Thursday, October 16, 2008

How to Break and Ankle, Part 1

Bones, even those of a healthy 20-year-old, will break when stressed in just the right way. This usually happens when you least expect it, so I learned in the summer of 1969. Let me take you back there.

Think back to when you listened to Neil Diamond singing "Sweet Caroline," and Creedence Clearwater Revival doing "Bad Moon Rising." Think about the first time you might have heard "Hot Fun in the Summertime" on the radio. That was the summer of 1969.

My academic performance during my sophomore year at W&J College had been miserable, and so I was forced to attend the summer session to soak up some Shakespeare and sociology. Classes were over at the end of July, and I had the whole month of August to kill before the fall semester began. I had no desire to go home; my parents had moved during the school year to Florida, which was hot and friendless and no home to me.

Spending August at the apartment on North Avenue I shared with friends was an option, but not a good one. We had fun that summer – skinny-dipping at the No. 4 dam south of town, and the party we hosted at our apartment for the moon walk on July 20 – but there were problems. My friend Richard, from my hometown, had enrolled for summer classes and moved in with me. It was his mother's idea. After breaking up with his girlfriend, he had suffered a mental breakdown. She thought summer school would be a good distraction, and that I could keep a close watch on him. I agreed, not knowing just how far over the edge Richard had gone.

You could see Richard coming from blocks away; he was the one wearing the blaze-orange flight suit and the green rubber boots. When you didn't see him, you'd hear him, wailing away on his electric guitar from his nest on the third floor of our building, littered with empty gin bottles. What he played was mainly distortion and feedback, which sounded like torture and brought neighbors to our door begging us to make him turn down the volume.

We fought about this, and one time he even packed his things in his Mercury Cougar and left town, much to my relief. But a few hours later, he returned, promising to behave better. He settled into his nest and, eventually, his old habits and showed no intention of leaving until September.

And so I had to go. I thought I would make it an adventure, so one morning I packed a knapsack, wrote the word WEST on a piece of shirt cardboard with a Magic Marker and left Washington, intending to hitchhike to California.

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