We’re Going to Chama, Momma, Part III

The moment that we had been waiting for had arrived at last.  The locomotive engine was belching smoke and steam, the conductor had announced that boarding could begin, and we all found our place, whether on a seat inside of one of the three enclosed cars or on the open car in the middle of the train  Brad and Patricia started the ride outside while I sat with Mom inside.  It was still a little bit cool and Mom was more comfortable indoors.  Also, there was no place for Mom to sit in the open car.  The wait was not a long one before the conductor came through each car to announce the wisdom of bracing ourselves and then, with a lurch and a gradual increase of speed, we exited first the train yard and then left the city of Chama behind us;  we were on our way.

This ride was for me a dream come true.  For as long as I can remember I have been in love with trains.  Growing up in San Diego, which had one spur line coming south from Los Angeles, I did not have a lot of home-grown opportunity to witness trains or the people who made them work.  On our many trips across the country however I often saw trains chugging on tracks which paralleled the roads, or sometimes stood in a restaurant parking lot pumping my arm up and down in an attempt to prompt the engineer to give me a whistle.  This exercise was always futile, which annoyed me because it usually worked with the men who drove big trucks.  I later learned that train whistles are part of a complex communication system and are not there for the entertainment of small boys.  Ultimately I don’t suppose that knowledge of this would have mattered much.  I would try it again in a heartbeat.

There is also a melancholy side to the train which somehow appeals to my soul.  On many occasions I would lie in a motel bed and hear the wail of the train whistle as it crawled through town, alerting drivers and anyone else who might be inclined to be dawdling on the tracks at a crossing, that a very big train that is very difficult to stop on short notice was on its way.  There is something haunting about that sound to me.  I seem to see a lonely person standing at a station at night with no reason to stay in one place and no real prospect for anything better to be found in the next, with the lonely train being the last, desperate hope that somewhere along that line something better will be found before the train the train gets to the end of the line, and before the passenger gets to the end of the line as well.

It is just such thoughts as these that a train can bring about in me, but all is not gloom.  The train is big; powerful, and it goes where it will.  Those great strings of passenger and freight cars carry people to exotic places and cargoes from hither to yon.  Railroad tracks snake across deserts and over mountain passes, through forests and across the seemingly limitless expanse of the Great Plains, giving economic life where they go and sometimes denying same where they choose to not go, or choose to leave.  Frank Norris wrote about the bad side of trains and Wilbert and Christopher Awry wrote about the good, with a lot of writers and other artists filling in all of the spaces in between.  Yes, as I wrote earlier, for as long as I can remember I have been in love with trains.

As we chugged out across the valley floor, crossed over wooden trestles and past water tanks and ranch buildings, the docent told us of some of the area’s history, which included many movies being filmed there.  You might remember some:  “Wyatt Earp”, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, “Missouri Breaks” and a host of television movies and series.  The man was a wealth of information but I quickly tuned him out as the magic of that ride began to exert its hold over me.

Mom was going somewhere else as well.  Way back in the early 1930’s she had boarded a train somewhere in eastern Kentucky, probably Hazard where she grew up, that promised to take her away from the depression-era coal mines there to the home of Ernst and Gretchen Blauer, who lived in and owned a drugstore/restaurant in Newport News, Virginia, and needed help.  How Mom and the Blauers became aware of each other is a mystery that Mom never clarified for me, but they were good landlords and employers and Mom continued to visit them from time to time until they died in the 1970’s.  While Mom worked there she met a dashing young sailor, the “handsomest man in the entire fleet” as he styled himself (I saw the yellow, fading note with my own eyes some 70 years after it’s writing), and I saw a photo of Dad from that time.  I believe that he may have been right.  Soon they were married and once again my mother was on a train, this time heading west towards San Diego where my father had been reassigned.  Once again, a train carried a lonely person toward the sunset and hope for a better life at the end of the ride.

Mom and I talked of these things as the train began to climb, and out path quickly transitioned from a gentle rise to a series of switchbacks which seemed to literally hang by a single spike to the sheer face of the mountain as it crawled upwards towards Cumbres Pass, which lies at 10,015 feet above sea level.  That portion of the ride is the shortest but by far the most white-knuckle-producing.  How the weight of the train does not send the whole shooting match crashing into Toltec Gorge is anybody’s guess.  The fact that the railway endures year after year is a testimony to the brilliance of the railway architects and engineers who hacked this rail bed out of the sides of those mountains.

At last we reached the pass and I could no longer remain inside.  Wearing the sweatshirt which Patricia in her wisdom recommended that I buy the day before, I traded places with Brad and Patricia, who retreated into the enclosed car to keep Mom company.  The air outside was cool but not really uncomfortable, and the sun was brilliant and shone warmly on my body.  The thick black smoke from the coal fire occasionally wafted over us and a slight but continuous shower of ashes reminded us that this train was steaming right out of a much earlier time.

I have never been able to stand or sit next to people for very long without striking up a conversation, and this occasion was no exception.  A man standing next to me turned out to be a train enthusiast from the United Kingdom who had ridden such trains all over the world.  He was staring out across a long, deep and magnificent valley, along the rim of which we were chugging at a steady pace.  Far down in the valley we could see dots which represented cattle, and very happy cattle I suspected they were, standing in the deep, lush grass of the valley floor.  A blue-green ribbon of water meandered along the length of the valley and made me wonder if there was a fish or two that might be there to be caught.

“We don’t have anything like this in the U.K.” said my companion.  “We love trains and there are many beautiful rides to be had there, but you just can’t get a sense of being this high.”  I knew what he meant; you really did feel like you were two miles above sea level, and the sky did feel like it was bigger than elsewhere, and you could reach up and touch it if you were just a little bit higher.  We talked about trains and America and the U.K. for a while, speaking slowly and never taking our eyes off of the scenery.  Eventually the train began to slow, and we looked forward and saw that we were approaching a collection of buildings which occupied space by the side of the tracks.

This was where we would have lunch.  There were two trains which ran each day; one which began in Chama and one in Antonito, Colorado.  If you were taking the all-day trip you just grabbed a bite and continued on.  We had the half-day trip so we debarked, enjoyed a leisurely meal and combed the gift store for treasures for ourselves or for junk to take back home for friends.  As usual, there was a preponderance of junk, but I found an item or two to bring back to friends.  I like to bring physical evidence of my travels, lest my friends suspect that I was really just sitting home eating bonbons and watching television.  At length the train that would return us to Chama announced its arrival and we all began to herd toward the platform.

The return train was exactly like that which brought us out in the morning, and once again I found my place inside with Mom.  Something interesting had happened to Mom however.  The age of the railroad, the era to which it belonged and of which it spoke, and the memories that came up in Mom’s mind, all mingled and coalesced into a sort of reverie in which Mom did not need company.  She stared out the window or studied the people around her and seemed to need my presence less and less.  Eventually I left her and returned to the platform and stood with Brad and Patricia, my English friend having proceeded on to Antonito.  “Is Mom OK?” Brad asked me.  “She’s fine” I replied.  “She’s in her own thoughts and doesn’t seem to need any company, so I figured that I would hang out with you guys.”  Brad and Patricia knew that Mom would sometimes retreat into some inner rooms of her mind, and what I said did not surprise them at all.  “I’ll go in and check on her every now and then” said Patricia, and that was what she did.

