It's July, 1961 when Jack and his friends get turned back at the Canadian border and have to spend some time in Shelby Montana.
"You can always pretend, put on a mask but to be what you are is an extremely complex affair….” Krishnamurti
It was just before sunset on a warm July evening in 1961 when the border guard handed back our I.D.’s, and told us we have to turn back. He started shaking his head right after he had us count out the ninety-seven dollars total cash between the three of us. Eyeing up our '49 Plymouth, he revealed that American citizens traveling through to Alaska are required to have a minimum amount of cash. Vance tried to talk him into letting us through explaining that we have food, camping equipment, tools, spare parts, and motor oil in the wooden carrier on top. He pointed to the two spare tires we had bolted to the faded maroon trunk. "All we have to buy is the gas," he told the guard who kept shaking his head, no.
"And, besides,” I added leaning towards the driver's seat, "if we run out'a money, we can always work for a couple days."
"That's just what I was afraid of. American citizens are not permitted to work in Canada. If an American citizen gets stranded, it's up to their government to bail them out. With a vehicle this old, you’ll need a minimum of two hundred dollars cash before we can let you through. Why the three of you are not even related.…" he told us.
We rode in dead silence for a minute or two a sense of defeat hanging over us. Everyone had told us we wouldn't make it to Alaska. When we filled up and said our good byes at Harvey's pump, the Yardley Boys told us that we'd never make it out of Pennsylvania. Old Mrs. Kelly had made the sign of a cross over Anne asking God to protect her. My foster mother had told me that we would all end up in jail. Vance's dad couldn't believe it. "After I pay four years for a college education, you take off like a bum!" he told him.
"Ain't this a mother fucking shame," Vance said breaking the silence. "We come all the way from Yardley, Pennsylvania. Two thousand miles on less than fifty bucks, and they tell us we ain't got enough money to make it through Canada!"
"I can't believe it, man. We can't work in Canada? How the hell come? I thought a man could always find work.…" I said shaking my head.
"We can work in Canada. But, you don't tell 'em that, Daley. You got to do it under the table.… Christ, maybe my old man is right. Maybe I am nothing but a fuck up.… " Vance says and goes on mumbling more to himself than to Anne and I.
Only once or twice in the three years that Vance and I had been best friends had I ever seen him brought so low. Anne, who had never seen him other than bursting with enthusiasm, squeezes my hand and asks with her eyes, “Why is he taking this so hard?"
I return her squeeze and shrug my shoulders. As our eyes meet, I realize that for us it doesn't matter. One place is as good as another as long as we're together.
By the time we reach Sunburst, some five miles south of the border, Vance's little fit of depression has lifted. "We got two choices. Either we find a place to sneak across. I mean, I'm sure there's got to be some dirt roads. They can't cover every one of 'em.… Or, we find jobs. We only got to earn a couple hundred bucks. Stay back here a week or two.…" Vance tells us.
We drive the length of the main street of Sunburst seeing several dozen wooden shacks that are dwarfed by the hundreds of oil storage tanks that surround us. A couple of old timers are standing by a wooden building marked Post Office. "You won't find nothing here. But you might at the State Employment Office in Shelby. Ranchers hire out'a the employment office," one of the men answers our inquiry about work.
It's just getting dark when we park in front of a coffee shop in downtown Shelby. We sip the warm brew and decide to get a good night's sleep and hit the employment office first thing in the morning. When the waitress offers us free refills, and explains that all the places out West do this, I take it a good omen.
"Christ, do you know how many times we had a burger and coffee at Barrett's. Did they ever offer us a free cup?" I ask Vance. "Did we eve get a warm up at the Post Dinner?" I ask Anne.
"I told you, Daley. The West is different. Man, this is gonna be a lead pipe cinch. You know, I was thinking. Remember that hilly field we saw on the edge of town. That’d be a good place to set up camp. We could park on the other side of the hill. No one would see us from the road."
"It might be private property," Anne cautions.
"Well, we don't want to get in no trouble with the local fuzz. Why don't we check with the cops and find out where it's legal to camp?" Vance suggests.
