Song of the Eclectic Tambourine is about the strength and fragility of friendships, and a generation in conflict; pitting humanity versus expediency, compassion versus profit, and self-interest versus altruism. It begins in 1968 when Marc Amati falls in love with two young women as disparate as the political climate of the times. Lilly Garrett is a courageous, self-styled flower child, committed to non-violence, ending the Vietnam War, equal rights, and social justice, while Mary Belinda is wealthy, talented, beautiful, and determined to achieve the fame and stardom her mother was cheated out of by McCarthyism, and Hollywood sexism.
The conservative residents of Marc’s hometown are suspicious of Mary, her father, and her past. Some feel she has been a willing participant in pornography, while others, including Lilly, feel she has been the victim of child abuse. Mary accepts neither scenario. Everything has been a step toward stardom, and Marc is an unexpected, but key player.
Marc is profoundly influenced by what he learns from, and because of, both women. His sense of justice and integrity comes from Lilly. The strategy of patience – changing the world a little at a time – comes from Mary, as well as the pain from failing a loved one. Through the years, Marc crosses paths with both of them, taking and giving in kind, while finding his place in the world. For him it is a coming of age in stages: from a boy to man, to a man optimizing his talents, to a human being hoping to make a better world. Both women face their own ordeals as they attempt to succeed in a hostile society, including the possibility of violent death – Mary being a strong-willed woman in the recording industry, and Lilly in a series of social and political endeavors. Marc finds he may be the one who can unite their goals for a greater purpose.
Song of the Eclectic Tambourine is complete and is available from Lulu.com. and Amazon. It is available as an E-book, download, or trade-size paperback. Hardbound editions are not available to the public, but can be arranged – just let me know.
Copyright © 2010 by Ronald De Torre
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the publisher except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages.
< CHAPTER 1 >
Supply City 2004:
When Henry Merida and I finally landed a major sponsor and moved Amati/Merida Racing to Colorado Springs, it wasn’t long before I discovered something interesting about the culture of my adopted state. Physical fitness was a passion for many. One consequence of this was people tended to take over unused land – no matter who owned it, and what the plans were for it – for hiking, biking, running trails, or dog runs. Up until 1990, Manitou Springs – a town nestled between Colorado Springs and the foothills below Pikes Peak – had an incline train that took tourists up a slope to the false summit of Mount Manitou. The track rose in elevation 2011 feet in a little more than a mile, the steepest grade reaching 68 percent. Amid residents complaints that the thing was an ugly “scar” on the side of a scenic mountain, falling income, and rising maintenance costs, the incline was shut down, the tracks ripped out, and the mountainside posted, “No Trespassing.”
The ties remained, though, like a giant’s stairway to the mountains. Almost immediately, the local enthusiasts realized climbing the incline was an excellent way to train for bicycle racing, one of the passions of the state, and the signage was regularly (and routinely) disregarded. I suppose the incline was good for anything that required leg strength and endurance.
Physical fitness, something not commonly recognized as required of a racecar driver at the time, is never a bad thing. I allowed myself to be cajoled into trying this exercise. Somewhere beyond halfway, right in that 68 percent part, I decided I’d had enough from my burning thigh muscles, aching knees (yes, both of them, not just the one injured racing stock cars), hammering heart, and lungs struggling for breath. I decided to turn around and climb back down. I believe my exact words were, “This is bullshit.”
Immediately upon reversing my stance, I realized my mistake. I felt a great deal like a fly on the wall as I looked at the railway bed stretching away below my feet to the rooftops of the town below, which had shrunk to miniature-railroad-landscape proportions. I quickly had to turn around again, terrified that vertigo would make me lose my balance. In spite of my aches and complaining lungs, knowing that once I got to the end I could take a different trail down, I decided up was the only way to go. I just took one step at a time, hoping once I reached the end it would all be worth it. That was all I could think of, not looking right or left, taking one step, one railroad tie, after the next. I couldn’t think too far in advance, just one step at a time. Soon, I’d taken enough steps to reach the top of the incline.
I did return to the incline on more than one occasion, because it was worth it, if only for the feeling that you’d taken a challenge and beat it. While you’re climbing, you’re thinking, “Why am I here?” but once you’re down, it doesn’t seem so bad.
But remember, the incline only took me to the false summit of the mountain. If I wanted to get to the summit, I had to find another trail. Sometimes, the toughest struggle only gets you partway there. Only in my early fifties, I had no doubt that Supply City very well might not be the top of the mountain, but only a place to pause and catch my breath.
The Eclectic Tambourine was one of five bar/restaurant/night clubs in the town of Supply City on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. It was run by Horace Merida, the son of my old partner, Henry. It was a convenient arrangement for me. The name had come a long way – a teenage folk-singing group in the sixties, a rock band in the seventies, and now… It pleased me on some level to remain faithful to one part of the name: eclectic. The ET’s house band was not dominated by one player or one style, and we could easily slip in a hard rocker for the kids, or a country tune for the red neck at the bar, or a folk song for me.
It was September; and soon the downtime between summer tourist season and ski season would arrive, but the crowd was still a good one. After our first set, I slipped out the back door for some fresh air. The Colorado nights were getting colder; there was a bite to the air. Here, on the back deck that overhung the fledgling Colorado River, off the streets where the sounds of what little traffic there was that time of night was muted, I could still hear the elk bugling in the park, and in the Arapahoe National Forest to the west. The constellation Orion glittered brightly in the night sky, low on the horizon behind Shadow Mountain, and overhead I recognized a brighter Cassiopeia and Andromeda. A sluggish breeze brought the earthy odor of the riding stables from down the street, and the dusky smell of wood smoke from the fireplaces of the condominiums and summer homes. Snow would be coming soon.
