I-5 ran south out of Sacramento. The temperature in the Central Valley was much hotter on the other side of the Sierras and AK cranked up the Torino’s AC. I turned around several times to be disappointed that Pam wasn’t in the backseat. She and her Joni Mitchell tape were on a bus to Mendocino, but the nursing student was not gone. A whisper of her rose attar fragrance clung to the car.
“Think it will work out with her boyfriend?” AK had liked Pam from the start.
“He’s a doctor. The dream husband for every mothers’ daughter.” I was playing hardball with his hopes. Her girlfriend had left me for someone else a year ago, then again Pam was no Jackie.
The blonde was easy to like, even if she thought me a fool after my fiasco in Reno. I rubbed my shoulder, trying to remember, if I had fallen down last night.
“I met him once. Sorry to say, but he was cool. Besides you already have a girlfriend.”
“On the other side of the country.” Annie and he had been lovers since college. she wanted kids. AK was pursuing a musical career in funk. The New Yorker wasn’t close to being black, except when he played the electric piano.
“Meaning?” With my eyes closed I heard a young Herbie Hancock.
“That three thousand miles is a long way from home.” He was driving the station wagon a little over 55. The California Highway Patrol had a long history of busting anyone not fitting their notion of a good American whether they be an Okie, a Mexican, a hobo or a hippie like AK and me.
The other side of the continent.”
“In four days. It was a good trip.”
And it isn’t over yet.” We had the summer ahead of us.
AK started singing BORN TO BE WILD by Steppenwolf.
“Looking for adventure and whatever comes our way.”
I joined him on the chorus. The song was an anthem for the road ever since it was featured in EASY RIDER. AK laughed at my effort.
“Just that you sounded like Tony Bennett.”
The comparison was almost a compliment and I segued to I LEFT MY HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO, substituting Pam for heart. Now it was my time to laugh.
“Feeling more human?” AK exited the interstate at Route 12. The fields were rowed with fertile vines weighty with the grapes of 1974. Lodi was wine country.
“Better than this morning.” I had woken up along the bank of the Truckee River with no money in my wallet, thinking that I had blown my vacation stake at a blackjack table in Reno. “You know not telling me that my money wasn’t gone was mean.”
“Like I said in Sacramento. It was for your own good.” Lodi was laid out in a grid with the railroad determining which side of the tracks was the better part of town. AK held the owner’s directions in his left hand. The town looked like a fine place for an ex-Marine to live.
“Was I that bad?” My hangover answered my question, but AK could fill in the blanks.
“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Pam in case she said anything to your old girlfriend. After you lost the day’s winning, I gave you another $300 and stashed the rest. You threatened to punch me, if I didn’t. Pam lent you $20 once you blew the three hundred. I paid her back from your money.” AK didn’t have to pull any punches. We had lived next to each other in Boston. “After she crashed in the car, but you got ugly.”
“Make a train take a dirt road ugly.” AK flicked up the left turn signal. East Oak Street lay a few blocks to the north. “The security guards tossed you out around midnight and you tried to storm the front door. The bouncers were nice enough not to punch you out, but they did rough you up.”
“That explains my shoulder.” I hadn’t fallen, but been thrown to the ground.
“One more thing.” AK looked in the mirror, then turned right. The neighborhood was neat and tidy. ”You were yelling that you wanted the police to arrest the casino owners for stealing your birthday.
“Funny?” Humor was a question of delivery.
“More pathetic than funny at the time, but more funny today.” AK braked by the curb.
Jake was watering the lawn in pressed khaki trousers and an immaculate white tee-shirt. The white one-story bungalow was topped by a brick-red tiled roof contrasting the soft blue shutters. Two orange trees provided shade and fruit. The other yards in the neighborhood had cut down theirs.
A buxom blonde in a garden dress was tending to the flowers. She wasn’t wearing a black dress, but her face bore the weight of mourning.
Jake turned off the hose and waved to us with a smile. Californians loved their automobiles.
