Then, after going back to fix the potholes, missing pieces and so on, I'll release a final version, in print and eBook, probably in September. Depends on how many repairs need to be made.
If you're a newcomer or just got lost on the way, you can find the first chapter by clicking here. All following chapters and connected by links at the end of each one.
For those of you who like to hold a finished product in your hands, you can find all of my completed books by clicking here for my Amazon Author Page.
Take the last Exit
I liked the days when Joe stuck around to talk shop. Peace was even less popular then. The office became too quiet after he left.
In 1968, peace activists were a blot on the landscape of American muscle-flexing. Shoving our uniforms and flag in the world’s faces made for a healthy economy. The Chamber of Commerce sang that tune all day long, and the customers danced.
For Joe and me, the job of selling peace was like persuading a tuned up bulldozer with a tankful of gas to go weed and water a flower garden instead of crushing undefended, Third World landscapes. We doubled as draft counselors. In one exciting episode, we helped plan the escape of a deserter into Canada. Our blows against the machine were minuscule, pin pricks, but at least we were doing something.
Mostly, we played out the summer as hippies. A roughened landscape threw our friends into sharp contrast.
“The problem,” Joe told me, “is that we never developed a leadership class in America. We end up with the bozo with the biggest mouth and easiest morals. Somebody decent comes along, they kill him.”
In a decade poisoned by assassinations and racist murders, the details needn’t be talked through. We saw what happened, and we knew why. We expected worse.
The landscape grew cluttered with things undone.
One miserable June morning, my clock radio yanked me awake, telling me someone shot Bobby Kennedy in the head. Excited, I’d stayed up late to watch the California returns, not dragging myself upstairs until I knew Bobby won. Now, I flung my sheet on the floor and screamed, “Fuck!”
I was alone in the house. Disbelief rocked the fog out of my head. They couldn’t do this again.
A celebrity linked to the Kennedy family — Andy Williams, I think — seized a place in front of the camera to ease fears.
“Bobby Kennedy,” he said, “will live to play touch football again.”
It was a thoughtless resurrection of a legacy. Everyone inside the hospital already knew it was over. Bobby would never play anything again. No thought would echo in his mind or crease his brow. You get one brain. When it’s shot, so are you.
“If McCarthy can pull it off at the convention, maybe there’s a chance,” Joe speculated, a couple months later.
Our minority was so small, we had to pump it up by junking realism. Not only would McCarthy never get a chance against the machine, not even a voice, but the Democrats, our only hope, were gearing up to turn loose cops to kick the shit out of unarmed hippies.
Val watched it on TV.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening in America,” she told me over the phone that night. “The cops were pushing protestors through plate glass windows and beating them with clubs. It was all on TV.”
“The whole world’s watching,” the protestors chanted at the rioting cops. “The whole world’s watching.”
What difference did that make? The international bully marched like a shredder on wheels through impoverished Vietnamese villages. What were a few bruised hippies to the coordinators of massacres?
“Doesn’t look good, though, does it?” Joe asked.
Neither of us saw what was coming, McCarthy’s losing the least of it.
“We’ve always got Vice President Lump.”
Joe shook his head.
“The peace candidate.”
That summer, 1968, we were losing. Our best hope was to make it uncomfortable for mass murderers, dance and drop out and make them look like mindless mastodons trampling the harvest.
And I was swinging looser than ever.
There was the break with my family, a swamp of unfriendly chemistries, viscosities so unalike we spilled off in separate streams, divided by bulky mountains. It wasn’t new, but the times became charged around us. When I leaked off — or dropped out as we said then — nobody hustled over to bring me back, and I didn’t look over my shoulder. It was mutual. We’d given up on each other.
After collecting my diploma, I knocked around a bigger, emptier house with just Dad still there. We didn’t cross paths often. I came in late. He left early. Together for an evening, we passed it playing chess, his dazzling ability to concentrate winning out over my habit of being carried away with passions buzzing between my ears. I was never angry with him anymore. I liked him. He’d shed acid layers of unhappiness as we grew up and released our grips, exposing a gentleness that hadn’t gotten enough air to breathe before. He either didn’t notice or, more likely, didn’t care that my hair descended over my ears, a radical statement against the establishment in those days.
My brothers noticed.
It was an unlucky coincidence when I waited for the light to change at Washington and Court on a Saturday afternoon and my brother pulled up, his family with him, staring out the windows of his car. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of months.
“Jesus Christ!” he declared through the driver’s side window. “Oh, no, forget it. It’s just my brother.”
This passed for humor in 1968.
My other brothers were worse, having assumed I didn’t exist, long hair or short, living or dead. Years passed. The guys who once defended me from witches were gone.
Love’s a fluid. But broken, it hardens into bricks like glass. Fluids reconnect, seeking a level. Bricks of glass just sit there. They can’t be rejoined, all hopeful illusions aside.