A good band, an honest way to live, comfortable guitar, a peaceful place to live and work, and a beautiful night – life was good, what else could anyone ask for? I never had a wife and kids, but then again, I’d never had to get divorced, survive a cheating wife, or lost my kids to a drunk driver, an unjust or unwise war, or some screwy classmates with their parents’ automatic weapons in the school lunchroom. But time was passing for me, Marcus Mendoza Amati, and there were times when I thought about the inevitability of old age, the things I had lost and gained over the years, and the little things I’d hoped I’d been able to do to make the world just a bit better for everyone.
“Hey Marc?” Nick Saint John had snuck up behind me while I was woolgathering. The band’s personnel were always in flux, depending upon the time of year. That night it was made up of the usual suspects, locals and up-and-coming kids, except for Nick. He, his wife, and two sons, were out west vacationing, as they did almost every year. He was sitting in on drums that night.
“What’s up, Nick?” I said as I straightened. “Your kids asking for beer again?” The ET also had a brewery, and Nick’s teenage boys sometimes pretended they didn’t know the difference between root and real. Actually, they probably were in the shred club down the road.
“No. Everybody knows them here. You ought to take a look at this lady. There’s something funny about her. I don’t think so, but she might be…”
“Who?” I asked, but Nick just rolled his eyes. “And why should I care who she looks like if she’s not who she looks like?”
“I didn’t want her to take you by surprise… To throw you off in the middle of a solo…”
“Ah, anything for art, huh?” I clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s take a look. Where is she?”
“She’s at the bar. Of all the gin joints –”
“Stop. No Casablanca clichés.” Nick just looked at me. “Hope she has sense enough to order the house ale. Is she alone?”
“Yeah. Alone. You’re an asshole, ‘Dozer. Always have been.”
“You’ve known me a long time, Nick, and you still haven’t figured out I come from the planet Winston where we invented tobacco and brought it to Earth to kill the local population. My real name is Joe Camel. Take me to your leader, earthman, and we’ll smoke.” I chuckled and stepped off the redwood deck and down to the cobblestones that ran between the buildings toward the street. Nick followed me, grumbling under his breath. My western boots clacked on the uneven surface, and I felt a twinge under my arches. I was going to have to stop wearing those high heels on long sets…or at least sit on a stool.
Most of the tourist traps were closed for the night, but there still were a few people on the main street. I could see a group of leather-clad, gray-haired bikers milling around their Harleys down by the Bloody Mary, and a few well-clad campers in their un-scuffed, virgin Rockports admiring the art galleries through the windows.
The cobblestones gave way to flagstone on the sidewalk in front of the ET, and a few crisp aspen leaves that had fallen from the trees planted along the street crackled underfoot. Nick followed me through the swinging doors. Inside, the ET was dim, but not dark, and now that the set was over, the televisions were showing the Diamondbacks playing the Rockies. In the back was the stage, with our instruments under the spots waiting for the next set.
“When do they start the playoffs?” I asked over my shoulder.
“Couple more weeks. Every year the season gets longer. The Series won’t end until November if it goes the distance. Both teams missed the playoffs by a wide margin. Halfway down the bar. Bleach blonde.” I let my gaze follow the bar, past the three other solitary drinkers, and though I had primed myself for it, my heart nearly stopped.
Seneca Lake 1968:
The first time I saw Mary Belinda, it was 1968, the summer before my senior year in high school. When she walked through door of the little pizza pub we were playing that night, I noticed her right away – I was a healthy seventeen-year-old, after all – but I quickly tried to put her out of my mind. She was just another great-looking girl I’d never have a chance with, just another summer person with more money than good uses for it, just another older girl who would ignore me. Later, I would realize it was her intention to seem so much older, worldly, cool, and aloof. She sat down at an empty table and waited for her take-out order, looking bored with the whole ordeal.
Seneca Lake is located in south central Pennsylvania amid farm and dairy country in the Allegheny Mountains. Summer weekends jumped there, but Mondays through Thursdays, places looked for attractions to bring in business, and even kids like us could find gigs. Since we were minors, pickings were slim, but we found some nights at a place called Rock’s Pizza and Rib Haus, playing mostly for tips and free pizza. The pizzas were tasty, but you didn’t want to recommend the ribs to anyone but mortal enemies. Some nights, if the business was good, the owner of the place gave us a couple of bucks as a bonus. We still called what we played folk music, because you did what you could with two fifty dollar guitars and a ratty amplifier, but folk music was passé, replaced by folk rock, then psychedelic. There were three of us: along with me were Nick Saint John, and a guy named Teddy January, who had snagged the amp. We called ourselves the Eclectic Tambourine.
They called 1967 the Summer of Love, with hippies and love-ins, the summer Jim Hendrix and Janis Joplin burst onto the scene at the Monterey Pop Festival, and except for the specter of Vietnam, it seemed like heaven compared to ’68. I suppose we could have called 1968 the Summer of Hate. Bobby Kennedy had just been killed and only two months after Martin Luther King. Politically, everything seemed to be falling apart for everyone except Richard Nixon, who looked more and more as if he would be elected President.
