Sunday, October 17, 2010
With three hundred dollars left we gathered around a table in the Omnibus and began charting a destination. The Omnibus was coming under continual scrutiny from the FBI and local authorities who surveyed the place believing it to be a safe haven for draft dodgers and felons. The night before we departed LAPD stormed through the building searching for a suspect wanted for armed robbery. The club owner wasn’t able to scrutinize every freewheeling outlaw passing through the doors. That night the police examine draft cards for inconsistencies. I had in my possession a student deferment card - status unclear. My name hadn’t surfaced on any lists but there were others hiding in the dark corners of the club who quietly slipped out the unguarded exits. Police had photos and composite descriptions along with the identities of young men suspected of evading the military. Everybody became extremely fearful of their persistence. I was the only one in the band with a potential problem the others received medical deferments.
Rick failed to arrive from his parents North Hollywood home the morning of our planned departure, Denny and Rick were California boys who’d never ventured beyond the secure beach communities around Santa Monica. Rick got cold feet. He had a girlfriend and a little league team to coach - major responsibilities. Scratch worked magic on the telephone luring Rick and his young love to the Omnibus. When they finally arrived we found the girl easy going. She jumped at the opportunity, besides a deal was arranged where we’d drop her at her parents home some ninety miles north of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rick finally relented called his family - received their good blessings.
Carol was quite a calming influence. She was blond, blue-eyed, sociable, and temperate. Carol never let hardship rule choosing to always find something positive in consequence. With gear loaded we ventured down highway 10 up through San Bernardino connecting with highway 15 through Barstow, eventually turning on 40 East carrying us beyond the California border into Arizona. It was somewhere between Barstow and Kingman, Arizona when reality struck.
We’d been laughing and speculating about the future when suddenly we realized we knew nothing of booking a band. Scratch had a confident air about him convinced he could sell us anywhere in America. We had no reason to doubt his proclamation so he was assigned the responsibility.
We arrived in Fort Williams early morning to find the temperature hovering around freezing. None of us were dressed for the sudden change in climate. It was mid-July and in our minds something was drastically wrong. A service station attendant reassured us once we descended down the mountain the thermometer would rise considerably by the time we reached Flagstaff.
Upon arriving in Flagstaff we discovered funds were running uncomfortably low. We desperately needed cash to cross through the state. It was mid-afternoon when we motored through Flagstaff tired and less confident of our journey. Scratch spotted a country and western spot along the roadside and decided to approach the owner about a booking.
The lunch time crowd sported Stetsons like Hollywood Rick. The sight of four longhaired Californians sent shockwaves through the wooden farmhouse. Heads turned enlisting a series of hilarious comments. They’d seen our type on television now we’d entered their backyard knowing any moment we could be snake bit.
The owner was quite amused with Scratch’s bold front and looked upon us as a cheap diversion. He asked only one patriotic question –‘Any of you boys flag-burners?’ Rick was all-American and assured the boss we were different from those protesters. We were a true blue hardhat loving band.
Rick obtained a deferment for a gimp knee injured in a sandlot football game otherwise he’d have enlisted for Vietnam bypassing boot camp.
The guy bought our act offering twenty dollars for an evening of suspect entertainment.
Western folk piled in ready for an evening of Hank Snow classics or maybe a Minnie Pearl jamboree. When we cleared the doorway every tall hat began snickering along with their bovine mistresses. We jumped stage - tuned a few strings and spun into action. Rick executed one of those basic training pivots whipping his black mane into a swirling frenzy - the voice - strained and monophonic.
A greater portion of our opening was improvised void of hooks or potential group sing-a-longs. The audience looked on stunned. As far as they were concerned we may just as well come from some exterior planet well beyond this solar system and none were prepared to travel with us. A few tall hats began interrogating the owner as if he had set them up for a practical joke. We endured the set before being politely asked to pack up and cut the show before midnight. The jukebox was in greater favour with the patrons. They were more curious of us as travelers than musicians. We collected twenty dollars and sped away to Albuquerque, New Mexico unscathed.
Twenty dollars stretched a long distance in 1967 enough feed six nomads and fill a gas tank. Upon arriving in Albuquerque we took notice of numerous car lots and western bars. Scratch spotted one that looked safe for a car load like us and disappeared inside. Somehow he convinced the owner he needed a music policy adjustment and we were the perfect outfit to compliment the Billy Bob act in residence. The only problem - we had no steel guitar or violin.
As I began dragging equipment into the club I came face to face with the manager who in no way seemed as amused as the gentleman along the highway. He was demanding and short on instructions. “If we like you, we’ll pay you”, was his only stipulation.
We sat through a set of weepy bumpkin’ tragedies awaiting our turn. When the order was issued we crashed the stage with the rock and roll zeal of a soon to be derailed locomotive. Rick pumped and bounced - his face rarely in full view. We were loud and foreign.
