There was a heat wave in Boston in the summer of 1969. There was always a heat wave in the summer in Boston. It was literally the last summer of the 60s, but it was metaphorically the last summer of the 60s as well. We did not know that.
Both Kennedy brothers had been assassinated; Martin Luther King Jr, as well. The war in Vietnam now shaded everything – its deceits and doubts and inevitability had now massed at every border, physically and mentally.
Nixon had won the election and the Republicans were beginning the dismantling and repaving of the American trail. Mean was replacing the flower. The grim men of the 50s were back, to bring order and the women of the 60s were told to get dressed.
Woodstock, on August 15th, would be the Last Supper. We did not know that either.
We were running a sort of school, in Cambridge, for school dropouts, from all over New England. The sort of students came because they had little else. Sometimes their father would bring them, sometimes they would simply walk in.
We had four storefronts that we rented – no one needed or wanted the storefronts, so they were easily procured. There were classes, you could get credit for the classes, the teachers in many cases were true teachers, doing this work on the side. The local hospital allowed the students to use the facilities at no cost – it was the 60s and everyone was trying their best to help. Nearly everyone.
Each student had keys to the storefront, so they could go at any time and did. It was a sort of student hall for many. People had donated sound systems, record stores had donated records, it was a place for kids who had little place.
I would meet every Monday morning with the head of the Cambridge Drug Division, Duncan McNeil. To meet, I would go to a cafe in East Cambridge, at 6 am, where all the detectives went and gathered. I was never invited to sit but McNeil, after a bit, would tell me which of my students was on the watch list, and sometimes which of my students was in trouble.
It was the 60s.
But that summer was hot, you could not get cool. You learned to get in a cold shower with your sheet wrapped about you – then, dripping cold water, you would trudge back to bed. The cold sheet would help you get some sleep. To this day, if I cannot sleep, I wrap a cold cloth around my ankle and that always sends me to sleep.
My father, a widower, had remarried. His new wife was exotic, Swiss and of course rigid. She represented a million things that I knew nothing about and she represented them unrelentingly. It did not take any genius to know to keep distance. They lived in an architect’s designed home in West Hartford.
The summer was so hot that it made the news. Though my step-mother had never seen my world in Cambridge, she had heard some stories and certainly knew we did not have air conditioning nor any place for relief. We had Ben E King, Up on the Roof.
She called me, and asked if I would like to take a weekend off and go, with my friends, to her house in Vermont. It would be cooler.
I was surprised, and honored sort of. We did not have any outlet valve from our world, no islands or coasts or such. And we were far too broke to make something up.
By the next Friday, we had made arrangements to head to Vermont. Six of us, squished into a Volkswagen station wagon. And Mike, the Shepherd Collie. Everyone was working some sort of job so we could not even get started until well after 10 PM. It was still hot.
We were a crew. Butch was the sardonic soul from Philly, the sort the police always suspected whatever the case. Cathy was the lovely natural angel, the sort the police always loved and believed, a power she knew. Spaceman was a sort of small town doctor/philosopher, who sold mostly marijuana.
Doug, an anaesthesiologist from the local hospital, we did not know. He simply had nowhere to go that weekend and joined us. I worked the emergency room at the hospital four days a week and had met him there.
And Ron, our roommate from Detroit, came along. He was a sort of Robert Redford / James Garner Rockford Files fellow. He had little use or humor for hippies but he liked us and we were certainly hippies. He said, yeah I want to come, my grandfather just died and they sent me his over/under bird shooting shotgun, I want to try it out.
So off we went, squished in, late on a Friday night. We did not get very far, just to the suburbs of Newton, we had somehow missed the turnoff for the highway north. Nothing was open but finally we saw lights on at the loading dock of the post office.
Ron jumped out, I could see him waving his hands with some guy, pointing in directions and when he got back, he said, no problem, go up here and take a left. We got all squished in again, went up and took a left and were stopped cold.
The police had blocked the street with three cars, and one more, with lights blaring, came up behind us. They all had their guns drawn, pointed our way.
I rolled down the window and a giant State trooper, with a giant hat, leaned in, with a flashlight, and said, of course, where you headed son? His flashlight picked out each face and that certainly gave him confirmation that they were on the right trail, whatever that was.
Ron, believing he was possibly the only sane passenger, got out and tried his line, what is the problem here, officer. It did not work, they spread eagled Ron on the hood of the Volkswagen.
