I’ve sometimes heard people talk of pivotal moments in their life when they turned down a particular path to some great event that changed them forever with an inkling of what was to come.
Often there’s a prelude, a setting of the stage that comes with the story and it’s often as enlightening as the event itself but forever shrouded in a certain melancholy. Perhaps it’s because all great events usually take the traveller from the valley to the foot of a new mountain and there’s a longing for simpler times before the climb begins.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky you have an intuition about these things…almost seen. If you do it means you take the time to pause for reflection and savour the moment before your climb begins. I’ve been lucky this way, but I never know it until I’m at the summit…
Final exams. School was always full of some test or the other and not really taken seriously by me or my friend Mike. We weren’t disinterested we were simply interested in other things than grades. Art seemed to be the answer. Mike was a far better artist than I but my art was “abstract” and this meant that you had an equal share of critics – 50% of people thought it awful because it lacked the feel of the renaissance and the other 50% loved to muse over the deeper meaning. There was a deeper meaning as far as I was concerned and that’s why I kept producing these large 8×4 ft abstract canvases with such alarming regularity. We’d stand in the hallway of our school, leaning against the wall looking at the latest installation of my work in the stairwell and wondering who it was that decided it lacked the wet wad of paper that had been thrown at it. The contribution had landed perfectly in the middle of the Peace Sign which struck me as a deeper meaning.
So yes, lots of amateur philosophy fuelled by teenage angst no doubt. We’d wonder from class to class with me carrying my guitar and Mike occasionally remembering our set of bongos we’d acquired from somewhere. I remember walking into my history class (favourite next to Art) and handing my guitar to the back of the room over everyone’s head – my teacher’s were very tolerant and the bullies that might have destroyed it seemed to like us so we were to survive.
This is all sounding somewhat idyllic I know, but it was. It was a fine time for me and my friend Mike who I’d practically grown up with. We listened to 60’s music constantly and when John Lennon died I remember another guy saying “so what, just another musician”. I didn’t feel anger at his insensitivity, I was bewildered as to what planet he must be speaking to me from and wondering how such a primitive species had obviously mastered interplanetary communication to such an extent that ANY shitwit could broadcast…..
I remember thinking too that what he said made me stop for a moment. My interest in the anti-war/anti-Nuclear weapons movement, 60’s music and Peace all seemed a bit superficial when I considered that although John Lennon’s passing, sad though it was, it wasn’t finely the point. Was I missing the bigger picture here? I thought I was. I remember thinking that I’d been very lucky to while away my days idly sketching, painting, smoking and playing my guitar while the big bad world was waiting for me to join it. It was starting to dawn on me but I dismissed it the way you dismiss that irritating ache in your side that develops into a crippling pain that your doctor later tells you was, a kidney stone…
Your young…. you get over reality quickly and I did too. I went back to sitting around the camp fire playing “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio…of all things…gad….but we were happy.
Then the day came. Senior year, final exams were done and we were effectively free. But I didn’t feel free. I didn’t know where to go to be perfectly frank! I left the school through the back entrance and into the heat of a sunny June day. Mike caught up with me and we stood in the parking lot watching all the other seniors jump into cars roaring off to parties. We were actually invited to one but declined and wandered down into town in the hope that the local store would sell us a 6 pack of beer. They did, thank god and soon we were standing in what would pass for a village green in England. There was a railway line immediately in front of us and we walked slowly towards it taking long drags on one of the few cigarettes we had.
Life was good. We felt good but not ecstatic at being free from school, oddly.
Balancing on one of the rails Mike looked down the line and said, “David, we could walk home from here you know”. I knew it was about 6 miles by road, but by rail it might be half that I thought. I noticed the blue Perspex of the bongos catching the Sun and looked at Mike standing there trying to keep his balance on the rail, “Let’s go Man” I said as I joined him on the opposite rail.
