Chapter Three – The Voice

May 1971, Lory State Park, Northampton, Massachusetts. Preparing for a cartwheel, I'm wearing the "$27 bathing suit."

Before leaving for his dormitory, I couldn’t resist trying on the unfinished bathing suit. I was already wearing my favorite — and only — bathing suit under my jeans, from which I had made a pattern for this one. My old suit was red, white, and blue with circles and wavy lines, which rode low on my hips and under my belly. I loved the way it fit, but it had begun to fade. The reason I couldn’t part with it was sentimental. The day we bought it was the first time my mother had taken me shopping for such an intimate item. That not only acknowledged that I was becoming a young woman, but seemed to honor it.

The top was simple, but cut low enough to be very sexy. In the dressing room that day when I shopped with my mother, I liked it so much that I thought she’d probably veto it. I was reluctant to show it to her. When she asked if I was ready, I came out from behind the drapery and looked down in embarrassment.

“Oh, how lovely,” My mother said softly. She was probably surprised to see me in so little clothing; I was extremely modest at home. “Andit fits you perfectly. How much is it, dear?” That was the next hurdle. I had no idea how much she was willing to spend. She seemed to deliberate, and then the sales lady came over to tell us it was on sale from $40 to $27.

“Oh, we have to get it now! Do you like it, dear?” After an early adolescence in which my mother was absent for several years while she both worked and then went to the hospital to be with my younger sister Kathy who was dying of leukemia, this kind of bonding was what healed the hurt of those years of unintended neglect. This bathing suit transaction was a rite of passage, a go-ahead to be a woman with a young woman’s body without having to hide.

Back in my dorm room, I took off my old bathing suit top and put on the unfinished one. Admiring my tan lines, I congratulated myself on a perfect fit. I rode my hands over my hips and held the bottom against the old bathing suit to see how it matched. It looked real good, much better than the first version I had made several days earlier. I decided I would give that one to my sister Chrissie who was a size larger than my petite self. Standing on my tiptoes, I did a pirouette before the mirror for one last look at the top. I then threw all my sewing gear into a box, shoved it under the bed, and ran into the lounge to get the sewing machine to put away downstairs in a locked closet. I was finally ready, and I nearly tripped as I ran out of the dorm to get to Mark’s.

Riding the elevator up the 20th floor of the all-male dorm where Mark lived was fun because a girl never knew whom she would run into. I often encountered guys from my other classes, and once in a while the now basketball legend, Julius Irving, AKA Dr. J. At that time, he was the hero of the UMass Basketball team. Julius was a genuine nice guy; most of the other young men I met on the elevator made it a social lark to travel to Mark’s room. When I got to his door, I was surprised when he wasn’t completely ready to go. He handed me a helmet, and looked excited but serious.

“You’re going to need a helmet. I’ve got a jacket you can borrow.” These were both disappointing to hear.

“But what about the wind in my hair and the grasshoppers in my teeth?” I was wearing cut-off shorts, sandals and a tank top. I was going for full spring effect.

Mark laughed, but in a way that took the options out of my protest. “If we had time, I’d make you go back and wear a pair of long pants.” I could tell then he disapproved of my sandals. I had no idea I would have to wear so much special gear. I never did the few times I rode in high school. He pulled out a second helmet and a jeans jacket, and we both headed for the parking lot. I asked him if we could drop off a roll of film I’d taken at the State Park in Northampton of our whole gang of guys and girls. With the film bulging in my back pocket, we headed in direction of downtown, and I ran into the drug store before we headed out for the open road.

Springtime comes full of promise to Amherst, with birds chirping from newly hatched shells, grass shining out of rolling green pastures, and the perfume of lilac trees and apple blossoms wafting in the air. On the way to Sunderland and points northwest, the Berkshires beckoned. After a semester of hard work I was ready for springtime’s promise of summer. In a few days, I would be in Saranac Lake.

I was glad not to be going back to Revere. I wanted to leave my family and that past behind. There would be relatives and good friends to stay with in Saranac Lake while I found my summer job. Summer’s promise included learning to water ski, being reunited with my good friend Patty and having plenty of beer parties down by Lake Ampersand where her fiancée, Beef Bevilacqua lived.

