September '05 -- edited by Savannah Schroll
“Correct! Johnson beat Goldwater in 1964. Alright, now, the next question is: In what year was The Summer of Love?”
The five women and four men sitting around the table in the Eden Nursing and Rehab activity room alternately furrowed their brows and grimaced. All but one were in wheelchairs. The air conditioning was broken down, in keeping with the overall state of the facility and a large box fan whirred and rattled near the doorway.
“1965?” Alice offered.
“Wrong! The Summer of Love was in 1969!” Richard huffed.
“No,” Doomie said evenly. “That quickly-made-heartbreaking appellation was laid on the sweet summer of 1967.”
“Right again!” declared Eric, the young Float Aide and part-time Activity Assistant.
Richard pretended to applaud. Several of the group shook their heads as memories, in drips and torrents, returned.
“Now, I have question to pose,” Doomie continued.
“Uh oh!” said Tim, “here we go!”
“A last pose of summer!” Doomie said.
“Ah, jeez!” Miriam groaned. “He’s been saving that one!”
Doomie bowed and went on. “Since we’re all thinking back over a half-century to the old Summer of Love…at least those of us who were in any sense ‘there’ and also are still, in any sense, ‘here’…and since our present summer is quickly coming to a chilly close, I would like to ask the question -- both philosophical and historical -- what would, you who were there, judge to be the last day of the Summer of Love…symbolically speaking?”
There was silence for a moment. Eric didn’t think anyone would answer or was even following what he was saying, but then Alice spoke up again. “I say it was Woodstock!” she said. “That’s when the bubble popped.”
“No!” said Richard. “It was when the Rolling Stones did that thing in California with the Hell’s Angels and the guy died… Gutted him like a fish!”
“I think it was the day Bobby Kennedy was killed,” Miriam said softly, her eyes downcast.
There was another silence. Then Tim said, “For me, it was the day I landed in Nam.”
Tyrone, who rarely spoke, looked at Tim and then quickly away again.
“As usual, that’s an interesting and weird question,” Eric said, closing the “Fun With Boomer Memories” book he’d been reading from. “But I wonder what your answer to that would be Doomie.”
Doomie shrugged, causing his bones to show through his t-shirt even more. “I always connect the end of that thing…that era…that spirit that supposedly culminated or came into full-bloom in the Summer of Love with another Rolling Stones event…a song…music was central to everything, Eric…a song that came out months before summer. It was called ‘Ruby Tuesday’. It has a line, ‘Who could hang a name on you. When you change with every new day…still I’m gonna miss you.’ I can still remember…I was visiting a friend in college…and I was walking him to class…and there were some people sitting out on the grass with a radio and that song came on, and this friend turned to me and said, ‘You hear that? It’s over!’ And I think I tried to say something like, ‘No! No! Up with the revolution! The New Enlightenment! We’re just beginning!’ But in my heart I think I knew he was right. And it didn’t matter a bit if the Stones never thought about any of that when they wrote the song. What mattered was summer was over before it began.”
After the Morning Social, Eric pushed Doomie out to the courtyard and lingered a bit in his company as he usually did before returning to his regular aide duties. Sitting on the last remaining bench between two empty and broken concrete planters the younger man leaned his elbows on his knees. “It’s considered kind of beside the point these days,” he said, “but some of the stuff that went on in the 1960s really interests me, and I get the feeling you were up to your ass in some of what I would consider the best of it. I mean the others…I don’t know…they were alive, but I don’t know what else they were doing…you know?”
“I understand,” Doomie said. “And I of course I think your interest is worthwhile! All I know about the others is, Miriam and Tim…. Both Tim and Tyrone were in Nam…but Miriam worked for years on Civil Rights. The rest…who knows? Even in here, it’s birds of a feather, and unfortunately I’ve gotten too lazy to climb those particular walls. But as for me, I guess I’d say you’re right. For about two minutes I thought LSD was going to change the world. I thought we were on the verge on ending hate and war and finding our place in nature. I started early, and for sure, my life did change forever. If you’re really interested, I could recommend some books. Some novels, that is. That’s how you taste an age and its ideas. Straight history is secondary.”
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Eric said. He leaned down and drew his finger through the coarse gray sand between the paving stones. “Do you by any chance have a working video player in your room?”
“Doomie raised an eyebrow. “Yeah,” he said. “I get National Geographic movies and watch them before I go to sleep every night. What you up to, ol’ funky lad?”
“I’d like to come back by here tonight, if that’s okay. There’s something I’d like you to take look at.”
Two years earlier Gretchen, Eric’s girlfriend, had been teetering on a fine line between art and crime. She had a talent for drawing but got nothing from school. A deeply rebellious disposition coupled with a crushingly limited perspective had initially caused her to be drawn into a group of young freelance thieves with minds like rats. As soon as she dropped out of school, she began moving from one house or apartment, one group of small-time thugs after another. Their lives were geared to the quick and disposable and were financed day-to-day by petty crime.
