“Dad this is awful. Look at what we’re doing, we’re laying out the grid for tomorrow’s ticky-tack sub-division.”
“It’s a job Bob. Someone else is going to do it if we don’t.”
“But look at this beautiful land. In a few months it’s going to be a thirsty lawn.”
“Do you want a paycheck or not? I can find someone else.”
I went to Fort Collins High School nested at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. In the early 70’s, the town became the fastest growing city in the United States, listed in numerous publications as one of the most desirable towns to live in. Untamed construction went wild and developments sprouted up like invasive Kudzu, pushing the borders of our town out for miles. This caused friction between father and son. It broke my heart knowing that the re-bar I pounded into the ground demarcated the property line of another ugly tract house.
Farmland was replaced by winding asphalt streets with names like Scarecrow, Ladymoon, and Blueyonder. New homes arrived in framed sections on the back of a flatbed. Once the foundation was poured, the bones of a cheap house could be up in a day. The suburban slums of tomorrow were built in two months’ time and sold before they were finished.
The citizens of Ft. Collins were very conservative. The town boasted the highest per capita listenership to the “Rush Limbaugh Show”. For a teenager like myself there wasn’t much to do. We drove aimlessly around in cars and went up to Horseshoe Reservoir to swim and possibly drink a six-pack, if Buzzy was around to buy it. I got my driver’s license on my sixteenth birthday and drove a topless four-cylinder Jeep with no seat belts. This is what I was driving when I got my first speeding ticket and a “fix-it” ticket for not having a driver’s license in my pocket. The cop explained that the second ticket would be dismissed, by showing my license to the Judge in traffic court.
Several months later Mom and Dad took a trip to Mexico, leaving my two brothers and I to fend for our selves. Early in the morning, my brother Tommy opened my bedroom door.
“The police are here looking for you.”
Two tall cops pushed their way into my room.
“Are you Bobby?”
“Yea, what’s going on?”
“Where are your parents?”
“They’re in Mexico. They’ll be home Sunday.”
“Get out of bed. We have a warrant for your arrest.”
“That’s right. Get out of bed. Get dressed.”
Because of my morning boner I wasn’t about to climb out of bed in front of two coppers. “Can you leave the room?”
Nothing happened until one of the two cops grabbed the arm of the other, probably sensing my teen angst. I dressed, stuffed my savings passbook into my back pocket, and met the cops, waiting in the hallway. Un-cuffed, they led me out to their cruiser and put me in the back seat where I noticed the lack of interior door handles.
“What’s the warrant for?”
“I don’t know. We’ll find out at the station.”
When we arrived, they escorted me to a small holding cell where I sat and watched them fill out paperwork. Twenty minutes later one of them entered the cell.
“Your warrant is for driving without a driver’s license and failure to appear in court.”
“Here’s my license. I went to court and paid a fine for speeding. When I showed the judge my license he just shrugged.”
“Young man, you had two court dates and never appeared for the second. You can post a fifty dollar bond or wait in a cell until we can get you before a judge.”
“I don’t have fifty dollars but I brought my savings passbook.”
“What about calling a friend?”
“I don’t have friends with that kind of money.”
The cop left to speak to his captain and returned five minutes later.
“Okay. We’re going to drive you over to the bank.”
The bank was a couple blocks away near my father’s office. I was mortified, as all of the tellers knew my entire family on a first name basis. When they pulled up to the drive-up window, I slipped the book under the barrier screen to the passenger cop and he dropped it into the teller’s box.
“Fifty dollars please,” I said averting my eyes.
Back at the station, I posted bail and was given a new court date and offered a ride home. As the squad car came up the hill, a block from my house, the radio squawked a report of a bank robbery in progress over on College Avenue.
A robbery was a rare-to-never occurrence in our boring town. The driver hit the gas and we zoomed up the hill.
“Wait!” I screamed, “I don’t want go to a bank robbery!”
The car slowed and the rear door popped open. I bailed. As they sped off, the car’s momentum slammed the door shut.
Other than the bank robbery, there wasn’t much excitement in Ft. Collins. The only thing to look forward to was the infrequent rock shows that came around. In the summer of ’69 the lineup for the Denver Pop Festival was announced and I decided to attend on the day Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were performing. I knew every word to Absolutely Free my first LP. Hippies were wearing bell-bottoms according to pictures I’d seen in LIFE Magazine, but try and find a pair in Ft. Collins — no way. So I went to the local fabric store and bought a small bolt of red velvet. This I gave to a neighbor friend of my mother’s and several days later I had a new pair of pants.
