It was still Wednesday December 5 1973 as I stood alone on the stern deck of the big ferry crossing the North Sea, and watched the Dutch coast disappear over the horizon. The stormy sea was now the only thing there was in every direction and that fact was as nearly unnerving as it was awesome.
I had only been on a handful of boats in my entire lifetime. A couple canoes at summer camps and a family friend’s maybe twenty five foot sailboat on Lake Michigan when I was kid. A hovercraft, of all things, crossing the English Channel back in 1970, when our flight from the States landed in Amsterdam and we had to get over to England to live in the house we had traded for the summer. And of course the ferry, smaller than this one, that had taken me across the Channel from England to France when I left Angie in London nine weeks ago.
Though there is a point crossing the channel when you can’t see either shore, in both my crossings the water had been pretty calm, unlike the roiling whitecaps and major league swells all around me now. Mitigating that sense of being engulfed by the stormy goddess of the sea, was the fact that the ship we were on was so damn big, at least twice the size of that ferry I’d crossed the Channel on nine weeks ago.
I was in a strange psychological space, alone now on the stern deck for the past half hour or so (all the many other passengers having sensibly retreated to the interior of the ship), pondering what I had left behind on the European continent. The places would still be there if I ever returned, but most of the people I had encountered and the circumstances that brought us together would not. It was past and gone, though a lot of it still in my memory and bits in my journal. There was a grieving at some level persisting and percolating under the excitement that I would be headed home soon.
There was also a deeper excitement, plus sense of relief really, that I had actually fucking done it! I had parted company with Angie and struck out on my own nine weeks ago from England for the Continent and had hung in there through all the ordeals and low points of my odyssey in this foreign landscape. Hung in there through the moments where I contemplated calling it quits. Hung in there, as Angie and I had originally planned, until I had exhausted my rail pass and used up all my money, and returned to the States for the Christmas season. Anything less, would have felt like failure, a failure to fully engage in the opportunities that the universe was putting in front of me. I felt like I had failed to seize opportunities so many times in the past.
But I still stared off to the east toward the Continent that was no longer there. Hanging on to that last shred of connection with the places where so much had transpired, both around me and inside me. Hanging on to that pluckier persona I had developed, that helped me reframe an ordeal as an adventure, that helped me keep my equilibrium. In fact, a persona that helped me be more fully who I wanted to be. I was not ready to let all that experience go.
The thought came into my mind that for these last nine weeks my life I had pretty much not been anywhere, done anything, or been with anyone that I had not chosen to be so. For the prior thirteen years, since I went off to school in first grade, I had to a large degree let society, that cabal of adults who ran things, dictate where I was, what I was doing, when I was doing it, and with who. Sure my summers were more my own time, but lived within the context of having to report back to school after Labor Day. And lived in a household run by my mom, and by my dad while he still lived with us, with a certain flow to it set by them.
But here in Europe, and for the rest of my life, I would be the designer of that life. I shivered with all the emotions that welled up as that epiphany rumbled through me. Relief that I had survived society’s gauntlet of childhood and youth. Grief at the toll that gauntlet had taken on me, including a learned timidity that still vexed me. Joy that, despite that, I was still basically intact, and going forward, had the opportunity to be more of that person who I uniquely was. Anxiety even, that whether my life would be one worth having lived was totally up to me.
Though in my down jacket, my whole body was shivering, and with the roiling sea all around me I was overcome with a sense of agoraphobia. It was time to turn my gaze from the east, where I had been, to the west where I was heading. To England and the States. Here in the moment it was time to go below deck and find a cloister where I could feel warm and more protected from the enormity of time and space. I was also just plain curious what the interior environs of such a big ship looked like, this being my first time on such a vessel of this size.
Shouldering my big heavy pack, I pushed my way through exterior doors and down a staircase to a large central concourse full of people milling about and little booths and shops along the sides selling various things. Toward the stern, the concourse opened up into a huge cafeteria with lots of round tables and chairs, a long counter with various prepared hot and cold foods along the far wall. Toward the bow, an equally big lounge, with chairs and smaller tables, plus couches and large television sets here and there suspended from the walls or ceiling. The counter along the far wall selling coffee, tea, soda pop, and alcoholic drinks. I continued down the stairs to the deck farther below to find another central concourse leading into another big eating area to stern, but looking a bit more formal with nice tablecloths, glass and silverware, and waiters. Toward the bow another lounge area but with a big section with pinball machines, skeeball and other such games. I noted in my journal the big rooms and that ‘this is definitely the way to travel’.
After taking my initial tour of the main interior spaces I decided to settle in the upstairs lounge, since it had bigger windows with a view of the sea outside, and seemed to have some young adult type people that looked like they could be part of my backpacker cohort. My feet were hurting, my blisters were acting up after wearing my hiking boots for so many consecutive days in rainy Amsterdam. But at least for the rest of this boat ride I could switch to my heels to give my feet a break. I sat in a chair by the entrance to the lounge, untied the laces and took off the big black things, the stiff shiny leather now all scuffed and smudged. You’d think after ten weeks of wearing them off and on they’d have finally got broken in and not hurt my feet anymore. At least the blisters had become mostly calloused and didn’t cause the sharp pains they had earlier on. I tied each boot’s shoelaces to the other and dangled the big clunky pair from the top of my backpack frame, as I always did when still carrying my backpack wearing my heels. Hanging there, they always reminded me of those big fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview window of a 1950s jalopy.
