Scooby-Dooby-Doo, Where Are You? (R)

THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW

 

“Take a good look. ‘Frederick Allen Jones’ – that’s me!

His gaze didn’t waver and demanded to be met. There was con­fession and confrontation etched into his very posture as he thrust forward, perched on the makeshift cushion his backpack provided, holding the card before him like a crucifix in the hands of a half-ashamed Van Helsing warding off a pack of vampires who were more mortified than anything else.

And it had been such a good day.

We had crossed into California just before noon, and, though there was no celebration to mark the occasion (someone had neglected to inform the governor or hire a band), we each erected a commemorative plaque along that stretch of Highway 347. Don’t bother looking for them because we carry them with us – the land­marks of memory.

By this point in our journey, in the late days of the summer of ’67, the Mystery Machine was leading a small caravan of hippy trucks, hippy bugs, and hippy microbuses. We were the Chosen People in tie-dye and beads fleeing Pharaoh’s army and beginning our own forty years of wandering through the desert – which, with a full tank of gas and a AAA map, would probably only take a day or so.

Had we kept on truckin’ we could have made the Pacific Coast Highway by nightfall, but the consensus was we’d all be fools if we resisted the temptation to brave a day in Death Valley.

Shaggy thought it sounded dangerous, but everyone else thought it sounded fun. In the end, we probably would’ve been better off listening to Shag.

The wagons circled at the base of one of the ragged, rainbow-hued foothills, tires crackling across the parched seabed floor of the desert which looked to me like one of those microscopic close-ups of teenaged skin in an acne commercial. We, with the confidence of plenty of food, water and umbrellas for shade, stepped onto the Mercurial landscape and met the sun.

Before long touch football games had broken out in the 120-plus-degree heat. These were, perhaps, the shortest games in the history of the sport as assorted players fainted dead away amidst the powdery dunes. Less strenuous activities – like sightseeing, amateur photography, and lying very, very still – ruled the remainder of the day. As baked (literally) as we were, it was Shaggy’s questionable inspiration to try some actual baking in a neighboring camper’s propane stove. Coaxed along by the skinny-legged owner of the camper, she of the Swedish braids and bewitching giggle, Shag had sacrificed the last of his Grade-A brown-tar hash – the same stuff that had prompted him to believe, on several tripped-out occasions, that Scooby could actually talk in a weird “Mr. Ed with a speech impediment” fashion that he tried to imitate for us – to a mixing bowl. Experimenting with his own variation on Ms. Alice B. Toklas’s infamous brownies, Shaggy set out to make hash cookies.

A fine idea whose time had not quite come, thanks largely to Shaggy and his assistant chef being distracted by their baser instincts. The stink of smoldering baked goods acting as the interruptus to their coitus, Shaggy leapt from the young lady’s bed and, pink as the day the world met him, used his own shirt to yank the burning tray out of the stove. He tossed the hard, blackened cookies, tin and all, out the door and returned to more pressing matters.

It wasn’t until the shadows began to stretch across the harsh, jagged terrain and the bleached colors of the day dimmed, that anyone noticed how odd Scooby was acting. Or that the scattered debris field of wasted cookies, full of hashy goodness, had completely disappeared.

It took Shaggy, me, and three other helpful souls to calm the poor, tripping beast – spinning in pointless circles, hopping, yipping, and kicking like a puppy in the midst of an epic daymare. Eventually it was Shaggy who talked Scooby down, forcing bowl after bowl of water into him and ceaselessly petting his quivering flanks.

Throughout this surreal yet morbidly hilarious incident, Fred was his normal (of late) uncommunicative self. He brushed by Daphne endless times during the course of the day without the slightest word. He eyed the rest of us with a blank­ness that none could fathom. Frankly, most of us were too intimidated to try.

As the sun took its toll, leaving the majority of the free spirits of our merry band drained and lethargic, Fred had quietly and with machine-like efficiency, gone about making camp. When darkness fell, as if by magic, there was a fire, food, and my pup tent pitched and ready. No one complained, no one said anything.

Leaving Scooby in the tender care of his afternoon playmate (upon reflection, she was almost surely named Ondia Skyflower or some variation on the theme), Shaggy returned to the fold and we were once more the family we wanted to be. Perhaps sensing the weirdness of the “vibes” our little quartet was generating, this was one campfire that was uninterrupted by sing-alongs or guests. Else­where across the campsite, other gatherings happened without us, but hushed, subdued. A shared look between Daphne and me commented on the oddness that had settled in our midst. Maybe we had reached some major crossroads without realizing it. Or maybe it was just dinner in Death Valley.

“Mmm – hey, is there any chilli left?” Shaggy was wiping his bowl clean with his fingers and then sucking the grease from his stick-thin digits.

“No,” answered Fred bluntly, “there’s nothing left – at all. You and the fucking dog have cleaned us out.”

Chastened, Shaggy ducked his head, “Sorry.”

Daphne was staring emerald green death rays at her one and only and the corners of her mouth twitched. I felt it prudent to grab the wheel.

“So, is Scoob gonna be okay?”

Shaggy looked relieved to be asked, his goofy smile peeking again, “Oh yeah, yeah. At the very least he saw God. Like, that is one enlightened pooch, man. It gave me an idea though – “

We waited several seconds until it became clear that Shaggy wasn’t pausing for dramatic effect but had, in fact, become entranced by the ant bites of the top of his foot.

“Shaggy?” Daphne prompted.

“Yeah?”

“You said it gave you an idea?”

Blink. “Hm?” Blink, blink. “Oh – yeah, like, when I finally perfect those hash cookies – I mean, when they don’t burn up – I’m thinking of callin’ ‘em ‘Scooby Snacks’.”

