Mas Un Mitote, Part 2 of 2, by Miguel Roura

8 May

MIGUEL ROURA is a writer/Actor/Producer/Activist and a retired LAUSD English Miguel's JC HeadshotLanguage instructor from Boyle Heights.  Since his earliest days during the Chicano movement as a community organizer and educator to his current involvement with CASA 0101 Theatre, Miguel’s life-work has been to contribute to the betterment of his community.  He’s performed shows such as:  Naked Stage Nights, Awkward, Remember La Causa?, Frida Kahlo Ten Minute Festival (No Me Queda Otra), La Bestia Band Theatre Project, Shakespeare Sonnets Night, and the Fall 2014 production of Julius Caesar. The following is the last part of his blog post. He tells me that Mitote means “indigenous dance of Mexico” but also that he is playing with the similarity to Mito (myth).

PART 2

In Culiacan we had two hours to stretch our legs. The bus driver told us not to wander too far from the station; anyone not on the bus by midnight would be left behind to find other means of transportation.

My clothes clung to my body, wrinkled and wet with perspiration. The heat from the asphalt and cement singed my sandals. Four of us, including Mangas, wandered down the boulevard and found a place that served ice-cold beers and had outdoor tables. My compadre Humberto told me before I left LA: They grow some of the best marijuana on the outskirt farms of Culiacan. Eyeing a row of taxi cabs across the street from the bar, I spotted a young guy about my age, looking bored, leaning against his vehicle, smoking. I sauntered over and introduced myself, told him I was a tourist looking to score some “mota.”  The cabbie, with the cigarette dangling from his lips, right eye squinting, inspected me head to toe: long hair, beaded necklace, paisley shirt, bell-bottom jeans, and three-ply huaraches.

“Quizas (Maybe),” he responded nonchalantly.

Cuanto (How much)?” I asked. The fare would be twenty dollars, he said, but the price of the weed, la yerba, I would need to negotiate with the farmer. I ran back and told the guys, asked if anyone wanted to chip in, but they all passed, warned me it wasn’t a good idea to go into a strange city.

“lf I score, are you going to want to smoke some?”

“Hell, yes!”

I handed the driver the twenty and he smiled. His name was Nico and he was saving to go to the United States; Hollywood was the place he wanted to visit—he was a movie fan. I sat in the back seat as Nico maneuvered around traffic. We rode silently beyond the city lights and out into the dark. Flickering like altar candles, distant fires illuminated the obscure surroundings. Somewhere down the highway Nico turned the cab onto a rutted road and it bounced and waded through tall grass and cornfields. After a long rough ride through back roads that only he could distinguish, Nico stopped the car, got out, and left without a word.

As I sat alone waiting, the cow and pig shit mixed with the stench of my apprehension. It wasn’t the fear of being busted. This was the land of Don Juan, the same desert where the Yaqui shaman instructed Carlos Castaneda in his spiritual way of life. I began to imagine the wraiths and specters that have haunted this land and its people for thousands of years. I’d met Carlos when he came to speak at a MECHA meeting shortly after publishing his first book. Afterwards, a few of us invited him to smoke a joint with us in the parking lot, but he deferred. He explained that Don Juan introduced him to peyote and other psychotropic plants to help him achieve awareness to an alternate state which his very strict Western training prevented him from experiencing. Marijuana was a devil’s weed, he said, that clouds and confuses the thinking. In order to achieve awareness, he needed a clear vision that would help him cross over the spiritual dimension where he encountered his nagual, his spiritual guide. Afterwards we laughed and thought him a square suit-and-tie man.

Suddenly a fog rolled in and enveloped the car. My thoughts dissipated in the mist and made me feel lost. I waited for Nico to return. The night noises grew, augmenting with my breath and heartbeat. Tittering to myself, I suppressed the prayer I knew could save me, but I didn’t want to sell out my recently acquired agnosticism.

I’ve read that between heartbeats, a person can dream his entire life. I thought about mine. I came to Mexico to penetrate her mysteries, to uncover her secrets, to saturate myself in her splendor. Growing up in Tijuana, I barely fondled them. I wanted to be deep inside, experiencing unsounded sensations. Here I sat, along the back roads of my mind, alone. My thoughts wandered. Now a panic ran through me. Raw fear pounded through my imagination.

In the midst of this reverie, two heads popped through the back windows of the cab. Nico smiled, smoke dangling around his face. He nodded to the other side, The stern face of a farmer stared at me.

“This is Eusebio and this is his farm,” Nico said in the spitfire Spanish of Sinaloa.

The man’s thick swarthy fingers clutched a big brown shopping bag which he handed to me. Opening it, I saw half of it filled with thick green buds that wafted the distinctive smell of freshly harvested marijuana.

“That will be another twenty dollars, Güero.”

The big ranchero fixed his eyes, waiting for my response. I dug in my pocket for my wallet, pulled out the bill, and extended it out to Eusebio. He smiled with pride as he withdrew and disappeared into the dew.

“Nice doing business with you, gringo.“

By the time I got back to the depot, it was well past midnight. Mangas stood on the first step of the bus entrance staring down at the two drivers, who were angrily shouting Mexican insults at him. Each bus had two conductors who took turns driving. Mangas knew only one phrase of this language, and the men’s demeanors didn’t faze him. He’d faced Army sergeants and the Viet Cong.