“All good things must come to an end.” AK shut off the engine and opened the door. I got out of the car with regrets that America stopped in California. The Torino had been a good ride.
“Wasn’t expecting you for another day.” He walked around the searching searching for dents or scratches.
“We had it washed and waxed in Sacramento.” AK was a car owner. He wanted to return the Ford in the same condition as we had received it.
“She caught a bus for Mendocino in Sacramento. She wanted us to tell you thanks.” Few men forgot Pam.
“If it wasn’t for her, I would have never let you two take the car.” We existed on other sides of the Generation Gap, even though Jake was ten years younger than my father. “Nothing personal, but I don’t have much use for hippies. What’s that lump in your pocket?”
“From Reno?” There was only one pass over the Sierras. “Have any luck?”
“A little bit of good and a little more of bad.”
“Ha.” The owner of the Torino was pleased by my loss. “Unlucky at cards. Lucky at love.”
“I hope so.” I hadn’t figured him for mean in Jamaica Plain.
“Jake, leave those two boys alone,” his wife snapped with scissors in hand. Her eyes were green and the blonde hair was a gift from her genes. “They drove your car all the way cross country. Is it okay?”
He leaned his head into the car. The station wagon smelled brand-new after the deluxe treatment at the car wash.
“Sorry, old habits are hard to kick.” The apology was more for his wife’s ears than ours. “You made good time.”
“I drove 55 most of the way.” AK pulled the drive-away company’s contract from his wallet. He had rarely pushed the V8 over 70. Pam and I had been the speed demons
“And you?” The forty year-old kicked the tires.
“I opened it up once in Utah.” My father had examined the tires of his Olds 88 with a shoe. It was something men their age had learned from their fathers.
“How fast?” Men from out West understood driving fast. The distance between point A and point B had more zeros than back East.
“I buried the needle, so I can’t really tell. Maybe 125.” I grabbed my bags from the back of the station wagon.
“Good man. My personal best was 126,” Jake stated with pride. “That 428 pulls its weight.”
“If we had driven 55 all the way, we’d still be in Colorado.”
“55 is a stupid law.” Jake pulled a pen from his shirt pocket and signed his name on the contract. “Looks like you didn’t hit nothing, so we’re good.”
“Never came close.”
“Have any problem from the police?” Jake had better things to do than chase us for a $25 speeding ticker from Iowa.
“None, we were good citizens.” I doubted if he smelled the weed on AK. “One small thing.”
“How small?” He braced for the bad news.
“A couple of times when we stopped for gas, people thought Pam was Patti Hearst.”
“Are they blind? Patti Hearst can’t hold a torch to Pam.” Jake was in agreement every man on our trip. Pam was special.
“You boys care for something to eat?” His wife offered with a pained smile. She was keeping up a brave front.
“We’re hippies. We love free food.” A sandwich would be good as long as it didn’t come from the Hari Krishnas or Salvation Army. Even long-hairs had their limits.
His wife returned to caring for her flowers and Jake took inside the house. The layout of the furniture was sparse and the simple decor was particular to white suburbs throughout America. AK and I felt right at home. Our parents had similar taste.
Family photos, medals, and basketball awards were arranged by decades within a tall glass display case. Jake was a handsome groom in his dress whites. His wife was a blonde double for Marilyn Monroe. A young man with short hair held a basketball in his hands.
“Who’s the hoopster?” AK had been the starting point guard for his high school team on Long Island. Smoking pot had increased his dislike of the authoritarian coach at the cost of playing minutes. On the playgrounds of Boston he drove to the basket with two points on his mind.
“My son, Mark. He was the star forward for the Lodi Flames. 13 points a game and 5 rebounds. I dreamed about him going to college, but he enlisted in the Marines after graduation. I pulled strings to keep him in-country, but he wanted to see the Show.” Jake’s weakening voice forecasted the climax to this story. “He died last year outside of Da Nang in a car crash.”
