“Young man, young man, your arms are too short
to box with God.” – James Weldon Johnson
We went down into the Grand Canyon when Butch got home from the war. Neither of us had thought about a destination with any detail but the canyon was dramatic enough to get our attention and Butch needed the world to be beautiful for even a few minutes. Nobody had ever stood on the rim and looked across at the spires and colors and constantly changing light and remained unmoved. I thought the canyon might cure my friend of his sadness.
My first trip out west from Michigan was with Butch and I had carried a post card with me that had a picture of the Grand Canyon at sunrise and when I showed it to an old hitchhiker we had met on U.S. Highway 30 he had started to cry. The three of us were sitting next to an abandoned truck stop that looked like it had once been busy with people filling the restaurant and buying gas on their run across Nebraska.
“I’ve never been there,” he said. “I always wanted to go. Reckon I’ll never get there now.”
“Gotta get up north to Washington for the apple harvest to pick some crop and make a little money. I’m not gonna be able to keep movin’ around like this. People don’t pick up scraggly old guys hitchin’ any more. Besides, my back can’t take much more. I’m gonna need to find me a VA hospital to take care of me.”
“They don’t pick up us scraggly young guys, either. Anyway, you don’t look so old to me,” I said.
“It’s in my eyes and my legs, mostly,” he said. “I’ve got the South Pacific and Korea behind me. I don’t even know what it took from me but it got somethin’.”
“But you got to be a part of saving the world, right?”
He laughed. “All I saved was my ass. Look, kid, I don’t wanna talk any more. You cool with that?”
There always seemed to be a war even right there in Western Nebraska where the High Plains became sand hills and the prairie lifted slowly to meet the Rockies. Night was coming in from the east and the sky was turning navy and orange and birds made the only sounds along with a few lost motorists trying to find their way back to Interstate 80. I still figured Butch might feel better or even heal if he ever got out west because the air and the open land seemed like a universal balm for any kind of illness.
We grew up in the part of a Michigan town where the workers lived and the houses were small and very cold in the winter. Down the road from Butch’s place there was a Fisher Body operation that everyone called the Tank Plant because it made Sherman tanks during World War II. I always assumed the reason Butch volunteered to go to Vietnam was because he knew if he did not his existence might never be much bigger to him than the distance from his house to the Tank Plant. A lot of us figured we were going to get jobs on assembly lines making cars and trucks and that we would have families and little houses and two weeks of vacation every year until we were too old to keep wanting. I know Butch did not ever think about college.
“I’m going to kill him some day,” Butch said. We were shooting baskets on a playground by the school where his mother worked.
“You’d have to sneak up on him or he’d kill you,” I said.
“I don’t care. I can’t let him hit her any more.”
“It’s pretty awful.”
“I know. But what are we supposed to do? We’re the kids.”
Butch’s shoulders were rounded and strong from dribbling the basketball and he had a nice outside shot. He was unable to jump like a top player but he was always capable of creating a high-percentage shot and even with bowlegs he moved quickly to the basket. When we entered high school he played for the varsity team as sixth man but he rarely got on the court because the coaches favored the sons of the rich auto executives. Butch loved basketball, though, and was better than all but one of the starting five players but his hair was long and his clothes were from thrift shops and the coaches thought he looked like he ought to be mowing greens at Warwick Country Club.
I first got worried about Butch when basketball stopped making him happy because there was nothing else that mattered to him other than his mother. There were no girlfriends or movie dates because he did not have money except when he caddied at the golf course but that was used to buy his school clothes and lunches. Basketball usually got Butch through our silver cold winters and practice gave him a reason to stay away from home and Sonny’s beery fists. Every time I saw my friend during our last year in high school up in Michigan he was listless and uninterested and was looking at something only he was able to see.
By the late spring Butch and I were not spending much time around each other but I saw him sometimes after I had finished running laps at track practice. His brother had told me that Butch had decided to let things just happen to him because he had no plans or any real goals other than to get out of his present circumstances. I knew what that meant for guys our age and I confronted Butch the next time I saw him walking by the athletics field.
“I heard what you’re doing, Butch.”
“I’m not doing anything,” he said.
“Which means you are doing something.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you waiting for the draft. It’s stupid.”
“Hey, maybe I won’t get drafted. Ya never know.”
“Yes you do. No student deferment and you’re going into the army, and you know it.”
“So what, man? What does it matter? There’s nothing here for me. Might as well go kill some time.”
“Yeah, or kill yourself in a stupid war. What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with everything? That’s what’s wrong with me.”
The transition he made from boot camp into the jungle seemed to take little more than the time it required to fly across the ocean. How could he have been prepared by whatever he learned in Kentucky? The first grunt Butch met when he joined his platoon was dead the second day they all walked into the bush on a search and destroy mission. Less than seven weeks later he was the only surviving member of his fourteen-man platoon and he got new orders to walk point for another outfit. All around him his comrades were falling in firefights but not even the mosquitoes or leeches seemed to touch my friend. He got used to the mortuary team coming into his hooch about once a week to take out the personal belongings of another fallen soldier that he had probably not known more than a week or two.
A tour was only 9 months in Vietnam but if you were in the bush with an M-16 it felt like a thousand years and you thought that it would never end. Butch said he never considered time when he was in the jungle but I did not believe that story. He said that he got shot at usually two or three times every week and he made it sound like stopping for gas on his old motorcycle. Maybe that was the way everyone dealt with their fears but I know Butch did not psychoanalyze himself. He did not have that kind of personality.
“I once saw a guy cut right in half by bullets,” he told me.
“What? What are you talking about?”
We were camped on Little Thompson Creek in Colorado when he said that and were on our way to the Grand Canyon. Butch had been sitting on the grass bank and watching the water for what seemed to be a very long time and I went over to make sure he was okay. He had not even moved his head.
“It was just the bullets,” he said. “There were so many of the VC in the tree line and we had no idea. I don’t even remember the guy’s name. We never wanted to know their names until they’d been around a while.”
“Butch, man, don’t think about this crap,” I said. “We’re up in the mountains. It’s over for you.”
His face had hardened with anger when he looked up at me. “Don’t ever say that. It won’t ever be over for me. But it’s over for that guy, whoever in the hell he was and wherever he was from.”
“Sorry, man. I’m just trying to get you to move on.”
“He was a black dude but he had soft straight hair. That’s what I remember about him. I never saw that before. The ambush came from behind us. They let us walk past their position and then opened up. When I turned around, I saw the top half of him fall off of the bottom half. His legs just stood there for a few seconds and then collapsed. There was just a cloud of like bloody mist in the air right where he was standing. Strange, man. Very, very strange. When dustoff came with the black bags, there were two distinct pieces of him they zippered away. His face just had this blank look like nobody could ever comprehend what had just happened to him, including him. I just never knew who he was. I guess he was somebody, though.”
“Let’s get out of here early in the morning,” I said. “We’ve got a better chance of catching a ride up Trail Ridge Road if we’re out there early.”
Butch did not know why every soldier that had joined his platoons had died and he was sitting in the Rocky Mountains and breathing fresh air. Every battlefield survivor is supposed to carry some of this with them the rest of their lives and the burden can eventually become debilitating. Butch even felt bad about his Purple Heart. The day before his tour had ended he had been playing basketball on a base in Saigon when a stoned grunt had walked onto the court with his M-16. He demanded to be allowed into the game but was completely ignored by all ten of the players until he fired his gun into the air.
