>>> This is my seventh "NoPo at HePo" (Non-poetry at Hello Poetry) upload. I would like to thank everyone for the reads AND the responses. I am also so happy that others have joined me in sharing short stories and essays here at our beloved HePo. It is a new way to share your writings here, Fiction or Non. I hope you enjoy it. If you choose to join in, PLEASE place the notice ">>NOPO@HEPO<<" (so that folks that look for them can find them and folks that wanna skip them, can skip them!) This piece is a non-fiction essay that is my personal coming-of-age story, telling the tale of my running away from home and hitchhiking across America at 17, for my first Love.
Summer of Love
“Sometimes at night, I see their faces ... I feel the traces ... they've left on my soul.
And those are the memories ... that make me a wealthy soul.
I tell ya those are the memories ... That make me a wealthy soul.”
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
It was the summer of 1980 and I’d just got off the phone with Alicia. She was now up in Detroit with her Mom. Even though she had been gone only a few weeks, it felt like years. It was the summer before my junior year in High School and I was hating every minute of it. I missed her like I couldn't believe.
I first saw her one fall morning, when she boarded our school bus. In my small community of Moon Lake, Florida, everyone knew everyone. How could this vision of beauty ... this Angel with long blonde hair and a smile that could blind you ... be hidden around here without my knowing? You see, I lived on this side of Pasco County for a long time. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. But she appeared out of nowhere. I'm sure this mystery intrigued me as much as her beauty. My buddy, Larry, knodded up towards the front of the bus as she came up the steps and turned into the isle.
When you lived here ... you had very close friends ... and talking without talking comes as second nature when you’re that tight. When I saw her, I almost died. She was just so different from all the girls that I was used to being around (Not that I lived around a bunch of ugly girls, it’s just that there was something different about her). She was drop dead gorgeous, Well, at least to me she was. I've always been attracted to the "Girl next door" type.
Larry got up and gave her his seat and at first I thought ..."What a dog!" But he didn't think fast enough, as now she was sitting next to me and her head was at my level! I got as nervous as I could possibly be ... Then I asked her what her name was and where she was from. I'm sure I did so with little quips and jokes because I was quite the jokester in school and I remember her smile beaming at me as she answered. She told me how her and her ex-boyfriend had gotten into trouble at school and whatnot. Her parents sent her down here to live with her Grandma so that she could finish the last three years of high school, only going home during the summer.
I knew her Uncles and her Aunt. They had been in school with me for years. But we didn't hang out too much so I had never heard of 'Lisha, or about her coming to stay for the school year. The mystery was solved. But now it was time for an adventure! I had THEE most unbelievable crush on her you could ever imagine. And we hadn't even gotten to school yet!
She was in my grade, but she had none of my classes. That was no problem; in my school most of the staff liked me a lot and in turn, I got away with a lot. I could wrangle up a hall pass or get permission to go and "Thread a film" for another teacher almost at will. Don't get me wrong ... It wasn't that I was a bad kid. I was just say ... Very mischievous! I went to the guidance office and, from my friend who was a student aide there, I got all of her info. What classes she had, her full name, her former address, school records ... everything!
It was good to be the King!
The next time I got to chat with her I was at a party where there was a live band. I was just learning to drink so I was passed out in front of the right side of the bands p.a. system. Everyone thought that was so cool! "He must be wasted to be laying there!" they all giggled ... Did I mention that the band was PLAYING? At any rate, she saw me and laughed/admired with the rest. After about an hour, I woke up (Read: Came to) and went in search of more beer. It was a keg party and the keg was outside. I got my beer and went towards my car to check on the stereo system. You just never know at these kind of party's.
Well lo and behold, who do you think was sitting on my trunk?
I wondered if she knew it was my car since another of my best buds, Shane, was jammin' the tunes for her on my Pioneer Supertuner. Led Zeppelin Live, I believe it was.
I approached (Read: Staggered over to) her out of the darkness and she turned and jumped when she realized I was right beside her, cool as a cucumber. I looked at her, smiled, and without saying a word, pounded one of the two beers I was carrying. (I needed the free arm to hold myself steady.)