I saved the christening of my bell bottoms for the Pop festival. When the day came, I was both proud and very self-conscious about my fire engine red pants. The huge Bronco’s football stadium was filled with thousands of hippies much older than me. When Big Momma Thornton took the stage, she opened an unknown door. I waited through two more one-hit bands and then the Mothers finally took the stage. When the spotlight flared up, there stood Frank Zappa wearing red velvet bell bottoms. I was the coolest kid in the stadium.
Back home, things were the same as they ever were. During the summer I worked on a surveying crew running a transit, somehow I was good at it even though my math skills were nominal. I worked during the day and hooked up with my friends in the evening, but it was the same old nothing. I was a distracted punk with way too much energy, bored out of my mind. I contemplated all of the things I hated about my mind-numbing hometown. The list was long. But commercialism became enemy number one. What were my options? Burning down the new look-alike empty homes seemed like an honorable endeavor but I feared the consequences would be more severe than driving without a license. In the end, I focused my loathing on something smaller.
Next to every artery in and out of Ft. Collins sentries of massive billboards stood at attention. Some were lit up with lights but most were not. My father owned a two-man hand saw that we used to clear brush. This I took possession of for the toppling of a billboard. After sundown, I stalked the sleepy streets of Ft. Collins for potential victims. If I found a billboard I didn’t like, I drove the Jeep past it several times assessing the risk. Test after test convinced me that I could cut down an unlit billboard and drivers would be concentrating on the white lines and never see it fall.
My hero at the time was the Fox, the first environmental activist to hit my radar. Acting alone, he plugged the waste lines from the Dial soap plant that overflowed into the Fox River. At an aluminum foundry he scaled and capped the smokestacks. When that didn’t get the company’s attention he returned and left a dead skunk in their front lobby. The Fox became so revered that friendly local cops tipped him off to surveillance and stakeouts ordered by their Chief of Police. And while I admired the Fox greatly, at the young age of sixteen my plans were more modest.
Highway 14 had a frontage road running parallel to it. Between these two roads, I spotted a four-post billboard. Parking the Jeep fifty yards down the road, I crept back with the saw in a burlap sack. First, I cut through the major posts. Then I cut the braces. With an easy push, the billboard quietly surrendered. Timber! One down.
Quickly I became a Luddite: a one-man judge, jury and executioner, cleaning up the fastest growing city in the United States.
During this time, I graduated high school and began working on a three-man surveying crew. In August, we started a two-week job in the mountains near Gold, Colorado. My crewmates were two older guys that I didn’t particularly like. The kind of men who’d hang out of the pickup and whistle or make crude cat calls to every single woman who walked by. Every time this happened, I slunk down in the seat attempting to disappear. I was embarrassed by their daily macho bullshit. If we were running a survey and I was holding a range pole to set a point and it was off a quarter of an inch, the transit operator would instruct me to move it a “cunt hair” south. They talked like this all day long. Jim, the crew chief, was nice enough but “Billy the Vet” was a head-case who lived in a trailer park with his mail-order Korean bride. I don’t think she spoke a word of English, but according to Billy that didn’t matter. She could cook and she sure could screw. I couldn’t imagine anyone getting into bed with him as he was covered in gigantic acne boils that caused him great agony and were often the main subject of his conversation.
God forbid that we went into a restaurant in some small town and the waitress was cute. Billy the Vet would attempt to strike up a conversation with her and I would watch in horror as she became more and more uncomfortable. I knew that by sitting at the same table with this jerk I was guilty by association.
After working for a week straight in the mountains, we returned to Ft. Collins for the weekend.
“What are you doing with yourself this weekend Bobby?” asked Jim.
I waited a beat, letting the question hang in the air before I finally said, “cut me down a billboard or two.” Immediately I realized this was a stupid reply, as I was breaking my secrecy.
“I hate billboards and I’ve been cutting them down.”
“Really. You’re joking right?”
As we came down winding Highway 287 I spotted a huge Coors billboard in an otherwise pristine mountainous valley. The scene on the billboard displayed a waterfall in a landscape much like the one we were driving through.
“Wow, I’d like to take that baby down. Joe Coors is a rightwing fascist!”
“What do you mean?’
“Oh never mind.”
Jim suddenly slammed on the brakes and threw the pick-up into reverse. “Let’s do it.”
“Hey Guys, whoa… isn’t this destruction of private property or something worse?” Asked Billy the Vet.
