Gassing up at the Maplefields on Williston Road, I stuck my head back in the taxi to ask my customer, Richard Thurman, if he wanted anything from the store. It was a rainy afternoon, bordering on sleety, and the man had just been released from Fletcher Allen after sufficiently recovering from open-heart surgery. If the procedure is commonplace these days, the reality of having your chest split apart is anything but. Imagine exposing your beating heart for — God willing — repair. It’s like an engine job; you can only pray the mechanics know what they’re doing.
“Sure, that would be kind of you,” Richard replied. “If they got it, I’ll take two Butterfingers and an apple juice.”
Richard was a singular-looking individual, though I suppose that could be said of every one of the seven billion humans on the planet. Let’s just say his looks were unusual, or striking, starting with his long, stringy hair and beard, both reddish-gray. Add in the bearlike physique and twinkly green eyes and he brought to mind a louche Santa Claus.
I was surprised to see Rosemarie, the teenage daughter of some regular customers, behind the checkout counter. She had graduated from Burlington High School last year, and I guessed this was her first job. “How you doing, kiddo?” I asked when I saw she recognized me.
“Just great. I like working here.”
“Well, I’ll tell your folks I saw you,” I said. It was great to witness Rosemarie’s confidence. She was a small, sweet girl, quite shy and unassuming. Nothing better than gainful employment to boost a young person’s self-esteem.
I delivered the goods, Richard reimbursed me, and we took off in the misty rain, en route to his home in Potsdam, New York. Cruising due north on the Interstate, I glanced to my right to observe Richard methodically devouring the first of his Butterfingers. Rather than simply removing the candy bar from the wrapper and going at it, he was carefully folding back the wrapper as he munched. The technique struck me as slightly OCD yet mesmerizing to behold.
“So Richard,” I began, “you still working? What’s your field of endeavor?”
“Lately, as you could imagine, I’ve not worked much, but I’m an artist. I teach and occasionally sell a piece or two.”
“Ah, a creative soul,” I said. “I would have guessed. Now, what’s your medium — painting, sculpture?”
“Mostly I’ve been a portraitist working in oil on canvas. When I was not more than a kid, I worked at Disneyland. There was a bunch of us hired for this. We wandered the ‘Kingdom’ dressed like some Disney version of Renaissance artists, and tourists would pay for quick portraits of their kids. I remember the price was a dollar-eighty. Out of that, the mouse would take a buck and we’d keep 80 cents.
“One day I had lunch with Walt himself. He would occasionally walk the grounds wearing a regular nametag like any other employee. When he invited me to lunch, you could have knocked me over with a feather. He was such an interesting guy, really an artist at heart. That’s all he wanted to talk about.”
“So you’re originally a West Coast guy, huh?”
“Yeah, I am. But I was in New York City in my early twenties. That was when I met my wife and we had a couple of boys. I really tried, but I guess I never could rise to the responsibility of family life. I left her during the summer of ’67 to ‘visit’ San Francisco. People were calling it the Summer of Love — I mean, how could you resist? But, the thing is, I never returned. My kids still love me, and my ex has long ago forgiven me, but I’m not proud of my actions back then.”
“What was it like in San Francisco? It must have been amazing.”
“That it was. It’s when I really came into my own as an artist. Oh, the people I got to know! You know what the classical musicians refer to as the ‘three Bs’?”
“Let me think … would that be Bach, Beethoven and Brahms?”
“Well for my crowd it was booze, Benzedrine and Bolshevism. We weren’t so much hippies as holdover beatniks. I guess at some point it all kind of merged together in what they were calling ‘the counterculture.’ There was a lot of poetry, a lot of theater productions, political activism of all stripes and an explosion of art — much of it worthless, but some stuff was truly groundbreaking.”
In the town of Irona in upstate New York, I began to notice the massive wind turbines. Their placement seemed to trace a winding path, snaking back and forth across Route 11. The string continued through Ellenburg, mile upon mile of king-sized windmills, each one affixed to a metal pillar of sequoia-like proportions. By the end of the chain, I must have counted at least 50.
“How long have those windmills been up and operating?” I asked my customer.
“Gee, I’m not sure,” he replied. “I want to say at least five, or maybe 10 years?”
“You want to hear something crazy? I get up through these parts at least a couple of times a year, and this is the first time I’ve noticed them. You sure this isn’t a flashback to the Summer of Love, man? ’Cause those things seem a touch otherworldly.”
Richard laughed. “Well, for what it’s worth, I was seeing ’em, too. That doesn’t mean we’re not both hallucinating, but there you have it.”
An hour later, we breached Potsdam’s city limits. I asked Richard, “You got any pictures you could show me at your place?”
“Sure — you’ll just have to bear with me getting into the house. I’m not moving too fast these days.”
In his living room, Richard pointed out his portrait of Alfred Hitchcock, inspired, he said, by a publicity still he had acquired. It was crazy evocative, as if the master director had reanimated and was hanging out in the North Country.
Richard said, “A wealthy movie buff offered me 5000 dollars for it in 1977. I refused. I just didn’t want to part with the piece. He told me he’d raise the offer by a thousand every year, indefinitely, until I gave in. I guess that makes it over 40 thousand by now. Maybe I should give him a call. Do you think?”
“Richard,” I said, “I couldn’t begin to tell you. Just thinking about those numbers is giving me vertigo.”
With that, I shot him a wink, and he returned the gesture.