In the summer of 1969, I was taking two classes at the University of Kansas, and living “the high life” on the 8th floor of Oliver Hall. My close buddies at the dorm were Judy, a cheerful lass with frizzy black hair from Scotland; Mike, a lanky Vietnam veteran who collected comic books; and Ted, a rich kid from North Carolina who kept mostly to himself. He rarely invited anyone into his room, perhaps because he was obsessive about keeping his living quarters clean. Ted would mop the floor of his room at least three times a day, and we just accepted it, mainly because he was the only one among us who had a car.
Ted drove a fancy red Camaro Z-28 which was the envy of everyone on campus. One day he asked me if I would ride with him to Topeka. On the way there, he told me he was an out-patient at Menninger Clinic, and that “Dr. Bob” wanted to meet me. I don’t remember much about “Dr. Bob” except his saying that, in all the years he has been treating Ted, Ted has never mentioned having any close friends. “Dr. Bob” said I should consider myself really special. He took us on a tour of the grounds, pointing out a small cabin which he said had been occupied by Judy Garland when she was at the clinic. He said the toothbrush which Judy used is still in the cabin. I asked him what sort of success they had with their “patients,” and he confided that psychoanalysis was a long process, that they rarely think of anyone ever really getting “cured.” I wanted to ask him what was wrong with my friend Ted, but something about his manner prevented me from asking. Back in Lawrence, Ted continued to mop his room three times a day, and we never talked about the trip to Topeka.
About a week or so before summer classes ended, Oliver Hall invited everyone from the dorm to an evening bash being held at some farmhouse outside Lawrence. Since Ted was the only one in our group who had a car, he generously volunteered to take us there even though he himself had not intended to go. As it turned out, the party wasn’t much fun. It had started to rain, and Ted was drinking gloomily in a corner all by himself. After about an hour or so, he rounded us up, saying he was bored and that he wanted to return to the dorm. So we squeezed back into his Camaro Z-28, and Ted sped back to Oliver Hall in the heavy downpour. I remember Mike laughing hysterically, and Judy screaming, when the car hydroplaned, skidded off the road, and landed upside down in a muddy ditch. I remember Ted climbing out the window, disappearing into the Kansas night, leaving us to fend for ourselves. And then the police came, with flashing red lights and ambulances. I remember salvaging the “Z-28” sign from the wrecked car as we finally left the scene of the accident.
Ted reappeared at the dorm the next day, looking as though nothing had happened. I have no idea what he told the police, how he got out of “fleeing the scene of the accident,” to say nothing of “driving while under the influence.” Ted pulled me into his room, shut the door, and called his father on the telephone. He had a telephone extension, and he wanted me to listen in on the conversation. To the best of my recollection, here’s how the conversation went. “Dad?” “Yes, son.” “About that Z-28 which you gave me…” “Yes, son.” “I wrecked it.” (Long silence.) “Was anyone in the car with you?” “Yes, three others.” “Are any of them hurt?” “I don’t think so.” “I’ll fly my own personal physician out there tomorrow to examine them. Be sure to have them sign the release forms.” “Yes, Dad.” (Another long silence.) “So how are you going to get around without a car?” “I don’t know.” “I’ll send you the Harley-Davidson.” “Thanks, Dad.” And that was the end of the conversation. The physician arrived the next day, we signed the release forms, and the Harley-Davidson arrived another couple of days later.
I don’t know how it happened, but Ted had tickets for Woodstock. He asked me if I wanted to go with him. He said Joan Baez was going to be at the festival. He knew I was crazy about Joan Baez. He asked me to hop on his Harley-Davidson. We would visit his folks first in North Carolina, and then head for Woodstock. Just like that. I was tempted by the EASY RIDER aspect of it all, but I had already promised my brother Vic that I would visit him and his family in South Amboy, NJ, in August, as soon as classes were over. I had already bought my Continental Trailways bus ticket. I asked Ted if he could come for me in New Jersey after he saw his folks in North Carolina, and then we would zoom off to Woodstock in his Harley. I gave him my brother’s address and phone number.
I waited for Ted in South Amboy, but he never showed up, never even called. And now, forty years later, as I’m watching WOODSTOCK on DVD, listening to Richie Havens singing about “Freedom,” and Joan Baez dreaming that she “saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me,” and Joe Cocker going through life “with a little help from my friends,” I hit the pause button and peer at the faces of all those young people, all 450,000 of them, wondering how many of them were damaged innocents, wondering if Ted ever made it there, wondering whether I might have disappointed and failed him, somehow, as a friend, all those years ago, when he invited me to hop on and join him on the open road. “Dr. Bob” has Judy’s toothbrush. Me, I have the “Z-28” from Ted’s Camaro. Whenever I look at it, I smile, and then I am sad.