A Novel
By Glen Rothe


Content copyright © Glen Rothe.
All rights reserved
Published in

The United States of America
First Publishing Date
January, 2014



PROLOGUE – Death of a President

I was on the grassy knoll that day. 

At the time, most of us had no real idea of what a ‘grassy knoll’ was.  And none of us would understand until years later how profoundly that moment would affect us.  My generation have used that day as a reference point for the rest of our lives; and even after all these years, the memories are still as fresh as today and as recent as now. 

I’ve watched the film; played it over and over again - on a variety of screens and in the recesses of my mind. As time passes, my memories feel sharper than the film’s grainy images.  The years have neither dimmed nor blurred the mental picture of the president, slowly slumping against his wife, a crimson blemish rapidly spreading between them. 

A soundless film is unable to convey the frightening echo that gunshots make when fired in a confined space like Dealy Plaza.  It is impossible to capture on film the disconnection that occurs between that startling sound and the vision of the unfolding tragedy.  It is impossible for film to bring back the earthy smell of a damp West-Texas mid-Autumn morning, or to revive the chill that comes from far deeper than clammy earth and damp grass.  And no film can accurately reproduce the inerasable scenes played over and over in the mind.

Even still, as often as I’ve replayed these images, I’ve never quite untangled the consequences of that day when considered against the balance of my life.

*    *    *    *    *

Cast into the turmoil now so casually referred to as ‘The Sixties’, I trace the beginning of the end of my adolescence to what happened that day in Dallas. 

For some, ‘The Sixties’ never ended; the era continues as a slow-moving and surreal dream of a never realized Utopia.  But coming of age in The Sixties was what far too rapidly propelled me into adulthood; with only the bittersweet memories of passing through Haight Ashbury to separate me from the inevitable march into the horrors of Vietnam.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.


SECTION I – Death of a Friend

When I was a child, I was told - by those who should have known better - that the lives of persons we most respect and admire will inspire us and have the greatest influence in our own lives; however, as time has passed, I‘ve come to understand that it is their death and not their lives that affect us most.



Daniel and I were best friends.  Although I couldn’t possibly foresee it at the time, Daniel Patrick Halloran was, in fact, to be the only ‘best friend’ I would ever have.  

Within days of our first meeting we were best friends; within weeks we were inseparable.  And during the coming years there would be few days when we didn’t spend at least some time together.  We would soon become each other’s most reliable sounding board and most trusted confidant.  With time, and with a growing importance, we learned how to bolster each other’s strength when it was most required; and ultimately, our friendship helped us each to fend off the often cruel and insensible burdens of adolescence.

Our unlikely introduction occurred on Halloween night; it was during the year when we both turned thirteen.  It had been a perfect day for Halloween - gray and rainy.  By evening the streets and the sidewalks of Milwaukee were covered with the rain-soaked and slimy residue of decaying autumn leaves.  Even by Halloween standards the night was inordinately dreary.  But nothing was going to keep me from meandering door-to-door in an attempt to take my share of the bounty of our suburban neighborhood. 

Our friendship began in an unlikely manner; I stood on the front steps waiting for a treat, while Daniel leaned out of his second story bedroom window and emptied a cold bucket of water on me – ending my ‘trick-or-treating’ for the night.   

I’d been determined to stop at every house in a four block area, but the going had been slow.  Neighbors this particular year seemed reluctant to come to their doors; perhaps just too worn out from the gloomy day.  Even before stopping at Daniel’s house it had become clear that this was to be a meager Halloween.  I’d scored none of the nickel candy bars or fancy packaged candy so prized by every trick-or-treater.  Instead, pennies and popcorn balls, both considered useless and throwaway, made up the bulk of the booty in the old pillow case I’d brought along to hold the year’s treats.  

As I made my way up 75th Street, where Daniel’s family lived in a modest Georgian style house, I was about ready to give up for the night.  Even though I was stunned and angry when the bucket of water soaked me, it seemed like a fitting end to an unsuccessful Halloween. 

My immediate response, of course, was anger.  But at the same time, I couldn’t help but admire the audacity of the prank; it was outrageous but brilliant.  At the moment, however, most of what I was feeling was only damp humiliation.  Although trying to hide behind self-conscious laughter, it was impossible to hold back embarrassing tears.  With the water from the bucket adding to the film of chilly rain already clinging to my cheeks, I hoped the tears would go unnoticed.  But sensing my hurt pride, and realizing that he’d gone too far, Daniel wasted no time before appearing at the front door with a dry towel and a large candy bar. 

As so often happens with young boys, our mutual embarrassment was soon forgotten while our relationship was instantly bonded by the events of that Halloween.

*    *    *    *    *

Throughout the coming years Daniel and I grew to intuitively understand each other’s demons.  I was reserved and shy by nature, and it was only with his gentle good humor and accepting sensitivity that Daniel, on so many occasions, was able to soothe my normally well-buried emotions.  Whether I was plagued with fear, hurt or real pain, Daniel seemed always there for me.  And in my naivety, I believed he always would be. 

