June 30, 1968

On the way to the country club early on a Sunday morning, Izzy is picked up hitchhiking. From the opposite direction comes a 1965 Thunderbird.

I reeled in an old-timer. He remarked that he didn’t see many hitchhikers of a Sunday morning, and I said there weren’t many cars either, so maybe the world was in balance after all. Ahead of us, coming in our direction, was a 1965 Thunderbird, from the generation after Ford had begun stretching the model out. The driver’s left elbow was resting out the window. The T-Bird came at us fast and as we drew close the driver glanced in our direction and flicked a cigarette with his right hand, across his body, in our general direction, then flew on behind us.

“Sumbitch,” my ride muttered, automatically, as if he wasn’t thinking hard about it. I whirled around and saw the T-Bird, light blue with a white top, zoom away. There was no trace of a fin, just two wide banks of lights that narrowed over the license plate, with a scoop up the middle of the trunk.

The flick seemed intentional, a littering of opportunity. He may have seen us from a distance, as I had noticed him, and perhaps on a whim decided to shoot his cigarette butt at us.

The old guy who picked me up had a low opinion of golfers, and he didn’t mind sharing this with me. I couldn’t tell exactly whether he was putting me down for being part of the time-wasting, self-indulgent sect of golf, or whether he thought that I, as a caddy, must have shared his views. It turned out he wasn’t too fond of hippies, blacks, women’s libbers and homos.

In an abundance of caution, I did not bring up the Boy Scouts nor confess that I was a poverty protester who had escaped police custody and was in grave danger of enjoying modern poetry.

 

 

June 28, 1968

Driving home from work, Izzy and Speedy come across a woman driving a 1963 Chevy Impala. She tosses her cigarette. When asked to explain why, she tells Izzy he’s too young to smoke.

“A lot of people don’t know why they do things,” my father said. “Maybe what they need is a reminder,” he said.

At home that night, Izzy tunes into the Jean Sheppard radio show.

That night, after dinner, after talking to Juliana for a while on the phone, I sat out on one of the webbed lawn chairs feeling a thunderstorm gather in the sky. I had a plastic transistor radio, tuned to the very narrow groove in the dial that opened a portal in the radio spectrum all the way to Jean Shepherd on WOR in New York City.

Shepherd opened his show that night with strange music playing in the background as he read two poems by T.S. Eliot. There was thunder rumbling in the distance and I had the feeling you get when something is following you in the gloaming woods, a sense so tangible that the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. I wondered if he could feel the same storm system in his radio studio.

And then Shepherd read Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” whose “skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper.” There were already hooks in the fish’s lip, signs of wisdom, so the poet let it go.

And then another piece by the same poet, about sailors steering around soulful icebergs as clouds warm overhead.

The background music, Shepherd explained, was from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the time I thought 2001 was impossibly far  off in the future, well beyond the current horizon filled with ships and icebergs.

June 27, 1968

A man driving a 1963 Rambler Ambassador throws his cigarette onto the road. Speedy runs him down, knowing the butt-flicker is the owner of the newspaper where he works.

After work, Izzy has an important meeting with Juliana.

The maintenance barn was an inheritance from the days when the country club had been somebody’s farm on the edge of town. It was filled with equipment—mowers, tractors, three-wheeled jitneys for getting around—and a small mountain of 70-pound bags of fertilizer sold by the public works department of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and manufactured by the good people of Milwaukee doing what comes natural to them.

I washed up more thoroughly than usual and sauntered down the lane toward the employee parking lot. Juliana was smoking a cigarette in her family’s Fairlane parked under a tree.

She had her waitress uniform on and it was a little tight, which I later found out was by design, and the top two buttons were undone. It was hot, but having been outside all day I was used to it. She ground her cigarette out in the dashboard ashtray, looking at me with a smile in her eyes.

“You were going to throw that out the window, weren’t you?” I said.

“And have the whole goddamn Boy Scouts of America breathing down my neck?” She fired up the Fairlane, and we rolled in a very well-behaved manner out the entrance road of the country club. I studied her thighs beneath the steering wheel.

It was soon clear that we were not going directly home.

June 25, 1968

Izzy and Speedy confront a butt-flicker in a 1960 Chevrolet Apache on their way to work. It doesn’t go well.

After work, Izzy goes to New Hope to find the guy who sells icons made of coconuts to tourists. He is led to Quentin’s studio in a boarding house.

