One May afternoon, when Red and Jack were sixth-graders, they decided to walk home rather than take the bus. It was a perfect spring day and the hike promised a pleasant horizon. A bit of a hoof, but that was okay on a day like this. Heading out they felt like independent young men.
About 15 minutes later, trudging up a steep hill, not too far from their homes, a late-model Cadillac pulled alongside, a couple of teens in the front. The fellow on the shotgun side leaned his head out and said, "Hey, fellas! Wanna lift?"
Red's instincts said no, but Jack exclaimed, "A Cadillac! A ride in a Caddy! You bet!"
As they settled into the spacious rear seat, Red noticed that the driver wore gloves, work gloves. Then he noticed the other kid did, as well—and that he had a small automatic pointed at them. Jack realized it at the same time and said, "Uh... If it's money you want, I have some change..." The teen with the pistol said, "Shut up, weasel face! And keep your hands where I can see 'em! Get wise and I'll pull the trigger." He wore a t-shirt and dungarees with rolled cuffs. His face was pockmarked. The driver was clad in a plaid shirt and chinos. A pair of sunglasses hid his eyes. He chewed gum and occasionally chuckled. The radio played “Sukiyaki,” then “Hello, Stranger.”
The teen with the pistol said, "Call me Homer. I like to travel. And call him Elmer. He's in the glue business. Homer and Elmer. That's us, a couple of nice all-American kids. Clean-cut. Not like those dropouts ya read about in the paper. Now for you guys, I'm gonna give you names. You with the red hair, you're Mertle. And you, weasel face, you're Gertrude. Mert ‘n' Gert, that's you. A couple of little girls. Now, since I like to travel, we're gonna go for a long ride."
Red felt numb, he sat in a sweat and shook uncontrollably. He side-eyed Jack and saw that his pal was much the same: ashen, teeth chattering.
A beaming smirk on his face, a lock of black hair falling across his forehead, Elmer sang along to the radio, "Zoom, zoom, the man who shot Liberty Valance! He shot Liberty Valance!" Later, "So, from my personal point of view, get an ugly girl to marry you! Yah, yah!" The teens passed a pint of Southern Comfort between them, shared a pack of Kools.
Red stared out the window, at the car's pale-green metallic finish, a tranquil color, similar to the sea in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Its calmness called to him like Bali Ha'i. He began to pray, a string of Hail Marys, one running into the next, "...Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death..." He lost track of time.
Homer made a display of his finger on the trigger, pointed the gun right up to Red's forehead, scanned over to Jack. Then, with a flick of his wrist, pointed the gun down. "Yeah, that's too dangerous! Hit a bump and there'll be gore all over the back of this new Caddy! Wouldn't want that now, would we? Nope! I like a clean car, don't I, Elmer?"
"That's the gospel truth, boys! I always say, that Homer! He loves a clean car! You can trust a man what loves a clean car! Shows character!"
"That is correct! Wanna keep this car clean—if I can. Don't wanna kill Mert ‘n' Gert—if'n I don't hafta. A clean car is next to godliness, heh, heh!"
The Cadillac took some lefts and some rights, got further away from familiar turf, eventually got on some roads Red had never seen before. On a desolate country lane, the car took a sharp right onto a rutted farm road, barreled and bounced along with careless abandon. That's when Red realized that the car must be stolen.
They came to a field, the shadows long and creeping. Elmer jammed the brakes so abruptly that Red and Jack slammed to the floor. Homer barked, "Get out, ya little creeps!"
Red's entire mouth and throat were parched, his knees so watery that he fell stepping out. Homer marched them a few yards away as Elmer retrieved electrical tape from the glove compartment, and bound the boys' hands behind their backs.
"Get on your knees!" They did. Elmer tied blindfolds across their eyes, first Jack, then Red.
"Okay, ya little fairies. Wanna live? Beg."
Red tried to speak, tried to make some sort of sound, but his mouth was too dry, his tongue wouldn't move. His head poked forward, like an old tortoise, but he couldn't make a sound, not even to save his life. Jack choked out, "Listen... listen to me! Please! Please... Let us live. Please. We won't tell... Honest we won't, I swear to God, I swear on my grandmother's grave... This was all just for laughs. I get it! I can take a joke... Please, please, don't kill us..."
They heard the teens walking to the car, last autumn's leaves crunching underfoot. "Ya little dodo birds! The gun ain't loaded!" The teens cackled like hyenas getting into the car, speeding off. Homer yelled a parting, "Knuckleheads!"
