The Long and Winding Road

I come from a big family. Two parents, Les and Sally Rowen. Four brothers, three sisters.

ColleenMarkJohnTomDeniseBruceBobJulie. My dad would say that when he was talking to one us and he couldn’t remember which one of us he was talking to. That happened more often than you might think. My dad seemed to be in a perpetual state of confusion when we were growing up.

One my younger brothers had a friend sleep over on a Friday night. We were eating breakfast in the kitchen the next morning when my dad walked into the kitchen looking like unto a bear that had just awakened from hibernation.

“Are you one of mine?” he grumbled at the kid, who froze, with a Cheerio hanging from his lower lip. The kid shook his quickly. “Okay. Real good then.” my dad said in relief, and poured a cup of coffee. “You had me scared there for a minute.”

My dad had worked for the ICBM Defense Program for most of my childhood. We moved roughly every two years from the time I started grade school until I was in the eighth grade. In 1968, my dad quit working for the missle guys, and we moved to Missoula, MT  My dad said we were going to live in Missoula for the rest of our lives.

We had all  heard that line before, many times. I doubt any of us believed it, including my mother. But two years came and went, and we didn’t move. And then another two years passed, and we were still in Missoula in 1972.

What do you know? Miracles do happen.

My sister Colleen is three years older than me. My brother that got dead from SIDS was born and died in between us. I think Colleen had graduated from high school 1971, but that’s where she met Rod Sanderson.

Rod was a year older than Colleen, and like unto a lots of guys, he fell in love with my sister the moment he saw her. Back in the day, Colleen was what was referred to as a stone cold fox. She was maybe 5′ 4″ tall, long light brown hair, and according to all my classmates, she looked like an angel. Actually, all of sisters are very attractive, except when they’re pissed off. Then they’re fucking scary. Real scary.

Colleen used to drop me off at school in the morning, and some of the guys in my class would hang around the front of the school, hoping to get a glimpse of her, or if God was truly benevolent, a word or two with her. All of my friends were in love with my sister, but she wasn’t interested in any of them. She already had a boyfriend.

Rod was an okay guy, I guess. He was the baby of his family, and I don’t know if spoiled is the correct term to describe him, but it’s the best term I can think of. If there was an easy way out of something that Rod didn’t want to do, he would find it. That didn’t make him a bad guy, but it hardly made him a stellar role model.

Rod’s parents, Vern and Jackie, doted on their only son. Like me, he had an older sister, but I didn’t really know her. Rod lacked nothing when he was growing up, and Rod liked toys. So, when he got older and his parents stopped buying him toys, if he saw something he liked, he bought it whether he could afford it or not.

All of Rod’s friends had hot muscle cars. Rod bought a Fastback Boss 302 Mustang. Dark blue. It was a beautiful car. He liked to hunt, and bought himself an arsenal of guns and rifles. And he bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

It wasn’t a big old good one kind of Harley hog, it was a 300 cc bike. As far as Harleys go, it wasn’t much of a street cruiser, but it was a street bike. Rod used it to cruise the backroads in the mountains to scout for good areas to shoot deer and elk and stuff. And he bought my sister an 80 cc Yamaha so she could ride the backroads with him. That was nice, but my sister didn’t really care for it much, and rarely rode it, but I loved it. Rod and I probably bonded riding the mountain roads outside of Missoula.

I know he also bought helmets, but we never used them.

Helmets were for fuckin’ sissies.

* * * *

Rod might have been a poser/wannabe all around he-man outdoorsman kind of guy, but his dad was the real deal. Vern was nothing short of legendary in certain circles. He was a hunter/fisherman/guide kind of guy. He had a lots of firearms and a whole lots of rods and reels and fishing tackle. And a boat.

Vern had a garage full of tools, and he knew how to use them all. He was a woodworker/carpenter.  He was a stonemason and a bricklayer. He was a plumber and an electrician.

Vern was essentially the opposite of my dad. Les didn’t hunt or fish. He wasn’t an outdoorsman. He probably would’ve gotten lost in our huge backyard if it hadn’t been fenced in. Les wasn’t an handy man. He had maybe seven tools, and he didn’t know how to use any of them.

Be that as it may, as Colleen and Rod’s relationship progressed, so did their relationship with each other’s family, and Vern and Les became pretty good drinking buddies. It was probably the only thing that they had in common.

Well, and they both loved Colleen. Seriously. I think Vern once asked Colleen what she saw in his deadbeat son.

Because she was the oldest daughter in my family, and the first girl to start dating, my dad spent a fair amount of time threatening to kill Rod to death for a list of infractions both real and imagined.

Getting drunk with his buddies. Getting my sister drunk. Getting me drunk. Bringing my sister home late. Bringing my drunk sister home late then passing out in his car in the driveway.

Rod eventually gave my dad a nickname: Ornery. And despite the fact that my dad did everything he could to make Rod’s life a living hell, Rod asked Colleen to marry him. And she said Yes!

* * * *

That’s probably enough of the backstory leading up the events that were about to unravel.

It was the Memorial Day weekend in 1972. Saturday, May 27th, to be precise. I had just completed my sophomore year of high school. I was sixteen years old, and I had just started working at the Go West Drive In.

My family went to a state park a few hours out of town to celebrate the holiday weekend. My mom cooked enough food and made enough sandwiches to feed an army. We were joined there by Rod and his parents. Vern had brought the motorcycles along in the back of his truck.

You never know, they might be fun, he said. And because Vern was anything but a fuckin’ sissy, he didn’t bring the helmets.

* * * *

I know I was reluctant to go with my family that day. I had to work, and I didn’t trust my dad when he said he’d drive me back to town in time to get to work. But Rod said not to worry, he’d drive me back in his Mustang. I quit arguing after that.

I know I drove out to the park with Rod and Colleen. We listened to one of my 8 track tapes on the way out. The Stylistics, a Philadelphia soul group that hit the top of the charts in the early 70’s. Rod was more of Country/Western guy, but even he liked their music.

“They’re pretty good for a bunch of niggers.” he said.

I can’t remember the name of the park anymore. I’m not sure I knew the name back then. It was a very scenic green valley at the foot of some mountains. A creek ran across the valley floor. There was a lots of room to run and play Frisbee. A rocky gravel road led up into the mountains. And the motorcycles turned out to be a flash of genius. Rod or Vern rode the Harley while me and two oldest brothers, John and Tom, took turns riding Colleen’s Yamaha up and down the road with one of our younger siblings as a passenger.

The road probably wasn’t all that different from any other mountain road in Montana. It had been blasted out of the side of the mountain in the 1940’s, maybe. The rock and boulders that been blasted loose building the road were moved to either side, forming a guardrail of granite. Some of those boulders were the size of a house.

I’m going to guess I spent roughly four hours or so out at the park, and then I had to go. As I was hugging my mom goodbye, my dad and Vern were climbing aboard the motorcycles. John and Tom were sulking because they couldn’t ride along on the bikes. True to his word, Rod drove me back to town, driving as fast as he dared down the curving road that cut through the mountains back into Missoula. And we listened to The Stylistics again.

I know I made it to work on time, and I know it was pretty much the same as any other night at the Go West. It was probably around 11:00 PM. We were cleaning up the concession stand and checking inventory when one of my gay bosses came out of his office and said, “Umm, Maark, could you come here? Your mother is on the phone…”

I walked to the office, and my other gay boss handed me the phone. I heard my mother crying.

“Mark? Oh, God! I don’t know where to begin, but right after you left, there was a terrible accident…”

* * * *

What follows is what I can remember hearing from the people who were there, and I also have to admit I have repressed, suppressed and denied these memories for so long it’s almost as if I had completely forgotten it even happened. But when I was writing my last post, Melpomene whispered in my ear, and the memories came flooding back.

* * * *

My dad wasn’t a outdoorsman/sportsman guy. He wasn’t handy at fixing anything. And he wasn’t very good at riding motorcycles either, so in that regard, it’s fortunate he didn’t take a passenger when he and Vern went for their ride on the bikes that Memorial Day weekend in 1972.

I don’t think my dad was drunk when I left. He’d been drinking that day, but my dad was Irish, and he could knock down some beers without outwardly appearing to be impaired. And to be fair, Vern had had his share of beer that day, too.