"Listen," Vance says as we follow the waitress's directions to police headquarters. "If we don't find anything at the employment office, tomorrow night you and me better hit some of the local bars, Daley. Get in with some of the ranch hands or construction workers. Get a lead on something.…"
"Yea, I guess so," I answer peeking out at several bars on Main, and wonder what Anne will be doing while Vance and I are skipping in and out of the pubs.
The Shelby Police Station is dark except for a glass windowed basement door. Inside, we are greeted by an elderly gray haired man in kaki pants and shirt. He looks out at us through extra thick glasses and tells us he's in charge of policing in Shelby after six P. M. Vance explains our situation. "You folks are in luck," the watchman says. "Wheat harvest is just getting started. Ranchers hire out'a the employment office. Always looking for strong backs during harvest.
"Your sister might get something, too. Shelby Fair opens up Friday. Lots a places take on extra help during fair week, " he adds focusing his eyes on me.
"Let me tell you, Chief, we really appreciate your help. Good to know they're hiring. By the way, sir, we're thinking of camping on that little knoll that you see just as you come into town," Vance says pointing north. We were wondering if that would be all right."
"Why sure it'll be all right. You can camp anywhere’s you like so long as it’s not fenced or posted," the watchman tells us. The three of us thank him, and wave good-bye.
"Have a good sleep," he calls after us.
At the edge of town, Vance drives to the top of the knoll, and parks on the rear down slope. "No sense breaking out the tent. Warm as it is we can just roll up in our sleeping bags," he tells us.
"You guys can sleep out under the stars. I'll be just as comfortable under a blanket in the back seat," Anne laughs.
"Why don't you set the alarm for
seven. We wanna be the first ones there," Vance says as he gets out and begins to untie the tarp.
"Will you be alright?" I ask Anne as she slips into my arms.
"Sure. You guys will be right outside, and I'll have the doors locked," Anne answers pressing closer.
In red Bermuda shorts and a white cotton blouse, her long brown hair flowing down her back, she was pure woman with no pretense or mask. Totally in love, opening our souls to each other, the hardest thing we had to do was part for even a second. In our physical love, we had found our exact sexual counter parts. And, in our spiritual love, we found complete union and trust. Although we were not yet capable of conscious love, our love was making us more conscious
As I run my fingers down her back, all worries about finding a job tomorrow vanish. I slowly savor the taste of her mouth, and complete surrender follows for a minute or so until Anne pushes me back. “We better, not.…We have to get a good night's sleep. If we don't find work tomorrow we might have to turn back," she tells me.
"Don't worry. It looks like we hit Shelby at just the right time," I answer, and pull her towards me for one last kiss.
Carrying my sleeping bag across the yellowing grass, I feel the cool breeze from across the border. Brilliant stars dance overhead. More stars than I have ever seen in my entire life. More stars than I even thought existed. I drop my bag next to Vance and stand in awe for several minutes. "Man, that sky is something else."
"You ain't lying, Daley. I'm telling ya, man, this is the way man was meant to live. Sleeping under the stars. This God dammed sky is worth the whole trip.…"
"It is, man. It is.…" I answer as I drop to my knees and roll out my bag. I take off my three dollar white sneakers, stuff my socks into them, and crawl into my bag still wearing my white T shirt and light kaki pants. "Can you imagine being a working cowboy and spending your whole life out here? Shit, shouldn't we get a fire going?"
"A fire would be right.…” Vance says while the silence takes hold of us for a long minute or two.
“I'll tell you, Daley. That girl of yours ain't so fucking dumb. I mean, I wouldn't mind sleeping behind those safe locked doors myself. You know if anyone comes fucking around up here, they're gonna get us first."
"What the fuck you expect, injins or something?"
"I got your fucking Indians, Daley. Listen, man, we got to be really on top of it tomorrow. Let them farmers know we are anxious to work, and willing to learn."
"It'd be nice if the two of us got on together, huh?"
