Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | November 8, 2009

TURNING 21

Curry County, Oregon – November 8, 1973

When the momentous and much anticipated day arrived I was on the southern Oregon coast. I want to say that I was living on the Oregon coast when I turned 21, but I am not sure that is accurate.  What exactly constitutes “living” in any particular place?  Paul Bowles, in The Sheltering Sky, explains the difference between a tourist and a traveler as follows: “Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place then to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.” It seems to me that the difference between living somewhere and visiting is somehow similar; yet not something which can be determined by lengths of time, as Bowles partly does, nor by charting changes of address, but rather something defined by attitude and the relationship one has with a particular place in contrast to other places, to any other place.

Tim and I had driven out to southern California from Cleveland in August, 1973.  He had continued on up the coast to meet Demeter (Jim) in Oregon (they would eventually move to San Francisco) and I had stayed on in Garden Grove, Orange County, to help Donna (who had migrated from Cleveland to the West Coast in 1972 with Danny, Becka, Demeter & James) and her then boyfriend, Joe.  A recent motorcycle accident had left Joe with his left leg broken in about three places; he was pretty much confined to bed with a nearly hip to toe cast. As he explained it at the time, he had been doing “whoop-de-do’s” (sort of like larger versions of speed bumps across a dirt trail) on his motorcycle.  He thought there were 3 “whoop-de-do’s” but there turned out to be 4 “whoop-de-do’s” and he got “whoop-de-done” when he let his front wheel down too soon. As a result he couldn’t drive, and Donna did not yet have her drivers license, and this being southern California a person couldn’t get by without driving, so they asked me to stay until Joe was healed up enough to get around on his own.  I ended up staying there for about a month.  But at no point did I ever feel that I was living there.  It was simply a place I had to be for a while, a diversion on the way to somewhere else.

After a month’s worth of Orange County I decided that the West Coast was not for me  (I had begun to call the place Garbage Grove) and I might as well return to Cleveland; as though the entire West Coast was like Orange County; what did I know? I was broke and had no transportation; the car Tim and I had driven to the coast had been his.  So I swallowed what there was of my pride, called my parents and they agreed to send me the bus fare to go home.

After the money arrived I set aside enough for the bus fare and gave it to Donna to hold for me.  Then I hitchhiked up to Oregon to visit Danny, Jim and Tim before going back to Ohio with my tail between my legs.

It took several days for me to get to Oregon and there are many stories to tell about that trip, but another time for those.  For now what is important is my arrival at Lori’s house in Carpenterville, Oregon in early September, 1973.

Carpenterville was merely a ghost of a town at that point, not a “ghost town” by any means, but what little there once had been of a town had long ago dwindled to essentially two or three houses and a road sign.

The last ride I got, from Highway 101 up Carpenterville road to Lori’s house, where Danny was living, was with someone who knew Lori, knew where the house was and who drove me right into the yard; I considered this a good omen.  I remember Danny and Lori coming out to greet us.  Danny with one of his big all-engulfing bear hugs and then Lori, without any apparent trace of hesitation, hugging me and welcoming me into her home as though I were not the complete stranger I, in fact, was.  I felt truly and sincerely welcome.

 

Lori.1973

Lori, Curry County, Oregon - 1973

From that first moment I felt that I had uncovered a home. I never felt that I was a mere visitor in Curry County, Oregon.  From that first day I was living there; returning to a home I’d never seen before. Certainly this corner of coastal Oregon felt more like home to me than Cleveland, Ohio ever had.  The sense of home was almost as strong as I felt for Bitner, Pennsylvania, where I had spent so much of my childhood living with my grandparents; the place I had always considered to be my “home.”  Here was another rural place which felt comfortable, welcoming and warm; and this one had a view of the Pacific Ocean.

Now I will end this preliminary rambling and get down to the story of my 21st birthday.  There were two things which happened that day that have lingered, keeping a corner of my memory warm in spite of all the years that have passed.

It was early September when I arrived in Oregon and by the time November rolled around it had become obvious to me that Curry County was the perfect place for me to turn 21 years old. But the only real plan I had made to celebrate my 21st birthday was to finally legally buy a bottle of whiskey; whiskey being rather important to me in those days.

