Just the other day I ran into an old acquaintance, Mac, as he preferred to be known. Winston Adams Wanamaker, related to the scions of the upscale retail firm in Philadelphia, happened to be sitting in that cheap restaurant franchise, The Waffle Palace. They are very common around the south and eastern seaboard and are known for their simple menus and decently prepared food. Denny’s is upscale compared to them. I used to drive truck years ago and know the value of this venue when one didn’t have money to burn. Actually, it took me a while to recognize Mac, so much water had passed under the bridge and the man I was staring at looked worn and haggard beyond his years. But perhaps I was even more surprised he recognized me since I had never been a regular in his social circles and protest movements. The place being crowded I took the seat opposite his in the two person booth while asking, “Pardon me, would you mind if I shared your booth?”
“Bill, is it really you?” was the reply I received as his face greeted mine. We held each other’s gaze for a minute, maybe two, before I said, “Long time since I saw you last, Mac.”
“Yes, it’s been a very long time. How you’ve been? What are you doing these days?
“Not much these days, living off social security and trying to stay healthy. What brings you to this place?”
“All the old places are gone. Can you believe it? It’s all turned to slum.” Mac carefully looked around to make sure no one had really heard him. “I’m surprised the university is still here.”
Yeah, the university. Back in the sixties the blocks around the campus were filled with coffee houses and taverns and Italian restaurants that served cheap Chianti and spaghetti. I had dropped out of high school and was working in Wanamaker’s in the city center. The rat hole of a flat was on Walnut, about midway between the store and the university. The living was far from easy since the rent was high and the pay was low. But I could walk a few blocks and find a coffee house where I might, for the price of a beer, get some entertainment and at least a friendly look from some coed who though I must be a student. Eventually I ran into Mac, a cross between a sort of old school beatnik and social activist. Civil rights was still big then and the anti-war rallies were about to come into their own. Mac was in the forefront of it all.
To understand Mac you had to know him a little. A kid who was heir to a fortune and yet wanted to do “something” for his fellow man. He was the first man I had met who could give you that feeling of total attention as if you and he existed alone in the world for a few minutes. Despite my lack of educational status we could talk of Socrates and Plato and a few other philosophers. He encouraged my studies and even gave me a couple of books on philosophy. In return I would help with the various committees he chaired or attended. My involvement was more for the purposes of meeting the coeds. I could have saved my time, few exhibited more than a passing interest. Six months later and I was on a bus to join the Big Red One in South Carolina. I had an appointment to keep in Vietnam.
A few people though Mac and I were friends or that maybe I was interested in his latest exploits. I would receive the odd newspaper clipping about his latest protest involvement or some project he had dreamed up. I doubt that anyone kept tabs on my progress through boot camp and AIT and then Vietnam. After all, I was just one of several hundred thousand of boots on the ground. I was of minimal importance to anyone including the military. but I saw that Mac’s exploits gained more prominence in the news. Sit-ins here, teach-ins there, draft resistance counseling, all the news worthy stories about all the important social movements. Yes sir, Mac was going to make America safe for whatever the next crusade happened to find worthy of their efforts. The guys in my squad were both impressed and put off by my association with such groups. Loyalty under fire counts more than social principles. Used to tell them I wasn’t really a part of the groups, just looking for girls and that seemed to clear the air. Matter of fact, that was the truth of the matter. I mean, you get drafted and you do your duty, that’s about the essence of it.
Once out of the service I lost tract of Mac. Oh, I new he was still out there. Heard he had gone to Chicago and the LA and San Francisco and god knows where. I picked my way through life. A job here, a job there, no real roots and then a marriage and a child and, well, one has to do for family. Found myself in San Jose, California working for the telephone company and dealing with a divorce a few years down the line. By that time the Vietnam was over as was the draft and most protests centered on more local issues or environmental issues. Years went by as they always do and I heard little about Mac. Another marriage and another divorce and a bit more moving around until I came back to the city where I had started. My mother needed me to take care of her, there being no one else. The neighborhood had changed for the worst. Families I once knew had packed up and gone for better places. Even the university had changed. Armed guards patrolled the campus trying to keep the riff-raft at bay.
By now the day was growing dark as we sat across from each other, Mac doing most of the talking. “I feel like I am waiting to awaken from some dim dream. So many people I once knew have gone their various ways, you know? They just go where they will and I don’t really know them. What’s happened, Bill? I mean I kept my eyes open to all that was around me and now, look at the times. I don’t know what’s left for me.”
“Why did you come back here? What did you expect to find?”
It was the first time I ever knew Mac at a loss for words. Words had been his life ever since I knew him. Silence can be a deadly thing in the wrong hands. “I don’t know, Bill. I don’t know.”
We said out good byes and walked out the door together. I went my way back to my mother’s house and some semblance of a past life. Where Mac went I couldn’t tell you. I’m not sure he had any idea of where he was headed.