But I was not thinking of the summer while riding with Mark. The rush of air and scenery were breathtaking and intoxicating. And now, surrounded by the muffled roar of the BSA bike we were on, I was thinking, “Finally, we’re getting out of town. Finally I’m riding a motorcycle.”

“I’m so happy!” I yelled to Mark, as we waited at a red light.

“What?” he yelled back at me. Even at a standstill, verbal communication on the motorcycle was difficult, so I didn’t bother to repeat myself and just hugged him. He then looked back at me through his rear view mirror, and I remember his green eyes, how they sought mine, and how he flashed his smile at me. At the green light we vroomed away from the pick-up and turned onto Route 119, the stretch of road that led to Sunderland and beyond to the Berkshires.

Spring 1971, Mark Robinson. Marks' mother, Dottie, gave me this photo of him in skydiving gear taken not long before the accident. When I took the photo out of its frame, 30 years later, it disintegrated.

Leaving the urban quadrant of the University and the quaint town of Amherst, I was surprised to find the rural campus surroundings so quickly. “Ooh, Look! Cows!” I poked Mark again; this time he smiled back and nodded. I relaxed back into the seat and hung on for the ride. Finally, away from it all. The dorms, the working, the studying, the status of pedestrian. It was 3:30, and we wouldn’t be out for long, but just this much was wonderful.

Coming around a bend on Rte 119 near Plum Tree Road, I never saw, and I don’t think Mark did, either, the car that veered straight out of his lane and into ours. Life can be gone in a minute, in a second, and it was this quickly that we were hit head on at 55 miles per hour by a man whom I later learned was a 20-year old uninsured motorist. He was driving his girlfriend’s car, and not paying attention to the road as he bent down to pick up some papers that had fallen off the seat. At the curve in the road we all met our destiny.

Mark’s leg was ripped from his body, and he died immediately. I was thrown 20 feet through the air and hit a utility pole with my pelvis, crushing it and fracturing both legs, then landed on the ground lacerating my left elbow and hand. I didn’t know at the instant of impact what happened. It didn’t even register I was in the countryside on a bike. The force of such an impact sent my body immediately into shock, and all I could figure was that I had been hit from behind by a bus that then ran me over. Though the dense, head-on blow was to the front of my body, it caused my body to undulate, whipping my head back then forward, making it feel as though I was hit from behind.  

There on the ground near Plum Tree Road, I lay trying to get up, commanding my arms to push me off the ground and stand up. Trying to push my voice out of my chest, emitting sounds that felt far away, I wondered if I still had my teeth. I expected to groan and raise my hand to my mouth, but I couldn’t. I realized I had no control over my body.

“Please help me get up,” I cried, sensing people around me.

I heard a murky hubbub, a mumbling, the sensation much like lying in brackish water, the texture of ugliness and despair. Finally, I made out one distinct sound. It was a woman’s voice, clear like a mountain stream trickling down rock walls that said, “You’re going to be all right. You have been in a motorcycle accident; the ambulance is on the way. We are here with you. Just hang in there.”

“Where’s Mark?” I knew enough that I had been with Mark Robinson, even though I didn’t make the connection I’d been hit on a motorcycle.

“We’re taking care of him. Don’t you worry.”

I fell back into the infernal blackness of shock and trauma. I fell into a dark and chaotic hole. This is Hell, I thought, as I tumbled and bumped into dark corners of space with what was left of my mind.

After trying for what seemed an eternity to push against the ground to get up, I then was forced to cling onto the earth like a barnacle. I held onto the firmament beneath my chest while the world spun round and round like a disk, trying to fling me off into the void.

The blackness was so thick and deep and buffeting, it felt like a tornado. I watched Ferris wheels spin madly out of control, and monkeys and human children swirl through space screaming. I held on with my consciousness, my mind begging: “Please let this be a dream.” The nightmare raged while I clung to whatever reality said, “This is not hell,” and whatever shred of light could believe: “This may be a dream.”

My mind was like a commander reining his soldiers in after sending them out to die, bringing me back to the Voice that responded when I could speak.            

“Where’s Mark?” I cried again.