I scanned faces lining the long bar - the eyes and furrowed brows told me the locals would rather stuff us in a wood chipper than tolerate much more of this nonsense. Everything about us repulsed this conservative ass-kicking brood. I assumed we weren’t going to collect any pay so I signaled Scratch to cut it short sensing greater security in the backseat of the car away from this stage. Sure enough the boss reminded us he gave us a chance and witnessed the crowd’s reaction - so why pony up a dime. Scratch resisted which only aroused an ugly response. I’d seen enough. The manager gave us a choice, get the fuck out of there or he’d gather a few buddies who’d love nothing better than beat the ass of a bunch of Hollywood queers. We still had a few dollars tucked away so we decided to cut our losses and penetrate the Texas border.
The mention of Texas always brought a shiver to my spine. It didn’t take much effort to get buried in a Texas jail. Although we were free of drugs we knew there were methods of manufacturing criminal offences and these guys were masters. Every male with hair drifting below the ear lobe was considered a commie draft dodger in need of fixin’. We knew the key to survival was not courting attention which we managed.
We scoped Amarillo looking for any evidence of shoulder length hair. On a side-street we spotted a paranoid looking guy dodging pedestrians along the sidewalk. My first thought was here’s our man. We then drove alongside and signaled him to the curb and inquired about the music scene, clubs, parks or whatever. The guy ducked his head and waved us down a side-street away from the main highway. We soon came across a low rise housing a few freaks – blinds pulled - everyone keeping a low profile.
Scratch retold our story and asked about possible engagements around the city. The fellow picked up the telephone and called around and came up with a Saturday night dance. Two hundred dollars was the award. We couldn’t believe the good fortune. That amount of money could carry us all the way to Minnesota. The guy then directed us to a military base on the other side of Amarillo. The word military sent shockwaves through the nervous systems.
‘What’s the catch,’ I asked. None, other than playing a Saturday night dance for
couples in the mess hall. We were given contact name and directions.
The thought sent the mind dancing. I envisioned armed guards with chains ready to staple us to a dungeon wall – lost for eternity in some’ hup two three four’ hell hole. Scratch seemed unfazed.
Just getting past the military police was a sight to behold. Two beef necks stop us for inspection then offered a few hippie jokes then telephoned ahead. Bingo! – we were given passage past heavy armaments and a cadre of dreary marched out troops.
The concert hall was definitely a large mess area. Tables had been removed and everyone one was in a frenzy decorating for the night’s social event. We set up in a central locale near were our adoring fans were to be situated. I thought – this ain’t so bad. Good pay – decent room and fair sound system.
After setting up we were then coaxed to hide away in a nearby foot locker far from military personnel. There were rumblings we may be draft dodgers or drug merchants determined to inject liberal poison into the veins of our nations finest. I tried not to make eye contact. What do you say to a three bird colonel with two pounds of brass dangling from the chest and angry disposition? I hope you like the tunes?
Night arrives without much aggravation. The room fills with corsage chested damsels and stiff neck grunts.
“Hey buddy, I used to have hair as long as you – look at me now. They’ll get to you.” Oh, boy. Let the games begin. “Hey hippie, do you squat when you piss.” Yeah man! ‘Yo girls – what you doin’ with those pussies. Come down here and sit with the men.”
Rick’s temper turned volcanic. ‘Shut the fuck up pecker head – I’ll beat the snot out both you and your date.” No, no, no I say to myself. This isn’t good. “Come down here turd-boy and take that funny wig off.” What wig – this is real hair.” Please – slow down Rick.
In real life Rick was one of those beer drinking anti-hippie flower child guys. The get up was more for costume not commitment.
I kept a distance even though a table of date deficient troopers kept shoving their table into us.
Time arrived for the big show and what a show it was. The band quickly lashes into the Leaves ‘Pushin to Hard’. That was one of our endless jams. With a set of ten songs and not much variety a twenty-five minute epic jam was in order.
I could see eyes roll and girls yanking the neck ties of dates. No one danced. It was if we were playing to an audience of timber.
“Play something we can dance too. Wooly Bully! How ‘bout something slow by Gene Pitney – I know ‘Town Without Pity’. I have a girl here who wants to jump my bones let’s get it going.”
What a mess. ‘We’re from California and we don’t play that shit.’ – says Scratch.
“Why don’t you guys take the night off and we’ll get someone to spin records. Deal?”
I’m thinking about the two hundred dollars. “No, that’s just fine – we’ll keep playing. “Here’s one I know you’ll like. ‘Light My Fire’ by the Doors” I say. We glide into the body of the tune without mishap then chairs start sliding and squealing. Before we could get to the forty minute guitar solo everybody evacuates to the back of the room. I could see them whispering. Soon a military spokes men draws near, “Could you guys just stop and leave. This is all wrong. For your safety we’ll help you pack up and find the highway.” Scratch looks the guy straight on and says – “We still have two more sets to play and need to be paid.” The guy pulls us aside. “Look, you’ll get your money just get out of this room – it’s a security matter now.”
