Digital Tavern: Summer of '81

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It was the first year of the age of Reagan, the summer of the Royal Wedding and the infamous PATCO strike. The Raiders were NFL Champions and Hill Street Blues was the top cop show on TV. As a nation we were still clearing our heads of the horrid visions of the preceding ten years; those years having been spent recovering from the even more tumultuous decade before. At the time I was blissfully unaware of all of this deeper context of the times. Though this time did not share the urgency that was felt in the 60s, it was a peculiar time at which to come of age nonetheless. The 70s were not quite over, but the 80s had not yet really begun. That summer my 19th birthday loomed toward it's end, and all of the strange events that would follow. In Franklin County, Ohio this was the summer of Mr. Natural, those 3$ cardboard chits with the Grateful Dead logo printed on them in red. In that 90 day period I probably consumed a sheet on my own. I discovered such wonders as the wave forms trailing a neon yellow tennis ball whacked with an aluminum baseball bat. 

 

At that time I was the youngest member of a crew for a local sign company who fabricated and serviced box signs and neon for a host of businesses in central Ohio. Officially I was an electrician's apprentice assigned to the service crew, but as the young pup of the lot my function was more that of a go-fer. It was my first "real" job beyond the usual teen-aged gigs of convenience store clerk or gas station attendant. The next youngest member of the roster was 33. If you've ever watched That 70s Show here is a frame of reference: I was Eric Foreman working in a shop filled with a bunch of Red Foremans.

 

The grand old man of the place was a fella I'll call Mr. Joe. At the time Mr. Joe was the only neon man for a hundred miles in any direction. He was well into his sixties, I am certain. Mr. Joe was a Marine combat veteran of the Pacific theater in WWII, he lived alone in an apartment in the OSU campus area, drank like a fish, smoked  like a chimney and greeted most who entered his lab with either stony silence or a snarl. I never did partake with the man, but to this day I strongly suspect that he was a stoner. For some unfathomable reason Mr. Joe took a shine to me, calling me College Boy. When I wasn't out with one of the service crews I was in the shop with Mr. Joe.

 

I make Mr. Joe a part of this tale because this entire idea of a digital tavern originated on Opher's thread on his Beat Poets article. I went to school in a time and place where one did not get exposed to such things as Kerouac or Kesey, Ginsberg or Burroughs. I was the eldest of my immediate family and no cousins nearby. No older brother to serve as a bad influence. I had been a 4.0 student, National Honor Society, President of the German Club, part of the yearbook staff; I was a textbook preppie. All of the trouble I found in subsequent years I found entirely on my own, but people like Mr. Joe were key in pointing the way there. I was already well predisposed to the lessons, but he introduced me to Kerouac, Castaneda and most importantly: Hunter S. Thompson. Amidst the various and sundry items scattered throughout his lab there were countless old magazines, many of which were old editions of Rolling Stone. It was here that I got my first taste of Fear and Loathing. I was a little late to the party, I readily admit, but I have been attuned to this type of tortured thought ever since.

 

Another one of the fellas I worked with at the sign company was a good ole boy from a little holler down in east Kentucky, a crazed Vietnam vet we called Crazy Keith. He was the hot shot on the service crew. Whether he was working out of a bucket, off a ledge or on the scaffolding of the Budweiser plant 150 feet in the air, the man was utterly fearless. Never wore a safety harness. Most of the time the guy scared the shit out of me, but after working enough jobs together we became familiar enough to meet at times outside of work. Keith was a stoner, in fact took delivery of a quarter pound a week; half of which he sold, the rest went up in smoke. It was mostly on this basis that I ended up becoming a frequent guest at his place.

 

In appearance Keith was something of a cross between Steve Buscemi and Goober Pyle and yet somehow he had this smokin' hot little wife, Joanne. I never considered for one second anything like making any moves on her. Keith was a guy who almost certainly would and probably had killed men over less, but it ain't no lie friends, she was fine to look at. She was a nurse at a State Mental Hospital about 15 miles outside of Columbus and this alone is how she figures into this story.

 

One Friday after work Keith and I went to a little local tavern called Renes Lounge for a couple of cold ones and a few rounds of pool. Joanne normally got off work at 4:00 and was supposed to meet us there. When it was nearly 6:00 we were getting half in the bag and she still hadn't shown so Keith decided we'd head on to his place. We got as far as the parking lot when she suddenly pulled up. She was laughing when she got out of her car and explained to us that she had been delayed because a group of cattle had broken out and were being herded over to another paddock temporarily, across the road from where they had been. You could almost see the light bulb form over Keith's head.

 

The field that these cattle had been moved to was only accessible to the public from the parking lot of the post office adjacent. This is a little village that I am sure any of you can relate to, they exist in every state. The sort of place that is often mistakenly identified as Resume Speed. Keith knew this area very well. Later that night, after the shift change, we rolled up in his Ford Econoline box van and parked behind the post office where we were entirely obscured from the road. You didn't need to worry about video cameras back then. We were equipped with a crossbow, a cache of six arrows, a Bowie knife and 50' of nylon rope. Only ten yards distant from where we parked was the low, wide gauged wire fence between the post office property and the herd beyond.

 

The fence was easy to clear and we spent the next humid hour stalking our quarry into the corner nearest the post office. It must have been some time around 1:30 that we finally had isolated our choice and had her lined up in the right spot for Keith to take his shot. He hit the target, though not where he had hoped, piercing her broadside and putting one into a lung. This slowed her down, but it wasn't enough. We ended up chasing her halfway back into that field before getting a solid enough hold on her to finish the deed with the Bowie knife. We ended up gutting her there, about a hundred yards from the fence, cracking the spine and looping rope around both sets of hooves to then drag the carcass to the fence and on to the van.

 

Some time after 3 AM Keith and I dragged our trophy in black Glad garbage bags up three flights of stairs to their apartment and proceeded to carve it up in their bath tub. Joanne was not amused. The next day we had a big BBQ. It was tough as shoe leather, but still some of the best grilling I can remember. It is only by the grace of the statute of limitations that I share this tale. I have been in a state of war with Ohio ever since.

 

I learned a lot at that sign company, but very little of it had to do with signs. At least not the sort hung outside of a business. Six months later I was off on my own odyssey and I owe an awful lot of that to Mr. Joe.

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