On The Road by Jack Kerouac is a novel that inspired me at 17 years of age. Somehow it made sense to my late adolescent herbally influenced mind. Several guys racing back and forth across 1940’s America, outrunning consequences. Living large without any money to speak of. Drinking, smoking pot, talking philosophically, having freewheeling sex, and always leaving somewhere for somewhere else before dawn…it all seemed so real and true and magnetic. If I had been a steel bb I’d have rolled right into that fictional magnet. Well, I guess that I did.
I read it again recently. Actually I finished it while I treaded on the treadmill this morning. What a bunch of crap! I kept reading through the poorly written feverish prose looking for the meaning and power that I believed was held in that novel. It wasn’t there. It was like hearing the jokes and conversations that brought you laughing to your knees in high school and realizing that is was just self indulgent dew that evaporated long ago. It had no substance, no lasting power. Wow, what a disappointment.
I suppose that I wanted to fit that wild life of drinking and smoking and sexing and talking and experiencing life at full bore minus any negative consequences. In other words, I was a charged up, impulsive adolescent enamored of older, fictional adolescents who, I believed, were inspired adults. They were on to a sort of wisdom that existed beyond rules and convention, traditions and culture, so I thought at 18. Now I see the main character Dean Moriarity as a bipolar maniac who bullshat his way past some easily impressed guys who were desperate to be misled. It’s embarrassing for my adult self to read the words that I thought meant something deep, and come to the conclusion that at their deepest simply dig a shallow, sophomoric grave.
I wanted to be older when I was younger. I missed the hippie era by a few years. I felt slighted to be in between generations. I thought I would have enjoyed Woodstock live rather than the movie and album. I went to anti-war rallies in D.C. but as a curious spectator not as a participant. I guess that I have been a curious spectator most of my life. Reading about others and watching movies, these are spectator activities. I recall my buddy Mark was always at the movies or reading and writing. Well, he was a writer. And that’s what writers do– espionage reports to the larger world. I always wanted to be a doer, however. Writing was the fall back position.
The older I get the more I see the wisdom in age requirements for government service. Young folks don’t yet know what they don’t know. They can’t, anymore than I could explain why we were “studying” the rock opera Tommy in my high school English class. The sexy young student teacher blathered about Marshall McCluhan and “the medium is the message” to high school boys who just liked to watch her jiggle. We understood that she was the medium and the message all at once. She could have been speaking Mandarin Chinese, but we got the message… “I desperately want to share my Jiggles with you.” Well, that’s what we each came away with. She desired us. This is why we could not even drive a school bus, let alone command others to do difficult tasks.
This is also why you don’t cook on freshly ignited charcoals. They are flaming and full of toxins that have to burn off before they are safe to cook meat. But adolescent boys would cook with Bic lighters or propane torches if you let them. This is probably where I should tell the gas explosion story.
I was 19, I think. I moved into a huge flat with three friends. We stayed up late talking, smoking and drinking beer. In the morning only one roommate was around when I got up to make breakfast. Paul sat across from the kitchen nook in a stuffed chair. I started mixing up pancake batter. “Hey,man, want some pancakes?” He was very interested in anything that did not come from a can. “I’ve been eatin’ canned food for months, Man. Yessss, I’d love some pancakes.” I got busy and turned the gas on in the oven. I carelessly put a cookiesheet in the oven.
What I failed to do was check to see if this new gas stove had a pilot light like the old gas stove in my parents’ house. It didn’t, which meant that I had released several cubic feet of natural gas into an airtight space. It was all good until I turned on the front burner. As the burner jet puffed into flame, there was a microsecond delay and then an explosion that I will never forget. The oven bounced and expanded in air. The oven door slammed open and the cookie sheet shot out across the room at Paul, who must have thought a poultergeist had flooded the place. “Aaaaahhhhhh!!!”
In one very long second that lasted for ten minutes, simultaneously the glass panes in the old double hung window beside the stove blew out onto the sidewalk and the steps below on Grace Street. The apartment door blew violently open into the hallway. The hair on my arm singed and smelled that nasty stink like burning nylon. The old plaster ceilings reverberated and little trails of plaster dust fell down like fine snow all around the huge room where the bomb went off.
I didn’t know what to do first. Paul stood up shakily. Okay. I went to the window to see if folks were impaled by falling glass shards. Okay. All clear. I began to laugh nervously when I realized that no one was injured or dead. I shut the apartment door and noticed that the frame seemed to have grown a fraction of an inch. Not so bad as it could have been. I knew what I’d be doing for the rest of the day. I had to find a hardware store in Richmond and buy glass, a couple of tools, and some glazing. Before dark I had repaired the blown out windows. The stove remained swollen but empty like a woman who had recently and violently given birth.
We laughed a lot about the explosion, but not nearly as much as when a couple of days later my other roommate Bruce was taking a shower in the small bathroom adjacent to the kitchen. It had been in the blast area. While he was lathered up and shampooed fully, the horsehair plaster ceiling collapsed on him, sticking to him so that when he came screaming and coughing out of the bathroom, he looked like a mummy in mid processing. Oh, my, did we laugh till tears came. We had Old Mr. Rhone the fix it man for the landlord come repair it. He knew we were up to no good, but he didn’t say anything and we didn’t offer any explanations.
So, this is why teenagers don’t run the Senate or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA or much of anything.