The owner of the Haus had asked us not to do anything too…controversial. Considering the place and the alternative – not having a gig – we agreed. We sang songs like, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and Blowin’ In the Wind and the like, but mostly pop songs that sounded like folk music: Simon & Garfunkel, Peter and Gordon, Donovan (sans Mellow Yellow), or the Everly Brothers.
The war in Vietnam had been grabbing our attentions since the late fifties. My older brothers were fortunate as their prime draft days had passed before the shit really hit the fan after Johnson took over as President, but for my friends and me, its shadow loomed. After high school, I would be prime fodder to be drafted, given a gun, and shipped to the mysterious orient unless I got into college and earned the accompanying student deferment. College took money, so Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, I worked days at the Alpine Yacht and Country Club, pumping gas in the marina, renting boats, and giving sailing and SCUBA lessons. I could have worked at my dad’s boat dealership, but the Alpine paid more, and besides, I sensed Dad approved of my streak of independence.
The music was mostly for fun, and maybe one day it would be my way to strike against the war. My dad had told me I’d never make any money playing the guitar. To him, music was not work – or at least, not respectable work. I really agreed with him, but from another perspective – I wanted to build things: cars, bridges, roads, buildings, and maybe even get a chance to go into space – that’s what I wanted my life’s work to be.
We finished a set a little after Mary came in, and the owner told us we might as well clear out. It didn’t take long to wipe and case the guitars, and Nick and I helped Teddy haul out the PA and load it into the back of my dad’s ’63 Bel Air. It was a huge rectangular block of a car with a trunk that could hold half of everything I owned. The amp, mike stands, and all the cables fit inside of it. Our guitars would go in the back seat while the three of us sat in the front seat. I’d parked along the edge of the back lot, so we could see around the corner of the building to the front lot. Nick poked me in the ribs. “Get a load of that,” he pointed. “Didn’t we see some of those when your brother took us to the road races in Cumberland?”
The sports car races at the Cumberland, Maryland airport were a yearly event and a big deal. Drivers from all over the country would come to compete in their Porsches, Cobras, Corvettes, Mustangs, not to mention the more exotic dedicated race cars, like the Elvas, Lolas, and McLarens. It was one of the coolest things my brothers had done for me. I loved watching those cars; listening to the engines, smelling the burned racing fuel, and seeing them dance around the corners. Someday, I thought, I might do that, but that story is for later.
What Nick had seen in the parking lot was a Porsche 550 Spyder, like the kind James Dean was driving when he was killed. “I’ll be damned,” I said, and there she was, walking out with her pizza boxes. She tossed them into the passenger seat, and hopped over the door. I’d seen that done in the movies, but I never would have the guts to do it myself. Never mind the damage it might have done to me if I’d misjudged, but you could mess up the leather seats. Initially, the sight of the car compelled me to cross the parking lot, but on the way over, I started to appreciate her: the long brown hair, the penetrating eyes, and they way she filled out her jersey…
“That’s a really nice car,” I said when I shambled to a stop. She spared me a dark glance, turned the key and hit the ignition switch. For the first time I really saw her as an individual, not just some girl: the high cheekbones, pixie chin, elfin nose and dark eyes that seemed to look right through you. The engine roared on with that peculiar Porsche air-cooled, coffee-grinder sound that felt to the ears so much better than I could ever describe it.
“My dad bought it,” she snapped in that husky contralto voice then turned to back out of the lot. Before she moved, though, she whirled back. “You’re one of the singers, right?” I nodded, not able to squeak out any more words. “You’re not bad. You need better equipment, though.” Then she started to back out, the rear tires squeaking just a little.
“Do you sing?” I called out behind her, impulsively – I used to get in a lot of trouble acting that way, “You sound like you have a nice voice!” She flipped her hair with a wave of her hand, and then she was gone.
“What a bitch!” Teddy said behind me.
That weekend, Teddy and Nick found me at the Alpine marina. Since I handled the sailboats, I worked from eight to six altogether, and ten to six on the sailboats since that’s when the wind normally blew. It was close to six, and all my boats were in and no one was fool enough to go out with the wind dying, so I was packing up the sails and the rest of the gear. I watched my two friends walk up the catwalk looking like they’d just come from a funeral, with their heads down and their hands in the back pockets of their shorts.
“Hey, guys,” I greeted. “What’s up?”
They looked from one to the other and Nick said, “Teddy’s got to tell you something.”
“Okay. Give me a minute here. I’ll finish this stuff up and meet you at the picnic tables by the beach.” They agreed and moped their way back to shore. In five minutes I had my equipment locked up, I clocked out, and ran down the catwalk, oblivious to the floats bouncing on the water. “What’s going on, Teddy?” I asked as I slid onto the seat next to Nick.
He had his head in his hands and shook his head slowly. “I can’t play with you guys anymore,” he said.
“Your parents?” I jumped to the wrong conclusion.
“No, it’s the music we’re doing. All that peace and love shit… It’s been bothering me, you know? If we don’t stop the Russians in Vietnam, we’ll have to stop them on the streets of LA, you know?” I was stunned. How could anyone agree with the war? I mean, if Dylan, McGuinn, and Harrison said it was wrong… To guys like Nick and me, it just looked like President Johnson was propping up a corrupt government just so he wouldn’t look bad. It was a quirk of our generation, I guess – things that seemed perfectly obvious to guys like Nick and me, were perfectly unacceptable to others. “You guys can still use the amp – I won’t leave you high and dry for that.”
