This story is a condensed version of a long ‘novel’ I wrote in the early 2000’s. It’s based on a trip my brother and some friends of ours took to Denver in 1969.
Dan sat outside in the sun on the top step enjoying the quiet of the late afternoon. He’d just come home from work and it was nice to just relax and not have to deal with the noise from the lawnmower he used for the yards he took care of. He sipped a glass of ice water and looked out across the street to the west. He and three friends had been renting the bottom floor of this duplex in south Minneapolis for just a few months but already he felt like it was home. This area of the city was filled with mature elm trees and the big houses mostly had been built just after the turn of the century. A block down the street to his left was Lake of the Isles which was connected by a channel to both Lake Calhoun on one end and Bryant Lake on the other. There were parks all around, and walking paths, too. It was a great place for a nineteen year old to live in the summer of 1969.
He wasn’t thinking of anything much, just humming a tune in his head and idly watching a rabbit hop across the yard, when he heard a loud, muffler less roar of a car. He knew right away that it belonged to his friend and roommate, Tim, who pulled up to the curb in front of the house, parked and turned off the engine. Dan got up and walked down the steps and out to the street to greet his friend.
“Hey, man, what’s goin’ on?”
Tim got out of the car frowning. “I’ve got some bad news.” He walked over to where Dan stood and put a hand on his shoulder. “Michael’s dead.”
Dan slumped against the car. “What happened?” He was dumbfounded.
“He hung himself. In his bedroom. I got a letter from his mom.” Tim’s voice was quiet, unbelieving. He shook his head and led Dan over to the grass where they sat down. ” I just don’t get it. The last letter I got from him everything sounded fine. He seemed happy. He was looking forward to taking some art classes in school.”
Dan interrupted him. “What about his dad? How was he doing with that?”
“Not so good. His mom said he was still having trouble getting over his dad’s death.”
Nobody close to them had ever died before and they were unprepared to deal with the impact that losing a loved one had on those left behind. Trying to come to terms with the news, the two of them sat quietly, then, thinking back to the time less than two months earlier when they first met Michael. It was during the last week in June in Denver. Dan and Tim had driven there to see an open air concert in Mile High Stadium. After two days on the road, they chugged into town around noon and parked in a huge parking lot about a mile from downtown. There were young people all over the place, most of them heading toward the center of Denver, so they followed. Soon they came to a big park located right in the middle of downtown. It was a huge grassy area measuring one city block by two city blocks. There were groves of trees along the edge on one side and they walked over and sat down in the shade, taking in the scene.
“What’d ya’ think? Tim asked, watching the crowd. “Far out, huh?”
“Yeah.” Said Dan. Nearly speechless. “Amazing.”
The scene before them was unlike anything they’d ever witnessed. There had to have been over a thousand people milling around and more coming into the park all the time. Most of the guys had long hair, like Dan and Tim, and a lot of the girls wore granny dress. Incense filled the air, mixing with the scent of patchouli and pot. People threw Frisbees and played guitars and wooden flutes. Everyone was smiling and happy and the mood was mellow. It was like a scene out of a magazine, or a movie, or something you’d see on television. It was certainly like nothing Dan and Tim had ever experienced back home in Minneapolis.
Dan looked over at Tim, who had a big smile on his face. “Man, this is outta sight,” he exclaimed, and ran over to get a Frisbee that had landed near them. He tossed it back to a guy wearing a black flat brimmed hat with silver conchos on it. The guy flashed Tim the peace sign. Tim waved and settled back down. “Man, I can get into this.”
They laid back in the grass, enjoying the day. The sky was a clear blue and the air was warm and dry. The shade from the trees was welcome from the hot sun that was beating down relentlessly. Tim had lit up a joint and the two of them were smoking and chatting quietly when they noticed that a young guy had sat down near them.
“Come on over and join us,” Tim said, smiling. “Don’t be a stranger.”
Dan grimaced. Tim was always overly friendly when he was high. But the kid looked innocent enough. “Yeah, have a seat,” he said, encouraging him and waved his hand over the expanse of grass.
“We’ve got room for ya’.” Dan laughed, thinking he was funnier than he actually was.
But the kid didn’t seem to mind. He came over and sat down. “What’s your name?” Tim asked, handing the joint over.
