Space, The Final Frontier, Part I

It didn’t take me very long after I was discharged from the Army to enter the drug subculture that prevaled in California in 1969.  I had smoked a great deal of marijuana in Fort Hood, and later in Vietnam, and it was rumored that some of the weed that we smoked in Vietnam had been cured in opium.  I don’t know the truth of that, but there is no denying that it was powerful stuff.  I remember one night in Long Binh when I was sitting in a lawn chair on the wooden porch outside of our aluminum ‘hooch’, or hut, in which twenty or so of us soldiers made our homes.  I had smoked several of the pre-rolled ‘Saigon Bombers’ that we bought from a Vietnamese supplier and was feeling a good deal more loaded than usual.  A radio or 8-track nearby was playing the Beatles’ song “Hello Goodbye” and I felt like I was falling through solid rock towards the center of the Earth, with only the dum-dum-dum-dum beat of the song holding the rock apart to enable my descent.

On another occasion which I did not get to witness my friend Wes stripped down one of the bombers which I had sent to him through the U.S. mail and rolled four very thin joints out of it.  Later that day, at a break in classes at a community college in San Diego, Wes and three other guys descended into a canyon next to the school and passed around one of those tiny joints.  All four were so plastered against the ground upon which they lay that any thought of arising and making their next classes floated off into the wild blue San Diego sky.  Yeah, it was powerful stuff.

After many months of being home I finally got the opportunity to try a psychedelic drug, such as I had read and heard about during much of my tour overseas.  It was supposed to be mescaline, I think.  The reaction was non-existent.  It was a dud.  Probably somebody had sold me some aspirin.  I was disappointed and looked to try again later.  That opportunity arrived soon enough and I experienced my first trip on LSD, but because of a delayed reaction I had the misfortune of taking that first trip on my own.

I obtained the ‘hit’ of LSD, or acid, from my friend Jack.  Jack and I weren’t extremely close but had known each other for a long time, and when I discovered that he had a hit to share I bought it from him and ingested, or ‘dropped’ the hit right away.  Once again, nothing happened.  Eventually I went home, climbed into bed, and tried to go to sleep.  Sleep was not to come on this night however.  Shortly after I turned out the light my senses exploded, with vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell competing to see who would take the blue ribbon for Most Heightened Sense.  Even more unnerving was the reaction of my thought processes.  Perhaps you have had a lazy day in which you lie idle and allow your thoughts to drift.  It was sort of like that except that instead of drifting, my thoughts acted like they wearing jet packs.  Ideas would fly across my mind like laser-guided meteors, sometimes returning to deep space from whence they had emerged and sometimes colliding with new ideas, creating black rabbit holes down which new and unrelated ideas would fly with several of their half-baked relatives in their train.  The jumble of senses and unorganized and hyperactive thoughts, some of them in colors which I am simply inadequate to describe, put me in an extreme state of agitation or, as we said, “freaked me out”, and I arose from the bed, dressed, and exited my house in order to walk the mile or so to the courtyard cottage that Jack shared with his girlfriend, Angela.

The walk was marginally comforting, as I could fix my mind on the act of picking one foot up and putting it back down, and then the next, and the next, and so on.  The streets and houses and businesses along the way were as familiar to me as was my own room, since I had walked and driven and delivered newspapers and, well, lived in those streets for many, many years.  Eventually however, and too quickly I thought, I arrived at Jack’s place, only to find him gone.  The sense that I felt most acutely at that moment was ‘alone’, and the loneliness was heightened four-fold by the acid which was progressing toward its maximum effect, or what we called it’s ‘peak’.  When we reached this plateau of maximum effect we called it ‘peaking’.  I did not know all of this at the time.  I only knew that my brain was doing things that it was never programmed to do, and I had nobody who had any experience with this to guide me through it.

