In Defense of ‘Escape!’

 
            For most of my adult life, I have been accused of being a quitter or of running away from ‘responsibility.’ But who has the authority or the corner on the truth of what is ‘responsible?’ My ‘irresponsibility,’ probably started in the minds of my ‘friends’ & loving relatives when I first started going AWOL from the U.S. Army. Yes, I could’ve been ‘responsible’ and possibly been sent to Vietnam? And I might have been killed, wounded, or come home with deeply, disturbing nightmares & no longer able to fit into ‘responsible society?’ Who knows? But, I took a stand & committed myself to following through on it i.e. I wasn’t going to be another statistic on the Pentagon’s list of the unfortunate souls who believed their lies. I don’t mind admitting that I was scared shit-less for the entire year of my military experience. I was scared in basic training with the constant yelling & intimidation from the drill sergeants. I was scared every time that I went AWOL & had to beg ‘friends’ for a couch to sleep on while fearing that the FBI was about to bust me. I was scared when the FBI did finally bust me & I thought that I might be sent to military jail for several years.
            In spite of my fears though, each time that I stood up to the military & their various attempts at intimidation to get me to comply & be a ‘good soldier,’ my belief in myself grew. The summer before I ‘joined’ the army & right after my graduation from high school, me and several friends would hang out in front of my mom’s house & every few weeks or so, a couple of my classmates from Paramount High would drop by and tell us about their hitch-hiking adventures. We all sat enraptured with the details of their experiences. It dawned on me one day that I was just as strong & as smart as Jim & Dennis were, and I thought, if they can do it, so can I. I didn’t go for it though until after my ordeal in the army was over i.e. a year later. I first started hitching up to Santa Barbara—a hundred miles north of L.A. & a rich, retirement community. Jim & Dennis had told us about a nudist area in the foothills overlooking Santa Barbara & all the beautiful, naked, hippie-chicks. And this was my first destination as a novice hitch-hiker. It was a very liberating experience in more than the obvious manner i.e. shedding one’s clothes in public for the first time. It emboldened me in that it gave me the confidence to attempt much longer hitch-hiking journeys.
            On my first major trip, I made it all the way up to Portland, Oregon where I had relatives I could visit. My cousins welcomed me like I was some sort of brave adventurer & loved hearing about my experiences on the road. And this is when I first started to experience the negative backlash or backstabbing assaults on my character by aunts & uncles who were sweet to my face but promptly wrote or called my mom & complained about ‘Rob, the bum.’ It took me several years to get a handle on what they must have been so angry about. I believe they were worried that I’d be a ‘negative influence’ on their children & therefore they felt they had to do everything possible to discredit me and blacken my name. I gradually built up a protective armor around myself & basically wrote my aunts & uncles off as miserable, old, hypocrites.
            Subsequently, I would work at Mickey Mouse jobs for as long as I could stand, and would take off hitching & looking for the kind of adventures that only the open road could offer me. I hitched up the West coast dozens of times, I went to Hawaii for a month, and I hitched all the way across America spending only $26 for beer & wine to show my appreciation to people who had gone out of their way by giving me rides farther than they had originally stated. Meanwhile, my mom was getting more and more upset & disappointed with my ‘irresponsibility’ i.e. quitting job after job. I was forced to ask ‘friends’ several times if I could crash on their couches. And as time went on, even those ‘friends’ who’d swear to me when we were getting drunk that they respected me & that I was like a brother to them, would turn my request to stay with them temporarily. It began to really take a toll on my self-image & I began to doubt myself more and more. Yet there was something inside me—call it stubbornness or whatever—that told me that I wasn’t wrong & that I wasn’t a bum. Perhaps some of the people whom  I met on the road,   gave me the extra confidence to carry on? Anyway, I persisted. I was also attending local community colleges in between trips and dropping out because I wasn’t turned on to the subject and couldn’t see the point in sitting through boring lectures. The jobs I took were all mostly menial and dead-end. The employers for the most part treated me like a stupid, unworthy, slave meant to perform like an unthinking & unfeeling barnyard animal. My mom & grama repeatedly tried to convince me that life was not to be enjoyed but endured. I argued with them constantly & refused to accept their view of ‘reality.’