Daphne and I both broke into a cackle, shortly joined by Shaggy’s own high-pitched asthmatic giggle which was cut short by the clang of Fred’s metal mug against stone as he knocked the last coffee grounds into the fire. Again it registered with Daphne, who wasn’t in the mood to let anything slide, but this time I wasn’t fast enough to intervene.

What?” she demanded.

It looked, for a second, as if her voice had pinned Fred against some invisible wall. He returned with all of his accustomed wit.

“What do you mean ‘what’?”

She pursued, she flailed her hands, she caught fire. “What is it? Huh? What is hanging over you lately? What is your god­damned problem?”

He didn’t turn away, but he also remained silent, just meeting her gaze and simmering.

“Can you talk about it? Will you? Or is this thing so freakin’ big that we, the best friends you have in the world, just wouldn’t under­stand?”

Now he did look away and his voice was quiet. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.

“No. It’s not that big.” His fingers fastened on something and withdrew it – a slip of paper maybe, or a- “In fact, it fits right in your pocket.”

We had all seen one before, but still it was a threatening, alien object.

“A draft card?” I said, my eyes bugging behind my bullet­proof lenses.

Daphne, on the other hand, was completely unperturbed. “So?” she said, “Toss it on the fire. Finito.”

Shaggy joined in, “Yeah, man, torch it. That’s what I did.”

Fred, still cranked up, shut his friend down, “No you didn’t! You lost yours, you moron!”

Shaggy reflected briefly, nodded, and continued, “But I woulda burned it – same principle.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not you, Norville,” Fred growled, “See?”

He made sure the card passed in front of each of our eyes.

“Take a good look. ‘Frederick Allen Jones’ – that’s me!

Life can turn on the capricious edge of a spinning, flashing dime and this day, with its accidental hilarity and uninvited tension, had spun off enough dimes to make a long-distance call to Antarctica. As the shadows had fallen in the valley, swept along by shrill, unobstructed winds, they only added to the desert cold that had settled over our hearts in such a brief moment. Call Antarctica? We were already there.

Fear tainted Daphne’s words now, “Fred – what are you saying?”

“I’m saying – what I mean is-,” Fred’s jaw tensed and flexed, “A month ago was my 20th birthday.”

“I know, “ Daphne said, “We were in Texas. We bought you that cake.”

“Which Shaggy and Scooby demolished,” I chimed in for some vague reason.

Shaggy sulked, “Sorry again.”

Fred continued, “I called my parents collect from a pay phone – to let them know we were okay and see if they’d cooled down any about the whole dropping-out thing – testing the waters, you know? They made a point of telling me about Jimmy Howar.”

Shag clued in, “Howar – hey, that’s your old high school buddy, right? What’s he up to?”

“Not much. He’s dead.”

The whole desert drew in its breath, held it, too embarrassed to intrude.

“Jimmy and I were best friends probably since we were zygotes. I was the quarterback, he was the receiver. I made the play, he made the touchdown. We were going to be each other’s best man. We were the Dynamic Duo and that’s the way it should’ve been forever.” Fred stared into the fire as if it were a photo album. “Once when we were kids, we saw this movie together – The Sands Of Iwo Jima – you guys ever see that?”

“Sure,” me, of course, “John Wayne and John Agar.”

“Yeah. Great flick. We decided that would be us. We’d be Marines together, we’d storm the beach somewhere, someday; we would plant the flag and come home heroes. Only the way it worked out, I went to college and he actually enlisted.”

“Little kids make all kinds of crazy pledges.” Daphne inter­jected, “It doesn’t mean-“

“I hung out with you guys – smoking grass for peace – while he was doing what he said he would. And paying for it. A landmine in the middle of the fucking DMZ blew him into eighths. The biggest chunk of him was sent home in a box with his tags and a medal.”

“Jesus,” I said.

Shaggy, his eyes awake now, shook his head, “That’s like this guy who was over there with my cousin. They said he-“

“Shaggy,” Daphne stopped him. “We all know stories like that – too many of them – but it was his choice to go.”

Fred countered, “Just like it was my choice not to burn this thing. … My choice to go when I’m called.”

This concept, so sudden and destructive coming from a source once thought solid and benign, was its own landmine. Our hearts shrank in our chests, dodging the shrapnel.

Daphne’s eyes had gone wide with disbelief, “Why?! Because of some thick-headed guilt over the death of your friend?”

“No. Because I’m not entirely certain that this whole ‘tune in,

turn on, drop out’ thing is really coming from some moral outrage – or if it’s just a more romantic form of cowardice. You know I don’t want to kill anybody – and I sure as hell don’t want to die – but I don’t like the feeling that I’m just running away.” He turned to Shaggy, “If you were honest with yourself, Shag, you’d realize you’ve got the same doubts.”

“Then you don’t know shit, man,” Shaggy said as he stood, his expression a mix of frustration and sadness that I’d never seen grace his features before. He pointed one grease-stained finger at Fred’s draft card. “That thing is a solid bummer and it’ll make you as dead as Jimmy.”

And with those sobering words, Shag wandered off towards his hippy chick’s camper, sure to find comfort there and the welcome grin of Scooby Doo.

Which left me with the happy couple. But not for long.

Though I’m sure it mattered to Fred what his friends thought of his decision, there was only one voice he was tuned into that night. And it had dropped to its chilliest register.

“If you feel that massacring jungle farmers in order to foil the Communist plot to take over the world will somehow make you a ‘Man,’ then go right ahead,” Daphne proclaimed. “But if you think for one second that that’s a man I would let touch me, then I have some sad news for you, Soldier Boy.”

She turned on her heel and made for the van. Within seconds I was alone in front of the dying fire.

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