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Herbert Huncke’s AMERICA - The Evening Sun Turned Crimson


Herbert Huncke began smoking marijuana in Chicago in 1926.  A cab driver gave his first joint. He was 12 years old, coming home from night clubs he frequented at that early age.
Huncke circulated around the country in the late 1920s and all of the 1930s. 

In the early 1940s Huncke became a well-known hustler on New York’s 42nd Street and  in the shady underworld. He became a fixture of Beat Generation literature and influenced the writings of Dr. Alfred Kinsey from Indiana University . 

This is an early story from his Chicago childhood (circa 1919).

I remember so many strange happenings from the past.  Sometimes I can sit after having taken a shot of heroin for several hours completely absorbed by visions of places and people and the odd twists which make one person or place or experience a bit outstanding from every ordinary routine.

Once when I was a young child I had been invited by friends of my parents to spend several weeks in the country living in a summer cabin—as it was called—where there was a large flower garden and an even larger vegetable garden and great huge trees and hills and a beautiful winding river where I swam and went canoeing.  There were narrow gravel roads twisting and climbing up and down hills—shaded on either side by old and gnarled trees where occasionally simply out of pure joy I would see one I could climb up into—sometimes reaching the very top branches which I would cling to swaying slightly fro my own weight, and while gazing out over the landscape I believed I could see for many miles and my whole body would delight at the softly blowing wind.

The people I lived with owned a big brown and white collie dog named Tamer and was my constant companion.  It was my first encounter with a dog as a friend and I talked to Tamer as though he could understand everything I said—revealing secrets to him I had never shared with anyone.

The cabin or house was built at the top of a hill and from the screened front porch one could see clear over to the opposite side of the river.  Immediately in front of the house the hill began descending and it was rather a long distance down to the riverbanks.  In the evening the view of the setting sun was beautiful.

The one very unusual happening of that summer for mehad to do with a sunset, and all these years I’ve remembered every so often that particular sunset.

I was a fairly intelligent child and usually could be depended upon to obey instructions and behave in a self-reliant manner.  Therefore when one afternoon I was left alone there was very little worry on the part of the people who had left me.  I fail to recall why they had to leave me behind when they drove away, but they had praised me and explained there was no need for me to have someone with me on this occasion since Tamer was to be left behind also, and surely I big enough to help myself to the food which had been prepared and set aside for me and going to be with be no problem.  They assured me they would return before the next morning and of course I was too sensible a boy to be afraid of anything like the dark.

Actually, I was thrilled at the prospect of having the house all to myself and reassured everyone that I was quite capable of taking care of myself.  I think I was five years old at the time or perhaps six and extremely precocious.

And so suddenly I was all alone and master of the house.  It was getting late in the afternoon and for the first time since I had come to this place I became aware of the sounds around me.

I had heard them before but not quite as I was hearing them now.  Everything took on a new dimension for me and—although everything was familiar—still there was seemingly something new about everything.  I realized for the first time I was alone and I became a bit uneasy.  It is rather difficult to explain now and was then, but I had to admit to myself perhaps I wasn’t very brave after all, and this business of being alone was a good bit different than simply being indifferently aware of others being around or near.

I spoke to Tamer and kept him as nearby as possible; even though I was still a long way from real fright it still felt good having him close.  He and I moved through the several rooms of the cabin, and although it wasn’t dinner time I decided to have something to eat.  There were only two neighbors and they had their places a good distance from our place and—although I could look through the kitchen window and see another house through the trees—it seemed rather far away and again I was aware of being alone.  I ate halfheartedly and shared some of my food with Tamer, and then decided to go and sit on the front porch and watch the people below either rowing or paddling their boats and canoes, with every so often a small motorboat spreading a wake which would cause the other river craft to rock rather roughly, and the people in the boats would break into smiles and the women invariably reached for their sides and their laughter sometimes carried up the side of the hill and could be heard by those of us watching from the security of our front porch.

On the evening of this story as I walked from the interior of the house out onto the porch, I became aware of the sky which had turned a wild furious crimson from the huge glowing red disk of the sun radiating shafts of gold light and or at rushing speed plunged below the horizon.  I stood-nearly riveted to the spot bathed in a pinkish tint and surrounded by an almost red world—everything reflecting the sunset—and filled with awe and an inward fright I felt the intenseness of my being alone, and although I’ve suffered acute awareness of loneliness many, many times throughout my life, I’ve never sensed it quite as thoroughly or traumatically as on that evening when all the world turned into burning flame and it was as though I was already in the process of being consumed.  I was not brave at all any longer and was out-and-out afraid—plain scared—as I’ve ever been in my life.

Very slowly and carefully I looked all around me, speaking in whispers to Tamer, and finally, along with Tamer, withdrew into the room which had been mine since coming there to visit.  I climbed into my bed and tried to coax Tamer up beside me.  He simply refused and stalked in a somewhat haughty manner out of the room, disappearing from my view—and eventually I suppose settling down for the night in his own spot.

There isn’t much more except to say except the sun setting on that warm summer evening was one of the most frightening experiences in my life.  Today a sunset can fill me with an awareness of beauty that nothing else can.

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