“I’m playin’,” he said when he had finally acquired their attention. “The honky leaves.”
It had not occurred to Butch that he was the only white player on the asphalt court but there had even been a few times when he was the only white soldier in his platoon. Blacks serving in Vietnam were almost 40 percent of the troop total, even though they were only about 13 percent of the U.S. male population. Race usually was not a consideration, though, when you were walking the bush. You thought about who had the strength to do what was necessary to kill the enemy before they killed you. Racial tension existed throughout the army but not when you were engaged in a firefight and living through an ambush. Skin color seemed even more utterly insignificant in combat and now, on his last day, just playing a game of full court, Butch’s life was being threatened for being the wrong color.
“Ain’t nobody going nowhere but you, little brother,” said the guy holding the ball. “You need to put that gun down and go clear your head.”
“Nuh uh. Honky goes and I play or I start shooting at y’all instead of in the air.” The M-16 had been hanging from his hand with the barrel pointed downward but he raised it in the direction of the basketball players and smiled.
“You a crazy mother fucker.”
“I show you how crazy, brother.”
Just before he pulled the trigger on the automatic weapon, he teetered to the gun side, losing his balance possibly from whatever drug he had taken or smoked. In that moment, all ten of them on the court realized they were about to become targets and they broke for a nearby row of vehicles and the shelter of a Quonset hut. Butch went for a clump of green undergrowth because the jungle had never failed to provide him the cover to keep him alive and unharmed. As he left his feet to dive between two palms, Butch felt a sting in his ass.
“Before I even hit the ground, I was almost smiling,” he said. “All that time in combat without even a damned scratch and I get shot in the ass playing basketball on my last day in country. Then I just started laughing. It hurt like hell but I couldn’t stop laughing.”
He was the only troop injured and was given his purple heart at the National Guard armory after he got back home to Michigan. The local commander made a big ceremony of the presentation and Butch smiled his square, white teeth the entire time and everyone thought he was so proud but he was just laughing at the absurdity of being shot in the ass while playing basketball and getting an award for service.
The only time he ever talked about Vietnam was when he ran into a person spouting nonsense about patriotism and stopping the commies and how America had to lead the way for freedom and democracy for the rest of the world. I knew those types made him angry but I had not seen him confront one of them until we were ticketed for hitchhiking on Interstate 80 out there in Western Nebraska, which was why we ended up at the abandoned truck stop on old U.S. 30, the Lincoln Highway.
There were a lot of discontented young Americans on the road in the sixties and early seventies. They did not seem afraid of the future but they were trying to figure out how it might be ignored and allow them to be happy. I never met anyone my age that was interested in the war or thought that it was important to America, and the friends that had been drafted like Butch came back bitter and cynical about the waste. Roads were crowded with hitchers because that was not considered dangerous when the other option was carrying an automatic weapon in a jungle full of silent Viet Cong lying in wait to provide you with your premature death.
“Hey, San Francisco, I got room for one.”
A skinny girl with an orange pack and brown and pink tee shirt went racing down the access road, tossed her gear into the trunk that had already been popped open, slid in a rear seat and barely got the door closed before the car was merging back into the stream of tractor trailers with great cargoes and Chevys pulling pop up campers bound for national parks and summer vacations. Butch and I did not understand why the hitchers were up on the overpass and not at roadside with their thumbs out but we quickly decided to take advantage of their lack of insight. Clarity regarding their choice was delivered to us in less than fifteen minutes when a Nebraska Highway Patrol cruiser rolled to a stop very close to our feet.
“Afternoon, gentleman.” The officer had not lingered behind the wheel to call in our descriptions on the radio. I suspected he did not view us as a threat to his safety.
“Um, hello,” I said.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Trying to get a ride down toward the Grand Canyon.”
“Well, you’re breaking the law doin’ it and I’m gonna write ya both a ticket before I send you on your way.”
“What law did we break?” My voice quivered. I was nervous. He was a big man and his gun was in a shining leather holster and the sun glinted off a small part of the chamber that was exposed. A ticket was also likely to cost more money than I had in my possession and I had never been inside of a jail.
“We don’t allow hitchhikers on the super highway,” he said. “So, I want the two of you off of our Interstate right now by the nearest available exit.”
Butch had been silent and picked up his pack and walked past the trooper before he was told to stop. The level of the officer’s voice startled me as I was lifting my gear. Butch turned around to look back at the lawman but still did not speak.
“I said ‘nearest possible,’ didn’t I?” he asked. “You know what that means? That means that fence right there. You go over it into that field and work your way back up to the local road through the corn. I didn’t say you could just waltz back the way you came. Now get off our highway.”
The expression on Butch’s face made me glad he was no longer carrying an M-16. He still said nothing as we both climbed the fence line that had barbs on the top wire. My jeans caught as I slipped my leg over and I fell on top of my pack. Butch waited, still silent, as I stood up and slapped the dust off and then we moved along the edge of the cornrows for about a half mile before we came up through a ditch in front of the truck stop where the fence wire was loose and we slipped through with little effort. The trooper was waiting.
“All right boys, get in the back of the cruiser and I’ll get your information to write these tickets.”
The tag pinned to his shirt said he was a sergeant and I remember his first name was Gary but I forgot everything else when he handed us our tickets into the back seat and told us we had been fined $50 each for hitchhiking on a federally maintained highway. I had less than $70 and I did not know how much cash Butch was carrying but I did not think he had enough to pay his fine.
“You can each put your money in the envelope and seal it and leave it with me and I’ll pay the court come Monday morning,” Officer Gary said, “Or you can spend a few days sleeping in the Big Springs jail until you can get in front of a judge. Your choice.”
“I ain’t givin’ you a dime,” Butch said.
The cop looked in the mirror. He had not mistaken the anger in Butch’s voice. “It ain’t me, son; it’s this county. We enforce the law.”
“I’m not your son, either.”
I was worried. I had never seen Butch get angry because he had a tolerance that made him able to walk off when conflicts arose but the demeanor of this lone state trooper out in the high plains of Western Nebraska had made my friend seem momentarily unstable.
“What you are right now,” the officer said, “is a lawbreaker and you can pay your fine or I can lock you up until Monday.”
“Put us in jail, then,” Butch said.
“Wait a minute.” I did not want to spend another minute in Big Spring, Nebraska. “How about we count out our money, put it in these county envelopes with our signed tickets, and you can drive us down to the courthouse and watch us drop them in the mailbox? That way you are sure the county got its money and my buddy doesn’t have to worry about his cash not making it to the judge’s desk, or wherever it’s supposed to end up.”
“I suppose you’re the smart one,” Officer Gary said, and he dropped the big Ford into drive and we were at the courthouse steps in a few minutes. Butch had $54 and my total was $71. Gary watched us put the cash in the pre-addressed envelopes with the government postage guarantee in the corner and followed us to the blue mailbox on the corner.
“All right,” he said. “You two get back in the car.”
“Why? Where are we going?”
“I’m taking you out to the edge of town. Dropping you off at the county line. Don’t want your type in Big Springs. You can walk out to the Lincoln Highway. There’s an old gas station out there where the Greyhound stops. Maybe you’ve got yourself enough money left to get on out of Nebraska when it comes through. I hope so.”
Butch was quiet again when we jammed our packs between us in the back seat and Gary drove north on an old two lane that had been poorly patched with tar and gravel. Ten minutes outside of town looked like a scene from an old cowboy movie and the bumpy road was the only sign of human habitation.
