Born Days
I was onstage before my birth. My parents met in an outdoor drama, “Horn in the West”, and my father was the star of the show. When my mother, a singer, carried off a prop anvil carelessly 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 the next June.
My first eighteen years are covered in the big hit movie, “Bozo’s Boy”, which hasn’t been produced. In the meantime, you’ll have to read the book.
My parents 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 “the Horn” in June, where the part of Three Week Old Baby was written in 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 more kids later buying the shop from Harold and renaming it The Mayfair.
My youngest brother at age eleven made a movie for Disney, and when my father visited Disneyland, he found a Magical Kingdom. He decided the family should move, and we bought an equipment rental yard at 8770 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. My father, my brother and I drove out in June and the rest of the family followed at summer’s end.
Everyone Comes to Hollywood
It was late August. They’d towed my 1930 Ford Model A behind a U-Haul van, my blue 1964 Falcon Futura behind the family’s yellow 1965 Ford station wagon–as my youngest brother sang, “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.
After a few months my parents bought a much bigger house in Granada Hills, at 17541 Minnehaha Street, from the performer Bo Diddley. It had a huge swimming pool, five bedrooms, a recording studio, wrap-around driveway, a fountain, a guest house which became my room and a couple utility buildings which became my brother Robin’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 it happened. Then as now, Orange County was right-wing politically, and we weren’t. I also didn’t like being surrounded by the city. My middle brother soon had a run-in with the cops, and my youngest brother and especially my three younger sisters didn’t comprehend or appreciate the minutiae of suburban Garden Grove teenybopper society. It was a relief when we left for the San Fernando Valley.
The Valley
I liked the Valley. Frank Zappa made fun of it, but it wasn’t enveloped by LA. I drove through the Hollywood Hills to get to work, over Benedict Canyon, Coldwater Canyon, Beverly Glen or Mulholland Drive, and on weekends could head for Topanga Canyon and its uncrowded beach.
I’d been tense and high-strung as a teen, an overachiever shoveled onto the genius track in school, but was learning to relax. I let my hair grow, made macramé headbands and then a floppy hat out of colorful scraps to fit my big head. I wore bell-bottom jeans. I read a book called “Better Eyesight Without Glasses”, and quit wearing glasses. I started studying astrology in earnest. For the first time, I considered that maybe I didn’t want to immediately plunge into college. Maybe I should smell the flowers.
California life wasn’t without bumps. I knew only one person there. Jan was a year older, but as I’d been promoted in the first grade, so was everyone I’d known in school. She was at the University of Redlands, a hundred miles from LA but a thousand from Denver. She knew a guy there who’d gone to my high school for the same three years, but when we met, he and I only vaguely recalled a few mutual acquaintances. It was the first time I realized just how big and anonymous George Washington High School had been.
Jan surprised us a month after we’d moved to Granada Hills. She brought her guitar, stayed overnight and went to the beach with me the next day. I had her phone number, and on Sundays when I was alone at the rental yard I’d call her after work. I had a list of topics on a crib sheet. When I ran out of stuff to say we’d sit silently for some minutes. I felt like a complete weirdo, but she was very patient. I visited her once in Redlands; we drove around, went a few places, held hands and cuddled a little, but kissing didn’t work. My parents thought we had a romance, but it wasn’t even close. She was way more experienced. I was 18, but might as well have been 12; I was the youngest and smallest in all my classes in school and had never had a girlfriend. She’d had many boyfriends, one for three or four years.
The First Helms Bakery Truck
That fall I saw a 1931 Model A truck pull into a gas station. I stopped and talked to the driver. He was a Model A mechanic, getting it ready to sell. I got his number, thinking he could work on my car.
Two days later, my mother was driving my Ford Falcon. She stopped for a light and was creamed in the rear by a fellow who didn’t switch lanes in time. The rusty water from the air conditioning unit beneath the dashboard sprayed everyone in the front seat with what appeared to be blood, but wasn’t. The rear end was crunched badly; the rear wheel well dented tight against the tire. The bumper was dragging the ground, the frame bent, the trunk lid permanently popped open. It was totaled, and suddenly I needed transportation. I called the fellow with the truck. He wanted $650 for the truck and a few extra parts; I bought it and had my second Model A.
It had an interesting history. Its chassis was one of four, custom-built by Ford in 1931, and its wheelbase extended to the length of a Double A truck. One had been wrecked many years before, so now I owned one of the three original Helms Bakery trucks left in the world.
The body was rough. The chassis sagged and the wheels had been slapped on from much later vehicles. I chained it between our family Lincoln and my now-wrecked Falcon, jacked up the saggy part and left it for a week.
When the chassis was straight, the body didn’t fit! Off came the cab, the fenders, the homemade pickup bed. For awhile I drove it with nothing more than a cowl, a windshield and two doors—not even a proper seat, just a cushion to sit on while I held tightly to the steering wheel. Dangerous, of course, but by summer’s end it was back together. I exchanged some parts from my other Model A and bought three 19-inch wheels for the front tires and spare. The steering gear, engineered for the skinny 19” tires, immediately appreciated the change. In the rear, I kept the fat tires, which looked good and improved 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’s bent the lights can shut off in the middle of a turn. Now they’d recall it. In the ‘30s, you’d buy a new one, or live with it.
There are plenty of things you need to know before driving any old car–a friend of mine once made a list before loaning out his Volkswagen. It filled the front and half the back side of a sheet of paper–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 on the left and the spark advance lever on the right, reach under the dashboard to the gas tank, flip the gas valve, reach to the far side of the passenger compartment, pull and twist the choke button to set the gas/air mixture, put the key in the ignition switch, flip it on, step on the clutch, slide the transmission into neutral, step on the starter button, fiddle with the choke, gas pedal and throttle until the engine caught, pull the spark advance lever down and fiddle with the choke 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 reasons–the lights left on, the starter cranked until the juice ran out–there were several other possibilities, one of them particularly frustrating. There was a cut-out switch on of the generator to prevent overcharging the battery, but it could stick, and quickly drain the battery while the car was parked. The only way to know it was stuck would be to take a quick look at the ammeter on the dashboard as soon as the engine stopped; if the ammeter said “discharge”, you’d open the hood, give the cut-out switch a sharp whack and check it again.
There could be several other reasons for a dead battery, but with any of them it was time to pull out the hand crank.
It takes less power to run a Model A engine than to start it. If you can start it, it’ll run, unless the battery’s stone-dead and the generator fried. The brake light is dim, the horn won’t blow, and if you turn on the headlights everything shuts down, but if it’ll crank, it’ll run. Experienced Model A drivers kept the crank in a handy spot and tied 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, set all your valves and levers, grab the crank and go out front.
The crank slipped into a special hole below the radiator. With the left hand you’d pull the wire attached to the choke, and with four fingers of the right hand wrapped around the crank–but NOT your thumb–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 up the spark advance lever–it’d fire too soon in the stroke, and kick back forcefully (the reason not to wrap your thumb around the crank, as your forearm would jerk down and get a mean smack!). If none of this worked, you could jump start it by pulling up the floorboards and hooking up jumper cables, while remembering two things~that the Model A had a POSITIVE ground, and a 12-volt battery needed to be disconnected IMMEDIATELY when the engine caught, so as not to fry the Model A’s feeble 6-volt system. Another option was to push it, 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, seats, sideboards or any restraints at all, lounging on pillows and towels, hanging onto the cab or riding on the running boards through a beautiful California afternoon. We drove to 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. Forty years later, it’s got a couple hundred miles to go.
Becoming a Man
In October of 1971 I lost my virginity, sort of. As I was driving home from work after a long hot day I saw a hitchhiker. A girl! I picked her up. I asked where she was going. She said, “some private place”, as she grabbed and massaged my crotch. We drove to the nearest alley as she pulled off her panties and unzipped my jeans. She explained that she did this for money–but I told her that though I was eager enough, I only had two dollars and needed gas to get home. She smiled, 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 and HONKKK!!! Someone behind us. We moved to another alley. More fumbling. HONKKK!!! Someone in front. Moved the truck again, to a quieter spot. She climbed on top of me and we got started. HONKKK!!! Behind us again. I pulled up my pants, pulled down my shirt and drove on. I told her I couldn’t do this anymore. I was freaked out, a nervous wreck by habit, and the circumstances didn’t help. I dropped her off and drove home. When I took a shower that afternoon I tingled all over. For the first time, I’d touched a woman’s privates, felt her nipples rub my chest, slid my stiff part into her warm wet place. It was the first time any woman had, physically, grabbed me. My life, my attitudes, my confidence changed. I felt wonderful.
I was suddenly someone I hadn’t been before. I’d never been athletic in school; as the smallest and youngest, what was the point? I wore glasses and studied science because I was supposed to, because countless teachers, counselors and other adults had told me I was the smartest kid in the state. I wasn’t happy as the nerdy kid genius, though. I was depressed as hell.
I’d planned to take a year off before college, since I’d graduated at sixteen, but after a year 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 as anything but more pressure, distress, tension, heartache, despair, and avoided the decision. Avoided everything. I knew I wasn’t gonna be a rocket scientist, but not what or who I was.
I’d acquired a night job in the hippie part of town before we’d left Denver, and oodles of contacts. This had given me a cachet in my suburban neighborhood, but we’d left too soon for me to take advantage of it. Girls had started noticing me; cute girls would hear my name and exclaim, “YOU’RE Dave Austin? Oh, I’ve heard SO much about you but you’ve always been asleep or working or…”, and went on discussing my reputation, the celebrity status I didn’t know I’d achieved as a mysterious, unseen philosopher-astrologer-wizard.
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 left for Hollywood.
Poverty Pete’s
After the second World War, Poverty Pete (whose real name was Norbert) started selling used cars on land next to the old trolley lines in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County called “the Strip”. Like Sunset Strip, which was up the hill from Santa Monica Boulevard, the West Hollywood area was patrolled by the sheriff, not the police, and was known for being a bit wilder and looser than the rest of L.A.
Pete sold a lot of cars in postwar Los Angeles, but one day a contractor came by and asked if he could rent out his spare cement mixer from a corner of Pete’s lot. It rented out so often that Pete bought a couple for himself. He soon decided renting equipment was more profitable, and less hassle, than 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–days, weeks, or months later. Sharpen up a chainsaw, you’ll make twenty dollars two or three times a week. A hatchet and pick to go with it, a trailer to haul wood and a trailer hitch; you’ll make fifty, or a hundred.
It was shabby-looking. The railroad maintained a thirty-day lease option on the property, so there was no sense in building an expensive structure, but Poverty Pete’s had been there for twenty-five years. He printed humorous business cards, and dressed like a tramp. Our family bought it in 1971.