"Together. Christ, man, some of them big spreads hire a dozen men at a time for harvest. We'll fucking do it, Daley. We'll show them all, show them all.…"
We chat back and forth for a couple minutes and then Vance falls silent. Except for the wind, not a sound reaches us. No highway sound, no distant radio, no city chatter, or factory noise, just the silence. In the dark and quiet, I can feel a hundred little fears rise to the surface. I tightly close my eyes imagining I'm not sure what. Did I really see three teenaged cowboys drinking beer at the edge of town? Am I afraid that they might follow us up here?
Fear had touched me several times since our trip began. On our very first stop for fuel outside of Lancaster, some time after midnight, I saw these two guys eyeing up Anne. Seeing me staring at them, they flipped me off and drove away. For miles, I watched for them in the rear view mirror. When the good front tire that I had traded my leather jacket for blew out before we were even out of Pennsylvania, I took it for a sign of bad luck. Then there was a tree branch that got stuck under the axle during a rest stop. Hearing the noise it made, I was certain that the transmission or rear was going out.
Little fears, but even back then, as I lay under the stars, I knew they were projections of much deeper fears. And, didn't I have every reason in the world to be afraid? There I was making a complete break with my past, setting off to seek fame, and fortune.… Of course, I realize, now, some forty years later, that it wasn't a complete break. Didn't I still carry all of my past inside of me? Though it would be years and years before I would discover that we are our past, that our every action from thought and feeling is an act conditioned by the past, though I still acted from the past; to be out on my own for the first time ever was a mighty awesome step. And, the very fear that breaking with the past brings on creates an energy that helps to free us from conditioning.
When I think about it now, I wonder how I couldn't see that Anne and Vance must have felt just as much fear as I. Though Vance joked about the safety of the car, I never dreamed that he experienced the same fear. Anne had told me she was not afraid. I never even thought of the fears that must lurk inside her. How could they not be afraid? Aren't we all scared to death every time we stray the least bit from the beaten path.
Anne had most of all to fear though she never let on once that she was concerned. They had checked her passport at the border. If we got hung up in Canada, she stood a good chance of being deported. There she was in 1961 traveling across a foreign country with two philosophical beats that she had only known for some six months.
Her real break had come a couple years earlier when she left her home in Glasgow to seek her fortune in America. Though her best friend backed out at the last moment, Anne took a job as nanny for a doctor's two little girls. She stayed the required year, and then got on with an insurance company. She had planned to return home the very month we left for the North Country.
Vance and I began our break right around the time of the Triv. or maybe a little earlier. Didn't my break, my questioning, really begin a year or so after high school? Riding alone on River Road after dark, listening to a jazz station out'a Philadelphia, playing like James Dean. I switch the dial and discover Jean Shepherd out'a W.O.R. New York. "Hello out there in radio land.… Hello.… Hello.… Is there anybody out there?" he'd ask in a panic stricken voice.
"Come, sit upon my knee, and I will tell you a bedtime story," he'd say and go into a long tale about his first blind date back in Indiana. "It is going to be a great year for radishes!!!" he'd shout and go into a long sinister laugh. And, somehow, I knew he was talking directly to me. After all, didn't he confess that he never had more than two or three listeners and that was on a good night? "It's up to my blooming knickers! Trouble is, it's up to everyone’s' blooming knickers !!!"
"Trivia here, baby... I mean we
deal only with the trivia of life.… Oh yea, oh yea.… But, it is going to be O.K. It is going to be OOOOoooo. Kkkkkkkkaaaa."
"There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold." Shep read from Robert W. Service with some bad piano blues in the background. "Yea. Yea.…” he’d add giving off a wicked laugh and explaining that there were mighty strange things done in the noon day sun by the men who moil for gold right here in New York City.
I recall one little story where Shep describes a typical New Yorker in business suit, button down collar, and tie. Hurrying down a side street, he's wondering how he could have let himself stray so far from his own respectable neighborhood. A black haired chick in a trench coat steps out of an alley. She slips our hero in gray flannel a note and disappears back into the darkness. Under a street lamp he reads, "Follow me. Be quick. I need help!" Does our hero rush to her rescue? Does he opt for adventure down the dark side street? You bet your sweet bippie he doesn't. He hails down a cab. Rushes home. Double locks the door. Turns on the T.V. and tries to erase those dark streets from his mind.
