Senin, 26 Desember 2011

THE FIRST FORTY MILES by Peter Nolan Smith

In late May 1974 my friend AK, a blonde co-ed from BU, and I picked up a Ford Torino Squire not far from the Forest Hills T station. The car was parked in a driveway next to a three-story apartment building off Centre Street. The middle-aged owner was looking to have his station wagon transported to Lodi, California.

Everything about him said Marine. His erect posture was topped by an extreme buzz-cut. Both his white shirt and chino trousers had been ironed to produce razor straight lines. He looked at my recently trimmed hair. AK’s was in a pony tail. School was over for the year and students were fleeing Boston for the summer.

A blonde woman sat on the porch. Her black dress was a testimony to mourning a loss. I bowed my head in respect.

“The name’s Jake Moore.” He seized my hand with a strong grip.

“Please to meet you.” I released his hand and introduced us by name. AK was happy to let me do the talking. I was a Boston native and the piano player came from New York. Red Sox fans hated New York. “My grandmother lived not far from here on St. Joseph’s Street.”

“Irish?” We manned different sides of the Vietnam issue, but the American war effort was de-escalating in rapid steps and Watergate was forcing Nixon out of the White House. The two opposing camps had arrived to truce determined by exhaustion without either of us daring to claim victory.

“From the West. She spoke Gaelic.” Nana came over from Galway at the age of 12.

“Guess I can’t be choosy.” Jake searched our eyes for signs of drug dementia. He was more concerned about his car than the generation gap.

“We have valid licenses.” I produced mine from my wallet. There was no way for him to check our driving records. Mine was a litany of crashes and a single arrest for a high-speed chase in a VW.

“Well, that’s a plus.” Jake handed back the IDs. “We drove out here for a family visit. My wife can’t bear the thought of driving through those corn fields again.”

“It is a long ride.” The distance from coast to coast was almost 3000 miles.

The off-white station wagon gleamed in the New England sun. The chrome details were polished to a high sheen and the fake wooden paneling was unblemished by dings. The plates were California.

“You ever driven cross-country before?” He checked my ID and handed it back to me.

“Twice.” The first time was in 1972.

“What did you drive?” Jake sounded, as if I would say a tie-dyed VW camper.

“Nothing. I hitchhiked back and forth with friends.” My fellow math major and I didn’t own a car. We depended on our thumbs and the kindness of strangers. “A Super Bee picked us up in Iowa. The driver did 100 or better once we hit the desert. I think coast to coast took us about fifty hours.”

Pam, AK, and Jake dismissed my claim with matching smirks. A further explanation about how the driver had been on methedrine and how I had steered from the passenger seat whenever Lucky’s head hit the steering wheel would have further tested their gullibility for the truth.

“I used to hitch from Key West in the service. Everyone was trying to change their lives, if only for a ride. That’s the beauty of the open road. You can become someone totally different with a different name and a different past. You get out of the car and stand on the road with your thumb out. Alone you go back to who you are. There is no escaping the future of yourself.”

His words conjured up college students, hoboes, tramps, soldiers, beatniks, runaways, and hippies following a philosophy based on the myth of personality.

“No one believes my story.” The unexpected depth of Jake’s insight humbled my youthful arrogance of judgment without evidence.

“All stories are true if interesting.” Jake clapped my shoulder and I gave him a smile. The 60s had finished four years ago. We had lost our hatchets instead of burying them. “Hitchhiking’s a great way to travel. People have been traveling that way since Jonah rode in the whale.”

“That’s a big fish story.”

“Like I said true if interesting.” Jake repeated the line. He didn’t want me to forget it.

“120 in 1972 was legal. Now they think driving 55 will save gas and free us from the Arabs. I don’t believe in it, but nothing the state troopers like better than arresting hippies for driving 60.”

“Thanks for the warning.” Cops hated even their own long-hair narcs, but a station wagon was good camouflage for passage through the Midwest. “We’ll keep it to 55. I’m sure your car gets better mileage at that speed.”

“Why you going to the coast?” His eyes shifted to our blonde companion. Pam was a vision of Woodstock beauty with hHer paisley dress clinging to her breasts. She wasn’t wearing a bra.

I failed often not to notice, since she was my ex-girlfriend college roommate. Jackie’s breasts were even larger. She had left me last summer for her high school sweetheart without an explanation and I hoped on this trip that Pam might tell me the why. First we needed Jake’s car.

“I’m meeting my boyfriend in Mendocino. He’s an intern there. I’ll be working at the same hospital this summer.” The nursing student sounded normal, because aside from the clothing she was the girl next door.

“I just finished college.”

At the mention of my alma mater Jake murmured his appreciation, however my rank at city’s premier Catholic college languished at the bottom hundred of a class of two thousand.

