Author: Brian Francis Heffron
Paperback, 254 pages
Published May 2, 2013 by Little House Books
Genre: literary, historical fiction, '70s, drama, military, Viet Nam, PTSD
Goodreads Rating: 4.91 stars
"Colorado Mandala is a fabulous tale of love, honor, friendship and the psychological morass of Viet Nam Vets; their private codes, their impenetrable camaraderie." - Stefanie Stolinsky, Ph.D.
About the book
In the heady, hippie backdrop of Pike’s Peak, Colorado, in the tumultuous 1970s, three souls swirl together in an explosive supernova. Michael is the flinty-eyed, volatile former Green Beret, whose tour in Vietnam has left unbridgeable chasms in his psyche and secrets that can never find light. Sarah is his fair-haired paramour, the ethereal Earth Mother widow of a fallen soldier and single mother to a ten-year-old son Stuart. Paul is a young wanderer, who is drawn in by Michael and soon bears the mantle of both minister and scourge. As they are drawn together, and torn apart, each is changed forever. (Goodreads)
Author Brian Francis Heffron, 56, is a poet and former writer, director and producer at PBS/KLCS-TV Station in Los Angeles. Mr. Heffron has won 12 Telly Awards, two Emmys, two VideoGrapher Awards and a Davis Award. He has a BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College.
Preface to Colorado Mandala by Brian Francis Heffron
"finding in motion what was once in place"
I was twelve, I first stuck my thumb out to hitchhike long distance. A yellow Pontiac Bonneville driven by a young Italian girl pulled over onto the dusty shoulder of the Garden State Parkway entrance ramp and I got in. I mention her ethnicity because at that time the Irish and the Italians were like two sides in an ongoing hockey game with lots of checking. I did not really understand this feud other than that as two tribes not yet merged in the American melting pot, they were engaged in a struggle for resources, jobs, opportunities, and that golden fleece: a solid economic future. Then we hippies came along and rejected all that. Things have never been the same since.
Forever after that first free ride, I could almost never be dissuaded from hitchhiking to any destination that had a highway, or any paved road, leading to it. Seventy dollars was my cash threshold to have on hand to set off on a long hitchhiking journey. With seventy dollars in my pocket in Boston, I could be in the Florida Keys for every spring break, or the Colorado Rockies as spring turned to summer, both within a few days to a week—a week living outdoors in an exterior America. Where a pickup truck bed is a double bed. Where your last ride often offers you a meal and a real bed for the night. A life lived out of doors was once commonplace in America, but now the wild places are occupied mostly by raccoons, possums and squirrels. Twenty to forty rides later I would arrive at my destination not having spent a cent.
So America’s highways held no mystery for me. Their easily understood systems of routes, urban loops, city bypasses and best of all, major cloverleafs, were my friends, even more than they were for the mere drivers who also used them. No driver was ever forced to stop periodically, when a ride ended, to examine the land through which they were passing. Hitchhiking is moving in unplanned and unknown duration hiccups. Hopping like a pogo stick in one general direction until you narrow it down to where you actually want to land. The citizens in the cars that picked me up were very nice to me all over our country, so I went wherever I wanted.
The truth is, I love the hulking cement “Jersey barriers” streaming alongside the fast lane, just inches from the rear view mirror, and separating all of us from the on-coming traffic. They are not eyesores to me. They are part of my human infrastructure, my transportation psyche.
At night, along the highway, I love the dirty-brown light from the cheap sodium vapor lamps cantilevered out over the roadway from giant spindle-like aluminum poles.
I love to examine the pointed advice of previous hitchhikers who have carved their thoughts into the gray metal bases of these lights: "This place sucks for hitchin’!" "No rides for four hours! The Rambler USA72!" "Good luck getting out of here, Oct 1976 Bicentennial!" I love the generic green destination signs that hang out over the highway every few miles. A new universal visual language: "Grand Ave One Mile." I adore the cold empty concrete, the cowboy boots and engine-running gas fumes at any decent truck stop in the absolutely dead black middle of the night.
This connection to highways, and journeys on them, may be because I was born the summer Congress passed the Federal Highway Act. I came in with the highways and have actually grown up on them; my New Jersey suburb had a major national highway route running right alongside its border. This meant that total geographic, continental freedom was only one bold, usually cold, thumb ride away.
And so, I’d bundle up, stuff a small pack with an extra T-shirt and jeans and go off into the darkness, hitchhiking out into the enormous bloodstream of 41,000 mapped miles that run all over America. Except for the annual Route 95 south hitch to Florida, for the sun, I focused mostly on the coast- to-coast, east/west highways draped across America’s chest like a diverse array of chains and necklaces. The dark slushy snow of industrial Route 80 at the top, the rustic Route 40 bisecting the country along the old the Mason-Dixon line, and the sweaty Route 10 loping through the American tropics of the deep south.
America’s highways granted me access to our entire country via a long entrance ramp that started right at the edge of my own hometown. Aladdin’s carpet was waiting at the end of that black macadam ramp: all I had to do was stick out my thumb and I was off.
I admitted to the world that I needed a ride. I admitted I wanted to travel for free. I admitted I was going on an adventure. And I’ll tell you, the world responded. Everyone likes to see another person on an adventure. They wish they were so bold so they admire you. Many people stopped to pick me up. I never waited anywhere for very long.
Exit 172 on the New Jersey Garden State Parkway was my portal to the innards of America. Within a few years, via hitchhiking, almost every remote mountain range, coastal peninsula or midwestern flatland became a destination for me.
I took moonshine with a grizzled hillbilly farmer in Georgia who teased me about my hair, but then drove me twenty miles out of his way to get me back on track. I met breathtakingly beautiful girls camping wild in the Florida Keys with their kitchen utensils delicately suspended in the crooks and branches of a flamboyantly red Royal Poinciana. I met single moms fleeing unhappy homes: Alice had started to not want to stay home anymore.
Hitchhiking was probably scarier for the drivers giving me rides than it ever was for me. In all the thousands of rides I got I never once felt any true sense of threat, fear or danger. A few times, in my naiveté, I got into cars that I later realized I was lucky to get back out of. But mostly it was safe, cheap and fun.
If the driver sounded crazy, then the crazier I pitched my act. No matter how bizarre they became, I always went a bit further. Met nonsense with gibberish. Met psychosis with agitation. Treat crazy people with true respect on their own level and you’ll soon make a friend. (But I would stay away from taking a ride in any vehicle once, or presently owned, by a funeral parlor—just a rule of thumb based on one late night ride through a nor’easter in Maine.)
I should say that, right from the start, I never felt any obligation to tell the truth to anyone who picked me up hitchhiking. Each new ride and new car was a new audience and got a new fable about who I was and where I was going. I simply thought that telling the truth to someone who had gone to the trouble of pulling off the highway to pick me up would be a great disservice to that person and would really let them down. These tired and weary drivers wanted and deserved a lively story from me. They were not on an adventure and I was, and it was time to pay for my ticket.
So, for each new ride, I invented a fresh, Paul Bunyan-sized fable about myself and my dire circumstances, troubled past, urgent mission, pursuit by parents (or worse), and so forth. I told them stories that popped their eyes right out of their bourgeoisie heads. I happened to be a very well-trained fibber at the time, and they needed a good story while they drove, so I was really only holding up my end of the bargain.
Out there in the middle of this enormous country of ours soldiers almost always picked you up. When you are stuck in Nowhereville, Indiana on Route 70 it is a lock that if some young man or woman serving our country passes you they will pull over their (invariably) American muscle car to give you a ride—or a drive, really, because they always immediately slid over into the passenger seat, having judged me capable of handling their huge, overblown, over-horse-powered product of Detroit. This was true when I roved America’s national boulevards, and it’s still true today. American military personnel simply always pick up hitchhikers. Why? Because they have only a few days’ leave and it is a long way between their base and their hometown. And so they always want to cover that distance as quickly as is combustion-enginely-possible and hitchhikers who can drive facilitate this speedy process. After they pick you up, these soldiers almost immediately fall deeply asleep, so it is important to identify their ultimate destination before they are overcome with an unwakeable slumber.
I once met a soldier very much like the character Michael Boyd Atman, whom you are about to meet within the pages of this book, when he picked me up hitchhiking on Route 70 in Kansas in the seventies. If this is of any use to you, imagine that Paul, the narrator of this story, actually hitchhiked into our tale by meeting Michael in just this manner, as a hitchhiker thumbing a ride somewhere in the high desert of Route 70 in Kansas or eastern Colorado, heading straight for that bright line of snow-dusted mountains that splits our country from top to bottom like a spine: the Rockies. That mystical meeting between our characters would have had to occur long before our tale begins, when they have already become blood brothers.
This book is about the crazy, glorious and romantic notion that every generation conceives anew: that love can be a spiritual gift shared openly among all who feel it, not coveted, or hidden, or hoarded. Each new generation gradually learns how real life involves loyalty and jealousy, sexual fidelity, and the intimacy that can only grow up between two people.
Each new generation learns that love, in its purest and most universal form, can be shared among more than just two people and that therefore we can, and should, all simply love each other unhindered in the here and now.
The story is my own. The characters are my own as well. Both the plot and the people lived once in a time of tenderness, rebellious music, and long hair that was quite different from our times now.
But do not worry, I will not go on and on about how great it was back then. I will simply say, knowing you as I do, dear reader, that you might very well have enjoyed living back then. Yes. I feel certain that you would have liked it very much.
Brian Francis Heffron
March 1, 2013