"So come along, baby.… Follow me down the dark side alleys where behind closed doors people laugh and sing and holler WHOOPIE!!!" Shep would say and turn up the volume on the Blind Lemon Jefferson album.
After I had grooved on Shep for a year or so, I was ready to sign up for night classes at T. J. C. My first reading assignment, Hemingway's "The Killers," completely blows me away. I gave up my dream of becoming a jet fighter pilot and began to dream about becoming a writer. In the same English class, I discovered Dostoevsky. The Brother's Karamozav was difficult reading for me, but I read it over and over. "We are all responsible for all.… I am a scoundrel… a scoundrel.…" was etched on my brain.
Later, I read Crime and Punishment and began to think of the difference between Ordinary Man and Extraordinary Man. And, even though I couldn't appreciate the full significance of Dostoyevsky at the time, I felt a spiritual awakening from his work that I couldn't even talk about.
It was right around this time that Vance got kicked out of State Teacher's College after he and a couple of his Yardley roommates were caught siphoning gas in the faculty parking lot. I was surprised when a "college kid" asked if I want to share rides to T. J. C. We took Doc Pritchett’s Western Civilization class together. On our trips back and forth, we discovered that we were kindred souls; both listening to Shep, starting to read, dissatisfied with things as they were. Pritchett gave us a little historical perspective. Added a little fuel to our discontent. We began to spend more and more time together. In late night sessions over cheap red wine, we began to question all the values that held us in place. (My foster mother told me that anyone that stays out to two A. M. can't be up to much good.)
In different ways, Vance and I began to see more and more the contradictions in our every day existence. Vance drew from his own family, hard working lower class Italians who had made it to the upper middle class. "All my old man lives for is that fucking house of his. Every week he's got another project. For Christ's sake, Daley, there's got to be more to life than jacking up the price of your house and raising a God dammed family. He tells me it's time I grow up. Finish school, get a teaching job, make something of my self.… I'm telling you, there's got to be something more.…"
I didn't talk about my family. My
parents had never made it out of the lower class. I was ashamed of them, and felt that somehow they were responsible for their meager existence. Everything I had learned reinforced my belief that it is a sin to be poor. Growing up in the inner city for a long time I didn't realize that we were poor. Though, I did get a little bit suspicious when I compared the tree-lined streets of Dick and Jane with the garbage lined streets that I strolled with my black skinned classmates. The color of their skin also puzzled me a little. When I saw that we couldn't afford the same things as the other kids at church and Sunday school, that some kids dressed better, that I had hole in my shoes, I began to get a little suspicious.
My brother, C.C. and I never once talked about being poor though we were best friends and did everything together. As we explored the inner city streets in ever increasing circles starting out at the alley behind our apartment house, then to the grocery store on Camac, and on past the shoe makers, the watermelon stand, the ice man's, all the way to the railroad tracks on Sixth; I'm not sure what we talked about. Mostly, we just played games, or reenacted scenes from the latest movie. I don't even know that I thought about it. Living in the inner city was adventure enough. There wasn't time for any thinking. Things felt pretty good most of the time. And, when they didn't feel so good, I could pretend they were different.
My mother's drinking reinforced my father's gambling. And, of course, she only drank because he gambled. "It's just one of those unfortunate things," my father told me when he moved out to a Mid City hotel. A couple years later, my brothers and sisters and I split up for foster homes.
I ended up on a hundred acre farm in Bucks County with foster parents who were tenant farmers eking out a living in a disappearing facet of American life. Being a foster child separated me from the other kids at school, but I did see more and more of what the middle class owns.
After three or four years separation, my mother and father were back together again in the same rented house, but in separate bedrooms. By the time I finished high school, I began to make brief monthly visits. I couldn't get away fast enough, especially after I began to hang out with Vance and his college friends. The contrast was so great, and I believed that my family situation was unique. I didn't realize that there was a whole class of people who were labeled "poor."