“Hey big beak come over here and suck on this.” What? Now Rick and I are in whip ass mode. “Did you hear what he said,’ asks Rick. “Let’s get the one with the shit-eating grin on his face. I’ve been watching how he’s undressed Carol all night.”
Suddenly, the music began playing and couples paired off. We quickly become yesterday’s nightmare.
While packing this diminutive young soldier waltzes near. “I loved you guys – I love acid – in fact I’m so high right now I’m feeling electric – I may never come down – I want some?”
Just as we were clearing the entrance a magic hand appears and slaps the back of my head. I do a quick turn around and see three guys staring the opposite way. I thought of several key phrases but left well enough alone. Then the catcalls start. A couple military police intercede and move the square-headed boys a distance away.
We were then escorted into a room where the officer in charge apologized and told us of his love for anti-social music especially Tommy James and the Shondels. He then proceeded to write us a check. A check? What the hell?
We volleyed back in forth over this but he insisted this was the only way the military pays. Then he said come back Monday morning and he’d arrange to cash the check. The only hitch in this was – it’s Saturday night and what the hell does anyone do in Amarillo for a day and a half.
We took up residence in a roadside park. Our zombie friends downtown invited us to a party. We dropped by for an hour or so but couldn’t handle the paranoia. Everyone was on a watch list – guys and girls. It was easy getting tossed in a police cruiser and more difficult surviving with only a few bruises. Monday didn’t come quick enough.
Bright and early Monday morning we arrive at the front gates. Sure enough the officer lived up to his words and paid us two hundred in cash. He was cordial and respectful. Down the road we go making plans for the heavy haul. Next stop, Des Moines, Iowa.
In early 1967, I found myself stranded in a woefully depressed town south of Long Beach, California where the stench of petrochemicals and burning industry suffocated the natural habitat. A search for a new beginning and desire to join a growing movement of committed young people seduced the imagination. My life in the Midwest succumbed to daily rituals of catcalls, threats and other forms of nefarious harassment courtesy the local redneck population.
My exit was sudden given to bouts of anxiety and uncertainty. Right-wing politicians instilled bitterness in the hearts of loyal patriots accusing longhairs, peaceniks and free spirits of undermining national institutions and authority. The transparent values of the 50’s hastened the erosion of symbolism giving birth to a revolution beyond the control of bankers, politicians and lawmakers.
After a few months performing in beach communities along the southern California coastline I magically wandered into the not so impressive city of Westminster. It was there I secured work in a Hispanic rock band led by the Sabori brothers who flirted with their own brand of revolution. We had three things in common; a love for rock and roll, distrust of the police and long shoulder length hair. Bassist Andy Sabori and I spent hours peering into a door-length mirror the end of a narrow hallway of a shared apartment - grooming every precious follicle. By night we’d ramble through the psychedelic hits of the day before a beer-swilling crowd of middle aged men who paid admission to spew obscenities at semi-nude topless dancers. These clubs dotted the landscape from San Diego to Seattle. This was not the life I had envisioned but it provided temporary wages enabling weekend excursions north to Hollywood.
My first visit to the Sunset Strip fifty miles north was to the legendary Hullabaloo club. I watched the weekly television broadcasts direct from the club during my final year of high school. Bands like the Buffalo Springfield, the Kinks, the Standells and Leaves exposed millions of young people to new and progressive sounds.
The Sabori’s of Westminster were imitators content with posing and lacking the minimum in basic music skills. Andy faked bass relying on a broad grin to divert attention from shallow posturing. I worked double duty playing left hand bass - chords and lead lines with the right on a Farfisa portable organ. Brother Rusty also smiled a lot while keeping a less than consistent beat. His voice emitted a sound not far from that of a coyote looking for love in all the wrong deserts.
Hollywood offered a glimpse into the future. It was home to street hustlers, pimps and voyeurs - conning the most vulnerable with promises of easy access to a world beyond poverty of the streets.
While entering the Hullabaloo we noticed the only seats available were located down front of the massive stage. As we circled we crossed paths with master of ceremonies and one time teen idol Paul Peterson. Peterson spotted us and singled us out for one of those infamous 60’s calls to combat; “Hi girls! Excuse me, they’re not girls. It’s getting where you can’t tell the boys from the girls nowadays”. He then fished for big laughs. Needless to say Peterson struck a raw nerve. In our defense we stared the grease ball down - fixed eyeballs in locked weapon position. The Sabori brothers took it personally - temporarily cancelling future excursions up the Hollywood freeway. I took it in stride, besides I’d been battered with so many inane one-liners back in Indiana this was soft porn.
I was forced to commute by thumb and foot. Rides were infrequent interrupted periodically by vigilant highway patrol officers scouting for draft-age males. I marched through drainage ditches along side freeways past oil rigs pumping minimum crude. Several wells along the way had dried casting an eerie pall over the withered landscape. The heels of my Beatle boots separated exposing tender skin orcing the binding nails upward puncturing the soft meat of my soles. I was tired and numb and rarely felt the intermittent pain.
