Chapter Three – May Day and Virginia
Didn’t see any famous people while living in the Step Van, formerly known as an egg truck. We had painted it with a brush, a nice navy blue. The brush marks in the finish were endearing and the extra suspension even more so. There was another event worthy of a name drop during this six month epic Iliad. One of our first stops was the May Day anti-war protest in Washington DC. Having my first run-in with violence – knife, gun, etc. pointed my way during the muggings, my world view shifted a bit. It seemed time to do something other than get famous.
Arriving in our nation’s capitol on a beautiful spring day, we encountered lot’s of other people there staying in trucks and school buses all sorts of makeshift places to sleep. Since it was my first visit there, I am guessing that this grand gathering was on the National Mall. Right away, there seemed to be an unspoken camaraderie. If you were there, putting your body in a place where size of crowd mattered, then you were all brothers (or sisters as were awkwardly learning to say). The closest restrooms were over there, someone is giving away food over there. Maybe if I were to see these same people today we would disagree on everything including whether or not to include oregano in Mexican food, but at the time there was one mind, one intention. Stop the damn war. It was all about oil and fear anyway. The dress code was definitely khaki and camouflage. I wasn’t sure if they’d gotten their clothes at the army navy surplus store like I had or whether they got them from Uncle Sam. That’s where my traveling companion got his. I didn’t understand at the time, but as we wandered around, nodding and feeling solidarity with everyone, the guys would check out each other’s arm patches and that would lead to some kind of deeper bonding that I did not and could not understand. The insignias indicated what part of the service they had been in and they would tell one another where and when they had been “in country”. People were not so much into understanding PTSD back then. Talk about what happened or don’t, it still was part of who they all were and it was not their favorite part. It was where nightmares came from. And it was what caused them to yell louder than their voices wanted to when the crowd would spontaneously chant anti-war slogans.
The crowd was estimated to be about 35,000. I don’t know who estimated. But remember this was back before twitter, facebook, smartphones – hell it was way before the internet. I don’t remember how we even heard about it. You can bet invitations were not issued on any of the three television stations which of course living in a truck would not have caught our attention. Let’s call it an organic migration.
A lot of famous musicians had offered their services to entertain the crowd including Joni Mitchell and Crosby Stills and Nash and lots of others. Maybe I didn’t miss Woodstock after all. The bands started playing very late. Music continued on through the night with no problems from the police about any substances or noise. But I fell asleep early and missed the music again.
At the crack of dawn we were awakened by tear gas and rows and rows of black-masked riot police. Had he existed at the time, I would have thought, Holy Crap! Thousands of Darth Vaders. Seems “they” had purposefully made the bands start very late and let everyone get really drunk or whatever, so that when the Darth Vader clones appeared at dawn everyone would still be too wasted to offer much resistance. Pretty good plan. The whole thing received a lot of news coverage and one reporter coined the phrase “The whole world is watching”, later chanted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (No, I was not there) It was also almost a year to the day that students at Kent State had been killed by soldiers on campus. It felt like a very real, combat situation. All the roads and bridges were blocked. My boyfriend had lived in DC for a while and knew a way out. 20,000 left single file through the one escape route. I’m sure they were taking pictures of license plates. 12,000 arrests were made that day, the largest ever in US history. The word paranoid could be used here on the part of Mr. Nixon. But we know that now, don’t we?
After eight months on the road and many National Parks, earthquakes, desert excursions and adventures great and small, it was time to call it quits so I moved down to southern Virginia. The dirt was mostly red clay, but perfect for growing tobacco. My husband and I sequentially rented several old farm houses over the three years we lived down there. Several friends and friends of friends eventually moved down as well. Can you guess what the locals called our little community? Oh darn, I just gave it away. Community – commune! even though we usually all had our own houses, vegetable gardens and chickens. We weren’t real hippies, just glad to be living in the country. How were we to know that years later Oliver North would be given a royal parade down the main street of one of the little towns we lived in and hailed as an American hero after the Iran Contra scandal? Well, too many stories to get into here. I won’t even mention the night of the fire and the time we left town in the middle of the night. After all we’re talking about dropping names.
