Eric and I stood side by side on the sidewalk that frosty, harvest evening, watching Chris march up the darkened street of old Craftsman homes alone. Sycamores towered over us and him and the entire block, their crooked old limbs mostly barren of leaves in late autumn.
“He looks like a Roman legion,” I said of Chris.
Eric chuckled with his hands in his pockets.
“He does, doesn’t he? Like Marc Anthony, off to conquer Gaul. All that sucker needs is a sword and some sandals.”
I imitated Chris’ stout-legged, heavy gait. Michael, who had wandered a few feet down the sidewalk the other way, came back laughing at my comment. His laughter made puffs in the frosty air.
Chris glanced back at us once and started across a front lawn, his weighty footsteps scattering dead leaves as he went. When he marched up onto the covered front porch and attempted to see in through the front windows, Eric said “wow” and started down the block the other way, not wanting any part of that mischief. Michael and I shrugged at each other and remained there following Chris’ progress. He went from one window to the next on the front porch, attempting to see into the house.
Together, the four of us had been wandering around the general neighborhood for half an hour that Friday evening, attempting to find a residence associated with the directions my friend Sarah had given me over the phone. The directions went something like this.
“Take the first left off of Glassell, then the second right and go down to the house with dormer windows and covered front porch.”
And I had been just stoned enough not to ask her, well, the first left if I’m going in which direction? Never mind that every house in the neighborhood had a covered front porch of some sort and dormer windows on the second story, any one of which could have fit Sarah’s description.
Chris ultimately relented and came back down the sidewalk with a wry look on his face.
“Good thing we’re not like the grunts over there fighting in ‘Nam.”
He wandered around stiff-legged with his pretend rifle, a lost soldier.
“Man, this is such a bummer,” I said.
“Wow, mellow out, brother,” Eric said. “We’ll find the place.”
“Yeah, by the time I’m dead.”
Chris pretended to be overly serious like me, which got a chuckle out of Michael.
“Real funny,” I said. “I guess you guys enjoy the hell out of being lost.”
Chris patted me on the shoulder, as if to dispense wisdom. I gave him a look. I almost gave him an elbow.
“Why don’t we go find a phone booth and call her again,” Michael said.
“No,” I said and headed up to knock on the door of the house right in front of us. “I’m pretty sure this is the one.”
“Wow, far out,” Eric said like I was going up to confront an elephant.
“I’d better go up keep an eye on him,” Chris said. “Some redneck with a shotgun might answer the door.”
He followed me up to the porch and again tried to see in through the front windows but the curtains were drawn and the house appeared to be empty. In fact, the entire block looked as if it had been abandoned, save for a few porch lights here and there.
I knocked and waited, my heart racing in the frosty silence.
Chris and I had been standing there for fifteen seconds or so when the lace curtains parted over the front door. I flinched. Chris did a shtick like he was Charlie Chaplin escaping around a corner. Michael and Eric were having a chuckle over that one out on the sidewalk.
A moment later the door cracked opened. It was Sarah.
“Far out, Clay,” she said and came out to give me a hug. “You found it.”
“Yeah, after wandering around lost for half an hour.”
“Ssssshhh,” she said.
“Well, those were the most fucked up directions I’ve ever been given,” I whispered back.
Sarah offered Chris a smile and waved for Michael and Eric to join us.
“Remember. Be quiet. People are tripping inside.”
Sarah welcomed us into the living room and closed the door. Candles flickered in the darkness. Several people were flopped out on the chairs and sofas. Some of them I knew. Some I didn’t. Some were our age. Some were a few years older. Shelley, one of our classmates from high school was sitting at a desk in the corner, wearing a white lace robe and drawing pentagrams. The Grateful Dead was playing softly in the background.
Sarah led us out to the kitchen.
“So, are all of you going to trip?”
“I am,” I said.
“And you guys?”
“Sure,” Michael said.
“T r i p p i n g,” Chris said like he was making fun.
“Wow,” Eric said with a bemused rub of the peach fuzz on his chin. “It’s like a heavy decision.”
“Well here. Let me show you,” she said and pulled two tiny vials out of the refrigerator. They were filled with colored liquid. “The blue is 250 mcg. The purple is 500 mcg. If it’s your first time, I’d recommend doing the blue vials. The purple can get pretty heavy.”
I had tripped before and handed Sarah ten dollars for a purple vial. The blue vials were five dollars. Sarah knew people up in the Bay area who got them straight from Owsley. I unscrewed the top and drank the liquid. There was no turning back now.
Always one to jump off of cliffs like me, Michael bought a purple one and drank it down. Chris and Eric went round and round and finally decided on the blue vials.
All of us settled into the candlelit living room with Dylan playing now. Someone rolled a joint and passed it around.
Later, as if by magic, the four of us found ourselves in a back bedroom.
“Wow, I think I’m coming on,” Eric said.
“Wow, I think I’m coming on,” Chris imitated.
“Yeah, far out.”
“I think I’m coming apart,” Michael said.
All of us were still laughing over that line when Sarah came in.
“How are you guys doing?”
“We’re coming apart at the seams,” Chris said.
Sarah put a finger to her lips, reminding us to be quiet.
“By the way, have you seen Zach?”
The four of us looked at each other and shrugged. Sarah was about to leave when we heard something rustle in the closet. Sarah went over and slid open the door. There was a guy scrunched up in the corner, trying to hide behind the shoes and overcoats.
“No! No! No! Keep them away! They’re going to eat me!”
Sarah got down in a crouch.
“What’s the matter, Zach?”
“I’m just a little dormouse and those big cats want me for dinner.”
As if truly believing in this outcome, Zach went scurrying out the door on hands and knees. Sarah shrugged at us and went after him.
“You do kind of look like a cat,” I said to Chris.
He meowed, licked his chops and pretended to stalk after Zach.
Later, the four of us were lying on our backs together, tripping on the point of infinity in the corner of the ceiling. Time had disappeared. Life was eternal.
“Wow, the colors,” Eric said.
