The last time I saw my cousin Marvin was on my 18th birthday, June 1, 1965. There was a party, a few gifts and a cake. Family and friends stood around talking about an 18-year-old being eligible for the draft which prompted talk of being proud of the Army and possible being sent to the newly escalating war in Vietnam. There was also talk about the war being an unwinnable war, “the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time,” and there was talk about Cousin Marvin’s planned trip to Alaska. If you were not a student with a deferment the odds of being drafted into the Army and sent to Southeast Asia were better than even money, however, Marvin gave little or no thought to politics and was only concerned with preparing his Harley-Davidson for a 3,000-mile trip to Alaska and getting a good job working oil rigs and fishing salmon.
Oil exploration was going full blast, there was talk of a pipeline, jobs were easy to get and they were paying high wages. That sounded good to Marvin.
He wanted company on the trip and asked everyone if they would go with him. So far he was going alone and as a last resort he asked me if I had any interest in the trip.
Having just graduated from high school, with no job, a girlfriend, little interest in college and the draft staring me in the face I had given him an ambiguous “maybe.”
Marvin was five years older and we saw things in a different light. What we did have in common was a love of motorcycles. He had ridden his Harley in all 48 states and that was an achievement I someday wished to emulate.
I kidded him about the fact that there were now 50 states and he said, “Nope, only 48. Alaska is not a state, it is too big, it is a country and Hawaii is not a state because it is an island. Countries and islands don’t count.”
Lately, though, he has been planning this Alaska trip and now that he knows he can get a good job and make some money it has become more than a pipe dream. Plans have been made.
Two years ago Marvin loaned me some money to buy a used Harley and then helped me to set it up like his, so as of today I am equipped with a motorcycle and my riding skills are well honed. All that is needed to join him on his trip is an excuse not to stay. But I hesitated, my “maybe” turned into a “no” and he left. That was the last time I saw him.
Strangely, my excuse not to go with Marvin evaporated at 11:14 p.m. after the birthday party in the back seat of a Pontiac. Suzie, the girl I had been dating in high school, dropped the bombshell that she had decided to go away to college and even though we had been going semi-steady she thought it was time to “see other people.”
“See other people,” really? I know what that was code for. It was code for, “I am going to college and I am going to have sex with any sophomore who takes me out for a hamburger and French fries.”
Certainly there was my bruised ego but to be truthful I wasn’t all that surprised and although slightly miffed I was somewhat relieved at my new freedom. Suzie and I weren’t destined for 50 years of marriage and the major thing we had in common was the back seat of her Pontiac. So… the day after my birthday party I was 18, footloose and fancy free, with a Harley-Davidson that was capable of a trip to Alaska and had some time on my hands. Of course that would only last until the draft got me.
Too late I re-considered Marvin’s invitation. Maybe I could catch him. No, I didn’t know his plans. The trip was what I had wanted all along but he was gone, well on his way, probably 400 miles north.
Just as well, I had no money so I had better look for a summer job… but not this week. This week I am going to ride out to the lake and check out the girls in their new bikinis working on summer tans. Girls like to ride on motorcycles and the word is probably out that I just got dumped. Girls always feel sorry for a guy who just broke up. Who knows; maybe I’ll get lucky.
Washing the bike, adjusting and oiling the cables and chain, a bit of polish on the tank, I checked the oil. It was a half a quart low. I’ll go to the shop and buy a quart.
And that was the next time I saw my cousin Marvin. He wasn’t gone. He was there fitting a new tire.
“So, what’s up, kid?”
“I thought you’d be gone. You’re still in town.”
“Yep, but not for long. As soon as this tire is pumped up I am out of here.”
“You once invited me to join you. Is the offer still open?”
“Well, you are full of surprises. What about your girlfriend and the draft?”
“The girlfriend isn’t and the draft can find me. You still want company? I ain’t got no money.”
“Absolutely. Go home and lay out what you want to take. I’ll be there in an hour and we will figure out what you’ll need and what we’ll leave behind. Then we’ll have a little talk with your parents and put them at ease with the idea. We can worry about expenses when you get a job.”
Yesterday I was a baby. This morning I was a confused kid. This afternoon I am a man with a plan. Tomorrow I will be on my way to exploring the adventure of a lifetime. The thought that I might have missed this because of a girl who wanted to “see other people” was overwhelmingly disgusting. I hope she gets everything she wants and has sex with every sophomore who has the money for a hamburger and French fries. I have better things to do. I’m going to the wilderness, work in the oilfields, catch salmon and get some real money in my jeans.
On June 3, Marvin and I head out. Forward my mail to Alaska. Address it to the “The rich kid who rides a Harley.”