I pulled out my two-inch heels and surveyed them. They had some stains, more noticeable on the lighter tan uppers than the darker tan below. But basically they were in pretty good shape, particularly given how many miles I had trudged wearing them. I chuckled at how I’d decided to bring them as my only other pair of shoes, rather than the sneakers that I wore most all the time at home. I had figured with my flared corduroy pants and my nice paisley shirt I would have at least one outfit that looked somewhat dressed up. Not that I was ever a person that liked to get dressed up. I was always ‘mister casual’, wearing as little clothing, or at least as informal clothing, as possible in any given situation.
I surveyed the people in the big lounge area. After nine weeks on the Continent I really could spot a member of my cohort a hundred yards away, just based on their hair, the clothes they wore and the way they moved their bodies, even if they weren’t carrying the iconic pack on their back at the moment. I WAS tempted to go down below and play the pinball machines, but I was concerned about my dwindling funds with still a week to go in England. Ideally I would have my lodging and most meals taken care of by the Kanes and the Clays, but I did not want to count on that until I was sure I was going to connect with them and not have to find alternative food and lodging.
I saw an obvious young adult type guy across the lounge with long hair, backpack and a guitar case, who totally read as an American or perhaps Canadian. I wandered over in his direction and he caught me on his own radar and sized me up as I approached.
“Hey dude, love the heels!” he said as I got within range.
“Thanks!”, I replied brightly, without even the blush that would have been part of my response even a month ago. I chuckled to myself that my heels and the strut they gave me wearing them had gotten comments from people throughout my trip.
“You just looked like you were from the States”, he noted.
I laughed, and responded, “Yeah, other Americans are easy to spot, even at a hundred yards.”
More so than his long hair, which could easily have been sported by a Canadian, Brit or Aussie, or even a younger European emulating the whole hippie look, what gave him away as one of my fellow countrymen was his tight t-shirt under a beat up leather jacket, plus the way HE strutted around. Very fucking American!
“So what’s the name, kid?” he asked, now seeing me close up as significantly younger than him, he looking in his mid twenties.
Very Coopster, I walked up to him in my heels, held out my arm and said, “The name’s Cooper. It’s a pleasure!”
He grasped my hand and we both squeezed, not to be outgripped.
“Lance”, he said, and again noting my big pack, “So how long ya bin on da Continent?”
So I went into my litany yet again, my nine weeks, and now headed back to England for a flight home in six days. He listened and nodded at the appropriate moments in my spiel, but didn’t initially volunteer where he had been.
But I asked, “And you?”
“Playin gigs”, he said, shrugging his shoulders, “Clubs in West Germany with ma band.”
“Oh yeah?” I said brightly, my interest piqued in anything that involved my generation’s music.
“Yeah”, he drawled, grinning, obviously noting my interest, “Gotta band, ‘The Lonely Hearts’. Ya probably never heard of em. No record deal”, then pausing, his eyes twinkling, “Yet.”
He rattled off more details about cities they had played in. West Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Bonn, Dusseldorf, Coblenz. Parted with his bandmates after their last show in Heidelberg. Headed to England for some “R n R”.
Lance was obviously at least five years older than me, with pale white skin, chiseled face with intense blue eyes, and longish black Jim Morrison hair plus a horseshoe mustache around his mouth. He had a dark charisma about him, very Morrison, that was a bit intimidating.
From my ten weeks in Europe I had become very aware of the range of accents of English language speakers, the Australians and the New Zealanders, the various British accents both aristocratic and more working class, the sing songy Canadian, and all the flavors of U.S. English speakers. Among that spectrum there was a subset you might call ‘drawls’, like southern U.S. and some Australians, where the diction was more relaxed and the words kind of slurred and flowed together. I noted that he had an accent I had not heard before, a kind of a drawl but not Dixie. Where I would say “really”, pulling back my cheeks to make that long “e” sound, he would say it with a much more relaxed mouth, coming out more like “rilly”. Where I would pronounce all the words in a phrase like “I’m in it”, it slid out of his mouth sounding more like the single word “minute”.
Curious about his accent I asked, “Where you from?”
“L A”, he said, throwing it off like a trifle, “West Hollywood.”
I had always been both intrigued and a bit put off by that big west coast city and its ‘Tinseltown’ film and TV business, though I had not known that besides regular Hollywood there was also a west version.
When I told him I was from Ann Arbor, he kind of lit up and said, “Ah… the Berkeley of the Midwest!”
He told me he had met former Ann Arborite Tom Hayden protesting outside the 1968 Democratic convention. He also knew John Sinclair and Human Rights Party founder Zolton Ferency, and had jammed once with Iggy Pop’s band the Stooges. He seemed like a real card carrying hippie, and clearly wanted to impress me with that fact.