Across the cement path which separated the tiny stucco bungalows which made up this residential complex lived a couple whom I knew slightly from previous visits to Jack.  People tended to hang out on their front porches in the warm evenings of San Diego and got to know each other just a little.  I knew this couple well enough to know that they also used drugs and preferred barbiturates, or what were called ‘downers’, or ‘stumblers’.  These pills would make the user very lethargic, relaxed, almost hypnotic and mellow.  Mellow was exactly what I could have used at that moment.  I suppose that I knew the guy’s name forty years ago, but it escapes me now.  He was sitting on his porch as usual, listening to music and smoking, and I greeted him and explained my situation.  I then asked if there was any chance that he might sell me some reds (seconal), or yellow jackets (nembutal).  This guy didn’t really know me well enough to feel safe making that transaction, since there was in his mind the possibility that I was an undercover narcotics officer, or ‘narc’.  He told me that he wasn’t holding any stash that night, and so I turned away from the relief that I had hoped to find there.

Discouraged and more than a little bit freaked out, I returned to walking on the streets between Jack’s place and my home.  It was not too late but the neighborhood was very quiet.  As I walked past the houses, the big Catholic church and school on Marlborough and Orange Avenues, the closed jewelry store and hobby shop on busy University Avenue, and the Mexican restaurant which was always getting nasty ratings from the Health Department but was open all hours of the night, and fed many a taco and enchilada and cup of strong, black coffee to late night revelers who were trying to sober up enough to make it home, make it to school or make it to work, my mind was straining to reach out and grab security and comfort from the known and trusted, only to crash headlong into thoughts and sensations which were security and comfort’s polar opposites, which came roaring out of some parallel universe and breaking into our world through a wormhole in my skull.

As I approached my family home I knew that entering the house and sitting alone in the darkness of my room was not an option.  Wes, my best friend, was probably out with Jack, so I knew that it would do no good to walk to his house.  Besides, it was probably a good four miles away, and the idea of trying such a feat seemed out of the question.  The answer, which occurred to me with a clarity that was a rare thing for me at the moment, was to drive several miles east to Santee, a suburb of the city, to the house of my older brother Brad and his wife Ginny.  Why it seemed to me that I would have to walk if I chose to go to Wes’ house but could drive to Brad’s is entirely beyond me as I remember this event, but it seemed to make sense at the time.  I think that this will help the reader to understand how my thoughts were, well, a little bit unorganized.

Brad had never done psychoactive drugs and was much more of a weed and beer guy.  Still, he was my big brother, and I always had looked to him as the guy who would pull my fat out of the fire when i was in a fix.  Brad, being four years my senior, went before me in everything; in school, in the Army, in relations with girls, he had done it before I did and had done it better in my opinion, and so I climbed into the 1963 Mercury that my parents allowed me to use as I wished and began a kaleidoscopic drive across the east side of san Diego, and then down a long hill into the dark and sleepy town of Santee.

Brad and his wife Ginny were home and I soon explained my crisis.  Brad, of course, knew nothing about what I was going through, but his and ginny’s presence provided a contact with something familiar and non-threatening, and that helped to calm me down although I did not feel that effect immediately.  Thoughts and sensations seemed to take a while to catch up with each other.  Brad knew of a phone number to a service which was established to try to help people in my position.  This was 1970 after all, and there were thousands of young people in every city and town in America who were ‘tuning in, turning on, and dropping out’, many of whom had the same reaction as I had or something worse.  This particular service was there to talk to people who were freaking out, trying to tell if there was a real medical emergency that needed immediate treatment or just a scared kid who needed someone who seemed to know something about what they were going through and that they could hold onto until the drug would begin to wear off.  Brad dialed the number and a male voice came on the line, a voice that I hung onto for the next half hour.

By that time I had been peaking for about two hours, and even though I wasn’t aware of it all at once, the effects of the acid were beginning to wear off.  The colors of the afghan on the sofa did not appear to be as bright as they had been when I first arrived, and they had quit moving too.  The cat no longer seemed to know something that I didn’t.  Ginny went to bed and I hung up the phone.  Brad made some coffee, and although one would think that more stimulants were not what was called for, the warm and comfortable familiarity of a cup of joe at the kitchen table with my big brother was exactly what I needed.  Soon after finishing a second cup I was asleep, or floating in something which passed for sleep, on the sofa in Brad’s living room with Portia, their cat, lying on the pillow above my head with her face right at the level of my right ear.  The sound of her purring induced some very strange dreams.

