Space, The Final Frontier, Part II

I have previously set out to write a three part series set in the early days of the 1970’s.  During those days, roughly between fall of 1970 and fall of 1971, I fell into lock step with the craziest of the crazy in California, which means that there were no limits and no holds barred as I wrestled with what I saw in myself and what I saw myself becoming.  I had done most of two semesters in college but only had two grades to show for the effort, a ‘C’ and an ‘F’ from the first.  As the second semester was coming to a close I loaded my motorcycle into the back of my Studebaker pick up truck and with my roommate, who had just broken up with his girlfriend, hit the road to we had no idea where at the time.  Along the way we picked up two sets of hitchhikers, both of whom were heading for Seattle or its suburbs, and so we ended up spending that summer in the Seattle area.  The tale of that summer deserves a story of its own.

When we returned to San Diego at the end of summer I obtained a low-paying job at a golf course and moved into an apartment complex where a friend lived.  Although we did not share an apartment unit we were close to each other, and most of the people in that building shared their food and drugs and other possessions in a manner very consistent with the counter culture in the Golden State at that time.  It was in this apartment and in a house that several of us rented a couple of months later that I spent my time most heavily involved in the drug scene.

As I mentioned in Part I of the story about those years, I struggled with the question of whether or not I should tell this story.  Heaven knows there is nothing uplifting about it, except possibly as an example of God’s grace that I didn’t kill myself several times during this period.  I finally concluded that I would write this tale for two reasons.  First, because this is a part of my life.  If I would write a memoir of the events of my life it would be dishonest to leave out the parts that I am not proud of.  I don’t have to expose all of my dirty laundry to convey the story of a life that hung on the edge and could have gone upwards from there or very much gone downwards, but could by no means stay locked where it was for long.  I hope that somebody in a similar place will read this and see some of themselves in my story, and decide that it’s time to make a change.  If I could do that, I would consider all of my writing to be a success.

The second reason that I decided to write about these times is that even in the midst of this insanity we were still in most ways ordinary human beings living in a particular place and time.  Representations of drug abusers found in the entertainment industry frequently portray them as sordid, nihilistic wasteoids who would sell their souls for their next fix, and some indeed are like that.  Others show users as cute and funny, sort of a Jeff Spicoli character from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”.  The reality is that we were very much like everybody else.  Most of us had jobs, while others were in college.  Our parties differed from those of the jocks and the cowboys mostly in our choice of drugs and also in the unlikliehood of a fight breaking out and somebody getting their head busted.  We did use illegal drugs, it is true, but we were, by and large, much less of a pain in society’s neck or a project for law enforcement than were the people who used legal ones.  My hope in this vein is that I might be able to convey to anyone who has a family member, a loved one, or a friend taking up residence in this strata of society that they should not write that person off.  Your friend, brother, wife or parent is in there somewhere.  It’s not easy, but stay with them and let them know that you care about them anyway.  Just as me and most of my friends came back from that edge, so too might they.

But as I began to write part two I realized that I did not have the stomach to spend a great deal more time reliving those days.  There were times that humorous things occurred and I will share one or two before I close this subject, but I will not put any more energy into this project.  I have always looked for the humor in life and have found it in the strangest places; in Vietnam, while recovering from a divorce, and in an amusement park ride with a friend throwing up as we twirled round and round.  I would not allow a retelling of the humorous aspects of this period to whitewash the nihilistic valuelessness of it however.  That person who was me lived for little, loved little, believed in little and expected nothing.  Writing about that time causes me to hear and feel distant echoes of a me that was the diametric opposite of who I am now or strive to become, and I gain small satisfaction in remembering where I was even though I can still chuckle at some of the crazy things that I got myself into.

For instance.  One night I was driving to the apartment of a girlfriend of a friend to deliver ten ‘hits’ of mescaline.  Mescaline is the synthetic form of the active psychotropic agent in the hallucinogenic peyote cactus used by some Native Americans to achieve a state of altered consciousness in some religious ceremonies. I was never what you would call a pusher, but within our extended drug-using community anyone who acquired more of a drug than they could personally use might sell some to another user, and in return might buy some when the tables were turned.