“Where you been, ese? These vatos are getting ready to leave your ass. I think he said he’s gonna call the jura on me. That better be some good shit you got there.”

It was. Right after I took my seat, I handed Mangas my July issue of Playboy; he opened it to the centerfold, and I dropped a wad of weed on it. Mangas expertly removed the rich round buds from the stems which he collected on his into a neat pile. Soon, perfectly round marijuana cigarettes emerged. I fired up the first and we started passing out the product of years of experience.

“Pinches gavachos grjfos!” scowled the older bus driver as he glanced back at the scene developing behind them. “Estan armando un mitote.”

The mood livened throughout the bus. We did start creating a ruckus. Someone pulled out his boom-box and the steely sounds of Santana started; then the percussion section chimed in, and soon it became the backbeat in our travels. The conversation grew loud. We no longer spoke in pairs or groups, but like we did at our MECHA meetings, with passion and conviction. The Vietnam War preoccupied us all. Even though we got deferments for being in school, the draft lottery loomed ominously in our lives. The only one not worried about it was Mangas. He had survived a year in “the bush.” But now he faced jail time for the Walkouts.

“Me vale madre (I don’t give a damn)!” was his favorite phrase. He didn’t give a shit.

At that moment none of us gave a damn either. We were high on the infinite possibilities for ourselves and for La Causa, committed to changing the world, eradicating injustice and inequality. It was our time.

The bus driver had refilled the ice-chest with beer. They must have felt the contact-high effects of the smoke, because they started talking and laughing with gusto and passing out the cold cans of Tecate.

We bragged how we would become the Generation of Chingones (bad asses) that would turn it all around, revolutionize the system. We’d become the architects and engineers of a new society, the teacher and administrators who would implement the theories of Paulo Freire. The lawyers and judges who would
argue before the Supreme Court defending the constitutional rights of Reies Lopez Tijerina, Cesar Chavez, and Corky Gonzales. We boasted and openly claimed what those before us dared not proclaim: a big piece of the American pie. The world was our oyster, and we were starved.

Daylight broke and we passed through one of the many small towns along our way, and I asked the drivers to find us a Mercado where we could stop and eat. We had the munchies.

(END)

Mas Un Mitote, Part 1, by Miguel Roura

29 Apr

MIGUEL ROURA is a writer/Actor/Producer/Activist and a retired LAUSD English Miguel's JC HeadshotLanguage instructor from Boyle Heights.  Since his earliest days during the Chicano movement as a community organizer and educator to his current involvement with CASA 0101 Theatre, Miguel’s life-work has been to contribute to the betterment of his community.  He’s performed shows such as:  Naked Stage Nights, Awkward, Remember La Causa?, Frida Kahlo Ten Minute Festival (No Me Queda Otra), La Bestia Band Theatre Project, Shakespeare Sonnets Night, and the Fall 2014 production of Julius Caesar.

One Saturday in the summer of 1970, I boarded a Tres Estrellas bus and headed south, down the international highway, taking me on my first in-depth exploration of Mexico.

I was part of a group of 150 Chicano students who rented apartments at La Plaza Tlatelolco while attending classes at UNAM –- La Universidad Autónima de Mexico. I came searching for an identity, encouraged by my Chicano graduate student teachers at UCLA, who nurtured me through the first two years, and by my mother’s prodding that I learn the truth about the land of my ancestors. I remember my high school teacher and mentor, Sal Castro, telling us: “Your people founded highly sophisticated civilizations on this continent centuries before the European stepped on this land.” So this afternoon with this group of young enthusiastic men and women, I loaded my baggage on a  coach that took us from Tijuana to Tenochtitlan.

That first day of travel started off full of excitement as we jockeyed for a seat next to someone with whom to share the experience. Once we sat down and the bus started to roll, the conversation focused on the women on the trip with us. Our bus was all male, another was all female, and the third carried the married and matched couples. After the subject was thoroughly reviewed, we took turns sharing why we came on this trip, what part of Mexico our parents were from, and how much Spanish we actually knew. Most of us, whose parents spoke mainly their native language, had that idioma deleted in school by teachers and deans who strictly enforced English-only policies through corporal punishment. Those kids whose parents were second and third generation at the urging of their counselors took French or Italian as their foreign language requirement in high school. After we drank all the beers that the bus drivers provided and we tired of the talking, we each settled into our seat. Images of people and places floated in and out as I sat by the window contemplating the passing panorama.

The words of Ruben Salazar crossed my mind: “A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself….” Looking around the bus, I realized I was part of a new generation seeking to re-define itself. What did I know about myself? Mother from Colima, father from Tabasco, and just like their geography, they were extreme opposites. My parents met, married, and divorced in Tijuana; but they “dropped me” (I was born at Paradise Hospital) in National City, California, ten miles north of the border. They raised me in Tijuana until their divorce when I was five. I went to school, church, and to the bullfights on Sunday; my mother was a big fan of La Fiesta Taurina. When I turned ten, my mother used my dual citizenship to exchange her passport for a residence card. As I grew up, what I knew about Mexico came mainly from her recollections and from the conversations I overheard from her friends over the years. Usually the talk revolved around heartache, tears, and suffering. Through my adolescence I never wanted to accompany my mother when she went to visit her family.

