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“Crossroads” is a fictionalized biography and travel memoir of its author John Cassell.
John Cassell, as related to us in his book, is an American “Jersey” boy who we first meet as he is is graduating from University in the Western state of New Mexico in 1969. He was not a part of the hippy movement and didn’t like to be called a hippy, which he seems to have seen as people who were self indulgent and self serving.
John was however fervently against the war in Vietnam, which he read correctly as America’s unprovoked and murderous aggression against Vietnam. While at university, he was given a deferment from the fearsome draft, where young people were forced into fighting the war. But upon graduation John no longer had such protection.
John thinks of doing seminarial studies, (which would keep him out of the war) but desperately needed funding, which he failed to get. He was overburdened with debt just getting his undergraduate degree and didn’t want to take on anymore.
John’s Irish father was a bad boy. He ran around and boozed. His mother eventually remarried a very Anglo guy who treated John like Shanty Irish trash. So our hero didn’t have a very good self image and had a strong need to prove himself. He was awkward and shy around women, so he had no real love life during his youth. Although John was no hippy, he was still very influenced by the ’60s. He believed that he lived in momentous times, that had brought his country to the brink of a revolution.
John introduces us to his friends from university, Chris who turned him on to taking illegal drugs and Ernie an American from a Latino background who wants to go to Bolivia and fight to free people from American oppression. Everyone in his group were into political radicalism, and as much dope and free love as they could get. That is except John, who while empathizing with the world’s oppressed, distrusted political extremes.
In the end John makes his choice as to what he wants to do after graduation. He decides to spend a year travelling around in Europe. In order to do this he takes a job in a factory to save money and recounts what his life was like there.
On John’s journey in Europe he dreams of starting a commune alternately on he West Coast of Ireland and then in Paris, in which all of his friends and loved ones would find a place. These were the common dreams of many a young man of his time. To create a better world at the microcosm.
Young people on the cusp of being able to define their own lives. usually make great protagonists, especially if they have characters somewhat better than our own. There are so many ways that the young can develop, so many roads the can choose. The best at that age, capture both an innocence and nobility within them that we like to remember in our selves. That means that if well written, we will care as to how their stories unfold.
Sporting events can be extremely exciting when you first see them. But it is rare, that once you know how they will end, they hold much interest for a second viewing, unless perhaps you were a participant.
And so it is that the author John Cassell, should not have boasted about how his story unfolded after his fictionalized adventures in Europe in 1969. He did apparently escape the draft which was done by lottery at the time.
Once there was no draft where John was threatened to have to go into the military, he volunteered for it anyway, joining the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command. He was of course defending his country, against WHOM? He originally wanted to entitle this book “Soldier of Aquarius”. This is an oxymoron, just as were “Christian Soldiers” of a former time. It is always funny how people who enjoy killing, will always look for an excuse, no matter how ridiculous.
As if saving the world from evil communism was not enough, upon John’s return from the military he goes to law school where ostensibly this “Soldier of Aquarius” will use his skills to defend the poor and oppressed.
Well no. Instead John become a public prosecutor for the state, insuring that people like himself as a young man, (and all of his friends) will get the benefit of prison life and that the American penal codes will continue to be waged as a war against the poor, who overwhelmingly fill his nation’s jails.
In any case when John arrives in London he seems completely unprepared. That might be normal for a 22 year old kid, who has never been out of the States before and doesn’t really understand what going to a different country entails. But as the story unfolds, John just keeps doing stupider and stupider things that go beyond innocence, until it becomes clear that John the writer is setting us and his character up for melodramatic events that would not normally occur if one had the tiniest amount of forethought.
For example John hitch hikes around France, not really knowing where he is, or where he is going with a stranger he meets at a public place. He winds up at the young man’s house way out in the countryside, having no idea where he is or how to leave. And of course very strange things happen to him. Then he meets a Moroccan man on a train and on a whim decides to go with him to his home in Morocco, knowing nothing again about where he is going.
The trip of course turns out to be a set- up, in which terrible things happen to poor John. Then after he escapes an ordeal designed for “action novels”, a friend of the Moroccan who set him up, offers to sell him 3 kilos of hashish to take across the Spanish border, which John already knows that under Franco is a terrible police state with heavy penalties for drug smuggling.
John then gives us a blow by blow description of his “perils of Pauline” journey across the Spanish border. He was so frightened at the border, John was cursing himself for having taken such a foolish risk. So does he dump the hash in Spain? No he continues to travel with it crossing borders into France, then the UK and later the States without mentioning anything about the risks of drug smuggling.
I guess John the writer had squeezed all the melodrama he could out of the border crossings, and the hashish was useful later for the story that the author wants to tell us, especially with reference to his characters relations with some pretty women.
The most ridiculous of all however, is that John is diagnosed by his dentist, before leaving for Europe as to needing to having dental work done. He chooses not to do it because he would not then have enough money left over to go to Europe with.
So in Europe John is constantly suffering from tooth pain. Eventually the pain is so great that John feels the need to return to the States to get treatment. In France however and even more so in Spain, John comments on how cheap everything is. But it never occurs to him to get his dental work done there, as if the only decent dentists in the world just happen to live in New Jersey.
All of this reaches absurd proportions when on his trip back from Morocco, in a Spanish train John is in dental agony. The train conductor brings a physician on board to diagnose the problem. He tells John that because of his neglect there is a massive infection, that if left untreated could kill him as quickly as a month. The doctor tells John that he desperately needs antibiotics. Upon existing the train in Spain, John never thinks to simply buy the antibiotics which he could purchase there over the counter. In fact he continues to travel without any treatment until returning to the States weeks later.
The good parts of “Crossroads” is that it is written reasonably well, with a good sense of character development and the time and places in which the story occurred. The action scenes if over the top are pretty exciting.
But in the end “Crossroads” was as much about John’s country as it was about John. It was a time when America too was at a Crossroads, where it could have gone with the dream of Martin Luther King and the ’60s, of leading the world towards peace and cooperation and towards greater compassion for minorities and the poor at home.
Instead, like the character John who was a poster boy, (along with politicians like John Kerry and the Clintons) his country chose the path of Imperial aggression abroad and greater inequality and repression at home.
In “Crossroads” John the writer seems to be searching for some form of expiation for his sins. The book leaves us to question whether this expiation is for his irresponsibility when he was young, or for the repressive character he later became. Perhaps these are demons that John, as well as his countrymen are still struggling with.
If you think that you would like to read this book, you can get it here for just $3.00