Lying on the ground, back to back, Jack managed to undo Red's hands. Red ripped off his blindfold, his hands were tingling as circulation returned, as he freed Jack. Darkness was descending when they stumbled to the end of the farm road, up a hill to the farmhouse, a family inside just sitting down to supper.
The evening was spent in police headquarters with their parents. Yes, the car was stolen, found abandoned a few hours later on the outskirts of Slingerland, NY, worse for the wear, the owner furious. No prints. Red and Jack looked through photo collections of possible suspects, but no matches. Just a couple of punks out for a lark, never caught.
That day was a long ride. Gazing out the car window today, rolling through flatlands, Red thought back to a week or so after that dreadful day, at Jack's house, a Cape Cod on an acre, lawn beaten to dirt by the many McVey kids. That's when he met Jack's cousin, Patti, who held court in the grimy kitchen, a Tareyton held regally. Twelve-year-old Red couldn't get over how beautiful she was. He felt both inferior to her Irish majesty—her spray of freckles, her strawberry blonde hair confected into a beehive, her skirt cut just above the knee, her elf booties with a bit of heel, her cheekbones—and, yet, he also felt welcomed into the royal circle by her easy manner.
Patti was a high school grad, currently attending secretarial school. Her fiancé, Frankie, a mechanic, had added a few JC Whitney touches to her powder-blue VW bug: chrome wheels, baby moon hubcaps, and a gag wind-up key on the back of the toy-like auto. She was, on one hand, an adult, living in an adult world, almost, just a few months shy of a real job, and all of that grown-up stuff. On the other hand, she was so young and modern, so different from grouchy parents and teachers: a bridge that extended a warm hand to a land of milk and honey, a new nation where responsibility seemed a breeze.
Patti shared the latest jokes, and as a table radio played, she sang along to the Top 40, knew all the lyrics. Red was swept away. For a while he forgot about the trauma of being kidnapped. That night he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking about Patti, Patti, Patti! He whispered her name as he'd often prayed a Hail Mary. Lying in the dark, he felt as though he were sailing through outer space, a human Telstar, sending out love signals to her.
"What if," he wondered, "Frankie died in a car crash? And what if, by some crazy coincidence, my parents died in a car crash? I'd be an orphan, and Patti would adopt me, and in time, marry me!"
He saw her only a few more times before she graduated and moved to Hartford, CT, a job at Travelers Insurance, another bright coin in the secretarial pool. She forgot about Frankie, got engaged to Herb.
Then Red thought about another long ride, in the Bicentennial Summer, that Gerald Ford twilight time between Vietnam and the Iran Hostage Crisis. Early one June day, Jack suggested a drive to visit Patti at her condo, part of a sprawling complex on former Connecticut farmland. For once, Red didn't hesitate. "Wow! I haven't seen her since, well, you know, way back then!"
Gathered in the condo basement that evening, Don Kirshner's Rock Concert on, Rory Gallagher and bandmates just getting warmed up, Red chatted with Patti's current fiancé, Sam Dolan, a town councilman who was aiming for the Connecticut State House. Sam's hair was typically longish, and he sported a droopy mustache. He regaled Red with tales of his student days at UConn.
"Yeah, I was a card-carryin' member of SDS, dropped acid, listened to The Airplane, sat-in, all of that. But in '68, when McCarthy tossed his hat in the ring, I went to the barbershop, got clean for Gene, and went door-to-door." Sam's lips tightened perceptibly as he said, "Yeah, some of the UConn hipper-than-thou set laughed at me, called me a straight. But y'know what? Peace and integration were more important than me looking cool. And in '72, I did the same thing, clean-cut, door-to-door, for McGovern. It was obvious to me that we had to win over the working-class and the middle-class, and we weren't going to do that by scaring them off. I grew up in a blue-collar home, factory, my dad was union. I wasn't one of those kids from West Hartford or Avon. I was East Hartford."
(Airbrushed out of his bio was this: Mr. Dolan was an employee of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, supplier of jet engines for the US military aircraft dropping bombs on North Vietnam. That union job was the nexus of bitter arguments over holiday dinner tables, at one point driving father and son to non-speaking corners, backs turned, which held right up to the old man's fatal heart attack.)
