Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Odyssey (Part VII)

I woke up in our tent for the first time on the trip. In the midst of partying with the cowboys the night before, Tom had made it out behind the Mud Butte Post Office/Bar/Store/Restaurant/gas station and set up our tent. It was a pleasant surprise. I rewarded his diligence by getting him a coffee. I sat on the front steps of the building looking out across the plains to a butte of in the distance and wondered if that was the "towns" namesake. It was impossible to judge the scale with nothing else on the horizon or in the foreground. It could have been 1/4 mile away or ten miles away. I wasn't about to find out. It took pretty much all the energy I had to walk back to the tent, drink my coffee and help pack up the tent. We thanked our elderly host and got back on the road. In parting we told her to watch out for those "bikers". She assured us she was ready.

As we got into far western South Dakota there were once again signs of civilization. The towns had more than one building and we didn't have any fears of running out of gas or being stranded next to a broken down car. When we got into Wyoming we took a detour north of the highway to "Devils Tower". It is a cylinder shaped rock formation jutting out of the prairie made famous by the movie "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind". Richard Dreyfus's character was obsessed by visions he had of the structure and started making replication out of mashed potatoes, garbage, dirt etc...Devil's Tower is where the aliens made contact with humans later in the movie. There was also quite the prairie dog exhibit at the viewing spot for the Tower which cautioned against venturing out into the area between the exhibit and the Tower due to rattlesnakes hiding in the prairie dog holes and attacking. We had tempted fate enough on this trip, so far, and I had no desire to be sucking venom out of one of Tom's extremities.

Back on the road heading west the topography changed. The road became more hilly and there was more vegetation, although scrubby; it felt less lunar. Around mid afternoon we noticed some mountains on the horizon and figured they must be the "Big Horns", a mountain range which cuts through the north central part of the state and was just outside of our next destination, Sheridan. For hours we drove toward the mountain chain as they slowly grew larger and larger until they towered above us.

In Sheridan we found a campground well before dark and set up our tent. We did some supply shopping in town which included some Coors Light Silver Bullets and some Yukon Jack. We had a nice campfire complete with Dinty Moore Beef Stew, Bread and Butter. A nearby camper came by and introduced himself. We offered him a beer and he offered us some crystal meth. I declined, but Tom snorted a few lines. The guy said it was like coke and with that reassurance I did a line. It burned my nostrils and I winced like having a nose hair pulled out suddenly. He offered another round and I declined. It was my only experience , ever, with that stuff. Tom did some more. Our guest drank another beer then excused himself as he had to get back to his campsite and his family. A real family man, I thought.

The next morning was chilly, but refreshing. We had gotten to bed early and with the exception of the crystal, had done relatively little partying. Our next destination was Yellowstone National Park . We made our way over some mountain passes through the Big Horns and down to Cody which is where the Buffalo Bill museum is located. We checked out the exhibits, ate some lunch and got on our way. We had been on the road for a week and it felt like a lifetime. The ride to Yellowstone was ripe with anticipation. I drove, while Tom perused some travel books he had about the park. The plan was that we would spend three days at Yellowstone and three days at the Tetons. All systems go.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Odyssey (Part VI)

'What the fuck happened last night' I thought as I came to. The room was spinning. I made a beeline for the bathroom and violently heaved. I felt an intense burning on my neck as I kneeled at the toilet bowl. The room turned red. It got hotter and hotter. Was I having a stoke? When the heaving subsided I tentatively stood up and realized that instead of turning on the light I had turned on one of those red lighted overhead heating lamps that were popular in the 70's and 80's. My anxiety level went from a 10 down to a 7 as I was still shaken up from the last nights events. I walked up the basement stairs, where the guest rooms were located , into the living room of the main house. Tom was sitting on the couch staring blankly at the TV. The Cubs were playing a day game as was the custom before they defiled Wrigley and put in lights. That means it was after 1 PM.