A wannabe hippie radical myself, I must say I was duly impressed, and probably telegraphed that to him, though I was determined to prove to him I was worthy of at least some junior counterculture credentials.
I told him my friend Avi’s older brother Davit was the ‘Minister of Education’ for Sinclair’s White Panthers, and that I lived just two blocks from the Panthers’ headquarters on Lincoln Street. I had not seen The Stooges, but I had seen Sinclair’s band, the MC5, play on the U of M Diag several times. I told him my mom was a local Democratic party activist and did not care for Ferency. She had been very involved in the 1972 local election when Ferency’s Human Rights Party, leveraging the newly enfranchised 18 to 20 year old student vote, successfully got two candidates elected to the Ann Arbor city council. I had not met Hayden but I had met Jane Fonda, when she and Daniel Ellsberg were at a political fundraiser last year for my mom’s friend Frank Pierce, who was running for the U.S. Senate.
He took it all in, nodding, and with what felt to me like a condescending grin.
“Never met Fonda”, he said, she having recently married Tom Hayden, “She’s pretty hot, but I heard she’s a bit of a ‘cunt’”.
I don’t know that my jaw physically dropped when he said that, but I did not know how to respond. I recalled when my mom had insisted on introducing me to Fonda at Pierce’s fundraiser, to my embarrassment. But Fonda had been very cool about it and I was immediately taken with her charisma, intelligence and good energy. I had experienced that some guys, even very politically liberal or radical, liked or thought it was cool calling women who spoke up for themselves ‘cunts’. I recalled my mom’s friend Mary Jane calling out the sexism among some of the leaders in the antiwar movement, that a lot of the male activists said that the best role for women in the movement was “on their backs with their legs spread”.
I felt Lance’s intense gaze hone in on my lack of response to his statement. “Well you met her, I didn’t”, he scoffed, “She’s a bit of a cunt, right?”
Now I was on the spot, at least in my own mind, in conflict between sharing hippie bonafides and my budding feminism. I could either knuckle under, challenge his characterization and maybe even call it out as sexist, or try to deflect somehow and change the subject. My mom would proceed with a direct assault and read this guy the riot act. Mary Jane would probably launch more of a flanking maneuver and dismiss him with some statement that was dripping with sarcasm. Butch would skewer him with his private school sharpened verbal rapier.
But I was neither a verbal street fighter like my mom nor intellectual vivisectionist like Mary Jane or Butch. More of a “let me humbly encourage you to move to a more evolved position” type, which I guess combined elements of fighting, deflecting, and even perhaps a dash of knuckling under.
Lance gave a “whatever” shrug at my continuing nonresponse, but I was determined and finally managed to respond.
“I actually thought Fonda was great. A real feminist like my mom.”
I figured even the most hardened sexist male type would have trouble countering me playing the ‘mom card’, because you would have to be a major league misogynist (that word Mary Jane taught me) to call or even infer by association that a comrade’s mother was a ‘cunt’. Adding in the ‘actually’ was the closest I got to a street punch.
I guess it worked, at least to some degree, because Lance nodded and said, “Okay”, the emphasis on the second syllable, indicating an awareness that he might have pushed one of my buttons and a readiness to let that all go and move onto another topic.
As we continued to talk about this and that I could see, despite his name dropping of leftist political types, Lance was obviously more about the sex, drugs and rock and roll aspects of the hippie mythos than the peace, love and joy parts. He said he had been to Woodstock, the first person I had met who had, hippie bonafides indeed! He said he played lead guitar for his band, and prior to this latest ‘tour’ of Germany, they had played at many of the local clubs in Los Angeles. He was interested in the bands I liked, and which ones I had seen in concert, always nodding when I mentioned a particular group like yeah, he was familiar with their work and had seen them too. I told him I was going to see Alice Cooper the night after I flew home. He said he had seen him perform live several times, the first before Alice was wearing makeup on stage. On the subject of Glam Rock, Lance said he was going to be picked up in Harwich by a musician friend of his who also knew T Rex’s Marc Bolan, and he was hoping to have a chance to “jam with the old man of glam”. He seemed to be trying to impress me that we were not in the same league.
As we continued to talk he pulled his guitar out of it’s case and started strumming a few chords and tuning the strings.
“Smoke any a that good European hashish?” he asked as he expertly plucked a lead line on his guitar.
“Actually”, I replied, “Just four times since I’ve been here but it was all awesome shit!” Me trying to use the hippie lingo, then detailing that night with the U.S. army brats in Munich, twice hitchhiking in France, and finally at the hostel in Amsterdam. We both agreed that the European stuff was killer, better than most of the weed we had smoked in the States. He of course had also done other drugs, like mescaline, psilocybin, cocaine, and LSD. Though I had never tried any of that stuff myself, yet at least, like any even relatively in the know person of my generation, I was certainly enough up on my drug lore that I knew what all those things were and the kind of buzz each produced.
Still strumming his guitar nestled in his lap, he asked if I had stayed at all those youth hostels he had heard talk about. I told him in a number of cities I had.
