Welcome, visitor!


Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Ten


                                                                 Little Winking Lights

By the time my second summer following enrollment at KU arrived, the seismic shift in the nation’s culture was well underway.  Protests against the war in Vietnam had erupted everywhere.  The whole character of the music was evolving—Dylan, The Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Joplin were all bringing new sounds and new lyrics to the air.  Images of the counterculture now permeated the media.  Hippies had become the new street people.

I had acquired a new close friend the previous fall, Jack, whom I’d met in a Group Dynamics class we both were taking.  His ambition was to become a mortician, and he had been accepted into a mortuary school in San Francisco beginning that summer.  Since he planned to drive out there, here was my big chance to investigate the coastal youth scene first hand and perhaps find a high-wage job to boot.  We posted a notice in the student union soliciting riders to share gas expenses and a girl named Marilyn responded.  After the last class met and finals were completed, we three pitched our bags into the trunk of Jack’s Plymouth and off we went into the setting sun, “headin’ west.”

Although Jack had served in the Navy and been stationed in San Francisco, it was the first introduction to California for Marilyn and me.  And what a vibrant, frenzied maze of activity those next three months would prove to be.  We both were hungry to experience all the world might offer to our young lives, and we plunged into exploring that stream of cultural revolution head first.

Our thirst for travel and new adventures didn’t end with that summer’s close for either of us, and over the next few years following college we’d both see many faraway places in our own separate ways.  But that summer in San Francisco, much of which we’d spent together, continued to hold a special place in both our memories.  So nearly two decades later while I was back residing in Emporia, when I received a letter from Marilyn’s mother informing me of her death, I was devastated.

Although we’d kept in touch with Christmas cards, she’d not informed me of her illness, and I’d been given no opportunity to offer support, sympathy or a farewell.  Images of that time together in California washed down on me like spring rain.  Working through the shock and sadness, I thought about adopting what some grief counselors recommend—writing a letter to the departed expressing one’s heartfelt feelings.  Bidding that person that final good-bye.  And so I did.  A letter I then kept tucked away in my desk drawer, together with the one from Marilyn’s mother, all the years thereafter.

Dear Marilyn,

A letter from your mother arrived today.  For a long while, after returning it to my rolltop desk, I stood by the window and looked down to the road where last night’s rain had washed the gravel white.  The sun was glistening off the gray steel posts dotting the pasture line.  The evergreen by the corner of the tool shed moved with a gentle breeze.  And beside me, the blue envelope lay with the cheerful flowers decorating its border, flowers belying the black-inked contents which began, “Mark, I wanted to write you about Marilyn.”  And ended with, “In the morning, March 11, she passed away and was buried March 13.”

So.  Just like that.  One sunny morning with the opening of a mailbox—my old friend, you’re gone.  I hear the wall clock’s pendulum clicking.  A branch brushes against a casement.  My own heartbeat flutters through my head as once, long ago, one quiet afternoon, I remember your heart beating close beside my ear.  Beating gently as a fledgling’s wing.  A heart, Marilyn, (can this truly be?) that is now silent.

I’m remembering the last time I saw you and we talked—that was at your wedding.  Even after the whole “Sixties” California scene, and your artsy drifting years, you chose—you embraced—the traditional: white gown, church ceremony, white cake. For you, I’d come to realize, in so many ways, that was a new beginning.

We’d met how long before?  In 1966?  At Kansas University.  It was the summer that Jack and I had decided to drive to San Francisco, and we’d put our names on the ride board in the student union, hoping for riders to split expenses.  You and a girlfriend responded.

How good you looked that first time, standing there in sandals and shorts on the steps of Fraser Hall.  You had the most beautiful legs and the deepest blue eyes of any girl I’d ever met.  (And why, I’d bemoan later, did you usually conceal those assets under sunglasses and worn-out Levi’s?)  Then at the last minute, your friend backed out.  So the three of us ended up sharing the driving down through the Southwest, old Route 66, across the “valley” through L.A. (where in Orange County you sought out your long-estranged father), and up Route 5 west of Bakersfield and over.  All the way to, and across, that legendary east Bay Bridge.