One would think that a single such experience would be enough to convince a sane individual to give up such foolishness and never try anything like that again.  If we were dealing with a sane individual that might have been the case but, alas, we were not; we were dealing with me.  It would be many months later that I would try acid again, and this time in different circumstances and with different results.

I really don’t know exactly why I was willing to give LSD another try, but I believe it had much to do with the level of disconnectedness that I felt with life in general.  My childhood had been a life lived in a gray straight jacket of conformity.  I was uncomfortable with who I perceived myself to be and struggled to be something or someone that I wasn’t, even though I was not at all certain of what or who that was.  At the same time I was not able to discern the difference between a sage who had achieved detachment from the petty distractions of the material world and had found concrete truths upon which to anchor a life, and a stoned slacker staring at his naval because he was to hammered to do anything else.  I knew that I wanted to find a place where things made sense to me, where the inadequacies that I perceived in myself would be strengthened and the holes in my personhood would all be filled in with knowledge and capability.  I know that this reads like a bunch of pop psychology gobbildy-gook, but that is the best that I can do to explain it.  I did not know much about sages and how one went about pursuing the condition of sageness, and so I opted to take the drug path to enlightenment, and was determined to carry on at a later date.  The story of that path continues in Part II.

Cars

     Sociologists and historians have written at length about the impact that widespread access to automobiles has had on American society.  In the time of prosperity following World War II the access to automobiles now enjoyed by millions of average Americans changed completely the patterns of life of men and women in countless ways, too many to record here and it is not the purpose of this author to record them anyway.  I am writing not a history but a story and this story revolves around the influence that the automobile had on one group of American society and that group is teenage children, and within group one child in particular:  Me.

     It is not an overstatement to write that ownership of a car of one’s own was the holy grail of teenage boys in the 1950’s and first half of the 1960s.  Actual ownership of a car by a kid was still something of a novelty then, but the movies in the 50s and the music of the 60s set that ownership as the apex of desire for any American teen.  “Rebel Without A Cause” was a movie which was released in 1955, and James Dean driving a stolen 1949 Mercury towards a cliff in a game of ‘chicken’ made every kid who watched it long for a ride of his own to go with his leather jacket, his comb for that hair held perfectly in place by some brand of pomade, and Old Spice after shave that would make him irresistibly cool. 

     Brad, my brother, is four years older than me and was deeply influenced by “Rebel”.  The first car which Brad owned was a 49 Merc, the car that James Dean was driving in the movie.  Brad was somewhat boisterous in his youth and he and the car fit into the rebel picture very nicely.  Brad’s Merc was not nice and new and shiny like James Dean’s was however.  The car, which was affectionately nicknamed the ‘Taco Wagon’, had a lot of hard miles on it and needed a good deal of maintenance to keep it running.  Brad was up to the task.  I frequently found Brad in the old wooden garage behind our house with parts of that car spread out all over the concrete floor.  I was amazed then that Brad could keep track of all of those parts, knew how they worked and where they went, and could put them there.

     Not only could Brad manage that feat of auto mechanics magic but so could nearly all of Brad’s friends.  It was expected of a teenage boy that he should be able to maintain a car, even if he didn’t personally own one since many didn’t, and the road to any kind of status ran through a greasy pair of hands.  I was twelve years old the summer that Brad had that car, and technically was not yet a teen.  That was small comfort however since my friends Wes and Larry and Hank were my age and already doing tune-ups and oil changes and stuff like that for their brothers or fathers or other older kids in the neighborhood.  I had neither the ability to screw with cars nor interest in learning how to do so, but I could feel the pressure to conform even then.

