|I was painfully aware of this. Just the summer before, I had gleefully bought a 1965 Volkswagen van. This was inspired by Urge, the one driven by David Ray Davenport (no relation) in Gurney Norman's Divine Right's Trip, a novel that had been printed in its entirety in the lower left- and right-hand corners of the Whole Earth Catalog. I called mine Van Go, but unfortunately, most of the time, it didn't. The microbus looked okay on the outside, but the interior had been stripped down in an apparent failed attempt to convert it into a hippie wagon. There was no upholstery, shards of metal where the door handles were supposed to be, and the only two seats in the van weren't even bolted down...they were held down by the seatbelts, or I should say, they were held down if the seatbelts were used. If they weren't used, they flopped around like renegade rocking chairs. I had thrown lounge chairs in the back for when I had more than one passenger.
Once the weather turned cold, I discovered that the van's heater wasnt hooked up. (Even when Volkswagen van heaters worked correctly, they were ineffective at best.) The old VW vans captured the heat from the engine, which was located in the rear, and piped it through the interior. That was, unless the upholstery was dismantled to convert it into a hippie wagon. Since that was the case, I could turn the heat on, but it just blew out the tube in the very back of the van...a long, long way from the driver's seat on a cold winter night.
I finally gave in and bought a long piece of heater hose and several thick, pea-green moving blankets...the kind the movers throw between your furniture in the truck to keep it from banging against each other and getting scratched. I would wrap myself from head to knee in the heavy green blankets and run the heater hose from the rear up to the front and wedge it into the quilted folds. People often stared and pointed. I must have looked like an alien nun driving down Interstate 40.
To make matters worse, once the temperature dropped below 40 degrees, the van's starter wouldn't work. It would crank alright...it would crank and crank until the battery gave out. So, I got in the habit of parking on an incline, so I could jump start the van. This was done fairly easily with the van's manual four-speed; I'd just turn on the key, get it rolling four or five miles per hour in first or second gear with the clutch depressed...then, I'd pop the clutch and Van Go would spring to life. However, when there was no incline, I'd have to push the van by myself (in neutral), jump up into the driver's seat (which was usually rocking around, remember), turn the key, push in the clutch, throw the gearshift up into gear, pop the clutch, and hope that the van had reached the minimum four miles per hour.
The only problem with this procedure was the shard of metal (on inside of the stripped down door) that used to be the door handle...inevitably the door would slam shut as I was jumping from the street into the driver's seat, and the torn-off handle would tear into my pants and occasionally my leg. It's a wonder I didn't get Tetanus that winter. Plus, the pants would be ruined, but in an attempt to salvage them, I'd cut them off and convert them to shorts. For 20 years after that, every time I moved I'd find cut-off blue jeans, dress pants, and khakis with a ragged slit in the left leg.
Not long after I had bought the van, I found my first job in Nashville as an art director. Although I didn't really know what an art director was, the guy that hired me knew even less about what an art director was. Together, we somehow figured out how to publish a travel book about Nashville, and had he not run out of money, I'm sure it would have been a big success. One morning when I showed up for work, he told me he couldn't afford to pay me any more. "How am I going to pay my rent?" I asked.
"Easy," he replied, "You move in with us and live rent-free."
"Us" was my boss, two rodeo cowboys (one who was real and the other who just wore the clothes) and a cowgirl, all under the roof of a sprawling, suburban house on a high hill in Brentwood, just south of Nashville. The house's steep driveway was perfect for push-starting Van Go. Perfect, that is, until New Year's Eve, when it snowed and iced over. If you've ever tried to push-start a car on a sheet of ice, you know that it won't work...when you pop the clutch, the tires just lock up and slide on the ice.
When I finally got Van Go started, I drove to my dad and stepmother's house in Lebanon (just east of Nashville on Interstate 40), parked it and spent the rest of that winter there. After being out on my own, it was humiliating to have to move back in with my parents to cocoon for the winter, but it was better than freezing to death and making the front page of the Nashville Banner: Alien Nun Found Frozen in Pseudo Hippie Van.