“He is here. The ambulance is on the way,” and I was flung off again, flying raggedly through space, my body along for a ride to a destination that did not require a consciousness. When the chaos chose direction, I felt my whole being sucked out of my body into a skinny, black vortex of particles, dust, then colors, purple and green, and then a brighter light, which felt as though it could have been a release, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel natural. I didn’t want to go. I was fighting it, trying to wake up. Wake up, open your eyes, and wake up, I told myself. And I would find myself conscious again, but I couldn’t see, and barely could hear through the rushing of what might have been death’s wings. I called for Mark again.

“He is here. We are taking care of him. Don’t you worry,” and I was flung off again, flying raggedly through space, feeling annihilation a moment away. The only hope my conscious mind could hold was that I wasn’t really in hell, but having a dream of it. A dream will end.

It took the ambulance 20 minutes to get there.

Urgent voices, staccato questions reaching into the roiling darkness. “What is your name? Can you tell us where you live? What is your mother’s phone number?”

I was a smart aleck in high school, the class clown in the seventh grade. Reflexively, I wanted to joke: “I can only give me you name, rank and serial number.” But my mind suspected what my body already knew:  There was not time or energy to answer as I wanted. “Bernice Kenney, 168 Beach Street, 284-5412. In Revere.” I gave them the words, and I let go again into hell. Hell was dark, cold, and like a tornado never still. What’s happening? Where am I? How did I get here?

I heard them saying, “Get that bathing suit off,”. . . and I struggled against them, crying, “Don’t ruin my $27 bathing suit!” I was struggling out of a swamp of darkness, I couldn’t see, but I could hear.  But no one seemed to listen to me. Until my mother came.

I heard my aunts first, their tonalities the same as my mother’s, and then I could hear the resonance of my mother’s voice. It was like I was hooked into her from the other end of a tube that threatened to suck the life out of me, and she kept pulling me back in with her voice.

“Ma, where am I?”

I heard my sister Chris say my name.  “Chrissie,” I said. “I made you a bathing suit.” I then imagined us both on the beach. We were children, but in my imagination we were both wearing the red bathing suit.

“You’re in the hospital, dear. In Northampton.” My mother’s voice sounded grave and sad.

“In Northampton? Where’s Mark?”

She didn’t answer.

“He’s dead, isn’t he, Ma?” I didn’t believe it was possible when I thought to ask, but as soon as the words were out, I knew it was probable.

“Yes, dear,” she said in a voice that leaned over and cradled me. “He didn’t make it. Mark didn’t make it.” She said this as though she had known him, too, even though my mother didn’t know any of my friends from college. Mark’s mother called my mother the next day, and from then on it was as if my mother had known Mark too.

Mark didn’t make it. Another piece of me died. It was harder to imagine Mark being gone. So I didn’t for a while. It went eventually to a little place in my heart’s memory that I now keep sacred.

This place is translucent silver, soft pink inside like a bowl and filled with tears that have turned to pearls, and I keep photographs, mostly, but with some people I keep conversations and shapes of shells and stuff that makes me cry so my heart can wring out my memory cells, all of them.  Paula’s smell, like a snake; Mark’s smile, Phil’s wild, reddish curls, Mark Newman’s rippling laughter, Aunt Mary’s sing-song phone announcements, “Carolyn Sue; it’s for you.” Dad’s morning smell with bacon and eggs all hours of the day, Ma’s soft skin on her face and her voice that I sometimes hear at night when I’m done remembering. And in my body I feel the pain of their having been here and gone, and how that surely hurt. I just know it did. I don’t care what anyone says; you don’t go quietly, gently. It’s a terrible ripping from the earth.

No one I know wanted to go. You only want to go when it hurts so much you would have to die to feel better. I know that one. But I don’t have trouble with suicide thoughts very often; I get them, but they pass.

I couldn’t see the outlines of the hospital room, but the people, their voices and their faces all felt like some Salvador Dali mural of surrealism that floated above me. I tried to piece together the puzzle. How could my two aunts from New York be in the same place as Dick Fowler from the counseling center at Southwest? And how could my mother and my sister get to Northampton? My mother didn’t know how to drive; my sister didn’t have a license. If my brother Billy had driven them, why hadn’t he spoken to me yet?

My sister told me later that they had not been able to reach my father who didn’t have a phone, but did have a car. She said she convinced my mother to hitchhike along the Massachusetts Turnpike. This was in the early ‘70’s when hitchhiking was still done, but not normally by non-hippie adults. Chris said she could feel all of my mother’s will go into a safe ride, and it happened. They got to Northampton two hours after they got the phone call informing them I was hurt and might not make it.