AK had said that my diploma should have read ‘sin laude’ or without praise.

My father hadn’t appreciated the Long Islander’s joke, yet my mother had beamed at the graduation ceremony. Education was a gift and my meagre achievement had protected me from the draft for four years.

Both my parents loved travel and my mother gave me $300 for this trip. My father had told me to call once a week collect. He worked for the telephone company and our collect calls were free to our number on the South Shore.

“What about a job?” Jake must have counted every day to his retirement.

“I want to see the Rockies and Big Sur before I work for the rest of my life. We appreciate your letting us take your car.”

“It’s not just any car. This is 1967 Ford Torino with a 428 FE V8 and a three-speed automatic. I was lucky to get the last Cobra-Jet engines from Ford.”

“Isn’t that the same engine Steve McQueen drove in BULLIT?” His car was the most immaculate offered by the drive-away service and the spacious back could sleep two with the seats folded down. I wanted it to be mine for the next week.

“That engine was a 390 for a Mustang GT, but with a much lighter chassis than the Torino.” Jake launched into a minute-long monologue about the Torino’s selling points. Most of them dealt with speed. “This baby can do a quarter-mile in 14 seconds.”

“Cool.” I nodded my head without understanding a word. My only car had been a 1964 VW bug. Its top speed downhill with a tailwind topped out at 85.

“It’s a big engine and guzzles gas, so I’m giving you an extra $100, but I want you to fill it up every time the gas gauge hits half and only use the highest octane at Sunoco.”

“Yes, sir.” I took the keys and smiled to Pam and AK. We were minutes away from hitting the road. “We’ll see you in six days.”

“Make it seven. I don’t want you pushing the engine.” Jake and I signed the matching contracts from the drive-away company. “Have a good trip and drive safe.”

“I’ll make sure they take care of your car.” Pam put her bags in the car and positioned herself in the rear. Her major was nursing and bed manners were her strong point. She had a nice way with older men.

“You do that, Pam. See you in Lodi.”

I tossed my canvas bag in the back and then sat behind the wheel. AK made a face. He hated my driving. My eyes tended to wander off the road. I waved to Jake and backed out of his driveway. I shifted the transmission into Drive and headed toward Brighton to pick up the Mass Pike at the Charles River.

“For a second I didn’t think Jake was going to give us the car.” AK fiddled with the radio tuner.

“It was never in doubt.” I drove around Jamaica Pond in the slow lane. “Pam had him wrapped around her little finger.”

“It is a nice car. It even smells new.” Pam was a child from the suburbs. All three of us had been raised in split-level houses with two-car garages. She liked things clean.

“It does at that.” I kept to the local speed limit. AK was carrying weed and the rule of reefer was to only break one law at a time.

‘Wonder what Jake listened to on the radio.” AK twisted the knob and both of us were surprised to hear Wildman Steve cuing up the # 1 record in America. The Hues Corporation had scored a huge crossover hit with ROCK THE BOAT. AK’s fingers crawled over an imaginary keyboard. For a long-haired white boy from Levittown he had a lot of soul.

Ten minutes later I turned off Storrow Drive onto Cambridge Street. The sun flashed off the Charles River. The clear sky was a good omen.

A bearded hitchhiker was standing at the entrance to the Mass Pike. I veered over to the break-down lane and braked a hundred feet before the toll booth.

“What are you doing?” Pam asked with alarm. “You don’t know this person. He could be an ax murderer.”

AK was staying out of this dispute. He lived with a woman on the South Shore. He recognized that it was a good time to keep his mouth shut.

“I’ve hitchhiked everywhere in the States and I never ran into an ax murderer.” The hippie was waiting by the passenger door. His patchouli seeped through the closed windows. He was older than I thought and I was having second thoughts about him, but I believed in Karma. “Next week I’ll be hitchhiking down the coast of California. If I don’t pick up hitchhikers now now, then I will be stranded in Big Sur for days.”

“I’m not happy about this.” Pam slid over to the driver’s side. “If he starts anything, I expect you to take care of it.”

“I promise I will.” I reached over and unlocked the door.

‘Thanks for stopping. The name is Bill.” He was bound for Sturbridge and then south to Virginia. His Southern accent slithered from thick lips. HIs face was swollen from years of drinking. He was no hippie. “I’m meeting up with a carnival for the summer. Travel from Virginia Beach to Texas and up into the wheat fields. I specialize in bumper cars. Good clean fun. How people drive them says a lot about them.”

His monologue about the life on the road fell on bored ears and I read Pam’s loud sighs as a ruling against any more strangers in the car. Bill proved her right about him several minutes later.

“Why you listening to this disco crap?” he asked while AK and I were grooving to the HOLLYWOOD SWINGING by Kool and the Gang.