Strumming a chord he said, “So I imagine you got yourself lots of pussy in those heels!” He chuckled and started to play and sing…
Well, I’m running down the road tryin’ to loosen my load
I’ve got seven women on my mind
Four that wanna own me, two that wanna stone me
One says she’s a friend of mine
On that last line he winked at me and continued…
Take It easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
And take it easy
I had heard the song before on the radio but didn’t know the band, and in the moment I wrestled with the lyrics. The context of the guy in the song running away from four women who want to tie him down, two others he has presumably wronged, probably had sex with them and then abandoned, and finally one who might actually be the one for him. The meaning of the metaphor of his advice to himself to not “let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy”. Just retreat if that’s what your gut is telling you, and make your “stand” on more favorable ground, whatever the hell that meant in this kind of relationship context.
I really did not want to respond to Lance’s conjecture about how much sex I had had, though I also did not want him to judge me unworthy of being part of the ‘free love’ hippie cohort. I felt I could hold my own in the drugs and the rock and roll department, but I certainly did not want to tell him the truth, and confess my virginity. No way to frame that as anything but lame. I suppose I could have easily lied and said I had “gotten some”, but I was still stewing at some level about his “cunt” remark, and did not want to support this worldview that women were just walking vaginas to be harvested and fucked. So I decided to try to change the subject and maybe even push back on him. I had heard the song he was singing on the radio occasionally but was not familiar with the band, though I figured he was not in that band and had not actually written the song.
So I told Lance I had heard the song on the radio and asked him if he had written it. He scoffed and said “I wish!” and flashed a very charming smile at me with oodles of that charisma he had, then proceeded to tell me about two of his fellow L.A. musicians, Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne, who had collaborated on that song, ‘Take it Easy’. I was familiar with Jackson Browne, having really liked his hit song ‘Doctor My Eyes’ that had been all over the radio the past year. Lance said that his own band, ‘The Lonely Hearts’, had played on the same bill at an L.A. rock club called the Troubadour one night with Frey’s band The Eagles.
We both noticed a young woman enter the lounge from the main concourse, a big pack on her back and very long straight blonde hair parted into two loosely braided pigtails. With an eye still on her Lance resumed playing and singing…
Well, I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona
And such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me
Come on, baby, don’t say maybe
I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me
We may lose and we may win
Though we will never be here again
So open up, I’m climbin’ in
So take it easy
Like a love vampire needing a fix to be ‘saved’, the thought flashed through my mind. Though indeed I craved it, I had made it this far in life without that ‘sweet love’, sexual or just romantic, and I did not need it to save me from anything. But the line that finally fixed my attention in that moment was “we will never be here again”, that we live our lives through a series of unique moments with their own unique dynamic. Though the guy in the song probably was just using that line to try and get in the young woman’s pants.
The young woman with the backpack saw the two of us, particularly Lance playing and singing, and wandered in our general direction. Both he and I, though not staring at her, were definitely keeping her on our radar and glancing regularly in her direction as Lance continued…
Well I’m running down the road trying to loosen my load
Got a world of trouble on my mind
Lookin’ for a lover who won’t blow my cover
She’s so hard to find
As I watched the young woman gravitate towards the two of us, my mind was pondering what “a lover who won’t blow my cover” might be referring to. Perhaps just one of those clever rhyming lines that rock songs tended to have that suggested all sorts of provocative things without clearly saying any of them.
I had struggled now for years to find a girlfriend who could be my ‘lover’, to get naked and be physically intimate with, wherever we decided to go with that. Could ‘blowing my cover’, whatever that meant, be saying something about my problem in that regard? Would having a real girlfriend, that I acknowledged to the world as my romantic partner, somehow expose me as a fraud. Force me to confront my own lack of self worth and resulting self absorption, thus making it difficult for me to give the appropriate focus to an intimate partner. I had wondered at times whether my timidity in this area was just a form of denial that I had too high standards. That lacking real self esteem, I was afraid that if I had a real girlfriend people would judge me based on her, so she had to be just so, to fit my needs, rather than who she really was, to fit her own.
The young woman finally approached us. Lance stopped singing, focused his gaze on her, but continued to softly finger and strum his guitar.
“Hey blondie, where you headed?” he asked. I couldn’t believe his brazenness.
She self consciously ran a hand down one of her long braided pigtails.
“The same place you two are I imagine”, she responded in a quiet voice but with a smirk and a hint in her tone of that being a stupid question. She looked older to me but closer to my age than to Lance’s.
Briefly sizing me up but then focusing her gaze on my charismatic comrade, she said, “Harwich?”, like she was tentatively answering a test question. She pronounced the ‘w’, where I knew Brits did not. Also her ‘a’s had that hard Midwestern twang, kind of honked out of her nose rather than being formed more mellifluously just with the mouth.