“When we got there they had your body up in this huge sling and your leg was sticking out high above your head. They said that as fast as they were pouring blood into you, you were losing it out your pelvis. Ma said the halls were lined with college kids who showed up every day to give you blood.”

My sister Chris is shy to mention this in front of other people, but she told me that when she saw me, and I was talking about a bathing suit – which sounded so strange and trivial to her – and probably foreign as hell because as long as we lived in the same house, I never let her touch a stitch of my hand-sewn outfits even though she tried. When she saw me like that in that sling, she felt a whoosh of energy transferred to my spirit from hers leaving her weak and drained. Many people said they prayed for me; even those who did not normally pray. Perhaps I received their energy infusions each of the times I emerged to consciousness again. I only know that my consciousness went in and out, and often it was words, which pulled me in again, though sometimes a face.

“Cale, we are going to amputate your leg.” I heard that one.

Chapter Two – Motorcycles

“CaleCaleCale,” Mark Robinson’s smile burst into the room in advance of his physical presence. When I looked up to see his green eyes, I smiled back, then leaning over the table surface I had turned into a cutting board, I snipped off the last piece of interfacing.

“MarkMarkMark, I’m making a bathing suit!” suit I announced. He stood leaning against the door jam, in cut-off jeans and a t-shirt, his arms crossed in a relaxed pose, but the excitement in his voice told me something unusual was up.

“So, this is where you are! I tried to call you. Are you ready for a ride?”

“Uh, yeah. I mean, Yes! You got the bike working! Sure! Soon as I put this stuff away.” But I wasn’t really excited at first, considering how long I had been looking forward to this maiden voyage.  I almost didn’t want to go, since I was nearly finished with the suit and wanted to see what it looked like on me. But I had been begging him for a ride ever since I heard he was getting a bike, and this was my last free day.  Tomorrow was my French final, and then my freshman year at the University of Mass in Amherst was over. “It’ll take me two minutes,” I added.

“Okay!” he said, halfway out the door, he added, “I’ll meet you at my dorm then.” He bounded down the stairs in that way of his, on the balls of his feet, like an Indian in magic moccasins. Part Cherokee, Mark wasn’t that tall, about 5’ 10”, but he was lean and all muscle. I had only recently learned that he was a track star in high school. He was forever surprising me; he didn’t seem like they kind of boy who would ride a motorcycle.  But then, I’d never known anyone who had parachuted from airplanes, either. Mark had just finished taking his first dive.

We met my first semester, his third, in an 8 a.m. French class. He would come over evenings to Herman Melville House, my all girl dormitory where I was also working as a lobby security guard. We tutored each other in French and talk about our other classes.  I’d been introduced to Aristotle, Socrates and Plato in my Classics 101 course, as well as the Greek tragedians, Sophocles and Euripedes.  Because he was a sophomore, he had taken many of the courses the year before, he talked about them as eagerly as I.

“What did you think of that analogy of the caves thing?” he asked me one night, a frown darkening his face.   “Did you get that at all?”

“Oh, yeah! Didn’t you? But I like the tragedies more. What do you think of Oedipus Rex?  Wasn’t that the most amazing story? The way he heard in advance that he would kill his father and marry his own mother, so he leaves home so he won’t do those things, and he ends up meeting his real father on the road, killing him and winning the king’s wife as a reward.”

“Yeah, no matter what, the Greeks think your fate is decided before you are born,” he said.

“But the existentialists believe you create your own destiny. Free will, and all that,” I countered.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

“I believe you can be whoever you want to be,” then I hastily added a qualifier. “Of course, your life is somewhat determined by your social class, and to a certain extent, your upbringing –”.

“And your genes, ” he interrupted.

“Yeah – but I still believe we create our own existence.” I ended my definitive statement on Life with an opening to him, “Do you think your fate was decided before you were born?”

He was a serious conversationalist, and as he stopped to think, his face took on a different cast. “I don’t know, actually.  Didn’t Oedipus have free will?” His strong, square jaw and high cheekbones became more prominent in this mood. “He’s the one who decided NOT to stay with his family.”

“Yeah, but in trying to avoid his fate, he walked right into it,” I said.

