Two Inch Heels Part 0 – The Endeavor

Me as “Peabody” in The Flahooley Incident

[This is a rewrite of the first half of part 1 of my original backpacking thru Europe memoir]

It was Monday September 2nd 1973. Labor Day actually, though if I still had my “house boy” job at the Briarwood Hilton, I probably would have worked that day to get the time-and-a-half holiday pay. I was walking down the sidewalk on the north side of Wells across from Burns Park returning home from Angie’s house. Now turned September, it had still been a summery Ann Arbor day, but now a breeze had come up out of the north with that first real fall chill in it.

“Impending doom” is probably too strong a phrase, but a sense of some dread engulfed me. For the past twelve straight years that first chill had meant that I would shortly, always grudgingly, be reporting back to school. That institution my parents and other adults of their cohort imagined would allow me and mine to learn the skills to eventually take our place as successors to the civilization they were now responsible for. A civilization, from my point of view, whose history was a litany of wars, genocides, slavery, colonization, racial oppression and the subjugation of women.

That litany taken together was what my mom’s best friend Mary Jane called “patriarchy”. The 5000 year old pecking order by which men had used violence, coercion, and “us and them” thinking to sort and control each other, along with women and children and the rest of the world. She would often hold forth on the topic at my mom’s parties amongst all the male academics that were also friends of my mom’s. For added shock effect, she’d sometimes wear her maroon monk’s robe with the women’s symbol hanging from her neck wear the Christian cross would be in a more conventional male monastery dweller.

It was the organizing principle of our civilization, she would say, that perpetuated through the centuries from the warlike ancient empires we learned about in school to the Nazis that my dad fought against in World War II.

But a cohort of young people born during that war had taken up the cause and challenged that civilization. They were mythic figures to me and my radical wannabe friends. We heard about their words, their exploits in the media or through the grapevine. Tom Hayden, Huey Newton, Angela Davis and Bernadine Dohrn, to name a few. But no words were more inspiring to me in particular, than those sung by the great bards of that cohort, the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and John Lennon, among a cadre of others. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, all you need is love, and Kodachrome.

But by the time I came of age, it all seemed to be playing out. The kids just a couple years older than I had been at risk of being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, or resist and go to Canada or jail even. But that resistance, that common cause, had given them solidarity that my age cohort seemed to lack. Previously that summer I had written in my journal…

I missed the 1968 generation. I came too late. That’s when we were still all together moving in the right direction. Now the momentum is shattered. People are turning inward and cruising. But maybe because I’m not part of that “Vietnam” generation I’m not disillusioned. My time may still be to come.

I felt somehow too young, born too late, to have the bonafides to be an actual “hippie” radical, like my good friend Avi’s older brother or the characters in the movie The Strawberry Statement. It was like that boat had sailed and I would have to wait for whatever might come along next. Keep my powder dry.

But the words of David Bowie’s song “All the Young Dudes”, sung by British glam rock band Mott the Hoople, sent goose pimples down my arms the first time I heard them last summer and then every time after. They gave me hope that we young people still had a mission…

All the young dudes
Carry the news
Boogaloo dudes
Carry the news

What the hell that news exactly was was still to be determined, but the lyric always juiced me with that sense of my generation bringing forth a new perspective that would transform the world for the better.

Even though I hadn’t shaken that feeling of dread in that cold breeze, I had finally cut myself loose from the rigmarole of schooling. At least in this year ahead, my life would be completely of my own design. I was going to backpack through Western Europe with my friend Angie. And not just for a week of two, but for two or three fucking months. We’d fly to London, do the first week or so in England. Then on to the Continent; France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Austria, even Switzerland. We would stay, wherever possible, with people my mom had met during our summer in England three years ago. The rest of the time we would stay in youth hostels. That was our plan at least. We had gotten our student identity cards and already bought two-month student rail passes to get around from city to city. It seemed pretty straight forward at least in concept, though I had never been much of a planner.

