living the life of householders, away from drugs, alcohol, the loony bin. They had a tiny apartment and couldn’t put me up for the night, so I saw the rest of Monk’s family and several old friends and restocked my pack. Monk was still buying and selling cars, which he had down to a fine art.  He’d lived in San Diego for about a year, where cars were an obsession.  He’d buy them at the police auction, clean them, make minor repairs and re-sell them in a matter of days. He’d get the morning paper at 5 am, find a good deal, drive up at 5:30 and buy it.  He’d then put the same car in the paper for five times as much and sell it without transferring the title.  He’d say it belonged to a brother-in-law who joined the army or a sister who left her husband, and sell the car under the signature of the original owner.  This netted him $200 or $2000 completely under the table. Except for sometimes selling dope, it was all he ever did. He’d change apartments and phone numbers every few months to stay ahead of the game. He’d park his cars outside of town. His parents had been separated for years, but never divorced, and his father had property in Altura, outside of town. Eventually there were over 100 cars there, Studebakers, Henry J’s, Model A’s, Kaisers, old strange makes and unusual models such as 1958 fuel-injected Buicks or tiny 1961 Fiats.

Monk would occasionally check into the looney bin, where he’d collect medications, but was currently clean and sober and had several pills he didn’t want to waste. They were expensive, and many who needed the medication didn’t have the money, time or inclination to jump through the thousand and one hoops it took to get them, nor the desire to be declared mentally incompetent and carry around the label. I wasn’t totally crazy, but I wasn’t happy either, so Monk gave me his leftover pills. I knew the mental hospital wasn’t for me. When I’d visited I’d seen certain people who clearly belonged there and others who’d simply taken too many psychedelics. I enjoyed thumbing around the country, loved meeting new people, seeing and learning new things; The action and exploration was good for me, but still, I was deeply, profoundly unhappy. I loved a woman who’d married another,  for incomprehensible reasons. I couldn’t trust my father, didn’t belong in the navy or fit into school.  I tried the pills. There were five types. Some were nice, others were awful. Stelazine was best, Cogentin by far the worst. One little Cogentin and I lost the ability to measure and weigh my thoughts.  I couldn’t decide whether to eat an orange or jump in front of the next truck. The two seemed equal in importance and consequence.

After a few days in Colorado I continued north to Wyoming, where Monk’s sister Carole lived in Lander. She’d married a cowboy and joined the Seventh Day Adventists. Lander was a smaller version of what Denver had been twenty years earlier. From there I went north through Montana and west through Idaho and Washington. I liked Montana. There were wide open valleys between the mountains–there’s a reason it’s called Big Sky Country–and it was far greener than Wyoming. The cities were fun too, Bozeman and Butte. My driver and I ate lunch in West Yellowstone, but he couldn’t wait on Old Faithful. The waitress was vegetarian (and a cutie), the first Western vegetarian girl I’d met.

In Idaho, the wide valleys disappeared and it was mountains, mountains, mountains. I slept among the trees in a parking lot which had been tucked into the woods at an ecology-oriented college, and the next morning made Aberdeen, Washington. I went into Oregon, lazed on the beach in Seaside, then to Portland, where I spent the night at the Krishna temple. One of the devotees showed me around the next day, and when we were in a private spot told me things I’d never suspected.  He wanted me to read his tarot cards, and pulled the five of swords.  I told him he’d had a fight and felt defeated, and he opened up. He was a newlywed, but his wife had left for Cincinnati with the leader of his group. He said this leader had been having affairs with dozens of Krishna girls and a swami put a gun to his head and told him to cut it out. The devotee wanted to leave but didn’t have any resources. I encouraged him and gave him a road atlas which my cousin had given to me in Boston many miles before.

I’ve always been ambivalent about the Krishnas, as with any religion. I like the wide-open acceptance that whatever path one is on can be the path to enlightenment, but they also have a strong authoritarian streak, there’s a lot of talk about who is and isn’t “bona fide”, and why initiation is necessary. I never saw the need for initiation. I have my answers, and don’t need answers from those who pretend to know what I don’t. I went to the temple to discuss philosophy over plates of food, but none of the devotees understood this. I was young, vegetarian, knew eastern philosophy, but wasn’t a devotee and didn’t care to be. Sometimes a swami would visit, and the devotees would send him to me.  I loved to talk to many of the swamis, but not all. Some were more doctrinaire than the devotees, but many of swamis admired independence, and encouraged me.

I left Portland that afternoon, catching a ride with a fellow who told me his name was Steve. While we were driving he got a speeding ticket and another infraction, a total fine of $200 or so. When he let me off a few miles later I said “Well, Steve, I’ll see you around,” and he told me with a big smile his name was Mike, not Steve, and that the tickets weren’t gonna get paid. I  then showed him a PTA card I’d picked up by the side of the road that gave the name of Robert Parker. I carried it, but never needed it.  My greatest asset when dealing with the cops, or anyone else, was my North Carolina driver’s license, which stated to all and sundry that I really was a hick when I wanted to be one. As I hopped out of the car Mike gave me $5, and I left him with a flannel shirt and a couple rings.

Sometimes people give you things when you’re hitching, sometimes you give them things, sometimes you find things, sometimes you lose things.  I lost things in the next couple of days. Sometimes it’s like that. I’d made a few deals at a fiddler’s convention in Union Grove, NC a couple years before, and had been carrying two rings, one from a local girl and one from a fellow who’d worn a ring he made in high school for seven years. I had both in the pocket of a second flannel shirt, which I lost. A day or two later I caught a ride with a fellow whose Saab was overheating. He turned on the heater full-blast to keep the car from boiling over, and we left the windows open but it was still hellish, through Oregon, Idaho and on to Salt Lake City. When I got out of the car and collected my things I was exhausted, and left behind some food, a pan, some money, a pocket knife and my only pair of shoes. I slept under the bridge and the next morning caught a ride with an older Navy veteran. We got a motel room that evening, traded stories and drank rum. I continued back towards Denver with a couple from Pennsylvania, and had Monk call the Salvation Army, telling the girl at the counter my story. I walked down the street, newspapers stuffed in my socks, and gave the girl at the counter the 12¢ I had left. The shoes didn’t fit very well, but they weren’t leather.

I had shoes now, exchanged a few trinkets and rings for some food stamps and finished visiting Denver for the second time. I walked a few miles out Colfax Avenue, and Monk’s sister Luanne saw me walking down the street. I then spent the night at her house and in the morning hitched as far as Limon, where I caught a ride from same couple who’d given me a ride a few days before! They’d camped in the mountains, I visited Denver, they saw me and gave me a ride again, this time to Kansas City!

A few miles later, in mid-Missouri, four Coast Guard sailors in a car with US government plates picked me up. The speed limit was 55, but we drove down the road at 85–all the car would do–telling Navy stories, drinking beer, tearing up paperwork and throwing it out the window.

I quickly caught a ride to St. Louis, another to Indianapolis.  In Indianapolis a fellow turned me on to a healthy snort of cocaine as we smoked some Hawaiian pot, then a ride with a trucker who took me to Dayton, Ohio and gave me a couple “black beauties”. In Dayton, about 4 am, a fellow picked me up and said he didn’t have a license, would I please drive?  I drove the strange car, in the fog, through the strange town with a stranger, while he told me wild stories.  I got the impression from some of his friends that he was a flake, but he had a $700 check and when the banks opened he gave me $20. We drove around visiting all day, then he bought me dinner, left me in the same spot I’d been in that morning and gave me another $20. Whatever opinions his friends had, he did well by me.

In Pennsylvania I passed by Three Mile Island. The most noticeable feature of the landscape was a large number of dead trees, whether due to drought or radiation I didn’t know. In New York state I was chased off the thruway, where hitchhiking was prohibited, but was in Ithaca by the afternoon. Eileen was out of town but one of her roommates had a movie date and I double-dated with the other. The next morning I went to Cortland and stayed the week with Barb and Noel, and  she brought me up on the news.  Al Rice, whose pictures and sketches were all over her walls, who’d been her boyfriend and Maggie’s boyfriend but now wasn’t either, had been riding with a friend, Brian, who had a new Porsche.  Brian was driving through town and where the street went from four lanes to two Brian hit the curb and launched the Porsche into the air at over 100 miles per hour.  They hit a tree, 14 feet above the ground, in the front yard of an ambulance service. The ambulance quickly got both to the hospital, but Al died a couple days later. When I showed up, Barb was still dressed from the memorial.

If you want to know about the next long weekend, watch the movie “The Big Chill.” Barb’s uncle owned a house on Saranac Lake, where I found myself living the plotline of a movie which hadn’t yet been made–a bunch of friends in their 20’s and 30’s got together for the weekend, at a big house in the country, to remember their friend Al, who died in a Porsche. We discussed our lives, got drunk, did a few drugs, cried together.

I discovered a friend of Barb’s also knew Eileen and June, the gal who’d steered me to Cortland in the first place. Lee and I went for a boat ride. It was a beautiful, clear night and the moon was out. I’d never piloted a boat, so he let me take the tiller and we puttered along for a couple hours, talking about mutual friends, philosophy, astrology, life, death, a million other things in the crisp, clear, cool October night, until an hour or two later the moon hid behind a cloud. It was bright enough, but I didn’t know the lake, so I gave the wheel back to him. It got dark, started raining, storming, lightning was flashing and soon he had no idea where we were either. We tied up by the nearest lighted house. There were 4 fellows from New York City up for the weekend, who informed us that we were eleven and a half miles from where we’d started, and on the opposite shore, of a twelve-mile lake. We couldn’t have gotten more lost if we’d tried. We tried to call Barb’s house but the phone had been disconnected for the season, so we shared beer and stories and crashed out on a couple of couches.

The four sheltered us for the night and the next morning we headed back, stopping at a marina for gas and coffee. We finally putted home around 11 am, wondering what our reception would be. How many frantic phone calls had been made? Had the sheriff been contacted? A search party sent?

We walked into the dining room, sat down, had breakfast. The others trickled in, scooped up eggs and hash browns off big platters, smeared butter on toast, poured coffee and orange juice. Nobody knew we’d been gone! After half an hour, Lee yelled out, “I can’t stand it!” and told what happened. The secret was out.

The weather turned cold that day, after a long October heat wave.  I went out in the afternoon, wanting to help but not knowing what to do, and started chopping wood. I hadn’t gotten far when the axe broke. I was given some good-natured ribbing about it, but the whole scene and the whole weekend had such a tragic undertone I couldn’t take the mild scolding and broke out sobbing, in front of the fire, uncontrollably, not only over losing a friend I’d never known but everything else in my life. It’d been a long, hard summer, a long, hard several years; hell, I couldn’t remember being truly happy about anything. Thumbing around the country was an adventure, but also an escape. I met new friends and friends of friends, saw new places and had new experiences, but I was also leaving a life I wasn’t happy in, didn’t feel successful in, doubted if I’d ever master. Now I was in a place I hadn’t expected, the new guy in a group of old friends, mourning a fellow I’d never met.

It was a tremendously sad occasion. From an objective viewpoint, I’d lost less than anyone. I’d never met Al, had only met his grieving parents after his death. He was an only child. They’d lost their one and only, in their 50s or 60s. I’d only met his friends, and most of them recently. The only ones I knew even reasonably well were Maggie, Barb and Noel, and them only for a year.

Everyone was sad, emotional. Everyone wanted to cry. Everyone missed Al, maybe me especially at that point. I wanted to belong, but I was the outsider. I’d been trying to find that place–was it Texas? Was it Oregon? Mexico? Boston? San Francisco? Montreal? I didn’t feel at home in Denver anymore. I wasn’t sure I’d ever felt at home there. Most of my friends had left, and what I remembered of my life there was unpleasant. The fights with my father, every night. The relentless, suffocating pressure as the smallest, smartest kid at school. The girls I’d never connected with. California wasn’t much better, and North Carolina hadn’t worked either. I hadn’t found anything more than seasonal work since I’d left the Navy, and my attempts at helping on the farm were unappreciated if not actively resented and undermined by my father, who was becoming more surly and cynical by the week. He was now drinking a twelve-pack or more of cheap beer every night, and smoking at least two packs of Newports, having given up unfiltered Camels some years before. My attempts as a businessman were fun, but a joke. I’d barely made enough to pay one-sixth of the rent. And I still had no girlfriend. My fault, of course, for my inability to expunge the one woman who had proven utterly unworthy of my naive and childish love, and make space for another. It overwhelmed me, that mid-October weekend, while two dozen melancholy friends stared into the fire.

After the weekend and wake at Saranac Lake we dispersed, and I returned to Cortland. A friend’s family owned the Clarke Store in Homer, NY. Phil and I went to a house in the country where a fellow named Rosie kept several instruments in a studio out back and we played music all night. The next day I dropped in on Neal and Joellen. Neal knew Rosie, too. People are often interconnected in unexpected ways. The two of them had been busy on the farm, had built a bridge and a barn and started on a newer, bigger, nicer house. Joellen was pregnant again.

I left upstate NY the next day for Flo’s apartment in DC. She was planning to see an old friend in Mannassas, Virginia, so I went along. Her friend had acquired Roy Rogers’ old couch, where I slept for the night. We went from there to a “palace” filled with the artworks of Walter and Lao Russell, and I met Lao, who had married Walter when he was old and she was young. Now she was old, and he was gone.

It was an impressive collection, situated where the Blue Ridge Parkway meets Skyline Drive. We ate dinner and Flo dropped me off on the Parkway, which wasn’t well traveled that time of the year. I caught only one ride, walked about ten miles and froze my butt that night, but in the morning I caught a ride, then one more. I’d been headed in the wrong direction, but the driver set me straight. She was picking up her boyfriend to go driving for the day, so we all explored together and she dropped me at my front door.

It was late October, 1979. For the next few weeks I mowed grass, repaired the old house, visited friends, cut and tied trees. We took half as many pines but bought several tall, beautiful fir trees for $11 apiece. We loaded the U-Haul truck and on November 29th were in Texas. We didn’t bring a car. I’d decided it’d likely be profitable to find a car in Texas with high miles but no rust and sell it in North Carolina. Bill had been sent packing the previous spring when my mother saw a letter he’d written to a Michigan friend telling him to come down and our family would put him up, which may have been true but had NOT been discussed. A kid named Alex from across the street loaned us a tent and we paid him a few dollars for helping around the lot. I’d packed a bicycle to ride around town, but my father was happy sleeping in the motel, eating from the taco stand, taking laundry to the combination laundromat/quickie mart and sending me for anything else.

I painted signs and set up ropes and long, extended sawhorses to lean trees against. The year before it was “Ned Austin & Son North Carolina Christmas Trees” in a big flowing script. This year, “Ned & David Austin”. Everyone loved the signs, and I added signpainter to my list.

There was a yard sale behind Mary’s lot and I bought several items. A coffee pot, chairs, a table, camp stove, plates & spoons. I struck up a conversation with the folks having the sale, and gave them $40 to use their washer and dryer and have a place to shower and crash for the next couple weeks. My father still preferred the motel. He went to bed early, got up early. I stayed up late and took the night shift. It worked better that way. He’d get nervous late in the evening and sell the trees too cheap.

We did well that year. My father talked to a reporter from the Austin American-Statesman, who wrote a story, and we bought some airtime on a country radio station. We’d brought 500 trees, sold out everything by the 22nd and went home.

Christmas trees are an odd business. We opened on the first Friday in December, because it was clear that the real sales started that Friday. There’d be plenty of browsers before then, but they’d look at every tree then go to another lot, possibly coming back three days later to browse again. When December arrived, they’d pick and buy. The second weekend was busier, but the very best trees would be gone. In the third week we’d put up a sign that said “REDUCED” and sell the less-than-perfect leftovers for half-price. In the end we averaged $20 profit per tree. The $11 firs brought us $32 apiece.

I bought a 1963 Ford Galaxie for $200, good body, mechanically sound, no rust, high mileage. A fellow I’d met at the yard sale, Kevin, replaced a part in the front end and wouldn’t take any money, just a few beers. He and his girlfriend were temporarily without lodgings and they parked a camper on our lot. While there Kevin told me he had friends coming from Arizona, and when they arrived they said they’d come from Yuma. I told them about the fight I’d been in in Yuma the previous spring, and I discovered Jake was the fellow who’d yelled out an invitation to come get some grub. Jake, Jody and daughter Magic had sold the bus and were living in a camper Jake had built on the back of a 1958 Chevy pickup. They parked next to Kevin and Donna’s camper until the end of Christmas tree season.

I found Jean again. Fidel was long gone. While we were driving and visiting I saw bamboo beside the road and cut a few pieces to try making flutes. At night we had a half-barrel for a fire, and I heated up a metal rod to burn holes. They were erratically tuned, until I figured out where to put the holes. At Christmas that year, everyone got flutes.

The Ford did fine. It leaked a little oil, the rear end was clunky, it only made 12 miles per gallon and the muffler fell off, but it ran beautifully.

We went home for Christmas and to South Carolina afterwards to see my grandfather and his new wife. My grandmother had died ten years before and my grandfather had moped around ever since, planning his funeral and such. He planned everything, making interminable lists. My aunt had persuaded him, in October, to live at the Presbyterian Home and within a couple weeks he was writing outraged letters. The residents were teasing him for chatting up an “older woman”–he was 80, she 83 and widowed nearly 40 years. A couple more weeks passed and his outrage had morphed into  an announcement. He and Lucile were getting married. She’d been a teacher in Hartsville, SC, and had written the textbook used in the local schools, “Hartsville, Our Community”. I didn’t know it,  but Marcus’ father was from Hartsville, and Lucile was Marcus’ great-aunt Lucy. In our twenties, we’d suddenly become second cousins!

The Eighties

I drove the Galaxie for a couple months but never could get a clear title. There was a lien on it in Texas. Instead, my father gave me his old Bronco in lieu of pay.

Shortly after returning from Texas, I went to my favorite local bar, Holley’s, and I’d never seen it so crowded. A pretty girl was sitting at the bar, and I struck up a conversation. Her name was Monique, which she said with a little giggle which suggested I might know her. I didn’t. I made conversation, showed her my rings, told her I was from a couple miles down the road. A half-dozen guys were pointing, snickering, poking each other in the ribs. I asked her what was going on, she gave a wave of her hand and said, “oh, them”, indicating they were of no interest whatsoever, and we continued talking for a half-hour, she never revealing that the supremely crowded situation in the bar that evening was due to the presence of Monique St. Pierre, Playboy’s reigning Playmate of the Year. Her.

In February I found a cabin with cheap rent a few miles away, and moved in. I made and sold rings to support myself, but the Hunt brothers tried to corner the market on silver that year, running the price up, and I could neither sell my rings at the suddenly-inflated price nor buy wire. In the cabin, though, were supplies left over from a previous occupant, so I started making wooden toys, sewing hats and jackets and making bamboo flutes. The cabin had no plumbing, but I made friends with the girl next door and the couple in the next bungalow, and used their facilities every couple days. For the first time in years, I had space for drums, and often had my musical friends over. I got into a relationship with Reneé, next door, and went to the church on the corner, not so much to worship as to meet others in  the community. I didn’t make enough to pay the rent, though, selling a few toys, hats and flutes but not many rings. After a month it was over. I packed up the toy parts, buttons, thread, fabric,  my things and moved back to the farm. Reneé went back to her family in West Virginia, and Marsha and David moved from the bungalow to Marsha’s home in northern Minnesota.

A lot of other folks left that spring, too. Del and Cathy, whom I’d married the previous summer, left for Arizona to live and work as ranch hands with Beth and her guitar player. Sister Fran moved back to Connecticut to take a few courses at Yale and live near my brother Sam, Genny moved to Florida with a friend and Laura visited Colorado. Others arrived. Jake, Jody, their little girl Magic and a fellow named Tom, whom they’d picked up along the way, parked in our driveway. We planted pine seedlings while Jody watched the baby, then the four of them went to a gathering in Love Valley. I’d have gone too, but was sick with the flu.

I’d been out of the local loop for awhile. It worked to my advantage, unintentionally. Before I’d left for Texas I’d dropped in at what we called the Hot El in Blowing rock while George and his friends were splitting a pound of pot. I’d left after a short visit, and a few minutes later the cops appeared, busting everyone. Jim, who’d brought the pot, claimed I’d narked everyone out, but while I was out of town it became clear he’d set it up to avoid jail on his own charges. He’d been stopped by the cops, threw his wallet under the seat and been arrested for no license. As he was being led away he told the passengers where his wallet was, and was busted for the hundred-lot of windowpane acid in it.

I was happy to miss some other developments, too. Another Jim, whom I’d caught a ride with two years before, had gotten out of prison. He’d had me forge a check on his girlfriend’s account while we’d been driving, then ditched me, stealing my pack and shoes. I hadn’t wanted to forge anything to begin with, but at the time wasn’t in a position to say no. I went straight to the sheriff, they caught him the next day and found a warrant on him from another county. I’d left town the next day, so didn’t testify to anything, but he put two and two together. I later saw Jim in a local bar, went up to a couple strangers, told them the story and they gave me a ride home. He disappeared, in trouble again, but my  friends told me both Jims had been telling stories. They weren’t sure about me for awhile, but character prevails.

I’d been hanging out with a different circle, anyway, Sam and his crowd. We’d been rock climbing and were all tuckered out when I started a conversation with one of the girls, Monti. We were discussing my cycle wreck, and the woman who died. I still felt guilty. She told me, forcefully, not to, that it was not my fault, and that I had to stop thinking it was. I wasn’t superhuman, couldn’t see what was happening over the mountain. It was normal to submit to the judgement of half-a-dozen people wanting to call an ambulance. I was disoriented and in pain. Even so, it may not have made a difference. She’d only lived an hour or so, and likely would have died anyway.

I realized, in a flash–she was right!

I looked at her. I felt glorious, cleansed, refreshed. She was lovely. I said, “I ought to marry you!”

It was spontaneous and heartfelt.  She, by insisting, had shown me that I’d done nothing wrong. It was sweet and generous of her.  She made a difference. Ever since, when someone feels badly about something they shouldn’t, I call them out.  It’s the right thing to do.

We both got a lot of kidding for it, but never got romantic. We crashed out in the same bed that afternoon, but only because it’d been a strenuous day and both of us needed a nap.

We were awakened later that evening. Sam was angry with another fellow, Stan. Sam had scored a quarter-pound of a white powder, MDA, worth thousands, and thought Stan had stolen it. Sam had shown all of us the bag, then made a joke and threw it in the trashcan, saying it was probably the best place to hide it. When we awoke we all knew where he’d thrown it, but the bag wasn’t there anymore. Sam trusted the two of us, but didn’t know Stan at all. He was furious. He drove a knife into the wall next to Stan’s head, and Stan about filled his pants. Monti and I believed Stan, but didn’t know him well enough to offer a defense. Monti finally got Sam calmed down, and we asked if he was sure he’d left it in the trash can. He looked in another spot, and found it.

Later that month I walked into Holley’s. It was a slow night. I hadn’t been there five minutes when a fellow named Phil poured a pitcher of beer on a guy at the next table. His friends jumped up, ready to fight. Phil hooked his hand through the handle of the pitcher and told all  five of them to “come ON!”. Totally fearless. The bartenders rushed out with baseball bats and hustled out the guy and his friends. I didn’t see any need for me to hang around, and left.

As usual, I was interested in several girls. For some reason, a great many that year were lesbians, or so inclined.  It was a season for hard-line feminism, and I could never figure out why but many hard-line feminists I knew, not generally interested in men, were nevertheless attracted to me. I was invited to a get-together with a group of girls in the Women’s Studies program at the college. There were 8 gals there, plus one guy–me–and my date. A couple of the girls said right away that everyone there was lesbian, and the rest concurred. Of these eight, I’d already slept or played around with four and at least kissed six, and would add one more shortly. Terry was blonde, curly-haired, not classically pretty but a lot of fun, truly hilarious. After the meeting we went out several times. She was always confused as to whether she preferred girls or boys, and as far as I knew never had other boyfriends, but we got along well.

In the spring our family went to see my brother’s musical–Makin’ Light, produced by the Yale Dramat for the graduation show–the first time in decades a student play had been chosen. I hung around a few extra days to cheerlead from the audience, smoke some pot and snort a little coke with my brother and his Skull and Bones friends. Nobody did a lot of drugs, but everyone did a few.

There’s a common belief that anyone who uses drugs is a maniac who does nothing else in life. They use drugs, look for drugs, sell drugs, rob people to pay for drugs. The truth is, most people who use drugs have a measure of discipline. They’ll spend $25 on a Friday night. There are indeed people whose use has a madness about it, but the majority are perfectly capable of keeping their desires in check. Most of my time was spent visiting, not partying.

I was beginning to feel confident, and popular. I’d been on the student council in 9th grade. but had felt like the odd man out. Now that I’d been places and done things, I found girls were, rather suddenly, interested. I’d meet a girl, we’d get a sandwich and before we were finished there’d be three or four more sitting at our table, discussing astrology or jewelry or travels, with the waitress obviously wondering–who IS this guy? My brother had often stolen them away, but he was married now. Life changes. People develop on their own time, at different rates.

vs. the Volcano

I wanted a serious, long-term relationship, but still didn’t have it in me. I went with a very nice girl named Robin for some months. She was an Appy student from Tennessee. After hearing my stories about the West she decided to take a summer trip with several classmates. We wrote letters, and I lived a boring life for awhile, but while she was on the West Coast heading north Mount Saint Helens erupted, her itinerary changed and she stopped writing. After some weeks not knowing what she was doing I decided to get out of the house. I had a long conversation with a girl a few years older and a voice of wisdom to me. I told Susan of my situation. She understood that I was in no position to promise my heart, but was friendly and agreeable. Talented too. She was making and selling “photo quilts”, reproducing photos in quilt form. I thought it brilliant, artistic and original. She appreciated my jewelry and sewing as well. We started seeing each other, though neither of us made any plans. I’d told her up front it wouldn’t do for her to rely on my heart, because I wasn’t at all sure of it. It wasn’t her, it was me, I knew. I liked her. I admired her work, but wasn’t prepared to be anyone’s boyfriend for the foreseeable future. She surprised me, however, and wanted an arrangement anyway, with a warmth and calm acceptance that caught me off guard, much like Shirley had some years before.

About this time I also ran into Irmalee, with whom I’d shared a weekend two years before. She’d been to Germany and had returned. I’d always hoped for more than a weekend of fun, but she’d dropped me and simply said she didn’t want to continue. I’d been breaking up with another, was on the rebound and surely had a tension about me which didn’t inspire confidence when we’d been together, but had dearly desired more than a weekend and a brush-off. Now she was apologetic, interested, wanted to go out again. I was confused. Confused about Irmalee, about Susan, about my more or less theoretical girlfriend Robin whom I hadn’t heard from all summer. Without intending, I found myself involved with all three. Irmalee was delectable and blonde and foreign and had a wonderful, funky sense of style. She made lovely and original kinetic art sculptures, she was luscious and exciting but had radical political views. Germany was still divided, and Germans took their politics seriously. I wasn’t passionate about politics. Despite our chemistry, we’d fight, I’d call Susan and we’d see each other. Some days later I’d see Irmalee around town and accompany her home. It went that way all summer–and then Robin came home. She still wanted me.

I was hopelessly confused. Robin and I re-ignited, briefly. I broke up with Irmalee after an argument, but also Robin later in the month, while Susan and I slowly drifted apart.

Marcus came to Texas that year. Now it was “Ned and David Austin’s Fresh-Cut North Carolina Christmas Trees,” and a blurb “with Cousin Marcus”, as he was now kin. We bought a quantity of $3 fir trees from a fellow named Hoot and cut many more from the tree farm, which had been given a rest the year before. We towed my sister’s Fiat behind the U-Haul, and towards the end of the trip several cars honked at us and flashed their lights. The Fiat had a flat, but it was so narrow and small we hadn’t seen it in the rear-view mirror. By the time we stopped the tire had given out and it was scraping on the rim. We put on the spare and arrived in Austin. The Fiat was fine for the rest of the journey, which was fortunate because it now had no spare.

I’d been doing laundry when a woman came by, talked with Marcus and said she’d come by later and show us around town. Marcus had never been to Austin and I’d been stuck on the tree lot or thumbing through, low on cash. Valerie showed up, but Marcus was asleep in the tent and my father had left for the motel. It was late enough to call it a day and Valerie invited me into her car for a spin. I almost immediately grabbed her and laid a kiss on her.  Quickly, we drove to a quiet neighborhood and for the next hour fogged up the windows of her Volvo. I hadn’t expected it, nor had she. She was married. The thought of fooling around hadn’t crossed her mind. She and her husband both had children, and had been together for three years. She came by the lot several times in the next week or so and we stole torrid moments out of sight of her daughter and husband, but for everyone’s best interest decided not to continue.

It was fun being in Austin with Marcus. He pulled out an old tree from two years before that Mary had piled in a corner. We set it out, as a joke. Someone bought it! We pulled out another. It sold! We sold many more, at $1 each, and made over $50!

Because we’d bought so many scraggly firs that year, several had overgrown bottoms but pretty tops. When we cut off two or three feet we had shorter but nicer trees, and had several two and three foot lengths of trunk left. Marcus made a Rudolph from these. One day we were idly singing Christmas carols and one of us started, “Rudolph the red-assed reindeer, Had a very shiny hole…” and from then on our Rudolph not only had a bright red painted nose, but a tail-light too, a tradition I continued for twenty years. I never explained it unless asked.

The firs sold well, at nearly the price we’d gotten the year before. The $11 trees had averaged $32, the $3 trees, $28. We brought 600 and sold out early. By December 19th we had half-a-dozen scraggly trees left. I saw Jean, who was living in a commune with about fifty people. It looked like fun, but it was time to go home. We left Texas earlier than we had before. Though I’d explained that I had friends I wanted see in Manor, several miles outside town, my father as usual didn’t want to do anything but drive home as fast as possible. Marcus didn’t want to stay either, but since I was driving I decided we were visiting come hell or high water. When we arrived there was a party going on, and everyone had a wonderful time including my father, who took a hit off a joint. It was the first time I’d seen him do it, though he and my mother had once smoked one with his friend Ric. We stayed the night, ate breakfast and left on the 20th, refreshed and happy.

Before Christmas I’d been interested in a woman named Kay K. Kay. Her name was Kay, her maiden name began with K, and she’d married a Kay, though she was now divorced. Like many of my relationships at the time, she was a scorpio, and had a son. It didn’t last long. By Valentine’s Day we’d broken up. I did get a valentine that year, though, from a gal named Wendy. She’d sent it to Loveland, Colorado for the special postmark. Wendy was cute and fun, but she had kids, and I wasn’t ready.


One night in spring I was riding with a couple fellows, drinking beer on the back road. We were stopped, talking, when the driver pulled out a table leg, waved it and shouted, “Give me all your silver!”. I was in the back, and pushed the seat forward with my foot. He couldn’t get a clear swing, jumped out of the car and poked. I yanked the leg from his hand and poked him while I climbed out, then ran into the woods. He yelled “Give me back my weapon!” I shouted “Come and get it!” He didn’t, they drove off, and I walked home. I saw the passenger a week later. He’d been as surprised as me. He told me the name of the driver, which I filed away for later. Both were in prison shortly, the driver for three or four years, I don’t know why. The passenger got involved, after the fact, with the murder of a game room owner. The murderer was named David Presnell, and the sheriff at first arrested my friend of the same name, who had nothing to do with it.

I worked with my new second cousin Marcus doing odd jobs on Seven Devils, the resort where he lived. He had a beat-up 1964 Ford Galaxie, a year younger than the car I’d driven from Texas. He’d cut off the top and back half of the body and made a sort of truck out of it, which I helped him rewire. Instead of replacing the ignition switch we hot-wired in several buttons, toggle switches etc. so that to start it one had to flip a switch up, another down, pull a chain, mash a button under the dash, etc. The two of us were the only ones who knew the combination. Instead of a gas tank he put a gas can in the back and stuck the fuel line in it. Seven Devils was a private resort, so he needed no registration. We planted flowers for residents, mowed lawns, drank beer at the resort bar and had a great time all that summer and fall. I had a few girlfriends, but didn’t juggle them anymore.

Marcus introduced me to a nurse named Cynthia who lived just over the Tennessee line. She lived in a huge partially-refurbished barn. She hired us for the weekend and we cleared out thousands of burdock burs and cleaned up. Her husband Art appeared on the second day. They lived apart, but got along, and the four of us drank steel cans of Iron City beer, not available in North Carolina. The beer was stronger in Tennessee It was 6% alcohol by law, while North Carolina specified beer be no stronger than 6%, so it wasn’t.

The next night, a girl I knew, Dolores, invited me to her place in Boone to meet her boyfriend. I went over, and her boyfriend was Art! He was dressed as a giant penis, getting ready for a Halloween party at the university. He was a professor in the psychology department, and everyone was going as a psychological problem. He had a can of whipped cream hooked up to a tube coming out the top of his head, and was a premature ejaculation. The next morning I told Marcus I’d seen Art with Dolores, and he wasn’t sure we should mention it to Cynthia, but she and Art had been separated for some time and she knew all about Dolores.

Cynthia was Art’s second wife. Art had been living in Atlanta and came home one day to find his wife lying in a pool of blood, murdered. They never found the culprit.

Art moved to Tennessee and started a new life, but his marriage to Cynthia didn’t last and now he lived with Dolores, who’d been one of his students. They were together for three or four years but broke up. He married another student, Michelle. They started a shop selling futons and artsy things, and lasted half-a-dozen years. Art had brewed a batch of beer but had never drunk it. One day Michelle saw the 5-gallon jug of brown liquid still sitting in the bathroom of the shop and realized nothing would change. They’d lived six years in the back room of the shop, cooking on a hot plate, and would never have a real kitchen. She broke up with him. I think Art never got over his first wife, which affected everything.

A little ways from the farm was a small house where three guys lived, all students, who always had a party going on. Walter was the son of the local state representative and his roommates were Chris and Richard. Walter serviced video games, which were something new at the time, and always had a couple with the coin boxes cracked open so we could all play for free. Richard had quit smoking for New Year’s, but always kept an unlit cigarette in his mouth. None of them smoked tobacco and neither did I, though everyone smoked pot. All the smokers went outside to smoke, which felt unusual and new. Walter had a car but had lost his license, and I had a license but my car needed repair, so I drove him around.

I never saw Richard after that spring. While on vacation, he was in a car wreck in Atlanta and was killed.

In March I thumbed out again. It took me a few days to get out of town. I was invited to a covered-dish dinner, then to a barn dance with a lovely girl named Maggie, who was engaged but her fiance was out of town. She’d been in a play, and had kissed my father! We danced most of the night, then crashed out in the barn. I was then invited to another house for a sweat lodge. I stayed the night and caught a ride with a fellow named Tim who knew Marcus, who was now Cynthia’s neighbor. I’d known Tim as a talented artist who blew through town occasionally, but didn’t know he’d turned very strange indeed, and neither Cynthia nor Marcus was happy to see him. Tim left, I helped on the farm for a couple days and left about a week later than I’d intended. A biker type gave me a ride to Princeton, West Virginia, where my brother Rob was now living, but it wasn’t a pleasant stay. Anne had lost her baby. They’d been involved with Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant, and Anne while pregnant would “meditate” loudly, shouting “SHIVA-shiva-shiva-shiva-shiva-shiva”, concentrating her energy on Shiva the Destroyer, to destroy all the “bad” energy around her. I think concentrating on the Destroyer so long and forcefully every day destroyed the baby.

I went to Virginia that night, slept under a bridge and the next day caught a ride to Binghampton. I’d planned to go to New Haven, but as Cortland was closer I went there first. Eileen was living with a fellow named Dana. They’d had a traveling vegetarian food bus the summer before, and had done well at concerts and such, but had lost their butts at the state fair and now had lots of great food but no money. I visited for a few days and left for New Haven, now about 2 weeks behind schedule.

New Haven, again

I arrived in New Haven, finally, in the last half of March. I’d stocked up on silver after the price had crashed and the Hunt brothers had lost their butts.I made rings and Patience kept me busy on various projects–car maintenance and kitchen repairs. A two-foot snow kept me in town. Sam had decided he was gay, and Patience and my sister now lived in the apartment but Sam spent most of his time in New York. Patience had a fine, full bosom, and didn’t mind me watching her undress. She was a good looking woman, but the time and circumstances weren’t right to do more than look.  I had a wonderful time partying with their friends. I’d now played blues harmonica for years as well as penny whistle, kalimba and sometimes drums. My brother had been making a living as a piano player. We played a lot of music, and I won a button as a runner-up in a talent contest. I had long talks with my sister Fran, who like me fell in love quickly and often.

I was back in Boone by April, and finished my first stained glass window, a scene with a fellow in a yellow night robe going to the outhouse, candle in hand, moon in the sky (with a bit of artistic license, the moon was in front of the mountain, and was duplicated on the outhouse door). It was destined for the skylight in the bathroom, but before it was installed my father had kicked and carelessly cracked one of its panels.

I had a very strange romantic interlude at this time, which I’ve since found is quite common. I met a girl whom I vaguely knew at the bar. She’d been living down the road and I’d once helped her find her dog. We had several drinks and discussed our lives. At closing time she offered me a ride home. We went to her house, not mine. I took a shower and she joined me. We toweled off and climbed into her bed. We were a little nervous, but she cuddled up next to me, we kissed and shared caresses. I made advances and she made no attempt to stop me. I’d kiss her, she’d kiss back, I’d roll a nipple in my fingers and her hand would wander over my butt. She’d pull me closer. 

I really liked her. We’d been talking all night. I’d found her charming, and she’d done the inviting. We were a little tense, but it felt normal and natural and wonderful to be in her bed next to her nude and willing body as we explored each other in what to me was a magical encounter. I kissed her again, telling her tenderly that I understood that we were new to each other, but that it was all right. She kissed me back and we made love. I felt we’d had a wonderful and memorable evening and told her how special it had been for me to meet her, that she had no reason to be tense.

She suddenly stiffened and said, “Well, you’d be tense too, if you’d just been RAPED!”

Whoa, that’s not what I was thinking at all. We proceeded to talk a little more. She conceded that she’d been sending mixed signals (I didn’t think they were mixed!). We talked for awhile, and fell asleep in each other’s arms. In the morning she said she loved me, and I was happy with that. I really was. I thought her charming. 

The next night I went by her house. She was in a completely different mood. Not hostile, but not romantic. She’d forgotten, or claimed not to remember, professing her love.

I’ve since talked to others about that night. There’s a certain group of women who will always claim I raped her, even though she gave me no resistance and encouraged my advances, but most women understand the situation was ambiguous. Further, I’ve found that about half of all men been unjustly accused in some manner, at some time. Their advances haven’t been well and truly rebuffed, or a woman is simply mad for some reason and sees an advantage in accusing a man. It’s an easy accusation to make, and difficult to defend.

Tom, who’d arrived with Jake and Jody the previous year, showed up fresh from Texas that summer carrying a seabag stuffed with the biggest, prettiest peyote buttons I’d ever seen, some the size and thickness of a man’s palm. He planted trees and was a notable presence in Boone, little bells jingling from his stringy hair and wearing colorful Guatemalan clothes. Since I’d started thumbing there’d been several more locals who’d taken up the idea and had brought in dozens of interesting friends to enliven the local scene. From a small isolated mountain town in the 1970s, Boone in the ‘80s had developed into an oasis of culture and arts. Happy Appy was now a popular university and the community reflected it. I felt my travels, and my encouragement of others, had played a part. There was now a large and vibrant hippie community, up from the “sixteen original hippies” in 1970. One of the hippie chicks who’d recently arrived was Julie, and as we talked I realized we’d lived about two blocks from each other in Denver in 1973, and had talked with each other in a nearby health food store.

There were a couple gals I was involved with that summer. Carol was far more interested in me than I was in her, and Georgia less so. I was doing some freelance astrology and had one very good customer, JoAnne. She was some years older and had money, being recently divorced from a Cadillac dealer. She owned a flower shop and kept me busy, which I found a two-edged sword. I’d draw her charts, read her cards, she’d pay me well and recommend me to others, but every few days she’d want to know more. I’d try to say something new, because she was paying me, but the stars, the cards, the I Ching and people’s palms don’t change that fast. I felt I was saying the same things over again. The more money I made, the less I was doing something worthwhile.

I’d been drawing charts for years, always looking for a “perfect” gal–someone whose sun-sign matched my moon sign and moon-sign matched my sun. In the summer of 1981 I met a gal whose chart was pretty close. Kate’s moon-sign was my sun-sign, her sun close to my moon. Theoretically this was one of the best of matches, but nothing developed. I kept in touch and visited her a few times, but the great romance I expected never came.

Oddly enough, I found years later that one of my cousins had the “perfect” chart I’d been seeking. When we compared notes, our lives, our spouses and our travels had been more alike than we’d ever have imagined.