“So, who decided his fate, then?” He gave me an opening, so I prattled on.

“It was the Oracle at Delphi.  No.  It was the gods who decided his fate, and the oracle just told him. And he thought that knowing it, he could escape it.”

“Yeah. But it was that very thing that caused his fate. So, did he have free will?”

“I see what you mean,” I said, liking him more for the challenge of conversation he always presented, and which I had never experienced in high school.

Other times, Mark and I had great debates over ethics, and which laws were more important, those of the individual, or those of society.  I often took the side of society because he was very much an advocate of the individual, but we both flip- flopped from time to time.

In a contemplative literature class I had learned that a Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, believed true dialogue is where we humans experience God, in the honest, give and take of relationship. These true dialogues of ours I related to as my way of being spiritual, but they really were at that point just on an intellectual dialogue level.

Second semester I began to work lobby security in another dorm, a 20-story high-rise building in the same part of campus where Mark and I lived, known as Southwest. This side of campus was a kind of city in miniature — five high-rise dormitories and a half dozen or so three-stories on a section of campus paved with cement and accented with more glass than grass.  At the beginning of that second semester Mark would stop by to visit with me, and then walk me home.  I’m sure I was just the last on a long list of people he checked in on in the evenings; he was a sociable and popular person. And we no longer shared the French class, so we were done tutoring.

When we walked across the square, I’d saunter slowly, tired from work, and he would dance around me to slow himself down. Often we’d stop outside his dorm, named after John F. Kennedy, and sit on the hot-air vents, having discussions that grew from intellectual to eventually, more personal.

“When school is over I’m going to Lake Placid – in the Adirondacks, you know? – and get a job as a waitress for the summer,” I told him as we both leaned our backs against the brick building.

“That’s in upstate New York?” he asked. “Why there?” He stretched his legs out in front of him.

“Oh, I used to live in Saranac Lake when I was 16, and I have friends there still. I’m applying at the Whiteface Inn.”

“Waitressing, huh? Have you ever done that work before?”

“No. Are you kidding? I’ve only had one other real job besides baby-sitting and cleaning people’s houses, and one year I ironed for $1/hour.  But how hard can it be to take orders and pick up plates?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged and looked over at me. “What was your real job?”

“I was a money-checker girl at Skill-Right.

He narrowed his eyes.  “What’s a skill right?”

“A bingo joint on Revere Beach.”

He laughed and raised his knees into a rest for his arms. “I thought Bingo was illegal.”

“Don’t laugh,” I elbowed him in the ribs. “It’s serious business.  Those old folks who play Skill-Right pay some big money, like fifty dollars a day. And it’s not all old folks, either. There are some serious players.”

“But I thought only churches and clubs could play Bingo games?” He picked up a piece of gravel and tossed it toward the trees in front of us that made a hedge around the building.

I mimicked his movement, picking up the gravel like I used to pick among the beans at Skill-Right. “You got to hand it to them. They figured out a way to make it legal.”

“How’d they do that?”

“Oh, they give out cards and beans just like in Bingo, but they don’t pull numbers out of a hat or anything. The numbers supposedly come from skill because people have to throw darts at a board. Five darts. If they can match up any of their five darts with something on their cards they win a certain cash amount. Guess what the letters are instead of B-I-N-G-O?

“S-K-I-L-L?”

“Hah! That wouldn’t work because you’ve got two L’s. It’s R-I-G-H-T.”

“That makes sense,” he said thoughtfully. “So it’s not luck, and it can’t be fixed because these people create their own matches.”

I laughed.  “Well, supposedly. But – it’s mostly old ladies who play – nobody plays it that way to match their cards with the dartboard. Most of them don’t even reach the dartboard. They throw all the darts at once, and some of them land on the floor before they even get to the dart board.” I laughed just remembering the difference between the few skilled dart aimers and the tossers.

“So, how do they get the numbers for “right?” he asked.

“The way they get the numbers is a “caller” goes around from the first aisle to the last. A certain color dart is lit up on the board behind the announcer, and the caller reads out that number on each board until someone gets a RIGHT.”

“What a trip! So you did this in high school?” He smiled at me. His smile was warm and blinding; it filled his whole face with an uncommon openness.

“Yep. It was my first job where they took out taxes. It bought me clothes, and movies, and every Wednesday night on pay day, we went to the China Roma and had Chinese food.”

