I’ve never been anyone’s role model except once. His name was Danny Walker and he came from an upscale suburb of Chicago to Heber Valley, Utah, where I resided in a distinctly downscale one-room cabin without running water or bathroom facilities. At the time I was working as a lifeguard at the Homestead Resort, and my only possession worthy of envy was a 305cc Honda Superhawk motorcycle.
Danny was visiting his pal David, also from Mundelein and son of a part owner of the resort. In any other time, in any other place, our paths would never have crossed. But in the summer of 1967, it turns out we had quite a lot in common.
See, I had recently given up on climbing up the socio-economic ladder; in fact, I was on my way down that ladder. And Dan, in spite of all his family connections, and to the dismay of his parents, was determined to go the same way. Why? It’s hard to explain to people nowadays. I guess you just had to be there.
What Danny loved was not being under his father’s thumb. He loved not having to please his mother. He loved the wide-open spaces of Utah and the fresh mountain air. He loved freedom! And he dreaded the future that awaited him as a freshman business major at St. Norbert College. In short, he dreaded the prospect of growing up.
That’s when he found me, a grown man who evidently refused to grow up. I was the Peter Pan of Heber Valley, cheerfully doing a boy’s job for minimum wage and not the least bit concerned because, other than a thirty-dollar-a-month motorcycle payment, I had no overhead.
Danny said he wanted to be just like me, but of course that’s easier said than done. Writers don’t need to grow up; in fact, it’s better that we stay young. For as long as possible, anyway.
We two spent a lot of time poolside, he posing existential questions as I dispensed wisdom from atop my watchtower. When did I decide to drop out of society? he wondered. Did I do drugs? Did I drink?
I didn’t do drugs, nor did I drink much. And I refused to buy liquor for Dan or Dave or any of my teenaged co-workers. I knew their parents would certainly not approve of me leading their children astray.
“Oh, puh-leeze,” Danny would plead. “You have no idea how hard my life is. My parents are so strict. They’re planning to send me to St. Norbert’s. I need a drink.”
Danny likened St. Norbert to Pencey Prep, and himself to Holden Caulfield. At other times, he went by the pen name Phoenixious Jones, or “Finny.” On college orientation day, Finny became seriously disoriented after consuming three-fourths of a bottle of Seagram’s brand whiskey.
In a letter dated “sixteen days until freedom” Danny reported that “Finny has sobered up and has quietly fitted back into the society from whence he came (much like Professor Lidenbrock back from his journey to the Center of the Earth). Once again in suit coat and tie, Finny attends school and is waiting for the end of school.
“Richard, this may sound weird but I long to philosophize with you along side of a pool. At work, at school, at home, I hope to turn around and see you and talk and joke and verbally scrutinize the Heberites. See ya in July!”
So it came to pass that Dan and I linked up again in 1968 and still again in 1969, but maybe not. It’s been so long now that I scarcely remember. By ’69 I had become romantically involved with Anne, and it had become clear that whatever the future held, I most likely wouldn’t be lifeguarding and living in a one-room shack. Still, Dan was determined to follow in my footsteps, and now his letters were sounding less like Holden Caulfield and more like Jack Kerouac. He announced he was turning his back on St. Norbert College in Wisconsin and had applied to the University of Albuquerque.
“And if accepted I will be only about 500 miles from beloved Heber Valley. If something happens to screw up my plans I will go someplace in Illinois or to St. Mary’s College in Minnesota. The main reason I say this is that my parents don’t especially want me to go to Albuquerque. I’m so sick of school and my parents—not because they’re not good to me but because I’m tired of them having to take care of me. God, I wish I was older! About 21 and just stagnated there or whatever you do to make time stand still.”
But time does not stand still. By 1970 Annie and I were living in the city and, having failed in our attempt to build furniture out of papier-mache, were contemplating the purchase of a sofa. Dan, meantime, had bought a motorcycle and now his letters came postmarked Denver.
“The other day I was reflecting on the possibility of the world starting again in frontier days—the untamed country and all that stuff. I soon realized that the only way this could happen to me was to go to some unpopulated part of the country or world. Looking on the map I found—Australia! It has a vast area in which there is less than one person per square kilometer. That means there must be acres of land that no people occupy.”
Meantime, in order to transport the new sofa to our apartment, I had bought a van. Soon as Dan heard that, he bought himself a van. It was in that van that his young life abruptly came to an end. Somewhere in the West—I don’t remember exactly where—Danny had pulled off the highway in order to catch some shuteye and during the night someone came along and shot him for no reason whatsoever. I have deliberately avoided learning the gory details, except that I understand his killer has never been caught and that Dan’s last words, according to an ear witness, were “Don’t kill me!”
Forty years later I think of Dan occasionally and especially whenever I visit Heber Valley, which no longer looks the same as it did in the magical summer of 1967. Snake Creek no longer meanders and the irrigated fields we knew are covered with houses. My cabin is long gone, and so is the wild and crazy horse we called Blaze. Danny loved Blaze and, unlike me, wasn’t afraid to ride him. Fast and furiously he rode across the open meadow toward wherever it is that a bright young man madly in love with life might “reach the age of 21 and just stagnate there or whatever you do to make time stand still.”