That Daniel and I were kindred spirits was never questioned by either of us; and it was always clear to those around us as well.  But at first glance we appeared to be an unlikely pair.  With his close-cropped dark hair, slight build and horn-rimmed glasses, Daniel was the classic image of a scholar; while in reality he was only an average student.  Despite his deceptively frail appearance, Daniel excelled at all physical activity; give him a bat, ball, net - or any sports gear for that matter - and he would readily excel. 

Although (or perhaps because) I was big for my age, my physical coordination was lagging far behind mental development.  I had to accept early in life that I would never be an athlete.  Boasting the barest minimum of physical coordination, I was always cruelly far behind my classmates, especially Daniel, when it came to sports.  I would be well into adulthood before I had the coordination necessary to satisfactorily dribble a basketball; and although by virtue of size alone I could block and tackle, it would be years before I could competently pass or catch a football.  On the other hand, my mind and body were at odds.  I was only in second or third grade when I learned that my I.Q. was higher than average.  But this meant nothing at the time, because to a young boy, intelligence is never prized as highly as physical prowess. 

By the time we were well into our teens I was tall and strapping and could readily be taken to be the football quarterback or star center of the basketball team; but Daniel was the real athlete.  I would have to take limited satisfaction from the knowledge that I was never far from the top of my class. 

Whereas I was naturally conservative, being emotionally and intellectually consistent, Daniel was flamboyant and full of contradictions.  I was grounded and steady while he had the dreamy mind of a philosopher and the unruly imagination of an adventurer.  It was only under Daniel’s relentless prodding that I was capable, on rare occasions, to stray from geeky intellectualism. 

Once, bending to peer-pressure during our sophomore year in high school, I was coerced and gave in.  With dangerously misguided zeal, I tried out for the junior varsity basketball team.  With predictable consequences, I broke my ankle while awkwardly attempting a half-hearted lay-up during the first team practice.  Daniel easily made the team that year, while I was benched for the entire season, doomed to sit on the sidelines and watch the grace and agility of my teammates with stoic appreciation. 

Daniel made every team that year – not only basketball, but every sport he cared to play.  In all future seasons, as he advanced to varsity squads, I had the grace, humility and good sense to admire his athletic prowess from a seat in the stands.  When he became captain of the varsity basketball team while still a Junior, I wasn’t surprised.  By then I’d learned to readily acknowledge his leadership.

It seems ironic that although I was the scholar, Daniel was, on most occasions, the mastermind.  He was the originator of nearly all our adolescent pranks and escapades.  If we were to find trouble, it was Daniel leading the way.  If we were to have an adventure, it was Daniel who acted as guide.  And when we would occasionally venture forward into the complexities of adult life, carelessly jumping from the sidelines of adolescence, Daniel would always make the first leap.  Only then, encouraged by his cajoling and taunting, would I figuratively close my eyes, leap as high and as far as I was able, and always to my peril, find myself right there beside him. 

It was fortunate for both of us that my talent proved to be at an opposite extreme.  While Daniel would lead us there, I was nearly always able to rescue us before we went over the brink.  Although I would never envision or initiate the adventure, I could always be counted on to find a way to avoid nearly inevitable disaster. 

I would need to attain much greater maturity before understanding that my caution stemmed from an innate lack of ability to see black or white in the same way that Daniel did.  To this day I most often see only many shades of gray; and it is within this gray palette of uncertainty where I’ve had to seek answers to the mysteries of life.  Whereas Daniel would immediately see the excitement and the adventure, I would only see all possible consequences; and seeing these consequences, it was only with his constant nudging that I would venture into uncertain and dangerous territory. 

By some strange alchemy, this improbable combination of talents served us both well.  It was Daniel who made life more interesting, while I provided a steadying balance to keep us at the edge - rather than over it.

*    *    *    *    *

Through the years Daniel could be counted on to conjure up non-stop adventures for the two of us.  The most enduring and exciting of these (and possibly the most dangerous) was the walkabout

While we were still in our early teens, Daniel read about the Aborigine people of Australia.  Always interested by things foreign or alien, he was particularly fascinated by coming of age rituals; and the Australian aboriginal people have the quintessential coming of age rite.  It was intriguing for a budding adventurer like Daniel; and it was inevitable that we would partake. 

Adolescent tribesmen, who hazard into the Outback for extended periods during their youth, held the allure of an adventure that seemed nothing short of ideal; and so Daniel set out to design a comparable experience for the two of us.  He imagined that, like Aborigines, we too could venture out, with both hopes and expectations of departing as boys and returning as men. 

He thought about it for weeks, never letting on to me what was being tossed about in his fanciful and ever-churning mind.  Finally, when the scheme was ready, he revealed what he had planned for the two us.  He’d updated the Aboriginal approach with something all his own, acknowledging the limited means and expectations of middle class American teenagers.  According to Daniel, we were to ‘come of age’ by hitchhiking.