“How far do we have to walk to that bus station?” Butch had decided we were not finished with paying our fines.
“Oh, not too far,” Officer Gary said as he looked in the mirror. “Maybe five or six miles.”
Butch slapped his hand down on the leather of the front seat. “That’s pure bullshit,” he yelled. “Bullshit. It’s over hundred degrees out there and we don’t have any water.”
“Hold on there,” Gary said. “You need to calm down, unless you want some time in jail.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Butch was visibly twitching around his eyes and I saw the veins in his neck pulsing.
“You’re starting to push it too far with me, pal.”
“Push what? Push what?”
“I’ll tell ya what you’re pushing, if you want to know. You’re pushing it with your long, stinky hair and your damned Jesus sandals and dirty clothes and your whole hippie attitude. Why don’t you boys do something productive and get a job and help this country out instead of just running around all over and causing problems? We got boys over dying to protect your hippie freedoms. You ought to have some respect.”
Butch exploded. “Help this country out? How about you help this country out, you fuck?” He reached into his shirt and pulled out the dog tags he had decided to wear until he died to remind him of his lost friends. Butch jerked the chain around his neck until it broke and leaned over the seat with the metal oval in his palm. “You see that, pal? You know what those are? Maybe not, because you haven’t been over there to try dying for your country. I have. I saw all of those boys dying to protect my hippie freedoms. Maybe 50 of ‘em were in my unit. Not a one of ‘em died so assholes like you could run around and treat people like shit. So just fuck you.”
If a pistol had been lowered at us from the front seat I would not have been surprised. Instead, the cruiser slowed and rolled to a stop on the gravel shoulder and we heard only two words, “Get out.”
* * *
I did not think I was ever going to attend college and when I finally got there I was certain the world was going to end before I graduated. A lot of the boys from Flint went to the assembly line but the only way to avoid the war was a student deferment and most of them had no interest in college. They usually spent less than a year before they got called up. Down at Michigan State I thought I might have a chance to live in a secure room and have good food and I would never again hear daddy’s howling voice or feel his fists or the razor strop he swung at us as if it gave him joy. College was a good hiding place from Daddy but the war was right out on Grand River Avenue just outside my dorm window where the anti-war demonstrations filled the street. I wanted to turn away but my anger kept calling me in that direction.
When protest marches began each spring in Washington I found a way to travel east and become a part of the crowds moving up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. One year I hitchhiked and another spring we squeezed five of us into a friend’s old coupe and went out across the Pennsylvania Turnpike and down into DC. We camped out in Potomac Park and there were thousands of tents and trucks and people with fire pits and loud speakers. When I went for a run past the Lincoln Memorial I passed a couple of people sitting at a folding card table on metal chairs and they had a hand-written sign taped to the front that said, “Pink Sunshine – $1.00.” I did not know if this was a bargain. A hundred yards later a man in his forties was sitting beneath a tree with a sign that read, “Another unemployed carpenter for peace.”
A big concert was held at the Washington Monument the night before the May Day March. In the campground, I watched the sun dropping down onto the historic river and wondered what General Washington might think of the country he had helped to found if he were able to see rising marijuana smoke and angry masses of young people petitioning their government. A girl came by our campsite with a bottle of sweet wine and asked me if I wanted to walk up to the concert and we passed the bottle back and forth as we went in that direction. She was already a bit drunk and said she had been smoking weed most of the day.
“But I don’t give a shit, ya know?” she said. “They killed my fucking big brother for no reason. Just because of their communism paranoia. I hate Nixon. I hate his fucking war.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry. That’s pretty awful.”
“Yeah, well, I’m staying stoned and fucked up until he comes home.”
“But I thought you said he was…….”
“Doesn’t matter. Long as I’m messed up I can convince myself he’s coming home. My dad won’t talk and my mom has Donny’s picture on the counter in the kitchen and she talks to him all day long like he’s there. We’re all fucked up.”
“I’m sorry. Don’t know what to say.”
“Nothing to say. I came up here from Georgia to feel like I’m doing something, you know, just being here in the street, being a number.”
“Yeah, seems like the only thing we can do, I suppose. Not sure how it makes a difference. Doesn’t look like anything more than another concert with a big stoned crowd.”
“Yeah, but they’ll notice us and we’ll be on the news and tomorrow we’ll shut down Pennsylvania Avenue and that motherfucker president will know how many people hate him.”
“I think he should know by now.”
The crowd grew dense and we were jumbled around as we approached the rise to the monument. She slipped away and I made no effort to stay with her. The sadness she carried was probably constant in every moment of her life and everyone around her suffered because that was what she intended. She was pretty and her limbs were long and spidery but her darkness was visible in the sunlight.
Before nightfall all of us were singing along with Country Joe and the Fish and his refrain, “One, two, three, four, what are we fightin’ for, don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.” Everyone laughed and cheered but I saw fear in the eyes of young men like me and they grew serious with Peter, Paul, and Mary’s verses of, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” We all went a bit crazy with our discontent after Dylan took the stage and put every thought and emotion we had into words. We were young people who grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every morning in school and we had drills to practice hiding under our desks to avoid being burned to death by a nuclear attack. All of us were raised to believe America was a good force that fought against all that was bad and our president was a truthful and honorable man but we no longer believed much of what we had learned.
Walking down Pennsylvania Avenue the next morning did not seem to have much personal value. There were news cameras and reporters with notepads but I did not think they had any chance to capture the collective sense of what we all felt or thought. One of the marchers I noticed had grown tired or was stoned and had sat down next to a sidewalk light pole and was facing the street when a cop came out of a building and walked straight toward him as he pulled out his baton. When the cop swung and hit the unsuspecting kid in the back of the head, I thought the cracking skull sounded like a baseball bat breaking at the handle on a bad pitch. Blood spurted into the air and everyone kept walking toward the White House as the longhaired teenager fell over onto the pavement. The cop and his friends just headed up the sidewalk with the protestors. Nothing changed that day, of course; the world and the war wagged on and we went back to our college dorm rooms and minimum wage jobs.
The war, though, even got inside Abbott Hall back in East Lansing. I became eligible for the draft lottery the previous December and every male student born the same year had their birth date painted on a little ball and dropped into a hopper that spun the numbers. Usually, mornings in the dorm basement TV room were quiet but the day of the drawing, as Christmas vacation approached and a gentle snow fell across our beautiful campus, we were all solemn and worried as we stared at flickering black and white television screens. The TV room in the basement was always too cold and we rarely watched anything other than football down there because of the chill air.
When the draft lottery started we saw a man in a suit reach into a clear plastic orb and take out a ping-pong ball with a date written onto the side. He announced the first date and I heard someone across the room scream. This was Larry; a diminutive trumpeter in the “Fabulous Spartan Marching Band.” No one had ever heard him express himself barely above a breathy whisper as if he were saving his lungs for his instrument but now his birth date had connected him to an improbable destiny and if the military needed more soldiers every boy in the country born on the same day as Larry would be the first to get called up. As the numbers got bigger, the chances of being drafted inversely decreased. I pulled 32, which meant that when I got my degree I was certain to be inducted and sent to Fort Knox and on to Southeast Asia.