When I stop to think about it, turning 21, in and of itself, was anti-climactic.  After all, by the time I hit 21 I’d had a drivers license for 5 years, was already able to vote, could marry without parental permission, enter into legally enforceable contracts and be drafted into the military; the only thing left for 21 to grant me was the right to legally buy my own booze – no small thing for me.

Oregon, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, is one of those states where liquor must be purchased at a State Store within certain limited days and hours. I was excited about being able to legally buy a bottle of whiskey for the first time so, on the morning of the 8th, Danny and I drove down the hill into Brookings, the biggest town around.  At that time, Brookings had the distinction of having the only traffic light in the county; it was near the south end of Chetco Avenue before the high Chetco River bridge which led into the community of Harbor and eventually, a few miles further south, into California.

We pretty much went directly to the only State Store in town, on Chetco Avenue.  I confidently walked up to the counter, hand in my pocket gripping my wallet and ready to flash that driver’s license. Maybe there was a hint of a swagger in my walk as I entered the store; I’d like to think so. I asked the woman behind the counter for a fifth of Old Overholt Rye Whiskey, my preference at the time. She smiled, said something affirmative and went to get it.

She came back with the bottle, put it in a bag and set it on the counter in front of me. By this time I’d gotten my wallet out so I could pay for it and, of course, proudly show off my driver’s license with the magic date of birth; but she didn’t ask for proof of age. Nor did she ask for money.

So I asked her, “Don’t you want to see my driver’s license?” holding it out to her.
“Nope. You look old enough.” I was flabbergasted and nearly insulted.
“But don’t you think you should check just to make sure?”
“Nope. I believe you.”
“But I don’t want you to believe me. I want you to look at my driver’s license.”

Danny.Oregon.1973

Danny, Curry County, Oregon, 1973 (photo by Lori)

Then she looked at Danny, who was standing just behind me and to one side; the two of them started to laugh. I looked back and forth between them, puzzled, a little frustrated and uncertain as to what was going on. The clerk then told me that Danny had come in the day before, explained that his friend was turning 21 the next day and he wanted to pay for my first legal bottle of whiskey as a birthday present. He was, of course, still underage so I would actually be making the purchase, he would just be paying for it – got that? Underage or not, she took the money from him and held it until we came in; which also explained why she hadn’t asked me to pay for the Rye. Danny just stood there with that ear to ear grin of his.  Once I understood what was going on, I laughed too and thanked Danny and the clerk both. But I still made her look at my driver’s license before we left.

Brookings was a small enough town then that such things could be done; that people would trust each other in such ways. A State Store clerk in a city would never have done such a thing, but there, in Curry County, and at that time, the clerk could believe Danny, bend the rules a little bit and enjoy being in on the joke.  This was the kind of place where I wanted to live.

Later that night, after dinner, Lori brought out the birthday cake she had baked for me and we all ate as much as we could handle.

When I was seven or 8 years old and we were living on Lawn Avenue in Cleveland, I had bugged my mother for a birthday party.  Several of my friends had had birthday parties that year and I wanted to have one too.  Mom explained to me that I could not have a birthday party because my birthday was in November when it was too cold and the weather too unpredictable to have a party outside.  The house we lived in, she pointed out, was too small to have a bunch of kids over for a birthday party inside.  If my birthday had been during a time of year when the weather was better, then a birthday party would be possible.  But it just wouldn’t work for a November birthday.  My argument that it was not my fault that I was born in November did not get me very far. So I never became accustomed to a big fuss being made about my birthday, and, once I got over that initial disappointment, I was fine with that.  Eventually it became the custom in our family that on your birthday you got to choose what we had for dinner that night and what kind of cake you wanted; I was fond of lamb chops and butter brickle cake with butter brickle frosting. (One year, 1971 maybe, I had become a vegetarian and for birthday dinner that year I requested fried brown rice with mushrooms and onions. As disconcerted as that request made her, Mom none-the-less found a recipe and managed to cook it for me – no one else would eat it of course, just me and her.)  But that was usually the extent of birthday fuss.  And I remain quite comfortable with low-key birthdays to this day.  So my 21st had been a perfectly acceptable birthday for me.