“Thanks,” the kid said, taking it. “My name’s Michael.” He took a hit, held the smoke in and then blew it out, coughing a little. “Where’re you all from?” He asked with a shy but friendly smile. “I’m from Arizona.” There was something about the kid that put both Dan and Tim at ease.
Tim spoke first. “We’re from Minnesota. Minneapolis. You know, the City of Lakes.” He laughed and held out his hand. “Pleased to meet ya’.”
Michael sat down and made himself comfortable. They were still in the shade, away from the heat of the day and the grass felt cool underneath them. The kid was slight and slender, and, unlike most of the guys around in the park, he had short, dark hair that fell in bangs over his forehead. He wore blue jeans, a slightly tattered white tee shirt and black tennis shoes. He looked as normal as normal could be except that he carried his belongings in what looked to be a potato sack. He was shy but friendly. “You guys looking forward to the concert tonight?”
“Yeah. Can’t wait to see Creedence Clearwater,” Tim said. He was a huge fan.
“Me, too. I love those guys.” And Tim smiled, happy to a found a kindred spirit.
The three of them passed the afternoon relaxing in the shade and talking. It may have been the pot, but the more they talked, the more comfortable they became with each other. They were all in a good mood. Tim would jump up every now and then to chase a loose Frisbee that occasionally sailed by. Dan laughed a lot and was happy and relaxed. For him it was nice to be in a different city and have a change of scene. He hadn’t really had a break from his work for over a year. He felt himself calming down, enjoying the day and the company of the kid from Arizona. From his vantage point, if he looked west, there was a great view of the Rocky Mountains. There was something about their presence that made him feel calm.
Michael was also in a good mood. He filled them in on his trip to Denver. “Man, hitch hiking sucks. I caught a ride with a trucker north of Flagstaff who has just dropped acid.” Michael laughed and shook his head. “Man that was one crazy ride.”
“How long it take you to get here?” Tim asked.
“Three days, two nights. Slept in the desert outside of Grand Junction last night. Had a tarantula try to crawl into my sleeping bag.”
Why this seemed funny, god only knew, but Tim and Dan burst out laughing. After a moment so did Michael. “I’m not crazy about spiders.” He said, laughing some more. “But they’re way better than rattlesnakes.” And they all burst out laughing again. The conversation rambled on and on like that, and the longer they talked, the closer they became.
After a few hours the guys got thirsty. Dan volunteered to go to a diner they had passed on their way in a few blocks from where they were sitting. He wandered off west into the late afternoon sun, found the diner and brought back three huge containers of lemonade. Sitting down, he noticed right away something was wrong. Michael was crying. Tim looked nervous. Dan was concerned. Dealing with feelings was not something either of them was comfortable with.
“What’s going on?” He asked, looking at Michael, whose face was red and his eyes filled with tears. “Michael, man, what’s wrong?”
Michael looked up, took a moment to collect himself, and told them his story: He was seventeen and between his junior and senior year in high school. He was an only child, and lived in a nice suburban home with his mother. All of this seemed normal from Dan’s point of view. But the big issue for Michael, and the reason he had broken down, was that his father has recently been killed in the war in Vietnam. Michael’s father was a general and was in Vietnam on a fact finding mission, flying over what was considered a ‘safe’ area, when the plane he was in was shot down. The pilot and engineer were also killed. It had happened in mid May.
Dan and Tim looked at each other. What could they say? Michael’s pain and obvious need for consolation was evident, but neither of them knew what to do. They hadn’t been raised to feel comfortable with extreme emotions. Finally Dan scooted over next to Michael and did the only thing he could think of. He put his arm around his new found friend and just sat with him. Surprisingly he found that It didn’t feel too uncomfortable or weird.
After a few minutes Michael settled down. “Sorry, about that,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. It just gets to me every now and then.”
Dan tried to be compassionate. “Don’t worry about it, man. It’ll be OK.” Whatever that meant, Dan didn’t know, but it sounded like the right thing to say. “The war sucks, man.”
“I appreciate it.” Michael was trying to get himself under control.
“Have some lemonade,” Tim said, handing over a container.