“Wow, the patterns,” Chris said.
“Our parents have been lying to us,” Michael said.
He had a way of distilling things down to their essence.
Sometime later, I remembered the world.
“Villa Park’s playing Orange tonight.”
My friends laughed.
“No, let’s go watch it.”
“Wow, that sounds like a totally crazy idea, brother,” Eric said.
“No, it’ll be cool. Like watching the gladiators in the Coliseum.”
“Wow, that’s just way too many people in one place for me right now.”
“I’ll go,” Michael said.
“Onward with the expedition,” Chris said.
Out in the living room, everyone thought we were mad. There were several attempts to dissuade us but I was determined. The world was calling me to go somewhere. I had to move forward. I always had to be moving forward in those days.
“You’re sure you’re going to be okay?” one of the older guys asked.
“Yeah,” I said and yanked on the door, not noticing the slide bolt had been latched. The door casing came right off the wall with the door.
“Oh fuck,” someone said.
There was laughter and the guy who had been worrying about us going out came over to help me with the broken pieces.
“You’re still sure you want to go out there?” he said.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m cool,” I said.
Embarrassed by my faux pas, but undeterred, I stumbled outside. Chris, Michael and Eric followed me out onto the front porch.
“Be careful,” Sarah whispered from the front door.
“We’ll be fine,” I said.
I heard the door closing quietly as we headed down the walkway.
Looking back, the four of us cracked up. The house was anthropomorphic, like Huxley’s automobile. The dormer windows upstairs were eyes, the covered porch a nose. The stairs led down into a gullet.
“Looks kind of serious,” Chris said. “Like Clay.”
I made a face and all of us went down the block laughing. It felt good to be outside with the towering trees and starry sky. The night air was crisp and clear and alive with colors. Everything was alive to us now.
Two blocks further on into the old neighborhood, we came to a small market. No one was hungry but it still seemed important to go in and explore the place. After several minutes of wandering around lost amongst the jars and packaged crap, we stumbled back out onto the street, laughing.
“Wow, far out,” Eric said. “Like none of that stuff looked edible.”
“Or real,” Michael said.
I looked up at the stars. The Milky Way spanned the frosty sky.
In the quiet, we heard a crowd cheer.
“Wow, the football game,” I said and started in that direction.
“Oh wow, I like can’t even do this,” Eric said.
At the next corner, I saw that short side street terminated at a chain link fence bordering one end of the football stadium.
“Hey, far out. Look. We can just watch it from there.”
The four of us stood with our faces to the fence, watching as a team huddled up in the distance. When they ran the next play, we broke out in laughter. Each squad seemed to be moving around like a single, many legged organism.
We stood there entranced by the skirmish for a long time. Having lost all concept of winning and losing, the game was both absurd and miraculous to us.
Another play was run, accompanied by more cheers from the crowd.
“Wow, I’m hungry,” Eric said out of the blue.
That brought about even more laughter.
“I want food,” Chris said like a caveman.
“How do you feed sea grass swaying in the tides?” Michael said.
“You wait for plankton,” Chris said.
Having philosophized our way across town, we passed a burger joint and broke out into another round of laughter.
“One slab of cooked crap on a bun,” Chris said.
You may as well have offered us tire tread to eat.
We found this little Italian place and ordered pasta.
“Tuscany,” I said to the scent of the red sauce on our plates.
“Tuscaloosa,” Chris said.
“Tuscaroni,” Michael said.
We broke out in song.
“Tuscaroni…that San Francisco treat.”
Late that night, lying alone in bed, the bliss of my trip had begun to dissipate and the uncertainties of the world returned in its place. ‘Nam and the draft were waiting for me up ahead. It was impossible to forget the war. The news anchormen were always there to remind you.
“Good evening, today in Vietnam…”
That was how the news always started. That was every anchorman’s stock in trade with raw footage from the battlefront following. A little box sat on the screen next to the anchorman’s head—a running tally of wartime casualties—how many men had been shot dead and how many wounded, for our side and theirs, for that day and the entire conflict. Progress in Vietnam came to have no other guise. The concept of winning or losing the war had been forsaken long ago. You simply counted bodies to keep the score.
Of course the newscasts sometimes led in with other stories, like when Apollo 8 had orbited the moon or riots broke out in one of America’s cities or when pissed off students were out marching around and protesting at a particular college campus. And there were those assassinations. Something like that always commandeered the headlines for a week or two but for want of anything more compelling to announce, ‘Good evening…today in Vietnam…’ was how the news always started. The images of rice paddies and napalm had burrowed their way in our collective consciousness and seemed to be the only thing holding our increasingly screwed up society together.
Lying there that night, I could not help but recall the earlier part of the sixties—the folk music scene, the Beach Boys, the early Beatles—and felt sick to realize all that innocence had been stolen away. In a matter of five, six years, we had gone from Johnny Mathis and hula hoops and convertible Impalas and cocktail parties around the backyard pool to where everything was about gooks and napalm and the war draped around everyone’s neck.
I lay there, pretty much haunted by those simpler times but knowing there was no going back now. Vietnam had made certain there was no way home, certainly not from where my life was headed.
The next day, the boys and I drove out to Irvine Park and hiked up to a hill overlooking the lake, spread out some blankets in the shade of a towering oak tree and sat there drinking wine and smoking joints and watching the row boats glide around among a flotilla of swans. Everything was about trying to mellow out from our trip.
I was scheduled to go in and register for the draft that following Monday and the awareness of it hung over my entire weekend. My birthday was shortly after Christmas so I had received a notice to register when every other guy in our senior class had yet to receive his.
Monday after school, I followed the registration notice over to the local draft board. The office turned out to be an inconspicuous storefront in that old part of town where we had been tripping on Friday night. I was expecting military uniforms and soldiers saluting. Instead, I found two secretaries at their desks and a guy in civilian clothing. They were all smiles and seemingly surprised to see me come in the front door. The guy in civilian clothing came over to shake my hand
Hell, I thought. They never would have missed me. Now my name is in the lottery and chances are, this time next year, they’ll be sending me over to have my ass blown off in ‘Nam.
