Buckhead Tales: The Midnight Train

I think everyone must have known one. Someone with such promise that it almost seemed like a light was shining on them. Then, somewhere down the road, it all went terribly bad. 

The Buckhead I was raised in was remarkable for its simplicity and consistency. Nothing really strange ever happened. With a single consensus view of reality everyone knew their place and the pre-ordained dance steps of life were easy to follow. Unusual and bizarre events appeared only in our dreams, until one day they didn’t.

In the late 60s and early 70s several of my acquaintances became unglued. Now this was a time when a great deal of experimentation was taking place to achieve consciousness modification. There were all kinds of gurus running around who said they lived on air, didn’t sleep, or could teach you to fly. Mix that in with a batch of psychedelic compounds and there was no telling what reality some people lived in. Nowadays those folks would be laughed off the block but back then it didn’t seem so crazy. Maybe miracles, as in the days of old, could happen again. After all, it was the Age of Aquarius. 

I had more than a few friends who would go off their rockers from time to time, and I guess some would say I was among them. Almost everyone I knew, even the infamous Psychic Bill, eventually snapped back and settled on terra firma. Well, almost everyone. 

Some never snapped back at all.

Jim’s friend Mark

Mark was as close to me as anyone I have ever known. From kindergarten at Sarah Smith Elementary all the way through Dykes High School, we were as close as close could be. “Thick as thieves” as the saying goes. We spent Friday nights at each other’s house, went on each other’s family vacations, and double dated. He was clean cut, polite, and a sharp dresser. My folks thought the world of him and even my uncle, the infamous Big Daddy Leo, said “that boy has good breeding.”

When Mark was 19 he started acting strange which wasn’t unusual for those times. Now they call it schizophrenia, though I don’t know too much about it or what causes it. I’m told anyone who goes down that road never really comes back. Mark sure didn’t. He went around the bend and didn’t return. 

He wasn’t the only one. My family knew a cluster of three or four young men of promise who took the midnight train going nowhere. At first I thought they might be on a spiritual journey but that turned out to not be the case. They rode a horse down a dark road. Down that dark road is a very bad place to be.

My dear departed Aunt Betty told me once that the wave of craziness during this era was due to my generation’s exposure to the polio vaccine, which from 1955 to 1963 was contaminated with “simian virus 40.” This is not an urban myth as the CDC states: “From 1955 to 1963, an estimated 10-30% of polio vaccines administered in the US were contaminated with simian virus 40 (SV40). The virus came from monkey kidney cell cultures used to make polio vaccines at that time.” 

Aunt Betty said that is why so many of us kids acted like monkeys. 

Well, I don’t know if that holds any water but there was sure something going on. After all, 1968, the year we graduated high school over in the amphitheater at Chastain Park, was the Year of the Monkey.

I went part way around the bend with Mark, but something made me stop and he went on alone. I haven’t had any direct contact with him in over 40 years, but I still miss him. I did see a picture of him a few years ago. He was sitting on a blanket on the sidewalk in front of a fancy hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was making Jesus crosses out of palm fronds and selling them to tourists. I had a fantasy for a while that I would round up the old group and fly to Puerto Rico on a rescue mission. 

There is a tie that binds us to others that time nor distance nor madness can break. I don’t know where Mark is now, but I sure think of my buddy whenever I hear Pink Floyd wailing about the dark side of the moon. I hope he has a place to live, food to eat, and people are being kind to him. 

Not much else to say but “wish you were here.”


Jim Tate
Author, Buckhead Tales
jimtate@charter.net