In September my old neighbors from the bungalow in Sugar Grove decided to marry, and I was invited to their wedding, outside Wadena, Minnesota. The land of ten thousand lakes. I hadn’t been to that area of the country. I’d visited almost all the other states but not Minnesota, the Dakotas or Michigan. It seemed a good opportunity, so I left. I caught a few rides through Tennessee and into Missouri, where I spent a lovely afternoon in Excelsior Springs sitting in the park making rings. A plain-looking girl pushing an adult-sized tricycle came up and started a conversation. I told her where I was from and where I was going. She said she’d been to Oklahoma, and South Dakota, Colorado and some other states in the area but had been raised “right here in Missouri”. She had a speech impediment but was simply charming. We talked and ate grapes for a long time. I liked her and the town, but when she left a local cop asked me a few questions, checking on her and on me, friendly enough, but hinting that I should move along, which was my plan anyway. I wanted to get to the wedding. For the next couple days I caught rides in that general direction but did a lot of walking. Brisk walking, to stay ahead of the mosquitoes. It was necessary to maintain a swift pace, because when I slowed the clouds of mosquitoes in my wake caught me and pounced. Ten thousand lakes means ten billion mosquitoes.

The wedding was on the 14th of September in a little town called Two Inlets, and I almost made it. I was in Wadena at noon, Park Rapids a couple hours later. I tried to call the church. The information operator didn’t know where Two Inlets was, even though it was on the map and the operator I’d reached in Wadena had lived there. I walked to the Catholic church. They knew the name of the church I needed and the number. They had phones in the area that required you to put in a dime after the call was connected. I was unfamiliar with the procedure and fumbled for my dime while the father said “hello” a couple times and hung up. I called back. No answer. I went on Osage. Everyone knew my friends but no one knew where to find them. The postman told me where they’d lived the month before, knew their neighbors. I started in that direction but by the time I caught a ride it was late afternoon, I’d missed the wedding and I was so tuckered out from outrunning mosquitoes that when the driver said he was going to Fargo, I told him I was too.

I spent the night under a bridge, and in the morning caught a ride with a fellow named Denver. We drank beer all the way to Watertown, SD, but on the way stopped to pee. He shut down the truck and couldn’t get it started. The Chevy engine of those years had a toothed ring on the flywheel which had a bad habit of stripping a tooth here and there, so that in certain spots the starter couldn’t engage. It’d simply scrape, make a horrible noise and do nothing. You’d have to get out and physically turn the engine to where the flywheel would engage before it’d turn over. I got underneath the truck and pulled on the V-belts, but while we were yelling Denver misunderstood me and hit the starter prematurely. The first 2 fingers of my left hand got caught in the pulley, and for the first time in my life I yelled “HELP!” as loud as I could, fishing out my pocketknife. Denver leaped out of the cab and popped the hood while I handed him my knife and yelled “CUT IT CUT IT CUT IT!!!”. He cut the V-belts and I got my hand back. Fortunately the V-belts ran the power steering and air conditioning, so the truck was drivable. It started and we drove on. My index finger was cut through the knuckle and I could see the bone. It didn’t bleed much, so I pulled a band-aid and adhesive tape from my pack and patched it up. It hurt like hell, but I regained most of my motion and flexibility, though the nerve to that section of my finger was damaged. I don’t feel anything on the back side of the top two-thirds of that finger anymore. There was a chunk of cartilage stuck in the knuckle, getting in the way, so a week later I cut it away with my pocketknife, a little field surgery which worked fine. The middle finger wasn’t cut near so deeply, but both knuckles now share a scar line.

I caught a ride with a fellow in a Dodge Charger the next day. We drove to Sioux Falls at 100 miles per hour. From there I went to Clear Lake, Minnesota with a couple tourists from Finland. I slept behind some bushes and in the morning caught a ride to LaCrosse, Wisconsin and we smoked  dope the whole way. From there I rode to Highland Park, Illinois. Outside the mini-mart I met the young fellow who worked there, who took me to his house for the night. In the morning he gave me a couple of half-pint bottles he’d pinched from the stock, peach brandy and Southern Comfort. He also bought a ring and gave me three joints for the road. In the morning I went to the train station, intending to ride the train for a few miles as a change of pace.


I arrived at the train station early and started a conversation with a fellow who was starting his shift. He told me to buy a ticket to Mannheim, where his locker was. In Mannheim he brought me to the back room and told me which freight train to hop. I was off to Indiana.

Hopping a train is an interesting way to travel. The train clanks along, hour after hour, not very fast. I sat in the empty boxcar and watched the prairie roll by, then turned around and watched the shadows on the wall. It was very much like Plato’s cave. The train gently shook, clanked, squealed. The shadows flashed and danced on the wall, and it was easy to imagine life as nothing but shadows, eternally shifting, as the train rocked me to sleep–

But I didn’t sleep. It’s very relaxing when you don’t need to pee, but I had a need. After miles of green grass and rolling hills, I peed out the door–and immediately passed a crowded crossing, the first in at least an hour, with a police car at the head of the line. There wasn’t much point in stopping, so I let it fly–

Towards evening the train pulled into a freight yard. I hopped off, found a bar and had a couple beers. I crashed out in a secluded spot next to the toll road and in the morning caught a ride into Michigan. I ate a big breakfast in Lawrence and across the road was an unattended produce stand next to an old woman’s garden, with a note sitting next to a can to put in money. I bought a couple boxes of raspberries.

The next fellow who picked me up was Will from Toledo, Ohio. One of the first things he told me was how much he hated Michiganders, because they never smiled. It seemed true to me. In my little jaunt into and back out of Michigan everyone appeared morose. Will made good money working at a nuclear plant but figured he was getting a large dose of radiation and probably wouldn’t live that long, so he was damned well going to enjoy life. We went to a couple bars. He bought drinks for everyone and several for me. I tried to give him a ring but he didn’t think he’d ever figure out the puzzle. I wanted a T-shirt from a local radio station–”105 WXEZ Rocks Toledo”, it said, for $2–but I couldn’t talk even one person into a ring, and I had less than $2 left. At the end of the night, however, I caught a ride to Dayton with one of the fellows I’d met in the bar.

The next day I thumbed to a great little college town–Berea, Kentucky–and spent the day among the shops and chilling in the park. Afterwards I caught a ride to Knoxville, where I spent a couple days with my cousin Pat and her two daughters.

October found me back in Boone. I started to get  involved with a roommate of Nora’s, the Avery County Woman I’d been with five years earlier. Nora was in good spirits, but Cara had lost her boyfriend 3 weeks earlier to cancer. She was simply incapable of anything but grief, and I couldn’t make her feel better. There was a deep sadness in her which I couldn’t touch.

I was going to Texas without my father that Christmas. An old friend of Marcus and I wanted to come along and my father didn’t, so Bobby and I planned to leave at the end of November. A friend of my sister asked to come along, so it was me, Bobby and Michelle. I’d bought an old Plymouth Valiant named “Flo” from Art’s girlfriend Dolores. She was thrilled to know Flo was going to Texas. I painted “with Bob and Michelle” on the sign that year, and we set up  six hundred fresh trees, Rudolph the Red-Assed Reindeer and a skeletal Charlie Brown tree, of which there were a few left. I got in touch with several friends I’d neglected when my father’d been there. Stevie Ray Vaughn was one, a fellow I’d known from the neighborhood. He and his band were now popular in Austin.

Jean and her roommates gave a party just before Christmas, and I spent the evening jamming on the front porch with several musicians, including Stevie. Stevie was a guy who’d disappear into another room when needles and injectable solutions appeared. I never went in. I stayed on the porch. Later we had a poker game and both Bobby and I won money on a variation called Cincinnati Red Dog, which isn’t really poker at all. Everyone antes, four cards are dealt and each person places a bet against the pot. You have to beat the next card up, in the same suit. If you bet a nickel, a club comes up and you have the ace of clubs, you win. Any other suit, you lose. It’s rather difficult to win, and the pot quickly gets big. If you’re sure, you can “tap the pot”, pay off any bets already on the table and go for the whole thing. If you lose, you match the pot, and a $5 pot is suddenly $10. The pot gets bigger and folks get conservative, not tapping it when they have a good hand. The trick is to have a high card in every suit, which doesn’t happen often. That night I won about $50 and Bobby $100.

Bobby had packed his motorcycle in the back of the truck and Michelle alternated riding with Bobby and riding in Flo. We wanted to go sight-seeing and not bee-line back home on the freeway, so we went to the Gulf Coast to check out the coastal highway. The highway was still torn up from Hurricane Allen and large signs advised us that the road was closed. We were ready to turn back but a  local told us the road was bad on one side but the other lane was passable all the way through. This proved to be the case. We drove almost exclusively in the left lane for a couple hundred miles, but since there was hardly any traffic it was a moot point. We stopped on the beach in several places and picked up an incredible variety of shells. The hurricane had churned up the prettiest assortment I’d ever seen, and fancy shells covered the beach for miles.

We stopped in a motel that evening and cleaned up. Bobby and I wanted to hang awhile longer but Michelle wanted to leave, and headed to the freeway to thumb home. I drove out in Flo and told her to cut the comedy, then we drove the rest of the way home. She was cute, but proved a pain.

Sittin’ on the Sidewalk

I was contemplating marriage, though I had no idea to whom. I was the same age as my father’d been when he’d married, but had no prospects. There was a game I’d play, idly, in my head. I’d sit on the street, watch people pass by–young, old, fat, thin–and think what it’d be like to be married to each in turn. If I were that-guy-there, could I live with that-gal-passing-by? How would I pick up the gal with the blue purse? Would she prefer me, or that guy who looks like a chicken? That older woman with the big nose, what would it have been like to have been married to her for the past thirty years? In half-an-hour I’d consider a hundred different possibilities. Pointless, but enjoyable.

The planet Uranus was in my seventh house, which astrologers immediately recognize as a seven-year period of turmoil and change in partnerships. Uranus is a very strangely oriented planet; its poles are oriented east-to-west. Since it takes 84 years to orbit the sun, one pole faces the earth for 21 years, then we see its equator for another 21, then the opposite pole, then the equator again. When the poles are facing the earth we’re seeing the same area of the planet for 21 years, but when the equator shows it really rolls. The day on Uranus is only ten hours long, so the view, unchanged for 21 years, now changes every 5 hours. In astrology this indicates things which are built up over long periods of time which seem stable, but lose equilibrium and collapse into chaos. The turbulence continues for years before structures are rebuilt, in very different ways–which can be good, bad, or both. In the seventh house this affects one’s partnerships, including marriage, and my idea of marriage was definitely in flux. I was on and off with Georgia, off and on with Jean, on and off with Robin and Susan and briefly with Libby, Liz, Tory, Kathy, Carol, Debbie, Amie, Sherri, Sally, Lisa, Karen, Ann, Kate, Janie, Rhonda, Mary, Terry, Cindy. Sometimes for a few days, sometimes months, sometimes years. I never figured out why I didn’t keep a girlfriend, but of course it was my nervousness and uncertainty. I attracted women by the score, but they didn’t stay.

I took a trip to Nashville in February to see Robin. We were together for two weeks and then broke up for good. I got back with Georgia, who eventually married her old boyfriend Darrell. I went out several times with Sally. She was a lot of fun. She took me to a bar in Boone before bars were legal. Speedy the pizza guy had “parties” after hours; the beer would flow. He’d keep a tally of who had what and settle up later, which was the illegal part.

I really liked Sally. I knew her family well. She had several brothers and sisters. A younger brother Greg married Terry’s sister Janice, an older sister Annalee smoked too much and died young. We truly enjoyed each other’s company, but she wasn’t as “eager” as I, so to speak. Later she wished she had been, but it was too late.

In May I was back in New York.  I met a gal through the Boone co-op who was headed up for her brother’s wedding and offered to help with the driving. She dropped me off at Barb’s, who was stripping her wallpaper. We did that for a couple days and Eileen’s brother Jim walked by. I invited him for wine and cheese and he helped with the ceiling, then we visited Eileen and Dana.  It was the first time Eileen and Barb had met, and we all talked metaphysics and health and astrology into the night. Eileen had some friends over and we had dinner, wine and did some yoga.

Though the positions are the best-known aspect to yoga, the real trick is in the breathing, and I demonstrated the technique. Deep and forceful breathing is messy, uncomfortable and obnoxious, and most people are too concerned about coughing and spraying boogers to breathe to the full limits of their capacity.

I had many surprises. Eileen had heard from June, the Avery County Woman who’d first sent me to Cortland. June had had a baby she’d named David, after me!–and had moved to Hawaii, where she was a massage therapist and writer. I asked Barb about her close friend Maggie, the first girl I’d met in Cortland. Barb said she’d married a fellow named Eric, an artist who worked at Cornell. Eric who? Eileen knew Eric. He’d lived with her roommate Geraldine. I knew Eric–through a totally different friend, in a different city.

JoEllen and Neal had moved into the house they’d started 2-1/2 years earlier. A hell of a lot nicer than the itty-bitty trailer they’d all been living in for years. Neal still worked for the railroad and now owned an old sawmill which he ran part-time. Joellen and the kids raised champion, award-winning goats.

I went to Connecticut from New York. I was out of town on my 29th birthday in June and for the first time in my life let my driver’s license expire. Fran was living with Patience, my brother Sam’s squeeze until he decided to jump the fence and take off with Rob, an older fellow who left his wife of many years when they moved in together. I liked Patience, she was good-looking, funny, and very smart. I visited Sam and Rob in New York City, met a blues singer named Georgia Louis and several theatre people and musicians at a party in Westport, Connecticut where I sold over a dozen rings. I spent the next day in Central Park, rode the carousel and visited several shops that Sam, Fran and Patience knew. I found an herb I’d wanted for months, Red Root or New Jersey Tea, just a couple blocks from Sam and Rob’s digs in the Ansonia. I drew everyone’s astrological charts and discovered Rob had Taurus rising and Gemini sun like me.

From New York City I went to southern New Jersey and visited Annie, my old girl Robin’s roommate at Appalachian, and stayed a couple days. It was the first time I’d been to that part of New Jersey and I had a blast. There’s a good reason New Jersey is called the Garden State, though the vast majority of people, who only pass through on I-95, have no clue why. I drew charts for Annie, her two sisters, their friends, lounged on the beach and headed south, where I found an abandoned motel outside of Southern Pines, NC. I camped for a couple days and replenished my supply of rings before visiting with the gal whose chart I’d decided was closest to my ideal, Kate. She was living with a nice fellow, and I didn’t bring it up. I stayed with them for three days and headed back to Boone. It was June, 1982.

Summer of ’82

I broke up with Georgia, insofar as I was ever with her. It was always a week or two we’d see each other, a month off, a week or two again. Annoying. My father was working the Dixie Barber Shop in downtown Boone and taking off a few weekends a year to be in movies or commercials. There were regional movies he was also in, “redneck comedies”, a few with national distribution. He’d use a pseudonym so that the Screen Actors’ Guild wouldn’t know he was acting in a non-SAG production; he was in several as Jack Payne. He also kept current his SAG card.  A true clinker, “Maximum Overdrive”, bad enough to achieve cult status, was the one and only movie directed by Steven King, and my father was the bridgemaster, the first voice heard after the opening credits. His appearance is followed by a girl who gets creamed by a watermelon when the drawbridge opens unexpectedly, Marla Maples. She later married The Donald, the bad haircut guy who owns every tacky thing in New York.

There was a gal I knew well living outside of Boone. I’d met her seven years earlier and we’d fooled around, but she’d been away. Jeannie was an international model and had been quite successful. She’d bought a nice place in the mountains and could live and travel without worries. She’d been married at eleven, quite legally, in the state of California many years before. California with parental consent had no minimum age, and she’d been a “wild child”. Her parents couldn’t control her, so they let her marry. She now had a grown, married son, and since I  was 5 years younger than she, I was just 7 years older than him. Jeannie had a long-term boyfriend, Indian, with whom she’d break up regularly. I was bar-hopping one night and met a fellow whose girlfriend told me they’d heard of me through her, which is how I found she was back in town. I called and visited her house. We got a group together and went to the VFW post, where Jeannie knew several members. Indian passed out in the car, so Jeannie and the rest of us went into the party. Jeannie introduced me as her husband and we stayed late, crashing out on the benches together. Indian awoke early, saw the till was open, took seventeen dollars, saw the two of us, woke Jeannie and left with her. He was furious. He loaded up a duffel bag and left her. Jeannie called me, in tears, and we spent the afternoon. After seven years of acquaintance, we spent the night together. She asked me if if I wanted her to be my wife. I thought about it long and hard, but after a month or so she was back with Indian. It was just as well. She was lovely and fun and wise, but I was surely not ready anyway. In the next several months I had short-lived romances of varying intensity–Karen, Cindy, Carolann, Debby. Once Gloria, who nominally lived at the Hot El but essentially lived with her boyfriend, came home unexpectedly to find me in her bed with George’s cousin Karen, and then the next weekend in her bed with Cindy. I truly was interested in these girls. I’d moved in for a week with Karen but it didn’t work. The night after I left Karen’s I met Cindy, stayed at the Hot El, and we were an item for a few weeks. Our intentions were good, but our hearts were confused.

In July I went to a bar I didn’t usually go to and saw a gal who’d been out of town for a couple years. Jana asked me for a tarot reading. I had my cards with me and I laid out her cards on the bar. The card for the recent past came up Death, reversed. I told her the reversed status represented tangled emotions and uncertainty about death in the recent past. I didn’t know, but she’d been away from town taking care of her father, who had just died. We talked for a long time that night.

I left again a few days later. I visited with my brother Sam and his new boyfriend and went into the Statue of Liberty. I was amazed how many languages I heard on the ferry. From among 200 people I heard Japanese, Greek, Portuguese, Arabic, Slavic, Italian, Vietnamese, Norwegian and others. There was a tour bus with Chinese characters on the side and the announcements were given in English, Spanish, French and German.

I sold lots more rings and jewelry to Sam and Rob’s friends, then went back to Patience and Fran’s apartment in Connecticut. They were moving at the end of the month and I helped them prepare for their tag sale, as New Englanders call a yard sale. Patience was moving to New York City–she’d landed a job in showbiz contract law–and Fran had made a weekend visit to Boone a month earlier, met a guy and suddenly made plans to move in with him, as was her way. This was the third or fourth time she’d fallen in love instantly, dropped everything and moved to a different state or country. In this, she was not much different from me.

I went back by Cortland for four more days, then Southern Pines, where I stayed again in the abandoned motel and replenished my rings, then continued to Myrtle Beach, where Michelle was now living. My sister Genny came down to visit Michelle and her roommate Pam, whom I hadn’t seen for a few years. Pam, like the Pam I’d known in elementary school, had gone from awkward teenybopper to total knockout. I rode home with my sister in time for a local craft fair called Septemberfest, and for the rest of the season minded a second-hand shop on weekends for $10 a day and a place to sell my stuff, plus first shot at whatever came through the door.

Jake and Jody pulled into town that fall, with their kids Magic and Mystic. Jody was pregnant and they parked about a mile up the road at the base of Snaggy Mountain where my family had a few acres. We called it Snag End,  and I’d been living there in a tent. Jake and Jody now had a 1949 White school bus, painted purple, which they lived in, and when I wasn’t minding the shop I cut tobacco or found other farmwork with Marcus, Bobby, Jake and others.

I moved back into a tent in the field across the road from Jake and Jody that summer, a mile from my parents’ house. I left the tent pitched when I went thumbing but by the time I returned it was collapsed in a heap. My father had hired loggers and they’d taken the tree it was tied to and many others and cut a road up the hill. I pitched a little ways up the hill when I returned from Texas and technically lived in it, though I spent most of my time sleeping in my car. The first year in Texas we’d brought my brother’s 1968 Dodge Coronet, the second year my sister’s Fiat, the third year a 1964 Plymouth named Flo, the next year bought a 1963 Ford Galaxie and for the final year I’d traded the Galaxie, the Bronco and the Plymouth for a 1972 Dodge Coronet. It was a good, solid car, a former undercover police car, but had a newer, truck engine. It ran well. I’d been pushing it a little bit in Mississippi, late at night, going about 70 (the speed limit was still 55), when a Camaro passed me as if I were standing still. I decided to catch the Camaro, and did. I was doing 120 miles per hour, and it was smooth as a baby’s butt. Great car. The inside of the tailpipe stayed chalk white, the sign of a perfectly tuned machine. The only aggravation was when I needed parts. Dodge truck engines were built ass-backwards from their cars.

My father had lost his wedding band while we were loading trees in 1981. He thought it gone for good and asked me to make another, but when I went to mow I found it glistening in the weeds. I lost my own ring the following winter, changing a tire, and again found it in the springtime. According to my astrological chart I’m good at finding things. It’s true!

I’d been in two wrecks while Marcus was driving. He’d gone off the edge of Winkler’s Creek road in his Volkswagen–the same Volkswagen he’d been driving when he changed a tire atop Howard’s Knob, tossed the flat to the side and watched it roll down the mountain picking up speed until it plowed into a blackberry bramble and was lost for good. Marcus slid the VW over the side of a sharp curve. The rear broke loose and spun completely around, left the roadbed and plopped down hard but upright against a couple of trees, which held it level, roof-to-road height  and appearing as if we’d been coming down the hill and not going up. I’d been sitting in the passenger seat, but sat down hard in the back seat behind the driver, not hurt at all, and we crawled out. The second time we were on Payne Branch Road in his cut-up 1964 Galaxie with a series of flip switches instead of an ignition key. I’d had a Bronco I’d connected that way, and my Model A too. One advantage to it was that with no key in the ignition one couldn’t charged with drunken driving, only public drunkenness. Unless you knew the switch combination you’d try to start it all day, then a few feet down the road it’d stall. For a long time he drove the Galaxie on the Seven Devils resort without tags, license, lights or anything else, but Marcus had finally hooked up lights, installed a proper gas tank and had it registered. We were making a run down the dirt road to Blowing Rock to buy beer, bundled up against the cold in this roofless, backless car in the middle of winter, when coming around a curve Marcus hit a patch of ice and plowed into a couple guys from Tennessee. Neither our car nor theirs was much damaged, and I had the presence of mind to put my arm up and lay my head on the dashboard before we hit, so I was only shaken up. The Tennessee guys got out of their Jeep and we looked at the damage, which wasn’t much. We gave them a couple beers we had in the back seat and they pulled out a bottle of whiskey, we all took a tug and went on our way.

I, finally, loved my life. I felt really popular. Everyone in town and in lots of other places people knew me. I had circles in North Carolina, California, Texas, Colorado, South Carolina, Florida, New York (city and state), Washington (city and state), and scattered friends and acquaintances all over. I’d been to all the states now, save Alaska, a couple territories and two foreign countries. Wherever anyone was from, or had visited, I’d been there, knew where it was, knew someone there. I’d also learned how to talk to women.

A woman likes a thoughtful, considerate man who listens and brings her flowers, but he bores her to tears. He’ll be a friend, not a lover. A woman wants challenge. A guy should be a bit of a smartass. If a guy finds poetry a turn-off, he should say so, and argue about it. Quote poetry and make a face. Tell her how awful Browning is, or Dylan, or Katy Perry. Make a fuss, state an opinion. Fight about it. Disagree. Talk a little dirty. She may be annoyed, but she won’t be bored.

After Thanksgiving Bobby and I went back to Texas. We pulled into the lot, but it’d been sold. All the big old trees, Mary’s house, the barn had been bulldozed. Mary wasn’t there. The company who’d bought the property wanted double the rent, for a lot which was a mud hole. We were feeling glum when I went for breakfast that morn, but while I was out Bobby talked with a woman who’d bought a tree the year before. She knew, off the top of her head, the number to check on real estate. By that afternoon we had a lot three blocks down the road and the folks next door had agreed to let us run a power cord, take showers and do our laundry for the next 3 weeks–for $20. Kevin, Jake & Jody’s friend, set up another lot some blocks away. We had two lots, and both did well.

Across the street from our new lot was a gas station with a neon sign flashing the price of gas. For a couple weeks the price was $1.11. It was a great joke between Bobby and I to start a conversation and sneak in the price of gas. “So Bobby, I was just thinking this morning, Reagan was talking and I was wondering–what’s the price of gas?” or “Hey, Dave, I  saw someone we sold a tree to last year, and they asked me if I knew–the price of gas.” One day the price went to $1.12. It hit us like an earthquake.

After the second weekend we had some free time. I spent that Monday and Tuesday with Jean. We discussed whether we should live together, which would mean one of us moving and getting established somewhere else. We cuddled, considered it, thought about it, but it stayed in the air, and that was that.

Bobby and I stayed in Texas through Christmas. At a friend’s house on Lake Travis, on Christmas Eve, we went wind-surfing. Our friend knew of a party the next day. A pretty girl named Liz invited me to sleep over, and I did. We arrived in Boone the evening of the following day. A little later I visited a friend of Kate-my-so-called-perfect-match, Rhonda. Rhonda needed someone to house-sit while she went out of town with her ex-husband, so I did. I met a gal named Tory during that month, but it didn’t work out, and when Rhonda returned, minus the ex, we were an item. I stayed with her for two months but finally left a note in a book she was reading saying I really liked her, thought highly of her, respected her, but knew she didn’t love me. I wished her the best, though I knew in my heart it wasn’t gonna work. I packed my things and went back to my tent. I saw her later, she cried, I cried, we kissed, we said goodbye.

My cousin had a barn down the road that she rented for parties. Boone was a “dry” town, and the barn was popular. I lived close by and she’d let me in free if I stayed the night and cleaned up in the morning. It was a good deal for both of us. I didn’t have to drive, she didn’t have to pay. I even made a few dollars crushing cans.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1983 Kevin appeared, running from the law. He’d been caught with a knapsack full of peyote, dressed like an Indian–but he wasn’t an Indian! He started camping on the property where Jake, Jody and I were living. I’d had a job selling coupon books in town and had several left over for free sandwiches. I gave Kevin a couple to help him while he looked for work. Kevin met a girl named Dawn and went with her a few times. I took her out a time or two also, but beyond a bit of fumbling nothing developed.

Jake, Kevin and I got jobs planting trees that spring for a nickel each, while Jody, heavily pregnant, stayed on the bus with the kids. A local preacher named Grover took a half-dozen of us to the job site each day. I’d often drive and we’d go down the mountain to plant fields in white or yellow pines. Grover had a forestry contract and we’d drive sometimes fifty or hundred miles. A nickel a tree doesn’t sound like much, but hustling I could plant fifteen hundred or more trees in five or six hours, which was good pay. I got to be quite fast–I’m always fast, it’s what I do–until one weekend I was playing tag football and broke the middle finger of my left hand. I could still work, but was only able to plant 2/3 as many, and was permanently “giving the finger” to everyone. After it’d healed, I broke my right middle finger and was still “giving the finger” until well into the fall.

Before working with Grover I’d used a “dibbler” to plant trees, a sort of heavy, straight-bladed small spade. I’d walk along, use both hands to drive in the blade, step on it, wiggle it back and forth, plant the tree, repeat the action a couple inches further to “set” the roots. On Grover’s jobs we used a “ho-dad”, a mattock with a short, straight horizontal blade. Swing the blade, push it forward to make the hole, put in the tree, swing it again and pull the blade back. Twice as fast.

I can ride the highways of North Carolina now through several counties–Watauga, Ashe, Avery, Wilkes, Caldwell, Guilford, Surry–point and tell my kids I planted those trees, over there. Those trees, the ones that are now forty feet tall.

Occasionally I’d help plant trees behind a tractor. It was a lot faster on relatively flat land, but the tractor wouldn’t handle a slope, and you’d breathe a lot of diesel smoke. Like just about anyone from North Carolina, I also helped plant, tend, cut and put up tobacco. Cutting in the fall your hands and arms and clothes and face would get coated with tobacco gum, sticky and soon black with dirt.

Things change

A local group, the Numuziklub (new music club) was giving parties at my cousin’s barn. They featured local bands who’d occasionally need a harp player or drummer, and I’d play. I looked up the first Saturday in April and on the balcony was a girl in red-and-white leggings, looking a little lonely. I nodded to her, and she nodded back.

A week later I went to the barn and the Numuziklub was featuring another band. I walked in the door, got a beer and looked around. The girl I’d seen the previous Saturday made a smart-ass remark about my raincoat, which I was wearing because it was raining, and then told me my shirt looked like it was from 1963–which it was. I immediately liked her. She was brash, but friendly, and pulled me into to the little booth where she was sitting, across from a couple rough-looking guys who between the two of them had six or eight good teeth. We talked for a long time that night, danced, rolled around and tickled each other. I went home with her, and we’ve been together ever since. It was April 9th, 1983.

For the first week, Perri was minding a house for some friends on Beech Mountain. Afterwards we moved into my tent at Snag End.

There was a lot of activity that week. A day or two after Perri had moved in, Jody had her baby. Perri assisted in the back-of-the-bus birth, on April 17th.

We made a better, more permanent spot for the tent, ditching around it and putting sawdust under the floor. Kevin had set up a wooden deck for his clear plastic tent, a greenhouse which woke him up at ridiculously early hours of the morning. We dug out a spring, put a hatch on it and had cold water and a cool place for food, built an outhouse, put in a sink, a counter, a firepit.

Shortly after Perri had moved in, there was a shooting at my cousin’s barn. Kevin saw it but Perri and I were away. We went to pick up Kevin and he was out front giving the cops a hard time. We took him home. A fellow from Tennessee had been giving the party, a little bitty guy with a great big gun. Some big guy started something and the little guy pulled his gun, shooting him sort-of-or-possibly-by-accident. That ended the parties.

It changed Kevin’s life, for awhile. Kevin and my sister Fran joined a small and obnoxious fundamentalist cult run by a red-haired jerk. They decided to marry, and this red-haired clown insisted on injecting himself and his moronic worldview into their daily lives. He and the sheep of his congregation had decided my sister should marry one of the goats in the choir. She had other ideas.

I was best man at the most exasperating and idiotic wedding ceremony I’ve ever witnessed. Carrot-top preached for an hour, bringing up perdition, the coming apocalypse, everything wrong with the world today. He decried how many children grew up in broken homes in the world today, how many divorces there were in the world today. How many wives did not SUBMIT to their husbands in the world today. When I thought he was ready to get on with the ceremony he’d wind it up again and talk of hellfire, the end of time, the evil in the world today because people in the world today don’t have JESUS in their HEARTS in the world today and on and on in the world today, and on and on, and on and on and on some more in the world today, and when it looked in the world today like he was ready to continue in the world today with the ceremony in the world today he wound it up AGAIN in the world today and called down all the SINNERS in the world today. Eventually I started throwing the ring pillow in the air, higher and higher in the world today, bouncing it off the ceiling in the world today. After an hour of this ridiculous harangue in the world today they were pronounced man and wife in the world today. The cassette of their “ceremony” in the world today was never, ever, ever played in the world today, and they never, ever went back to the red haired clown’s church. In the world today.

My parents helped Kevin and Fran finance the trailer they moved into at Snag End. In our little world, today, they were on top.

I wanted to start a shop in town and paid the first month’s rent. I expected “my half of the profits” from the tree farm, but had relied on my father’s promise. Big mistake. My  father sold the tree farm that spring, but “my half” was zero, and the shop folded before it began.

Kevin had a dog named Dusty who died that spring. Afterwards our family dog Daphne came down the road. She’d been living at the Winkler’s Creek house for ten years, but had always wanted to be an only dog, which didn’t happen. She came to our property, decided to stay, and was our dog for six more years.

When in the tent I once knocked one of our candles onto the back wall. Fire climbed very quickly, but Perri picked up the beer I was drinking and put it out.

Perri bit into a Dorito that spring and the tip of the chip went under her gum. Her face and upper lip swole up like she was Quasimodo. She had to go to the dentist, and the dentist told her the Dorito had nothing to do with it, which was obviously a crock.

She was reading a trilogy–Lord Foul. It took her forever to get through the first book and a half, and finally she quit. I’d never done that. I might have sometimes read a bit and lost or mislaid the book but generally if I scanned it and liked it I’d read it all. Sometimes I’d be up until the wee hours of the morning finishing a book I didn’t like. One time I finished a book–The Handmaid’s Tale–that I hated so thoroughly that I immediately threw it, forcefully, with gusto, into the trash. Afterwards I wondered why I’d spent some days reading something I didn’t like, and since have been conscious of the trade-off in time. I recently started “Atlas Shrugged”, and after twenty pages shrugged it off.

Perri was going to school in Banner  Elk and working as a camp counselor in the summertime on Beech Mountain. I met her fellow counselor Cindy, with whom we had many adventures.


In May we started building an earth lodge. That spring and summer we cut down several locust trees and dragged them to Snag End. I’d read a book about building a $50 house and decided to try it. The architectural plan was for a split-level teepee-type structure dug into the hillside. Level in front, we dug back about 20 feet with picks and shovels, left a 4-foot rise and dug back another 20 feet. We planned to set up a flattish, half-round, teepee-like roof on the bottom half, install a row of clerestory windows above the roofline and build a second half-round teepee above.

By July we’d finished digging, sometimes helped by neighborhood teenagers fueled by beer. Kevin and Fran had moved into their trailer. There were others on the property as well; Adam and Karen had a very nice double-walled teepee, and Peter had a tent. Everyone had platforms except for me and Perri, who were walking on soft comfy sawdust. The road to the earth lodge was rough but passable for her four-wheel-drive Subaru, and after the first month or so of throwing rock from the excavation into the slick grey mud my Dodge made it as well, though the deputy got stuck when he came to check out a party we were having. The gas tank in my Dodge eventually got dinged and sprung a leak, however, and I put a spare tank from an old Pontiac temporarily, dangerously in the trunk.

By fall we’d covered the the bottom half with chicken wire and old wall-to-wall carpeting salvaged from the pizza-place-which-used-to-be-under-George’s-old-apartment when they tore it out for renovation. We covered this in plastic sheeting and tarpaper, leaving a vent for a woodstove set into a large stone hearth close to the center. To the left of the stove was a raised area with wooden pallets supporting a mattress, and at its head a low table with candles, kerosene and Coleman lamps. In the center was a tall set of shelves for clothes and sundries on one side and on the other a pantry and cupboard for the kitchen. A sink was set in a countertop made of 2x4s, with a 5-gallon bucket underneath to catch grey water. We’d haul water from the spring outside the door, equipped with a wooden hinged top and a platform to kneel on. Inside the spring was a shelf and a basket to store veggies, beer,etc., and another bucket for items which needed to be kept cool but dry. We set up an outside kitchen opposite the front driveway, with another counter and sink, a cheapo woodstove and a fire pit, all tucked into a clearing among hemlock trees.

Kevin ran a power line from his trailer, and for the few dollars each month which I paid him we could use power tools. I soon put in a washing machine downhill from the spring, fed by syphon. To the other side of the drop-off from the kitchen was the outhouse, put together from spare plywood. Privacy was assured by the rhododendrons below.

After the summer the first iteration of the earth lodge was up. I got a night job cleaning at the school where my mother taught, and as a perk we’d use the showers and laundry. Perri, when she wasn’t going to classes, had a job at Beech Mountain Market, a convenience store near the ski slopes.

The best thing about cleaning at the school was the opportunity, once my job was done, to hang out in the library and read kids’ books. A kid’s book tells you the essentials, without distracting details. At lunch I’d check the fridge in the cafeteria for leftover salad or ice cream, then read about the moons of Jupiter or baseball players of the 1920s. I didn’t have to finish at a particular time, and often hung until 2 am. It wasn’t far from home. Sometimes I’d ride a bike, or walk. One very dark night I saw a wadded paper bag in the road and kicked it to the side. It shook its little head and flew off! It was an owl, minding its owly business, not bothering anyone, and out of the gloom I came along and kicked it!

The road on which I lived followed a steep east-west valley. There were no streetlights, and on a clear moonless night it was very dark. When there was a bright planet in the sky it would cast a subtle shadow. The shadow of Venus was a deep, intense purple. Jupiter’s was blue, and Saturn’s a slate grey. I couldn’t detect a shadow for Mars, which a science-minded friend of mine told me was because it was several magnitudes dimmer than the others, but would be a dense green.

There are lights on the road now, and a glow from the lights of Boone, which then was asleep by 10 pm. One can’t see the shadows cast by planetary lights. I doubt there are many such places left–only where there’s a deep east-to-west valley with a clear view above and no street lights for miles, on a moonless night. It’s a shame. Magical, but no one sees it.

The Third of June, 1953
The headlines celebrated a new queen of England, and a beekeeper named Hillary who had just climbed a mountain. It was another dusty, dirty Delta day, and according to the movie directed by Jethro of the Beverly Hillbillies, Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The song was a big hit for a dark haired Southern singer named Roberta. Like my mother, also a dark haired Southern singer named Roberta, she was born on the 208th day of the year.

I arrived that day in an old hospital on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. How old? Over eighty years earlier, it had hosted the world’s first artificial insemination. The standard at the time, for a new mother and her infant, was a week in a decrepit hospital with assorted sick people, and a day after that our little family left for North Carolina in search of fame and fortune. My eight days in The City fascinated all the Jewish girls I later met, who’d read a great deal about the Lower East Side (why it was capitalized I don’t know), but by the time I was old enough to notice girls, was no more. “Urban renewal” in the 1960s leveled the hospital, replacing it with boxy buildings, manicured trees and the shining twin towers which fell in 2001.
At three weeks old, I was onstage. My first and most successful production was the outdoor drama, “Horn in the West”. It had begun in 1952, in response to the success of “The Lost Colony”, starring Andy Griffith. While Andy was in the Outer Banks of the Tar Heel State portraying Sir Walter Raleigh, my father Ned Austin was in the Blue Ridge portraying Daniel Boone. He’d dated the lead actress until he was smitten with the music director, Bobbie Jones–not by her beauty, but by her willingness to tote off a huge prop anvil carelessly left onstage. That weekend, on their first date, he proposed. She refused, until he sobered up. They were both seasoned performers, and after the first season of “The Horn” they moved back to New York, where they starred in such Broadway shows as “Kiss Me Kate”, “Pal Joey” and “The Crucible”–but not on Broadway. The theatre troupe they belonged to, “The Pickwick Players”, operated out of a barn upstate.
I have a good memory, and when I was six recalled all my birthday cakes, including a green “un-birthday” cake from when I’d read Alice in Wonderland–but there was one cake I couldn’t place; it had white frosting with a scattering of candy red-hots. My mother, amazed, told me it was my first birthday cake, and so my first memory was my first birthday. Some years later I tried a technique like the one portrayed in the movie “Somewhere in Time”.  By FEELING the details–shorter arms, less weight–I remembered how it was to BE there, then tried to remember even earlier.
A flash! Windows to my left, kitchen table to my right; mason jars, plates, spice tins. I was in a high chair. My father, on the far side of the kitchen, was leaning back and looking at something. I followed his gaze and saw my mother, looking at ME!
SURPRISE! Someone LOOKING at me! I slapped my high-chair tray, sending a few pieces of rice flying. My mother wore a distinctive yellow T-shirt with wide brown stripes, and my father had a beard. I must have been four months old. That was all: bright light streams through the window, SURPRISE! Rice flies, sparkles in the sun, the end.
My parents again moved to New York in the autumn of 1953, living in an open loft “studio” in Brooklyn for three months, but when winter came they returned to the Austin family farm.

Bozo’s Boy
Ned shaved off his beard after the 1954 season; Charlie Elledge portrayed Daniel Boone for the next 41 years. The following spring we packed into a shiny green 1949 Chevy with a trailer painted to match and drove to Denver, Colorado. My parents rented a cool, quiet basement from an old woman named Nettie, but come the winter it was too cold and we moved. Father and mother shared the car; she dropped him off in the early morning to unload freight cars, then slept a few hours, bundled me up and we’d stroll to a day-care at the end of the block. I’d stay at Humpty Dumpty Preschool while she worked as a receptionist at the hospital. My father then walked from his job to the barber college for classes, where mother would later pick him up. She had a stillborn baby boy when I was very young, but soon enough I did have a younger brother, and one day in the early spring the four of us looked at a brick house in a field of mud. It was cold, the house unfinished, but my father got a veteran’s loan and bought 320 South 40th Street in Boulder.

