Sixty-six : a novel /

In Baltimore in 1966, for five young men life is about to change ... the Vietnam War, the growing civil rights movement, the hippie movement changing the cultural landscape ... they will leave 1966 changed forever.

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Main Author: Levinson, Barry.
Format: Book
Published:New York : Broadway Books, 2003.
Edition:1st ed.
Online Access:Sample text 
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One Neil lived up the street from me, from the time we used to live in the old neighborhood--with row houses that went on for miles, to the end of the horizon--and then even after we moved to the new neighborhood, where there were three-story wood homes covered in shingle, and front lawns with hedges, and big trees that seemed to stretch on forever. My first awareness--my first memory of Neil--was somewhere around the age of three. I had cut the index finger on my left hand very badly, and it was taped up in an elaborate bandage. Neil had cut the index finger on his right hand, and it too was taped in a very large bandage. My cut was vertical and ran the length of my finger. His was horizontal and cut into the bone. We were lucky in one respect--I was right-handed and he was left-handed. So there we were, two three-year-olds who liked to duel, using our bandaged fingers as swords. On occasion, if I blocked Neil's finger thrusts too strenuously, I felt a little bit of a stinging sensation that ran down the whole length of my arm and straight up to my brain. We moved to suburbia when I was six. There, we lived almost parallel to one another, separated by one block. I would run out my front door, down the steps, across the front walkway, jump across the evergreen bush, across the street through the neighbor's front yard, zigzag around the back of their garage, watching out for the clothesline, through the alley, through the back of another house, around the front, across Main Avenue, up Neil's walk and then finally his brick steps. It was about a minute and thirty seconds, depending on ground conditions. Sometimes, if it rained, the little puddles that I had to sidestep slowed me down. Neil was six weeks older than me. Those weeks separated us the most in our early lives--he was able to start the first grade in February, and I had to wait until the following September. Because of that, we never attended the same class. He started junior high and high school before I did, and then, because of those six weeks, ultimately he was drafted for Vietnam and I was not. Six little weeks. Neil and I saw each other almost every day for at least sixteen years. Even when we were sick, we still found a way to play together. We both came down with the flu one time and played tic-tac-toe over the telephone. We each had a tic-tac-toe grid with numbered boxes--upper left was a 1, upper middle a 2, upper right a 3, middle left a 4, and so on. As soon as our mothers were out the door, we got on the phone and the games began. "O on 6." "X on 3." "O on 9." My mother had a fit when she came home later that day. She was trying to call the house and couldn't get through for four hours. "How could you tie up the line like that?" Logic was on my side. "It's free, Ma. They don't charge to call a block." "Someone could have been run over or something and I'd never have got through. Tic-tac-toe on the phone! How high is your fever?" "I don't know. I'm winning 138 games to 96." "Get the thermometer." Then there's a gap. I can't remember how long the flu lasted; I don't know whether we ever played tic-tac-toe on the phone again. I do remember that, in school, I always wanted to write "5/5/55" at the top of my paper. The entire spring, I looked forward to May 5, 1955, and writing "5/5/55." But I never did. I got sick and missed school that day. I actually tried to hide the fact that I was sick. I got dressed, thinking 5/5/55 the whole time. I came down to have breakfast, and knew I had a fever. I even started shaking at the table the way you do when your temperature gets high. I tried to make as if I was just cold, but my grandmother immediately knew something was wrong. I saw the hand reaching out to feel my forehead. I tried to block her, but I couldn't. Then I heard the words, those terrible words: "Oh my God, he's burning up." She looked at my mother. "He's burning up." I could see 5/5/55 slipping away. I put my own hand to my forehead and said, "No, your hands are cold," but I could see my mother wasn't buying it. She stared at me across the table. "His eyes look glassy." That's when you know you're in trouble, when they talk about you in the third person. "His eyes." Goodbye 5/5/55. Freddie Krauss got blown up at the gas station after school on 5/5/55. Freddie was three years younger than me. What happened was, some gas main exploded up at the Texaco station, which was almost three blocks from my house, and Freddie was the first to go and investigate. He quickly wormed his way through the confused spectators and went right up to the scene of the blast. There was a secondary explosion, and Freddie was blown into the air and suffered a fractured skull. He survived, with just a little scar by his temple where they put in a metal plate. The explosion was so powerful that the shock waves shook my house three blocks away, on 5/5/55. They say it was a miracle that Freddie survived the blast. Some people said he was actually blown as high as the Texaco station sign. He came down over twenty feet from the actual spot of the explosion. There'll always be a point of contention whether he was blown as high as that sign or not. You couldn't see him clearly, they said, because there was so much dust in the air. But the pages from his notebook came floating down all over the street. He was just a little crazy after that, but always lucky. He got a Corvette when he was in high school and went racing on Route 29, at over 120 miles an hour, when he lost control of the car. There was nothing left of his Corvette, just little fiberglass pieces sprinkled across the countryside. Paramedic trucks were all over the highway, lights flashing. A low fog hung over the wooded area where the car disintegrated. It looked like the scene of a tragedy. But Freddie stepped out of the night mist with nothing more than a broken finger. His pinkie finger. He held it up to show everyone. Freddie immediately became a legend. He was the Evel Knievel of our neighborhood, the Houdini of disaster. There was always a sense of awe when you spoke about Freddie. When I heard the story of him being blown up, I tried to visualize it in my mind. Was it like someone being shot out of a cannon? The image I always had was Freddie just floating over the Texaco station sign like some kind of kite. Maybe that's because they said he had a red windbreaker on. Then I wondered how long he was in the air. How long can you stay in the air? Of course, I had a high temperature, and when you have that kind of fever, you have a tendency to hallucinate anyway. I remember those