"Sully. How did we get back here last night?" Tom asked with a hint of concern in his voice. "Bro, you don't remember what happened last night?" I was pissed that he was clueless. He looked at me blankly. "You don't remember me dragging you out of that dudes apartment after he tried to fag out with me?". "The last thing I remember was sitting on that guys couch and smoking a bowl" Tom said as if he let me down. I explained to him what had happened. We sat there for an hour or two saying nothing, watching the Cubbies. I had a piece of toast and retired to the guestroom around 4 PM. I stayed there all night while Tom had dinner with his Uncle and socialized. I alternated between sleep and awake trying to absorb the previous evening. I felt bad that I popped the guy, but did he drug us? Did we give him some kind of gay signal we were unaware of? Do I look gay? Does Tom look gay? Should I never drink again?

Years later when I saw the movie "Dahmer" I had a bout of PTSD and wondered that if I didn't fight my way out that stupor and pop that guy, would the cops have found my head in a freezer next to my dick? I eventually went to sleep for the night.

The next morning I was up before 6 AM. I felt a lot better having put some sleep between me and the "Incident". Tom was up soon after and we decided to hit the road straight away. Our next destination was Mud Butte, South Dakota. When Tom was a kid he found Mud Butte on the map when plotting his future trip across country. He thought the name was funny and referred to it as "Mud Butt". Now we were on our way to Mud Butt.

We head west on Route 212 and after a few hours driving we made a stop in Watertown, South Dakota for some McDonald's. Neither one of us broached the subject of getting beer, even though I'm sure we both thought it. We got on the road right after Mickey D's and head out into the plains. During the next few hours I felt like I was on another planet. I had never seen this type of topography before and I felt like I was watching a movie. The land was flat and there was no sign of human civilization for hours. Occasionally there would be a butte in the distance or a small rolling hill to traverse, but to me it was like traversing the moon. We couldn't get any radio stations on the dial, so Tom did a medley of his favorites. Tom drove and sang "Love Is The Drug" in response to my allegations that we were drugged. He then broke into "Sympathy For The Devil" and continued on with "Smoke On The Water". He went on for at least an hour. I watched him in amazement as he belted out tune after tune feverishly, white foam forming at the corners of his mouth. As bizarre as it was watching this guy fall away into his rock n' roll fantasy it was contagious and I found myself joining in during the chorus and occasionally singing along.

We pulled into Mud Butte around 4PM. Mud Butte consisted of one house which was the only store, bar, restaurant, pool table, post office; the only anything. An elderly lady was working the counter and greeted us heartily. We ordered a few beers and sat at the bar/lunch counter. The woman asked if we had seen "The Bikers". We hadn't seen any on the road. She said they were due into town any day now. She said they came in once per year and camped behind the building and "raised holy hell". We were a bit nervous until she showed us pictures of the bikers... or should I say bicyclists. Around 6 PM some real live cowboys strolled in of the range for some beer, pool and grub. There were about eight of them and they looked at us suspiciously. Tom and I were playing pool and gnawing on some pigs knuckles that were in a jar on the bar. The old woman had comped us. One of the cowboys asked for the next game. We played partners. They asked where we were from and that opened up a whole line of questioning. "Is that near New York City?". "What's it like in one of those skyscrapers?". "Do you know anyone famous?". "They were impressed that I had seen Robert Dinero at my friends father's cafeteria in NYC. One of the ranchers offered me some Red Man chew. When I said 'yeah' with some false bravado the cowboy said "Are you sure?" Having done some Skoal in my day I thought that I could handle it. The head rush was intense. I had to go out behind the building and puke. When I came back in everyone was laughing. My face had turned green when I ran out and the tough, leather skinned ranchers were having a big ol' laugh at my expense. I grabbed a beer and did another shot and laughed along with them. We drank beer, played pool, did shots and shot the shit deep into the prairie night.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Odyssey (Part V)

We entered the bar around 8PM. It was nothing special. It was your typical 1980's bar with cheap round Formica table tops and metal bar stools. We sat down and a waitress came over immediately. We each ordered a shot and a beer. She came back with two shots and two beers, each. The place was busy for a Sunday night. Many of the people we saw at the Lakes were most likely here as the women all appeared to be attractive. Maybe they were just attractive because of the two for one drinks. We struck up a few conversations with folks around us, but were mostly content to drink and soak in the scenery. The "Madonna" look hadn't made its way out here to the Midwest, yet so most of the girl were clad in longish skirts and poofy blouses or designer jeans and Izod Lacoste Tennis shirts. On the guys were jeans, predominantly black Levis and pastel colored Oxfords. We watched the mingling as it flowed in synch with the musical genius of Duran Duran, Culture Club and Simple Minds. Tom and I were not in uniform. I was wearing a pair of beat up Calvin Klien jeans with a tan sweater pushed up to the elbows. Tom had on a beat up pair of faded blue Levis with a black t-shirt with a faded "Rush" on the front.