So, you can imagine my sheer joy when Spring came knocking on the door that March. Then, my friend Filmore called from Knoxville and said that he was going to have a Spring Equinox party the following weekend to welcome the season and to celebrate the demise of the long, cold winter. Back in those days--before he became a priest--Filmore used to have some outrageous parties, and this one promised to outrage the outrageous.
So, that following Saturday morning, I changed the oil in Van Go, and got it as road-worthy as I could. I then threw a bag of clean clothes and my old guitar in the back (with the lounge chairs) and headed down Interstate 40. When I arrived at Filmore's, the East Tennessee weather had started warming up and the preparations for the Spring Thing were in high gear. It was a gathering of the tribe, as it were, and folks were coming in from all over.
I had met Filmore in the first week of our Freshman year at Carson-Newman a half dozen years before. He was one of the founding members of our band, Contents Under Pressure, the name taken from the label of a can of shaving cream sold at the college bookstore to returning students as part of a Value Toiletry Pack. The band had been the eye of the hurricane for the college's fringe rebels, many of which were returning for the celebration.
Filmore, however, had dropped out of Carson-Newman and later studied art, namely expressionist painting, at the University of Tennessee. As a manifestation of this interest, he had stretched a 20-foot canvas on the side of an old wooden garage and had set out brushes and paints for the guests attending the Spring Thing; the painting that we would collectively create was to be the Thing's big event...one that hopefully would survive as a piece of art beyond the Spring, 1977, and the 20th Century.
We were in the middle of a hotly-contested game of Frisbee football when Filmore called out from his front porch that my dad was calling long distance...never a good sign. Sure enough, my dad gave me the sad news that my grandmother had passed away. The funeral was going to be in a couple of days in the old hometown of Dover, in West Tennessee, and they wanted me and all the other grandsons to be pallbearers.
It was one of my first experiences of cascading lives, where past eras of my life--in this case, my childhood and my college days--collided and ground against each other like one of the earth's plates.
Here was my dilemma: I knew that Van Go would get me back to Lebanon (where I would ride down to Dover with my dad and my stepmother); but I was fairly sure that the old van would not make the return trip to East Tennessee and back again after the funeral. I had taken the entire week off, and I had been looking forward to seeing and playing music with some of my Gatlinburg friends that following weekend. The only solution was to leave Van Go in Filmore's back yard, hitchhike the 200 miles back to my dad's house in Lebanon, and, after the funeral, hitchhike back to Knoxville, pick up Van Go and continue my East Tennessee vacation. I'm not saying it was totally logical...but that's just the way we thought back in those days. Plus, just the year before, I had spent three months on the road, hitching all up and down the West Coast. I wasn't that comfortable with it, because of the obvious danger and factor of the unknown, but I knew how to do it.
Filmore took me, my bag of clothes and my guitar to the Cedar Bluff Road entrance to Interstate 40/75, in west Knoxville, and before long, I got a ride. However, they were going to Atlanta, and they dropped me off where Interstate 40/75 splits, I-75 heading south to Chattanooga, and I-40 continuing west to Nashville. The problem was, it was the middle of nowhere. I had always been wary of hitchhikers standing in the middle of nowhere, far from the nearest exit, and now that mysterious hitchhiker was me.
While I was in the middle of pondering my predicament, a blurred brown flash screeched to a halt fifty yards or so ahead of me (it's hard to come to a standing stop when you're doing 70 or 80 miles per hour). I ran the distance and half expected the old Chevy stationwagon to pull off when I was within a few yards...that was apparently some sort of mean-spirited sport back in those days. I approached on the passenger's side, opened the front door first (so I could jump in if they were thinking of driving off with my guitar and bag of clothes...another mean-spirited sport), and threw my guitar and clothes bag into the back seat and swung into the front seat.
The tired-eyed man behind the stationwagon's wheel looked like he was most likely in his late fifties. He was dressed in workclothes, and he wore a two-day stubble of beard on his chin. He sized me up as the stationwagon idled there at the side the interstate.