The next morning, the boys stopped by to smoke a joint before school and I explained what had gone down at the draft board.
“Don’t even show up,” I said while choking on a hit.
Right away, my friends were tripping over that advice, certain that the MP’s would come kicking down their doors.
“I know,” I said. “That’s exactly what I was thinking. Only they acted like they didn’t even know I existed. When I walked in the door it was like, ‘Oh wow, thanks for showing up. Most guys don’t even bother’.”
My friends cracked up over my portrayal of things but were clearly not convinced. I took another hit off the joint and passed it on.
“I’m telling you, the minute I walked in there, it hit me. It’s a numbers game. Don’t show up and you’re one of millions of guys. Show up and suddenly you’re on a first name basis with those pigs. Better to be one of millions. They don’t have time to be chasing you around.”
The joint came back to me and I took the last toke.
“I mean it, man. If I had to do it all over again, I would never even have shown up at that bummer place.”
The roach went down my throat. Chris got out the eye drops. I hit the air spray.
“Okay, off to Bartley’s philosophy class,” Chris said. “If a man is chained to the inside of a cave and nobody sees him, does he exist?”
“Only if a rock falls on his head,” Michael said.
There was laughter.
“I’m so sick of reading Plato’s Republic. It’s like it was written by the same petrified bastards who run this country. I’d rather be force fed Leviticus.”
There was more laughter and talk of scoring some hashish that evening. We lived adjacent to miles of hills and open country and were always driving up there to get high and talk about the world.
As we headed out the door for school, the conversation turned back to Vietnam. A guy we knew had gone over there to fight for his country the previous summer. They had sent him home in a box two weeks later.
“I’m totally serious,” I said to reemphasize my point. “Don’t even show up to register. Worst case scenario, maybe they’ll come looking for you if the Russians invade.”
Barely a month later, I got kicked out of school. The pricks who ran the place kept telling me not to wear my moccasins on campus, and to be sure and wear socks, no matter what kind of shoes I wore. So I wore my moccasins again, without any socks, and when I got into an argument with Bartley in our philosophy class, he turned me in.
My old man came home from work, heard the news and got into my face. Called me a bum for having my hair long and wearing the moccasins. Who did I think I was, Sitting Fucking Bull?
That led us to duking it out in the living room. My mother somehow got between us and told me to go wait outside. I went to sit in my car in the back of the apartments. My nose was bleeding. I had a black eye.
What a prick. The old man had sold our house the previous summer and moved us into an apartment. There were big plans to move up north and build a hacienda or some shit. He was always selling things and moving us a few miles further down the road.
My mother came out a short while later, crying. The old man was kicking me out of the house. At eighteen, I was no longer his legal responsibility and that was that. My mother handed me two hundred dollars and brushed my tears away.
“Why didn’t you plan to go to college, like your older brother? We were prepared to pay for everything. Now look at you.”
She brushed away her own tears and kissed me goodbye. I watched her disappear back into the apartment complex.
I sat there, cast out into the world.
There was a thought to go in and retrieve my few possessions; three Japanese water colors hanging on the wall in my bedroom, a figure of Buddha and an antique wooden tray and calligraphy pen that I had used for writing haikus. Somehow the memory of those things brought to mind my earlier days. What had happened to me? I was once a loving and gentle little boy. Now I was at war with the world and everything in it.
I wandered around lost in my car for a spell before deciding to head over to my girlfriend Lisa’s place. She answered when I knocked and quickly came outside, closing the door behind her. Her parents didn’t like me either. In fact, I had nowhere to go besides my old Peugeot. Fortunately, the seats folded down into a bed. Lisa snuck back inside and brought out some bedding. We talked and kissed for a while before she had to go back inside.
I had no idea what to do with myself next. Had I been dumb enough to buy into this crap about us saving Southeast Asia from the communist hordes, I probably would have signed up for the Army and gone over to kick some ass in ‘Nam but I had yet to find one person who could properly explain why we were in that mess, or how we were supposed to get ourselves back out of it. There wasn’t even talk of winning it any more. A great nation and we were getting our asses kicked by an army of little men in black pajamas. We were being taken to the woodshed by a tiny country that struggled to field a modern jet. It didn’t seem to matter how much napalm we dropped on those folks or how many B-52 sorties we conducted up north, next thing you knew, they were shelling Saigon and overrunning our troops again.
Meanwhile, back at home, words like Khe Sanh and the Mekong Delta and the Ho Chi Minh trail had wormed their way into our everyday vernacular. You may as well have been talking about Tang or Skippy Peanut Butter.
And that bastard of a President wasn’t helping things any. Peace With Honor he had sold everyone to get himself elected. That was how he was going to get us out of Vietnam. The problem being, peace with honor was limping home with our tail between our legs, by any other name, and Americans were none too keen about limping home with our tail between our legs.
With the only other viable option for extracting ourselves from Vietnam being to drop the big one, and with wiping half a nation off the globe a pretty hard sell, even to the most gung ho, gun loving Americans who thought dropping bombs on other people was a godly good use of our time, the horror of that war dragged on another week, and those weeks kept turning into months, simply because no one could not find a convenient way to save face and get us out of that mess all in one motion. Even though the death of one more soldier over there had ceased to make one goddamned bit of sense.
So week after week and month after month, you turned on the news and there it was again, that all too familiar mantra.
‘Good evening…today in Vietnam…’
Film clips invariably followed; a lot of stuff with napalm exploding or archival footage of B-52s cutting loose with thousand pounders. Often times you saw a platoon of our soldiers hunkered down behind a patch of elephant grass, and thankful for that much cover as AK-47 and mortar rounds popped off in a rice paddy around them. Perhaps they had just taken a hill or some other ostensibly meaningful patch of jungle. Or it was the next day and the Vietcong had taken it back. Or it was between firefights and you saw our unshaven soldiers standing around with peace symbols painted onto their helmets, looking for all the world as if they had just bivouacked through a love-in at Golden Gate Park, except there was no joy left in their eyes as they stared back at you through the camera.