But now I was sojourning with other Chicano activists on this  pilgrimage to the land of the chinampas (floating gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico City). Six hours into our trip, I realized I’d transferred from a luxury Greyhound bus to a transport with no air-conditioning, with one very small and smelly bathroom, and a radio with garbled sounds which gave me a headache. I shared the window with my new camarada, Mangas, a moniker he’d tagged himself: his real name was Richard, a 6’2″ chain-smoking Vietnam vet, who was a little older than most of us. We stared at the scorching, sun-drenched Sonora Desert until it was too dark to see anything. The rocking of the rickety bus lulled me in and out of sleep. Far in the distance a summer storm illuminated the distant mountains with veins of muted thunderbolts.

My mother gave me the thousand dollars I needed for this excursion; money she worked for and saved over the years. In Tijuana she’d been a registered nurse at Salubridad (public health clinics specifically for treating prostitues), caring for fichera (woman who drinks with clients at bars and earns a chip for every drink the man buys, which she later cashes in),  prostitutes, and their clients, mostly American servicemen. When she came to the US in her middle-age years, she did back-aching work: sewing, cleaning, and mopping kitchens and toilets in Brentwood and Bel Air homes.

After ten hours on the road, the driver pulled into the bus station in Culiacan, Sinaloa to refuel and to rest.

 

In high school I had never smoked marijuana. Most of the parties and dances I went to only served beer and sometimes cheap liquor. Moctezuma, our high-school class valedictorian, was the first one I saw take out a joint and fire up. He hung out with college kids and professors, and showed off his high vocabulary, which most of us football players didn’t understand.

But on the first days in the fall of ’68, just before classes started, and the first day I moved into the Brown House, I smoked my first toke. Brown House was a student housing complex right behind fraternity row. The university rented it for ten of the fifty male Chicano special-entry students whom they couldn’t place in the dorms. Toby and I were the first to arrive early that morning. He and I had been members of rival gangs back at Hollenbeck Junior High: him from Primera Flats and me from Tercera. But that was ancient history now.

After choosing my room, making my bed, and reading the first chapters of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the early afternoon, I took a walk to the patio to stretch out. Toby was lying down in a couch with a headset and a peaceful look. He asked me if I had heard of Hendrix. I said no. He handed me the headset. He lit a joint, took a deep drag, and then handed it to me. I imitated him but instantly choked on the contents, coughing out the smoke which had made my lungs explode. My eyes watered as the spasm subsided. Thereafter, I lay back to hear and feel the electrical impulses that oscillated in my brain and tingled down my body. With that I became a toker.

Being an only child, I was always hungry for friends. Smoking a joint became a gratifying communal experience. Those were the times of sit-ins. teach-ins and love-ins, rallying at Royce Hall and occupying the Administration Building on Mexican Independence Day 1969. Smoking a joint broke down racial, economic and gender barriers. It was cool to do! People got happy when they knew I had joint to share. Scoring an ounce of weed for the ASB president got me many benefits.

End of Part 1/2. To be continued.

Seminal Events of the 60s Revisited–New York Style, by Steve Fine.

15 Mar

Steve-Fine_Me_and_Junior

Originally from New York, Steve Fine has been living in Los Angeles since the mid-seventies with his wife, Jocelyne.  They have a son, Matthew, and now two backyard cats. He became active here in L.A. in the vigil movement, which sprang up in opposition to the Iraq War. For years he “vigiled” weekly in Silverlake and then in Studio City. Currently he has a book in progress.  Photography is his other passion.

 

Photographs from the Spring of ’67, and
A Walk Through the Wall Street Demolition Zone, circa ’69.

The five series of vintage photos you will find displayed at my site are resurrected from the deep archives, the years 1967 and 1969. Somehow the original negatives survived all these years. One sample is here for each of the five series you can view at:

steveposts.wordpress.com

pudkwwhApril ’67 Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam

The four galleries in the “Spring ‘67” series reflect the spirit of the times and the activism in the streets just as the antiwar movement was shifting into high gear and the counter-culture aborning.  I was eighteen and living with my mom at her West Side apartment right off Central Park in the high 90s, so it was literally a walk in the park to cover the antiwar march, draft card burning, and ‘be-ins’.  The ‘sweep-in’ was a subway ride down to the Village; I brought my camera along with a broom and bucket.

Steve-Fine_Sweep-In67_firehydrantSpring ’67 Sweep-In on the Lower East Side

My approach is to tell the story of the event rather than just select a few of the very best photos to highlight, so overall there is an unedited street-photography feel, a mix of my favorites with markers to guide you along the way.

By the expressions of some of the people in the photos you can see that for them this journey is entirely new and surprising, not the historical clichés of today.  Enter and you will be moving through a time of possibility, defiance and hope with enormous creative potential. It was all suddenly and unexpectedly happening that spring. For example, the look on the face of the sandy-haired, sport-jacketed draft resister as he burns his card. The year before, or even a few months before, he would not have been emboldened to take this step.