The neighborhood was new, full of families with little kids. Its sparkling white sidewalks had curbs which angled into the gutters at 60º. We’d take the Chevy on a ride to the Busley’s with the neon bunny sign and buy groceries, except for dairy items which a milkman left in a white box on the porch every other day. Karl’s Dairy used brown milk bottles, which was very unusual. Orange Crush came in brown bottles for awhile, but those were long gone when I was still young.
My father got a job in television, and drove each morning on the Boulder Turnpike in a 1938 Studebaker, to KBTV in Denver where he portrayed a variety of kiddie show characters. Occasionally I’d be in these shows, when they needed an extra kid in the peanut gallery. All the broadcasts were live. In the mornings he’d be Dandy the Clown on the Candy and Dandy show, at noon the puppet Jerry the Giraffe, and afternoons the local Bozo the Clown, barbering after work. Bozo was a franchise; every TV station had its own Bozo showing whatever cartoons were trucked in. Sometimes on Saturdays he’d be Commander Jet, or the fellow on the Hootenanny with the nail through his hat, or the interviewer for whatever celebrity happened to pass through. Once he brought home original Walter Lantz drawings of Woody Woodpecker, torn from the weatherman’s giant roll of paper. Weathermen in the 50s sketched with grease pencils, making little cartoons out of clouds and rain and wind. The Woody Woodpecker drawings became my favorite Show & Tell item.
Davy Crockett was my hero when I was 2. He had my name, and I’m sure I had some residual awareness that my father had been Daniel Boone onstage; it was easy enough for a 2-year-old to mix up two Western heroes of the 1800’s whose names began with “D”. I had a leather cap with fur-trimmed earflaps that I wore everywhere, the way a 2-year-old does with a favorite hat. I imagined Davy Crockett wore one like that, though he probably didn’t. Westerns were the big thing then, and I was a Western kid. I wore my brown cap and rode my red-and-white trike down the leaf-covered sidewalks in the Denver autumn, and I was a frontiersman.

When I was an infant my astrological chart was drawn and interpreted by Laurel Keyes, an astrologer of renown who wrote esoteric books about colors, sounds and vibrations in the cosmos. She said I was an “old soul” and that I’d change the world, or the universe, or something. It was never coherently explained to me, and I never figured out what the hell she meant. It became a huge pain in the butt, as I didn’t want to be Saivyer of the Wurld. Still, from a very young age I carried my astrological chart in my wallet, hoping to find someone to interpret it. It stayed there until I was 16, at which time I decided that if I wanted to know anything I’d have to learn it myself. With the first paycheck of my first “real” job I ran to the esoteric bookstore and purchased the biggest, thickest astrology book they had.

Kid Stuff
Our first Halloween in Boulder, my brother and I went trick-or-treating and brought home huge bags of candy, but what awaited us when we returned was unexpected. At the University of Colorado, the college students all went trick-or-treating! Thousands of vampires and ghosts and cowboys and fairies and Martians trekked continuously to our door. My parents had a few bags of candy, but soon made popcorn balls and ran out of those too. They raided our booty to satisfy the wolves, promising to buy more later. They did, but it was still a letdown as the variety of our sweets reduced by a factor of ten. The next year they bought candy by the bushel basket!
My second brother arrived that December, and now there were three blonde-haired, bluish-eyed boys, though in the style of the time my father kept us in haircuts short enough that it was hard to see hair at all.
When winter came the cold wind blew hard and fierce off the Rocky Mountains, and I’d be well bundled walking to kindergarten. One morning I was on the icy sidewalk leaning back into the wind. A sudden gust caught me, 49 pounds of kindergartner, and I was airborne. I flew through the air for a few yards, then was set lightly back on my feet. I didn’t even stumble.
Cars were works of art in the 50s. The two-tone, peach-and-white ’56 Mercury next door belonged to a couple who moved in shortly after we did. Elliott and Eleanor Goldstein’s son, Seth, became my best friend. My mother was concerned with what Seth could eat, until one day he asked for “more ham”. Elliott was Jewish, but Eleanor was Catholic, and neither was kosher. Seth and I often watched TV together. It had a well-defined schedule; kid shows on Saturday morning and after school, news at noon and 6, family shows afterwards. One Saturday he and I were watching cartoons and the signal, never very strong, was fading in and out. I discovered that if I moved a little to one side the reception would get better, or worse. For the next hour as we’d watch I’d move imperceptibly to the left, the signal would deteriorate and I’d wave my hands around, telling Seth I had “magic”. I’d stand, point, give a hand-clap or a stomp, move a little to the right and the reception would be fine. My mother got a call from Eleanor later that night asking just what I’d taught her son to do, because he was standing in front of the TV waving and stomping and clapping and practicing his “magic”.
We spent a lot of time doing kid stuff together. We’d chase birds with a salt shaker and try to pour salt on their tails. We wore towels around our shoulders and jumped off the sidewalk, practicing to leap tall buildings. We’d swing and slide with a girl my age named Becky Irwin and her little brother Bo, and ride tricycles up the hill to where a teenager named George had 1940s cars in his driveway–Oldsmobiles, Henry Js–then coast back. We all had cookie-cutter houses of three or four styles with postage-stamp front yards that seemed huge to a 4-or-5-year-old, but the backyards were much bigger. Ours had a cherry tree and a small garden, with a rhubarb bush in the corner that our dog regularly peed on. Rusty was a Great Dane/Boxer mix who looked like a huge Boxer. He was very protective of me and my little brother, and not much bothered by anything but Volkswagens. The Volkswagen was an unusual little car at the time, it looked and sounded different from anything else on the road. A Volkswagen would drive by, and Rusty would attack. The Volkswagen would run off with its tail between its legs and Rusty would march home in triumph.
Cocoa was another family dog, a Dalmatian and not very smart. One day she ran away and for three days we didn’t see her. We finally drove around the neighborhood and a mile or two away, when we passed by a house which looked like ours, she ran out and greeted us. It appeared the owners were out of town and she’d been waiting without food or water for us to return. Didn’t stop her from running away, though. One day she ran away and didn’t come back.
We had a homemade electric lawn mower, invented by my father. He didn’t want to spend money, and had a big fan he wasn’t using. He made a frame of 2x4s and plywood, put casters on the bottom, sharpened the fan blades and had the oddest-looking lawn mower imaginable. He actually invented several things over time; mother had been in a fender-bender on the way from North Carolina to Colorado when the trailer, full of a year’s worth of provisions from the garden, overtaxed the brakes on the Chevy, so he designed a two-part trailer tongue which hooked up to a master cylinder. When the driver hit the brakes, the trailer mechanically pushed the tongue and it stopped the trailer. Worked like a charm.

The $25 Rule
For a long time my father had a rule–never pay more than $25 for anything. If it broke, he’d fix it–or make his own, or buy another for $25. It’s what he paid for the Studebaker he drove to work (he didn’t want my mother to drive it, and she didn’t want to!), which he sold for $10 when the kingpins wore out and would have cost $75 to replace. This was when $100 was a week’s pay, of course. It’s a good rule still–buy as cheap as you can, fix what you can, buy tools instead of paying someone to do it and make a good trade. I’d add something my father never got the hang of–get a good price for what you sell and don’t be over-eager to sell it.
There were few outlets, and appliances had long woven cords. One day when I was quite young I tripped over the coffeepot cord and was doused with boiling coffee. We took a trip to the doctor, or the hospital, or whatever. I was in the front seat of the Chevy in my underwear, my leg hanging out the open window. I was badly scalded, but remember how cool the air felt on my blotchy pink leg, driving in the Colorado springtime.
Kindergarten was in a large low room with big bright windows facing west. The sun would stream through in the afternoon and after nap time we’d roll off our mats and color in pictures of numbers walking, swimming, singing, jumping–It was after nap time one day and I was lounging around on my nap mat coloring in a caricature of the number 10, a long skinny “1” in a top hat marching and playing a zero for a drum. I remarked to my companion what hard work it was–lounging on a mat in the afternoon sun, coloring in a book–
My kindergarten teacher was named Mrs. Panabaker. A couple years later my brother’s was named Miss Philpott. Two unusual names, both of which belonged in the kitchen! One day the first graders filed into our room for a presentation. I was amazed and intimidated–we’d been INVADED by GIANTS! They were “big kids”, a category which included everyone not yet old enough to drive a car. I was sooner than I anticipated to be surrounded by “big kids”.
That summer was our last in Boulder. I spent it playing with Seth and Becky and Bo and did experiments which came through the mail from Mr. Wizard, who had a show on afternoon TV. I’d put celery in colored water and watch it turn red, watch salt crystals form on string, watch a penny change color as it corroded in a peanut butter jar, see a growing bean plant reverse direction when its jar was turned upside down. By late July we’d traded our little brick one-story house in Boulder for a larger frame house in Denver. A friend knew someone who lived in Denver but worked in Boulder, and since we worked in Denver but lived in Boulder we decided to switch. We worked out the details and both families moved on the same weekend.

Rosemary Street
The new house, at 1171 Rosemary Street, had a full-size basement and a large unfinished attic, which eventually became my room on one side and my brothers’ shared room on the other. A sister came along late in August. My mother’s parents came from South Carolina to visit when the baby was due, but she came late; they left on the morning of August 21st and Frances was born that night.We three brothers had a sister now, a tiny little red-faced thing with brown hair and brown eyes.
There was a new product on the market that year–popcorn sealed in a pan with an expandable aluminum-foil cover, named Jiffy-Pop. My father made their commercials and got paid when they ran, so we ate a lot of Jiffy-Pop. He called our little sister his Jiffy-Pop girl, because the commercials paid for her upkeep.
It was about this time my father’s TV station had a contest–how many guppies would one pair produce in a month? We started with two in a fishbowl in the kitchen. At the end of the month we had gallon jugs, quart jars, pitchers and glasses full of guppies on every windowsill, shelf and counter. The contest–for a bunch of camping supplies–was won by a woman in Wyoming who had sent in hundreds of postcards. At 3¢ a card, it proved a good investment.
My father had an actor friend, Ric, whom he’d known for years. Ric was the one who lured him first to New York and then to Ric’s hometown, Denver. He and his new wife Liz lived in our basement for awhile, then they moved to Hollywood when Ric wanted to get into “real” showbiz. I’d grown fond of a plaster frog they’d used as a doorstop, and Ric gave it to me when they left, on the condition that if the frog broke open and I found diamonds inside, he’d get half. I’d been sleeping with a large stuffed horse which was getting ragged; mother made a little horsey bed in the corner of my room and the horse was replaced by the frog. It’s lost some plaster here and there but I still have it. I’ve never seen any diamonds.
Ric and Liz went to Hollywood about the same time my father quit the TV station, in a rage, as was his way. They’d promised him a raise if he got high ratings for his Jerry the Giraffe show. He did, but they hemmed and hawed and he told them to shove Jerry up their ass. This left the station in a crappy place; they had the puppet but not the puppet master. They put someone else behind the plaster giraffe but the show quickly went from most-watched at noon to least-watched, and was cancelled. This, however, also left my father in a crappy place. Much of the reason he’d moved to Denver was to be closer to his work, and because he’d cussed out the Channel 9 management, none of the other TV stations in town would hire him. He was suddenly a full-time barber.
There were two bedrooms downstairs, one for my parents, the other for my sister–and soon, sisters. We put in drywall and covered the rafters of our steeply angled ceiling. Our rooms were eight feet tall in the middle, which angled down to short, four-foot walls in our bedrooms with six-foot closets in the hallway between us. The floors were rough-cut boards with 1/8” gaps between them and knotholes here and there, which would swallow pocket change and toy soldiers. We had rugs covering much of it, but by no means all.
When we’d first moved, a two-storey house was new to us. Our gabled bedrooms each had a large window, from which we observed the neighborhood below. One day, in the first month, our neighbor ran over in a panic and banged on our front door. When my mother answered, she was stuttering, pointing and not getting a word out. My mother hadn’t known that she stuttered–but it was clear something was happening in the side yard. They ran around and I was waiting in the yard while my brother prepared to make a parachute jump. We’d tied some string to the four corners of a sheet and he was ready to jump out my bedroom window. My mother talked him out of it, and I never got to take my turn!

I went to school in a big red building about a half-mile from our house. It’d been built around 1890 and closed, briefly, when a new school was built about a half-mile further on. There’d been a “baby boom”, however, and the old school had reopened for kindergarten. The kindergartners remained as first-graders, then second-graders. By the time I began in “Montclair Annex”, as it was now called (the new school was now “Montclair”) it held first and second graders, but the plan was to close it again the next year.
A word about the “baby boom”–the first time I saw the phrase, it referred to an increase in births which started after the soldiers of World War II returned home and ended five years later, in 1952. As a 1953 birth, I wasn’t part of it–but soon the “baby boom” referred to a different demographic. It gradually expanded to include 1953, 1955, 1958, 1961. The “baby boom generation” eventually referred to 1946-1964, which I found a useful and distinct definition. It fit the boundaries of “my generation”. We lived through Vietnam, Nixon and the moon landing; we all grew up with TV and rock music. A “generation” is of necessity amorphous and uncertain, but is still defined by recognizable characteristics–those who came before the baby boom listened to radio shows and wore hairstyles which never touched the shoulders; those born after Kennedy was shot took classes on computers and rode belted into bucket seats. Everyone in between was “my generation, baby!” as The Who put it, and had a great deal more in common with each other than with those who came before or after. All of us remember our first color TV, and were fascinated with the computer game Pong.
So, back to the first grade–I went to the Annex for just a few months, from September ’til Christmas break. I was a smart kid and my parents had taught me to read by the age of 3; I remember long sessions of ”this is a cat, this is a hat, this is a bat, this is a rat”–so that by first grade I was thoroughly bored with the pace at which our reading group was going. We’d sit in a circle, I’d read my two lines and mark my place with my thumb while reading the next four or five pages, then flip back and try to find the place the previous reader had left off when my turn came around again, which made me appear very disorganized to Miss McInerny, my first-grade teacher–until one day she introduced a new, very long word on the blackboard and asked if anyone knew what it was. I wiggled and squirmed and waved my hand wildly while several other kids tried it and failed; she finally called on me and I told her the word was “GENERAL”, and the reason the “G” was pronounced like a “J”. From that day onward I spent most of my time at a little desk in the storage closet, reading through all the green books and into the red ones, coming out for lunch and playground break and doing my own set of arithmetic problems in my closet through the afternoon. After the Christmas break the second-graders moved over to the “big school”, and I went with them.

The Big Kids
I loved the idea that I was in the new school with the big kids. In a strange twist, all the boys in my neighborhood were in second grade, not first, and I was joining them!
I didn’t like the second grade as much. Mrs. Buzetti wasn’t as fun as Miss McInerny. It was clear Miss McInerny really liked me; I must have said some cute things. I asked her a question when she was talking with a visitor–maybe if he was her husband, I don’t know–but she shoveled me back in the room with a big smile on her face while the guy snorted and tried hard not to crack up. When the door closed I heard them behind it laughing, hard, for a long time.
The Annex had been like a big old house. It had three or four storeys with 2 or 3 rooms on each level, narrow twisting staircases, high ceilings, acorn-style hanging lights, ceiling fans. There were tall windows, with dozens of panes, which would open not only from the bottom but also from the top, by using long, ornate hooks which hung at their sides. The bathrooms were in the basement at the bottom of a crooked staircase, and above it all was a many-gabled attic rumored to be full of bats. Down one side of the building snaked a black, wrought iron, cage-like fire escape. Its smell was distinctly old, but not unpleasant; the breezes blew through in the afternoons, rustling through the leaves of the great tall cottonwoods surrounding us. I was glad when the windows were opened; there was a kid who’d joined us from the hospital who had a strong, unpleasant mediciney smell. It faded, but never went away, which was another, if self-centered, reason I was happy to leave.

Montclair Elementary was a long, low, boxlike bunker of the style favored in the architecture of the mid-1950s. It had two long wings of three storeys each, two classrooms on each level, twelve in all–two classes apiece of the grades 1-6. The “command center” was in the middle, the office on the first floor, clinic on the second, teacher’s lounge on the third. The cafeteria and gym were in a separate box-like wing out back. There were two playgrounds, a fenced-in area for the first and second grades and a much larger one for the rest of the school. A large asphalt area to the east had places painted for hopscotch, four-square, dodge-ball or as we called it “elimination” or “limo”, plus a few tether-ball poles and a couple circles for marbles and what-not. Marbles never worked on asphalt, and I didn’t understand the appeal of the game until I tried it on dirt, though there wasn’t a designated area in the dirt. Those were softball fields and the playgrounds, where a couple of kids a year would break an arm falling off swings or monkey bars. It was an accepted part of growing up.
The first day I went to the new school my mother spiffed me up in a new pair of trousers, only to console me when I ran home crying, and explain to me that no, I was not a Catholic. The other kids had called me Catholic for not wearing blue jeans. I had no idea what a Catholic was, but it sounded bad. Montclair was a block down the street from the St. James parochial school, and because kids who went to St. James weren’t allowed to wear blue jeans, the boys in public school wore nothing else. St. James had a uniform for girls too, but I don’t recall it. Not that there was a lot of importance placed on the dress code. In 1960, schools were very much “in loco parentis”, and if a teacher or principal decided a dress was too short or hair too long, that was all.
If I’d been more socially sophisticated I mightn’t have corrected my classmates on my first day. At the bathroom break we all peed into a communal trough.There were two of them, end-to-end. If you really had some force you could stand at the end of one and pee to the far end of the other, which many of us did. Afterwards we washed hands. There were dispensers of powdered soap above the sinks, and a warning to “WET HANDS BEFORE USING”. Everyone told everyone to “wet hands before uSSing, wet hands before uSSing”; it was a mantra.  I thereupon informed the lot of them that the proper pronunciation was “wet hands before U-Zing”. It was true, correct, and didn’t make me any friends. I was younger, smaller, smarter and destined to stay that way.

The Neighborhood
Our house was in a typical suburban neighborhood which was still growing. To the other side of 12th Avenue the houses were a few years older, built mostly in the 1920s and ‘30s in a variety of styles; to our side they were all two-storey frame structures covered in asbestos shingles–hey, it seemed a good idea at the time–built in the 1940s, except for two houses which had been there longer. The paved street ended a little ways past our house, where a dirt path angled off towards the next block as the dirt road continued uphill to a large vacant lot. The hill was an excellent place to ride bikes, and we’d all barrel down it after school and skid sideways into a huge cloud of dust laid down by the previous kid. On weekends we’d go up the hill, dig out forts and have dirt clod wars or, if the weather was right, fly kites.
Lowry Air Force Base was to the far side of the vacant lot. It wasn’t busy, but planes occasionally flew in. Once in awhile there’d be an air show we could watch from the vacant lot and for awhile jets regularly screamed by, breaking the sound barrier. I always enjoyed the sonic booms, but the grownups got tired of the boom and roar (a sonic boom is followed by a long rumbling roar),. Windows rattled, dishes fell and the Air Force cut it out, though planes still came through. One day I was cutting across the dirt path and a bomber came in, very low, with its bomb bay doors open. I didn’t know what the bomb bay was. It looked like a big black hole in the bottom of a monstrous plane, close enough that I could have thrown a baseball in it. A few years later, I saw the movie “Dr. Strangelove”, realized what it was and got severely creeped out.
I had a 16-inch bike when we moved to Rosemary Street; at the time it was the smallest one sold. It had solid rubber tires and a metal-plate brake which pushed against the rear wheel. My first Christmas in the house, Santa Claus brought me a 20-inch bike with pump-up tires and a coaster brake! It was used, but the elves had repainted it rather well in red and white. I was thrilled! I took it outside–it was a balmy day with very little snow on the ground–and the front fender immediately flipped over the top of the wheel; it looked like the bike had a rear fender coming and going! My father pulled out a couple of tools and soon had it right.
My allowance was a quarter a week, which I kept in a jar. When I was about six, we went to Mile High Savings and Loan and opened a savings account with the money from my jar–sixteen dollars. It was a teeny little bank on the corner of 14th and Krameria St., sandwiched between a bar and a dress shop. Colorado did not allow branch banking, which my banker uncle always said was a great law, but eventually the law changed, Mile High got much bigger and took the name Silverado, which was at the center of a huge financial scandal in the 1990s. I had a little brown savings book with green pages that had $16.ºº written in it, though, and all that was in the future. I kept the money in there, but didn’t much see the point. I preferred to ride my bike up to the gas station on the far left corner of the vacant lot and spend my quarter on peanuts , candy and pop from the vending machines. A soda pop was a dime, peanuts or candy a nickel and gum balls a penny. Sometimes my father would send me to the corner with 35¢ and have me buy him cigarettes from the vending machine at a quarter a pack. I got to keep the change. One day my neighbor Harold and I rode up together and one of the customers told me I couldn’t buy cigarettes. He pointed to a sign on the machine which said sales to “minors” were prohibited–but I had no idea what “minors” were and bought the Camels. The customer grabbed me, I threw the pack to Harold, someone grabbed him, he threw them back to me and we both scooted out. It wasn’t such a big deal. Everyone knew I was buying them for my father. He smoked three or four packs a day, which wasn’t unusual, but my mother didn’t smoke, which WAS unusual. She’d quit when she was pregnant, before I was born. My father’d drink a few beers a day, too, but not near so many as he would a few years later.

Nixon and Kennedy were smacking each other around that fall of 1960, and my family was firmly in Kennedy’s camp–I sported a Kennedy button in my school picture that year–except for one dissenter. My youngest brother, not yet 3, thought it not nice for everyone to be picking on poor Mr. Nixon! It was the middle of the Cold War, and much on everyone’s mind, especially in Colorado, was The Bomb. The Russians had sent up a satellite; I vaguely remember bundling up on a cool autumn night in 1957 with my father and little brother and seeing something flashing in the sky, but it might as well have been Santa as Sputnik.
The Sunday supplements in newspapers featured tours of local bomb shelters. Movies, TV dramas and science fiction all had The Bomb in the plot. I received a steel identification bracelet at school,  for which it was crassly, unnecessarily and terrifyingly pointed out that if my little 6-year-old butt was vaporized in the blast, my bracelet would withstand the 3000º heat and identify which pile of ashes was me, to whoever was sweeping up. Several ludicrous measures were publicized by authorities–the “duck and cover” drill appeared designed to ensure that every student body would be found in the kiss-your-ass-goodbye position on the day after. My parents came up with the notion that if separated in the post-bomb chaos we should all meet up in a little town in the mountains called Nederland–it seemed uncomfortably close to Neverland–and we all took a trip that I chiefly remember for the blinding snowstorm we drove through on the way back. Obviously, the biggest threat that day was driving off a mountain! All these preparations and drills were spitting in the wind, of course–if the bomb had actually come none of us would’ve had much chance, ducking and covering, holed up in a shelter or meeting in a little mountain town. Anyone young enough knew this. It was the true, defining characteristic of the baby-boom generation–none of us expected to grow up. I was convinced that I’d never see my 14th birthday–old enough to drive a scooter, according to the laws of the time, and my measure of maturity.
When we weren’t ducking and covering or filing out for fire drills or contemplating the steel bracelets on our wrists reminding us of our likely death by incineration, we had schoolwork. It wasn’t taxing in the second grade, and I did well at everything except penmanship. There wasn’t much homework, and we had a little playground for first and second grade. I got along with my classmates by now, and with most of the kids in the neighborhood. A girl named Valerie was my age. She’d show me “hers” if my brother and I would show her “ours”. Another neighbor named Dave we called  “Griff” (there were so many Daves that we were nicknamed in self-defense!), Carl Boucher and a kid we called Jimmy Goon were also in the 2nd grade, as was Dave Steinbrugge who lived on the next block. Kevin Stance was 2 years older and lived across the street with two or three older sisters and a younger sister Kristen (all of them with the initials KS), Carl had a younger sister Shelley, and Griff a younger sister Lisa. Valerie lived in the one older house in the block set back from the road. She soon moved away and someone with no kids moved in. I don’t think I was ever inside that house. The other old house, at the end of the pavement, was soon occupied by Lonnie and David Martinez and their family. Lonnie was my age–the first boy in the neighborhood my age–but when I was in second grade he was in first, and the first graders all went to the Annex. David was two years younger, the same age as my brother, and we became good friends. David was the most popular name in the western world, due to the great advantage that it doesn’t change from one language to another; Michael will be Michel and Miguel and Mykal, John will be Juan and Jean and Johann, but David is David. There were always two to four Daves in my classes at school, and I once worked in a store where there were eight. It became really popular when Dwight David Eisenhower was president. It’s surpassed by Kim in the east, but in the east Kim is what we’d call the last name, which they use first, and is as popular as Smith and Jones put together.
Lonnie and David’s house was one storey, with a long wrap-around porch. It was surrounded by tall trees and bushes, and a small sometime creek passed next to it; all features missing from the newer houses. There were a few strange rocks lying around which suggested it may have been an Indian encampment. One rock in particular had a circular dimple on top and when struck would spark, suggesting it was a fire-stone. They gave me that rock when we moved out of the neighborhood, one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. We spent many summer afternoons playing in the rocks and bushes, pretending to be Indians, building forts, swinging from trees. It was one of the most private places around, not only because there were more places to hide but because there was a white picket fence around the yard and no houses to the front, back or far side. There was no traffic either, the road being dirt that far down the block, and the bushes and vacant hillside were excellent places to ambush imaginary cattle rustlers. They had a small treehouse just a few feet off the ground, overlooking the creek.
The neighbor between our house and Lonnie’s soon moved out, and for a short while an English boy named Michael moved in. He had a funny accent but was a nice kid, two years older, and we generally got along. I traded him a few American stamps and coins for his European ones. He had a way of coloring in a coloring book which ignored most of the lines and filled in areas with soft pastels. It hadn’t occurred to me, until then, that there was another way to color a picture. One day we fought and he said he never wanted to be my friend again, for the rest of my life. I was hurt and a bit mystified. I couldn’t imagine such a thing, especially as we lived right next door, but accepted it literally and assumed he’d never be my friend again. Later that afternoon he came to the fence while I was playing and made up. I was again mystified–how could someone change their mind about the whole rest of their life in just a couple of hours? But it was okay; we remained friends.
He had a hard time when school started–he was in the third grade when I was in the second, and played in the big playground. I saw him tussling, over basically nothing–he called himself Michael, not Mike, he wore poofy English pants instead of blue jeans and combed his hair. He was pretty good at soccer but clueless at baseball, and knew the rules to several obscure games that nobody else played. After a few months he went back to England. We wrote a few letters, but soon lost touch.
We Meet the Hungarians
When Michael left, in moved a very strange and different family–Bela and Mary Reiner, their kids Peter and Susie, and Bela’s mother. They’d fled Hungary during the 1956 revolution, and all spoke Hungarian. Peter and Susie spoke very good English, Bela and Mary spoke it with a thick accent and Bela’s mother knew none. Bela was an engineer and Mary also had a job; when they were gone Bela’s mother would mind Peter and Susie. The kids would be playing and laughing in English, their grandmother would call them in Hungarian. Peter and Susie would argue in English so their grandmother couldn’t follow along, Bela and Mary would argue in Hungarian so the neighbors wouldn’t know their business, and granny watched television in the basement for hours at a time. She eventually learned a bit of English, though she was shy about using it.
I found Bela especially interesting. He had a great number of stamps from all over Europe and a particularly complete collection from Germany and eastern Europe. I’d been collecting stamps since I’d found a Gold Coast stamp in my shoe, our first Easter morning at Rosemary. My parents swore they hadn’t put it there, so maybe the Easter bunny had something to do with it. I soon had large quantities of stamps that I’d buy in bags from the hobby shop. Most of them would still be attached to torn envelope corners; I’d have to soak them off and dry them on towels. It was a large collection but not of very good quality; Bela and I would trade stamps on a Saturday afternoon and he’d point out all the variations in different runs of stamps and denominations–these were lithographed, these were engraved, how the stamps changed when Hitler came to power, or the communists. When the currency crashed the 10 d, or s, or p stamps would go to 1000 or 1,000,000 d, or s, or p. Some countries varied their stamps very little. They’d have the same portrait in six different colors for the various denominations, and the only changes you’d see might be the perforation patterns. Others would change a lot. Every year or two there’d be a dozen different miniature multicolor artworks and denominations, from 1/2 to 100,000. The communist countries were big on muscular guys swinging hammers and blocky women carrying banners, while other countries featured flowers and birds and mountains. Germany featured a heroic Hitler on stamps in every color of the rainbow in the 30s.
Bela had a photography darkroom on one side of his basement. It was a small room packed with enlargers, chemical baths, papers, clotheslines and equipment. He brought me and a few kids from my 4-H group down there while he demonstrated, in dim red light, how to take a negative an inch square and make an 8”x10” glossy print. With his Hungarian accent he said we were dipping the photos into divvy-loping fluid and for some time after I thought photos were divvy-loped. At one point a couple of the chemicals reacted. We got a whiff of chlorine gas; he turned on a little exhaust fan and cleared it out.
His wife Mary had been a teacher; she was as well-educated as Bela but had a thicker accent. She was very friendly and made Hungarian desserts for us–one she called Bird’s Milk was sweetened milk, spices whipped in, with beaten egg whites floating on top. At Christmas they had a tree with real candles in little tin reflective holders; they kept a bucket of water nearby and only lit the candles for a few minutes at a time. We’d socialize over beer and wine as Bela and Mary talked about life in Hungary, before and during the revolution. They threw rocks at the tanks rolling through, and Bela once shot a pistol over a wall without aiming. Mary, Bela and his mother escaped with very little, when Mary was pregnant with Peter. They’d discuss politics with my parents, and my mother became very active in the Democratic party. Our neighborhood would caucus at our house, and on a sunny Saturday afternoon we’d have a covered dish dinner, called a pot-luck in Colorado; a roomful of people would drop by and everyone would decide over chips and dip who’d go to the state convention and who they’d vote for. Bela and Mary had strong feelings about the communists, of course, but also favored authoritarian government, which my father found intriguing. When commentators on TV would criticize the government, the Reiners didn’t understand why the police couldn’t march into the studio and haul them off. When a communist system is what you know, your ways of thinking develop very differently.
Bela and Mary had some different ideas about family life, too. They could be gentle and patient with their children, at least sometimes, but had knock-down drag-out fights with each other, conducted in Hungarian. It seemed particularly difficult for Mary. Because she wasn’t completely fluent in English, she couldn’t teach in America. She worked, but made nowhere near as much as Bela. When they’d fight Bela’s mother would try to stay out of it but would generally support her son. Mary would try to talk things over with my mother, but couldn’t express the subtleties in English. Many years later, they divorced.
My  mother was a teacher too, between babies. She taught music in several different schools–here on Monday morning, there on Monday afternoon, two more places on Tuesday, back to the initial schools on Wednesday. She needed a reliable car and the ’49 Chevy was showing its miles. The green paint had worn through in places to a pink primer coat. We sold it and my mother got a shiny pink-and-white 1956 DeSoto. It was beautiful, distinctive in its mid-50s way; bent-over tailfins framed two vertically placed round taillights with back-up lights between them. Lots of chrome, whitewall tires, very shiny, with a distinctly different smell than the Chevy. The Desoto was a hardtop, with long wide doors and seats which folded forward to access the rear. It was a solid, heavy, powerful car, and the first car titled in my mother’s name. She was just under 30. The tailfins weren’t as pronounced as those on the Stances’ 1957 Plymouth station wagon across the street–no car ever beat out the 1957 Plymouth’s fins–but their car was a muddy metallic brown and hers was a bright two-tone pink and white. The Chrysler gas gauge worked well when the tank was almost full but jumped around like a flea on a griddle until the gas was almost gone, but it was otherwise reliable and comfortable and had a loud pushbutton AM radio with one big speaker in the top middle of the dashboard, which would fill the car with sound.

Mother was now teaching school, and we needed a babysitter. We had several, most of whom lasted a year or more. At first Kevin and Kristen’s older sisters, Kathy and Karen, came in the afternoons, but soon a black girl named Donna came and stayed all day. We all liked Donna, but one day we told our parents about a ride we’d taken down Colfax Avenue in her boyfriend’s flashy new Mercury, and Donna was replaced by Peggy, a middle-aged Irish woman with dark red curly hair. Peggy was likable and a chatterer; she was comfortable around kids but flustered among adults. We really liked her, too, but her husband got a job out of town. A much older woman, Mrs. Wilson, was next. She lived in a tiny house around the corner with Miss Smoot, a crotchety woman taller, skinnier and older than Mrs. Wilson. They had a picket fence around a small lot filled with every kind of flowering bush imaginable; there wasn’t really a lawn so much as a congeries of knee-high flowers and shrubbery. Miss Smoot was particularly insistent on being called Miss and not Mrs., and Mrs. Wilson’s husband had disappeared from the scene many years before. The circumstances weren’t discussed, but it was clear the two old ladies preferred the company of each other to anything men had to offer. Mrs. Wilson was nice, and had interesting stories; she described when she first saw a car–and how magical it seemed to a child of ten who’d never seen a conveyance without a horse in front. A few years later she heard a racket outside, went out and looked around but saw nothing. Eventually a large odd looking bird caught her eye, and she realized it was an airplane. Mrs. Wilson was a loyal, loving companion to my younger sisters, who within a few years numbered three, but she had her quirks. Instead of toilet paper she would constantly use wet washcloths on their little butts, to my mother’s eternal annoyance. Her brief marriage to Mr. Wilson had also persuaded her that men were all bad, which included any male over 14. Still, she was conscientious, reliable, lived within walking distance, and was with us for many years.

I joined the Cub Scouts in the 2nd grade, and shortly afterwards the 4-H Club. Cub Scouts took place in a house a few blocks away where a kid named Danny lived. His mother was the den mother, and we’d meet at Danny’s house to make log cabins out of popsicle sticks, present reports, earn arrow points and badges, have cookies and go home. I made it as far as Bear Cub, but Danny moved away and Pack 40 folded up.
Griff was in the Cub Scouts with me. He lived two doors down. Like most of our fathers, his was a veteran, but Harvey was a big red-faced fellow, disabled in some way, who was usually sitting around the house in his robe and slippers. Griff’s mother brought home most of the money. He got a government check each month, but according to rumor spent much on liquor; I never knew if this was true. The family was Catholic, but Griff went to public school. He had a younger sister Lisa, blonde and cute. The next door down lived Carl Boucher and his little sister Shelley, and next to them, on the corner, Jimmy Goon. Jimmy had an older sister and a younger. One day Jimmy and a couple older kids took me for a ride  in someone’s van and I found out afterwards I was expected to pitch in for gas. Jimmy knew I had a silver dollar, and I gave it to them, most unwillingly. My parents asked me what had transpired, which led to a huge fight between my mother and Jimmy’s. I was never again friends with him, though I knew him through high school.
Across from Jimmy’s house lived a family named Cooper, They had a small dormer in the middle of their roof; the Goons built a bigger one. The Coopers put in a larger one on the backside of their roof, and the Goons built the biggest of all on the backside of theirs. It seemed very competitive. The Goons always wanted bigger and better.

The Wicked Witch
After second grade came third; one of the worst years of my life. My teacher, whom my parents later assessed as a “psycho”, was Mrs. Carr, a woman around sixty, who wore clothes that would’ve looked frumpy and out of date on a woman of seventy. She never shaved her legs, and though her skirts were long, they weren’t long enough. Her teaching methods were more old-fashioned than her wardrobe, and she played favorites. Diane Tozier never had to think about homework, because her brother Toby and her older sister Marie had already been in Mrs. Carr’s class. She polished up her brother and sister’s reports and handed them in as her own. If Toby had chosen to report on the meadowlark, so had Marie, and so did Diane. Cathy Smith had it tougher. Several times a week she’d get a paddling. Mrs. Carr would march her to the front of the class, bend her over her knees, pull down Cathy’s panties and paddle her half a dozen times with a wooden board. Cathy would sit down, as angry as ever.
After the paddling, the class would get to work, until they got exuberant. When things got animated, Mrs. Carr had a bell on her desk which she’d ring five or six times, at which everyone had to instantly cross their arms over their desks, put their heads down and close their eyes. She appointed roving monitors to stroll around the class checking that everyone had their eyes closed. Some of them would sneak up and peek beneath your armpits; others would grab you by the hair and jerk your head up to see if your eyes were closed. Some would slam your head back down, and it hurt.
We moved around a lot in that class. Our seating in the classroom was based on Mrs. Carr’s personal formula. The better you were, in her twisted estimation, the better your seat. We had table-type desks which sat two kids apiece, and our table-mates also had quirks. One kid I sat by for a couple weeks drew a line down the middle and pushed everything off his half. If my elbow touched the line he’d nudge it; if a corner of my paper wandered over during arithmetic he’d complain. Some kids stayed in the same seats all year. Several, like me, wandered all over. When the parents came to their first PTA meeting and sat in their kids’ chairs, Mrs. Carr told them of her system. The parents looked at each other, mystified and dumbfounded, as they saw the relative positions of their kids in Mrs. Carr’s world. My parents came away certain she was a nut case, but didn’t think it would serve me well to force the issue. It would have involved going up against The Authorities, which was Not Done, and Mrs. Carr was nearing retirement age–it may have been her last year. Still, the result was that I spent the entire year miserable, and never enjoyed school again.
There was a black (Negro, colored) girl in our class, briefly, named Deborah Coffey. There weren’t many black kids in our neighborhood, and she looked black, black, black. Black as tar, black as coal. I’d never been in class with a black girl, and was unaccustomed to the dark skin. She left after a few weeks and some years later I met her again, when we were both going to a school which had lots of black kids. She was a light coffee and cream color, hardly dark at all. Context is everything; in the next few years there were more, though never a lot, and though several were darker than Debbie, they didn’t seem so overwhelmingly black anymore.
The one time of day I enjoyed third grade was after lunch. Mrs. Carr believed in teaching us Spanish, and she turned off the lights and turned on a portable TV to the afternoon Spanish lesson four days a week. It was fifth-grade Spanish on Mondays and Wednesdays, sixth-grade Spanish on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but we watched it all. We didn’t take tests, but learned a lot.

School lunches were a quarter at that time; you could either pay a quarter in the lunch line or buy tickets at the first of the week. Sometimes I’d bring a quarter, sometimes I’d have a ticket. One day late in the year a kid found a quarter, and Mrs. Carr asked the class who had lost it. A dozen or so kids jokingly said it was theirs, but I felt in my pocket and there was nothing there, so it eventually came down to me and one other kid. I stuck my hand in my back pocket again, and there, smooth against the fabric, was my lunch ticket. I announced to the class that I had found my ticket, showed it to the class and told everyone the quarter belonged to the other kid.
If I had a time machine, I’d return to five seconds later, pick up the paddle and break every bone in that wicked witch’s torso, for what happened next. I’d reduce her hands to quivering balls of jelly. I’d knock out her teeth and break her jaw. She‘d never accuse a 7-year-old kid again. Then I’d do the same to my father.
She said I tried to steal the quarter. If I’d tried to steal it, why did I announce I’d found my ticket, show it to the class, and tell everyone the quarter belonged to the other kid? I got a paddling. When I got home my father had heard Mrs. Carr’s insane accusation and whipped me, long and hard. He’d done it occasionally when I was smaller but by now had started in at any provocation, or non-provocation. It was mean, sick, brutal, disgusting, and meant that I would never, ever love my father. He had my fear, but lost my love.
Some say you should love your father because it’s the right thing to do, it’s what the Bible says, a dozen other obligatory reasons. It’s easy to say, it’s a platitude that others understand and don’t question, but I say, don’t lie. Be true to your heart. Don’t say you love someone when you don’t. It’s not an obligation. Say words you don’t feel and your soul will be empty and dry. Don’t mistreat people, especially children. They don’t forget. Try to forgive and you may feel better, but don’t lie about that either, and don’t mistake it for love. My father had his demons, most people do. This I understand.

Love? I’m not gonna lie. I know other people loved my father–he could be funny, generous, loyal. Not to me. To me he was mean, petty, jealous, brutal. He expected great things, but never praised me, never even seemed to like me. He intercepted and slapped down all and sundry praise directed my way, tore down, sabotaged, undermined my work, stole away and destroyed whatever he could that I held dear, bruised me, ripped my soul. I tried to love him. It didn’t work. I’ll love my children, my mother, my wife. Not him.

Mesa Verde

Eventually the third grade ended, and that summer we went to visit a place I’d learned about that year–Mesa Verde, an ancient Indian village set into the sides of sheer rock cliffs in southern Colorado. It was exceptionally interesting. There weren’t many safety railings and such, and the six of us made quite a show climbing the long wooden ladders from some of the cliff dwellings up to the main road. Me, my two brothers and my little sister, not quite 2 and barely walking, trailed along after our parents, Frannie being carried  up the ladders in a papoose-style backpack. We were at the top of one ladder, 40 feet up, when my little sister dropped her doll–not the 3-inch plastic doll she’d named Fosha, but the 3/4 inch baby doll named Firecracker that Fosha carried on her back. The doll landed at the foot of the ladder, but since the ladder was one-way, with dozens of people on it and dozens more waiting, the folks at the bottom passed the baby doll up to my hysterical 2-year-old sister, and she was mollified. We looked at the buildings, the mummies, the cave houses, the history exhibits and saw a real live rattlesnake under a bush. We camped out and made 8mm silent movies, almost always barely visible and under- or over-exposed. A couple times before we left I was sure my third-grade teacher was further back in line, or across the gully. I wanted to say hello; it might have felt good, but my parents didn’t want to embarrass her, or something. My father was often terrified that his kids might embarrass someone, though he had no compunctions about doing it himself.
We got home after our vacation, and waiting for us was a chatty postcard from Mrs. Carr, telling us about her vacation to Mesa Verde in her severe Palmer cursive script. It seemed even wicked witches might occasionally take a stab at being human.
That summer was a good one. I was out of the witch’s den and well adjusted to the neighborhood. We had lots of adventures in the semi-rural setting. There weren’t farms or ranches but there was a lot of open land, and two blocks over was a large area that used to be a neighborhood, with curving streets and cul-de-sacs very unlike the predictably alphabetic grids of our own. I say “used to be” because the land had been taken over by the air force and all the houses knocked down. The streets still had driveways and trees, but the sidewalks led to cement porches bordering square cement holes in the ground which were once basements. It was a fun but probably dangerous place to play, and we’d go over there in twos and threes and ride bikes or hide in the basements and throw dirt clods at each other until the MPs chased us off. I eventually got a go-cart which was especially fun to drive over there. I could drive on streets which weren’t public and never think about traffic or “real” cops, and if MPs showed up I’d scoot back home before they’d catch me. They never did anything but tell me to go home anyway, then I wouldn’t go back for a few days.

