Recent world and personal events have led me to this day. Actually,a lifetime has led me to this day in the last week of the eleventh month of the year 2015. But the beginning was sometime in the spring of 1966.
It was May when I first drove the winding roads through the deepest parts of one of the most beautiful states in our country, West Virginia. The Vietnam War was raging, and young men and women were dying. Protesters were marching and going to jail, and some of them were dying as well. It was a time of almost diabolical contrast, from the killing fields of Vietnam to the loving fields of San Francisco. Woodstock was yet to be. United States President Lyndon Johnson was saying that we should stay in Vietnam until communist aggression was stopped there. US troops totaled 190,000, and 20,000 Buddhists marched in demonstrations against the policies of the military government in SouthVietnam.
Driving that back-country road with the beauty of spring coming to life,I was feeling far removed from all that was going on in the “outside world.” But I was about as not removed as a person could be. I was, in the words of John Fogerty, “a fortunate one.” I had already refused to take part in the safe life, having publicly burned my draft card. I had refused induction into the Vietnam War, after forcing the SelectiveService to reclassify me from “fortunate” (otherwise known as 3-A, that is, a family hardship deferment) [What Hardship? you ask] and a college deferment, to boot, which meant I was never going to Vietnam. Except I was not going to sit silently and watch others die while I took the easy way out.
As I drove that beautiful country road, I thought about the day I was supposed to step forward and accept enlistment but instead stepped backward and said “No, thank you.” I laughed as I remembered the Sergeant’s face, which looked like it was about to explode. Prison, no doubt, was in my future as it was part of my plan to accept no deal “they” would offer, but first I was going to have a little fun and lead them, the FBI, and a few others on a merry chase.There might be more on those adventures in the future, but this is about the wonder and beauty of being alone and the ability to sink into my mind, leaving behind the sounds of the city and the normal rush and noise of the day-to-day world.
To get where I was going there would be a few more miles on paved road, the last few covered on foot, and there was no cabin. That would need to be built before the first cold spell on my mountaintop.
(To be continued)
It was May 1966 when I arrived and walked up the mountain to the small cabin that was to become my home. It was a time of rebirth for the earth and for me.I could hear the rustle of the deer, bear, and spirits in the woods. The air,fresh and clean, helped to clear my mind of the pollution and fog created by the times in which I lived and the city that had not by choice been my home,having moved there as a young boy with my parents. It was springtime in the mountains of West Virginia and springtime in the heart of a young man out to save himself and the world. Possibilities were as limitless as the views from the tops of mountains, and the feeling of safety was as sure as the isolation of the cabin itself.
In mid-October 1967, it was time to leave the mountain and the cabin, and time to leave Emily. I left in the early dawn, when all things are new and alive. At night in fall, the temperature could drop to 39 degrees and easily spring back to 70. With the heat of the sun kissing the dew, a fog would form in the valley,creating a mystical feel and helping to conceal the mysteries of the woods. At night, we would have a fire and in the days wade and swim in the stream that ran near the cabin. I have never known a morning that could compare with the feel of the air and the beauty of my surroundings as those mountaintop mornings.
The months of May and October can be similar in the West Virginia Mountains.The difference is one is the beginning and the other an ending, a putting to rest of what had been and would never be again. In the spring, the shades of yellow, green, gold, and red splash the mountainside, promising life to all. In the fall, the same colors are present in equal splendor as if to say I will go out with the same beauty and grace with which I came in. In my young days in those mountains, it was good to feel that the cycle of the mountains and my own life would continue to replenish and repeat. Still today, those ancient hills and mountains have resisted the slaughter of man and time and continue to cycle through life.
The year 1967 was coming to a close as I walked down that trail for the last time, memories of the past year clouding my eyes with mist like the fog that surrounded the mountains. By October 1967, the continued presence of American troops increased further, and 475,000 were serving in Vietnam. The peace rallies were multiplying as the number of protesters against the war increased.Tens of thousands of Vietnam War protesters marched in Washington, D.C., and40,000 Vietnam War protesters filled Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, and I was ready to continue the struggle with my brothers and sisters of the peace movement.
There were other noteworthy events in 1967. The Monterey International Pop MusicFestival in California, which featured 1960’s icons Jimi Hendrix, The Who,Janis Joplin, The Steve Miller Band, Simon & Garfunkel, and the GratefulDead, was held in June, and Faith Hill was born in September, not that anyone would have noticed at the time. Our faith was of a very different kind. We had faith that we would make a difference for the better, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and stop war forever,and oh, what faith we had!