Steve-Fine_Draft67_resister1April ’67 Draft Resistance

 On a lighter note, there are the faces of the gawkers at the first “Be-In,” the opening shots in the series where the trees are bare in the background and the people are wearing jackets.  They are trying to fathom what exactly this is that is happening here.

Steve-Fine_Be-In67_peaceflag Spring ’67, Central Park Be-In 

The joke is, most of the people grooving in front of them on the cold cold ground were not certain either.  “Hippie”, “flower power”, “psychedelic” and even the phrase “counter-culture” have yet to enter common usage. That would come a few months when Time and Newsweek put out their big “summer of love” issues to explain it all and sell merchandise.  As a matter of fact, although I went to the park with my friends and we acted as if we knew, obviously, since we were eighteen and very cool, the truth is I had absolutely no idea what was happening. But like Ringo, I knew it was mine.  

Steve-Fine_WallStreet69_WTC-1

 

Moving on. Circa ’69, the Wall Street area of lower Manhattan was in the midst of a major period of demolition to make way for the World Trade Center and other new buildings. One Sunday morning I went down with my camera because I’d heard that on the weekends the place was deserted, like a ghost town. I was not expecting to find entire blocks razed and more slated for the same fate.

 

Organizing, by Patty Margaret

22 Feb

Patty is a retired nurse and mother of three grown children and three grandchildren. She grew up in San Diego, and lives in Pasadena. She likes to hike, bird-watch, travel and read. She is presently completing a healthy house project on her home to eliminate toxic chemicals and mold.

 

What particularly started my opposition to the status quo was my reaction to my father, who was a ferocious racist from Texas and had been in the navy all his life. When I was growing up, he abused my mom, my brother and me. I empathized with the victims of my dad’s wrath. I remember my dad going “Huh!” with disdain in his voice whenever a person of color was mentioned. My grandmother did the same thing. Phrases like “Those damn wetbacks!” were common around our house.

When I was in third grade, we sailed to Hawaii on my dad’s navy cargo ship. It took seven days to get there and seven to return. We stayed in Hawaii three months and went to school there. This was in the late ‘50s. It gave me the experience of being around Asians.

In junior high school my good friend had straight black hair and brown skin. When I brought her home one day, my dad asked, “Who’s that girl?” She was standing right there listening to this. “You can’t bring her into this house ever again,” he said. “She can stay now but that’s it.” Dumbfounded, I asked my mom why he didn’t like her. “Because she’s Mexican,” my mom explained. Eventually the girl moved away but years later while watching the San Francisco Mime Troup in Los Angeles, I met her again. She was working with the Troup and remembered me.

My high school was newly built to ensure that white kids didn’t have to go to a black school. One black kid lived on the “wrong” side of the line and ended up at my school but was told she would have to leave. We students gave her a lot of support, even electing her as student body president. As a result she didn’t get thrown out after all.

In 1965 I finished high school and started college at California Western University, a Methodist college at Point Loma near San Diego. (The college no longer exists.) The Methodist Church had a history of not allowing dancing. I joined a college church dance group. We were rebellious and wanted cultural change, in line with the rest of the movements of the ‘60s. We preformed modern interpretive dance to sacred music that included comments about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farm Workers strikes, and the inhumanity of poverty. We toured the state and surprised the Methodists because we preformed right by the altar in the church.

Another influence was my mom, who was supportive of women’s equality. She was sympathetic to feminists (which enraged my dad). My mother had been accepted as a student at Berkeley, but because of the Depression hadn’t been able to attend. She praised my great aunt, who was a math professor there—highly unusual for a woman at the time.Vietnam.Napalm.KimPhuc

At college I became particularly aware of the contradictions in our society when I found myself staying up until 4 a.m. writing and mimeographing leaflets about the Napalm being used by the US Army to burn children in Vietnam. After gazing the night before at the well-known picture of the girl running away from the napalm, I would stagger into my 7 a.m. philosophy class the next morning, where the teacher would knock on the blackboard and ask “Is this real?”

Follow the Drinking GourdWith a group of Methodist students at college I continued my activism. Then I quit school and hung out with Methodist students at San Diego State College. We began working with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Having come from a working class family, I was becoming aware of the power of the workers when they united and withheld their labor. I saw the influence workers could wield on government policies on war, poverty, and racism. I loved music and sang protest songs. I remember “Follow the Drinking Gourd” about the Underground Railroad.

Some of us SDS folks formed a nationwide sub-group called Workers for a Democratic Society. There had been some animosity between activist students and workers who didn’t understand that the war was not in their interest. Our outlook broadened from organizing just students to organizing the rest of the working class as well. I got a factory job at Ratner’s in San Diego making men’s suits. Our goal was to meet workers and talk to them about their issues and about the war.

garment workersMy job at Ratner’s was to match a bag of suits and a bag of sleeves so they could be sewn together. It was piece work. Each suit got a ticket which showed how many suits you’d sewn and assembled that day. If the number wasn’t high enough, you’d be reprimanded and made to take long breaks off the clock and then work overtime when supplies came in. For 35 hours they had to pay us minimum wage. There were fibers in the air. One woman got her finger caught in a sewing machine. Once someone opened one of the sewing machines and found a thumb inside.