Snakes, Frogs, Birds
My brother and I had a pet snake, an interesting character named Sylvester, maybe a foot long. He had an unusual habit of curling up like a coil spring and whipping around when he wanted to get somewhere, leaving a trail of “S” marks in the dust. He was our pet. We carried him around in our pockets, he crawled up our arms and inside our shirts. After a couple months he disappeared, as wild pet animals will do. Later we learned he was a juvenile sidewinder rattlesnake, too young to have rattles, but old enough to have fangs and venom!
We had quite a few pets through the years, some conventional, some not. One fall day we found a nest in the juniper tree in the front yard, and by the time we’d finished looking at it the mother had abandoned her eggs. We brought them inside where the eggs hatched and we raised the baby birds. There were originally five, but I was carrying one around in my shirt pocket; it wiggled out as I was walking and I accidentally stepped on it. It died in my hands.
After the funeral and the burial, in a matchbox, with a match stick cross marking the spot, we had four little birds, which soon grew up and flew away. The next year, three came back. We knew them because they recognized us, and flew down to land in our hands. They spent the season in the yard and left again; the next year two came back, the next year none.
Besides the dogs, snakes, wild birds, frogs and guppies we had turtles–baby turtles were very popular for a time, and I also had a box turtle named Max. I had a lot of pets named Max–a hamster, a mouse, a parakeet–and one day I brought home a pigeon with a broken wing and named her Madge. Madge rode with me on the handlebars of my bike, on my shoulders, my head, my glasses; I could go anywhere with her, because she wouldn’t fly away. She enjoyed the bike rides; she’d flap her one good wing and one ruined wing as we sped down the street. One time I tried to fix her wing with cardboard and tape, but it didn’t work. I had Madge for a couple years before I learned that SHE–was a HE! I tried to rename him Max, but it didn’t take and I gave up. Outside of Max, or Madge, my pet names often relied on physical features. When Trixie had puppies, I named one Triangle and one Diamond because of the markings on their forehead.
The air force base was across 9th Avenue (we lived at 1171 Rosemary St., but 10th and 11th Avenues had yet to be extended, so 9th Avenue was at the top of the hill). For all the paranoia of the Cold War, its security was remarkably lax. We could crawl under the fence whenever we wanted. My brother and I once took our little red wagon under the fence and filled it full of pond water and frog eggs. Pretty soon we had frogs everywhere. There were frogs in the bushes, frogs in the basement, frogs in the bathroom, frogs in the kitchen sink. It was the Summer of the Frogs. We gave names to the bigger ones. The biggest I named Fred. The next biggest, my brother’s, he named Figure 8, due to a mark on its back. My brother thought if he could teach Figure 8 tricks, he could be a magician, and tried to teach Figure 8 how to squeeze through a barbecue grate. Figure 8 proved to have little talent at this, and died instead. My brother held a private, impromptu funeral for his recently deceased pet, but when asked he had to explain what happened. The truth wasn’t flattering, so he elaborated, stating that Griff and Jimmy Goon had forced him to push Figure 8 through the grate. This bullying incited outrage, and we were ready to march to the corner and confront the perpetrators–until my little brother confessed!

I was to enter Miss Denny’s fourth grade class that fall, and was excited! I knew kids who’d been in her class and really liked her. September came–and her name was Ursula Boatwright! Miss Denny had married over the summer and was already pregnant–maybe more pregnant than she should have been had she just been married a few months before–but she was still a fun teacher. She was soon replaced by Mrs. Sherrie Hite, who lasted until the semester break. Sherrie left for Indiana with her husband, a military man, and for the rest of the year we were taught by Mrs. Mary Weir.

Pam Grismore and Lynne Sears were both in my class that year. Lynne was a dark-haired girl with widely spaced eyes, very pretty, while Pam was a blonde, blue-eyed, horsey-faced girl with glasses; in time she would be a beauty, but not in the fourth grade. Pam was taller than me, which wasn’t unusual as all the boys and most of the girls were, too. A couple girls were stronger than me, too, which was embarrassing. Mary King once bested me in a shoving match over an armrest in the auditorium.
All through elementary school either Pam or Lynne would be in my class; this year they both were. They were the smartest girls in whatever class they were in, and my direct rivals in the spelling bee, which was usually boys against girls. We’d line up on opposite sides of the classroom for a spell-down, and after 20 minutes or so I’d be alone against Lynne or Pam.  We all won a few. Once we had a different sort of spell-down; the class was split in half, and whoever missed a word went to the other side when it was spelled correctly. This went fine for awhile,  but a particularly difficult word went down both rows until the kid opposite me spelled it. Since I was last in line, the rest of the class went to the other side and it was me against all. I spelled and spelled and spelled and got back a line of five or six kids, then another word sent them back. It was lunchtime, so Mrs. Weir called it off–and we never tried it again!
I signed up for music class, and my parents rented a cello. I didn’t want a cello–I was enamored of the string bass. My little brother had monopolized the piano–I’d taken lessons, but when I’d try to play I’d plink about three keys, he’d come running and take over. My parents encouraged him in this, which was completely unfair. I came to hate the piano. I loved the string bass, a stand-up instrument plunked in folksy popular songs and jazz. There was nothing cooler to me than the bass, except maybe accordion. Unfortunately, the string bass had to be bought, while the cello could be rented. The cello was a sit-down instrument played with a bow, and was exceptionally uncool–I knew within twelve seconds that I’d rather have had a violin, but the cello had been rented and the cello it was. Music classes had an odd schedule; on certain days and times violins and violas would have a lesson,  trumpets and bugles another teacher on another day, clarinets and oboes another, and 3 to 5 kids would file out for an hour on Monday or 45 minutes on Wednesday afternoon. Cello and bass had a schedule, but as the only cello (or bass) player in my class I had to keep up with it by myself. One day I lost my schedule. The teacher didn’t have one, only my music teacher, who showed up at odd times. I missed three or four lessons, and that was that. Mr. Fredrickson’s note, tucked into my report card, stated simply, “David has not been attending classes”, and music class, for me, was over.
Science was great, though. We studied mechanics, and a fellow named Dan Spillman and I had a project together. We got together several times and put together a board with cranks and gears made of bottlecaps, pieces of wire, tin cans and such. It was at Dan’s house, and he was going to add an old pocketwatch to illustrate how gears work in the real world. On Monday, he forgot the project. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday he forgot it again. On Thursday night I put together some pulleys, strings, weights and made my own project. When Dan forgot our project on Friday, I got credit and he didn’t.
These scientific investigations weren’t always encouraged. One day I’d set a metal panel from an old ironing board on my bedroom floor and filled a glass with water, which seemed a proper precaution, and was investigating the combustion capabilities of various materials with my brother. We’d just lit a crumpled sheet of newspaper when my father appeared, red and screaming. He didn’t notice the water, the metal plate or anything else. With belt in hand he whipped both of us at random dozens of times. We were covered with welts–shoulders, back, legs, neck, arms, me more than my brother. It hurt for days. I started becoming a quiet, sullen, resentful, fearful child. I’d call out at night for our dog Trixie, my favorite, but our other dog, George, would come. Trixie wasn’t happy in a houseful of kids. Once we brothers picked up her doghouse and shook it, which in our unconscious childhood perception seemed amusing–but she never went in it again. George was a true sweetheart, a sad-eyed beagle who came to a sad end. Our dogs had been wearing choke collars since our huge boxer/Great Dane mix Rusty had needed to be restrained–hardly a problem for a 25-pound beagle, but the collars remained. One day our neighbor from down the street found George hanging from a low fence. He’d jumped, his collar had caught and he’d strangled. Once he was gone I missed him severely, and cried myself to sleep for a long time.
I got glasses in the fourth grade. I was nearsighted, which I firmly believe was due to my hellish year in third grade. A fellow named Bates wrote a book called Better Eyesight Without Glasses which I later read; though many “scientists” pooh-poohed his “Bates Method”, he had a point. He said vision problems in childhood begin with a difficult situation. Children are unhappy and traumatized, but can’t escape. Their response to the psychological conundrum, the need for escape, is literally to not be able to see. Put glasses on a kid who doesn’t want to see and you’ve solved the symptom, but not the problem. Pretty soon the kid “needs” stronger, then stronger lenses, and soon can’t see without them. That was me. In third grade I was smaller, younger, miserable, stressed, but couldn’t escape the wicked witch, ogress, dragon lady. With every fiber of my soul I hated that class,  that room, the green blackboard, the yellow chalk. I learned the ridiculous Palmer cursive script with its ugly and idiotic broken backed “D”, which I practiced all day because my name was David, while “Carl” and “Alice” got a pass. When I was in class I “wasn’t living up to my potential”; when home I was bullied and whipped for unintentional and imaginary transgressions. It was a horrible time. I didn’t want to be there, to see any of it, and my vision worsened. By the next year I was wearing glasses.

We had field day that spring, and for the first time I won a ribbon. Competitions combined the first and second grade, the third and fourth, and the fifth and sixth. Age didn’t matter, so I always competed with kids who were one, two or sometimes three years older–but there were dozens of categories, and some events had forty competitors, others six. I managed to place second in the egg-and-spoon race. Other than my red ribbon, I’d earned a mimeographed “Rafter Club” tag in gym when I climbed the rope all the way to the rafters, but had no other athletic achievements. I wasn’t weak or klutzy, I simply never competed against anyone my age.
We played touch-football games in the yard with three- or four-man teams, and for awhile Kevin from across the street played a version with me and my younger brother. Since he was two years older, his one-kid “team” was considered equal to our two-kid team, but Kevin always won. When we’d pull off a good play he’d call on his supposed knowledge of football and, as referee, would take it back, assess a penalty or delay the game while he explained the rules. We’d ask him to tell us all the rules, but he’d say there were so many that we wouldn’t have time to play. Eventually we told him we’d wait while he explained them all, as adapted to our one and two-man teams, and we’d thereafter play by those rules and no others.
We’d called his bluff. He rattled off five or six, then lost steam. I asked him if there were more. He named two or three. I asked again. He named off one or two more. When he’d finished, my brother and I agreed with the rules and we commenced play. Inside of a minute he announced that one of us had broken a rule, but it was one he hadn’t named. Too tough for him. A couple plays later, it happened again. He quit the game, we won by forfeit and never played again.

My First Christmas Tree
When my father bought the family Christmas tree that year–for $6ºº–I bought a little one for my room, with my money, for $1.25. I decorated it and put it on my bookshelf, where it emanated Christmas cheer until well after St. Patrick’s Day.
Among my presents I got a chemistry set and an Operation Orbit, a toy which had been heavily advertised. I loved the chemistry set, but Operation Orbit was a noisy, jerky, cheap little imitation solar system made from tin and wire with a magnet for a “satellite”, which appeared to be a football left over from another game. The magnet would go wherever it wanted; you could supposedly control it by varying the speed and spin of the “planets”, but I certainly couldn’t. Quite a letdown. I tried every experiment in the instruction book with the chemistry set, however, and many variations which mostly produced sludge.
If I wasn’t doing well with athletics, at least I was doing well academically. At the end of the year I managed to pull a B in phys ed and one other subject, a C in penmanship, and seven As. It was the best I’d ever done, or as it turned out, ever would. When my father saw the report card, his only comment was, “we’ve got to see what we can do about that C”. Nevertheless, he owed me $7.50, as his incentive to us, opposed by my mother, was a dollar for each A and a quarter for each B. My little brother got $1.50 or so for his first grade report card; the rest weren’t yet in school. Everyone then went to Elitch’s, an amusement park where I was awarded several tickets for my As. We invited the kids from my old neighborhood in Boulder and all had a marvelous time, riding the little train and all the rides, then having pizza and a picnic in the park. It was a wonderful day, full of running and sunning and rollercoasters and carousels and bumper cars, all sugared over with endless pink and blue candies and popsicles and ice cream and cake and bright orange or green or purple drinks. Sugar wasn’t such a boogeyman then; sugar beets were a large part of the Colorado economy and you could have Sugar Smacks or Sugar Pops or Frosted Wheat for breakfast, with a couple extra spoonfuls of sugar and whole milk; later a “wholesome” cafeteria lunch had pudding or a brownie for dessert. Extra desserts were 10¢ each at a table in the cafeteria staffed by older students. One girl in particular would give two dimes and a nickel change when I bought a dessert for a quarter. For some months I brought a quarter to school specifically to buy a dime dessert on the couple days a week when this girl was cashier; she didn’t catch on and I never brought it up. I don’t think anyone else noticed; most kids would have a dime or two nickels or ten pennies anyway, or couldn’t do the math, or would buy two desserts with their quarter, for which they received the proper nickel change. Towards the end of the year, someone told her they’d received an extra dime, and that was the end of my bonus.
I’ve been surprised by some who contend that I shouldn’t have taken these freely offered dimes, though many are in possession of $1.29 pens and 79¢ sticky note pads they’ve lifted from work. In any case I remembered very well what had happened to a kid who’d been wrongly accused of attempting to steal a quarter, and kept my mouth shut.
My parents bought a brand-new, cream colored Volkswagen in 1961. VW for years had an advertisement featuring pictures of every year’s model, and I got to be good at picking out the changes. Ours had a large, squarish rear window, standard since 1958, lever-type door handles which were replaced by push-buttons the following year, small oval taillights and skinny, teardrop-shaped turn signals with clear lenses atop the front fenders. This was our first new car. It was very basic–no radio, no back-up lights, not even a gas gauge. There was a reserve tank which you opened when you ran out of gas, which gave you an extra few miles to find a gas station. If you’d forgotten to close the reserve valve you were out of luck, which was not good in Colorado.  There may have been 50 miles between gas stations, or even 100. You had a long walk, and there may or may not have been a car driving that same road that same day, who would maybe or maybe not pick you up.

Another Sister
My second sister was born in January, blonde and brown-eyed. There were five kids in the family now, all under eight years old–a lot to pack in a Volkswagen. An infant chair and two kids would fit in the back seat, and two more could squeeze into the luggage area over the engine, but nobody was comfortable. As a second car, though, it worked well. The ’56 DeSoto carried the family in comfort, plus extra kids if needed. The infant chair was a rudimentary little pouch and kids piled into any available space, including the floor. No safety belts, headrests, air bags, or for that matter disc brakes or pollution controls. The ’49 Chevy was sold, probably for $25.
I was in the 4-H Club (Head, Heart, Hands, Health). It was less structured than Cub Scouts. No uniforms, badges, salutes–though T-shirts were available, a green 4-leaf clover on the front, each leaf sporting an “H”. We’d meet at the houses of each kid in turn and all participate in an activity. When it was my turn we visited my Hungarian neighbor Bela’s basement darkroom, another kid had a backyard garden, another kid’s father showed us how to sharpen a knife and whittle. Once a kid named James made a huge pot of cocoa–his mother had a huge cookpot that held several gallons. He made it the old-fashioned way, stirring and cooking and skimming the mixture for the better part of an hour. When it was finished  James dipped out one last taste with a tablespoon. One of the kids made a funny comment, and James SPIT the cocoa back! Nobody would touch it, and James had four or five gallons to drink by himself.
Tom Michalowski was in 4-H. He lived a mile away and went to a different school, but soon enough we’d be neighbors. His mother had a nondescript station wagon and would sometimes drive the kids. One day she was stopped by the police. She didn’t get a ticket, but it was the first time she’d ever been pulled–in twenty years of driving.
One morning late that summer, a beautiful clear day, we had a fan pushing cool air from the basement.  Some of us were at the kitchen table, and I was in the doorway. A bolt of lightning suddenly climbed the basement stairs, twisted around the corner and hit the faucet. The basement windows were framed with steel and the pipes exposed, but the lightning passed through the basement window, up the stairs, into the kitchen, corkscrewed back and found the dripping faucet, leaving a small discolored pit!

On Sundays everyone went to church. We’d been Presbyterians–my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister–but now we were Lutherans and my father had become a deacon in the modernist, pointy, tent-looking church on the edge of town with a mouthful of a name. Augustana Lutheran. I have a record of the choir among my LPs–the black and white album cover says “Augustana Sings” and my mother’s voice is somewhere in the mix. It hasn’t been listened to in over 50 years.  I may pull it out, someday…

Church never caught my fancy. I’d put on starchy clothes and sit quietly enough with large numbers of people in rows, but never understood the appeal. It was uncomfortable enough, but didn’t seem holy. What I did like was that once we’d slogged through our Sunday ritual we’d have ice cream. There was a round-topped fridge in our kitchen with a tiny freezer compartment; it’d hold two aluminum ice cube trays with lever pulls, a few juice cans and half a gallon of ice cream. Go to church, sit and fidget, come home, eat ice cream. Most Sundays we had Sunday school, and I’d color in lambs and lilies and long-haired men dressed in skirts,  but I’d rather have gone straight for the ice cream.
We were Lutherans for a few years, went back to the Presbyterians, attended Quaker meetings for awhile but eventually hung out and shared the Sunday paper over coffee. I was an avid reader. We had subscriptions to Boy’s Life, Newsweek, Life, Look, Reader’s Digest and every day the Denver Post. I read ‘em all, except for some of the denser parts of the newspaper, and stayed up nights reading by the night-light at the top of the stairs. At this I proved incorrigible–I couldn’t get to sleep, had nightmares–and so my parents replaced the 25w bulb at the top of the stairs with a 75w so I could read from the sliver of light showing through the door and not wreck my eyesight, which was already bad enough.

The Space Race

Harold Dunn was my first male teacher, outside of gym. He was a strong, tall fellow who wore his dark hair in the flat-topped buzz cut popular in 1962. His classroom had a very different atmosphere from those of women teachers, and I really liked him for several months, until one day some of us were standing along the back wall for some purpose. I was a bit distracted, and he slammed my head against the wall and yelled at me. It didn’t hurt, much, but I didn’t enjoy his class as much anymore.
I loved science, except when it was cruel to animals. There wasn’t a lot of biology in the 5th grade, it was more electricity and chemicals, but we saw several instructional films; some interesting, many boring, some disgusting and some unintentionally hilarious. One filmstrip began explaining the nervous system by showing a teenager driving a car. He had one of those wild-on-top and skinned-in-the-back haircuts which had been out of style since the Stone Age, and the car was a Model A convertible. As he drove, white lines representing nerves shot like lightning from his shoulder through his arm, elbow and hand while he signaled a right turn, and the class erupted with hilarity. Nobody used hand signals anymore; it started us giggling and we couldn’t stop. After about five minutes Mr. Dunn turned off the film, to our universal disappointment. It was far more fun than the common fare, featuring playful dogs and cats who ten minutes later would be dead and cut to pieces for “research”. I found these horrible and was permanently turned off to biology, though like every nine-year-old in 1962, I wanted to be an astronaut.
The Russians had sent up Yuri Gagarin the year before, for a full orbit of the earth–an actual man, not a dog or chimp, all the way around the earth–which the Americans had not done. Alan Shepard had ridden a capsule from Cape Canaveral into the ocean 300 miles away, as had Gus Grissom, and then the Russians had sent Titov around the earth 17 times. Finally, in February of that year, John Glenn made 3 orbits and an American had circled the earth. I was keeping up with it in various magazines and on TV. My parents got quite a lot of books by subscription through the mail, as weekly premiums for shopping at certain grocery stores or bought from door-to-door vendors–The Encyclopedia for Children, The Young People’s Science Encyclopedia, The World Book Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Metropolitan Seminars in Art and various other shiny, photo-illustrated volumes in science or art or history or mathematics–I loved them all. I had an erector set and a microscope and a telescope and a chemistry set and would spend my time in my room reading over experiments or scientific observations, and doing my own. Making ink was easy and fun–I’d mix together a few chemicals and have blue, or black, or blue-black, or green, or violet, or red, or yellow, or invisible ink and write with dip pens or suck the ink up into a fountain pen equipped with a rubber bladder and a built-in lever, or take a used cartridge out of a cartridge pen and refill it with my own ink. A popular pen at the time used plastic cartridges which one would drop into a hollow body, then screw on a fountain-pen type nib which was equipped with a hypodermic-style piercing point on the back side. Screw in the nib, it’d pierce the cartridge and the ink would flow. Once the cartridge was empty you could put in a new cartridge, or if you were a chemistry obsessed nine-year-old, dip the punctured end into a cup of home-made ink, squeeze it and fill the cartridge halfway full. If you were a chemistry-obsessed nine-year-old who was not particularly kempt, you could take the half-full cartridge, upend it, squeeze it again and repeat the process, staining your hands and probably your shirt and jeans and hair and cheeks and eyelids as well–or you could forget all about the cartridges and fill the body of the pen with ink, which would work pretty well if the ink didn’t get warm, expand and force its way out the threaded part of the body–which would only happen if, for example, you put the pen in your pants pocket, or shirt pocket, or left your notebook with the pen in it on the warm asphalt on the playground, or on a bench in the sun, or next to a heater, or anywhere which happened to be warmer than the ink was when it went into the pen–and as the ink was usually made with cold water, straight from the tap–
It was a good thing my father was the youngest of a big family, because most of my clothes came in packages sent from North Carolina by various uncles and aunts, who had several somewhat older boys between them. By the time I was finished my clothes, second-hand to begin with, were rags. My father was the same way; he’d tear apart a broken refrigerator or replace a lawnmower blade whether he was dressed for it or not.

The Old Home Place
We’d left North Carolina when I was a toddler, and I only vaguely recalled my father’s parents. My grandfather, a bushy-browed elder with wild white hair and a wheezy voice, had died at 87 shortly after my youngest brother was born; none of my brothers or sisters had met him. My grandmother was now 84. My mother’s parents had visited Colorado some years before, but my brothers and sisters hardly knew them either. It was time for a vacation.
My grandfather, Samuel Monroe Austin Jr., of Winkler’s Creek, had built a house in 1904 as a gift for his new bride Minnie Payne, of Payne Branch, a mile down the road. She insisted he build the bedroom from timbers from the cabin where she’d been born, in 1879 (Sam had been born in 1872). The timbers bore marks of the hand-adzes which had fashioned them a century before, the approximate span Austins had lived in the valley outside Boone. Nobody’s determined exactly when that was; the courthouse burned in the 1880s and the early records were lost. This happened a lot in the 1800s. A wooden courthouse packed with papers, and someone knocked over a lamp.
My mother’s family was far more diverse, from colonial Massachusetts and backwoods Indiana, northern Georgia and rural Florida. Her parents and some of her family now lived in South Carolina, a half-day’s ride from the North Carolina mountains.
The 1961 Volkswagen was too small for seven on a cross-country trip, and we traded it for a 1960 Volkswagen microbus. It was roomier, but low on power. The Volkswagen had been cream-colored and shiny, with a gray vinyl interior. The microbus was two tones of olive and not shiny. Its upholstery was cream colored and dinged up. The center seat was truncated and removable, and spent most of its time removed.
My father wanted to drive without stopping. He modified the interior of the bus with a sheet of plywood and a mattress. This covered up the seats, so that all five kids either lounged on the mattress or sat in the rear, a noisy and sauna-hot area above the tiny, underpowered, air-cooled engine, which with a full load wouldn’t push the bus over 60 miles per hour.  A pull-out shelf under the makeshift bed held a week’s worth of groceries and stowed gear, and we set out to reach North Carolina as quickly and uncomfortably as possible. The trip succeeded on both counts. Mother and father took turns driving while the kids took turns complaining. Occasionally one or two could share the blessed relief of the front seat while mother or father slept in back, and the rest of the time we’d lounge in the summer heat with our faces as near the the wimpy fold-out windows as possible. This was before Interstate highways, so there was a lot of fumbling with fold-out giveaway maps from gas stations and an Automobile Association of America Trip-Tik (a spiral-bound flip book with a suggested route marked in magic marker), trying to figure out if Triple-A had really marked the best route to get through Kansas City at rush hour or the construction around Indianapolis, all in the gritty, grimy summer heat of our overstuffed, overheated, slow, noisy microbus hell.
It wasn’t bad for the first few miles–eastern Colorado and Kansas–though flat as a board and boring, boring, boring. I took to buying local newspapers.  The national and international news was the same, as were most of the comics, but there were interesting local tidbits and suggestions for places to go, which my father ignored. He wanted to drive without stopping. “Let’s get there, so we can get back”, he’d say, as if the point of any trip was to finish it. It was his mantra. We’d drive there as fast as possible, then return as fast as possible. Grand Canyon five miles thataway? Forget it. Yellowstone straight ahead? We might see Old Faithful out the window. Disneyland! Bye-bye, Mickey! Maybe we can picnic at the scenic overlook? We’ll stop in the gas station parking lot.
We drove through the Kansas night and into the sunrise approacheing Missouri. A morning fog covered the valley, and the sun glowed a deep red with purple striations as it rose in dim majesty; the few stratus clouds painted spectacularly orange and yellow against a turquoise sky. A favorite tune of the time had the refrain, “the mornin’ sun is shinin’ like a Red-Rubber-Ball”, and for the first time I knew what it meant. Sunrises in Denver don’t have much color, the air is dry over the Great Plains and doesn’t break the sun’s rays into any colors but a little yellow and orange; the sunsets, behind the Rocky Mountains, are even less chromatic. There are lovely colors in Colorful Colorado, but not when the sun breaks the horizon.

At 6 am the Missouri weather was lovely, but by the time we reached St. Louis it was 104º, and muggy. The microbus was hotter yet. None of we kids had any idea what humidity was, especially combined with tropical temperatures. My baby sister had diaper rash and the rest of us had heat rash. Everyone was miserable. Wet bandannas on our heads didn’t help. Our T-shirts were soaked, but when we took them off we were still sticky and raw even with our arms held straight, a pose which couldn’t be sustained anyway. My mother had told us about summer school in Florida, where sweat would drip off her elbows and pool by her feet, and I’d read of it “glistening” on men’s arms and soaking through shirts, but I vaguely suspected that all such references were literary devices; in Colorado it didn’t happen. Except for little spots under the armpits, sweat didn’t soak through anything, and certainly never rolled off arms–that was rain. It didn’t glisten, either–that was suntan oil. I saw one instance, one only, when Scott Ericson came in after an exuberant game of “limo”, and sweat had soaked through his shirt in a small, inch-wide diamond at the center of his chest.  I couldn’t conceive of more sweat than that–until St. Louis. It was gritty, smelly, stuffy, muggy, steamy, broiling, frying, tire-popping hot, the most wretched inferno on the skin of the earth. We crawled through traffic for the next couple hours and I was never, ever so thankful, a few miles further, to be moving at something over 20 miles per hour, my face squashed against the 4” crack which passed for an open microbus window, getting a whiff of not-so-clean, not-at-all-cool air smelling of diesel smoke and manure. We drove through Illinois and Indiana and Kentucky that night and the next morning found the gentle rolling hills of Tennessee, which after the day before was as close to heaven as I thought possible.
We had a lovely week in Boone. I didn’t know my dozens of relatives, but they knew me. They talked funny, a slow Appalachian drawl, and we’d crowd around the dinner table at one house or another and eat buttered biscuits, fresh grown corn, string beans, mashed taters, stewed termaters, squash, sweet taters, melons, blackberries, watermelon and an occasional mango, washed down with gallons of sweet iced tea.
My father had five older brothers and sisters, the eldest 21 years older than him and the youngest, nine. They all lived within a few miles of the home place, though the 2nd oldest brother was often gone to faraway parts of the world as an engineer. All of them farmed, some more than others. We had many preachers and teachers in the family, and one banker. The old home property in my great-grandfather’s time had stretched for miles. He didn’t keep money in the bank, he bought land, which sometimes sold at auction for as little as 25¢ an acre. The land was steep, rocky, thickly wooded and the roads–well, trails–were nearly nonexistent, so it wasn’t such a prize when a man was expected to drive a team of mules 8 miles before sunrise to a job, work til sunset and drive them home, 6 days a week, for a 50¢ a day.
My great-grandfather wasn’t an educated man; he’d gone to school briefly, got as far as “Baker” in his spelling book and didn’t go back. He knew how to raise a crop and feed a family, though. He and his wife Mariah had 5 girls before she died in childbirth, just after the Civil War.
After the war, there was a scarcity of seed corn in Caldwell County, down the mountain, and a young war widow in the community heard of a man living near Boone who had some. She rode her horse up, followed the path by Winkler’s Creek, and as she approached saw five little girls in the yard playing. She asked them where she might find their pa. He was out in the “new ground” grubbing, so she tied up her horse, walked to the new ground, introduced herself and told why she’d come. He told her he was sorry, he was out of seed corn, but still had some “nubbins” (short, leftover ears of corn fed to animals) that they could pick through and see what they could find. They went to the house, picked through the nubbins, talked, and found enough kernels to make one peck. As he helped her back onto her horse, he told her she should let her neighbors have the corn, that she wouldn’t need any for her own planting, and a few days later he got someone to stay with his daughters and left to see Mary Rich. He told her he couldn’t be long and had to talk business. He said if she’d take her little girl and come live with his five they’d make a family. She told him she’d consider it for two weeks, and two weeks later he hitched up his wagon and went back to Caldwell. He loaded up her, her daughter and their belongings and brought them to Winkler’s Creek, where they unpacked as the six girls played around them. They had nine more children, one of which was my grandfather, and there spent the rest of their days.
Before the Civil War, my great-grandfather owned one slave, a rarity in those parts. The slave’s house was out back, and he ran the still. After the war he was a free man, but still lived in the house out back and still ran the still. That’s all I know. Slavery was part of daily life for all peoples of all countries for thousands of years, universal until the 18th century. Everyone, absolutely everyone, has both slaves and slaveholders in their family tree. The word itself comes from Slav, the blonde-haired, blue eyed eastern Europeans, who were captured and sold by Mongols. Arguing over who was worst or had it worst is pissing in the wind. Africans sold Africans, Europeans sold Europeans, Asians sold Asians. Races mixed. A few generations back every family springs from a half-black Portuguese pirate or a Frenchman visiting an Indian maid. It may not be talked about, but it’s so.

Ancestry and Heritage
My ancestry by DNA is about two-thirds English, Scottish and Welsh, one-sixth Iberian peninsula (Spanish, Portuguese, northern Africa),  one-twelfth Irish, one-sixteenth Scandinavian, a sprinkling of French, German, eastern European, and one percent from India. Caucasian? Less than one percent. Caucasian, I’m not.
Does that constitute all of my heritage? No. As is common with DNA, the aboriginal American in my bloodline flows through some of my brothers’ and sisters’ veins, but not mine. Zero percent. All of my grandparents claimed American Indian blood, and all were born in the Americas, which makes me in several ways Native American, but not by DNA. The further distinction that 1/2 or 1/8 or 1/512th of my direct ancestors arrived on the continent before others, or belonged to one tribe or another, or was bought or sold by one race or another, is petty and irrelevant.
It wasn’t talked about much in my family. My parents left the social and racial stratification of the South and East by moving to Colorado, where class and race were less important.
That’s most of what I know about my great-grandfather, my great-grandmother, their romance and their life. The farm was extensive in his time, but after being split between 15 kids, and my grandfather’s share between 6 kids, and my father’s share 6 ways more, there’s not as much left as you might think. There’s certainly more to know about my great-grandfather, but it’d take some digging and the interesting stuff would probably come from outside the family, because my relatives don’t talk much about whiskey-making and such. I don’t know much more about my grandfather. Sam grew up in the valley, and he and his brother George built homes there. Sam’s house was finished in 1904, and his new wife Minnie moved in with their infant son. He was 31, she 24. They had 5 children in the next 12 years, then 9 years later along came my father Ned. Sam made whiskey for awhile, before Ned was born, but only mentioned it to my father once, at which time Minnie shooed him off the subject. Most of the details of their early family life are unknown to me, as his brothers and sisters had moved out when Ned was still small and I grew up far away. My aunts and uncles only seemed to speak of family in glowing, angelic terms; according to them I’m from a long line of benevolent, wise teachers, preachers and assorted saints, but I heard whispers that Sam was a tyrant. My father’s brother Lewis in his 20’s was just as stubborn as Sam. Once they were in the rain fighting over how to drain a flooding pond. Sam didn’t want Lewis to hook up the mule, and when Lewis did it anyway, Minnie saw the look on Sam’s face. She called five-year-old Neddy, and in a great rush, pushed him into the attic with the shotgun. He hid, trembling, while his father bellowed and stormed below. Sam finally left to heave sticks and rocks at Lewis, but Lewis drained the pond.

Sam could be cruel, too. My father said that when he was seven, he’d been invited to ride along while the mules hauled a load of lumber, something exciting he’d never done before. The load was heavy, the mules balked, and Sam pushed him roughly off the wagon; he didn’t know why. My father was supposed to get his skinny little 50-pound butt off the wagon and tell the 1000-pound mules what to do, but he didn’t know. Sam whipped him and the mules both, and said to Ned he “wasn’t worth the powder and shot it would take to blow your brains out”.

Sam had a sawmill, and my father from hanging around with the sawmill hands had developed a salty tongue by age 5 or 6. In the 2nd grade he was considered the toughest kid in school until he challenged a new kid one day. New kid hit him, he hit the dirt. No more toughest kid.
My grandparents weren’t educated. Neither could read a newspaper, but they lived through the Great Depression, grew their own food, took whatever money they had and bought more land. They sent several kids to college, then my father went off to World War II, was captured by Germans, came back, went to college on the GI Bill, took up acting, married, moved to Colorado and came back on vacation in a Volkswagen microbus. My grandfather was gone now–I only vaguely remember an old guy who’d send reel-to-reel tapes and say in his quavery voice that there was always room on the farm if Ned and his family came back–come back, son, come on back–he’d say, wistfully. By that time he was blind and quite frail–he’d developed a strange condition previously unheard of outside of Sicilian fishing villages where the membranes of his body grew together, including his eyelids. By the time I was 5 years old, he was gone.
My grandmother and the rest were there, though. I had a new stopwatch and my grandmother would sit on the porch peeling apples while I raced around the house. She had half a thumb on her stopwatch hand and either couldn’t or didn’t know how to work it, but I’d run around, she’d tell me an odd number of seconds had passed and I’d be satisfied.
There was an old fellow from down the creek everyone called Uncle Pink who made chairs, and as a gift the family had bought us 6 chairs at a dollar each and a rocking chair at $4. Everyone had a chair. At the end of the week we tied them on top of the microbus and drove to South Carolina.

South Carolina
We drove straight from Boone to a beach cottage my mother’s parents had rented at Cherry Grove, which was then a tiny town considerably north of Myrtle Beach. My grandfather Ted had recently retired, partly to watch over my grandmother, who was having some physical problems. She’d been in a car wreck as a teenager, and had damaged her pituitary gland.
It was 1925. Her sister had been away to college and, home for the holidays, was taking everyone for a drive.  They were coming down a hill, the road was wet and as she turned to approach a bridge, the car’s rear end skidded and slammed into the abutment, injuring everyone and killing the youngest sister Roberta, for whom my mother was later  named. I never learned much about this young girl who died before my mother was born, but according to family lore when she was seven she and the family had gone on a mountain hike in Montreat, NC. There was a spring halfway up the trail and Roberta had raced ahead; by the time everyone else arrived she’d been splashing in the spring and had stirred it up. They arrived hot, tired and thirsty, but the spring was full of mud. She was scolded, and with her best second-grade spelling had looked up meekly and whimpered, “J-O-A-K”. This became a family saying and later spread, eventually even appearing in a movie, “The Buddy Holly Story”.
My grandmother from the day of the wreck onwards was left with diabetes and had to inject insulin. By the time she was 60 she’d lost feeling in her hands and feet; one day she burned herself badly on the stove and didn’t know. She wore very thick glasses by now, and had limited peripheral vision; if you walked up beside her and she turned your way she’d jump in bemused surprise. She was very pleasant, though; always had a sense of humor and didn’t complain about her infirmities.
The salt air was wonderful. I hadn’t remembered the beach, and none of my siblings had ever been there. The water was warm and gentle and we soon discovered a sandbar a ways out, shallow enough for a kid to sit and dig sand dollars and nicely preserved shells. One day I stepped on something sharp and saw, digging itself in, a lightning whelk. I pulled it out. It was about six inches long–but when I saw it in the seashell book mine was left-handed. Quite a bit later I learned that the same shells curve one way in warm waters and the other way in cold. I spent whole afternoons on the sandbar, hundreds of feet from shore but not more than knee deep. I could sit in the water, wade, float on my back, dig for shells in peace and relative privacy; it was far enough from shore to see everything but hear very little. In the evenings one of the mothers–my mother had a sister and a brother, each with two girls–would fix one of her specialties. We ate Mexican dishes several times a week in Colorado, but It proved nearly impossible for my mother to prepare one in South Carolina in 1963. A full day’s searching yielded a few canned tortillas packed in water. They were small, grey and tasteless, so she tried to make her own out of the locally available coarse yellow corn meal, ending up with giant, unsalted Fritos. The hot sauce was a bust, too–no spicier than ketchup mixed with water, and the chili peppers were little but undistinguished, mushy, superannuated pickles. It didn’t matter, we would’ve been satisfied with a steady diet of french fries and cold lemonade. We were at the beach! Life was grand! I had two blonde cousins, already toasted a nut brown from my uncle’s posting as a civilian engineer on the Pacific atoll Kwajalein, where they had lived for three years, and two fair-skinned and dark-haired cousins who had always lived in Clinton, SC, a few score miles down the road. All four girls were three or four years younger than I. It bothered Ted that his only son had had only girls; there’d be no great-grandchildren bearing his surname. He took a special interest in me in the next several years; alone among the cousins, my middle name is my mother’s maiden name–Jones. There was also the simple fact that I was his oldest grandchild, and the oldest boy in the only family with any boys in it.
He began to write me frequently, and I learned a lot about his youth. He’d been born in 1899, in the red clay hills of northern Georgia, the youngest of 8. By the time he came along all the family names had been taken, and he was christened Ted. Not Theodore, no middle name, just Ted. By the time he was 5 or so, he decided he wanted a middle name like his brothers, and this being rural Georgia at the dawn of the twentieth century there wasn’t anything complicated about it. His family asked him what name he wanted, and he thought maybe Otis–but then his brothers asked if it’d be his first name, with the initials OTJ, or his middle name, which would produce TOJ. He didn’t like either, and decided on a “W”. He had a brother Walter, and a brother William had drowned years before, so he decided on Wallace. Wallace Ted Jones was still called Ted, which was fine until he started filling out cards which asked for first name, middle initial and last name. After getting mail addressed to Wallace T. Jones he instead wrote in W. Ted Jones, and that’s how it stayed.
Ted was 18 when the United States entered World War I. He was in school but figured he’d be drafted after graduation and decided to take a motorcycle trip to see Georgia before that happened. He and a friend packed their saddlebags in the spring of 1918.
Georgia had no real highways and precious few paved roads in 1918. He and his friend carried along a substantial tool kit, with extra inner tubes and patches. They made many miles per day when the weather was good, but when rain came had to find any available shelter. A few days into their trip they pulled up to a farm house to wait out a storm. The farmer and his wife told them they should spend the night on the porch, but when the rain stopped there were still a couple hours of daylight and they wanted to get on their way. The farmer said, suit yourselves, but you won’t get anywhere. Back on their bikes, they discovered the farmer was right. They weren’t going anywhere on the slick wet clay of Georgia after a rain. They stayed on the porch.
Some days later they’d been riding. It was hot and they stopped for a break under a cherry tree. While they were picking cherries and relaxing they saw, on the horizon, a sheriff’s car coming. They hopped on their bikes and headed down the road a mile or two, then went down a cow path and behind a hill, where they hid out. A couple minutes behind them came the sheriff, who revealed to them his tracking method–”All I did, boys, was follow your dust!”
He and his friend spent the summer exploring Georgia, working here and there, then riding to the next town, but eventually the call came. Ted headed home to prepare for war. He was ready to hop on the train to boot camp when the news came through–the Armistice had been signed. Nobody was going anywhere.
Ted had no particular life plans and spent the next few years riding his cycle. The next year he rode to Florida, where he rode the first vehicle over a new bridge to the development which became Miami Beach. He spent a fair amount of time hanging out in pool halls and smoking cigars, but one day from the clear blue heard a calling–to preach! He didn’t, couldn’t, believe it, and spent six months telling himself it never happened, but eventually gave in, went to school and became a Presbyterian minister. As part of his training he decided he couldn’t very well preach against the evils of alcohol if he’d never tried it, and deliberately got roaring drunk one night under the watchful eye of his brother.
Some years later, Ted met Eloise Knight. They married and spent several years traveling a circuit of churches around the South, raising a family. They mostly lived in central Florida, where Eloise’s family had business interests, but when my mother was eight or so he took a position near the army base in Fayetteville, NC. One day it snowed, and the road in front of his house was jammed; every soldier knew the kids from Florida had never seen snow, and slowly drove by the preacher’s house to watch my mother and her siblings throw snowballs.
About this time the family had to drive to Florida. It had sleeted, and Ted saw a sign by the road advising travelers to use chains. He pulled into the nearest gas station, where they happily fitted him with chains–on all four wheels! The sleet soon disappeared, but he went crunching down the flat, dry pavement mile after mile. Eventually one, another, another link broke and slapped into the fenders, making a terrible racket, but Ted had no idea how to remove chains and thwacked down the highway several more miles before finding a place to take off the brand-new, ruined chains.
The family moved back to Florida the following year, where my mother grew up, played clarinet in the band and worked as a lifeguard in the summertime, but she never forgot the mountains of North Carolina. She decided to go there to a summer music camp, heard about an outdoor drama starting in Boone, got into the cast, met my father, moved to Denver, had 5 kids and was now pregnant with a 6th, at the beach in South Carolina. After a week we putt-putted home again, the microbus with the chairs on top rarely reaching 60 miles per hour, and that fall I entered 6th grade.
Not So Smart, Finally–
I began my last year at Montclair Elementary,  which also became our last year in the Rosemary Street neighborhood. Mrs. Rupert was my teacher, a kindly middle-aged woman with reddish-brown hair, graying at the temples. I was again one of the smartest and smallest kids in the class, at four-foot-eight. There was one boy my size, another egghead with glasses named Jay Steinberg, and one or two girls. Pam Grismore towered over me now, so much so that I seemed to look straight up into her nostrils.

