Friday, January 23, 2015

The Little Chill by George Semko

George Semko's sweet little tale of three children's fascination with hippies at the end of the Sixties.

The summer I turned eleven, my sister Brooke and I would often get together with a neighborhood friend to play a game of our own invention called Hippies. This was in 1969, and although our hometown of Scranton was hopelessly behind the times, Brooke and I were not. We knew all about hippies, and got our knowledge from television - specifically from cop shows. Our friend Amy, on the other hand, wasn't allowed to watch anything more violent than Family Affair. Still, Amy's enthusiasm matched ours. And she did have connections: her big-city cousin, who visited Scranton just the summer before, was now doing time for the dope patch in his garden.

Unfortunately, Hippies was no ordinary pastime. It was, in fact, just the sort of activity our parents worried about the most. For years, ever since we were old enough to play on our own, they'd filled our heads with nightmare stories of children who experimented with games, children who became forever lost in the unsavory worlds of House and Post Office and - worst of all - Doctor.

But on a volcanically hot June day, the day we invented Hippies, such warnings were far from our thoughts. We were on a quest for fun, and none of the usual indoor activities inspired us. We were bored by The Bobbsey Twins and disgusted with the Etch A Sketch. Amy's puzzle of Yogi and Mr. Ranger - missing all of Boo Boo - sickened us unto death. So we began rooting around in our basement. Brooke, always a risk taker, dove into a poorly explored area of clutter, disappeared for nearly a minute, then surfaced to report a large box containing odds and ends from old Halloween costumes. Inspiration struck. The box, hauled to our corner of the room and parked against the toy chest, provided us with an endless supply of beads and headbands and longhaired wigs. Half emptied and outfitted with an old Philco radio, it served as our pad. And if you closed your eyes, scratched its faded north wall and inhaled, the musty air came alive with incense.

Despite our disobedience, Hippies began innocently. It was just a lark, a pick-me-up, something to get us over the most boring part of the day. Soon, though, without our really noticing, the game became something we could not do without. Our personalities changed. We lost interest in family and friends. My sister, a talented dancer, quit her tap lessons a week before the summer recital, her only explanation being that dancing for the Establishment was a drag. Amy, normally the most obedient of children, began to fidget in church and snicker maliciously at Brownie meetings. Her parents were baffled. The changes in my own behavior were perhaps the least obvious. Usually, I spent large chunks of my time glued to the television set. Now, suddenly, I did not. But had my parents been more vigilant, they would have seen the warning sign posted right on top of my desk. For as June turned into July and July into August, my stamp collection - the envy of our neighborhood - collected an ever thicker layer of dust.

Yes, we'd become addicts. But really, who could blame us? We lived on a dull street in a dull town. Only one week into vacation we'd run out of things to do. Then along came this game - this magical game - which breathed life into our heat deadened summer afternoons. If we could do nothing as exciting as take joyrides or drop acid, we could at least fool ourselves in the cool, damp basement, the radio low to match our hushed voices, wind streaming through long hair as our imaginary VW bus carried us across a continent. If something was happening, we were there. We sat at sit-ins and screamed at Stones concerts. We did drugs with Peter Fonda. We did time in jail. Growing more hip by the hour, we changed the way we walked and the way we talked. By midsummer, our vocabularies had shrunk to less than fifty words. Life was groovy. And Hippies - well, Hippies was our life.

One ordinary August afternoon, our throats parched from a chase involving the law enforcement agencies of three counties, we parked our VW bus in the basement and headed out to the back porch for a Kool-Aid break. A storm had just blown through town. The sun, absent for days, smiled down upon us. Our bellies filling with sugar and our heads still on a magical mystery tour, we decided to conjure a rainbow.

"Maybe we should sit in a circle and join hands," Amy suggested.

This seemed a good idea.

"Now we have to chant something," Brooke added. "You know, some groovy word - like 'Aquarius.'"

Amy and I nodded our heads eagerly. This was going to work!

But it was surprisingly difficult. By the tenth Aquarius, Amy's voice started to crack. By the fifteenth, sweat was stinging my eyes and I began to wonder if the whole idea wasn't just a little bit square. But then, in the middle of Aquarius number twenty-nine or thirty, something happened, something that would affect each of our lives deeply: A gray moving van pulled into the driveway next door.

"Far out!" my sister said. And she was right. Never mind a silly old rainbow: We'd conjured the new neighbors - and they weren't due for another week!