Eventually, I arrived at the Omnibus Coffee House situated on North Cahuanga Boulevard. The exterior was covered in wood and stucco. Above the entrance was a multi-coloured sign displaying the coffee house logo. Wooden beams embraced the insides giving it a quaint farmhouse look.
I encountered a nightly flow of young people lost in a world of cosmic dreams and psychedelic intentions. This is where Scratch, Rick, Denny, Carol and I would first meet.
Afternoons were spent sketching the menacing insignia of the Hell’s Angels on denim jackets worn by the occasional artless biker who relished the sanctuary of dim lit rooms. Drawing was my thing – something I spent many hours absorbed as a kid. There was a certain sense of security around these guys but I never trusted their intentions. I gave them exactly what they asked for and let it be. Besides it was the sight of young women parading around in tight see through fabric that kept eyes occupied. Evenings spawned endless jam sessions attracting an odd assortment of players.
I took up residence a block south in a skid-row hotel. The lobby entertained a bizarre collection of derelicts - aging Hollywood damsels and habitual criminals. At times the room would erupt in violence when someone would crack up moment suddenly one or two would assault the resident mailbox or newspaper stand. This was definitely a cast of freaks. Little men with no real life ahead and mouths cocked and loaded with complaints - an atmosphere of paranoia. Women with lipstick smeared from ear to ear. Some you could communicate with while others were just insane. Jammed between the derelicts were young hostile criminals who would explode in a moment of conflict. Everyone would scatter down the hallways and hide under beds until the police arrived. I usually slipped out my back window.
The occupants of the Omnibus slept near their possessions tucked away in various corners on the rooftop and back rooms.
When I first met Scratch and Flower they were holed up in a vault-like freezer in the rear of the building. Both had been warned of danger if by chance the door accidentally closed. Both ignored the message content with the security of their surroundings. Scratch slept with his aging Telecaster resting passively in his hands. Flower would curl next to him rarely leaving his side. Scratch was tall and thin with pointed features. Long blond hair split the forehead covering one eye allowing the other partial view. A yellow tint covered his anemic body consequences of hamburger dinners and nacho lunches. Flower’s short brown hair complimented her sinuous mouth and deep set eyes. Her clothes were drawn from light weight East Indian fabric. The two fought constantly occasionally withdrawing for a session of lovemaking.
Scratch’s father was a career diplomat stationed in Panama. When Scratch sensed his financial situation weakening a call to father would bring a few hundred dollars via Western Union arriving just in time for the latest Jimi Hendrix’s side.
During one of our late night sessions a hip looking guy wearing John Lennon spectacles emerged from the crowd and asked to sit in. We’d been assaulted by an endless stream of inept conga players and resilient folkies and agreed nothing could be worse. All ninety-eight pounds pulled three drums - hi hat - ride cymbal and fixtures to the stage.
One of us called out Dino Valente’s ‘Hey Joe’ and the groove jelled. We followed with Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and blues anthems ‘I’m A Man’ and ‘Smokestack Lightin’ . Denny played with all the energy and enthusiasm of the Who’s Keith Moon - possessed with a great sense of time. I played left hand bass locking the unit together. We still lacked a front man who could sing. Denny mentioned a friend from North Hollywood named Rick he thought might work well in this situation. A call was made extending an invitation to a jam - Rick accepted.
When Rick first ambled down the hallway of the Omnibus I had difficulty putting the picture together. Here was a guy with the physique of a baseball player - sporting waist length coal black hair - a three foot tall Stetson positioned high on the skull making him look like the original suburban cowboy. He was loud, friendly and ready to rock. Jim Morrison was Rick’s adopted persona complete with spastic stage moves more suited to sucking up ground balls than rock choreography. The voice was no worse than most around Hollywood - short on range and dynamics but loud in delivery. The footwork was more military in design given to frequent spins resembling a two point about face maneuver. We actually learned to appreciate his exuberance.
We began rehearsing and performing nightly at the Omnibus attracting a modest following. Eventually the club owner took over management of the band. He was involved in launching a series of concerts in Griffith Park which he called “Be-Ins”. Anti-war protesters, longhairs, musicians and bikers frequented the early gatherings. Soon, the events would transform into “ Love-ins” as the international media picked up on the number of transient young people attending these events.
The rallies were a mix of vibrant colours with young teenage girls dressed resplendently in bright rainbow colored madras - wrap around wreaths of dandelions circling the head and decorative facial paint. The boys wore painted denim jeans - long bushy hair with incense in hand. Everybody was peaceful and friendly except for the numerous Hell’s Angels in attendance. The invading gang chilled an otherwise perfect mix striking fear in the Beverly Hills kids who liked to associate with danger but turned weak once things turned un natural.
We soon found ourselves performing at a second such gathering at Griffith Park for over thirty- thousand flower children. NBC news dispatched a camera crew to cover the event. We appeared on the Huntley- Brinkley report for the 6:00 news playing our crowd pleaser, 'Hey Joe.' The news was mostly favourable focusing mainly on the free nature of the participants.