At one point, she shared an apartment with two men, Dorke and Tom-Tom, whose specialty was breaking into cars. They mostly took alarm systems and entertainment units but also looked for weapons, jewelry and anything else that might sell and sometimes stole items like shoes or jackets if they looked the right size. Once, they stole what they thought was a porn video. Gretchen was sitting at the kitchen table when they came in that night. She had begun, by then, to meet people who encouraged her talent, and she was drawing in a sketchbook someone had given her.
The first thing Dorke and Tom-Tom did was put the video in the player and sit down on the couch. As the movie began, Tom-Tom already had his pants opened and his penis in his hand. Yet not five minutes later both men had had enough. “What is this shit?” Dorke said.
“I didn’t even get a hard-on!” Tom-Tom bawled, wagging his flaccid dick in disappointment.
Gretchen had been watching from the kitchen. The images on the screen intrigued her. There were nude white people with painted bodies. There were flashing lights and rolling clouds of fog. There was drum music. When Dorke pulled the video out of the machine and started to stomp on it, Gretchen grabbed it off the floor. “I want this!” she said.
She had initially thought about trying to sell it. It seemed like the kind of thing some of her new found gallery friends might buy. But then she forgot about it altogether. She didn’t notice it again until she moved in with Eric and at last emptied her backpack all the way to the bottom. The two of them had watched the mysterious movie several times. Gretchen called it “liberated,” and Eric admitted feeling “vaguely transported.”
When Eric went to the nursing home that evening, Doomie was waiting for him in the unit hallway. When they got to Doomie’s room, they pulled the privacy curtain between the beds even though Doomie’s roommate had been comatose for two weeks.
The surveillance camera was not a concern, the whole system having broken down years earlier.
Eric handed Doomie the video, and he put it in.
“If there were ever any credits on this thing, they got deleted somewhere along the line,” Eric noted.
The drum music came up, and the white people in body paint came on the screen and began to move.
“Well, holy shit!” said Doomie.
“You know what it is?” Eric hopped off the bed and crouched beside Doomie’s wheelchair.”
“Let’s just watch a minute,” Doomie said.
A little more than an hour later, the two men were back out in the courtyard. There were already a few stars visible, as the sun had begun to move south.
“Yeah, that little movie was called "Warm." It was made maybe 1966…and was shown at what people characterized as ‘underground events’ though that term was used pretty decorously at the time. Some guy named Klydo made it and then promptly disappeared, probably into the dirt. It was pretty popular. It was really pretty good for a first effort, don’t you think?”
“It’s really beautiful visually. Kind of compelling and…” Eric searched for a word.
“Yeah, but then again, it’s all beginning. All it is is a beginning. The people in the movie talk a lot, even though there’s no sound but Olatungi’s drum. And they laugh and ball one another and now and then a look of awareness passes over somebody’s face…. But they don’t really work at anything.” Doomie reached up and adjusted his hearing aide. “And that’s kind of like what we were saying today. That’s what brought what we’re calling the Summer of Love to an end and, in my opinion, precipitated this long, long, lethal and ever-colder winter we find ourselves in. A few were trying to understand what little boys and girls and the universe were made of and what the world was and what it could be. But then they sort of wandered off. They didn’t put their back into it. And most just came to party in the first place. It was like kids getting out of school for summer recess…I know they don’t do that now…but it was like suddenly, there was freedom. The stranglehold was broken! The joy just spread like wildfire! People who’d worked in the Civil Rights Movement…people beatin’ their bongos in all these little bohemian enclaves all over the country…the world…all doing the same thing! Trippin’ out…reaching for the stars…breaking the chains…the love…the energy… the community people felt! Kansas City…London…Rio…all in the same groove!” Doomie shrugged. “Can’t really convey the experience, but after sixty years that brief moment is still with me.” He took a long, deep breath and looked at Eric.
“I think I get it pretty good,” Eric said.
Doomie kept his eyes fixed on Eric. “I think you might,” he said. “Maybe next time, dear brother. And there will be a next time.”
“The other thing…” Eric said, “is that tomorrow is supposed to be my last day.”
“Gee, what a surprise!” Doomie shrugged.
“But the fact is, I’m not coming in.”
Doomie sat thoughtfully for a moment, then pulled his wheelchair closer. “Listen,” he said, a foot from Eric’s ear. “I wish you the best of luck in whatever it is. But please be aware that you’re not as invisible as you probably think you are. You’re up to something…thank fucking god! But you’re a little bit like a puppy. If an old multi-infarct, half-blind motherfucker like me notices, other people who watch…you know the ones…they may notice too. You understand?” Doomie grinned and reached out his hand. “You, dig?”
As Eric drove into the night, he swerved to avoid potholes on the Interstate, tried to keep his speed down and thought about his new identity. Tomorrow “Eric” would disappear into thin air, as would “Gretchen”. They were joining the Union of The Unsubmitted and Unembedded. The Network of Truth to Power. They were entering a life in the shadows…a life on the run. A life of hope.
“Warm” slid off the dash and hit the floor as he swerved sharply again just before his exit.
As they had parted company Doomie had said, “Don’t forget the prisoners!” And earlier he’d said, “Maybe next time!” Eric put his hand on the top of the car’s side window and forced it down. A blast of air hit him full in the face. It felt like it was headed straight for zero. Eric put both hands on the wheel. He straightened his back and leaned his face into the wind.