Ever since that July day when the For Sale sign came down next door and the House Sold sign went up in its place, neighborhood kids had been busy asking questions: Who are these new people? Where are they from? Do their kids watch the cartoons we watch? Do they have the same toys? But the three of us were above such bourgeois concerns. This was our summer of love, our summer of peace. Nevertheless, as the new neighbors stepped out of their van, we leaned forward hungrily and stared.

First in view was the father, a handsome fellow in tan slacks and a light summer shirt. He held an unlit pipe in one hand and a folded newspaper in the other. He looked as safe as a home appliance ad. After glancing at his surroundings and giving us a friendly wave, he went to work on the pipe. Next came the mother, an overdressed, youngish woman who smiled nervously in our direction and said, "How cute." Tapping a scarlet fingernail on the windshield, she added, "Dorothy, get out of the truck and say 'hello' to the neighbor children." Teenaged Dorothy, sandals and bell-bottoms first, slid out the driver's side door. "Peace," she said, her hand gesture straight out of last night's episode of The Mod Squad. "My name is Buttercup."

What followed this greeting was a silence. A silence in which the three of us forgot to breathe. A silence that saw the moon move into the seventh house as Jupiter made love with Mars. A silence nearly as long as a Traffic song. It was Amy who finally broke the spell. Her hand crushing mine, she gasped for air, then said, "Wow!"

"'Wow' is right," my sister added in a loud whisper. "That chick's got hairy armpits!"



Perhaps what happened next should have been obvious, but it wasn't to us. All summer long, we told ourselves that our parents had been wrong about experimenting with games. We told ourselves that we were in control, that a daily fix of Hippies was all that we needed to get us through our lives. We told ourselves that we would never move on to stronger stuff, that it just wasn't necessary.

But on our first trip down to the basement after meeting Buttercup, the VW bus, which we'd long believed the coolest set of wheels on the American highway, looked like an old sofa - with its stuffing hanging out. The radio, our acid-etched companion and spiritual guide, coughed up static for nearly a minute then locked itself onto a polka station. Brooke, unwilling to give up without a fight, kept fiddling with the dials. I sat frozen in shock. Amy, leaning back in unhip frustration, tore loudly through the south wall of our pad.

"Not cool," my sister finally said, giving up on the radio and watching Amy writhe and moan on the cold cement floor.

"No," I agreed. "A real bad trip."

Eventually, Amy grew still. Then she sat up. She looked at me and I at her. With dawning awareness, we both looked at my wickedly smiling sister who now unplugged the radio with a flourish. No words needed to be said. For too long, we'd just played at our kiddie games, pretending to be hippies here underground, but leading mostly square, middle-class lives outside the basement. It was time to change all that. Time to shed the last of our hang-ups and be hippies out in the real world. Yes, it was time to move on to stronger stuff.

Of course, our options were somewhat limited. We had no wheels. We had no pad. We had no drugs, no money, no music. We had no armpit hair. But we did have plenty of beads and headbands. Wearing these and the violet tinted sunglasses my sister lifted from Kresge's, we moved ourselves out to the porch steps. There we sat proudly, on display before the whole world in our unabashed hippiedom. There we sat where Buttercup - the girl next door - could see we were just like her.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to tell if Buttercup was watching. During the day we never saw her. We thought she was sleeping, but who knew for sure? Her parents, on the other hand, were constantly in and out and occasionally at our house for a cup of coffee or advice on stripping wallpaper. Listening in one day as they chatted with our parents in the kitchen, we learned that the move to Scranton was largely for the sake of Dorothy, who was in need of a fresh start at high school - a start far, far away from her old friends.

"I'll bet she had a monkey on her back," Amy now speculated, "and her old friends are heroin pushers."

"Maybe they robbed banks," Brooke countered, causing images from a recent Mannix episode to go flitting through my mind.

"Could be her parents just don't appreciate her specialness," I tossed in after a silence. This remark drew mysterious looks from my fellow freaks.

If Buttercup's activities during the day were a mystery, at night they provided better viewing than television. Sitting on the porch steps, we watched through an open window as she moved into the loft over her parents' garage. While the crickets hummed and the fireflies flashed, Buttercup tacked posters on the walls and hung tie-dyed sheets from the rafters. Face scrunched, she unscrewed a light bulb supplied by her parents and screwed in an indigo one, then with records blaring, danced atop her bed in a simulated purple haze. Mostly, though, she leaned out her window and stared off into space, a lit cigarette dangling carelessly from her right hand.

We were learning so much.

"From now on, my name is Sunflower," Brooke announced one evening, her eyes staring lysergically off into space.