There were three women in my work area. One spoke only Spanish and the other mainly French. We were all the same age. The Mexican woman lived in Tijuana. I was learning some Spanish from her. We had just turned 21 so we went out to bars, shared our lives, and talked about the war.UAW

When I came to Los Angeles to get more politically involved, my first job was at Harvey Aluminum. It was a large shop, organized by the UAW. They processed aluminum heads for bombs directed for deployment by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. I remember that once our multiracial group of women workers refused to process these war products. I was so impressed with them, it confirmed to me that workers felt as we did.

In 1969 I joined the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a group that had broken off from the Communist Party USA.

Progressive Labor PartyThe PLP read Chinese Communist as well as Soviet literature. It organized factory workers within SDS for Workers for a Democratic Society, and I became dedicated to that work. When I was laid off by Harvey Aluminum, I found a non-union job in electronics and learned to solder computer boards for airplane radios in South Los Angeles. I took some classes at the local high school in reading diodes, and I met a man there, whom I later married. Some of the other students moved on to a nursing attendant class, so I went too, again getting to know more working people. This is where I discovered that I loved working in the intensive care unit.

We tried to concentrate our organizing in an IBM electronics factory in El Segundo. My job was to wind and solder copper wires onto computer chips. We made friends, helped each other learn about racism, unions, and the anti-war movement. However, the rules made it difficult to do this because no talking was allowed, we worked long hours, and our breaks were strictly supervised. The three of us in the PLP weren’t careful enough and were fired before we finished our six months’ probation, at which time we would have been protected from frivolous discharges. All the charges were different: mine was for “talking too much.”

We were assigned by PLP to work in Long Beach, California. There we sold our newspaper Challenge to navy sailors.

PLP Challenge newspaper

We met and made friends with them, talking about the war, their draft experiences, racism on board the ships, and the need for a communist society. Recently I heard that our work was mentioned in a book by a sailor who wrote about his decision to become active against the war.

About that time my husband and I had a baby, and when she was three weeks old and I was out of town at my brother’s wedding, he unexpectedly packed up and left. He hadn’t agreed with some of my politics so maybe he was overwhelmed by my activities. Or perhaps I was too insistent on his helping with the housework. At any rate, he disappeared completely, and to this day I’ve heard no word from him.

I collected Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare) to support my child and me. Along with other mothers I organized sit-ins at the welfare office when recipients weren’t getting their checks on time or were denied welfare, food stamps or Medi-Cal. We were fighting for our checks and our rights as well as the needs of other welfare recipients. When one person didn’t get her check, then we’d have a sit-in at the welfare office with our babies and diapers until she got her check. We took women with us to demonstrations and meetings, we made friends, and we canvassed the poor housing complexes in order to grow the group. We discussed PLP’s place in the struggle, and communism as an answer to unemployment. We became well known, with many new faces later becoming active in welfare struggles, although they didn’t join the PLP.

A group of us fought to get admitted into the Work Incentive Program (WIN), which would pay for our education. Many of the women were on welfare. When I told them about WIN, they started to cry; they had never thought they would actually be able to go to school. During a day-long sit-in on the floor of the unemployment bureau with our babies, a man told us we had to do “whatever possible” to get enough money to support ourselves. When we asked him if he meant walking the streets, he said, Yes, if necessary. The problem was that only men were considered for education classes to support their families; women weren’t admitted. but we were a multi-racial group and succeeded through our militancy in getting into nursing school and other WIN programs.

I loved nursing and became an LVN. I remember one incident when I was assigned to the communicable disease admitting area. By 11 p.m. we usually closed up the place. A doctor from an upscale hospital was working at White Memorial Hospital to learn about communicable disease. About 3 p.m. a man in jeans and an English sports jacket came in. He’d been bitten by an animal and wanted to know if he had rabies. I was only an LVN so couldn’t give IVs. I asked him what bit him. I didn’t speak Spanish but it sounded like he said a possum. The doctor went to the library to find out if possums ate meat. She came back fuming—it wasn’t in the books. After talking to her, I found out that she was looking up “possum” instead of opossum. By now it was 6 p.m. They do eat meat but we didn’t know what had happened to the animal. The man’s brother had banged it against a tree and thrown it over a fence. His mother wouldn’t put in in the refrigerator.

possom

The doctor called the public health department. A man at a holiday dinner was beeped. He told us to call the pound. It was now 10 p.m. “Well, Ma’am, who is this?…No, our fridge is not for possums, just for cats and dogs.”

The doctor finally convinced him to take our possum. We asked if he could pick it up. NO, we needed to pick it up and bring it in. The doctor called another pound and got the same answer. By this time I was trying hard to suppress my laughter.

At L.A. County General Hospital I joined with other PLP workers. My special problem, though, was that I would try to read the PLP newspaper cover to cover and feel unable to finish articles or read other literature. I would quickly forget what I had read. It turned out that I was allergic to the chemicals in newsprint. The allergy caused a sort of amnesia in me. Because I couldn’t study a lot of the theory of the party, I couldn’t discuss deeper theoretical problems in order to develop party proposals. But I did have influence on issues like welfare, medicine’s role in a profit system, and workers’ problems. We sold the communist newspaper weekly on our outings, and I was often the top seller.