As conceived by and according to Daniel, the ritual would be only slightly altered.  Instead of wandering in the wilderness, we would hitch rides across the countryside.  However, thumbing rides was not to have so mundane a purpose as getting from here to there.  True to form, Daniel had modified and expanded the walkabout into a competition.  And true to form, I was conspicuously less enthusiastic at the onset (being consumed with thoughts of all possible dangers); but like always, it wasn’t long before I was swept along with my friend’s enthusiasm. 

By the time we were sophomores in high school we were each regularly setting out on an ever-expanding variety of solitary treks.  We measured success by both time elapsed and distance traveled, always attempting to extend the distance while reducing the number of wasted hours waiting for rides.  Our goal was to outdo each other; to set a record that could never be beat.

It was an attempt to set a walkabout record that took me to Dallas on that November day in 1963; and it was that long weekend that set me on a life journey - one far more significant than a mere ritual.  Witnessing the assassination of President Kennedy nudged me into what would prove to be far truer rites of passage. 

*    *    *    *    *

I was still in a state of shock on the day I returned to Milwaukee after hitching back from Dallas, and it was inevitable that I would seek out Daniel to help soften the jolt I’d received.  With gentle but firm encouragement, he helped to replace shock with a modicum of pride.  Daniel’s approval for what I’d accomplished allowed me to partially forget the horror of the events I’d witnessed, and to briefly revel in a more positive reality; I’d captured the walkabout record. 

What I didn’t understand at the time was that my Dallas walkabout would act like a fuse, lying dormant for years, deeply buried but always lurking and waiting for a trigger.  And when a multitude of triggers eventually converged, Daniel would not be there to help guide me through real rites of passage.

*    *    *    *    *

By the spring of 1966, when Daniel and I were sophomores at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, I’d long since stopped competing with him.  Daniel had regularly surpassed my Dallas walkabout record, and I’d finally come to the realization that no matter how hard I tried and no matter what I attempted, Daniel would forever have more desire, more energy, and in the end, more guts.  He was going to always have the need and the ability to surpass my best efforts. 

With burgeoning maturity, I was able to force any desire for adventure into dormancy.  New goals, more aligned with my nature, prevailed.   Excelling in my studies became more important than any adolescent competition; scholastics were where I had a realistic chance for success.  I was determined to maintain grades that would some day guarantee a law school scholarship, and until then I would single-mindedly pursue academic goals.  During the school year I worked hard, searching in my free time for high caliber Summer internships at prestige law firms.  I’d had success with this strategy during the Summer between freshman and sophomore year, and I was intent on repeating my initial success.  Pursuit of academic goals left no time for walkabouts, and to Daniel’s obvious annoyance, I had precious little time for a friend with intensely different goals. 

By the end of March I’d been resisting Daniel’s persistent appeals to embark on our first joint walkabout for weeks; always avoiding an outright confrontation while trying subtly to make him understand that what he wanted was never going to happen.  This late in the semester, final exams were my first and only priority.  Without me realizing it, Daniel remained oblivious to my subtlety, and I had no idea that it would later seem to him as if I’d just been leading him on.  He never wavered in his conviction that I was on board for the adventure, so when the moment of truth arrived and I balked, he was hurt; and his hurt quickly turned to anger.  When I refused to argue, with frustration tempered by disgust, he finally set out on his own. 

Daniel’s goal for the two of us was to reach San Francisco as rapidly as possible, and then return back to Milwaukee; all before the end of Spring Break.  The walkabout would be more than 4000 miles - by far the longest attempt to date; to be accomplished in less than a week.  In the end, Daniel had made it clear that he was ready to do this with or without my participation.  But as much as he tried to conceal them, it was impossible for me to ignore his real feelings.  He was disappointed and hurt.  This was the first time I’d refused to share his enthusiasm for any adventure.  It didn’t help that I made no effort to hide my own feelings - doubt that the venture was even possible. 

Daniel left without me, but he’d barely set out before my guilt set in.  Unable to brush the guilt aside, I was soon consumed by it.  My conscience refused to let me ignore all the potential problems, perhaps even dangers, which were certain to arise for him while he was on his own.  The more I thought about it, the more I was certain Daniel was heading for disaster; and because it was my fault for leaving him in the lurch, any calamity would fall squarely on my shoulders. 

Each day he was gone my concern increased, until I had to admit to myself that I’d made a serious mistake; I would have been better off if I’d gone along.  Studying for exams turned out to be useless during his absence.

*    *    *    *    *

When we first became students at the university, Daniel and I both decided that we wanted to live away from home.  Even though our families lived in nearby suburbia, we were able to convince our parents that living on campus, rather than at home, would give us a safe entrée to independence; it would be living at a distance - without going too far.  We soon talked four other willing freshmen into sharing a decrepit, large and enticingly cheap old house adjacent to the campus.  The Pad, as we soon dubbed it, was on the Upper East Side of Milwaukee, a historically significant and relatively high-class neighborhood - except for the area immediately surrounding the university.

