He sat on the edge of his cot looking tired, angry and agitated, like a tea kettle at full boil about to blow its top. He was dressed in a forget-me-not multi colored Hawaiian shirt. His faded blue jeans were held fast by a wide leather belt, armed with a buckle the size of a mature snapping turtle shell. His boots were from the West, the gold chains around his thick neck screamed Miami, which is where he was headed before he was waved off I-95 earlier that day. Now he stewed with the rest of us on top of a hill overlooking Richmond.
We observed him for a while. His feet tapped in a rhythmic beat to a tune we could not hear. We agreed this was someone who was not likely to be cooped up any longer then necessary.
Later that evening we all stood in line together with the other storm refugees to receive our dinner which consisted of a peanut butter (no jelly) sandwich, baked beans, slaw and a sweet berry fruit punch that reminded me of long ago forgotten childhood diseases. Gordon struck up a conversation about our shared fate. When he told us he had to be at a best friends wedding in South Florida within the next 36 hours, we knew right away we had our ride to freedom in hand.
Before the next mornings light we were long gone down the back roads of eastern Virginia searching for a clear path back to the highway. The 67 Chevy was a beater, all growl and no style, but good enough to sweep us away. I recall the windows didn’t quite close all the way; the roar of the engine muffled all attempts to have a reasonable conversation. I claimed the back seat only to notice that the rear floorboards were rotted away in places, exposing the road passing beneath like an endless conveyor belt carrying us along. I imagined if we hit anything solid that old rust bucket would evaporate into a cloud of dust, expelling the three of us into blissful eternity.
Armed with service station road maps we navigated our way south, eventually picking up I-85, just the other side of Petersburg. Most of the traffic on the Interstate looked local with cars moving in both directions. We crossed into North Carolina and shortly thereafter were dropped off on the south end of the bridge that crossed the Roanoke River. Large signs warned of bridge closure however no one seemed to be particularly alarmed. Our friend, who’s name I don’t recall, turned east to catch I-95, and all of life’s mysteries awaiting him further south.
The rivers and creeks through the Carolinas remained high but the sky was clear and the early summer air was aflame. A couple of swift rides with miles attached for extra measure added up to a record sprint into Atlanta late that evening. Earl found us eating pecan pie in a Howard Johnson’s just north of the city. It was a most joyous reunion. Eventually Earl got around to telling us that we could not stay at his house in Marietta. His parents were never big fans of ours and I could hardly blame them. On two other occasions we had blown off the highway into their settled lives, turning everything, at least temporarily, upside down. Our long hair and hippy dispositions stood out in Marietta like bright toadstools in pasture paddies.
We paid for our pie and prepared to leave the restaurant. To this day I don’t know why I did it. It was not my nature then or since, nor did it prove anything but I did it any way. As we left the Howard Johnson’s to walk to Earl’s car I spontaneously grabbed a Georgia State Trooper summer dress jacket that was hanging on a hook by the back door. It was there, and I took it, later stuffing it into my backpack like a one of a kind souvenir suddenly there for the taking. It wouldn’t be long before that jacket would provoke significant anxiety, but at that moment I felt I was in charge, the world, and the jacket, mine for the taking.
Marietta was located a short 20 miles northwest of Atlanta but it could have been a world away. This was the summer the blockbuster movie Deliverance was released, a Georgia backcountry story that was filmed in the immediate area. Broken down trailer homes peppered the two-lane curb less blacktop roads that snaked through the tall pines. Red clay ruled. Everything and everybody was sooner then later enveloped in red dust. After a passing rain, the clay turned slicker then ice and stuck like glue to anything exposed. But it was the heat that was unforgettable. Georgia in late June is simply oppressive. A chain gang of pestilence unleashed by the burning sun upon all living things. The sodden heat infiltrates the lungs and restricts breathing as if you were buried alive. There was no relief unless you escaped to one of the restaurants along the highway that had air conditioning. Otherwise you had to simply endure, as the sweat gathered and ran like a hot buttered rum morning, noon and night, drenching clothing and attitudes alike.