It took me a moment, but I’d known Teddy too long to argue with him. What mystified me was how I could have been Teddy’s friend, and completely missed this. “I didn’t know, Ted. Sorry. We can do different songs… We already tone them down for Rock’s.”
“No. It’s just, you know, the music scene is just too…”
“Like, not manly enough.” That set me back. I’d never thought of it that way. What could be unmanly about singing? “You guys are in the school choir and all…”
“He’s saying we’re homos, Marc,” Nick said, tongue-in-cheek.
“No! No! Not you guys, I know you’re not. Marc’s on the track and football team and Nick wrestles…”
“That’s okay, Teddy,” I said, “And thanks for the amp.”
“There’s something else, too.” Ted dropped his hands from his face and drew little circles on the spotted tabletop. “I’m thinking of enlisting after school. I want to do my part. I’m sure Nixon will end it by then, but just in case…”
I nodded. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. We were all afraid of the war – the draft – at least I had assumed we were. But there was that duality again: what some of us thought of as immoral and sickening, others thought were valiant and heroic. “I never knew you felt that way,” I said at last, then realized something. “Some of the things we said must have really pissed you off.”
“No, no. I know you guys didn’t mean it personally, but if there hadn’t been so many protests, the war might be over already. It’s just giving the Reds more hope that we’ll leave them alone.” He got up. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay, Teddy. Hang in there, and good luck.”
“Good luck to you, too, guys.”
He brushed off the back of his shorts and walked off through the trees. I said, “I’m not so sure he isn’t right, just not the way he thinks.”
“You saying I’m a fairy?” Nick asked.
“Well, if you are, I am, too, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the war. The protests might not be helping the Reds, but they might have made McNamara and Johnson just that much more stubborn – more determined not to have to admit they were wrong. You know, like you in Miss McTiernan’s English class. My dad’s like that, too. The more you try to push him one way, the harder he pushes back. I’ve seen my brothers go through a lot of grief that way.”
“Humph. What are we going to do?” Nick asked.
“You want to kidnap him to keep him from signing up?”
“No, not about that! About the group.”
“Feel like a duo?” Teddy or I usually shared the lead vocal while Nick sang a low harmony. Three-part harmony was more comfortable for both of us.
“I guess we’ll have to. He said we could still use the amp, but we should start looking for another system.” While he was talking, I watched a spotless Century inboard, the Cadillac of runabouts, rumble toward the marina. The woman inside looked familiar, but I didn’t make the connection right away. She was kneeling on her seat as she steered toward the dock. I could only see her from the waist up, and she was only wearing a bikini top. “Damn! Will you look at that?” Of course, Nick had seen the same thing.
No one had yet moved in to help her dock, so I jumped up and ran out to the catwalk, not caring that I had clocked out. I pounded along, causing the dock to bounce on its floats again, and out to the berth she was aiming for just in time to catch the bow and hook her line to the cleat. The first thing I noticed was she had a bunch of kids in the boat with her. Surely, she wasn’t their mother. A quick check of her left hand showed no wedding ring, though some of the summer people took off the jewelry while on the lake.
I asked the first words an Alpine employee learns: “May I help you?”
“No, thank you,” she replied coolly, “We’re here to use the tennis courts.” That’s when I saw one of the kids in the back pull out a duffle bag full of racquets. All of them either wore membership IDs on a chain around their necks or pinned to their clothes somewhere. The driver had hers pinned to her shorts.
“Great,” I said, imaginative as ever. I backed away from the boat, and the kids piled out and ran across the dock toward the shore. The young woman hung back, paused for a moment with her back to me. The top of her head came to just above my shoulder. She turned around.
“The other night – did you mean what you said about my voice?”
That’s when I realized she was the girl in the Porsche. She looked much younger and less harsh than she had at Rock’s place. I raised my eyebrows and nodded: I thought she either hadn’t heard me or was ignoring me. “Yeah. Do you sing?” I continued to labor under my first impression of a woman rather than a girl – but younger now. The word that came to me was pixyish – in a bouncy mature way.
She looked uncomfortable, and lowered her eyes to look at her bare feet. “Not really.” She whirled and walked stiffly after the kids. Nick raised his eyebrows after she passed him on the shore.
After I joined him, he asked, “Can I have a ride home? Teddy drove here.”
“Sure, no sweat.”
“I could watch that girl walk all day. What did she say?”
“She wanted to know if I meant what I said about her voice. She’s the girl from Rock’s – I didn’t recognize her right away.”
Nick was surprised, too. “That’s her? The one Teddy called a bitch?” We didn’t have to pass the tennis courts on the way to the employee parking lot, but by unspoken agreement, our feet took us that way (or maybe it was some other organ that led us). We were hoping to watch her play, but she was only watching the kids. She was still barefoot. As we passed, she turned toward us.
“Wait.” We stopped. Frowning, she asked, “Do you play tennis?” Nick and I looked at each other, and I spoke for us both.
“Yeah, but employees can only play on days they’re off duty. That would be Monday for me.”
“Good,” she nodded gravely. “Bring your friend. About ten. We’ll play doubles. My name’s Mary Belinda, by the way.”
She wore a sleeveless white blouse and blue shorts. Mary teamed with me (her idea – she chose the teams), while her friend and Nick tried to play together on the other side of the net. None of us was any good, but Mary and I managed to put enough hits together to pull out the match. Somehow, I managed to concentrate on the ball bouncing instead of her. Her friend was one of the kids who’d been on the boat, and to Nick’s chagrin, kept blathering on about junior high. She (her name was Betty, I think), and Mary had come in the sparkling Century again, Nick and I in his dad’s pickup.