The office, a wooden shack with a leaky roof, was next to a fenced-in yard where our guard dog roamed. The grounds were full of trucks, trailers, cement mixers, compressors and whatnot, chained up or locked at night. Inside the building was a back room, a front counter and a storage area littered with drills, grinders, rollers, sanders, pumps, ladders, jack hammers and so forth, in various stages of repair. It had an excellent location, with a clear view of the HOLLYWOOD sign, and was doing well financially. Customers were often waiting when we arrived.
When we first moved, it was my father, my brother Rob and me. My father drank more than when mother was around, but we usually got along. Many of our disputes involved the best route to work. My father thought the straightest route the best. It involved a forty-mile stretch on the Santa Ana Freeway (Interstate 5), which was, and is, a parking lot. I preferred a more roundabout route of about 45 miles. My father, who never doubted that he was correct in all things, insisted my route would take at least fifteen minutes longer, and wouldn’t bother to try it. He bet me $10 one morning that I couldn’t make it to work in less than an hour, and lost when I answered the phone at precisely 7:30 am.
After a month, our father went back to Colorado to tie up loose ends, and for the summer it was just me, at 18, and my brother, 16, alone in California.
I now worked 69 hours a week at the rental yard, with about 14 hours travel time. Ten hours Monday through Saturday, nine on Sunday. My brother stayed home occasionally and met some of the neighbors, but I arrived home late, got up early and had to do all the driving. I left at 6:30 am and returned around 7 pm, unless I stopped for groceries, or any other reason.
For the first month or so, Pete’s son Hans showed us the ropes, and after that we hired a fellow who’d previously worked there, Les, who showed up from 9 to 5 on most weekdays. I put in ten hours every day, and couldn’t take off because my brother had no driver’s license. It mystified me why he never got a license, but it didn’t bother him.
This caused some real trouble later. Because he didn’t have a driver’s license, if anything needed doing, I left him home. Once or twice a week he’d wash the clothes, chlorinate the pool, take out the trash, mow the lawn. One day I came home and HE WASN’T THERE!
He wasn’t at any of the neighbors’ homes. I drove the nearby streets and alleys, finally calling my parents in Colorado. They hadn’t heard from him. He was MISSING!
As it turned out, it was one of those idiotic and deplorable stunts which gave California cops a bad name.
My brother had walked less than a mile to the pool supply store that July day but, foolishly, without shoes. He got the chemicals and started home, but 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 reported him drunk”, at eleven in the morning.
My brother was fond of cramming his pockets full. He was wearing a cargo jacket and a special pocket vest, both crammed full. They had him pull out all his stuff, and one thing 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.
Our father had originally bought it for him after he’d been robbed by a couple of delinquents in junior high school. The cops were sympathetic, but by this time they’d drawn a crowd, and felt they had to do something. After an hour piddling around, they took him in.
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 call. As was a call home, half-a-mile away. Juvenile hall was served by AT&T, but our neighborhood by a little company called General Telephone, which operated in small 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. Seven hours later, when I came home at 6 pm, nobody knew where he was.
Not even the cops. They didn’t have any record of an arrest. My parents called, from Colorado. They were told the same. At three or four in the morning, a cop knocked on my door, waking me up, and told me what had happened–but since I was 18 and not 21, I couldn’t pick him up. My parents had to call a friend they knew from Colorado, Jack Dorn, who now lived about fifty miles from us. He pretended he was an uncle, and signed Rob out.
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, but didn’t.
The Business
After the family arrived that summer, we established a sensible schedule. Les worked 9-5, I worked Saturday through Tuesday and my father Wednesday through Saturday. Everyone but Les worked Saturdays, sometimes including my mother. My brother and I worked Sundays by ourselves.
Rentals are different from sales. With cars, the customer drives away and likely won’t be back. Rentals 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. For important information about using equipment we’d circle relevant parts of the contract or hand-write a short statement, then take a substantial deposit, to be returned when the equipment came back. Pete brought in the sheriff several times a year to file charges for “conversion”; the legal term is different from outright theft. Every month or two Pete spent a couple days in court futzing around with lawyers, which was required by the insurance company. Insurance, lawyer’s fees, and time spent in court were large draws on the finances.
My father had a different idea. Surveillance cameras weren’t available in 1971, 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.
Pete carried a lot of professional, expensive tools, but we also added cheap ones. 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. It took a lot of rentals, an occasional trip to court and lots of insurance to break even on six jigsaws. There’d also be one or two torn apart at any given time, waiting on bearings or brushes. More expense, more time.
Black & Decker brought out a cheap jigsaw in 1971. It was the first in a long line of cheap tools and 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 forty, fifty, eighty times before they died. There was no repairing bushings or brushes in these burned-out lumps, but they’d made us $80 to $160 on a $7 investment. We bought six or eight. We kept the quality jigsaws for contractors, but stocked up on cheap tools for the general public.
Movie Stars
Lots of movie stars rent tools. The unemployment rate for Screen Actors Guild members at any given time is 95%, so many big-name stars drive old cars and do their own household work. Some want to save money, some simply enjoy it. Richard Chamberlain rented equipment occasionally, and once kissed my mother’s hand (she didn’t wash the spot for a week!). Darren McGavin rented sanders, saws, drills or paint guns regularly. Dick Clark, Alejandro Rey, Jack Cassidy rented tools. Davy Jones rented a wallpaper steamer. I noticed he was driving an Austin car! I started to pull out my driver’s license to show him my name, David Jones Austin, but before I’d even pulled it out he exclaimed, “Oh, YOU’RE one TOO! There’s THOUSANDS of us!!”
Jayne Mansfield had an account when she and her husband were building their “Pink Palace”, and Mickey Hargitay and 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 boulevard, and one day they had some tool that we didn’t. I told Eddy the address, “4969”, and he wrote down “3868”. I stopped him and wrote the address myself–then thought about it, and wrote down the name of the tool as well!
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 snagged a speaking part, which unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor, but he’s still, now and for all time, the fellow directly behind Woody Allen as Woody walks with the tall, loopy Shelley Duvall in his 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 red jackhammer compressor. I hitched that compressor to that truck! My claim to cinematic immortality!
When we were growing up, my youngest brother Sam skated through the fights Rob and I got into with our father. He’d get drunk and yell at me when I was around, at Rob when I wasn’t. Sam acted in plays, made 8mm movies with our three younger sisters, practiced the piano. I liked the piano, but when I’d plunk out a few notes, Sam would run in and take over. My parents let him, “reminding” me, as “the smart one”, that I had “homework.” Now, we were all putting together a family band, including me!
The Troubadour
I took up drums, and did very well. My brother Rob played guitar, Sam piano, and our sisters danced and sang. We hired a choreographer who’d worked with several Hollywood stars, from Gene Kelly to the Jackson Five, and a music arranger. We rehearsed every night. We did well in Hollywood, our greatest triumph being the Troubadour, a music hall in West Hollywood.
The Troubadour had a talent night each Monday, featuring a dozen bands. The best three from each week came back at the end of the month. We were one of them. The best band for the month was then invited to perform at the end of the year. It was us! We were one of the best dozen bands of the year!
There was a problem, though. 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, but somehow I’d picked it up. My fan enthusiastically told me how GREAT I was to INSTANTLY pick up the new beat, that he’d NEVER HEARD a drummer do THAT!—but I didn’t get the chance to respond. My father, standing beside me, jumped between us, grabbed him around the shoulder and physically shoved him along, saying yes, he’s a good drummer, but—, and shooting me dirty looks while my fan tried several times to tell me how great I was, talking over his shoulder, praising me. My father stole my fan. My one and only fan.
I felt like I had ashes in my mouth. I was empty. Spent. I played the end-of-month show, but then left the band. It was many years before I realized that my feelings had nothing to do with performing. My father stood in my way; I don’t know why. He didn’t come to my school plays, and made sure I didn’t act in any productions with anyone else in the family, though they’d done dozens together, including “A Christmas Carol”, with all seven of them, for five years running. It was a very strange kind of jealousy.
I always tried to be the most dedicated and capable artist in any job. At school, when bagging groceries or running a cash register, playing drums, I tried to be the best–but within the politics of the family band, I was nothing. Nothing. By my father’s lights, Sam and the girls were the stars. Rob wrote a few songs, but I was just the drummer. Replaceable. Disposable.
For the year end performance, Rob brought in a couple friends. I was too depressed to play drums any more; I spent my off-time riding a unicycle and juggling, vaguely planning to join a circus.
Granada Hills
For whatever reason, the girls who found me attractive were either older or younger. The older sisters of my friends liked me, and the friends of my younger siblings.
The first young, pretty woman who took more than an academic interest in me was my high school sociology teacher, named Judy. I’d been writing with my left hand in a bid to improve my dexterity, and she had a hard time reading it. I was delighted to come in after school and read to her. We’d discuss life, school, dating and such in a relaxed, candid, humorous way. Nothing remotely improper took place, but to an undersized, geeky kid of fourteen, these flirty conversations with a beautiful gal of 23 were an epiphany.
In California, I went to a party and met the cousin of my brother’s classmate Mindy. Her name was also Judy, and she was also nine years older. She’d been a nun, but had recently married and was about five months pregnant. We talked philosophy and astrology, and she found me fascinating.
It was a small Halloween party; Mindy, Joni, Judy, my brother, a couple other folks and I, and we had some beer and wine coolers. Joni was wearing a Wonder Woman costume and announced to all that it’d be pretty well impossible to grope her in it. I bet her that I could, and she sat on the arm of the couch, inviting me to try. I spiraled a finger inside her shiny leotard, up and over the flesh-tone 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, and she was much more forward with me than any girl I’d known. After a chat, she pulled me into her bedroom.
Her breasts were full and round, her nipples dark and large. Mindy opened the door to use the spare bathroom, but Judy shooed her off. I wasted no time. 
I was 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, but she turned pensive and said we shouldn’t be doing it. I wasn’t thinking anything at all, but tried to reassure her, and didn’t phrase it well. She thought I was okay with her because she couldn’t get pregnant again, which wasn’t at all what I wanted to say. The mood was gone; we pulled on our clothes and rejoined the party. We were fine, but after the party broke up I never saw Judy again.
I talked with Mindy a couple days later. I told her I was drunk, and she said Judy was too. We had a nice conversation and she came over. I told her I liked the blouse she had on, which had a little peep-hole in the cleavage. Things heated up. We stripped down and did it, two or three times. She was a little nervous, and I was too, but we were both exuberant and happy nonetheless to be naked together, doing it. I really appreciated my separate little guest house. Mindy and I talked and pranced around naked. Nobody bothered us.
