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Tuesday, October 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Summer Stories: ‘Where Oh Where Is Tommy Parker?’ by Chris Crutcher

By Chris Crutcher For The Spokesman-Review

Tommy rolls another joint and hands it over the back of the bench seat to the hippie chick riding shotgun in the 1966 VW van that picked him up more than an hour ago hitching on Highway 80 across the southern Idaho desert. He nods at the other hippie chick sitting cross-legged on the floor in the back corner next to her sleeping golden retriever. She winks. Both hippie chicks are named Sherrie. Tommy’s extremely grateful for the ride, though the driver, who introduced himself as Sunspot, said they had no idea where they were headed.

Tommy said he was headed there, too.

It’s Tommy’s first hitchhiking adventure, and, after catching three quick rides down from Spokane, he stood in the sweltering heat with at least a dozen other hitchhikers for more than 45 minutes on the freeway ramp outside Pocatello. When the VW slowed and Front-Seat Sherrie pointed at his chest, Tommy snatched up his backpack, ran alongside until the side door opened at the hand of Back-of-the-Bus Sherrie and hopped in, noticing a third passenger – a muscular guy, shirtless, with a shaved head and single gold hoop earring, in cut-off jeans held up by rainbow suspenders – sleeping next to Back-of-the-Bus Sherrie’s dog, who, as it turns out, also is named Sherrie.

Tommy rolls another joint. He’s not smoking, and Front-Seat-Sherrie lit up only the first. The others, she passes out the side window into the outstretched hands of drivers in the Idaho National Guard convoy passing them slowly in the right-hand lane. Tommy concentrates on rolling the joints perfectly and with nonchalance; he has zero experience, but Back-of-the-Bus Sherrie is stunningly beautiful in that no-makeup, anything-but-glamorous way that makes a guy want to seem, like, totally hip and with it. His concentration is intermittently broken, however, each time his imagination flashes on the fiery crash scene that’s sure to materialize when their bus pulls closer than required for the exchange. His premonition seems even more likely when Sunspot, captain of the rickety hippy-mobile, and whose pupils appear as large as sunspots, squints past Front-Seat-Sherrie at the parade of army green and says, “Heard some guy landed on the moon a few weeks back. These guys gotta be headin’ to catch him when he comes down.”

Uh, he’s already down, Tommy thinks, and that’s more than just pot talking right there.

Five days earlier

Tommy Parker has serious catching up to do. Fresh out of college, with no idea what’s next, he’s parked his 1957 maroon-and-primer Plymouth Savoy behind his parents’ garage in Way-Up-the-Crick, Washington, stuffed his backpack with shorts, T-shirts, underwear and a tattered, unread paperback copy of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” and taken to the nation’s highways to “find himself.” Just days ago, his mother, having caught wind of his intentions for this one-man summer search party, narrowed her eyes and pointed to the bathroom. “Go in there, son. Look in the mirror.”

Tommy touched his face, wondering if some mountainous pustule might have erupted onto his forehead during the night. “Why? What do I need to see?”

“Go. Look.”

Staring into the mirror above the sink, he hollers, “I’m looking exceptionally good, Momma! What am I missing?”

“Your mind,” his mother hollers back. “But that’s not quite the point. Look harder. Stare directly into that mirror. Deep into your own eyes. There, you’ve found yourself. So get that damn notion out of your head.”

Returning into the living room with a sigh, Tommy says, “And what notion is that, Momma?”

“The notion that you’re some damned hippie ‘tryin’ to be free.’ You’ve got a college degree, for God’s sake; get out there and use it. Believe me, there will never come a time when it’s acceptable for a 22-year-old man with his body parts intact and a college degree to be living in his mother’s basement. Good God, what’s the world coming to?”

Tommy knows she’s right; that he’s expected to get on with it. But in his mind, a college degree in general studies from the institution of “higher” learning populated by a student population whose ACT scores directed at least a third of them toward a life of picking up freeway trash in orange jumpsuits isn’t exactly a free ticket to gainful employment.

In 1964, Tommy Parker enrolled at Eastern Washington State College, his less-than-stellar grade-point average, work ethic and overall fund of information having left him ineligible to matriculate as a Husky or a Cougar; a Bulldog or a Pirate. Eastern was basically a war college, one of the last state institutions in the nation to require two years of Army ROTC for any male determined to graduate. The paradox couldn’t have been more evident: the state institution disposed to admit the greatest number of academically subpar young men desperate for a student deferment from the draft was the state institution best equipped to prepare them for and shuttle them to war the moment their grade-point averages rendered them lost at C- and sinking.

Fortunately, Tommy wasn’t that guy. His need to stay eligible to run on the cross-country team, along with his abject fear of how he might perform as a soldier, kept his GPA above a 2.5 through his senior year, at which time he discovered he’d been eligible for a medical deferment all along due to a missing toe, lost at the age of 7 after he found himself wondering if the nail protruding from a board lying on the ground in the vacant lot next to his house would penetrate his Keds if he stepped directly onto it. He performed the experiment, discovered what any kindergartner could have predicted and hid the results until the offending digit doubled in size and turned black in order to avoid resurrection of his mother’s preferred nickname for him: “Lever … nature’s simplest tool.” In hindsight, Tommy realized that though his nine-toed status may have saved him from losing the rest of them from jungle rot in Vietnam, it also was the reason his cross-country skills topped out at the lowest competitive collegiate level.

“And where, pray tell,” his mother continues, in case the family bathroom doesn’t fill the bill for self-discovery, “do you think you’ll discover yourself hiding?”