I married a leader of the group. We raised three beautiful children. I later became an RN and organized workers until retirement. I sometimes think back to a talk with my mom when I planned to distribute leaflets about voting in the African-American streets of San Diego; she was so worried. I reminded her that I would soon be 18, and that I would be doing this the rest of my life. I was right.

 

Another Bozo on the Bus, by R.F. Part 4 of 4

30 Jan

R.F. lives in L.A. with a deaf, but talkative, elderly female cat. He is retired, meditates daily, practices tai chi and yoga, and loves his friends (including Kitty Kroger).

Part 4 of 4

Back Home Briefly

A day or so after a beautifully sensuous reunion with my girlfriend, I got into my car and drove back to Fort Ord because I knew I still had to process out. When asked where I’d been I said, “At the beach I got so tired and disoriented, I just wandered off, and–I don’t know–pretty soon I wound up in the back of a pickup truck.” Then I embellished the story, “These guys found me there, took me to a house. A woman gave me some soup. They were so nice and friendly, I stayed there a couple of days. Eventually I told them where I was from. They said, ‘You really need to go back to Fort Ord because they can help you.’ So they brought me back here.” As it turned out the Army never found out that I went to L.A. or that I had my car parked on the base.

Smooth Moves, Not!

Sometime after I’d returned, we had another outing, this time to a bowling alley. We were eating burgers and fries. Across the table from me was a nurse from the psych ward whom I found attractive. (Had I forgotten about my girlfriend at home?) I thought I’d impress this woman by disclosing the truth about my phony CIA story. I was so naïve. She went right to the senior staff! In hindsight I realize that by that time I had grown weary of my charade and what I desperately wanted was to make a normal human connection. Risking all that I was attempting to accomplish, however, with a lame attempt to score some points with a female who had shown me nothing but indifference seems totally irresponsible and bit crazy to this day!

My Fate

I later found out that when my fate was being determined, the staff were of two minds. One faction wanted to throw me back into the court-martial process. The other apparently saw something in my personality that would legitimately make me eligible for a medical discharge. The latter faction won out and I was discharged.  It seems that I came within a gnat’s eyelash of landing in the brig and receiving an undesirable discharge which would have followed me throughout my life and wouldn’t have been convertible to the general discharge which I did receive.

Years later I found out that a general discharge could be converted to an honorable discharge by filing for the process. (Later still, I applied for and received my entire military file from the Army, through the Freedom of Information Act, though much of it had been redacted. I felt I needed to get that file in order to reclaim a bit of my life and see what, if anything, the government had on me). That I did end up getting an honorable discharge is ironic because what I went through is so contrary to what some Americans think “honorable” service people should do. Nevertheless, I’m grateful that I was able to take advantage of that form of amnesty. It probably made it easier to get some of the jobs I applied for, and, with my history of emotional instability, I needed every break I could get.

Finally Free!

Three of us who were to be released the same day were headed in the same general direction. A mumbling, apparently psychotic guy, whom a staff member told me heard voices, indicated that he wanted to return to the Santa Barbara area. The other needed to go south too, and since I had my car on base, I offered to take them with me. On the way back, I asked the guy with the voices, “Where do the voices come from?” In a monotone he said, “They come from an illusion-making machine in outer space.” We were on our way home–free from the Army–he didn’t have to make up a story for me. He really was psychotic. I don’t know where I let him off—at his sister’s or something–I was just focused on getting home. I dropped the other guy off near L.A.

Back in town, I ended up at my mom’s house again. Soon after, my long-term girlfriend and I moved in together. She had found a house in Woodland Hills where the owner was willing to sublet the two downstairs bedrooms and a bath. The woman needed help to pay her mortgage after a recent divorce. She (along with the occasional boyfriend) and her two young children slept in the upstairs bedrooms.

My girlfriend’s mother was livid because we were unmarried and living together. The woman was from the old country (Which one…? No, not that one), and she threatened  never to speak to her daughter again unless we got married. Within a couple of months we began to plan our wedding. After a mutual friend started to take over all of the planning without being asked to–even choosing what dress my bride-to-be would wear–we decided to elope to Monterey, CA, and be married by the Justice of the Peace. We agreed that a honeymoon in nearby Carmel would be divine. The wedding ring hadn’t been picked out yet, but we didn’t tell the staff that. We just had no ring. And the coat my bride was wearing (because she was cold) made her look about five months pregnant. (A shotgun wedding?) I  saw that those officiating noticed this too. It’s another irony (in a story rife with them) because she wasn’t pregnant. In fact, we never had children during our ten year marriage because she wanted to stay focused on her teaching job.