We all gave our little introductory bios in turn, including where we had been and where we were going. Her name was Rhonda and she was, as I had guessed, a Midwesterner, from Turtle Lake Minnesota originally, but more recently in college in St. Paul. She and her boyfriend Milton had completed a semester abroad in Berlin, but he had decided to continue on his own to London while she visited some relatives outside Dortmund. Now she was headed from there to London to hook back up with him before they headed back to the States.
“So MILTON eh?” Lance said skeptically as he continued to finger and strum his guitar, “And not so much for visiting your relatives!”
Lance had found a soft spot, pushed a button. Rhonda’s cheeks flushed slightly as she unslung her big backpack and responded.
“I know! What parents would name their son Milton, right? Well if you met his parents you’d understand. They’re Quakers.” And to Lance’s second probe, “And yes, I probably would not want to visit his crazy relatives either!” She came forth with a little self conscious feminine titter, nothing like the belly laughs I loved.
Feeling somehow like I was competing with Lance for Rhonda’s attention, I suggested that I was getting hungry and would be happy to share the food in my pack with the two of them. Rhonda turned her focus to me and responded that she had food too she was willing to share. Lance said all he had were Dutch chocolate bars. Rhonda lit up at that.
“Ooo, I just love any sort of chocolate and would gladly trade anything I had for a taste!”
We pulled two of the little circular lounge tables together and put all our contributions out on top of them. From me half a loaf of rye bread, some Salami and Jarlsberg cheese, and a bag of apricots. Rhonda contributed a baguette, a small round of Gouda cheese, and a couple tins of sardines. Lance put out his three chocolate bars, one next to the other, like it was his stake at the blackjack table.
Rhonda pulled out her Swiss Army knife and carefully cut thick slices from her baguette and passed them around. I would normally have just ripped hunks off my loaf and passed it around, but decided to follow suit with Rhonda’s more civilized approach, and did the best I could to cut slices of my bigger rye loaf with my knife as well. Salami and cheese were duly sliced and sardine tins were peeled open. Rhonda made a point of orchestrating the meal preparations, like that was somehow her job as the female of our little group. We traded travel stories as we prepared, shared and consumed the food. Rhonda’s baguette was still fairly fresh and her sardines were delicious, soaked in an oily, tomatoey sauce.
The shared tasty food and common travel stories quickly built bonds between us. Rhonda’s demeanor noticeably softened, particularly as she bit into one of Lance’s chocolate bars, and oohed and ahhed at how delicious it was. He laughed at her little outburst of pleasure, winked at me on the sly, and then offered.
“Ya know, I just remembered that I gotta bottle a Graan Jenever in my pack. Wasn’t thinkin straight when I bought it this morning, cuz I’m pretty damn sure British customs in Harwich is likely to search my pack and confiscate it and maybe even hold me for smuggling.”
Then putting on a big show of a sad face frown, “So it’s gotta get drunk or else left behind, which would be a cryin’ shame cuz it was sooo expensive!””Love to share it with you folks”, he continued, “Being so gracious sharing your food with me”, the word ‘gracious’ seemed so incongruous coming out of his mouth. He looked around theatrically like we were doing something taboo, and slid the slender cylindrical glass bottle out of his pack.
I certainly was fine with getting a bit drunk with this interesting company to pass the remaining hours of our boat ride, and said yes, I’d love some. Rhonda demurred at first, saying she was not much of a drinker, except for maybe a glass of wine at a fancy meal or some champagne at a big celebration. Lance persisted. The guy was major league persuasive.
“Would be a damn shame to let such an exquisitely crafted beverage go to waste!”
Rhonda sighed. “Well maybe I’ll have just a taste.”
Still playing hostess of sorts, she went off and returned with three little dixie cups she had managed to forage somehow, handing one out to each of us. Lance poured mine first, filling it nearly to the top. Then Rhonda’s, managing to mostly fill it before she could stop him, and then apologizing for giving her so much. He filled his own cup then raised it, Rhonda and I following suit.
“To the adventures of life!” Lance said, then downed his whole cupful. I noted Rhonda tentatively putting her cup to her lips and I decided to sip mine as well so she would not feel singled out doing so herself, the wimpy female who could not do the shot like the guys. It was delicious, with a smoky aromatic taste, but with that big kick of undiluted hard liquor as it went down your throat.
Not that at age 18 I had had that much experience drinking hard liquor. Though it was legal to drink alcohol at age 18 in Michigan, at college it had been basically beer and cheap wine, like Boone’s Farm. With my friends in Ann Arbor, mostly wine of a better quality from California. My mom really did not drink much alcohol, except maybe a drink or two at parties. At her own parties she would buy a bottle of vodka and make a big crock of Bloody Mary’s for her guests. But she always kept a couple bottles of hard liquor in the cabinet in our sitting room, usually including a bottle of her favorite Cutty Sark scotch. A few times I had tried some, straight up, so I had experienced that burn in your throat and up into your sinuses when you gulped it down.