Finally and joyously, I was indisputably not a virgin. It was late 1972, autumn in the San Fernando Valley. It was soon winter, when a few sparkles in the air was a snowstorm, talked about for weeks. In December I met my first real girlfriend. Tumbling around with Joni, Judy and Mindy was nice, but outside of a desire to party we didn’t have much to talk about. I liked them, but we didn’t have that indefinable spark.
My brother knew another girl, named Liz. I was 19, she 16. She was something different! Both our fathers had been in Germany in the second World War–mine American, hers German. She wore glasses. I told her I did too, until a few months before. We talked about eye exercises, astrology, 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 , electric kiss! I had a girlfriend, an actual girlfriend! The next time I saw her, three or four days later, she was vegetarian and had quit wearing glasses and leather. I saw her often after that; we’d kiss, make out, grope each other, but that was as far as we got. I had to leave California.
It was unfortunate, but the rental yard was built on land leased from the railroad company, and the lease had been cancelled.
A Fortune Teller
A couple months earlier. A slow Sunday in the early autumn. In the parking lot behind us, there was a flea market going on, and a dark eyed, gorgeous gypsy girl had a card table and was telling fortunes. She told me a few generalized things–that a situation I was in with a blonde-haired older girl would be resolved, that my life would 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 across the sea in a year and a half or two years, possibly Hawaii, on a ship named after an Indian princess, something almost, but not quite, Pocahontas. It seemed a fantasy to me, but a pleasant one. I was intrigued. I asked her if she’d be back. She wasn’t sure, but said I’d definitely see her again. I gave her all my pocket change plus a dollar, 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. I was healthy, and didn’t wear glasses. I was a sun-bleached blonde with a great tan, attracting female attention. Why would I want to change?
But life does change. Shortly afterwards, the railroad called in our lease and we had 30 days to leave. It wasn’t exactly a surprise; still, Pete’s had been there for over twenty-five years on that 30-day lease.
My parents looked around town and found a lot on Venice Boulevard in West Covina which seemed promising. It was cluttered with junk, and a small office building on one side had termite damage. They signed a lease and went to work. They hauled off the junk, put in a fence, called an exterminator and began moving equipment. Signs and flyers advertised the new location. They waited–and waited. Almost nobody came.

At about this time word came from North Carolina that our family had inherited the Austin home place, an old house plus 33 acres. The way forward was clear. My parents and family decided to move to Watauga County, just outside Boone. We sold the tools and equipment, and the rental yard was gone.

Hit The Road, Hippie!
With no means of support, few acquaintances in California and no desire to move to Boone, I decided to return to Colorado while Liz finished high school. We had a yard sale; I sold my four-door Model A and my wrecked 1964 Futura. I packed my TV, a 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. He had his own tools. He knew those were mine, but stole them, from the cab of my truck, before I left. Spitefulness? Petty jealousy? Pure ugliness? Beats me. He was a piece of work.
So, I drove north to Lancaster and started east. The highway patrol stopped me; my plates were wrong for me to haul stuff. He contended that it was a commercial activity, I’d need commercial registration, etc. etc., but as it was my 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 had 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 there. I thought for a long time, but I’d 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 personal great unknowns.
I spent the rest of the day as an Arizona tourist, seeing the places my father’d always breezed past at seventy miles an hour–the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest. I 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. 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 in the breeze, tore off. While I picked it up the engine died, and wouldn’t start. A cop called in a tow truck from about twelve miles down the road. I borrowed a couple tools and got it 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, also 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, the reflection of 31, and “DODGE” added up the same as “FORD A”. We were going in opposite directions, driving the same route (the only sane route to take in January) to destinations an hour or so north of the other’s starting point. Both of us were 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 and planning to stay with friends. Both our trucks had starter trouble, and both of us had small motorcycles on the back. We were the oldest in our families, had younger brothers named Rob, and had left on the same day. He had a friend a few miles away in Santa Fe, so I gave him a ride. We drove around Santa Fe until his friend showed up, then had a cup of coffee and I left. Santa Fe had a confused set of signs for Route 66, and in trying to follow the highway I went in a circle, just as he and his friend came out of the coffee shop. I said hi and asked directions, and as I started off again, my fender fell off the back. I circled around, and we loaded it on the bed.
As we loaded my fender on the truck, Dan gave me a gram of hash. I took a toke towards sunset and on the open road in the twilight I flew along, at 55 miles per hour, reading notes in the patterns of the trees on the mountainsides. The trees 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, again, wouldn’t crank. Another cop drove up. I told him what was happening, but he did nothing. There was a little bump where I’d parked, and with the extra weight in the back, I couldn’t budge it.
Fortunately, a fellow in a truck came by, showed me pictures of his own Model A and gave me a shove. The engine fired and I drove the rest of the way to Denver, reaching my friend Monk’s house late that afternoon. It was the last day of January, and very cold. I slept 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. Monk got me a job cleaning up at the Air Force base, starting the next Monday. We drove to work together and during our time off mostly discussed religion.
Monk Becomes a Monk
Monk had been chanting Hare Krishna, while I went to the temple on Sundays, ate the food and argued with devotees. They could never understand why I didn’t want to join them. I was a vegetarian, knew as much about Eastern philosophies and religions as any of them, but was stuck on one small point of doctrine—that we were all FINITE grains of sand in an infinite ocean. Every week one of the devotees would argue with me, 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. If you cut infinity into sand grains, each grain is infinite–but the devotees never saw.
Monk and I saved up our pay that February and looked for an apartment. We checked a couple of places–one was in the wrong neighborhood, another was offered by a fellow who wanted repairs in exchange for a low rent, but when we fixed it up, he said our rent would go up–not 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 survived the Titanic. We rented an efficiency apartment, rolled in an extra bed and planned to get a larger place the next month. I moved in on Sunday.
Monk planned a Monday move, but at the temple that night he chose to become a devotee.
Well, I was in the apartment, but without Monk’s half of the rent I had $1.36 to last 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, then a cement divider and two lanes on the other side. I discovered, too late, that I was driving in the left lane on the wrong side. A car blasted its horn. Next chance, half a block later, I made a left turn–the quickest way home. I was rattled, and ran the stop sign at the next intersection.
There was a cop waiting on the other side, lights off. He flipped on his flashing red-and-whites. I spun the steering wheel, hard right, into the nearest driveway, an apartment complex parking lot, and parked in the first open space. I 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. 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; I was under 21 and only knew 3.2 beer joints. He handed me a beer. We drove a few miles out of town, then back again. He had some grass mixed with hash in a briar pipe, and by the time he dropped me off 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 the several miles home, and couldn’t get in touch until Monday. I took the bus the next day, walked around an hour or two but couldn’t find my truck, so went back to the apartment and watched TV the rest of the weekend. 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, exasperated, turned around, and in the parking lot, several spaces down, out peeked the cab of my truck! It’d been lost for 3-1/2 days!
After a couple months I was tired of cleaning up at the Air Force base. I was 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 I’d made on the cleanup crew, but I soon found that 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’d quit smoking a couple years before, but started again on my arrival in Colorado—only if someone offered me a cigarette. I quit, yet again, a month or so later.
My Neighbor
On my days off I’d tune into the Watergate hearings then going on. Late in the afternoon I’d go out, and one day the gal from the next apartment was sitting on the porch. She said hello, and 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 the bar served to 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 Donna 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 pulled off her panties as she wiggled her dress over her head. She had small breasts and didn’t need a bra, though nobody wore one at that time anyway. She was wet, I was stiff. We 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, and 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 next I kissed her, I knew she’d quit. I really liked Shirley. I sewed her clothes, drew up astrology charts, walked around the neighborhood and went to lunch with her, but when she started talking 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. She was kind and caring, and I really liked her, but I wasn’t sure. That was good enough for her. She kissed me and with great enthusiasm replied that she really liked me, too. Through the fall, I’d see her a few times a week; sometimes we’d go to lunch. Sometimes, when she had a male visitor, she’d turn me away. I didn’t mind; I’d visit later.
Donna would often be at Shirley’s. I wasn’t particularly attracted to Donna, but liked her well enough. We’d tell stories, including our sexual adventures. Donna told me about a boyfriend who liked to jerk off on her boobies, and Shirley in a roundabout way suggested a three-way, but I was way too dense and naive to understand. It simply sounded strange. Never happened. I wasn’t ready.
At least for a few years.
The summer continued. I worked when I could, and followed the Watergate hearings. I’d been writing to Liz in California; she sent a few letters, but not nearly as many as I’d hoped. Despite my domestic arrangement, my heart still belonged to Liz, or would’ve, had I not left. We were both inexperienced. Love was a great unknown.
I was finding things about my employer in the meantime. He seemed a nice guy, but had a temper. We worked sometimes with two of his young sons, and he’d rage at them, mercilessly. 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 their other four kids, harried, not happy. Bob had been to prison years before, but I never found out why. He was 37, but looked middle-aged. He smoked too much, had a pot belly, was graying and balding and the way he raged 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 were big enough to fight 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. 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 that only a beaten-down 12-year-old can have towards a 19-year-old who tells him he’ll turn out all right. I knew I was his hero. I’d changed his life.
Lambert Landscaping was a poorly organized company. There was a fellow from Casper, Wyoming I’d pick up in the morning, but sometimes we’d wait on Bob til noon. One day we went to Bob’s house and Bob wasn’t there at all. After waiting a half-hour I hot-wired his ’49 Chevy truck and we finished a job. Bob was happy with our initiative, and asked me how to hot-wire a truck!
Towards summer’s end I wasn’t working enough to pay the rent, nor was I being paid consistently. I had to do something.
My brother had visited California that summer. He went to the old neighborhood for a few weeks, then 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, while my brother stayed with a friend.
I was out of money, so Rob and I decided to drive to North Carolina together. He cashed in his bus ticket, Liz went back to California, and my brother and I started East.
Neither of us wanted to drive straight through. Our father always had, 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 told us about the road and 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 a Model A for three years. 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, and 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 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 because it probably wouldn’t start again; that I pulled off at this exit instead of the last one because I saw a building there. He wasn’t happy, but let me go, and my brother and I pulled into the parking lot of a factory, where we dozed off. In the morning I pulled the generator. One of the workers said he had a Model A generator at home, so after lunch he sold it to us for $10. I put my “new” generator in the truck, and while Rob drove I fiddled with the old one. The new generator was charging erratically, and 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 “old” one quit. I swapped them out again, and a couple hours later, I’d finally did some major surgery on the old generator, pulling a 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 fourth 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, 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. I drove while he slept; he drove while I slept.
