I dropped out of college thirty-eight years ago at the age of nineteen. 1969. My fear of being drafted and sent to Vietnam was erased overnight by a blessed medical deferment for rheumatoid arthritis. My parents were crushed by my decision to leave school. My father was a doctor, my mother a lawyer. They had expected me to follow in one or the other of their footsteps, or at the very least become a college professor.
I began my career as a writer in the first grade. Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up—and people of my parents’ generation were always asking children that question—I would answer, “A writer and a baseball player.” When my spinal condition forced me to abandon baseball in high school and I took up acting, my answer became, “A playwright actor.”
When I dropped out of college and announced my intention to pursue a literary career, my parents reacted as if I’d lost my mind. My mother quickly came to the conclusion I had chosen the wrong college and that my cure lay in starting anew at another university. My father diagnosed my condition as depression to be treated with psychotherapy and anti-depressants. And I soon realized that if I was ever going to find my own way in life, I’d better get out of Dodge.
So I loaded my backpack and hit the road.
1971. September. Dusk. Rain about to fall. I was hiking along the road that traced the border between Vermont and New Hampshire—my destination Canada. I chose this road because I liked what it did on the map, sewing, as it were, the two states together.
I hadn’t spoken to my parents in almost a year. I was planning to call them a few weeks hence from a tavern in Montreal on my twenty-first birthday—drinking my first beer as an official American adult.
This road through dense forest—most of the leaves just beginning their change from green to burgundy—was not much traveled by anyone inclined to pick up a scruffy young guy with a battered backpack. And so at day’s end, I found myself fourteen miles from the nearest village and seven miles from the nearest campground.
When I left college and stepped away from the financial support of my parents, it never occurred to me that roaming would become my way of life. I assumed I would settle in a hospitable town, find a job, make friends, and get down to writing. But whenever I endeavored to do that, I would—in fulfillment of my father’s diagnosis—become depressed and lose all hope of finding my own way. Only when I took to the road again did my despair give way to happiness, and after two years of vagabonding—making my living as a laborer on farms, a dishwasher in towns—I was content to keep on roaming.
The rain began to fall, so I declared aloud that if I didn’t get a ride in the next ten minutes, I would step off the highway into the woods, find a relatively level space to pitch my tent, and hunker down for the rainy night. I had a bag of nuts and raisins, an apple, an orange, and a good hunk of cheese. I had a little propane stove on which to boil water, a brass teakettle, bags of black tea, and a flask of peach brandy to transform my tea into a sleepy time dessert.
Suddenly a car appeared—a big new car—with a middle-aged woman in the passenger seat frowning out at me as they rolled on by.
I watched the car disappear.
The trees surrendered their nascent colors to the dying light.
I was about to leave the road and enter the woods, when the big new car returned and stopped beside me—the driver’s window sinking down to reveal a deeply worried man.
“Where are you going?” he asked, choking on his words.
“To the campground,” I said, bringing forth a map from my hip pocket. “Little Woods, I think it’s called.”
“Yes,” said the man, glancing at the woman beside him. “Little Woods. I’ll turn around. We’ll take you there.”
They were obviously uncomfortable about giving me a ride—both of them rigid with fear—and as I settled into their plush backseat, I wondered why they had stopped for me.
“Thank you so much,” I said, glad to be out of the rain. “Not much traffic on this road.”
“No,” said the woman.
The rain gathered force and drummed hard on the car.
“I chose this road,” I said, hoping to break the ice by revealing my whimsy, “because I like the way it crosses back and forth so many times between New Hampshire and Vermont. You don’t find many roads like this.”
“Our son…” the woman began.
“Don’t,” said the man, cutting her off. “Please don’t, Agnes.”
“Why not?” she asked, beginning to weep. “Maybe he’s seen him. Maybe…”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s impossible.”
A flash of lightning.
Their son, I imagined, was a runaway—a young man who left home rather than be crushed by the weight of propriety—the gravity of should.
“I want to tell him, John,” said Agnes, beseeching him. “It’s important to me.”
“He’s…Jeffrey is probably hitchhiking, too. He’ll understand what Jeff…”
“Oh for God’s sake,” said John, gritting his teeth. “Just get it over with.”
And this is what Agnes told me as we rolled along the country road in their new car—the last of day giving way to the first of night.
“Our son left home eleven months ago. He’s eighteen now. Jeffrey. Jeffrey Adams. He’s about your height and he wasn’t so skinny as you are, but I suppose now he might be. He has blond hair and he wears glasses, black frames. His grades were going down and we thought he might be smoking marijuana. He’d always gotten straight A’s and suddenly he got a B in Chemistry and a C in Math, and he started staying out later than he was supposed to and hanging out with…with hippy kids. So we grounded him. We explained he needed to keep his grades up so he could get into college or otherwise he’d get drafted and go to Vietnam, and he said if that happened he would just go to Canada. As if that was the easiest thing in the world to do. Just go to Canada and never come home. So we took him to a psychologist, but it didn’t help. He said he wasn’t smoking marijuana, but his grades kept going down. So John told him if he didn’t make more of an effort we would send him to a military academy and when John said that…”
“Enough,” said John, striking the dashboard with his fist.
“Let me finish,” cried Agnes. “Why won’t you ever let me finish?”
“I hit him,” said John, glaring at me in the rearview mirror. “Okay? I slapped his face and told him he was a quitter and a coward and a cop out. Because he is.”
A moment later, we came to the Little Woods campground—a half-dozen picnic tables scattered here and there in sparse woods. John parked beside the dilapidated outhouse and kept the engine running.
“Thanks again,” I said, opening the door. “If I run into Jeffrey, I’ll tell him you were looking for him.”
“I’m not looking for him,” said John, gripping the steering wheel. “Coward. Traitor.”
Agnes got out of the car, opened an umbrella, and followed me to my campsite. She held my flashlight for me while I put on my rain poncho and set up my tent.
When I had my backpack stowed inside my tent, she said, “We…I want to give you some money.”
John beeped his horn. Agnes flinched.
“Thank you,” I said, trying to think of something to say that might help her. “You’re very kind. I was down to my last dollar.”
She handed me an envelope containing a twenty-dollar bill she’d been saving for someone who reminded her of her son.
“He loves you,” I said as her hand touched mine. “But the system has gone wrong. The bad guys have taken over. Jeffrey doesn’t want to be part of the killing machine. That’s why he left. Not because he doesn’t love you.”
Agnes nodded solemnly. The rain came down. John beeped his horn again and again and again.
She said, “He’ll hit me for doing this, but I don’t care. I had to do something for our child.”