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On the road with Rip Van Winkle

Sunday, December 28, 2003

By Bruce Dobler

It sounded too good to be true -- I was going on the road with Dow Mossman. We'd both been in the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the late 1960s, and we'd even had the same teacher. But we'd never heard of each other. Now we were in the same movie, "Stone Reader, "a documentary by Philadelphian Mark Moskowitz.


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Mossman was headed east for a major book tour, opening with a presentation at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York City. Janet Maslin of The New York Times would lead the discussion.

Moskowitz asked if I wanted to come along.

"You'll love it," he said. "This guy's like Rip Van Winkle. He's been out of it for 30 years, living in a Rust Belt Iowa town. Cedar Rapids. Not a Yuppie in sight. Goes to a college classroom, lights up a cigar. Has no idea how to call long distance. Ordering at a Wendy's is a major experience."

I'd stay with Moskowitz at his place near Philadelphia, and we'd drive up to New York from there.

I'd read "The Stones of Summer" and fallen in love with it. Especially the last section -- hero strung out in Mexico, like Jack Kerouac at his frenetic wildest and a little James Dean for extra flavor.

Ride around with Mossman and his two best buddies? I'm in.

At 11:50 a.m., the last Monday in October, we pick up Mossman at his hotel. He looks like Wilford Brimley in a black leather jacket, gray-blue pullover and brown Carhartt pants, the same brand he'd worn those 20 or so hidden years when he "married a redhead and worked as a welder."

Mossman shakes hands as he climbs in the back seat. In his other hand, he has the stub of a cigar, but it's not lit. He talks books.

I like him already.

We do lunch. A radio show. Big shots.

The next day we're on the road, Mossman and me in back, JimBob driving -- hefty guy, beard, long hair, a three-time Sprint Car champ.

His buddy, Al, is tall, serious, yet affable. A diamond appraiser, Mossman's oldest friend. Al programs the Hertz navigator that speaks to us in a woman's voice.

"Prepare for left turn in point four miles," the gadget says.

"[The navigator'd] better not get us ... lost!" JimBob shouts. Al and Mossman jump right in, give her a bad time. We don't get lost.

"And put out the damn cigar," JimBob hollers.

This goes on all the way to the book-signing in Bethesda, Md. That night, on the way up to Delaware for a morning TV show, Mossman and I talk books. He lights up.

After the show, Al and JimBob tell Mossman the trip's over for them. We drop them at the airport in Philly. More bad words. Mossman feels betrayed. It's too much: The voice of the car navigator, no cell phone, credit cards, the whole schedule thing. How's he going to handle all that?

"I'll stay," I tell him. "No problem."

You can get used to cigars.

Thursday, we drive into Philadelphia for a radio show and then out to a book-signing in Bryn Mawr. On Friday, it's back to Philly for a tour of the Colonial museum. I make sure Mossman gets to hold the first published edition of "Rip Van Winkle."

Saturday night we go to the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, and I see myself on a big screen for the first time. Tics, quirks and all. Scary.

Sunday, a nice, long drive to Boston. We're listening to NPR, and they run a blurb about "The Stones of Summer." "They been doing that for two months now," Mossman tells me, waving his cigar in my direction. I smile. I can take it.

And, as we get near Boston, I begin to understand a casual reference Moskowitz made about Mossman having "an anxiety disorder."

In downtown traffic, the next day, I'm ready to jump out of the car several times. Someone cuts us off and Mossman swerves back and forth behind the driver, honking, flashing his high beams, cursing and shouting for the guy to get out of the car.

"But this is Boston," I say. "It's how they drive."

That night at the Harvard Coop Bookstore, Mossman is at his best. They love him. I smile. Tomorrow the road leads home. Beat? I was younger then. The word had a different meaning. Mossman tells the crowd he's working on another book, "The Crank."

I'll buy that.

The next morning, our navigator leads us right back to Hertz and, as we pull into the lot, offers us her last, and sweetest, comment.

"You have arrived."

Bruce Dobler teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. "Stone Reader" was shown at the Three Rivers Film Festival last month.

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