Sweaty and arm-weary, we gave up the court and retired to the picnic benches. “Whoosh!” Mary exhaled as she plopped herself down. Reaching behind her head, she freed her ponytail from the little elastic loop that held it, and shook her hair out. “That was fun! We’ll have to do it again someday!”
“That last serve was mine to return,” Betty complained as she sat on the same side of the table as Mary and I, leaving Nick alone on the other side.
The glare he shot me while the girls weren’t looking said, “Can I go now?” but he meekly sat down, smiled and nodded.
Betty glanced at her watch. “Oh! I almost forgot! I have to meet Mom at the beauty parlor – and I have to shower first. Forgive me Mary?” Mary nodded. “Nick?” she held out her hand, “It was nice to meet you. Thanks for the game.”
Nick took her hand, just touching for the moment before she pulled away. “’welcome,” he said as Betty hurried away. With a sigh, he looked from Mary to me, then slapped both hands on the table and announced, “I think I have to pick my dad up. Can you get a ride home, Marc?”
“Sure,” I said, “I can hitch a ride with one of the guys at the end of their shift.”
“I can give you a ride if it’s somewhere we can get to by boat,” Mary offered.
I nodded, “If I can get to my dad’s dealership, I can walk home.”
“Let me guess,” Mary smiled and chuckled, “Amati’s Starcraft and Mercury.”
“Bingo.” Looking up at Nick I thanked him for the game and he said we’d talk later. Alone on the bench, Mary and I both sighed at the same time. For several painful seconds there was silence.
“So… Alone at last,” she said at last.
“Yeah… Say, would you like to go to the clubhouse and get a Coke?” I reached for my wallet, but she put her hand on my arm.
“Later. And my daddy’s a member, so it’s on me. I want to talk to you first. What you said about my voice… Could I be a singer?”
A vocal coach I was not. I had been blessed with what others had told me was a rather plain, but pleasant tenor voice. All I knew about the craft of singing was what I had been taught in two years of high school choir – but I knew what pleased me. Her spoken voice pleased me. “Why not? Haven’t you ever sung before?” She shook her head. “Not even in the shower? Have you ever played an instrument? Read music?” Again, she shook her head.
“I’ve never been very interested in singing stuff. I used to twirl baton and dance when I was little. Mostly we listen to classical music around my house. Don’t look at me like I’m some kind of freak.”
Somewhat stunned, I could only gape at her for a moment. “I’m sorry. It’s just hard to imagine no one ever wanting to sing. My parents told me I could sing before I could talk.”
“I don’t see how that could be possible!”
“Well, I think they meant I could mimic parts of songs before I made any sense talking. You know – stringing sentences together.” I thought a moment. “Look, I’ll hum something, and you copy it. Ready?” She nodded, and I hummed part of a Beatle song. She repeated it, accurately and on pitch. “Well that sounds good. You should take lessons or something.”
She frowned. “That’s not what I had in mind. Could you get me started so I can figure out if it’s worthwhile to take lessons?”
To spend some time with a beautiful girl like her was something I could only hope for, and here was the opportunity falling into my lap. “I’ll tell you what, if we can get together somewhere, I’ll bring my guitar and some lyrics, and see what we can do.”
And that’s how it started.
Over the next couple of weeks, we met, sometimes with Nick, at either the Alpine or the state park across the lake. If it were at the Alpine, Mary would always come in her Century. If we met at the park, she sometimes would drive her Porsche. She reminded me, then, of Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary, only she didn’t have the range. Later on, of course, she would develop that dynamic range and delicate expression that made her so much more than the usual rock singer had. Nick and I could teach her only so much, and after a while, we were doing a trio. Mary would have to sing all the melodies because she couldn’t hold her pitch on a harmony, and her voice was so low, I usually had to take a high line, sort of like Sonny and Cher. Nick didn’t like it much, but I thought it worked. In fact, Nick was uneasy about the whole thing.
“Her daddy’s a member at the Alpine,” he pointed out. I had related to him the tales about employees who had fraternized with members. When things went bad, and they always did, it was never good for the employee.
“Don’t worry, Nick. It’s not like that. We’re just singing.” I enjoyed being with such a beautiful young woman – and being seen with her – even if Nick did not.
In the days we practiced together, we didn’t talk much about each other. I did find out her father was a developer, a Nixon supporter (in fact, they’d been close friends when they knew each other in California), and they lived outside of Pittsburgh in North Hills, but she used to spend a lot of time in New York City. Her mother died when she was six, but she didn’t tell me of what, and I had been reluctant to ask. The kids that had been with her in the boat had been cousins and neighbors.
Mary took the music seriously. At one point, as I was singing, I caught her looking at me thoughtfully. When I asked her what was wrong, she countered with a question of her own. “What does it feel like to you when you sing?”
Then it was my turn to be thoughtful, because I never had to explain it to anybody before. I played through a couple of scales waiting for something to come to me, and Mary waited patiently. At last, I said, “Singing is like acting, I think. You have to believe what you’re singing is either happening to you or has happened to you.”
She nodded. “Ah. Attitude. I understand attitude.”
Suddenly concerned that she might be missing the simple joy of singing, I asked her, “Why? How does it feel to you?”
“It feels okay,” she nodded seriously and running a finger along her lips. “It feels good to be working at something again – to think that maybe I might be good at something again.” I must have looked puzzled, and she waved her hand. “Never mind.”