All of coastal California was alive in those days with the rhythm of the times: war protest, the hippies, acid rock.  It was a Mecca for the young, for the philosophically disenfranchised, and we were quickly caught up in its pull.  Remember?  You stayed in a dormitory for working women, and I got a room in a workman’s hotel just off Polk Street on  Sacramento.  You found a job as a file clerk with an insurance company; I worked as a washerman in a steam-drenched commercial laundry.  And together, at night, we’d haunt those beguiling streets, looking, always looking.

“Okay, Mare, what’s on for tonight?” I’d ask, and likely as not you’d reply, “Come on, Markie.  Let’s hit Market Street and check out faces!”  And off we’d go.  (You were the only person ever, you know, to get away with nicknaming me “Markie.”)

I’ll never forget that old fur coat you bought at the flea market.  Gave you a 1920’s air, you thought.  How the girls at the dorm teased you, but that didn’t deter you from wearing it everywhere.  And I dressed all in black.  Black loafers, black jeans, black shirt (with a colored T-shirt for contrast), even a black zip-up jacket.  An anachronistic “Paladin” and a flapper.  What a pair we made!

We read On the Road, drank Thunderbird wine and frequented the City Lights bookstore, mingled with the hobos on the beach at Fisherman’s Wharf.  And the Beatles came to town, Candlestick Park.  And the Jefferson Airplane at the old Fillmore Auditorium.  I borrowed Jack’s beat-up Plymouth and we struck out one weekend for Carmel and Monterey, driving beside a setting sun with the fog spilling in between the mountains to our right like the flowing robes of angels.

North Beach, Chinatown, the Tenderloin—we imbibed them all, crisscrossing their neon-etched sidewalks night after night.  We collected images like squirrels storing nuts: the drag queen screaming in the gutter, the blind Chinese man in the shadows, the black prostitute with the knife wound down her cheek.  How could we have been so curious?  What did we expect to find?

And then came summer’s end.  And your wild scheme to hitchhike the distance back to college in Kansas—by way of Seattle!  With a minimum of persuasion, I was game.  So we boxed and shipped home what we couldn’t carry, and one bright morning your fatherly friend from work drove us across the Golden Gate Bridge and dropped us off in a parking lot in Sausalito.  With makeshift bedrolls, guitars, and two thumbs in the air, we were on our way.

We planned at the outset to follow Highway 1, taking the touted scenic route.  But we soon saw, even before the first nightfall, that the traveling would be sporadic and slow.  Too many short hauls.  Too long between rides.  And in spite of the colorful characters we kept discovering—the two “black leather jackets” in the hot Chevrolet who fixed us a bacon-and-egg breakfast, the two girl artists in their beads and flowers at the art fair in the park, the drunken golfer with the  poodle—we backtracked somewhere around Jenner the second day out.  Then headed inland toward Santa Rosa.  That was when, finally, we caught the long haul with the young blond businessman over to and up Highway 5, all the way to Portland.

A motel, hot showers, clean smooth sheets to sleep on—then up and on our way again, forever moving, forever eager to top the next hill beneath the sun’s bright arc.  We rolled into Seattle that afternoon in the bed of a bouncing, dilapidated pickup.  All big eyes and giggles and sore rear ends.  We’d arrived!  And no sooner had we checked into a cheap motel and parked our gear, than off we went into the unknown streets to explore.  The Seattle Center, site of the ’62 World’s Fair, you noted.  The Space Needle.   The fish market and harbor.  We walked till our shoes burned our feet.

But, ultimately, Seattle turned into kind of a downer.  We got clipped the next day of ten precious dollars by the harbor tough in the little captain’s hat.  What anger and chagrin!  Everywhere, too, the prices seemed so high.  We ended up that last evening staying in the motel room and sharing a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“Why,” you lamented, “when things can be so good, do people always find a way to spoil it?”  But that night, in our road-weary despondency, nursing our wounded pride, we felt a closer kinship than we’d ever known before.

