My pal’s orange Datsun was riddled with bullet holes. The passenger door was a mess. There were between 12 and 21 spaces where the body shop mechanic had had to drill to knock out dents from the impact of an oncoming pickup. Rich could afford the holes but not the patches.
It was 1981 and we were on our way to Vegas. We’d stop by to get Mikey, my other pal who lived in a Jewish commune with sulky drop-outs from Oberlin College who were now attending Cal. They were studying Russian and kept bottles of Vodka in their freezer. Their parents were professional psychologists in Chicago, that is, all of them but one. Her father was a heart specialist in Pittsburgh. The girls had all been in love at one time or another with Mikey, a curly-headed youth who smoked cigarettes out of my shirt pocket and fancied himself a character from Ulysses.
We headed out of Oakland at 11. It was late and we had already eaten so it was just a matter now of staying awake. We’d arrive in the morning if we didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. Rich brought along a bag of dope. I smoked Benson & Hedges. Mikey sat in the back and asked questions. Rich took the wheel and kept the music flowing. It was very much a matter of this or that until he pulled out his recording of “Apocalypse Now.” For three and a half hours we listened to that.
Rich drove fast. We were cruising on occasion at 95 mph. He is a superb driver. Some people can do it. Some even like it. He loved to take the curves at high speed. Had his IQ been twenty points lower, he might have hung his head out the window and yelled. As it was, he drove with caution, but always held a joint between his lips. All I had to do was to keep them rolling. I learned how to do it without spilling. All this while we listened to Coppola’s thumping helicopters and mad Wagner. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Mikey and I were in a history seminar together taught by an insane Italian Stalinist who invited us boys to his basement apartment to play chess. Calabria used to pound the table and demand to know why we hadn’t completed the assigned reading of Braudel’s 900-page history of the Mediterranean. When we got to his apartment, our professor was already manic. He started crawling around on the floor and pulled the garbage can down on himself. He was enraged that at 37 he was still living in student housing and couldn’t afford to take a woman out on a date. He was just one of the many radicals I came to know who secretly wanted to be rich.
“That’s Cambodia, Captain.” Willard was our hero, not Brando. We were not even half way to Vegas when the fog descended. The bullet-riddled Datsun was now crawling at less than 30 miles per hour. I was into my third joint. Rich was having the time of his life. Mikey had fallen asleep. We were right there with the boys as they went up river. “Never get out of the boat.” That became our anthem. We knew intuitively what that meant. One never knew what one might find out there in the jungle.
“Terminate with extreme prejudice.” Those were haunting words of instruction directed at young Willard. He had been given a lot to think about. He carried pictures of the uniformed Kurtz in a file but had trouble matching the man of great military accomplishment with the maniac in the jungle. I think of this now as I read The New York Times. It’s been nearly forty years. If you’ve seen this movie, the man in the White House today may seem somewhat familiar, a type whose methods many find as unsound as Kurtz’s. Of course, forty years ago, the man in the WH was not Marlon Brando but an actor held in what many might say was less high regard. But this is now, not then. I don’t recall thinking at all about politics as we plowed through the thick pea soup fog of California’s Central Valley.
“Disneyland? Fuck, man, this is better than Disneyland!” That’s how I felt about that long drive to Vegas. I can understand sweet Lance’s enthusiasm for his cruise up the Mekong. We turn mayhem into glory. How, I can’t say. Why? Who the hell knows. All I know is that I will never forget breaking out of that dim soupy tunnel and seeing Oz on the horizon. But those were the pre-MGM days of Vegas when the place was still run by the mafia from central-casting, not Bugs Bunny but Bugsy Segal.
Rich pulled into the parking lot at Circus-Circus and we got a room for three at less than $25. In those days, everything was essentially free, including the food; all you had to do was gamble your life away. “The war was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns who were gonna end up giving the whole circus away.” This may or may not have been true of Vietnam, but it certainly was of Las Vegas. By the time I was old enough to want to return, the whole thing had been taken down and sold for scrap. The days of Las Vegas as it was once known to millions were coming to an end; soon it really would be no better than Disneyland.
The boys ran off to play cards while I sat in our room and brooded. I’d been reading Georg Lukacs and Habermas and now had trouble facing reality. Marxism is poor preparation for slot machines, let me tell you. I may have thrived in our Berkeley seminars, but in this land of chips, German thought didn’t count for much. It wasn’t long before I got the town’s central message. I was worthless. Nobody wanted to know what I thought. Here, for the first time since I was ten, I was made to understand what a man’s life is really worth.
We took the sunny roads back. No one was in the mood for more fog, not even for listening to the Doors. We headed for Los Angeles and then took the 5. Rich really stepped on it and we were back in no time. We pulled up outside the commune and let Mikey out. He’d had a good time, I guess. I didn’t see much of him after that. Rich and I graduated, eventually, and went our separate ways. He, into banking and other forms of lucrative gambling, and I drifted toward another part of the river. I often think back, though, on that drive, listening to those opening lines: “Well, you see, Willard, in this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.” I wonder what Habermas or Lukacs would have made of that.
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