HE was 35, a writer of sorts. People called him the Drifter, he stared at fire hydrants. He had lost all his money in the second great crash of our age, and a wife and child, casualties of divorce. He’d started out driving a rusty T25, which he’d christened The Smurf, from Paris to Seville. Then with the little money he had left he bought a plane ticket for Boston, Massachusetts where the Drifter had managed to purchase a car, a 1949 Buick Roadmaster. His plan had been to go on a road-trip, an extended holiday that had yet to end.
He drifted across the country, his only companions the barely functioning car and a notepad. He sought out and recorded the existence of fire hydrants, lovingly drawing them in his battered old book, with its cracked spine and crumpled pages like a dinner jacket worn too long in a hot car.
“Why fire hydrants?” people would ask him.
“Why do anything?” the drifter would reply.
As a child the fire hydrant, in its recognisable pillar style, had always held a strange fascination for him. He would pour over books about them; learning that they first appeared on the streets of America in the 1800s and that their inventor was Frederick Graff. Now life had thrown him on the trash heap, and he’d returned to simpler times, fixating on his childhood whims. To him hydrants represented a part of his life that was rapidly fading from view, consumed by a self-defeating culture of nothingness.
“We need to hold on to some things so they are never forgotten or lost”. He told the half-interested waitress at the road-side diner.
He thirsted for the real country of blood, sweat and gravel. Scraping together a few extra dollars from selling his Grandfather’s pocket watch had extended his journey a little longer, he longed to find the highways that Art Garfunkel sung about, even if they were buried under miles of concrete.
The car radio had broken leaving him with only his thoughts for company, he pondered life’s great mysteries convinced that he’d spent half his life passing by the important stuff, even when it was staring him straight in the eye. So the Drifter drifted, taking extra time to stop and look.
One day the Drifter found a hydrant in Cincinnati, fittingly it was stood alone and overgrown at the back of an old deserted movie theatre. He sometimes drove for weeks without finding anywhere interesting to stop, he had no itinerary, preferring instead to navigate the landscape using hydrants instead of stars to guide him.
Another day he had seen a road sign for Leland and had hauled the Buick off the freeway and headed towards this small town, part of the Mississippi Delta. The town name had immediately leaped out at him from the recesses of his brain, as the place where a young Jim Henson had once lived. Pulling up to a big house with a white picket fence he’d immediately noticed a bright red hydrant stood beside the gate, a man was mowing the lawn.
“Howdy”, the Drifter shouted over the din of the mower.
The man looked up and the Drifter explained his search for fire hydrants. The old man, his name was Larry, seemed genuinely interested, and they chatted about the Buick and what a beauty she was.
“Say, wasn’t Leland, Jim Henson’s home town?” The Drifter remarked.
“It was” old Larry beamed, remembering little Jimmy Henson.
The Drifter admired Jim Henson, a pioneer from another age. Memories of eating toast and watching the Muppet Show at Grandma’s house came flooding back to him. He smiled as he sketched the old man’s hydrant, then Larry invited him in for a glass of homemade lemonade.
This is what the Drifter wanted life to be about; homemade lemonade and the feel of real America beneath his wheels. Images drifted through his mind; a picture of his daughter, a Dylan song, Jim Henson and fire hydrants, these things made him happy in the increasingly constrictive world he found himself in. He clung on to these life-rafts of hope, in a thrashing ocean of mortgage debt and credit card payments.
Home of the brave and land of his lost soul, he hoped to discover his life again in the nooks and crannies of the dusty road. He remembered the founding fathers from a distant history lesson but he had no notion of how the American dream applied to him.
9/11 had brought him and many others great pain. He thought about the flag of a nation, the blood soaked star spangled banner – more like a strangled banner he thought. His hopes had been strangled and any belief in the stars had left him that day in September; left him bereft of hope and bereft of his brother and father. Yet, instead of grasping bitterness as a faith he embraced the road and dreamed of Wyoming.
On his never-ending holiday turned odyssey the Drifter, free from the shackles of name and identity evoked the spirit of Kerouac and became at one with the road. He was reassured by the thrum of the engine and the sound of tires on hot tarmac, the wind rushing through the open windows cleansed him, his mind now just an empty horizon like the vista stretching out in front of him. Some people called him a dead beat, or a bum – the majority were more kindly, taking him in for a spell, feeding him, offering him a place to stay, extending his journey before it was time to drift on.
He would tell people the tale of his quest and they would listen. 9/11 and financial hardships were epitaphs to a dark modern age, and most people could make sense of someone trying to grasp something lost. The Drifter drifted on at the wheel of his car, driving wherever the road took him, in search of fire hydrants, real people and happiness.
©John de Gruyther 2014