Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Best Intentions

He wanted to be the Jewish Neil Young. However, his parents made it clear that rock music was out of the question for a good, Midwestern Jewish boy, much less playing the type of fuzzy, languid rock wafting eastward from drug-addled California hippies. Despite this, Mike was undeterred. He wholeheartedly embraced the idea that rock and roll could change the world. He was going to be part of that change even if it meant that he brought shame on his family and faced the rejection of his peers. He saw no other way.

Mike’s father owned Evansville’s oldest newspaper for many years up until the 1970’s and his mother had been a music instructor at a private school. Both parents were orthodox Jews and attendance at synagogue was compulsory for Mike as a young boy. He greeted their attempts at indoctrination with a level of resistance beyond his years and increasingly chafed at the restraints they sought to impose. He planned to turn his back on the world that he knew. He dreamt of the day when he would reject the faith of his ancestors and the affluence of his youth. In its place, a new identity would form that, while not terribly original in the context of the times, was nonetheless a much truer vision of who he was.

He first heard Neil Young in 1969 when he was fifteen years old. It was the year of Young’s first album with the band Crazy Horse. Forbidden from listening to such music, Mike heard the album for the first time in the bedroom of his cousin Clark.

“Wow, what’s this song called?” Mike asked.

“Cinnamon Girl.”

“Listen to that guitar! This sounds incredible, Clark! What’s this guy’s name again?”

“Neil Young. Usedta be in a band called Buffalo Springfield.”

“Never heard of ‘em.”

“Heck, I’ve never heard anything like this before.”

To Mike, this music went beyond cool. He felt the ragged and dangerous qualities of the songs call to him somehow. Those guitar chords slashed away at the carefully constructed reality his parents had erected. Over the next three years, his enthusiasm for music blossomed into outright obsession. Softening his stand on modern music, Mike’s father bought him a guitar that he played all the time. By his eighteenth birthday, he grew into an accomplished musician. It was then when he announced that he was not going to college in the fall.

“Dad, I’m not going to school in the fall. I’m gonna travel, see the country, play my guitar.”

His words clearly horrified his father. “Do you realize what you are saying? The chances that you are taking with your future?”

“I don’t care. I’ll go to school, but I want to experience some of life first before I do.”

“This is foolishness. You should be getting ready for school, yet you insist on this waste of time. I will have you know, Michael, that we will not underwrite this excursion in anyway and we will not bail you out of any scrapes.”

“I don’t expect you to, dad.”

“This country is full of folly, violence, and sin. Freedom is knowing your path in life, not pursuing childish daydreams. Dreams are just that – dreams. They aren’t meant to come true.”

“I disagree. It’s a new day in America. Things are changing.”

“Trust no one, Michael. People are treacherous. Go on though, if you feel you must. There’s a lot coming to you, I am afraid.”

In the summer of 1973, Mike took to the road with a righteous feeling in his heart. It was arrogant self-empowerment fueled from Watergate, Wounded Knee, and the end of Vietnam. Mike truly believed that music and an united front of like-minded souls had ended the war. He believed that Nixon was reaping his karmic reward. He believed that the government was evil and corrupt and that with their succession of recent failure, there was now opportunities for lasting change. He drove westward with the conviction that one hippie kid with his guitar at a time was the way to change the world.

On the third day, he stopped his van at a campground near Cheyenne, Wyoming. A lustrous, blue carpet of sky unstained by clouds and the surrounding dense thickets of prairie grass gave the campground a pastoral quality. Mike cleaned up and cooked some pork and beans on a campground grill. Afterwards, he rolled a joint and took a walk around the surrounding area.

While walking, Mike came across a small group of stranded hippies. Their school bus was elevated on cinder blocks and the tires sat nearby. There were three of them. The first, a man in his early thirties, was shabbily dressed, heavy set, and had a long, unkempt beard that resembled a thick tangle of wiring. His light blonde hair was greasy and immobile. The second man was younger, no older than his mid-twenties, and much more presentable than his counterpart. The third hippie was a woman, also in her early twenties, who clearly was the younger man’s girlfriend as she continually hovered near him. Her stringy brown hair needed a brush and her gaunt, oval face, fair complexion and small breasts gave her certain doll-like qualities. She was tall, over six feet, and rail thin.

“Hey man, you guys need help?” Mike asked.

The two men looked at each other. The younger man looked back at Mike and smiled.

“Yeah, brother. There’s some heavy liftin’ here and we could use some help.”

Mike offered his hand to the younger man first. “My name’s Mike.”

“I’m Tim. This is my older brother Stan and my girl, Terri.”

Stan shook Mike’s hand, smiled faintly and nodded. However, Terri embraced him and pressed her body tightly against his own.

“Man, it’s really cool to meet ya. Ya got a joint, brother?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. Let’s smoke out before we work.”