The docent had set up shop in the open car by now, where the people who most wanted to hear what he had to say had gathered.  This man had more knowledge about trains in general and this train in particular than anyone in the world, I think, and when he found a receptive audience he began to speak in volumes and was doing so until we pulled into the station in Chama.  He was a volunteer and it was as clear as the air in Cumbres Pass that he gave his time for this out of his love for the topic.  I know that this guy listened to Gogi Grant sing “The Wayward Wind” in his childhood, exactly as I had done (“In a lonely shack by a railroad track, he spent his younger days…”), and I know that he was a kindred spirit.

One last bit of excitement waited for us at the end of the ride.  The train was not at the platform – why not I have no idea –  and the passengers had to step down a short ladder-like ramp and make a final step to the ground which I seem to remember as being at least one and a half feet, maybe more.  Brad and Patricia debarked and assumed that I had the Mom duty under control, but in fact I was behind her.  Mom has always been extremely self-reliant, to the point of being foolhardy in my opinion, and she opted to take on this step by her ninety-year-old self.  I saw disaster looming in that sort of slow motion mode in which you see something bad happening and there just isn’t one damned thing that you can do about it.  Brad saw this too and began what would have been a futile rush to reach Mom before she splattered herself all over the coarse gravel surface of the train yard.  At the last possible moment a male passenger in front of Mom turned, recognized the situation, and offered Mom a hand, maybe saving her life for nearly four more years.

We regrouped at the station and then returned to our car.  We were not hungry but knew that there was a long drive stretching out between us and dinner at Gabriel’s restaurant in Pojoaque, a Native American Pueblo a little north of Santa Fe.  We dropped south past the Buck Snort Lodge, through the beautiful countryside of northern New Mexico, past the town of Tierra Amarillo where Reis Tijerina had led an armed assault on the country courthouse to free prisoners who had already been released (the last armed insurrection in the U.S. to date), past Abiquiu, where a Benedictine monastery exists and welcomes weary visitors, Catholic or not, and finally to Pojoaque and a fine dinner of carne adovada.

Another New Mexico adventure was over, and one of the last of any kind with Mom.  The next year she would have a small stroke, a herald of worse things to come, and we would never ride a train or walk a wildlife reserve or eat a meal in a mountaintop cafe again.  For that reason alone this trip would have been special, but there was plenty of special about this trip which allowed it to stand on its own merits.  I hope that Mom is somewhere thinking fondly about that trip, just as I am fondly thinking and writing about it right now.

We’re Going to Chama, Momma, Part I

A few years before the writing of this story I made my annual trip to New Mexico to visit with my mother, brother and sister in law.  This tradition had persisted for many years and I looked forward to its renewal every late summer.  Before my father grew ill and died I would fly to Albuquerque, and from there my brother and I would drive to Kentucky and back, mostly on two lane roads.  After Dad’s passing my mother moved in with Brad and Patricia and I was able to visit all three of them without leaving New Mexico, and that was just fine with me.  My visits were usually for one week, or maybe ten days, and that time was mostly taken up by eating wonderful food, taking afternoon naps in front of football games, “helping” Brad with his forklift business (mostly by staying out of the way) and chatting with family on the balcony in the cool of the evening while watching the hummingbirds duel for mates and chances at the feeder that Patricia had hung from the overhead.  On many a visit however we would find some interesting corner of New Mexico to go and investigate, and on every such trip I found something new to amaze me even  more about that state.  On the visit introduced in the beginning of this tale we decided to take a ride on the Cumbers & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The Cumbers & Toltec Railroad is a narrow gauge line which runs between Chama New Mexico, and Antonito Colorado.  Originally the Cumbres & Toltec was part of a large web of rail lines servicing the mining operations of southern Colorado, but as that industry dwindled the railroad became unprofitable and most of it’s holdings were sold.  The stretch of track between Chama and Antonito was saved by a preservation society however, and built into the potent tourist attraction that it is today.  We decided that we would visit the railroad during this particular pilgrimage, and after spending the first few days of my trip lounging around Albuquerque we set off early one morning to do just that.

We left Albuquerque after having our morning coffee, intending to eat breakfast at El Bruno’s in Cuba New Mexico.  Cuba is a small town about eighty miles north of Albuquerque, and the drive passes through hills of gypsum, canyons cut through the soft rock by flash floods which rage towards the Rio Puerco during monsoon thunderstorms, and grassy valleys which become larger and more common as we climbed up from the Rio Grande Valley, which itself lies at 5,000 feet above sea level.  The road is good and not too curvy, and in all it took us about one and a half hours to get from Brad’s condominium to the parking lot at El Bruno’s, which put us there at about ten in the morning.  This was a problem it turned out, because El Bruno’s didn’t open until eleven.

“What do you want to do?” Brad asked me.  Since I was the visitor Brad always deferred to me, and one way or another I would defer right back to him since Brad knew the state like the back of his hand.  “Where can we eat up north?” I asked.  “No place in particular” was the reply.  We had all, with the exception of Mom, set our hearts on El Bruno’s.  Mom never did like New Mexican food all that much.  “It’s only an hour” I said.  “Let’s wait it out”.

And so wait we did, each in our own way.  Brad and Patricia took a walk, as they frequently liked to do, while Mom and I stayed in the car and chatted.  Our conversation required little effort, as Mom was nearly deaf and quite content to do the heavy lifting in any conversation by herself.  I would start out by patiently repeating myself two and three times in order to be understood, but eventually the effort would cause my mind to wander and I would make infrequent and perfunctory comments while Mom chattered on.  Eventually Mom tired of what had become an obvious exercise in futility and lapsed into the silence of her own thoughts.  We did this a lot, and mostly ended up enjoying each other’s company even if communication might be at a minimum.

On this morning as I sat in the car waiting for some of the best food in America, if not the world, I noticed an activity taking place about twenty or thirty yards away from the car under some cottonwood trees along the east bank of the Rio Puerco.  Two large nylon canopies had been erected and underneath them a team of people were busy sorting, cleaning, and bagging up a truckload of green chilis.  I had a sense that I was watching a scene which had been played out one way or another for centuries, if not millennia.  The people working there might have been Hispanic, but I am more inclined to believe that they were Native Americans.  They Navajo reservation is not far from Cuba and the Pueblos and Jicarilla Apache rez are all to be found at a much greater distance, so my money is on the Navajo.  The fact that they spoke in soft tones, if at all, and that the twist of a lip or twitch of a cheek seemed to be a part of the such conversation as I could discern lent support to the supposition that this team was probably Navajo.