The Pad proved to be large enough to easily house six students.  In fact, the house was so spacious that it could also readily accommodate a constant stream of guests and transients.  Days could go by without any of us seeing each other; and although there was often an odd assortment of squatters in the house, they could go unnoticed indefinitely.

It was late on the Friday evening at the end of Spring Break when I arrived back at The Pad after spending a day trying to study at the library.  I was tired and preoccupied, but as I entered the house I couldn’t miss Daniel’s knapsack and other traveling paraphernalia strewn about the cluttered entrance hall.

The house was quiet, with none of the raucous activity normally associated with Friday nights.  I was apprehensive as I walked down the first floor hallway.  There’d been no word from him since he’d left, and I hadn’t expected Daniel to return until at least Saturday or Sunday.  Not certain what to expect, I knocked on his closed door.  The response was barely audible.  I knocked again, this time harder, at the same time opening the door slightly to peer into the darkened room. 

Daniel was lying immobile on the bed.  Entering the room, I could smell the almost overpowering odor of vomit.  Trying to pick out details in the gloom, I could just barely make out Daniel’s head, which appeared to be lying in a damp pool on the bed.  It didn’t take a genius to recognize that something was terribly wrong.  I hurried to the bedside, almost losing my footing in another slimy pool on the floor.  When I attempted to rouse Daniel, there was no response.

*    *    *    *    *

 “T.C., it’s Marcus.  I just got home from the library and found Daniel in his room.  He’s sick - maybe real sick.  I don’t know.” 

T.C. Halloran, Daniel’s father, had for years been like a second father to me; he was the first and only person I’d thought to call.  

“Marcus, what are you talking about?  Can you be a little more specific?  What do you mean, he’s sick?  Have you called a doctor?”

T.C.’s tone stopped me in my tracks.  Too late, but now trying to think more clearly, I wondered if perhaps I’d been overly hasty in making the call.  The first thing that had occurred to me was to get someone responsible involved, but I’d neglected to consider all the possible consequences. 

In recent months the emergence of an expanding drug culture on campus had been widely reported and noted by the administration.  Up until now Daniel and I had only been distant observers, with neither of us having any real interest in experimenting with the most popular option on offer – marijuana.  I didn’t believe it possible that Daniel would try anything like this without involving me; but now doubt was creeping in.  Although I lacked experience, that didn’t mean I was unaware of possible overdose symptoms.  Thinking back, I had to admit to myself that when I’d first entered Daniel’s room I’d entertained just a slight hint of suspicion.  That was why I’d called T.C. rather than a doctor.  Any concern raised about drugs by a physician would prompt a call to the campus police - or worse.  A doctor might even feel compelled to call the city police.  About now I was beginning to wish I’d given it a little more time before alerting T.C.  But it was too late; I was committed. 

“Listen, T.C., I think you should get over here and see for yourself.  Daniel doesn’t look good.  Maybe he should see a doctor; maybe he should go to the hospital.  I don’t know.  You need to come and see for yourself.”

Even over the phone I could sense T.C.’s impatience.  “Listen Marcus; stay with him.  I’m leaving right now and I’ll be there in less than half an hour.  But if this is a hangover – or something worse - you’ll both wish you’d fixed the problem yourselves.” 

With his warning still hanging on the line, T.C. cut the connection.  When I returned to check on Daniel, he seemed to be breathing normally, so I went to fetch some wet cloths and dry towels so I could clean up some of the mess before T.C. arrived.  I scavenged what I could find in the community bathroom and returned to Daniel’s room, cleaning up as best I could.  It was all I could do to keep from adding my own lunch to the mess already on the floor and on the bed. 

To my relief, even before I finished cleaning, Daniel began to come around, showing signs of life.  Although clearly still feeling the effects of whatever had knocked him out, he was soon alert enough for questioning.  What I was looking for was what I normally expected from him - the assurance that everything would soon be alright.  That’s not what I got. 

In my eagerness to get a grasp on the facts before T.C. arrived, all of my questions spilled out at once.  “Man, what’s happening?  You look like shit - and believe me that’s an understatement.  Please… please… tell me you haven’t been experimenting with some dangerous shit.  How long have you been here like this?” 

Daniel stared at me for what seemed like a long time.  I could see he was trying to break through a fog of confusion and get his thoughts together.  When he finally spoke he didn’t provide any of the assurance I was looking for.  “Hey Marcus, what a trip I had.  You know what I mean?  Jesus, what a trip.”

What he was saying was not what I wanted to hear.  Maybe I was jumping to conclusions, but over the past year the word ‘trip’ had taken on a disturbing new meaning; one associated with the drug culture.  Daniel’s use of the term did nothing to lessen my suspicions. 

“Listen Daniel, I’ve called T.C., and he’s coming here.  Right now.  I think you’d better get your shit together and cool it with talk about a ‘trip’.”