Michael took it gratefully, and they all just sat there for a while. Finally, Michael said, “Hey, I’ve got some mescaline. You guys want some?”
So the moment passed. But something had happened than had drawn them even closer together. They had shared feelings that were deep and personal, and although they hadn’t really analyzed what had happened, the fact remained that it had happened. And that it was something none of them had experienced before. They felt closer because of it.
Tim was more than happy to share a tab of mescaline with Michael. Dan declined, thinking they still might go to the evening concert. But it turned out that wasn’t going to happen. What happened was that the police raided the park. They showed up around 7:00 pm in force and moved through the entire area forcing everyone to get moving. Some were even on horses. So the three friends plus about five hundred other young people ended up being herded like cattle onto the streets of downtown Denver. Things were a bit tricky with Tim and Michael still being high. When Dan suggested that they go to the concert, the other two just started laughing. But after Michael’s revelation earlier about his father, Dan felt that the laughter was a pretty good thing. They could go to the concert the next night. When he brought it up to the other two, they didn’t seem to mind at all.
They walked up and down the streets for hours and found if they stayed moving the cops wouldn’t give them too hard a time. They enjoyed meeting people from all over the country. They heard that Denver was in the midst of a summer of race riots, and that the police were more concerned about blacks rioting than a bunch of long hair, peaceful and sometimes stoned hippies. Even though they felt bad that the blacks were getting hassled, at least the cops weren’t all that focused on the hippies wandering the streets. That was fine with them.
They spent the next two days together. Even though Michael had opened up to Dan and Tim about the death of his father, the guys didn’t really talk much about it again. Michael seemed happy to just be with the two others and to be included in what was going on. He seemed to enjoy the security of the two older guys. And, frankly, talking about feelings and deep issues wasn’t something neither Dan nor Tim were good at. They were good at taking care of Michael, though. They made sure he got enough to eat and got as much sleep as you could expect given they were living a day to day, hour to hour existence.
Friday night they snuck back to the park around midnight and slept deep in a grove of pine trees. They could hear other people nearby, but weren’t bothered by anyone. They slept relatively peacefully. The next day, they hung around the park again. The cops didn’t seem to mind people being out there in the daylight. In the early afternoon they made their way to Mile High Stadium and stood in line for the concert that evening. From home Dan had brought an assortment of colored class beads that he spread out on an old blanket he’d found. He passed the afternoon stringing necklaces and selling them to people walking by. Tim and Michael wandered around checking out the crowd. There had been some problems the night before with a few hundred of the concert goers trying to crash the gate, but today everyone seemed pretty mellow.
“There’s got to be five or ten thousand people around here.” Tim said as he came back sat down next to Dan. “Lots of great lookin’ hippy chicks.” He smiled and turned his face to the sun, closing his eyes. “What a day.”
“How’s business?” Michael asked, indicating the beaded necklaces Dan had spread out.
“Great. I’ve made around twenty dollars.” At a dollar strand, business was brisk.
Michael had become very comfortable being with Dan and Tim. They had been together for nearly a day and a bond of sorts had formed between them. “I want to thank you guys for putting up with me.” Michael said, out of the blue just after three girls in peasant skirts had each bought beads. “It means a lot to me.
“No problem, man.” Tim said. He indicated his thumb toward Dan. “Dan, there, kind of gets it.”
“What do you mean?”
Tim gave Dan a look like, Go ahead, tell him.
Dan took a breath. This wasn’t something that he like to talk about. “Well, it has to do with my father. He split from my mom four years ago. I don’t see him too much. He got married and moved to Seattle.”
Michael nodded. “It’s got to be rough.”
“It is. But not like you.” Dan hastened to add. “At least I see him occasionally.”
But Michael seemed comforted, somehow, that there was someone in sort of the same situation that he was in. Then, thinking about his dad, he asked, “What are you guys going to do about the war?”
Dan and Tim looked at each other. The war in Vietnam was something the guys and their friends back home talked about a lot. They had registered with the Selective Service when they had turned eighteen. But they both felt strongly about not wanting to go to war. Dan spoke up. “Well, we aren’t in college so we don’t have our student deferments. There’s talk of a draft lottery starting up in December. We’ll both be eligible for it. Who knows what will happen? With luck we’ll get high numbers and not have to go in.”