It was a good year. My teacher thought me middling intelligent but less than extraordinary, and I was overjoyed to be living up to her non-expectations. Occasionally I’d be frustrated, as when Jay and I marked a poorly worded test question “false”, because it was mostly true but contained one false element. To a couple scientifically-minded kids the answer was therefore “false”. We argued with Mrs. Rupert and she finally admitted that the statement was indeed partially false, but didn’t change our scores.
Sixth grade was easy. I walked or rode my bike to school, and had lots of time in the afternoon. There was a grass-topped reservoir between the school and my home next to one of the busier streets, Quebec Street. I crossed it going to school and when I was young I’d go into Quebec St. and leave just enough space for the cars, then tap their side-view mirrors or door handles as they passed. It seems insanely dangerous now, but it was my ritual.
The reservoir was a city block in size, elevated ten or fifteen feet, flat on top, covered with sod. There were rows of bushes around the sides and a kid could scramble to the top in a few seconds. There were mechanical-looking pumps on either end painted silver, but unlike other green expanses in the neighborhood there were no backstops, fences, sports markings or anything else. It was simply a square green grassy field, elevated and surrounded by rows of bushes, a reasonably private place in the middle of a residential area, a peaceful place where the traffic sounded like a distant ocean. The paths between the bushes were good places to hide or to race with friends. Both could start in a corner, run in individual rows and not see each other until emerging at the far end. There was a fair amount of trash behind the bushes nearest Quebec St. and occasionally items left by picnickers, or forgotten, in the field–sweaters, tennis balls, baseball mitts. Sometimes we’d find bird’s nests or unusual rocks, and one time I found a clay ball full of arrowheads. I brought it home, washed away the clay and there were fifteen or so. I thought it an ancient Indian artifact but my father thought it more likely left by a prankster.
In the years since I’d begun at Montclair, Denver had grown and the Annex had filled up again. When I’d left the Annex there’d been only first graders remaining. Our neighbor Kristen started first grade the next year, but those first graders stayed in the annex for second and third grade, so though we were only a year apart, she went one way down the street and I went the other until she was in fourth grade, and I in the sixth. I met her at the reservoir on the way home one day and was amazed by how she’d grown. She was with a couple friends, and showed me a certain goofy look; she’d cross one eye but not the other. I’ve used that goofy look ever since.
My brother Robin was a few months younger than Kristen, but a year behind her, and also went to the Annex for first, second, and third grade. As it worked out, we never once went to school together. My youngest brother Sam was a year and eleven months younger than Rob, but was old enough, by twenty-two days, to be only one year behind him. The end result was that I never went to school with any of my five brothers and sisters, while they nearly always went to school together and were even sometimes in the same classes. This led to a weird disconnect between me and the rest of my family. I hung out with a totally separate crowd. I didn’t know any of my siblings’ friends or take part in any of their activities. Some of this was simple chance, but some was due to the inordinately grand expectations of my father, who was sure that since I was smarter than everyone else, I should also work ten times harder, and never believed that I’d finished my homework. They’d play in the yard or on the piano, but I’d be doing hours of homework. Every year the rest of the family did theatre productions together, but I couldn’t be in any of them. Homework.

Denver schools had just begun giving standardized tests at the end of the sixth grade. There were about a dozen categories, and when the scores came back I’d scored 12.9–high school graduate level, the best score possible–in about five of them, 12+ in a couple more, an 11.7 and a couple 10.6s or 10.4s. My worst scores were 9.9 and 9.4, in mathematics. It was the best any sixth-grader had ever done in Colorado, and as I was also a year younger it meant I was perennially to be shoveled into advanced classes, whether I was interested or not. Mrs. Rupert lived close to my father’s barber shop and they’d often meet in the grocery store, or she’d drop by. She’d always apologize for not recognizing my potential, and crap like that, but for me that was THE reason that the year I spent in her class was one of the happiest of my life. Ever after, I’d end up in algebra when I wanted wood shop, or physics instead of art. The Russians were ahead of us. America needed scientists. Me. It was my duty, not my desire.
A couple months into the 6th grade, my youngest sister was born and we were six–three blonde, curly haired, blue-eyed boys, Dave, Rob, and Sam, and then three sisters, Fran, Genny, and Laura, all brown eyed and straight-haired. Fran was brunette and Genny blonde, but Laura’s hair was fiery red. Before I’d seen her, my father’d told us she had red hair like Margaret in Dennis the Menace, and I at first thought her name was Margaret. My mother’s obstetrician was Dr, Bradley. He believed in the unusual idea of natural childbirth, and his “Bradley method” soon was quite popular.
Kennedy. Gone.

And then Kennedy was shot.

Each generation experiences a moment which seems to suck all the oxygen out of the world. We were on the playground when the rumors trickled in; I was playing four-square. Kennedy’s been shot. He’s in the hospital. He’s dead. No he isn’t. After lunch, everyone was herded into the auditorium and a tiny TV was rolled out on the stage. Six hundred of us watched a luminescent glob for the rest of the day. For the next few days, the news played nonstop on every channel all day long. We didn’t go to school.  Our mothers cried. Our little sisters, who had no idea what was happening, cried. Our Hungarian neighbors were terrified–“What’s going to happen now? Is the army going to seize power?”. For a week nobody wanted to play. Nobody wanted to watch TV either, but we did. Johnson was sworn in. Oswald was shot. We all saw it happen. Jack Ruby did it. Our dead president was carried down the street behind a bunch of horses. Buried under an eternal flame.

And then we all went back to school.

I had a den in the basement that fall, with our old green Arvin TV propped on a desk.  It was our original television, but the picture was weak and it was easier to see in the dim light of the basement. It was cooler down there too. In the World Series that year the New York Yankees faced the Los Angeles Dodgers. My mother was sitting on the porch while I watched the final game, and heard a whoop simultaneously coming from me in the basement and Kevin across the street, who’d been listening on his radio. The Dodgers had won the World Series! Sandy Koufax had taken out the Yankees and Los Angeles had beaten New York, four in a row! I may have been born in New York, but I was a Western kid.  I liked the Yankees, individually; Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, but I was tired of the Yankees always winning. Sandy Koufax had been born just a few miles from me. He was my hero.

The Beatles came to America. More astronauts went up. The Ford Mustang made its debut. Johnson ran against Goldwater. Life was normal.

The Mayfair

My father had worked at Harold’s Barber Shop since the barber in the second chair developed persistent hiccups and had to quit. He began to hiccup one day, and couldn’t stop. Every twenty minutes or so he’d have a hiccuping fit, and couldn’t cut hair anymore. He eventually set a world record, after hiccuping almost continuously for years. The barber in the third chair moved to the second and my father was hired for the third. Harold later sold the shop to my father, who re-named it the Mayfair (the name of the shopping center) and moved into the first chair. That spring we remodeled it, and that fall he fired the shoeshine man.

I liked Curtis Mitchell. He was an old black fellow who’d been shining shoes and cleaning up at night all his life. He was an artist with the shoeshine rag, popping it, twirling it around, producing a brilliant shine in just a couple minutes. On a Sunday or a Monday, when the barbershop was closed, he’d take me fishing. We’d talk a little, but he was pretty quiet, so as not to scare the fish. He’d catch a fish or two, but I never did. I never saw him drink, and he wouldn’t for weeks at a time, but once in awhile he wouldn’t show up on Tuesday, and everyone knew he was hung over. On Wednesday he’d doze off, but he’d be back on his game by Thursday and do well for several weeks. After awhile, though, he got worse; he’d miss Wednesday and show up on Thursday shaking with delirium tremens. He’d take a broom and chase nonexistent snakes from under the chairs. After awhile, he wouldn’t be at home when he didn’t show up, he’d be in the hospital. My father carried him for a long time, but one day I had to razor off  “by Mitchell” from the big painted “Shine by Mitchell” sign on the window, and I was the shoeshine boy.

There were better shoeshine boys. When a customer would come in I’d walk up nervously and blurt, “Shine, sir?”, then boogey back to my chair to read  MAD Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Time, CRACKED, Life, US News & World Report, Newsweek, LOOK, The Saturday Evening Post, CARtoons, True, Argosy, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, CycleToons, Mechanix Illustrated, the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver POST. We had ‘em all and I read ‘em all. I spent a lot more time reading than shining shoes or talking. The barbers kept up with sports–barbers keep up with anything which can start a conversation–so I did too.

I got $2 for sweeping up at night, but a fair amount I won playing poker. On Saturdays particularly, the barbers would put away all their things, my father would buy a six-pack, lock the door and everyone would play penny-ante poker. I was good at poker, and would often make five or six dollars shining shoes but win or lose seven or eight. I kept track, though, and won far more than I lost.

There were six kids now in the house on Rosemary Street, and it was getting cramped. We looked around, and once again found a house which was older but bigger. Late that summer we moved in.

Spruce Street

The new house was almost twice as big as the old, and my parents bought it with a VA loan for $16,500. The price included a 4-car garage and a cottage out back where a middle-aged widow already lived with her elderly mother. We kept the Rosemary Street house and rented it out, and the rent from the two houses paid the mortgage. It wasn’t difficult to move what furniture we needed the 7 blocks from one house to the other, especially as we left a lot of things for the new tenants, and the new house came partially furnished. It had been split into two apartments, upstairs and down, and so had two living rooms, two bathrooms, two kitchens and four bedrooms, plus a huge unfinished basement wherein dwelt a many-tentacled monster of a furnace, originally coal-fired but converted to natural gas, circulating heat through the house by gravity. My father would have many adventures servicing that furnace.

My parents took the big bedroom downstairs while the smallest bedroom, behind them, was used for storage and study. I moved into a small bedroom upstairs, my two brothers into a larger one and my three sisters into the largest, which had formerly been the upstairs living room. The upstairs kitchen became a laundry room, but there was still a small fridge in it which I used to keep snacks cold. Again I was in a room by myself, and set to go to a different school. It was a pattern.

One of the first big purchases I made was a TV. I saw a television for sale for $35 which I could have afforded, a “portable” 1948 model. It was a cube about 2 feet by 2, with a squashed oval picture tube about 9×12″ peeking out the front. It had a certain charm, but I settled on a newer model with a bigger picture and a $20 price tag. The cherry on top, for me, was an  electro-mechanical innovation. I had remote control!

There were two lever-type buttons on top, one for power, the other driving an electric motor which kachunked loudly through the channels. On the back were screws on either side to hook up wires for remote buttons, which I promptly did. I was the first person I knew who could sit in a chair or lie in bed and, from across the room, push a button to change the channel or turn the set on or off. Couldn’t set the volume or adjust the tuning, though.

We were in the new house, at 1690 Spruce St., for only a couple of weeks before school started. Everyone I knew from my old neighborhood, six blocks away, was going to a junior high named Hill, but I went to Smiley, in a far different neighborhood, and never saw most of my Montclair classmates again. At Montclair there’d been at least 90% white kids, with a few Latino and Jewish and only a handful of black kids sprinkled in. Denver had never been segregated, one of its attractions for my liberal Democratic parents, but it had different neighborhoods. Smiley was about 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 others when I began, but over the next three years became almost 90% black. It was a tougher school, and as the youngest kid out of a couple thousand, and at four foot nine one of the shortest and least-developed physically, I was a timid, fearful, half-blind mole who hid in the corners as much as I could. It was a huge change–instead of one teacher and twenty-some classmates whom I’d known for years, I now had eight teachers a day and hundreds of classmates, all strangers, plus a “counselor” whose sole purpose seemed to be to shuffle through my test scores for ten seconds and inform me that whatever classes I’d chosen were wrong. Instead of art appreciation, I needed advanced algebra, and composition was a much better choice than wood shop. I wanted to get into a good college, didn’t I?–his statement, not mine–and I’d be shoveled into four classes I didn’t want. I wouldn’t see the counselor until the next semester, when he’d blink, stumble over my name and inside of seventy seconds enroll me in four more classes I didn’t want. I was the smartest kid in the school, my achievement tests proved it; I was small, bespectacled, an eggheaded child genius. America needed rocket scientists to beat the Russians, and what I wanted was irrelevant.

I did worse in school–a relative term, I mostly made Bs–and had pounds of homework to struggle through every night. I wasn’t meeting the stratospheric expectations of my teachers, my parents (particularly my father), or anyone else in the academic community who’d heard about me. Nobody’d thought yet how many nuclear warheads we needed, the answer was more! more!–and my classmates’ parents were building! building! them a few miles down the road. To launch them we needed rocket scientists–study! study!–and any kid who knocked the top off the achievement tests was destined! destined!–or doomed! doomed!–to be one.

I wasn’t alone, though. The first day of school in my new neighborhood I got off the bus and into a conversation with a kid who was walking my way. His name was Mike, or Monk to his family, and we walked first to his house, then to mine around the corner. He became a life-long friend.

Monk was also the oldest of six–three brothers and three sisters, like me. He was a year and four months older, but we were in the same grade. We had endless conversations, on three topics–science, religion, and coins. I had a good coin collection, but within a few weeks he’d been given a coin collection by a much older relative. Better than mine, but not by much. I’d take coins over to his basement bedroom and we’d look them over, compare, trade duplicates and occasionally make a transaction, but for all the talk only a few coins a month ever changed hands.

The middle-aged widow who lived in the cottage behind our new house was Mrs. Baumer, and her mother was Mrs. Bullard. Mrs. Bullard had an extensive coin collection, and I visited her often, attempting to trade some of mine for some of hers, but she never traded many, though she gave me a lot for doing odd jobs around the property. At 11 I didn’t understand that it meant little to her to trade a few quality coins for a large number of my seconds, even if their value was in her favor, but at 80 she was happy to see my enthusiasm. I was the landlord’s son, and I’d pound a few nails into loose pickets or clean out gutters in exchange for coins which were actually a good bit more valuable than my services, and soon my collection was equal to Monk’s.

I’d learned something about wiring when I was in 4-H, and one day came home to find my father puzzling over how to install a 3-post switch for a light which could be turned on from the garage and turned off at the cottage. I took a stick and drew him a picture in the sand, and in future years he frequently talked about it. If I would’ve known the effect my sand drawing would later have on my life, I’d have never drawn it. He was proud of me, but suddenly, intensely  jealous. That jealousy never went away.

The Treehouse

Monk and I soon decided to build a treehouse. I bought a sturdy hammer for $6, which I still have. We had a massive elm tree in the back yard, taller than our house. I’d thought we’d have a treehouse a few feet off the ground like the Martinez boys, but Monk wanted it high. He always wanted to get high; a theme which would define his life. From the treehouse we could look down into what were essentially third-storey windows–our house, two storeys high, was built on a rise and was much taller at its back. We nailed boards into the trunk for a ladder and hung a long, sturdy, knotted nylon rope to climb on. The treehouse was essentially a platform; we tried putting in walls, but it was high enough to assure privacy without them, and we didn’t have much of an idea how to construct walls anyway. There were a couple shelves, a wooden trunk for comics and a desk lamp with a long cord that plugged into a tap hanging from the back porch light.

At eleven, my tastes in comic books ran towards DC’s superheroes–Superman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Justice League of America. Loop Drug, run by a Chinese family, was three blocks away, and as kids we’d pick through comics and buy a few at 12¢ each under the watchful, silent eye of Granny, who only spoke Chinese. As soon as we’d reach for Playboy, though, Granny would disappear and one of the parents would shoo us off. I had a big collection of DC comics and a few others, some Archies, with Betty and Veronica and Jughead, plus a few Classics Illustrated and off-brand Charlton comics  about fighting soldiers, knights or cowboys. Soon, though, I discovered Spider-Man, issue #14. The Green Goblin.

I was hooked. Peter Parker was ever so much more interesting than Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen; here was a high-school kid with actual human issues in his life–an elderly aunt, girlfriend trouble–but one day had been bitten by a radioactive spider. Too cool! I eagerly awaited each new Spider-Man comic and read the other Marvel comics in the meantime–Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, Dr. Strange. I joined the Merry Marvel Marching Society by sending off 69¢ in pocket change taped into an envelope, for which I received some weeks later a variety of buttons and trinkets and stickers and such which I plastered on my notebooks and book covers. I forgot about Superman. I’d still pick up the Flash once in awhile, particularly after Kid Flash got a new snazzy yellow-and-red getup, and sometimes Batman, but DC comics started losing their appeal. One day in particular I bought a comic that said on the cover, in big letters, “Batman is DEAD!”, took it home and discovered the story was about a writer who penned “another Batman yarn” and then went to his “what-if” room to think about “what-if” the rubber gun had actually fired and “what-if” Batman had died–”what if? What If?? WHAT IF??!!” the next panels said–and only then the story about WHAT IF Batman died. I felt snookered out of 12¢ and don’t think I ever bought another DC comic again. A few months later I saw the “letters” comments in a friend’s Batman about what a great idea the “what-if” room was. I imagined thousands of letters in protest, with three cherry-picked and published. It was truly traumatic–if I couldn’t trust BATMAN, then who? Then WHO?? THEN WHO??!!

The Theatre

My parents, especially my father, loved the stage. He’d be in several productions a year, and my family would be in one or two together, except for me. As the resident genius, I had “too much homework”.

Oh, well–stage productions with me in them seemed uniformly disastrous anyway. At ten I was a Roman guard in a bible school play; I had no lines, but when the time came for the production I learned my costume was a shiny white pair of underwear, and NOTHING ELSE! I didn’t mind the stage, but at age 10 was petrified of appearing IN UNDERWEAR and couldn’t be persuaded that it was really a skimpy little silk bathing suit. That was WORSE, because it looked even more like a GIRL’S BIKINI BOTTOM. When it came time for the performance, one of the shepherds wore a large T-shirt while I guarded the door in his robe.

A few years later, my 6th grade Spanish class was producing Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in Spanish, and I was Baby Bear. We rehearsed for several weeks, but on the day of the play Goldilocks was sick. It was rescheduled, but the next day she was still sick. She was still out on the third day, and as she had no understudy, our play was cancelled.

Not long afterwards,  Bonfils Theatre produced Gideon, my first professional production since I’d earned accolades portraying “Three-Week-Old-Baby” in The Horn in the West. I was Jether, the shepherd boy.  Although it took a lot of my time it didn’t engage much of my brain, as I had no lines. Jether did, however, have black hair, which was sprayed in each night and later washed out as rivulets of black muck, coursing down my face and shoulders and remaining in the bathwater during my now-obligatory nightly bath, settling into every wrinkle of my body, giving me a weird, old-man Goth freak appearance the following day. My hair was always nasty, and more of the black goo would wash out in the showers in gym class, where it would pool in my eyebrows, under my eyes and around my nose. After that play everyone in the family decided that henceforth they would DYE their hair when necessary, with the result that everyone had red hair for Life With Father the following year–except me, because I wasn’t in it, having survived that spring an absolutely traumatic school play, the worst-ever production in the history of the world of West Side Story. A neighborhood improvement organization with a government grant put it on. The director was a community organizer who obviously had no theatre experience whatsoever.

I was encouraged to audition, and got a small part. Within a week, though, several of the major characters had quit. Through attrition and poor casting decisions I landed as Officer Krupke. Other portrayals were worse. The gang members were muscular and fifteen, but their supposed leader Tony was another undersized eleven-year-old. Tony and I wore glasses and had high, squeaky voices. Tony’s girl Maria was a fully matured, top heavy black girl, several inches taller than Tony, and she had a deeper voice. For months we rehearsed it from the beginning, running out of time halfway through the second act. A week or so before the premiere, our director realized we didn’t yet have a full play, and started rehearsing the final scene. A quick scene was improvised a day or two before the performance to tie everything together, and then the search for props began. An A-frame ladder was quickly put into service as a balcony, a refrigerator box became a building and a door laid on its side was a fence. Since none of us had even tried to sing, a tape of the Broadway production was cued up in an old reel-to-reel tape player, with a microphone backstage hooked to the public address speakers in the auditorium–a system which had not yet been tested when the doors opened for the first matinee.

The end result was incomprehensible. The first few minutes went all right, but then everything fell apart. Preadolescent, pasty-white, bespectacled gang leader Tony squeaked across the stage falling in love with a much taller and older black girl ,who appeared to be one of the cafeteria ladies, while she perched on a ladder for no particular reason. Once Tony had professed his love, in his high soprano, and Maria had responded, in her contralto, the singing began. The tape was set at the wrong speed, and chipmunks shrieked out the first few words of “Tonight, Tonight” at five times the volume of the dialog on stage. Tony and Maria then waited, blinking, arms limp by their sides, for twenty minutes while the sound technician fumbled and mumbled, the speakers popping and rumbling, mangled tape sounds squawking occasionally from the superannuated tape player as it tediously, fitfully groaned to life–halfway through the wrong song.

Another ten minutes. “MMMuuuhh——–rrr—rr————rr———rrrria, I’ve just met a girl named Maria!” finally boomed forth in an operatic tenor several dozen decibels louder and lower than Tony had seemed capable of, while he and Maria waved their hands and lip-synched badly, Maria perched like a house painter above. Catcalls came from the audience and a couple cold drinks flew from the balcony. The audience below screamed at the jokesters above, the curtains closed, the lights came on and the assistant principal strolled onstage to make several choice threats before the play continued. When the curtain rose, there was a refrigerator crate next to the ladder, with a door leaning sideways on its lower half. A gang member stepped from the crate and told another Jet what had happened offstage, explaining all the missing scenes–the dance, the war council, the rumble, the two gang members stabbed–the Reader’s Digest version of the middle two-thirds of the play, and then I, Officer Krupke, blew my whistle and shouted the two lines my role had been reduced to. About this time a fight broke out in the hallway and the audience poured out to watch. We played the final scene, with screeching overwhelming the dialog, to about a dozen stragglers.

That was our only performance. The remaining three were cancelled, and our months of rehearsals were over. It was the last time I took on what was supposed to be a major role. I was in a few plays later, but never took a large part. This proved wise, as all further theatrical productions I was involved in came to similar ends. Once I contributed money, then wasn’t notified that the first two performances were relocated and the third cancelled. I missed the play AND the cast party. The rest of the cast drank up my money.

It was different for the rest of my family. They were in several plays, sometimes separately but often together; some of them were clinkers, but several were notable successes. One of them, A Christmas Carol, was put on at Christmastime for several years. All of my family was in it. Except for me.

The Great Treehouse Fire

When we’d finished the treehouse it had a couple shelves and a storage box where I kept my comics. I kept the lamp under the shelf, out of the weather. It was October now, so before the first big snow, I stowed my comics and turned off the back porch light from inside the house, which also turned off the power to the treehouse. Later that night my father, whom we’ve already established didn’t understand wiring very well, decided to make sure the power to the treehouse was off. From inside the house he turned the porch light on, then went outside and pulled the chain coming from the tap into which the treehouse cord was plugged. This had the opposite effect from what he’d intended, turning OFF the porch light but turning ON the power to the treehouse. The lamp got wet, shorted out the switch and and turned itself on. The comics burned to a crisp, the fire burned through the shelf, then the snow put out the fire. All my comics were carbon, though the treehouse itself only had one little dark spot on the floor where the wood had been scorched. That was the Great Treehouse Fire of 1964. Afterwards I ran the wire from the window of my room.

Once in awhile Monk or I would be in the treehouse and need to pee. Instead of going back to the house, it was more convenient to pee off the porch, so to speak. One day Monk was below, saw a pause in the action, took hold of the rope and with a Tarzan yell AIEEEEE swung through the pee-stream area. He claimed I couldn’t hit him–I was over two storeys above–so I tried. He took off again, AIEEEEE, and swung through before the pee-stream got there. I paused about half-a-second and he yelled AIEEEEE again, but this time I’d resumed early, and he swung right into it!

After the success of our treehouse, I thought it’d be nice to have another in a smaller tree across the yard. I pulled a pallet into the other tree, maybe eight feet up. I’d found a place to attach it and was putting in the second nail when it gave way. I grabbed at the nearest branch, slipped and fell hard into the branch below, then down onto a picket fence. Fortunately I landed between the pickets and far enough to the left to avoid squashing my nuts, but from that day I’ve had a couple distinguishing physical features. I hit the branch hard enough to separate the cartilage in my ribcage from the bottom left two ribs, leaving it lopsided, and I developed an extra nut or “water ball” from the glancing blow to that sensitive area. I wasn’t injured enough to take any other action than hobbling the rest of the day and going to bed early, but later that evening, wearing nothing but socks and an oversize T-shirt, I met a visitor who came to recruit me into the Boy Scouts. I’d enjoyed the Cub Scouts and thought it would be fun, so I talked Monk into it as well.

It was a mixed bag. The activities in Boy Scouts are largely dependent on the initiative of the scoutmaster, and we had a lazy scoutmaster. Monk and I went to the church basement on Mondays for scout meetings, but about all the scouts did was play basketball, which I sucked at, or wrestled, which could have been OK except we weren’t divided by age or height but by weight. At 11 years old and 95 pounds I was in the same weight class as the scoutmaster’s 16-year-old son, a foot taller and about 10 pounds heavier. The scoutmaster’s 11-year-old son was the same height as me and almost the same weight, but because the official governing body of whatever bogus organization decided these things said my weight class was 95 and up, and his was 94 and down, I was stuck. If basketball was unpleasant, wrestling was torture.

There was one reason, above all others, I wanted to be a Boy Scout. My family did a lot of camping, and I wanted to camp with the scouts. A certain weekend was chosen in the springtime, and I eagerly anticipated the trip. I bought the sleeping bag, the pup tent, the canteen, the Sterno stove, the permanent match, the hatchet , the Swiss knife with the can opener and corkscrew and saw, the collapsible cup, the magnifying glass, the fork-spoon-knife set and a bottle of chlorine pills to treat the water, and then the camping trip was cancelled. More weeks went by, another weekend chosen, again cancelled. It was late summer when we FINALLY got ready. I eagerly packed all my stuff, probably 50 pounds more than necessary, and arrived at the church at 7:30 in the morning.

And waited. And waited. Two hours. Three hours. In the sun. No water. No snacks, we were told not to bring any. I didn’t want to tote the pack up to the store two blocks away so I could get a drink, it was heavy–and I didn’t want to leave it, all my stuff was in it. It was nearly noon, Thirsty and hungry, I put on my pack and trudged home. My mother called every phone number we had. Nobody there. We checked the schedule–the time was correct. Several hours later, we got hold of Monk’s mother. Monk had gone camping. The scoutmaster had called up everyone in the troop–everyone, that was, except me–and delayed the trip yet again. They’d left at noon. I’d missed them by ten or fifteen minutes.

I was overjoyed to learn, after the weekend, that the camping trip had been a disaster. They’d gotten to the campsite in the mountains way late, set up tents in the dark, gathered wood and just when it was time to start a campfire, down came a gully-washer, the kind of summer storm in the Rocky Mountains that you run from and seek whatever possible shelter while thunder and lightning flashes and hail comes down the size of peas, then marbles. Several of the tents were flooded and wrecked. In the morning Monk got into a fight with the scoutmaster’s son–the one who’d tossed me around for months–and thrashed him good. Monk was 13 now, but sturdy; he’d always been in the next higher weight class and was more than capable of thrashing a skinny 16-year-old with thin arms and a big mouth. By Sunday night everyone was home, and Monk and I had both quit the Boy Scouts. I had nothing but choice words for scouting for years afterwards.

I’d been assembling plastic models for a couple years now; I had dozens. I’d go to the hobby shop and buy one for 49¢ and a tube of glue for a dime, then assemble a Model A, a Spad, a Mustang. Monk had some monster models–Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein; also Superman, Batman and the like. I also had monster models, but mine were odd creatures driving “funny cars”, a popular series. One day we decided to have monster wars–throw monsters at each other, break them and glue them back together any which way. Pretty soon Batman had the Creature’s head, Frankenstein was wrapped in bandages and driving a funny car, etc. It was great fun. By the end all our models were masses of plastic and globs of glue.

The “Sixties”

I’ve always felt “the Sixties” started in 1965. There was a lot happening in the first half of the decade, but there was a way of thinking, acting, dressing, living and loving, universally accepted in 1960, which was not much different from 1950. By 1970 everything had changed, much of it starting in 1965, and the “sixties” feeling, the zeitgeist, persisted through the early ‘70s; a flame ignited by Vietnam, extinguished when Nixon resigned.

In 1965 I was helping my father renovate the barbershop. We’d repainted the walls and windows, replaced old benches with comfy chairs, installed indirect lighting and acres of mirrors, a vacuum system (which didn’t work) and a brand-new color TV, recessed into the wall in an absolutely cutting-edge fashion. We didn’t have color TV at home, and wouldn’t for a couple more years, but 1965 was the first year color broadcasts were truly widespread. NBC would go all-color in 1966; the other networks the following year. My father thought color TV would be good for business, and it was. While we were cleaning and renovating that afternoon–the third Sunday in January, 1965–a local channel presented a debate between two men about a little country a long way away called Vietnam. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of it, but this time I paid attention, mostly because the fellow arguing against the war was my old best friend’s father–Elliott Goldstein. I listened to him. He was well-organized and his points were thoroughly researched, while the other fellow spouted platitudes about what the government “surely” knew, that they “had their reasons”. Trust the government, he said, they have smart people who know best, and we need to stop communism. It’s evil, and if we don’t do it there, they’ll take over South America–but Elliott Goldstein was sharp, passionate, and persuasive. I left the shop that evening opposed to the Vietnam war. It was the first time I’d held a political view that was distinctly different from those of my parents. They didn’t yet have strong views about Vietnam, it just wasn’t on their radar. It’s the only political viewpoint I can state with certainty the date on which I decided where I stood–January 17, 1965.

Vietnam came to rule the headlines that year, and for many more. It led to the Generation Gap, which happens between any two generations but until then had not been so stark, so clear. That summer the phrase, “Never trust anyone over 30!” was shouted on a California campus, and it came to symbolize a turning point. It was easy for me to see how true–how obvious–it was. Anyone under 30 was from a different world, and knew it. From 100 yards away, you could see short hair, shiny shoes and dress slacks on a man, or a pouffy hairdo and knee-length skirts on a woman, and know not only that they were over 30, but that they believed in the war, supported the draft, and thought anyone sporting facial hair or short skirts should be expelled from school or imprisoned. As a “tween” I could refine it even further–I knew anyone under 25 could be trusted almost automatically and up to 27 or 28, probably; from 28 to 30 was doubtful but over 30, not at all. It seems ludicrous and extreme, but the line was sharp. The year I entered junior high, the valedictorian was also the class president. He was expelled. The dress code stated that, for males, hair at no point could touch ears, collars or eyebrows, and sideburns were to be trimmed at mid-ear level. His were half-an-inch too long. A great many rules were adopted, by schools, organizations and even businesses, to enforce style. Disneyland even refused entrance to any man with facial hair. Similar rules governed the length and style of girls’ skirts, whether they could wear pants and what type. All these penny-ante rules, when there was a war going on and nobody knew who’d be drafted and shot dead six months later. There were important things happening–nuclear disarmament rallies. DDT was killing birds,. Detergents weren’t breaking down and were forever foaming up rivers. Race riots. The over-30 crowd plowed on. THEY weren’t going to Vietnam. THEY trusted the government. The Peace-Pot-Protest bums were “dirty hippies” who needed a haircut, a shower.

For years you could mentally calculate how old someone was in 1965, add the intervening years and still say, never trust anyone over 35, or 45. This sharp divide eventually faded, but I’ll still sometimes see an older woman in the supermarket, daydreaming while Elvis plays in the background, and know SHE was over 30, back when–

My Sister’s Ride

My brother had decided to become a businessman when we’d moved to Spruce Street. He’d thought it’d be interesting and profitable to raise and sell rabbits, so we built hutches in the downhill corner of the yard, in front of the garage. We soon had bunnies escaping regularly, annoying the neighborhood dogs in the early morning. After several months he sold the bunnies and demolished the hutches. By the time he subtracted expenses from profits, he was 25¢ richer and owned a huge, valuable pile of fertilizer, heaped in front of the garage.

We had a long, thick rope tied in the elm, a wonderful swing. We’d ride it onto the picnic table just past the tree, where we’d perch like trapeze artists, but there was a further, tantalizing possibility just out of reach. There was a long outside stairway leading up to our second floor, and the rope was just long enough to reach it. From a couple stairs up we’d jump and swing, but there was a flat spot in the slope of the hill halfway to the tree, which forced any fair-sized kid to scrape his butt on the ground and lose momentum; we couldn’t get past the picnic table. It seemed theoretically possible, though, that if a kid were small enough, we could climb the first few stairs, boost the kid up to the second or third rope-knot, pull on the rope and they’d swing past the flat spot, high enough to reach the garage roof like Batman. We decided to give our plan a try, with my youngest sister as pilot. As a test, a test only, we boosted her up to the knot and told her to hang on tight, as I took an observation post on the other side of the backyard. My brothers leaped off the stairs, tugging the rope and launching her at great speed across the yard. An astonished yelp arose from my beloved sister’s throat, developing into a full-fledged scream as she tore past the flat spot, past the picnic table and rose to a magnificent height in front of the garage. The experiment was a resounding success, and would have remained so had my sister followed the plan, and held on.

If Batman had been the pilot, he’d have let go of the rope at exactly the right moment. The parabola of his ride would’ve landed him lightly on the garage roof. Not my little sister. She held on just a little too long, then let go. The glorious arc of her ride continued, a truncated parabola, and down, down she came. She landed with a SPLUSH in the former location of my brother’s rabbit hutches, where now there was a huge–pile–of—-stuff—

My sister was unhurt, but it proved difficult to comfort the small greenish abomination which emerged, as comforting “it” would have involved touching “it”. After a rinsing off and a couple baths she was all right, but we never again launched her off the steps.

That fall I started eighth grade, and one of my favorites was Spanish. I’d enjoyed our daily half-hour in third grade, had some books and records, had done well in 5th and 6th grade though I hadn’t taken it in 7th. Spanish was a consistently bright spot on my report card, usually an A, never below a B, though the rest of my marks were slipping. I tried very hard to make the Honor Roll, for those whose grade point average was over 3.6. I nearly made it, every time, in the 7th grade. In eighth grade I stayed over 3.0 but never came close to 3.6, and the same in ninth. The next year, after I left, they established a 3.0 honor roll. I’d have been on it at least ten times.

Being a teenager was big in 1965. Newsweek, Look, Life and just about every news magazine had special reports, investigations, long stories on what teenagers were like, what they wanted, how they lived, how much money they spent on clothes, records, cars. There was a lot of hand-wringing, books and articles about the “generation gap”. A very popular book by Pat Boone called Twixt Twelve and Twenty seems pretty silly now, but at the age of 12 it filled me with visions for the future. The present wasn’t that great. All my schoolmates were teenagers already. I was still the smallest and most physically immature, which meant a lot in the communal naked showers of gym class. I wanted to be a teenager more than anything, ever. On the third of June, 1966, I got my wish.

It was a bit of a letdown, of course. I didn’t suddenly sprout a mustache, or grow sideburns past my earlobes. I was a late bloomer, besides being a year behind, and was still well under five feet tall. I’d open the little fridge next to my bedroom and my eyes were even with the shelf where I kept juice and drinks.

Another Vacation

We went East again in 1966. My father had decided the microbus was underpowered and his mechanic suggested he put in a Porsche engine, which he did. Because the Porsche engine was far more powerful, it generated more heat, and as it was air-cooled, the engine compartment became something of a cookstove. My father got a couple sheets of shiny galvanized tin, formed them into scoops and bolted them on the sides of the bus over the tiny little gills which were the standard, inventing an accessory which later became nearly universal. This alleviated the heat somewhat, and with a couple minor changes we set out. There was not going to be a lot that was “normal” about our vacation that year, though.

We went earlier in the year, just after school had ended. The platform had been abandoned, as had the copious supplies of groceries under it. The center seat was bolted back in, and we planned to do much more driving at night, shopping in air-conditioned grocery stores in the heat of the day and stopping for picnics at the rest stops which were beginning to sprout around the country. We had a pleasant night drive through the flat plains of Kansas and St. Louis wasn’t nearly so hot. We rolled through Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky, stopping to picnic, avoiding the rush hour. We were in the twisty roads and lush greenery of Tennessee just before sunrise, about a hundred miles from our destination and having a wonderful trip, when F-F-F-WAP!!–something weird happened in the chronically overheated engine compartment and a strange loud whine awoke the sleeping, letting us know the bus was not going much further. My father opened up the engine compartment and peered in with a flashlight. He saw nothing unusual at first, but then noticed, way in the back, wires sticking out of the generator. The armature had failed, and had flailed around like a medieval mace, exploding inside the generator and tearing out all the brushes and fields.

My father got out his vise grips, a screwdriver and a pair of pliers–all the tools he had–and took the engine apart. The generator was all the way in the back, so he had to disassemble everything in front to get to it. After some hours he was covered from eyeballs to ankles in grease. He hitched a ride with the first person to come along; they covered the passenger seat with newspapers and he promptly fell asleep. The driver took him to the nearest Volkswagen repair, some 50 miles away, and the counter man was amazed. Any time they’d worked on a generator, they’d pulled the engine.  They didn’t know it could be done on the side of the road, with a Vise-grips. They didn’t have a Porsche generator, but figured how to make a VW generator fit.

All the while, we picked blackberries.

My mother made it an adventure. We’d never seen blackberries growing wild, and these were fat and juicy. We picked ‘em and ate ‘em and ate ‘em and picked ‘em until we all had a tummy ache and then went down to the cold, crisp creek running nearby and soaked our heads, our shirts, our socks. We had a ball. Late that afternoon father came back, put the engine together and mother drove the last 100 miles, while he snored in the rear.

Two of my aunts had adjoining property outside of Boone,. They lived within sight of each other almost their whole lives. An older sister lived a few miles away, and both brothers lived within sight of the old home place, though one was in Libya exploring for oil. All three sisters lived into their nineties; the eldest was 2 months shy of 100 when she died, the second lived two weeks past her 100th birthday and the third lived to be 97. The brothers lived into their 80s, except for the eldest, who smoked a lot and lived to be 71. My aunts had very nice houses and my cousins were grown and gone, so we stayed with them and spent the week running in the fields, riding ponies and jumping in my uncle’s antique cars for rides up and down the path. I came in one day with a badly cut finger, and my mother scolded me and told me not to get blood on the beautiful beige carpet, before she realized how she sounded and helped me bandage it. We had our dog along, God knows why, and one day he scooted his butt across that same carpet, leaving a brown stripe in the middle of the living room.

