July 14, 1968

Bastille Day. Izzy is hitch-hiking to work and gets picked up by a hippie smoking a joint in a 1960 VW, listening to Bob Dylan complain about Maggie’s Farm. He throws the roach out the window and would have gladly accepted a bumper sticker if Izzy had had one with him.

Later in the day, Izzy defends the honor of fair Juliana by running naked through the woods on a Sunday afternoon to chase down two pre-teen punks who have run off with their clothes. But first, he has to invite her to go skinny dipping.

“Do you want to go in?” I asked.

“I don’t have a bathing suit,” she answered.

“We don’t need them today. It’s Bastille Day,” I said, pulling the tee shirt over my head and unbuttoning my shorts. “The day of glory has arrived,” I sang.

And then I was standing naked beside her, more than a little surprised by my revolutionary spirit, feeling the July sunlight and the warm breath of the woods and the algae and the rocks holding the slow-creeping water in front of us. I didn’t know whether she would follow, but I understood that having made the invitation I had to give her as much time as she needed to respond.

I am certain that I had a quite ridiculous look on my face while I waited for her to decide, hanging out there, as it were. She looked me over slyly, unable to suppress a smile. I committed to not looking away from her face.

“You are going to have to go in the water and look the other way,” she said, fingering the top button on her blouse.

That was all the direction I needed. I turned and walked down the rock as it submerged into the still creek, gathering a veneer of moss as it went deeper, open fissures along the way, the occasional rogue outcropping, and only the vaguest sense of a current sliding incrementally toward the next lock that marked the gravitational bottom of the pool, a languid, summery chunk of Pennsylvania hung up on its way through the woods. I found the edge of the rock shelf a little over waist deep and crouched down until my chin was in the water, then slowly pushed upstream for a few easy strokes in the shallow water, not wanting to put too much distance between us. Then I turned back.

She was already in the water, crouched down to her shoulders in the deepest part of the creek. I drifted toward her as though the current alone was pulling me. She had an expectant and confident look, watching me carefully as I stood, waist-deep, and walked across the slippery and sloping slab.

July 10, 1968

A strange meeting with Juliana at the diner where she works. Martine asks the two teenagers if they want to work at a party he’s having at his house.

Later, Izzy and Speedy see a cigarette pitched from a 1963 Ford Falcon.

I walked past the last traffic light on the street that merged into the road that led home, and pivoted to face the oncoming traffic. It was a good, wide, graveled shoulder that I knew well—an easy place for the drivers to pull over. Sitting at the light, they had plenty of time to decide whether they wanted to give me a ride. Or not to.

The doubting hitchhiker, perhaps lacking confidence in his thumb-bait or skeptical of the generosity of strangers, hedges his bet by walking backward, thumbing all the while. The hitchhiker who has given up all hope turns and marches toward his destination, offering his left thumb in a backhand hitch. This is a self-defeating strategy: if they can’t see your face, it is too easy to ignore you.

But the hitchhiker in a state of grace stands his ground, faces the traffic, smiles confidently into the windshields of the oncoming traffic, picks out his mark and gently jerks his thumb like a trout fisherman. He is confident and disinterested, accepting the fact that most drivers will not stop but religiously sure that one will.

Sometimes it’s his father.

I didn’t see him in the line of cars waiting at the traffic light. He found me first and steered onto the shoulder, leaving a clear route for the rest of the traffic to go past and within a few feet of where I was standing.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Home, I guess.”

Speedy was in a good mood. He had been to see Dr. Matthews that day, and came home aloft on the notion that his brother was getting the best care available. “I think he’s gonna get better; I think he already is getting better,” he said, gripping the steering wheel enthusiastically.

We rolled back onto the thoroughfare, slipping in behind a black 1963 Ford Falcon. It was a modern, compact car in its day, sleek and flat. “Futura” was written across the back of the trunk, with an emblem above and a slash of red-bordered chrome beneath, speared in the middle by a circle. Wings on either side pointed out, rather than up, curling over the round red taillights. The bumper below curved sympathetically, framing the taillights like burning rocket exhausts.