She spoke to me and I felt a fuzzy quiver that I had never felt before. She asked if I was feeling better after my "Nap" and if I had a cigarette. I gave her a butt and lit it for her. She steadied my hand with hers as I lit it and the way she touched me sent me straight to Nirvana.
I tried like mad to get her to sit in my car and listen to the stereo with me ... But she had seen that movie before. I finally gave up and settled for chatting with her on my hood. That was prophetic, as we would later come to spend a lot of time on that hood and in that car, listening to the stereo.
She asked me about myself and if I had a girlfriend. I told her I had just gotten rid of one (Funny, I don't remember her name) and that on no uncertain terms I was the KING at our school! She looked at me sarcastically and said that she had already noticed that everyone knew who I was and that they all had some funny story about me and my buds' crazy antics. (Like the time I rode my motorcycle through the school chasing a teacher that had earlier smacked my face unjustly!)
"But being notorious doesn't make you the "KING" Jeff Gaines!" she spouted.
I stood up and turned in front of her. She sat back, not sure of what I was gonna do. I relished in that moment with a pause ... then shot back with; "Is that so Miss Alicia Dawn Kersey, 10922 Gerald Martin Road, Livonia, Michigan?" I had studied her records over and over again that day and my reply floored her. The stunned look on her face was priceless.
She said "Oh my God ... How could you know that?" I waited with an evil stare and then looked her in the eyes and told her; "Like I said, I'M the KING!"
I stuck out my tongue and headed back to the keg without asking if she wanted another beer. (I was gonna bring her one anyway.)
"Let her chew on that for a while" I thought.
But it was me who was to end up chewing ... when I got back just in time to see her getting into a car to go home. Her Grandpa was very strict and they were almost late. I pounded both beers and went inside to lay back down in front of the band’s p.a. system.
Her Grandpa didn't allow visitors, especially men, so the only time I could see her was at school or if she could get away, chaperoned, of course, by one of her Uncles or her Aunt, to the beach on Moon Lake. I lived on the lake right up the street from the park and I would go there with my buds every day.
One day at school I asked if she could come over and study with me and somehow she got permission to do so. I don't remember the whole plan, but it was probably something sneaky. After we had finished studying, I asked her if she wanted to go hang out at my neighbor’s house and she said yes. My friend Larry had already asked her out and she had turned him down ...
But something about the way she smiled when she saw me told me to ask her ...
We went across the street and started up the three steps to my neighbor’s door. Before she knocked, I stumbled through something to the effect of; if she wouldn't go out with Larry, then maybe she should go out with me.
She stood on the step above me and smiled as she said, " It's about time ...”
My heart was goin’ a million miles an hour ...
An adrenaline junky since I was a child, this was the maddest rush that I’d ever had.
“ ... I was wonderin' when you were gonna get around to that!" and with that, she bent over and kissed me.
It was one of the sweetest kisses I can ever remember.
Just then, my neighbor opened the door and knocked us off his trailer's stoop and into the grass on our butts. We looked at each other, my angel and I, laughing at our first kiss.
When she smiled into my eyes at that moment, something clicked in me so hard that I swore she and my neighbor could hear it!
We spent that school year bonding at an unbelievable rate, considering how little time we could share together. My mom was flabbergasted at the way I was so cheerily going to school every day. In the evenings, Alicia would sneak out or get permission to go to the store for a Pepsi. She would call and I would make the run to the store in about a minute and a half ...
Did I mention that the store was a mile and three-quarters from my house?
She could hear the tires on my '72 Chevy Nova singin' as I raced down the curving country roads to be by her side for only a moment. On one such trip, we were on the side of the store. She was sitting on the hood of the old green Nova and I was standing between her knees trying to get in kisses as she talked.
She told me that she had a lot on her mind and somewhere in her voice I could tell something was up. She looked up at me and said; "You know ... You’re really are easy to love. You do everything so right. When I'm in a bad mood you just ignore it and go about your business.
You always make me smile and ..."
I interrupted with; "What are you trying to say sweetheart?"
You see, I really wanted to get in some kisses before I had to drop her off at the end of her street. I wasn't really needing any compliments; she always made me feel secure in our relationship. But what she said next rocked my very foundation ...
She looked me in the eyes and this smile was one I hadn't seen before.