“I always thought Revere Beach was a weird place, but an Italian Chinese Restaurant,” he mused, and then looked to make sure another elbow wasn’t coming his way.

Mark was from a town about 40 miles north of me up the coast, called Danvers. It had beautiful beaches, not tacky like Revere, the place where I grew up as a kid.  A city of 40,000 in the 1970’s, Revere had been the first public beach in the U. S., but had been corrupted by Mafia influences over the past several decades. Most of the beautiful old amusement halls had burned down, the brass on the bandstand had gone green, the sea wall had crumbled, and the pavilions along the shore had fallen into disrepair.

“Skill right, huh? Did it pay OK?” he asked.

“Not as much as waitressing. Trust me,” I laughed.  We were both quiet then.

“So, you’re going to New York before you even know if you’ve got a job.” He laughed at me, and then spoke not shyly. “I was going to ask if you wanted to come with me sometime this summer to Plum Island.”

I was silent. Plum Island. I’d heard about this nature preserve on the Atlantic coast, but the one time I’d set out with girlfriends to see it, we ended up on the coast of New Hampshire instead.

“How would we get there?” I asked. “Hitchhike?

“On my motorcycle. I told you I’m getting a bike, didn’t I?”

“A motorcycle?” I raised my voice a couple of octaves with excitement.  “I love motorcycles! I’m going to buy a small red Honda motorbike this summer.”  I then chattered on about the romance of the road and my attraction to motorcycles. I told him how on the amusement park part of Revere Beach I developed a strong fascination with Harleys and the men and women who rode them. He told me how he didn’t have a Harley, but a small road bike he had been fixing up so he could get it running before the end of the semester. That conversation was in March.

I didn’t see Mark for several months Spring semester, and when we finally caught up, much had happened with us both. His hair had grown longer, and he looked like Prince Valiant.  Sitting on the vents, the steam floating up from below and enveloping us lightly, keeping us warm, we at first talked about school, and then our talk turned reflective.

Mark told me about an uncomfortable situation developing among his circle of friends. A woman in the group developed an attraction to him that he evidently didn’t share.  She must have been very attractive, since his friends thought he was crazy – literally – not to return her feelings and had hinted maybe he should see one of the counselors on campus about his lack of response to her. I was very sympathetic.  I also had problems with people who were attracted to me. As friendly and open as I was to people generally, I feared intimacy greatly. A non-threatening relationship like the one I had with him, where he never expressed any need or desire, felt safe.

I told him about my friend Phil, whom I had only got to know a few weeks into the second semester. Phil had seemed to have a crush on me, but then it turned out to be an obsession, which wasn’t even personal. It was a religious obsession where, after doing too much LSD, he began to relate to me as Mary Magdalene. When it came out that he saw himself as a Christ figure, I had to bring him to a drug drop-in center, from where he was later transferred to a state hospital. On his way to another facility, his parents had brought him back to get his things and say goodbye to his friends. Phil had ended up being the biggest influence in my college life. I was still recovering. Mark had heard about the infamous tragedy that had befallen this young man, though he hadn’t known I was involved.

“I’ve got to take you to meet my sister Wendy before the year is over. I think I might move into her dorm next semester, or move off campus, I’m not sure yet.”

“I’d like to meet her,” I nodded my head as well.  Then I raised my shoulders, stretched my fingers down to my feet and sloughed off the somber feelings from talking about Phil. I looked back at him again. “I can’t believe the year is over. Is your sophomore year as good as your freshman year?” I asked him. I wanted to hear that it was better.

“You can’t compare them,” he said as serious as the voice of wisdom. “But then 1969 was a year that can’t compare with any other year because of the protests.”

The previous year, the whole campus went on strike against the Vietnam War and boycotted college and classes. According to Mark, he had the one and only UMASS professor who required attendance.  “I got a “D” in chemistry, the lowest grade on campus that spring,” he told me and smiled broadly. Obviously, he wasn’t embarrassed in the least; he was proud of this distinction.

This conversation was a watershed for us. During the last few weeks of school, we gravitated strongly to each other, and when he knew he was getting his motorcycle ready for the road, he let me know I was one of the first he’d take out.

Now, finally, I would get my wish.

Look for  Chapter Three coming soon.