“Marcus, you don’t get it.  My shit’s just about as together as it gets.  You don’t understand.  I made it.  The walkabout.  All the way to San Fran and back.  In less than a week.  Like… man, no one’s ever going to beat that!” 

He was still staring vacantly at a point in space above my head when it finally dawned on him.  “Hey!  Wait a minute.  You called T.C.?  Why’d you do that?  What do you mean he’s coming here?”

I could sense the situation deteriorating rapidly.  It was beginning to look like a first class fuck-up, with the obvious conclusion being that I was the one fucking up.  Daniel was looking and sounding better every minute.  I wasn’t about to admit it, but it appeared more and more likely that I’d panicked and leaped without thinking.  For just a moment I found myself hoping for a relapse.  It would be tough going for both of us when T.C. arrived.  He’d take one look at Daniel and wonder why the hell I’d called. 

While we were waiting in silence for T.C. to arrive, I had plenty of time to think about the significance of what Daniel had just told me.  He’d made it to San Francisco and back during Spring break.  That was a milestone, and now I’d managed to totally screw everything up with my call to T.C.  I felt like a first class jerk!

I didn’t have time to berate myself for long, however.  After only a few minutes of being lucid, Daniel again slipped into unconsciousness; and this time nothing I did could revive him.  By the time T.C. finally arrived, I was just plain scared and relieved to see him.  I had no real idea what was going on with Daniel, I just knew that it was more than I was prepared to handle on my own. 

When T.C. stomped into Daniel’s room he took one look, smelled the sour odor of vomit, and breezed immediately back out into the hall, hurrying up the stairs to the landing where The Pad’s phone was located.  I stayed with Daniel, but even from his room I could hear T.C.’s booming voice as he called the campus medical center. 

“Get an ambulance to 201 Margaret Street.  Right now!  I think we’ve got a drug overdose here.” 

Apparently T.C.’s suspicions mirrored my own, and he’d arrived prepared to believe the worst.  Clearly he’d been on the alert - expecting something fishy.  Anticipating it would be bad, he’d apparently looked up the number of the med center even before coming to the house. 

When he came stomping back into the room, his irritation was obvious as he practically shouted at me, “Marcus, why didn’t you call the medical center yourself?  You’re no dummy.  You can see what this looks like.  What’s Daniel been into?  If I find out that the two of you have been messing around with something dangerous or illegal - Jesus, I’ll kill you both.”

It was pretty clear that T.C. wasn’t ready to hear anything I said, but I still tried to explain that I hadn’t seen Daniel for over a week.  I told him I had no idea what Daniel was ‘into’, but that if he’d been into anything unusual, he was doing it without my help.  T.C. wasn’t buying any of it.

I attempted a brief account of my conversation with Daniel, but T.C. just looked at me like I was out of my mind.  And even as I was speaking, I could see how far-fetched the idea of making a round trip to the West Coast in less than a week must seem.  By the time I finished my explanation I was ready to accept T.C.’s assessment myself.  The whole scenario was just too crazy - even for me.

That’s when, Thank God, the ambulance finally arrived.



As it turned out - and to everyone’s relief - it wasn’t a drug overdose. 

T.C. called me late that night from the hospital with an update.  Daniel was doing much better.  There wasn’t yet a preliminary finding, other than that Daniel was apparently quite anemic, and that he had needed a blood transfusion.  Although I couldn’t admit it, I was a little disappointed to learn that Daniel showed no hint of drug usage, and didn’t appear to be suffering from some serious disease either.  In fact, whatever was ailing him didn’t even seem very impressive.  A real disease might have taken some of the heat off of me for jumping the gun and calling in T.C.

My suspicions were immediately raised, however, when T.C. went on to say that the hospital was being declared off limits.  According to T.C., he and Daniel’s mother felt it was better if no visitors were allowed until they’d had a chance to clear the air with Daniel.  He also made it a point to let me know they wanted to talk with me before I saw their son. 

*    *    *    *    *

Nearly a week passed before T.C. called again to inform me that he wanted to meet at the hospital on the following day.  Although I was feeling some guilt about neglecting Daniel and not visiting him sooner, I justified my week-long absence from the hospital by blaming the Hallorans.  It was their decision that had made me a no-show.  T.C. had made it clear that I wasn’t welcome until they informed me that I was.  Although this period of inactivity should have been a great time for me to prepare for finals, the truth was, since Daniel’s admission into Milwaukee General Hospital, I’d had even more difficulty concentrating than when he’d been on the walkabout.  For more than two weeks I’d accomplished next to nothing. 

