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TRYING TO KEEP A COOL HEAD
ON THE WAY TO THE DRYER

Excerpts from a novel of the 60s, by Brad Lang.


Life in the fascist washing machine--
So many separate clothes,
Black and White--
is a Chlorox nightmare.
Nevertheless, there you are,
Belching suds and other purifying agents,
Trying to keep a cool head
On the way to the dryer.

Bill Kahl (1941-1981)
Letter from prison

OUTLINE

1966--Howie Riley, former Boy Scout and Honor Society vice-president, enters the University, knowing who he is and what he wants. He soon discovers Viet Nam, dope, long hair, folk music and being weird. He falls in love and abandons his Career Plans. His parents are appalled, but there is a Revolution brewing.

1967--Howie becomes a "hippie." His life is complicated by a bizarre series of events involving narcs, LSD, a house full of crazy people, and the continuing Revolution. The latter begins to demand his attention.

1968--Howie drops out of school, loses his 2-S deferment, and is threatened with military induction. He considers the alternatives, and only his wits keep him out of the rice paddies of Viet Nam. He is not the only one.

1969--Howie has become "radicalized." His life is a series of meetings, protest demonstrations, plots, confrontations and more meetings. He becomes a Weatherman. He begins to notice people following him around.

1970--The country is in chaos, and so is Howie. There is talk of bombs and guns. Howie is purged from his own organization. The Revolution continues, but he escapes with his life. Others are not so fortunate.

1966

It was the Fall of 1966, and there was a Revolution brewing. But Howard Keith Riley, Merit Scholar, ex-Boy Scout and Honor Society vice-president, former resident of Grand Ledge, Michigan, was entering the University.

His Certificate of Admission nestled snugly in his blazer pocket, credentials intact, pale body freshly scrubbed and anointed with Oil of Canoe, surrounded by all the Proper Nouns, Howie was ready to pass through the ritual of Registration. Years of training had prepared him for this moment, and he pressed on with few doubts, and only mild flashes of horniness brought about by close proximity to so many nubile female forms wrapped in plaid and polyester. The juices were flowing. It was great to be alive, to be eighteen, in perfect health, an American and a pre-law major. Christ! It was at that precise moment that he fell in love.

This was not a new experience. Howie Riley had been falling in love on an almost weekly basis since he was six years old and pulled his first ponytail. He did not remember ever hating girls. All the six-year-old boys he had ever known claimed to hate girls more than anything. Yuck! He suspected that he had been born without some vital immunity, an antibody to heterosexual attraction that was depleted in normal males only at the onset of puberty. Defenseless, he fell in love often, and never recovered. He remembered them all, even the ponytailed first grader.

His new love also had a ponytail. It hung down to her waist. She wore white levis, blue work shirt, no makeup. Her face was beautiful, even without lipstick or mascara, he thought. An intelligent face, with dark eyes and a playful smile. She was smiling at him.

He smiled back automatically. His smile then slowly faded as he saw that she was standing in front of a table, one of many set up at the entrance to the class registration hall. It was loaded with books and pamphlets, and hanging from the side was a sign: "STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY."

Howie had recently read an article in Life Magazine entitled, "The Explosive Rise of the New Left." There were pictures of bearded, long-haired, demonstrating students. Peppered throughout the piece were those three letters: SDS.

"Hi," said the girl. "You going to register?"

"Yeah," said Howie, staring at the sign.

"Freshman?"

For a moment, he considered lying. "Right," he said.

She waved vaguely at the table and the sign. "We're having a meeting tonight for new members."

"The SDS?" he asked.

"Right, but it's just SDS, not the SDS."

Flee! said a voice in his head. It's them!

The girl advanced on him as if on some kind of skittish animal, pamphlet held out in front of her like a dog biscuit. Howie could not flee; he was hypnotized by her smile.

"Why don't you read this," she said, holding out the brochure. "It's about the War in Viet Nam."

"Oh," he said, taking the pamphlet carefully.

"You know about the War?"

"Sure," he told her. He knew only what he had seen on TV: rice paddies and helicopters and body counts. It wasn't a war he envisioned himself fighting. He had a 2-S student deferment.

"We're planning a demonstration to protest the War and the University's involvement. That's what the meeting's about. You coming?"

Why did she think he would do that? Why was he talking to her at all? He stuffed the pamphlet in his pocket, next to his Certificate of Admission. "I don't know," he mumbled.

"Are you against the War?" she asked.

Howie looked at her blankly. What difference did it make? He shrugged.

