RIDING TO COEBURN, VIRGINIA
I stopped. DO NOT WALK was blinking red at me from across the street.
Thoughts of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who was one of the greatest spiritual writers of the past century, came to mind. In 1958 when Merton, on an errand to Louisville, Kentucky, was overcome with a sense of connection to the ordinary people outside the walls of his Nelson County Abbey of Gethsemane. He said we live in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. “The sorrows and stupidities of the human condition can no longer overwhelm me now that I realize what we all are. If only everybody could realize that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
The light blinked yellow and then WALK green. I stepped into the street and a car whizzed through the intersection nearly hitting me. In spite of the seatbelt holding down his exuberance, a child in the backseat of the car was laughing. I’m sorry you have to be restrained, I thought. Grow up fast kid; you need to get away from those adults before they kill you. Suddenly I was frozen in my tracks. I couldn’t move. The past started rushing back, all of it: pain, tears, joy, images, sounds, smells, and touches from strangers. I tried to focus.
It wasn’t so much déjà vu that I felt. It was more like a pang in my heart. Loss. Sorrow. I had been there myself. In Haymond, in the back seat of a car, a purple 1947 Chrysler. There were no seatbelts then. I remember it distinctly. It was grey mohair. Mousey. Warm. I loved riding in the backseat. It was huge. I had my own picture window to the world.
That purple Chrysler was Dad’s pride and joy. He bought it new, two years before I was born. It would have eventually been mine, if my brother Jimmy hadn’t totaled it in 1961 on the way to his Senior Prom. Actually they, his friends, I think his best friend Jerry Stephens was with him in the front seat, were on their way across the state line to Pound, Virginia to purchase beer.
Later, or so they planned, they would pick up their dates and, all groomed and polished and tuxedoed out, use that bootleg beer to ply something pressingly offered, the main objective to the evening to begin with.
They never made it to the prom. Thrown from the car and sliding down a fifty-foot embankment, my brother suffered a broken pelvic bone, the car and his friends right behind him. The oddity of the wreck was the fact that his shoes, laced ones at that, stayed in the car. I was selfishly pissed. That purple Chrysler never would be mine, as I had dreamed, my ride out of those mountains.
There was beer and proms and girls and cars and sex, all the trappings of teenage life in rural America. But not for me. I had my sights set on something out there, out-of-focus, beckoning.