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.

Introduction to “Space, The Final Frontier”

Books have always had a profound influence on my life.  From the time that I began to read, somewhere in my early years of elementary school, I also began to seek direction for my life in the stories presented in the books that I read.  Mark Twain made me want to view the world with a humorous twist.  John Steinbeck and Frank Norris made me aware of social inequity and economic oppression and led me to develop a sympathetic inclination towards Wobblies, Communists and others who at least presented the front of speaking up for those who had been pushed down by society.  I eventually recovered from my sympathies for those groups but retain my support for those who’ve been steamrolled by life.  Mary Austen fed my love of the desert.  Nobody, however, had as much influence on my young and malleable life than did Jack Kerouac.

I read Kerouac’s “On The Road” sometime in 1968 or 69 when I was in Vietnam.  My life had been rapidly changing since I had joined the Army and left my home, where any sort of real expression of my own personality was quickly suppressed by my very conservative, military, and authoritarian father.  I am not trashing my Dad; he was only doing the best that he could with what he knew.  Still, any real expression of my own distinct personality was smothered under a blanket of forced conformity that left me gasping for whatever breath of originality that I could manage to find.  I took to wearing hats, usually straw ones of the Panama type, bright red, green and blue socks with my shorts, or beltless (and classless) “continental” pants on occasions when long pants were called for, all in an attempt to establish some sort of individual identity.

Another item of clothing that I got accustomed to was a black turtleneck shirt.  Black turtleneck shirts were not very practical in San Diego where I grew up.  The long sleeves, high collar, and black color gathered heat like a solar collector, but black turtlenecks spoke of the Beatniks, the ultimate individualists of my childhood years.  My hope was that some of the hipness and coolness and detachedness from all rules that the Beatniks symbolized would be transferred to me if I adopted their look in even the slightest way.  Dad wouldn’t let me wear a black beret, I didn’t even like Dad’s Navy coffee much less expresso, and the only jazz music that I knew about was the theme music from the television detective show “Peter Gunn”.  Still, I wore that shirt as a symbol of my allegiance to the Beatniks, who represented something that I desperately wanted even if I didn’t know what that really was.

Jack Kerouac, correctly or incorrectly, for better or for worse, filled in a lot of the blanks in my life.  By the time that I sat in a lawn chair on the tower platform of our company water tank enjoying some beer and a joint under the warm Vietnamese sun reading “On The Road”, I had given up the electric blue socks and continental pants in trade for sex and drugs and rock & roll, which was possible even under the rigors of war.  Reading Kerouac, or perhaps I should say misreading him according to author Mark Sayers, I believed that I had found the person that I wanted to be.  Sal or Dean, it didn’t matter; each character was radically free from my point of view.  From that moment on I knew what I thought was important in life and who I wanted to be.

In May of 1969, three months before Hippy Nation joined in a celebration of music, drugs, utterly unrestrained sex and mud up to their eyeballs at Woodstock in upstate New York, I was released from whatever restraint the Army had imposed upon me.  Now returned to my old home in San Diego, I was a grown man, sort of, and as long as I caused a minimum of chaos at our family home I was entirely free of my father’s rules.  What followed was a period of abandonment to a life that Jack Kerouac would have recognized instantly.

The next few stories from my life will deal with that period.  I have wrestled with whether or not to write these stories at all.  There is little or nothing uplifting in these tales and I admit to a certain amount of embarrassment about many things that I will write about.  So why write them?  For better or for worse these stories are a part of my life.  These stories are about a young man who had no real ideals, who had no sense of value in life, who in fact had no real expectation of a long life.  These stories tell of a young man who was desperate to find a meaning in life while at the same time running away from the very concept of meaning itself.  Yet in the midst of this life there was still to be found friendship, humor, and a hint of the person who would emerge a couple of years hence alive and a little bit smarter, if somewhat worse for wear.  You might know a young person just like this and wonder what is going on in his or her head.  Perhaps these stories will give you some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.  At least there was light at the end of mine.  My first tale, part of a series which I will entitle “Space, The Final Frontier”, will follow as soon as I get around to writing it.