She said "Jeffrey Jay Gaines ... I Love You!"
My mouth fell open …
I had an uncontrollable tear in my eye.
NO girl had ever said that to me before. At least not in way that made me feel it!
In that very moment in time …
I realized what love for a girl was, and that, I was VERY much in love with this one!
I looked back at her and smiled a smile that was new to me as well ...
"I love you too." Was all that I could muster.
We hugged each other tighter than ever before. It seemed to last forever.
I will never forget that moment as long as I live.
At the time of this writing, I've only felt that love for a handful of women. It would seem though, that I've never learned to see love sneaking up on me like that. It's happened several times since.
When I kissed her as she got out of the car that day, I noticed that our kisses weren't the same. After that they never were. They were better. I guess kissing the one you love is always better. Over the next couple months our petting got more and more passionate. Nothing sexual though. It wasn't about that, this love we shared, it was pure. Pure as the young hearts that were nurturing it. We were both 16 and I could not stop thinking about how this girl could be my wife! I saw us together forever. That’s how you think when your 16 ... and in love. Nothing is more important in the whole world and should it stop spinning while you two were together, that would be fine.
My bud Louie and his girl Kim went with us to Walt Disney World one weekend. She lied to her grandparents that she was staying at Kim’s for the night and we snuck off to a motel on Colonial Blvd. in O-town. The next day, we spent ourselves out while exploring the park, we had the time of our lives! We were young, in love and we ruled the world for those moments!
She slept under my arm in the car on the way home and when I dropped her off that night, I knew it was going to be a LONG summer without her. You see; she had to go home and spend the summer with her family in Michigan and then come back in the fall to return to school.
I went, along with her Grandma and her Aunt, to drop her off at the airport. Her Grandma was cool and she knew what was up. I was fine through the whole trip. But when we got on the escalator to go back to the main terminal, I began to cry. I didn't mean to. But the thought of not seeing her tomorrow ... let alone a whole summer, just body-slammed me.
Here I was, big, sports playin', fist fightin' tough guy ... bawlin' like a little baby.
In front of her Grandma and Aunt to boot!
I couldn't believe their response …
They were crying too!
Not for her ... FOR ME!
I wasn't ready for that. They looked at me with their lower lips out and rubbed my back with reassurance. They made me promises about how the summer would pass quickly and that she'd be back before I knew it.
I wiped the tears from my cheeks and mumbled something about havin' somethin’ in my eye ...
But when I look back now, I know they didn't buy it for a minute. I didn't say a word in the car on the way home and they let me have my silence.
I woke up the next day with a knot in my stomach. And so began my summer. My Stepfather and I got along like vinegar and soda mostly. He could never understand a boy so full of play. His childhood, it seemed, was not exactly fun. I couldn't understand how any one person could be so obsessed with work. And so our relationship went, He & I, incessantly fighting about when to work and when to play.
I had just gotten off the phone with her (Remember the phone?) and I wasn't ready for the loud, threatening, tongue lashing I was about to get. It seemed I hadn't done the lawn when HE wanted it done. I was told that I wasn't going to get my allowance 'till it was done. It was Friday and I had planned to leave on a camping (Read: PARTY) trip in about an hour.
He and my Mom were leaving, they would be gone for the evening and now I had NO money for my trip. Even if I mowed it NOW! I was furious! I thought about Alisha and the hopeless situation of my home life. It was one of those frustrating moments that make a teenager scream.
I stormed into the house, put a few changes of clothes in my well-stocked backpack, found $17.00 or so in change and called my friend Louie. I had just gotten the last of the change from the bottom of one of my Moms purses when his Dad dropped him off at my house.
My next adventure was about to begin ...
I had Louie drive me out state road 52 to The ol' Dixie Highway ... I walked into the Chevron station that is now a huge Flying J truck stop and spoke to the guy under the car on the lift. I asked him for a piece of paper and something to write with.
He gave me an empty cardboard soda flat and a piece of yellow tire chalk. I made a the sign on the hood of my Nova, right there where I discovered love ...
It read simply: "DETROIT OR BUST!”