The Hell’s Angels drew their share of attention and a few comments about their violent nature. The excitement in the Omnibus caused us to fantasize grander schemes. For a time we floated around Hollywood playing one free gig after another. We tried getting a position at the Whiskey A Go Go but the music policy was dominated by dance oriented bands. Scratch came up with the idea for a lengthy tour of the United States. Accomplishing a feat like that would need to be fully thought out. This we did without questioning the logistics of completing such an adventure.
We battled our way through a democratic list of possible band names settling on the Yellow Brick Road. Weeks later we spotted a marquis on Santa Monica boulevard advertising the debut recording of a group billed as the Yellow Brick Road. We played one more love-in under that name when one of the band members found a brochure promoting a show at the exhibition centre titled, The Great Western Exhibit. We decided we could live with that even though we had no idea what it meant. Consequently, it was kind of a stupid name. What were we? A traveling western rock and roll zoo?
Friday, October 15, 2010
By Bill King
When news arrived announcing the accidental drowning of Amy Dickens, deep sorrow suddenly consumed ever cell in my body. Amy was a romantic link with the past, the requited benefactor of all my childhood fantasies. She was the ten-year-old princess whose every move I studied with absolute concentration. .
Life my side of the block was a painfully cold mechanical process like a scene from Fritz Lang’s oppressive film classic, Metropolis. Day in day out tedium left no area in our spiritless home sanctuary for sensitive expression. The thought of Amy was all I had.
My blood parents, Benjamin and Caroline, placed a moratorium on love, designating college graduation the date I’d be permitted the company of a young woman. No high school proms, no Saturday night dances, and no campus bonfires. It sounds strange, almost indictable, but we were an evangelical family held hostage by rigid fundamentalism.
It was the summer of 1956 and I’d just turned ten years old. Most days I preferred seclusion, avoiding any contact with father. Benjamin worked three to eleven, eleven to seven through the week, occasionally overnights.
When father was secure at work I’d position my Schwin the corner of Presbyterian and First, waiting the moment Amy would stroll towards the center of town. Consumed by shyness, I rarely spoke. As Amy passes, I muse about the scent of her skin, the feel of her embrace, the texture of her radiant hair.
Amy was an army brat, daughter of Sergeant Major Ernest Dickens of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Major Dickens was serving a two-year stint at Fort Knox, Kentucky before returning the family to bayou country. I rarely ever saw him. When I did, he’d salute and call me "little boy soldier ".
Amy’s home, shaded by a tight row of maple trees, was barely visible. The evenly square house was crafted in sun-bleached pastel shingles less attractive than what you’d expect from such a handsome family and possessing little resale value. Military families never had much say about living conditions. Most packed after two years and moved to other accommodations, either post housing or temporary off base digs, each as unappealing as the former.
Fate would somehow position Amy a seat in front of me throughout the fourth and fifth grade. Our instructor Mr.Radner arranged most students alphabetically. The maneuver would liberate my imagination, transporting me to a remote destination well beyond crumbling brick walls and asphalt schoolyard.
Radner was always watching, suspicious of every move. It was never my intent to cross the man but it wasn’t long before I became his designated whipping boy.
It began the day I brought a Parker fountain pen to class. If incorrectly engaged, the side lever could spit a rivulet of Indigo ink a meter or two. To the left of me, Cheryl Martin sat fumbling with the nine-volt battery on her intricately decorated Christmas dress, desperately trying to illuminate the miniature bulbs sewn within the stitching. With one careless slip of the thumb I released a torrent of airborne black ink striking the cotton white surface of the priceless fabric. Cheryl looked down in horror, examined the gruesome markings, and then began to weep. Mortified by my miscalculation I sat in absolute silence. No reasonable apology could undo the trauma committed on my wounded schoolmate.
Upon witnessing the heinous act, Radner belched a chain of vulgarities then charged at me furiously slapping his hands above his head. He then griped my arms and began shaking me as if to extricate a solvent buried deep in my skin, one that could possibly cleanse the stains. Putting the episode in perspective, Cheryl pleaded my forgiveness. After reciting a list of punitive measures Radner’s indignation diminished.
Amy witnesses my awkwardness then resignation. A few moments lapse before she turns faces my embarrassment and smiles. Her carefully sculpted expression releases me from the regrettable incident.
Totally consumed with Amy, I raise my pencil and trace the long strands of her coal black hair and guide down the inkwell of my desk. Amy further satisfies my preoccupation by lowering her ebony tresses on the scarred wooden desktop concealing the pages of my neglected homework. With the palms of my hands I gently stroke then caress the dense effulgent locks. Amy’s head slowly tilts permitting each brilliant strand to filter through my fingertips. The sensation was more than I could endure.
Leaving school one spring afternoon I cross paths with Amy. She was in a conversational mood. I offer to carry her heavy books. Without reservation she hands me the weighty hard covers as if they were discarded gifts, then asks.
"Are you going to be an extra in Elizabeth Taylor’s new movie?"
I hadn’t a clue what an extra was or for that matter what she was talking about.