Vern drove Rod’s Harley. My dad drove Colleen’s Yamaha, and away they went, climbing up the mountain road. I have no idea how far up the road they went, no idea how long they were gone. I’m not even sure if they were driving up the road, or back down it when my dad lost control of his bike.

And sadly, the details I remember are sketchy. He was either going too fast and braked too hard, or he wasn’t going fast enough and lost control when he gunned the engine to increase his speed. He kind of weebled and wobbled, but didn’t fall over, then careened off the road, running headfirst into a pretty goddamn big boulder. The impact crumpled the front wheel of Colleen’s Yamaha like it was made of tin foil, and sent my dad flying over the handlebars.

The boulder my dad hit was big, but it wasn’t especially tall. The way I understand it, my dad essentially did a somersault over the boulder, just kind of kissing the top of the boulder with his forehead enough to sustain a couple of superficial cuts to his scalp. If he had collided with a taller boulder, he would’ve taken the top of his head off, and if he had been wearing an helmet, the only thing he would’ve injured would’ve been his pride.

Well, and the front wheel of my sister’s bike.

As I nurse, I can tell you that your scalp is a very vascular area, and even a small cut can bleed like the dickens. My dad was essentially uninjured, save for a couple of superficial cuts that bled like hell, creating the illusion that my dad had been mauled by a fucking Grizzly bear, and was about five minutes away from dying to death.

Vern possibly knew my dad wasn’t badly injured–he wasn’t unconscious, none of his bones were broken–but he was bleeding like a stuck pig, and that’s probably all Vern saw. He told my dad to lay still, and apply pressure to the cuts on his forehead, then Vern jumped on the Harley and tore off down the mountain.

Rod used his motorcycle to cruise up and down the mountain roads, but it wasn’t modified in any way to be a mountain bike. It was a street bike, and if you’re curious about the differences in the way the bikes look, you can do a Google search.

Even still, some explanation is required. Off road bikes have a beefed up suspension, and the engine and foot pedals are set on higher the frame for better clearance over things, like, rocks in the road and stuff like that.

I stated earlier this mountain road was probably much like any other mountain road, meaning it was dirt with rocks of varying sizes imbedded in the dirt, covered with varying levels of loose gravel. It was never designed to be driven at an excessive rate of speed, and certainly not a motorcycle designed for street use.

I doubt any of those things occurred to Vern on that day. His buddy had been injured, and was bleeding, a lots, and he needed help. Fast! Vern was a very good motorcyclist, but even good cyclists make mistakes, especially if they aren’t being careful, and Vern had thrown caution to the wind. I’m sure he never saw the rock sticking up out of the road, sticking up just high enough to catch the brake pedal on the unmodified bike he was driving, turning low to make that corner, racing down into the valley to get help for his friend.

* * * *

I don’t know how long my dad waited for Vern to return. I don’t think he even knew, but he did as he was told until he started thinking it was taking Vern an overly long time to return.

“I really wasn’t injured,” he told me later. “There was a little stream running along the side of the road. I soaked my handkerchief, and held it to my head. Once the bleeding slowed down, and Vern still hadn’t returned, I started walking down the mountain. I figured I would meet him on the way.”

And he did, only it wasn’t the way he had imagined. Instead of finding Vern leading a motorcade of vehicles coming to rescue him, he found Vern laying face up in the middle of the road, a large pool of blood under his head. Rod’s Harley was piled up on the boulders lining the side of the road about thirty feet away from Vern, the brake pedal bent at an impossibly acute angle.

Vern was breathing, but that’s all he was doing. He was unconscious, and he would not awaken. My dad checked to see where all the blood was flowing from. The back of Vern’s skull felt like a bag of loose change.

“I started running down the road, for maybe for a quarter of a mile,” my dad said. “And luckily, a car was coming up the road. I flagged them down, then we put Vern in the backseat, and drove down the mountain. When we got back to the valley, Jackie climbed in the car with him and they took off like a bat out of hell. Your mother and I packed up everything and the kids and followed them to the hospital.”