The nightly news reports routinely ended in this fashion. An incoming chopper would touch down somewhere alongside a rice paddy. A handful of grunts would drag their maimed and dismembered comrades towards it through the muck. The injured were lifted gingerly into the open bay. The chopper quickly took off again. The soldiers held onto their helmets. The elephant grass was flattened around them.
Night after night, you tuned in to see more Vietnamese villages being strafed with napalm and more frightened villagers running for their lives down some muddy road, their skin and clothes on fire, their neighbors lying there scorched and dead. Straw huts burned in the background. Women in conical hats held their children and wept. These were the images of war and they did not change, only the people who happened to be suffering in them.
At times, these battlefront reports were juxtaposed with the war here at home, the one in Newark, Detroit or Jackson, Mississippi. The streets of our cities were in flames and the National Guard had been called in to restore order. The rioters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. The soldiers shot back with tear gas and sometimes live ammunition.
Just as frequently you saw students demonstrating at one college campus or another, usually in response to some government action, and usually the one that had led to the riots in the first place. You saw the students march. You saw them chant. You saw them get out of control. You saw the cops arrive and get even more out of control. Sadly, you saw a once simple world being clubbed right out of existence.
As springtime rolled around that year, I came to accept that there was no way around the issue of Vietnam for me. Either I went off to went to fight in the war or I went on the run, and I had no desire to kill my fellow human beings, any more than I wanted them shooting at me. As a young man I just wanted to lie in fields and watch clouds pass overhead. I had no use for wars.
That summer, Lisa’s parents sent her off to college in Florida. A few weeks later I received a Dear John letter. Alone and depressed, I quit my job, sold my car and ran off to Europe.
As the summer wound down, I considered just staying but with my money running out, I had to accept the inevitable. Either I returned to attend college and filed for a deferment or went up to hide up in Canada. Either way, I had to devise an actual plan. The war would not leave me alone.
Passing through customs at JFK, I decided to go visit an old friend of mine from high school who was starting his freshman year at Cornell. It was a typical campus scene from the late sixties, a tribe of young people living together in this big, clapboard house, smoking dope, engaging in free sex and generally abusing the university’s notion of a proper education.
Sitting around their darkened living room that first night, I found myself surrounded by a band of ersatz revolutionaries, several of them in Army fatigues, and with the field caps and Castro-style beards to go with it. Cigar smoke filled the room. A Che Guevara poster hung on one wall. The talk was of starting a revolution down in Chile. I found that amusing. How in the world were these Castroistas going to stage a revolution in South America from an old clapboard house in Ithaca, New York? Youthful rebellion, I concluded, and would have left it at that, except they all seemed so goddamned serious.
Sipping java in a coffee shop a few days later, and with a morning paper on the Formica counter top in front of me, I noticed an article about a bomb going off in some government offices on the other side of the state. The bomb had pretty much destroyed the place and the Feds considered it a matter of pure luck that no one had gotten killed as the result.
When I arrived back to the clapboard house later that afternoon, all the curtains were drawn and several of these battle-fatigued revolutionaries were gathered together in one corner of the living room. There was a glance my way before their conversation resumed in secret. I started upstairs. The whole thing felt like a bummer. Then I noticed the door to the basement had been padlocked and it suddenly hit me. Oh Jesus. These freaks are building bombs down in the cellar. I’d better get my ass out of town.
Heading down the highway, the simple days of bumming around the Balearic Islands kept dogging my thoughts. Why on earth had I come home? That experience back in Ithaca was haunting me too. I had always pictured myself as part of the movement, but that basically meant doing my own thing, and especially doing it in a peaceful manner. It certainly did not involve being a Marxist revolutionary, or blowing up other people’s property. I wasn’t that bold or stupid, and probably could not have articulated a difference between the two. Perhaps I was just a coward at heart, or greatly apathetic. I wasn’t so sure I could have articulated the difference between those two things, either, but I knew this much for certain. If a bunch of old white men wanted to make war, fine, but leave me out of it. All I wanted was a place to live in peace. Blow yourselves to kingdom come, if that’s what you want.
Back on the West Coast, I rented a room in an old boardinghouse and got a day job slopping hash at a local diner. I fell in love and took some classes at a nearby junior college but had soon dropped out from a profound sense of boredom. And all the while, that fleeting exposure to the revolution kept on haunting my thoughts. It really had me down, the fact that some people were willing to die for their beliefs…and I was not.
As much as I was able to maintain any peace of mind at the time was due to my sweetheart Laura, and perhaps to the turn-of-the-century neighborhood where I then lived. Grand old buildings with stone facades lined the main avenues and many times in the late afternoon I would sit feeding pigeons in a nearby circular plaza. And though the plaza and everything remaining from the town’s pioneer past had grown a bit dilapidated over the years, they had yet to talk of tearing these things down for a new stucco commercial plaza.
It was only when I got out into the suburbs where I had grown up as a boy that I found another sort of war being conducted; where every time you turned around, another orange grove had been uprooted, another old ranch house had been turned to sticks and one more piece of the town’s pastoral past had been plowed under for development. Acres upon acres of clay soil cut raw beneath the sun, that was what had happened to world I once knew as a boy, survey sticks jammed into the ground everywhere, their little orange and pink flags flapping in the breeze, like grave markers to a forgotten world.
But at least I never saw a bulldozer or tract house under construction as I came to and from the old boardinghouse where I lived. And aside from my work, and spending every possible moment I could with Laura, I had started to dream of the next wondrous adventure in life and if anything bothered me greatly, it was that Chris and Eric and Michael had gone off to attend college and the unshakable feelings of invincibility I once knew had vanished somewhere along with them.
It had grown late that spring afternoon and as was typical of me in my youth, I started down the wooden stairs in great leaps and bounds, off to retrieve the mail and oblivious to the ruckus my Spanish boots were making all over the old boardinghouse where I then lived. As I flew past the second story landing and down the last flight of stairs, the old widow who owned the place came out of her apartment, hair done up in a bun, her left arm akimbo. The look on her face suggested she was ready to give me notice.