The TV room emptied slowly as students learned of their military value. A few were sitting in corner chairs and sobbing. They had drawn very low numbers like Larry and were practically scheduled to be in uniform shortly after graduation ceremonies. My mother was from Canada, though, and I had planned to leave for Newfoundland when I got my induction notice. I did not believe any of the nonsense about communism being a threat to America or the “Domino Theory” and had been reading a lot of anti-war literature given to me by my friend Gary. We walked through our factory worker neighborhood and handed out pamphlets informing people about the politics of the Vietnam War and how to resist. Neither of us was aware of how many people we were making angry.
I did not want to live in Canada because it was so cold but I figured it was much better than dying in the jungle for no apparent reason. As the months went by I kept trying to envision myself leaving Michigan and taking the Canadian National train up to North Sydney, Nova Scotia to catch the ferry across to Port aux Basques. My entire youth had been spent dreaming of the Southwestern U.S. and big vistas and constant sunlight and I did not like the idea of the foggy banks of Newfoundland and the snow tunnels down George Street in the winter. I kept hearing the opening verses of a song by a folk group that had performed in the student union at MSU. I was unable to remember their name but the lyrics repeated constantly in my head.
“I hitchhiked up from Michigan, ain’t never goin’ home again
and my girlfriend might meet me here another time.
And everything I left behind just to find some peace of mind,
My body’s cold and hungry but it’s mine.
It’s rainin’ and my clothes are wet and I wish I had a cigarette
And my old boots feel tighter than they were before.
And every time a car goes by I realize the reason why
I may not see my old friends any more.
But I’ll never be a loser ‘cause I got nothin’ to lose
So leave how I live and die for god to choose.”
Vietnam and Canada did not get me, though, because the draft ended just before I graduated from the university. The Paris Peace Talks had begun a month before I earned my diploma and I walked out into the world unafraid. Fear changes perspective, too, and when your father is large and powerful and often angry and you live in his house as a boy and there is also a war waiting for you then little else can be as frightening. I was freed to take chances that my friends from comfortable households might never even consider. I should have been afraid to stand beside the highway with my thumb out imploring strangers to give me a ride.
But I was not.
* * *
Butch and I made it onto Route 66 across the Texas Panhandle after getting a lift south for two days on an old flatbed truck. The driver had been hauling hay and offered us a ride and we took it even though our goal was to get further out west. We were dirty and smelly from the open air of the flatbed but had then been rescued from the roadside by a doctor and his wife when they passed us outside of Amarillo. They were driving out to California to take delivery on a sailboat. I did not know there were lakes for sailing in Oklahoma but I did not talk much about that because the doctor asked a lot of questions about our travel adventure. Butch told him about the war and the doctor and his wife went quiet but he later said how much he admired Butch for serving and that he was proud to have met him out on the highway. Butch might have let things go right there but he had seen too much and he was sick of how ignorant everyone was back home in America so he told the doctor how much he hated the war and the president and what it was doing to the country and what it had done to him. When we got to Winslow the doctor said he thought it would be a good idea if he dropped us off because he and his wife had changed their plans and were going south to spend a few days in Phoenix. I was just relieved that Butch had not gone crazy on the poor couple like he did Officer Gary up in Nebraska.
Winslow was famous in those days for having legalized prostitution and there were suggestive billboards along old Route 66 trying to attract business. A silhouette of a shapely woman was profiled and underneath it said, “For truckers, Winslow, Arizona.” I elbowed Butch every time we passed one and the doctor’s wife sounded like she was huffing in disgust in the front seat. We stood on a painfully hot sidewalk on the east side of town after they let us out and looked around and we both knew we were trying to figure out which buildings might be whorehouses. The sun was directly overhead and there were no shade trees nearby and while we were trying to decide what to do next a pick up stopped. The driver did not get out but simply looked into the bed of his truck and motioned with his eyes for us to jump up.
The road noise and wind was too loud to have conversation in the back of the pickup so we did not talk but we watched the broken white line unrolling. When the driver stopped to let us off we were only about fifteen miles west of Winslow. We jumped out and he waved as he turned down a dirt road to the south toward the Mogollon Rim. The horizon to the west was a low ragged line made by distant mountains and there was a faint glow of yellow behind the ranges but there was no other light except the distant glimmer of Winslow.
“Just great,” Butch said. “Another night of sleeping in the dirt next to a highway.”
“What the hell else are we gonna do?” I asked. “Hopefully, we’ll get a quick lift to Flagstaff tomorrow and then we can head on up to the canyon.”
Butch was usually quiet even when we were boys and whenever he smoked the weed he carried in his backpack he took on a kind of deep silence that was private and made me worry and was a part of why I asked him to join me on this trip.
“I think we’ve been pretty lucky to get rides for 1500 or so miles and get where we are,” I said. “Look at us. I sure as hell wouldn’t give us a ride.”
“I’m going to try to sleep,” Butch said, “since I expect to spend the entire day tomorrow suffering in the Arizona sun.”
He went down below the highway and laid out his sleeping bag and started rolling a joint to smoke before he went to sleep. There was not a lot of traffic that night but we were comfortable a few feet below the edge of the blacktop. The sky was obsidian black and made a great curve of stars. They appeared unfamiliar to me and I watched them and waited for sleep, which came up more suddenly than the night sky. I was very, very tired.
The morning sun in the summer does not let you rest late in the American west and as we climbed up to face the flow of westbound traffic an aged Chevy truck edged onto the shoulder. The driver swung out of his seat and came around to the tailgate as we approached.
“You boys looking for work?”
He was tall and his jeans were shining in the early sunlight. The old baseball cap he was wearing had the insignia of some Major League team but it had been worn off by dirt and time. Long strands of stringy black hair hung from under the cap’s edges and almost reached the shoulders of his denim shirt.
“We aren’t really looking for work,” I said. “We were hoping to get to the Grand Canyon today and do some hiking.”
“You need money for travel, don’t you? I don’t think you’d be out here hitchin’ if you had much money.”
I looked past him and saw two children leaning against the rear window in the cab of his beaten down pickup. They were as brownish as the Bondo on the truck’s fenders and were smiling brightly and made me worry less about the man’s intentions.
“What kind of work?” Butch asked.
“I’m building a house.” He took off his cap and dragged his fingers through his greasy hair and looked at his dusty work boots. “I can’t afford a full time crew to help me. I need some boys like you to fire the kiln and make some bricks. It’s an adobe house. You interested?”
“What’s it pay?” I asked.
“I can do three dollars an hour.” The man shrugged. “That’s it. But you can pitch your tents at our place and we’ll feed you three good meals a day. My wife’s a good cook and you can take my truck into Winslow at the end of the day, if you want.”
Butch and I looked at each other and agreed without speaking. We put out our hands to shake. We thought anything was better than sitting on the blacktop in the July sun and waiting for another vehicle to stop. I only had eleven dollars left and we both needed money to continue traveling through the summer. Our plan had always been to find odd jobs along the way and this one had simply rolled up in front of our extended thumbs.
I jumped into the cab of the truck and Butch settled into the back. The little girls were both about five years old and ignored me as their father slipped behind the wheel.
“I’m Robert,” he said. “I’m a Navajo, full-blooded, but Christian.” He put out his hand and it was coarse as old wood.
“I think it’s obvious that god put you out there on the side of the road to help me finish our house. We’ve been living outdoors a long time.”