“I don’t know … Wisconsin, maybe. Rhode Island.”

His mother pinches the bridge of her nose between closed eyes, nodding. “I’d never have thought to look for you in either of those places.”

Exactly why I’m going.

When Front-Seat-Sherrie hands the final joint to the driver of the last truck, he salutes and yells, “You guys headed for Woodstock?”

Front-Seat-Sherrie shrugs, palms up, indicating a need for more information.

“Monster music festival!” The private yells. “Middle of the month! Up by Woodstock! If you haul ass, you can make it!”

Sunspot slows the van, changes lanes and pulls off at the next exit, where he extracts a Phillips 66 roadmap from the jockey box. He holds it at arm’s length, pulls it closer, squinting. “Hey, man,” he says to no particular man. “I grew up outside’a Woodstock. We drive straight, we could make it. Anyone else in this tin can drive?”

Tommy glances at Back-of-the-Sus Sherrie, who shakes her head and scratches under Golden Retriever Sherrie’s chin. Rainbow Suspender Man grunts and rolls over. Tommy says, “I drive.”

“You got a license an’ shit?” Sunspot says.

“Got a license. Got shit,” Tommy says.

“It’s a finely tuned tin can,” Sunspot says. “Ya gotta connect if you know what I mean.”

“This finely tuned tin can and I will be one with each other within five miles,” Tommy says, giddy that he’s headed to a big-time music festival, helping erase his absence from the real ’60s: civil rights and war protests, free speech rallies, sit-ins. There’s been no free-lovin,’ commune-livin’ shenanigans for Tommy Parker. He’s never even owned a pair of bell bottoms. But a big-time music festival with big-name bands at some place called Woodstock … that could give him heft. Lever indeed. Tommy is willing to drive the entire distance himself.

“Have you read that?” Back-of-the-Bus Sherrie asks, pointing to Tommy’s frayed copy of “Siddhartha,” lying closed on the picnic table at the rest stop nearly half-way to their destination, as traced in highlighter by Sunspot on the highway map.

She’s so pretty, he doesn’t want to lie. Plus, she may have read it. “Working on it,” he says.

“What’s it about?”

“This guy,” Tommy says. “out trying to find himself.” He’s heard that much.

“What,” Back-of-the-bus Sherrie says, “doesn’t he have a mirror.”

Tommy’s head snaps up.

“I’m teasing,” she says. “We’re all trying to find ourselves. I heard guys carry that book around because they think it will get them laid. Kafka’s supposed to work, too. Vonnegut.”

Tommy knows no Kafka but at least has read “Slaughterhouse Five” in a lit class. If he’d only known.

She pats his knee. “Don’t worry. None of them work.”

“Man,” Tommy says, “seems like there should be more people …” He’s at the wheel in early morning crossing into the Woodstock city limit.

Sunspot rubs his eyes open, pats the pockets of his shorts retrieving a half-smoked blunt. He lights it, squints through the windshield. “S’posed to be outside a’ town somewhere. We got all day. Hey, is that Crosby?” he points to the shadowy figure crossing the street. “Naw, man, that ain’t Crosby. That’s Nash.”

“Don’t think so,” Tommy says. “That guy has to be 50.”

“Damn!,” Sunspot says, his forehead now pressed against the window. “That’s Mr. Allen. Took biology from that dude. Twice.” He leans out the passenger-side window. “Hey! Mr. Allen! Hey, man!”

“Georgie Capp!” Mr. Allen says, approaching. “I’d know that voice anywhere!” He extends a hand through the open window. “Got that distant, dry-throated quality.”

“You remember!”

“Hard to forget, Georgie,” Mr. Allen says. “Hard to forget.”

“Uh, I go by Sunspot now.”

Mr. Allen nods. “Like I said, hard to forget.”

“Listen,” Sunspot says, “we’re here for the sex, drugs an’ rock n’ roll. Where’s this big music festival bein’ had?”

Confusion crosses Mr. Allen’s face, followed by Aha! “Like I said, hard to forget.” This big music festival is bein’ had, as you put it, outside of Woodstock. Woodstock, New York. You have come to Woodstock, Illinois, the burb of your birth.”

“Damn!” Sunspot says, “there’s a Woodstock, New York? Where’s it at?”

“New York,” Mr. Allen says. “Georgie … Sunspot, do you remember our unit on evolution?”

“Think so. We was, like, gorillas.”

“Yeah. We was. Some of us still is.” He slaps the side of the van. You won’t make it to the other Woodstock, but if it helps, we’re having a smaller festival in the city park tonight. Might even spill over into tomorrow if we get a few more bands.”

Sunspot sighs. “Better’n nothin’ I guess. Man, who’d a’ thought there was more Woodstocks?”

Mr. Allen nods at the blunt Sunspot thinks he’s hiding between his knees. “Keep puffin’,” he says. “You won’t know the difference.” He nods toward Tommy, looks at the sleeping trio in back. “Good meeting you, son. Choose your friends wisely.”

Just past 4 p.m., the passengers from the van that brought peace and love to the Idaho National Guard enter the city park just in time for the opening act: The Kingston Trio, four members of a group from Kingston, Illinois, population 1,016. They apologize for the misnomer, explaining that the tambourine guy and the drummer never play at the same time, then launch into a drum-heavy, all-electric cover of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

And it goes downhill from there.

When the second band, the Psychedelic Marshmallow, announces its opener, a protest number titled, “The Star-Spangled Booty,” Back-of-the-Bus Sherrie leans over, kisses Tommy on the cheek while running a soft hand under his shirt and says, “What say we go back to the van and see if we can find ourselves?”

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