“You could enlist.” Michael suggested.
Dan shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Killing is not for us.” Tim said. Then, thinking he might have offended Michael, added. “Sorry, man.”
Michael nodded. “I get ya’. If my dad wasn’t in the military, he’d still be alive. Still be with me and my mom.”
Dan put his hand on Michael’s shoulder. “It’ll be OK.” He really felt sorry for his new friend.
Michael gave a weak smile. “I hope so.”
After a few minutes they all gave a collective shrug and the mood shifted to a lighter vain. This was a weekend to forget about war and the decisions they would soon have to make if they got drafted. December and the lottery was still a ways off. It was too nice of a day to get too far down.
The day grew hot, at least into mid-nineties. They passed the afternoon in the sun, talking to people, making trips to the gas station across the street from the stadium for water and generally getting excited for the upcoming concert. But more than that the bond between the three of them continued to grow. They were sharing aspects of their lives, like death and abandonment, that they hadn’t really done before with anyone else before. At least not in the context of talking about it among friends. And although they were inexperienced talking about those things, there was something about Dan and Tim that drew Michael in and there was something about Michael that made Dan and Tim feel that taking care of him and watching out for him was the right thing to do. A level of trust and commitment had developed between all of them and it was deepening the longer they were together.
The gates opened at 6 pm and the crowd pushed through in a fairly orderly fashion. The three friends quickly found good seats twenty rows back from the edge of the field to the right of home plate and settled in. The stage was set up in the infield and the first band was scheduled to play at 7:00 pm. Michael had another tab of mescaline that he split with Tim. Dan shared a few joints with different people sitting around them. By the time the first band played, all three of them were in mellow moods. They second band that played was called ‘Poco’ and the guys liked their country/rock sound. One of the members had been in ‘Buffalo Springfield’, a band all three of them had liked. When their set was finished there was a commotion way out to their right behind the right field bleachers. Gate crashers were trying to get in and the police had fired teargas canisters to try to disperse them. Unfortunately, a light breeze caught the gas and it filtered into the stadium and down the first base line, covering the crowd inside. People freaked out and ran onto the field, Dan and Tim and Michael joining them. Dan spotted the next scheduled performer and ran up next to him. Tim Buckley was a favorite singer/songwriter of Dan’s and when he asked him for his autograph the singer graciously agreed.
“Thanks. Have a good concert.” It was all Dan could think of saying after Buckley had handed him his autograph. Dan felt a little foolish. He then remembered his beads and fished out a strand and handed it over. “Here. This is for you. Thanks for all your music.”
Buckley took the stand and put it on. “Thanks, man. I Hope I get a chance to play,” he said, smiling, indicating the tear gas still floating into the now empty stands behind them.
Dan waved goodbye and went off in search of Tim and Michael feeling as if life could not get any better.
He meet up with his two friends a few minutes later and told them about his encounter with Tim Buckley. They were impressed. “Way to go.” Tim enthused and slapped Dan on the back. “We had something cool happen too. We meet a couple of girls who invited us to their hotel room for a party after the concert.” He indicated with his thumb the direction of the Holiday Inn located only a block from the stadium. “They’re from Wyoming. Freddie and Linda. They seemed really nice.” Tim then gave Michael a shove. “Casanova here, really dug Freddie.” Michael blushed but didn’t say anything. Dan could tell he was enjoying Tim kidding around with him. It made Dan feel good to see it.
After the tear gas cleared, the crowd moved back into their seats and the rest of the concert went off without a hitch. Tim Buckley was great, playing four songs. It was just him on twelve-string guitar and an accompanist on electric guitar. He put the everyone in a very mellow mood. Then Johnny Winter played and he rocked the crowd. At one point the wind came up and blew his black cowboy hat off, leaving his long, white hair streaming behind him. Then Creedence Clearwater Revival closed the concert, putting everyone in a party mood, on their feet and dancing and singing to every song. They made Tim especially happy, because he loved Creedence and mistakenly thought they had played the night before. Michael told them that if he could be anything in the world it would be the drummer for Creedence.
“I love the simple beat he plays,” Michael said dancing and air drumming to ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’. He was relaxed and in a great mood. Dan loved seeing him so happy.
