In the spring of 1972 I moved into an apartment in downtown El Cajon, California, with my long time friend Wes and Clarice, my future first wife. I was now three years out of the Army and any evidence of the smoothly shaved and close cropped soldier who accepted his discharge papers and flew home one spring day in 1969 had long since vanished. I had cut neither hair nor beard since that morning in Oakland Army Terminal and usually ran around with as little clothing on as the law and the weather would allow. Going formal, to me, meant putting on a tee shirt. Of course, I had to comply with the requirements of many businesses and other establishments so sandals, shirt, and even jeans occasionally were draped over my gangly frame, but whenever I could get away with it a pair of shorts and a leather headband was all that I was likely to be wearing.
I also loved being out of the city at this time in my life. I found myself drawn to the quiet hiking trails of the Laguna Mountains or the open wastes and parched draws and wadis of the Anza Borrego desert, where I would hike and explore by myself or with Wes, who in many ways was very much like me. One piece of equipment that I always carried with me when I hiked was a stick about five or five and a half feet long which served both as a walking stick and also what I called a ‘snake stick’. My father had taught me to cut or find such a stick when we would go camping in the Lagunas in my youth. I would then use the stick to rustle the undergrowth in front of me when walking away from the trail or to tap on any large rocks that I might be climbing over to alert rattlesnakes of my presence in time for them to return the favor and alert me to their presence as well. Many very unfortunate encounters were avoided that way.
As a result of all of the above, on any given day my new neighbors were very likely to see my skinny self (about 140 pounds) walking barefooted and shirtless, in shorts and headband, scruffy as a mountain man, cruising down the street to the tap-tap-tap cadence of my walking stick hitting the asphalt as I sauntered along.
I was in just such a fine state of ignorant bliss one day while walking the two blocks which separated our residence from a supermarket where I planned on buying a quart of beer to nurse on the way back home. It was the middle of a warm day and I had somehow scrounged up sufficient change to afford a quart. I was feeling on top of the world and was not the least bit put off when a police cruiser rolled slowly past me, pulled over to the side of the street and stopped, and a large police officer emerged from the car.
At this point a little more background is needed. About a week before we moved into our apartment a bank was robbed in El Cajon, not far from where we now lived. The robber did not wear a mask (did robbers ever really wear masks?) and there was no such thing as a hoodie back then. At least I don’t remember them. The robber was a scantily clad white male of about 140 pounds, long brown hair and a red beard. To the best of my knowledge, he did not carry a walking stick. In any case, the El Cajon Police Department had been keeping their eyes open and now the officer had found somebody who looked like a promising suspect walking down the street in the middle of the workday, unemployed either because he was a student (which I was) or independently wealthy because he had just robbed a bank.
“Good afternoon” said the policeman with a disarming smile. “How are you doing today?” “I’m doing just fine officer” I replied. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” the officer continued, as if making casual conversation. I had no idea whatsoever that there had been a robbery and so thought that it was at least possible that the policeman was just making contact with someone new on his beat. “It is a great day” I replied. “I never get tired of it here”. “Have you lived here long?” the policeman asked. “All my life in San Diego. I only moved here a few weeks ago.” “I thought that I hadn’t seen you around before” the officer said, and this reinforced the idea that he might simply be greeting a new face on his neighborhood patrol. That notion received a splash of cold water however when, after a few more moments of pleasantries, the officer invited me to avail myself of the air conditioned comfort of his back seat.
All of my years as a kid who was familiar with the streets of San Diego, and after two years in Vietnam, I had a very good grasp on where the power lay when two people were of a different mind but only one has a gun . I knew that this was more than just a social chat and that the only thing that I could do to help my cause was to be as nice and cooperative as I could. I climbed into the back of the patrol car and yielded up my walking stick, which went into the trunk.
The police officer, still very quiet spoken and polite, climbed into the driver’s seat of the cruiser and proceeded down the street and turned onto the broad avenue which led to the police station about a mile away from where we started. All along the way I was cudgeling my brains, trying to figure out what I could have done to get me into this fix. I had taken plenty of drugs in the last few years and had sold some too, but only to other people whom I knew in the drug subculture. I was not in the habit of standing outside of a school and trying to entice newcomers into the lifestyle with the old “here kid, the first one’s free” routine. No, it couldn’t be that, unless some undercover narc needed a bust on a slow day and had ratted me out, but I was such a small fish that this scenario didn’t make any sense.