As instructed, the following day I found myself sitting uncomfortably in the visitor’s waiting room - summoned for what was certain to be an interrogation with Betty and T.C. Halloran 

I loved them both, and although I knew they cared about me, Betty and T.C. had a penchant for tough love.  Betty, the mother of four boys, had lived her entire married life managing a male dominated household – and she managed with an iron fist.  She’d recognized early in her marriage that she could either act the part of a lady, and be catered to as the sole female in the family, or she could jump in head first and be the leader of a growing Halloran fraternity.  Betty had no problem making her choice.  By the time that Daniel and I became friends, her role had long since solidified as house mother for Halloran Delta Phi.  At some point I’d attained honorary membership in that fraternity, and while I came to think of T.C. as my second father, Betty soon attained the status of third father, a close runner-up in my fatherly lineup. 

Betty Halloran loved camping and hunting and fishing with her ‘boys’.  And we were all her boys - including T.C. and me.  She could pass a football farther and straighter than I would ever be able to; and when a baseball came over the plate, she was able to hit it more convincingly and more often then I could.  Although, to an outsider, she might seem like any other normal middle-aged mother, in her home Betty was a deeply loving but always overbearing, domineering and imposing matriarch.  She viewed her life’s mission as fiercely looking after her boys.  I wasn’t exactly intimidated by her (well, maybe just a bit); I preferred to think of my feelings toward Betty as respect.  I also felt a grudging love for this strong woman – someone so different from my own mother.

From the moment when T.C. had showed up on the previous Friday to take control of the situation, I knew THE TALK wouldn’t be far behind.  And when we met at the hospital it was clear that THE TALK was what Betty and T.C. had on their minds.  They were well rehearsed and ready to put me through my paces. 

THE TALK was what parents reserved for those of us ‘children’ who were bound to inevitably let them down.  That T.C. and Betty felt I’d fallen short of their expectations was obvious.   I had no doubt that in their minds my failure was clear; not only had I not talked him out of it, I’d compounded my negligence by letting Daniel go on the walkabout alone.

“Marcus, I’ve got to tell you, I’m really surprised and disappointed,” Betty began, looking me straight in the eye.  “You know how much we count on you to keep an eye on Daniel.  How could you let him go gallivanting off like that - all alone and across the country?  God only knows what could’ve happened.  I just thank God it wasn’t worse.  He could have been killed.”  She paused for a moment, then resumed with barely suppressed emotion in her voice. “He could be lying in a ditch somewhere…” now a longer pause, accompanied by a slight hint of a sob and a sigh… “and we’d have no clue.” 

‘Lying in a ditch somewhere’ was Betty Halloran’s vision for a fate worse than death.  I was more than familiar with that phrase.  It had surfaced many times, whenever she contemplated the worst that could happen to her boys.  For years I’d understood that lying in a ditch somewhere was more than a simple metaphor; this was Betty’s own personal vision of hell.

I don’t recall exactly when it was that Daniel’s parents put me in charge of his well-being, but by the time we were in college, I’d understood for a long time that he was my responsibility.  As far as Betty and T.C. were concerned, looking after Daniel might possibly be my life’s work.  They’d made it clear to me often enough (and to Daniel as well) that they’d recognized early in our friendship who was the cautious one.  Ultimately, I suppose this was the reason that Betty had so readily accepted me into the family.  I wasn’t just another one of ‘the boys’ - I was the one designated to keep Daniel out of harm’s way.  Betty and T.C. had long ago convinced themselves that whatever might happen, I would always find a way to save Daniel from his own worst self. 

Through the years their belief had become my belief as well; at some point I’d become convinced that they must be right.  But now, listening to Betty, I realized I’d never before understood just how serious they took my responsibility. 

I was, of course, just as relieved as Betty that things hadn’t turned out worse; that Daniel hadn’t ended up in a ditch somewhere.  But I was also becoming impatient.  Up until now the focus had been only on what they’d set out to accomplish: THE TALK.  I had yet to hear a word about what interested me: what was going on with Daniel.  I assumed that by this time they must certainly have found out what was wrong.  If T.C. and Betty knew - then I wanted to hear it.  And if they didn’t know, then I wanted to understand why they didn’t.  “OK.  What can I say?  I’m sorry.  It probably wasn’t a smart move - to stretch this walkabout thing to the extreme.  But you’ve got to understand something.  We were both supposed to go; and I never thought he’d actually go without me.  I guess maybe I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have.  I’m really sorry.”

Betty wasn’t inclined to let me off the hook so easily.  “Marcus, you had to know that it really wasn’t a good idea, even with both of you going together.  After all, you’ve heard all the stories about crazy people roaming the highways these days.”

If the peril of the ‘ditch’ was Betty’s worst fear, than ‘crazy people roaming the highways’ ran a close second.  Remembering how he’d looked that night when I first saw him after he returned, it wasn’t all that difficult to imagine Betty’s ditch - with Daniel lying in it - a victim of crazy people along the highway. 

Whatever the actual situation, now wasn’t the time to split hairs.  I just wanted to know what was going on, and it was my turn to ask the questions.  “So what’s the story?  I mean, a week ago I didn’t know if Daniel was going to live or die.  I’m not blind. I could see how sick he really was.  So, what’s going on?”