I thought it was short and to the point. Louis gave me a big hug and I swore he was going to cry when I got out of the car. I walked up the northbound on-ramp onto the shoulder of the acceleration lane of Interstate 75, set my backpack down and I propped the sign up against it. I put my headphones on and hit the play button on my Walkman cassette.
Bob Seger filled my ears ..."Up with the sun, gone with the wind, she always said I was lazy. Leavin' my home, leavin' my friends. Runnin' when things get too crazy ... yeah ... Out to the road ... out 'neath the stars ... feelin' the breeze ... passin' the cars ... "
That song, and the one right after it, fit that summer to a tee. Louis had turned me on to that record and his passion for it told me it was good. Alicia, being from the Motor City just like Bob Seger, loved it as well. I bought "Live Bullet" on cassette so I could listen to it in my car with her and on my Walkman anywhere else.
I never could have imagined how well it would help me see my feelings. A lot of music does that for me. I love the way it lets you vent. I listened to the words and felt warm at how I was relating my adventure with the music. I stuck out my thumb and smiled at the next pack of passing cars.
My first ride was uneventful, a couple, goin' to Gainesville. They were nice though, and they offered me something to drink. I got out at their exit and as soon as I stuck out my thumb, a car pulled over. I ran up and asked where he was headed to. He said he could take me to Atlanta. That would put me there at about 3 a.m. I figured. I could pitch my tent beside the road and get a fresh start in the morning. I smiled and hopped into the car.
His name was Ted, I think, I'm horrible at names. He was black, about 5'10, wearing a cowboy hat and smokin' a cigar. He was out on leave from the Army base he was stationed at. He had to be back by morning, so he was in quite a rush. That was fine by me. He was getting me closer to Alicia with every car he passed. He was very cool and he couldn't believe a young white boy like me was groovin' on B.B. King. It seemed I knew the words to most of the songs on his tape. Man, did I blow his mind when I pulled my own B.B. King cassette out of my backpack!
We bonded over the next few hours and I was really happy to make him my friend. He listened to my story and admired me for my courage. He couldn't believe I was only 17. I loved listening to his stories about the Army and he loved listening to my Bob Seger tape. About an hour over the Georgia State line, his car engine began to smoke.
He had let it run low on oil ...
We had just spun a bearing ... and thrown a rod. (Look it up, it’s bad, believe me!)
He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. I did the same and, without saying a word, we both started to take our gear out of the car.
I figured he probably felt like I had no obligation to stay and help him.
(I would though. My Mom definitely raised me to have a conscience and to be considerate of others. He had stopped to help me and now I had the opportunity to show him my concern.)
I knew the car was dead and he had to be at that base by 0700 the next morning. I smiled when I realized we were already so tight we could talk without talking.
He told me, after an hour of unsuccessful thumbing, that he wanted me to keep trying and that he was going to go try and use the phone to call his Sergeant. I fussed a little when he wouldn't let me go with him, then watched as he disappeared up the on-ramp.
When I look back now, I realize that he felt we weren't getting rides because he was black. That’s why he wanted to leave me alone to hitchhike. When he didn't come back in an hour, I walked up to the little gas station to find him. He was surprised to see me and he stammered a little on what he was trying to say to me.
He told me to go back to the road and keep trying. He told me a lie about his Sergeant sending someone to get him, but that failed when I told him I would wait to catch a ride with him too. I told him we could keep each other company, and that I wasn't too keen on leaving him alone here in a place that he had already told me he felt uncomfortable in. (This was, after all, the Deep South.) He was my friend and I was going to show him just what you get when you befriend me. I take that VERY serious.
He shook his head at the no win situation.
I knew he was lying.
He knew I knew it and I wasn't going to leave him there alone.
He looked at the ground and chuckled, then put his arm around me and told me; "You alright, ya knowit? We smiled at each other and I patted him on the back.
We picked up his gear and headed back down the on-ramp to the highway.
The old Chevy 4-door whipped off the highway with a squeal. We turned at each other and, without talking, grabbed our gear and ran to the car. Any good hitchhiker knows that you look inside the car and talk to the driver before you get in. You settle on how far each other are goin', then you decide if it's someone you want to ride with. It’s a special instinct that you must follow carefully. Again, we worked together without talking to each other.
