Like a Rolling Stone

Like a Rolling Stone

Sometimes I just can’t make up my mind. That’s when I leave things up to fate. It was late September 1970, and I had been hanging out at my parents’ place in West Orange, New Jersey, for about a month. It was my second visit that year and it was clearly time to move on. But where to? I could hitchhike back to Edmonton and see if I could land a job, but I was also tempted to head north to Nova Scotia, first, which I was accurately told was beautiful in a totally different way than the Canadian Rockies. I had many good pals in Edmonton but I had never been anywhere in Canada east of Toronto. That’s when I got an idea. I was only a few miles from The New Jersey State Parkway. I knew a place in East Orange where you could hitch a ride at a Parkway entrance about 200 metres from where the cars either turn left and head south or go straight ahead north towards New York state and beyond. I decided that if the first car that stopped was heading south I would ask the driver to let me off at the Route 22 turnoff and head west across America on my way to Edmonton. If the driver was headed north I was on my way to Halifax, Nova Scotia. It only took about five minutes to learn my fate. I was going to Halifax. Theoretically.

The driver introduced himself and, in a few minutes, informed me that he was a recently released mental patient. We hit if off perfectly. He said he was sorry, but he was only going about 20 miles further and then started telling me his life story. I was utterly fascinated and peppered him with leading questions. He was enjoying it so much he skipped his destination and drove on into New York state. The stories just rolled out of him. On and on he drove, pouring his heart out to me. Next thing I knew we were in Connecticut and he was becoming really animated. “This is the best conversation I’ve had in years,” he gushed. “I guess I can go a little further.”

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, home sweet home for my driver?

Maybe I should have become a therapist. It was like no one had ever listened to him before. He was a really nice man, but I remember thinking he might have a slight impulse control problem. By the time we were approaching the Massachusetts border I was wondering if he was actually going to drive all the way to Halifax. If he had a full tank he might have done it, but his gas tank was nearly empty and he finally realized it was going to take him hours to return to his original destination. We shook hands warmly and wished each other luck. I really enjoyed his company and I’ve always hoped his life turned out well.

That was a helluva start, but I still had a long way to go. After a few small rides I got picked up by a very nice couple who told me they were heading home to Canada and could drop me off on a road from Moncton, New Brunswick to Halifax. Perfect. As we approached that turnoff hours later they told me they lived in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and invited me to stay with them for a few days before heading for Halifax. I said yes, of course, and thanked them for their hospitality. They really were good people, but as I discovered there was one problem. Jesus. They loved Jesus. They REALLY loved Jesus and wanted me to love him too. In fairness, they didn’t push it overly hard, but I knew they weren’t going to get their wish.

During the next few days I explored Charlottetown and made a bunch of new friends who invited me to stay with them temporarily. I also met some people who had obtained federal government funding to start a program called Youth Services, to help young people with a wide variety of issues. There was one more opening and they encouraged me to apply. I was unaware of any qualifications I might have for such a job but they offered it to me and I accepted. I worked there for about 10 months and really loved the kids that came by to hang out, play sports, get help filling out job applications, or just talk. I don’t know if I helped them, but I don’t think I did them any harm either.

One rough-and-tumble young guy whom I got to know well and like, knew I was from West Orange, New Jersey, and asked me once if I knew a kid named David Cassidy when I was growing up there. I was puzzled. I told him I was in a cub scout pack with three other youths, and one was a nice kid by that name, but why was he asking and how could he know? He whipped out a teen fan magazine with David Cassidy of the Partridge Family on the cover and there was no doubt about it. I had never seen the show but that was my David Cassidy, who lived three blocks away from me. I would recognize that baby face anywhere. I knew his mom and dad were actors but I didn’t have a TV and never did watch the series, but I was glad to see David, who was a nice and very likeable kid whom I didn’t know very well, had made it big. I was saddened to learn of his death last year.

Although I had zero experience as a disc jockey, I ended up hosting a weekly radio show, playing contemporary rock and rolI music, for the first time on a PEI radio station. Yes, I was the first person to play The Band, Santana, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead and many other popular singers and rock groups on PEI radio. A bunch of us were sitting around one day, griping about the total lack of rock music for young people on the island. They wouldn’t even play the Beatles! The closest they came was playing a cover of Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da by the Norman Luboff Choir. Yuck. One of our group had some experience as a DJ somewhere else, but wouldn’t call the Charlottetown station. So I called, asked for the program director and made our pitch. He invited me to meet him at the station. I brought a few albums, played a few songs to give him an idea of what we would like to hear and to my total surprise he offered me a one-hour-a-week radio show as a kind of experiment. I told him about the guy with DJ experience, but he said he wanted me to do it. He also told me I talked way too fast for the island audience, and sounded like a New Jersey gangster, so I slowed it down as best I could without restraining my enthusiasm.

I loved PEI. The people were great. I had lots of terrific friends and a good job. I bought a three-speed bike and my pals and I often pedaled to the beach at Stanhope and sometimes all the way to Cavendish, where we swam, enjoyed the sunshine, ate the sandwiches we packed, and just had fun. Somehow I ended up singing once in a kind of nightclub for young performers after some of my pals who appeared there regularly as musicians talked me into it. I don’t have much of a voice, but we practiced a song that didn’t require a lot of singing ability and it sounded half decent, mainly because my friends were good musicians. I sang the old Dave Dudley trucking tune, “Six Days on the Road” with gusto, if not skill, and even played a break on my kazoo. Amazingly it was well received. The best female singer at the club, whom I knew well, came up to me and said “Tom, I never knew you could sing.” I laughed. If only.

Stanhope Beach, Prince Edward Island

As summer ebbed and the tourist season came to a close, the islanders became a little inbred. There wasn’t a bridge to New Brunswick then and mainlanders were looked at askance during the winter. Sometimes it seemed like everyone in the province was named Campbell, McDonald or Gallant. When people learned my last name was Barrett, they would say with a puzzled expression, “That’s not an Island name.” I realized it was time to move on. I had this fantasy about travelling to Scotland and eventually used the money I very carefully saved in PEI to finance a crazy, fabulous eight-month backpacking and hitchhiking adventure in Europe and Africa in 1971-72, generating many of the stories you will eventually see on this blog. After leaving PEI, I visited Halifax and most of Nova Scotia – a beautiful place to be sure, especially Cape Breton Island. I hitched back to Jersey, got a US passport and headed for Europe. I was living the life of a rolling stone and loving it.

This time, fate got it right.

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