"Mom says they’re filming a movie called Rain Tree County in town and they’re looking for a thousand people to dress like they did in the Civil War and a few lucky ones will get to ride a Ferris wheel with Elizabeth Taylor,” spoke in a distinctive southern
Imagination lit every region of my mind before I reply.
"Are you going to ride the Ferris wheel?” I ask.
"I don’t know, we’ve got to be seen by movie people before they pick us," says Amy.
I soon reason this could be an eternal moment, possibly the closest I’d ever be to Amy. I could see the two of us high above the streets of Madison, Indiana, Elizabeth Taylor just below.
I can honestly say I was never much a fan of Elizabeth Taylor. Even the movie National Velvet didn’t strike a chord with me. I guess Taylor always seemed much older to me. Amy surely had her blue eyes and coal black hair but Natalie Wood was the real screen love of my childhood. It was "Splendor In The Grass" that cast a neurotic spell over me. Other than Amy, Natalie made me feel love so deep and true most men twice my age could never imagine such profound melancholy.
The movie Rain Tree County focused on six of author Ross Lockridge’s novel’s fifty-three years, centered mainly on the Susanna Drake figure played by Miss Taylor. According to myth, Johnny Appleseed in his travels had planted an exotic golden seed from China in Indiana, which would supposedly grow to possess a magic quality that could open all locks and heal all wounds. Unfortunately, the exact location of the tree was forever hidden in the river swamps along the Ohio.
Amy and I hatch a plan to spring me from the suffocating grip of Benjamin and Caroline. Patrice Dickens, Amy’s mother was enlisted. She told Benjamin and Caroline she’d be willing to take Amy and me to watch the making of Rain Tree County without revealing her secret desire to serve as an extra.
Father ran down a list of chores, commitments and consequences before Caroline interceded in our behalf. The two women came to agreement. I reasoned life could be no sweeter, no more powerful than the hours I would share with Amy. I could no longer comprehend homework assignments or rudimentary text. My whole being had been sacrificed to imagination.
A few days prior to leaving word spread of a change in plans. The film company decided Indiana no longer looked visually appealing therefore a new location Danville, Kentucky would be designated Rain Tree County. I was shattered, couldn’t believe anyone would intervene in my well-scripted plan. I feared announcing any change to my parents, especially the crossing of state lines, which could drive them to cancel our expedition. Danville might as well be as far away as Uruguay.
Ms. Dickens was called upon once again to work her magic with Benjamin and Caroline. Patrice assured them the Dickens’s family had cousins living on the outskirts of Danville. If things ran to late we were guaranteed a place of shelter. Patrice also promised not to drive past midnight.
Benjamin paraded up and down the front hallway reciting a litany of potential mishaps. Dad clearly saw the dark side of any situation. That was his nature. It was up to Caroline to invite light in even though on many occasions she succumbed to his brooding disposition. I often wondered if he had lost a brother or sister or perhaps a close friend during his childhood he’d never spoken about. It seemed as if he was always suppressing some cataclysmic event. He rarely expressed an opinion on world affairs reserving his most animated statements for those concerning moral and occupational issues. You didn’t fail dad but once or challenge him on anything memorized from books no matter how convoluted his understanding of the subject. I believe mother loved him more for his firmness and dependability than warmth.
Caroline on the other hand greeted everyone with a handshake and cautious smile. She kept the house in perfect order - always clean and accessible during visiting hours. Mother invited church groups to afternoons of civil discussion on spiritual matters; Christian commitment, values, and debates on the ever-popular ‘life after death’. The cheerless strains of church hymns leaked past the sitting room beneath the baseboards into my dimly lit room making it feel as if I was attending another anonymous funeral. After a dozen or so of these traumatic episodes I pleaded my way free of mother’s stewardship and stole off to the public library. The only place she found agreeable.
Ms. Dickens had this personality that could cure a manic-depressive or resuscitate the dead with an engaging smile and a few choice words. I could barely detect what was said that night. When Ms Dickens left the living room I felt certain I’d be riding front seat with Amy the next day all the way to Danville. Southern women have such natural charm that in that most improbable situation can have a decided effect.
All was not well on the film set as Rain Tree County’s male lead, Montgomery Clift found himself victim of an automobile accident in May causing an interruption in the shooting schedule. Filming would be delayed six weeks. Evidently, Cliff partied a bit too hard at Taylor’s Benedict Canyon home. Without control of his faculties wrapped his car around a telephone pole. Clift lost two front teeth, broke both nose and jaw, and tore a hole in his upper lip. We knew nothing of his escapades other than he was this enormous star. We were later told he’d faked his death, burned his fingers with a cigarette after accidentally overdosing on sleeping pills, and raced through the streets of downtown Danville butt naked. I couldn’t help but think if Benjamin and Caroline had known anything of Mr. Clift’s escapades they'd never have let Amy and I venture farther than our neighborhood. Hollywood has a way of sanitizing bad news even in a little town like Danville.