I had not done any harm to anyone either, not that there weren’t episodes of violence around me from time to time and not that I did not have an angry, violent streak in my personality. I had been a skinny kid who hated to fight when I was young because I would usually lose. Also, I grew up in an authoritarian household with a very strict, very physical father. I was famous in the neighborhood for the frequency and quality of the whippings I would take at home (author’s note: My father later apologized for the severity of his discipline and I forgave him. I loved the man dearly in his later years and remember him warmly even to this day). Now, freed by my age, discharge from the Army, and from any moral restraint as a result of my copious ingestion of recreational drugs, my anger would flash out every so often. But I had not hurt anyone seriously, although it was a close shave on a couple of occasions, and so I did not believe that it could be related to anything like that.
We arrived at the police station and the officer, still chatting politely, exited his car and extracted me and my walking stick from same. I was not handcuffed and for an instant I had a wild notion of making a run for it. The doors of the station were just in front of me and I knew that once I entered them I would have to let the process play itself out, regardless of where it was to go. That moment of shining idiocy passed uneventfully and I walked next to the officer as we entered the building together.
We bypassed the desk where names were written down and pictures were taken and went back to a small room with a table and a couple of chairs on each side. The officer said that two men wanted to talk to me and asked if I wanted something to drink. My mouth was as dry as paper and I assumed that a shot of tequila was out of the question so I asked for a cup of coffee, which he produced in a minute or two and then left me alone to think even harder about what I might be in trouble for. Nothing obvious came to mind.
Eventually two men in plain clothes came in to the room and sat down across the table from me. I am sure that you have all seen the movies where they do the ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing. Nothing like that happened. The two detectives did however ask me to account for every second of my life for the last couple of weeks. I knew that a faithful recounting of my activities over that period of time would put me into a heap of trouble so I sanitized the story considerably, but ended up giving them as good an account as possible without letting them know how stoned I usually was and which drugs I was using during the time period that they were interested in. One detective took copious notes and, after an hour or so of going over my story again and again, they thanked me and left me alone in the room. Soon, a uniformed officer came in and asked me if I would like another cup of coffee, which I accepted gratefully. I asked him what was going on and why I was still waiting in the room, but the officer deflected my inquiry and told me that I would find out what I wanted to know in good time.
One thing I knew for certain was that the detectives were going to check on my stated residence and interview any roommates. That thought gave me considerable heartburn. Clarice was probably at school I knew, and Wes was most likely home. That was not a good thing. Wes had a problem with authority figures and would not hesitate to give them a family-sized ration of crap at every opportunity. One time when returning from Mexico the Border Patrol agent asked if we were carrying anything that we should declare, which was a reasonable question. Wes, who had a pretty good buzz on, replied “Yeah, we got a kilo of smack in the trunk”. We spent the next hour or so waiting under the beating sun while the agents searched every inch of my car for the heroin that they probably never expected to find in order to teach the smart-ass a lesson. At this time I did not need disrespected and angry detectives obtaining a warrant and seeing what I had in my dresser.
Fortunately Clarice was home early from school and Wes was across the parking lot in a neighbor’s back yard working in a garden which that neighbor allowed us to plant there. Wes saw the cops and stayed behind the tomato plants while beautiful Clarice opened the door. Clarice charmed them from the beginning; I know she did because she did that to me. They asked her of my doings and she corroborated my story to the smallest detail. After a short interview with our landlords (which didn’t help our relationship with them all that much) they returned to the small room downtown where I was cooling my heels and announced to me that I was free to leave.
“Would it be OK to know now what this has been all about?” I asked. One of the detectives proceeded to tell me about the robbery and the description of the robber. I was fascinated by this and then asked if I could see the composite drawing of the robber. The detective refused at first but I was persistent. “Please sir” I said. “I’ve been as cooperative as I could be and don’t have anything to say against how I’ve been treated. I’ve been here for a couple of hours sweating bullets though, and I would just like to see how much I look like the guy you’re after”.
At length the detective agreed and had me sit back down. He left the room and a few moments later returned with a three ring binder. He drew open the cover of the binder and there, staring back at me from the notebook, was – ME! I stared at that picture for a little while and then looked up at the detective. “I don’t blame you for picking me up” I said. “I would have picked me up too”!
The detective then asked if I would like a ride home. I declined, stating that it was only a mile and I needed the walk to clear my head of the events of the last few hours. I didn’t mention that it was also not always the best thing, considering my association with others in the subculture, to be seen being given a ride by the police. My walking stick was returned to me and I walked out of the police station a free man. A few blocks away there was a liquor store where I purchased the quart of beer that had been the object of my walk in the first place. I then strolled the rest of the way home in the warm El Cajon sunshine, sipping my beer, and by the time I got home I had let the whole unpleasant incident slip out of my mind. I have always been good at that.