Seeing as how I was always low on money back then (it wasn’t like I had a job or anything), I had taken to rolling my own cigarettes rather than spending scarce resources on tailor-mades. That night, after dinner, after the kids had been put to bed and a fire had been built in the Ashley stove to warm the house, I popped open my tobacco can to roll a cigarette.  Inside I found a folded up piece of paper.  It was a note from Lori which read:

Joey,
Happy Birthday
I was going to make a fantastic dinner for you, but we didn’t have the right stuff.
I was going to buy you a present, but I couldn’t get to town.
I was going to paint a beautiful picture for you, but I couldn’t get that together either.
And now the cake overflowed into the oven, and sunk in the middle and I’ve probably kept you awake and made you angry by banging around in here all night.
So happy birthday anyway.
So there.
Lori

Far from being angry, I was deeply moved; I had come to love Lori very much, in a very short period of time.  I hugged her and assured her that the simple intention to do those things was more than enough for me. She had been a little afraid of me (I’m told that I could be scary at times, though I never meant to be), afraid that I would be angry, so she was relieved by my reaction to her note.  Danny went to bed soon after, but Lori and I sat up talking and smoking deep into the night, as we often did in those days – it was the perfect way to end my 21st birthday and I was about as happy as a chronic depressive could be.

Oregon.1973

Danny shot this one of me just before I got out of the van to start hitching back down to southern California. November, 1973

Three weeks later I would leave Oregon, having spent less than three months there, and hitchhike back down to Orange County where I would catch a Greyhound bus for Cleveland.  But that was okay, because I knew that I would be coming back to Oregon; that Curry County had become my home, the place where I lived.

04/27/04 – 11/08/09

Santa Rosa & Sebastopol, CA

m. j. arcangelini

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Responses

  1. nice

  2. Wow! Just shows how deep into the home grown and home brew I was at the time. Even though my teeth were still straight (wisdom teeth came in a couple years later while still in the Curry County mountains…) you can see the unmistakeable glow of both yeasty ale and cannibis in the red face and bagged eyes. Maybe that explains why some of these details I don’t recall, as if hearing them for the first time even though I’m a character in the story. I’m glad that Laura K. (my private endearing name for her) and I were both able to do something special to make it memorable. The picture of her in this entry nearly broke me apart. Although many men may have also experienced this with her, there was something about she and I, in that time and place, in our union of bodies and souls, in our singleness of purpose (even tho we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, as far as the physical aspects of getting along in the woods) that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. As Richard Dreyfuss says at the end of “Stand By Me”, “I never had any friends like that again; does anyone?” For those readers not knowing, we lost Laura K. on May 4, 2004 to cancer. She was 55, soon to be 56……. I too, wanted my 21st birthday to be memorable. But by that time Laura K. and I had parted ways, and she had married my friend Gil Griffes. Joe had returned to Cleveland for the second time? I had returned to Curry County after a whirlwind re-romance with her in Wisconsin, West Virginia and Florida, and her subsequent determination not to return to Oregon with me. As Joe says in his entry, it was where I lived. It’s written “like a bird that wanders from its nest, is a man who wanders from his place”. That was certainly true for me at that time of life. So I returned, winding up at The North Fork, a 44 acre tract of land held in life estate by some Chetco Indians, none of whom who had any desire to live there. I too, went to town, having “graduated” from the Old Overcoat that Joe and I used to drink, and now drinking a “man’s whisky”, J.W. Dant. I took my guitar and my bottle down to the river bar. Believing the lie that so many young people believe (“I’m going to get really high, it’s going to be great”) I found myself on the river bar, bottle half empty thinking “so this is my adult life? Sitting on this river bar half lit and alone?” I wandered back up the logging road past the fishing cabin we called the Lower Cabin (a wonderful place of solitude, which we rotated to whomever needed it most, getting too wigged out living around all the activity of the main cabin above … 40 years later, I still dream about both cabins …) where the South Central Los Angeles “loadies” discovered it was my birthday, and swept me up in Luis Hernandez’ 1952 Chevy (the Bomb), got a couple cases of Blitz Beer, and went to Charmalee Anderson’s rented home in town, where we drank all the beer while I sang songs. The beer was gone in probably about an hour. But, for all my complaining about behavior of those who lived only to drink and get high, it spoke to me that those whose company I usually disdained (“the least of these”) had reached out to me, to make my 21st birthday meaningful when I had concluded that life was meaningless. Further clues took much longer … but came nonetheless. Thanks for writing this entry, Joe.

  3. “. . . I was about as happy as a chronic depressive could be.” Now that resonanated with me. A life can be measured is such moments. Thanks, Joe.


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