Tom was not comfortable in this situation. He hated the music. He wasn't half as horny as me; the girls didn't have any effect. The the two for one drinks buoyed his psyche just enough to make the place bearable. After a few rounds he was almost having fun. I watched Tom watching the scene. I still had no idea what made this guy tick. He was 25 years old. He looked like a cross between Crispan Glover and Christopher Reeves as Clark Kent in "Superman". Underneath his easy going, laid back demeanor was one hard nosed, intense dude. One Saturday morning at Camp Howe we had a pick up tackle football game. Even though Tom was 5 years older than most of us and built rather solidly, he was picked last. We all assumed that he was a geek and not athletic or tough. After the game all the guys could talk about is what an animal he was. I had been the recipient of a few of his tackles and was shocked at how little mercy he showed in a pick up game between friends. It was comforting to know that if the shit hit the fan, Tom would have my back or at least he had it in him.

Around midnight we were absolutely shitfaced. The novelty of having the waitress bring massive amounts of booze to us for little money wore off after the first few rounds, but the damage was done. I was sipping on a Coors Light when I noticed Tom on the way back from the bathroom talking to some guy. When he returned to the table he said that the guy offered to let us party at his place after hours. Tom said the guy had some great weed.

When the place closed we followed him to his apartment. When we got out of the car he introduced himself as Greg and shook my hand. We followed him into his place. It was very clean and organized. He invited us to sit on the couch while he made us drinks and packed a bowl. We sipped our drinks and waited for Greg to emerge from his bedroom. Greg sat next to Tom and sparked up. He passed it to Tom who took a massive hit who then passed it to me. I took a small hit knowing that I was already too wasted and I was probably going to have to drive us back to Jerry's being that Tom was done. I passed it back to Greg who then got up and put on some music. Tom passed out completely and Greg sat next to me. He asked about our trip and other inane bits of small talk. I got up to use the bathroom. When I returned the lights seemed lower than when I left. I sat back down on the couch. I felt uneasy. I felt something on my leg. It was Greg's hand. "What the fuck are you doing?" I jumped up. "Its OK, your friend is asleep", he tried to reassure me. I went over to Tom, "Tom wake up!", I slapped him in the face. He was out cold. "Its OK, relax, relax, stop flipping out", Greg said with more urgency. I felt really queasy, as if I was fighting to stay conscious. Greg had sidled up next to me and grabbed one of my hands. He tried to lead me back to the couch. I suddenly felt some semblance of lucidity and punched him square in the nose. It exploded like a tomato. He fell back on the couch and pushed a blanket against his nose stop the blood. I grabbed Tom by the arms and pulled him forward. He hit the floor hard, which was enough to bring him temporarily out of his stupor. I put my arms around him and dragged him toward the door with him helping as well as he could. Greg got up from the couch and tried to block the door, but the blood started flowing all over his pink Oxford shirt again, uncontrollably. He relented either because his foyer started to look like a murder scene or because he knew if he didn't move, it would be a murder scene. I got Tom back to the VW and poured him into the passenger seat. With time I found my way back to Jerry's. I left Tom in the car and went to our guestroom. I passed out on my bed fully clothed with my sneakers still on.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Odyssey (Part IV)

The morning was cool and misty. I lingered in my sleeping bag listening to the water of the Mississippi River rush by our "campsite". I had to take a dump, so I left the coziness and headed out in search for a bathroom. I found an outhouse next to the park office. It was a true outhouse, a shed with a hole in the ground. There was a chair with a hole cut in the bottom above the hole. I wondered whether I could hold out long enough to run to the car and find a nearby gas station or fast food joint, but I was already "prairie doggin'". I sat on the chair and hoped that nothing crawled out of the hole. They did have a good quality toilet paper.