There was a name that was being dropped. It was my own. It wasn’t because I came in second at the state wide Bluegrass Festival, female vocalist competition (which I did) Perhaps if I had come in first place I would have dropped my name around in a few places. And I damn well would have gotten the damn tiara that Betty Sue Waller got when she came in first place by singing “Mule Skinner Blues”. Imagine a little blond lady singing about whipping mules – and she gets the tiara. Where is PETA when you need it.
I also was not worthy of being a dropped name because of the work that my husband and I did on weekends which was singing around the state under the enigmatic name of “Alberta Blue”. We had an agent who booked us into strange places like the army Officers Club the night Nixon resigned and grown men there, cried. And the place where we wound up smuggling two drunken FBI agents-in-training back into barracks because they missed curfew, all the while, inwardly, silently hoping they did not have access to license plate records from May Day.
No, my name was being dropped for what I was doing during the week.
The Brunswick County seat was in Lawrenceville, with a quaint little town square that still had its preCivil War antebellum courthouse. Seems it was left standing by the conquering Yankee armies when a Mason symbol was spotted on the keystone by a fellow Mason. I guess Mason blood runs thicker than slash and burn primal instincts of war.
In the same town square there was a little old red brick public library run by possibly the only liberal Democrat in the county. Jane raised a couple long haired vegetarian sons and ordered books that even I chose to read. She successfully wrote a grant and with that funding she offered the job of summer storyteller on the bookmobile to me and I accepted. The great big, specially modified bus was mercifully driven by a former Peace Corp volunteer. We drove to several designated nestings of homes waaaay out in the rural countryside. First Tuesday was site A & B, second Tuesday was site C & D and so on. So once a month the big old bus, shelves filled with hundreds of battened down books of all kinds went on the road. Jane had the selections updated frequently. It wasn’t like going to a doctor’s office waiting room and reading the same five year old copy of Popular Mechanics every time you went. Jane remains in my heart as a real hero, but then she was a LIBRARIAN. (Que the heroic soundtrack here)
I, following her lead, did not tell the same story every time we visited. Every month I memorized one story, complete with dramatization, songs, props, and whatever else I could use all month long at every stop. By the end of the month at the last stop, I was really blazing with the story – timing down – knew when to wait for laughs – sooo good, if I do say so myself. Please don’t confuse this as self name dropping, even though there is a whiff of back patting in there.
The story here is the clientele we were serving. It was mostly children, if you haven’t figured that out yet. The kids were, as we would say today, economically disadvantaged. Back then they were just poor. Over half had no running water. Many didn’t wear shoes or if they did they were shredded old Keds. I’m not saying they didn’t have shoes. Maybe they, like myself, chose not to wear them when they didn’t have to. Or maybe, like myself at some points, only had one good pair and didn’t want to use them up.
So every month the loaded down bus would pull down a little dirt road with rain gullies so deep, I felt like Captain Ahab in the final chapter, with all the rocking back and fourth. At the end of the road there might be ten or twenty modest houses. The driver would give the familiar beep as we approached the flattest plot in the area and the kids would come flying out the doors as though skunks had come in their back doors. Most had colorful library books covered in in the thick plastic that libraries like. These were from our last visit and they were tucked in their arms ready to return so they could get new ones. This is the part where I am the famous person.
I would half hang out the window, waving like a politician. The kids ran along side as we rolled up the last few feet, waving back, yelling, laughing, trying to outrun their siblings. “Hi Miss Susan. Do you have a story?”
See? I was the famous person! The kids thought so. They treated me with such respect and listened so politely that I couldn’t help feeling important in some way. Unfortunately, though, I probably didn’t have much competition. I doubt whether more than a few homes had TVs. Some neighborhoods (the white ones) were a little better off than the others. Of course they all had to go to school, but back then the anti segregation laws and the reality were two separate items. And I’m sure if back then, they had computers and cell phones or even game boys (or even pocket parchisi) the very idea of me up there in the back of the bus waving my arms, talking loud and being silly would have been beyond indescribably uncool. They didn’t and I wasn’t. They sat on the carpeted floor, rapt. Okay, it was summer and the bus had AC, but still…You can tell when you are a hit with kids. Or shall we phrase that another way – you can tell when you are a flop. My years of experience taught me to notice the subtle signs of a children’s audience you are not reaching. They walk out.