The tailpipe/muffler to a Model A is one piece, which attaches to the manifold on the passenger side. 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. Since the floorboards are just that, boards, it’s drafty, and the exhaust gases can drift through. I took some metal tape I’d bought to use on the generator and (serendipity!) wrapped it over the connection, but the air in the cab was still polluted, even with both windows rolled down. I periodically woke my brother to make sure he was OK, and he did the same for me. We arrived in Boone, NC in the early morning and went to a friend’s for showers. Jerry’s apartment was in a long, low building near downtown Boone, and 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 turned scalding hot. I slammed it off and jumped out, covered in shampoo. I had to wait half an hour, covered in suds and goo, then barely finished before the water went hot again. A year later the landlord discovered the entire complex was made of wormy chestnut, and was worth ten times as much if he tore the apartments 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 the last of our 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 truck and packed my stuff into the little bedroom upstairs where my brother had stayed with his friend Arthur. Arthur’s parents had split and he’d come to North Carolina to live with my family for six months. For summer vacation he and Rob visited the old neighborhood in California. Arthur stayed.
The old farmhouse had seen better days. It’d been unoccupied for a long time after my grandmother had left to live with my aunt in town, and patched up for some summer renters, but when my parents arrived in January of 1973 it was barely habitable. Snow blew through cracks in the walls and the old oil heater in the living room barely kept one person warm—if that person were sitting on top of it, wrapped in a blanket. The floor had rotted through in several places, including the bathroom, and had been patched with pieces of plywood. Our 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 put 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 for me to arrive that September to a town of three or four thousand inhabitants. Most of them had never been more than a few hundred miles from home. I’d lived in cities of a million plus, but here the “night life” was a single restaurant which closed at 9:30, and didn’t serve beer. Blowing Rock, eight miles away, had a half-dozen beer-and-wine bars and a single ABC store, which sold liquor. They’d held a referendum on alcohol sales a few years before, which had been scheduled for February in hopes that the summer residents, who mostly supported alcohol sales, would be out of town. Enough of them, though, came back to vote. Beer in the package stores was sold warm, though, on the apparent theory that nobody would down a warm beer while driving.
I didn’t know many folks in town. I had lots of family, and my siblings’ friends knew me as the 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, but hadn’t been to anywhere they knew, nor what many of their favorite activities were, and often could hardly understand what they said. I asked a cute girl one night where she was from. She said “Washington”, and I asked her, “D.C. or the state?” It seemed a normal question, but she practically curled into a ball and replied, “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 it. I had no idea where it was, nor any of the towns she knew around the state. She felt like a total hick talking to me, and there was little I could do to change it.
I wasn’t up on local lore, had little in common with anyone, 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 since I was a toddler that I’d 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 little dog Linus had been with us for years, and we’d acquired three ponies, a cow, two goats, some chickens and several 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 ran off and hid in the woods. The dogs barked and chased everything and everyone, at all hours.
I found myself going stir-crazy, in a decrepit house, in a tiny town, with nothing to do. No job, no prospects. I read books when there wasn’t enough money to buy materials to fix the house (my father was once again a barber, but barbering was slow in 1973), and so December 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 read, in depth, about the second World War, 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, then was buttonholed by a fellow in an Army uniform coming out of the post office. He started talking about the weather and such, but soon tried to recruit me into the Army. I thought about it for a week, and talked it over with my father, who was as surprised as I was by the thought. I decided to join the Navy.
On December 28th, 1973 I signed up. The Navy recruiter got a bonus for signing me before the new year, but the Army recruiter should’ve got the credit.
I rode the plane to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, known as “Glakes” in Navy slang, with four other North Carolinians. The five of us became members of the last company formed that year, number 440.
We arrived outside 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 on the ice. My shirt and pants, in common with the other Southern recruits, were 100% polyester—the chunky, scratchy kind whose great selling point was that it didn’t need ironing. After a couple years it proved so horridly uncomfortable that polyester was universally abandoned, and wrinkles became a fashion statement. I’d bought a new winter coat before I’d left, which was 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 to do; there was a lounge which was the only place smoking was allowed, where we could only go a couple 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 so had no desire to.
Based on certain tests, one of our “gang of five” was chosen as Recruit Chief Petty Officer and wore a chief’s stripes, three chevrons with an arc over the top, on his right sleeve. Four other fellows 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, another North Carolina guy. 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 a general discharge and go home. Our EPO, another North Carolina guy, climbed into the bunk of a recruit who also wanted out, where they pretended to be gay. He was replaced 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 with a couple other guys we were placed in Company 004, one of the first formed in 1974.
I loved Company 004, which I found ironic, this being the sort-of-reverse-of 440. Our company commander was also 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 Company 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 of five, still in company 440, became Company Clerk. Five of us had flown together from North Carolina, and at the end, all five of us wore 3 chevrons out the gate!
Boot camp wasn’t exactly fun, though after joining Company Four it was okay. I was older than most, at 20, which was nice. In school I’d always been the youngest. There were only two recruits 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 the back of his 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. Not me.
There were a few companies in training who’d come from other countries; they spoke different languages and marched in a different manner, some clicking their heels, some 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 smaller countries and wore uniforms which varied in details. Oscar knew which countries most of these guys were from, and the rules they had to follow. There’d been an incident in an American port. A couple sailors were hung, for murder, on the deck of a 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.
There were lots of classes to attend. Some were interesting, others dull as dirt. I loved the classes on hardware–which ship did what, how they were constructed, their 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 the flight crew or serving in Alaska, none of which appealed to me. I wanted to be a quartermaster and learn navigation, but was told I’d have to wait six months for quartermaster school. 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—it wasn’t exactly disgraceful, but it would’ve been a letdown–so I signed up as a Machinist Mate. It sounded interesting, 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’re not on deck when your ship leaves or pulls into port. When 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 dock, an hour later.
I didn’t know, though. 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, because I was slow, but I could swim reasonably well–we’d had a full-size pool in Granada Hills.
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 no 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.
Watch duty rotated among the guys. There was always a recruit by the compartment door, on a four-hour shift. 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. 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, and this presented me with conflicting duties. Some of the the smokers outranked me. I wasn’t supposed to leave my post, but I was also supposed to notice what was going on, and I didn’t like my skivvies smelling like smoke. I walked the five steps to the laundry room, opened the door and told them they were all on report. They piled out and threatened me six ways to Sunday, but I said I was the sentry, I was on duty, and I was supposed to report what was going on. They angrily filed off to their bunks, and the atmosphere was tense the next morning, but I didn’t mention it in my report. I told them later that I still had no intention of getting in trouble, and that the late-night smoke breaks were over.
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.
Service Week
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 the 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 were assigned to various places. I started in the “gedunk”, cleaning up and hanging out in the bowling alley at night, where I’d manage to sneak a strictly contraband beer or two after hours and talk with the regular sailors from the base or the fleet. After three blissful days, however, I was suddenly reassigned to the galley, to wash thousands of clanging, banging steel trays coming through 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.
They came and got me. I talked with the shrink for a little while, and told him it wasn’t so much the banging and crashing. It was the never quite getting done. Almost finish one batch of trays, and two or three or ten more would suddenly clang through. 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 the huge vats used to cook 50 gallons of beans at a time. It was warm and relatively quiet; not as much fun as the gedunk, but in midwinter the fog and steam were pleasant.
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 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 his war, marched consciously and purposely out of step, deliberately enjoying his civilian status.
After Service Week, one side of the compartment had a liberty weekend. They came back the next morning thoroughly trashed, 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 the “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. 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 their 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 was tongue-tied, inexperienced, and hadn’t socialized with a woman in months. I reached over and pinched her on the butt. She laughed and said to her friend, “he just pinches”. Our date lasted about ten minutes, after which we shared a towel and one of her beers and talked about Navy life; I was too shy to talk very much. My friend and his date 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. It was a lovely afternoon. My friend asked me how much he owed me. I told him $20. He told me I should have “jewed them down” to $10. Personally, I didn’t care. I was well satisfied.
After our liberty weekend, we were slow to roll out as well. The recruit in charge of the compartment, always a loudmouth, started telling us all to get out, and I, equal in rank, 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 they were damned well good and ready, and I didn’t leave at all. I gained a lot of respect from the guys that day.
One of the few perks of wearing three chevrons was to not stand watch. I filled out papers and coached the clueless, but after I got the third stripe I didn’t stand watch, except for one final time. It was our last week, and the top brass came to inspect the company. I’d been chosen on this most-important-of-all occasion because I’d been teaching everyone else how to do it for 2 months. My watch started 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 southeast, while the other wing blocked the sunrise across a narrow courtyard. On this morning, the sun started to stream in through both sets of the low, squat, rectangular windows of the opposite third-floor compartment just as the Star-Spangled Banner started to play. Its rays illuminated me full in the face from the first note of the anthem until the last, and as the song ended, the sun passed on. I took it as an omen–of what, I didn’t know, but we aced that inspection and all the others. For the final week of boot, our company carried around all the colorful achievement flags. For me, as Educational Petty Officer, the best was the academic flag, which we’d never before carried. Two guys from a group of seven who’d joined together, all from an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood, had flunked out and been reassigned, so the rest decided to flunk as well, to stay with their pals. Without them, my company was the best, academically, in the competition. As EPO, I got to carry the flag; a final, parting glory. We also carried a special “Color Company” flag, for earning all the others; five in all—red, blue, yellow, green and the multicolor “Color Company” banners. A grand slam.
So in the end, we did well. When graduation came I told all the guys that 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 or “snipe”. The deck apes got white. Blue, green etc. stood for “airman”, “submariner”, and whatnot. Most of us got a single hash mark; a few who’d already had some military training had two or three; those with some college had a single chevron and Oscar, now a chief, had three chevrons with an arc over the top! The only person who’d lost rank was the nasty little gunny, company commander of 440. Nasty had gotten pissed when he’d asked a couple of recruits, against regulations, to do some personal errand and they’d refused. He made them run around the building in the dark, carrying two huge, heavy ordnance shells. One slipped on the ice and broke his arm, and nasty little gunny lost a rank. He appeared at graduation with 3 chevrons and an armful of red, not gold, hashmarks, outranked by our fellow recruit Ozkan Ozkosar!
After graduation, we once again had liberty. A few of us went to Waukegan, Illinois and caught a movie, but this time we 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 jacket pockets when going off to dance was a bad idea, too. One of the last things most of us did before leaving boot was to buy the OLD uniforms to wear home!
“A” School
Boot camp was over now. I returned to North Carolina, but didn’t go out much; I felt like a skinned rabbit in my boot-camp haircut, even when I covered up with one of my home-made hats. Pretty soon it was time to go back to Glakes for “A” school, where I’d learn to be a Machinist Mate.
