[Rediscovered this piece today while culling material for a book. Originally published April 14, 2011—republished here with minor edits.]
One afternoon almost forty-two years ago, I saw a white eagle. It was during my Arkansas woods hippie days. Five or six of us ended up together that spectacular summer of ’71 on 170 acres of Ozark hillside. Yes, spectacular. It felt more desperate than that at the time, but it was still a show for the ages. To think that I did what I did. I mean, I really dropped out. A few of the others were only fooling—in a good way, though. But I was in it for real, to have a completely different life. There was never anyone more committed to going back to the land than I was, nor anyone less well prepared. A revolutionary act, nonetheless, for all its made-up moments.
I never thought twice about quitting my junior college teaching job after I had my twenty-sixth birthday in my sights, because that meant I wouldn’t be drafted. One chilly early fall evening in my little eight-by-sixteen foot shack, I ceremoniously burned my draft card. What a proud moment! To hell with all that rotten, stinking mess, being hounded and threatened at every turn, always only a week or two from either fleeing the country or being rounded up for cannon fodder in a stupid, senseless war. My university years and afterwards had been insane in that regard, but at last I was finally free.
I had $1,200 stashed away, a lot in those days. Two whole months’ teaching salary, actually. It’s hard to imagine forsaking an actual middle-class job with that little for a grubstake now, especially after coming out here from Maryland and watching a fortune fall through our fingers like water. But things were different in ’71. Aside from the military industrial complex and the part of America trying to kill you, it wasn’t a physically threatening time. (That money lasted me about a year.)
Oh yes, the eagle.
It was on the way back from a grocery run into Fayetteville that I saw it. I was riding in the open bed of the utility company truck our ringleader had bought for the adventure. As I remember, we had finally broken down and bought some alcohol, muscatel wine I believe. I say “broken down” because no one I knew really drank much in those days, but after what for me at least was several months of involuntary sobriety (no one, but no one, had any dope), it seemed the thing to do. No, I don’t remember drinking in the truck, and even if I did, I wasn’t drunk.
At any rate, as we bumped and rattled along the long dirt road that followed Panther Creek through the hills south from Patrick, the truck rounded a bend and passed a small homestead. For just a few seconds, I had a clear view through the foliage into the yard, and there on a power line pole by the barn was an impossibly large white bird: a freaking eagle, so help me. (Okay, it looked like an eagle. So?) That’s what I thought immediately at the time: Jesus, a white eagle! Only a lot bigger than it had any right to be. Rumble, rattle, ohmygosh, and we were past. I never mentioned it at the time, because—well, just because, but I also never forgot. From time to time I think there’s still a task out there for me, to process the vision in some meaningful way, but so far I haven’t.
I can still see the thing in my mind’s eye, white and bigger than life. There were also wild grapes hanging from the trees along the road, shrieking whip-poor-wills at night, and we all bathed naked in clear flowing streams.