youthful fevers and that dreamlike feeling that went along with them. And I remember that when you had high temperatures back then, for some reason you were always getting baths in alcohol. Not that you actually got into a bathtub, but alcohol was applied to your body . . . or was it vinegar? So those are my memories of my childhood with Neil and Freddie Krauss . . . and 5/5/55. Most of all, I remember that 5/5/55 was an extremely depressing day, because I knew that on 6/6/66 I would no longer be in school, and therefore that date wouldn't have nearly the same significance. Two When 6/6/66 came along, I was still in school--in my next to last year at the University of Baltimore. We didn't have an exam, so there was no need to write "6/6/66" on a piece of paper for any reason. But while the date passed without being documented, I couldn't have been more wrong about its lack of significance. It was, in fact, the most influential day in my first twenty-four years of life. It was on that day that I decided I wasn't going to complete law school. I was not going to be a lawyer. The evening of 6/6/66 I talked about my decision with the guys at the Hilltop Diner. Ben leaned in when I told him the news, his eyes wide open, checking to see if I was bullshitting him. I was waiting for him to start a riff on me, put me down, give me some hard knocks--Ben Kallin was famous for that. When you opened yourself up to Ben you always had to take your life in your hands. He'd find whatever weakness was there and belittle you unmercifully. And yet he was a great friend. He would say the most offensive things and somehow you could never get mad at him. He'd flash that smile, pull on his lower eyelid, and say, "You're me." None of us knew where the phrase came from. He'd made it up. But we all knew what it meant. It was a reference to the fact that he was the best. And he was right. For much of my youth he was the coolest, the most hip, the guy we most admired. He was the guy. From ages fourteen to twenty, his glory years, Ben ruled. Girls found him incredibly attractive. He was voted best-looking in a high school fraternity contest. He was a good athlete and there was always talk that he was getting a scholarship to the University of Maryland in lacrosse, although that never happened. Ben was all about confidence and sarcasm, and during those glory years he was, without question, proclaimed "King of the Teenagers." As he sat across from me in the booth, he was telling me some of the details of his upcoming wedding plans. At the end of the summer he was getting married to Janet Rawlings, a fairly attractive redhead who was in my senior year at Forest Park High School. I never knew her that well. She was very big in the drama department, turning up in all the school plays. I'm not sure if she was any good or not because she always seemed to be stuck with the role of playing a seventy-five-year-old woman. She would wear a fake gray wig and totter around with a cane, speaking with some kind of screechy voice: "Nooooow boooys . . ." This much I know to be true, no teenager can play a seventy-five-year-old woman. None. Ever. And now Janet was about to play the part of Mrs. Ben Kallin. No matter how many times Ben had talked about "the big day," it was hard to get used to the idea that he was about to become a married man. "Not a minute too soon, Bobby," he told me right after he'd announced his engagement. "Two years from now I'm gonna be bald and fat. My fucking grandfather. I saw a picture of him--he was bald at seventeen, I think. Fucking hereditary . . . you can't beat it." Then he gave me his secret for finding a prospective wife. "Watch the mother, look at her--if she's fat, that's what you're going to end up with, no matter what the hell she looks like now, no matter how cute, how sexy. Mother's fat, daughter will be fat. Marsha Cohn, sell your soul for her, a goddess--die for her--but here's the warning: Look at the mother." The night drifted on at the Diner, that summer night of 1966, as it always did. The place was our home. More of a sanctuary really, although none of us recognized it at the time. To us, it was just somewhere to hang out, to relax and bullshit the nights away. The neon sign--lonely, still, but always inviting--was a constant. Neither rain nor sleet . . . it was always open. Turko and Eggy--the Abbott and Costello of our group--joined us. Turko, upon hearing the news that I'd dropped out of law school, said, "One year to go. Don't be an asshole." "I can't go on. It's bullshit." Eggy jumped in with, "Then why did you go? Why did you go in the first place?" "Because I saw Paul Newman in The Young Philadelphians. He had great suits, got the girl, seemed hip--he was an income tax lawyer in the movie. I figured I could be him." The realization that I was trying to be a character in a film was frightening to me. My fantasy was that I would walk into my law office, sit at my desk, and be a lawyer. But then what? What was the next moment after that? What would I be doing all day long? The movie didn't have any scenes where Paul Newman was actually working on income tax law in his office. But I was going to spend the rest of my life behind that desk, doing what? Saying what? I didn't really like the fact that I was so impressionable, too caught up in images that weren't mine. But I think I had always been that way, since childhood. When I was three years old, I used to stare at the pictures in Look magazine. I once turned to a page and saw a man and a woman sitting on a park bench on a nice sunny day. They were both smiling. I would stare at that picture for the longest time until I could make the man and woman come alive. Then I would see them actually get up and walk away from the bench; leave the park. But once they left, I couldn't visualize it any further. My young imagination couldn't take it beyond that. Where the couple went, why they were smiling, why they came to the park in the first place, all bewildered me. Too many unanswered questions. But to me photos were never just frozen images on the pages of Look or Life or Collier's magazines--they were all part of a game I was beginning to play. Little stories I was beginning to invent. Unfortunately, I didn't ask any of those questions about being an income tax lawyer. I simply took Paul Newman's occupation at face value. It never even occurred to me that I needed to study accounting, so the first time I walked into that class I realized I was in trouble. There were little boxes where you had to write the debits and credits. Every student had sharp pencils and liked math. Paul Newman never did any math in The Young Philadelphians. I was in shock--the foundation of my so-called reality was shaken to the very core. I was heading for a future I had no interest in. I was living a lie from my first day at law school--I was trying to be an actor in a movie, but all the scenes were different. My life wasn't like that. Excerpted from Sixty-Six by Barry Levinson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.