The conversation turned to our lives in the States. Rhonda was as taken as I was by Lance’s dark charisma and his stories of the club music scene in Los Angeles. She was familiar with and liked both Jackson Browne and The Eagles, and I suspected Lance was embellishing or just plain making up some of his stories about partying with Browne and Eagles band members in divey Sunset Strip hotel bars. He painted a picture of himself as the quintessential bad boy in a world of cutting edge rock music, wild parties, copious drugs, and groupies. His voice had a low timber, exquisitely modulated, almost mesmerizing with that California drawl. She seemed skeptical and even disapproving of some of his more salacious stories, but listened attentively as he went on, sipping her Graan Jenever, off her own usual grid of nerdy boyfriend and strict teetotalling Protestant parents.
By the time it was Rhonda’s turn to share, she had finished her first dixie cup of the Dutch gin and been convinced by Lance to work on a second, waste not want not and all, and you could see her getting tipsy and loosening up, now with a bit of a glow in her cheeks and a fire in her belly.
“Okay, my turn”, she said, “Pretty boring compared to your stories, but here goes!” I saw a flash of fierceness in her eyes like she was ready to impress us with how boring and straightlaced her life really was. She took a somewhat bigger sip out of her cup.
She said she had grown up in a small town in Minnesota not too far from Minneapolis-St. Paul, the oldest of four kids in a strict Lutheran family. Her dad was the minister of their local church. Her mom basically ran the house, like a drill sergeant, but also volunteered at the church and at a homeless shelter in St. Paul. The six of them would gather at the dinner table every night and read passages from the Bible before saying grace and eating. Then during dinner they were each expected to tell a story from their day about something that happened to them that showed how they were actually living their Christian beliefs.
“Mother and father were firm believers that good Lutherans were about ‘deed not just creed’”, she pronounced. Lance chuckled and shook his head, picking a few notes on his guitar. You could see Rhonda was enjoying his reaction to her straightlaced life, egging her on.
“So when it was my turn I would tell them about some girlfriend I helped with her homework”, she continued, “Or when I was particularly bored and wanted to stir the pot, I’d make up some story about some boy who kept pestering me to kiss him or sneak off with him down to the ‘pit’ under the school gymnasium and make out. How I’d always say no, that I wasn’t THAT kind of young lady.”
Now I chuckled, but this time Lance outright laughed and said, “Rhonda, Rhonda, stirrin da pot!”
Her eyes flared, she grinned, and her cheeks reddened more with a blush, again obviously enjoying the reaction.
Lance strummed a chord and sang a line from the chorus of the Beach Boys’ song. “Help me Rhonda, help, help me Rhonda”.
Her eyes twinkled. “Oh I love that song. I LOVE the Beach Boys. Did you ever meet them?”
“I did, kinda”, he responded, I wondering if he was making it up, “Met Carl at a party on The Strand in Hermosa Beach back in”, he looked up at the ceiling as he pondered, strumming a couple chords, “1971, yeah, September.”
“Oh my heavens”, she said, “I had my first teen crush on Carl, what was he like?”
“He was the sweetest dude. We had a couple beers together and jammed on our guitars. He taught me the opening to this one.”
Lance played the intro to ‘California Girls’.
“Oh wow, that was my favorite song when I was like twelve!”
Now I was wondering if she was making stuff up.
“So how’d you hook up with”, he paused, “Milton?”
Rhonda wrinkled her nose and nodded, like that was a valid question given her background with her strict parents. She said she had met Milton their first year in high school.
“He literally came to our house to ask my father if he could take me to a movie”, she said, “And the only reason father said yes was because Milton’s parents were Quakers, they were stricter than we were. Didn’t drink alcohol, ever, and they barely even believed in sex AFTER marriage!” Rhonda delivered her lines for all the shock value she could.
“Soon we were boyfriend girlfriend, and from my father’s point of view, better Lance than me unattached and on the radar of all those less morally disciplined boys on the prowl at school.”
While she was sipping her second cup, Lance, brazen as ever, at this point with three shots of Graan Jenever percolating in his brain and pouring himself a fourth, queried Rhonda about her senior prom with Milton.
“So after the prom, did you two love birds do it?”
Rhonda startled, and kind of expelled some of her sip of gin out her nose, trying to keep it in her mouth. Her cheeks flushed, and she put her hands to her face to hide the mess. Lance went into action and scrambled for a napkin and handed it to her.
She cleaned her face, thanked him, apologized, and finally replied, “Well… not that it’s any of your business, but…” She looked down and briefly shook her head. It seemed to me as much as a confession that she had never had sex.
Lance then apologized for asking, saying his curiosity about other people’s lives sometimes got the better of him. He then changed the subject, asking her how she and Milton ended up in Europe. She regained her composure, and said that the two of them had been doing a semester abroad in Germany, at the University of Berlin, studying mathematics, and were now working their way back to the States for Christmas.
I listened to the two of them talk about their lives and struggled for what I was going to say when it was my turn. They certainly were both older than I was, Rhonda around twenty one and Lance maybe twenty five. I had none of the wild personal bonafide hippie hollywood musician stories like Lance. Nor was I willing to fess up to my virginity like Rhonda essentially had. Maybe if it had been just Rhonda and I, I might have, showing my solidarity with her, getting her to lower her defences so we could move towards being buddies. In fact, I was anticipating that she and I might be on the same train leaving Harwich headed toward London, and I was looking forward to the possibilities.
