TUESDAY: First Night on Adak

BY TERRY TIERNEY

Copyright is held by the author. This is a novel excerpt. Set in 1973, the novel Lucky Ride tells the story of a Viet Nam veteran, an unraveling marriage, and a hitchhiking trip steeped in hippie optimism, post-war skepticism, and drug-induced fantasy. In this excerpt, the narrator Flash has just hitched a ride outside of Los Angeles.

AFTER WE finished the joint, the driver inserted an Allman Brother’s tape, Live at the Fillmore East, and turned it up. Maybe it was the Allmans or my vector to Las Vegas where I planned to visit Phil Briones, but my mind drifted back to my first night on Adak in the remote Aleutian Islands when I met Phil and offered to share my stash of Joe’s pillowcase red, which I had just smuggled onto the Navy base in my underwear.

That night we bounced down a series of gravel roads extending far from the base lights and any signs of humanity. Phil had organized a Seabee car party with Billy Sullivan and Jerry Fenn in the old, black Buick that I was destined to buy from him a few months later. On the dash balanced two small bookshelf speakers wired to a portable cassette deck blaring “Elizabeth Reed.” As the honored guest, I rode shotgun next to Phil. My job was to keep the speakers from falling, which was not that easy. Blasted by rain and wind, the car rocked on its collapsed springs and scraped bottom as we drove through deep holes and pools on the abandoned road. Lightning burst through the thick clouds and revealed a mountainous landscape, devoid of trees, with rivulets of water flowing down and across the road, as if we were cruising up a stream bed.

My new comrades laughed and said not to worry. Phil produced a bong, not wanting to waste my precious weed by rolling joints, and Billy handed around a bottle of sweet Taylor Pink Catawba wine. Wasted and not at all comforted by their claims about the safety of the road and the sturdiness of the Buick, I thought we might die.

“We don’t call her the Dreadnaught for nothing,” Phil said, patting the cracked dashboard.

We swung down an even narrower path, and Jerry yelled up to Phil, “You can’t cross here! It might be washed out!”

“It’s cool,” Phil yelled back. “We were up here in a Jeep last week and the road was fine. No problem!”

“But the tide’s high, and it’s storming!” Jerry persisted. “And this ain’t no Jeep; it’s the fucking Buick!”

“Hey, Phil,” crooned Billy, “Jerry says it’s raining!”

But Phil would not be diverted from his planned route. “We have to show Flash what Adak is really like.”

The road narrowed to one car width with an ocean of water on either side. A wave crashed up and over the car, inspiring Jerry and Billy to hoot with pleasure. I clasped the wine bottle like a crucifix when a second wave crashed up from the other side and doused the car again. Waves washed us from both sides in a sickening rhythm as the old Buick continued to inch along.

Finally, I burst, “Where are we?” I felt like the Pharaoh crossing the dry bed of the Red Sea with walls of water crashing down.

Phil turned to me. His voice echoed the calm, rhythmic drone of a tour director. “To our right is Lake Andrew, really a large lagoon, and to the left is the Bering Sea. Lake Andrew is fresh water.”

“Not for long,” Jerry chortled. “Looks like the sea wants to take it back.”

After one high wave teetered above us and collapsed like an office building, Billy yelled, “Punch the damn pedal. I ain’t drowning tonight!”

Phil pushed the speed up to about ten miles per hour, which was all he dared, given the Dreadnaught’s suspension and the condition of the road if it was a road. We finally turned off the estuary and climbed to drier ground, over gravel with rocks the size of watermelons, where we stopped to finish the wine and quiet our nerves before returning to the base, my initiation complete. Less than a day after I got off the flight from LA, and I knew what Adak was like, a washed-out road with waves crashing from either side. Every time I thought about Phil, I remembered how we parted the sea in the Dreadnaught that first night we met.

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