In the summer of 1972, I was a happy boy living in small town America. There wasn’t much to my town of Pembroke in those days. It was, quite literally, a town without a stop-light. My family’s small house on Plain Street had little traffic, automated or pedestrian. There was really no reason to drive down Plain Street unless you lived there or you were headed to the Country Corner Store, a mom and pop version of 7-11. If you were passing through town, you stayed on Route 27, which was about thirty yards through the woods across from our driveway. From my yard, you could hear the cars on route 27 traveling about 50 miles per hour as they headed south out of Pembroke.
For a boy, there was a huge benefit to that kind of blissful isolation; it meant you could play in your front yard. It was safe. You could hear the bustle of Route 27, but that was a world away, through those sheltering woods.
My siblings and I would spend a great deal of time running around that front yard. Somehow, we were able to fit tag, football, epic acorn fights, and even baseball within the confines of that yard which quite frankly was not big enough for any of that.
One day, in the early summer of 1972 I found myself outside in my front yard. I was inspecting a colony of ants that had established themselves in the soft sand at the edge of the driveway. These were black ants, friendly cousins to the dreaded biting red ants. Black ants were peaceful, so they would allow all kinds of human intrusions. As I watched their frenetic activity, occasionally poking the ants with a stick like I was an annoying insect deity, I looked up and noticed a man walking down Plain Street. He had come from Route 27.
I watched him closely. He was a young man, perhaps 19 years old. He wore black boots, faded jeans and a dark suede jacket that had fringes down the sleeves. His hair was an amazing orange afro which made him appear 3 inches taller than he actually was. He looked pale and sullen. I dropped my stick and watched him as he approached.
This was a hippy! I had a vague understanding of hippies. At that time in America, hippies were getting an inordinate amount of coverage from the media. It seemed that was all the media would talk about in the early 1970s. Every show or commercial on television, the news, the radio – there was constant chatter about the hippy culture. My Dad would occasionally grumble about “damned hippies” so I knew there was something strange about this man walking down Plain Street.
He walked deliberately as I stared at him. He was definitely aware of my gaze, but he tried not to look back at me. As he walked, his shoulders sort of swayed as if he were listening to a Marvin Gaye song in his mind. Then as he got to the end of my driveway, something miraculous happened. He stopped and looked at me.
I nervously held up my right hand in a non-waiving hello. The Hippy-Guy reached into the pocket of his jeans. Then in one motion, he pulled out a coin and flipped it at me with his thumb. The coin spun beautifully in the May sunshine. I watched as it travelled in an impossibly high arc and then it landed softly in the sand sliding gently to a stop near those black ants.
I hurried to pick it up. I think I must have let out some kind of audible joyous sigh as I examined the coin. It was a silver dollar! Eisenhower’s profile, so stately and so proud, gleamed on the face of the coin.
When I was a kid, there was nothing more exciting in the world of legal tender than a silver dollar. It was so rare to get your hands on one, yet here I was in my driveway holding a silver dollar that was just tossed to me by the Hippy-Guy from Route 27. To a kid, a silver dollar was not currency; it was treasure. I stared at him in awe, afraid to even smile.
Then the hippy-guy flashed me a peace sign and walked on his way. He never uttered a word.
I ran in the house to tell my mother.
“He gave me a silver dollar!”
“That Hippy-guy from Route 27!”
My mother looked out the window. She explained that the Hippy-Guy from Route 27 was actually a young man named Dennis. Mom explained that he was “troubled” and that his father had recently died. She seemed sad about that and said something about Vietnam, but for a kid with a silver dollar in his hand it was hard to focus on death.
Later that summer, my brothers and I were running around my front yard on an impossibly hot July day. It was so hot that the insects mocked us by making ridiculously loud noises – rattling and chirping to provide a bizarre soundtrack for the blazing conditions. We were tossing a baseball when we heard a car traveling fast down Route 27.