"Okay," Amy agreed, a candy cigarette dangling carelessly from her right hand. "Mine is Daffodil."

Becoming friends with Buttercup was now our top priority. Along with Sunflower and Daffodil, I spent the last days of summer plotting a way around our parents restrictions: Dorothy, it had been made abundantly clear, was strictly off limits. But finally, after dozens of hours brainstorming and a carton of candy Pall Malls, my sister hit upon the solution: a late night rendezvous under Buttercup's window. So simple, yet so far out.

The meeting was to take place at midnight on Friday. Brooke's espionage had determined that Buttercup's light stayed on until at least 3 A.M. every morning. By twelve o'clock, our parents would be asleep and we could safely sneak off. As a friendship offering, Amy would bring the Moby Grape album her jailed cousin left behind the summer before.

The time came and our plan went off with barely a hitch. The hitch was Amy, who arrived ten minutes late nursing several fresh scratches. "We weren't supposed to put the sunglasses on until we got here," my sister patiently pointed out.

All it took was three pebbles, tossed at once by three hands, and we had Buttercup's precious attention. "Hi," we chanted in near unison, our heads tilted up to the open window. "We're the little freaks who hang out on the porch steps next door."

"Mi casa es su casa," Buttercup replied, then disappeared from view.

"What does that mean?" Amy asked. No one knew. Clearly, we still had much to learn about being hippies.

And learn we did, as our visit began not with small talk, but a guided tour of Buttercup's pad. This included her hippie wardrobe, hippie jewelry collection, incense supplies, each individual poster and, finally, a giant collage not visible from our porch.

"What's this?" Amy asked, pointing at a pair of breasts that seemed to be wearing John Lennon's eyeglasses.

"Just make your own meaning," Buttercup replied. "Let your mind expand."

"I'm trying," Amy answered, her brow creased with the effort.

When our tour was completed, Buttercup led us to the record player. After a full minute of silence, she broke into a smile. "What do you prefer, Sunflower?" she said to my sister. "Janis, Jimi or The Doors?"

"Do you have any Monkees?" I asked eagerly.

"Very funny," Buttercup answered. She put on Janis Joplin at full volume, kicked off her sandals, then hopped up on the bed. She closed her eyes and began to dance. After the briefest moment of awkwardness, we kicked off our Keds and joined her.

Following Buttercup's lead, the three of us swayed rhythmically to record after record of undanceable music. At my sister's request, Buttercup lit a stick of incense and turned on her indigo lamp. She gave Amy a pink, purple and chartreuse headband, and Brooke a freakish pair of hoop earrings. She let us take three puffs each from her Salem menthols and slid a cigarette behind my ear. During an endless guitar solo, she poked my ribs flirtatiously and said, "George, dude, I really dig those shades." Blowing a thin stream of purple smoke in her direction, I answered with a smile.

The hours passed like minutes and, with our feet on the forgiving mattress and our heads in the tie-dyed clouds, I experienced an ecstasy purer than any other in our whole mind-altering summer. Watching Brooke and Amy bounce, dip and sway, their faces flushed and eyes aglow, I was certain that they felt the same. I hoped the night would never end.

But it did, of course, and as Buttercup led us back down the stairs, her arms around our shoulders, I found myself fighting back tears.

"Can we come back?" my sister asked.

"Sure," Buttercup answered, "but you'll have to make it soon. Real soon."

Swearing us to secrecy, she explained why. In a couple of days, a week at most, her boyfriend's Harley would be out of the shop and back on the road - to Scranton. Then, without so much as an "adios," they'd be off to San Francisco, the center of our hippie universe. We were in awe.

We were also very tired - for days. Our efforts to return to Buttercup's pad met with repeated failure: none of us could stay awake. We felt ashamed and cranky. We started to act like kids again. This, of course, was morally unacceptable. To prove we were still hippies who hadn't lost our ideals, we devised one last plan.

Operation Moby Grape was scheduled for 9:30 A.M., exactly one half hour into the first day of school. Sitting in the back of Sister Joan's sixth-grade class, dressed in brown slacks, white dress shirt, brown tie and brown blazer, I waited until the clock struck 9:29, then removed the violet tinted sunglasses from my desk. Directly across the hall, amid forty dress-code-obeying fifth graders, Brooke and Amy were scheduled to do the same.

At the last second, I chickened out.

