Dumb, really dumb idea. The worst mistake my normally level-headed parents made. Sanctioning a “survival trek” with Mr. Hirsch in The Woods. It was 1969 and Mom and Dad made sure I had a crew cut, so that, by their reasoning I wouldn’t do reefer or drop acid (their theory: long hair=drug user). They were big on manners, opening doors, saying please and thank you, and having me wash my hands more than Lady Macbeth. But they saw what they saw. Long-haired freaks taking drugs and burning draft cards and American flags. Anti-war protests. Hippies. Yippies. Communists. Drug dealers. Mini-skirts. Free love. Black Power. Jimmy Hendrix making a shambles of the national anthem. Too much change to swallow. So here’s this guy with a crew cut who is a big shot at the synagogue and the VFW, a decorated Viet Nam Vet, an outspoken critic of anything free, whether that be love or handouts to people of color. Mr. Hirsch represented the anti-zeitgeist. Mom’s explanation for the foray into The Woods: “Mr. Hirsch thinks—and your father and I think—this kind of activity is wholesome and will keep you off drugs.” Always about keeping us off of drugs. Oh, and my mother added, Mr. Hirsch was such a nice man and he had done our family a few favors, like helping my father acquire 100,000 corks we stored in hall closet. At that time, Dad estimated he’d make about 50 grand by selling them to wineries. Unfortunately, as Dad found out later, the corks couldn’t fit in any wine bottles manufactured on the planet.
Mr. Hirsch arrived at our house with his station wagon early in the morning. Us, I say, because Brian Hartman and Sammie Silverman also were also going, courtesy of their my-kids-are-going-to-do-what-they’re-going-to-do parents. Spending a Saturday in The Woods with a testosterone crazed vet with a square Marine haircut and fatigues. “This’ll get you guys ready for Nam,” he barked, pushing us into the car by the tops of our heads. Dad and Mom saluted as two helicopters flew overhead.
Pony-tailed Brian Hartmann could have given the Marquis de Sade a few lessons. In my yearbook he wrote: “May a million basketballs fall on your head.” Having my hair cut every other week was also an invitation to flick his fingers on my neck and yell “Swipes.” Brian did this over and over again from the backseat until my neck was red. Skinny, stringy-haired Sammie smirked every time Brian swiped me.
When some hippies tried blocking the intersection in an impromptu peace demonstration, Mr. Hirsch tried to run them over.
“We’re losing in Viet Nam,” I said matter-of-factly, as if I had learned this from a military strategist and not from a drunken baseball fan over a urinal.
Mr. Hirsch stopped the car in the middle of a crowded road and peered at me.
“We will win the war!” he bellowed. “It may take us a thousand years, but we will win the war. When you’re 18, you’ll be drafted and you will have a chance to die for this country.”
“My father said he’d take me to Canada rather than fight in Viet Nam” I replied. “He says the war doesn’t make any sense.”
“Your father never said that, young Mr. Goodman,” he said.
“He did,” I replied.
“He was drunk then.”
“Yeah, he was, but he still meant it. He’s not letting me die.”
“‘He’s not letting me die,’” he mocked.
“Yeah, I’ll go to Canada.”
“Well, you’re going to The Woods,” he announced. “You might change your mind after today, Ho Chi Min.”
I was scared shitless. Did he intend to leave me in The Woods like Hansel and Gretel? Maybe he had a rifle and he’d track me down like the Viet Cong.
Brian and Sammie embraced in the back seat and I could see Brian’s hands advancing over placid body with little resistance.
“What are you looking at?” Mr. Hirsch bellowed.
“Yeah, what are looking at?” Brian laughed, reaching out and swiping me again.
“The enemy will always try to divert your attention,” Mr. Hirsch admonished.
We hit a bump and I almost bit off my tongue.
We stopped at four stores to pick up supplies. Food at the grocery. Tents. Army fatigues. Canteens. We didn’t get to The Woods until almost twilight. That made it scarier, even though I thought I could see my house in the distance.
“Where are Brian and Sammie?’
“They went ahead.”
“You let them go into The Woods by themselves?”
“Jealous, are we?”
I had expected a long road trip. It wasn’t. I expected to go somewhere deep in The Woods. We didn’t. Just 2 miles from my house. Kids said there were cliffs in The Woods, but that probably was urban legend. A curtain of reddish-blue clouds began falling on The Woods. The Woods became loud and restless with night sounds, like those fabricated sound effects on TV shows. Loaded down with enough supplies to last through Armageddon, Mr. Hirsch trampled on the moist leaves. I followed—what else was I going to do? I’d get lost otherwise.
Suddenly, night fell like a guillotine. Mr. Hirsch became terrified. He backed away like he had seen a ghost.
“We have to stop!” he screamed. “We’ll fall over the cliff.”
He grabbed me by my ears and tried to take me with him, but I twisted away. Mr. Hirsch continued to backpedal at a furious pace, out of control, like an unfettered marionette.
I sprinted forward as Mr. Hirsch continued to backpedal. I was going my way, he his. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know whether I was going to fall off a cliff. There were those stories. Overhead, a helicopter with a searchlight buzzed the top of the trees.
“You’re going to die, you’re going to die,” I heard Mr. Hirsch bellow before I slipped, fell, and hit my head. When I looked up from the dewy leaves, I no longer saw him above me.
“What the hell are you looking at?” Brian screamed.
He and Sammie were half-clothed about 10 feet in front of me.
“Come here!” Brian commanded.
With Sammie there and parts of her unconcealed I could not resist.
“Where’s Mr. Hirsch?” I cried.
“He’s dead,” Brian said. “Let’s get out of here.”
“We have to look,” I insisted.
We didn’t look very hard, but we did look. Sammie, who looked bug-eyed, just giggled the whole time. We got back to the car and Brian even though he was only 14 drove us to the police station.
“Goodman did it, Goodman did!” Brian laughed.
The police looked at me like I was scum and I heard later on that Mr. Hirsch did blame me, but “as a good-hearted person to the very core, and knowing his parents as I do, I will not press charges.”
The police quickly found Mr. Hirsch. As he backpedaled away what he thought was a cliff, he fell off the real cliff. Lucky for him, he banged against a few bushes and suffered only the mildest concussion during his 129 foot descent. After that, we never saw him again in the neighborhood, only on the news years later after being one of the most culpable executives in the Enron Affair.
Several weeks later, I walked up at The Woods, this time with Sammie’s younger sister. It was clear in the daylight how Mr. Hirsch had back-pedaled off a pretty scary cliff.
I took Sammie’s sister’s hand and we walked over the recess where Brian and Sammie had been and into a clearing and into a nice meadow. I think you know what I hoped would happen next. It was midday and everything was bright and quiet except for a train that seemed miles and even centuries away. Sammie’s sister (whom I call Sammie’s sister because that’s all I ever knew her by) quickly stripped and ran away from me into the clearing. She had Sammie’s smile, but was a good deal heavier yet much more ebullient than her sister. There was no one around, absolutely no one around, and it was 1969 and everybody who was young was happy and naked and so were we. It seemed like a glorious time running under the sun like we were in Gauguin’s Tahiti. I felt proud when I finally ran her down, even though she made it clear that our romp in the meadow had ended as soon as I caught her.
A helicopter zoomed in for a closer look at us. I swear I saw my parents in the cockpit.
We just laughed and waved.
-- George David Miller is a writer, activist, and philosopher. He has performed his poetry and given poetry workshops to over 40,000 people over the past decade.