“A” school was more relaxed than boot camp, and it was springtime, so the weather was better. 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 shots and the like (the cholera shot was the worst) there were no women in boot camp. Here, they’d walk around, 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. I bought a green beer, which was refilled for free, several times, as I hung out on the street. In civilian life, I was a master at Fooz-ball; that afternoon I went to 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 offense, and preferred the German tables to 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 wrapped up. I’d been issued a blanket when I’d arrived, which had been stolen early on, but I hadn’t needed it. Towards the end of school, when I knew I was going to be charged for it, saw one sitting next to an open door and scooted 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 which asked in a general way where we’d like to go and what type of ship we’d prefer, but had no guarantee. I’d marked mine for the Pacific, and checked off all the ships that weren’t carriers or subs. When my orders came through, my destination was marked “QPH”. I had no idea what it meant. I asked and was told that it meant Pearl Harbor, Hawaii–and then I looked over and saw the name of my ship. The Ponchatoula. An Indian princess! The past came back, slapped me in the face and took my breath away! The gypsy girl had been correct! I’d gone from 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 been resolved shortly afterwards 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 narrow strip of green to blues and indigoes and violet as the sky recedes to the far side of the meridian; stars and planets blinking through.
We were greeted with leis, or as we put it, we all got lei’d, and had an hour or two to grab a bite before continuing to our ultimate destination, which we’d learned only a day or two 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. Tuesday became Wednesday at the date line, which is why Guam license plates have the tag line, “Where America’s Day Begins”. Even though it’s much closer to Asia and Australia than it is to Hawaii, 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 established property lines. As a result, oddly-angled buildings sprang up on the rectilinear city blocks, with property owners rebuilding on the trapezoids and triangles left to them when their lots were bisected by the new street plan, with 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 Ponchatoula’s captain, so the Guam drydock was chosen for the renovation of his former ship.
The Ponch had already been docked for over six months, and the crew wasn’t happy about it. 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. 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 took the other shift. As a result there were a dozen guys or so from the engine and boiler rooms whom we only saw occasionally, and another dozen 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, it’s hard to call it 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 uniforms in their recruiting posters and advertising. 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. It was the reason I’d chosen the Navy. We could sport beards, and our haircuts weren’t extreme, but the new uniforms were horrible. They were based on the officer’s uniforms, but cheaper looking. Undistinguished. Nobody knew if you were a sailor or a doorman. When on liberty the shirttails would untuck themselves, and the jacket and “bus driver” hat got in the way. The old style pants pockets were nigh impossible to pick, a great advantage to a drunken sailor. The new style pants practically picked themselves. Sit down, and when you arose 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 who noticed. The hat couldn’t be folded up and stuffed in a pocket, either. I didn’t wear my new style dress blues even once after I’d bought the old style uniforms, and never wore the dress whites at all. I had lots of free time, and when I didn’t feel like spending money I’d find a quiet spot and sew. I took the uniforms apart at the seams, and sewed the pieces into a jacket and hat.
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 a hat rather than sewing one together from random scraps. I pulled the bell-bottom from a pair of dungarees over my head far enough to seam around the bottom, and put in a hidden inner 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 it 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 by my side instead of flopping around in front. I put in a couple of secret pockets, took the contrasting blue denim pockets from the dungarees and sewed them sideways on the lower torso, with the darts pointing back instead of down. It looked sharp, and distinctly original. The only part I was dissatisfied with was the odd little curve under the arms, a difficult and 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, I’d 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 Guam shipmates, also from North Carolina, liked it so much that I sold it to him 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 often.
In 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.
A few of us knew 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 several of us knew the same guys but had completely different stories to tell. 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 very 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. Some kid playing hide and seek would crawl into an old refrigerator, it’d lock behind him. Other kids would open the fridge. He’d tumble out, blue. There was a popular campaign to remove the doors from old refrigerators before discarding them; it seemed to me far easier 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.
None of these guys had locks on their doors. There wasn’t 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 hard.
It was interesting to explore. You couldn’t run through the jungle, 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, indeterminately shaped metal next to overgrown and forgotten holes in the ground, pieces of rope and rubber and rotted fabric in places you didn’t expect. When you’d bungle a little way in, all of a sudden there’d be a clearing and a cement airstrip as wide as a Texas highway under the forest canopy, with a hole through the trees over that way and another one over there, where the planes came through. There’d be a burned-out cement-block shack at each end and parking spaces for the planes angled between the trees. The fight for Guam was a tough one, and the signs of it still quite visible 27 years later.
We’d walk to a little island called Rat Island, full of trees and rocks and, presumably, rats–which was separated from Guam by a mile of coral reef, flat and smooth as a board. You could walk all the way, 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 can scoop out with your fingers. The older, sprouted coconuts have an “apple” inside which has the texture of a watermelon, but is 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 either; I couldn’t vote, and aside from a month or so in Colorado before I moved to California, couldn’t legally drink. 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 and symbolically burned it, a totally meaningless gesture by then. By the time I’d turned 21 all the laws had changed. Eighteen was now a big deal; you could vote at 18, drink at 18, and the draft was a non-issue. At my 21st birthday celebration I hadn’t even tried to pick up a girl; there were very, very few around.
One evening a sailor named George got all duded up, and as we waited for the bus we asked him why. It 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, 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 also seventeen. He 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 actually he was 17 and had just joined.
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 18 knots, about 20 mph.
We steamed through the Pacific the entire last week of July, and because of the dateline twice went through July 29th, the 18th birthday of my first 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. She wasn’t the only girl he ended up spiriting away from me!
Guam to Hawaii took nine days, which was a lot of time to lounge on the afterdeck and look at the clouds. I always seemed to see more than the other guys. My friend would see a duck and a horse. I’d see a donkey with a palm tree on its back, being chased by a frog wearing a propeller. 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 sailor once called me a dumbass for remarking how salty the water was away from the land. He was wrong. It is saltier.
We had a few diversions when we were 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 its fuel. The water was choppy and angry between the two ships for the hour it took, and when finished the destroyer kicked its engines and completely circled our tub in about 5 minutes, going 45 knots to our 12.
We had drills, too. The man overboard drill didn’t go well; our crash-test dummy was sucked into the propellers, and chopped to pieces. We secured hatches, ran up ladders, assembled on the afterdeck. Dale was a fireman who was billeted to the repair crew; his chief was a little guy. Dale had a fire drill, and held onto the hose behind the chief. When Dale twisted the hose to the right, his chief stumbled right. A leftward twist and the chief staggered left. Didn’t have a clue what was happening, but on that drill he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn!
We also kept a mail buoy watch.
Everyone had their share of watches; we’d go around on the hour, check temperatures and oil levels, fill out papers. It was usually like checking the temperature on the fridge; not much changed. 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 for four hours, 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 the new guy’s right hand, tell him it’s the wrong kind and send him to the boss for a left-handed wrench. 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 search for deck levelers and 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, and was shared among all the departments. Nobody got it 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 when we pulled into port.
Most people know 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. The Japanese achieved total surprise.
Hawaii was never invaded and fought over as was Guam, where reminders were everywhere. There aren’t many marks left from the attack, except those which have been carefully preserved. There are bullet holes in the old barracks, and a memorial spanning the USS Arizona, where over 1000 sailors sleep forever a few feet underwater. Drops of oil seep out all day every day, and have been doing so 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—which was the size of a 3-story house–all the hatches are water and air tight, which meant that if anyone opened a hatch when the air pressure was uneven, a whoosh would alert us ten or fifteen 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. Problem solved. A couple of the short-timers even put empty soda cans on the the latches, which clanged loudly down the ladders when someone tried to sneak in. By the time a chief made it down the ladder the book was stowed; checklist in hand, the watchman was going about his 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 never varied by more than a click and even the most conscientious would only make two rounds, checking everything when starting watch, copying or “radioing” the next two and checking once more before leaving. The less conscientious would radio everything; there was no way to tell, and it didn’t really matter.
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. A couple guys chased down opium or heroin, and there was also betel nut; not much stronger than coffee but legal at the time in Guam, though not in the states. 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 one in more than a full joint of average weed. 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 my 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, which I covered with a towel. Nobody ever figured out where I kept my stash, though I could access it in seconds. Everyone else was worried about their stash, either of losing it to someone who found their secret spot or getting busted in a surprise inspection when it was in with their things. I had special pockets sewn into the inseams of all my pants as well, 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 deck and one four decks above. We could take our checklist, sit in the bottom of the engine room and get high in peace. If anyone opened the engine room hatch we’d feel the air pressure change, 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 for most of the guys , which they wanted anyway.
On Hawaii the dope situation was the same, except that there was a lot more stuff 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 what we were doing. We told him we were looking for my buddy’s contact lens. He shone his big flashlight and my friend found his windowpane, which he 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. It was all the transportation I needed. A couple times I rented a Mazda to try out their new rotary engines. Four of us went for a ride, and I let all the guys drive. Late in the afternoon a fellow named Norris, at a confusing intersection, made an illegal turn. The cops pulled him, and in a panic he asked me if he could borrow my license. Without thinking, I let 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 made sure that he paid it without going to court; neither of us wanted to touch it with a ten-foot pole. The crazy thing was, he was legal anyway. 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 three years before, but according to Navy regulations was still valid while he was in the Navy. He hadn’t wanted to pull out his long-expired, two-week paper permit, 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 not, as long as it hadn’t expired; there was no residency requirement one way or the other. For him to drive on mine, though, was obviously illegal, anywhere at any time. In any case he paid the ticket, and that was the end of it.
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 roadside. 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.
Eventually our 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 hours’ work 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, work 8-4 and stand another watch from 4-8. If the ship were then pulling into port, refueling another or doing pretty much anything except steaming along in open seas we might again be up ’til midnight. The sleep deprivation sometimes lasted weeks.
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 end up at Captain’s Mast (also known as Article 15) 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, went too far.
Our laundry was down for about a week, and I was out of clothes to wear. I’d have changed, if I had anything to change into. I didn’t. I had an old pair of dungarees that I’d cut off and made into shorts, so I sewed the legs back on. Oly said some snotty thing about them. I got mad and chased him out of the compartment. He may have outranked me, but I had about forty pounds more muscle and six inches of height. He split, fast. We got along after that—he knew he’d been out of line–but one of the other chiefs, a guy we called Grody, didn’t like it. Grody was in a different department, but he’d shoot me dirty looks.
Captain’s Mast
Well, a couple weeks later, I was with a group. We were all going surfing, a first for me, and they’d all passed the quarterdeck inspection 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 stitch in the leg and started off again. He told me to go back, sew it up completely–and also cut my hair. I’d have sewed my jeans, but the haircut was something else entirely. First, my hair wasn’t that long. Second, he hadn’t mentioned it originally. Third, I’d entirely miss my ride. It was pretty clear, anyway, that Chief Grody wasn’t going to let me off the ship whatever I did, so instead of trying to please the penny-ante princess, I went down one deck and, in an obscure spot, stepped off. From way across the parking lot, an officer yelled out. I was busted. I went to Captain’s Mast and was restricted to ship for two weeks.