We were at the park, waiting for Nick to show up. We were sitting at the high water mark, where the grass came up to the sand, making a natural bench if your butt was on the grass. We had taken our shoes off, and while we were talking, Mary was digging grooves in the sand with her heels, then pulling the sand back in with her feet pointed inwards like some flesh-colored reverse snow plow. I watched her do that a couple of times, when it occurred to me how perfect her feet were.
Looking from mine to hers, it was the difference between a gnarled tree and a graceful flower. Her skin was soft and smooth, and her toes fanned out in exact proportion. My feet were lumpy, angular; full of blue veins, my arch high, and my toes a disaster. It wasn’t just because she was a girl – I’d inherited the Amati Family genes. All my brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, and nieces had the same feet.
Impulsively, I took her hand. After an inquisitive grunt and initial resistance, she let me hold it up to mine. Her fingers were long and delicate, perfectly proportioned (again, like a doll’s) the nails even and un-chipped. Without any conscious thought, my gaze traveled down to her feet again, up past her ankles, calves, thighs, her shorts covering hips Sophia Loren would have been proud of, her waist perhaps a little thick for conventional beauty, and her breasts – though not Loren-like in stature, those could take your breath away if you weren’t prepared for them, especially if you were seventeen. But I didn’t linger there. Her neck, her ears…
I was startled by her gentle laughter: like the sound of bubbling water. “Did you just discover I was a girl?” Dropping her hand, I turned away, feeling the mad rush of blood to my face, and horribly embarrassing, to other parts farther south.
“I – you have beautiful hands and feet,” I managed.
“Thank you,” she said, not making any mention of my other transgressions. When I glanced back at her, I noticed she was showing a blush of her own. Her smile was gentle and understanding – I hoped. I had to remind myself, she was a summer person, a girl who drove a Porsche, no doubt in college already, and I was just a going to be a senior in high school and drove my dad’s old Chevy.
“Hi, guys! Sorry I’m…” Just then, Nick chose to galumph down the shoreline, and saw right away something wasn’t right – or at least normal. “…late.” With a great deal less enthusiasm, he set down his guitar case and sat down on the grass himself. “I guess you asked her, huh?”
“Asked me what?” Mary looked at him. I thanked God Nick had a clue, but the wrong one. Nick looked to me and raised his eyebrows inquisitively.
“Well,” I began, and then had to clear my throat, “We’ve always been a trio, and we lost our third. We were wondering if you would like to join us for some gigs – I mean shows. Would you like to try performing?” Nick and I had agreed to ask her to join us – even with his reservations. There was safety in numbers, and we both agreed that with the music we did, a trio was always better than a duo. Besides – and this was why Nick agreed – wouldn’t a beautiful girl help us get better gigs? Better paying gigs?
“Rock’s was asking when we’d be coming back,” Nick added.
Mary shook her head violently, making her lush hair fan out wildly. “Not Rock’s Pizza and Rib Haus,” she said vehemently.
Nick shrugged. “What’s wrong with Rock’s? It’s hard to get jobs in bars…”
“There’s nothing wrong with the Haus, but I think we have a chance to do something bigger – to be part of something that matters,” Mary said, and leaned towards me earnestly. “Look… Do you have any original stuff? Songs that you wrote?” Nick and I looked to each other miserably.
I began to say we didn’t, stopped, thought some more, and then said, “Well, we know a lot of traditional folk music arrangements. Maybe we could put some new words to them.” Maybe…I’d never tried it. Maybe was a stretch.
“Okay,” Mary went on, drawing a circle in the sand, “Just a couple will do, just as long as we can say we are an original band, and not just a… What do you call it?”
“Cover band,” Nick replied.
“Right. Cover band. Listen, there’s going to be a peace rally at West Virginia University in Morgantown. There are going to be lots of bands and folkies there. We’ll have an assigned time and location. They are going to spread them out among the lawns and the campus buildings so nobody steps on anyone else. We won’t even need a sound system; they’ll have it all set up. If I get you the paperwork to fill out, would you guys do it?”
“Is it a paying gig?” Nick asked, but if he hadn’t first, I would have.
“No. It’ll be just for the exposure, and a good cause. You guys want to end the war, don’t you?” Nick and I looked toward each other. It was a dangerous time, and all too easy to end up on the wrong side of a polarizing issue – and on your old man’s shit list. “Come on, guys, are you in or out?”
“You told me your father was a Nixon man. How is it going to be with you?” I wanted to know.
She shook her head, looking smug. “Don’t worry about my father. That’s my problem. Will you do it?”
Again, Nick and I looked at each other, this time with our hearts sinking. Mary was handing us a chance to put our money where our mouths were. Did we have the guts to do it? Would we be able too? Nick spoke for both of us. “Probably not. It would be a tough sell. Playing for tourists and kids at Rock’s is one thing, but going out of state to a college campus, no less, where there’s sure to be drugs and homosexuals… For a peace rally, no less… Our parents…”
“Will you try?” she asked.
Through the years, it seemed to me, folk music had been the conscience of America. There was more to the lyrics than moon and June and croon. That was one of the reasons I’d been attracted to it. I’m sure Nick had his own reasons, but he’d never contradicted me. From the beginnings of the labor movement, to the Great Depression, through the civil rights crusades, the Vietnam War, cleaning up the environment, and Women’s Rights, folk music had been there to remind us of what should, and could be, linking the lessons of the past with the present. People like Huddie Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Barry McGuire, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton, had smoothed the way with intelligent, perceptive, empathetic lyrics that drove demagogues to distraction. The message spread through their admirers and imitators in countless big-city basement coffee shops and college campuses.
