At the end of the Vietnam War--not quite the end, 1971--I was 15 that November, my cousin had finished his basic training in Jersey and was getting ready to ship out.
He'd been coming to Norristown most weekends to stay at our place and get off the base. Of course, we played pool and basketball all weekend, as often as possible, and listened to music, smoked cigarets, got stoned and fell in love.
The girls from the neighborhood used to come and hang around and watch us play ball in the driveway. Sometimes we had pick up games of eight or ten guys.
I brought the phonograph down and plugged it in in the garage. We played ball and listened to Dylan and the Grateful Dead.
Rich was my cousin, Edwin's, best friend at Basic the year before, and he would come with Edwin to our place most weekends. That was in 1970. He had a car: the Blue Flash. I was too young to drive the Flash then, but the next summer I was staying with Rich's folks on their farm in Washington and I finally got to drive it. The brakes were so tight you could only wiggle your toe. If you pressed down on the pedal normally, the Flash would stop short, like a bullet hitting an armor-plated tank, and the driver would fly into the windshield if he didn't have seat belt on.
Rich had left the car at home by then because he went off to Vietnam. That's how I got to drive it at his parents' farm. I was only 15, but out in central Washington in the early seventies, everybody on a farm drove, whether they were old enough or not.
Out there in Washington wasn't anything like Norristown. The houses were all miles apart. It never rained. The boys I hung out with were all older than me. And it was really hard to mingle with girls.
Rich's parents had a couple of quarterhorses and I got to ride them out over the open desert and range land once or twice with Rich's sister.
Some nights we'd sleep out in the desert, and get high, too. The stars were unbelievable: a present eternity full of diamonds.
In those days, when I stayed at somebody else's place, like Rich's parents' place in Washington, I had to listen to their music. I couldn't carry my record collection around with me to other people's houses. After all, they were letting me stay there as a sort of favor to my parents or me, and it wouldn't be right to bring my own music and expect to be able to play it on their stereo, as if I owned the place. Nobody in Washington listened to the Grateful Dead or Dylan the two summers I stayed out there. Even that second summer when Rich came back, we didn't listen to the same music. He was a little different then, too, anyway, and liked to go off to Wenatchee and visit his girlfriend instead of hanging around with us on the farm.
Looking back on it, it's hard to believe Rich's parents put up with me that second summer. I was starting to lose my marbles. Somebody had some whacky weed and I got so high I didn't come down for three days. I was never the same. My head got completely tied up in knots. I thought everybody was talking in code, and I was the only one who didn't understand the true meaning of everything. Actually, that was true, in a way. It just had a very powerful impact on every simple human interaction I was having then. I wasn't really able to open up to anybody in Washington and everything in my 15 year old brain just sort of stewed.
The stew had been simmering back in Norristown, too. It's just that I hadn't grasped the code switching. I was a little dumbfounded about how I was living on a farm in Washington and everything seemed different than living in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a rust belt mill town.
It was as if that whole sky load of diamonds just plowed over my face and dug up a furrow with my body all the way across the desert, and I didn't know what planet I was on after that. And I didn't know that I didn't know. I was just twisting and tumbling from contorted moment to confusing conversation to mysterious revelation, and it all happened on one hundred degree dry heat days between the bathroom, the kitchen and the water that came all the way from Coulee Dam in a canal to a pump at the edge of the yard, to spray on the desert and grow stuff.
"Look here," farmer Brim had said when I'd first shown up there. He scraped about 6 or 8 inches of sand from the ground with his hand. I squatted down next to him.
"You see," he said while he held his hand in the gully he'd just dug. Underneath that sand, there's soil, good soil. You can grow anything here if you just have water."