When first we arrive I see director Edward Dymchk screaming orders at everyone. He was filming the Fourth of July scene with hundreds of people running in all directions. A large brass band rehearsed the Stars and Stripes against a backdrop of confetti and banners. Several workers were busy planting fireworks. This was the big scene where Montgomery Clift and Lee Marvin were to compete in a foot race to the right of the town square near where a magnificent towering eighteenth century Ferris wheel stood.
I suggested the both of us watch from the vicinity of the Ferris wheel. Without hesitation, Amy joins me for a quick sprint around cable and cranes. We stand nearly two hours gorging ourselves on popcorn and cotton candy before a crew of about ten men draw near.
"What are you kids doing hanging around here all this time?" The carnival man inquires. Amy answers, "We came from Madison to ride the Ferris wheel with Elizabeth Taylor. You were supposed to make the movie in my home town". The man pauses then stoops near Amy. "You’re the prettiest little girl I’ve ever seen. If I were a boy your age I’d never let you out of my sight,” he says while tapping the back of my head. "Look kids, you stay right here while I ask one of the associate directors if we can use two handsome looking youngsters."
I fold my long thin fingers close my eyes and pray while my heart beast with anticipation. I don’t even remember the man’s name other than he wore more white than a hospital attendant.
He soon returns and embraces Amy and me.
"So, you kids want to ride the Ferris wheel with Miss Taylor? Well, I think we can arrange that."
Meanwhile, Mrs. Dickens was parading around in full costume, twirling a cloth-covered parasol. I’d rarely ever see Mrs. Dickens but knew she was thrilled about being in the movies. So much good blood flowed through her veins, I only wished she’d adopt me.
Most the day had passed before they decide to shoot the Ferris wheel scene. I was getting bloated from liquids and sweets and tired of guarding my post when all of a sudden hundreds of extras begin advancing our direction. Amy and I climb the rickety platform beneath the Ferris wheel making certain we’d be first in line. Director Dmytryk yells, " Where’s John Shawnessy? I want Shawnessy and Susanna Drake over here immediately."
I had no idea who these people were. I knew I didn’t want to share our precious seat with any of them. Well, it turns out Shawnessy was none other than Montgomery Clift and Susanna Drake, Miss Taylor.
I’d never spent this much time with a girl before other than my sisters, but that don’t count for much. Amy never stopped smiling the entire day. Although she had Mrs. Taylor’s porcelain white skin and long flowing black hair she looked more natural to me. In a burst of joy, Amy spontaneously throws her arms around my neck, squeezes and then giggles with excitement. Heaven, this must be heaven, I thought to myself.
For a brief moment I revive the image of Benjamin and Caroline standing like two sentries at the front door, arms folded, impassive expressions about their faces. Neither cared much for movies let alone movie stars but their presence soon faded as Mr. Dmtryk approached.
Dmytryk cleared a path to the Ferris wheel and then asked in a gruff tone, "Whose children are these? " "They’re the two kids from Madison, Indiana I told you about Mr. Dmytryk. They came all the way to ride the Ferris wheel", said the man in white. Amy and I stare at the imposing man who I would learn later in life was forever branded one of Hollywood’s unfriendly 10. In 1951, he went before Senator Joe McCarthy’s House on un-American Activities Committee fingering 26 people as communists. This came after a conviction of contempt and time in a federal prison for refusing to talk about his communist ties. After jail he was blacklisted. The confession won him renewed respect amongst Hollywood’s right wing studio heads that in turn rewarded Dmytryk with choice projects. Raintree County was one of them.
Dmytryk inspects with a crusty eye and then asks, " Son, are you here to fight in behalf of Robert E. Lee and the glory of the confederation or to find the golden rain tree?"
Everyone laughed but me. I didn’t know how to respond to such a dynamic question so I glare at him and say, " I’m here for Amy," pointing in her direction. For whatever reason those words earned Amy and I passage aboard the ornate Ferris wheel.
As they fasten us in I couldn’t help but think of the moment. The most beautiful girl in the world next to the most loving boy in the universe. I couldn’t begin to count the nights I dreamed of such splendor. I could hear my heart beat two sizes to large for my small chest. Something invisible passed from my soul through skin then hovered above us. It was a most powerful sensation like a protective shield against all unwanted feelings of alienation and fear.
Once locked in position I knew there would be no way for Amy and I to escape until filming had ceased.
As the wheel began rotating in its fixed orbit I suddenly felt uncomfortable - uttering few words until the subject of school came up. Amy and I discussed our likes and misfortunes. Our favorite teachers and least favorite subjects while my eyes remain focused on Amy's tender mouth and brilliant blue eyes. Her voice conveyed sandpaper coarseness, a timbre the sound of which further inspired fantasy.
The night wind rubbed gently across my face causing me to relax my eyelids. I tried unsuccessfully to will her to my arms, the sort of thing love struck men and women do in black and white movies, but Amy seemed more interested in the movie stars below.