After the concert ended, they followed the flow of the crowd streaming out of the stadium and went in search of Freddie and Linda. The mescaline had really kicked in by then, so Dan had all he could do to keep track of his friends, who seemed interested in everything they saw and were forever wandering off. They finally made it to the hotel. Apparently everyone staying there had invited people to meet them because there were hundreds of young people milling around the entrance. When Dan tried to push through the crowd and get inside, he was told by a big security guy that only people with keys who were registered could get in. Dan relayed the news to Tim and Michael who didn’t seem to mind and seemed to had forgotten the earlier encounter with the two girls.
He corralled his two friends and they wandered the streets until they finally ended up in a huge parking lot about a mile from the stadium where they found an abandoned car. It was nearly three in the morning and they were all exhausted. The climbed into the car, made themselves as comfortable as they could and fell asleep. They were awakened just after dawn by the taping of a policeman’s Billy club on the windshield.
“Time to go,” fella’s he said. “You can’t stay here.” He was roly-poly kind of guy who was pretty relaxed about the whole thing.
“We’re on our way.” Dan said, grateful they weren’t going to get hassled. They crawled out of the car and headed back toward the stadium, feeling every bit the effects of the chemicals they’d ingested in the past twenty four hours.
Sunday’s concert started at noon. They figured they had four or five hours to kill so they found some shade near the gas station they’d got water from the day before and sat down, resting and talking quietly amongst themselves. They were all very tired and had no energy at all.
“I’m not sure I’m up for this,” Michael said, indicating the stadium. “Last night just about did me in.”
“I know. But I had a great time,” Tim said, smiled. “I loved hearing Creedence.” Michael smiled in agreement and gave a little air drum solo before laying back in the grass and closing his eyes.
Dan concurred. For him, seeing Tim Buckley was a dream come true. “And today we get to see Hendrix.” Seeing Jimi Hendrix was beyond cool. Hendrix was like a god. All of the young people idolized him.
But there was somber mood that was now hanging over them. They knew that their time together was coming to an end. Dan and Tim were planning to leave after the concert and drive straight through to Minneapolis. Tim had his job as a dishwasher waiting for him and Dan needed to get caught up with his lawn service. Michael, too, needed to get home. As much as he had enjoyed getting away he realized he should get back to his mom. Dan and Tim agreed.
“You’re all she’s got, man.” Dan said. “You can help each other get through this.”
Michael agreed. “Yeah, I know.” He paused, then asked, “Can we stay in touch?”
“Sure,” Tim said. “I’ve got some paper here somewhere.”
So they exchanged phone numbers and addresses. Dan and Tim pooled their money to buy Michael a bus ticket home.
They were able to rally their energy and make it to the concert. The event organizers opened a gate in the outfield and allowed anyone without a ticket to enter for free. The three friends took them up on their offer and joined hundreds of other young people in the bleachers in the outfield. Hendrix blew everyone away. Even the cops that paroled the stadium seemed to feel they were witnessing a rare event. By the time the last notes of ‘Voodoo Chile’ died away there was an mellow but excited air around Mile High Stadium. The three friends felt the music only heightened the bond they felt between themselves. And, for once, Michael and Tim didn’t do any mescaline. They all three only smoked a little pot, sort of in celebration, like a last good bye.
They finally did say ‘goodbye’ later that day in the early evening. They had walked a few miles back toward downtown with Michael to the bus station, bought his ticket, and even paid money so he could call his mom to tell her everything was alright.
Their final good bye was more sad than awkward.
“Well, this is it.” Tim said, giving Michael a brief hug. “We’ll stay in touch, OK?”
“I’d like that,” Michael. “You guys have been great.”
“You, too.” Dan said, giving Michael a big hug. And then…”Take care.”
There really wasn’t much more to say after that. They all knew something special had happened over the past few days, they just had no way of articulating it. And that was OK. Michael gave his two friends a final wave and got on the bus. In a few minutes he was gone, continuing to wave to them from the window as bus pulled out of sight, heading southwest to Arizona.
It didn’t seem possible that now, less than two months later, Michael was dead, gone for good.
“What did his mom say in the letter?” Dan asked, still sitting in the grass outside their duplex.