"That's how I was at first," she said, laughing. "I didn't know shit. I thought Viet Nam was in South America!"

Howie laughed weakly. Where in the hell was Viet Nam?

"What's your name?" she asked.

"Howie," he said. Why did he do that? Now They had his name.

"Linda Goodman." She held out a hand and Howie took it. It was cool and bony. "Where you from?"

"Michigan."

"Another scholarship sucker, right?"

"Sucker?" He was appalled. "Why do you say that?"

"Oh, I know," Linda said, rolling her eyes. "They're paying your tuition and everything, and they gave you the red carpet treatment at summer orientation and all that shit, right? Me, too. Then you get here and you find out you're just another student number, another body for the big machine. You know what? Half the people in SDS are on scholarships. We're all suckers, so don't feel bad."

He didn't feel bad. He felt weird. He was standing there in front of half the University community, talking to a communist, for God's sake, who didn't wear makeup, said "shit" all the time and wanted him to come to an SDS meeting!

And, to make matters worse, he was in love with her.

"Shit," he said. (It was contagious.) "I gotta go register." He started walking away, somehow making his legs move by sheer willpower. Then he turned back. "Uh, nice talking to you," he said, and that was his biggest mistake.

She nailed him again with her smile. "You coming to the meeting?"

He looked deep into her big brown eyes. "I'll think about it." That was for sure.

"It's in the Student Center, Room 230."

"They let you use the Student Center?" he asked, incredulous.

"Sure, why not?"

"Yeah, why not?" He stumbled away.

"Don't be a sucker!" she called out.

People were looking at him. One kid, built like a football player, muttered something about "commies."

"I never saw her before in my life," Howie told the jock, and instantly felt guilty.

He tried to recapture his earlier feeling of breathless anticipation, but Registration was ruined for him. The Class Card Arena--hundreds of desks labelled "English" and "Chemistry" and "Romance Languages"--was a giant supermarket, where knowledge was being huckstered to legions of suckers. Not a metaphor he would have chosen earlier that morning.

He found himself eyeing his fellow students surreptitiously, wondering which ones were the SDS members on scholarships. He saw more white levis and blue work shirts. How many were there? Or was it just a big commie lie, told by Linda Goodman in order to get him to come to the meeting, where they would brainwash him into mindlessly following the Party line?

Of course! He snapped out of it just in time. He would steer clear of those people, put his nose to the grindstone, his shoulder to the wheel, graduate with honors and become a Supreme Court Justice, or at least a Justice of the Peace. No time for SDS meetings. Not this sucker.

* * * * *

As soon as he entered Room 230 of the Student Center, Howie began looking for Linda Goodman.

She was nowhere to be found, so he took a seat in the rear and surveyed the crowd, his pulse pounding with fear or excitement or both. It was the strangest-looking collection of individuals he had ever laid eyes upon. White levis, boots, blue work shirts and denim jackets seemed to be the uniform of the day, and he realized in horror that he was the only person in the room wearing a coat and tie.

Most of the men had long hair, mustaches, even beards. Buttons were everywhere: "Stop the War," "SNCC," "SDS," and "SRO," whatever that last one was. They all seemed to be trying to out-smoke each other. Through the haze he could see lots of argumentation and gesticulating, none of which made any sense to him. He decided he'd made a big mistake, and started to make his escape.

"Howie?"

It was Linda Goodman. Howie sat down heavily. "Hi," he said.

"I'm so glad you came! But don't sit back there. Come up in front and meet some people."

She grabbed him and dragged him toward the front of the room, where he was introduced to a trio of scruffy-looking characters who were in charge of on-campus recruiting for the Student Rights Organization. They were all wearing "SRO" buttons. There was an extremely fat girl named Melanie, who wore a voluminous paisley cape and at least five pounds of turquoise jewelry. Hector was skinny and sullen, surrounded by a haze of cigarette smoke. And John, who Howie thought was one of the more normal-looking people in the room, was a graduate teaching assistant who the University was trying to get rid of because of his political activity.

"I'm a dangerous radical," he said, grinning.

"He's a Trot," Hector said cryptically.

"A what?" asked Howie.

"A Trotskyite," said Hector.

"Trotskyist," corrected John. "Young Socialist Alliance."

"Sure," said Howie, completely mystified.

"I mean, c'mon, Hector," John complained, "how'd you like to be called a socialite?"

"Listen, guys," Linda said, "Howie's sorta new to all this. I think you're confusing him." Howie looked at her with love in his eyes.

