My paean to the Fourth of July

The following is an excerpt from Wheels on the Bus: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Life in 1974, Copyright 2010 Ken Bilderback.

The Michigan of my memory was a dingy place. I remember the black, crusty snow along the curbs in late winter. I remember walking home from junior high school in dank weather, terrified of the beatings I might face from the neighborhood bullies. The beatings in reality didn’t happen all that often, but 40 years later I still have physical and emotional scars from those that did.

Wheels on the Bus

Wheels on the Bus

I remember finding safety in the cold, musty basement of my parents’ house, huddled with my cat, Bandit, and surrounded by piles of books, magazines and newspapers “collected” over the years by my hoarder mother. I remember huddling down there painfully aware that my paranoid schizophrenic father might erupt again at any moment. When he did erupt he would lock himself in his bedroom and curse and stomp his feet and his tirade would resonate through the heating vents suspended from the ceiling of the basement as I buried myself in a National Geographic, dreaming of far off cities.

My first memory of my father, in fact my first memory of anything, happened when I was a toddler. When I was young, my father would leave on long, unexplained trips. I know now he was looking for jobs and someplace to start over, but back then I didn’t know what he was searching for. I just knew he was gone, and that was good enough for me. So my life’s first memory is my mother telling me he was coming home that night from one of those trips. I screamed in terror. That’s my first memory of my life.

My safe little corner of the basement was dominated by my electric train set, mounted on a table with an ever-changing cityscape, often modeled on a picture from those National Geographics. I built the towns with discarded 2×4 blocks I scrounged from construction sites in our area of suburban Detroit, which was growing like wildfire in the 1960s, fueled by lower-middle-class whites fleeing the city. One 2×4 block was good enough for a gas station, but it might take two for the fire station, three for city hall and four or five for the hospital and school. One little wooden block was special and was a centerpiece of any scene. I had carefully drawn windows and doors on this block, along with a crude drawing of a man smiling and waving by the front door, standing under the sign identifying the business as “Kenny’s Builders.” Kenny was the general contractor for all the buildings in town, which, I remember now, included only commercial buildings and never any homes. Despite all his imagination, apparently Kenny didn’t know how to build a home. When my father would hurl coffee mugs at my beloved Bandit or sit in his bedroom cursing at the misery of knowing in his heart that I was not his son, I would imagine the train pulling out of my safe little imaginary town, headed to an even safer imaginary city that existed only in my mind.

But the Michigan of my memory also was the launching pad for what has been a happy life. Without the hours spent huddled in the safety of that unhealthy basement building imaginary towns and reading books and magazines about faraway places, I might never have overcome my fears. Or, to put it another way, I didn’t overcome my fears; I just decided my fear of the known was greater than my fear of the unknown.

At 17 I found myself sprung from high school a year early after being skipped from the middle of ninth grade to the middle of tenth. The last two years of high school had been comparatively happy times, filled with friends stuffed into my 1967 Camaro enjoying the heyday of Motown and Detroit rock ‘n’ roll. The bullies of the past already had become the pathetic losers I always knew they had buried not so deep inside of them.

Yet even those happy years carry memories of a psychotic father and dark, damp seemingly endless winters. When it came time to start my freshman year as one of the first men at the previously all-female Marygrove College in Detroit, I wondered if being one of a handful of boys in a sea of girls was worth the trade-off of being so close to my parents’ house just 18 miles up Van Dyke Avenue. I pictured making my way up through those 18 miles of black, crusty snow every Christmas for the next four years and wondered if college really was worth it. I showed up for orientation at the beautiful campus with its happy, friendly staff and faculty, but I didn’t show up for classes on the first day.

Instead of starting college, I worked seven nights a week at a little family owned pizzeria. I did all kinds of jobs around the place, but my favorite was delivering pies in my Camaro to places Domino’s wouldn’t go, especially the apartment of the big, laughing black guy who would tip me $20 for a $4 pizza. The tips sometimes came on the condition I take the cash from the mouth or panties of one of the writhing, half-naked black women who always surrounded him, but I had no problem with that.

After all, in those days gas was less than $1 a gallon and you could get a cheap hotel room for $3 or $4. I figured I could get a long way from Detroit on the tips I was making. Of course his largesse was balanced by the white folks who tipped 25 cents for my efforts, so the winter of 1973-74 was a long one before I had enough money stashed away for my escape.

When I did, I drove my Camaro to Ann Arbor and left the keys with my brother, who was in school there. I went to the Greyhound bus station and bought an Ameripass, a Greyhound Bus promotion that allowed unlimited travel anywhere in the United States for a set period of time. Had Greyhound offered a 30-year pass I would have coveted it, but I couldn’t afford even the 60-day pass, so I settled for 30 days.