Robert stayed on the blacktop for almost half an hour and then turned north in the direction of a plateau. The road was a simple two-track of dirt and dust swirled in clouds behind the truck. We drove for twenty minutes or so and did not talk much over the rattling of the truck and I was relieved when a canvas tent and the rough frame of a house came into view. A flap to the tent opened and a small woman with thick legs stepped out holding a baby. The two little girls next to me jumped excitedly and said, “Mama, mama.”
The location was ideal for building a home. The red walls of a mesa were close to where the house’s foundation had been set and they offered protection from north winds. The rock face extended to the southwest and provided a natural leeward position to hide from western rain and snowstorms. Robert had also poured the slab to make the front of his home face the sunrise. Sunsets off the back porch might be obscured as the sun moved north of the mesa in the summer but autumn and winter views were likely to be spectacular.
“This is where god put us,” Robert said as we climbed out of the truck. “It’s a good place to live.”
“Yep, it is.” Butch dropped his backpack on the ground and looked around for trees but there were none. He did not care for trees after Vietnam because too much could be hidden in a jungle. “I like it here.”
“Hello. I’m Cecilia.” Robert’s wife smiled and waved a hand at us as she held the baby. “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah, we are.” She had caught me looking at a table with rice and beans and corn tortillas.
The names of Robert’s family did not sound Navajo but we did not think about that and ate the warm tortillas that we had smeared with beans and rice. Robert stacked wood in the kiln and began to stoke a fire. After the flames had begun to grow, he came over and grabbed a few tacos and went back to work the blaze. The day was already growing hot and we worried about working constantly around flames while dealing with the desert sun. When the fire was finally crackling, Robert got some more tacos and then he went to an old cement mixer and pulled a rope to start the motor. He poured buckets of water into the opening as he chewed his food.
“You boys ready to work? Might as well get paid for today.” Robert hollered over the noise of the tumbler.
He explained how to mix the mud and sand and water and straw, how to pour it into a mold, and when the brick form was to be placed in the kiln for baking. Cecilia watched from in front of the tent. Her skin had the color of someone who lived constantly under the sun. We were unable to determine if she was a Navajo. She had managed to work Jesus into our brief conversation while we ate and was curious about how much we thought about the Son of God. We were not thinking about Jesus and only wanted hot food in our stomachs and maybe some money in our pockets.
Robert stood next to Cecilia and watched us as we began to mix, mold, and bake the adobe. His two children played around the front of the tent on the hard red ground. After about a half an hour of drinking coffee and scrutinizing our nascent skills, Robert opened the door of his truck.
“I’m going to work,” he said. “I won’t be home until around dark. Just keep making bricks. I’ll pay you cash for every day. You can take off whenever you want. But I hope you’ll stay and help us.”
He had suddenly left us alone with his family, complete strangers, and trusted us to stir mud and straw and bake adobe to help the completion of his home construction and we were still working when Robert returned that evening. Cecilia was standing over a propane stove finishing preparation of a meal. He motioned for us to stop and sit at the wooden picnic table. Robert pulled out several crumpled bills and smiled.
“The lord provides,” he said as he handed both of us thirty dollars in tens. The skin of his hands was cracked and there was grease or dirt under his fingernails. His name was stitched in red lettering across a white oval above his shirt’s breast pocket. Butch and I smoothed out the wrinkled cash and folded it into our wallets.
“I prayed for you boys to appear, and here you are. I don’t know what further proof we all need of the presence of the lord.”
I got up and walked over to the kiln to check the fire. The temperature was dropping quickly and because our first night in the desert had been cold we planned to spread our bags near the kiln.
“Look at all you have done today.” Robert nodded in the direction of the bricks we had spread on the other side of the tent. “This is not by chance. This is what god has planned. My family is grateful to you and the lord.”
“We just needed to make a little money for traveling,” Butch said. “How many days do you think you’ll need us?”
“There’s a lot to do.”
“Well, sure,” I agreed. “But we can’t be here all summer.”
“We’ll take care of you. You’ll eat well. And there’s always my truck for trips into town. Thank the lord.”
“We’ll get your bricks done, and maybe start with the walls,” I told him. “But we can’t stay all summer.”
Butch looked at me and was close enough to hear the conversation. The offer of Robert’s truck did not stop us from feeling trapped. We had only a vague idea of the distance to the Interstate but we knew how long it had taken for us to reach the construction site from the old highway riding in the truck. I wondered how Robert might react if we left. One of his daughters came over and climbed into his lap and his gentleness with her eased our increasing apprehensions.
For five days we worked without rest in the high desert sun of Arizona. Robert came home each evening and was thankful for all we had accomplished and then he offered us a nightly wad of wrinkled bills. He paid without fail. Butch had asked for use of the truck the two previous nights and was told by Robert that it was not running properly and he did not want to risk an additional trip into town. I began to worry.
“I’m pretty much ready to get the hell outta here,” I told Butch. “This guy talks about Jesus every night and he keeps us trapped in a box canyon. We’ve got enough money. It’s time to go.”
“If he won’t let us use his truck, exactly how are we supposed to get out of here?” Butch asked. “Are we going to walk to Flagstaff?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I’m leaving. This guy’s religion and everything else is just starting to feel weird.”
“Like I said, how in the hell are you leaving?” Butch asked me.
“Walking, if I have to.”
Butch had kept his sleeping bag pulled up over his head as we talked. Wood that was aflame in the kiln collapsed into embers and snapped loudly.
“Okay, so we need to leave,” he said. “If he won’t give us the truck tomorrow night to go to town, that’s a bad sign. We’ll walk out of here after they have all gone to sleep.”
“How many miles do you think it is back to the black top?”
“Doesn’t matter. We’ll just walk it.”
By the time the sun was turning faded and odd Arizona colors on Friday evening, we had begun to raise the walls of Robert and Cecilia’s house. A crude slurry had been used for finishing and Robert was very happy with what we had stood up. Butch asked about taking the pickup into town for a weekend dinner but Robert again suggested the engine was running roughly and he did not want to risk an optional trip into Winslow. Presently, he began a recitation about the mysterious ways of the lord and randomly quoted scripture.
The fire was burning loudly late that night as we rolled our bags and tied them to our packs while Robert and his family slept in their tent. The desert blackness was shimmering over our heads and was dimly lit with crystalline, white dots. Carefully, we walked out of the beautiful canyon onto the dirt of the two-track and did not look back until we were at least a mile from the yellow glow coming from the kiln.
“He’s going to get up in the morning and come get us in his pickup,” I said. “We aren’t going to get anywhere. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t have a gun. The lord’s gun, of course.”
“Just shut up and keep walking,” Butch told me. “We’ll get out of here.”
He was swinging his arms and keeping his focus on where his feet were falling. “We can be to the blacktop before daylight if we don’t waste our time bitchin’ at each other and we just walk.”
The tiny colored lights of Winslow were smeared across a distance of many miles and there was no way for us to estimate the expanse of desert we had yet to cover. We were certain to still be walking the two-track in the morning and Robert was likely to come upon us as he was driving to his job. While I was looking at Winslow’s glow Butch pointed away from the city in the direction of the southwest. Miniscule headlight beams bounced against the night and moved slowly across the horizon.
“That’s the Interstate,” he said. “We might as well walk straight in that direction and we can avoid going into Winslow.”
“Across that fence? Into the desert?”
“Got any better ideas? I don’t know what else to do,” Butch said. “It’s either that, or just sit here and wait for our pal Robert because he’s going to find us on this road if we don’t get off of it.”