"Do you have a current driver's license?" he finally asked.
I laughed and pointed at my guitar and said, "Sure, that's not my regular car."
He looked into the rearview mirror and spotted my guitar on the backseat. "Good grief," he said, "you're a picker...no wonder you're on foot. Where are you headed?"
"Lebanon," I said, and seeing his confused look, added, "It's just east of Nashville."
"Look," he said, "Here's the deal. I've been driving all night and I'm tired, and I've got a long way to go. I'll let you ride to this side of Nashville, but I'd appreciate it if you'd drive and let me take a nap."
So, I went around to the driver's side as he slid across the seat, still watching carefully and wondering what I would do if he decided to drive off with my stuff when I was behind the car. Once inside, I felt a need to explain why I was hitching. "I do have my own car," I said as I pulled off the shoulder accelerating onto the interstate, "It's a vintage 1965 Volkswagen van."
"Again," he laughed, "No wonder you're on foot."
"Ouch!" I said.
"Oh, I'm just giving you a hard time," he grinned, "I used to be in the music business, myself," he explained.
"Well, I know it's hard to believe by looking at me now, but I used to be the conductor of an orchestra."
"Is that so?"
"Yeah, that's so. But that was quite a while ago. I got burnt out. I gave it all up, threw in my baton and moved to the mountains of Carolina where life is a lot simpler. I'm on my first vacation in a long time. I hadn't really needed one."
"I'm guessing there's not a lot of orchestras in the mountains."
"Like I said, I gave it all up...now I'm a short order cook."
I looked over at him to see if he was putting me on, but he was settling into the seat, leaning up against the passenger door and pulling his painter's cap down over his eyes.
"So what kind of music do you play on that thing?" he asked, thumbing in the direction of my guitar on the backseat.
"I dont know exactly what you'd call it. Country, I guess. I write my own songs."
"Country!" he laughed, sitting up and adjusting his cap. "I got a story for you.
"Back around '49 or '50, I was in a bar in Chicago one cold winter night, just drinking to try and keep warm. Outside, it was snowing to beat the band, and every time someone walked in from off the street, the Chicago wind would blow the snow and ice through the room like a Siberian tornado. So, we were all huddled around the bar like a bunch of stunned sheep. The door opened, for what seemed to be the hundredth time, only this time instead of one of the usual suspects, this tall thin hillbilly walks in, pretty as you please, like he didn't have a care in the world. And if he did have a coat, it wasn't an overcoat or a heavy coat like the rest of us huddled around our drinks were wearing. And his clothes were unlike any clothes I'd ever seen before. To begin with, he was wearing a big ol' Stetson, which was not all that common in Chicago, and his shirt was all sparkly with glittering cactus plants and lassos. He looked like a cowboy that had been dipped in shiny sprinkles.
"And he walks up to the bar friendly enough, but friendly in a way like he owned the place, and he ordered a beer and a shot of Jack Daniels and ordered another round of both before he'd barely finished the first two. Now while the barmaid is pouring his second shot, the fellow that had been sitting next to me--a crusty ol' dock worker--slides over and sits on the barstool next to the hillbilly, all the while looking at the guy's feet. And we're all thinking, uh oh, here we go. And I'm thinking, man, it's just too cold for a fight. It's a real mess when blood freezes, and if one of 'em goes through the big plate glass window, all that snow and ice out there is gonna be in here in a matter of seconds...like some giant, dimly lit, polar vacuum.
"But the hillbilly cowboy takes it all in stride. He smiles at the guy and raises his glass slightly in a casual sort of toast as the dock worker clears his throat and says, 'Hey Buddy, I was just admiring your boots.' And that's usually how it starts. People around the bar were starting to pay attention to the scene...the bar got all quiet except for the bar stools scraping as people jockeyed for position to get a better look at what they thought would be the oncoming fireworks.