“Disco crap?” I glared at Bill in the rearview mirror.

The song was a big hit at the 1270, although THE LOCOMOTION by Grand Funk Railroad packed the dance floor. My gay friends loved dancing with straight boys and the deejay spun the best dance records in Boston. “Kool and the Gang are a thousand times more hip than that BAND ON THE RUN bullshit by that loser Paul McCarthy.”

“Loser? The Beatles are the best band in the world.” My barb had harpooned its mark.

“The Beatles haven’t existed since 1970.” I was a Rolling Stones fan from their debut cover of Chuck Berry’s COME ON. Early Beatles were like listening to a modern version of Elvis. I hated HEY JUDE.

“I’ll handle this.” AK had a much cooler head and I shut my mouth rather than lose my temper.

“I studied at Berkeley Music School.” AK was auditioning for a gig as a keyboard player for an R & B band. The brothers from Jump Street wanted a white guy in the group to deal with the honkey club owners.

I had called him the ‘token whitey’. He didn’t think that was funny, but it evened us for his crack about my ‘sin laude status. Both of us were more than a little right.

“One thing I learned was that there are all kinds of music. HEY JUDE might be the best song of all time for white people, but it’s nothing in comparison to SEX MACHINE by Sly Stone.”

“Or KUNG FU FIGHTING.” I checked the speedometer. We were going 75. No one else on the highway was close to that speed and I slowed down to the limit. Driving 55 felt like 1934.

“Or SOUL MAKOSSA. You have to open your ears or else you close your heart.”

“That is the type of music they play in fag bars.” The word was an accusation.

Homosexual were queers in my childhood. The priests warned us about strange men after young boys. Yellow was the color for queers. ‘Homo’ was an insult that I had thrown at effeminate boys. Fag was short for faggot and very short for fucking faggot.

I stomped on the brakes in time to pull over at an exit.

Fags were not strangers. The neighbor across the street from my parents was a homosexual. He let us swim in his pool. My youngest brother showed his tendencies by stripping my sisters’ Ken doll and not Barbie.

“Why you stopping?” Bill leaned forward with menace.

“Why?” I turned around in the bucket seat and revved the big V8 with menace. The Torino was still in drive. “I’ll tell you why. Jack Kerouac wrote in ON THE ROAD that the biggest challenge for a hitchhiker was proving that the driver didn’t make a mistake picking him up and I have to admit I made a mistake with you. Now get out of the car and I mean now.”

“He really means it.” AK had seen me fight on more than one occasion.There was always a breaking point and Bill was five feet over that line.

“This isn’t Sturbridge.” He hesitated opening the door.

“Doesn’t matter to me. I don’t like queer bashers.” A taxi passenger had invited me into the 1270. His name was Bruce. We went to Red Sox games together and were crushed by their 1973 collapse. He told the fag hags at the bar that I was queer. Some of them attempted to cure me with sex. Bruce had a lisp and limp wrist. He was my friend. Bill was no one.

“Get out of the car.”

His eyes slitted with a irrational hatred grounded in sexual prejudice. Bill pointed a finger at me, as he opened the door and put his feet on the ground.

“I knew it the second I got in the car. You two were queers.” His sneer had been practiced on hundreds of young men who weren’t hurting anyone.

“Even if I was, I wouldn’t fuck you with an elephant’s dick.”

“You fucking fag.” He started for me and Pam shrieked with the shrillness of the music from the bathroom murder scene from Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.

I had everything under control. My right foot hit the gas and the Torino accelerated from a standing stop to speed in an instant. Bill was spun out of the back seat and Pam reached over to shut the door.

“I hope you learned your lesson.” She folded her arms across her chest. “He had his hands all over me.”

“Sorry.” I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes met with mine. She was happy that Bill had hit the dirt hard.

“Let’s pretend it didn’t happen.” Pam titled her head to the side with grace. Blonde hair covered one side of her face and she pushed the strands behind her ears. The twenty-year old nursing student tapped my shoulder and said, “No more hitchhikers.”

“Your wish is my command.” No man will understand the everyday terror of being a woman or a homosexual. I gripped the wheel and AK turned up the volume. WILD was playing James Brown’s PAYBACK PART 2. The Godfather of Soul had a wicked rhythm section.

We crested a hill and descended into a lush valley. Late spring pushed a warm wind through the open windows. The traffic on the Interstate was rolling at 60. The Torino had a full tank. I had over $700 in my pocket. The station wagon overtook a procession of slower cars. It was good to be on the road.

Three days from now was my birthday. I was going to be 22. I pushed the car to 100. AK looked at me. I looked back at him. At that speed the other cars on the road were standing still. We had a long way to go.

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