On this particular night, as I drew near to the apartment of my friend’s girlfriend I stopped at a light, and when the light changed I turned left and began to descend a small hill at the bottom of which was the driveway into the parking lot of her apartment.  As I rolled down this hill I happened to look in my rear view mirror, and right in the middle of the roof of the car that was behind me I saw a big round red light.

In 1970 a car with a red light in the middle of the roof could only be a police car, and the fact that the red light was lit up could only mean that I was busted.  Now in those days I was seldom in a car without a bottle of beer between my legs (I do not advocate this; I’m just telling it like it was), and this was the case on the evening in question.  But of much greater concern to me was the ten hits of mescaline that I had in my pocket.  Ten hits meant ‘dealer’, and that carried far greater opprobrium with the local constabulary than did ‘user’.

Time to think quick!  What to do?  Pulling over to the side of the road I quickly dug the pills out of my shirt pocket, popped them into my mouth, and washed all ten of them down with a big swallow of beer.  I was just taking the gulp which washed away the incriminating evidence when the car which was behind me passed on my right.  It was a Chevy I think, or maybe a Ford.  I’m pretty sure that it was a sedan, but it may have been a coupe.  Aw hell, it might have been a station wagon.  One thing that I know for sure is that it did not have a glowing red light on the top of the roof.

In complete befuddlement, a condition about which I could write volumes out of close and frequent experience, I looked again into the rear view mirror.  The only light which I now saw there was the traffic light which hung in the air in the middle of the intersection at which I had just been stopped, and that light had by now turned green.  I was baffled and just sat there for a few moments trying to figure out if I had experienced a hallucinatory flashback from some previous psychedelic trip.  I had never had such a flashback before and in fact knew of nobody who ever had, but the media and some entertainment venues presented such a thing to be a fact and at that moment I was not prepared to discount it.  It wasn’t until that traffic light turned red again that I put two and two together.  I had looked in my mirror at just the moment when the red traffic light emerged from behind the car that had been following me and appeared right in the middle of the car at the roofline.

I was filled with relief!  I expected to get busted for the open beer container, but that was a much lesser charge than carrying drugs for sale.  And then it hit me; I had just swallowed ten hits of mescaline, any one of which would guarantee a fine psychedelic trip for a couple of hours!  I knew that I had time to drive back to the apartment before I ‘came on’ to the drugs, but I had only just enough time, so I hung a very illegal U-turn (why not go for broke?) and beat a retreat to my apartment, where I spent most of the rest of that night dodging asteroids somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

Several months later I was living with five of my friends in a three bedroom house.  Four of my roommates were couples and of course got two of the bedrooms.  Dale, the fifth person, had a girlfriend who was frequently at our house and so he got the other bedroom.  I had nothing like a girlfriend, which was my usual estate, and so I slept on a huge pillow on the living room floor.  I really didn’t care.  Such things as where I collapsed were of little importance to me.

Among our company were people with a wide preference in their drugs.  All of us smoked marijuana and took the various psychedelic drugs that were available, and one of our favorite evening experiences was what we called the ‘moonshot’.  We would take LSD as the booster phase, then mescaline to blast us away from earth’s gravity, and finally psilocybin to put us into orbit.  I remember seeing our entire living room filled with neon blue tyrannosaurus rex skulls with the jaws opening a closing to the rhythm of Savoy Brown’s “Looking In” on one such evening.  In addition, some of us used pills of all descriptions; uppers and downers, and also peyote cactus and a variety of other powders and fluids and whatnot.  In short, we had a small pharmacy of recreational and very illegal drugs in our house at any given time.

On one night, when my roommates were at a concert which I had not the funds to attend, I was sitting at home drinking some beer and smoking a joint or two while listening to music on the reel-to-reel tape player that belonged to one of my roommates.  This was a normal condition for me, and one that I could handle with a high degree of competency.  Nothing out of the ordinary was going on until all of a sudden I saw a light from outside playing on the closed curtain of our front window.  Out of curiosity more than paranoia I peeled back the curtain and peered out, expecting to find one of our friends with a flashlight.  What I saw instead was a police car shining its spotlight in our yard.