I remember, unrecognized shame permeating to my very bones as I sat in the narrow front room so thankful for the Philly’s game on the new T.V. I had been in my family's presence for less than a half hour and we had run out of things to say. Eddie, the landlord, had just finished a fifteen-minute monologue on the batting averages of each player on both teams. C.C. sat staring at the screen giving a nudge every once in a while and saying, "Did you see dat? Did you see dat?”
"I'd better take a look at the meat loaf," my mother said rising from the coach beside me. Her worried eyes looked out at me from a pinched face. "Are you sure you just can't wait to taste my potato salad, Jackie darling," she asked is a soft hurried voice.
"I can't wait," I answered forcing a smile and wondering if she wouldn’t grab a little nip while she was in the kitchen.
My father came downstairs in a
white tank top undershirt, the muscles of his arms and shoulders bulging. "Just catching a little nap, Jackie. I thought I heard you come in," he said. At the train station after dinner, he told me, "Wid love.… Ed. signed her birthday card, wid love.… He was nothing but a second rate amateur.… I could'a knocked him out in the first round. I should'a never brought him around in the first place.…" He talked in the extra loud voice that he hard of hearing have. I winced in shame wondering what the other commuters must be thinking.
Looking back, I realize that my parents fed me almost the same truths that Vance's parents laid on him. "It's not how much you earn, Jackie, it's what you put in the bank," my father said when C.C. and I walked to his Hotel room at Eighteenth and Arch. "One thing they can never take away from you is an education... Save your money, go to school, make something of yourself.…" he told us on our foster parent's farm.
"Everything happens for the best, Jackie. God loves you. He knows what he's doing. God loves all his children. Be a good little boy, Jackie. God loves you when you're good. Listen to your teachers. They know what's right for you. You have to obey those who are in charge. They wouldn't be in charge if they didn't know what's best for you.…" my mother told me.
Little truths our parents fed us that regulate our lives even today. Truth is just common sense, getting ahead and General Motors, buying a home and making something of yourself. Truth is not taking chances, staying within the law, having respect for those who know better. Truth is making your voice heard at the polling place, earning a good credit rating, being a credit to your race. But, there is truth words, and truth in deeds.
"I'm telling you, Daley, nobody out there knows a God dammed thing. We got'a get out there and find out for ourselves. We got'a do it." Vance kept telling me.
"You ain't wrong, man. You ain't wrong.…" I was answering.
Hemingway's novels I read on my own after Vance returned to State Teacher's, and I crashed through Barrett's liquor store window and dropped out of T. J. C. The dream of far away places and adventure was strengthened with every page. How many nights did I fall asleep with a machine gun in one hand, and a dark haired Senorita in the other? Vance and I were taken up with the news of the Castro gorillas in the green hills of Cuba. Many a night we talked about joining in the fight against the Batista dictatorship.
It was the little Martian, Mark, who turned me on to Philip Wylie after Vance and I opened our coffee house. In Wylie I discovered that discontent with Mom and Apple Pie is not out right blasphemy. Vance's good pal, Frank, got on as night copy boy at the Trenton Times. With his key, we snuck into the book reviewer's office, and pawed over the paperbacks. It became cool to have a book in your back pocket, to pull it out over coffee. A writer from the Times gave me a copy of Michner's Fires of Spring. I thought how the protagonist gave up his chance for a teaching fellowship to go on the road with a troupe of Broadway Players. Christ, I don't have nothing to give up, I told myself.
Through I read little of the Beat literature that was making the rounds, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Kerouac permeated the very air we breathed behind the Trivia counter. There, in 1959, everyone was Beat, writing poetry and stream of consciousness novels, or at least dreaming about doing so.
On Tuesday nights, some of the lesser poets came down from the Village. "The moon shines on stormy beach. And two lovers lay on the beach making love.… And the moon.… The moon was angry because he could not make love. THE MOON SHINE ON STORMY BEACH.…"
"Do you see that man over there? That man is my father. I only wish you could have known him before his trouble started. He was weak when he should'a been strong.…"
"Oh look the way he stands his station. You'd never guess he suffered from constipation. Yea, man that's it. Plenty of words and no shit!!!!"