He started toward the barbed wire. We checked our water bottles to make sure they had not fallen off and threw our packs over the fence and struggled to avoid getting snagged on the wire as we climbed into the open desert. For the next six hours, we picked our way through the prickly pear and sage, pulling cactus needles from our legs, stumbling over rocks and cutting ourselves on ocotillo while trying to measure progress in the direction of the far highway. Before the eastern sky had begun to brighten, we heard the sound of engines and tires across the four-lane roadbed. We were finally on the shoulder of I-40, standing in front of our packs when the orange circle of the eastern sun moved slowly skyward.
“All right,” I said, “now let’s hope the lord inspires someone to give us a ride so we can escape from one of his servants before he comes to get us.”
A blue Buick Riviera stopped almost as quickly as I had made my little sarcastic prayer and the driver energetically went to the trunk and opened it for our backpacks.
“I’m going as far as Needles,” he said. “Where are you fellas headed?”
“Flagstaff or Grand Canyon,” I answered.
“I’ll get you to Flag, then. Jump in.”
He was wearing navy slacks and black loafers with tassels. His shirt was powder blue and the thin blonde hair was combed back from a low forehead. I thought he looked like a salesman because he appeared to not yet be forty but had the fleshy middle of a person who spent a lot of time traveling, sitting, and eating. I was in the front seat again and Butch was expecting me to manage the conversation but I did not have a chance to find a subject before the driver spoke.
“How are you boys with the lord?”
“Um, I don’t know,” I sighed. “I guess we’re just traveling and not thinking about stuff.”
“Well, it’s an important question, you know. Our faith.”
I turned my head to the back seat to see if there was a reaction from Butch and discovered that he was rolling a joint. He might have been planning to smoke it in the car because he had returned to that place where he did not care about what other people thought.
“We aren’t thinking about our faith right now,” I said. “We think about food and water and sleep and getting a ride somewhere. We want to see the country.”
“Well, I should tell you about my faith then. My faith is so strong I believe I can close my eyes, take my hands off of this wheel, and the lord will steer my car.”
I saw Butch in the rearview mirror as he sat up straight but he did not put down his rolled joint and I thought he was going to light up.
“Well, faith is a powerful thing,” I said. “It can probably accomplish almost anything, don’t you think? It doesn’t really need to be proved.”
“It can even drive my car. You boys don’t believe me, do you? Looka here.”
“Sure, we do,” I said. “We really and truly do.”
I did not want to watch. We were in the right lane. As he rolled his head back and closed his eyes, the man driving the car slowly lifted his hands from the steering wheel and laid them in his lap. I reached halfway across the front seat and prepared to return the vehicle to its lane when it began to drift. Fortunately, he was driving a new car and the wheels were aligned and balanced accurately and we held a straight line for almost a mile before the car began to move to the left toward passing traffic.
“Isn’t that amazing?” He put his hands back on the steering wheel and turned to look at his passengers. “Isn’t the lord amazing? I prayed for him to take the wheel, and he did.”
“Yes sir,” I answered. “He sure is amazing.”
An eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer with a chemical tank mounted on its back whirled past doing about eighty miles an hour just as he had taken control of his vehicle back from the lord.
“Pretty amazing,” I whispered to myself.
Stretches of Route 66 were still visible from up on top of I-40 and we saw the dying motels and restaurants and tourist attractions along the nearly abandoned road. A few were still functioning but most of their customers were flying by at seventy miles an hour and were oblivious to the past and the romance of slower travel. The Interstate was not yet finished over the length of its east-west route and as it approached a city’s outskirts the divided highway forced the traveler to exit and pass through a local business stretch of Route 66. The bypasses of the downtowns were the last sections to be completed in the Interstate Defense and Transportation System.
The lord’s disciple let us out in the middle of Flagstaff at the Southern Pacific rail station. The railroad’s right of way ran very close to the course of the Interstate and we had seen several long trains crawling across the southwestern landscape and they had been made almost tiny by expanses of sky and earth. A hamburger place was having a special on a bag full of burgers and Butch went across the street while I sat on the bench in front of the station and stared silently at the 200 foot tall ponderosa pines on the side of the mountain range north of Flagstaff.
“You suppose we’re going to have to deal with the lord in the bottom of the Grand Canyon?” I asked Butch when he returned.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But if he’s going hiking with us I’m going to see if he’ll carry my pack.”
If we had money I am sure we would have taken the next train to Los Angeles instead of going north to the wilderness because Butch had a buddy out in California he had met in the war. Eduardo had been drafted and got lucky when he was shipped to a posting in Alaska but he told his commanding officers that he grew up in Southern California and would not be able to manage the dark and cold so he asked to go to Vietnam. They sent him and that is how he met Butch in Da Nang. They learned to smoke pot and stay drunk because they said there was no other way to deal with incoming mortar rounds at the firebases almost every night when you were trying to sleep. Butch said if we got to L.A. that Eduardo would put us up while we looked for jobs and then we could all go together and get a spoon of cocaine. I was not interested and still wanted to see the Grand Canyon and thought that was what Butch needed more than drugs.
While we were eating the greasy burgers out of the bag an old yellow Datsun with two longhairs inside stopped next to our bench. The driver got out and asked us if we knew where the toilet was in the station and we pointed him in the direction. His friend looked at our packs and asked us if we were waiting for a train but we said no we were trying to get to the Grand Canyon.
“Well, you can ride with us then,” he said. “If you don’t mind the smell of pot ‘cause that’s where we are headed, and we like pot, and we’re going to be getting stoned all the way up there. Can’t wait to see the canyon blasted.”
Butch smiled and we put our packs in the trunk. The driver came out and did not even make a comment when we slammed the lid and climbed into the back seat. He quickly went north out across the Kaibab and Butch waited for their first joint to be passed back but they kept it to themselves. Butch looked at me and I shrugged. The San Francisco Peaks rolled past out the window and then we were among the pines of the Coconino National Forest. Before I had taken in the scenery and thought about the grandeur we were arriving at a parking lot on the South Rim. We hardly spoke to the two people in the front seat and I only remember their long, dirty hair bouncing in the wind from the lowered glass. They were so stoned when we reached the canyon they looked at us like they had no idea we had been in the back seat and then they simply walked off toward a souvenir shop.
Butch and I sat on the low rock wall and spent about an hour just looking at one of the most wondrous views on the planet. We might have been a little bit stoned from breathing the pot smoke in the car but I do not think we would have been less enthralled with unclouded senses. There was still a lot of time left in the day and we went to the rangers’ office and got our hiking permit, filled the canteens on our packs with water, bought some dried food and nuts, and found our way to the Bright Angel trail head. In less than two hours we were putting up our tents at Indian Gardens about four miles down into the canyon. During our entire hike through the constant switchbacks Butch hardly talked no matter how hard I tried to engage him in conversation but I saw that he had energy and interest that I do not think I had seen in him since he had come home from the war.
“Let’s make our camp over here,” Butch said. He pointed to a spot not far from a group of five other nylon tents.
“Kind of close to everybody, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Ah, yeah, but that’s okay. Maybe we’ll make some friends. There are some girls there. Besides, it’s a great spot. Look at the light coming from the sunset on that wall.”
Butch set about unpacking and connecting the poles of his tent frame. I sat on a rock and watched him because I did not recall him this involved or interested in any slight or even great thing. Wood gathering was not allowed but I noticed our neighbor campers had a nice pile next to a fire pit set up by the national park service. I walked over and asked if we might share the fire they intended to build. We needed to boil some water to cook up a package of dehydrated beef stroganoff.