(To be continued)
What about Emily? Many have asked, and to this day I do not know the complete answer. I felt her presence, and even before my eyes saw her, I knew she was there. She was in the room, and from the first moment, there was a feeling of strength and peace, an almost cosmic quality, a beauty of soul beyond any I had ever known. Maybe she had been molded from the mountains she loved, her strength from the giant pines, her softness from summer wind, and her courage from the river. Even today I cannot say. As quickly as our time began, it ended, and I would never see her again. When I left the mountain that fall day, I left a part of my soul by my waterfall and in Emily’s memory. I let the earth, the trees, and her mountain have her, for that was what she loved and where she belonged, but I had a world of turmoil to return to, and I was hoping that the things I would do would help save the mountain for her.
It was at Georgetown University in Washington,D.C., where I was a speaker and moderator at one of those long and often boring meetings of peace people, resisters to the tyranny of the United States government and Nixon, the General Custer of his day. Nixon visited death and destruction on helpless non-combatants, on hundreds of thousands of women and children. I was there to speak about that with the 100 or so that had gathered in the auditorium to reflect, refuse, and resist the madness that surrounded us. I had already been a part of so many of these meetings, so many long nights of planning, and of fear, yes, fear. In those days, we who resisted the insanity also feared for our own lives. Our phones were tapped, our families were sometimes harassed, and we were often followed. Death could come at the hands of a corrupt government. We had already been threatened more than once, and the lambs that followed that dictatorship hated us for our resistance. In the years to come, we would be proven right, but in the meantime, we would see our brothers and sisters die at Kent State and beaten at the 1968 Chicago convention. We would burn our draft cards, say no to murder, and put our lives on the line to say yes to the lives of American men and women as well as those we were supposed to hate in a far off land that some of us had never heard of.
While others joined the military and as allies of South Vietnam fought against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong,we were willing to go to prison, and many of us did in an effort to not only magnify our truth but to sacrifice what we could to help, and we did not bow. In prison, either you get a number and lose yourself or you resist and lose what little benefit the system offered for falling in line. There would be solitary confinement and hunger strikes and we would serve our time, but we did not surrender our souls. We did not fall in line.
(To be continued)
Yes, it was just another one of those endless Peace Movement meetings. But this one would prove to be different, life-changing in the whisper of a young woman. For that night, in Washington, D.C., I would take the first step toward Emily and the Mountaintop days.
Why had I traveled so far to go to that mountain, her mountain? It was her mountain for she had hiked these hills and valleys, camped on the ledges, and loved this place long before I had ever seen her face. At times, it seemed to me she was as old as the mountain itself, as young as a fawn, and as pure as the stream, this woman of deep soul, grace, and beauty. I came to this place to escape the ugly world,looking for peace, love, and tranquility. Were those things to be found in the woman or in the mountain? Did they meld one into the other, like hot lava flowing to the edge of the ocean creating land? Emily had a physical beauty that would have frozen the Greek gods in place and a soul so beautiful thatMary the mother of God would smile with pride. Long black hair, deep brown eyes, a perfect God-given face: she was so tender yet so strong she could pierce your thoughts and your body at the same time. Delicate, she stood only five foot three, but her body was so perfectly proportioned it defied geometry. You wanted to lay her down and at the same time place her so high that no one could touch her, but not on a pedestal, for she would have rebelled against being placed above anyone and certainly not on a throne, for even the idea of that would have seemed sacrilegious to her. She possessed a strong personality, a soul and a mind that only the equally strong will and mind could even dream of challenging. Her heart and mind were pure,harboring no evil desire or thought, and no gauge could measure her physical desires and spirit. Emily walked the hills and mountains of this sacred land,giving to the earth, resisting those who tried to destroy it, and expecting nothing in return but the happiness she gained from following her heart and soul.
As I left that mountain, I remembered the first words she spoke in that meeting. Someone asked why we should sacrifice so much for those we do not even know, and Emily stood for the first time, far back in the room, and gently said, “Wouldn’t you want them to do the same for us?” There was a hush in the room and a pounding in my heart.