Linda patted a chair. "Why don't you sit down? I've gotta go do some things, but I'll be back." She headed toward the front of the room, and disappeared in the cigarette fog. Howie sat down.

"You a freshman, honey?" asked Melanie, her jewelry jangling.

"That's right."

"Well, don't worry. You'll have your head on straight in no time!"

"I thought it already was."

Melanie laughed. "Got it all figured out, huh?"

"Well, I was doing fine until I met Linda today." He looked around the room. "What are all these people doing here, anyway?"

Melanie sighed. "Where do I start? Look, this university treats us like children. They tell us where to live, how to think, how to dress. The women are separated from the men, and they lock the women up every night. If we want to print any literature and pass it out, we have to get permission. If we want to form an organization, we have to get a faculty advisor and be 'recognized.' If you break any rules, they can kick you out just like that." She snapped her fingers.

"Well, you've gotta have rules," Howie said weakly.

"Due Process," said Hector.

"Huh?"

"There's no such thing as due process for students here. In the real world, if you break a law, you get a trial, with a jury of your peers, and a lawyer to defend you. What we've got here is a dictatorship."

"In loco parentis," said Melanie.

"Right," said Hector. "It means the University takes the place of your parents. You're not a citizen. You've got no rights. You've got to take whatever kinda crap they wanta dish out."

"It runs counter to the whole idea of a university," John chimed in. "We're supposed to be here to learn. That learning process takes place best in an atmosphere of free and open discussion. But we don't have that, because learning isn't what's going on here."

"What is going on here?" Howie wanted to know.

"Indoctrination," they all said at once.

"They're trying to force feed us with the establishment line," said John. "If you happen to disagree with that line--zip." He drew his finger across his throat.

"John is a perfect example," said Melanie.

"Uh, what'd you do?" Howie asked tentatively.

John looked grim. "It's a long story. Basically what I did was to pass out copies of our newsletter in the dorms."

"Treason!" shouted Hector.

John continued. "They call the dorms 'living-learning complexes,' but what they are is concentration camps. All the little kiddies from the sticks are forced to live there for the first couple of years, and they're protected from all the outside influences that might warp their sensitive little minds."

"That's us," Hector stated proudly. He drew close to Howie and whispered in his ear. "At this very moment you are surrounded by the scum of the earth. This is a den of communists and dope fiends and degenerates and homosexuals!"

Despite himself, Howie was impressed. He looked around the room, willing to believe everything Hector said. But Melanie laughed.

"Don't pay any attention to him! He's been paranoid ever since he came back from the South."

"What were you doing there?" Howie wanted to know.

"Oh, the usual. Getting shot at, beaten, arrested, run out of town."

"Voter registration," John explained. "For Negroes."

Negroes, Howie thought. This was really getting interesting. He noticed for the first time that there were several of them in the room. He had never really known any colored people. There was a family in his home town, but he hadn't paid any attention to them. They were just there, like the river or the post office; they had never caused any trouble, as far as he knew.

"Look," said Melanie gently, "if I were you I'd keep my ears open and my mouth shut. Listen to what people are saying--except Hector, of course! If you've got any brains, you'll join us."

Howie wasn't so sure about that. All this talk about dictatorships and indoctrination and concentration camps and degenerates was exciting, but scary, too. He had the strangest feeling that his life, such as it was, had taken a very odd turn. He sat back to listen.

1967

The first time Howie Riley saw the freak wearing the white shirt, he know something was wrong.

Vague tremors in the air, perhaps--leftover transcendent insights from somebody's last acid trip--or possible the clean, white shirt, the brand new boots and the three-day-old beard were what did it. On the other hand, it could have been the fact that the dude knocked on the door, for chrissake, and nobody ever knocked on the door at 429 Fern Street. It just wasn't done. It wasn't even necessary. It was like knocking on the door of a restaurant or something.

In any case, the guy knocked on the door, and when Howie opened it he said his name was "Joe" and that he wanted to buy some "el ess dee."

"You wanta buy some LSD," Howie observed tentatively, using the Rogerian approach.

"That's right, man," Joe said lethargically, yawning and scratching his ass. "Some guys said you might be able to get some for me."

"What guys?"

Joe smiled conspiratorially. "They told me not to mention their names, ya know? They just said this was where it was at."

Of course.

Howie knew all about narcs. They wore white shirts and knocked on doors asking to buy LSD. They had three-day-old beards and tried to act hip. Above all, they had to be dealt with cautiously.

"You're a narc," Howie said.

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are."

"Do I look like a cop?" Joe asked forlornly.