It was well into the evening when poor Amy surrendered, collapsing helplessly into my arms, exactly where I hoped she’d land. With the tips of my fingers I smooth the worry from her face and lightly stroke the long black tresses. I was leery of lifting my arms fearing she would suddenly awaken and plan her escape. I held the same position hour upon hour until circulation in my arms had stilled to numbness.
Soft moonlight reflected off Amy’s lips turning pitch black as it spread inside our carriage. I realized time was quickly retreating. If I were to ever taste such sweetness it would have to be now. With arms curled I lift her upward leaving her hair to spread evenly between my chest and arms. With a second raise upward, Amy’s mouth slightly brushes past my bare cheek. Overcome by guilt and fear, I begin shivering. Suddenly, Amy comes to half-life, rises and places her soft lips, damp with the long night of humidity, near my chin. She then moves cautiously, kissing in small increments until reaching the flesh of my raw lips. She then delivers a solitary kiss, as still as the night air that lingers in my heart for what seems infinity. Amy recoils then conveniently rests her head in the crevice between my collar and neck then drifts slowly back to sleep. The whole evening becomes a surreal dream, a journey from which I wish never to return.
For a brief moment I felt passion unlike I imagine few encounter in a lifetime of promise. A simple kiss, so powerful, so unexpected relieved my heart of all disappointment and expectation. The discomfort I’d felt moments earlier all but dissipated then withdrew into unseen currents. As for the actors below; we never saw Mr. Clift or Mrs. Taylor. The many wooden slats obstructed our view and steel beams which revolved in our direction during filming further blocked our view.
The evening would prove to be a long unending affair. The hours slowly pass as we levitate above the noisy crowds, occasionally making a 360-degree spin. Dmytryk barked instructions.
"Action, slate, shoots, that’s a take___ no, no, no, do it again."
Eventually, the night drew to a close and they lowered our passive bodies to the platform below. Mrs. Dickens directed our exhausted figures towards her car and drove to a nearby motel. Amy was tucked away in one bed, me in another while Ms. Dickens slept upright in a large comfortable high back chair. Early the next morning she coaxed the two of us to the station wagon and delivered me to my doorstep.
Waiting like court appointed prosecutors, Benjamin and Caroline demanded a detailed explanation. Mrs. Dickens briefly summarized the day’s events and begged off for sleep leaving me to suffer interrogation. Through a sleep-drenched haze, I wish Amy good night. She stops, then whispers, "did you kiss me?", turns, waves over her shoulder and disappears from view. I climb the long stairs towards my room battered by Benjamin and Caroline’s verbal declarations of dire consequence, then think to myself, " The hell with it, Amy and I are in the movies. Our time together will be shown to the whole world. People will wonder who the two young lovers flying above Ms. Taylor are. We’ll probably be on the cover of True Romance or something like that.
Summer passes and autumn returns after a long drought. Amy and I were still friends, but from a distance. I still parked my Schwinn near her house but she was always preoccupied with grand parents and long visits with army folks. We rarely spoke. My dreams of her only intensify, but it was now sixth grade and we were assigned different classes. Cheryl took the seat reserved for Amy. Although just as lovely and desirable, we never shared the same moments of play.
The year passed with only the occasional smile between us. I tried desperately to capture a free moment. I’d memorized what I thought the right sentiment a few words that expressed the depth of my love. Christ, I felt I suffered an illness with no cure.
By spring, I learn Amy was about to move. I pay twenty cents for the triple horror feature at the Ohio Theater. Younger brother Gene - pal Randy and I roll spit balls and toss them at greasy duck- tail leather boys down front. When Gene and Randy go for sodas, Amy slips next to me. Two things she says nearly rip me apart; the Ferris wheel scene was cut from the movie, the other, confirmation she was moving back to Louisiana. It was if someone had taken a dagger and carved her from my heart. I’d never felt such pain.
Amy told me that Ms.Dickens and her had been invited to a screening of Rain Tree County in Louisville, Kentucky at the Brown Theater. All of the stars were there including Mrs. Taylor and her husband Mike Todd who kept introducing himself as Mr. Elizabeth Taylor. Two hours and forty-five minutes later the verdict was in. The movie was a disaster and there was no evidence the Ferris wheel scene ever existed. I was mortified. What happened to our scene, the recorded testimony of our love?
Before Amy parted, she whispered in my ear," When I come back, we’ll find the rain tree for ourselves and no one else will ever know. Will you kiss me again?"
We never kissed again. In fact, there existed no rumors of her whereabouts. It was if she had vanished without leaving a clue. That’s army life.
Though forty-two years have passed I still can’t let go of the profound feelings I have for her or explain the power she has over my soul. When I first heard the news of her untimely death I wept for the ten-year old whose smile awoke such passion in me. With the maturity of a man crossing mid-life I realize I can’t truly feel the anguish of those whose lives she inhabited daily, but in my heart, I know Amy eventually found her Rain tree. Mine will always reside on the same spot where I held her precious body untold hours fifty feet above in a darken carriage one unforgettable summer night and the kiss that will live forever.