The green chili that they were working on is the bedrock foundation of New Mexican cuisine, and whether you live in the south and prefer the chilis from the Hatch Valley, or in the middle Rio Grande area and indulge in the product from around Lemitar, or reside in the north and are more accustomed to the smaller yet still potent fruit of that region, the tasty and oftentimes fiery chili lies at the heart of a great percentage of New Mexico cookery.  The folk whom I was watching were generating a large amount of cleaned and bagged chilis and I guessed that they might be sold to restaurants in the area, although I could be far from the mark on that one.  No doubt the home kitchens of no bigger a town than Cuba (population 734) were fully competent to cook up enough delicious food to use up that mountain of precious green chili in not too much time.

Eventually the establishment opened and we feasted on more exceptional food than three gourmands and one reluctant senior citizen should ever eat.  We were in no big hurry, which could be said of just about everybody else in the sleepy town, and so it was probably another hour before we climbed back into Brad’s vehicle and nosed out onto the road north.

Much of the route from Cuba to Chama runs through upland hills and valleys, over a vast high desert plain dotted with natural gas pumps and the occasional casino, the Jicarilla Apache reservation on the eastern edge of that plain, and then the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  It is a beautiful drive, depending upon how one wishes to define beauty.  The evergreen trees – pines of some sort I think they were – with scant brush or lowish grasses covering the ground in the spaces between them, the flat plains with scrubby growth trying with indifferent success to cover the caliche that formed the floor of that high desert flatland, and the foothills which were clothed thickly with trees of many sorts, and streams issuing from valleys splitting the hills, all have a beauty of their own, if one is patient and willing to look for it.

And patience is a virtue in this timeless land.  Nothing moves all that fast; not the people who go through life in their own relaxed rhythm and at their own chosen pace, not the hills which have been there since time began, not the streams which have cut slowly, layer by razor-thin layer through soil and rock as they alternately rush, gurgle, and meander towards their reunion with the sea which gave them their birth.  Yes, if you come from California or New York or just about anywhere else where time is money and everything should have been done much more quickly than it was, you will probably soon be leaving New Mexico with a curse on your lips, wondering how the people here even survive.  Like the rocks and trees and waters, the people of New Mexico do things in their own time, dancing to their own drummer, and they’re doing just fine.

At length we arrived at Chama, a town of about 1,000 nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills, which offers a place to stay while you fish, hunt, ride your horse through the pine and alder covered mountains and, if you are so inclined, ride the Cumbers & Toltec Railroad.  We were too early to check into our motel, so we decided to walk around Chama, which did not take a great deal of time to accomplish.  We poked our noses into a few stores, bought Mom a doughnut (one of the true delights in her life), and then poked around the train yard from whence our ride would begin on the next day.  There was a station and the obligatory gift shop, where I purchased a sweatshirt upon the recommendation of Patricia to protect me from the high country cool of the evening and morning.  It turned out that she was right as rain.  I was accustomed to carrying little more than shorts and tee shirts on my summer escapes to New Mexico, with maybe one pair of long pants and a button-down shirt if we would be attending my brother’s very formal Episcopal Church.  Without the sweatshirt I would have had a chilly time indeed in Chama.

In a little time we had taken in all of the sights fit to be seen in Chama and set out on the road again in order to visit a valley nearby where Patricia and her family had spent many summers in her youth. The countryside in this area was gorgeous, with steep tree-covered hills and mountainsides divided by alternately broad and then again narrow grass-covered valleys, divided by rippling streams filled with trout.  The house which they had inhabited was still standing and Patricia shared many stories of riding horses, cleaning fish, and exploring the hills and valleys in ways that would make most modern parents cringe.  It sounded idyllic to me, and as I thought back upon my own growing up in the middle of San Diego, which was not a bad city to grow up in, I could see that there were a great many good things that I had not experienced in my childhood that I wished I had, and I considered Patricia to be a lucky girl indeed.

At last it began to grow late enough to begin our trek back to Chama and check into our motel.  We meandered down the road, paralleling the stream, and parted company with that waterway when we reached State Route 17 and it continued east to join the Chama River.  We had not traveled far before I looked down in the valley where I knew that the river was flowing and laid eyes for the first time on the chugging mass of the Cumbers & Toltec Railroad.  “There’s the train” I shouted, and we all looked at the black, smoking beast that was bringing several cars of tourists back to the station in Chama after an all-day run.  We quickly outpaced the train and soon came to a place where the tracks crossed the road.  We decided to shut the car down and wait for the spectacle to catch up with us.

Several other carloads of travelers had the same idea and soon there was at least a dozen cars and trucks stopped along the road.  There were no “Railroad Crossing” signs, no flashing lights, no barrier arms to descend to block the road of the careful driver or to challenge the spirit of the daredevil.  There was simply a pair of steel rails set in the roadbed over which the train would momentarily roll.  We all got as close as our individual perceptions of safety permitted and settled down to await the arrival and passing of the train.  The wait was not a long one.

In a few minutes’ time the shrill whistle of the train announced its presence, and in short order the engine came steaming up from along the river and around a bend about two hundred yards from the road.  I gasped as I first saw the black steel behemoth rolling steadily, inexorably, towards us.  The great steel cow catcher in front of the engine seemed to be as big as a car and the mass of the engine, which grew as it drew closer, looked to be huge enough to exert its own gravitational pull, and I had better stand back lest that gravity should pull me in spite of my feeble resistance under the bright metal wheels which rolled with only a whisper over the gleaming rails.  We all stood in awe as the great, lumbering iron horse chugged and belched smoke and cinders and whistled by us, seeming to glide like a phantom ebony leviathan across the road, dragging its cargo of delighted tourists behind it.  We waved at the tourists and most of them waved back, and then it was gone; disappeared behind a hill.

With the passing of the train we returned to our car.  It was now past time when we could check into our motel room and we wanted to unload our gear, relax, maybe walk a bit more and then have dinner and settle in for the evening.  Brad steered the car back through town and on to the Elk Horn Lodge,which occupied the southernmost limit of the town of Chama.  It was there that we would clean up, stretch out and enjoy our evening in clean and civilized comfort.  Or so we thought.

Invitation to an Unexpected Road Trip, Part V

“Jeez, Jerry, you’ve got a Christmas tree growing outside the door” I exclaimed as I wandered into the dinning room and looked through the sliding glass door onto the common area of the apartment complex.  The only time that I had seen Douglas fir trees in San Diego was at Christmastime, and they would be stacked in vacant lots all neatly cut and sorted according to height and quality.  We were far from being a rich family and on some Christmas seasons we would wait until Christmas Eve to buy a tree for one dollar; the lot attendant selling them for almost nothing so that he would not have to haul them away the next day.  But here was a Christmas tree, about five feet tall and growing hale and hearty right up out of the perfectly manicured grass.  By elevating my vision I could see the gigantic parents of this tree ringing the complex, and I merely stared in awe.

Jerry wasn’t sure what I meant.  “What are you talking about man?” he asked, and I pointed to the tree and told him about how odd it was to see it growing as if such a thing was normal.  “Hey, this is where they come from.  We don’t do palm trees up here man, but we do Doug firs.”  I continued to marvel at that tree while Jerry puled boxes of cereal out of a pantry and began to make coffee and toast.  Soon, we had cleaned Jerry’s mother’s kitchen out of anything edible and began to plan our next move.

How, in a story of this type, do I tell the tale which was to stretch out before us for the rest of the summer?  I had no idea on that morning as we ate every crumb in the apartment that we could get our hands on that I would be there for two months.  Maybe I would relocate to Bellevue, the suburb of Seattle in which I awoke that morning, or maybe I would get the itch and be on the road again the next week.  Dave and I liked Bellevue well enough though, as much of it as we had seen out the windows of his mothers’ apartment, and so we decided to search immediately for an apartment.  The rest of this story will recount only two or three stories of the two months that we actually ended up staying in Bellevue, as to tell the whole tale would be lengthy and boring, even for me who is doing the writing.

Jerry helped us to find an apartment, and it turned out that two young women that he and Paul were acquainted with occupied a unit close to our own.  As a result, with Jerry and Paul frequently at our place or at Marilyn and Sandy’s, we were soon part of a network of young people and were made to feel very much at home.  Paul was not on the very best of relations with his family at the time and spent many days and not a few nights at our apartment, and on many of those evenings some or all of us would be at Marilyn and Sandy’s.  We kept the music down as the apartment had some very strict rules, but still managed to have a pretty good time.

Dave also managed to enter into a relationship with Sandy, which had two effects on me.  The up side was that I no longer had to hear about Stacy.  Dave hadn’t dwelled on the topic of his lost love exactly, but I still heard about it more than I cared to on the road north.  I knew little about girlfriends one way or the other, and so had nothing really to offer in any such conversation.  Dave and Sandy’s little fling was a superficial thing; more of a mutual fancy than anything else.  A sharing of the sofa, a holding of the ads at the pool, a kiss goodnight was all it amounted to in what was the age of sex ‘n drugs ‘n rock ‘n roll.  The down side was that my shyness and fear of being turned down by any girl in whom I might show any interest continued to dog my heels, and so while Dave made contact I continued to play my role as the friend who could never get any further than the estate of friend, which was a role that I was becoming heartily sick of.

But since the role of just friend was to be my lot, for the time being anyway, I chose to play it well, and in no time I was friendly with Lisa, who lived in another building of the complex but who was frequently at the pool.  Lisa was a student who worked part-time doing something or other during some of the summer days and had a fair amount of time to lay around the pool or lay in the sun outside of her unit. Lisa had a boyfriend named Carl (of course) and as that took the issue of us developing a relationship off of the table the pressure evaporated, and we just hung out together risk-free.

Lisa and Carl were straight, and I mean really straight!  I don’t know about the role of sex in their lives – that was certainly none of my business – but there was no evidence whatsoever of drugs and  rock and roll.  Carl was doing something with computers, which was very new in those days, and spoke of something  called Cobol, a computer language that I still know nothing about.  I believe that Carl was in business but he could have been in the CIA for all that I knew.  Lisa and Carl did not typically associate with long haired, bearded people who lay idle around the pool all day, rode a motorcycle around wearing only shorts and an old high school football helmet (borrowed from Paul), and spoke of little that involved vision and stability.  Nevertheless, I found them interesting and would listen to them closely as they talked about their visions, plans and goals in life, and simply listening to people will frequently bridge differences and allow for a decent relationship; at least, it has usually worked that way for me.  There were many areas in our lives in which we differed that could be bridged but on one point we could not agree at all, and that was in finding any worth in anyone connected in any way with the Seattle Liberation Front.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Kathy and Roy were members of the Seattle Liberation Front, hereafter referred to as the SLF, and they had given me their telephone number when we separated in Big Sur.  Now, happily ensconced in an apartment across Lake Washington from Seattle, I gave them a call and was extended an invitation to visit them, which I accepted at the earliest opportunity. I left one afternoon and drove a very long way around the north end of Lake Washington and finally found the house where they lived.

Kathy and Roy lived with several other people in an older, multiple story house near the University of Washington.  The house was a commune of sorts, with all of the duties of cooking and cleaning and whatever needed to be done divided up among the members.  They were all probably SLF, although I cannot claim to know that as a fact.  It sure sounded that way though.  Over a dinner of crepes the conversation was weighted heavily toward the sins of the bourgeoisie and the war in Vietnam.  “The so-called threat of communism in Vietnam is not a treat in any way against the lives of working people and students in the United States” the argument went.  “The threat of a true leader uniting the people of Vietnam to kick out the imperialists (us) and helping the people to improve their lives through common work and struggle is what scares the shit out of the fascist pigs who run this country.  If the people here learn that they don’t have to lay down and be cannon fodder for impotent generals who get their nut counting bodies, or be economic units for fat cat industrialists who are polluting our land, exploiting their workers and living like kings while the poor scratch to survive, they just might throw off their chains and take control of their own lives.”

The conversation went on like that for a while and I spent most of my time there listening, being unlikely to keep up with these very focused and articulate radicals.  Some of the members of the commune were leery of me at first but after sharing a few joints, one or two of which were my own, I was accepted as being harmless if slightly stupid, and became the focus of several long winded dissertations on the evils of the war, capitalism and a good many other features of American life.  At length, Roy suggested going out for a beer, and that was always the way straight to my heart.

We piled into somebody’s car and made the short drive to the group’s favorite watering hole, where I engaged Roy and others in topics other than politics briefly.  We talked about our separate experiences on our trips to Seattle, I spoke of my favorite burritos (with a few of the Seattle natives asking me “what’s a burrito”), and so on.  A classic American evening of sitting on bar stools and shooting the breeze about nothing in particular was underway when all of a sudden I realized that one of the group, an African American student, was waving Mao Tse Tung’s “Little Red Book” under my nose and explaining how the Chinese leader had provided the best model for non-white oppressed citizens of the United States to conduct an insurgency against the power brokers of this country.  The revolutionary gentleman allowed that white supporters were welcome to assist in this long march to a workers’ and students’ paradise in a secondary role.  I assured my passionate friend that I would be perfectly comfortable in that role, since I was more than a little tipsy and did not assay this to be a good time to engage in a whole lot of critical debate.  On rare occasions I have proven myself capable of exercising good sense, and I believe that this was one of those times.

Eventually we ended our evening and returned to the commune, where I ill-advisedly climbed into my truck at least three sheets to the wind and navigated myself through the still-unfamiliar streets and freeways of Seattle, across Mercer Island (I think) and somehow safely back to our apartment, proving once again Otto Von Bismarck’s reflection that God has “a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America.”  I have sometimes wondered what happened to those people with whom I shared that evening.  Probably they ended up as bankers, professors, or dead.

It was this band of friends that I was trying to defend to Carl and Lisa, and they had no intention of buying my line.  “Those people are the lowest people in our entire society.  They attend good schools, enjoy the comfort and protection that America offers them, and then they bite the hand that feeds them.  They think that they are entitled to what I work for and earn while they sit around in their shacks, smoke pot, screw each other like rabbits and clog our streets with their demonstrations while people who want to make something of themselves are trying to get to and from school or work.  I don’t care if the authorities put them all in jail and throw away the key, or give them a one way plane ticket to Russia or Cuba or anywhere they want to go, if they will just go,” and so on in that vein.  I tried to make the point that under it all the SLFers were just people, but especially Carl was not on board with that.  He considered them a danger that should be addressed, and the sooner the better.  Through it all however we managed to maintain a friendly relationship, although I accomplished that by not letting on how much of the SLF program intrigued me.

I have mentioned earlier how I loved to ride my motorcycle around the east side of Lake Washington wearing nothing more than shorts and a football helmet, and on one such ride I saw something that has stuck with me for forty five years.  I was riding on a two lane road towards Issaquah when I passed a sign in front of a church.  On the sign was a picture of Jesus, but it was unlike any picture of Jesus that I had ever seen before or have seen since.  This Jesus had a beard, as any good picture of Jesus should, but it was much more neatly trimmed than I remembered from the days when I attended a Baptist church in San Diego as a teenager.  And His hair!  This Jesus’ hair more nearly resembled the sort of haircut that a clean cut American boy might get in a Kansas barber shop in 1955 than the long hair that we are all so very much familiar with.  Apparently the association of long hair with everything that is unChristian was so intense that the congregation could not bring themselves to allow Jesus to look like a hippy, which I frankly doubt that Jesus did, and so instead He ended up looking more like “The Captain”, the face that appeared on the packs of ZigZag rolling papers that we used to roll our joints with.  Many, many years later I read a quote by Anne Lamotte in which she said “It is a sure sign that you have created God in your own image when he hates the same people that you do.”  In a slight modification of that statement I believe that you could also say “If you worship a god which looks a lot like you, it probably isn’t God.”

There were many other stories that I could write concerning that summer, but that would require that I write a book.  We tried to find work but only half-heartedly.  Boeing, the largest employer in the area, had been denied permission to build a supersonic transport plane that summer, and there was a scramble for such jobs as were to be found, with locals usually winning out over out-of-town long-haired slackers.  The end of our second month was approaching and we gave notice to the manager that we would not renew.  A small party with Jerry and Paul and a few other friends was held at Marilyn and Sandy’s apartment that went on well into the night, heedless of the long and exhausting trip that was to begin the next day.

Invitation to an Unexpected Road Trip, Part IV

Once again, morning dawned early and gray.  I rolled over in my old, olive drab Army surplus mummy bag that I had picked up in a store selling such things in El Cajon, California.  Some of my friends had cool, new lightweight sleeping bags with all of the newest accessories, but I had recently enough been the property of the U.S. Army, and so the older and heavier but much cheaper surplus stuff worked for me just fine.  That bag, plus a thin foam pad which I had rolled out and placed under it the night before, were all I needed for a deep and comfortable sleep.

I lay there for a while, unwilling to give up the luxuriant laziness which I was experiencing at the moment.  I could hear some of my fellow campers rustling about the area, rolling up sleeping bags, arranging backpacks or loading the trunks of cars parked up by the highway, depending upon their mode of transportation.  Somewhere in the camp somebody had made coffee, and the pungent aroma of fresh brewed coffee diffused through the wet, gray air of the camp and sent my mind wandering back a few years to a morning very much like this one, and not all that far away from where I lay at the moment.

In August of 1966 I graduated from high school.  At that time we were in the middle of a war and unwilling young men were being drafted by the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to receive a brief period of training and then be thrust into the meat grinder that was Vietnam.  Some people fled to Canada to avoid the draft and others obtained deferments by going to college.  Others still pursued careers in law enforcement and other emergency services, thereby receiving the coveted deferments.

None of this was going to work for me however.  I had no intention of going to college at that time.  In fact, I remember sitting in Mrs. Hamble’s first grade class at Alexander Hamilton Elementary School and thinking “I have eleven years of this stuff left” as I looked wistfully out through a window at the sun-drenched schoolyard and playground outside, where I knew that i really ought to be.  Policeman and fireman held no appeal for me either, and it was perfectly obvious that there was no option for me but to either wait for them to come and take me or just go down to the recruitment office and get it over with.  The latter is what I decided to do.

My training covered four months at Fort Ord, about twenty miles from where I lay at that moment.  The first two months were basic training, which included a lot of running, crawling, doing push-ups, and a host of other equally unpleasant endeavors in the same sort of nasty, wet, cold and gray mornings.  There was one morning however when I beat the system.  In the Army you are always trying to beat the system; the smart ones are anyway.  My training company was going on bivouac, which consisted of a hike of considerable milage with a full pack carrying everything that you need except food, at the end of which you must set up your tent and square away your camp in total darkness before eating a meal and then spending the rest of the night on training exercises.  I was not at all keen to participate in this utter madness.

My solution to this problem was to trade Kitchen Police duty, or KP, with another trainee.  Most soldiers hate KP because what free time they might otherwise have in the busy training schedule to engage in laying around the barracks playing cards, smoking or telling other trainees BS stories about their physical and sexual prowess back home, wherever that might be, is instead spent peeling potatoes and cleaning pots and pans.  I, on the other hand, enjoyed working in the kitchen almost as much as I enjoyed smoking, playing cards and telling BS stories about my physical and sexual prowess back home (which virtually nobody, in an instance of rare insight, believed).  I still enjoy working in the kitchen, although my BS stories have moved a little higher on the food chain.  I was particularly desirous of working KP this particular day because our schedule required that we get up early to provide breakfast for the troops before they began their great trek, and then stay behind to clean up the mess and load our mess tent and field kitchen into trucks which would then transport it and us our to where our companions in training would be straggling in tired as dogs many hours later.  We rolled out of our company area about 10:00 in the morning and were in our bivouac area before noon, setting up the huge mess tent and carrying very heavy ovens and gas ranges and a host of other kitchen appurtenances into the kitchen tent.  It really was hard work, but it was a lot easier than trudging down the road for a gazillion miles with most of what you owned strapped to your back.  Once we got the kitchen and mess tent set up it was then a matter of waiting in our ease until we got word that the boys were a couple of miles down the road, at which time we swung into high gear and got a meal ready for those exhausted and hungry GI’s.  At the end of the day I figured that I saved myself a walk/run of probably 20 miles, and that was certainly worth peeling a few (hundred) potatoes and scouring a couple (dozen) pots.