“Clay, you absolutely must stop making so much noise around here.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Millstadt. I’ll try to do better.”
I hurried down the hallway, trying my best not to make any further ruckus. As I was flying out the front door, Mrs. Millstadt finally closed the door to her apartment.
Outside on the front porch, a jigsaw puzzle sky greeted me. It had rained overnight and the snowcapped mountains sparkled brilliantly on the far horizon. I remembered the days of my youth and how those same mountains would be there as we walked home from school on autumn days, leaves scattered on the ground, our noses red from the cool, crisp breeze.
The last thing on my mind was war and all the ghastly things men did to each other in the name of God and country but the mail was in my hands, and with it, a draft notice. You may as well have shoved me off a cliff backwards.
My exuberance gone, I marched sullenly back up to my room, ruing my total lack of preparation. Being in this position was as much my fault as anything else. My birth date had come up number eighteen in the lottery and I had basically stuck my head in the sand in response. Of course things were bound to come to this end.
Up in my room, I sat at my desk and stared at the envelope, weighing whether or not to open it, and concluding without a great deal of deliberation. What’s the point? I know well enough what the damned thing says.
Into the trash it went.
Time passed while my head raced with various schemes of escaping. Mrs. Millstadt’s laundry flapped on the line down below me.
When I came back to the moment, a late afternoon was already turning to dusk. The mail still sat on my desk. A letter from Eric was on top of the pile so I opened it, hoping to be distracted by tales of his adventures at BYU. Instead, his letter was mostly a rant about the war.
Whiner, I thought. His number had been picked three-hundred and six in the draft. No one was ever going to call his ass up for duty.
As I read through the rest of Eric’s letter, I found myself repeatedly glancing at the draft notice sitting in the trash can. It was a rather innocuous looking thing, for all the significance involved; only slightly larger than a legal envelope and with a perforated strip along the top. It could have been a lousy traffic ticket, if not for the draft board’s return address printed in the upper left hand corner.
In the end, accepting that ignorance was no form of escape, I retrieved the notice, pulled on the perforated strip and extracted the form from inside, seeing straight off that I was in one hell of a fix. The draft board had scheduled me for induction in two weeks. I should plan on a long day at the LA processing center, followed by an equally long bus ride to Ford Ord. I might want to bring along my toothbrush and a sack lunch, just in case.
As darkness fell outside my windows, I faced my circumstances squarely and the knowledge of it burned in my heart. In all likelihood, a tour in Vietnam awaited me; off to fight a war I dreaded and detested with all my heart.
As the ensuing days rushed by, I vacillated between my most obvious choices. Accept my fate or refuse to report. One voice said acquiesce. Another voice said run. The Bhagavad-Gita came to mind. Krishna reasoning with Arjuna. Why not march down into the field of battle with no fear of my death? After all, everything in this world was temporal. Yet I found little peace in these thoughts and the time for a decision kept drawing nearer and nearer.
When the day actually arrived, I reluctantly hitchhiked up to LA and followed the instructions on where to report. That led me to the back of a long line. A thousand other young men were in front of me, waiting to have their asses checked and their heads shaved.
As expected, I quickly passed their physical and psychological tests. Next stop was a haircut and formal induction, but while waiting there in line, a vision of my own death came over me, sloshing about in sweltering jungles, fetid water up to my crotch, leeches sucking at my putrid flesh, the scent of wild orchids in the humid air, the call of exotic birds echoing among the trees as the staccato bark of an AK-47 rang out and blew off my head.
Sickened by my decision to report in the first place, I slipped out of the line and entered a building next to the induction area. A maze of long hallways led me back towards the street. Uniformed sentries stood at attention here and there, each one of them with a rifle in hand, each one of them eyeing me as I passed by. I expected one of those bastards to say “halt” at any second, but none did.
After what seemed like an eternity in slow motion, I pushed open the front door and emerged onto the smoggy streets of LA, a free but troubled man. It was time to hide. I heard those words in my head but hardly knew what they meant. All I had was the inertia of an impulsive decision at my back.
My first thought was to call Laura, but I knew she was not home at that hour. She had a voice class on Monday mornings. Besides, I knew what she would say—go back to school, apply for a deferment, etc., etc.—a course of action that I had summarily dismissed.
My decision-making in this regard bordered on madness. I knew it but seemed utterly incapable of changing myself. I was a young man who bristled at being controlled, a resistance to authority so complete, I even revolted at sitting in classrooms. My heart cried out for freedom, to live and do as I pleased, to have wide-open spaces around me, yet walking alone down the seedy back streets of LA, I knew little of freedom.
Having walked along feeling lost for several blocks, I thought of my eldest brother Anthony up in the Santa Cruz Mountains and decided to give him a call. I knew he would lend me a hand and Northern California was definitely a better place to be hiding out than where I was right then.
At a small Mexican market, I stopped for some change, located a phone booth and gave Anthony a call. He listened while I poured out my heart to him and I would have gone on quite a bit longer but he interrupted me early on and suggested I hitchhike up to his place. Like Laura, he thought I ought to go back to school and apply for a deferment, but of course I could come up and stay as long as I needed to sort things out.
I was on the road all that day and arrived around ten that evening, greeted at the front door of the cabin by Anthony, his once short, curly hair now groomed into a fluffy Afro, the pressed, khaki slacks and striped shirts of his youth exchanged for overalls, a long sleeve flannel shirt and tennis shoes. His wife Mildred scraped together a meal for me in the kitchen while we talked. Wine, music and conversation went on until late. We discussed a thousand different things, but the conversation always came back to the war.
A bed had been made for me in a small room off the kitchen and with the lights finally out, I lay there alone, haunted by my decision. I imagined federal agents knocking on the door in the days to come. It seemed like the best thing for me was to move on quickly, but where and how? All kinds of ideas occurred to me, but none of them seemed the least bit realistic when I took the time to scrutinize them properly.