Glances that I couldn’t quite interpret passed between the two of them.  Finally, looking at Betty and then at me, T.C. piped in, “Marcus, Daniel has mononucleosis.  His body’s totally run down.  He’s going to have to come home when he leaves the hospital.  He needs a lot of rest, so we’re going to withdraw him from school for the rest of the semester.  He’s housebound until he gets his strength back.”

Mononucleosis?  The Kissing Disease? 

I was shocked.  Mononucleosis was a joke; something girls got – like ‘the vapors’ or PMS.  I’d actually only known one person who’d ever contracted mononucleosis.  She was a girl from senior year in high school named Lisa Druck.  Lisa Druck was already so frail before she came down with mononucleosis that if she hadn’t made it a point to tell anyone who’d listen, no one would have even guessed she was sick.  To this day I’m not really sure she really had the illness, or if talking about it was just a way for Lisa Druck to convince everyone that she’d actually been kissed.

I’d been expecting (maybe even hoping?) for something a bit more dramatic; an illness that could justify my panic; an emergency that might have actually warranted calling T.C. that night.  ‘Mono’ was commonly understood to be relatively benign, passed from person to person simply by kissing.  Everyone on campus would probably be exposed to the disease sooner or later.  At any given time, the amount of kissing on campus could probably lead to a regular pandemic of mononucleosis.  It wasn’t exactly a world class illness. 

I’ll admit to having conflicting emotions at that moment.  All the joking aside, I was relieved to learn that Daniel wasn’t suffering from something more serious.  I hadn’t told Betty and T.C. about my most serious fear, drugs; but another consideration was that, even though the college hadn’t admitted it publicly, Hepatitis was rumored to be running rampant on campus.  Serious whispering kept the story alive that someone had even died from it during the Fall semester. 

Thankfully, mononucleosis was not Hepatitis.  Under the circumstances, lacking any real medical emergency, it seemed an overreaction that Betty and T.C. were intent on moving Daniel home.  “I guess I’m relieved it’s only kiss…” I caught myself, “only mononucleosis.  But don’t you think Daniel can recover just as easily at The Pad?  Even if he can’t go to classes, he can still live there.  I’d look after him.”

After I’d spoken I could read Betty and T.C.’s minds from their faces.  If I was so able to look after him, then why was Daniel in the hospital after I’d let him hitchhike alone across the country? 

I knew they wanted to be understanding, but they weren’t fools.  “Listen, Marcus,” T.C. said, clearly speaking for both of them, “you and Daniel can be like a couple of loose canons when you’re together.  You’re good kids – and of course we understand that.  But we know that while you’re together there’s not much chance that Daniel will really recover.  What he needs is rest.  If he stays with you I can only imagine what scheme you two could cook up next.”

I couldn’t argue; experience had proven that T.C. was probably right.

He continued, “I know you’re counting on his share of the rent, so I’ll tell you what.  If you keep his room open until he returns next semester, we’ll pay his share for the rest of this semester.” 

Betty had just been waiting in the proverbial wings to execute the coup-de-grace.   “You’ve got to admit it Marcus; we all know the truth here.  He’ll be better off at home.”

I could see that she was becoming uncomfortable and could no longer look me in the eyes; and T.C. was looking only at Betty.  They’d given me their final word on the subject and it was pointless to argue.  I could tell they believed THE TALK was now over and no more needed to be said.  After a quick goodbye they made a hasty retreat, and I was left sitting alone in the waiting room. 

I’d gotten to the hospital late in the day, and I’d met with T.C. and Betty as soon as they arrived.  Up until now I’d had no chance to see Daniel.  Visiting hours were almost over, but that wasn’t going to stop me.  I wanted to go immediately, but I hesitated; I needed to sort out my feelings before going to his room. 

Earlier in the day I’d been seriously worried.  After an entire week with too much time to speculate and with too little action, I’d begun to assume the worst.  Before meeting with T.C. and Betty I’d been certain they were keeping something serious from me.  Now, of course, I was relieved.  Even still, I couldn’t forget how Daniel had looked when I’d walked in on him just a week ago, and I knew it hadn’t been only my imagination.  Daniel had been sick; sicker than I’d ever seen anyone before.  He was out cold when I came into his room, and after rallying for only a short time, he’d passed out a second time.  Although ‘mono’ may have previously seemed only good for a laugh, what I’d seen that night was no joke.

Looking at the wall clock, I realized that if I waited any longer I’d miss my opportunity.  I hurried down the hall to Daniel’s room.  Attempting to set a humorous tone, I walked in and promptly said: “So, how’s the kisser?  Jesus, I hope you haven’t been making out with Lisa Druck?”

“Kiss this,” Daniel replied without a pause but in a weak voice, while pointing under the hospital sheets somewhere in the vicinity of his crotch.

Weak attempts at humor weren’t hiding a thing.  I couldn’t help but notice how small and frail Daniel looked in the hospital bed.  I’d never seen him like this before and I couldn’t stop staring.  With uncombed hair and a sallow complexion, he looked almost like an old man - someone I didn’t recognize.  No matter how much I wanted to believe otherwise, mononucleosis was beginning to seem more and more serious.

