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Unlike Jack Kerouac

 


Unlike Jack Kerouac

 

Sometime in the middle of the summer of 74, without too much thought, I got into my sky blue Karmann Ghia and headed west for California, a place that I had only dreamed of going.                                                                                                                       

California was nirvana, I thought, where the sun rays tanned your skin and made your hair blond. It was a place where people didn't get bored and didn’t have to wear heavy clothes as you did in snowy Hazleton. In my male-centric worldview, California was a place where every guy owned a surfboard, rode the waves until satisfyingly exhausted, and then lay on the beach next to a bikini-clad California girl, just like a Beach Boys song. The problem was my teenage brain. Like most teenagers, I wasn't the most organized person on the planet and didnt have an efficient plan to get to California. I just went on impulse and plenty of adventurous spirit, which I thought was good enough.                                   

I believed that if you really wanted a dream to come true, you could make it happen just by the power of your mind. Once Id arrive in California, I thought that things would magically fall into place. Id meet a hippie girl, get a gig in a rock band, and live a luxurious life on the Malibu coast. Despite having plenty of these positive thoughts, there was also a negative voice telling me Are you kidding? You have no money, no job, and you dont know anyone on the West Coast.                         

I seldom listened to people, let alone my negative voice.  I was willing to take my shot at the pot of gold, no matter how impulsive. I wanted to be just like my favorite literary figure, Jack Kerouac, who took a road trip through the country with his quirky friends and made a small fortune by writing about it, even though he prematurely died at forty-seven.  Unlike Jack Kerouac, I didn't have any cool chums willing to take the cross-country road trip with me. Dave, my best friend, was planning to go to Temple in the fall while Jay, my second-best buddy, headed for a career at his fathers seafood restaurant in Cape May. My goal was to leave the small town of Hazleton and begin my dream.  In Jack Kerouacs words, Nothing behind me.  Everything ahead of me.”    

                                                                                                                                                                      I tossed a couple of things in the backseat of my 1972 Karmann Ghia—a pair of boxers and an old copy of On the Road, left a cryptic note to my parents in the mailbox, hopped into the front seat and sped off.  Back then, cars didn't have a GPS, and so I clumsily grappled with a complicated map that made me lose my patience. Too frustrated, I chucked the map out the window and took Route 80-West to California, remembering what I heard a kid with braces in Biology class suggest.                                                   

 I sliced through the rolling hills of rural Pennsylvania with a Grateful Dead cassette blaring, making my way into the heartland of Ohio, feeling my friends and family receding in the distance.  By the time I passed Cleveland, I was tired of driving and could barely keep my eyes open.  But I kept driving for a few hundred miles.              I stopped for a black coffee somewhere in Gary, Indiana, even though I was not too fond of the taste, and too much caffeine made me jittery. Driving through Indiana triggered thoughts of the movie, Hoosiers. I imagined meeting Gene Hackman at a rest stop wearing gym shorts and holding a Spalding basketball with a silver whistle hanging from his neck. Once in Chicago, I drove past an endless line of row homes that seemed to make me dizzy. I pulled over to an abandoned gas station parking lot and took a nap. I closed the windows, locked the doors, and kept one eye open for fear of having my car carjacked. Surprisingly, I slept for a couple of hours without the police shining a flashlight into my eyes. I regretted not being better organized.  I was so young that I didnt realize how ignorant I was about such things as money and having a travel itinerary.  All those wasted mental fumes and misfiring brain cells with no direction seemed to sabotage the trip's success.  I traveled on pure emotion with no navigational skills.                                                                                     

             Eventually, I found a shabby motel that I swore had bedbugs and, possibly, other small creatures that left little red bumps and rashes on my legs and arms. When I confronted the motel manager and demanded my money back, he laughed in my face and said with a sarcastic attitude, We dont charge extra for the pests.” I was too tired to argue and wrote it off to crummy luck. Once back on the road, I drove eight-hundred miles while listening to the Grateful DeadAmerican Beauty” to where I felt stoned just from the chord progressions. It was pretty clear to me that my breathing had changed once I crossed the Iowa state line.  It must have been the corn or wheat fields that I inhaled from my open window because I was smitten by some powerful allergen. It got so bad that I could barely drive and had to pull into a diner somewhere in the farmlands with the smell of manure wafting in the air. I struggled into the diner with a wheeze and a rattle, took a seat at the counter, and sucked-up two squirts of my inhaler while grabbing a bunch of paper napkins to wipe my sweaty brow and runny nose.                                                                                                                                                                                                        As I looked around the diner at all the customers, feeling quite the outsider, I realized that I was the only person with long hair. Most of the other males had hair parted to the right with Brylcream slathered on it. The women wore clunky glasses from the fifties and hairspray puffed hair with fingernails that matched their dresses' color.                                                  