            Equally important during this period of exploring the realm of personal possibilities, was the fact that some of the people I met while on the road, turned me on to some great authors who had inspired them. I began to read & search out many new writers I had never heard of before e.g. Kerouac, Michener, Hesse, etc. And the more that I read these inspiring writers, the more my appetite for traveling grew. Tragically, in the summer of 1975, my little brother, Tim, died of a heroin overdose. This experience was definitely life-altering & made me question the so-called ‘common sense’ advice that so many constantly bombarded me with e.g. settle down, stick with a job whether you like it or not, etc. I had dreamed of going to Europe since I was around 7 years old and I decided to go for it the summer of 1976. And once again, I was scared. Money I had counted on, fell through but my taste buds were wetted & I was determined to go anyway. I booked my flight with a charter group & couldn’t come back early even if I wanted to. I landed in London with $400 in my pocket and had three months to go. I found myself broke after just two weeks but managed to survive by getting work moving furniture & being paid under the table. I also had a Euro-Rail train pass that my mom had given me & I traveled to Tangiers in hopes of selling my Levis & transistor radio but this failed. I went hungry for three days & ate a sardine sandwich offered to me by a strange looking Arab fellow—even though I hate sardines. I slept on some park benches & in some train stations. I looked up some people I had originally visited in London & who had moved to the south of England with their antique furniture restoring business. I worked in exchange for room and board & built a fence, helped install a Victorian spiral-staircase, some skylights, dug ditches, stripped furniture, etc. Anyway, I survived the three months and when I returned to L.A., I was treated like a sort of hero by my ‘friends.’
            Needless to say, this first trip to Europe just whet my appetite and I made two more trips to Europe in the next four years. And on these trips, I left with a one-way ticket and landed with something like $100 one time & $200 another time? Europe liberated me like no other experience in my life! I looked up a friend of a friend name of Ruedi, in Switzerland, and he knew more about American literature, history, politics, philosophy, etc. than I did. I was blown-away by Ruedi’s intelligence & patient understanding. I picked Ruedi’s brain and he started recommending authors to me which I sought out and devoured when I returned to the U.S. The experiences and the people that I met in Europe also liberated me in that I no longer felt like such an oddball for enjoying discussions of serious issues. My ‘friends’ back in L.A. always mocked me for my ‘serious nature.’ And when I discovered the freedom of dancing by myself as many Europeans would do whenever the spirit overtook them, it was like being reborn! After this ‘discovery,’ when I’d go out with my buddies to nightclubs and girls would turn me down after I’d asked them to dance—sometimes several girls in a row—I’d say to myself, ‘the hell with them, I’m going to dance because I feel like it.’ And it was a sight to behold because sometimes the club’s bouncers would try to make me sit down & sometimes women would simply join me on the dance floor. I felt so free because no longer was I dependent on a stranger in terms of having a good time dancing.
            What’s more, in 1981, I met a gal who would later become my wife, on  a dance floor—no, I wasn’t dancing alone this time. I believe that my travels, my education, & my general spirit of adventurousness were some of the things that attracted Jeri to me at the beginning of our relationship? But as time passed and after the birth of our son, we settled into the usual kind of rat-race existence that is common in Western societies & we drifted apart. But, like so many countless others, we stayed together. For the sake of our son? Because we had fallen into a familiar rut? I don’t know? In any case, after 20 years of this, we mutually agreed that it was time to get on with our lives and we filed for divorce. Jeri and I had gone to Europe for our honeymoon & spent two months there in the winter of 1985. It was quite an experience because we were both sick with strep-throat for just about the entire trip but we did have some memorable experiences. And in 1997 after my mother had passed away, I took our son, Ryan, to Europe for the month of August. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to make that trip with my son because it created a special bond that will be with us for the rest of our lives. Besides, I had the ulterior motive of wanting to instill the travel bug in him. Ha! Ha! Moreover, during the years after Ryan & mine’s trip, Jeri and I were mostly separated, though I frequently was forced to ask her for help i.e. to crash on her couch & these ‘visits,’ often stretched into a year or more in length. Anyway, I made three more trips to Europe since 1997 and although they have been marked by loneliness & sadness, I never regret my visits to that enchanted land. I even broke out of my mold i.e. Europe, and made a trip to Ecuador a few years back but it wasn’t as inspiring as Europe. I think Europe holds a special fascination for me because of my love of literature & history?