After the introductions, the driver stared at Ted and said that "He" could get in the back. The remark made me nervous, but it was late and we hadn't gotten a ride in hours. As we cruised up the road, the driver got more and more drunk … and his driving got worse and worse.
He began to get a little belligerent about how "normally" he would " ... NEVER pick up a Nigger a hitchhikin'!" I sat with my back to the front passenger door and winked at Ted. I never took my eyes off of the driver ... or my hand off my double-edged boot knife. He was getting weirder with every drink from his flask and I was actually beginning to worrying about whether we were gonna survive this guy or not. My heart was racing.
I thought about my Mom.
I thought about Alicia.
When he took a route around Atlanta to the west, and he refused to stop and let Ted out, we started to panic. Ted needed to get out here (Me too, for THAT matter!) and go northeast on 275 to get to his base in South Carolina. (I just wanted out!) I started to think out a move on the guy and Ted grabbed my arm from behind the seat.
Ted gave me a look that said “No!” and I went with his silent suggestion.
The driver said he knew a better route on the north side of Atlanta and he'd let Ted out there.
The car weaved on ...
About 20 or 30 miles above Atlanta, the drunk noticed we needed fuel again. I was so relieved. The tightness of my chest was about to kill me. When we pulled into the truck stop in Adairsville, Georgia, I was even more relieved to see the cop parked by the gas pumps.
There would be no scenario, we were gonna walk away from this nut and watch him drive off into oblivion. I remember looking up into the clear night sky and silently thanking God.
The drunk looked at us and told us to stay put as he went to pay for his gas. Right on cue ... without talking, we waited 'till he was in the truck stop, then grabbed our gear and piled out of the car. We walked over to the cop car and as we did, Ted told me that the drunk had showed him a small revolver when we stopped for gas the last time. I wonder to this day, just where that situation would have went had I tried to bully the drunk into stopping. We told the cop about what had just happened and how the guy was drunk and that he had a gun. The cop watched him evil eye us as he pumped his gas.
Then, when he left, the cop pulled him over. After a while, the cop came back and said that he was letting the driver "sleep it off" in the back of the truck stop parking lot ...
He also said that he found no gun.
The cop was beginning to remind me of the drunk more and more every minute. I really felt like the way the cop was acting towards us changed when Ted said that he was in the Army. It was like he became nicer ... but, it seemed like a nuisance to him ... He had started out with a demeanor like we were the bad guys. Ted and I didn't have to talk about that either. He could see that I was truly beginning to understand his world. I saw it in his eyes as he saw my perplexing look turn into one of surprise.
We asked the cop how much cab fare was back to Atlanta, and he said it was 20 dollars or so. Ted said that he had that much, so we called a cab and went back to the Greyhound terminal downtown. At that time, the government would pay for any GIs transportation to an awaiting duty, so Ted would soon be on his way.
He told me that he wasn't going to let me try and make it alone, so he walked me up to the window and he asked how much a ticket to Detroit was. When she told him, his head bowed in defeat. He didn't have that much. I thought quickly and told her that I had a cousin in Fort Wayne. She punched some keys on her pad and came back with a smaller figure. His head rose with a smile and he replied triumphantly; "We'll take it." She told me we'd have to hurry though, as the bus I needed to be on, departed in 20 minutes. Ted’s bus wouldn't leave for 2 hours.
He grabbed me a hot dog and a Pepsi on the pretense of going to the bathroom, and then walked me to my bus. Just before I got on, he gave me his Cowboy hat. It was brown leather and he pulled the long, frilly feather out of it, then pushed it down on my head.
"Heeer Patna', this looks a lot better on you big man." He said, straightening it just so.
Before the driver put my pack under the bus, I had given Ted the Bob Seger tape. I told him that I could get another and I wanted him to have it for his car. I told him he didn't need to give me the hat and he pushed it down even further. I re-adjusted it as the Bus driver told me, "Sir, get on, or off, the bus ... We have a schedule to keep." I gave him a scowl and shook Ted’s hand for the last time.
I hadn't even sat down when I realized that we hadn't exchanged numbers or anything ...
I looked in the mirror at the snobby driver. I knew getting him to stop was a lost cause.