“Sorry.” I had graduated a year before his son. College students in New England didn’t go to the Show.
“I blamed you protesters for his death. That damned Richard Nixon said he was going to bring our troops home in 1968. You didn’t protest enough and you cared more about the Vietnamese than your own.” Jake touched the glass panel before his son’s photo, as if his hand could communicate the dead
“We did our best.” I had been against the War since 1969. I met Jackie at a demonstration condemning the bombing of Hanoi. We made love the same night. Jake was right, but our chants of ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh Ho Chi Minh is going to win’ outnumbered the shouts for ‘Bring the troops home’.
“I was in the Marines for twenty years. Every marine said that they did their best. I did what was expected.” Jake inhaled a deep breath. His exhale whistled a single sibilant note. He was counting to ten. “I was a Marine. My son was a Marine. My grandson will say ‘Semper Fi’ in his turn.”
“He had a son?” Mark was my age. I had never impregnated a woman. He had a life.
“A boy named Jake.” The ex-marine shivered with the last silver lining. “Be three this weekend. I was pissed at him for knocking up his girlfriend back then. I’m of a different mind now.”
“Times change.” AK understood that epitaphs served well as the chorus of comfort to the heart. His original songs were all about heartbreak.
“That they do.” Jake grit his teeth and turned to us. His sentiment was dammed behind a wall of “Semper Fi’. I put his hand on my bad shoulder and he fought off a grimace. “I hope you hippie boys aren’t vegetarians. I cook a mean burger.”
“I am an omnivore. As a kid in Maine I ate whale.” A clam shack on Portland Harbor sold whale from time to time. “It tasted great.”
“Then you’re in for a treat.”
“When I was a boy in Maine, once a week during the summer my parents packed us into their Ford Station Wagon for a trip to Benson’s Grove. The burgers were served with a special relish unknown to the rest of America.”
“Mine’s not bad.”
He opened a bottle of Zinfandel. AK had a glass. I had two. At 22 the speed of recovery from a hangover depended on solutions. His burger had saved my life. Jake’s wife joined us for the second bottle. AK played his African thumb piano. They were delighted by the magical plinking of flesh on metal resonating in the wooden box.
His wife packed us cold-cut sandwiches and kissed us on the cheek.
She must have driven the postman crazy.
“You really going to hitchhike now?” Jake offered to drive us to I-5.
“I’m going to San Diego.” AK had given me his friend’s telephone number in Encinitas. The pocket filled with quarters would come in handy.
“I-5 will take you there. What about you?” Jake started the car and gave it the gas. The last fill-up had been premium.
“I’m thinking about heading over to the coast to take the Pacific Coast Highway south.” It was good to be in the Torino one last time.
“No way to hitchhike there from here, unless you like the hiking part of hitchhiking.” Jake waved to his wife and she blew him a kiss. He wouldn’t be gone long. “Better you take a bus into the City. The PCH is right down the end of Golden Gate Park.”
Jake gave each of us $20 and another $20 to AK.
“Give that to Pam when you see her. You did a good job.”
Jake drove AK to the highway. He got out of the Torino for the last time. It was a little past noon.
“See you in San Diego.” AK took up position a few feet in front of the sign forbidding pedestrian or hitchhikers on the highway.
We waited for him to get a ride. A Cadillac stopped within five minutes. AK threw a power fist in the air and jumped in the big car.
“A good friend?” Jake headed back into town. My bus was in twenty minutes.
“The best.” I would be broke without him.
“You have a good summer and call us, if you come this way.”
Jake drove off home. I went inside the terminal and bought a newspaper. President Nixon had agreed to turn over the Watergate transcripts. He wasn’t long for the White House. The Red Sox had beaten the Twins last night. Their record was 25-21. The driver called for passengers to San Francisco.
I knew no one in that city and didn’t plan on staying long. Big Sur was down the coast. The redwoods shaded the hills. I got on the bus. We pulled out on time. This was a new world and I was in it.