This was my first experience with being scared straight.  After a moment of frozen panic I began to tear through the cupboards and drawers of my roomies, flushing all manner of capsules, tablets, powders and pills down the toilet.  I was surprised that the door hadn’t been broken down by the time that I had finished that frantic mission, and decided to eject as many baggies of marijuana and peyote and the tiny marijuana plants that we intended to plant later in the spring over the back fence.  Arms full, I raced across the yard expecting at every second to hear the pounding of leather shoes and the deadly command of “Up against the wall, Mother—“.

The command never came, and after the last plastic bag of peyote flew over the fence I walked shaken but confidently back into the house.  Even if the bust came now there was hardly enough of our stash left tucked away in more elaborate hiding places to buy me more than a minor charge.  I was a little bit surprised however that I had not yet seen a badge or heard an order barked in my direction.  Upon entering the house I traversed the dining and living rooms and looked out at the street from our front window.

There was nothing there.  No officers, no police car, no nothing.  I was, of course, very happy about this, but slowly it dawned on me that I had just flushed or chucked over the fence the stash of all five of my roommates.  How was I going to explain that?  I knew that they would accuse me of paranoid hallucinations.  Paranoid I was OK with, but I never once believed that any of my hallucinations were real.  The T-rex skulls chomping away in my living room were not real and I knew it.

All ended well though.  I was indeed accused of hallucinating but we were a pretty mellow bunch – I was probably the rowdiest of our number – and they all finally allowed that I MIGHT have seen something; maybe the police were looking for a prowler.  We recovered what we could from the field behind our back fence and carried on as best we could after what was, for me, a pretty good scare.

It was not long after this event that I quit using psychedelic drugs or any other type of pills.  I had gone on ‘trips’ before that were not fun and colorful and happy things, and in those cases I would take a barbiturate to knock the edge off of that high.  On one occasion however there were no downers in the house to be had, and I had to ride out three or four hours of an intensely unpleasant and introverted trip that was very unsettling.  I well remember retreating into my room – I had a room of my own by this time – lying on the exposed bladder that was my waterbed, and watching the television until very nearly daybreak.  It was hot that time of the year and the waterbed was several degrees cooler than room temperature, and the late, late, late night television offerings then included the cheap old black and white western films with heros wearing white hats who played the guitar and had six-shooters that never ran out of bullets.  I was able to connect with those movies and associate with when I watched them as a young boy in the security and sanity of my childhood.  I found this comforting and reassuring and in that way rode out the bad trip.  I finally, gratefully, fell asleep at the end of a long and very unpleasant night.

I was never inclined to take that ride again, and to the best of my knowledge all but one of my roommates at that house made a similar break with that dangerous and destructive path.  I had fun in those days, Lord knows!  But I also flirted with accident, overdose, and the violence that was endemic to a subculture which accepted with some pride being outside of the law.  There is nothing today which would call me back to that lifestyle, but I hesitate to condemn those who might be there themselves.  They are just people with faults who, if they survive, might advance to something better.  They have my prayers and support.

I Can’t Get No Traction

Just the other day I discovered an old photograph of me and a friend that dates back to 1973.  That photograph is forty one years old, and at first glimpse it is hard to believe that the figure seated on a tractor stuck in a sea of mud with a beer in his hand and more hair than I have had in a good many decades is me.  As I look more closely however I can see more clearly a guy whom I used to know pretty well.  A friend of mine saw that photograph and asked if I was responsible for that tractor being stuck in the mud or had climbed upon the vehicle once it was already immobilized in the mire.  What follows is the story of me and that tractor.