Tom was still sleeping, so I sat on a picnic table next to our site and watched the river run. The campground supervisor came by a few minutes later and struck up a conversation. "You and your friend are lucky" he said. "Why is that?" "Neither one of you woke up with a water snake in your sleeping bag". With that Tom bolted up, he must've been listening from the comfort of his bag. "At night they like to find anything warm and snuggle up for heat. Lots of people have been bitten in the morning because they don't bite until folks try to get out of their bags. You boys are lucky!". Two nights on the road and we narrowly avoided catastrophe twice.

It was Saturday morning and we wanted to make Minneapolis by mid afternoon as it was only a five hour drive. We would be staying with Jerry Solon, Tom's Uncle, for a few days. This was all part of Tom's itinerary that he had mapped out in his head since he was a twelve year old. I was along for the ride and didn't mind letting Tom decide where we were going and what we were doing. I was happy to give up any semblance of responsibility and decision making and go with the flow, where ever it went. We pulled into the Twin Cities just past one and decided we needed beer. We pulled into a shopping plaza and Tom ran into a package store. As I sat in the bug I noticed something strange. Everyone was huge. There were big asses everywhere I looked. I had to think...did I take acid this morning and it just started kicking in? Minnesota is the "Land of 1000 Lakes" and all I could think about was Land O' Lakes, butter that is. Butter must be the staple of the local diet along with buckets of grain and corn feed. Tom got back to the car and we drank a beer while I pointed out the heifers as we drove to his Uncle Jerry's.

Jerry and Tom embraced while I stood at the side of the bug drinking a beer. After some brief introductions we entered the Solon's home and sat down to watch the Kentucky Derby. I couldn't care less about the race, but feigned interest knowing that these people would be housing and feeding us the next few days. Jerry's wife put a drink in my hand and we settled down to watch the "fastest two minutes in sports". Three minutes later Tom and I excused ourselves so we could visit Tom's cousin who was in college at St. Cloud State.

Tom's cousin David was a huge, strapping mid-westerner who along with his butter eating must've been hitting the weight room daily. He was playing guard for the school's football team and showed us a letter he had received from the NFL regarding interest from pro scouts. The excitement of being on a college campus and the thought of partying with some hot coed's was short lived when David informed us that everyone was studying for finals and no one was partying. He did, however, hook us up with someone who knew someone who could get us some weed. We made our deal and smoked a joint on the way back to Jerry's.

The next day we tooled around Minneapolis checking out the area around Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, which must be a no butter zone, because the girls were definitely a lot less bovine. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and the area around the lakes were filled with sunbathers, joggers and more sunbathers. We sparked up a few and sat on a blanket admiring the view. Tom had a small boom box and was intent on finding a good rock station. Tom was a rock connoisseur. He had DJ'd at his college radio station and knew every rock song and artist from 1965 till 1985. When a song would come on he would recite the date, artist, album, band info, liner notes... whatever he knew about the song. Years later when I saw the movie "American Psycho" in the scene when Patrick Bateman (aka Christian Bale) was preparing to kill one of his victims by dressing in a rain suit and plastic (to shield the blood when he chopped him up with an axe)and espousing upon Huey Lewis and his body of work in response to "Hip To Be Square" playing on his stereo, was a dead ringer for Tom's espousing about his rock. I wondered if the screenwriter had met Tom and gave Bateman Tom's idiosyncrasy to enhance his psychoticness.