Ted and I waved at each other and then I watched him watch the bus until we turned the corner towards the highway. I was so sad to be on that Greyhound ... at that moment ... and I would give anything to buy that man a beer right now. It's funny how a few short hours and a little bit of adversity can bring strangers so closely together ... I wonder about him often.
The trip to Fort Wayne was uneventful. I arrived at about three-fifteen in the morning. My cousin Skip was pretty miffed that he had to drive all the way across town in the middle of the night to come and get me. He put me to bed with a lecture about running away from home and scaring my Mom like that. I told him I had called her collect twice since I had been gone. I told him about how impossible life with my stepdad was. But he said I should take it like a man and not be doin' such "childish things." I didn't even go into the Alicia part ... Remember Alicia?
Well, when I got up the next day I reread her love letters for the bazillionth time, then I got up my nerve and I called her. I was blown away that she didn't know about my current adventure and that she thought I was still in Moon Lake! (There wasn’t such a thing as Caller Id then!)
I envisioned me hitchhiking up there and hiding in the woods on the 3 vacant lots across the street from her house. She had described them to me once, so I knew they were there. I thought it would be so cool to wait for her to walk down the street and then sneak up behind her and cover her eyes ...
I could just imagine that smile that so filled my heart with joy.
She was gonna freak out that I was actually THERE ... Right there with her!
I loved her and if this didn't prove it ... nothing would!
That smile she wore was for me. It was because of me.
This girl loved ME!
I remember feeling at ease as I went to bed that night. I couldn't wait to put my plan into action the next morning. Tomorrow, I thought ... "I'm going to be with my 'Lisha!"
It only took me two rides to get to Livonia. One guy took me north on 69, and the next guy took me east all the way into the city.
I was trembling as I pitched my bright orange tent and camouflaged it in the woods across the street from her house. I needed to get my backpack and stuff out of the rain and I didn't want anyone to see me ... Namely her. I was only 200 feet from the house that I had heard so much about while we bonded on the hood of my Nova.
I was still shaking.
The hat Ted had given me was keeping my face dry from the rain and I wondered where he was and if he was doin' o.k. I wondered what he did about his car. I wondered if he had made his muster that morning. I wondered if his friends made fun of him for listening to Bob Seger.
I watched as it started to rain even harder. I thought that it was stupid of me to think that she would be walking down the road anytime soon in this downpour. I took off my shirt and hat and climbed into my tent.
I must have been tired ... or maybe it was the rain, but I fell asleep ...
I awoke to the sounds of kids at play. They were playing Army and I was still young enough to remember the sounds of that game. I climbed out of my tent and into the cool Michigan drizzle. I looked around at the kids who were surprised to see that I was right here amongst them and they hadn't even detected me!
They thought I was really cool and they asked me if I wanted to play Army with them ... I declined. I was proud of my camouflage job.
Then ... I turned and looked at someone coming down the sidewalk!
My heart was racing ... It was her!
And Donald ...
The guy she had supposedly been broken up with all this time ...
They were holding hands, laughing and smiling, skipping through puddles down the street in the rain like I didn't exist!
When I left on this adventure, I was the "Travelin' Man" ... and now ...
I was the "Beautiful Loser". I sang the words in my head ...
"Beautiful Loser ... Read it on the wall ... 'cause it's easier ... and faster when you fall ... you just don't need it all ... ahhh ah ... you just don't need it ... All!"
She wore the same smile for him … that I had hoped to see for me.
I was alone.
I was 17 years old ... and on the noblest mission of my life.
I was over 1000 miles from my home ...
From Louie and Shane and Larry ... My Life.
I felt the entire world cave in on me. There wasn’t a breath in my soul.
I wondered if she would have come back to me in the fall and pretended that everything was all right. I wondered if I just hitchhiked home right now, could I pretend I didn't know?
Could I have her for just one more school year?
I know these thoughts were silly ... But you think like that when your 17 ... and in love.
It was at that moment ... that I learned about women.
It was at that moment ... that I learned about love.
It was that summer that I became a man.
If she was my first true love ... then this was my first true broken heart.
Not even Ted’s cowboy hat could keep my face dry.
As I mentioned above, this is my personal coming-of-age story. It is non-fiction and a bit of a roller coaster ride, telling the tale of my first Love. I hope you enjoy it.