The car was going way too fast. The sounds of squealing tires ripped through the woods across from my driveway. The car’s brakes seemed to be screaming “Noooooo!” as we heard the horrific sound of impact. The sounds of crunching steel and snapping wood shattered the quiet of our front yard.
My brothers and I looked at each other and in an instant we had flung our gloves to the ground and were running to the sound of that accident. It was a full sprint through the woods. When we reached Route 27, there was a small group gathered, maybe 5 – 7 people. A car had plowed directly through a telephone pole and there were live electrical wires on the ground. Some guy said something to us like, “now, you boys stay back.”
The car was upright and in the grass next to the road. Luckily for the driver, the car had come to a stop, clear of those live electrical wires. The windshield was shattered. Initially there was no movement from the car, then the damaged driver’s door started to groan as whoever was inside that car tried to get out. The twisted door refused to yield and then suddenly it burst wide. I could see the black boot of the driver who had kicked it open.
The driver emerged, wobbly and confused. He was bleeding terribly from a scalp wound. It looked like someone had taken a straight razor and sliced his forehead from temporal lobe to temporal lobe. The blood was so thick and so red, that his eyes appeared other-worldly. They were white and wild. To this day, I am horrified by that blood-red visage.
One of the men near me shouted at the driver, “Hey Buddy where do you think you’re going?” But the bloodied man stumbled away from the wreckage.
The driver stared blankly at him and started to walk down the road. He staggered a bit but I recognized his gait immediately – it was the Hippy-Guy from Route 27. There was some general murmuring along the lines of “get that guy” and “stupid hippy” from the assembled audience, but no one moved to act on those thoughts.
Then he was gone.
In the late 1980s, I was home from college on a Friday afternoon. The 1970s were a distant memory. My generation had pretty much rejected the terrible clothes, the groovy beads, and the surrealistic pillows. We had moved on from pie in the sky peace and love; we rejected the laziness of that generation. We were an edgier group. We liked our music faster, hair shorter, and leather jackets angrier.
As I stood in my parents’ living room, looking out their front window, he appeared again. Just as he had in the summer of 1972, he was walking down Plain Street. On his right leg he wore some kind of metal bracing system that extended from near his hip to his ankle. His walking was labored and he seemed to grit his teeth with each step. He looked tired and gaunt; his once magnificent orange afro was now reduced to tight, greasy curls and a receding hairline.
My mother walked into the room and asked, “What are you looking at?”
“That guy. That Hippy-Guy from Route 27!”
My mother laughed. “What?!” Then she looked out the window and said sadly, “that’s just Dennis. He walks by every day.” She had completely forgotten about the Eisenhower Dollar.
“Every day? What is he doing?”
“He just walks down to the Country Corner Store, buys some beer and then goes home.”
I waited for about 15 minutes and then went out to my car. I walked around to the rear driver’s side door. There on the edge of the driveway were my old friends. The black ants worked endlessly – scurrying, carrying specks of food. In 15 years of tireless labor, they hadn’t improved their lot at all. Their ant hill was still an unimpressive series of holes in the soft sand. I toyed with the idea of grabbing a stick and once again playing the role of a vengeful ant-deity, just to break up their miserable monotony.
Then I saw the Hippy-Guy from Route 27 returning from the Country Corner Store. He was clutching a paper sack closely to his body. I pretended to be looking for something important in my back seat; to not let it be obvious that I was watching him. Finally, I stood up straight and looked right at him. The Hippy Guy from Route 27 looked right back at me making solid eye contact, as he hobbled down Plain Street.
I thought about running to him. I wanted to shake his hand; to embrace him and say “Dennis! How are you doing? You don’t remember me probably, but remember the silver dollar? Do you remember that Dennis? And that horrible car accident on that hot day? Oh Dennis! How did you ever survive that car accident?”
But I didn’t do that. I just stood staring.
Finally, I raised my right hand awkwardly in a non-waiving hello.
The Hippy-Guy from Route 27 didn’t say a word. Then with his free hand he flashed me a peace sign.
A few moments later, he was gone.
Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham