m e m o i r j o h n m o n c u r e w e t t e r a u
On a deserted beach at dusk, a man rolled a note into a cylinder and stuffed it into one shoe. He patted the wallet, keys, and knife in his pockets, took off his clothes, and walked into the water. The current carried him to a wooded point where he came ashore, found his bag, dressed, and walked fifteen miles in the dark to the next town, crossing the main highway, keeping to back roads. In the morning, he caught a bus to D.C. and another bus to New York.
A tall kid put his field jacket on a table in front of the processing sergeant and signed a form. Four years, twenty-five days, and they take your field jacket. He walked off base past the main gate and stuck out his thumb.
In a large room, heated by a woodstove, lit by an Aladdin lamp, central table partially cluttered with books, chisels, honing oil, bread, a piece of cheddar, guitar strings, and beer glasses, Gred Montgomery and I watched the rain gather and move up the mountain.
Soft grays and blacks, sheen of birch, October maples, hemlock green. Shadowed room corners, sharp lines of table and window. Two men sitting, half turned to the window – one rounded, red hair and beard; the other dark, angular, intense. In the air, a color that smells of woodsmoke.
A troubled society hemorrhages artists. Waves of painters, writers, and musicians came through Woodstock in the 60’s. They drove VW bugs and microbuses, old pickups, and Daddy’s lesser Mercedes. Some just stepped off the Trailways bus.
I was twenty-five, back in town, painting houses. At the end of each day, we milled around in the Depresso, Deanie’s, and Buckman’s. There were people who knew how to do things and people willing to learn. Bob Dylan was there. The Band. You never knew who would show up – Norman Mailer, Van Morrison, Joan Baez. The locals scratched their heads and kept on with their lives, staying apart mostly. A few of us lived in both worlds.
Gred got off the bus. He bought a hammer and a Stanley tape and went to work. He was cheerful and made an effort to fit in. Women were attracted to his easy laugh, his willingness to share frustrations and enthusiasms. His red hair and beard grew longer. He began to be accepted as others came and went.
He lived high on the mountain, cabin-sitting, doing occasional odd jobs for the owner. One afternoon he invited me up to try his home brew. It was a gloomy day – lowering clouds, chilly. You couldn’t smell winter yet, but it was coming.
The main room was filled with tools, books, and cases of beer. Sweatshirts hung on the backs of chairs. A guitar waited in a corner. A large window overlooked the valley, a northern fall view of woods, a few fields, a church steeple.
When you are young, you tend to define yourself by others. It is easier to say, I’m not like him, or, she’s crazy, or, he’s a good worker, than it is to announce yourself as Delft the Deft or Igor Intelligent. Each new and interesting person challenges your sense of yourself. Perhaps, in other cultures, people are quicker to know who they are. We were in the richest period of the richest country in history; we were taking our time.
Gred played his guitar and talked about a bluegrass group he was promoting. I told him that my writing hadn’t gotten far, just poems and scraps. Trying to figure things out, I said.
The rain moved over us. Gred lit the lamp. I told him how I’d decided midway through my hitch in the Air Force that war was wrong and that it was my duty to get out. Damned lucky I didn’t get a year in Fort Leavenworth. The judge gave me a choice, and I had a last moment epiphany. A voice in my head said, “You asshole! People kill each other. They have always killed each other. What do you think you’re doing?” Thirty days.
“They add it to your hitch,” I said. “I got five days off for good behavior. ”
“I was in the Marines,” Gred said. “Went AWOL.”
“No shit! They didn’t shoot you?”
“They might.” He was smiling. “If they find me.” He opened two more bottles.
He had faked suicide on a beach. I thought he was telling the truth, but I may have looked doubtful. He produced a battered drivers license. It was from a southern state. Tennessee, I think. The name on it was Fred Shoegarth or something close to it. He underlined it with one finger. “I like Gred better.”
We ate bread and cheese, leaned back in the chairs, talked, and listened to the rain. I felt self-contained, free around my feet and elbows. I don’t remember the details, but Gred had been bounced around as a kid. He’d heard about Woodstock while he was with a woman in New York – Anna? She was coming that evening to see what was happening, to stay a few days, maybe more. When it was time for him to meet her bus, I drove down the mountain behind him, envious.
She didn’t stay long. A few months later, Gred was living with Kitty, a singer with fiery dark red hair and a healthy bank account. They married and bought the old ice house on Glasco Turnpike. Gred incorporated the three foot thick stone walls into a new house, a project that involved successions of carpenters and mavericks. Kitty had a baby whose hair was red and curly.
The house was closed in when Gred was arrested. He had rented tools for a few days and hadn’t bothered to tell the rental company that he was still using them and would bring them back when he damn well got around to it. He was fingerprinted. Gerry, the town’s liberal lawyer, advised Gred to turn himself in before the prints were matched and the Marines came for him.
It was good advice. Gred got off with only six months in Portsmouth. Not that the Portsmouth brig is easy time. But still, we were at war in Vietnam. He was likeable. Probably, he did a great job apologizing. Maybe the judge took the wife and baby into account. Gred kept his mouth shut and survived, came back to town, and split up with Kitty.
The last time I saw him was a year or so later at a party. Large sails were drying on a lawn. He was involved with Lon’s ex-wife, Mara, who’d inherited a small amount of money. Gred used some of the money to go to Maine and to buy an old wooden boat which he managed to sail down the coast and up the Hudson. He had a close call in Brooklyn Harbor, he told me, but a tugboat bailed him out. He and Mara were heading for Florida or the Bahamas. Mara was quiet, self-effacing, but that afternoon she was drinking gin. “So, you’re with Mara now,” I said.
“The way she’s going, I’m not sure who she’s with.” He was his usual amiable-to-merry self, but there was an edge in his voice, a masked alertness in his eyes. Nearly forty years ago.
Gred had guts. He held to the jester’s truth: you don’t amount to much in the universe; you might as well enjoy life, take chances and challenges. Perhaps he’s down in the Keys right now, heavier, a Hemingway beard, laughing, a glass of something near his elbow.
I clung to the writer’s truth: words, if honest, matter; they lead to understanding, acceptance, joy even.
Why do we remember one thing and forget others? The process seems subconscious and continuous, winnowing and compacting, preserving, packaging for the future what might be useful. The memory of that evening on the mountain flickers like a signal fire on a distant headland. When I look across, I am shocked and encouraged. I got this far. I can go farther.
We thought we were experienced, that rainy night, but we were like springs yet to be released. If Gred were here, I imagine him asking, one eyebrow raised sardonically, “How’s it been, all that writing?”
“Harder than whistling, easier than digging coal,” I’d say.
John Moncure Wetterau’s “Waiting for Happiness” appeared in Archipelago, Vol. 8, No. 1