It was a single room with a huge window as its centerpiece, six feet wide by four feet high, a matrix of small panes; it was hinged at the top and opened into the room and hooked to the ceiling. It looked out over a quiet stretch of a nearly waterless stream trickling through the heart of the town, surrounded by sycamores broken out with psoriasis and the miscellany that grows on the banks of pebbly streams in Pennsylvania. The window made the room seem nautical, as though it was a captain’s berth at the stern of a 19th-century ship.

Quentin explains that his coconut icons are intended to honor the people who worked shipping coal by barge on the Delaware Canal.

“You don have to be some gawd or saint fo your work to be worth rememberin’. Every soul worth that,” he said, waving his arm across the room. “These are icons of those people, dem boys who drove the mules along the towpath 13 hours a day while cap’n steered de barge, dem lock masters who lowered em down and raised em up, and them boat builders and storekeepers who kept the canals working long past their natural time. The miners dug that anthracitey out them damn mountains, and diggin coal is nasty work but not as nasty as butchering whales and cook him down on a boat tossing out on de ocean.

“Them canal men floated it down to folk’s parlors and if you ask me they had de best of it, spite of all their troubles.”

I asked him what troubles they had, but he said he had to get out on the street with his icons, as the foot traffic was picking up.

I took a couple of photos of Quentin and his workshop.

“You gots to peddle coconuts when their pockets still have some monies,” he said, as I traipsed along behind him.

 

June 24, 1968

Speedy reminisces about the coal barges on the Delaware canal.

We were finishing dinner on the picnic table behind our house. Our lawn dissolved into the woods, which held in its bosom a minor Pennsylvania creek that grew from gully washes and insignificant streams and eventually made a small dent in the Delaware River not too far from the spot where, on average, the big river began to back up twice a day from the heaving oceans. My father was reminiscing about going to the canal when he was just small and watching barges loaded down with coal creep along at mule speed from the mines on their way to Bristol.

Unburdened, the barges floated lighter and higher on the way home. “I was happy for the mules heading upstream,” he said. The business of carrying light and heat captured in rocks of carbon down the canal was over by the time he started going to school. The extraction of ancient carbon wasn’t over—not by a long shot—but industry had found that it was more efficient to use combustion engines to bring the coal to market, instead of mules, men and gravity pulling barges over sleepy water.

Later, Izzy commits a hippie faux pas while riding with Juliana in a 1957 Dodge Regent to see the Fifth Dimension at the music circus outside of Lambertville.

June 22, 1968

This date was a double-header in the AutoFlick chronology. Upon arriving in Washington, DC, to go to the Poor People’s Campaign, Izzy and Speedy see a man throw a cigarette from his 1960 Fiat 1100.

“The 1100 was the upscale Fiat, not the cheapo shoebox on wheels, and yet clowns could have come pouring out of it at any minute. It was boxy, but smoothed on all its edges, with a brown panel running from the leading edge of the front door back to a modest fin. It had a dowdy shape saved by a streak of chrome along the flank that gave the car a forward lean, like it was going somewhere even when it was standing still.”

Later, Izzy and some new friends are picked up by the D.C. metro police and taken in their squad car, a 1965 Plymouth Fury, to the station house. Their crime? Wading in the Potomac.

I took off my sneakers and socks and arranged them with a Boy Scout’s sensibility, but I hesitated long enough over the waist button of my khakis that my momentum stalled. I leaned over and rolled my pant legs up above my calves and then yanked them as far as they would go toward my knees. She was bent over, rinsing her arms in the river and paying no obvious attention to me. In case you haven’t noticed, there is something about teenage girls in their underwear bent over.

The water was good. There was a gravel bar underfoot and the barely perceptible current gently washed between our legs. The kids dunked their heads in the water and started to splash one another. Suddenly the sky turned a shade or two clearer, and a lightness drifted from across the river like the first taste of something unbearably good that you knew would only come in small doses. Charlotte faced the direction from which the levitation came and arched her back, stretching her face into the fresher air, and raised her arms out straight from her shoulders, spreading sail to catch every square inch.

She was a skinny, sunburnt hillbilly with home-cut hair and tomboy muscles in well-worn, feed-store clothes, but there was a place in the pantheon of goddesses for her as well. I took off my shirt and tossed it onto the bank. I bent over and washed my arms and neck, and another freshet rolled across the river and upon us. She turned to face me as I waded to her and she reached toward me.