The canyon rim was a few thousand feet above and we were in shadows long before darkness. I hurried to get my tent up and was happy to see a small fire by the time I was finished. I filled water into a small pan I carried in my pack and then went over to the fire and introduced myself to four other campers who also seemed to be preparing their dinners. Butch walked up just as they had lit a joint and they offered it to him before he had even told them his name.
“Thanks,” he said. “You got any you can sell?”
“No, we’ve got just enough to keep us until we get back to L.A.” A girl with thin blonde hair and a pointed chin smiled at Butch. She had narrow square shoulders and a tiny nose and the smile he returned to her made me happy.
“Where are you two from?” A guy wearing loose beach trunks and sandals exhaled the question with marijuana smoke. I was not able to see much more than his legs because the night had come up so full and fast and he was outside of the fire’s light.
“We came down from Michigan,” I answered.
Butch turned to me and laughed. “Not me,” he said. “I’m from Vietnam. That’s where I came from.”
“You were over there, man?” the beach guy asked.
“Yeah, two tours. A year and a half. Kill, kill, kill. Just like they wanted.”
I was quickly back to worrying about Butch because he seemed to have gotten stoned on a few tokes and was again sounding angry.
“You killed people?” A taller and darker girl was by the fire now and she had heard Butch mention combat.
“Sure,” he said. “Lots of ‘em. Had to, or they would’ve killed me.”
“That’s fuckin’ awful, man,” she said.
“Well, I’m here and they’re not, so that’s all any of it means to me. I guess it was more fuckin’ awful for them than me.”
“You mean you weren’t fighting to keep us all free like they tell us?” the dark girl asked.
Butch laughed. “Fuck no. I was fighting to stay alive. That’s all. That freedom shit doesn’t have anything to do with Vietnam and you can ask anybody who carried a gun into the jungle.”
My water had been boiling on a grate laid over the fire and I grabbed the handle with a cloth and sat it bubbling on the picnic table. I tore open the stroganoff bag and dumped in the contents and stirred up a hot meal. Butch and I devoured the food in minutes and must have looked to the others like stoned out hikers with munchies but we had not eaten since the train station in Flagstaff and had also walked down into the canyon. We went back to the fire as soon as we had finished.
The guy in the beach shorts was waiting for us. “I’m gonna get drafted,” he said. “I know it. Just graduated from U.C.L.A. This might be my last summer on planet earth and I just turned twenty fuckin’ one. Ain’t that great shit?”
“You might not get drafted,” Butch said. “Just no way to know.”
“What the hell are you talking about, man? I drew number three in the lottery. I’m outta here. I bet my notice for physical induction is waiting for me when I get back to L.A. Hell, maybe I’ll never go back.”
“I wouldn’t,” Butch said. “Good chance you’re gonna end up dead if you go in. You look like all the guys I saw die. You could see it on ‘em when they showed up at the base for processing. Looked like they’d been captured and drugged up and woke up in Vietnam. Most of ‘em were dead in a week or two.”
“Fuck me,” the beach guy said. “Gimme that joint back.”
Another girl came over to the fire and put some wood onto it and we all watched the flames. We needed a different subject but it was hard to talk about the sky and the stars and the hiss of the Colorado below us when you knew death was nudging its shoulder between eight young people to get in front of our campfire. I looked up at the faces and they were mostly turned down toward the burning wood and flickering light. The girls may have been paired up with the guys but there had been no indication of any of them being together as couples. Butch was swaying a bit like he heard music that no one else’s ears were able to pick up and I noticed that when he brushed against the blonde girl’s shoulder she did not make a protest.
“This is all so fucking stupid,” Butch said more loudly than was necessary. “Here I am in the Grand fucking Canyon, surrounded by nature or god or whatever, in all its glory, and I can’t get away from having to talk about that goddamned war.”
“Hey man, sorry,” the beach guy said. “We didn’t know. We’ve gotta think about it, too, ya know.”
“Yep, I get it,” Butch answered. “But here’s what I’m saying: I’m never going to talk about Vietnam again. It’s over for me, I hope. Tomorrow, I’m only talking about this canyon and the Colorado River and the sky and whatever in the hell else. And this country, and our president, and the chickenshit congress, and Bell Helicopter, and Brown and Root, and every other fuck that made money off of dead kids in that war can go to hell. Okay, I’m done. Good night.”
Nobody spoke but they all watched him walk the short distance to crawl into his tent and in less than 15 minutes I heard him snoring all the way out to the campfire. I knew I would not sleep unless I moved away and I pulled my bag out of my tent and went to a grassy spot near a cottonwood and watched the stars roll over the top of the canyon until I slept.
Butch woke me up in the early light and whispered, “Let’s go.” I think he was either embarrassed or wanted to avoid further conversation about the war but it was clear he did not wish to see the other campers from the fire. We slipped away quietly and walked easily to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch where the tourists stay after coming down on guided mule trips. Water in the river was icy cold because it came from melted snowpack in that Rockies but the temperature on the sand by late afternoon was more than 100 degrees. Butch and I spent the day jumping in and out of the water and we watched the river rafters pass and scream with happiness as their boats rose up and bounced through the big rapids.
We slept on the beach without our tents or even getting into our bags and the river roared us to sleep. Unfortunately, as we were hiking up the increasingly steep Bright Angel Trail to the North Rim the next morning, Butch realized we were out of food. He had carried our provisions and because neither of us had been hungry in the morning he had not looked into his pack. Several miles and thousands of feet of climbing remained and I began to fret about energy and hunger. When we were still almost five miles from the rim I was fantasizing about food and found a butterscotch candy wrapped in yellow cellophane sitting on a rock.
“What do you think of this?” I asked Butch.
He laughed. “Why? What does it matter? It’s a candy. Eat the damned thing.”
“What if it’s laced with acid or something?”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Well, what if it is. Why’s it just sitting there on that rock? Looks to me like somebody put it there to be found.”
“Or just took it out to eat and sat it down and forgot about it?”
“Seems kind of strange to me. That yellow wrapper sure stood out though, didn’t it, like you were supposed to see it?”
“Yeah, but what’s wrong with acid? You could use a little trip, I think.”
“They say it can cause genetic damage. I guess I want my kids to be born normal.”
“Ha, that’s too funny, man. Your kids have no chance at being born normal, even without acid.”
I picked up the candy and unwrapped it and stared at it like I had never seen such a lovely and enticing thing. There was no way to tell if it had been dipped in LSD or urine. I popped it into my mouth and took my time dissolving the sweetness on my tongue. I may have been marginally crazed with hunger but the taste of that little candy still lingers in my memory after almost 40 years and it prompted Butch and I to make a decision to spend much of our remaining cash on a big meal at the lodge when we got up top.
There was a perfect day on the North Rim and no big crowds with cameras and mindless chattering. Sunlight made fluttering bands between the limbs of the ponderosas and there was a nice breeze of dry air. Before we went into the lodge I told Butch I needed to call home to check in with my ma. I was surprised he had not called his mother because they were very close but we had been out hitching for weeks and he had never bothered phoning. I thought it was because he was worried he might hear his dad had hit her again and his trip would be ruined and he would go crazy and want to go home and kill his father.