But Nick and I were only in high school. I’d assumed that when we got into any of that stuff we’d be on a college campus, and among like-minded students.
I looked into Mary’s eyes, remembering how I’d felt just a few minutes ago. I was hooked, and could do nothing else but try, and Nick would back me.
When I asked my dad about the West Virginia gig, he stared at me a long time, took a long drag on his Chesterfield, tossed it to the floor and crushed it with his shoe. We were in the dealership showroom, but it was late in the day, and he and my brothers were getting ready to close up shop. He took me behind an eighteen-foot runabout, and grabbed my hair playfully. He was a big guy, and even at age sixty-seven, he could hurt you, but I dared not flinch.
“I wish you had a crew cut.” My hair was shaggy, but not shoulder-length. No one was going to mistake me for a Young Republican. “And sometimes I wish you’d get this music business out of your system.” He let me go. The one advantage I had was having lots of older brothers and sisters to watch and to see the mistakes they made. Then, if I was smart enough, I could avoid them, and the grief that went with them. I had more freedom than anyone else in my family ever had, and I knew why – my parents could trust me. I stood silently. I had already asked my question. From watching the mistakes of my ten brothers and sisters, I knew that to press my case now would only push him to oppose me. He rubbed his chin and looked at me through squinting eyes. I knew he would turn us down. As an ex-Navy man, Dad was all for supporting the war until it was won.
Then something happened that scared me. Dad started to look sneaky, and Dad wasn’t a sneaky guy. His eyes got even narrower, and he looked at me down along his nose as he tilted his head back. “You guys don’t take drugs, do you?”
Just answer his questions, I told myself. “I don’t. Nick doesn’t, and I’ve never seen Teddy take ‘em.” This was where I thought I was pushing the envelope. I wasn’t going to tell him about Mary. Going with a girl would send his thought processes off in a direction I didn’t want him to go. He was going to assume Teddy was still with us. If he ever found out, I could claim I had never actually said Teddy was going.
“You’re just going to sing. No partying, no drinking, no bars. You remember what happens when you get drunk,” he said.
I did, and I pursed my lips involuntarily. Once, when I was eleven or twelve, my grandfather got me drunk on one can of beer. It felt like I was floating, and everything my grandfather or uncles had said that night sounded hilarious, and I couldn’t stop giggling. Granddad thought that was a riot, but to his defense, he believed I was having a good time, when actually it scared the shit out of me. I had no control. Somewhere inside I knew what was going on wasn’t that funny, but I couldn’t stop. Since then I preferred not to lose control that way. I was abundantly impulsive as it was. After a deep breath, I went on. “We get there, do our set, and then get out. Just Friday and Saturday nights.”
“No protest marches. No confrontations with rednecks or police. If trouble starts, you leave – high-tail it out of there.” I nodded my head. Get in, sing, and get out. “Whose vehicle are you taking?”
“You are keeping up the maintenance, right? Is everything ship-shape?”
“I just had the brakes done last week.”
Dad nodded. “I’ll have to clear it with your mom. I suppose I’ll be hearing from Nick and Teddy’s folks?” I shrugged, not wanting to commit here. If he was expecting a call from Teddy’s parents and didn’t get one, he might call them… He just kept nodding. “I’ll clear it with your mother.”
“Thanks, Dad. Everything will be cool, you’ll see.” When I walked off, I should have felt elated, but that wasn’t the case, and I knew why. Dad was hoping something would happen – something that would change my mind about music, demonstrations, and the war. Something was going on here that I wasn’t getting. I was skating on thin ice, and I hoped it wouldn’t break.
I was nervous about the whole thing – testy and short with everyone in the days between. Deep down I knew something wasn’t right, but chose to ignore it. Remembering the way Mary looked at me when she proposed the plan I took courage and heart. She had bestowed upon me a maturity I had never felt before. Maybe I should have known – should have trusted my second impression and not my first. Even after all these years – even after Mary herself explained the importance of misdirection and attitude – I still feel like I should have known. But if I had it to do over again, I don’t think I’d change a thing. I would have tried it anyway – because Mary wanted it that way, and I trusted her to know what she was doing.
Nick and I took traditional arrangements, and some old church music and written anti-war lyrics to fit. I wasn’t happy with them. They were trite and over-used, but I hoped since they said what everyone wanted to hear, we’d get away with it. For Friday night, I had managed to get one of the night shift guys to cover so I could leave the Alpine early. We’d be getting to Morgantown well before it got dark. I still would have to get back for Saturday morning, go back to Morgantown Saturday night, and back to work for Sunday morning, so I was facing a long weekend. Mary drove her Porsche to Rock’s, and since it had no top, snapped the cover over the seats. Until the Haus opened for business, it would be the only car in the lot. Before she finished snapping the cover, she produced a guitar case from the passenger seat.
“What’s this?” I asked crossly as she slid it into the back seat of the Chevy, “I thought you couldn’t play?” Changing plans at this late date wasn’t something I wanted to deal with.
“It’s for you.” She smiled in spite of my tone. Tonight she looked once again to be the cool, aloof woman I had first seen. “I told you we needed some better equipment. It’s my dad’s guitar. I want you to play it.” I opened up the case. Inside was a classic acoustic Gibson Hummingbird. I gasped.