We had dinner at the Solon's and decided to head out to a bar we heard about on the radio that had a two for one happy hour. It was a Sunday night and expectations for an eventful night were low. So much for expectations.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Odyssey (Part III)

The cold air burned my nose and throat with each breath. My mouth was dry and I had that familiar ringing in my head. Upon waking I quickly sat up and surveyed my surroundings. I was completely disoriented not knowing where I was or how I got there until I saw the yellow VW through the trees near the road. "Where the fuck was Tom?", I thought as I stood up out of my sleeping bag. He had fallen asleep next to me on the tent we were to drunk and tired to set up, so we used it to cushion our crash site. I took a few step toward the car, were I figured he was still sleeping, but was startled to hear him trouncing through the woods behind me. "Sully you have to check this out". Not ten feet from where we crashed out was a steep drop off down to Lake Huron. While I was sleeping Tom had hiked down to the lake shore and checked out the scene. "Holy Shit, we could've killed ourselves if we took three more steps" I said. "Come on, lets go down to the Lake. This is awesome!" I wasn't excited, just cold, hungry and grateful that my laziness the night before may have saved our lives. "You can go back down, but I'm going to the car. I'm fucking freezing my balls off." Tom dismissed my irritability and went back down to the lake.

I went to the car and started it up, cranking the heat as high as it would go. I turned on the radio and cruised the dial. The only familiar artists I came across were Rush and April Wine. Canadian music sucks, I decided, as I sat in the bug shivering and hung over. We were in Sarnia, Ontario, just north of Detroit. We would try to make it to the mighty Mississippi by nightfall, but if Tom didn't get his ass up from the lake soon we would be lucky to make Chicago. Tom showed up wet from a frigid dip in the lake. "That was great, we've got to dip in Lake Michigan, then in the Mississippi so we hit all three in the same day!". I feigned excitement as I just wanted him to get a move on, so we could get some coffee and a bite to eat.

We drove south to Detroit listening to shitty Canadian pop music. We went back into the US and got some decent good old fashioned American music on the radio. Mick Jagger had just come out with his solo debut and the single "Just Another Night" was in heavy rotation. As we drove into Detroit Huey Lewis was belting out "Do You Believe In Love" while we surveyed the squalor. Detroit was dirty and dingy, at least from the highway. There were at least a dozen abandoned cars on the road on our ride through the city limits. The "Motor City", how ironic.

Our next target was Chicago. We drove with the windows down as the weather was sunny and warm, in the seventies. Our route took us along the southern edge of Lake Michigan, so according to plan we got off the highway near Michigan City and found a place to take a dip. We parked in a lot adjacent to a sandy beach. Surprising to me there were waves coming into the shoreline. Tom stripped down to his shorts and ran for the water. I did the same with less zeal. The water paralyzed me and I lost my breath momentarily. I ran back out onto the beach while Tom swam around unfazed by the chill. "That water is about 45 degrees" an elderly onlooker espoused, amused by our youthful stupidity. "Yeah" is all I could get out as I wondered how far up into my body my balls had retreated.

We got back in the car and popped open some Exports in celebration of our accomplishment. We drank our way through Chicago and across Illinois to Dubuque , Iowa. There we found a campground on the banks of the Mississippi River just as Tom envisioned. To fulfil our Manifest Destiny we waded in the muddy water. Tom thought it was a good idea to sleep the same way we did the night before, under the stars, so we didn't bother to set up the tent. Dubuque is located where Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa converge so we drove over the river to East Dubuque, Illinois, north a mile or two into Wisconsin and back over the river into Dubuque, Iowa. Three states in ten minutes. No big deal. I've done that dozens of times between Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire and much drunker than I was now. It was another starry night as I snuggled down into my sleeping bag. I listened to the waters of the Mississippi lapping the river bank as I drifted off. I was far from home and getting farther.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Odyssey (Part II)

The morning was dark and rainy. The trees and grass were covered with so much moisture that it looked like there had been an ice storm overnight. I woke up sober for the first time in months. I hadn't felt this sense of anticipation since I was a fifteen year old sophomore going to a prom with seventeen year old senior. I brought my last bag out to the 1973 Yellow Super Beetle my friend had driven down from Killington Vermont only 48 hours earlier. Tom had been up before me and had taken a walk down to the store for some coffee and donuts. He met me at the car as I crammed my bag into the backseat of the overcrowded VW Beetle. Everyone was still sleeping in my apartment, so I tiptoed into my mother's room and kissed her lightly on the forehead. As I exited her room I heard a faint, raspy "I love you". I closed the door to her bedroom, pretending not to have heard her and bounded down the stairs and into the bug.

