I make no effort to be sociable. My only thought, if any, is about eating and sleeping. Then the gazelle walks over to where I am, and says, “Would you like some company?” I didn’t want to say no which is the way I felt. I was trying to think of an answer, but she sits down anyway in the chair across from me. She is presumptuous and nervous, young and beautiful.
I do not want to be rude. Her intention is pure. I blurt out a response and say, “You are a nice person to have for company.” Then there is an awkward moment when I eat and mostly look at my plate not paying any attention to her. I remember I do not want to be rude, and say, “So what is your life story?”
She says, “What?” She looks over to the kitchen like maybe I am the presumptuous one. She sits up straight looking toward her true love in the kitchen with both her hands flat on the table. She thinks she made a mistake and is about to leave.
Before she can do that I say, “Isn’t that what you do,” and I motioned to where the staff, a short while earlier, standing all together by the other hikers, each in turn, told the hikers about themselves. They do that in all the huts.
“Oh,” she says, realizing I wasn’t trying to be rude. Then with a big smile and something to talk about she says, “I’m studying microbiology at Berkley. This Summer I work at Zealand Falls Hut. I come here when I have time off.”
I say, “Was that you who passed me on the ledge today?” She says yes. She doesn’t believe I don’t know it was her, and also she doesn’t want to rub it in about me and the rock. I wipe my hand under my nose and it gets wet. When I see the clear snot on my hand I don’t know what to do with it, and, with no choice, but to leave it there or wipe it on my shirt, I wipe it on my shirt. I feel kind of gross in front of her. There are no napkins in any of the huts, and in each hut the staff says in one way or another it saves trees. Fortunately, the person sitting across from me isn’t grossed-out by me. “You seem so young,” I say. “How old are you?” She says she is 20, and I tell her I am 68. “I too once went to Berkley when I was your age. I was there one Summer quarter.”
“Quarter?” She didn’t believe me since Berkley isn’t on the quarter system.
“I went to Ohio State University year around, and one Summer quarter I went to Berkley. I had the GI bill and it payed for everything. I took criminology, theater and expository writing.” I threw out some additional facts because I wanted her to believe me.
“Oh,” she said. “Were you in a war or a foreign country to get the GI Bill?” She looked at the table-top when she asked that question. She didn’t want to be personal, but wondered.
“Both,” I said. “The Vietnam war in Vietnam.” When someone wants be company for another person what else is there to do but be personal. “So, here you are, working high in the mountains. That doesn’t rhyme with microbiology?”
“Actually it does,” she says. “There is much going on up here. It is not a tropical swamp which is what most people think of when they think of microbiology. The information in these mountains is vast. Sciences overlap. Right now we are obsessed with knowing how one man made chemical or another effects a living organism. Up here there is another kind of swamp. How life evolved in these mountains and what causes it to change is of interest to me, but science has nothing to do with my job here. I had to do something worth while this Summer. Hotel services best describes what I do here. I make some money in the Summer. I am lucky to have a paying job in the mountains.” I am still eating as I realize this is not your average 20-year-old. I don’t know what to say and then she says, “What did you think of Berkley.”
“It was like being in a different country. It smelled different, it didn’t rain, the lobsters had no claws, but the people did speak English.” She laughed and agreed nodding her head that it was different.
I said, “The Summer I went to Berkley was right after student riots swept across the country.” She mentioned a student protest at Berkley, and asked if that was it. “No,” I said. “It was the war in Vietnam. Everything had gotten peaceful by the time I got to Berkley that Summer, but on the South side of the campus there was a huge sign in the street that said the University was not public property. It said the campus was owned by the Board of Reagents and trespassers would be prosecuted. The student riots had been there.” They weren’t on TV. In Ohio it was on TV and national newspapers and magazines.”
“At Ohio State University the Governor called in the National Guard. Four students were shot and killed at another state school. The words in the song, ‘four dead in Ohio,’ is about that time. When that happened the Governor closed all the state schools and everyone went home.” She was staring at me wide-eyed that I was alive then. “Shortly before that,” I said, “was the Haight Ashbury scene in San Francisco. It was a very passionate time.” There was a long silence. Finally she believed me.