In the heated jumble of elements we all swam in, chemicals swirled, separated, recombined and reacted.
TV, magazines and newspapers aligned to paint a picture of hippies that none of us recognized. If we hated the cruelties of war, they posted us up as passive flower children, simple and innocent — and stupid. Women demanding equality? Bra burners. Activists for racial equality? Nigger lovers. When we dreamed about expanding consciousness, we were doped up hippies and naval gazers.
Before the Sixties, status quo was a discardable term. During, it lifted up like a concrete bunker. After, it refused to let anything undissolved erode its surface.
Nixon saw it. He mobilized the “silent majority,” an amalgam of haves aligned against change or giving up turf, determined to continue dominating the world and gobbling its resources. Silently.
The silent majority redefined America as something new: theirs, exclusive, without concessions.
And there was our merry band, barefoot, musical and high. Of course, we lost. Groups weakened by empathy usually lose. In the mosh pit of America, dropping out carried with it a gift for seeing clearly, detached and at a distance. A small, unarmed legion of what the news managers put their minds together to call “radicals” charged like fools against a muscled monster in power. Really, it surprises me to this day how much we got done, we were so outnumbered. We couldn’t end the Vietnam War. The monster lost that all by itself, lumbering along, overweight, passionless, guided by something less than Mensa candidates. But we made everyone aware enough of the deranged mentality of persistent war that fifty years passed before the dozing silent majority gave in again to the Pentagon propaganda machine. And that was just the political side. At home, we upended everything, and the landslide keeps rolling downhill.
Sorting out relationships took an unfamiliar, new world slant.
Cindi and I read books, took long walks and listened to music on the stereo she hooked up in her studio apartment. Sometimes we read together out loud, taking turns with chapters from Up the Down Staircase and The Harrad Experiment. By summer’s end, I moved in with her, although we kept our amateur marriage open.
All things in a tangle around us, my draft board ordering me to get on the bus to Syracuse to pee in a little bottle, we dropped farther out.
Cindi first rented a place with my sister on the West Side. Nothing better to do, I’d hang out all night with her, having sex on the couch, then walking up the quiet streets to the all-night Dunkin’ Donuts, wandering a little more until dawn leaked down between the foothills along the Susquehanna. This went on for a few weeks until my sister summoned the morality patrol, otherwise recognized as my brother.
After a meeting with the other Peace Center coordinators, I walked down Main Street, passing Central High as daylight cooled on the sidewalks. Across from the school, Montgomery Ward managed to survive. The got over my leaving them, two years before, without a qualified stock boy/sporting goods salesman on an ugly, gray Monday when I lost Ginny, my apartment and my faith all at once. I economized, getting my personal devastation gathered together for one big bomb. Early evening throwing long shadows from the soon to be lost American Elms, I glanced down Mather Street, past the phone booth where I shivered in the cold to get my turn at talking with Ginny, where I stood like a trained ape on the Monday when everything went to hell and waited for a call that never came. It took a year to heal and another to figure out who I wanted to be: the freethinking hippie writer and peace activist I was right now.
I turned the corner from Main and saw my brother waiting on the sidewalk.
“You’re not going inside,” he told me, without my asking.
“She’s not here. Her mother and father came to get her and took all her stuff with them.”
“What the fuck’s going on?”
“Well,” he shrugged, “I’m throwing you out. You weren’t supposed to move in. You had no business spending all your time here. And what was going on… Jesus, come on. Up all night on the couch, your sister trying to sleep in the next room?”
I found a phone booth and dialed Cindi’s parents’ number. Surprisingly, her mother let her take the phone.
“When I came home from work, your sister and brother were waiting for me, just standing there in the kitchen. They had all my clothes stuffed in brown paper bags. I couldn’t believe it. Then, my mother and father rang the bell. Your brother must’ve called them and told them whatever he wanted them to think. Maybe I’m a whore, your know? I had to go with them. Where else was I going to go?”
Circumstances mold reality.
Next morning, I helped Cindi to settle in temporarily with Lloyd, one of the other Peace Center coordinators, one too involved with dope to be relied on but a good guy generally. I assumed Lloyd would try to fuck Cindi and maybe would, but our choices were few until she found a place of her own.
Why I never fell in love with her is more mysterious to than why I fell in love with anyone else when it just seemed to coalesce out of ephemeral chaos. The way the cards stacked up, Cindi and I were a perfect match that didn’t click into place that way. Maybe the love thing had been swept out of me. Maybe there was just too much else going on to make room for that kind of love.
I’ll always remember the first time I noticed her, It was so odd. On my way out of the small convenience store next to school, consuming my then standard lunch of Coca Cola and potato chips, I turned back after she passed and saw her calves. No kidding. Her calves. Before or since, I never got hot over anyone’s lower legs, but it happened. The mysteries of the human heart… or wherever it is that attachments swirl into form.
