“What’s your name, sweetie?” The barefoot woman in a flowing muumuu smiled as she straightened the garland of flowers in her abundant brown hair. I shaded my eyes through my hand from the bright summer sun to discern the source of the laughing voice. What I found was a portrait of a round face with green eyes sourcing a bright smile through red lips and white teeth. Her off-the shoulder muumuu accentuated her fulsome figure. I almost expected a hula. Instead she reached out for the joint I was studying and passed me her unlabeled bottle of anonymous brown liquid. The leaves on the large maple trees surrounding our campsite did their hula with the sun and the breeze.
Later that night the wide open sky would draw my and her focus to the Big Dipper, Orion and the other heavenly bodies which I rarely saw in the city.
Our merry motley band of vagabonds were a random collection of tie-dyed, long-haired, bearded men, some were paired, and some not, with women who held us close, smiled, laughed, cried with us and mostly listened to our anti-everything ranting. They were breaking from their mothers’ role-modeling, but not as far as they would have wanted. Most often, we traveled in caravans of VW buses, school buses, or other such marginal conveyances. Sometimes we just met up.
That summer day was like many in the mid-sixties. Itinerant groups of young people camped on the shores of lakes or rivers in the West, far enough from cities, towns and villages to avoid the anti-hippie hecklers and actual violence-doers. The scene in the various cities we drove through had gotten too radical, too political and even too dangerous.
” Puddin’ Tame. Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same,” was my stock answer whenever anyone wanted to pry into my anonymity. We all had road names, some derived from popular culture, like the Marx brothers.
“Well, that’s kind of rude, Mr. Puddin Tame. I don’t believe that’s your real name, sweetie,” she said with a smoky giggle. “Now my real name is…” At which point I reached a hand over her mouth and shook my head.
“No,” I said. “No real names here. Not now, not ever.”
“I can find out, you know, sweetie. I know people here and besides, you’re kind of cute and I never roll in the clover with a no-name roamer.”
I don’t remember who was gone first the next morning, she or I, from the bower we had spent the night in by that beautiful lake in Oregon. We never saw each other after that. Though I hadn’t given up my name, she did give up her favors. But apparently someone did reveal my identity; one of the few who was not comatose in that meadow by that lake at the end of the dirt road where tents and campfires and guitars punctuated the night. That revelation would visit me much later.
There were a lot of changes happening everywhere in America and especially in my family back in the time some are calling the “roaring sixties.” My crowd of young under thirties just wanted to piss off the older generation. Graduating college made me uppity to my relatives who hadn’t had or taken that opportunity. My pony tail got a lot of abuse and threats with scissors. But the topper was when I burned my draft card while I was in the chorus of other long hairs chanting something about the President, LBJ. My family had apparently seen it all on the evening news.
“It’s your damn duty to serve your country.” My dad, uncles and older brothers yelled into my ears through my long hair. “We did it, why are you so special? Are you that chicken-shit?” They wanted to know. I didn’t think I was a coward. I just agreed with Mohammed Ali, when he said, ‘I got nothing against them Viet congs’.
But the dogs of war were in hot pursuit and I had dodged and ducked and run so long that I missed out joining a National Guard unit to hide in and the Peace Corps had no more empty countries to volunteer in. I sure as hell didn’t have time or the inclination to get a marriage deferment. Besides the government was moving the goal post of deferments about every month. I had considered lighting out for Canada when my draft lottery number came up and I was called in for a draft physical.
After waiting mostly naked in lines of other nervous young men who were convinced their lives as they knew them were about to end. The docs checked my urine and blood samples and even x-rayed my feet. I dressed and waited an eternity until my name was called, a young doctor waved me over to his table and presented me with his findings.
“You have flat fleet,” he said, apologetically. “I’m sorry to inform you that none of the military branches will be able to use your services.”
I was still fastening my bell bottom trousers, when I stopped, looked into his very young face and asked, “Does that mean…?”
“Yep,” he said, “Rest assured your boots will never be on the ground ‘over there’.”
“Hell no, I won’t go.” Didn’t have the same cachet for me anymore. All I could continue to shout was: “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many boys have you lost today.”
So, I stopped watching Dan Rather report on the corrupt government in Viet Nam and closed my ears to the body counts after I recognized names and faces in the newspaper from my school classes. And I continued to get high and dropped farther out of what was still the ‘mainstream’. But I maintained a distant solidarity with the guys in uniform who didn’t have that option.
Eventually I grew older and maybe a bit wiser. I went back to school, collected a few more degrees and put myself on the corporate market. In order not to be outed in graduate school or on the job, I stored, even hid the old pictures of the protest uniforms of long hair and bell-bottoms. One never knows when evidence of a past life might cause concern in a future one. But memories are memories, after all.
All that history had recently been lurking in the dark corners of my memory when one late summer evening so many decades later, the doorbell rang, taking me away from the football game in my comfortable three-bedroom, two bath suburban home. All brought to me and my family by the middle-class life I had acquired with the help of those several college degrees earned after a career of protesting this or that social ill.
“Hello, can I help you?” I asked of the thirty-something woman with an abundance of brown hair smiling on the other side of the screen door.
“Elliot Palmer?” she asked, her voice rising to pose the question.
“That would be me, yes,” I said, looking for the petition to sign or the donation envelope to fill.
“I think we’re related,” she said with a smile and added, “Sweetie.”
I must have looked as dumbfounded as I felt but suddenly indefinable warmth came over me as memories of a far-off Oregon lake in an almost forgotten youth flooded my senses. Unexpectedly and indescribably a weight dropped from somewhere in my psyche. I didn’t immediately respond to the smiling young woman before me, but a smile began forming around my mouth and even in my eyes. And then the words came to me: “Please come in. I’ve been waiting for you, sweetie.”