They agreed. The four of them sat in a circle near the bus and, as they smoked, Mike discovered they were Midwesterners like himself. Travelling to a commune north of Sacramento, California, they were now waiting for Terri’s father. The bus needed a new radiator and new front tires.

“So where ya goin’, man?” Terri asked.

“California first. I wanna play my guitar in Golden Gate Park and see Frisco. After that, I’ll go back east and then head south.”

“Seeing the country, eh?” Tim asked.

“Yeah, man. The war’s over, America’s America again. Things are gonna change for the better. I wanna see the country before I go off to college.”

“Good idea. Fuck that damn war. Shoulda ended years ago.”

“I did a tour. 71’.” Stan said to Mike.

“You didn’t try to dodge the draft?”

“Couldn’t. I was waiting for trial on some shit and they gave me a choice.”

“What kind of shit?” Mike asked.

“Just some bullshit.” Stan spat the words out with a finality that was hard to miss and discouraged further questions.

“Hey, man, we got the money for new tires, just not the radiator. You think you could give us a ride to the next town and back so we can get those tires?” Tim asked.

“Sure, man, I’ll help ya out.”

The four of them walked back to Mike’s van. Once out on the highway, they began talking once again. Terri sat in the passenger seat. Tim and Stan sat behind her and Mike.

“So ya really think that since the war’s over, everything’s gonna be different?” Tim asked.

“Yeah, man, how could it not be? It’s gotta be better.”

“I didn’t see better in ‘Nam, man.”

“’Course not, Stan, you were in combat, anyone would be outta their mind in that situation.” Mike replied.

“What would you know about bein’ in that situation?” Stan asked.

Mike heard the undercurrent of frustration and anger in his voice. “I don’t know anything about it, man. I didn’t mean to offend. I just figure that’s the way it is.”

“Fuck, man, this is just another Vietnam. Another fuckin’ jungle where human life doesn’t mean shit. The end of no war ain’t gonna change that.” Tim said.

“So you play guitar?” Terri asked.


“Wish I could play somethin’.” Tim said.

“My guitar’s gonna help pay for this trip. I got a pound of good grass too that I’m gonna sell along the way.”

“Really?” Stan asked.

“You ain’t lookin’ for some along with those tires, are you?”

Mike heard Stan mumble something indecipherable and the two men briefly jostling behind him.

“Let’s talk about it after we score those tires.” Tim said.

“Cool, man.”

The vein of granite highway struck through a robust, grassy world. Mike kept his arm resting in the open window as he drove. He relished the warmth that radiated over his skin.

“So you said fuck college, I’m gonna travel, play my guitar and sell pot, huh?” Terri asked. She had a coy smile.

“Yeah. I’m not going to do it forever or anything, you know?”

“Outta sight, man. I betcha your folks weren’t happy.”

“They weren’t, but I don’t care.”

She smiled and crossed her legs slowly. She was showing them off and Mike could not help but notice.

From behind the driver’s seat, Stan spoke. “Hey man, do you think we could stop for a while? I got a bum knee that I need to stretch out. Need to piss too.”

“Sure, man. I’ll break out some of that weed too and roll a joint.”

They drove another half mile before Mike pulled over to the shoulder of the highway. The four of them climbed out of the van. The clouds resembled icy splashes of glass smeared against the sky. Stan stretched his back and stared off into the distance. Mike saw Tim whispering into Terri’s ear.

“I gotta piss too.” he said.

Tim nodded. He took a few steps before he heard someone moving behind him. Nothing would ever sound the same again. A monstrous blast of pain seared his senses for a split second and he descended into the dark.

A truck driver found him alongside Highway 80, fifteen miles east of Cheyenne. His face was bloody and an inch wide skull fracture was visible. This truck driver, a burly alcoholic, ensured that Mike would survive. He was delivering auto parts into Cheyenne and a past career as a moonshine runner served him well in the rush to save Mike’s life.

The police never made an arrest and Mike’s memories of the events preceding the assault were virtually non-existent. What became of him? What exactly survived? It did not matter that his family, friends, and even his cousin Clark were complete mysteries to him for the rest of his life, the crucial faculties of memory and visual identification disfigured by the vicious attack. They crowed that none of that mattered; Mike was still Mike, even in this state. His thick blonde hair still swept over his shoulders, his slender jaw line lent his face a gentle air, and his lustrous blue eyes still commanded your attention. However, he was gone, he was dead, the promise of his life snuffed out for a doddering van in need of a new carburetor, a guitar, and a pound of grass. What men considered sacrosanct was not the earnest need to transform the colorless stratum of our human affairs, the tenderhearted striving towards the stars. What men considered sacrosanct was the feral, mercenary lust to claim their bounty in life at any expense.

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