One of my cousins had a .357 pistol. It had quite a kick. It was the first time I’d ever fired a real gun. It nearly flew out of my hands, but I surprised both of us by shooting several cans off a log; I was a much better shot than I’d anticipated. One day everyone went to Grandfather Mountain and crossed the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. On the other side, I found a rock outcropping and was sitting peacefully and securely in a sort of little rock chair, leaning over and looking down into the valley hundreds of feet below. I was fine, until my father saw me and screamed “DAVE!!”–then I nearly fell over. We went to all the attractions. Tweetsie Railroad was a stretch of narrow-gauge track left over from the Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina line. The flood of 1940 had washed out most of the tracks and in 1950 the ET&WNC, known locally as Tweetsie, stopped serving the area. In 1957 the only remaining coal-fired locomotive was refurbished and put into service on a 3-mile loop through the mountains, where on July 4th it commenced life as a tourist attraction, one of the first theme parks in America. A business called Mystery Hill had been established nearby; one day a couple of high-school buddies of my father had stolen the hillbilly dolls from its roof, put whiskey bottles in their hands and perched them on the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge overlooking the highway.

We spent a lovely week in North Carolina, but the adventure wasn’t over. We drove through the mountain mists to the flat sandy plains of South Carolina, and had gotten about fifty miles from Columbia when BAM!, and the bus once again coasted to a stop. It was hot this time and there weren’t any blackberries by the road, but we weren’t far from a town, and before long we’d been towed to the nearest gas station, where they gave us the news that the distributor shaft had sheared off, damaged a couple gears and miscellaneous parts and no, they didn’t have any in town for a microbus with a Porsche engine. My mother’s sister’s husband Uncle Pete drove over from Columbia while my father arranged to rent a hitch and towbar. We hooked it up, and piled into his car. All my uncles, aunts and cousins were already there, but my mother’s family was much smaller–a brother, a sister, their spouses and two girls each. We parked the microbus in the front yard, and my father spent most of the next week underneath it.

My grandparents, like most middle-class families in the South, had an old black maid, Delia, who’d been with them for many years. She lived a mile away on her own side of town, with her own life and family. The civil rights movement had started a few years before and my grandparents, progressive Southerners, eagerly supported it in their own way. My grandfather, a minister, had more than once gotten up at night and talked a lynch mob into going home, and all my relatives firmly believed in integration. Delia seemed to me to do very little work during our stay. She watched out for my grandmother, who couldn’t see very well, cleaned up a little, made a few sandwiches and went home early. One day we all went out to eat, including Delia. There was a restaurant a few miles away which would accommodate our party; we were served in a private room which could’ve seated 100. I thought it a lot of fuss. I’d gone to school and eaten lunch with black kids all along. There hadn’t been many in our neighborhood, but they weren’t prohibited by law.

It was different where segregation had been a big deal for generations. There were 3 restrooms in all the businesses–by 1966 the signs on the third restroom had been painted over, but it was clear they’d said “men”, “women”, and “colored”. There were still separate water fountains, now unmarked, and windows on the sides of sit-down restaurants. Our parents hadn’t wanted us to grow up segregated, and we didn’t–but we also had fewer interactions with black people than Southerners did.

Delia and the rest of us had a nice private dinner, and grandfather got us back on schedule. My grandfather always had a plan, an outline, a list. He organized his sermons with bullet points–and everything else. After a week in Columbia, we went to the cottage at Cherry Grove beach again, for three days. It was my youngest sister’s first visit to the beach, and the second for everyone else. I looked for the sandbar which had been there before; it was still there, but not so shallow. It was still fun to stand hundreds of feet from shore, but I couldn’t sit down and sift through the shells. My mother had brought along the important elements of a Mexican dinner this time, and everyone ate tacos by the South Carolina beach.

My father’d managed to cobble together something resembling an engine from parts available in Columbia, but a couple pieces couldn’t be had at any price. We putt-putted home again, slower than the first time, leaking a quart of oil every 50 miles.

The Basement

Our Spruce Street house had a full basement under its center, and three large crawl spaces on its perimeter. I had a workshop, where I’d often take apart old radios pulled from the trash at a nearby appliance repair. Sometimes I could fix them, but more often I’d simply save the vacuum tubes and make toys from the magnets and pulleys. There was a lot of stuff hidden in nooks and crannies of the crawl spaces. The kid who’d lived there before had used one as a play space; the other two held pieces of lumber and junk. I found several interesting items, some pewter cars, trucks and toys from the 1920s, old receipts and some strips of newspaper from 1927 wrapped around the pipes which I pulled off and taped together. There was a comics section I found fascinating for the changes which had taken place in Gasoline Alley and Blondie in the intervening years, and a Sunday section which featured a British scientist’s predictions that by 1951–why 1951, I don’t know–we’d have purple oceans, wind power and egg babies. I found some seals from the offices of the fellow who’d owned the house, for mining companies and one which said “Rowe R. Rudolph, Notary Public and Lawyer, Portland, Oregon” which I used occasionally for my own purposes. There were a couple of liquor bottles, and as a joke I peed in them and left them in an inconspicuous corner for someone to discover, years in the future, when they’d open the bottle, be disgusted and pour it out.

A week or two later, discovered they were. My brother and his friend from across the alley had been poking around in the crawl space and found the spot among the junk where I’d hidden the bottles. Cliff wanted to try the liquor, my brother Rob wasn’t so sure. Cliff opened a bottle, took an enormous swig, gave a strange look, his eyes and cheeks bulged out and he pointed and gestured wildly at Rob, who finally figured out that Cliff wanted a place to spit. Rob pointed to the corner, Cliff exploded, spit several times and shouted, “IT’S PEE!!!” They took the bottles to the kitchen and asked my mother for verification; she seconded the identification and poured both bottles in the toilet. Cliff borrowed a toothbrush and brushed his teeth, tongue, the roof of his mouth, his lips, cheeks and chin for a long time, then washed his hands, arms, face, hair, washed his chest and borrowed a T-shirt to wear home. I didn’t mention that I knew about the bottles–for twenty or thirty years.

That summer, Froot Loops had a promotion. Send in a certain number of box tops and a dollar and they’d send a giant blow-up banana. This was a big deal to my sisters. For weeks they ate Froot Loops and saved their nickels. They mailed the box tops, waited some more weeks and finally it came. I was on the porch roof–the windows in my sisters’ room opened onto the roof over our front porch, and it was a wonderful place to hang out. Sunny, quiet, secluded, but you could still hear what was going on. They brought me the banana, I blew it up, and they went off to play with it, delightedly screaming and carrying on with this prize they had scrimped and saved and waited all summer for. After about twenty minutes, from the roof, I heard a POP!!, and a lot of crying. One of the neighbor girls had tried to ride it like a horsey, and now it was nothing but a giant plastic banana peel.


The fall of 1966 was a difficult time for the schools in Denver. Baby boomers were now cramming into Smiley Junior High, and it was far too small. Their solution was double sessions. I went to school from 7 am until 12:30, and another group started at 1 pm and stayed until 6:30. To eat breakfast and catch the bus, I was up at 5:30; earlier than I’d ever arisen. I started drinking coffee, at first with milk and sugar, but soon straight black. We had first-period science with Mr. Meek, whose name suited him. He was small, slight of build and in his appearance and mannerisms resembled a mouse. It was hard to stay awake in his class, which wasn’t his fault. Fortunately the next period was study hall, and many days I’d sleep through it. The teachers were supposed to wake you, but didn’t. The next semester’s schedule wasn’t any better, but at least the sun rose earlier, and we got to school at sunrise instead of before it.

It was a relatively good year for me. I’d finally started to grow a bit, and was at least occasionally chosen to catch a pass or swing a bat. I learned typing, and did well. I had a 1920s L.C. Smith typewriter, the precursor to Smith-Corona, with a carriage return lever on the RIGHT, when every other typewriter had it on the LEFT. It was dilapidated, and I’d regularly repair it with a bit of string, a paper clip or a chunk of wood before I practiced. I couldn’t get up much speed on my anvil of a typewriter, but eventually managed 50 or 60 words per minute on the school machines. All the school typewriters were mechanical except for one electric, used for demonstration, and one superannuated contraption with a double keyboard–a complete set of capital letters above, small ones below, and no shift key. It was parked in the wood shop, for no particular reason.

Six weeks each of wood shop, plastic shop and mechanical drawing were required that year, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved mechanical things, learning to use tools, constructing gadgets and repairing equipment, though I was still being “counseled” into algebra. I’d pick up antique mechanical items at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store–cameras, typewriters, radios, sewing machines, electric fans and such–then bring them home for repair, renovation or disassembly.


At Easter break I took a trip to Mexico with a busload of kids from Spanish classes around Denver. There were 30 or 40 teenagers, a couple Mexican exchange students, 3 or 4 chaperones and a bus driver. The bus had strangely tinted windows, dark green on top fading to a barely perceptible at the bottom. For some reason they made me nauseous. When we stopped for dinner I started feeling better but after dinner it started again. After an hour I tried to get to the bathroom, but puked before I made it. Fortunately, we were pulling into the motel for the night; some of the kids went to the pool but I went right to sleep.

In the morning I felt better. We ate breakfast and visited Carlsbad Caverns, where we spent the day exploring. At lunchtime made phone calls, from a mile underground.

I spent more time talking about Mexico over the next several years than the actual time I’d spent in the country. We’d cross into Juarez in the morning and return to El Paso at night. The first evening we had a barbecue with molé sauce on everything and steaks grilled with beer. It was all new to me, and none of it was “hot”–or as our exchange student Jesus insisted, it was indeed “hot”, just not “spicy”. “Caliente”, not “picante”. When it got dark, a couple of men were attempting to light a Coleman lantern and didn’t know how to pump the tank. I explained, in what Spanish I had, how to put a thumb over the hole in the middle of the plunger on the downstroke and remove it on the upstroke. It worked! After four or five years of learning Spanish, I’d finally explained something to someone who spoke only Spanish, and he’d understood!

The following day we went to two glass factories. The first did production work. It was hot, busy, and interesting. I bought a pair of thick brown goblets with clear bases. In the afternoon we went to another, which made artistic pieces. They were beautiful, but much too expensive for my limited funds, except for a rack of “seconds”. I bought a slightly lopsided fish vase and a hobbit looking little fellow missing an eye, which I later remedied with a grain of sand stuck on with blue paint. It was fascinating to watch pieces come together, a bird wing here, a horse tail there, all done with spinning, swirling, orange-hot molten glass!

We visited a Mexican school, naturally. The classrooms weren’t much different except for the presence of every corporate logo imaginable on the blackboards, walls and furnishings. In fact, corporate logos were all over Juarez–on the backs of stop signs, on power poles, on public buildings–Pepsi, Camel, Pet, Crush; dozens of local brands of soda, candy, cigarettes, gum. Later we walked around the park, and Jesus left with a couple of his classmates. When they returned, Jesus was driving a car! He wasn’t old enough to drive in Colorado, but he was in Mexico!

When we all piled onto the bus that afternoon, a kid of about 7 years old came up to the windows selling gum. I bought a 4-pack of rectangular tablets wrapped in cellophane, which I’d never seen packaged that way. The price for them in the gum machines at home was 2 for a penny, but as many things in Mexico were cheaper I thought they were 4 for a penny south of the border, but no, they were 2 pennies a pack. I coughed up another cent.

We went to the market the next day, and had a great time. Bargaining, and the aggressive style of selling in the warehouse-type flea market was new to me. I loved it. I went to one fellow’s stand, looked at a couple of items, started to walk away and he called me back, twice, producing several items and finally a whip which yes, I wanted! I soon became quite good with it. By the end of the day I had a carved wooden cup, some onyx shot glasses and a carved onyx bear, a trumpet made from a bull’s born with “Ciudad Juarez 1967” painted on it, a cup-and-ball game and a barrel-and-stick game, both elaborately painted and carved, and several items to give away when I got home. I nearly bought a crudely made, brightly painted violin, but the fellow who made it quoted a price and didn’t want to bargain, which seemed strange in that environ. I walked away, returned some minutes later and it had been sold.

The rest of the group was strolling around buying things as well. From time to time we’d see each other in twos and threes, wandering about, bargaining with vendors, sometimes comically. I remember one black girl walking briskly away and almost shouting “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!” as a vendor offered her one geegaw after another.

The trip home was uneventful. Everyone had baskets full of trinkets and was wearing fancy sombreros while practicing their ball-and-cup or barrel-and-stick games. I attempted to learn some simple tunes on my bull’s horn and thoroughly aggravated several of my companions. We stopped at a couple shops on the way back and I picked up a little shot glass/paperweight in New Mexico with a landscape inside, drawn with colored sands.

At the end of the 9th grade we took achievement tests again, BEFORE school, at 5:30 am. It was insanity; I wasn’t even remotely awake. I didn’t do nearly as well as I had in the 6th grade, but was still above grade level. We also took IQ tests. Mine was off 50 points from my best, which I was never supposed to know, but always found out; it was on the side in the teacher’s grade book. Mine was 138! I was overjoyed! I wasn’t a genius; I wasn’t even Mensa material! It never did me any good to have a high IQ, anyway.

In the second semester, I assisted in the school library. I wasn’t actually IN the library, I was a “door guard” issuing passes for kids who had to come in early. I had a purple stamp, a list to check and a pile of passes in a shoebox. There wasn’t much to do in the hallway, it was quiet and pleasant but boring. One day the kid from the period before me started writing on the box. I responded, and so did someone else. I added an alias or two, as did whoever else had the box, and soon there were a dozen different aliases for 3 or 4 kids writing comments to each other. Part of the fun was trying to figure out who made what comment. We never met, and never knew for sure.

I wrote things sometimes with the purple stamp by blocking out letters I didn’t need. One day I stamped a huge pile of the passes “Denver Pubic Schools”. All the door guards used them, all week long. Nobody noticed that “PubLic” was missing an L. I continued stamping them “Pubic” for the rest of the year, and wrote it that way every time, even in my schoolwork. Nobody noticed. I was on the student council that year, and made up posters with Denver Pubic Schools written in big black letters. Nobody noticed. Just before school was out, I told a friend to look at one of the posters. He looked carefully, read it. “PUBLIC”. I told him to spell it. He spelled “P-U-B-L-I-C”! I guess we don’t notice the unexpected, if it’s mundane enough.


At school’s end we had a “continuation” ceremony, in which all the 9th graders from both the morning and afternoon packed into the auditorium to receive certificates rolled into scrolls and tied with blue ribbons (blue and white were the school colors, as far as we knew, though apparently they were “officially” blue and silver), and we were out of the old maroon-and-cream colored brickwork building with the bronze bust of the head of some guy out front. Nine-tenths of the class was going to high school in a similar building a few miles west of us named East High School; the remaining 150 would go to a newer school some miles south recently christened George Washington High. I spent that summer playing tennis or four-man baseball, and riding and repairing bikes. I’d wanted a scooter, but the law had recently changed and nobody under 16 could get any kind of license in Colorado, though in several nearby states you could drive cars at 14.

I finally, physically, confronted my father, late that summer. He’d come at me with the belt, like thousands of times before, but this time I was in the little study room at the back of the house; I lay back on the convertible bed and kicked at him any time he’d come near. He couldn’t whip me without getting kicked, and I wasn’t standing up. That was the last time he physically came at me, but his comments got much meaner. When I was younger he’d drink a few beers when he got home; later he’d drink a couple beers after work and a few more after dinner. By now he was drinking a six-pack before coming home and three or four more at the kitchen table. He was smoking a lot, too: he’d switched from unfiltered Camels to filtered menthol Newports, but he’d smoke two, three, four packs a day, and I’ve found the more people smoke the more cynical they become. My father became joyless, sarcastic, difficult after dinner and impossible for me to be around. At the barbershop and among friends he could be gracious and generous, with a great sense of the humorous and absurd, and at the barbershop we always got along. At home, with me, he was sullen, angry, insulting. I was singled out. I don’t know why.

My situation was not far different from many kids my age; it was certainly similar to that of my best friend Monk. He was now the oldest of seven; he had another baby brother. His father had been in the second world war, like mine, and was also brutal towards him, though not at all to me. I thought it normal for boys to be screamed at, bullied and whipped until they were big enough to fight back. There were plenty of us around. At 19 I worked for a fellow who bullied his kids. I told the oldest, who idolized me the way 12-year-olds idolize 19-year-olds who speak to them like people and not twerps, that for now he was getting punched and slapped around, but that soon he’d be bigger and stronger. His dad would be older and fatter, and he’d beat the crap out of him. He looked back at me with such gratitude that I knew I’d touched his soul. His whole life had changed.

This kind of parenting wasn’t unusual. A kid who’d done something wrong at school might be paddled by the teacher and/or principal, then whipped at home. It made for furious, resentful baby boomers and was much of the reason for the turmoil of the 1960s. To label these bullies “the Greatest Generation” turns my stomach.

In any case, I avoided being in the house when my father was home. I’d eat something after school and run out, usually to Monk’s house, not to return until 9:30 or 10, when I knew he’d be in bed.


Sometimes my parents were in a play together, and at fourteen I’d babysit my younger siblings. My parents kept a few bottles of various kinds of alcohol in the pantry, and one night I got into the wine, as teenagers will do. The taste of alcohol doesn’t appeal to younger kids; they wrinkle their noses and stick out their tongues. Sometime around puberty, though, tastes change. I tried a little sweet wine one night and–hmmm– it wasn’t bad. A few nights later, a little more. A couple nights later, a full glass and–whoa! What’s this? I felt a bit dizzy! I had another glass, a little more and a little more. Joey Bishop was exceptionally funny that night, and by the time the test pattern came on the television was waving and rolling, and I was too.  I stumbled to bed. It was a good thing there was a trash can beside my bed, because a little later I hurled, and hurled again. My parents came home late, and the next morning I told them I was sick, which was true. I took a couple aspirins and slept in. I stumbled out of bed later that afternoon. Nobody was the wiser.

It was lucky for me that an old friend of my father visited that weekend. Harry had real problems with alcohol, and was fated to die in his mid-40s of cirrhosis. We hadn’t seen him for awhile, but now he’d just gotten out of rehab and came to visit with his old friend. His wife and son had left him years before, though as Catholics they hadn’t divorced. He talked with us for some hours.It was a pleasant, sober visit.

A few days later, my father noticed that most of the wine was missing. Circumstances pointed to Harry, though he couldn’t figure out how or when Harry could have sneaked a drink. He and my mother discussed this for some time, but I said nothing. I skated through, and didn’t pick up a bottle of anything alcoholic for a couple more years.


My sisters had tricycles, and we brothers had bikes, lots of them. There was my superannuated 16” bike with the solid rubber wheels and a couple twenty-inchers, one with the banana seat just becoming popular. My youngest brother had an odd looking bike, adjustable from kid-size up to adult, with small wheels, a huge sprocket and a single low, straight brace between the front and rear wheels which left ambiguous whether it was for boys or girls. A couple of American full-size bikes in bad repair leaned against the fence alongside my father’s violet English three-speed, which he’d ridden to work a few times years before and hadn’t touched since. I had a blue 3-speed which I’d received shiny and new for my birthday that year, which had been stolen a month or two later. The police recovered the bike; it’d been boogered up, with a different seat and handlebars, and no fenders. I suspected a local ne’er-do-well named Melvin Mestas; he may or may not have been guilty, but eventually spent a lot of time in prison for various  crimes and, I heard eventually, went to prison for life, for murder.

I maintained them all. I liked repairing anything electrical or mechanical; I brought home old typewriters and fixed them, using wire, string, toothpicks and BBs. I tore apart and rewired old radios, fiddled with box cameras I picked up for 25¢ at the Goodwill. Bikes always had something loose or bent or out of adjustment. I’d tighten chains, fix flats and switch out a bent wheel for a sound one. I had one bike that had no fenders, a skinny wheel in front and a fat one in back. I’d ride it a lot in good weather; in bad weather or at night I’d ride a much heavier bike that had fenders, a book rack, headlight, taillight and all the fancy trim. I fixed them up for my five brothers and sisters, too. One day I looked around and calculated that I had enough spare parts to make a whole extra bike.

I took a  frame from an old 26” bicycle, removed the pedals and sprocket, put the front wheel from a 20” bike in the back, turned the front fork backwards and put a tricycle wheel with pedals on the front. I took the bicycle seat apart, flipped the seat support around and reattached the seat so that it rested on the frame a foot in front of its usual position. I scrounged around and found an old piece of pipe to use as handlebars. It was rideable, just barely. It was a good thing the pipe was a foot wider than standard handlebars, because furiously pedaling the tiny front wheel from an almost horizontal angle, rather than from the nearly vertical position of a tricycle, produced a huge amount of torque. This was compensated for by holding to the pipe for dear life, pulling it first one way then the other. Because the pipe was wide and the progress wobbly, it needed a wide berth when riding down the street. Since the pedals were directly connected to the front wheel, one also had to pedal full-time when underway. It was possible to coast downhill by resting one’s feet on the front fork, but that wasn’t easy to manage either, as the pedals flapped furiously and made it difficult to steer. As there were no brakes either, the only way to slow down was to plant one’s feet on the pavement to either side, which was also a problem for a somewhat subtle reason–the frame of the bike sat lower to the ground than a standard bike because of the smaller wheels, so the foot-to pavement angle to force it to a stop and still avoid the flailing front pedals was out of whack. Neither could one stand up to get the angle without the bike flipping out from underneath. The only way was to drag one’s toes way behind or plant one’s feet way off to the side. Neither was very effective. Fortunately, it was nearly impossible to build up a lot of speed anyway. The bike was as fun as all get-out, but wildly impractical. It would have worked well in a circus act.

My sister auditioned and was selected for a commercial that spring, and needed to ride a bicycle. At seven, she’d never ridden, so I taught her how. In one weekend.

I put Franny on the bike and ran beside her holding the seat. All day Saturday. All day Sunday. On Monday they commenced filming. Her dismount was awkward but charming; shown during the Miss Wool pageant, the commercial won a Clio, an international award!


I started high school in 1967, with only a handful of friends from Smiley. “Busing to achieve integration” was a political football and the student body was more diverse than ever, but it came at a price. Some students rode a bus for over two hours a day. There was a difference in the atmosphere, as well. George Washington had been mostly middle class and white, but in 1967 about a third of the students were bussed in. In three years at Smiley I saw fights breaking out several times a week. There’d be a commotion on one side of the playground, and I’d hang out on the other.  It nearly always involved two or three of the same fifteen or twenty kids; they’d be hauled into the assistant principal’s office, whacked on the butt with a board and suspended for a few days. Some of this same group was in the hundred-fifty or so who came from Smiley, and some were from other tough schools. These kids didn’t change their ways at the high school door, they again started fighting, some white, some black, some hispanic as always. Nothing new.

What a response, though! There were suddenly ”racial troubles” at George Washington! Editorials, opinions filled the paper, and letters to the editor! Committees were formed, church groups aroused, dialog forums organized, PTA meetings, god knows what-all!

I suppose integration accomplished a good deal, though nobody sang “Kumbayah” at day’s end. The black kids hung out in one corner, the Latinos another, the Jewish kids had an area, the Asians a corner, et cetera, but there was some intermingling. The kids from the air force base, and those of us from schools like Smiley, led the way. We had friends from all over.


A new class started that fall, and instead of 30 of us in the room with one teacher, there were 50+, with two teachers on a team. It was an interesting concept. I liked it. The course dealt with living in the future, and we talked a lot about what the world would be like in the 70s, the 80s, the 21st century. We took something called the Kuder Preference Test. I did NOT score high on rocket science, but among other professions it suggested  “tomato peeler”. As if!! Maybe standardized tests were–full of crap?

Computer programming was big. Big. The future held lots of computers, and programmers would be needed. Lots. We were going to learn. On field trips, we saw several types. All filled a room. Some used huge reels of punched paper tape, others four-inch-wide magnetic tape. Wells beside the pickup heads, with powerful fans beneath, assured several feet of slack so the tape wouldn’t bind. Some were rats’ nests of cables and jacks and vacuum tubes with blinking orange displays. Some rattled, some hummed, some flashed. The ones we’d most likely use sorted through giant stacks of punch cards, so we got punch cards and learned to program these marvels. Armed with razor blades, we attacked the 3×7” cards and laboriously hacked out rectangles to enter the letters of our names, addresses, dates of birth and so forth, then ran them through a little demo card reader, since we didn’t have a real computer. It took a long time, and in the end about half the cards didn’t work.

Most people, looking back on their school years, will claim that they’ve “never” used a particular skill–algebra, or French–but in fact they have, infrequently. I can state unequivocally, without reservation or the slightest doubt, that I have never, ever programmed, tried to program, watched anyone program or shown anyone how to program, a punch-card computer. In 1967, anyone at any desk, anywhere at any time, could reach over and grab a punch card, stuffed into an envelope or magazine, without leaving their chair. A few years later they were gone, gone, gone.


I’d signed up for Junior Achievement that fall, and my company was sponsored by Gates Rubber. At our first meeting our sponsors introduced the concept,  and a product we might like to make, a die-cut piece of carpet, from old carpet samples, that fit under the accelerator pedal of a car. Twenty or so of us brainstormed for a name. Car-Pet. Comfy Pad. When Ped-Pad hit me, out of the blue, we instantly became, by unanimous vote,  the Ped-Pad Company. We beat the bushes and sold stock–a dollar a share–and by the next week had a thriving business. We set up shop on Mondays and cut and package Ped-Pads in various colors and textures. For the rest of the week, we’d walk around town in the evenings knocking on doors.

It was a welcome relief to me to escape the house and my father’s drunken, judgmental ramblings. I didn’t make much–20¢ apiece, plus bonuses of $5 or so for sales incentives–but I loved doing it, and almost always made the bonus. I went to one neighborhood one night, another the next, usually alone, sometimes with a friend. One night I knocked on a door several miles from home and who answered but Pam Grismore, whom I knew from elementary school! She was most definitely not the tall horsey-faced girl in those horrible aluminum-framed glasses I’d known in 1963. Pam was a vision; the cutest, prettiest girl I could imagine! No glasses! I was taller than her! Her parents weren’t home, nor her brother, but I met her sister, whom I hadn’t known existed, a very sweet but mentally challenged girl a couple years younger than us. We had a long conversation about everything that had happened since elementary school, and I was enchanted by the truly gracious, beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful girl I hadn’t dreamed existed until that day. Her house was miles away from mine, and I couldn’t soon return, but some months later I dropped by.

She’d moved. I never found out where to, and never saw her again.

We were profitable, which was unusual for Junior Achievement, and had a few pizza parties to celebrate. I was growing fast. I’d usually eat more pizza than anyone else, and once ate more than the other three kids at the table combined. When first we moved to Spruce Street I could look straight into the freezer compartment of my little fridge; five years later I was looking into the shelf of the cupboard above it, over a foot higher. I went from 95 pounds to 160.

In the Ped-Pad company we gravitated into two teams. One of my colleagues was Dave Tiffany, one of the few guys I’d talk with outside of our Monday night meetings. He lived on the other side of town, but we talked on the phone and he played recordings of himself playing drums in a band. He was a senior, and some years older than me, but we were in business, not school. The social strictures didn’t apply. He was in ROTC, and though I didn’t believe in ROTC or Vietnam, it wasn’t that high on my list as yet. He moved back to California later that year. I was there the following summer, but couldn’t get in touch with him because he’d joined the Army. I knew that was his plan; it wasn’t a surprise. He did surprise me later, though–or at least his photo did. I was thumbing through the Memorial Day, 1969 issue of Life magazine, which featured “One Week’s Toll of the Dead in Vietnam”. There he was, or at least the bottom right half of his face was, obscured by a helmet. David L. Tiffany, Riverside, California. He was 19. Over 40 years later, I found his name on the Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC. I had to jump up to touch it.

I took the company seriously–after all, I named it–and went to every meeting and every function, save one. I couldn’t make it to an exhibition in the cafeteria at Gates Rubber, and missed out on a buttload of sales. Gates Rubber employees were happy to buy Ped-Pads on their lunch hour, and the four or five kids who manned the display made out like bandits. While the rest of us had sold 15 or 20 each  (I’d sold about 25), the kids who’d been at the cafeteria suddenly had 35 or 40 to their credit, or in one case 59. I was determined to get back in the game, went out every night and talked one of my younger friends into joining the company. I didn’t want to stay home anyway, and most of my friends were older, and into cars and nothing else.

The fellow who’d sold 59 never showed up again, I don’t know why, and after a few weeks there was only one serious contender for best salesman, a black kid we called “Snag”. Snag had sold forty or so by the time the cafeteria exhibition was over, and a few weeks later he’d doubled my sales. I resolved it wouldn’t happen again. Snag sold a few each week, but I’d sell more, and by year’s end he’d stagnated in the 90s, while I’d sold about 83. By the next-to-last week I’d almost caught him, and by the final week I’d sold 97–then bought three for myself. Snag had seen my sales rising, though, and in the final week made it up to 105.  I didn’t mind. At the closing ceremony we were both awarded “$100 sales” pins, and I got an additional pin for perfect Monday night attendance, which made me the only person to receive two pins. We were the most profitable of all of the two dozen companies, and returned $1.70 to each stockholder who’d invested a dollar. It was a wonderful experience, and I’ve been involved in sales ever since.

While at the celebratory luncheon I saw the fellow across from me surreptitiously sketching the girl at my side. I showed him how to draw the eyes (especially what NOT to draw), how to shade for contrast and soften details. It looked much better. I hadn’t drawn much, and hadn’t been encouraged to do so, but I’ve always figured anyone can do anything if they figure out how. Even the very young, very old or physically challenged can do almost anything, with enough patience, direction and persistence.

One of the important lessons in art and in life is that nothing is perfect. Imperfection is constant and inevitable, but attitude isn’t. There’s a thousand-year-old tradition in stained glass that any work is left imperfect, because perfection belongs only to God. I don’t think it’s God’s alone, I think perfection doesn’t exist, period, but the thought is a good one. Doing an acceptable job, let’s say it’s 90% perfect, takes half as long as one which is 99% perfect. Twice the time produces a 9% improvement. To get to 99.9%, double the time again. Some things are worth the extra effort, but most things aren’t. Some things aren’t even worth 50%. It’s important to know which 1%, or 10%, or 70%, to let slide. The foundation for a house must be square and level, the support beams plumb and the angles precise. The seams in the plasterboard can be filled with spackling. Some things can be covered up, some can’t.

The Unification of Everything

The future has always fascinated, but in the late ’60s its wonders seemed particularly close at hand. I was discovering science fiction. Sometimes I’d read a book a day, and soon had over 400 stacked up on and over the bookshelf in the corner. Robert Heinlein had a “future history” series. there was Ursula LeGuin, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke. One book, “The Long Result” by John Brunner, I found particularly intriguing. Earth is colonizing the galaxy and meets several species in the process. One in particular is exceptionally adaptable; they can breathe in several atmospheres and speak different languages, but seem not to have any colonial ambitions–until the last chapter, when it’s revealed they’ve been colonizing for millions of years, but haven’t revealed this to the humans–for their own protection.

It was a theme which resonated with me. I’d been reading Eastern philosophy, including Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda, when I was ten. I revisited it now, at fourteen. I’d do yoga, and investigate karma, prana, reincarnation and the like, but it wasn’t easy to find people to discuss it with in suburban east Denver, in 1967. Some would passionately attack all of it, for religious or cultural reasons; others were simply mystified. Most people, even if interested, knew nothing, and I’d be compelled to explain, rather than discuss. I liked teaching it all, but none of my acquaintances knew enough to offer a contrasting or insightful point of view.

One can’t truly match another’s beliefs, but mine weren’t even close. I’m still not inclined to “believe in” anything–I know it, or I don’t. If it ain’t so, my belief is irrelevant, but if what I know works, then it’s also irrelevant whether it’s “true”. My great-grandfather, an intelligent but uneducated man, heard one day that the earth was round. He went to the top of the mountain and saw for himself. It wasn’t, and that was that. The world he knew wasn’t round. For the long result, he spent his life in the valley, and it didn’t matter.

I also think much which passes for “proof” in science is speculation dressed up in fancy clothes. A “scientist” gets an idea, cobbles up an experiment or a survey which does or doesn’t support a theory, adds fudge factors to “achieve” the desired result, then states with a bigoted, pompous authority that this is so and that is not, denigrating anyone who believes in a different fudge factor.

The Hindu maintains that whirling bundles  of energy called “prana” are the life energy pervading all things–one can look in the sky and see the prana–but a “scientist” will state these whirling bundles are artefacts produced by the neurons firing in one’s brain, and that the Hindu is wrong, wrong, wrong. Maybe he is, maybe not. Neither is “proven”.

I don’t “believe in” reincarnation, as a soul migrating whole and undisturbed from one body into another, but energy exists in nature. Before I came to be, my life or spirit was in the water my mother drank, the air she breathed. After my death, plants and creatures are nourished by my body, and those who knew me are comforted by their memories, which is my spirit. In between, “my” energy is focused into a being–me. Before, and after, “me”, it’s dispersed in the earth, the sky, the animal, vegetable and mineral, and space. The television broadcasts with me in the peanut gallery, whisking into the next galaxy at light speed, are also “me”. Whether a spirit comes back, reincarnated into a repeat “me”, is irrelevant.

There’s a further distinction to be made in regards to the spirit. An infinite spirit exists in an infinite universe. An infinite universe can’t contain finite things; either everything is finite. or everything is infinite. If the universe were all finite grains of sand, then put it together and it’s a huge, finite sandpile. Add more sand and it’s bigger, but still finite. If the universe is infinite, each grain of sand is infinite, and the sandpile is infinite.

Same goes for time. Either time begins and ends, or it’s infinite. If time is infinite (and if it has a beginning and end, what came before and after?), then every month, day, minute and second is infinite.

And now–a drum roll would be appropriate–for the Unification of Everything.

If space and time are infinite, then there’s nothing “wrong” with any belief or creed–except insofar as they state that others are “wrong”. Given enough time–not hundreds of years, thousands, millions, quadrillions, or any measure but “enough”–absolutely everything happens. As to reincarnation, whether my “soul” migrates, my physical atoms are dispersed into millions of places. A certain amount becomes food for worms. Some melts into the earth to later become leaves and flowers. Bees take the nectar and pollen, producing fruits; some atoms end up in quartz crystals a mile underground, some fly into the atmosphere, are absorbed into clouds, ionize into lightning, transform into photons and travel to distant galaxies. From there, given enough time–quadrillions, quintillions of years, it doesn’t matter–all these atoms–yes, the same ones, all of them–will recombine in exactly the same way and I’ll be here again, doing exactly what I’m doing now. That’s the true nature of infinity. It doesn’t matter if “my” atoms are dispersed into the recesses of the earth or the black holes of distant galaxies; given enough time and random chance they’ll come back–all of them–to the same place, the same time. The clock on the wall will once again read 3:05 pm. If, a billion quadrillion years from now all the atoms come back except one; if my coffee is stronger, if there’s an extra speck of dirt under my thumbnail, if the clock reads 3:04, it hasn’t happened. Another hundred billion trillion billion trillion years will pass–but that doesn’t matter. Infinity doesn’t care.

So, life can be a retread, a hundred times, a thousand–but when it comes around again, it’ll be different. What I do at 3:06 is different whether it’s been done once, or never, or a hundred billion times. This is reincarnation, in an infinite universe. Be careful how you treat animals, vegetables, minerals, plants, planets. You are them, they are you. All things are alive. Minerals too–rocks and crystals grow and flourish and decay in a much longer time frame than humans, but what does that matter to infinity?

I became a vegetarian, to my mind, in the fall of 1967. I’d read Autobiography of a Yogi, again, and a book which had been assigned in class, Death Be Not Proud. I found the latter depressing and pointless. Depressing because the kid dies of cancer, but pointless because, of all the medical interventions he goes through, the single one which actually works–a raw food vegan diet, which shrinks his brain tumor–is abandoned, on the advice of his doctors. He eats meat, his tumor returns and kills him. I decided I wasn’t going to eat meat anymore, which wasn’t the lesson I was supposed to learn.

It wasn’t easy.  I ate cheese sandwiches in the cafeteria. I made peanut butter crackers after school, then ran out the door. I came home after dinnertime and claimed I wasn’t hungry, but one day my mother set down in front of me Fritos, salad, a glass of milk and chili–with meat.

I ate the Fritos. I finished the salad. I drank the milk. I said I was full. It didn’t work.

My mother had seen it coming. “Dave,” she announced with true concern, “I hope you’re not becoming a–vegetarian”.

She paused before that awful word. It was common knowledge that vegetarians soon withered away from pneumonia or pleurisy or plague. For a growing boy of 14, it probably meant a quick death. I had little choice. I knew, personally, not one vegetarian, and the only ones I knew of were, indeed, little withered men from India. I occasionally ate a bit of fish or chicken for the next couple of years to keep the peace. This also made it easier for me not to reveal my choice of diet and thus never discuss it, since every discussion was confrontational and pointless. I never ate red meat again, though–except once. I took a flight to New York three years later, not considering that dinner would be served on the plane. Curious, I ate a bite of meat. Big mistake. For the next week, I felt like grease oozed from my pores. I was heavy, fatigued, sick. I soon quit eating fish and fowl as well, and haven’t since.

A Surprise Visit

A friend from my old neighborhood appeared at our door. Paul was almost my age, and like me had turned vegetarian–sort of. Conventional wisdom claimed everyone needed meat, especially a growing boy. I ate a bit of fish and fowl, and he ate meat on Fridays (to show contempt for Catholic dogma). I’d actually grown plenty in junior high. One can be a vegetarian on Twinkies and Coke, but not me. I’d grown a foot.

Paul was not quite a year younger than me and had also been promoted, so he was a year behind me. He’d been the only other kid promoted in my elementary school; the practice pretty much vanished afterwards. Paul was another whiz kid, also shoehorned into classes he hated but, like me, very interested in scientific experimentation. When we’d moved across town, his family had moved to Boulder. I hadn’t seen him in a couple years, when he showed up one Thursday with a made-up story. We went to school on Friday and he hung around the playground, then spent the weekend before my mother ferreted out what had actually happened–he’d disappeared from school and hitchhiked down to Denver. His mother picked him up on Monday, and his parents put him in a military school, which didn’t change him much.

I discovered one day that if I had my hand on the handle of the fridge and touched the faucet I’d get a sustained and nasty shock, but if I was touching the sink first the shock would be small and momentary. I told everyone and of course they had to try it, it was fun and scientifically interesting. If you grabbed one and touched the other your muscles would contract automatically, you couldn’t help it. Paul wanted to try it, but he grabbed them both, and when the current contracted his muscles he couldn’t let go. He gave out a weird, strangled AAAAGGGGHHHH, shook violently for several seconds, then shot across the room as if propelled from a slingshot. He crashed into a pile of laundry, I helped him up and we had a strange, disjointed conversation, wandering the house and finally ending up on the landing outside. We’d been talking for about five minutes when he snapped his head around, looked at me and asked, “where are we?” He’d completely lost a half-hour, didn’t remember a thing.

One of the first things I did when I got a car a year and a half later was to drive up and see Paul. I got there on a day he’d rented a metal detector. He’d been exploring, had found a few pennies, a lot of bottlecaps and junk. I tried it. On his front sidewalk two steps away I found a 1910-S dime hiding in the grass. I tried to give it to him, the only valuable thing found all day, but he wouldn’t let me.


My father’s friend Ric had been in and out of our lives for years. He was an interesting character. He and my father had met in a summer-stock theatre company in Surrey, Maine a couple years after World War II, and Ric had persuaded Ned to visit Denver, his hometown. Ned then enrolled in the University of Denver. A foursome hung together–Ned, Ric, Chet and Harry. By the time we moved to Denver, all four were married. Chet married Leila, Harry married Marcy and had a son Dion about my age; Ric and Liz had a son Michael Sam and a daughter Lizzie. We camped out in the mountains together when we were small, and later Ric moved to Hollywood and found work as Ric Jury. He was a successful character actor in various sitcoms–McHale’s Navy, Andy Griffith–and made a lot of commercials, the best known being the original “bull” series for Schlitz Malt Liquor. A bull chased him through a china shop, he ran from one in a bull ring and in one commercial drove around town with a bull in his back seat. That bit of driving was broadcast for years and earned him a small residual check each time, eventually totaling around $20,000.

In the spring of 1968 Ric came back to Denver wearing love beads and an Eastern shirt, with longer hair and long, thin sideburns. He talked about Zen and Hindu beliefs, and contrasted them with Catholicism. Like many lapsed Catholics, he investigated other religions deeply and seriously, including a number of “societies” and “fellowships”. I was curious, and asked a lot of questions. When the time came for Ric and family to move back to Hollywood he suggested that I go along. The five of us crowded into his Land Cruiser, which he’d bought from the TV show Rat Patrol. It was tall, crude, noisy, a boxy Jeep-like vehicle recently repainted light green. We drove to Four Corners, put a foot in four states at once and continued to California, discussing meditation, self-realization, the nature of psychic power etc. I sat in the passenger seat while Liz rode in back with the kids and Michael Sam’s pet snake.