Tractor Picture

After the first semester of my college days at Sonoma State College (now ‘University’) near Santa Rosa, California, my two roommates Walter and Arlen moved away from the zoo that was the apartment complex where we lived near the school.  It’s not that my friends were committed students seeking serenity so that they could pour unbroken hours into their studies in order to go on and cure cancer or develop a way to produce energy by cold fusion and thereby make mama proud.  They had no such idea.  They found an old, square, brown stucco house in a field outside of the city limits of Santa Rosa where we rocked out many of the days and nights of the week.  The advantage to my old roommates was that they each had their own bedroom, and that when their guests left or passed out in the living room they did enjoy enough peace and quiet to allow them to study just enough to pass their classes.  This house sat next to an open expanse of land which I believe was used to grow some sort of feed, or to pasture animals when the grasses were high.  I really don’t know, because Walt and Arlen moved out at the end of the second semester, before summer and its agricultural rhythms had fully kicked in.

One day in the late winter or early spring of a wet year I drove out to the house in order to hang with my friends.  We smoked a few joints and drank what little beer was to be found in the fridge while discussing Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and other Russian writers and the hyper-introspection of their style.  They’re all so excitable and moody in my opinion; very childlike  Perhaps that is why I love them so much.  Anyway, when the beer was gone and we were in need of further lubrication to ease our progression from “Crime and Punishment” to “One Day in the Life of ivan Denisovich”, I shared the news that upon checking the mail before I came over that day I received a small, rectangular piece of plastic which the Bank of America assured me would serve in place of cash at any store which announced its acceptance of said card by a sign in the window.

“No shit.  Really?” said Walter.  “That’s what they tell me” was my reply.  “That’s crazy” added Arlen.  “They don’t give those things to students, do they?”  “They gave one to me.  Wanna go see if it works?”  Approval was instantaneous and the three of us piled into Walt’s Land Rover and drove to the nearest liquor store, which was a mile or two from the house.  Upon arrival we went to the cooler to secure a cold six-pack, but as we stood in front of the glass doors it struck me that we were setting the bar of this experience far too low.

“Grab a sixer” I said to Arlen, and then made my way to a shelf in the back of the store where serious quantities of beer were to be found.  I returned to where my two friends were standing with their paltry six-pack carrying a whole case of the precious 12 ounce cans.  Walt and Arlen stared at me with amazement and admiration as I confidently sashayed past them and plopped the case on the counter.  I motioned for them to bring the cold six-pack, which they set on top of the case, and I turned to settle up with the clerk.

The clerk, who was probably also the owner, was old school.  Medium height and overweight, he was wearing khakis and an off-white button down shirt, a little bit frayed at the seams.  His large face housed beady, suspicious eyes which seemed to be seeking out evidence that he was being somehow swindled every time that we entered that store.  Perhaps he had been robbed or shoplifted too many times, or maybe his friends were named Mugsy and Clubber.  At any rate, he squinted at me and my two friends as if we were making him the butt of a joke or distracting him while some unseen accomplice relieved him of more precious merchandise in the liquor area of his store.  He had never seen us buy more than a quart or a six pack, and then count out nickels and pennies The probability of us having the capital to secure an entire case seemed to him to be pushing the envelope of credulity.  It was into that gale of doubt and disbelief that I reached for my wallet, extracted, and then flipped onto the counter with a nonchalance that I nowhere near really felt, The Card.

It worked!  The clerk ran a roller device over a carbon paper receipt placed over the plastic card and imprinted the necessary numbers to conclude the transaction.  The clerk was slightly more cordial as I signed the receipt, accepted my copy, returned the card to my wallet and began to carry the case of beer towards Walt’s car.  We laughed and whooped with joy all the way back to the house, and upon arrival cracked open three cold ones as other six-packs were placed into the fridge to await their turns.

I don’t know how much of that case we drank that day – probably all of it, knowing us – but at one point we grew tired of listening to music and discussing Russian literature.  Walt was very proud of his four wheel drive Land Rover, the type of vehicle one would see in documentaries of work on the plains and in the jungles of Africa, and began to brag about it once again.  We had all heard this many times, and Arlen began to tease him, saying that the car really wasn’t all of that.  Walt swore that he was telling the truth and then told us to climb in; he would drive out into the muddy field and prove the limitless worth of his extraordinary ride.  We all did as requested and Walt fired up the Land Rover, engaged the four wheel drive, and pushed the gearshift into first, and then we nosed out into the field.  All went well for a couple of minutes but soon, inevitably, the vehicle sank down into the mud up to its hubs.