As 9:30 flowed into 9:35 and then 9:40, I breathed repeated sighs of relief. Clearly, the others had lost their courage, too. Then, at 9:41, came the trademark screech from the aged nun across the hall. Seconds later, crowded in a doorway with a dozen others, I watched my sister and Amy being led collars-first to the principal's office. Amy's violet tinted sunglasses were missing a lens.

As I later learned over the cafeteria grapevine, my fellow hippies not only broke the dress code as planned, but at Brooke's instigation, signed their classroom seating chart as "Sunflower Of Love" and "Daffodil Of Peace." Naturally, my guilt and shame were enormous. I had trouble breathing. My chocolate milk tasted like gall. While two of my classmates discussed the Mets' playoff chances, I snapped, sort of, bursting out in a high-pitched, eleven-year-old's voice, "I'm freakin', man!"

My classmates gave me dirty looks.

After school, I hid in my room, unable to face my more idealistic sister. Immediately, I went into a terrible withdrawal, sweating profusely in the ninety-five-degree heat, skin crawling with the poison ivy I'd picked up in our back yard the day before. As the hours passed and the calamine lotion finally kicked in, I knew that, physically, the worst was over. Still, I continued to ache for what had been lost. Around midnight, I crawled out of bed, turned on the desk lamp and removed the sunglasses from my bookbag. They had been crushed under the weight of my geography book and, through their many small prisms, lamplight scattered about the room in forlorn shades of purple. Slumping forward onto the desk, my chin resting on the dust-coated stamp collection, I burst into quiet, heartbroken sobs.

By morning, however, the world seemed a different place. The weather was cool, and my poison ivy just a memory. I felt energetic and eager to please. My sister, never one for grudges, forgave me at breakfast where I learned that she'd only received a warning from the principal and an amused lecture from our parents. Amy, she added conspiratorially, was grounded for a whole week.

As the days passed - days divided among school, homework, accordion lessons and my resurrected stamp collection - I thought less and less of that strange, hot summer. I thought more and more of my future. One typical evening, after completing an arithmetic lesson and learning the first three bars of Pennsylvania Polka, I went in to bed early - as Sister Joan recommended. In the morning I would read ahead in my geography book. I found it a most interesting subject.

Amy, her sentence commuted after three days, applied for and won a position as a school crossing guard. Never before had a fifth grader garnered such an honor. Occasionally, the two of us would run into each other in the school supplies aisle at Kresge's. I would treat Amy to a Fresca at the snack bar and for a few minutes we would chat. I remember one conversation in which we compared orthodontists. Another time the topic was savings bonds. Because of a report aired recently on Huntley & Brinkley, we were both thinking of trading in our Huffys for Schwinns.

My sister Brooke turned out to be the only true rebel among us. Although she resumed her tap lessons and even took up cheerleading, she did so with ill humor. Even worse, she began to filch quarters from our mother's purse. I tried to intervene, but was unsuccessful. By Halloween, she had a schoolwide reputation as a half-pack-a-day Salem menthol addict.

As for Buttercup, there is little to report. She was admitted to a nearby hospital in early October to have an ingrown toenail removed. The three of us sent cards but, sad to say, lost touch with her after that.

6 comments:

  1. Very amusing story - with well drawn characters. The seriousness of the young aspiring towards sophistication and rule breaking - from a central position of innocence was delicious, and the denouement a great ending. Thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Ceinwen has said it all. very well written, like the idea that this was really something, could have been anything, they had to get out of their System
    to get them thru the Long summer Holidays
    well done

    Mike Mc

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  3. A fun story reeking of 60's nostalgia! Loved the innocence of the bored children and their belief in the wickeness of their actions. Even Brooke's defiant stand resulted only in a cigarette addiction (which she probably kicked once she reached maturity.) We could do with more stories like this, that raise our spirits and make us laugh; especially with so much grimness going on in the world at present. Thank you, George.
    Beryl

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  4. Hi George, I always wondered what happened to the Hippie culture, those were the days. I really enjoyed this well told story, easy and captivating at the same time. I found this a pleasure to read.

    James McEwan

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  5. Wonderfully written story, inviting you into the world of summer boredom and kids coming up with unique, fun cures. Loved the trip down nostalgia lane, from Boo-Boo and Yogi to the names "Buttercup and Sunflower." (Oops...guess I'm showing my age!) Fun read, and as Beryl says, we could use a few more stories like this that raise the spirit and make us laugh. Well done.

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  6. An interesting look at children on the cusp of either remaining children for a bit longer or growing up. The 60's backdrop was also quite entertaining and dredged up many memories (well done).
    The writing was "spot-on" as they say. Well paced, edited, and a smooth prose style.

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