We headed west on Route 9 out of Northampton and into the foot hills of the Berkshires. It would have been quicker to head south to the Mass Pike (Interstate 90) which is then a straight shot to Buffalo, but we wanted to drive through Goshen where Camp Howe was located to add some symmetry to our odyssey. Camp Howe is where Tom and I met, me the Boys Unit head and Boating Director, him an intern of sorts for his college program, but I never knew the real story. He was five years older and seemed to be there out of some obligation. He had an "advisor" that visited him occasionally during the summer. I thought it might be his parole officer. We opened our first Molson Export as we headed by the western shore of Highland Lake. Camp Howe was somewhere through the trees on the eastern shore emptily waiting for a new crop of summer campers. We drove west into a driving rain storm.

Route 9 meets up with Interstate 90 just outside of Albany, New York. We were only an hour into our trip, but I already had a buzz going. Drinking beer in the morning is different than drinking beer at midnight. There isn't the usual drowsiness, the buzz is milder and pleasantly euphoric. The beer took the edge off my trepidation of heading across country with a guy I didn't know outside of the idyllic setting of summer camp. Somewhere outside of Syracuse the clouds disappeared and the air dried out. I rolled down the window and let the wind blow over my face as I stuck my head out the window. I was drunk. We pulled into a rest area for a bite to eat. Back on the road we discussed our planned route and our plan of attack. We wanted to head through Niagara Falls, across Ontario to Detroit. Then west through Chicago up to Minneapolis to visit his Uncle. From there it would be west through South Dakota into Wyoming and Yellowstone. From there...well...was something we'd play by ear depending on funds and tolerance for driving and each other.

We pulled into Buffalo about 4 PM. A cloudy haze enveloped the city as viewed from 90. Factories and mills were pulsing out smoke at an alarming rate. This must be the beginning of the industrial Midwest I thought and felt some appreciation for living in the wilds of Western Massachusetts. Niagara Falls and Canada were about twenty minutes north of the city. We drove past the massive power lines that surrounded the falls. We drove over the Rainbow bridge into Canada and the waiting customs agents. While in line Tom asked me if I had any weed on me. I immediately said no figuring if I had it I would have smoked it. When we were almost to the booth I remembered that I threw a roach in the pocket of my denim jean jacket. I reached in and it was there. I had no time to think as we pulled up for our turn at the customs booth. I quickly reached in and popped the roach in my mouth. "Welcome to Canada" the affable agent greeted us as I chewed on a tar filled, roach which was more like a half a joint. I kept my mouth shut feigning to stare at a map while Tom answered all of the usual questions. "We are here on vacation". "No, I have nothing to declare." "We are from Massachusetts." We took a right after the toll booth into the park that borders the Canadian side of the falls. We got out of the car for some photo opps and tossed a football around for a few to stretch out our legs. We hopped back in the car and drove west across Ontario toward Lake Huron.

The ride through Canada was dark and tiring. We stopped for dinner somewhere in Ontario around 9 PM and bought another case of beer as our first case was gone about an hour outside of Niagara. Around 11 PM we were getting close to Huron and scoured the map for a campsite. We found nothing, so we took a road that seemed to boarder the lake and looked like it was far from any civilization. At the roads end we could hear the Lake , but it was pitch black. We were too tired to pitch the tent, so we got out our sleeping bags placed down a tarp and slept under the trees and stars. I slugged down my last Export of the night and lay down on my back. I could see the starry sky through the budding trees as I drifted off.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Odyssey

Spring 1985 exploded in technicolor.

The sky seemed bluer, the grass greener, the girls prettier.

The winter had been the darkest I had known. I was depressed. I had dropped out of college a year earlier to care for my younger brothers and sisters after my mother had a debilitating stroke. I was 19 and felt like I was 40. I was trying to manage my mother's $400 per month disability check from Social Security to feed, clothe and house the family. Everyone was drinking or drugging from my mother on down to my 12 year old brother. The darkness culminated on March 27th when my 45 year old Aunt Rosie died of a burst brain aneurysm, the same thing that had handicapped my mother. The day we buried her was a quintessential day in Boston for a funeral, cold, windy and overcast. The next day was sunny and in the 80's causing the leaves to burst from their buds. Spring had come just in time.