"'I mean it,' the guy says, 'I've never seen a pair of boots as beautiful as those.' Of course, we were all still thinking that he was trying to start something, but then it slowly dawned on us that this old dock worker was serious!"
"So, were they?" I asked, as the East Tennessee landscape rushed by. I checked the old stationwagon's speedometer as a Tennessee Highway Patrolman came up quickly on my left side and watched with relief as he whizzed on past.
"Were they what?" asked my storyteller, still leaning comfortably against the passenger door.
"Beautiful. Were the country boy's boots beautiful?"
"Oh, I dont know," he answered, half grinning, half irritated, "I didn't get that good of a look at 'em. All I can remember is they went with his outfit. But this old dock worker thought they were special.
"So this glitter cowboy threw back a shot of Jack Daniels, set his glass down on the bar, leans back and pulls the boots off, one by one. Then he reaches down and picks both of 'em up and puts 'em down on a little table by the bar. Then he kind of tips his cowboy hat and he gives the old dock worker a crooked grin and says, 'Mister, here, they're yours.'
"Well, the old dock worker looks at him for a few seconds, like he can't believe his ears. I guess he thought the hillbilly was going to change his mind, 'cause he reaches over, grabs the boots and runs out of the bar without so much as a 'thank you,' 'kiss my foot' or nothing.
"Nobody in the bar said anything. There was just a kind of stunned silence. Then, after a moment, it's like somebody plugged the plug back in or pushed the 'reset' button, and everybody went back to drinking and carrying on. Including the hillbilly. He turned back around to the bar and ordered another beer with a shot of J.D. And he finished 'em off just as quick. Then he slid a bill under his beer mug, tipped his hat and pulled open the big cold doors, and headed back out into the snow and ice. Barefoot. I told the barmaid that old dock worker could have at least left him his old workboots and she just laughed. I asked her, 'Has that cowboy fellow been in here before?'
"'Oh yeah,' she said.
"And I asked her what kind of crazy S.O.B. is he, anyway...giving up his shoes in this kind of weather?
"'Oh he ain't exactly crazy,' she said, 'He's just a country singer.'
"'What country?' I asked.
"'Country,' she said, 'As in Country Western. His name's Hank Williams. They say he's famous down there in Tennessee.'
"So, I guess it would sound like I was bragging, or at least stretching the truth, to say he was a friend of mine, but I can at least say he was a drinking buddy. Of course, everybody else in that bar that snowy night has probably said the same kind of thing and told the same story their own way with their own slant."
Not too much later, we passed the sign announcing my parents' exit off Interstate 40. "This is where I'm getting off," I told him, "My parents' house is just a mile or two on up the road."
"You've gotten used to the wheel," he smiled, "You may as well go on and drive yourself all the way to the house. Unless you want to drive me all the way to Oklahoma."
"I can't miss my grandmother's funeral," I told him.
My grandmother's funeral was in Dover a few days later, and it was a carbon copy of so many others that I had attended with my family, my aunts and uncles, and even with her. There was the standard Baptist preaching and singing, and then we buried her next to my grandfather in an old country cemetery that we passed without a second thought so many times on the way to picnics and family reunions at the lake.
At my Uncle Ray's house, back in town, we all fixed plates from the food that the neighbors and kinfolks had brought in. As I ate fried chicken and potato salad, I started thinking about the trip ahead; first back to Lebanon in the car with my dad and stepmother, and then hitch back to Knoxville to revive and retrieve Van Go (and hope the temperature stayed above 40 degrees).
"David Ray," my Uncle Ray interrupted my reverie, "did you bring your guitar?"
"It's in the car," I said.
"How about a song?" he asked.
I went outside and pulled my old guitar out of the trunk and brought it into the house.
"I've got a couple of new songs I've just written," I said, tuning the low E string.
"That's great," said Uncle Ray, "but I was thinking maybe you could play some Hank Williams."
I played a short bluegrass intro and started singing, "I wandered so aimless..." and one by one, everybody put their plates down and joined in.
To hear the musical version of this story as an MP3 (5 MB) click on:
©Copyright 2006 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.