Ironically, the trip had first been proposed by Lane, as a post high school adventure with her best friend Angie. I was off at college and had not been part of that original plan. I had met the two of them nearly three years ago when I worked on the lighting crew for my first Youth Theater Unlimited show, Peter Pan. They had both been in the chorus, part of Tiger Lily’s indians. We had quickly become friends as the three of us continued to work in various capacities on YTU productions over those years.

Both of them were short and feisty, like Granny Clampett but younger. Angie was the stockier of the two with a cute round face with sparkling blue eyes and short curly blonde hair. Lane was more wiry, but with her own round face, rosy cheeks, and her own darker and wilier eyes. They were both smart and funny, and a natural comic duo, on stage and off. And underneath all there vim they were both really sweet souls, and even shy like me. How could I not have been endeared by and attracted to the two of them.

And I loved their friendship with each other, and felt totally comfortable being the third wheel, their male sidekick as it were. It was perfect for me, because I was generally more comfortable around women than men. My mom and dad had divorced when I was ten, and all through my teens the adults that I had spent the most time with were my mom and her cohort of feminist female friends. Add to that all the hours I had spent these past few years with my young theater comrades, again a preponderance of female type. I was completely comfortable being the only male type in a room full of interesting, even bad ass women. But in most all male assemblages, I was usually either bored or wary and on edge, that is, except for my three best male friends, Avi, Jerry and Clark. I generally found adult women and my female peers more interesting, more mature, more sophisticated, and less full of themselves.

Well actually it eventually got more complicated between Lane, Angie and me for a while. One summer evening a year ago, when Angie was off somewhere on vacation with her family, I had been over at Lane’s house and we had been having a great time hanging out, just the two of us. The attraction between us had been percolating for a while, and given shy me, it was Lane who screwed up the courage to make the move. I was sprawled out on her couch and we were both laughing and singing along to the Beach Boys “I Get Around”, and she just climbed on top of me and gave me my first real romantic kiss on the mouth. It was wonderful, electric. But ugh, shy me, as so often happens, the first time for me for anything like that just freaks me out, and my natural urge was to chicken out and retreat. Which I did in this case, after the kiss, with Lane still perched on my stomach. I made some excuse, she backed off, I hopped on my bike and rode home. The three of us continued being friends, but Lane and I never really talked about that night, pretty much pretending it hadn’t happened. I don’t know if she shared our romantic encounter with Angie, but being best friends, likely she did. I regretted, to this day, that I didn’t let Lane lead us to wherever we might have been able to go that night, but oh well.

So after I had returned from my first year of college at Western in April, on my first occasion to hang out with them, they shared with me their plan. They were targeting flying to London in September and backpacking through Western Europe for two or three months. I could just imagine the two of them laughing and joking, mugging their way through London and Paris and Rome, plus the rest of the “old country”. It sounded so much more profound than what I had planned, subjecting myself to yet another year of school.

I had been figuring I would return to Western for my second year, path of least resistance really, but I was ambivalent. Thirteen straight years of school and I was definitely ready “for something completely different” as Monty Python would say, introducing the next sketch on their TV show.

I thought Lane and Angie’s plan was a great idea and could not hold back chiming in that I’d love to come along. It was Lane who immediately said sure, yes, that would be great, and suddenly I had a way more compelling new plan for the fall. Of course, given our relationship and our combined shyness, it would have been hard for them to say no, if they wanted too. I wasn’t really sensitive to that dynamic at that point, I just loved the idea and so wanted to share in the endeavor.

So I told my mom that night and she immediately thought it was a great idea, and that she was excited for me. She had always said that travel, particularly travel “abroad” as she called it, was crucial to a young person’s development. She said that I would have to get a job over the summer to finance it, but she would chip in a couple hundred bucks for my plane ticket and see if my dad would do so as well. Luckily I had found a job right away, such as it was, making minimum wage as a “houseboy” at the Briarwood Hilton, helping guests with their luggage, doing janitorial work, and cleaning guest rooms.

Lane, Angie and I had been involved over the summer in the YTU production of The Flahooley Incident. Rehearsals were pretty much every weekday evening, plus Saturday afternoons and some Sundays as well. So the three of us saw each other pretty much every day. When the three of us were not in the current scene being rehearsed we would hole up in a far corner of the house of Lydia Mendelssohn theater, pull out our Western Europe map and discuss our proposed itinerary.

