I have already written stories about the sumer and fall of 1976. That was the year that my first marriage disintegrated, beginning in February and extending to the end of the year. That year was one of considerable transformation for me in some ways, and a bit of regression in others. I had only just left the wild party-animal phase of my life in the summer of 1973 and had slowly, painfully, been settling down into a slightly more stable role of construction worker, student and then construction worker again, all the while assuming the role of husband and provider, establishing a home and living as a married, working, home owning middle class sort of guy. I had not approached anything like becoming some sort of rock of the community by any stretch of the imagination, but neither was I spending very much time sitting with a bunch of stoned college students by a swimming pool using the bottom of a saucepan as a bongo drum while croaking out my best version of any given rock tune.
All of that began to unravel in February of ’76’ when my wife announced that she wanted to separate. We agreed to do so in June, but in May when I learned that she was already involved in a relationship with someone else I left the next morning and then spent the next six months floundering in a sea of pain and self pity, trying to regain my balance but stumbling more than standing and rarely taking two steps forward without taking one or two or three steps back.
My first step in dealing with my situation was to avoid dealing with it. I moved with four others into an old residence which was upstairs from what had once been a neighborhood grocery store. Here the party went on day and night. Once a friend from work came over to our place with a friend of her own. After a little while her friend apologized for showing up at our place with neither food nor beer nor marijuana. “If I would have known that you were having a party I would have brought something” he said with a guilty and embarrassed look. My friend Evelyn laughed. “They aren’t having a party,” she explained. “It’s like this here all the time.”
And so it was. I couldn’t stay loaded all of the time however, and sometimes even when I was the pain and loneliness became oppressive and on those occasions there was nothing better to bring me up than family. I called my father and spoke with him every day for a month after the split with my wife, and that helped me to survive those awful first days. Dad went to his grave not knowing the role that he played in keeping me out of my own, or at least if he did know it wasn’t because of my telling him. He might have known now that I think of it. Dad always had a way of knowing more than I thought he did. I wonder if my kids feel that way about me? Both of them are a good deal more bright than I was, so I doubt it. And then there was my brother.
Brad is four years my senior and we have always been close. We spoke on the phone often even before the end of my marriage and continued to do so afterward. But these were desperate times, and Brad felt that I was in need of a little more assistance than frequent telephone conversation could provide. Therefore, upon completion of the spring semester at the University of New Mexico where he was both teaching and taking classes, Brad packed some clothes and pointed his Ford pick up north and west and rode into town to help me keep my head above water.
Whenever Brad and I got together however it was frequently a question as to who was going to keep both of our heads above water. Brad and I had always enjoyed being together and after I returned from the Army and turned twenty one years of age we had great fun, frequently with our father as well, trying to drink all of the beer in California. All of the Budweiser, at least. Brad has a very fast wit and Dad was no slouch either. The three of us might sit around discussing philosophical or literary issues, sending Mom to the kitchen to escape the hot air, or after dinner (and a large number of cans of Bud) Brad and I might go to the soft, green front lawn, roar at each other like developmentally delayed orangutans, and bang into each other in what we called a ‘belly contest’. I had never had a belly during my childhood but in the year after I exited the Army, after stuffing myself nonstop with pizza and beer and hot dogs from Der Wienerschnitzel, which we called Der Tumorschnitzel due to the dubious quality of it’s product, I had developed my first significant gut. We would roar and bang into each other belly to belly, back up, and then roar and crash into each other again, all the while laughing maniacally. At these times Mom would retreat to the deeper recesses of our tiny Southern California cubical of a house to avoid being seen in her humiliation by any of the neighbors whom she knew were peeking at the idiot Durden boys from behind curtains or between blinds. So when Brad arrived to cheer me up it didn’t take long before we were back at our old tricks with only the faintest evidence of any maturity having occurred in the interim.
One evening when Brad was doing an outstanding job of cheering me up and the party that was my routine existence was in full throat I received a phone call. The call was from my friend Walt, with whom I had roomed when I first moved to Sonoma County to attend the University there. We had remained friends ever since. On this particular evening Walt was calling because his Land Rover was resting comfortably on the side of Highway 12 just west of Santa Rosa. Walt loved that vehicle, although I could not for the life of me tell you why. It looked like it could easily carry an intrepid explorer safely from one end of Africa or the Australian Outback to the other, while in fact it frequently had trouble carrying Walt from one end of Sonoma County to the other. I have previously written of Walt getting his ride stuck in the mud near a house that he was renting. That was not an infrequent occurrence, four wheel drive and all. Still, Walt was committed to his vehicle and so he was calling me from a bar at the end of the nearest off ramp, asking me to come and drag the carcass of his Land Rover that was at that moment achieving ambient temperature on the shoulder of Highway 12.
Walt said that it would take him twenty minutes to walk back to his car, so Brad and I downed the rest of our open beers, took a few more hits off of a joint that was circulating through the crowd at my residence, and left to go and retrieve Walt and his dead Land Rover. In order to give Walt time to return to his car Brad and I stopped at a corner grocery store to pick up another six pack of beer. It’s not like we needed any more, but that had little to do with anything. After exchanging pleasantries with the grocer we climbed back into Brad’s truck and roared off down the road to where we could get on the highway and get to Walt.
Along the way we did what we had been doing all night; drinking beer, discussing anything and everything that came to mind, and viewing the world through filters that were uniquely our own. We might have told stories that we had told a hundred times before and still laughed at as if it was their first hearing. We still do that, to the considerable amazement of those around us who are not wired in the same way that are we. We were engaged in this manner when we came upon Walt and his disabled vehicle. About a half mile further west we found a place to make a U-turn and came back to link the Land Rover to Brad’s truck with a chain. That being accomplished to everybody’s satisfaction we all regained our mounts and slowly started rolling down the highway towards town.
Along the way, Brad and I began to slip back into the place where we had been only a few minutes before. New beers were popped open, new (old) stories and jokes were dredged up, and new takes upon the affairs of our lives and the world in general were passed through our fuzzy and thoroughly unique lenses, and soon we were flying down the road without a serious thought in our heads or a care in the world.
In short order we arrived at our turnoff, made a quick left turn and sped through it to avoid being T-boned by a car that was speeding toward us from the opposite direction, and finally came to a halt in front of the building which housed my residence. Laughing and wobbling a little we exited Brad’s truck and only then remembered that Walt and his Land Rover were still attached.
Walt was as white as a sheet. He had been riding his brakes and hanging onto the wheel for dear life all the way to our house. He got out of his car and was visibly shaken. You could smell the smoking-hot brakes and i thought it looked like they might be glowing a little bit from the heat. I asked Walt if he would like a ride home but he quickly declined the invitation. Walt wanted nothing more than to get away from us and Brad’s truck as quickly as decorum permitted. I offered Walt the keys to my own truck, which he gratefully accepted. He climbed into the cab and fired the Ford up, waved weakly to us, and rolled off into the dark Santa Rosa night. Brad and I returned his wave, and then went upstairs to rejoin the party which hadn’t missed a beat since we had left.
There are not enough words to describe how poorly thought out our actions on that night were. On any of a number of occasions we could have been pulled over by the police or gotten ourselves, Walt, and perhaps others killed. It is ascribed to the German Prince Otto von Bismarck the quote that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America.” I’m not entirely sure about the United States part of that quote, but I can testify with complete certainty that on this particular night God was most generous with two drunks and fools.