            In any case, I believe that I will return to Europe again and again until I either die or I am no longer physically able to do so? Why? Because in Europe I can hold my head up because writers are respected there. Here in America, I am considered a bum because I have never been able to reconcile myself to the 9 to 5 daily grind of paying your bills, sticking with a soul-destroying job, & the endless consumer merry-go-round. This is a good point at which to share with you a passage from one of America’s great writers, James Baldwin. This is from his book Nobody Knows My Name: more notes of a native son
            The story of what can happen to an American Negro writer in Europe simply illustrates, in some relief, what can happen to any American writer there. It is not meant, of course, to imply that it happens to them all, for Europe can be very crippling, too; and, anyway, a writer, when he has made his first breakthrough, has simply won a crucial skirmish in a dangerous, unending and unpredictable battle. Still, the breakthrough is important, and the point is that an American writer, in order to achieve it, very often has to leave this country.
            The American writer, in Europe, is released, first of all, from the necessity of apologizing for himself. It is not until he is released from the habit of flexing his muscles and proving that he is just a ‘regular guy’ that he realizes how crippling this habit has been. It is not necessary for him, there, to pretend to be something he is not, for the artist does not encounter in Europe the same suspicion he encounters here. Whatever the Europeans may actually think of artists, they have killed enough of them off by now to know that they are as real—and as persistent—as rain, snow, taxes or businessmen.
            ….A European writer considers himself to be part of an old and honorable tradition—of intellectual activity, of letters—and his choice of a vocation does not cause him any uneasy wonder as to whether or not it will cost him all his friends. But this tradition does not exist in America.
            On the contrary, we have a very deep-seated distrust of real intellectual effort (probably because we suspect that it will destroy, as I hope it does, that myth of America to which we cling so desperately). An American writer fights his way to one of the lowest rungs on the American social ladder by means of pure bull-headedness and an indescribable series of odd jobs. He probably has been a ‘regular fellow’ for much of his adult life, and it is not easy for him to step out of that lukewarm bath.” (pgs. 19-20)
            I stumbled upon this book probably 20 years ago or better and was immediately consoled because I felt that here was someone who understood & articulated my misery far better than I ever could. Of course, I have shown passages like this and dozens of others but my ‘friends’ and relatives continue to label me as lazy, irresponsible, unrealistic, etc. I must reconcile myself to the fact that they will never be able to hear me & that I am like a man without a country or a home. And even though I have more health issues as I get older & it gets scarier to contemplate a future with no pension, no health care insurance, no roof over my head, and no friends, my daimon tells me to continue following my bliss or conscience. I am researching what they call ‘intentional communities’ i.e. what we used to call communes in the 1960s, and preparing yet another assault not unlike a mountaineer getting ready to scale Mt. Everest. And when mountain climbers are asked why they take such risks answer, ‘because it’s there, and because I never feel more alive than when I am risking everything.’ And because I feel that my life hasn’t been lived in vain. All my struggles, all the humiliation I have suffered has shaped me & taught me what is important in life. I believe that I have contributed towards bettering humanity & that I still have a lot more work before me. I hope that in some small measure, this book I have been working on for the past three years will bring some comfort and understanding to whomever may read it? My ex-wife said to me as we were walking into a Chinese restaurant to celebrate my birthday in October of 2005 that ‘we both deserve to be happy.’ I felt a little cold at first when she said this. She had met someone and was moving on with her life. But now that time has passed, I can see that she is right. I am simply picking up with my life where I left off when I first met her. I wish that I was absolutely positive that I am doing the right thing but it seems that insecurity is destined to be my life-long companion? Perhaps it goes with the territory I have mapped out for myself? A good note to end on is a quote from the back cover of a short book by my all-time favorite author, Hermann Hesse & the book is titled Knulp:
            Knulp is an amiable vagabond who wanders from town to town, staying with friends who feed and shelter him. Consistently refusing to tie himself down to any trade, place, or person, he even deserts the companion who might be considered Hermann Hesse himself the summer they go tramping together.
            Knulp’s exile is blissful, gentle, self-absorbed. But hidden beneath the light surface of these ‘Tales from the Life of Knulp’ is the conscience of an artist who suspects that his liberation is worthless, even immoral. As he lies dying in a snowstorm, Knulp has an interview with God in which he reproaches himself for his wasted life. But it is revealed to Knulp that the whole purpose of his life has been to bring ‘a little homesickness for freedom’ into the lives of ordinary men.
            Surprisingly, I was reading this story of Knulp to my son as he was going to sleep when he was around seven or eight years old, and after just a few pages, my son, Ryan, said to me, “that’s you dad.” He has forgotten this profound insight from years ago now. And he too sees me as ‘irresponsible.’ This saddens me to my soul yet I hold out hope that he will one day know me again & that we can tramp the beautiful valleys of Switzerland together some warm, summer day?
            —Rob DeLoss, January 17, 2007

 


 

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