"Oh look!!! It's coming straight down MacDougal Street.…"
We had our own home grown poets who read to the beat of Councho's drum. "I was walking down the street last night and this black cat crossed my path. Unlucky for me. Two white cats jumped us.…"
"Hey little black boy, don't cry because you can't go to school with your playmate. Marry his sister, or keep her around for a lay mate.… And, hey little white boy, don't cry because you can't go to school with your playmate. Marry his sister, or keep her around for a lay mate.…"
"I want a one way ticket to Endsville!!!!"
Some of our homegrown poets recited from the Beats as if they were reading their own. "I have seen the best minds of my generation walking down a Negro street at dawn looking for an angry fix.…"
"Holy!!!! Holy!!!! Holy!!!! Holy is the cock on the farmer in Kansas.…"
"Christ climbed down from his cross one day.…"
"Johnny Nolan had a patch on his ass. Kids chased him through screen door summers.…"
"There are no girls in Tiger Town. Tiger Town is falling down. Escape! Escape! Escape!!!!"
"If only I could write like that," I told Sally. More than the Beats, I was turned on by Robert W. Service, Sandburg, Frost, and John Ciardi. And, especially the poem, “Don’ts" by D.H. Lawrence. "Don't be a good little good little boy being as good as you can. Fight your little fight my boy, fight it and be a man.…"
After the judge took away my
driver's license, I carried Lady Chatterley’s Lover in my back pocket pulling it out on the bus, the train, and while I was hitching. When I worked swing at North Philadelphia Airport, I'd reach the Triv. right around one A.M. Just in time to lock the door and gather with the regulars around the big table up front. I remember, a little Dave Brubeck in the background, Frank and Joanne finishing up dishes. I’m making an espresso on our New York bought machine, just a candle or two reflecting off the high glossy wall. Mark is standing at the door in his long black cape. "How the fuck long you been standing there?" Vance asks as he unlocks the door and escorts him to the table. Mark pulls his copy of Durrell's The Black Book from under his arm. For the next hour or so, we listen to his critique. Around three A.M. Sol Weinstein comes in from The Times and keeps us all in stitches until sun rise.
And, how many all night conversations did I sneak out on around two A. M.? How much did I miss while I caught forty winks on the single bed in our side office? The office that could be used for more intimate conversations. No desk, just a couple chairs and the table on which sat our stereo receiver, telephone, and the drawing "Jack Be Quick" that Sally gave me. Forty winks. Up at five A. M. to dump our garbage in the river. I pass my foster father on the stairs as he comes down to make ready for work. "Going to bed when you should be getting up. You turn the night into day," he whispers.
After we go bust at the Triv. and I get laid off from my airport job; I pick up a copy of The Intimate Henry Miller. Here at last is truth in words that I can understand. If only I had known that Henry Miller, too, sold encyclopedias how much happier I might have been about my little sortie into the world of the white-collar confidence game. Instead, I fail as a salesman, and getting hired at Mercer County Airport go back to pumping aviation gas. But, I didn't let it bother me too much. After all, didn't Miller say that earning a living has nothing to do with living? More than anyone else, Miller reinforced my feeling that there is something more to life that getting ahead. From his writing, I get a whole new view of the world of spirit. I also see that maybe it's not just me that's fucked up. Maybe it's the whole world.
"What's it all about, man?” Is the question that Vance and I were asking when we took off on our great adventure. As innocent as we were back then, we knew we would have to search the world to find ourselves. So, off to Alaska, to South America. And, if we gain fame and fortune on our search, so much the better.
For Anne and I, truth was being in each other's arms. As soon as I told her about my plans for a jaunt to the land of the midnight sun, she said, "Why don't I go with you?" To be apart would be a lie. Nothing to fear as long as we're together.…
I laid in my sleeping bag beneath the Montana sky with my eyes tightly closed. In my mind, I pictured the teenage cowboys finishing their beer and looking for some action. Fear so strong that even though I struggled to open my eyes and take just one more peek at the light show overhead, I couldn't do it.