Ric said that given the proper frame of mind, concentration, and circumstance, one could control the weather. I neither believed nor disbelieved, but I’d never seen it. I’d read about it, he’d talked about it. I reserved judgement.

By the afternoon of the next day we’d reached the Death Valley region. It was cloudless and the sun was relentless, ruthless. Broiling hot. Frying-pan hot. The Land Cruiser had no air conditioning and not much to keep the engine heat out of the passenger compartment. We wore wet towels on our heads, which didn’t help much. It was exceptionally, excessively, brutally hot in our tin box, and it didn’t help to roll the windows down; the wind was a blast furnace. We rolled up the windows and sweltered. It was at this point, when the temperature in the car was 120º or more, that I remarked to Ric that if there were a time to control the weather, this was it. “I’ll see what I can do”, he said, and we drove on.

I hadn’t intended it as a challenge, but he took it. A couple minutes later, a few small clouds appeared on the horizon. A few more miles and we were under them. Inside of twenty minutes, it rained. On the car only, in a space no wider or longer than a football field. It followed us down the highway for fifteen or twenty miles, at 60 miles per hour. Some will be skeptical. They weren’t there.

It was late in the afternoon now, and we drove on into the sunset . We were a couple hundred miles from Los Angeles, but already in the city.

Sunsets over the Pacific are like sunsets nowhere else. The endless unbroken miles of ocean water split the sun’s rays into every color of the rainbow, and the horizon ranges from deep red, through orange, yellow, a small band of light green, blue, finally deep indigo and violet, as the sky fades into night, the colors punctuated by cumulus and cirrus and stratonimbus clouds in pink and orange. There was an additional element to the sky that summer, something I’d never seen. In the center, a huge, brownish-orange cloud. I didn’t know what it could be. It was much too large to be from a missile test, and a different color from a distant forest fire.

It was smog.

As we drove the road widened, the traffic thickened. I’d been in city traffic, but this was different. Well past rush hour, cars and more cars. They filled six lanes, then eight, on the “freeway”–a new word I’d heard, but never understood. At nine at night.

We arrived in Hollywood around 10 pm. The city was still alive, with 24-hour supermarkets and family restaurants. I’d seen 24-hour gas stations, but this was different! Even the television stations stayed on all night.

The sky was aglow with the lights from businesses a block away–but almost no stars. In a cloudless sky, the moon–and not much else. On the steps of the  Colorado State Capitol one could see a hundred miles; on a clear day sometimes three hundred. In Hollywood the nearby mountains were light blue and indistinct; anything over ten miles away was invisible.

Ric’s house in Hollywood was nearly identical to his house in Denver. He’d thought a contractor from Denver had moved to Hollywood in the 1920s, but later I found they were probably built from a Sears & Roebuck kit.

It was the middle of the presidential campaign. Nixon vs. Humphrey vs. McCarthy vs. Wallace. Humphrey was winning delegates. I preferred him to Nixon, but not enthusiastically. I couldn’t vote anyway. There was Vietnam in the air, race riots, lots of depressing stuff. Even though there were more TV stations than I’d ever seen, running all night long, I didn’t care to watch much, but did vividly recall commercials for Ralph Williams Ford in Encino, California. A crass, loudmouthed bald guy. He sold a lot of cars.


Ric had interesting visitors and a weekly class in Zen Buddhism, which he taught from his living room while nursing glasses of Dr. Pepper spiked with vodka. Among the students were several recognizable actors and mid-level celebrities. Geoffrey Deuel was often there; he starred as Billy the Kid in John Wayne’s movie Chisum and his brother Pete was in the TV shows “Love on a Rooftop” and later “Alias Smith and Jones”. Ric’s classes weren’t limited to Zen alone, they were all over the map. He was widely read and familiar with every religion I’d ever heard of, every Eastern philosopher and religious leader, every Western disciple. He knew about Krishnamurti, Yogananda, Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, Sartre, Freud and Vitvan. He knew about Margaret Mead, Aimee Semple McPherson, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi. He knew the Kaballah, the Apocrypha, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran. He knew the formula for Holy Water and made bathtubs of it (of course he had to bless it himself, but that seemed a minor detail). He’d been raised Catholic and had taken religion very seriously when young.

Catholicism is absolutely certain that there’s one right answer to any question, already written down, tabulated, solved. I never understood this until I worked with a fellow who showed me his catechism books. Textbook answers to every moral dilemma, remedies for every sin. An exact punishment and penance. Three Hail Marys, absolution granted, go live your life. The Catholic universe has a precise structure. It’s like tin cans stacked in a pyramid, an inverse pyramid below. In a spotless, shining, glossy white tin can on top sits God. The second layer of three satin-finish white cans contain Jesus, Mary and the Pope. These are supported by several layers of cardinals, saints, priests and what not in cans of eggshell, cream, beige, and at the base of the pyramid a vast layer of cans in battleship grey, souls lost in purgatory or limbo or simply clueless. Under this level are more. A mirror-image of the pyramid in grey, taupe, charcoal, holds third grade teachers, cable guys, politicians, and mafiosi on down to Hitler and Stalin and Shaka. Underneath all, in a boiling, bubbling, sooty can spewing sulfur and smoke, is Satan. Between the top and the bottom levels are escalators, elevators, stone staircases and rope ladders. To navigate up, down and around there’s a system of tokens using scapulae, crucifixes, relics, rosaries, etc. There are gates and portcullises manned by demons and angels, each with a list. If denied passage, one performs a prescribed action, is awarded a saint’s fingerbone or a chunk of True Cross and passes through. The ritual solves everything; no pondering, reflecting, wondering necessary.

It’s easy to tell Catholics or former Catholics who are investigating religious philosophies; they ask all the questions. For Catholics, the priests have the answers. There are things taken on faith, but no question can’t be answered. Perplexed, lapsed Catholics can become very deep thinkers.

Ric was such a person. He’d been to the Pacific in the second World War and came back with his religious beliefs in tatters. He was married, but it didn’t last, and as a divorced person he was not only inclined but compelled to leave the church. He spent several years investigating mysticism, and by the mid-1960s could explain the difference between the Zen buddhist satori, Hindu samadhi and the self-realization of the Self-Realization Fellowship, as indistinct to me as beige vs. ecru. Different means, same truth. Satori is sudden and often violent, samadhi more gradual, self-realization either, or both. In all cases, one still lives one’s life. Only attitude and perspective change. The answer has been found, from within, and there’s no more searching.

Ric often told a Zen tale. A monk followed his master; a good, obedient monk. His master treated him terribly. The monk asked the meaning of life and his master would whack him with a stick, say he wasn’t ready and make him fetch slippers, fix tea, massage hthe master’s feet. He slept on the floor next to the master’s comfy bed. After years of harsh treatment the monk finally, finally snaps. He calls the master a stupid old man who has nothing to teach him. He won’t serve him anymore, fetch him slippers, fix him tea–and the master bursts out laughing and says this was the lesson he’d been trying to teach! The disciple couldn’t find an answer, because he was looking outside, for an answer which came from within.

This is the secret. It takes many forms, but it’s the same. If one is self-realized, has found samadhi, satori, sees God, feels Jesus, talks to Buddha or casts out demons, one has found something within. Once this is understood, one can use one’s abilities, whatever they are. What’s possible becomes achievable–by the self. If Edison or Einstein or Jesus did it, so can anyone. It doesn’t make it easy, but it’s possible. There’s no such thing as “he can do it, but I can’t”. One can say “he can do it. I could too, but I don’t want to”, for whatever reason–it’s too much trouble, tiring, silly or one doesn’t feel like dying yet. No excuse is necessary. One does something, or doesn’t.

Ritual also doesn’t matter. The Catholic church makes and eats Jesus. Why? If transubstantiation is genuine, a miracle–why? One still has to eat real food, drink, sleep, find shelter, live, die, pee, and so did Jesus. The same was happening millions of years before man walked the earth and will be millions of years after the Catholic church joins Ra the Sun God in the shadows.

Many Catholic characteristics also apply to Judaism, which is why so many Jews marry Catholics. Jews don’t have a pope, so they’re not certain about simple, final answers, but they both have plenty of questions, and both groups see themselves as the Chosen Ones. This leads to persecution–undeserved sometimes, certainly, but to be expected when one group claims superiority and separates itself from another. As with any such claim, it works until it doesn’t. The Egyptians run things, then the Romans, then the British; the Aztecs are conquered by the Spanish; the Broncos win the Super Bowl and the Cubs the World Series.

So Ric had studied it all, new and old. He taught his classes and I learned a lot I didn’t know before. Some of it was simple attitude adjustment; Ric never liked anyone using reverent tones towards “the masters”; they were people, and they farted and burped and peed like anyone else. He appreciated their teachings and mispronounced their names.

This applied to all “masters”. Ric had an original Picasso on his wall, a scribble entitled “A Cucumber Unaccountably Cucumbering”. It was a lumpy curved line with another lumpy curved line growing out of it, and neither Ric nor certainly Picasso placed a great value on it. Picasso’s habit was to offer such “artworks” in payment for coffee and a bagel. It was insured for thousands, but Ric couldn’t sell it because it was a “minor work”, of which there were thousands–it took Picasso as long to sign his name as to scribble it. Besides, Picasso was alive and showed no signs of dying, so anyone who wanted an original Picasso could go to Picasso. Ric hung it in the bathroom. It somehow got knocked into the toilet, and the insurance company paid the loss.

After a few weeks in Hollywood, Ric and Liz packed up their things for a move to Walnut Creek, outside San Francisco. I took a plane from LA–my first plane ride. It was a California-only airline, and the ride felt like a ball bounce on the sidewalk; up and then down. We spent a few days in Walnut Creek and one afternoon explored the hippie neighborhoods of San Francisco, then it was time for me to go. I took a much longer plane ride across the Rocky Mountains to Stapleton Field and was home in Denver.

Eventful Years

It was the sixties. As in many cities, Denver had riots. My father bought a shotgun and stayed in the barber shop watching TV, but nothing happened in our sleepy, suburban, half-Jewish neighborhood. My mother, especially, was involved in local and national politics. Hubert Humphrey came through town, and we met him at the airport. He was shaking hands, and I stuck mine nearly in his face when he almost passed me by. He shook it, said a couple words. He seemed a harried, bald, red-faced fellow, shaking hands with a fifteen-year-old kid because it was his job. but more interested in finding a hotel, taking a dump and relaxing in a nice comfy chair. I didn’t think his heart was in it. He looked sunburned and worn out. I didn’t like that Nixon won, but I don’t think it was bad for Humphrey. Based on my three seconds of interaction with the man, I think he’d have been competent, earnest and dedicated, but frumpy and above all fatigued.

I met other political figures. My mother was a precinct committeewoman and sometime delegate to the state convention. Democrats caucused in our house. A fellow named Gary often came by; he later became a senator and presidential contender, but lost it all when he was photographed with a girl named Donna Rice on a boat named Monkey Business. Richard Lamm, later the governor, also visited, and Tom Currigan, the mayor. One of my best friends in high school was Steve McNichols, namesake of the governor and son of Denver’s longtime mayor Bill McNichols.

I was busy as well. In the second semester of my junior year, on the first day of my first class, I struck up a conversation with the girl sitting in front of me. I saw Wendy all the rest of that day; we shared seven of our eight classes. On the same day, in the class we didn’t share, she met Monk’s sister, and they became best friends. Carole was a few months older than me, but a sophomore. I didn’t have any luck with Wendy, but she met Carole’s younger brother, and soon they moved in together, when Wendy was seventeen and he, fourteen. Three years later, they married.

Most of my friends had driver’s licenses by now, and cars so dominated their lives that we had little in common. Every conversation involved carburetors, camshafts, timing, how fast Monk’s or Bill’s or Tom’s car was, how many gears they could lay rubber in. I found a new circle of friends. We had a foursome at lunch–Steve McNichols, a tall black kid named Shelton, a red-haired kid named Rick, and me. Steve and I had been to southern California. We’d seen the commercials for Ralph Williams Ford, in Encino, and he appreciated my loud, crass Ralph Williams imitation but the rest of our friends scratched their heads, mystified. He wrote scripts for me to read at lunchtime and the two of us would laugh uproariously at our commercials for Fred Ferd Ford. Steve added characters and I added voices– Sam Sly, choking through news from the chemical plant, Henry House broadcasting the weather while a tornado hit the studio and what-not, until they were 20 or 30 minute sketches which filled our lunch break. It was fun for us and, sometimes, for our friends–

Steve sent a batch of these scripts to Laugh-In, and two weeks later they featured the Farkle Family, a clear and obvious rip-off of Fred Ferd which was never acknowledged. I have no sympathy when entertainment companies complain about “piracy”. They steal whatever they can.

I spent lots of time at Steve’s. He was only six months older, and also couldn’t drive: most of our friends had no time anymore for a couple kids on bicycles. His house was near the barber shop. During the week I’d drop by for a couple hours, then sweep up the shop and catch a ride home. I’d go straight to the shop on Fridays, because Fridays and Saturdays were far and away the best days to make money shining shoes.

My father and I never fought at work; it was pleasant with the other barbers there and something of a politics-free zone, or more precisely a politics-all-over-the-map zone. Barbers agree with the guy in the chair, and only make humorous remarks. Candidate A’s overalls were the cleanest at the fair, and candidate B should get a better haircut. The customer laughs, the discussion moves to baseball, and everyone talks about who’s gonna win the pennant.


All the barbers had interesting stories. When my father bought the shop, he took over the first chair. The second belonged to a quiet fellow named Joe Maldonado. Joe was Hispanic, but his family had lived in the area before it was Colorado, before it was Texas, before it was Mexico, before the Spaniards rode in. He and his six kids spoke Spanish at home, the same language their Colorado-born ancestors had spoken for three centuries. His father was a miner in Walsenburg, and there’d been some labor troubles. One day someone walked into the bar where Joe’s father was minding his own business and shot him dead. Mistaken identity. Joe’s mother, brothers and sisters all moved to Denver and Joe got a barber’s license to support them all. For twenty years he drove to work, reliably and conscientiously, but one morning we got a call. Joe was in jail. He’d been stopped by the cops, and didn’t have a driver’s license. Never had.

Joe wouldn’t bet against the Broncos. Denver’s football team was never good–for about fifteen years it held the worst team record in any major-league sport–but Joe always bet on them. He’d bet the point spread, but they’d usually lose by even more. Due to Joe’s influence, I didn’t bet against the Broncos either—but I just didn’t bet on them at all. Many years later, the Broncos went to the Super Bowl. For the first time, I bet a dollar–and lost. Nine years later, they went again. I bet again. They lost again, by more points. Twice more they lost, each time by even more points. 1990 produced the worst loss in Super Bowl history–49ers 55, Denver 10. Four dollars, gone.

Eight years later, the Broncos again went to the Super Bowl. They took the field in their new navy-blue and bright-orange uniforms–technically they were the “visiting” team, but they’d never lost in their new “home” uniforms. Green Bay was heavily favored; the NFC hadn’t lost in 13 years. I wanted to bet a dollar again, but my friend wanted to go five, so I did. Martina Navratilova predicted a 31-24 win, and the Broncos produced it. I won that five-dollar bet, and became the only guy in history, that I knew of, to win money betting on the Broncos. They won the Super Bowl the next year, too. For the first time in my life, I had trouble finding anyone to bet against the Broncos.

Joe didn’t see it. He’d had heart surgery a couple years before, and died on the operating table.

For awhile, the barber in the third chair was Felix Garcia. He had a son, Little Felix, who absolutely loved the Frito Bandito, but there was such a fuss the commercials were taken off the air, and Little Felix was heartbroken. In the last chair was a grumpy old bachelor named Roland, who only came in on Fridays and Saturdays and after a year retired. Felix decided to go back to school, and only come in afternoons and Saturdays. This left an open chair. My father interviewed several barbers, finally deciding to take the next guy no matter what.

Harvey had recently been released from prison. He had a bullet wound through one elbow and several old scars from knife fights, but was now in his mid-30s and trying to turn his life around. The afternoon after my father hired Harvey, another fellow showed up who’d have been perfect, but he’d already promised Harvey, who took the 3rd chair while Felix moved to the 4th.

Harvey had lots of stories, and some strange friends. He knew many talented, unbalanced people. Prisoners have lots of time on their hands, and some are quite creative. One of his prison buddies made pictures with a typewriter–landscapes, portraits, a Mona Lisa–that were exceptionally well done, and if you looked closely you’d see strikeovers of letters, commas, dashes, numbers and symbols, shaded into beautiful scenes in black, white, grey and sometimes red or pink.

Another of his buddies paid anyone a premium to buy him bottles of cough syrup. He was a codeine fiend. The pharmacies knew him, and wouldn’t let him buy. A new law passed making codeine a prescription drug, and that same evening someone broke into a drug store. A cop saw a station wagon with several cases of cough syrup in the back, and Harvey’s pal was arrested.

Harvey taught me card games; we’d play spades or hearts in the afternoons or, especially, gin rummy. Gin rummy is a gambling game, but no money sits on the table. We’d play for a half-penny a point and settle at closing time. After closing we’d lock the front door, and on Friday or Saturday get a couple six-packs and play poker. I was good at poker and usually made more money playing cards at night than I’d made shining shoes in the day. When my father had finished a six-pack we’d lock things up, he’d buy another and head home. He never drank more than a six-pack at the shop, but he’d usually finish off six while the other barbers had two. After awhile a few favored friends would come by for poker. One night my father entrusted Ric with the key. Harvey thought Ric had cheated, went for a razor and my father’s 500-pound friend Jack sat on Harvey’s leg. Harvey had a cast for the next few months and my father never gave the key out again.

We had a weekly baseball pool, too. Usually we’d put a dollar on a number from one to ten, and whoever had the combined score–a 3-2 game equaled 5–won the $10. Sometimes it’d be a hundred dollar pool, with a more elaborate payout formula, and one year for the World Series we had a thousand dollar pool. My father didn’t want a thousand dollars lying around the shop over the weekend, and brought it home in a cigar box. An hour later our little neighbor the Ortiz girl knocked on the door and gave our father a $20 bill. My father looked out the side window and saw money flying all over the yard. My youngest sister had found the stash and and brought it to the picnic table, where she and her friends had played “store”, then abandoned the game. Everyone chased after the money, and we recovered all but about $40.

I did well in that pool. A blank grid of 100 spaces was filled in, then the teams and scores were chosen out of a hat. My space represented a 4-1 win by the Tigers, which happened twice; they won the sixth game 4-1 and the seventh 13-1, which by the rules of the pool was also 4-1. I didn’t win the big, final pot, but I won the smaller pot twice.

That summer I rode my bike, played tennis with Steve and read comics in the treehouse, but come fall I was miserable. School wasn’t going well; I was still younger than the majority of the students. Athletic success was out of the question, and so was romance; even if there’d been girls my age in my classes, which there weren’t, I had no confidence. Still, I tried to become popular. I read books–notably “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie–and went about trying to make friends in a planned, methodical way. It helped at school, but not at home, where my father still spewed venom. I didn’t become most popular, but did make more friends.


That summer, I decided I to become ambidextrous. I’d noticed that my left hand was larger, my left eye was better and heard better with my left ear. I’d seen friends break their arms, and struggle for months. Griff broke his right arm when he was eight, and he same had happened to others. They were danged near helpless. I resolved to do everything, with either hand or foot. For the next several months I practiced writing, kicking, throwing, even tying shoelaces with my left hand, and putting my left thumb on top when I interlaced my fingers.  I didn’t feel exceptionally capable with my right hand anyway–my penmanship had always been poor–and my left-side coordination was worse than most. A girl I knew who was left-handed could write her name quite legibly with either hand, and I wanted to do the same. I took to writing everything with my left hand. It wasn’t very legible, but was only marginally worse than with my right, and it got better.

I found a teacher I really liked that year. Judy Lopata was young, pretty and sexy, and almost exactly nine years older than I–her birthday was June 6, 1944, now known as D-Day. She said she couldn’t read my writing, so I came in after school and read to her, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was my one really bright spot in high school, ever. She’d talk with me about her high-school years, which weren’t so long ago, and I’d tell her about my trips to Mexico and California and the philosophies I’d become interested in. For the first time, I felt a teacher, a beautiful female, was genuinely interested in ME, not the rocket scientist I could be molded into.

I also found her interesting in her own right. Her class dealt with how people lived now, not through history or in theories from books. We read a novel which had just come out, “In Cold Blood”, as part of the curriculum, and she passed out her own mimeographed story of a long weekend she’d tried living like a bum on Denver’s skid row, called “Live-in on Larimer Street”.

It was well-written. Some professional people had taken a seminar, then reported to the soup kitchen in scruffy clothes, day-old beards, no makeup; they’d been given a work history as unskilled laborers and were told to find work. For three days they were waitresses or janitors, reporting to the mission at night. Her conversations with the men and women she met were really touching. It was only 3 days, and then she was back to being a professional, but I started thinking, after I’d read it, about life after school–and not in the way one might expect. A life of meaningless drudge work sounded appealing, to me. It was a choice I could actually make for myself. Instead of being a scientist straitjacketed into a lab coat, reviewing calculations on a clipboard, I could push a broom and sleep on a cot! I didn’t need to do what all the teachers and “counselors” and parents of the world told me I should do, I could be a bum!

I didn’t care about school anymore. I wanted creative writing and woodworking, not composition and algebra. I’d never been big enough in gym, I’d been “counseled” out of shop. My little brother regularly chased me away from the piano. One of our little friends had died a couple of years before, and death had started to look good to me. Then, suddenly, there was being a bum! I was liberated!

I didn’t know much about the bum lifestyle; it wasn’t taught in school. My family had always lived in cozy neighborhoods toward the edge of town, and I didn’t know a lot of street kids or downtown toughs. There were rough kids at school, but they’d hang out on the other side of the playground.  I’d read plenty of books, though. As a career, intergalactic space pilot was probably out, and anything involving college looked like misery and pain–but then there was picking apples.

I’d been flailing since I was two, not living up to expectations. Since my potential had long ago escaped gravity, it mattered not that I’d been above average in most things while everyone around me was bigger, stronger, older and more mature; I hadn’t grown feathers on my arms and flown. I’d half-heartedly gone along with the universal assessment of my future, and had a hazy notion that I’d grow up to wear pocket protectors and give incomprehensible speeches to men in gray suits and military uniforms; they’d sit and scratch their heads. The prospect was drab, horrid. I wanted ANYTHING else. Drive a truck. Peel tomatoes. Sell balloons. I liked painting, and thought I’d done well in art until one day I saw one of my creations being painted over so the teacher could re-use the masonite. It completely crushed me. I’d thought it was pretty good. A fellow in false color straddling a chair, seen from an ant’s eye view; purple with a bright orange sky. Two days later I saw a kid painting thick white paint over it with a broad brush. The teacher had picked out two or three and, without telling us, banished the rest. Walking home that day I found a secluded pine tree, sat under the boughs and sobbed, for a long time.

Sociology was an “A”, but my grades were going down. I got lots of Cs and Ds; occasionally Fs. I flunked Spanish, which had suddenly turned from conversations into long tables of grammar. I often slept through Algebra, where I came in exhausted after gym class, especially after swimming, at which I was never very good. The gym teacher invented a category for me. He’d set up four levels–A,B,C and non-swimmer. I could swim, but only half as fast as the Cs, so he made me a level D.

My home life was thoroughly depressing. I’d run in, grab something to eat and run out. If I came to supper, it was hopeless; he was drunk, ugly and mean, and nothing I could do or say wouldn’t provoke him. He was buying cheap beer now, drinking a six-pack before coming homeand another afterwards. He’d sit at the kitchen table, smoke cigarette after cigarette, pontificate for hours, analyze whoever was at the table, berate them, discuss their psychological problems and, especially, failings. Around 9:30 he’d eat something and go to bed; if I stayed away late enough I didn’t have to deal with it.

Times change, and perceptions change, and in the reckoning of the time my father wasn’t a “drunk”. He drank, but wouldn’t exceed the 0.15 drunk driving standard of the time, and drank nothing but beer, except occasionally on weekends. Neither was he violent, anymore. He was, however, ugly and mean. Snide. Derogatory. Malevolent–but calm.

He loved to discuss psychology; as an actor, it helped him understand character and motivation, but he could be exceptionally cruel. He’d light into a blameless waitress, telling her it must be terrible to live life as such an ugly woman, and keep it up through the meal,  just to see her react.

I couldn’t pass through the kitchen without being roped into a long discussion of my motivations, or more precisely my lack thereof. I’d try to be reasonable, agreeable, pleasant. He’d pick at my desires, dreams, opinions, aspirations, wearing me down. Eventually I’d explode, which gave him a big kick. He’d smirk and leave, as if by tearing me down, he’d saved the planet.

My own analysis of him, far more competent than his analysis of me, is that as the baby of the family by many years he was accustomed to attention, but felt inadequate. His father was a rough man, his brothers much older., and they fought with the old man regularly. Little Neddy couldn’t fight, but he attracted attention from his sisters, who were in their teens when he was small. They were well-educated when he wasn’t. He was very much a hillbilly, and as such regularly ridiculed in the cartoons of the day.

His exaggerated feeling of inadequacy produced a jealousy in him, and a need to disparage the achievements and desires of others, particularly his eldest son. Thus, when I’d accomplish something his reaction was to tear it down, to tear ME down. He wanted to be superior, but if he tried to beat me I was big enough to fight back, so he wrecked what he could. He pulled my strings, pulled again, pulled some more, yanked at them until he proved HE was the puppet master. It was infantile and disgusting. Pointless. Sick.


In October of 1968 I bought a $25 car, a two-tone 1956 Pontiac. My father’s friend needed money, so I bought his car. Had I been in driver’s ed I could’ve had a permit at 15 years and 6 months, but the class was full. I got one at 15 years and 9 months, instead. The Pontiac sat for six months and on the first rainy day of spring I passed my permit test, but my father never let me drive my own car, making excuses and finding me another car, a 1962 Falcon station wagon. I bought it for $175 from Barry, the guy who owned the Jewish deli near the barbershop. Barry also owned a 3.2 beer joint named the Skunk Kreek Inn. The car had a skunk on a barstool painted on the driver’s door. It had problems; I had to replace the transmission with a rebuilt one, but third gear didn’t work in THAT one either. We took it back to the tranny shop, they took off the top plate and there was a fork out of place. They wrote “Mike’s Mistake” on it in big red letters and gave us another. I drove the Falcon until my 16th birthday. Time for my driver’s test. I was itching for my license. I was ready to drive my Falcon to the DMV, but my father made me drive the family station wagon, a much larger car I was less familiar with but which had an automatic transmission.

It doesn’t rain often in Colorado, and hadn’t rained since the day I received my permit, but just as I pulled upfor the test it started to pour. My father rolled up all the windows, though I pleaded with him not to, and while I was driving the car fogged up completely.

It was hopeless. I couldn’t see to the sides or behind, and not much in front. I parked six feet from the curb. I wandered all over the road. I stopped for a green light. I flunked.

Two weeks later, I tried again. I insisted on driving my Falcon. As I pulled up for the test, it started raining, again; the first time since my first test. My father rolled up the windows, again. I pleaded for him to stop, again. The car fogged up, again. We argued in front of the inspector. I got out of the car, rolled the windows down, again, and took the test, again, in the rain, again. I passed! I had my license!

I got my first “real job” a week later. I’d read the paper by the entrance to the huge tent where actors and actresses changed costumes for Shakespeare in the Park, and keep out strangers. A summer job, it lasted three months. Six weeks into it, Apollo 11 landed on the moon!

It was hard for me to believe that ANYONE wouldn’t stay home to watch the moon landing, but there was a fair crowd that night. Someone had stuck a portable TV into a tree backstage, and I snuck away from the tent for a couple minutes at a time to watch the astronauts.

That’s how I saw a lot of history being made. Someone would bring a rinky-dink TV to a place where dozens or hundreds would watch the inauguration, space shot, assassination, moon landing on a tiny black-and-white screen ten, twenty, thirty feet away.

In 1969, Denver was a fair sized city; the metro area approached a million people, but most still thought it a cultural backwater, a cowtown. It was the capital as well as being the largest city around, not only in Colorado but in all seven bordering states, the largest city within a thousand miles–but still a hick town, a hinterland. Denver’s only major-league team, the Broncos, languished at the bottom of the low-class American Football League and had been there for many years. While this had its effect on the municipal mood, it was far from the only cause.

To the west, the Rocky Mountains were a formidable barrier before Interstate 70 punched through. The half-a-dozen passes through the mountains were snowed shut for six months a year; even open they were twisty, terrifying two-lane roads bereft of guardrails. One tight corner had a pile of twisted cars at the bottom, half shiny, half rusty, half a mile down. Anyone who’d gone off the edge was clearly dead, and to even run a cable down and pull out the wrecks would be dangerous. To the north and south were few travelers, as Wyoming and New Mexico were sparsely populated, and for those driving east or west it was necessary from November to May to bypass Colorado altogether. Celebrities and newsmakers from Hollywood or New York were far more likely to pass through Kansas City or Albuquerque than Denver, so fashionable trends usually appeared there three three to five years late. Denver had once been a happening place, but by the 1960s the action had moved to California, and “the sixties” didn’t really hit Denver until the seventies.

I had a few hippie accoutrements–wire-rimmed “granny” glasses (the new, photosensitive kind, perpetually grey), a couple pairs of pants which would accommodate a wide belt, a colorful shirt or two. I went to war protests, but they were small things, presented in the local conservative press as even smaller; their long, wide-angle lenses showed vast expanses of grass surrounding a clump of tiny people in the distance, obscured by trees and waving postage-stamp signs and estimated at two or three hundred people when the actual numbers were closer to a thousand. Denver had a strong military presence and no desire to stir the pot. Nevertheless, the times were a-changin’.

Sixteen is Sweet?

Sixteen wasn’t sweet. I was STILL the youngest kid in class, and for some reason wasn’t catching up! I was desperately unhappy in the fall of 1969; the only bright spot was that this was my last year of school. I was certain. No matter what. If I didn’t graduate, I was dropping out. Adults glanced at my achievement scores, not at me, and saw a shining star. They’d always planned for me to go straight to college, where I’d graduate at  graduate at 18 or 19. I felt otherwise.

I was too petrified to talk to girls even when I knew sthey liked me, and there weren’t many who did, though they liked my younger brothers. My car wasn’t cool or even reliable, which wasn’t its fault. I didn’t know anything about cars. I’d start it in the winter and leave the hand choke pulled out, not realizing I had to push it back in. I was late to first-period English a dozen times; showed up dirty and smelled of gasoline. Half a dozen times I missed it entirely.

I was definitely flunking English. My first two reports were “D” and “F” due to tardies and absences, and my final grade was sure to be an “F”.

I have to hand it to Mrs. McGregor. She gave me a break, all because of one report.

We’d studied English literature, and each row of our class had been assigned a report based on some aspect of English life in the sixteenth century. One row did politics, one home life, etc. My row did art, a subject I loved. I was the very last in the class to give my report–but I’d come prepared.

Among the hundreds of books, encyclopedias, etc. that my parents had collected was a series called “Metropolitan Seminars in Art”. It was arranged somewhat chronologically by country, and I picked out several examples of art in England, in not only the sixteenth century but centuries before and after, and examples from other countries and times. I explained how the concept of perspective had developed from the tenth century on, then went to principles of composition, how the central focus of the picture was usually constructed from a series of convergent triangles with an angel, saint or other item of interest at the apex. I explained how the representation of faces and bodies improved through the study of anatomy, and explained diffusion of light and the use of shadows. To top it off I pulled out a group portrait, done in Italy in the eighteenth century. The contrast was striking and by now obvious to everyone. The pictures were passed around, and I answered a butt-load of questions. I talked for the whole period, and would have gone longer had the bell not rung. Mrs. McGregor gazed at me, absolutely awestruck. I’d been her personal pain in the ass the whole semester; now she gave me an A+ on the report and a C for my final grade, which I most certainly didn’t deserve.


I’d sworn off alcohol after my encounter with sweet red wine at fourteen, but at sixteen I was again interested. Oddly, it was easier for me to get liquor than beer. The law in Colorado permitted 3.2% beer for 18-year-olds, which could be sold in the grocery store, but anything stronger had to be sold in a liquor store. I didn’t look anywhere near 18, but if we wanted a drink my friends and I could find a bum to buy it for us. If we went to that much trouble, we didn’t just want beer, we bought cheap whiskey, or sloe gin. We’d drive to Picadilly Road, a dirt road outside town, and whoever seemed the most sober would drive back. We always made it, though sometimes we’d have to change a tire or push the car out of a ditch.

There was another option. Brewing beer was completely illegal in 1969, but malt syrup with hops was freely sold in stores, as were 5 lb. bags of sugar. My first attempt wasn’t malt syrup. I’d read a book that said “bathtub gin” was sugar, yeast, water, and nothing else. I filled a large coke bottle with sugar water. The recipe suggested introducing the sugar water to its “friend” the yeast on a piece of toast. I used a toasted chunk of onion roll, sprinkled yeast on it, shoved it in the bottle, stretched a balloon over the top. The balloon filled up way too fast, so I put a small pinprick towards the bottom of the neck, which let the pressure out gradually. It worked well.

A few days later I had a bottle of some of the nastiest crap I’d ever tasted. The onion in the roll had taken over and transmogrified a concoction which could have been tolerable into rank putridity. I drank it anyway, but didn’t use onion roll again.

Monk and I then bought malt extract and sugar, and filled five or six plastic gallon jugs that his father had stenciled with the name of a furniture polish he’d invented, Glist-N-Brite. Monk’s room was in the basement next to the furnace, an octopus armed model like ours, and we put the jugs among its tentacles. One or two had balloons; Monk loosely capped the rest. One exploded on the second night, but Monk had the presence of mind to spirit away the remaining four and told his mother there’d only been one. She didn’t mind, though–she’d grown up in 1930s Chicago–and the other four reappeared with balloons on their necks. That Friday we bottled 32 sixteen-ounce bottles of Glist-N-Brite Furniture Polish brand beer. By Sunday, Monk and I had finished them off, and brewed more. We established a regular schedule–start a batch on Sunday, bottle it on Saturday, start more–but eventually we bottled on Friday or Thursday and the quality of the beer, nonexistent to begin with, totally tanked. We still drank it. The taste didn’t bother us–much.

We continued drinking Glist-N-Brite. In December our friend Wayne was rolling his own cigarettes, which I thought were joints. I’d heard of them, but never seen one. Wayne handed me one; I took a couple puffs, coughed, and he told me what it was. I liked the tingly feeling; it was kind of pleasant, but a bit nasty. I didn’t take up smoking tobacco just then, but tried it occasionally.

A few weeks later–January 28th, 1970, to be exact, my younger brother, who had just turned 14, showed me something special. He pulled from his pocket a tiny Italian matchbook–and inside were four hand rolled, straw-colored cigarettes. They were joints. We lit one up.
Oh, my god! How incredibly cool was this? Everything turned bright, colorful. The world was transformed. Charming, fun. I’d heard that the first time someone smoked weed, they didn’t feel much. Not for us. It was immediate, definite, unmistakable. My brother said it was Acapulco Gold, but I didn’t really believe him, because Acapulco Gold was an urban legend that most people never encountered. We had three more joints. They didn’t last long.
In the next fifteen years I smoked a lot of weed, in 49 states and 3 countries. Some was good, some wasn’t. Panama Red, Thai stick, Oaxacan (which we pronounced “Meshmacon”) and a hundred others. Never did I feel the same effects, until the mid-1980s. I’d smoked what was supposed to be Acapulco Gold a couple more times in the intervening years. It clearly wasn’t the same, so when I heard “Acapulco Gold” again I thought, yeah, right…but the first toke told me it was indeed what we’d had that January afternoon in 1970–light, powerful, and fun!

It seemed everyone between fourteen and twenty-four discovered drugs that year. A few older hippies had been in the loop longer, but a few years later if you struck up a conversation, you’d find almost everyone had started within a year of 1970, whether they’d been fourteen or seventeen or nineteen or twenty-two. An older sister had turned them on, or a younger brother, a school friend, an acquaintance from church had first pulled out the stash, in ’69, ’70 or ’71.

Outsiders talked about “gateway drugs”. I started with wine, then went to beer, tobacco and weed. Not everyone did. A friend we called Humpherill started by shooting speed. Not drinking, smoking, snorting or swallowing powders or pills. Injecting speed, directly into his virgin vein.

The idea of “gateway drugs” misses the mark. People don’t get sucked into doing drugs, they search drugs out. Folks who feel fine don’t want them. Anguish is a gateway to drugs. Depression is a gateway. Fear, pain–these are the gateways to the desire for drugs. Kids who grew up thinking they’d be roasted by the bomb before they were twenty–that was a huge gateway.

In the next couple weeks Monk and Wayne met a guy we called Charlie the Duck. I never knew his full name, we just called him Duck. They all brought something new to my house on February 19th–a little pill named Orange Sunshine, wrapped in aluminum foil. I was uncertain about swallowing it, so they passed around a joint and left it with me. I didn’t touch it for a couple days. I once put it in my mouth and sucked on it, but didn’t actually swallow any until the following Tuesday. I had an appointment which gave me the afternoon off, and I took half the tab at 1:30. I didn’t notice anything for half an hour, but as I was in the elevator leaving my appointment I noticed the floor was moving. So what? I was in an elevator, it’s supposed to move–but the little specks in the linoleum were moving, too, and the elevator was not only moving, but breathing. When I got out of the elevator the whole building was breathing–and outside, the sun was not only shining but sparkling! I walked home. The trees had faces, and were smiling at me. The clouds were playing games; the squirrels talking to the birds.
I moseyed along–it was pleasant for February, clear and not cold–and picked up some snacks on the way home. The fudgesicle was tasty, the peanuts were chalky, the 7-Up was AMAZING! I strolled along, stopping here and there to look at feathers or clumps of clay, until I noticed words in the patterns of the sidewalk cement–“Hey Dave,” a paver spelled out, “don’t you think,” on the next paver, then “it’s about time,” “to be getting home?” I realized that the Universe was texting me. This had been planned when the cement for the sidewalk was poured, twenty years before. I strolled home along the undulating sidewalk, ate a snack, told everyone I was a little tired and went to my room. I turned on the radio, and the flowers on the wallpaper danced. Colors trailed off my fingertips. Wayne and Monk came over, and I told them I’d taken half a hit. We drove to Duck’s basement for a few hours. A beer or two didn’t affect me much. We played a little pool–then Duck pulled out a joint.
I’d been coming down, but suddenly I was shooting up faster than I could’ve imagined. My god, I was flying! Duck had Moody Blues on the stereo. I sat on the floor, leaned back against the leg of the pool table and my spirit’s connection to my body shrank to a rectangle the size of a postage stamp on the crown of my head. I was the universe, and that little thing down there, of which my connection was no thicker than the string on a helium balloon, was my body. Wayne and Monk eventually took me home. When I awoke the next day, my world was forever changed.
People who’ve never taken psychedelics will never really understand those who have. Plenty of people have no need, desire or curiosity about psychoactive drugs, and that’s fine. In fact, people who like drugs do have a problem, but the drug doesn’t cause the problem. They’re in physical or mental pain, and drugs alleviate the pain. Some people take too much and make their problem worse, but most people figure it out, and quit while they’re ahead. I had a desire and, yes, a need, for drugs when I was 16. I’d been set apart by circumstance, by choices made so routinely by others that I had no idea who I was, or what I wanted. I’d hidden my true desires so deeply that I didn’t know what they were. I wasn’t just a geek, I was an uber-geek, a geek in the world of geekdom, Suicide had looked good to me. Drugs changed that.
After that first half-a-tab, I re-evaluated my life. I’d explored Eastern religions since I was ten, but now I wanted more. I began to feel that Hindu and other insights–particularly in the search for bliss–could be found in an approach to life which included a judicious, disciplined use of psychedelics. I took another quarter-tab two days afterwards, and my last quarter-tab the day after that. I split another tab with Monk that Saturday. I got a little higher than I liked and turned the radio to a gospel station until I settled down, then didn’t take any more for a couple months.
I’d started working after school at the King Soopers grocery near the barber shop. Several pretty girls worked there; I was particularly enamored of a checker named Melanie. That didn’t go anywhere, but work was radically different from school. I loved it. I’d hated school with a white-hot passion, but didn’t mind work at all. I still didn’t have a girlfriend, but started to relax a bit, and found I was a very fast bagger. A good bagger could handle two checkout counters on a busy day. A very good one could handle three, but I could handle four. It helped to have big hands–I could pick up two and three cans at once.
I worked afternoons and weekends until I graduated that June.  I truly hated every minute of school in my last semester; I didn’t have sociology any more, fought with my father every time I saw him, was taking a load of classes I hated, and not doing well. I flunked out of one too many classes and was one credit shy of graduation, so I signed up for a television course. I completed all the work with flying colors, except for a final, required report which I forgot about completely. Instead of an “A” I received a “D”. It was still good enough for the school to mail me my diploma, printed and on as record as June 2, 1970, the day before my 17th birthday.
That little glitch blew the tiny mind of the punch-card computer, though. At the end of the summer I received another schedule of classes. I called the school office, told them my diploma was in my hand, and that was that.


