Graduation. My hair was full length at my 1969 high school graduation.
Like they sang in Hair, down to where it stops by itself. In my case, that was about halfway down my shoulder blades. It had been that long for a while and wasn't getting any longer. In the late 1960s my long hair meant something, or so I thought. I grew my hair out in Kenya. It was part of my persona as Kurly, sax player for Once Upon a Tryp. I wore an olive drab cotton army jacket that I got my mom to sew patches onto, a habit I picked up in Boy Scouts. She was donating some clothes she no longer wore and I spotted an old coat with a real mink collar in the bundle. It didn't take much wheedling to get her to sew that collar onto my army jacket. She was sweet to me, more than I deserved. I bombed around Nairobi on my motorbike in the jacket. It was all I needed in that mellow climate. I even wore a white crash helmet, just like Frank Mills.
No leather jacket, but I had my girlfriend Diana's name painted on the back of my helmet. I was so crazy about her. First love. Graduation was outdoors. We were sitting in the bleachers. My hair was about knee level to the jocks sitting behind me. When I got home to the Fishfarm for my graduation party, I discovered a giant wad of bubblegum in my hair. I got Gail to cut it out. My hair didn't look any shorter. We proceeded to have a big stoned drunk time.
Pet names. That was a big summer for stoned drunk times. I was cast adrift, in free fall between high school and college. My mom made sure I was enrolled in Florida Presbyterian College before she left to return to her Johnnie Boy in Kenya, who was no doubt keen to be reunited with his Faysey Waysey.
Goofball. My brother Tim was in the Navy. He enlisted to avoid being drafted and regretted it ever since. He'd come to the Fishfarm for a visit, bringing a couple of friends: a quiet guy he'd become friends with in the Navy, and a childhood friend who was a flaming goofball, nuts to the point of coming unhinged. Goofball still lived in Marianna. The two Navy dudes went to visit him there, then the three of them drove down to the Fishfarm in goofball's car, a 1962 Impala convertible land yacht. It was the second night of their visit, and we were all getting well oiled and hilarious, drinking and smoking.
Drunk. My brother was reminiscing about snake hunting in the Everglades when goofball interjected "That's not far; let's go on a snake hunt tonight!" We were drunk enough to do it. Five of us piled into goofball's Impala: me, my brother, the quiet Navy dude and Sam, with goofball driving. Goofball was a crazy driver; we made serious tracks down US 1. I could see the speedometer from my spot in the middle of the huge front seat and we were often going 80; the speed limit was 70. We were steadily drinking and smoking. We brought plenty of stash.
Tamiami Trail. We drove down US 1 and turned west onto the Tamiami Trail. The Trail has some family history. In the late 1920s my dad worked as a photographer for the Miami Herald. The Tamiami Trail opened in 1928. My dad was assigned to cover the ribboncutting ceremony. I used to have a photo of him from about this time, a handsome young guy in a zoot suit with his foot up on the running board of his square-bodied black sedan, which sported a raccoon tail flag. There were two ribbon cuttings. The first was on the Tampa side south of Naples; they were just opening the part of the Trail that crossed the Glades. The dignitaries would then drive in grand procession across the swamp to cut the ribbon on the Miami side. They were billed as the first to cross the Everglades on the completed Trail. My dad knew a guy who worked on the Trail. They hatched a plan so Johnnie (my dad) could score a scoop. The night before the ribbon cutting they snuck around the barrier. They hid my dad's car a couple hundred yards down the Trail. It was supposedly carefully guarded so no one would steal the dignitaries' thunder by beating them. Helps if you know the guard. The next morning Dad shot the ceremony and while the dignitaries were settling into their vehicles he snuck around them, hopped in his car, drove across the Trail, and was all set up to snap the other ceremony when they arrived. No one ever knew he beat them across.
Snake hunt. We drove along the Tamiami Trail to the middle of the Great Cypress Swamp. We turned south on an unmarked dirt road that looped back east through the swamp. That dirt road was our destination. My brother chose it because it was snake-hunting territory where you didn't have to slog through the muck, because snakes would cross the road at night.
Hood ornament. We drove very slowly, everyone armed with a flashlight, eyes glued to the roadway for snakes. Everyone had an open window to look out except me, since I was sitting in the middle of the front seat. So I got the honor of sitting on the hood of the Impala as we cruised very slowly through the swamp.
Smells. It was an unforgettable experience sitting on the hood and floating through the Glades. I was entranced by the rich smells of the Everglades at night. There was a background scent of decaying vegetation, deep and earthy, spiced with a little rotting flesh here, a bit of skunk there. Every so often we'd go through an area where something was blooming, and OMFG, those floral scents. I have never smelled anything so riveting, so intensely sweet, tropical, and mysterious as those scents in the Everglades. We finally made it back to the Trail. Tim, with his ever-sharp eyes, scored the only snake: we had a pygmy rattlesnake in a snake bag in the trunk. He sold rattlesnakes to a guy who extracted venom.
Stinky. It was four in the morning when we headed back up US 1. Everyone was dead beat, worn out by the long night and the booze and the dope. Goofball was driving even faster, eager to get back and crash. I dozed but couldn't get to sleep. I didn't want to lean on goofball to my left, or my brother to my right. We were a dirty, stinky bunch and I did not want to snuggle. But I did manage to sleep at just the right time.
The accident. I was suddenly jerked awake by my brother's right arm. He had turned and was reaching across in front of me to grab the wheel. That's when I looked up and saw the pickup truck coming at us. It was not more than thirty feet away. We had drifted across the median and were going north in the southbound lanes at goofball speed. He'd apparently passed out. My brother was trying to wrench us out of the path of the pickup but it was too late. Looking at that truck, I knew for sure I was about to die. My last thought was, huh, what a grubby way to die. Then everything went black. I came to lying on my back. My brother was standing over me, shouting something. I passed out again. My brother had been partially successful: instead of a flat head-on, we hit the pickup truck corner-to-corner, killing both drivers instantly. I crushed my brother's arm and shoulder, breaking it in god knows how many places. He wore a full body cast with his arm propped out in front of him on a strut for months. There were photos of him in his cast under the banyan tree in the front yard of the Fishfarm. The impact released the ragtop. After crushing my brother's arm I rolled over the dash and out the top, turning at least one somersault in midair. If I'd been wearing a seatbelt I would've died in the car; I sailed out just in time. When he saw I was alive, my brother had two missions: stand north of me to make sure another car didn't run over me there, and release the rattlesnake. Somehow he managed to accomplish both with his arm broken in forty eleven places.
ER. They took us to the Vero Beach hospital. We'd been almost all the way home. I had three broken ribs, one of which was poking into my right lung. My lung collapsed in the ER. They put a tube in my chest and told me to cough. Right. But I had to cough. The ER nurse stayed with me, using every trick in the book to get me to cough. As I coughed I could hear gurgling under my bed. The other end of my tube was submerged in something. As I coughed, weakly, I gradually cleared out and reinflated my lung. Quiet Navy dude was in a coma for six months. Sam was just shaken up; he walked out of the ER.
Hello death. It would be more than 50 years before I recognized the real significance of what happened that night, my final thought. I was perfectly calm. Death had come for me, and aside from still feeling really dirty and hung over, I was perfectly OK with that.