We had a good laugh at Walt’s expense and then got out to see how we would go about extracting the entrapped Land Rover from the muddy field.  I had once rescued my father’s car from beach sand by jacking up the car and placing rocks under the drive wheels, but here the jack would only sink into the mud, and there were no rocks on this Russian River floodplain to be found.  We did find some short pieces of lumber, and Arlen and I would try to wedge them under any wheel that we could as Walt would rock the vehicle back and forth.  This produced nothing but splinters and a bit of mud splashed into Arlen’s face.  It soon became obvious that some other method would be needed to enable the Land Rover’s escape from the muddy clutches of the soggy field.  We began to look around, and all of our eyes fell one by one onto the neighbor’s tractor.

We knew that enlisting the neighbor’s help was a long shot.  That worthy farmer was not at all pleased with his new noisy neighbors and had done little to disguise his displeasure.  Still he looked like our only hope, so Walt walked over to the front door and rang the bell.  No answer.  Walt rang again two or three times, just in case the neighbor was laying low, hoping that we would go away.  Still no answer.  Walt walked back glumly and said “No dice.  He isn’t home”.  We were about to call for some friends to come over and get their car stuck in the mud too by trying to get Walt’s car out when Walt said “Wait a minute.  Let’s hot wire the tractor and pull it out ourselves.”  “You’re crazy,” said Arlen.  “He’ll have us arrested.”  “He won’t ever know” Walt replied.  “We’ll pull out the car, wash down the tractor and replace it where we got it.”  We briefly debated the insanity of this plan and insanity won.  We agreed that it was the best plan that we had, and so Walt walked over to the tractor, climbed into the seat, fiddled with a few wires, and the iron beast roared into life.

With a broad grin, Walt drove the tractor over to our field and with Arlen and I walking alongside,  the mud sucking at our boots, we made our way to the entrapped Land Rover.  Walt turned the tractor around and backed up to the front end of his car.  We then attached a tow rope from the back end of the tractor to some point underneath the front of the Land Rover.  Arlen climbed into the Land Rover, started it up, and prepared to drive out of the mud once the tractor had broken it free.  Walt put the tractor into gear and began slowly to strain forward.  The Land Rover budged, lurched, and seemed like it was about to pull free.  Then it fell back into the deep pits its wheels had dug.  The tractor, straining to pull the car out of its muddy prison, had begun to bog down into the mud as well.

This was a serious problem, and we all knew it.  There was no way on earth that the owner of that tractor would be amused to find it stuck in the mud, courtesy of the pack of stoned slackers living next to him in rural Sonoma County.  We began to work furiously to dig the tractor out, get lumber under one of ITs wheels, do ANYTHING!  No luck  We were in it and we knew it.  There was nothing that we could think of besides wait for the neighbor to return home and face the music.  Being who we were, the only thing left to do was to roll another joint, open three more cans of beer, and enjoy what was otherwise a very pleasant, sunny, almost warm Northern California afternoon.

So there I am in a photograph which was clicked by Arlen as Walt and I sat in the seat of that tractor with it’s wheels entombed in a sarcophagus of mud.  I had not yet learned how to truly worry, and the implications of the situation soon rolled off of my back as we smoked and joked and generally had a pretty good rest of the day.  You can see in that photo that life was still my playground, no matter the circumstances that I found myself in.

I returned to the apartment that afternoon before the neighbor returned, and it was a day or two later that I saw Walt and Arlen again.  On that occasion I asked them how it all worked out.  “He laughed” said Walt.  “He just laughed.  Then he drove over to a larger building and came out with a tractor twice as big.  With that he pulled the other two vehicles out like they were nothing.  We asked him how we could repay his kindness and he told us to wash off both of the tractors and keep the noise down after 9:00 at night”.

They did keep the noise down after that, and washed up the tractors real good as well.  For the remaining months that Walt and Arlen lived at that house they were on pretty good terms with their now-respected neighbor.