United Parcel Service and the Teamsters

Although I didn’t follow the path my father had prescribed for me I never did have to become “a soda jerk.” In 1967, the same friend who would later almost kill me with that Nembutal overdose, insisted that I do whatever I could to get a job where he worked: at United Parcel Service loading semi-trucks with packages. At that time it was a part-time student job, and since I was a student, I qualified. I managed to get hired as Christmas help and worked at the maximum of my physical ability so that they might ask me back. They did! Later I studied hard for and passed the sorter’s test. Sorters were paid more than loaders. I wound up working for UPS (they including my time with the Army in my total time with them) for over nine years. I was given a plaque for nine years of accident free service to the company when I left at the end of 1977.

This part-time job came with a full wage and benefits package, including a health plan and a retirement fund, under the Teamsters Union contract. I owe a great debt to the union movement which had been organized mostly by Jewish-Americans whose parents and grandparents had been decimated in the ghettos and shtetels of Eastern Europe by pogroms. These labor organizers were determined to create a new world here in the States where working people could make decent wages and provide themselves and their families with a better life. It worked. Their efforts helped to build the American middle class. In the 70s, my wife and I, both working part-time jobs, were able to facilitate a comfortable middle class life together, which included buying new cars and a home in La Crescenta. Nevertheless, I was still unhappy.

We moved to Seattle, WA, in 1978, and I divorced her two years later. Once again I had concluded that she would be better off if we split up. This time I believed that I would be too.

Conclusion

Near the end of his life my father told me that I was “accomplished.” That may have meant something to him, but I think that the stuff I’ve been through, much of it described above, tells a different story. Now I look back on what I’ve done as something that amounts to, to borrow the title of a Joni Mitchell album, a chalk mark in a rainstorm–nothing more. As a dedicated Zen Buddhist meditator I have no thought that it should have been otherwise. I’m just grateful for being here.

Om tara tutare ture soha

End of Part 4 of 4

Another Bozo on the Bus, by R.F. Part 3 of 4

15 Jan

R.F. lives in L.A. with a deaf, but talkative, elderly female cat. He is retired, meditates daily, practices tai chi and yoga, and loves his friends (including Kitty Kroger).

Part 3 of 4

Conscientious Objector?

In spite of all that had happened, with the police coming to the door and all, I didn’t worry that much, but I knew I couldn’t go on with my life this way and had to deal with being AWOL. I had heard that you could apply for conscientious objector status and possibly obtain a discharge, so I wrote an appeal [editor’s note: see the addendum for excerpts from the original draft]. A couple of older people read it and said they were impressed with how articulate and well thought-out it was. However, someone else told me to take it to the National Lawyers Guild before submitting it. I did, and a lawyer told me that my appeal wouldn’t go anywhere because it was based on philosophy, not religion. He said that the government investigators would look at my life and know whether I’d been religious or not. Well, I wasn’t going to pretend I was religious, because I certainly was not. I’d been an atheist since age eight. So that was that.

I wasn’t sure what to do. There were thousands of us who were AWOL. By now it was 1970, and the Viet Nam war was still raging. I had heard about Canada: Big country, no work, illegal, knowing no one. I wasn’t very accomplished at managing my life in Los Angeles, so the thought of what I’d have to do to make it in another country was just too scary. Finally, I realized that I needed to deal with the Army, so I turned myself in and expected to be court-martialed.

On a whim, before presenting myself to the Army brig at San Pedro, I decided to smuggle some LSD in with me. I had a vague notion it might come in handy somehow. In the cell the second night I took one whole dose and got very high, a feeling that I enjoyed. As it happened, it was the night of an inspection, and before long an officer in full regalia came walking through the cell block with his entourage. You might think that because I was high on acid, I imagined all of this, but it’s clear to me that it really happened. I was an experienced LSD user, so I knew what was real and what was fantasy. I was feeling somewhat exposed on the top bunk at about his eye level. It was all I could do to watch him through the corner of one slightly opened eye without revealing that I was awake, especially since I was blazing on acid. (Keeping one’s cool like this was known among street drug users as “maintaining”). If discovered, I probably would have gotten into big trouble. They don’t take too kindly to people smuggling drugs in body cavities.

And so it was on that same night, while still high, that I hatched my plan for getting out of the Army: I would tell the authorities at the appropriate time that I was very afraid and wanted their protection against the CIA, which was after me because I had discovered the Secret of Life! While coming up with that, I had idly twisted a common paperclip into a spiral shape and later realized that I could tell the interrogators that it was the working model of the Secret of Life. Of course, I knew this was silly, but it seemed crazy enough that it just might work, and besides, after having my conscientious objector appeal deemed inappropriate, I didn’t have a lot of other options. Soon I would be out-shipped to Fort Ord, along with all the other lucky bastards (we weren’t killing and dying in Vietnam), to be processed for a court-martial.

Also While At The Brig

One day I observed a guy bragging he was a kung fu expert. He seemed quite disturbed, saying to no one in particular, “They can come at me. They can try to make me go back into the Army, but they’ll never do it. I’m a black belt!” Right there in the cell he was demonstrating all kinds of moves and acting like he could fight off a whole army. Delusional. I heard later that the MPs restrained him, took him away, and put him in isolation.  It seemed to me the only difference between him and the gung-ho guys in ‘Nam I’d heard about was who each was willing to use violence against.