Our plan, never fully thought through, was to crash on borrowed couches and look for employment in the construction industry that was in full bloom in the Atlanta area. A new high school was under construction in Marietta, which is where we began our search. Despite our counter culture looks the foreman offered us day laborer wages that we gladly accepted. With a handshake we agreed to show up promptly the following Monday morning to begin hauling bricks to benefit the future students of Sprayberry High School.
Our host that first weekend was a friend of Earl’s who’s mother had left with her boyfriend for a few days to visit relatives in Macon. Earl’s friend had a younger 12-year-old brother who was unable to look you in the eye due to a rearranged face. His deformity was the result of being hit with the backside of a shovel when he refused to feed the dogs.
On Saturday night we elected to head into Atlanta to cool off and drink in one of the few establishments that didn’t take the meaning of legal drinking age too literally. Most of these institutions were located in the Underground district of Atlanta, a warren of below ground bars and fast food joints that were all interconnected. Most important, they were all climate controlled.
A night of heavy drinking, arm wrestling and acting like morons was followed by an even longer evening back in Marietta trying to keep from hydroplaning off the Naugahide couch on a river of sweat. Every so often one of the many stray dogs that called the house their home would walk past smelling like the innards of the random road kill they had consumed earlier for dinner.
As the sun rose overhead I pealed myself off the couch and assembled myself as best I could in the yard. The area was strewn with old cars in various stages of dismantlement, tires and trash. An oversize three-legged dog was leashed with a chain to a tree on the perimeter of the property. I stumbled around the yard cursing the morning heat; the hung over taste of animal droppings coating my throat was prevalent. I came across an air rifle propped against a tree. I picked up the rifle and took mock aim without any particular target in mind. After a few minutes of playing GI Joe I replaced the rifle where I had found it and thought no more about the weapon. That is, until Earl came wheeling into the gravel driveway a short time later with his window down screaming for me to immediately gather up my belongings, and Gordon, and jump into the car. What I did not know at the time, but was soon to find out, was that our host’s little brother, with the flattened face, had taken it upon himself the night before, out of boredom or revenge, to shoot out the windows of his neighbors house down the hill while we were all in Atlanta drinking cheap beer and luxuriating in a climate controlled meat locker of a bar. By the miracle of synchronicity, at the very moment the full measure of the damage was being realized I was seen walking the property with the weapon in my hand. In a furtherance of multiple miracles that would descend from a higher power that day, a friend of Earl’s learned that I had been implicated and called Earl to warn him of certain trouble brewing. I never did find out what possessed the kid to shoot out those windows or why he had to pick the divorced wife of the Sheriff of Marietta’s house. All I knew was that in a matter of moments we were lying prone on the back seat floor of Earl’s car being driven out of town in a blizzard of dust and gravel.
Forty-five minutes later Earl dropped us at an interchange where we checked into a mid-rise budget hotel along I-75. Gordon and I had enough money to buy a room for the night. Earl made it clear it would be best for everyone if we passed on the construction job and kept moving rather then to explain why we shouldn’t be arrested, being the longhaired degenerates we were perceived to be. Earl promised he would return later that evening with a pack of his friends for a farewell party. We had not been in Marietta 48 hours. It was now clear we were going to have to extend the boundaries of our geographical experiences once again. A call to my parents the night before from the bar in Atlanta assured them that all was well and that I would be living in Georgia for at least the next month before returning to Massachusetts. They would not know for three weeks that our plans had suddenly changed the very next day.
Gordon and I spent the day swimming in the outdoor pool of the hotel to the horror of the families vacationing along the side of the highway. Later that evening Earl returned with a half dozen of his compadres armed with a bell jar of Devils Piss, weed and a deep desire to trash every inch of our hotel room, which they proceeded to do.
