It was the ‘summer of love’ somewhere in a place called San Francisco, I heard someone say. It was the summer that I lost my youth in a town called Tristan. It was the summer of 1967.
My name is Ray. I was tall, blond, brown-eyed and broad shouldered and strong from the years of working on my Dad’s farm. I was a quiet, shy fellow who kept mostly to myself and liked it that way. There were some good friends back where I grew up, 35 miles northwest of a dumpy little town where I was living that summer, working to fulfill Eisenhower’s dream of the American autobahn system, this one being Interstate 80 in east central Iowa.
I turned 22 that May and was working my third year on a road crew running a 20-ton yellow colored machine hauling dirt. I was on one of ten of the “scrapers” in our company. My job was to pull in front of the “push cat” (a D9 Caterpillar crawler) that would catch up with me when my scraper would bog down due to lack of power and traction while working to “scrape” up six to eight inches of Iowa dirt in the “cut” where the roadbed grade needed to be lower, then push me through until I had a full load to haul to the “fill” area where we were raising the roadbed to the required grade, spreading my load six to eight inches deep where the dump boss directed me.
I had no contact with anyone throughout the day…….. which I liked. I enjoyed the aloneness of just me and the machine. That was except for our half hour lunch break when the crew ate lunch together. And there was always the metallic contact with the push cat when it connected with my scraper, constantly reminding me that I was never truly ever alone.
The days were long: 10 to 12 hours and six days a week with the occasional rain day off. The pay was good and I was saving a lot of my pay, since, with the long days, I had little time to spend any money other than for my room, eating, and a few nightly beers at a small town farmer tavern. I usually went home Saturday night after work to see my family, wash clothes, and maybe catch up with and hang out with some of my old high school buddies. That was my life, a life that would change dramatically in the next few months.
I had quit working on my family’s farm and was mostly on my own for the last two years, working on the road and living in little towns along the construction route in the summer. Then back at the farm for winter, collecting unemployment checks and doing odd jobs around the farm or in the town close to where I grew up. My younger brother was old enough and took my place working for my dad.…..he was way more interested in farming than I was or ever would be, for that matter. He would eventually take over the farm when Dad decided to semi-retire.
So here I was, staying in the little town of Tristan, 50 miles southwest of Dubuque and five miles north of the job site. I was staying, along with some of the guys, in a little flea bag hotel for five bucks a night and eating out every morning and night in a fairly decent restaurant with good food and nice waitresses who flirted with us, fawned over us, packed us really good lunches, and filled our coffee thermos’s every day.
The woman who owned and ran my favorite small town tavern watering hole was named Marie, aka, Black Marie (probably due to her swarthy skin, waist length raven black hair and eyes like black tourmaline). Her tavern served the locals, mainly farmers and farm hands in their bib overalls with shit on their shoes: cow shit, horse shit, pig shit, dog shit and most all any other forms of shit one can imagine. They also stank of sour alcohol hard work sweat. A lot of the older guys were veterans of WW II and Korea, many were closet alcoholics trying to drown away all those memories of death and sadness and anger and nightmares.
Verbal abuse towards Marie was not uncommon: name-calling, comments about her skin color, and some very tasteless comments of a sexual nature. However, Marie appeared to have thick skin and would just roll her eyes and turn away. She had a very large german shepherd named Ganesha, who she kept tied behind the bar with a loop of his leash around an empty beer bottle. Rumor had it that if she ever lifted the beer bottle and gave a command, Ganesha would go for the throat of anyone she pointed to. That, alone, kept most true nastiness at bay. And I was to later find out that she kept a .38 snub nose in a holster fastened flat under the bar for easy access. That piece of equipment was leftover from the previous owner, so she once told me. Considering all that, thankfully, there was never any actual physical assault or anything beyond idle blather. S=0p=-o Ganesha stayed tied around his beer bottle and the .38 stayed in the holster under the bar……until one night in late September.
The dumpy little town had its local tough guy and his wannabe tough guy minions. One of the guys in our crew pointed him out to me on my first night in town while we were walking to the restaurant for supper. Tough guy, Johnny Cray, looked to be around my age, heavy boned, thick-necked and a little overweight, like he never lost his baby fat. I had a glimpse into his close-set eyes and saw a dark mean dullness there. Sort of like a sad fat ferret. He caught my look and glared back at me with a sneering anger. I sensed right then and there that he probably would never be a friendly drinking buddy. That certainly was never going to be an issue with me. So here was the guy that tended to believe that this was his town. He made sure I knew that little tidbit two nights later.
“Hey, you, asshole, who the hell are you and what the fuck are you doing here in my town?” were his first words to me when I met him and his two sidekicks on the street on my way to the restaurant for supper one night
I gave a look at this Johnny Cray guy, shrugged and started to walk around him, wondering what the hell.
“Just get away from this guy,” I thought.
“Hey, asshole, don’t you fucking walk away from me…. I am talking to you.”
So I turned and faced him and his three minions and calmly inquired, “So what is your problem? I am here working on the road crew for the summer and I really don’t think I need to answer to you. I have no interest in your stupid little town or anything in it, so just leave it alone.”
He was immediately in my face with his nose an inch away, and then he did a dumb thing: he thumbed my nose and said, “I don’t like you, fuck head.”