My ma was deathly worried about me and she had cried when I jumped over a hedge and walked away with a pack on my back and she had no idea where I would sleep that night or any other or even when she might again hear from me. Cancer had made it impossible for her to work again and I think she was hoping her eldest son might stay around and get work to help make the house payment and buy groceries but I knew I was too selfish to remain in Michigan.
“Hi Ma,” I said after she accepted charges.
“Son, is it you?”
“Yes, Ma. You okay?”
“I am. But is Butch right there with you?”
“No, not right by the phone. But he’s here. We’re at the Grand Canyon. It’s beautiful, Ma. I hope you can come see it some day.”
“Son, you need to go tell Butch his mother died.”
“Oh god. His dad didn’t…..”
“No, she had a heart attack. Poor thing worked two shifts every day since they got to America. It’s a wonder she lasted this long.”
“Yeah, I suppose. Ma, I don’t know how long it will take us to hitch home and we don’t have money for bus tickets.”
“I know, son, but Butch’s brother said that he would send you both money by Western Union to rent a car and drive home.”
“Oh, well, I guess I better go tell Butch. We’ll probably see you in a few days then.”
“I love you, son.”
“I know, Ma. I love you, too.”
I have often tried to recount the time I had to tell my best friend that his mother had died but I am not certain I could offer detail even the next morning. Butch wailed and hit things and ran and then fell on the ground and rolled on his back in the pine needles and he screamed at the sky and he cried loud sobs that sounded like he was dying, too. After a few hours he pulled himself together and called his brother for the money. We found out there was no car rental office near the North Rim and we needed to charter a small plane to fly back across the canyon. Butch’s brother wired the extra money and I told a park ranger what had happened and he drove us out to the dirt airstrip. Butch sat in back of the Dodge and sobbed, softly.
The park ranger came to a stop next to a single engine, propeller driven Cessna. A man, presumably the pilot, was circling the fragile looking craft and examining minor details on the fuselage, wheels, and prop. Butch and I dropped our packs in the dirt and he just looked off to the tree line and a group of cabins as I walked up and introduced myself to the pilot. The sky had turned a dark gray to the west and a wind was raising dust and pine needles and I began to wonder if my first flight in a plane was going to be in a thunderstorm over the Grand Canyon.
“Is it okay to fly now?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s fine. We just need to get outta here now so we can beat that squall line coming up the canyon from the west. You got the money?”
Butch was counting out twenties as he shuffled through the runway dirt and he handed the pilot $200. The pilot opened a latch behind a door and told us to slip our packs into the cargo hold and climb into the cabin. I got in first and let Butch set up front and hoped that being around a stranger in a close space might help keep him from crying. I did not know if the pilot understood our circumstances but as we rolled toward a cliff at the end of the strip he pulled back on the yoke and the plane rose as he yelled.
“Yee haw, ride ‘em cowboy!”
Wind hit the side of the fuselage right then and the plane slid sideways while continuing to climb. I saw the pilot’s face from where I sat behind Butch and he was expressionless but the plane started to bounce and slam and he was working very hard at control. He leveled off at a few thousand feet above the rim and talked to us in the headsets.
“Gonna stay here below the clouds,” he said. “Too tall to get above the rain. Shouldn’t be but about another ten minutes and we’ll be on the ground at the airport over there.
Butch and I looked out the window at the curving brown switchbacks that marked the trails we had followed for almost four days. The river made a clear blue line between the tall walls of rock and when I looked up there were yellow flashes of lightning against a purple wall of clouds. Butch did not seem afraid but he had been on helicopters and troop planes in Vietnam.
“It’s just all about dyin’,” Butch said into his mouthpiece. “Everything’s about dyin’. Nobody but nobody gives a damn about anything and we all just die. Some sooner than others, that’s the only difference. What’s the point? That’s what I wanna know.”
“Settle down, son,” the pilot said. “We’re gonna land here in a minute.”
“Butch? Come on, man.”
“No, I mean it. She never got nothin’ out of life but pain and work. And who the fuck cares? Not her husband, that’s for damned sure. Who the fuck cares about anything but themselves? Just take a look, will ya?”
“It’s okay, Butch. We’ll be home soon.”
I decided I was probably not ever again going to fly when we hit a pocket of rough air and the plane seemed to instantly drop several hundred feet and then sounded like it was going to break apart when the wings finally regained lift. We tilted sharply to the left and I thought we were going down in the canyon when a gust of wind hit us but the pilot lined up the paved strip on the South Rim and we floated down to the ground with the prop feathered and the wind settling.
A minute or two before we landed a shaft of sunlight came through a cloud and caught Butch in the eyes and I saw the tears running down his face. His sadness was beyond me but just as I was turning away he looked up at the sunshine and I was certain a slight smile crossed his lips. Maybe he saw something to live for or a reason to be hopeful but I did not know. I just knew he was my friend and I wanted him to be excited and happy about whatever there might be in his future and to stop hurting. I knew I could not give that to him, though.
As we angled our way back up the continent, Butch had repeated crying jags and kept the rental car running down the Interstate at close to 100 miles per hour. I was afraid but he refused to let me drive. Butch’s mom had always seemed old to me but she was only in her early fifties when her heart quit. The funeral was sad in a way that went beyond just losing a parent. I felt Butch became even more disconnected from any relevance or a sense of purpose. He was never interested in books or reading but Butch was always stuck on the big questions about god and the meaning of life, which I think was caused by the war. When I came home from college on the holidays and saw Butch he always appeared to me to still be in a kind of shock. I thought maybe it was the pot but it might have just been the difficult business of living.
Butch and I lost each other a few years after I graduated from Michigan State. I ended up on many airplane rides and traveled widely as a journalist. My own accommodation with the world and its issues was to take my happiness wherever I could and think about the deeper questions only when I saw value in contemplating the unanswerable. Whenever religion becomes a topic in my life I confess to being baffled but my mind still wanders back at odd times to that box canyon outside of Winslow and I wonder what the Navajo, Christian Robert has made out of his life in that lonesome spot. Faith confounds my pragmatic self even though I trust in some things I cannot see. I choose to believe Robert’s teachings provided for him and his wife and children his love of his god has been strengthened by the test of years. I have a harder time convincing myself the traveling salesman who let Jesus take the wheel has followed his religion. The road is not a gentle thing and offers too many opportunities for failure. Nobody passes the test of morality every night when there is a waiting hotel bar.
My memories of that time, however, tend to always drift to my boyhood friend. I did not hear about Butch or even get a note from him for a couple of decades but I was later told that he had moved down to Florida and had lived a quiet life taking care of golf courses. He had never married or had children and had mostly lived alone. I have a hard time thinking of him mowing putting greens and trimming fairways and going back to a lonely apartment to eat and sleep but we all have different needs and his may not have been great.
We never saw each other again but there are nights in the Texas Hill Country when I think about our trip as I am lying in my bed trying to sleep. Although I am an older man now and care less about some of the things I used to love, I can still almost feel the heat off of the sand on the banks of the Colorado down in the bottom of the canyon, and I am certain I hear the roar of that mighty river running a few feet from where I was lying on my sleeping bag. My imagination fixes on the fact that the Colorado was churning as hard and making as much noise on the day I first saw it as it probably was many million years earlier and it will be hissing and tumbling to the sea with the same power many million years after I am made dust. Whenever I think about that eternal river late at night it always sings me to sleep with memories of the brightly colored rock spires and blue and starry skies, and I know with certainty that no one will ever truly understand this world, and that mystery only makes it all the more wondrous.
I hope Butch thinks that way, too.