In the course of two hours an ounce of weed was torched and a liter of Devil’s Piss consumed. Around 10:00 there was a knock on the door. The entire room was only 15 x 15 feet in size yet there was so much smoke in the room you could not see who was standing at the door once it was opened. Standing there was a front desk clerk holding a fire extinguisher. Total perplexity played with his eyebrows as he tried to make sense of the situation. “Someone reported a fire on the floor” he blurted. As the smoke billowed like a poltergeist out of the room into the common hallway we assured him that there was no fire and that everything was going to be fine. After he left I turned to Earl and made it clear that my 17-year-old nerves were shot and that he and his buddies had to go. Understanding that the matter could quickly escalate Earl agreed. We hugged our goodbyes and he and his pals disappeared down the hall. As I watched them walk toward the elevator I noticed a number of faces darting in and out of doorways looking in our general direction. Their faces registered a combination of fear and anger at the perversion that was in their midst.
After our guests left Gordon and I made a clean sweep of the hotel room removing as much contraband and incriminating evidence that we could find. Burned rolling papers, roaches and empty bottles of liquor and discarded paper cups. All of it had to go. We bagged all the used bottles and cups and stuffed the remnants of our going away party into the evidence bag. It was about this time that Earl called from a neighboring Waffle House restaurant begging us to join him and his buddies for a final goodbye dinner of chicken fried waffles and Dr. Peppers. We hustled out of the room to the elevator with our trash bag. The glances from random guests we passed in the hall were ugly but we didn’t care. We had recalibrated our ambitions to head west toward Colorado. By that time the next day we were sure to be three states over, and another one high.
The next day we learned that the front desk clerk with the fire extinguisher had returned to our room after we left to alert us that the manager of the hotel had called the police. We were next-door elbow deep in fried chicken without a care in the world. In fact, we were so sure of ourselves, and so magnanimous in our worldview that we insisted that Earl’s friend tell the Sheriff that INDEED we had shot out those windows. We reasoned by the time the full extent of our fake lawlessness was discovered we would be across the border and our friends would not be left to foot the bill for the damage inflicted by flat head.
After we consumed all we could eat we said our goodbyes, for the second time, and returned to the hotel to clean up the room one more time, repack our gear and take advantage of the fine plumbing and climate controlled environment that only a first class highway Marriott could provide. We watched TV and drifted off to sleep.
At approximately 2:00 that morning there was a loud knock, more like a persistent banging, on the door. As he was in a bed closest to the door, Gordon got up and asked who was there. I heard the door lock click and then abruptly the door was kicked open by the foot of one of the two Georgia State Troopers or possibly by the dirty sneaker of the plain clothed narc that led the charge into the room. As the lights flooded the room Gordon was told to hold his hands high facing the wall, legs spread. He was quite a site in his tighty whities and long black hair. I was ordered to remain sitting in the middle of my bed that by this time was stripped of its blankets and linens.
I should interject that it didn’t take long to realize that this squad of Georgia’s finest was there to bust Earl whose name they kept repeating. “Where is Earl”, “When did he leave?”, or “where did Earl go?” Earl was a first class celebrity in Police circles and it was clear they were hot on his trail. Over the next 30 minutes the police went through every piece of garbage looking for incriminating evidence. It was at this moment that I realized two inexplicable truths. The first was that our own friends were at that very moment no doubt preparing to to tell the authorities that we had indeed been directly involved in the window incident in Marietta. The second realization was that there was a Georgia State Trooper jacket stuffed in the bottom of my backpack. A black and tan time bomb waiting to go off at any moment. I was so struck by fear that my emotions pushed through to the other side where I surprisingly became a wise guy. The narc, a pasty faced dirty long haired son of Satan asked us for the “the last time” whether Earl was with us that evening. I replied that I didn’t know anyone by that name and if it pleased the officers we would like to go back to sleep if they were finished.
I count my blessings every day. That night I made some big promises to the Almighty and sure enough the police never found any incriminating evidence nor did they fish deep enough in my backpack, swollen with dirty laundry, to find the jacket.
As the narc turned to leave the room he snarled and spit out words that I wasn’t soon to forget
“If you’re not out of Cobb County by 9:00 in the morning we will return and find something whether you have it or not”
With that they were gone. Gordon was finally able to peel his arms off the wall and by daybreak we were heading north on I-75 toward Chattanooga, Nashville and ultimately west to Boulder Colorado where more adventures awaited. I left the jacket hanging in the hotel room closet along with Fred, and didn’t return to Georgia for another 20 years.