By the time it finally came to my turn, the Cooper Zale story, I had three shots of Lance’s liquor in me and I was feeling pretty fearless, and was determined to impress both Lance and Rhonda with elements of my own narrative. I did not have his provocative stories of the music scene or hers of a straightlaced family. But I did have some unique things that I had done in my relative youth, so I went with that.
I told them the story of my theater experience. Yeah just a youth theater group, but not like any youth theater group they had ever imagined. Pretty much run by all us kids with just two adults in the company. Doing basically a play a month, we were a real functioning troupe, always with at least one, if not two or three productions in rehearsal at the same time. In my three years in the group and then in college, embellishing that I had worked on over 25 shows, when it actually was about 20. I called out my initial work backstage, stage managing, designing and running lights, designing and building sets. Then my transition to being on stage as an actor, including singing and dancing in musicals. Finally in the past year going off to college to study theater as a possible career.
Reaching for something compelling in my theater experience that might even impress Lance, I told the story of adapting the dystopian novel Lord of the Flies to the stage my junior year of high school when I was fifteen. How I had worked for two months typing my script and finally got it completed. How we went into rehearsal with seventeen male types in the cast, ages six to sixteen, me the oldest actually, just turned sixteen. How we had skimpy loincloth costumes in the second half of the show and used lots of fake blood for scenes where characters were killed by the group. As I shared these details, hyping their shock value to some degree, Lance was nodding and chuckling approvingly, but I could see Rhonda’s face souring with a growing sort of righteous concern.
When I finally noted that I had Americanized the book’s British colloquialisms in my script, including changing the phrase ‘bollocks the rules’ to ‘fuck the rules’, Rhonda just couldn’t take it anymore.
“They let you do that? Your teachers let you do that?” she asked, incredulous.
I noted to myself that she hadn’t responded like that when Lance told his stories of drugs, groupies and wild parties, but then maybe the fact that Lance’s stories were about young adults and mine was about ‘impressionable’ kids made it different in her mind.
I felt on the spot suddenly. But then I just as quickly realized that my timidness was not kicking in and I felt totally comfortable, proud, precocious and prodigious even, at my script and our youth led production of Golding’s dystopian work. In our little trio, Lance’s rock music insider’s world made him special, Rhonda’s strict religious background made her special, and my youth theater background and my relative youth compared to the two of them made me so as well.
With that swell of pride I could feel the Coopster energy flowing through me, animating Butch’s ‘Coopenstein Manster’. Probably a good part of it was all that alcohol in my brain from those three shots of Dutch gin, but I was ready to respond to Rhonda’s concerns and make my fucking case for my little corner of a transformed world.
“Teachers”, I scoffed, “There were no teachers involved in my decision to have my script say ‘fuck the rules’! My young cast comrades were okay with that artistic decision as well as the head of our youth theater company, who was actually an adult, but backed our decision all the way. We weren’t any school sponsored drama group. We were an independent mostly youth run non-profit”.
Then softening a little, “Though we did use my high school’s theater facilities for our rehearsals and performances.”
Lance chuckled again like the knowing elder who had seen it all, but strummed a cord on his guitar to punctuate and presumably second my statement.
I could see in Rhonda’s face her struggling to be thoughtful about all this and not jump to conclusions based on her own strict background. So I continued to tell the story but now with her concerns in mind.
I told her that yes, when some of the parents found out about the expletives in the script, they raised concerns, and we actually had a hearing with parents of cast members and representatives from the Ann Arbor Recreation department, which sponsored our theater company. The meeting featured a discussion of artistic freedom, and a final compromise of sorts that we would say ‘fuck the rules’ in the evening performances, but would replace it with ‘screw the rules’ for the student matinees during the week.
“Wow”, she said, still shaking her head but looking to be conciliatory. “I guess you talked it out with the parents, they being responsible for their children’s well being. And Lord of the Flies is an accepted piece of Western Literature read in some high school English classes.”
“Bold dude”, noted Lance looking at the two of us with his biggest grin, “And yeah, we’re all eighteen and over here, so ‘fuck the rules’!”
“Damn the man!” I said to Lance with a big smile on my face making the fist gesture. Rhonda just sipped her gin, her eyes going back and forth between the two of us.
On a roll now, I continued my background story, now juicing up the drama however I could. I talked about the very dynamic political milieu that was my hometown of Ann Arbor. My mom’s involvement in those raucous local politics, as a precinct chair for the Democratic party and successfully managing the campaigns of several men who ran for local office, including for city council and mayor. My own efforts to assist her by making canvassing calls to people in the precinct to determine their party affiliation, and with the get out the vote effort on election day. My mom’s “wild” parties, full of political and philosophical debates. Her radical feminist friend Mary Jane at those parties, sometimes costumed in a maroon monk’s robe with a women’s liberation symbol hanging on a chain from her neck instead of a Christian cross, launching into intellectual rants on “patriarchy”.