I fell asleep very late with the sound of a creek gurgling beneath the cabin and was awakened around eight the next morning by someone stirring in the kitchen. It was Mildred baking blueberry muffins and the scent had soon wafted throughout the cabin. Anthony stirred a short time later and I heard the crackle of a fire in the fireplace. Blonde on Blonde played on the stereo, something heartfelt and sincere. I lay there with the memory of my youth digging into my heart—that night we had tripped at Sarah’s place, a thousand dear memories like it—all of it so goddamned close but I could no longer touch it. I quietly wept and hid my tears when Anthony popped his head in.
Before getting up, I read a few pages from The Hobbit and dreamed of wood elves making pleasant mischief in the redwood forest. We’d all go to live in the Shire some day and live happily ever after. Someday soon, we would.
Heading off for a day at the university a short while later, Anthony and Mildred let their two gray Weimaraner pups out the front door.
“Keep an eye on them,” Anthony said. The dogs were already disappearing into the forest with tongues hanging out and nipping at each other’s heels.
I made another pot of coffee and went out to sit on a deck off the kitchen. The creek exited eight feet below the deck and trickled away down a glade. Occasionally, I heard the dogs barking in the distance or a car passing up on the narrow mountain highway, but otherwise it was quiet.
Amidst the silence, a large Tomcat plopped up onto the railing. Another soon followed and there were menacing hisses from a safe distance before both of them settled in to lick their paws.
Thinking to fashion a bit of peace in the world, I went inside and returned with two bowls of tuna, but the cats quickly converged along the rail, hissing and snapping at each other with their ears pinned back. I tried placing the two bowls at opposite ends of the rail, but the bigger cat quickly devoured his bowl and went after the other one.
Then the dogs came galloping home and commenced to have a grand time, barking and leaping up at the cats from the forest floor. I had a goddamned war on my hands. Conflict of this sort was in our blood. Millions of years of it, and how in hell did you overcome that?
The dogs eventually tired of their sport and disappeared back into the forest. In need of a nap, the cats agreed to a peace treaty. I smoked a joint and dreamed I had saved the world. All was still there in the redwood forest.
Later on, I ate two of Mildred’s blueberry muffins lavished with butter, pulled on my boots and walked down to the San Lorenzo River with a fishing pole. Before I knew it, the autumn sky had grown pale and Mildred and Anthony were arriving home to make dinner.
I spent another day much the same as that one, then another and soon most of a week had disappeared with the war receding from my thoughts.
Late that Friday afternoon, Anthony came into my room and sat on the bed while I was reading. He looked somber.
“Mom called me today at work. A couple of guys in suits stopped by the house looking for you.”
He studied my reaction.
“I don’t know who they were exactly and you know her. She was too flustered to ask. At least she told them she had no idea where to find you.”
“But she called you,” I said. “What if they tapped her phone?”
“I doubt it.”
“Yeah, but you never know.”
Anthony shrugged again.
“What are you going to do? You’ve got to hang somewhere. Lay low and I’ll help you find a job.”
Anthony patted me on the shoulder.
“Things will work out all right. Just remember, you’re not the only one in this situation.”
With that, he went out to help Mildred make dinner. I lay alone and stared at the ceiling.
What in the world could I have done? It must have been something more than dodging the draft. A million other young men had done that. It made no sense for them to come poking around my parent’s place the way they had.
I worried over this all that night and the next day and for several days to come. A week went by and I jumped at every unexpected knock on the door, but nothing much happened, except that I worried a great deal.
Eventually, I found a job clearing dead trees from the forest with this old hippie. Our days were spent cutting those logs down into shorter pieces and splitting the pieces into firewood. The wood was sold to various folks up in the mountains. The job hardly paid enough to survive but did have one great advantage. I was outdoors from dawn to dusk and free to dream all day.
I dreamed about Laura most of all, dreams in which wars did not exist and two people could live happily ever after. Or being more practical at times, I imagined a world where nothing worse than a slap on the wrist and a tour in the National Guard awaited me. Many times I dreamed the peace process would quickly succeed, but all my dreams turned out to be mirages. Laura remained in the south, out of my reach, and the negotiators in Paris squabbled like spoiled children. They couldn’t decide on the size of the negotiating table, let alone how to end their goddamned war.
And all the while my life went on in its shadow world, where in the first few moments of consciousness each day, I would pretend the war did not exist. Then, accepting that it did, I went off to work in the forest and dreamed all day of miraculous solutions to my problems. I spent most evenings in general merriment with Mildred and Anthony, only to find the same circle of anxieties and illusions awaiting me when I lay back down to bed.
Spring passed to summer and summer to fall and I had hitchhiked down twice during those months to visit with Laura, my paranoia about being busted set aside over love, and was in fact then returning from a third trip down south with hope in my heart. After months of pleading with Laura, she had finally expressed a willingness to transfer colleges and move up north with me.
Having arrived back to Santa Cruz late in the afternoon, a young man stopped to pick me up near the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Winding up Old Highway 9 together, day faded to dusk. A canopy of trees speckled our way with shadow and light and the San Lorenzo skipped whitely over pebble and rock nearby, and it was a good river, filled with steelhead in those autumn months of the year.
The highway eventually wound up over the mountains and down into a sunlit valley and then entered a stretch of dense, dark forest. Coming to a break in the trees, I gestured for the young man to pull over by a hand-painted sign tacked to a redwood. With a final thanks from me and a wave goodbye, he drove off down the highway and I turned down the gravel lane to our cabin alone. Twilight had gathered among the tall, straight trunks of the redwoods and the forest floor was filled with the quiet of that hour.
A memory popped into my mind as I walked along; of the many times Anthony and I had flown past our street on the way home, the two of us immersed in one discussion or another and completely missing the obscure sign until we were a half mile up the narrow highway, thereby forced to continue on to the village market in order to turn around and using that as a pretense to buy a bottle of good Spanish Port for our troubles.
