It was a scorching 106 degrees last Sunday in my new desert home of Joshua Tree. After a spontaneous morning flirting with a cute local over our double shot iced lattés and then being tricked into her hot yoga class, I sat at my piano chugging water with a vagabond’s impulse to hit the road.
I needed a break from writing my second album. I packed my backpack with a few bottles of water, some cash and my latest obsession “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. I zipped up my dusty boots, strapped on my colorful helmet and road my street-legal dirt bike about thirty minutes west to a local bar called “Pappy + Harriet’s.”
I walked in with a mean strut, my helmet in my left hand like a trophy that says “I’m stupid enough to ride a motorcycle.” I asked the bartender for their Golden Road hefeweizen. As she was pouring it, an older gentlemen sitting to my right turned to me and said hello.
I can’t remember the color of his eyes, but I remember the feeling of his gaze. A look of hardened joy, as if no hardship could strip his contentment. A soft playfulness accompanied by a heavy wisdom. He must’ve seen my helmet. His Harley was parked outside and we started talking motorcycles. The bartender handed me my beer in a mason jar and I decided to sit with this interesting fellow.
“I raced motorcycles when I was your age,” he said. “One time my throttle got stuck and I drove into a concrete wall at nearly 100 mph. I lost all my teeth but it didn’t stop me from getting back on. I thought I was invincible.” We talked a while about that, how believing you’re invincible protects you. We agreed that fear makes us more vulnerable to harm, that our naivety as children makes us powerful. “I think that’s why we are seeing so many young people executing revolutionary ideas,” I said. “They aren’t hindered by the high probability of failure. They just go for it.”
“Maybe naivety is the ultimate wisdom,” he said. The gentleman made a toast with his whiskey drink, and after grabbing a second beer I was firing off questions about his life. He was taken over by a wonderful excitement. I think it was my heartfelt curiosity.
“Number 80,” he said. “They were smart for picking me.” He was drafted into the army and fought in Vietnam for eleven and a half months. “My ignorance made for a good soldier.” Story after story, I couldn’t believe this man was still alive, let alone sane. He told me how adaptable the human mind is, that getting shot at everyday becomes normal. “Over time, we become comfortable with discomfort.” Somewhere in our war talk he said, “When bullets are flying, instincts take over and you become a different person. I got to see that side of myself. The hardship of war unmasked my strength. I didn’t know I was capable of dealing with such adversity.”
Someone yelled my name. I looked up and my friend Esjay who I hadn’t seen in over a year was standing right there. Her stunning 6-foot presence and her alluring South African accent almost made me forget about my new friend. We screamed at each other in exciting disbelief that we’ve collided in the middle of nowhere. She introduced me to her girlfriend, and as we began planning a road trip to Mexico, the gentleman waited patiently, occasionally turning around and giving us a big smile. She said her friend was playing a show outside on the patio in a couple hours. I said I would catch up with her a little later and eagerly returned back to my seat.
He handed me another beer. We drifted off the topic of war and forgot about time. He told me that the bar used to be a gas station. He showed me the blemishes on the floor where the pumps used to be. He was really thrilled to prove it and it got me excited about something I normally wouldn’t care about. We walked around the bar. I remember feeling so present. When we got back to our seats, I had to ask him, “Were you grateful for your time in Vietnam?”
He said very convincingly, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I believe every man should serve at some point in his life. That’s my greatest objection with the younger generation; you guys are too caught up with yourselves to serve your country.”
There was a pause, the longest one yet. I sipped my third beer, nodded my head and then turned my body to face him. I said, very slowly and calmly, “You’re right, we don’t want to serve our country. But this is what makes us special.”
“How so?” he asked.
I became more impassioned. “We are the disillusioned generation. We don’t carry weapons because we carry awareness, an awareness that our country has mislead us. We were told to abandon our passions, go to college and hastily select careers so we can half-heartedly work the rest of our lives to pay back the debt. We were taught to believe that materialism would bring us fulfillment but no matter how much we buy we still feel empty. We were told to play it safe so we don’t let everyone down, but we let down the only person that matters. Ourselves. And now we don’t love ourselves. We were promised independence, but all that our efforts have earned us is the illusion of freedom.”
“We won’t serve our country because we won’t fight for a government that wages war for profit. We won’t support a system that benefits the rich and entraps the poor. We won’t partake in an election process that patronizes the youth to vote and then forgets to put their candidate’s name on the ballot. Our selfishness is our strength and could be the imputes for change. We are educating ourselves through our own curiosity, a.k.a. our search history. We are becoming resistant to propaganda and dogma. We’re becoming smart enough to catch the truth in an ocean of lies, and yet we’re open minded enough still to eat every catch with a grain of salt. We want peace and equality, so why would we serve a government that wants the opposite?”
There was another pause. He gave me a subtle smile with a look of “you’re not finished yet.”
I continued, “The problem is that we are supporting this system. We don’t know how not to. We are aware but inactive, just a mob of confused individuals, connected but not united. You’re right, we’re too concerned with ourselves, preoccupied using social media to showcase our lives and express our individuality. But there is so much potential. I believe we can be more than the disillusioned generation. I believe we can be the generation that fought for our freedom, that united our voices into a single battle cry for change. I don’t know how though…”
He put his hand on my shoulder and with a fatherly touch he squeezed my arm, shook my hand and said, “Keep goin’ kid.”
We talked a little longer. Two hours had gone by since we started. I invited him to come outside and catch the show with me. He said he would meet me there. He never came. We never got each other’s names or numbers and it didn’t matter. I think he was an angel.
—Aug, 11, 2016