“You want me to play this? This thing cost five hundred times what mine does!” She nodded, still beaming. I pulled it out as if it were a fragile piece of pottery. The action was quick, but the tone was dull. “Strings are old. Nick? I have a set of Black Diamonds in my bag over there. We need to get rolling if we’re going to make it on time. Would you mind changing these strings?” He agreed, and volunteered to sit in the back seat and work while Mary shared the front seat with me. Nervous as I was, conversation was the farthest thing from my mind. Nick’s doodling on the Gibson from the back seat calmed me some.
So did the way Mary looked. She would be the natural center of attention, and she would be singing all the melodies. That seemed to take some of the weight off my shoulders.
Route 219 south took us into Maryland (Please Drive Gently, the signs said), and I intended to take Route 48 all the way into West Virginia and Morgantown, but a roadblock stopped us just on the other side of the West Virginia line. “Cripes, what is this?” I wasn’t exactly asking a question as I stopped behind a yellow VW mini-bus with “Dump the Humph” painted on the back in the midst of paisley designs and daisies. There were at least ten cars in front of the VW, and cops were moving alongside, making drivers open the windows. Occasionally, they would pull somebody out – always young, or with long hair, or dressed in splashy colors or “hippy” garb. “Shit, they’ve got guns, and dogs, Nick.” German Shepherds on leashes trotted along the yellow divider, pulling their masters with them.
“They’re looking for drugs,” Nick mumbled from the back. Louder, he asked, “You’re not carrying any dope, are you, Mary?”
“No,” she answered almost inaudibly, and shook her head. “I hope it’s that. I hope nobody saw the car.” Before I could ask what she meant, we were surrounded by state troopers.
“Then we should be okay,” Nick concluded hopefully.
A glance in the rear view mirror showed me a whole bunch of police outfitted with shielded helmets and riot guns trotting up behind us. “This does not look –” I started to say.
“OUT OF THE CAR, YOU THREE! KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE WE CAN SEE THEM!” I heard the voice came from a bullhorn about a foot from my ear. “Christ!” I heard Nick mutter as our Chevy was pounded mercilessly with the butts of three or four riot guns.
I never had a chance to open the door since it was thrown open for me, and I was roughly grabbed and pulled out. “Turn around! Hands on top of the car!” I couldn’t even protest. My legs were thrust apart; my head was slapped from behind, making my forehead bonk the top of the Chevy. When I turned my head, I could see the sky, the mini-bus in front, and a cop pushing a guy with long, greasy hair under a leather cowboy hat, and wearing leather vest, and flowered shirt. The cop had the guy’s arm pulled up behind his back and the hippy was whining, “Oh, wow, man, chill out. What kind of hassle is this?” Terse conversation swirled all around me. “Is this her? Don’t worry, you’re safe now, miss. Take her back to the squad car. Search ‘em.” These came from close by, from the West Virginia troopers and local cops. From farther away came, “Hey, police brutality, man, let ‘em go.” and, “Dirty Pigs!” From farther away, Mary’s voice: “I’m okay, I’m okay. I’m sorry, Marc!”
“Mary?” I tried to raise my head, but it was forced back down on the roof, making another bonking noise. The guy in the hat was out of my field of vision. My hands were grabbed and pulled around behind me while my jeans pockets were pulled inside out, and my wallet was liberated. Something cold and metallic was snapped around my wrists and I started to panic. “What’s going on?” I managed. “What did we do?”
“You have the right to remain silent…” I was read my rights as I lay against the side of the Chevy. When it was over, I got my answer. “Kidnapping, grand theft, rape, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and crossing state lines to avoid prosecution, for starters. After we search your car, probably drug possession and conspiracy to riot.”
“They’re all minors, Sarge. Take it easy,” one cop said. Then it must have been Sarge who said, “Then search the car. Tear it apart. They have to have drugs. Everybody else in this parade does.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone pull the guitar cases out of the back seat. Steel strings twanged. Out came that beautiful Gibson, the perfect finish flashing in the late afternoon light.
Panicked even more at my sudden realization of what they were about to do, I tried to pull away. “No! Not the guitars! There’s no dope-”
That’s when someone hit me with the butt of a riot gun. I think my head made another bonking noise. I heard wood splinter, and I thought Mary screamed, but I didn’t care any more.
Continental Divide Raceway opened in 1959 and actually closed permanently in 1983. It was located two miles south of Castle Rock, Colorado. The road racetrack was 2.8 (or 2.66 depending on your source) miles in length. The facility also boasted a half-mile banked oval, and a drag strip. In 1983, the land sold to a developer who immediately bulldozed the pavement. As of the date of this writing, the land remains undeveloped.
Supply City, of course, does not exist. If one would happen to try to find the location I chose, one might find him- or herself with a trespassing citation, or in the middle of a herd of very annoyed elk.
To Patty – who knew I was going to do this and married me anyway – you have my love.
The names of many actual songwriters are in this tale. To those, and others who went unnamed, go my thanks. Your songs may never have actually solved any problems, but they helped people like me feel as if we could.
To all those who shared music with me, I wish we never had to stop.
To the good members of the Continental Divide Region of the Sports Car Club of America who I raced and worked with, my years with you were rewarding ones.
While Seneca Lake does not exist, the model was a place I spent some of the happiest times of my life. Thanks to all those who shared it with me, family, friends, and especially John Patrick, the best friend I ever found. You made it a special place.