We started spending time together, sharing our stories. She was as hippie as me, wrote poetry, hated the war and was also jumping away from a screwed up family. We swung together through the last months of school. Enough tradition lurked under my hair to get me into a rented tux for our prom, and when my diploma was handed to me, I raised it over my head to wave it at the top row of bleachers where she was sitting, getting the only laugh of the evening.
God only knows why I felt good about that, being a four time dropout. It left me with no way to stay out of the draft. I should have been scared, but I wasn’t. Nothing scared me anymore, except the dark, another story all its own.
I imagined Mabel, the clerk at my draft board, waiting with an induction letter in her hand. A diploma touched my fingers, she dropped her envelope in the postal box. The killing machine wanted my body.
I went into a kind of stall. After ducking out of my physical for the Navy, I decided I was never going into any military boot camp. As the war heated up, consuming my friend Denny and others, seeming all the crazier as time passed, I knew wasn’t going there either.
“Are you willing to go to federal prison for your beliefs?” Eugene asked me, the first time I climbed up the stairs to the Peace Center, following up on a story in the newspaper.
“Compared to Vietnam, killing and being killed, do I have another choice?”
Eugene founded the Peace Center, raising money for rent and a telephone, and counseled guys like me about dealing with our draft boards. He looked the part, too, with long brown hair, the serious glasses of a student devoted to reading and an earnestness expressed in gestures.
“You’ve already got your notice?”
“Just for a physical, so far. I have to catch the piss in a bottle bus to Syracuse next week. Bastards move fast.”
Cindi sat next to me and squeezed my hand.
“The war’s worse than they’re admitting in the newspapers. They need a lot of bodies. They go after guys without deferments like you’re red meat.”
“So, do I just refuse and go to jail or what happens?”
“We can stall for a while. Who knows? Maybe the election will motivate Johnson to settle the war before Nixon weasels his way in. You’d still get drafted, but without a war, it’s a whole different situation.”
Eugene adjusted his brown, framed glasses and swept some hair behind his left ear.
“By stalling, I mean that you do what you should have done a year ago, if anyone was around to explain your options. You file as a conscientious objector.”
“Am I qualified? I thought…”
“You go to church?”
“Then, you’re not qualified, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to file. You always have a right to try. It slows the process. They won’t induct you while your application’s being considered. They’ll shoot you down. They shoot everyone down. But you appeal. They have to wade through that too. Take the maximum time allowed for every step. The longer it takes, the better chance you have that things will get better.”
“Should I start going to church?”
“It’s too late now, but don’t let this be too big a joke. The most likely thing that will happen is that you end up with two years in federal prison.”
“Jesus… Well, better than dying and killing for nothing,” I said.
“Well, here’s the other thing you need to know.”
He looked at me seriously.
“Draft evasion,” he said, “is the only felony that does not disqualify you for being drafted again. They can just keep drafting you. They’ve been doing that.”
When I kissed her goodbye, the first night, and walked up tp Court Street to hitchhike home, she was too tired to care about being alone. In spite of what my family claimed, we had not shacked up or planned to. For my part, I hadn’t planned to do anything.
As a draft eligible young man in perfect health in 1968, I’d have to be delusional to imagine I had much to say about my future. The war owned my generation, whether we went, skipped or conjured a respectable excuse to stay. Since I would not fight a preposterous battle against a tiny country set up as an enemy, my choices were going to jail or abandoning my country for Canada. The frosty north was starting to look attractive. Whatever I picked, the chapter had to close by the end of summer.
Eugene’s strategy for stalling in motion, I helped Cindi get settled, thinking I had around six weeks to survive under my own power. A sea change was coming. I couldn't stop it. My family now as finished with me as I was with them, likewise for Cindi, I started staying overnight, then moved in full time.
So it was that Cindi held my hand when I sat for draft counseling and kissed me goodbye me at the door when I got on the bus to Syracuse for my pre-induction physical. We learned to cook the simplest meals for each other, making a ritual of rigatoni in butter and garlic sauce, and five mornings a week, I went out in the fresh light to meet her when she walked across the Susquehanna River bridge after working all night.
Hippies, we agreed that marriage was unnecessary, but expected by everyone else. Nothing about our lives was settled. For now, we bought cheap, matching wedding rings at Woolworths and cooked up a story about taking a bus to North Carolina, where we were old enough without consent, and getting a marriage license.
The fiction satisfied our landlord, and it surprised us how readily everyone we knew accepted what we told them. Eventually, we even got to spend New Year’s Eve in Cindi’s old bedroom, her parents asleep nearby, without, as they said then, benefit of matrimony.
Without a future, we cobbled together a working present. We waited. I wrote my first novel, and the least expected thing of all happened — my draft board decided they did not want me in their Army.
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