* * * *

One of my gay bosses volunteered to take me back to town immediately. The Go West was something like twenty miles outside of Missoula, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was further out of town than the airport. It was probably closer to Frenchtown than it was to Missoula. The only thing remotely close to it was the paper mill where Vern and Rod worked. Vern had gotten his son a job there after Rod graduated from high school.

I was in a state of shock, and it took me a minute or two to respond.

“I don’t think you need to do that. It doesn’t sound like I need to be anywhere immediately. My dad’s okay, but it doesn’t sound like Vern’s going to make it.”

Vern had been rushed to the hospital. His condition remained unchanged once he reached the hospital, he was breathing on his own, but still unconscious. The doctors told Jackie there wasn’t much of anything they could do. Vern had suffered a massive injury to his occipital lobe and cerebellum. The back of his skull had caved in like unto a broken eggshell. He might wake up, and then again…

“If he had only been wearing a helmet…” the ICU doctor said.

* * * *

My gay bosses dropped me off at the hospital around midnight, and gave me the rest of week off. If I needed more time, all I had to do was ask. I went up to the ICU waiting room where everyone else had gathered–Rod’s mother and sister, my mother and sister–and the person they had gathered around was my father. A couple of steri-strips had been applied to the cuts on his forehead. I think his clothes were dotted with his blood, and smeared with Vern’s, but I’m unsure about that. He probably changed when he took my brothers and sisters home before returning to the hospital.

My dad was beyond inconsolable. He blamed himself for the accident; placing full responsibility for what had happened squarely on his own shoulders. He kept saying he wished he could trade places with Vern. The women were trying to comfort him. I went over to talk to Rod. He told me everything he knew about what had happened, and he kept saying this,

“I wish to God I had never bought those goddamn motorcycles.”

After that, I sat down, and waited. There was nothing else to do, but wait.

That’s when I saw the book. It was small, rectangular black book, less than fifty pages, very plain in appearance. It was titled, The Impersonal Life. I picked it up and started reading. I finished it in less than half an hour, then started re-reading it from the beginning, slowly. I slipped it into my pocket, and took it home when I left the hospital. I hid it in my bedroom like it was a Penthouse® magazine. I’ve read it thousands of times over the years.

It was the book that would eventually lead me to believe that I was going to be a prophet someday.

* * * *

You can look it up online if you’re interested. You can even download a copy of it if you like, in PDF format. I have a copy on my Galaxy Tab S2®. And while I could probably wax philosophic about the contents of the book for hours, all I will say about it is this: it either contains the most sublime, simple truth about God and His Purpose ever written, or it’s the most convincing complicated lie about life and everything ever told. And to be sure, a very convincing lie has to contain at least some small measure of the truth

I’ve never been able to decide which of those two statements are correct.

Maybe they both are.

* * * *

I spent all day Sunday and Monday at the hospital, sitting with Jackie. She was surprised to see me there, and it wasn’t as if she had no one else to lean on during that time. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people dropped in to see her at the hospital and hold hands with her and cry.

On Monday evening, there was a change in Vern’s condition. He started having trouble breathing on his own. He was intubated. By Tuesday, he was no longer breathing on his own. Jackie decided to take her husband off of life support Tuesday evening, and Vern stopped breathing. He died on May 30th.

Little Known Footnote in History: both of my parents died in May. My mom in 2007, my dad in 2011.

Vern’s funeral was probably on Friday, maybe Saturday. I can’t remember when it was, I have no memory of even being there, but I know that I was. I remember how quiet it was in our house during that period of time, and our house was never quiet.

I remember sitting up in the living room with my dad after the funeral. It was late. Everyone else had gone to bed. We didn’t say much. We didn’t talk to each other much during that time, and that is all on me. But my dad finally spoke, and this is what he said,

“I can’t for the life of me figure out why this had to happen.”

“This might help.” I said, and I gave my dad the little black book I had taken from the ICU waiting room, and he read it. It would be just about the only thing we had in common for the next fifteen years or so.

* * * *

Rod took me along when he and his buddies went back to the park to pick up the motorcycles. They were still laying on the side of the road. The rock Vern hit with the brake pedal had a noticeable dent in it. Thirty feet away was another large rock in the road, this one covered with dried blood.