Spring has always had an energizing effect on my psyche. This spring I was downright manic. When my mother had her stroke I had to sell my car to pay back student loans that came due the day I left school. When my aunt passed we "borrowed" her car. (My Uncle Mac and my Grandmother who lived with my aunt had no use for a drivers license living in Boston and using public transportation their whole lives). After not having a car for a year, being able to go out your front door and drive anywhere is like being an ex-con who can drop the soap in the shower with out worry. Relief and liberation.

Having a vehicle made it easier to bring my mother to doctors appointments and grocery shopping. It also enhanced my social life (its easier to date when you can pick up a girl in your car insted of her riding on your handle bars). I had turned 20 on March 1st which made me legal to drink in Massachusetts; I was grandfathered in when they turned the drinking age from 18 to 21. I was legal and had a vehicle. I spent the next month maniacally shaking off the fog of winter. My buddies and I were taking advantage of my new found mobility partying everywhere from Stockbridge to Boston.

One night in late April I received a phone call from a friend, Tom Sogard, I had worked with at Camp Howe in Goshen, Massachusetts. After catching up on things he proposed that I join him on a cross country trip. I told him that I was broke, but he insisted that I could borrow the dough and either pay it back when I had it or work it off at his brothers hotel in Killington Vermont. I had a little buzz going and the thought of escaping the previous years hell made it easy to say yes without considering any consequences. He told me he'd drive down from Vermont in the morning and we could make our preparations. I hung up with him and there was a knock on my door. My friend Jimmy was at the door with news of a kegger down on the Connecticut River. We smoked a bowl and headed for the kegger. Within minutes of my phone conversation I forgot about the impending trip.

The night was typical. Drunkeness. Talking to girls. Trying to hook up with girls. Getting shot down by girls. Drinking more to cover up the embarrassment of getting shot down by girls. I headed home about 1 AM. As I drove by my friend Ishmiel's apartment I saw him standing on his porch. He beckoned me with a wave and I pulled over. He invited me in for a game of chess and a bowl. After a few hours we finished our game of chess and our weed. I left my car in front of his house and stumbled across the parking lot to my apartment and passed out on the couch.

I was rudely awakened by a loud knocking on my door. It was 7 AM and I felt like I was still drunk. I pulled myself up off the couch and shuffled over to the door. "Are you ready to go?" Tom bellowed. I stood there with amnesia. I knew I had spoken with him about going somewhere, but where? I feigned lucidity. He came in and sat on the couch. "I figured that we would go to Eastern Mountain Sports to buy a tent a sleeping bags, then we can go to that camera place on Main Street to get slide film, I've got the route planned out. We're going to take the northern route through Niagra..."

I remembered!!!

He asked me to go across country. I reminded him I had no money and he reminded me that he said it was all set. He wanted to go to get breakfast. I told him I had to shower.

As soon as he left I went to my mother's bedroom and woke her up. I told her about Tom's proposition and surprisingly she thought it was a great idea. She even offered me $200 she had in a savings account she hadn't told me about (I didn't find out until I withdrew the money that the withdrawal left her with $1.98 in that account). I then tracked down the next most responsible sibling in the family, my sister Christine and informed her that she was in charge (my brother Mark who is two years my junior was partying too much, my other sister Deb had moved out to live with another family, sick of the situation and my brother Greg was still only 12). She may or may not have responded, but I didn't care. The torch was passed. That was the point when I felt truly alive; the sense of anticipation was electric. I spent the rest of the day with Tom buying supplies and mapping out our route. We went to bed early, him on the couch, me on the floor. I fell asleep sober that night for the first time in months.

(more to follow)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

My Winter Of Discontent (Prologue to "The Odyssey")

Random intermittent reinforcement.