After the live story we showed a short movie. Jane rented them from a catalogue and picked ones that had won awards from prestigious artsy organizations. We’re talking 1973 or 4 here. No videos. No Netflix. No videophones. Oh, and did I mention that the closest movie theatre over ten miles away, played the same movie forever. “Superfly”. I never went to see it.
Then the library purchased a movie camera; very high tech with a zoom lens. And now it was time to make the kids into famous people. We would make a 10 minute movie at each site. We would use the same script or scenario each time. Since we did not have sound recording capabilities, it would be a silent movie with a plot – you know- beginning, middle, end. Here is the plot: Kids find an old timey ice cream maker. They decide to make ice cream adding the cream, sugar, flavor, and ice and salt down in the bottom part. Then they take turns cranking the handle, round and round and round for a long, long time. It takes forever for the milky soup to become frozen ice cream. I wonder how this item ever got invented? By someone with a lot of time I guess. So that is the fun part in the plot. Kids take turns turning and turning. They could do whatever they liked while cranking in their close up. Lots made faces. Some faked passed out. Oh they were such hams. We took shots of kids fake passed out from all the cranking. I remember one boy climbed a little tree and let his arms and legs droop down from the bough. He looked like a sleeping cheetah. The big climax was all the kids eating ice cream. As an artistic element, I had chosen vanilla ice cream for the black kids and chocolate ice cream for the white kids, thinking the color contrast would be a good visual touch as they savored the fruits of their labor. Unfortunately they were all very neat eaters and when I asked them to smear some around their mouths, they were for the most part, very insulted. I explained how this was the climax, the big finish, the pay off of the movie. It had to had a big visual impact. Finally in desperation I told them about ART and how I got an orange squeezed on my head every night. I whined. So they obliged me. Some put dots on their noses. They looked at each other and laughed.
We had to wait weeks for the film to be developed and mailed back. (Read your history books. Many dinosaurs on the road slowed down the delivery of movie film.) Pulling up to the neighborhoods with the films in my hand, I was anxious, excited and still a little seasick as the roads had not been fixed. I don’t think most of the kids had ever seen themselves in a movie before this. All the sites asked us to play their own movie twice. First time through it was mostly self conscious laughing at themselves and their friends. Watching them watch the second time was transformational. They tried to giggle again but settled into recognition of themselves. They saw themselves. They were somebody.
I wonder if those films are still around. Maybe someday someone working on their PhD thesis, really desperate for research will stumble upon them in the attic of the Brunswick County Library in Lawrenceville, in southern Virginia, and think perhaps they have found Scorsese’s or Spielberg’s first works. Or maybe they would see a bunch of happy kids making and eating ice cream and think, “My, they are messy eaters,” and develop a thesis on the table manners of southern children in the 1970s.
One more interesting side note that will lead to meeting more famous people is this: there was a store we were managing for a friend who mostly wanted it so he could buy records and stereo equipment wholesale and also use for a tax write off. The store also carried musical equipment. At first we held jam sessions and people were encouraged to use the instruments we had stocked in the store so they would fall in love and buy them. It didn’t really catch on. There was a cheap, Alice blue conga drum that called to me and I couldn’t keep my hands off of it. It felt easy and natural and soon I felt pretty good about my playing, good enough to work it into the Alberta Blue act. (Reality check: I have heard tape recordings of my playing from this time. Cringe level: 7)
When it was time to leave Virginia in early 1976 the drum went with me as unpaid wages. And in case you are wondering “Super Fly” was still playing at the movie theatre. Friends remarked years later that perhaps the theatre was closed. It had never occurred to me.