“Not much. She was sad, of course. They’d had the funeral a few weeks ago. Not many people showed up. Just some family, mainly. She found my return address on one of my letters when she was going through his things.” Tim shrugged. “She was quiet. Said she was going to move to Los Angeles to live with her sister. She sent her phone number, which we already have. That was about it”
“Too bad we didn’t know. Maybe we could have gone to the funeral.”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. With work and all, it would have been hard to get away.”
“But we should have been there.” Dan said emphatically. Then, thinking of how few people had attended, added, “At least to say goodbye.”
But really, in his heart, he knew that Tim was right. They really couldn’t have gotten away. But, more than that, would they really have gone? After all, they’d only known Michael for a few days. Sure, they had shared something special, but that time was now past. Both Tim and Dan had moved on. In a few more weeks was another music festival they were thinking of trying to get to in Woodstock, New York. They had the rest of their lives in front of them. Michael’s death was a reminder that it could be snuffed out in an instant. Not for once did they think about Why Michael had hung himself, only that he was now dead and gone. For Michael, his life was fleeting and Dan and Tim had been a small part of it. They had shared a little of Michael’s life, but had not had enough impact to change a course of events that were probably in place long before all three had met earlier that summer in Denver. It was just the way it was, unfortunate but true.
They sat quietly, pondering their memories, thinking about Michael and how much they had really liked him. After a few minutes Tim got up and stretched. “Well, we should probably head inside and get something to eat.”
Dan sat still for a few moments, gazing off at the trees across the street, still thinking about Michael and what a sweet, shy kid he was. “Maybe we should call his mom, you know, and offer our condolences,” he said to Tim.
Tim was walking up the sidewalk to the house. “Yeah, maybe we should,” not sounded too convincing. Then he stopped and looked back over his shoulder. There was something about the look on Dan’s face. “You’d like that, right?” he asked.
“Well, I think his mom would like that,” Dan answered, getting up and following after his friend. “I think she’d like that a lot.”
So they thought about, and then talked about it, and later after dinner that’s what they did. They called Michael’s mom and relived with her, for a few minutes, that time in Denver, when they hung out with her son, and became friends. They ended up talking longer than they had expected. Michael’s mom, whose name was Sue, had a lot of questions about what her son had been like in Denver and Tim and Dan filled her in.
She liked hearing that he had been happy. They could almost hear her smiling on the phone. She liked hearing about his air drumming. “He loved the drums,” she said. “I was going to buy him a set for his birthday.” Then she became quiet for a moment. Dan and Tim started getting nervous thinking she would break down, but she seemed like a very strong lady. She took a deep breath and went on about how much Michael had enjoyed his time with them.
They talked for nearly a half an hour. It was a good conversation. Michael’s mom got to relieve with them a brief moment of her son’s life and have some happy thoughts, and Dan and Tim got a chance to share something with her that was special to them as well. They realized that they had made a little bit of an impact in Michael’s life after all. They had given him friendship and made him happy for a few days. And that was a good thing.
When they finally said goodbye to Sue they knew in their hearts that calling her had been the right thing to do. They felt a little older, and a little wiser. They went outside and sat on the steps looking west. The more they thought about it, the more they came to realize that the memory of Michael and the impact he’d had on them would last not just for a few weeks, or until the end of the summer, but just maybe for the rest of their lives.
The sun was down and the evening twilight was cool and refreshing.
“What do you think?” Tim asked. “Feel better that we called her.”
“Yeah, I do.” Dan said. “I think Sue appreciated it. She seemed like a nice person.”
“Well, Michael was pretty nice, you know. He probably got it from her.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” Then shook his head, “That Michael…He was something else.”
“He was. I don’t think I’ll never forget him.”
“Me neither.” They were quiet, then, for a few moments, lost in their own thoughts. Then Dan stood up and clapped Tim on the back. “Hey man, let’s take that car of yours for a spin around the lake. We need to decide if we’re going to Woodstock.”
And they walked down the sidewalk to Tim’s car. The sky was dotted with stars and a fresh breeze was blowing from the south. They had the rest of their lives in front of them. Some of it would be good, some of it bad. They weren’t ready for the summer to be over just yet.