Books have always had a profound influence on my life. From the time that I began to read, somewhere in my early years of elementary school, I also began to seek direction for my life in the stories presented in the books that I read. Mark Twain made me want to view the world with a humorous twist. John Steinbeck and Frank Norris made me aware of social inequity and economic oppression and led me to develop a sympathetic inclination towards Wobblies, Communists and others who at least presented the front of speaking up for those who had been pushed down by society. I eventually recovered from my sympathies for those groups but retain my support for those who’ve been steamrolled by life. Mary Austen fed my love of the desert. Nobody, however, had as much influence on my young and malleable life than did Jack Kerouac.
I read Kerouac’s “On The Road” sometime in 1968 or 69 when I was in Vietnam. My life had been rapidly changing since I had joined the Army and left my home, where any sort of real expression of my own personality was quickly suppressed by my very conservative, military, and authoritarian father. I am not trashing my Dad; he was only doing the best that he could with what he knew. Still, any real expression of my own distinct personality was smothered under a blanket of forced conformity that left me gasping for whatever breath of originality that I could manage to find. I took to wearing hats, usually straw ones of the Panama type, bright red, green and blue socks with my shorts, or beltless (and classless) “continental” pants on occasions when long pants were called for, all in an attempt to establish some sort of individual identity.
Another item of clothing that I got accustomed to was a black turtleneck shirt. Black turtleneck shirts were not very practical in San Diego where I grew up. The long sleeves, high collar, and black color gathered heat like a solar collector, but black turtlenecks spoke of the Beatniks, the ultimate individualists of my childhood years. My hope was that some of the hipness and coolness and detachedness from all rules that the Beatniks symbolized would be transferred to me if I adopted their look in even the slightest way. Dad wouldn’t let me wear a black beret, I didn’t even like Dad’s Navy coffee much less expresso, and the only jazz music that I knew about was the theme music from the television detective show “Peter Gunn”. Still, I wore that shirt as a symbol of my allegiance to the Beatniks, who represented something that I desperately wanted even if I didn’t know what that really was.
Jack Kerouac, correctly or incorrectly, for better or for worse, filled in a lot of the blanks in my life. By the time that I sat in a lawn chair on the tower platform of our company water tank enjoying some beer and a joint under the warm Vietnamese sun reading “On The Road”, I had given up the electric blue socks and continental pants in trade for sex and drugs and rock & roll, which was possible even under the rigors of war. Reading Kerouac, or perhaps I should say misreading him according to author Mark Sayers, I believed that I had found the person that I wanted to be. Sal or Dean, it didn’t matter; each character was radically free from my point of view. From that moment on I knew what I thought was important in life and who I wanted to be.
In May of 1969, three months before Hippy Nation joined in a celebration of music, drugs, utterly unrestrained sex and mud up to their eyeballs at Woodstock in upstate New York, I was released from whatever restraint the Army had imposed upon me. Now returned to my old home in San Diego, I was a grown man, sort of, and as long as I caused a minimum of chaos at our family home I was entirely free of my father’s rules. What followed was a period of abandonment to a life that Jack Kerouac would have recognized instantly.
The next few stories from my life will deal with that period. I have wrestled with whether or not to write these stories at all. There is little or nothing uplifting in these tales and I admit to a certain amount of embarrassment about many things that I will write about. So why write them? For better or for worse these stories are a part of my life. These stories are about a young man who had no real ideals, who had no sense of value in life, who in fact had no real expectation of a long life. These stories tell of a young man who was desperate to find a meaning in life while at the same time running away from the very concept of meaning itself. Yet in the midst of this life there was still to be found friendship, humor, and a hint of the person who would emerge a couple of years hence alive and a little bit smarter, if somewhat worse for wear. You might know a young person just like this and wonder what is going on in his or her head. Perhaps these stories will give you some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. At least there was light at the end of mine. My first tale, part of a series which I will entitle “Space, The Final Frontier”, will follow as soon as I get around to writing it.