It was no jet car. It looked a little like a layer cake.

The driver was smoking, and we motored past our turn to stay on his trail. He looked to be in his mid-20s, a plain khaki work shirt, a working-class hero. I could see a chunk of his face in his rearview mirror; he held the cigarette in his lips for what seemed like a long time and then took a long draw and threw the butt out the window with conviction.

As whalers hath before us, we lowered for him.

July 8, 1968

On a date with Juliana, Izzy first stops by his last Boy Scout meeting.  Afterword, they half-heartedly pursue a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.

We pulled up at a four-way stop sign, and a ’57 Chevy Bel Air arriving at almost the same time paused only briefly and then shot across our bow through the intersection. There were teenagers inside and they were smoking.

“Follow that car, please,” I said.

The people in my life were getting used to this, and Juliana didn’t even blink. We turned to follow the Chevy, a heavy, boxy carriage with modestly long skirts and an abrupt windshield that wrapped slightly around the sides of the front cabin. Its distinctive forehead leaned slightly into the wind, and a flat, jet-plane hood ornament steered it streaking down the road ahead.

The ‘57 Bel Air was a popular car for teenagers, reliable and roomy and of an age that middle-class dads no longer saw as suitable for the family car.

A passenger flicked his cigarette, a dramatic fling into a cornfield that may have sailed several rows deep.

We followed the Bel Air a little ways, but our hearts were elsewhere. We gave up and headed down a dark farm lane tucked between a cornfield and a line of trees, where we worked on the merit badge in French kissing, an unexpectedly easy one to earn.

July 5, 1968

Here it is, 9:52 PM on the Right Coast, and no diligent AutoFlicker has prompted me to update the chronology. Thanks a lot, dudes.

On July 5, 1968, Izzy and his mom track a 1959 Desoto Firedome with a Stassen bumper sticker. This is one of my favorite chapters. Can’t believe the Followers let me down.

I was riding home from work with my mother, and in front of us was a 1959 Firedome, nephew to my father’s car, another winged experiment from the Ike fantasy world. Viewed from the rear, it hefted a barrage of thick chrome fittings and a large insignia that included a keyhole for the trunk. On either side, three protruding circular taillights were stacked on top of one another with a chrome V jutting over the top. It had two radio antennas, one on each side of the trunk, and a low, wide wrestler’s stance.

This particular vessel had a bumper sticker that said: “Stassen ’68—Why Not?” The former governor of Minnesota was on his fourth campaign in pursuit of the Republican nomination for president. He had at that point in the summer of 1968 rounded up just one delegate, and there were only a few weeks until the party convention in Miami. After the RFK assassination, the Secret Service assigned an agent to guard him.

It was said this protection was the biggest crowd Stassen had attracted so far in the campaign.

A perpetual anachronism, Stassen would keep running, in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992, and you can judge for yourself whether his country would have been better off in any of those years with a liberal Republican president committed to peace.

July 1, 1968

A 1962 Olds 88 passes at high speed and flicks a cigarette to the road. Speedy tries to catch up but loses him. Then he gets the idea of marking cars that have already been cited in the study of people who flick cigarettes from automobiles.

“At some point we may find the same car or the same driver in our sample,” Speedy said. “Maybe we should mark them, the way biologists tag species in the wild for study.”

In the National Geographic, the savannah science guys always shot the wildlife with tranquilizers before they stapled tags in their ears. I wondered if this is what my father had in mind.

“It can’t be permanent—we don’t want to tamper with the evidence—and we may have to tag them without their knowing.” I was used to the fact that my father often thought out loud.

“You mean put a mark on the car, right?” I said, trying to lead the witness.

“Maybe the crayons that used-car dealers use on windshields would work on a bumper …”

I should have stepped in there with something to change our bearing, but I came up empty.

“Or something else,” my father said, “like a bumper sticker.”

I was afraid to ask.

“I flick butts.” Speedy seemed pleased with this.

“I guess that would show them,” I said.

 

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 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.