It was the week of tech and dress rehearsals for the show, some two months before our planned departure date, that Lane told Angie and I that she was not going to be able to go to Europe after all. There were issues with the family printing business, a key longtime employee had just given, unexpectedly, their thirty day notice. Lane felt she had to help her mom and fill in doing typesetting and layout work. Angie and I were both bummed out, thinking it meant the end of the endeavor. But Lane insisted that the two of us should continue without her. I was game, but Angie was more tentative. But Lane did not want to be responsible for torpedoing the trip, and did her consummate actor best line reading to convince her best friend to go on without her. Angie seemed to finally relent and agree that she and I should continue the proposed trip.

Of course the dynamic now had changed from two best female friends with their male companion tagging along, to a male female pairing. But a pairing with the two of us just friends, not a romantic couple. And Angie and I weren’t really close friends, like she and Lane were. I mean we’d been to each other’s houses and certainly logged several hundred hours together in YTU rehearsals or set construction sessions over the past three years. But we hadn’t spent long evenings together sharing our life’s triumphs and tragedies with each other. We were more “comrades”, with a strong working relationship as peers. I figured that bond ought to be leverageable, be enough, for this adventure.

Many of my friends were female peers in school or my theater group, but I had never had what I would consider an actual romantic relationship of any significance. The thing with Lane would probably have become one if I hadn’t bailed. And Christine had been my girlfriend of sorts during the first couple months of junior year, though we had never really kissed each other, let alone doing anything beyond that in the “making out” department.

Longing for a romantic relationship, and with Lane now interested in another older guy, Angie was coming on my romantic radar given our shared plan together. I felt that sort of relationship was the one key thing missing from my life, and I imagined that it would be very fulfilling, and cure a lot of the anxiety I felt about myself and life in general. I knew I had a real hangup in this area. Since my brief episode with Lane, I had had several others with a handful of very cool young women interested in me, even hitting on me, I had always managed to get cold feet. But with Angie and I sharing this journey through Europe together, we would get closer, and maybe there would be a romantic spark somehow, and maybe I would finally let that something happen and play out.

In terms of embarking on such an extensive travel adventure, I’m not sure I really knew what I was getting myself in for. But I did have previous experience, three years earlier, spending the summer in England with my mom and brother, plus a two-week Russian Club trip to the Soviet Union a year after that. Prior to that the adventures of long family car trips back east, or the ad hoc day trips with my brother and dad. So I felt comfortable with the whole travel thing and the logistics involved, and I felt I would not be intimidated by being in other countries where I did not speak the language.

So Angie and I finally crossed that threshold of committing significant financial resources to the endeavor. $570 each for roundtrip tickets on BOAC from Detroit to London, with the return date open ended. $150 each for two-month European student rail passes. I stuffed a $179 check in the envelope with my order of camping equipment from the REI co-op in Washington state. When the big boxes arrived in the UPS truck, then it really felt like we were actually going to go.

At my mom’s suggestion and with notes that she had kept from our time in England three years previous, I sent letters to several of the people we had gotten to know when we had been there. The Clay family that had lived next door that we had gotten to know in Horspath village outside of Oxford. The young German couple, Angelica and Helmet, and the very charismatic and charming Englishman named David, all whom we had met as tourists during our travels in England. The Cane’s, who we had traded houses with but never actually met. Also a French couple, Giselle and Paul, my mom had met on a subsequent trip to Switzerland. Having cobbled a rough itinerary with Angie, I gave them dates of when I would likely be where they lived, and they all replied that they would love to see Angie and me and offer us lodging.

In terms of my own life plans beyond our trip, I had discussed with my theater group mentor Robert the possibility of joining him and other of my YTU companions in Reno in maybe January or February, where they were headed in the fall, to pursue more opportunities in theater, movies and television. But nagging me in that regard was a sense that my abilities in the acting and performing department were not quite up to the same levels as some of my comrades who I felt were tremendously talented.