"Yes. No. Wait a minute." Howie left Joe the Narc standing in the doorway and went into the kitchen, where he found George Ackermann, surrounded by scummy dishes, stale bread crusts, barely empty yogurt containers, brownish banana peels, empty milk cartons and rice-encrusted plastic bowls, carefully constructing a crunchy peanut butter and blackberry jelly sandwich.

"Hey, George," Howie whispered. "There's a narc out there who wants to buy some LSD!"

"So do I," said George absently, peering at his sandwich.

"Did you hear what I said?" Howie asked, sensing an approaching reality contact problem.

"No," George answered. "What'd you say?"

"I said there's a narc out there who wants to buy some acid!"

George looked up slowly from his sandwich. "Don't sell him anything, Howie."

"Thanks, George. I won't."

"Really, man. Is he wearing a uniform?"

"Of course not!"

"Then how," George asked, in a rare moment of mental clarity, "do you know he's a cop?"

"Because he knocked on the goddamn door! And he's wearing... oh, go look at him yourself!"

George sighed, rose from his stool, and went out to peek at Joe the Narc. He stood looking at him for thirty seconds, then wobbled back into the kitchen and continued with his sandwich. "Remarkable deduction, Mr. Holmes," he said finally. "I do believe you're right."

"You bet your sweet ass I'm right!"

George put the finishing touches on his culinary masterpiece, looked at it proudly for a moment, then asked, "What do you suggest we do?"

"How the hell should I know? I don't even live here."

"Neither do I," said George.

"You're more of a permanent resident than I am," Howie argued desperately. "You do crash here an awful lot."

"You're bumming me out, do you know that?" George stated.

Throwing caution to the winds, Howie and George then strode more-or-less boldly into the living room to confront Joe the Narc, who was standing in the middle of the room, squinting at a psychedelic poster.

"Hey, uh, we haven't got anything," Howie said, trying to sound tough.

"Oh," said Joe the Narc, skeptically, it seemed to Howie. "When you gonna get some?"

"I don't know," said Howie.

"Are you a narc?" inquired George politely.

"No," said Joe the Narc.

George, having finished his peanut butter and jelly sandwich in four gulps, laid down on the floor, put on a pair of stereo headphones, and fell asleep listening to the Mothers of Invention.

* * * *

George Ackermann's friends agreed that he was lucky to be walking around loose. He was twenty-four years old, and his sole purpose in life was to be stoned. He had no visible means of support, and nobody knew where he lived. It was variously suggested that he had a free share of a room in a dormitory, a luxury apartment on the edge of town, and a cold water flat in a flophouse. The fact that there were no known flophouses anywhere nearby did nothing to discourage the rumor; if George Ackermann could exist, he could certainly find a flop house to do it in. Most of the time he slept on the living room floor at 429 Fern Street, wearing stereo headphones connected to a phonograph playing at full volume.

The house on Fern Street was three stories tall and had a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, two bathrooms, eight bedrooms, and a horrible reputation. Vague and paradoxical rumors, as well as outright untruths, were fostered and fueled by mass media hysteria, according to which the people at 429 Fern Street were all communists and lived their lives in preposterous depravity, making molotov cocktails, drinking wine, having orgies, shooting porno movies, and mainlining narcotics.

Carloads of hostile, short-haired zombies often drove by, whispering obscenely, pressing their noses against tightly-closed power windows, hoping for a glimpse of rumored sin.

The only individual who knew for certain how many freaks lived at 429 Fern Street was Stanley Harris, alias The Troll, mostly unseen master of the household. His name was the only one on the lease, due to a ghastly mistake on the part of the landlord. Anybody who wanted to live there had to present himself to The Troll for an in-depth interview, which nobody ever wanted to talk about afterward. His interviews were somewhat unorthodox, it was said, involving a great deal of staring and mumbling, a couple of magic tricks, some unsettlingly accurate stabs at mind-reading, and an occasional bit of indecent exposure.

The Troll's physical appearance was astonishing, even at Fern Street, most of whose denizens looked like extras who'd wandered away from the set of "The Mole People Meet The Living Dead." He was seven feet tall and weighed 110 pounds, giving him the look of a Watusi in the final stages of starvation. His beard reached to his waist. During his brief public appearances he wore a long, white robe and a baseball cap, or for more formal occasions, a t-shirt, an old corduroy sport coat, and a pair of white levis with a large hole in the crotch.