     That pressure ratcheted up one day when Brad and four or five of his friends had the Taco Wagon torn apart and were planning to grill some hot dogs or something when they were finished.  The price for a dinner of whatever they were going to cook was a pair of greasy hands, and just grabbing ahold of a crankshaft or sticking one’s hands into the oil pan was not what the older guys had in mind.  I stood by the front fender and looked over it into the yawning cavity that was the engine compartment, then looked at the collection of metal parts and wires and hoses which littered the concrete floor, and knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do that would add in any way to the project at hand.  Brad was not all that keen on a little brother getting under foot anyway, so I made a lame excuse and then quit the building, trying not to hear the chuckles and snickers as I left, and climbed into the tall pine tree in our front yard.  That tree was a place where I hid from the unpleasantness of the world on many occasions in my young life, and it was to that refuge I fled on that day.

     A few years passed and the status of the car in teen life changed but became on weaker.  Music was now the medium by which youth culture expressed and defined itself and that culture was filled with cars.  “Little Deuce Coupe”, “I’ve got a thirty Ford wagon and they call it a woody—“,”She’ll have fun, fun, fun, ’till her daddy takes the T Bird away—“.  Even some little old lade from Pasadena had a muscle car of her own, but what could I do?  Not much.  I loved beach sound music but the Beach Boys sang of their car which had a flat head mill and was ported and relieved and stroked and bored and had a competition clutch with four on the floor and even had lake pipes.  Out of all that stuff I knew what ‘four on the floor’ meant, but to this day I don’t know what all of that other crap was.

     But most of the other guys did.  Peter had a Chevy Malibu with a lot of that high performance stuff.  Gabby had a 55 Chevy and Bruce, of all things, had a slightly beat up but still extremely impressive Corvette.  This gave Peter and Gabby a considerable leg up with the ladies at school and in our neighborhood, and also their closer friends who knew what all of those contraptions were and what they did.  Bruce was such a worm and a loser that he could have had a Ferrari and it would have done him no good.

     There was one thing in life that I could count on, and that was that I would never own a car as a teen.  My father would not let me work to earn the money for a car unless I received straight ‘A’s in the academic classes at my high school, and that was going to happen, like, never.  My consolation prize was that I had a fair amount of access to Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor.  That Meteor did not have a competition clutch or any of that other stuff but the little car with the little engine and the automatic transmission gave me mobility, and that was worth gold.  But status, real status, depended upon one’s ability to race, to burn rubber in all four gears, and all of that.  That was not going to happen in Dad’s Meteor.  I did get a microscopic amount of rubber one time however.  I put the shifter into neutral and revved up the engine, and then dropped the shifter into drive.  The little bit of sound which the tires made as they broke traction with the pavement was only slightly more audible than the sound of pain coming out of the transmission.  To this day I wonder why I didn’t leave a trail of broken tranny parts behind us as I rolled down the street, away from the scene of my dubious triumph.

     Many of my friends had no wheels at all, and when I could get the car keys they would all climb in, somewhere away from where Dad could see them, and we would act like we were as cool as the guys with hot cars.  One night we wanted to see a movie at a drive-in theater but most of the guys didn’t have the money to buy a ticket.  I finally arrived at a solution to the problem.  At that time guys with serious muscle cars had the front end lowered while gigantic engines which were stroked and bored and blah blah blah would hiss as they sucked in oxygen that would complete the combustion somewhere in its metal innards and make the car go like a bat out of hell.  I had three or four of the guys climb into the trunk of the car, which lowered the rear end instead of the front, and removed the air cleaner which made the car hiss like Gollum cursing hobbitses as he searched for his precious.  The guy at the ticket booth either didn’t notice or couldn’t believe the idiocy of this obvious bit of subterfuge, but we got into the movie and had a good laugh about the whole thing.

     The teenage love affair with cars had changed by the time I returned home from the Army.  The 60s were bleeding, literally, into the 70s and music was pretty much all about peace, love, revolution and getting high.  Cars were not even on the list of accessories needed to achieve coolness.  In fact, the older and more beat up your car, the more pizzaz it had with the trend-setting counter culture bunch that I identified with.  In those days I drove my old gray 1961 Dodge Lancer with the push button transmission and the evil hiss from a leaking hose somewhere under the hood and felt like I had finally, at long last, come into my own.