What I was focused on, maybe even obsessed with right now, was to come back from Europe transformed somehow. I imagined myself returning with my long bushy hair, plus perhaps an added mustache, beard and sideburns, which as of yet I could not grow and did not need to shave each day. And perhaps with an actual girlfriend and even having lost my virginity. I wanted everyone to look at me in awe, all grown up. And then maybe I would feel better about myself, and take this transformed self and leverage it to get into making movies somehow. “The big screen” was drawing me now more than work on the stage.

Having inherited the packing gene from my mom and dad, I also obsessed about what to bring in the limited space of my of my sparkling new Kelty backpack. It had a red nylon bag hung on an aluminum frame with two main sections, one easily accessible by opening a top flap and the other less accessible by a zipper lower down across the back. Two small zippered pockets extended from either side. Below the bag was space on the frame to secure my new down sleeping bag, squished down and stuffed into its blue nylon sack.

Those four side pockets would hold the stuff I needed quick access to without removing my pack. I experimented with strapping the thing to my back and reaching for, unzipping and rezipping each of the four. My two new plastic water bottles fit nicely side by side in one. A second would hold my orange nylon rain poncho. A third, my new chunky flashlight and an extra set of four size AA batteries. And the fourth, everything else I might need access to with my pack still on. A compass, Europe map, and of course a brand gleaming new red Swiss Army knife with a shitload of different stuff in it, including even a plastic toothpick and tiny metal tweezers.

The bottom section would fit my new lightweight orange down jacket in its little stuff bag, light windbreaker, gloves and knit cap, and nylon tube tent in case we had to spend a night out in the rain. Also minimal toiletries, including one medium sized towel and a reclosable plastic bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, bar of soap in a plastic soap box, tube of Prell shampoo, and a plastic hair pick. Best keep the towel and all that other stuff that might need to be carried wet down there below the rest of the pack contents. Also my new metal knife, spoon and fork combo set and a small first-aid kit.

That left the top section for clothing and any food or other stuff I might pick up and carry along the way. Experimenting with that space, I determined that I could carry basically two complete changes of clothes in the pack. That meant, including the clothes I was wearing, I would bring just three collared shirts, three t-shirts, three pairs of pants, and a corresponding three pairs of underwear.

The pants were easy choices, two pairs of bell bottom jeans and my nice flared gray corduroy slacks for more dressing up. But the collared and t-shirts were more of a challenge, and after much back and forth, I finally settled on my choices. My light blue heavy cotton workshirt. The flannel shirt my mom bought me because it was a “Campbell” tartan, the family name she had given me as a middle name. Finally a dressier paisley shirt that I would wear with my corduroy slacks.

As to t-shirts, I definitely wanted my red “Rutgers People’s Electric Law School” tee that my YTU comrade Richard, who I taught how to design and set stage lights, got me. I had never been to Rutgers or even knew exactly where it was back East, but I resonated with the “People’s Electric” part. I felt it made me look like a radical when I wore it. Then I figured I would bring one of my Michigan t-shirts, this one the classic dark blue shirt with those deep yellow “maize” letters. Finally an ordinary white t-shirt.

Last of all shoes were problematic, being heavy and bulky. I figured I was going to wear my new hiking boots most of the time. I’d bring one pair of white cotton and another of gray wool socks to wear under them. But I also decided to pack my two-inch heels, my dressiest shoes, for any occasion on our trip when I might want to look a little more dressed up, and a pair black dress socks to go with them. I had screwed up my courage while away at Western to buy and on occasion wear that pair of flashy two-tone brown suede shoes with two-inch platform heels, which I had seen other guys wear, and looked particularly good in my bell-bottom jeans and other flared slacks. The ratted up curly haired “natural”, that I had teased up to top my character’s head in The Flahooley Incident, I decided to keep after the show finished. At 6’, 6’2” in my heels, and adding an extra inch or two for my hair depending on the weather conditions, I had a long and lanky strut with mane of curls bobbing to the beat. Inside this new avatar I was still shy, even painfully so on the romantic and sexual side, but it was nice to cruise at times like I wasn’t.

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Click here to see all chapters of my memoir Two Inch Heels

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