That could’ve been the end of it, but a couple days later I was told 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 full of mercury sitting in it attached to the bottom of a glass tube. Take it apart, replace the leather bag, adjust the mercury level and it’d be fine.
I reported to Oly. I’ll fix it, I said. “No, Austin, shitcan it,” he replied. I protested. I’d fixed these kinds of things hundreds of times; it was my job. A piece of leather and a few minutes, I’d fix it. “Shitcan it,” he insisted. “Don’t mess with it, shitcan it.”
I looked 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 half-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, whatsoever, to be there. I started thinking not of how I could serve my country, but of how I could get out, as soon as possible. I didn’t know it yet, but I was already a short-timer.
When in Colorado, our family had attended the local Quaker meeting house for about 3 years. We were never considered members, but I identified myself as a Quaker, and still do. Although we agreed with Quaker belief, a group which wouldn’t embrace the faithful after three years wasn’t for us, so I started to say I was a Quaker more from convenience than from conviction. I listed my religion as Society of Friends when I joined the Navy because I didn’t have another, and it seemed to me better, in some vague way, to list something rather than nothing.
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 completely disillusioned by the Navy. I decided I’d push the point.
It was clear the Navy didn’t need me. The war was over, and there were clearly too many guys still in the Navy. In combat, 250 guys would’ve been useful, but now 100 was sufficient. All of us were doing busy work and little else, counting our days. The Navy had lowered its recruitment quota. There weren’t any new guys coming onto the ship; 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 bone-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 asleep. 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 that I’d claimed was a religious symbol; I didn’t feel religious but it was cool to look at it, to think about its 3000 year history; the history of the world–how many ankhs were sitting untouched for all that time in the darkness of a pyramid,? I took an occasional sip of water and didn’t touch the bread. The Marine guard came towards the end of the day and said a few things which were meant to be intimidating, but I just smiled. I’m not easily intimidated; I suppose I had too much of it as a kid. If one takes up a challenge and won’t back down, one rarely has to prove oneself. Stand your ground and smile 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.
After the brig, I saw a Navy which was winding down, but not acknowledging it. A ship full of guys who were resigned to their fate, or trying to get out. Sandy had been straightforward and honest, trying to get discharged for over a year. He’d been deceived, undercut and skewered, and now was secretly smashing things and throwing parts overboard. We didn’t have proof, but knew it was him. McMillan was AWOL, and would be gone 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 chief’s stripes, retirement in three years and a bonus worth a year’s pay. Chambers had also 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 two Captain’s Masts, and they could kick you out for three. Most guys would get a Captain’s Mast, keep their nose clean for awhile, then some months later get another. They might get half-a-dozen in a couple years, but remain in the Navy. I didn’t intend to do anything damaging or criminal, but started thinking of ways I might again find myself in front of the captain.
I didn’t like wearing leather, and hadn’t worn any for at least three years before I joined. The Navy uniform, however, included leather shoes. I looked around, but even in shoe shops there was nothing 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 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. He listened in on the chiefs at lunch, and told me that all they talked about, nearly every day, was me. I found it amusing. I was doing my job, not causing trouble. I was even getting along with Oly. I just wasn’t changing my shoes.
Chambers had refused to load ammunition. I didn’t mind; 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 large Navy ship, but since it’s a floating gas tank and basically nothing else, that’s all the crew it needs. I didn’t mind loading the shells; I wasn’t shooting the guns. Everyone follows their beliefs according to their own heart, and everyone’s beliefs 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. A Marine chaplain who gave us a pep talk in boot camp talked about God with one breath and the thrill and blood lust of stalking and killing a buck with the next. Everyone draws their own lines.
Well, I didn’t change my shoes, again. Went Went before the captain, again. To the brig, again. I didn’t care, again. I went in around suppertime, didn’t eat the bread, stayed the next day. At ten the next morning, they let me out.
I didn’t go back to the ship. While I was locked up, the ship had gone on maneuvers. For the next four or five days, I stayed in the dorms on base, trimmed the captain’s lawn or did something similar in the morning, and had the rest of the day off. While my shipmates were sweating through twenty-hour days with collars turned up and heads hung down, I was on vacation, for a week. I’d drop by the sandwich shop 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 cockroach the size of my thumb was buzzing around behind the counter, banging into things. It was absolutely coated with bug spray, which looked like icing on a cake. It couldn’t fly very well due to the weight of the spray; I caught it with a napkin, took it outside to die in peace, then came 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 to a couple of offices on base. 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. They gossiped that maybe I’d get an undesirable discharge, 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’d be home in 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. Life went on. McMillan came back, for a day, and went AWOL again. A new guy was assigned to our compartment and I met him once. He went AWOL the next day, on his own personal quest to get out of the Navy, and I never saw him again. A third-class named Barton, who’d taken a few too many acid trips, broke up with his wife. She’d left him while the Ponch was at sea. He came back and all his stuff was gone, including his uniforms. I gave him all mine, except for the old-style ones.
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 I stenciled DJ Austin on mine. Rod and Sandy were both from Ann Arbor; they’d passed each other on the street once but hadn’t realized it until both had been on the ship for three 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 the year before, after spending the night in a Filipino jail for fighting. 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 group in Honolulu which I visited it a time or two; it was pleasant, but there was too much smiling and bright, saccharine laughter. They sat in a circle, drank wine, and one of the guys proposed to his girl. It was beautiful and sweet, but fantastical, unreal, like living in Disneyland.
The night before I was to leave, a fellow named Whitey came over from the boiler room side and was screwing around with some of the machinist mates; this was a bit unusual, but it was fun getting to know him. A little later that evening, I was heading up to chow and something compelled me to turn around. Whitey was closing the hatch to the boiler room 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 my seabag was Whitey’s seabag. He’d been staying off-base with a sailor named Grayden. Grayden had been driving to work, with Whitey as a passenger. Somebody’d run a stop sign. They’d been T-boned. Grayden was a little bruised up. Whitey was dead.
Our seabags both left the ship that day. I was happy to be carrying mine down the gangplank.
Back to the Real World
I flew out of Honolulu that afternoon, this time in the opposite direction. Sunset lasted for what seemed a few seconds, and it was late 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 and, when it wasn’t raining, hanging out on the patio. I wasn’t on restriction, but had no money, not even a quarter to ride the bus. I met with a couple women who sat behind desks and asked me questions. Later that week I had my discharge; a general discharge under honorable conditions, which was all I wanted.
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, the military equivalent of being let go from a job, 3) General discharge under less-than-honorable conditions, for those who got in too many fights, 4) Undesirable discharge, for real troublemakers, and finally 5) Dishonorable discharge, for those who committed serious crimes. There used to be a little box 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 new law, but my papers still had the box. All it said was “refer to DD214”.
Often, I’d even say most often, the biggest changes in life come about for the smallest reasons. I did something a tiny bit different, someone else didn’t like it, and everything blew up. I quit wearing leather because I didn’t feel comfortable in it, and wore the closest thing I could find – black rubber boots, cut to size. One chief still wasn’t happy, so I wore them straight out of the Navy. It’s all in the details.
A week on Treasure Island. I got paid. I left.
I had about $400. I went into San Francisco, bought a few civilian duds and a bus ticket home. As a souvenir of my first day OUT of the Navy, I got 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 over a year. I arrived at her house in the afternoon. Her granny was there and I tried to have a conversation, but she knew only German. I wanted to help around the house, but didn’t know how to. She had dozens of clocks, none with the correct time. One was 20 minutes early, one three hours and 45 minutes late. She told me something in German about the clocks, which I didn’t understand; I set a few to the correct time and she became quite cross.
After awhile Liz’s father arrived; I’d never met him. He said a few gruff words in German to granny, as she chattered excitedly about this total stranger who had re-set her clocks. Her father said to make myself comfortable, and Liz would be home shortly. She arrived, we had dinner, 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 moved on, and parted amicably. She gave me a ride to the bus station; we said our goodbyes.
That evening in the bus station I got into a conversation. I mentioned my Model A and he said he knew a guy who had a 1940 Lincoln that he was thinking about buying. He offered me a ride if I’d tell him what I thought of it, mechanically. We rode for a couple hours into the California countryside, but when we arrived the car had been sold. He suggested we go on to Lake Tahoe, and do a little gambling. I drove awhile, he drove awhile and we got there in the early morning. We got a room and a few hours’ sleep, then went to the casinos. I had about $175 left. We ate a cheap breakfast, then went to play blackjack. I did well, as did my new friend. We grabbed lunch and returned to the tables. When my friend lost his focus and took a hit on 21, he left to watch a show. I was still doing well, and after awhile was up by about $500. At the time you could buy a decent used car for around $600, so my goal became to buy a car, cash in my bus ticket and drive home. I was within about $40 when the whiskey sours kicked in. The cards turned. A couple hours and six or eight drinks later I’d lost what I’d accumulated plus the $175. I was flat broke, but didn’t care; I still had my bus ticket, 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 to California. I won about $20, 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 a 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 talking about the old days; he was totally intoxicated by Krishna, sleep deprived by the schedule they kept and rather jealously guarded by the other devotees, who knew me well. I’d been coming to the temple for five years, but wasn’t any closer to joining 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 our philosophical discussions, though I frequently disagreed; I didn’t think 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 desire for the pleasures of the world, including love and sex, was also 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 that some sages had been monks, but others, householders. The devotees stated that every soul found Krishna in its own way according to karma, but in practice they always thought it best to be monks in the temple. Occasionally swamis would visit, and I loved talking to them. 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 I’d been the shoeshine boy for five years. It now belonged to Joe the barber, and he was in the first chair. He’d grown a scant mustache, which was all the facial hair his Indian blood let him grow. We went to his house that night and played poker with his friends, speaking as much Spanish as English. He surprised me by pulling out a joint. It was very good. It was the only time I ever smoked any with 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.
I rode Trailways to Kansas City. I had a couple hours layover but not much money, so I walked the streets. It seemed a fun town, which was a different impression than I’d had when my father had driven through at warp speed. We then went 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. I again had a couple hours free, and intended to ride to the top of the recently-finished archway, but it was closed. I strolled over anyway, to lie in the grass and enjoy the afternoon.
I surprised a fellow there who was smoking a joint. We initiated a little drilled onyx disc I’d bought in San Francisco, smoking the remainder of the roach down to nothing. When we’d rolled through as kids in our little oven of a microbus, the temperature 104º and muggy, with everyone enjoying a heaping helping of heat rash, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would live there, but this was entirely different.