The same thing that keeps the casinos in business was the same thing that kept me going for years. As long as I had one good day, every once in a great while, then each morning when I woke up I could think that maybe this would be a good day. The winter of 1984-85 almost killed that theory. I couldn't afford to go back to Westfield State and I was too depressed to go out and find a job. My mother had a stroke two days after I graduated High School in June of '83 and recovered after brain surgery. The following January she had another which left her completely paralyzed on her left side. A January later I was paralyzed by my circumstances, no college, mother disabled, brothers and sisters devastated by poverty and uncertainty, no job. On top of all that, the previous fall, my brother left a candle burning on top of his stereo while passing out drunk. Everything was ruined. All of my clothes, books, childhood mementos, gone. The apartment complex owners moved her immediately, but into a much smaller apartment. There was no random intermittent reinforcement, just constant negative reinforcement.

My days that winter consisted of laying in bed until noon, scrounging up some money by offering to go to the store for my mother and keeping the change so I could get a 3 for 5 deal from Smitty. He had the cheapest, shittiest weed around, but it got me high enough to occupy my mind temporarily. Every evening, after I cooked dinner for my family, I would head out to friends to drink. Even though I was broke I always found a way to drink. I would roll into bed around 2 PM, drunk and numb.

In mid-February I decided to get a job at the insistence of my Aunt Rosie who had visited us from Boston. She was distressed at our situation, but living 100 miles away could not do anything, but give some occasional moral support and send an occasional check to my mother. The job was at a nursing home and was mindless. It gave me money to help out my mother, but also gave me the means to drink and drug as much as I wanted, which was always. When my Aunt came back to visit in March she was happy to see we had gotten curtains for the windows and that the refrigerator was full of food. She was not happy with much else. She chastised me for my drinking when she heard me crashing in the door late night. She absolutely flipped out when she walked in on my brother having sex with a girl in the room she was supposed to sleep. When she left Sunday evening I was guilt ridden and ashamed. The next night we got the call.

I came home from work and my mother was sitting in her chair, crying. My Aunt had a stroke. Just like her sister. She was 45.

We made our way to Boston and her wake. My brother and I smoked a joint and drank from a fifth of Seagrams 7 on the walk from my grandmothers house, where my aunt had lived, to Folsom Funeral Home. Upon entering the foyer I was greeted by family and friends, but could only focus on the casket sitting in the center of the viewing area. I made a beeline for the kneeler ignoring condolences that were softly spoken in my direction. I knelt and closed my eyes unable to look at her. She was so many things to me. As a toddler she was my playmate. When my parents were fighting she was my confidant. When my father left and she moved in, she was my dad. When my mother was emotionally unavailable, she was my mother. She taught me, she listened to me, she loved me. I slowly opened my eyes and looked upon her face. The taste of the whiskey and the weed lingered in my mouth. I thought about how disappointed she was when she had left my house on Sunday. I thought about how she was one of only a few people in the world that loved me unconditionally. I remembered warm spring days walking through Arnold Arboretum looking at the trees and flowers. I remembered the sound of her laughter watching us wrestling in the sand on Wolloston Beach. I remembered the smell of coffee and cigarettes that were a constant presence in her little blue Renault. I remembered the the sound of her voice reading to me while I snuggled in the crook of her arm in the dim light of her reading lamp. I started crying. I hadn't cried in years.

I stood up from the kneeler and quickly made my way to the exit, ignoring more condolences. I found the bottle of Seagrams I had stashed in the bushes and walked in the rain to Fallon Field near my grandmothers house. It was raining lightly, not much stronger than a mist. I sat in the dugout, cried and polished off the bottle. I cried harder, then softer, then harder until it was just a whimper. I felt better, but couldn't tell whether it was the booze or the crying. I walked back to my grandmothers and decided that I had to start living again. I had to go back to school. I had to get away from my current life.

We buried my Aunt the next morning at Saint Josephs Cemetery in West Roxbury. It was cold, raining and blustery. While standing over her flower covered casket, I realized that I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and take control of the things that I could control.

My family gathered at my grandmothers house after the service for cold cuts and conversation. My brother and I sat on her front steps, side by side, sharing a pint of whisky "hidden" in a brown paper bag. We reminisced about sitting on those same steps eating ice cream and chuckled at our deviance. Beams of sunlight shone down in between the clouds and the temperature noticeably jumped up a few degrees. Spring had arrived just in time.