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.