Charlie Komanofsky may have saved my life.
When we finally parted company he smiled back at me, folded his plastic bright orange tube tent, stuffed his down bag into its waterproof stuff sack and pedalled his 12-speed out of the campground.
Staring down at the crusty cover of the book he had given me, I immediately sat down in the shade of a very large pine tree and gave it a read.
It was June, 1965.
Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha opens with the young boy Siddhartha asking his father’s blessing to leave home and travel with a wandering band of ascetics.
This was the beginning of his lifelong search to discover his destiny, find peace in a difficult world, and in the process learn what it means to love.
Hesse sets the stage for us:
The father touched Siddhartha’s shoulder.
“You will go into the forest,” he said, “and become a Samana. If you find bliss in the forest, come back and teach it to me. If you find disillusionment, come back, and we shall again offer sacrifices to the gods together.
“Now go, kiss your mother and tell her where you are going. For me, however, it is time to go to the river and perform the first ablution.”
With this, Siddartha’s life unfolds in a series of rich and meaningful encounters with teachers of all kinds.
When I met Komanofsky in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park he was comfortably seated at a picnic table, cooking an early dinner on his Seva stove and scribbling notes on onionskin paper.
Charlie was travelling light, compact and purposefully.
His plan was to ride his bicycle 5,000 kilometres across the US looking at ordinary people, photographing them in ordinary places, and telling their stories.
He would travel with just enough gear to make his journey both possible and meaningful.
I arrived in the Tetons — 17 and just out of high school — in a 1949 Ford coupe, personalized with dented, but shiny, baby Moon hubcaps and sporting a Hurst floor shift that required two hands and brilliant timing to pop into third.
The coupe burned equal amounts of oil and gas and behind the front seat I carried rolls of toilet paper, which, when one-third used, fitted perfectly as oil filtres.
They also came in handy for those seemingly endless stretches of secondary highways that strung together no-name towns and rural farmsteads.
In contrast to Charlie’s ordered panniers, my trunk was a literal warehouse of cast iron skillets, rusting pots without handles, a Coleman tent suitable for a small Chautauqua, and a US Army-issued down mummy bag, which belonged to my father and shed feathers at a glance.
This bag of bird feathers was the closest I would ever come to being a military man.
Charlie’s dream of passing through stranger’s lives was fortuitous for me — when he passed through mine he bore witness to a life I was only beginning to pull together.
Fresh out of high school, most of my classmates went straight to the jungles of Vietnam.
Many never came home, some of those who did have never slept well since their return. Their nights are filled with the reoccurring horror of burned children being comforted by their dying mothers.
One young boy, the captain of our local basketball team, was soon to become the army intelligence officer convicted of kicking Vietcong prisoners out of airplanes at 9,000 metres.
Charlie saved me from all of this.
For a week or more, he and I wandered around Wyoming’s snow-capped peaks and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together along the rivers and streams that poured out of those mountains.
I would watch him carefully capture all of this on film — and I would dream of becoming a travelling photographer. I would listen to him read his day’s poetry — and I could begin to see me reading mine in front of attentive audiences.
I began to take notes, jot down ideas. Moving words around on paper I felt much like a painter would with his oils.
Charlie bought me a few precious weeks to think. It was just enough time to change the course of my life.
I returned home and filled out the paperwork required of someone who wanted to become a conscious objector to war.
I still have that weathered copy of Siddhartha. It is pulled apart from its cover, underlined on nearly every page.
What I don’t have are nightmares of Vietnam.
There are times I question whether Charlie Komanofsky was even real. I don’t know if I spell his name correctly.
But I think that he was. I can kind of see him still: tall with dark curly hair, wire-rimmed glasses.
I remember him being a good listener and that is all that really mattered then.
As a confused schoolboy, still too young to shave but old enough to face the military draft, all I needed was an ear.
Not too much to ask now, is it?