I got on the bus that afternoon and saw a cute girl across the aisle. I started a conversation and sat next to her. She was married, but we had a long talk. She’d been away from her soldier husband for awhile, and wasn’t sure if they were going to stay together. We cuddled through the night. It was the first time in about a year that I’d held a woman close. We traded addresses when we parted in the morning, but I never heard from her again.
There was one more long leg of the trip. That evening I was dozing, and awoke to the smell of smoke. 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 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 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 about 3000 souls, with nowhere to go after 9:30 at night. I didn’t have a job, but thanks to the terms of my discharge I received unemployment benefits. If I’d received an honorable rather than a general discharge under honorable conditions, I wouldn’t have been eligible.
It was a good thing, too, because it was no easier to find work in Boone than it had been before. I was a dedicated vegetarian, and avoided working for restaurants, meat markets, the local leather processing facility, etc., but there were few other jobs available in the economic downturn of 1974-75. I’d get a few days’ work planting trees, 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. Both the hospital and the old factory building my parents had lived in had been torn down, so there was really only one place still standing, a brownstone building in Brooklyn. We went to the street where they lived, but he was unsure of which building; they all looked alike. 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 and turgid pathos. My father had the same opinion, but the woman director was an old friend, and we held our tongues.
Actors from outside the south often drawl far too enthusiastically. Their attempts at the dry Appalachian dialect were soaked in the swamp waters of Savannah. The plot involved spells and haints and pregnancy and voodoo and what-not, 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 its registration card was in North Carolina. My father made the 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 explored while my father was making his actor rounds. The first time, 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 minute walkabout, I found it, then memorized the address. I never told anyone how close I’d come to starring in “Lost in New York”.
My father wanted to pitch a show while he was there, and needed to find the ABC building. We went to the area, but he wasn’t sure which building it was. I pointed it out, and he asked me how I knew. I was coy. I told him I just knew. He said he’d ask someone. I told him he didn’t have to. He asked me again, how did I know? I pointed to the big ABC logo above his head. He’d never thought to look up!
A House In Town
When we returned from New York, Rob and I decided to rent a little house on the edge of Boone. It belonged to an old woman called Mom Angel, who was in her 80s. 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. There was an extra room upstairs, for drums and music. Rob had graduated, but it became a place for all his high school buddies to hang out and play hooky. I suppose we could have gotten into trouble, but we felt we were keeping them off the street and out of trouble.
Our band was pretty good. I played the drums, my brother played guitar and wrote songs, a friend named Kevin also played guitar and a couple other guys joined 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. I picked up a harmonica. “Dixie” seemed a good song to start with, so I sucked and blew and moved the harp side-to-side for several hours until I could play it passably well. I then tried a second song, “Amazing Grace”, and quickly learned I should’ve tried it first, because inside of ten minutes I had it pegged. I then tackled a third song, “Me and Bobbie McGee”. It took longer to learn than “Amazing Grace”, but less time than “Dixie”.
We had a little party that evening–we often had after school parties–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 for the crowd, told them that was enough for now and put the harp away!
A life tip. If you don’t know a lot, stick to what you know. I’ve learned a lot of songs on the harmonica, and just a few on many other instruments. I’m not a virtuoso, and don’t have to be. Most people can’t play at all.
We had an idyllic summer in our little house out back, and spent very little. I had a bicycle and my brother had friends with cars; we’d catch a ride if needed, or hitchhike.
Our kitchen was bright and cheery. On the windowsill sat the coffeepot, a double sink underneath. One day my brother and I were 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 two cabinets and PING – disappeared! The coffee pot was wobbling. We looked in the sink, it wasn’t there, or anywhere else in the kitchen. Finally we looked in the coffeepot. Bingo! From across the room, I’d double-banked a steeply angled shot off the cabinets, and dunked it!
Our friend Kevin, now living in the music room, got us a gig. Saturday, at his mother’s flea market; me, my brother, Kevin and a bass player. Kevin printed posters, put an ad in the paper. I thought he’d called our band “Connivin’ Ivan”, which was fine by me–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 “That Thing You Do!” and the “One-ders”) into Evil Ivan, Knife-wielder.
Well, we set up, and waited for the bass player. He didn’t show. We had the bass, so we asked another 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 (any money we’d made in Hollywood had been plowed back 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, 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.
A Disagreement
Along with our hooky-playing high school visitors, we met a fellow who lived catty–corner across the back field. Though he was a few years older, John saw me as more experienced–he’d visited California, but I’d lived there; he’d had a couple jobs, I’d had a dozen. 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. We got to know him well, I thought–but one day I saw his record albums marked with his initials, “JA”, and joked that since my initials were “DJA”, 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, and not without justification. His parents were older, and his father had macular degeneration, which is linked to smoking. His father lit a pipe occasionally but his mother chain-smoked cigarettes, and their house was shut up tight as a tick and had wall-to-wall carpeting. The smell was strong by 1974 standards: now I’d call it an overwhelming stench. None of his family were in good shape. John had several extra pounds and complained of numerous ailments. He had a few real complaints, but mainly John simply liked to try new drugs, and finagled a variety of prescriptions. He’d listen to music and sample various combinations of pills and liquor, evaluating which went better together, and how much of each produced the best effects. He had certain obsessions–the Kennedy assassination, the Nazis–but far and away his biggest topic of conversation was the Charles Manson murders. I liked John, but his habit of cross-referencing every conversation back to Charlie was massively annoying.
He admired Charlie in a twisted way; a little bitty guy who had massive behind-the-scenes power over his group. John wanted that power, but when he thought he was being sneaky, hiding his motivations, asking leading questions, I’d know every time. It was as clear to me as if he’d tattooed them on his forehead.
We had a friendly dispute over who 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 both scorpio. I had sun in gemini but, like Charlie, moon in aquarius and taurus rising. I didn’t mind talking about the Manson family time and again, but every time John discovered someone was an aquarius, or taurus, or scorpio, he’d bring up Charlie. If someone was from California, he’d bring up Charlie. If had the same name—Susan, Lynette—as members of the “family”, 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 John 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 out. For the next couple weeks we got hang-up phone calls, dozens per day, and one night someone threw a fist-sized rock through the window of my parents’ Chevy Suburban. I knew it was him.
He eventually owned up to the phone calls, but insisted he didn’t throw the rock. I didn’t believe him. We were both taking classes at night school, and one night 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 still didn’t believe. It didn’t really matter, a broken window in a car which was junked years before, but I didn’t accept a lack of objective proof as sufficient. His actions had made it reasonable for me to believe that he’d thrown the rock, and his tendency to be smart ass and challenging about what I could or couldn’t “prove” made him unconvincing. He could maintain his innocence, but I didn’t believe him and wouldn’t pretend to. It would’ve been easier, socially, to let it drop, but he’d still bring it up. I’d say it was no big deal, but I wouldn’t say I believed him. He stopped with the Charlie talk, though.
Winter came. We were all low on money. I was still on unemployment; the benefits had been extended twice, which I figured was payback for how the Navy had taken advantage of me. My brother, still vegetarian, now had a part-time job in a burger joint, serving meat to people all day long. I resolved never to do that. 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 much was left. The power was turned off, but our 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 also brought in a little money dealing drugs. A pound of weed occasionally, an ounce of blue “mescaline” powder, a few grams of hash, a new product, in a vial, called “hash oil”. Kevin’s older brother had connections in Florida and my brother knew some folks who ran a head shop. We didn’t make much, though. Not enough to pay the power bill, or to buy furniture.
The Cops
One night we were having a party, and Kevin told us he’d seen some stackable chairs at the motel. He suggested we borrow them. I told him I wouldn’t, and went on to bed.
The next morning we were awakened by the police. They found the chairs.
While the cops were searching, I played with some chess pieces. There was a small vial of hash oil sitting on the chessboard, which I knocked into my shoe and pushed under the coffee table. They probably wouldn’t have recognized it; there was also a blown-glass pipe sitting on a tray in the living room, which we told them was an oil lamp. 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 jailhouse urinal. We spent 20 minutes in jail and were bailed out.
Kevin moved, and my brother and I waited until the rent ran out. Rob had proposed to his girlfriend, but they were young–he was 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 and wet. We played around in the afternoons, but she had a boyfriend in the army. He returned six months later, and they married.
Court came. As I’d been asleep, the charges against me were dismissed. My brother and Kevin threw themselves on the mercy of the court, which was a stupid idea. The owner of the motel claimed an inflated value of $25 apiece for the four chairs (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 a few years later she was tied up and robbed by a couple guys with shotguns. Karma.
My brother got into trouble more often than I, though we didn’t live that much differently. I’d often slip away; he’d often get caught. I even broke out of “jail” once. 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 have me locked 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 in the gym and gave chase. For the last 30 seconds of my “sentence” I was a fugitive from charity jail, running and laughing like a monkey.
On The Porch
Rob moved to Myrtle Beach afterwards. I enclosed my parents’ back porch, and moved in. The house plumbing was horribly antiquated, though we didn’t worry about leaks because the the town’s water pipe crossed our land. We received free water, “in perpetuity”. The water pressure was exceptionally high, though; our old faucets broke down, and were hard to replace. We installed an in-line valve on the hot water line to the ancient tub, but it too failed, so for a time we set a bucket in the sink and siphoned hot water into the tub with a tube. 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 and installed a shorty tub from the Daniel Boone Hotel. We rearranged the layout, put in a shower, tiled the wall, added a skylight, new wiring and paint. That summer I started painting our roof, which was quite rusty. I painted the porch roof a bright yellow, then climbed to the top of the steeply pitched main roof and painted across the ridge as far down as I could reach. I tied two ladders over the ridge and painted a wide stripe down the middle, front and back, then ran out of paint.
There it stayed. We had a big yellow “T” on the roof, and two rusty squares to the sides, but my father wouldn’t buy more paint. It wasn’t up to me to buy paint; I was doing the work.
There was another reason. I felt that if I’d finished the job on my own, my father would wreck it, somehow. He had a weirdly mean streak. If I’d worked hard on a project, spent time and money and almost finished, at the last moment he’d wreck it. I never knew whether he didn’t like things finished, or simply didn’t want me to finish them, but the result was the same. House projects, mine especially, would never, ever be finished unless we hired someone, usually at my mother’s insistence.
I really hated him for this. It was so very unnecessary, and so ugly. He’d also credit my work to others, damage what I’d completed, steal my tools and break his promises or agreements with me on a whim.
