After not having a job for two years—Big Sur, sleeping among redwood trees, pot, LSD—it surprised me in early September 1967 to find that all it took to be hired as a substitute teacher in Oakland was to shave off my beard, buy a clean shirt from Goodwill, and fish among my belongings for my teaching credentials from the state of Ohio.
By the end of October paychecks were coming regularly and I could afford an inexpensive vehicle. At a Berkeley impound lot, I found a 1951 Chevrolet Suburban Carryall, a panel truck with windows all around. The color inside and out was military green. It cost me $60 and then another $12 for a battery.
Someone must have stolen the radio, since there was a gaping hole in the dashboard. Aside from looking out of date, the truck had dented fenders, which amused some of the kids in Roosevelt Junior High School, where I was hired as a full-time teacher in January. Roosevelt was predominantly black, so the Chevy, belonging to a young white teacher, served as a kind of leveler. Once in a while I drove a cluster of boys—two brothers who were black and a white friend—home, dropping them at one of their neighboring houses. The younger brother derived consistent pleasure from sliding into the backseat and saying, “Home, James.”
When summer came I was all set to drive back to Ohio to visit my parents, for the first time in several years. The military color of my Chevy didn’t seem quite right for visiting home, so I paid $50 or so to have it painted. I chose a blue that ended up looking too intense. But this didn’t matter. No color on earth could have made that vehicle look like something that belonged in the family driveway.
Having watched me from afar during the previous several years, hurt and uncomprehending, my parents surely had mixed feelings about my visit. At one point, when my father asked me, “Jim, are you psychedelic?” I couldn’t say anything in response. We leaned a lot on silence, but, all in all, the visit didn’t go so badly. Then I drove to the southern part of the state, to Barnesville, the home of my friend John Hutchinson. His friends all called him Lost John due to his monologues about who was lost (all of us) and who needed to begin thinking about overwhelmingly large matters—again, all of us.
John had visited me in California, where he took LSD, an experience that had shifted his concerns from the state of the planet to the state of the universe. Several months before I headed home to visit my parents, he’d written that he was back in Barnesville. The letter ended with: “Come meet my folks.”
The way he spoke about his parents, especially his dad, had always appealed to me. Perhaps I saw in John a direction that, a layer or two below the surface, I wanted to pursue in myself. I was just beginning to distrust the sour, repetitive thoughts about my father and no longer knew whose attitudes bothered me more, my father’s or my own.
The left rear axle of my Chevy broke when I was close to Barnesville, so with a hot summer sun overhead, I walked the rest of the way. On the edge of Barnesville a man named Walter, who wanted to be helpful and to have someone to talk to, joined me and we walked all the way to the front porch of John’s family home.
Lost John didn’t seem at all lost in his hometown. I had never seen him so relaxed. We walked to the town’s auto wrecking yard, which smelled of summer weeds and warm grease. John talked to the owner, who pointed to the corner of the lot. Within 20 minutes, John held the part we needed in his greasy hands.
Then he called a local mechanic, who sent his wife over to pick us up. John didn’t seem to notice how attractive this woman was. It was hard to take my eyes off her—such a remarkable combination of purity and sensuality. At the repair shop, she kissed her husband on the cheek before going into the office. It wasn’t a habitual peck. She kissed him. She stepped away and John thanked her for the ride as she looked back for an instant and waved, walking through the office door.
The mechanic said if everything went as expected, it would take half a day to get my Chevy going again—plus about $90.
Walking with John back to his parents’ home, I asked him if they knew he had taken LSD. He said that he talked with them about everything. They just listened. His father, whom he called Oldie, never, in John’s words, “cast a judgment.”
I mulled this over silently, thinking about my father. As if he could tell what I was thinking about, John stopped walking on the blacktop road and turned to me. “Oldie always says, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ He says, ‘If you want to make an old turd smell, just poke at it a little.’ Jim, if you could let your dad be, he wouldn’t eat on you so.”
When we arrived back at the family home, there on the porch was Oldie himself. John’s father shook my hand, looking into my eyes with kindness. After introductions, John surprised me by going straight into the heart of the dilemma. This must have been part of an ongoing conversation between son and father.
“Dang it, Oldie,” he said. “It’s an infinite conundrum. It stands to reason that the universe is unified. But how? You’ve got all this positive force, all this good over on one side, and all of the negative force, evil or whatever you want to call it, on the other side. Energy, matter, space. Male, female. Everything’s in motion. Attracting, repelling. And time itself, instantaneous, without change, but always moving, and maybe never moving at all. Oldie, there’s got to be a way to resolve all of this, to balance it. There must be! It’s all got to be one!”
Thrusting his hands with outspread fingers into the air, John stamped one of his feet on the floor of the porch in a way that I had seen many times.
“Dang it, I can’t accept that it’s the God that people in church talk about. It’s bigger than God. It’s . . . God’s God!”
John’s father sat passively through this, without any change of expression. Then he got up and came over to where John and I were half-leaning, half-sitting on the railing. Speaking without haste, he addressed his son and me at the same time.
“Well, you have these questions. You young men have taken this LSD and you have a lot of questions. You saw something, and it’s hard to put whatever you saw out of your minds. But let me tell you how, in my experience, life works—how it works for a man.
“For a man there’s an order in life. First he needs to get himself a good truck, and by that I mean a job—something he’s naturally good at that earns him a living and connects him with the world, with other people. First, a good truck.
“After that, with any luck he attracts a good woman. Maybe he’s got to look for one and maybe one just shows up. But you need to go at life in the proper order to be sure of finding one. If you mix up the order, things get harder. Maybe you find the woman first and then the truck, or maybe you don’t find much of anything. Either way, putting these big questions you like to ask before you get your truck can be risky. You’re apt to never find very much you can live by. Very big answers have a way of slipping through very small fingers. You know, boys, a man can get stuck looking at the cosmos, as you call it, or at other men’s wives. Sometimes a person doesn’t end up with a real grasp of the big things he thinks he’s after, and doesn’t get the most basic things right either.
“A man needs what he really needs. No one can change that. First, get yourself a truck. Then a good woman. After that, you’ll be surprised how these other things, the cosmos and everything, find a way of working themselves out. Then you can question things from a patch of ground you’ve earned, and everything means more to you. From his own patch of ground a man can see a long way.”
John and I were silent. Not wanting to stare, I glanced at Oldie, trying to comprehend what he had just said.
Did he know, somehow, that at least one of us was ready to hear that?
Reprinted from Parabola (Winter 2007). Subscriptions: $29.95/yr. (4 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834; www.parabola.org.