Thursday, August 14, 1969
“Pull in at the diner,” Pauly cried.
“Man, you should’ve eaten already. We’ve only been on the road for an hour,” Kathryn said. That was true. We’d left Western Connecticut State College at sunrise and had only made it as far as the prime farming country of Middletown, New York. She waved over the bench seat to the back of the van, where Pauly and I were sitting. “Check the cooler. There’s plenty to eat now that Colleen isn’t coming.”
“Nah, I want something fried. Like eggs. And toast. And coffee,” Pauly added. “And I’m pretty sure we won’t be eating real food for the next three days.”
I conceded with a nod. “True.”
Lyman gave Kathryn a mellow smile. “The man’s got a point.”
Kathryn quickly agreed. “I wonder if they have herbal tea.”
“Doubtful, but there’s only one way to find out,” Lyman said, flipping on the blinker. He pulled the van into the lot, and the four of us piled out. The diner was kinda old, kinda cool, and the bell on the door hadn’t finished chiming before the waitress said hello.
The place was busy enough for the breakfast shift, and I figured being on I-84 made it good for locals and travelers alike. Not that the locals looked too happy to see us; a few farming types—coveralls and truckers’ caps—turned to stare. I heard a mumble of “damn hippies” and “headed to White Lake” but ignored it. If our choice of clothes and long hair and music wasn’t to their liking, they were in for one helluva disappointment because these parts of the State of New York were in for a lesson in counterculture the next three days.
The Aquarian Exposition—3 Days of Peace & Music was rolling into Sullivan County.
We took a booth and ordered. Pauly’s mention of eggs and bacon had us all vying for the same, and man, it was good. Life as a college student didn’t afford us many luxuries, but then, we weren’t big on material things.
“So tell me again,” Pauly said after his last forkful. It was like he could only retain information when fed. “Why did Colleen bail?”
I knew Kathryn’s reply would be long and I’d heard it all before. I was pretty sure Pauly had too, but he listened intently. “You know she withdrew, right?” she started. “Her parents lined up a secretarial job at their lawyers and insisted she take it. They truly think a woman shouldn’t aspire to be anything more than a secretary or a mother…” Kathryn went on. And on. And on.
And then Lyman began on corporate power and privatization and outsourcing and the detriment to the fundamental rights of the people… And so it went on.
I loved Lyman and Kathryn. I really did. They were passionate about our country, total freedom riders, but I’d heard all of this before. More than a few times. And I’d engaged in lengthy debates, but it was a fire in them that would never be contained. Over the years it simply changed direction, rekindled, and on it raged again.
I began to study the other folks in the diner. The hippie-hating farmers were still there, sour-faced, scowling into their cups of joe. And there was a young family; I smiled as the kids enjoyed their pancakes. But then there was a guy, by himself, in a booth staring out the window. He was wearing slacks and a sweater. His blond hair was the good ol’ short back and sides. He was so tidy and clean-cut, he couldn’t be anything but military. The duffle bag at his feet confirmed my suspicion.
Normally I wouldn’t look twice at his type, and Lord knew, his type never looked twice at me. But there was a look of such profound sadness on his face, I couldn’t look away.
“Gary?” Lyman called my name.
I turned, not having heard any of what he’d said before. The three of them were watching me. “Hey, I’m just gonna go say hi.” I took my cup of coffee and slid out of the booth.
“We’re leaving in five,” Kathryn called after me.
I gave her a nod to let her know I’d heard her and made my way over to the sad army guy. He was still staring out the window, looking like he was fighting tears. “Hey,” I said so as not to scare him. I nodded to the seat opposite him. “Can I join you?”
He startled anyway and shifted in his seat. “Oh, sure,” he replied.
I slid in and put my coffee between us. “I was just sitting over there with my friends,” I explained. “I couldn’t help notice.”
His eyes, so blue, shot to mine. “Notice what?”
Wow, okay. So that was an overreaction. And over what? What did he think I noticed? He swallowed hard and looked back out the window, a deep blush staining his cheeks.
I put my hand up. “I couldn’t help but notice you were here alone.”
He glanced at me again, then kept his eyes on his hands that were now clasped on the table. “Sorry, I… I…” He sighed. “It’s been a helluva day.”
“It’s early morning.”
The guy almost smiled, then shook his head. “Feels longer.”
It was pretty clear he wasn’t having a good day, so I gave him a smile. “My name’s Gary Fairchild.”
He looked at me then, like really met my eyes. His cheeks pinked up a little. “Nice to meet you, Gary. I’m Richard Ronsman.”