I looked at the route map that came with the pass and plotted out a rough course. From Detroit I would head to the Florida Keys, then to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, across the South to San Diego, up the Coast to San Francisco and … Well, that’s about as far as I got in planning. Mostly I just wanted to get to the bus station and get started.

In the early 1970s, bus travel was waning as a mode of middle-class travel. It was no surprise then that when I got to the Detroit station and looked around the crowded waiting room most of the faces were black and ran the gamut from obviously dirt poor to only relatively affluent. The white faces, by contrast, seemed to fall pretty neatly into two groups: Young college-age travelers and older, sad-looking poor people. Many of the black faces looked happy to be going to wherever it was they were going, as did some of the college-aged white faces. I don’t think any of the other faces were quite as wide-eyed as mine was, however, as I eagerly waited for the bus that would take me down Interstate 75 to Florida.

There must have been something else showing in my eyes that day, too, because I was startled when a couple and their young daughter approached me. “Are you going all the way to Cincinnati?” one of the parents asked. When I said I was the father drifted off and the mother asked me if I would watch over their daughter, who looked to be about 10 or 12 and who was traveling alone to visit her grandmother in Ohio. The family was dark-skinned, although probably not as dark as I thought they were at the time. In the subsequent 40 years I’ve learned to appreciate the many subtle tones of skin color more than I did then. Back then they were black. All that set this family apart from the other black faces were the matching head scarves worn by the mother and daughter. So why, I wondered, did they approach me instead of one of the many black people in the room? Why would they approach me, the one person at the station who was almost as frightened as their little daughter?

I must have muttered that I would watch the girl because the mother handed me a slip of paper with the grandmother’s contact information and assured me that she would be waiting in Cincinnati when we got there. Either I forgot to ask the little girl’s name or missed it in my confused state, but I boarded the bus with the little girl and sat next to her protectively as my adventure began. She sat tall in the seat next to me with her hands folded on the lap of her clean and ironed dress. The ride through the length of Ohio is a long one, and relatively boring. The little girl said little if anything until we got to Dayton. “Is this Cincinnati?” she politely asked. I assured her it wasn’t, but then looking at the map and Dayton’s proximity to Cincinnati I found myself worried that maybe the two towns shared a bus station and felt compelled to check with the driver, who rolled his eyes and assured me that Cincinnati was still an hour away.

So we rolled on down I-75 out of Dayton. I didn’t know then that in a few years I would be living there, going to the University of Dayton and working as a journalist at the Dayton Daily News. In a few short years I would be able to drive this route with my eyes closed, but on this trip I never closed my eyes, nervously watching for our approach into Cincinnati. A sense of fear had started to grip me. I wasn’t afraid for myself. I was afraid for the little girl, wanting to make sure she got to her grandmother safely. In fact my fear for myself already had almost disappeared, replaced with a sense of myself as the protector, not as potential prey.

When we arrived at the Cincinnati bus station my fears were realized, if only briefly. “Do you see your grandmother?” I asked my little friend. She did not. So here I was, responsible for a little girl in a strange city, a little girl who had slipped her tiny hand into mine as we stood in the depot. My mind raced and I dug out the slip of paper with the grandmother’s phone number and dug out change for the pay phone. What if she’s not home, I wondered, and I have to call the police? Would they arrest me? I had just turned 18. Would that make a difference? But fortunately I never had to call either the grandmother or the police, because the little girl’s eyes lit up at the sight of her grandparents entering the station from across the lobby. The grandparents stood out in a crowd far more than the little girl’s parents had in Detroit. The old man stayed at the other side of the lobby as the grandmother came and embraced the child. She, too, wore a long scarf draped around her head, and she covered her mouth with one of the dangling ends when she spoke to me in an accent her daughter in Detroit did not have, saying nothing more than “Thank you” and that her daughter had called her to tell her I would be watching over the little girl. She happily fussed over her granddaughter and kept repeating “Yes, yes, yes.” The grandfather made a gesture that I interpreted to be some sort of religious blessing. Then this strange family was gone. Relieved of my responsibility, my adventure could begin in earnest.

My excitement was earnest now, too. I flushed with a sense of pride and strength. Not that I had fought off attackers or saved her from a burning bus or anything, but what I had done I had done on my own. I had made it through the first leg of my journey protecting not only myself but someone else. I even had received what I took to be a blessing from some unknown but surely exotic religion. As I look back I think about that man’s blessing not only because he gave me one but also because it pains me to remember that I never received a blessing from my own father. Not when I finished school a year early, not when I embarked upon this adventure, nor when I graduated from college or launched a successful career. This blessing from a strange old man I didn’t even know would have to suffice for now. From the vantage point of age, I also realize one of the reasons I was proud of being this child’s protector: I had just accomplished something my father never would have done.

So I had left Detroit dreaming of an adventure full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, although I doubt I really imagined it would actually turn out that way. It did, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This happy memory would do for now, and I was off to Florida.