“No man we’re beautifying the state of Colorado,” I told him.
Macho Billy the Vet decided to wait in the truck and honk the horn should he see any headlights on the deserted two-lane highway. Billy’s colors began to shine. Seems he was all talk and no play. Jim and I hopped over a barbed wire fence and went to work on the seven telephone pole sized posts. I explained Billboard Toppling 101 to Jim.
“First we cut the big ones. It won’t fall until we cut the braces, and if it doesn’t fall, we push.”
It took us about thirty minutes to get through the final braces as we had to lay low three or four times when Billy tooted the horn. Once we cut the final strut, we leaned our shoulders into the monster and it softly whooshed to the ground.
“Take that Joe Coors,” I screamed into the black void. What a rush.
At the end of the summer, I was off to school at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. Goddard was an art school, modeled after the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina, coincidentally, the town of my birth. My world suddenly grew bigger. Many of the students were from New York and felt so much more sophisticated than I and definitely had more money in their pockets. For this reason I felt I had more in common with some of my teachers, particularly my photo instructor Jeff.
Jeff was more like a friend than a teacher and encouraged me to run wild. The crazier my photos got the more supportive he became. He was very adept at showing me the connections between the photos I made to other well-known photographers, as my knowledge of art history would have fit neatly into a cheap dollhouse teacup. Downing a few pep-me-up pills with black coffee I often spent the entire night printing in the darkroom, then stumbled into critique with a box of prints and not a wink of sleep.
I was not enthusiastic about returning to Colorado for the summer after two-semesters of being so thoroughly engaged. To make money I worked part-time for my dad whenever he had a surveying job. This allowed me time to stalk the revolting billboards. Strangely, art school changed my approach. I figured that if I could co-opt the message, then I would make the billboard mine. No more chopping and dropping. My new arsenal of tools included a paintbrush, pole, duct tape and house paint from my family’s garage.
My first attempts were very crude. I blacked out faces, painting my own message over the advertisers. I enjoyed the risk of being exposed, even though I was positive that it would take an unusually perceptive person to spot me standing on the platform of an unlit billboard.
One of my best alterations was a Coppertone Billboard. Clipping a portrait from a magazine of Nancy Reagan I used a black magic marker to turn her teeth into sharp fangs. From this, I made a copy negative and blew her head up to three feet in my darkroom. The billboard pictured a young suntanned girl with a dog attached to the bottom half of her bikini, exposing white skin and butt crack. Hoisting myself up on the platform, I laid my Nancy print face-down and removed the spray adhesive out of my five gallon bucket. I sprayed a heavy coating onto the back of the print. I flipped the bucket upside down to stand on. Fully extended, I barely reached the child’s shoulders. I attached the bottom of the print onto the girl’s neck and pushed the print into place with a paint roller fastened to my pole. The sizing of my photo wasn’t perfect, but that made it all the more weird. Miss Coppertone was transformed into a grinning Nancy Reagan vampire.
When I told my friend Doug about my new hobby, he asked if he might join me some evening. We found a big JOIN the US ARMY billboard, picturing a tank coming over the hill, near an entrance to Interstate 25. I had recently made it through the draft lottery, drawing a high enough number to insure I wouldn’t be visiting Vietnam.Parking a quarter mile from the billboard, we trudged through the weeds back to our target. After jumping a fence, we hoisted ourselves onto the billboard’s platform above a farmer’s cornfield. I opened the can of black paint and began painting a series of shells exiting the tanks muzzle. Seconds later I spotted a CHP car pulling off of the exit.
Doug bailed eight feet down into the cornfield flapping his useless dodo bird-like wings. I lay down on the platform laughing. The patrol car returned to the Interstate in the opposite direction. Erecting myself, I dipped my paintbrush into the can and crossed out the word “JOIN” replacing it with “FUCK”.
Life was good.
Bobby Neel Adams is a late-bloomer to the writing game. After being picked up by the police at LaGuardia Airport photographing airplanes, he began writing nonfiction, publishing his first story, “How I Spent my Fifty-Third Birthday” in DAMn Magazine, 2007, Brussels. His second piece “Los Algodones, The Disneyland of Tooth Decay” was published in the Diner Journal in 2010 and subsequently edited and reprinted in the Utne’ Reader with a new mysterious title: “Border Crossing for a Root Canal”. In the Fall of 2012 Adams’ story “The King of Sixth Street” was published in the current issue of MayDay Magazine.