The Troll made his living renting rooms and giving informal lectures on Eastern meditation techniques, which were a great deal like his interviews. He was an unlikely concierge, as well as an unlikely human being, a solitary straggler from a very freaky carnival which had long ago left town.

* * * *

Joe the Narc didn't leave after being informed of the imaginary LSD shortage. He just stood in the middle of the living room, picking his nose and smiling maniacally at Howie. Finally he sat down on the dilapidated couch and began leafing through the latest issue of The Weakly Freak, the local underground newspaper. Howie left him sitting there and climbed the stairs to knock on the door of Robert Gold's room.

"Who the hell is it?" came a voice.

"Howie. Open up, hey."

The door was unlocked. Gold and Kristi Tucker were in the room, fumbling with what Kristi had been told was an ounce of marijuana.

"This is some really shitty-looking dope," said Gold, peering into the thin envelope. He looked at Kristi. "Did you really pay twenty dollars for this?"

"Well, I didn't know," Kristi whined. "I mean, I thought it was good." Kristi's parents had not considered the possibility that knowing the difference between good marijuana and bad would be a necessary part of a Bloomfield Hills girl's upbringing. It was all bad to them, although if the truth were known, they weren't even sure what it looked like. Neither, obviously, was Kristi.

"You're really lucky you've got bread to waste like this," said Gold. He had recently been disowned, pronounced dead by his very poor and very devout (though not Orthodox) Jewish parents after he had returned from college with a shiksa, an incredible had of hair, equally incredible political opinions, and a habit of speaking freely in the presence of old and constipated family friends.

Gold was Fern Street's resident intellectual, with an IQ in the 190s. Between them, Gold and Kristi had an IQ which was easily over 200.

"Hey, you guys," Howie announced, "do you know there's a narc downstairs?"

"What's he want?" asked Gold, looking at Howie curiously.

"He wants to buy some LSD."

"So do I," said Gold. He lit the joint he had rolled from Kristi's pitiful stash, dragged on it deeply, and handed it to Howie, who looked at it doubtfully, then shrugged and took a toke.

Kristi looked confused. "Is there really a narc downstairs?" she asked, peering out the window.

"He claims he isn't," Howie told her. "But he knocked on the door, and he's wearing a white shirt. George thinks he's a narc, too."

"Well, then, it's a certainty," said Gold, and the three of them went downstairs to look at Joe the Narc.

"So where is he?" Gold asked, looking around the living room. He handed the joint to Joe the Narc.

"It's him, you moron," exclaimed Howie.

"What's me?" asked Joe the Narc, accepting the joint gratefully and taking several small tokes.

"The narc," said Howie, in disgust.

Kristi snatched the joint away from Joe the Narc and tried to hide it.

"Hey, bummer," said Joe the Narc.

"Sorry," said Howie.

"No, you're not," said Joe the Narc, and walked out the door.

"He'll be back," said Howie.

Gold shook his head. "Nah. He knows we're onto him."

* * * *

Joe the Narc came back the next night, much to Howie's dismay, and continued to hang around, asking everybody he met if they would sell him some acid. Howie had warned everyone beforehand, so they just shook their heads and asked him if he was really a narc. He usually looked hurt and said that he wasn't. Sometimes he would piss and moan and try to start a fight. Once in a while he would laugh weakly and say, "Sure, I'm a narc, but narcs like to get high just like everybody else!"

Nobody believed him, of course--especially Howie, who insisted that somebody ought to do something.

"He's still down there," said Howie one night, as they all sat in Gold's room smoking dope.

"So what else is new?" asked Gold.

"But aren't we gonna do something about it?"

"He's been here for two weeks," said George.

"What difference does that make?" Howie demanded.

"Howie," George explained calmly, "if there was something to be done, we'd have done it by now."

"But can't we just kick him out?"

George was horrified. "We can't do that!"

"Why not?"

"Because he's a cop," said George. "You can't just go ordering cops around!"

"He actually asked me out the other night," revealed Kristi, wrinkling her nose in disgust. "I wouldn't go out with him even if he wasn't a cop."

"How do you know that?" Howie asked, trying to be fair. "All you really know about him is that he's a cop."

"Isn't that enough?" she demanded.

George was sitting on the floor, smiling his Lyndon Johnson smile, rocking back and forth, looking like something that had just popped out of a dark corner in the fun house. "Far out," he said.

It was only then that Howie felt the weight of responsibility descending upon his shoulders; if something was to be done, he was the only one to do it.

(Copyright 1997 by Brad Lang)

Interested publishers or other parties, please contact Brad Lang.

I'd like to read some more, please!

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