Biff America: Youth not wasted

“If you hate cops, the next time you need help, call a hippie.”

Keith and I spied that bumper sticker for sale as we walked into a rural, redneck diner in southern Missouri.

That maiden voyage from the south shore of Boston to Summit County was the first time I had been out of Massachusetts other than a couple of family vacations to New Hampshire. Keith and I had yet to turn 20.

We were driving a 1968 Volkswagen station wagon that we bought from a bartender named Phil for $700. The car was in good shape except for the body and engine.

I had the grandiose illusion that we were the incarnation of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, but in truth we more clearly resembled Laurel and Hardy. It was earlier on that same day when we discovered that we had Boston accents.

We needed hose clamps to fix a leaky gas line, so I asked a confused guy at a gas station, “Whehs the neahest hahdwahe stohe?” (Where’s the nearest hardware store). The guy looked me as if I were speaking Latin. While walking back to the VW, Keith said, “I think we have accents.”

It was after we entered the “Show-me” state when I began to get a little paranoid. We had long hair, talked funny and were driving a beat-up foreign car with Massachusetts tags. Plus, at that time, any background check on either one of us would have raised some eyebrows.

It was only a few hours later, while eating at the aforementioned truck stop, when my youthful confidence and naive sense of comfort really began to crack. Keith was sporting a bad beard, long hair and embroidered overalls, and I was dressed like Peter Fonda in the movie “Easy Rider.” I cautioned Keith that, while driving through the heartland, we needed to make sure we obeyed the speed limit and kept a low profile.

We finished our meal and went to the cash register to pay. To get there, we had to pass two cops sitting at the lunch counter. I’m not sure if they noticed us, as I was too paranoid to even look at them. Keith left his wallet in the car, so I paid while he visited the restroom. It was my turn to drive, so I was behind the wheel when my friend fast-walked out of the diner.

“Let’s go!” he said.

I pulled slowly out of the lot when Keith reached into the front of his overalls and pulled out the “If you hate cops, the next time you need help, call a hippie” bumper sticker.

He slapped it on the dash and said, “This should help us blend in.”

I got a sickening feeling and goosed the gas a little. I knew my pal had left his money in the car, so either someone decided to give two Yankee hippies a gift, or Keith had stolen the bumper sticker.

I took a quick look in the rearview mirror to see if anyone had run out of the diner after us before I said, “Are you crazy?! I thought we agreed to be careful? You just shoplifted in front of two cops.”

It was as if Keith did not hear a word of my outrage. Rather he said, “Isn’t this great? This way the cops and the rednecks will think we’re one of them.”

In that regard, my friend was a visionary. We made it to Breckenridge three days later without incident.

It took us only a few days to find jobs and a place to live. We rented a three-bedroom town house for $350 a month; the third bedroom was reserved for our soon-to-arrive lifelong friend named Bobby, who, up to then, had no fixed address or an occupation that he would admit to.

It wasn’t long after that when I fed quarters into a local pay phone to call my mother. I told her I’d found the place where I’m meant to be.

Back then, if you wanted to make bank as a waiter or bartender, you had to find greener pastures at another resort in the summer: Cape Cod, Southern California, the Hamptons. I would return to Summit County every winter. I remember cruising through the tunnel or over the pass in the late fall and feeling like I was coming home.

The aforementioned bumper sticker well outlived the VW station wagon. Keith rolled that car into the Blue River a few weeks after we arrived.

George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

I would argue the young are the only ones who could survive it.

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