The next morning I completed my KP duty by helping to prepare for breakfast.  We got started early and were ready for the rush by about forty five minutes before the tent flap would be thrown back to allow the ‘Croots’, or recruits as we said in our military shorthand, to file in bleary-eyed and hungry.  Before the Croots got there we KP’s would eat the very best of the creamed beef on toast, or “shit on a shingle” as every soldier and, I’m told, marine and sailor too calls it (I’m not sure about the Airmen; they were always a little different), that the mess sergeant could cook, and drink hot, strong coffee out of thick ceramic mugs.  The mess sergeant would tell us stories that would go all the way back to World War II and before while we drank that rich, black wonderful nectar of some very wired gods, and it was there that my memories wandered as I lay on the damp ground in my own private Army sleeping bag four years later and twenty miles down the road smelling somebody else’ coffee.

After a while lying there in my reverie one of the other guys began to stir, I don’t remember which one, and soon we were all up and beginning to feel the call of the road.  We had nothing to eat and did not feel like bumming anything from the other travelers, so we packed our gear and, after answering the call of nature, we got into my truck and nosed it back onto the road.  We intended to press on and chew up a big piece of the remaining journey to Seattle that day so breakfast and lunch would have to be purchased when we stopped for gas or bathroom breaks, which were usually at the same time.

In short order we rolled through Carmel and Monterey, at which point we reconnected with Highway 101 and then began to shoot along at a sixty mile per hour clip north with only San Francisco as a speed bump.  There was no freeway through that city then, as I believe that there is no such freeway there today.  Real estate there is just too expensive for that sort of thing, so we picked our way through the city until we sat in a lane waiting our turn to pay a toll in order to cross the Golden Gate Bridge.  That hurdle behind us, we proceeded to fly north across Marin County and beyond that into Sonoma County where I had been before briefly and where I would spend some of my best and worst days a few years hence.

I had travelled before from Fort Ord to Petaluma in Sonoma County to visit Clarice and Marcia when I was in the last two months of my training at the fort.  I had met Clarice and Marcia while camping with my father in the mountains east of San Diego one summer.  I was about 16 years old or so and shy, but managed to make friends with the two very pretty young ladies who were camped at the site next to us.  I asked for and received their address and Clarice and I wrote to each other for a couple of years.  Then, in November and December of 1966, I finally had the chance to take a bus north and visit with them.  Both Clarice and Marcia had friends in whom they were a great deal more interested than they were in me, but their parents took pity on the bedraggled young soldier who was undoubtedly headed off to war and would quite possibly not come home vertical, and made my two visits to their home very pleasant experiences.  I do wish that I could thank them for that, but I doubt that they are alive today.  I think that those two people are an example of the exhortation by Jesus that “if you do these things unto the least of these, you do it unto Me”.

We passed through Santa Rosa, driving right past a store over which I would live when my first marriage dissolved six hears later, and then passed into country which I had seen once, years before, when my father and I had travelled through.  I could barely remember what I had seen then, and so it was all new to me. Through the orchards we rolled, then up through broken hills on a highway paralleling the Russian River.  Beyond that we passed through forests thick with fir and redwoods and valleys covered with tall grasses and wild flowers, stopping periodically to relieve ourselves and to allow Foxy to do the same among the trees and ferns of the redwood forest.  Early in the afternoon we squirted out of the redwood forest and into the coastal town of Eureka, California.

There, in Eureka, was the first time that I ever felt a sense of fear of the ocean.  I grew up in the ocean.  I swam in it, surfed in it, practically lived in it.  My father said that I must be part fish.  On that stretch of Highway 101 that runs nearly at the high tide mark I felt suddenly vulnerable and small next to that vast, restless body of water which extended limitlessly to the west to the horizon, and beyond that to infinity.  I felt vulnerable to the raw power of the ocean, knowing that at any moment a rogue wave could rise up out of that seemingly pacific infinity of blue and sweep me to a resting place  in the dark places of a watery grave.  The thought of that gave me chills, and I was happy to leave that low part of the road as we tooled along to the north.  A short while later we passed through Arcata, California, and now I was truly in country new to me.

The road was long and had the twists and turns one would expect from a coastal route, but we made excellent time by changing drivers and stopping infrequently and briefly.  I was sitting in the back with Jerry when Dave drove us over the state line from California into Oregon  “Yeahhhh!!!!!” shouted Jerry and Paul in unison.  “Wow, so you really want out of California that bad?”  I asked Jerry sort of jokingly.  “No, it’s not like that, although I don’t really care if I ever see Cambria again as long as I live.  It’s just that this is more like home.  The Northwest is its own place, and people who are born up here think it’s the best place in the world.”  “Yeah, I know what you mean,” I replied.  “Those of us who were born in San Diego feel the same way, and wish that the rest of the world would visit, but then go home.”  “That’s it exactly” said Jerry.  I then thought about some of the unfriendly receptions that out-of-state visitors sometimes experienced in San Diego, and how soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas were frequently the objects of unwelcome attention.  “How do you think we’ll be received in Seattle?” I asked.  “No problem.  You’re not staying, are you?”

I allowed that I was probably not, and we chatted on in this manner for a couple of hours until we arrived in the beach town of Gold Beach, Oregon.  “Be careful here” Paul and Jerry warned us.  “This is redneck heaven and people with long hair aren’t always welcomed with open arms.  Or open hands either.”  Oh great, I thought.  Another Cambria.  We were hungry though, and needed gas and a bathroom, and as we pulled into a gas station we saw nearby a pizza place that sold their pizzas to go.  This fit our needs perfectly and after filling the tank we bought the largest pizza that they made and continued our journey north.

“We getting close to Seattle?”  I asked Paul, who had replaced Jerry in the back.  “Nope” he said around a large mouthful of crust, cheese and pepperoni.  “We’ve got a long way to go.”  “Are you sure?” I asked.  Opening the map in the wind of the open pickup bed would have been a very bad idea, so I had to take Paul’a word for it.  “Yeah,” Paul said.  “Oregon and Washington are not as long as California, but they are pretty big states and we have a long way to go before we hit the freeway.  Unless we go all night we won’t get there until tomorrow”.  I hadn’t thought about it that much, but I had assumed that we would get there that evening.  Now it looked like that was not going to be the case.

A while later, as we were getting into the middle of afternoon, we turned off of Highway 101 to begin our meandering trek eastward to join up with Interstate 5 and put the slower, winding Highway 101 behind us.  Along the way the road crossed over a bridge over the South Yamhill River.  The river was not very large at all but it was in the most exquisitely beautiful setting imaginable.  Dave pulled over and parked at the east end of the bridge and we picked our way down the embankment to the edge of the river.  This stretch of road was very rural and there was little traffic, so we peeled off our clothes and waded into the cool, slowly flowing stream.  I felt like I was in heaven.  The day was unseasonably warm for a June day in the Northwest and even in the late afternoon it was still very comfortable.  The sunlight was filtering down through the leaves of the many varieties of trees which grew along the banks of the stream and it seemed like this piece of ground had been transported from the war, the riot, and strife of life in the U.S. and the world in 1970 and removed to some incarnation of a Norman Rockwell painting.  Well, a Norman Rockwell painting with four stoned, naked hippies and an Australian shepherd  cavorting in the river, but who’s quibbling over details?