Listening to the crunching of my boots on the gravel road, I smiled to myself at these thoughts and about everything around me. It felt good to be home and see the creek gurgling beneath our upraised cabin but I noticed there was no trail of smoke rising up from the stone chimney and that brought a bit of concern. My brother and his wife were usually home at that hour but their car wasn’t parked out in front and there were no signs of activity.
Going over the little bridge to the front door, I noticed a padlock over the doorknob, of the sort real estate agents employ when selling a property and my concern turned to alarm. Something was terribly wrong.
Unable to see through the front door, or any of the curtained windows, I went around to the creek, climbed up to the back deck and stared in through the kitchen door. The cabin was completely empty. The wood floors had been swept clean and glowed faintly in the dim light. The closet in my room was open and everything was gone from it too.
I climbed back down from the deck and went around to the front of the cabin. Our neighbor and friend Nita lived back up the lane on the opposite side and I thought of going up to ask her what had happened but impulsively walked around the cabin several more times, rechecking every door and window, still unwilling to accept my own sensory perceptions. My brother, his wife, their two cats and both dogs were completely gone. I was homeless in the gathering dusk and had just hitchhiked four hundred miles to discover this fact. It seemed impossible to believe. There had to be an explanation, yet nothing I considered in the approaching twilight made a bit of sense. Before vanishing in this way, why on earth hadn’t Anthony bothered to call me?
Sick to think I was suddenly homeless, I went around front and started up towards Nita’s place. Most likely she knew what had happened and if nothing else would offer me a place to sleep that night. I especially had high hopes about this latter aspect but those hopes were dashed halfway up the road. Jack, Nita’s boyfriend appeared from around the far side of the house and loped up her stairs like a bear coming back to its cave. Nita opened the screen door and the two of them kissed before Jack slipped inside.
For several seconds I stood in the lane with the image of Jack’s yin yang symbol stitched to the back of his Levi jacket lingering in my mind, a reminder of his legendary status among the Merry Pranksters and of my own uncertainties as a young man. My impulse was to go camp in the woods but I went up to knock on the door anyway. I needed to know what the hell had happened to my brother, no matter how much I felt intimidated by Jack.
The latest Stones’ album started to blare out of Nita’s house.
“Well, you heard about the midnight rambler…creeping round your bedroom door.”
The sound track echoed all around the quiet forest as I knocked on the door. I waited for half a minute and knocked again. Nita finally appeared.
“Clay!” she exclaimed at seeing me outside her screen door. “Come in, come in.”
The door creaked open. Nita was holding a wooden spoon in one hand and used the back of the other hand to wipe the sweat from her brow. Her cheeks were red from standing over a hot stove. She offered me a radiant smile and a peck on the cheek.
“Come in, come in,” she repeated and hurried back to the kitchen, her fluffy, black Afro swaying about as she went.
“You know Jack,” she shouted over the music.
Jack sat hunched forward on the sofa, his dark eyes probing me. I felt another jolt of adrenalin when he nodded at me. What if he had learned about my tryst with Nita? The two of us had slept together back in the spring, when I first moved up to live with Anthony, which all in all probably meant little or nothing, given the times. Nita was a free spirit at the vanguard of the Bay Area counter-culture movement and a seamstress to a number of its creative icons, and had no doubt slept with a lot of those men, but she was still Jack’s lady and for all the free love in the sixties, I doubted his magnanimity under the circumstances. He probably felt about Nita the same way I felt about Laura.
Not knowing what to say to him, I excused myself and went into the kitchen.
Nita was busy with her pots and pans on the stove. She also had something baking in the oven. She checked that and stirred the contents of one pan, all the while dancing to the Stones. She wiped the sweat from her forehead one more time and smiled somewhat sadly at me over her shoulder.
“Roll a joint!” she said and pointed to her stash on a bookshelf.
I quickly did as requested and held the joint to her lips while she cooked. We both took several hits and I placed the roach in an ashtray.
Seated at Nita’s breakfast nook, I felt the drug take effect and the shock of my predicament melt into spiritual detachment. My former home was merely a painting on life’s canvas now, a fleeting moment in the spacetime continuum, framed by Nita’s kitchen window and surrounded by redwoods at dusk. Only the music seemed a bit incongruous under the circumstances, and apparently recognized my discomfort, because she scurried off to turn down the stereo.
“Sorry,” she said upon returning. “Anyway, I suppose you want to know what happened.”
“It was crazy, Clay. Absolutely nuts. The whole thing blew up in a matter of a few days. Mildred caught Anthony and Joni screwing down in the woods. Which, you know, I don’t think Mildred wasn’t all that concerned about the fling itself, but Anthony had already gone off the deep end and he and Joni had run off to Europe by the end of the week.”
Nita smiled mischievously over her shoulder at me.
“Mildred went back to live with her parents in Hawaii. I guess she had anticipated dragging Anthony over there to work in her old man’s shipping business at some point. Imagine that. Anthony taking a corporate job.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Nita studied me and went back to her cooking.
“Maybe you didn’t see this coming, Clay, but things weren’t all that great for them after the Peace Corps. Anyway, our friends around the valley helped disperse all their stuff. Next thing you know, poof, everything was gone and the place was empty.”
Nita waved as if it was some sort of grand magic.
“The cabin is for rent, if you’re interested.”
“I couldn’t afford it alone,” I said. “Do you know what happened to my stuff?”
“Oh, it’s scattered all over the place, Clay. You know how it is with hippies. You may as well leave your stash lying around. I can give you some clothes if you need them.”
“No, I’ll be all right. I’ve got my backpack down at the cabin. I’ll sleep by the river tonight and head back south in the morning.”
“Don’t head south,” Nita said suddenly. She put the wooden spoon down and took hold of my shoulders with a look of real concern. “Think of your draft situation, Clay.”
“I think about it every day, Nita. Every minute of every hour.”
“Then the last thing you need is to head back down south at this moment.”
Jack appeared and leaned in the doorway while we were talking, a feather twirling in one hand, as if he was distracted by it.