“Hey Marcus.  Have you talked with T.C. and Betty?  They’re really pissed.  I’m pretty sure T.C. thought we were doing drugs.  How stupid does he think we are?  And Betty can’t stop talking about the dangers of the open road.  Hey, did you catch that?  ‘The open road’ is her new euphemism for hitch-hiking.  And then there’s the ditch.   God, she must have brought up the ditch about a million times.  They were so pissed I didn’t even have a chance to brag about the walkabout.  Now that you’re here, at least I get a chance to boast.  And… oh, by the way - where the hell’ve you been since I got here?”

I couldn’t take my eyes away from this strange person in the bed.  It was hard for me to believe that this seeming imposter was actually my friend Daniel.  I tried to hide my inner turmoil by injecting more humor.  “Whadya mean where’ve I been?  Shit man!  In case you haven’t noticed, Betty and T.C. have practically posted guards - and no one’s allowed past the gates.  You’ve been off limits, my friend.  I was beginning to wonder if maybe you’d come down with the clap and the quarantine was to keep you from passing it on to anyone else.”  Although levity might have taken some of the strain out of the room, all I felt was sadness, watching the feeble smile breaking through on Daniel’s dry and cracked lips.  “I gotta tell ya, man.  All kidding aside?  You look like shit!  It’s my guess that it’s gonna take a lot more than bed rest to get you out of here.”

Ignoring what I was saying, Daniel immediately moved the conversation to what he’d been itching to talk about.  “It was great, Marcus.  No shit.  The whole thing; it was all worth it.  I don’t mean just the walkabout.  I mean San Fran, the ocean, the whole thing.  You know, I was there, in San Francisco, for a whole day between rides?  I walked on the beach for a couple of hours.  The Pacific Ocean is awesome, man.  I didn’t want to ever leave.”

This had been Daniel’s first encounter with the sea, and I understood perfectly what he was talking about.  I’d only been to the Atlantic, and then only one time - and it had been a short time at that.  But my memories were still vivid.  The endless stretch of ocean had been breathtaking; so vast, with nothing but water between me and the rest of the world.  The sea seemed like it could swallow up every person on Earth, leaving no sign where they’d all gone.  It was as if everyone could just march into the water and disappear.

Daniel broke my reverie.  “I kept looking out over the waves and thinking there was nothing but water between me and Japan… or China… or lots of other places we’ve gotta go see some day, Marcus.  It was fantastic.  And the hitches, going and coming, were like a dream.  Honest to God, I’ve never had rides line up so perfectly.  I made it to Saint Louis in a single jump, and then to Salt Lake City in the second.  I had to scrounge a bit from there, but I never had more than an hour between rides, and I was in San Francisco before I knew it.”

I recognized the trance-like gaze now settling on his face.  I’d seen it so many times before, and it felt good to see that look again.  Daniel was seeing something way out; far past this dismal hospital room.  He was on his way again, and like always, he was trying to take me along.

 “When I was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge I could see this other huge bridge; I didn’t even know about it before, but it’s the one that goes from San Fran to Oakland.  And then I got to thinking about Berkeley, and the Free Speech Movement stuff we’ve talked about.  I really wanted you to be there with me, Marcus.  We’ve got to go back together.  Whadya say we just pack up and get the hell out of here right now?  We can drop out of UWM and go to school in Berkeley and join the Movement.  That’s where we belong.”

As usual, Daniel was light years ahead of me.  But this time I was having a lot of trouble making the leap with him.  I wanted to feel what he was feeling; the kind of excitement that could take me from this miserable hospital room and all the way to the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.  But it just wasn’t happening.  Not at all.  “Yeah, man,” was the best I could muster, “that sounds great.  Get well, and we’ll talk about it.” 

But he was on a roll and nothing was going to stop him.  Far ahead of me now, Daniel’s imagination was embarking on an adventure with enough enthusiasm for both of us; and although I couldn’t be sure where he was heading, I could tell he was already most of the way there.  I wanted to join him with every fiber in my body.  I really did.  But I felt as though I was glued to this hospital room; I was the psychological captive of a particularly sticky reality.  Daniel was seeing the wide open horizon of a beckoning world, and all I could see was someone who was very sick.  Every moment we were together it was becoming clearer to me that he was sicker than he knew; and he was a whole lot sicker than I thought he should be after the explanation I’d received from T.C. and Betty.  And worst of all, I couldn’t envision any way to break the bond of the glue holding me in that place; certainly not enough to get me from here to where Daniel had already arrived.  I’d just about convinced myself to give it one more try, but before I could build even the slightest head of my own steam, Daniel dozed off. 

I waited until I was certain he was asleep, and then with my mind racing, I made my slow retreat back to The Pad.

© Copyright 2014, Glen Rothe