Fort Stockton Blues
I turned to Miriam, my best friend. She was hunched over her desk, plodding through one of her arcane philosophy books. I had tried many times to convince her to become a writer. "Why do you want to spend so much time trying to understand someone else's answers to the meaning of life," I'd say, "when you could write your own version like me." She would grumble something about lax intellectual standards and turn back miserably to her text.
"Hey, listen to this." I read her the classified ad that had captured my attention: Wanted, good driver to deliver the car from Burlington to Las Vegas. Will reimburse for travel expenses. The contact information followed.
She raised her eyebrows, squared her broad shoulders, and ran her hand through her short, blond hair. She gave me a sharp look. "Sarah, the last time you had an inspiration it cost me a hundred in fines and a lot of explaining to do."
I ignored her reticence and appealed to her sense of adventure.
"Come on, think about it. A road trip across the heartland with all expenses paid, then we can hitchhike back across the south." She had thumbed her way solo across the country the previous summer and had come back inspired for a while, ecstatic with freedom, until Kant, Hegel, and Spinoza drove her back to earth.
She shook her head. "I want to be in Vermont for New Year's."
"No problem," I insisted. "We'll get back in time," thinking I never knew her to be on time for anything.
She dug in, so I played my strongest card. "It has to be warm down there." Miriam hated the cold. She began complaining in November and didn't relent until the spring flowers appeared.
That did it, and after she made me promise again that we would be in Vermont for New Year's Eve, I made the arrangements to get the car. We stuffed our packs and emptied the refrigerator. It was five days before Christmas. On the way out, I grabbed my journal and the new Swiss army knife my father had given me. It was a dandy- two blades, saw, tweezers, scissors, screwdriver, can opener. I was ready for anything.
Getting It Right
My father and Ned had been arrested weeks earlier for "littering" as they passed around pamphlets against U.S participation in the Korean War. Judge Sloan threw out the case after calling the circulars — "poor and puny anonymities of addled and misled minds." My father was fired from his job as a navy draftsman the next day.
My mother loved to socialize before the meetings, and I imagine her making new members comfortable as everyone took a seat around the dining room table. Anti-war activities, nuclear disarmament, and civil rights were on the agenda that night, and my father kept the focus on making decisions and assigning jobs.
Outside, two young prospective draftees had paused in front of the house. They could see eleven people in the dining room through the large window facing the street. They later told the police they knew Ned Sheinman was Commie. "Here we are, waiting to be called to fight in Korea, and there they are, rooting for the other side!" the Inquirer quoted one of the men.
Curious onlookers joined them and watched the meeting through the window. By the time a crowd of two hundred gathered outside, the two young men had left to shoot pool.
My parents heard angry voices. "Go back to Russia, you Pinkos!" and "We don't want Jews and colored in our neighborhood."
We traveled for two days by bus, fifteen hundred miles south to Mexico City. We played dozens of chess games with the portable set I carried. I'd win one; then Neal took the next. We passed the magnetic board back and forth in the seat. Neal studied the problems there as if his life depended on making the right choice, while I moved quickly on instinct. A knight jumped here, a bishop parried there, until we battled it out with kings and pawns while the bus barreled through the Mexican night.
Neal was staring at the board. "I think planning is way overrated and takes you out of the moment, away from following your gut," I said, hoping he would get the hint and move.
"Hey man, I'm trying to concentrate," he complained.
"You know, like I might have a specific plan in mind, or maybe an idea of how things are supposed to be and then miss all kinds of opportunities."
"More hippy bullshit," Neal said.
"The guy who discovered Penicillin, Ian Fleming, I think."
"Ian Fleming wrote James Bond; you mean Alexander Fleming." He eyed me impatiently.
"Well, he 'screwed up' and left an unwashed petri dish in his lab."
"Yeah, yeah, I know the story. There was mold growing and..."
"Hey, I'm trying to make a bigger point here; if he had followed all the rules, and cleaned every last piece of equipment in that lab, or routinely thrown the mold away — no penicillin. Voilà! That's what I'm talking about." I sat back satisfied, feeling I was winning the argument I started, along with the chess game.
The Finger Is King
When Sarah was three months old, Patricia and I were pushing her stroller on a graveled backroad, alongside the Brewster River in Jeffersonville, Vermont. This was our daily walking route. Traffic was very sparse, and when there was a car, it moved slowly. So we were surprised when a speeding vehicle shot across the covered bridge and barreled directly towards us.
We had passed a bend in the road, and the approaching car spun out, taking the curve, spraying us with gravel as Patricia quickly pushed Sarah's stroller out of the way. I fired both barrels, and as my right and left middle fingers sprang up, an answer popped out of every window, almost instantaneously, like trumpets responding to the conductor's baton.
The driver, now with just one hand on the wheel, lost control, hit the guard rail, and scraped along, which slowed him down but didn't stop the car from going over a small embankment. It flipped and settled like a helpless turtle on its back, wheels still spinning, going nowhere.
I felt a surge of energy. My finger had been the most powerful, my righteous indignation more potent. Strip everything civilizing away, and in that instant, without the governance of reason, the finger is king. Take that, you reckless bastards!
I looked with disbelief at the upturned vehicle. I heard screams from the car and a baby crying. Suddenly my anger turned to shame. What have I done!