(Emily, to be continued)
Just south of Kane, Pennsylvania, and a little west of Johnsonburg, there was a farm that had existed in some form or other long before the Civil War and had served to hide runaway slaves and those seeking to escape the tyranny of southern plantation owners. It was protected from the east by cliffs and mountains that literally bordered the large creek that ran across the back of the farmland. The front of the farm was cleared so that a small dirt road flanked by large expanses of land led the way to the farmhouse,making it easy to see anyone approaching from the front. To the left of the house stood a barn, open on both ends, and from the back of this barn ran a secret trail that led into 512,998 acres, or 801.6 square miles, of wilderness that was the Allegheny National Forest. It is easy to imagine that anyone could escape forever into that vastness, even a modern day fugitive, and it would also be easy to imagine that many a runaway slave became a great dinner for a bear or mountain lion, not knowing where they were going or what to be aware of how to survive. I did not intend to become dinner for anyone and especially did not want to test my survival skills. After all, I had only come here to leave West Virginia, my original destination being a warm Virginia beach,accompanied by a bottle of tequila, a ripe lime, some salt, and a Southern belle whose closest association to a cow was the local hamburger stand.Actually, I didn’t drink much and the Southern belle did not materialize. After all, Emily was still living in my heart. However, after bathing in a running stream or in some hot water heated over a large fireplace, I must say the thought of ocean water and the warmth of my original plan sounded good.
But here I was on a farm probably 300 years old by 1968 that had been a refuge for so many seeking survival, seeking freedom, and seeking peace.It was now welcoming me into the fold of their attempted sanity away from a world rapidly losing its mind.
The farm was now home to an artists’ commune composed of writers, musicians, painters, and all manner of less-than-mainstream-conformist pacifists, a few inhabitants having been there since its inception in the early 1950’s. Legend has it that Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac had actually stayed there, Kerouac just before On the Road was published in 1951. Imagine what a heady experience it was for a young man like me to be there, on the road and out to change the world, with hopes of becoming not the next Jack Kerouac, but more, oh so much more. Jack had shown the way, and I was going to find new roads and bring the world to a new place. Yes, I was!
My days on this farm would be short but colored beautifully and forever by the changing leaves and the mountains ablaze with the kaleidoscope of fall and also by a woman named Alice. Alice was an intensely gifted artist who made the mountains come alive on canvas and who had a talking parrot that loved to repeat only the words her ex-husband had taught it just before he left her: “Fuck you, Alice.”
GOING HOME BACK TO STATEN ISLAND
During my mountaintop days, I made friends with a lot of animals, as many people do. Some of us even have an unspoken understanding, a oneness, with them. It’s why as human beings we are outraged by the needless slaughter of and cruelty to those who share this planet and are helpless before us. I have felt compassion and understanding with my four-legged friends since those days in the mountains. My own 19 pound Maine Coon cat and I had a cosmic closeness, a melding of souls. I saw in his eyes and he in mine a question, a need, an answer. Now I share my love and memories with his “sister,” 10 pounds of love known as Chloe Cat, and that same incredible unspoken communication continues.
My friend the West Virginia bobcat, knighted as “Brook Cat, the Mystical Man of the Mountain,” would sit on one side of the waterfall, just before the small lake that formed before the water ran into the creek that flowed by the cabin. It was a quiet spot, with just enough flowing water to lull you into feeling one with the universe. I named him Brook Cat because he deserved much more than a generic classification. I am human but I am more, and he was more than just a member of a proud nation of mountain lions and bobcats and others. When he saw me, he would yawn, stretch a forepaw in front of his body, place his head on that paw, and fall asleep, and I knew I had been accepted. To this day, I miss that beautiful guy and still believe we have always lived in each other’s hearts and never far from the influence we had on each other’s lives. Yes, I would miss my old friend forever, almost as much as the woman I left behind, but too long I had rested in the mountains with the waterfall, the wolf, the old bear, and the bobcat, and now it was time to leave that beautiful place where I could have spent the rest of my life. It was time to leave the farm, the Mountaintop Days, and head south–to the beach, the ocean, the warmth. I was ready!
But Virginia Beach wasn’t going to happen just then. In late 1967, I got word that my father had cancer, and I was on my way back to Staten Island (sort of in New York, depending on who you ask and when you ask them and whether they are Mets or Yankees fans). I hadn’t been where I was supposed to be, and no one knew where I was of course not even certain agents of Federal seek-and-capture companies. My mother did not know where I was and she had already been paid several visits by the posse, and she was worried about me and would no doubt make me wish I had never left the mountaintop. Now I had to figure out how to make everyone understand something happened that never really happened unless of course it did happen, and no one would believe me anyway. This was going to take a little planning, and I didn’t have the desire to risk riding with another lunatic going east. Eventually, I did make it to Virginia Beach, where my life would take even crazier turns than my pill-popping trucker around those West Virginia Mountains. But that’s another story for another time.
(To be continued)
Copyright © 2016 Daniel (Dan) Sanders. All rights