Rhonda gulped a couple times but just listened. Again Lance nodded in approval, as if familiar with these sorts of milieus from his own experience. It occurred to me that if he thought Jane Fonda was a ‘cunt’ he would find my mom’s radical feminist friend Mary Jane to be the evil queen of ‘cuntdom’. The budding wannabe radical myself, I was not yet ready to embrace all of Mary Jane’s worldview as my own, but I certainly enjoyed sharing her radical ideas with others, though attributing those ideas as hers and not my own. Rhonda was not that politically aware, and the world I painted of progressive and even feminist politics seemed way beyond her experience. She listened carefully and cautiously, choosing not to comment.
And so the three of us passed the rest of the voyage as the big ship rose and descended in the stormy seas, like riding some massive elevator up and down, again and again. Towards the end of that voyage, I had gone off at one point to use the bathroom and also buy a few postcards with pictures of the ship to send to my mom and dad back home. As I reentered the big lounge I could see Lance and Rhonda in what looked like a fairly conspiratorial conversation with each taking turns laughing in reaction to what the other said. I noted that they quieted when I approached and Lance started what was obviously a new conversation, not sharing what they had been talking about while I was away, and I not asking.
When our ship finally docked at Harwich, the public address system announced that fact plus the customs routine all us passengers had to follow as we deboarded. The three of us stood together in one of the long queues to have our passports checked and possibly our backpacks as well. As Lance had suspected, his pack was opened for inspection, but the bottle of Graan Jenever had been left empty in the ship’s trash, its contents smuggled into England inside us. Rhonda and I had our packs rummaged through as well.
I was looking forward to having Rhonda to myself, now that I had a better sense of who she was, on the train to London, at least as far as Colchester. Maybe getting to that level of intimacy to share with her that I was also a virgin, something I had not shared with anyone else, except for Beth on the train down from Grindelwald, and my travelmate Steve that night in Granada when he wanted to have sex with me.
But after getting through customs, with Lance excusing himself to make a phone call to his friend who would be picking him up, I thought to confirm with her that she was taking the train. She blushed, looked down thoughtfully, and spoke, talking mostly to the ground.
“Lance invited me to go with him to visit his friend”, she said matter of factly, “Just for the evening, and he’ll bring me back here tomorrow to catch the train. Milton isn’t really expecting me until tomorrow.”
Now it was my turn to be completely taken by surprise. My mind immediately choked with questions as to what Lance had said to her, why she was accepting, if she was in fact going to spend the night with Lance, have sex with him, and what about Milton. None of which I felt comfortable asking. The shock of her decision reverting me to my shy self, I just said, “Okay. Have a good time!”
She nodded and replied with a kind of offhand “Thanks”, and appeared to wrestle with saying more, maybe answering my unasked questions, but decided not to.
Instead she gave me an awkward little hug and wished me a safe trip home. Feeling the even more awkward silence that followed, she wished me luck with making a career for myself in the theater. Perhaps trying to dissuade me from judging her harshly by giving me a compliment, she said she expected me to be a great playwright someday and to see one of my plays performed.
Lance returned from his call and said his friend was on his way to pick them up. Sensing the awkwardness of the situation himself, he said that his friend’s car had an empty seat if I wanted to join them.
“More the merrier dude, if you’d like to tag along!” those last two words signalling to me my ‘third wheel’ status. “We’ll even find you a couch to crash on for the night and bring you back here in the morning. There should be some bomb hash and other goodies!”
I glanced at Rhonda to see what she thought of the idea, but she did not make eye contact with me, and was looking off in the distance. Lance brushed back his shoulder length black hair then massaged his mustache with his fingers as he looked me in the eye, executed his biggest grin, and winked, and reiterating what he had said in his toast earlier with the Graan Jenever in the dixie cups, “Life is indeed an adventure my man! We all go where the universe takes us.”
I thanked Lance for the offer but said I really had to get to Colchester this evening. That really wasn’t the case, but expressing my real reasons for saying no would have been discomforting for everyone. I figured the offer to me had been made to be polite and deflect an awkward moment. Even if I had somehow ignored the subtext and decided to say yes, I could see myself as that total third wheel, spending the night as an afterthought on some couch while Rhonda surrendered her virginity to the darkly charming hippie rocker in a nearby bedroom. Surrendered a sexual status that was no longer prized in the progressive community and culture that I had grown up in, not even for women, and that I was longing to surrender myself.
Lance shouldered his pack with his guitar case hanging off it and Rhonda followed suit with her pack. He jauntily shook my hand and she finally looked at me and gave me another awkward hug and the two of them were off, walking down toward the busy street by the station.
As I watched them exit the scene my own feelings were complicated. Frustrated that I was still a virgin in a world where that was such an unprized state of being that I was embarrassed to tell anyone that I was. Longing so much for one of these wonderful young women I was meeting to go against the cultural norms and say the words and make the moves to take it from me, since I was too timid still to suggest and initiate a sexual liaison myself. Then thinking about Miranda who had actually hit on me in no uncertain terms but I had balked because she had perhaps not measured up somehow to my own egotistical standards.