We were firmly on Paul and Jerry’s turf now and so Dave and I took positions in the bed of the pickup and allowed the local boys to guide us as we pressed onward while the sun set behind us.  I really don’t believe that we were awake when we joined Interstate 5 somewhere south of Portland, Oregon, and it is a certainty that we slept much if not all of the way through the state of Washington.  Dave and I were awakened when the Studi lurched to a stop in the parking lot of an apartment building.  “Bring in your sleeping bags and stow the rest of your gear in the cab” said Jerry, “and leave Foxy out here too.  Mom’s not to crazy about dogs in the house.

“We did as Jerry suggested and then trooped into the apartment.  Jerry’s mother and sister lived there and Jerry had obtained permission for the two guys who had brought her son most of the way back home to crash that night on her living room floor.  Mom stayed hidden however, and I do not believe that I ever laid eyes upon her.  I probably saw his sister once or twice: she was curious about the hippies from California ( I later learned that nearly everybody in Seattle believed that nearly everybody from California under the age of 25 was a hippie), but I don’t really remember her.

We accepted the limited hospitality and appreciated a place to sleep that was not moving.  We unrolled our bags on the living room rug and, with little ceremony, crawled into them and passed into a deep and much needed sleep.

Invitation to an Unexpected Road Trip, Part II

The unexpected journey which Dave and I had just embarked upon began in the usual manner for anyone at the outset of a long trip from San Diego to anywhere else.  The early June sky was overcast, with the low clouds or high fog of the layer of marine air which every year treated us to what we less-than-lovingly called the ‘June Gloom’, hanging low over the city.  We navigated across town to Interstate 15, which was an actual freeway only to the edge of the city.  Just at the northern border of San Diego, which was not a very far drive in the summer of 1970, the road dwindled back to two lanes and returned to its original designation; U.S. Highway 395.

Driving north we passed first through the town of Escondido, which has always been a place of mystery to me.  Growing up in San Diego as I did, I had some connection with nearly all of the neighborhoods and suburbs of that city.  Either by riding my bicycle to the beach, the zoo or the municipal swimming pool, or taking the bus downtown to fool around in the department stores or go to the cheap movies in run-down theaters, or attending high school football games and other similar events, I touched upon nearly all of the town.  Additionally, my father would drive to the more rural suburbs to buy garden produce and dairy products and our trips to the mountains for hiking and camping  brought us through most of the towns in the county.

Escondido was a different story.  Located only thirty miles north of San Diego it was still completely outside of San Diego’s orbit and slightly off the beaten path.  Other county towns in San Diego, such as Ramona, Julian, Campo, Pine Valley, and even tiny Santa Ysabel, were visited regularly by me and I knew their layout and each one’s raison d’être very well.  Escondido marched to a different drummer however.  I can’t say if Escondido was a large town or a small city, but it was considerably more substantial than any of the other county communities that I mentioned.  Escondido had its own economy, which leaned heavily on groves of avocado, citrus, olive and walnut trees and other agricultural and ranching pursuits, and enjoyed infusions of cash from passing visitors from San Diego and elsewhere but was by no means dependent on that source of revenue.  In fact, Escondido means “hidden” in the Spanish language, and Spanish was the primary language spoken there for the first decades of that settlement’s existence.

Rising up over a low ridge one would see the valley in which Escondido lie tucked under all manner of trees, but you would not see the city itself.  A sign by a large boulder announced that you had arrived in Escondido, and beautiful grove of cottonwood trees on the west edge of the road announced the presence of a creek or spring, evoking in me thoughts of Vanamee, a character in Frank Norris’ novel “The Octopus: A Story of California” who decades after the fact is still haunted by the murder of his lover, and returns from time to time to the tree-shaded mission garden where he waited for her one night but she never came.  By the time I could think much about that book and its greater impact upon me, a detail to which we will return below, we had touched the western edge of that town and skipped off of it like a flat rock off of a smooth body of water.

We hurtled north another half hour or so until we came to the tiny settlement of Temecula, where we pulled off of the road in order to get one of the greasy but delicious hamburgers that they sold in the little restaurant which was one of the six or seven buildings in that ‘town’.  I had eaten there many times before when my father would take us on drives out into the country, and the service had always been just fine.  On this occasion however I was a gangling young man with long curly hair held in place by a leather headband and possessing a bushy, kinky red beard.

That hair and beard are meat for many other stories about those times, one of which I will share here.  I had always hated my curly hair which my military father would never let me grow to any length at all.  Then, in the mid 1960’s, surfing exploded onto the cultural scene and instantly a young man’s status could be improved simply by a mop of straight, long (for then) blond hair combed over mostly to one side.  I had longed for long hair, and my discharge from the Army had brought the liberation of being able to grown out my hair for the first time, which I promptly did.  At about the same time I read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” and learned that in his early life straight hair was frequently obtained by Black people by a process which Malcolm called ‘conking’, or ‘getting a conk’.  After reading that and growing enough hair to make it worth my while I decided that it was my turn to get a conk.

I promptly made my appointment at a styling salon and emerged an hour or so later with a glorious mop of flaccid, straight hair brushed straight back over my head and streaming down towards my shoulders.  I gloried in the picture of masculine hippie perfection that I presented to myself when I gazed into the mirror!  That night I went to shoot some pool with a friend and offer my new coolness to all ladies who might be in the vicinity, and as I leaned over to sight up my shot, ‘FWOOMP!”  Down fell an avalanche of my newly straightened hair in front of my eyes, obscuring my shot.  Annoyed, I straightened up and brushed my hair back into place with my fingers and leaned forward once again to take my shot.  “FWOOMP!”  Once again down came the furry avalanche.  This went on for the entire game.  By the end of the evening I was cursing my straight hair and after outgrowing the effects of my conk never considered doing it again to this day.

So in we tromp in our jeans, huarache sandals, tee shirts and hair and plop down at the counter.  It was reminiscent of a scene from “Easy Rider”, where the two heroes and Jack Nicholson in a supporting role sat down at a table and got ignored by the staff while the locals growled disparaging and threatening remarks.  It was not that bad, but the wait for service was loooonnnnnnggggg, and when our orders arrived the meat was barely cooked.  We chugged it down anyway and were glad to pay up and take our leave of that place.

A short way farther up the road we began to enter the orbit of Los Angeles and had to decide which way to go.  Highway 395 continued north through rural country and went all the way to the Canadian border somewhere near Spokane, although We didn’t really know that at the time.  Across the county lay Highway 101, and I was very familiar with that road, at least to a distance of about fifty or sixty miles north of San Francisco, so we decided with little debate to continue our vision quest on that route.

