It’s raining in South Florida. It’s May 15. The two go together because it’s the time of year when the rainy season starts and we are two weeks away from the start of the season marked by increased tropical cyclonic activity. It’s one of the things we live with here just as snow and ice are a part of living in Michigan in winter.
But May has other memories as well. When I was a senior in high school, I spent the month of May 1971 living in a village in northwestern Ohio called Sugar Ridge. My best friend and I were living in a house that belonged to his family on the edge of an old limestone quarry, now filled with water, as a part of our senior work project. He was raising a garden; I was commuting to Crow, Inc., a fixed-based operator at Toledo Express Airport, where I learned about flying small planes. During the long twilight and weekends we enjoyed the quiet rural life: no telephone, no TV, just the orchestration of the sounds of nature.
Sugar Ridge itself is a tiny community. A few streets and houses along with a grain elevator next to the train tracks, a nice little church, and farm fields stretching to the horizon. When we lived there for that month, we met some of our neighbors and were welcomed as kids from the big city of Perrysburg. Some of the local kids came out to swim and fish in the quarry. After our month there, my friend and I spent a lot of our free time in the summer at the quarry, at one point declaring it a sovereign nation to get away from the noise and bustle of life going on beyond our border, designated by a rusting old gate.
Many years later and many years ago, I got the idea for a play about twin brothers who were from Sugar Ridge. When they turned 18 in 1970 in the middle of the war in Vietnam, they faced the reality of life beyond the village: the draft and the possibility of being sent off to war. One chose to enlist while the other chose to follow his dream of a career as a musician in Canada, leaving their parents behind. At some point I began to put the thoughts on paper. I came up with the title, “The Sugar Ridge Rag,” based on my love of Scott Joplin piano rags, but set it aside as other plays and life took precedence. Sugar Ridge remained a fond memory of summer days swimming in the cool water, fishing for bluegills, and the continuo of crickets at twilight.
Then about three weeks ago someone reminded me of the approaching fiftieth anniversary of the Kent State massacre where four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard during a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. Suddenly everything clicked. I had a starting point for the play: the morning of May 5, 1970, the day after the shootings. As is the case with many of my plays, that’s all it took. The story of the Granger family wrote itself, and last Monday I pronounced it finished enough to post it on my page on New Play Exchange.
From the outset I knew that the play would not be about the politics and the causes of the war because that’s not what matters to brothers Pete and Dave, nor to their parents, Deb and Hal. It was about making choices at the age of 18 when the consequences will be with them for the rest of their lives. It was about the differences and similarities that two people who cannot be closer — identical twins — that change their lives and their bond. It was about the little things that we remember — a radio jingle, a piece of piano music, a summer afternoon with a fishing pole — that leave the deepest impressions.
Writing the play also gave me the chance to remember what it felt like to be 17 in 1970 and see that life was coming at me at full speed. Four months after Kent State, I would have to register for the draft. That shattered afternoon on a college campus a hundred miles from my home galvanized me to register as a conscientious objector, work with anti-war groups, and become a Quaker. I had friends who were drafted and served in Vietnam. They came home, but their lives were changed, too. But to this day the choices I made in the spring of 1970 are still with me. Somewhere I still have my draft card. Somewhere I still have pictures of that month at the quarry. And now I have written about the choices that young men had to make with nothing more to guide them but their vision of the future as seen from the back porch of a farmhouse in a village in Ohio. I hope, for their sake, that I got it right.