Rod attacked the bloody rock with tools and his hands, screaming and crying until he got it loose, then threw it as far as could down the side of the mountain, leaving a crater in the road. We drank a beer, and everyone said some words of farewell to Vern, then Rod gave me my 8 track tape back.

“I’m sorry, Mark. I can’t ever listen to it again.”

I left it on the side of the road.

I know the mangled motorcycles languished in Vern’s workshop for a very long time. I think Jackie finally made her son get rid of them, and he sold them to someone for parts. He never bought another motorcycle. And he traded his Mustang in on a four wheel drive pick up.

* * * *

Colleen married Rod in June of 1973. Maybe it was July. She was a beautiful bride, and Rod was happier than he had been in an year. I’m sure they loved each other, but as Colleen told me when her marriage was falling apart, “I just had to get out of the house. I couldn’t fucking take it anymore. I would’ve married the milkman if he had asked me. But I almost felt like I had to marry Rod, you know, especially after Vern died. Dad wasn’t the only one who felt responsible for Vern’s death. I did, too. It was my motorcycle!”

About ten years later, Jerry would be standing under a falling telephone pole, and I would learn the hard way that grief is the wrong reason to get involved with someone. Nancy and I stayed for maybe a year and a half before we called it quits. Colleen and Rod stayed married for maybe three years before they got divorced.

I think even Rod realized they had made a mistake. I talked to him a couple of times on the phone during that time, but I was fucked up on every drug on the planet, and I was drinking. My memories of this aren’t the best, but I have a vague, hazy, whisper of a memory of Rod saying that Colleen was just another toy in his collection. He didn’t value her for who and what she was, and he didn’t blame her for divorcing him.

* * * *

A lots of time has passed since Vern got killed to death, and a whole lots of stuff has happened since then. I have traveled a very long and winding road to get where I am, but my journey is not yet over. There may be a lots more twists and turns I’ll have to encounter before it ends. Life will do that to you in the blink of an eye.

I can’t say that I’ve spent much time thinking about this story. It’s a story that I’ve rarely told, if ever. Hell, until last week I had pretty much forgotten it even happened. But there is one issue that always rises to the surface whenever I think about it, and it popped into my head as I was writing this.

It’s probably why I’ve tried so hard to forget it.

My dad felt responsible for Vern’s death because he was a lousy motorcyclist, and Vern had gotten dead trying to help him. My sister felt responsible because our dad had crashed her motorcycle, and Vern had gotten dead trying to help our dad. Rod felt responsible because he had bought those goddamn motorcycles in the first place…

But I have my own what if in this story. What if God recycled Vern’s energy because He knew I would see that little black book in the ICU waiting room, and it was the only way He could think of to get it into my hands?

If that what if is true, then Vern’s death rests on my shoulders, and mine alone.

The Lord works in mysterious ways, does He not? I’ve always thought that was just another way of saying, isn’t that ironic? And yes, He does work in ironically mysterious ways. I don’t know anyone who believes in God that would argue against that statement.

And there’s this: what if I failed to achieve the qualities God requires of a prophet? What if I had my chance, and choked? What if I missed the critical free throws at the end of regulation, and I lost the game? If that is true, then Vern’s death was wasted, and God made an huge mistake, inflicting many people with unnecessary grief and loss for no good reason. And He should have recycled my energy long ago, rather than keeping my stupid ass alive when I was so determined to die young.

That’s a possibility, but it’s also possible that the time for me to assume that role is yet to come. The fact that I’m still alive and pondering this is enough to keep my hope alive that my delusional dream could still come true.

And finally, it’s possible that I misunderstood everything and my desire to be a prophet is nothing more than a delusion, as my lovely supermodel wife insists. And if that is true, then I have nothing do with any of this, and Vern died to death simply because he got careless when he was riding a motorcycle too fast for the terrain and road conditions. And I can go back to forgetting any of this shit ever happened.

Maybe The Horne was right about me when he nicknamed me Wrongway…

A lots of questions, not many answers.

There’s only one thing that’s clear to me. No matter how much I want this, I’m no prophet, and I know that to be the undisputed truth.

That’s one bit of truth I don’t have to do any seeking to find.

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