He wasn’t this way to everyone. He was genial, generous, funny to his friends, but sometimes, unexpectedly, he’d turn exceedingly, exceptionally, gratuitously cruel. My brother was with him once when, out of the blue, he asked a soft-spoken, hard-working, pleasant waitress what it was like for her to live 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. My brother wanted to crawl through the floor.
He’d ask similar “questions” of other blameless people, usually me or my brother. He’d give us “insights” and call it “honesty” or “psychological research” for his acting. 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 couldn’t. I had nothing. The most positive emotion I could muster was indifference. Not love, not pride. Just emptiness.
In a long-established pattern, I stayed away as much as possible. I avoided my father’s nightly drunken pontifications; 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 for 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 I moved into one of the new rooms; the other was his. My brother had hitchhiked to the beach with our friend Marcus after the court case, and lived there for six months. He got arrested 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 in paneling and a brand-new Fisher wood stove. One night the temperature was below zero (0ºF) and my father bet my mother a quarter that he could heat up the living room to 90ºF. He won, easily. We opened the windows and let the howling, sub-zero storm blow through.
They sold animals, a few at a time. The cow was sold, the bull calf, two goats. My mother had to chase the ponies one too many times and sold them all when Ned was off in New York. They still had chickens. One spring day my mother was baking, left the back door open and went to tidy up the living room. She came back to the kitchen, saw a dozen chickens pecking at crumbs, screamed OH! the CHICKENS! and they simultaneously burst into higgledy-piggledy flight, knocking over jars, flying into walls, spreading feathers everywhere.
Up went a chicken coop.
We had dogs and cats. And rats. There was a rodent problem, which a growing number of cats were supposed to take care of, but didn’t. When the cat population reached 21, 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. Mama Cat had no fear of dogs, she’d jump onto their backs, bite them in the neck and ride, clawing with all four paws. That very night, a beagle broke into the chicken coop. Killed them all.
That was the end of the critters, except for a couple strays. My father spread rat poison, and the house stunk for a few weeks 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 following 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 summer faded, I found a job washing dishes at the college. I’d hang around the college 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” with females. Girls my age were rarely attracted to me, but I was popular among those a few years younger or older. I’d sneak into campus dorms or bring them to my house, where we’d sleep in the hayloft, camp out or stay at a friend’s house. I still couldn’t keep a girlfriend for long. My journal was filled with fantasies and dreams of girls with whom I’d never had much more than an awkward kiss. I liked to exchange clothes; I’d trade a T-shirt for a cap, patch a pair of their jeans for a piece of jewelry. I’d go on for pages about a girl I found interesting, A few weeks later, it’d be another.
That fall I went to night school on the GI Bill. I took shop classes – welding, machining, electrical wiring – and spent my weekends doing dangerous things.
I was jumping off waterfalls, walking on bridge handrails, spelunking in caves. I rode motorcycles, crashing a couple times, pushing my limits, trying to master my skills. I was careful, though. I’d research a waterfall. I’d make sure a bridge railing was clean and dry, and favor my balance towards the roadbed, 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.
It was all part of being a wizard. I knew astrology, and wrote a column for the local paper. I drew up charts and wrote interpretations, largely influenced by Llewellyn George’s “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’ve kept in touch with one of those girls, though, for over 40 years.
I enrolled in a writing-class-by-mail and sent articles to magazines, which were rejected. I wasn’t Hemingway.
Christmas Trees

We’d decided we’d grow Christmas trees, planting them on the mountain behind the farmhouse and on eighteen acres we owned down the road which we called Snag End, since it was at the bottom of Snaggy Mountain. We had one more tree farm, in the shade of one of NASA’s least successful projects, a giant windmill on Howard’s Knob. Initially, everyone in the family tended them, though soon enough planting, trimming and mowing between the thousands of trees became my job alone.
I designed a greenhouse for the business, and worked on it for weeks. A friend helped me for half a day, which was generous of him. My father talked often about the work Jeff had done on the greenhouse, not mentioning that I’d designed and built 95% of it.
He also didn’t let me finish the job. He bought glass, but wouldn’t let me install it, instead covering my beautifully styled, geometrically unique greenhouse in ugly, old, moldy used plastic.
My father never valued my work. He was angry, rather than pleased, when I made beautiful things. He ignored them, or destroyed them. I never figured out why. I think he’d decided, when I was a toddler, that I was a rocket scientist, and anything else I tried, 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 it. It seemed heartless, soulless, evil. Four additional years at university sounded like pure distilled essence of hell. Instead, 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 who immediately intrigued me. 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. Vanished! Nobody was sure where Beth was. Maybe Arizona. Maybe South Carolina. Maybe South America.
I knew where the pizza parlor was, though, and soon became part of that circle of friends. George lived above the pizza place with his wife Wanda. Chris was a big, black, Army buddy of George’s from Chicago and his girlfriend was a student at Appalachian named Sam. George, Wanda, Chris and Sam had a jewelry and supply shop called The Beadworks in downtown Boone. It had three rooms; Sam and Chris lived in the room to the left, the Beadworks was to the right. The back room belonged to a team of three. Allen, Bill and Allen’s girlfriend Lisa sold production jewelry at festivals and concerts.
The United States bicentennial was coming up, and everyone had plans for parties. For the New Year, Kyle and Del knew three self-styled Original Avery County Women in a crossroads called Crossnore, and we drove over to visit. Nora, June, and Karina 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 and had a great time. She had a set of chimes attached to the headboard of her bed. We rang her chimes all night, and “screwed in the bicentennial”. We were an item until springtime, when she left on a long-planned trip. She rode her bicycle to New Orleans, nearly a thousand miles. I stayed behind to trim Christmas trees.
In the spring I bought a Honda XL350 motorcycle. It was really too big for a trail bike, and its center of gravity too high for a road bike, but it was fun. I laid it down a couple times; I was, as usual, testing my limits.
Two weeks after buying it, the first time I carried a passenger, 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 worse.
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, his car was standing on its side; I was looking at the drive train and it was falling. I leaned the bike over, and had just made 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.
My Neck
The wreck actually helped my neck. I’d first injured it slamming into coral in Hawaii, then later hit a tree on my bicycle. That autumn I’d been lollygagging around the house on a cold, damp afternoon with a kink in my neck. Towards evening I tried to work it out, and gave my neck a slight jerk, as I’d done hundreds of times before.
Lightning hit! Down my spine! Down 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, a 50-foot waterfall. I met a red-haired fellow who played in a band two weeks later and we’d jammed a bit on harmonica and mandolin. Two weeks later he slipped, fell off the falls, broke his neck and died–that same afternoon.
I’d developed a bone spur, but the cycle wreck had pulverized it. When it’s cold and damp, it occasionally bothers me, so I wear a hoodie.
A state trooper interviewed me after the wreck. He was a New Jersey smart ass and gave me a ticket for something–speeding, unsafe movement, I don’t recall. 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, they were trying to save her. I felt guilty.
Some months after my court case, the trooper was involved in a dust-up with local authorities. He was transferred and fought the transfer, claiming it improper. Some comments were made to the effect that “if he didn’t lose his Yankee attitude, someone was going to shoot him”. These remarks were denied by the parties involved, but to me they rang true, and I wrote a letter to the editor. The trooper dropped his case, saying 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 very 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. After seventy years the mountain had washed several inches of mud into the front yard, completely obscuring the walkway and a set of stepping stones later laid on top of 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’d started, but I got better. I later worked as a rock mason and built many of the chimneys, walls, patios and terraces in the area.
Organic Chemistry
A year and a half later, Beth was back in town. She was a waitress in Blowing Rock; I went by the restaurant and she’d give me free salads. I’d give her books, she’d trade me others. On the sixth of April, I kissed her.
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, and 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.
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.
There was a reason. She was smuggling dope. She’d fly to Colombia dressed as a society girl and sew a few ounces of coke into her four-year-old’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. I could take or leave it. I’d snort if it was passed around, but if the door to the den closed, I stayed in the living room. I didn’t shoot up.

Charts & Ching
I got on with my life. A temporary job at Blowing Rock Elementary, washing dishes. At night, classes at community college. I saw Beth when she was in town.
In June I rented a room in a rural house, and a friend and I, a former sailor who went by the nickname Tea, rented the left side of the Beadworks. We decorated it Oriental style, named it Charts & Ching. I drew astrology charts and did other forms of divination. Tea, who knew Chinese, read the I Ching. I was there every day; Tea showed up once or twice a week. George and Wanda broke up and left the business that summer, Chris and Sam that winter. Allen, Lisa and Bill were usually at concerts or craft fairs, so often I was alone. Beth left her four-year-old at the shop when she was working.
The routine continued. Go to the shop, to school, then home, start again in the morning. I’d do astrology, read a palm, throw tarot cards. For the I Ching, I preferred the traditional method. Counting bundles of yarrow stalks is more contemplative than tossing coins, which leaves more time for evaluation and conversation.
Outside of the technical aspects, reading a fortune involves psychology, and a lot of talk. Everyone has their technique, and whether the I Ching, palmistry, tarot or astrology, 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, all the while shuffling cards, counting yarrow stalks, observing their palm, etc.
Calculating astrological charts by hand is tricky and requires concentration, but we could chat when the preliminaries were in place. A person’s manner and bearing reveals a lot, 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 also 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’d 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, 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; whatever order suited their fancy. This was quite revealing. Some were uncomfortable putting them in order, and asked dozens of questions. Others simply separated them into suits and piled them up. I’d observe and ask questions, deliberately and delicately. They were my cards; 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 card positions. 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. If there were none, I’d pick up the cards in the same order I’d laid them down.
I rarely used other types of divination, but I’d follow the same thoughtful, thorough path. On principle, I’d be diplomatic, but never lie. Difficult things need to be said. 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, sometimes they don’t. A girl of fourteen that I knew had a very short life line. I told her so. It didn’t surprise her; she was relieved that I was honest about it. She had a genetic heart defect. Her brother had died at seventeen. She lived to be twenty-eight. Not old, but older than her brother.
I told what I saw, in the palm, in the chart, in the cards. People deserve to know. Some pay attention, but most people shop around for comfortable answers. There will always be an expert, a survey, a Bible verse, a scientist, a grandma who says differently. Some know what they’re talking about, most parrot what they’ve seen on TV or heard on the internet. Often the most knowledgeable people in one field are the most ignorant in another. I wouldn’t hire a brain surgeon to wire my house, why would I want a physicist to read my palm?
I was alone in the shop for the month of December. There wasn’t much business; Chris and Sam were vacationing in Mexico and Alan, Bill and Lisa were all ski instructors for the season. It wasn’t fun to ride my motorcycle in wind and snow, so I’d sleep there, in a sleeping bag. With little else to do, I picked up Chris’ tools and tried my hand at ring making.



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.