John Denver and My 40th High School Reunion

In a couple of months, my high school graduating class will have it’s 40th year reunion. Growing up in Fort Pierce, Florida in the 60s and 70s was to me an idyllic dream. A small town on the warm Atlantic Ocean, hugging the Indian River Lagoon, the area was bursting with an amazing abundance and diversity of life of every kind. The saltwater lagoon was an ecosystem all to itself. Wherever you turned there was life; vibrant seagrass beds, mangrove trees, coral reefs, and the mind-boggling interconnections between all of the species. Freshwater lakes full of bream and bass and big alligators, green sawgrass-filled savannas, cypress swamps, prairies full of deer, raccoon, bear, armadillo and bobcats. As boys, my brother and I would wake up early on Saturday morning, grab a pillow case and go out barefoot to catch a dozen or two snakes of all kinds. Juxtaposed against today’s dying estuary, diseased turtles and withering seagrass beds I wonder how we let it go so wrong in such a short period of time. Today, unquestionably too late, we realize we have not even named all of the species, yet are losing them at an astonishing rate. A crime of epic proportions if there ever was one.

On weekends, my parents loaded up our whole family (they and 5 kids) for our regular sailing outings at Jaycee Park. From small wooden sailboats in the Indian River we would drift along among the massive sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, and an almost indescribable variety of fish, sharks & rays. Shore side we would shuffle our feet in the shallows, pulling clams from the bottom, rinsing them off and setting them right onto the hot BBQ grill. On school breaks we would load up the camper and head off to one of the many Florida State Parks. Evening storytelling while roasting marshmallows in the campfire glow, walking to the bath house with a flashlight, and days filled with exploration are among my best childhood memories and among the greatest gifts parents could give their children.

It was one Sunday evening I suppose, when our family gathered around the TV after dinner to watch one of the 3 channels available in Ft. Pierce at the time, when someone named John Denver came onstage. His voice, the melody, the lyrics, perhaps his message and his soul struck me at once. I was 13 years old when Take Me Home, Country Roads was released. John Denver’s music was, and is, an inextricable part of me. How does music do this? How can music move a whole people? It seemed to me that John Denver’s music did just that.

In 1976, just after high school graduation, a buddy and I each bought a Greyhound Ameripass. Greyhound offered two-month unlimited travel in the US, Canada and Mexico for 250 dollars. No limits. Use up your booklet and they gave you another for the full 2 months. With tents, stoves, sleeping bags and freeze-dried food, we set off on adventure. Across the US through 42 states, 3 Canadian Provinces and an excursion into Mexico, we would often sleep on the bus, waking up in a new state in the morning. Where Greyhound didn’t go, our thumbs got us the rest of the way. Few people worried about hitchhiking, or hitchhikers, in 1976.

Just outside of Boulder Colorado, from the bed of a pickup truck we had flagged down, I could see nothing but the gorge below on either side of the narrow bridge as we headed towards Rollin’s Pass. Soon enough, with feet on terra firma, albeit nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, I breathed a sigh of relief. Readying our gear for the trek out on the trail along the Continental Divide, a small, scattered smattering of maybe 10 people gathered in the gravel parking lot. With backpacks complete, we made our way towards the trail. Two people, a couple, caught my attention. A closer look drew me towards John Denver and Annie. As I approached, it was clear they were in a jovial mood; smiles and laughter, joy in their step. Perhaps a nip of wine, or whatever, but regardless, I engaged them. Fumbling for words, I asked John for his autograph. Happily and humbly obliging, he took my little stenographers notebook and told me to lean over a bit so that he could rest it on my back as he wrote. Illegible scrawl. But, imagine if you will, the clear blue sky at 12,000 feet, the cool, crisp mountain air and the stunning view from the Continental Divide in Colorado. John Denver and I. Hmmph. The engagement was brief, comments about the majestic beauty of this remarkable place, the cloudless sky, the crisp air, I don’t remember. That notebook has long since disappeared into the void of the many lives and places I have lived since then. But, that memory will never fade.

John Denver represented an era that celebrated life, love, happiness, nature, togetherness, music, a shared vision for humanity. Was it just a dream? Go to Youtube; look at the faces, listen to the voices of the hundreds of thousands, millions of people around the world who were at his concerts. Look at his record sales. It was to me, a unique point in time where we were on the cusp. Do I need to elaborate on which cusp I refer?

Forty years later and I am sure the US has lost it’s soul. Today we are entering a new nuclear weapons age. It may be our last. We bomb innocents with impunity. We overthrow democracies as if a game. We crush countries whose leaders we dislike. The richest percentage of one percent own most of the world while starvation abounds. Homeless are invisible. Brown is a target. Truth a casualty. Our brightest minds are corralled into jobs that crush critical thinking. The gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots” grows wider by the day.

Mother Earth is in undeniable meltdown. Our coral reefs are nearly all dead. Forests are a commodity. Species are lost daily. Scientists call our current epoch the “6th Great Extinction”. And, not in bold letters do they note that this hasn’t been an accident. Chemicals, radioactivity, genetically modified food, and glyphosate permeate our new normal environment.

Austerity, quantitative easing, CDO’s, hedge fund managers, offshore accounts and leveraged buyouts substitute for economic fairness, honest free trade and the equitable distribution and sharing of the earth’s resources.

What the hell happened? What the hell happened that the best the US has to offer the world today is a Clinton or a Trump?

Was there really anything to this country called the US? Any sense of fairness, equality and the high road? As Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and many others have pointed out, what history really teaches us is that the US is a country founded on human slavery, treachery, savagery, genocide, racism, class oppression, sexism, militarism and Manifest Destiny. And, we’ve never evolved. Today, I am accused of USA bashing by many people. Was this experiment called the USA an illusion? It seemed, when I was younger, that we had something going. Something good.

Missing my reunion will be a choice.