I was exceptionally happy to have received my diploma when I saw my schedule, because one of my classes was with a teacher named Mahonchak, a strutting, pompous, petty dictator who had for years enforced every possible infraction in humorless, severe ways. Because he was such a teapot tyrant, students made his life hell any way they could. All the pranks were played on Mahonchak. A full glass of milk was placed upside-down on his desk so that it couldn’t be moved without milk spilling everywhere; a few members of the football team picked up his Volkswagen and set it lengthwise between two trees. The greatest trick of all, however, was perpetrated by my friend Steve and me, in the final few weeks of our senior year.

George Washington High had two wings. From the cafeteria one angled left, the other right. Between them was a patio, and a large green area where we’d eat lunch. Patio duties revolved weekly among the teachers, and ten minutes before lunch was over, whichever students were in detention policed the area, picking up trash. This was usually a relaxed affair, but nothing was ever relaxed about Mahonchak. He was a swaggering field officer; a martinet barking orders. On this lovely spring day, Mahonchak had patio patrol.

Steve and I had a plan. We hid behind a bush at the end of lunch period and Steve pulled out an M-80, a giant firecracker. I had a cigarette. We punched a hole close to the filter, stuck the fuse through, lit the cigarette, then put it in a paper bag. I threw it in the trash eleven or twelve minutes before the end of lunch period. I’d seen a war movie where a cigarette stuffed into a matchbook lit up a railcar full of hay seven minutes later, so Steve and I were expecting a 7-minute delay.

In the next few minutes everyone threw their trash on top of our time bomb. Mahonchak gathered his troops, and in ten minutes the patio was spotless. Steve and I were sure we had a dud. The bell rang, ending lunch, and before the last peal faded away, KA-POW!!! Our delayed fuse FINALLY found its mark, and the top two-thirds of the trash in the 60-gallon galvanized bucket flew ten feet in the air! Mahonchak turned purple and completely lost it, screaming and grabbing the collars of random students to force them into lunch duty, but everyone knew the bell had rung, lunch was over, everyone needed to get to class, end of story.

What Steve and I hadn’t calculated was that the cigarette I’d brought was of the new, 100 millimeter size, which lasted over ten minutes. The result was far better than we’d anticipated, and Mahonchak’s purple, impotent rage an awesome, wonderful bonus!


I had some conflicts with the night manager, and within about three months I was fired, rehired, quit, rehired and, in the third week of January 1970, transferred to a store in the hippie part of town.

I loved it! I didn’t see many folks from the old neighborhood, but met lots of freaky and interesting people. One checker, Kenny, could’ve been born in 1901 instead of 1951. He was 18, but carried a pocket watch, wore thin wire-frame glasses, high-waisted slacks, parted his hair in the middle and smoked short, unfiltered Lucky Strikes.

This store was new, and was open 24 hours, which was also new in Denver. A few gas stations and restaurants were open around-the-clock in 1970, but a full-size, full-service grocery, with bakery, deli and pharmacy? No. Not even television broadcast around the clock. The national anthem played at midnight, and the station shut down.

I’ve always hated the national anthem, by the way. I prefer “America the Beautiful”, and not just because “purple mountains’ majesty” refers to Colorado. Anyway, as the “Star Spangled Banner” played, flags flapped, jets roared, half a dozen military guys saluted.  A test pattern appeared, followed shortly by a shrill, steady whine which drove you bananas if you didn’t hop up and flip off the TV, this still being the Age of No Remote Control, outside of my bedroom.

After graduation I worked the night shift, 10pm to 6:30am, but King Soopers didn’t mind paying overtime and I’d work an extra hour or two every morning. We figured our own time cards, and counted overtime after 8 hours a day and over 40 hours a week. If I’d worked ten hours for each of four days, that would be 32 hours regular time and 8 hours overtime, and the fifth day was pure overtime. After some months, the Retail Clerks Union issued a “clarification”, which ended our little bonus.

My night clumped into 3 distinct periods. From 10 pm til midnight, the store was crowded with shoppers stocking up; average people, out late, doing an everyday thing. From midnight until 5 am the night shift stocked the shelves while hippies tripped and stumbled through the laundry aisle, gazing intently at the brilliant, fluorescent soap boxes. At around 5 am, morning people appeared, bright-eyed and cheery. Everyone in the night crew would get a lift just before quitting time, through contact with these chirpy, bushy-tailed birds.

I soon adopted a schedule–absolutely insane for anyone not seventeen years old–of staying up every other day and sleeping alternate days and weekends. My schedule was 36 hours awake and 12 asleep for most of the week. I figured this gave me more time for socializing, but in truth I was sleepwalking.

Which may have been the point. I was happier, when I was too tired to think.

I’d never smoked very much, but I quit smoking tobacco that New Years’ Day. It wouldn’t be the last time. I could count on one hand the folks I knew who didn’t smoke. Some smoked a little, some a lot, but very few didn’t smoke at all. The heaviest smokers were the butchers. They seemed to live their lives with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other. The one fellow that I knew didn’t smoke, the produce guy, was also the only vegetarian I’d ever met. I’d have liked to have socialized with him, but our schedules conflicted.

Eight Daves

There were Daves everywhere in the ’60s; there were two or three in each of my classes; I was never the only one. There were eight of us in the store: me, Dave Block, Dave Blackwell, Dave Coons, Dave Haynes, Dave McCandless, Dave Sonneberg and Dave Wilson. I told everyone to call me DJ. I’ve used it ever since.
Because I worked nights, downtown, I became a legend in my neighborhood without knowing it. Gone before the parties started, I was a mystery guy who knew all the cool people and could procure drugs at will. Everyone had heard my name, but hadn’t met me. Many months later, when I wasn’t working nights, they’d exclaim, “so YOU’RE DJ? I’ve heard SO much about you…!!”

I wasn’t aware that anyone would think of me as popular, but one day I went out and my car had been egged. Someone had thrown two or three dozen eggs at it, and covered every square inch. I suspected a couple guys, Harold and Gene, but Gene said it was Harold alone; that Harold was jealous of me.

It seemed ridiculous. I wasn’t even a checker. I’d achieved a couple of dubious distinctions–I was the fastest bagger, and also held the record for packing pop bottles into a grocery buggy, over 200. That bit of silliness then inspired a couple guys to stack a buggyful 7 or 8 feet high. It fell over in the aisle with a tremendous crash. Glass flew everywhere, the competition was banned, and I held the all-time record!

Our back room was particularly small, which led to a lot of precarious stacking of merchandise pallets, all the way to the ceiling: cans on the bottom, toilet paper on top. This made for dancing forklifts; one fellow would lift the top few pallets and another would come with a hand-pumped “mule” to pull out the bottom ones. These mules made handy scooters. We’d put a foot on one of the forks and push off, steering with the handle. One day a caddy named Tim was riding a mule in the back room; another named Jim had just finished mopping. I was a ways back from both. I took a run and jumped on the mule with one foot, putting all my weight on the unused fork and springing back again. Tim went shooting off at great speed into a pair of aluminum doors, clanging loudly. He stormed back into the room. I pointed to Jim, who was the closer of us, and said “He did it!” Jim had been innocently leaning on his mop, but standing in the most likely spot! He protested and pointed at me, but I was a long way from the action, and Tim didn’t believe it for a second! I totally got away with it!

One day there was a new display in the kitchen aisle, a product called “Corelle”. A stocker told me it was practically unbreakable; that you could drop it and it’d clang but not break. He invited me to try. I took a cup, tossed it about 6 feet high, it hit the floor and rang like a bell but didn’t break. I thought this really cool, and wrote on the cup  in felt-tip pen that it had been dropped from six feet without breaking. About an hour later there was a cleanup on the kitchen aisle. A customer had tried the cup, dropped it from about 4 feet and it’d shattered into a hundred pieces!

I stayed at the downtown store until fall, then transferred back to Mayfair. Shortly afterwards I was promoted to checker, a position which normally wasn’t offered until one was 18. It was technically illegal for me to sell beer. I was supposed to call on an older checker to ring up beer, but I didn’t.

Wendy, whom I knew from when we’d shared six classes, had joined the orbit of my friends in a tertiary way. She was now Monk’s sister Carole’s best friend, and girlfriend to their younger brother. When school was out, Wendy, Dick and Carole moved into an apartment together. Wendy and Dick lived together for three years and married when she was twenty and he, seventeen. They were quite resourceful. There’d been a push in the early ecological movement to reuse grocery bags. They’d walk in on a busy day, fill their used bags full of groceries and walk out. One day they came to my store, palmed a couple small things and came through my checkout. The manager had spotted them and called me out, since he saw that I knew them. I didn’t know about it and didn’t get in trouble, but they were banned from the store.

Checking groceries was a more physical job than it later came to be. Shoppers rolled up buggies and checkers unloaded them, rang up the prices by hand and put the items on a conveyor belt, where caddies would bag the groceries and load them in another buggy. The cash registers at the downtown (Downing street) store had a ten-key pad, but those at the Mayfair were older and had columns of keys; a row of ones across the bottom, twos above them, etc. and column of category keys on the right. A fellow with big hands could set five fingers, slam five keys and ring up $1.69 taxable produce at one whack, while a ten-key pad took 5 strokes. The Mayfair machines were much faster for a guy like me–whack, whack, whack and three items were done, while the flying fingers at Downing street would click-click-click-click-click-cachunk, click-click-click-cachunk, click-click-click-click-cachunk. I could also pick up three cans with my monster hands, whack-whack-whack; three more, whack-whack-whack, then three more, nine cans in five or six seconds. The motor whirred, the tabs sprung up; there was a rhythm to it. On a busy day it was  almost like meditation. I’d bang the register flat-out and toss cans and boxes faster than the conveyor belt could carry them. If I was really flying, two baggers would work my counter. The registers ran at top speed, and the managers kept me away from certain ones–number 8 had a problem–because their motors overheated, their keys froze, their price tabs stuck. Usually a checker would stay on one register. On a busy day I’d float me between two or three, so none burned out.

This proved a personal advantage. The other checkers were mostly girls. The guys were primarily stockers, but stocking was a break for me. When there came a rush it was “Austin up front, please!”. A dozen or so customers would be gone in a couple minutes, but I’d hang out and talk with the girls. I became much more relaxed around women.

A Model A

I bought a Model A Ford in the early months of 1970. I’d always wanted an old car, and bought this one for $600–a 1930 four-door, Briggs body, olive green with black fenders. It looked good on the outside, but mechanically it needed help. I was happy to do it, though, and fixed the wiring, brakes, front end, interior. I’d drive it occasionally, but it spent more time parked in front of the house.

I’d acquired the $600 through the stock market. My father had gleaned a few tips from customers and first suggested to me that I buy into a trucking company, Fruehauf, which made semi-trailers. I bought a couple shares for around $30 apiece when I was eleven or twelve and watched them hover around the same price for the next few years. A year or two later I also bought five shares of a company called Permian Oil, at $18 per share. Within the week, Permian was the most active stock on the exchange and went from $18 to $24 in a single day. This continued, and the company was soon bought by Occidental Petroleum, who gave me three shares of Occidental for my five shares of Permian, plus about $60. With the dividends my stock had earned, $40 or thereabouts, my $90 had been recouped and I now had 3 shares of Occidental, for free. The stock continued upwards, then split 3-for-1. I had nine shares of Occidental, which announced a new project in Libya and sent me a first-day-cover of a stamp with an oil well on it, covered in Arabic writing. These shares continued going up, and by the time I was sixteen were worth over $600.

I’d been watching the stock market myself these years, and decided to buy stock in six companies–Zion Foods, Continental Can, Chrysler and three more. I went to my father with $300 and told him what I wanted to do, but he talked me out of it. A week later, I told him I still wanted the stock, but he flat-out refused. As I was underage, couldn’t buy them myself. I watched these stocks over the next two years. All of them made money, some just a few cents, others a few dollars. Chrysler went from $46 to $64, but one little company went from 1-1/4 to 18-1/2, split 2-for-1, then continued upwards. I’d planned to buy 50 shares. Had I been left to my own devices, I’d have made over $3000.

I still did pretty well. My Freuhauf shares slumped, but came back, and the Occidental continued doing well. One day in late 1968 I decided the stocks looked about as good as they were going to get, and told my father I wanted to sell. He again talked me out of it. A week later the market fell. A year afterwards, I insisted–threw a tantrum, really–and got my money out, with what proved to be very good timing. With the proceeds, I bought the Model A.

My brother had also been in the market. He bought $100 worth of a company called Frontier Airlines, and a couple years later it was worthless (though the name was eventually revived).

So I had my Model A. I’d work on it, drive, work on it more, drive a little more. One day my brother and I set up a date with Monk’s two sisters. Luanne very much wanted to go out with Robin; Carole very much didn’t want to go with me. Her father insisted, and we had a date.

First Date

My brother, the sisters and I packed into the Model A and headed for the Third Eye Theatre in downtown Denver to see “The Fantasticks”, a hilarious comedy wherein the fathers play matchmaker by forbidding their children to see each other, calculating correctly that this will make them want each other the more. I’d seen it with my family, and the absolute pinnacle for any comedy, anywhere, was set by Budge Threlkeld, who later toured with Rickie Lee Jones. Budge as Mortimer had a dying scene in which one of the lines was “they’d always shout die again, Mortimer, die again!!”, at which point my father, from the audience, stood up and shouted “DIE AGAIN!!!”. Budge looked out, smiling, and with a finger wag said, slowly, “I never did!”.

But that was a different night. Our foursome saw a wonderful production, with Joe Horvath superb as Mortimer. Later the fathers danced and sang about how predictable a garden was in comparison to raising children. One father loudly flubbed the line “plant a radish, get a radish” as “plant a radish, get a carrot”. At the next kick-step. the other father booted him in the butt.

We enjoyed the play, had something to eat, started home–and the car quit. The lights dimmed, and it died. We were nearly hit as we pushed it off the road. I stuck in the crank, fiddled with the choke, spark advance and fuel mix; finally got her started, climbed into the driver’s seat, turned on the headlights and she died. I cranked her a couple more times with the same result. We drove the last few miles on back roads, in the dark, lights off.

The next day I went to the Model A parts store (yes, there was one) and bought a new cut-out switch, an earlier version of a voltage regulator which kept the battery from overcharging. When the battery was fully charged, an electromagnetic switch would “cut out” the generator, but the switch had a nasty habit of sticking. It’d drained the battery when we were parked.

That was my first and only “date” for about ten years. For hippie types “dates” were rather of out of fashion, but I was far too terrified to ask a girl out anyway. Guys and gals would meet at parties and go home together, or whatever, but formally planning a “date” seemed quaint, and “square”.

The following spring, a wheel on my Falcon fell off. The front passenger-side wheel had been squeaking for a few days, but I was clueless what that meant. One day, a few blocks from home, the squeaking became a squealing, then a grinding. Suddenly, the brakes didn’t work. I had to go around a corner on two wheels. When the car came down, its front wheel bounced into the bushes while the front end crunched to a halt, dug into the pavement. I called Monk and said he could have it if he hauled it off, and he dragged it home, leaving a half-mile gouge in the pavement.

I bought a  blue 1964 Falcon Futura a few days later. On one of our jaunts to Picadilly Road, Wayne lost a cigarette in the back seat. The night was windy and I’d left the windows down. By the morning the entire back seat had smoldered into a black char. The fire truck came and they pulled out the back seat. When they threw it in the street, it burst into flames, but the car was undamaged except for a couple scorch marks on the headliner. I washed it thoroughly and got a back seat from a 1965 Futura; the pattern didn’t match but the color did. I had to leave the windows open for 3 months to air out the stink.

Readying to Move, Again

My father went to Hollywood that summer to visit his friend Ric, who was now an established actor. He schmoozed with a lot of people, got a lot of smoke blown up his butt, and decided it was our time. Over the next months we sold two of the rental houses to their long-time tenants. Joe bought the barbershop, but we had two more houses, ours at 17th & Spruce and an old house which had been split up into apartments at 9th & Downing. The Downing Street house had been a problem.
There were three rooms upstairs, two occupied by ladies in their 90’s and the other by a fellow I’d known from high school. One side of the downstairs had been rented by a couple in their thirties, but the other by a young couple who’d taken in friends and then moved out. It became a “crash pad”, and the rent paid by passing a hat.

Dealing with the crash pad got old, quick. No one living there had signed the rental contract; indeed, none of them knew who we were. My father and I evicted a guy and a girl who’d overslept, changed the locks and left the key with the couple in the other apartment The next day, they smelled gas. Someone had loosened all the gas connections in the basement, which could’ve blown up the house and everyone in it. We reported it to the police, who kept an eye on the place for a few weeks.

I did a lot of cleanup and repair on the house when I wasn’t at work. There was a long, flimsy outside staircase to the second floor. The little old ladies were afraid to use it and, before the eviction, had been afraid to go to the front door , so had spent most of their time in their rooms. There was junk in the basement and a garage out back, which had been converted from a stable. It couldn’t be used due to an accumulation of garbage, but when cleaned out it revealed, obscured for many years, an excavation under the right parking space which could be used to work beneath a car. The downstairs tenants, John and Mary, helped. John had the same birthday as me, and was about twelve years older. He smoked cigars and claimed to be an “Archie Bunker bigot”, though I saw little evidence of that.

John and Mary stayed in the house when we sold it. A couple years later most of the houses on that block were bought for a huge amount and torn down. Now it’s a Ramada Inn.

I’d sworn off LSD six or eight months before. I’d taken a little, never a full tab,   twenty-four times in about six months, but started feeling spacey and quit at the end of the summer. Late in November, though, Monk and his brother talked me into doing it again “for old times’ sake”. I took three-quarters of a tab of one variety and half-a-tab of another, and we sat in Monk’s basement for awhile. I got higher than I liked, and nervous. Monk’s brother tried to quiet me, saying if I didn’t cool it the old man would come down and kill us. It hit me the wrong way. For some reason I thought I was going to die. I ran through the snow in my socks, back to my house, then a few minutes later back to Monk’s. I kicked in the door, ran around and screamed until the cops took me to the hospital. They pumped me full of Thorazine. When I awoke the world looked strangely two-dimensional and cartoonish, but I was all right. I slept in Juvenile Hall that night, got out the next evening, and didn’t do acid for five years.

I’m Eighteen

My 18th birthday came; a big deal because I could legally drink 3.2% beer. There were 3.2 clubs all over town, and it was sold in grocery stores. Stronger stuff was sold to 21-year-olds, in liquor stores and bars, but there were few reasons for an 18-year-old to buy it. We’d have to drink a lot of beer to get a buzz, but didn’t have to drive around town looking for a bum to buy it for us.

For my 18th birthday, my brother Robin bought me a ticket to my first rock concert. I’d been to classical music concerts; every year the public schools sponsored the symphony orchestra in the local coliseum. Thousands of kids piled in, from all over the state. It was a terrible venue. The kids were loud, the acoustics were horrible, the musicians uninspired and distracted. I hated classical music until I was thirteen, when my mother took me to the opening of a new music hall for the Denver symphony orchestra. The music was grand, spectacular in the new hall, with its comfy seats, sparkly lights and velvet-draped walls! At the end of the concert I felt as if I were being lifted from my chair, involuntarily! It was the first time I’d felt a real connection to music. I was to have strong feelings about the rock concert, too, but for different reasons.

Jethro Tull was at Red Rocks Park that weekend; a much-anticipated event. Red Rocks is a natural amphitheatre in the mountains near Denver. There’s a half-moon shaped rock thirty or forty feet across and twenty or thirty feet tall sticking out of the ground at about a 60* angle, and the stage is built beneath and in front of it. The hillside in front of the stage is covered with long benches. To the left is a behemoth of red sandstone, angled outwards.

The seating was restricted to a few thousand, and all the tickets had long been sold out. Rob and I, and a couple of his friends, drove down in my Futura. Rob had lost his ticket, but hoped to buy one from a scalper when we arrived.

As we approached Red Rocks, the roads were unusually busy. We arrived early but still had to park over a mile away. This was one of the first big rock concerts in our part of the country; Woodstock had been less than two years before, and that summer every hippie within a thousand miles wanted to be at Red Rocks.

It was mid-afternoon when we got to the entrance, and trouble was already brewing. Thousands were hiking into the hills. Security guys on bullhorns yelled that they couldn’t get through, but they hiked anyway. There were a few cops by the gate fas well, one of whom I recognized from King Soopers. He was a short fellow with a pug nose and full cheeks who looked quite like a pig, though I knew he was an okay guy. As I said a few words to him, a very large hippie started an argument with the several other cops. I scooted up the entrance stairway with my brother’s friends–my brother was still wandering around trying to buy a ticket–as the big guy was yelling out, “WE’RE the PEOPLE’S ARMY, and we’re going IN!!” and “Are you WITH US?! ARE YOU WITH US!?!”. The three of us found seats before the pushing and shoving began.

I knew several folks who were there, from work, from school or from the neighborhood. While we talked, helicopters began flying over and we heard bullhorns from over the hill. Livingston Taylor was trying mightily to proceed, but was clearly rattled. A few People’s Army conscripts straggled over the hill and told stories of a riot going on.

Before the concert I’d scored a hundred-lot of little blue mescaline pills, which I’d split halfsies with Monk. I had sewn a secret pocket inside the seam of my bell-bottoms and pulled them out when we were seated, selling a few for a couple dollars each. I chewed up a tab and drank Gatorade with it, advising the same to the others, and within 20 minutes we were flying. My brother, meanwhile, had given up and walked back to the car.

After the opening act, there was a delay while the helicopters continued to fly and bullhorns echoed from the valley. Jethro Tull took the stage at sunset, and played a couple songs. While they played, more and more people stumbled over the hill, and with them, TEAR GAS!! People started choking and screaming and running from one side to the other, up and down, to and fro, and the band quit briefly as they choked, too. Many hid out in the bathrooms or left entirely, but meanwhile hundreds more came over the hill, then thousands. They were climbing on the rocks, and starting to throw things. The tear gas dissipated after about twenty minutes, and the band started up again. Thousands scaled the rocks to the sides, and over the stage itself. It was a free concert now; the fences had been torn down and everyone packed in–everyone except my brother. Unfortunately I’d locked the car and he didn’t have a key, so he climbed on the hood, shivered and waited, listening to the music echo through the hills.

After everything settled down, it was good concert. Jethro Tull had just released Aqualung, and Ian Anderson’s flute, always incredible, was immeasurably enhanced by the surroundings. There were hippies all over the rocks as well as packed into the stands; a few folks were sitting on the tip-top of the rock above stage, looking out on the action from twenty feet up, while on the huge rock to the side there were dozens of people dancing and carrying on, from little cave-like nooks even higher in the air. One fellow in a little niche very close to the top was dancing like crazy; I was afraid he’d fall, but he didn’t. I met him a couple years later in California. I’ve met half-a-dozen people who’ve said they were at that concert, in states as distant as California, Illinois and Hawaii.

When the concert was over, so was my time in Colorado. My youngest brother Sam had made a movie in Telluride the year before, which was to be shown on Disney the following January. A week or so after the concert, my brother Rob and I packed to move to West Hollywood, where my father had bought a rental equipment yard. He had three or four friends doing well in California and a longtime correspondence with Pearl Bailey, to whom he’d sent a funny fan letter (a “complaint” that he was losing money in his nightly poker games because her show was so good she was distracting him) and received a charming reply. They sent letters every few months for the next several years.

It was time for Hollywood.

Poverty Pete’s

Pete’s Rental, once known as Poverty Pete’s, was located on Santa Monica Boulevard within Los Angeles County, but outside the LA city limits, in an area known as “the Strip”. Sunset Strip ran along the top of the hill above. It was called West Hollywood, but wasn’t incorporated, and thus law enforcement was provided by the sheriff, njot the police. Think Andy Taylor of Mayberry, instead of Joe Friday of Dragnet.

We packed the yellow 1965 Ford station wagon full. Towing the old green trailer behind us, we three set out for California. We drove straight through (we always drove straight through), me and my father splitting the driving. One slept while the other drove. My brother, though he’d been sixteen for months, had never bothered to get a license, which mystified me.

There were no speed limits in Nevada, and I briefly took the car over 100 miles per hour because I could. At the California border the speed limit went to 65, and 55 for cars with trailers, which were limited to the right lane. I’d never seen a speed limit on the open highway ending in “5”; towns had speed limits of 25, 35, 45, but on the open road it’d be 50, 60, 70; in Kansas or Nebraska even 80 or 90. This was desert. It was deserted, and nobody followed the speed limit, including us. We drove at 70+, in whichever lane was convenient, passing cars as needed.

The need for speed isn’t properly understood by those who live in the East. For years the national limit of fifty-five was fast enough in Massachusetts or even Virginia, where someone’s house or barn or street light is almost continuously in view. In the deserts or mountains of the West, though, there may be nobody for fifty or a hundred miles. No houses, barns, street lights. No fences, dogs, cows. No cars passing by for hours at a time; on the backroads, sometimes days. Where there are no cars, a clear  flat road, no trees to hit and the temperature is 110ºF,  it makes little difference to one’s safety if a car is moving 55 or 85 mph, but an hour or two in such dangerous heat is a really big deal.

When we got to the metropolitan Los Angeles area–we were over a hundred miles from the LA city limits, but it was already urban–my father took his turn driving. Inside of 15 minutes, he was pulled over by one of the snotty, arrogant cops common to LA. Two freeways had merged, and thus he had good reason to be outside the trailer lane, but the cop asked in a condescending way just what he was doing in California. This ticked him off, and he replied that they had a really good welfare system in California, so he was moving with his wife and six kids so they could sponge off the state. He finished by saying “just write up the ticket, you son of a bitch”, which wasn’t the best way to plead his case.

At sunset we arrived at 8601 Barr Lane, Garden Grove, in Orange County. It was a small house with a tiny front yard and a big pool in back, owned by Burt Douglas, an actor friend of my father’s who had a long-running role in a soap opera, which as it meant a steady paycheck, was Hollywood gold. Theatrical, cinematic or television shows are generally temp work, but soap operas plugged along for years. The Screen Actors’ Guild, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors, are the two unions with the highest percentage of members unemployed at any given time. With the Guild the figure is 95%. Actors are paid well when they work, and receive residual checks when shows or commercials are broadcast, but it’s an uncertain life.  It’s hard to come by steady work in Hollywood. The few available well-paid jobs don’t last.

Lots of people who’d like to get into movies don’t understand or appreciate the Screen Actor’s Guild. It’s hard to get in, expensive to stay in, and once you’re in, you can’t drop out. If you join the Guild, you join for life. You pay your dues and maintain your membership. It does offer, however, unique advantages.

I’m a member of the Retail Clerks’ Union. I haven’t worked as a retail clerk in a union store, nor paid dues to the union, since I was a teenager. They don’t care. There may be a dozen guys with my name in the Retail Clerks’ Union, They don’t care. If I want another union job as a retail clerk, I’ll re-up with the union, sign the paper and pay the twenty bucks.

If I make a SAG movie as a teenager, I join the Screen Actors’ Guild. I’m paid for my work, and paid well–I make as much in a day as a retail clerk makes in a month. When the film wraps I’m paid again, then again each time it shows in the theatre, on TV, when the DVDs or action figures come out, when my picture is used in promotion. The name on the check is mine and mine only. Nobody else in the Guild can use my name, even if they’re born with it. If the film is shown anywhere in the world, Screen Actors Guild will track me down and send me a check–for decades. The amounts on the checks decrease, but a few bucks is better than none.

In return, I belong to the Screen Actors’ Guild, for life. If I get out of the business for ten years, twenty years, and don’t pay my dues, they still hold my checks and see that nobody else uses my name. I still get paid. If I decide to return to the business, however, I have to pay up. Those ten years’, twenty years’ back dues–pay up. It might be thousands of dollars. Pay up. Your membership is active. Your name is registered, your earnings on file. Pay up.

Of course, you’ll probably make it back in a couple days.

By the time we moved to California, my father had been in the Screen Actors’ Guild for two years. My sister had been in a national commercial and had won a Clio, the commercial equivalent of an Oscar, and my brother had starred in a movie for Disney. When my brother didn’t like movie’s theme song, he wrote a new one. They used it, so he also joined ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers–in fact he was its youngest member.

Our business was in a funny little shack on a major thoroughfare. Santa Monica Boulevard ran for miles through the center of town, but in our little two-or-three block spot there was an old set of rusty tracks for a trolley-car line, and the land belonged to the railroad. Pete’s Rental, originally Poverty Pete’s Used Cars, had been there for 25 years–on a 30-day lease. Since the railroad could terminate the lease at any time, building anything substantial would have been pointless The fellow who had started the business put up a long, ramshackle shack and, making a necessity into an asset, advertised as “Poverty Pete”.

“Poverty Pete”, whose name was really Norbert, had a hobo doll mascot in the corner, and the clock on the wall ran backwards. His business cards carried pithy, smart-ass sayings alluding to his lack of money and hobo lifestyle. He dressed in ragged clothes, but did well. One day a fellow came by and asked Pete if he could park his cement mixer on the lot and rent it out. Pete said OK, and pretty soon the cement mixer was rented out several days a week. Pete bought a few for himself and soon decided renting equipment was a lot more profitable and far less hassle than selling used cars. Buy a used car, tune it up, change the oil, shampoo the upholstery, replace the tires, touch up the paint, check the brakes, and you’ll make money, when it sells–maybe days, weeks, months later. Sharpen up a chainsaw, you’ll make twenty dollars a few times a week. Rent out a hatchet and pick to go with it, a trailer to haul the wood, a trailer hitch, you’ll make fifty, or a hundred.

When Pete started renting equipment he chained the various trailers, trucks, jackhammer compressors, cement mixers, together at night and put the rest of the tools in the shack and and in a narrow, fenced-in lot patrolled by a big, dangerous-looking German shepherd who had the run of the place at night. Our “rest room” was a spot behind the shack where we could pee. For “number two” we went to the gas station next door, where we bought all the gas for our trucks. The manager didn’t mind.

One thing making rentals different from sales is the return of equipment. With used cars, the customer drives away and likely won’t be back. Rental equipment must be returned. We copied the driver’s license number, the make, model, color, and tag number of their car, compared their signature and picture to their license. If there was important information about using the equipment we’d circle the relevant parts of the contract or hand-write a short statement for the customer to sign, then take a substantial deposit, returned when the equipment came back. If the equipment wasn’t returned Pete always filed charges with the sheriff, for conversion–the legal term, different from outright theft. Once every month or two Pete spent a day or two in court futzing around with lawyers. The insurance company required it. Insurance costs, lawyer’s fees, and time spent in court were large draws on the finances.

My father had a different idea. Surveillance cameras were in the future, but he got a gadget which took a simultaneous picture of each person, their signed contract and their ID. This one simple step changed everything. Losses through conversion went down to nearly nothing when everyone had to smile for the camera; the psychological impact was immense.

We also got a lot of cheap tools to add to the professional, expensive tools carried by Pete. A high-quality jigsaw cost about $75 in 1972, and could be rented at $2 per day. We had about half-a-dozen, jigsaws being a popular item, and it took a long time, a lot of rentals, an occasional trip to court and a lot of insurance to make that kind of money back on six jigsaws. There’d be one or two of them torn apart waiting for parts at any given time; bearings and brushes were more expense and more time.

About this time Black & Decker brought out a cheap jigsaw. It was the first tool in a long line of cheap tools and eventually small appliances which transmogrified Black and Decker; from premium professional toolmakers they became vendors of can openers. We bought a couple $7 jigsaws out of curiosity, and found we could rent them out 40 or 50 or 80 times before they died. There was no repairing the bushings or brushes in these burned-out lumps, but they’d made us $80 to $160 on a $7 investment. We bought eight or ten. We kept the quality jig saws for contractors who knew the difference, but we stocked up on cheap tools for the general public.

Movie Stars

And the stars. Lots of stars rent tools. As mentioned, the unemployment rate for Screen Actors Guild members is 95%. Many big-name stars drive rusty trucks and do their own household work; some to save money, others for enjoyment. Darren McGavin rented sanders, saws, drills or paint guns several times a month. Richard Chamberlain occasionally rented trucks and such, and once kissed my mother’s hand (she didn’t wash it for a week!). Jayne Mansfield had an account when she and her husband built their “Pink Palace”. She’d passed on by 1972, but her husband Mickey Hargitay, and especially his brother Eddy, still came in regularly. It was always an adventure with Eddy; he’d only recently come from Hungary and his command of English was questionable. The nearest rental yard to us was a couple miles down the street, and one day they had some tool that we didn’t. I started telling Eddy the address, “4969”, and he wrote down “3868” before I stopped him and wrote the address myself–then thought about it, and wrote down the name of the tool!

My father was in his element. He loved talking shop with actors, hobnobbing, making connections. He got a part in a movie; he and a tall black fellow were hired as extras in a crowd scene and he immediately told the black guy he’d get them into the movie. Through numerous takes, he did outrageous things; knocking over barriers, walking into people, waving his hands excitedly as he talked with his new buddy, and in each take the director would call forward this person, that one and that one. My father is now, and for all time, the fellow directly behind Woody Allen as Woody walks with the tall, loopy Shelley Duvall in the classic Annie Hall. Later, Woody and Diane Keaton lunch in a restaurant, three blocks from Pete’s Rental. At the exact moment when Woody asks Diane if they should get married, a truck drives by, towing a jackhammer compressor. I hitched that compressor to that truck; my claim to cinematic immortality.

When we moved to California, at first it was me, my brother and my father. We mostly got along; he drank more than when mother was around, but enjoyed his life more. We occasionally had disputes–one time when he was out, we stacked his empty beer cans inside the front door in a giant pyramid, which he knocked over coming in. We were a long way from Colorado, but also a long way from work, and many arguments involved the best route to take. My father thought the straightest route the best. It was 40 miles, but involved a long stretch on the Santa Ana Freeway (Interstate 5), which was, and is, a parking lot. I preferred a more roundabout route, which clocked in at about 45 miles My father, who never doubted that he was correct in all things, insisted my route would take at least an hour and fifteen minutes and wouldn’t bother to try it, instead betting me $10 one morning that I couldn’t make it to work in less than an hour. He lost that bet when I answered the phone, at precisely 7:30 am.

After a month my father went back to Colorado to tie up loose ends, and for a couple months it was just me, at 18, and my brother, at 16, alone in California.

I became someone entirely different. Instead of hanging out with the neighbor girls I’d just begun to meet, I now worked full-time at the rental yard; initially 70 hours a week (with about another 14 hours travel time) until the family arrived and the summer was over. My brother met some of the neighbors, but I arrived home late, got up early and did all the driving.

When it was just two of us, I didn’t do much else but work. I left the house at 6:30 am and maybe got back around 7 pm, unless I shopped for groceries or did anything else at all. I worked every day including Sunday, though on Sunday it was 8 to 5 instead of 7:30 to 5:30. For the first month or so, the previous owner’s son Hans showed us the ropes. After that we hired a fellow, Les, who’d worked there before, 9 to 5 most weekdays. I put in ten hours every day, and couldn’t take off because my brother had no driver’s license.

I never understood why a license meant so little to him, except that I’d been a year younger than my classmates and had been chomping at the bit for a year longer than most. I found it inconceivable that anyone who turned sixteen would NOT want to get a license at warp speed. I understand why one wouldn’t use it often in crowded Eastern cities with train lines and subways, but not to even desire one seems to me strange.

It didn’t bother my brother, though. He happily walked, hitchhiked or rode a bike. He’d pull the trucks up for rental, drive them next door to fill up and park them when they came back, but that was all.

Because he didn’t have a driver’s license, if anything needed doing I left him home once or twice a week and he’d wash the clothes, chlorinate the pool, take out the trash, mow the lawn and so forth. One day I went to work, came home and HE WASN’T THERE!

I checked all over. He wasn’t next door or at any of the neighbors. I drove around the nearby streets and alleys, finally called my parents in Colorado. They hadn’t heard from him. He was MISSING!

What had happened, as it turned out, was one of those idiotic and deplorable stunts which gave California cops their foul reputation.

My brother had walked less than a mile to the pool supply store that July day but, foolishly, without shoes. He’d purchased the chemicals and was walking home, but his feet were hot and he stopped in the shade of a tree. A couple cops saw the long-haired hippie kid and decided to hassle him, making the ridiculous, false, lying, totally illegitimate and illegal assertion that “someone” had called and reported he was drunk, at eleven in the morning.

My brother had been going through a phase in which he crammed his pockets full of stuff, and was wearing a special pocket vest which was also crammed full of stuff. They had him pull out all his stuff, and one of the things he pulled out was a small canister of tear gas. Totally legal in Colorado, and every other state of the union. In California it was a felony.

He told the cops he’d acquired it when he’d been robbed by a couple of black kids in junior high. They were sympathetic, but by this time they’d drawn a crowd, and were pretty well stuck. After an hour piddling around, they took him in.

Well, this was just the start. He was at the juvenile facility, and allowed to use the phone, but I was in West Hollywood, which was a long-distance phone call–as was a call home, half-a-mile away. Juvenile hall was covered by AT&T, but our neighborhood by a little company called General Telephone, which operated in pockets here and there–and a call from one system to the other was long-distance.

Because whatever call he would have made from a half-a-mile away, to anyone he knew, would’ve been long-distance, it was not allowed, so seven hours later, when I came home at 6 pm, nobody knew where he was.

Not even the cops. I called them. They didn’t have a record of an arrest. My parents called, from Colorado, and were told the same. At three or four in the morning a cop finally knocked on my door, woke me up, and told me what was going on–but because I was 18, not 21, I couldn’t pick him up. My parents had to call a friend from Colorado, Jack Dorn, who now lived about fifty miles from us. He pretended he was an uncle, and signed Rob out.

And that was that. None of us heard back, from anyone. Perhaps the case was mis-filed, perhaps thrown away. Perhaps the cops decided to forget all about it . My parents were ready to sue someone, but that was the end of it.

The rest of the summer passed uneventfully. We both went to work every day, except when my brother took off. I had no time off and was becoming more and more unhappy. With no social skills to begin with, I was in a very big city surrounded by unfamiliar faces and places. I was learning a great deal, building physical strength and confidence about my abilities, but romantically I was lost in a desert. I knew no one in the neighborhood, and didn’t have time to relax with them if I did. I didn’t know my way around town, didn’t know the people they knew, the places they went. Anyway I was too tired do anything but come home, take a shower, eat, drop into bed. I’d have loved to get to know the two cute girls next door Julie and Lauren, but I was so nervous and hopeless I couldn’t do more than stare at my feet.

The one thing I sometimes enjoyed in the evening was the pool. We had a tall fence around the backyard, and when no one was around (which was most of the time) I’d swim or sunbathe nude. One day I’d been dozing and the girls next door woke me–they’d been peeking over the fence and giggling. Julie and Lauren were sixteen and fourteen; both cute as could be, but Lauren, the younger, suited my tastes and liked me, too. If we’d have stayed in the neighborhood I’d have tried to romance her.

After a couple more months, the rest of the family came to California. I finally had a little time off, forty hours weekly instead of seventy (or 84 including travel time), and my schedule settled into Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday while my father’s was Wednesday, Thursday Friday and Saturday, with my mother and brother showing up occasionally. Usually everyone worked Saturdays, and my brother and I on Sundays.

My blue Falcon wasn’t driven to California. It was towed on the back of the station wagon when the family came out, also driving a U-Haul van stuffed to the gills, towing my Model A. My father had driven back to Colorado in the yellow Ford station wagon. He’d put an interesting gadget under the hood, a huge oil filter filled with wadded cotton and string. It kept the oil very clean, so he never changed it. This worked well for many years–he drove it daily in Colorado for two years, to California and back twice, two more years of hard driving in California, back to North Carolina and a couple more years in North Carolina, adding a little oil occasionally but never changing it–until one day the engine seized up, encased in a very clean, very shiny shellac. The oil filter had done its job, for eighty or a hundred thousand miles. The engine was immaculate, but the oil had hardened into varnish.

That’s how I felt, too. I was strong, knowledgeable, capable, but seized. I was eighteen, a tanned, healthy hippie, but going nowhere–no girlfriend, no prospects, no life.

Still, I’d survived fourteen, and then some. The Sixties were history, and I was Alive!