And then, heading out of the city, just after crossing the Lake Washington Floating Bridge, the state troopers descended upon us.  Didn’t we know hitchhiking was illegal in Washington?  We could be fined and jailed.  If they came around again and still found us there, they’d “run us in!”  O mad desperation, then, hailing down rides.  Please, please, just get us to the Idaho border.  And it was in Spokane that the old hollow-cheeked, down-on-his-luck, country-and-western singer picked us up because we were carrying guitars and hauled us all the way across the state line.

We’d spend one more night, just the two of us, under a rented roof—a small room above a bar (with jukebox music drifting up through the floor) in some small, forgotten town in Montana.  And then we caught our last long haul: a soldier en route to a new assignment at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri.  He was driving to visit family in Minnesota before reporting in.  So we rode along, sharing the driving, sharing the family visit, sharing the miles of asphalt and cups of black coffee as far as, and right up to, your mother’s front steps in Shawnee.

Then suddenly, as if jolted out of a daydream, we found ourselves waiting in line in the student union to pull class cards.  California and the long way home had become, then just as now, only a memory.  Waking up beneath an overpass to the singing of tires on a highway with morning dew covering our guitars and ants in the cookies we’d saved for breakfast.  Sitting in the shade of a freshly tilled orchard, savoring cold colas we’d had to walk two miles in the burning sun to procure.  Going to sleep wrapped together in one blanket against the evening chill with the stars for our ceiling and the grass our mattress.  Only a memory.

And, of course, there was my old girlfriend, the sorority babe.  And your boyfriend, the hustler.  A new semester of pushes and pulls lay there waiting.  And the streams of living we got into, though often parallel, didn’t run together anymore.  Nevertheless, we held on to a closeness in each other’s mind.  Always.

There were your postcards from Germany.  The homemade cookies you sent me in Vietnam.  Invariably, the long greeting I’d write each Christmas.  And the first home-cooked meal I had, after returning from a tour of duty in Europe, was eaten at your table.  I’ll never forget your words that evening, the candlelight twinkling off the silver and crystal.  “Hey, Markie,” you said, “we gotta keep in touch.  Always.  We’re like little lights winking in the night.”

Your wedding invitation caught up with me in La Jolla, California.  As we’d agreed long before, regardless of who married first, the other would come to the wedding.  And I did.  First Baptist Church of Shawnee, May 10, 1974.

Even after the wedding, for a few years, we exchanged Christmas letters.  Tried to keep abreast of where each of us was heading.  But marriage was a far, far different road than either of us had traveled before.  A husband.  Two children.  The paths of our experiences, of our fulfillments, began to lead in far different directions.  And, finally, one Christmas, the cards stopped coming.

Until today.  Your mother’s letter.  And the rending, anguished message it conveyed.

Marilyn, after miles and miles of other highways and years of other nights and days and the births of children and the gain and loss of other friends, I miss you.  The reassurance of knowing that somewhere, always, that other heartbeat from a shared past was still beating along with my  heart is no more.  And I grieve for two motherless little boys.  And a wifeless young father.  And a lonely grandmother who will miss her daughter so.

Forever after, whenever “California” comes to mind, I’ll remember you.  Whenever I see fog spilling through a mountain pass or hear the ocean, I’ll remember you.  Whenever I see young people by a road—blue-jeaned, thumbs up, faces radiantly defiant of all time and mortality—I’ll remember you.

One day soon I’ll be passing through Shawnee, and I’ll retrace the streets to your mother’s door and utter an awkward condolence.  One day, too, I’ll go through Lawrence, and I’ll stop at the cemetery and stand for a moment looking at your name cut in stone.  And I’ll kneel down and touch the thick, green grass that grows on all graves.  Then I’ll weep.

In loving memory, your old friend,


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Mark Scheel on BloggerMark Scheel on Email
Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

4 comments to Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Ten

Leave a Reply