The down side of that plan was that we had forty or fifty miles of Los Angeles County between us and Highway 101 on the west side of the city/county complex, and this was before the age of superhighways or the Siri App on one’s iPhone.  With a fold-up road map, the kind that you would get for free at gas stations like the one that we both had worked at only a day or two before, we threaded our way from one major road to another across town.  It was a lot like following a forty mile strand of spaghetti through a giant bowl filled with hundreds of other strands just like it.  We finally picked up Highway 101 on the northern edge of the City and as we talked non-stop about nearly everything but Stacy we soon left Los Angeles behind us and began to roll through the now brilliant sunshine or the California coast.

An hour or so later our gas tank was empty and our bladders were full so we pulled off of the highway and entered Santa Barbara.  Santa Barbara is one of the most beautiful towns on earth in one of the most beautiful geographic locations in the universe, but we paid scant attention to that.  San Diego is no barren wasteland itself, so the beauty of Santa Barbara did not jump right out at us then.  We were interested in gas, beer, sandwich and snacking goods for that evening and getting back on the road.  This we accomplished and soon were preparing to turn right onto the highway, and that’s where we first saw Kathy and Roy.

“Where’re you headed?” Dave hollered out through the window as I pulled over and Kathy and Roy ran up to the truck. “Seattle”  they responded.  “How far are you guys going?”  Dave and I looked at each other and shrugged.  “Seattle, I guess” Dave shouted back to them.  “Climb into the bed”, which is exactly what they did and we wheeled back into traffic and resumed our march north.  We chatted a little through the window with the couple and learned that they were students at the University of California branch in Santa Barbara and were hitching home for the summer break.  Mostly we rode with the window to the back of the truck closed and Dave and I cruised with our own conversation and Kathy and Roy rested with their backs against the back of the cab engaged in their own.

In that manner we rode into what was becoming the Central California coastal area, which for me is even more attractive than Santa Barbara.  We drove past Pea Soup Anderson’s restaurant in Beullton, through farming areas around Santa Maria, and finally turned west at the university town of San Luis Obispo towards Morro Bay and U.S. Highway 1, which would continue north through Big Sur and on towards Monterey and the land of Steinbeck.

Evening was coming on and the fog was starting to roll inland off of Morro Bay when we pulled into the parking lot of a motel in Pismo Beach.  All of us got out of our respective perches and began to stretch our legs, and then I walked up to and through the door into the motel office.  The clerk, who was probably also the owner, did not look especially happy to see me.

“I’d like a room for two” I said.  The man made it obvious as he took a squint out between the blinds in the window facing the parking lot.  “One, two, three, four.  I count four people” he replied to me with a sullen glare.  I thought of leaving then and there, but I was tired and wanted to relax that evening.  “The couple are hitchhikers” I explained.  “They are going to sleep in the bed of the truck in order to keep an eye on our stuff back there in exchange for the ride.  I only need two beds, and twin beds will do just fine.”  Kathy and Roy and I had in fact made no such contract at all.  Fortuitously however they were at that moment fiddling with their packs and sleeping bags, probably rearranging things and tightening them up, and it looked for all the world like they were doing exactly what I had said.  “OK, but I don’t want any funny business.  This is a family establishment and we like to keep things quiet here.”  “That’s exactly what I’m looking for” I told him and signed on the dotted line, paid up for the night, took my key and retreated back to the truck.

“The guy’s a jerk” I told them, “and thinks that we’re all going to sneak into the room.  I told him that you guys were sleeping out here and he was cool with that.  Why don’t you take a walk and come back when it’s dark?”  I had spoken briefly with Kathy and Roy through the sliding window and wanted to get to know them better.  “We’ll break out the food and have some dinner together”  I suggested.  “Sounds good us” they replied, and off they walked down the beach together.

An hour later we were all sitting on the beds or the floor, wolfing down ham and cheese sandwiches and potato chips and washing it all down with a couple of six packs of Coors.  For desert we passed around a few joints and began the real process of making introductions.  This was one of the turning point moments in my young life.

Kathy and Roy turned out to be members of an organization known as the Seattle Liberation Front, a very radical and left wing group made up mostly of students who’s focus was opposition to the war that continued to rage in Vietnam.  “I just got back from Vietnam a year ago” I told them.  “I can tell you that it is one big cluster bang”.  I actually used language a bit more forceful than that.  Kathy and Roy stared at me for a moment, as if deciding whether to stay or not.  Returning veterans from that war were more likely to get spit upon than a handshake in many parts of America then, but I had shared my truck, my food, my motel room and their weed, so they decided to continue with the relationship.  “The war is immoral” they said.  “It’s about a lot of very rich capitalists making blood money with the help of a lot of very paranoid old politicians using the lives and bodies of young men to get off on body counts and killing Reds to massage their fat, corrupt egos and keep their feet on the necks of workers and students here and peasants in Vietnam.  The politicians and the generals are a bunch of obsolete old gasbags who haven’t got the decency to die off and let workers and students build a free and prosperous and equal society.”

I had not met real live left wing radicals before and never heard them expound upon their vision in a coherent manner, but I had been preparing to hear their message for most of my life.  After growing up in a conservative household which was ruled autocratically by my military father I had joined the Army, oddly enough, looking for a measure of freedom, and in fact found freedom of a sort there.  Over the course of three years I met people with a wide diversity of opinions about nearly everything, many of whom had been drafted and whom I would not have otherwise met.  The almost two years that I spent in Vietnam resulted in disillusionment with the leadership of my country, disenchantment with the confident depiction of the American Dream, and no firm belief in anything greater than myself to hold onto as I tried to make sense of the world.

Added to that were two important books which I had read in my teen years which had prepared me for this first transforming revelation in my life.  “The Octopus”, which I have mentioned above, spoke of the corruption, greed and willingness of heartless capitalists to go to murderous lengths to secure profits.  A second book, Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle”, spoke of communist organizers coming into an agricultural workers’ camp in California’s Central Valley and bringing workers together to improve their lives.  The two organizers enjoyed some success until goons working for the capitalist growers came and busted up the camp and arranged for an unhappy end to the organizers’ efforts.  These two books made a deep impression upon me, and my disillusionment upon returning from Vietnam only heightened the conflicted and unfocused feelings that I held concerning the war and my country and society and just about everything else.  Now here Kathy and Roy were articulating many of those disorganized feelings that had been gnawing at me with an organized train of thought, a conviction that “we the people” were traveling down the wrong road and that they knew how to get to the right one.  This intrigued me greatly and I looked forward to discussing it further during our travels on the next day.

For now however it was time to get some sleep.  Dave had been going since early that morning and I had been going since 9 AM, which was early for me.  We were well fed, had a few beers on board and a nice buzz from Kathy and Roy’s weed.  Kathy and Roy brought in their sleeping bags and spread them out on the floor, exactly as the clerk expected that they would do, and Dave and I climbed into our beds.  The lights went out and in no more than a few minutes my lights went out too.  Day one had come to a close and ,in typical fashion, I never gave a second thought to what day two would bring.  As it turned out, it would be an interesting one.