By Glen Rothe
Content copyright © Glen Rothe.
All rights reserved
The United States of America
First Publishing Date
– 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
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
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
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
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
* * * * *
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
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
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 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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
“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
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
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
© Copyright 2014, Glen Rothe