Clasping our hands, we slowly circled each other. The sky continued to lift, seeming to pull lightness up from the edges of the horizon. There were cars bustling across the bridge above us, but the sparrows in the trees were oblivious, pursuing their own agenda. I was looking into her face, but she was looking up into the sky.

 

June 20, 1968

Riding home with his mother from work, Izzy spots a butt-flick from a 1964 Volkswagon bus. In Thailand, the air force was dropping flowers and popcorn from airplanes to celebrate the adoption of a new national constitution. When they get home, Speedy is excited about a constitutional argument about the legal standing of trees.

My father was excited because a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a Minnesotan named William O. Douglas, was there to support the protesters.

“Justice Douglas said that trees and paths and waterways should have the same legal protection that people and corporations have,” my father told us over our hamburgers and salad as the sun began to set. “He said the environment and all its parts should have standing to bring lawsuits in court. It was the damnedest thing I ever heard.”

I was trying to picture trees in a courtroom.

“When I was a kid, we used to go fishing over there and no one gave much thought to the barges on the canal. And then one year, they weren’t there. It was funny to have this big-shot Supreme Court justice and his newsmen and photographers and FBI spies making so much noise about preservation.

“Nobody can bring the barges back,” he said.

Then something came to his mind. “I started to interview this guy who didn’t seem like one of the protesters—his shoes just weren’t right—and he started to tell me why he was there and then stopped. He asked me if I was undercover, which is the most bizarre thing anyone has ever asked me.

“I told him I worked for the paper, and he thought about it for a moment and said he didn’t have anything to tell me.”

June 19, 1968

Hitch-hiking home from work, Izzy gets a ride with girl from his high school who is driving her family’s 1959 Ford Fairlane Ranch Wagon. She throws her cigarette out the window as she rushes to make room for him in the front seat. It turns out better than he might have expected.

 

The Ohio Express was coming on the radio, ready to launch into its tribute to yummy. I was aware, even as a Boy Scout, that this was bubblegum. Yet Juliana was drumming her fingers and began to sing along. I did not understand the lyrics or what it means to have love in the tummy, and I began to fear that the moment we were having was fluttering away, like something written on a tiny slip of paper sucked out the window and blown down the highway behind us.

Juliana glanced at me, grinning and singing, completely at ease in herself. I wished I had paid more attention to this sugary concoction the first 600 times I heard it on the radio. I think I summoned up a grimace that looked only slightly constipated. Her eyes lingered on my face, road kill in the merciless rat race of courtship, and then she turned back to the road.

A form lumped up in my throat. I was suddenly aware of the scent of golf-course fertilizer and dried sweat. And pretty sure it wasn’t coming from her.

No more cavalier banter. I was almost thankful that we were coming up to the turn-off to my house. At this point in a hitched ride, I would get out and walk the rest of the way unless I happened to get picked up by another inmate from our particular suburban cellblock. Where we lived, there were only two auto-accessible outlets to the rest of the world, and the other one was a less-traveled country road that connected only to more of its kind. I didn’t know where Juliana lived, but I knew it wasn’t back up in my neck of the woods.

“This is my street up here,” I said.

“Your goddamn street.”

Here is the wonderful, beautiful thing about being just one person and not everyone in the universe. You can lead yourself down a dismal, self-loathing path to utter desperation and the person you’re sitting next to is still back there where you left her, sweeter than sugar, her tummy overflowed with yummy, and never having let you go.

June 16, 1968

June 16, 1968, was Father’s Day.

Izzy comes across a woman enjoying a cigarette in the passenger seat of a 1959 Mercury Monterrey. Later, he and his sister visit their uncle at the hospital.
“‘You’ve got untold worlds that empty into thee,’ I said. His eyes flickered with the strain of struggling to command his voice. Then he looked away.”

June 9, 1968

Izzy and Speedy follow a kid in a 1957 Buick LeSabre who is looking for a way out of the draft. They end up at a Quaker meeting.

“In the Army, my father also met a soldier who told him about Dick Mobius, a mythical apostle of Herman Melville who started an anonymous society with no leadership, no secret handshake, no dues, no organization and no mission statement. The sect is held together only by its oral tradition: memorizing passages from the tale of the white whale and spouting them when it seems appropriate.”