“Anyway,” I said, looking back at Nita. “Laura was planning to come up and live with me in a few weeks so I’d better go down and make other plans.”
“Call her,” Nita suggested. “Or better yet, don’t say a thing. Just let her show up. You know there are places you can stay with friends. Then in a month or so, the two of you can afford to get your own place.”
“No, I’ve got to go down there. She won’t understand what has happened.”
I did not want to elaborate on my reasons, to admit how cavalier I had been with Laura about her college aspirations and felt rather foolish about it now. In exchange for abandoning the certainty of one college and transferring to another, I had promised to provide Laura with a place to live and now I had nothing.
“Sit still,” Jack interjected. “Let the universe turn. Everything will find its proper place.”
He had said this without glancing up from the feather twirling between his thumb and finger.
Yeah, right, I thought to myself, how easy to dispense such wisdom when it wasn’t your life and your woman. I doubted he’d be saying the same thing if Nita was involved. I looked back at her, suppressing my anger as best I could. She tussled my hair.
“You can sleep on the couch tonight, okay?” At this, Jack abruptly returned to the living room. Nita smiled at me again, obviously disconcerted by two male elk marking scent around her home but doing her best to hide it.
“Come,” she said and filled a bowl with soup on the dining table, “at least have something to eat.”
“Thanks,” I said and waited for her to bring me a spoon.
With only a hint of daylight remaining, I walked back down to the cabin and climbed up onto the wooden deck one more time. Standing against the rail, I looked down towards the river. The creek gurgled beneath me. A jay called in the distance. Otherwise the world was quiet. I half expected Anthony’s dogs to come running out of the forest from their Bodkins adventures. So many times I had lingered with my brother there with the umbrage of dusk gathering around us and the memory of those moments stabbed into my heart; Anthony standing along the rail, his freshwater pole dangling over the creek, laughably expecting an errant steelhead to appear, me seated at the redwood table, the two of us talking up the world together, a joint passed between us, our bottle of Spanish port and our dream of the sixties lingering in the trail of smoke and good conversation.
I broke down then, seeing all this had been taken from me and was never to return.
When my heart was somewhat stilled, I climbed back down from the deck and started towards the river. The forest was nearly black so that I had to make my way cautiously among the undergrowth and fallen branches.
I chose a place to camp under a redwood, some distance back from the river, where I could comfortably hear the whisper of the trees over the rushing water. I had no candle or lantern to read by and was left to my thoughts.
The war stabbed into my imagination immediately. It seemed impossible to believe; that it was being waged on the other side of the world right then, in a tropical jungle glistening with sunlight, men waiting amidst the call of exotic birds and rotting foliage, fearfully preparing to blow each other to hell.
Not wanting to think of the war, I recalled pleasanter days, when I had sipped wine in the cafes of Paris the previous summer and later bummed down through the countryside on my way to Spain, always a good Chabot in my Moroccan satchel, some rustic bread and the ever-present bottle of Beaujolais. I recalled those warm summer nights when we had camped wherever we could find a bit of forest alongside the road, David, the red-haired Englishmen on his way to the Dakar rally, Helga, the young German lady from Frankfurt, whom we had met in the cathedral at Chartres, and a young refugee couple from Czechoslovakia, who, it turned out, were the world’s outright experts at finding places to sleep on the streets of any European city.
Then I remembered Pamplona, not a great fan of Hemingway at the time and unaware that I had stumbled into his beloved festival until a line of people came out of a bar in the heat of a late afternoon, dancing the conga, and a woman in this drunken procession explained to me the reason for all the disorder as she went by. The next morning I had arisen early with all the other still sodden drunks and had gone off to be chased along narrow streets by that day’s collection of bulls, this initiation rite repeated each morning until the Festival of St. Fermin concluded and a train was boarded to Barcelona, the ensuing late nights carousing among back street sailor bars forever etched into my mind, the long strolls along La Rambla each afternoon, with thousands of parakeets singing from cages hung in the shady trees. I recalled that last evening in the Plaza Rei, a dignified old man dressed in suit and beret overcome as he tried to feed a flurry of pigeons from his bag of popcorn, and the cold, overnight ferry trip to Ibiza that followed, and the local fisherman who had taken us on to Formentera with the spray of the sea in our faces, and all this great, untamed journey leading to a tribe of people camped among cypress trees along a white beach in the Spanish sun. A hip young Spaniard operated a bar from under a palm-covered cabaña nearby, and Arabic music played on a radio station broadcasting from the not so distant Algiers. We frolicked in the sea and on some days hiked through the shady olive groves on our way to the little town of San Francisco, often stopping on our way to lie upon the rock walls left behind by Roman legions and dream of ancient times. But no matter how our days were spent, we returned each night to one certain ritual, the tribe gathered as the sun set and the sea grew dark blue and our laughter spilled with hashish into the arid twilight.
It was on one of those nights, as the sky danced with stars above us that we had passed a bottle of Tawny port among ourselves and listened to a radio broadcast of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, laughing and discussing life and watching our cold white companion orb cross the evening sky; in a state of wonder that someone stood there looking back at us, that we had been placed at that particular crossroad of mankind’s destiny, to witness all human beings, even if it was only symbolically, even if it was only for that brief moment in time, become as one as we made our mysterious trek across the universe.
Life abroad had been that sort of wondrous journey for me, filled with discovery and enlightenment, so returning in the fall to face the draft had come with a degree of dread, and I was all the more depressed to learn my number had been picked at the top of the lottery. It had only been a matter of time before that draft notice arrived in the mail, as it did.
In all this, I had met Laura, my one impulse since that moment being to run away with her from the war and from everything else. With her love, I felt invincible and had no fear of being a man without a country and imagined I would love her always and this thought nearly made me leap to my feet, determined as I was to go south and be at her side, despite what Nita and Jack had told me.
This flow of desires and dreams and regrets went on spinning around in my heart. I wanted to hold and to kiss the woman I loved right that instant. I longed for our place in the sun. And all the while, a great uncertainty worked within me, as though the gods were pressing down upon my soul.