Hinterland of Youth

Hinterland of Youth

 On that rapidly growing dark afternoon of November 23rd, 1972, two friends called on me. They came to take me to Mauston, Wisconsin, a nether-land up north.  The trip would be a get-away weekend of exposed anima with just the guys. We were headed to a hunter’s cabin on loan to us from a local town alderman. The three of us, Jack Kerouac, Bill Caulfield and me, Tom Merton said goodbye to my parents.  We then hit the road and headed north on I-90, leaning forward into the “next crazy venture beneath the skies.” So Jack began the scroll of our trip.

Just across the Illinois-Wisconsin border and somewhere on an isolated back road Bill had Jack stop the car. Bill got out and went around to the trunk.  I watched him not knowing what he was doing. He pulled out a small insulated lunch bag.  Apparently Bill hid the bag in the spare tire cove of the trunk.  He returned to the front seat, opened the bag and handed me my first cold beer – a Pabst Blue Ribbon. I figured then that Bill had made off with a six pack from his father’s beer refrigerator in his family’s basement.

I tasted my first beer in the backseat of Jack’s ’69 Ford Galaxie.  I slurped it slowly thinking it smelled strangely familiar, something in the order of wet wheat-germ or chilled sweat. I dug its mystic cold smarminess.

As we drove north drinking beer we listened to Bill’s eight track tapes.  The eclectic collection included Woodstock, Jethro Tull’s Hard as a Brick, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys, Jimmy Hendrix and many others.  I had to beg Bill and Jack to get them to listen to my Chicago CTA album and to my Simon and Garfunkel Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album. When I did get to play them, I do so with the Marantz turntable sitting next to me on the back seat. The road yielded to the beat.

After three hours and thirty-one minutes of driving and several “Nature’s calling” stops we arrived at the cabin, about ten miles outside of Mauston. It was around 10:30 pm. The cabin was dank and cold. We found the thermostat and switched on the furnace.  There was a small hutch filled with firewood and so we started a fire going in the brick fireplace. Not long after that we hit the bunk beds strained from the day’s massive carb-loading and the red-eyed myopia of night driving.

The weekend at the cabin gave me new insights into what the body can and cannot handle. Drinking alcohol for the first time in my life and without reservation had me revisiting the first seventeen years of my life from the inside out. My stomach doesn’t suffer fools well. In the morning my brain pummeled me with its version of smashing clay pots filled with forget-me-nots on my head.

It was during this next morning that I came up with a throbbing new insight:  I told Bill and Jack that we should buy milk shakes to coat our stomachs before drinking again that night.  They mumbled an agreement and we drove to Dairy Queen that afternoon. We drank large vanilla milk shakes in hopes of staving off the stomach sucking creatures of the night. The ultimate effect, though, was thorough expurgation. I was to find out later that a more prudent trade-off was to not drink so much that one would up running around in twenty degree weather in their underwear howling at the moon.

One of the more sober highlights of our weekend was using a .38 special to shoot at beer cans and bottles lined up on a fence behind the cabin.  The gun belonged to Bill’s father. His father was a Brink’s truck guard. As I learned Bill had secretly taken the gun and some ammo from his father’s bedroom. We used the gun to shoot at bull’s eye targets nailed to unsuspecting trees. The exhilarating effect of shooting a handgun though quickly wore off. I wanted more and more fire power. I eagerly wanted to shoot a shotgun or a bazooka or a cannon or an ICBM – anything that provided a flesh-shaking ear-deafening “KER-POW!!!!”

This was the first time I had ever shot a gun. In my hand the cold hard steel loaded with more cold hard steel sent a hot rush of testosterone through my extremities. I had to pull the trigger to release the pressure or I felt that I would have exploded.

The cabin, being a hunter’s paradise, was filled with Playboys – Playboys which included Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield. This was not the first time I had been exposed to these magazines. Men seemed to keep them in places where boys would find them. All I needed besides the Playboys was a smoking jacket and a pipe. Instead of those Hugh Hefner type accoutrements Jack supplied me with Tiparillos. A blanket would be my smoking jacket.

At night Bill and I looked at the collection of Playboys by the light of the glowing fireplace. Reading the ‘articles’ warmed our sensibilities and the centerfold’s siren call would make drooling cave men of us all. Well not all of us.  I found out a year later that Jack was gay. I realized then why he would want two guys alone with him up at the cabin. I do remember being especially thankful at the time for Marilyn’s company and being curious about Jack’s ambivalence toward the women who were stapled down for our viewing pleasure.

The weekend in Wisconsin with the guys worked out all of my unexercised stupidity. And it all happened under the gauzy star-filled night pointed at by thousands of towering conifers just outside of Mauston, Wisconsin.  Fire-in-the-belly embers would burn through the fabric of my being leaving my satin youth singed.  The weekend was a rite of passage of sorts which thankfully didn’t regress into a Lord of the Flies sequel.

If I had a time machine I would not go back to Mauston and the cabin. I might, though, go back to that Thanksgiving dinner, say “Thank you” to my parents, push away from the table and go take a long nap, not waking up until November 24th, 2011. I wouldn’t miss the self-obsessed oblivion of those in-between detached days.

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