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Ray pitched the job to Kenny and I in the depths of a Michigan January early in Richard Nixon’s second administration. Ray’s older brother Otis was going through a nasty divorce, and he needed someone to drive his Mercedes 280SL from Oxnard, California to Tillamook, Oregon. Ray wanted some company, but most of all, he wanted somebody to drive his Opel Kadette while he drove the Mercedes. Ray, Kenny, and I were an oddly assorted trio. Ray was a clean-cut, buttoned-down sort, studying finance at a state university way before finance was cool. He kept his hair short and his face clean-shaven. Kenny was a transplant from eastern Kentucky, a long-haired “hillbilly” with a gentle, dreamy side, and a very talented guitar player. I was a hippie’s hippie, and I worked with both of them in a chemical dye factory that was on strike.
We drove out to Oxnard, California in Ray’s Opel, where we picked up the court papers that let us take possession of Otis’ Mercedes convertible. Under the suspicious eye of Otis’ soon-to-be ex-wife, we headed north to Oregon. It took us more than a week, since we were in no hurry to return to Michigan only to hang around waiting for the strike to end. There were the usual intoxicants involved, but in retrospect that isn’t what I remember most about the trip. We decided to take California Highway 1 up the coast, camping along the way. The scenery was spectacular, The weather remained flawless even as we moved north of San Francisco into the Redwood country and up into Oregon.
Most of all, I remember the people we encountered on the way. We picked up hitch-hikers. Our unusual cars and Kenny’s guitar opened a lot of doors for us that ordinarily would have remained closed even in those freewheeling days. If I had kept a notebook, I would have had enough to populate a Dickens novel with picaresque characters. There was Selene, the Indian hooker we picked up in Ventura and whose Gujarati pimp, who turned out to be a really capital fellow, showed up to collect her in San Luis Obispo. There was Mike the reluctant Mafia guy, who said he really wanted to run a car lot like his father in Lompoc. There was Jack, the hitch-hiking preacher, who delivered a hair-raising exegesis of the book of Revelation around the campfire the one night he spent with us, and who was impressed with all the old-timey gospel songs Kenny knew on his guitar.
There was the dark-haired, dark-eyed, guitar-bodied Maria Altagracia Mendoza, as beautiful and as emotionally fragile as Lucia di Lammermoor and nearly as self-destructive, along with her Brillo-haired handler/lover/therapist Rosemary. Maria Altagracia claimed to be a direct descendant of a Spanish count who had been given land grants in the area, and she demanded to be called “Countess”. Rosemary never claimed to be anything except a San Francisco Giants fan, but it was amazing how well she kept the “Countess” on an even keel.
There was Davie, and Pete his Native American “blood brother”, who we picked up between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. Davie was hitchhiking in to buy a carton of cigarettes and ended up going with us all the way up to Redding. We hung around Coos Bay for a weekend while Kenny tried to convince Rachel to come with us. We were just outside of Newport when we found out Rachel wasn’t 19 as she claimed, but 14. It was a chance for Ray to find out what his brother’s Mercedes was capable of as he drove the 100 miles back to Rachel’s house and still pulled into his brother’s driveway only a half an hour after we did.
I decided to fly back to Michigan from Portland, and Ray and Kenny drove back in the Kadette. It was a sad feeling, as all of us knew we would never probably be together again, and certainly not as happy as we had been. It was true. Three months later, I had a come-to-Jesus moment and ended up in a Central Florida Bible college. Ray finished his degree in finance, married, and I lost track of him. I ran into Kenny late in the decade at his older sister’s wedding. He had had a “come-to-Jesus” moment of his own, and it made mine seem mundane by comparison.
“I was on the beach in Maine, walking my sister’s dog’, he explained. ‘It was January, just like when we went to California with Ray, remember? Something happened though. I had been reading Pascal’s Pensées, and thinking about what he meant about the Fire, when suddenly the heavens opened. My sister’s dog escaped from the leash and went running down the beach as fast as he could.” Kenny curved his hand for emphasis. “The curve of the dog’s back was like, perfection, you know? And I saw the fire, Pascal’s fire, coming down from heaven, except that it was inside everything; me, the dog, the waves, the clouds, the other people on the beach, everything.”
He continued explaining his vision. “I knew then that God loved us all, in Christ, in a way that I could never put into words. There was a warmth in my chest that made me sweat, even though the wind was cold. I couldn’t stop crying, or smiling. One man walked up to me and said he had never seen anybody who looked as happy as I did, but i couldn’t put into words what I wanted to say to him. ‘I love you’ I finally told him, and I think it kind of freaked him out.”
“It was like when you and Ray and me went out to California to help his brother with his divorce. That was a really happy time for me, man, for all of us. I know we didn’t know the Lord then, but it was a real special time we had together. This was like all that, but melted down and pressed together into a single afternoon, into a single point. Here’s the thing, Mule, the whole Universe is like that.”
I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t admit I was jealous of Kenny and his mystical experience, although I’m glad he shared it with me as far as he could. Kenny has dropped completely out off the map. He doesn’t have a social media presence, and his sister says he was accepted into an arts and design school in the late 90s, but never showed up for classes.