The Sun was beautifully warm, the sky cobalt blue, the sort of blue that when you look up you’re sure you can see straight into space. I was really happy, happy to be walking along talking to my friend, happy to have a cigarette in my mouth and the promise of a rationed beer at some point later in the journey, and happy to be heading home. But there was another element to it that I can see now but couldn’t then.
We walked along in the hot Sun talking about the things we always talked about. The undergrowth bore in on the sides a bit but it was certainly passable. The wonderful thing about that railway line on that day is that it was straight and we could just walk along without worrying about anything and talking. It was a long time ago now but I remember covering most of the subjects that used entrance Mike and I – all in that single journey. The renaissance – De Vinci in particular with his wonderful “Thick Air”, the Moody Blues, The Beatles, Joan Baez and of course UFO’s. There were countless other snippets now lost but my point is that it seemed to be a final reckoning of these things.
And there it was in front of us. I don’t think I’d ever actually seen a “Box Car” up close and I’d certainly never been on one but after about a mile of walking Mike and ran into it parked on the tracks. As we walked around the edge to get by, trying not to get tangled in the undergrowth and disappear forever we noticed there was one more to get by…so we did, nope, one more….ok this place hasn’t been cut back in a while and we are now almost on our knees trying to get through the undergrowth. My guitar and Mike’s bongos are not making things easier and we’re getting slightly pissed off that our day is being ruined.
The dawn of invention that only falls on the youthful mind ordered us up on to the top of the next Box Car to take a break. This was quite cool in itself because not only had I never been on a Box Car but I’d never imaged I’d be climbing up the ladder on the back of one that I saw in all those old Wild West movies. Getting on top was ok and the adventure we felt was exhilarating but a cold sweat on a hot day is a bad sign….
That’s when we saw them – lined up and baking in the mid-afternoon Sun. As far as we could see, Box Cars, loads of them (and that’s allot when you’re 17). Mike and I didn’t seem to realise our predicament, in fact it seemed to add buoyancy to our mood and we started to laugh, smoke more and, although rationing it fairly, drinking more too and it seemed like a good time for a song.
There it began. My last day of childhood. We sat down faced with this insurmountable task – not being able to turn back, not knowing what lies ahead. We just sat down and started singing….now I know what I knew then. This was it – the perfect day.
Mike was very courageous, when he wanted to be. But not stupid so I trusted him when he said, “Come On! We can make the gap, just get a running jump”. Mike made the first jump quite easily and I timidly followed (not being of the courageous sort). We kept this up for about 20 cars and decided to take a break. There was novelty and it wasn’t wearing off. We clambered down the side of this box car in the middle of absolutely no-where and pulled the side door back to get inside out of the sun. We had a few smokes left, the bongos, guitar and, like nectar from the Gods – beer. Only two each, but beer nonetheless. We started to play some songs of the usual sort for us but what was really fantastic was the sound those bongos made in that box car – Man…sorry had to say it – Cool Daddy O’. It was good and we were having a blast miles from anywhere and we felt totally free.
With the break over we climbed back up on to the box cars and started to move North towards home. We had further breaks in the warm afternoon air of a box car but they became less frequent and we became more determined. As we ran across the tops of the cars our pace quickened and we became increasingly sure of ourselves so breaks weren’t necessary. We were making progress. Hours and miles rolled by in an instant and there we were – at the cross road.
In America a train line will cross a country road with no more than a couple of white plastic signs stuck to a post indicating the danger. That’s what the one that Mike and emerged onto looked like. And much like that crossroad the crossroad my life encountered that day was equally remote.
I’d come to the foothills of the mountain and I knew it.
Mike and I had another mile or so to get home. When we left the tracks to head up Emerald Drive to my house everything had changed in our talking to each other. It was all so subdued and reflective.
I’m sure he knew it too, my old friend – long lost now.
We did go our separate ways that sunny June day – me and my youth – never to cross paths again.
That’s the valley I look back on now from the mountain.