I had no idea what had happened, nor what nor why. After some circling and questions, they asked me to open the trunk. I did not realize that Ron had rolled his heirloom shotgun in the sleeping bags. I also did not realize, to find out later, that Doug, slightly disturbed, had returned from Vietnam with two souvenir Luger pistols, which he had brought with him in his coat pockets. He had hoped to finally have a country location to try them out.
I opened the trunk, in all honesty. Mike had been fed late, in all the bustle. And had been sitting backwards, in the trunk. I remember when I was young, they would put me facing backwards, and it was never long before I would gurgle something and one of my sisters would say, I think he is getting car sick. And they would have to stop, I would get out and throw up and off we would go again.
That is what happened to Mike. As the trooper reached in, hoping to find some sort of evidence of something, Mike threw up. A long, soft rolling of throw up. All over the bag, and some on the trooper’s gloves.
And that saved us. Whatever we were being accused of, it did not accord with a dog throwing up in the back on the sleeping bags. Especially a dog with a face like Mike.
The trooper waved everyone off, they put the guns away, backed their cars out and never did say what was what. They were disgusted.
I asked Ron, what the hell was that. He said, that was close. Close to what, I said. He then told about the shotgun. And he figured that the Post Office had imagined we were there to somehow attack the place at night.
It was a nervous time, in the land, and especially in the suburbs. Their children had left for the cities and they imagined that Manson like characters would one day be coming to the suburbs. Manson or White Panther sorts.
That was all that we could figure, and even now, it is all that we could figure.
It did turn out that that was the way to the highway – we headed to Vermont, shaken not stirred. In those days, James Bond movies were shown not in the big cinemas but in the art house cinemas. They were too European.
I had been to the house a year before, to have a beer late one afternoon. It was on the entrance road to the new ski area, Stratton Mountain. As the road wound up to the mountain, people had built large chalet type houses. Each slightly trying to outdo the other. There were several styles but the plans were all similar – four or five bedrooms, big kitchen, mud room, garage, turnabout, fireplace, living room pointed out to the valley. And wood.
The new ski area attracted a new sense of style – in many cases, famous New York architects were designing the houses, for clients and for themselves. It was the new villa. The new Palladio. New Villa and Nouveau.
We found the house, in the dark, but we could not find the key, even as I read the directions that had been mailed. But then Ron found the key and we were home.
It was as I expected and as I remembered and the air was cooler and we were all relieved.
By the next day, everyone had exhaled and taken walks and put their feet up. We were out of the city. We found a stream over in Londonderry where we could swim and paddle. And we found a place that Ron could try out his grandfather’s shotgun. I cannot remember how.
That was when Doug finally told us about his two pistols. Everyone went silent for a bit. That had been a terrible close call and we had not even known it was a call.
That evening we had a fine big dinner and celebrated. By the front of the living room, there was a widow’s walk tower, with built in hand rails to climb up. You could sit up there and look far into the valley. That is what we did, for hours.
But on Sunday, we had to go, of course. I gave a speech about Swiss house cleaning – I said we were going to back out of the house. That every handle and towel and dishcloth and pillowcase and such would be washed and replaced and folded and we would sweep and mop and so forth. And so we did.
Butch said he had one problem – he had found a bottle of beer he had never heard of and drank it. And when he went to the store to find replacements, they had never heard of it either.
We backed out, sorry to leave. And drove back to a city that had not cooled off one bit, that smelled and looked and felt as dreary as it had when we left. The trouble with vacations.
My stepmother called Monday morning – was everything all right, did we clean up, so forth. I was still pleased with even the fumes of a few days off. I said we had cleaned like demons, and had loved the house and all its details. And was sorry to report that we had in error drank the last rare bottle of beer.
She said, I do not know what you are talking about. So I changed the subject. We loved going up to the widow’s walk, looking into the valley, relaxing. I did not mention that Spaceman loved smoking a joint up there as well.
What are you talking about, she said, What are you talking about? What is the matter with you?
We were in the wrong house. With guns, and drugs and looking as we looked, we were in the wrong house, in 1969, on a hill in Vermont.
Years later, fifty years later, as I waited for a bus on Whidbey Island to get down to the ferry, I met a man who had just returned from Vermont. He was similarly sad about having to come back to work. I asked where he had stayed. He said his wife’s family has a house on the road leading up to Stratton Mountain, did I know it?
I laughed and said, does the house have a widow’s walk, that you can look out to the valley. He said, quite seriously, how could you know that?
– Peter Miller