WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Freedom ride

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I had a good buddy who played guitar with me and could sing high. I couldn’t sing high, but I could do melodies while he did high harmonies and we sounded pretty good on some songs, like “Amie” by Pure Prairie League. We liked the first album by America a lot and did several numbers from it together — “Three Roses,” “Sandman,” “Rainy Day.” And we tried to fumble our way through “Uncle John’s Band,” but those harmonies were too tough for us. Loved singing, “God damn, well I declare!” though.

One day we were out in Tom’s International Harvester Scout, exploring some back roads south of the city. He called the truck Old Yeller, because, yeah, it was yellow. We took a turn off Highway 21 onto a dirt road, one of the kind Old Yeller loved, being a four-wheel drive vehicle, and we had the top down and our hats off and the wind and dirt clods were flying. It was one of those moments when you feel like freedom is experienced away from the constraints of organized society, where just about anything goes and you push the limits partly because nobody’s looking.

The road narrowed into a two-track with grass growing up the middle, and I guess we didn’t see the fence with the No Trespassing sign, probably because the fence was down there as the road crossed it and the sign was easy to miss.

It wasn’t long, maybe just a couple of minutes, before we found ourselves having to stop for a man blocking our way. He had a shotgun resting semi-tumescent in his arms.

He didn’t say anything for a few beats, letting the shotgun do his messaging for him. Tom, behind the wheel, leaned out so he could be heard and told the man we were sorry but it looked like we took a wrong turn.

The man said, in a toothless, Deliverance sort of way, something like You sheriz hell did. He said he didn’t care if we didn’t see the No Trespassing sign or not, we were on his land and shouldn’t be.

Meanwhile I’m making myself as small as I can in the passenger seat, not wanting to rile him with my long hair and granny glasses. I felt like I was just the kind of hippie he’d like to tie naked to a tree overnight. If not worse. Tom told him we didn’t mean to do it and we’d just turn around and head out, or back out all the way if we had to.

That’s when the man smiled around his few teeth and said we wasn’t goin’ out the way we come in. We was goin’ out the long way. And he used his shotgun as a pointer to show us we’d be heading along that same two-track.

“It’ll getcher back to 21,” he said. “Eventchully.”

Well, we were out for an adventure after all, and all this meant was that it’d take longer to get home than we thought. It was a nice day.

From there it was Dante’s Inferno. Almost literally. The man hocked a stiff loogie as we crept past him. I think I even heard him laugh to himself.

He was out of sight and we both cracked up, singing the Deliverance theme song and saying we ought to try playing that sometime. We could introduce it with this story. And our laughter was just beginning to roll off when we came to the edge of a chasm. It dropped off at an angle that had Tom shaking his head so bad I was ready to bolt and take my chances on foot through the scrubby woods. We got out of the Scout and looked over the edge. The “road” fell to a depth of maybe twenty feet, then went up the other side of the cut much diminished, as if only a few vehicles had ever made it over.

No way, was Tom’s conclusion. We piled back in and he threw the Scout in reverse, only, of course, to encounter the man and his shotgun in the rearview. He would watch us into the ravine. You heard what I said, he said as the gun grew more erect in his grip. The long way.

There was nothing to do but drive over the edge. Tom got out and engaged the four-wheel drive at the front hubs, which we hadn’t needed till then. He looked over at me and said, “Well, here we go.”

A couple of times, as we descended, I swear I felt the back end of the Scout going past perpendicular over my head. I leaned back as far as I could to counterbalance while Tom tried to keep the wheels straight and not to brake so hard it would cause us to flop over the tipping point. It probably didn’t look as bad as it felt, but in a few seconds we hit bottom and Tom just gunned it to shoot up over the other wall. I glanced back and saw the man standing on the rim behind us, the gun now nested in the crook of one arm. He could shoot us, I thought, and fill in the ditch with his backhoe. No one would ever know what became of us.

It took three tries, but on the third Tom coaxed Old Yeller over the high lip. He skidded out of there, spraying a shower of dirt behind us, maybe trying to hit the man with it for all I know, but I didn’t ask. In a second or two he was out of sight.

The ordeal wasn’t over though. Ten or fifteen minutes later, as we crept our way through what was really just a glorified hiking trail, we came upon a fire crew trying to put out a stubborn brush fire that looked like orange paper scattered over the ground. The hot and tired men looked at us like soldiers in Apocalypse Now, like, We know we’re hallucinating you, so just move on. And the smoke was heavy and acrid like there was plastic or meat in it. The canvas hoses meandering through the trees reminded me of shed snake skins, the men dragging them from the trail toward the smoky fire line.

What the next circle of Hell might throw at us we didn’t want to think about. Tom inched the Scout through the gap between a pair of lean hickories, barely clearing the mirrors, but from there it was a clean ride the rest of the way, another half hour of not knowing. Lucky for us the gate at the far end was open and the armed man wasn’t there waiting for us.

Tom hauled ass back up 21. We didn’t have much to say by that time.

There’s something about freedom that is delusory, the more I think about it, and since then I’ve tried to exercise my idea of it with more wisdom. Now, when I come to downed fences I tend to go back the way I came.

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4 comments on “Freedom ride

  1. pinklightsabre
    February 2, 2017

    Was this in the south? I get that vibe…what a great story, though. The dialogue (if you want to call it that) in particular. Bill

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 2, 2017

      Some people think of St. Louis as in the south. I never did when I lived there, but the longer I’m away the more I think it’s Kudzu Country. Glad you liked the dialogue!

      • pinklightsabre
        February 2, 2017

        Kudzu is a cool word and story. Reminds me of the album cover on the first one by R.E.M.

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 2, 2017

        That is kind of mind-blowing, that cover. I’ve actually worked kudzu into a future novel of mine, though I move it to south St. Louis, where it doesn’t grow. Is that kosher? 😉

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This entry was posted on February 2, 2017 by in Et alia and tagged , .
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