With both nostrils stuffed and straining to breathe, I could barely bite into the cheeseburger, let alone taste it. I left three-quarters of the burger and a half-plate of fries, took a handful of napkins, paid the bill, and labored back to my dusty Karmann Ghia.  According to my geography, which may not have been correct, I had to pass Nebraska, New Mexico, and Arizona before landing on California soil.                         

I couldn't see myself making it there alive. At this rate, I would get to California in a casket and not on the surfboard that I envisioned.

Being a road trip failure seemed more attractive than being an asthma attack victim in Albuquerque, or having my bones picked by vultures in the Arizona desert.  So, I apologized to Jack Kerouac, cut my trip to the West Coast short, and sadly turned my rack-in-pinion steering wheel about ninety degrees east, and headed back home.               

Changing my mind wasnt unusual for me.  One minute, I wanted to see a movie, the next moment, Id be satisfied chilling with my friends in the park. At this moment, my health was the priority, not my California dream.  I headed back to Pennsylvania with my tail between my legs and a passenger seat full of mucous-stained diner napkins. I drove like a crazy man on caffeine fumes back to Pennsylvania with a partial gas tank and a tight chest. Now my thoughts were about my basic needs like breathing and getting some sleep, and not one of those tanned California girls that played beach blanket bingo.     

When I checked into the Emergency Room in Danville, I was half-dead. Seeing how pathetic I looked, the triage nurse quickly escorted me to a little white room where she took my pulse, blood pressure and stuck a foot-long thermometer under my tongue. You have a temperature,” she said, feeling my clammy forehead. We need to get you to see the doctor.”                                                                                                                    

Much relieved to be getting medical attention, I didn't care what the nurses did to my body. They could puncture me with needles, stick tubes down my throat, or pound my chest with karate chops, just as long as they could open my airways again.  

While waiting behind a beige curtain and wearing an oversized hospital gown, California didnt seem like such a cool dream anymore.  All those tangerine groves and melon fields that Jack Kerouac talked about seemed like empty images.  What was important now was not the Spanish mysteries of California or the burgundy red-pressed grapes.  It was surviving this asthma attack.  I wanted to be normal again, to restart my life with a pair of phlegm-free lungs and a sinus cavity that wasn’t plugged.                                                                                         

During a breathing treatment covered with a nebulizer mask, the universe seemed to be telling me that I wasn't supposed to be in California.  Perhaps the grandmaster of creation was looking out for me, saving me from the wildfires, mudslides, and falling between an earthquake's cracks.  Maybe, I would find my dream, my new beginning, in a place I abandoned, the high altitude of my birth, Hazleton, Pennsylvania.                                                            

Once I finally returned to my little provincial town in Northeastern, Pennsylvania, it suddenly had more appeal. It now looked like my Shangri-La but with a few potholes and abandoned gas stations. With some planning and perhaps a few college courses, I may not need the help of Jack Kerouac to write my story

 

 

Mark Tulin

 

 

Mark Tulin is a former therapist who lives in Santa Barbara, California. Mark’s books include Magical Yogis, Awkward GraceThe Asthmatic Kid and Other Stories available at Amazon. Mark has been featured in Fiction on the Web, New Readers Magazine, Vita Brevis, Ariel Chart, as well as anthologies and podcasts.  Mark’s blog is at Crow On The Wire.

 


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2 Comments

  1. fan mòr nam buillean. toilichte a leughadh.

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    1. SB -- work required in english but not commentary but still might be helpful for english translation along side. if i am not mistaken this is scottish gaelic and says you are a big fan of the Beats. Much appreciative of you visiting our journal and taking the time to comment.

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