Sam took a toke, and shook his head, thinking way back to the campaigns of 1968 and 1972. "Long, strange trip, man! As Saul advised, you don't win by looking like a freak. Put on a suit, infiltrate. I think we have a real good chance now with Jimmy Carter." He lounged on the couch, his arm around Patti, she absorbed in the TV. They both wore beige flares, were in stocking feet, their Earth Shoes in the bedroom. The beehive was long gone, a Farrah Fawcett flip in place; her head bobbed to the blues-rock as she took a hit of the joint handed her by Sam. A few pounds heavier than in 1963, a hint of belly, but still gorgeous. Red sighed, felt a stab of envy. Sam was a lucky man.
Jack swigged from a bottle of Boone's Farm, took the occasional hit. Rory Gallagher laughed as he made his worn Strat squeal with feedback before leaping into an extended solo, bending strings to near breaking point. Jack sat forward, pointed at the TV, and exclaimed, "Fantastic, man! That is musicianship! That is the blues! Rory Gallagher is the best bluesman of all time! Wow!"
Next up, The Ohio Players, launching into a funk number as Sam stepped out of the bathroom.
"Ugh," said Patti. "Niggers. Sam, turn off the TV." Sam stood next to the set and stared at the floor. Except for The Ohio Players, all was a stunned silence.
"C'mon, Sam! Comfy! Don't wanna get up. You're right there! Oh, did I say something wrong? Sorry! Didn't mean to call 'em niggers. Where I come from we don't call 'em that."
Sam looked up from the shag carpet, a shade of relief crossing his face.
"Nope, we don't call 'em niggers. We call 'em fuckin' niggers! Now, turn off the TV—or you can put your shoes on and walk, mister." Her features were suddenly sharp, loaded, hair-trigger. Red and Sam made a very brief eye contact, and Sam glanced away, shame-faced.
Patti continued, "Hey! I work! And I pay taxes so they can sit around all day and do nothing? You think, oh, that's fine and dandy?"
"Uh, um, well, I do see that, well, y'know, as a member of the, uh, the working class, that you probably are paying taxes that, uh, really should be paid by the corporations, and the, uh, rich... And, uh..." he said while clicking the TV off.
With an oversize wink and smile, Patti said, "Okay, fellas! Nice seein' ya, an' all, but ya need to hit th' road! Sam and I want some adult time! Scoot!"
Stepping into the moist summer night, standing on the cement walk, Jack said, "Phew."
Red replied, "Yuh."
"Did you see that?
"Man, what some guys won't put up with for a little nookie." He lit a Winston, tossed the match.
"Yuh," said Red, still a virgin at age 25. He sighed.
Wobbling to the Pinto, Jack cracked, "I'm in no condition to walk... I'd better drive!" He found it a challenge to unlock his door, fell into the seat, fumbled getting the key into the ignition. Red had to knock on a window to remind Jack that his door needed unlocking, too. Red braced himself for a long ride all the way back to Schenectady.
Jack fired the ignition, the car lurched, tires squealed. He narrowly missed another car's fender, and then they were out of the lot, on a road, onto the Interstate. “Afternoon Delight” on the radio, steel guitar sounds swirling, the Pinto raced along, weaving in and out of empty late-night lanes. Suddenly behind them a siren and flashing. An exit in directly before them, Jack slammed off the Pinto's lights, screeched into black. At the end of the exit, no traffic either way, he floored it through the stop sign, swerved a sharp right, ripped along a two-lane road, whizzed past houses of sleeping citizens. He spotted a high school on the left, jumped off the road, bounced a curb, landed in the school parking lot, coasted to a stop behind the main building. About 20 seconds later they heard the trooper wail past.
And with that, Jack rested his head on the steering wheel and commenced snoring very loudly, preventing Red from getting any real sleep that night.
At dawn, Red got out, walked around the parking lot, and out to the road, along the sidewalk. In the fresh air he realized how much he reeked of Jack's cigarettes. Workaday traffic hadn't started. Afraid of attracting attention, afraid of being thought a burglar or a pervert, he trotted back to the car, woke Jack up to a vicious hangover. Breakfast and clean-up at a McDonald's, the two sat in a booth, saying little. Red called, collect, to let his mom know he was okay: Jack just had a little too much to drink, that they'd spent the night on the living room floor at Patti's. "I, uh, tried to call last night but, uh, for some reason, her phone wasn't working. Yuh, her bill is paid, but you know, the phone company."
Red and Jack had been friends for a long time, since kindergarten. And now here they were in December of 1986, on the road, pointed west, a long ride. In Buffalo, at a drug store, Red had purchased a composition book and began jotting down observations.
"This is going to be epic, this is going to be Bob and Allen, this is going to be Sal and Dean, this is an odyssey, this is what I was born for. A hundred years from now people will be studying what I write..."