There was another soldier there who, like me, was trying to get out of the Army (I heard about him second-hand). Story goes that when the psychologist interviewed him in his office, the young man started whistling for his dog which, of course, wasn’t there. He’d say, “Here, Rover. Here, boy.” and whistle some more. The psychologist responded, “Oh, I see that you have a dog.” What could the fellow do now? Crazy people don’t act that way anyway. That’s how naive he was. The shrink then said, “I understand that you’ve engaged in some behaviors with a female that could get you charged with statutory rape.” This was the old ploy used to determine if the young soldier was gay, which at the time was a justifiable reason for a discharge. I don’t remember hearing what his response to that was. Of course, if he’d had his wits about him (not likely with this particular individual) he’d have done his best Johnny Ray impersonation and in a lilting, impassioned voice declared, “Oh no, I don’t think of girls in that way.” He’d have been out on the street in no time.

Back To Ft. Ord

A couple of days after processing into the Ft. Ord holding company for drug-addicted soldiers from Vietnam and other “undesirables,” I started chewing my fingernails and cuticles until they bled. I was shaking and acting out as if I were having a nervous breakdown. Some actors chew the scenery, I chewed my fingers. Anyway, a section leader in the billet noticed and said, “We’ve got to get this man some help. Send him to the Commanding Officer (CO) to see what can be done.” The MPs were called. At the CO’s office, I refused a chair and sat in the corner on the floor. I was shaking and chewing on the bleeding fingers of my right hand. In the other hand I had my little spiral paperclip. He asked me, “What’s going on with you?” With a deliberately flat affect I told him, “The CIA is after me. I was in the mess hall. They were coming to get me. They called my name. I looked, but they weren’t there. I know they’re closing in.” I did this whole schtick. Intently he asked, “But why do they want you?” With no emotion I said, “Because I have the Secret of Life.” He said, “What’s that in your hand? Let me see it.” I handed it over. He said, “OK, now I have the Secret of Life.” Again flatly I said, “No, that’s the working model. You don’t know how it works.” He blanched and after a long pause said, “OK, we’re going to send you to a safe place where you can have a good long rest.” And that’s when they took me to the psych ward in the military hospital at Ft. Ord.

From Day 1, I had to line up with the other patients to receive medication. I thought I was being clever by putting the pills under my tongue and spitting them out in the toilet, as I then observed that others were doing too. But the docs found out, and we were all made to take the drugs (mostly anti-psychotics like Thorazine and Stelazine) in liquid form and swallow them in front of the med station.

The Psychotic Reaction

After a while, I befriended a fellow patient, about my age and seemingly very intelligent. One day when he and I went to the mess hall for a meal, there was a guard at the door. As we approached him, I could tell by his demeanor that he was another of those barely mentally sufficient guys commonly found in the military because they can’t do anything else. He grabbed my buddy by the shoulder and in a belligerent tone said, “You’ve got a button undone. Button that up!” The blood drained from my friend’s face. He became unresponsive to questions and apparently unable to move. The guys in the white coats had to come to take him back to the ward on a gurney. I found out the next day that he’d had a psychotic reaction and that the docs had loaded him up with meds to try to bring him back to normal. A week later I learned that he’d suffered a another breakdown. When I finally saw him, I asked, “What happened to you in the mess hall doorway that day?” He said, “I was captured by the North Vietnamese.” He thought the asshole at the door was speaking Vietnamese to him and that the white-coat guys were also his captors! Can you imagine? So I said, “Have you taken a lot of psychedelic drugs in the past?” He said, “I’ve never taken drugs. I’ve always been afraid of them because I thought this could happen to me if I did.” Here’s a guy who was always clean and sober, and yet he had two psychotic reactions. When I first got to know him, he’d spoken glowingly about his wife. Everything about his gentle, relaxed manner and engaging conversation had suggested that here was a man firmly in control of his life, and yet…. I came away from the experience of witnessing that sudden mental collapse with the feeling that we are all so vulnerable, no one really has it all together, and any semblance of sanity we each possess is precious

Psst!

One time a patient whispered, “Wanna get high? Come with us.” The hospital was like a rabbit’s warren. It was a one-story building spread out with many long corridors set at right angles to each other. So I went with this group and smoked some pot. I didn’t think of it at the time, but since it was likely there was at least one staff member among those smokers, the incident probably added to my cred with the medical authorities that I was a paranoid doper.

AWOL Again!

One day we were put on an Army bus and taken to nearby Monterey to a ball field near the beach. Looking back on this incident, I think the docs figured that since we were so loaded on meds, we wouldn’t try anything and would be under their control. After we stumbled around for a while trying to play softball, we took a lunch break on the beach. I got my food on a paper plate and started walking, eating as I went, out to the edge of the strand. I soon realized the hospital staff didn’t know where I was, so I just kept walking. I was free—AWOL from the psych ward!

I wandered into town and saw a small pickup truck with an unlocked canopy parked by the curb. By then I was getting pretty drowsy from the meds and food, so I crawled  into the back of the truck, which seemed like a safe place to hide, and quickly dropped off to sleep. All of a sudden a couple of guys hopped into the cab and the pickup started moving through town. When the driver stopped at a light, I jumped out, ran around to his window and yelled, “I was in the back of your truck, and I need your help.” I was in my blue psych ward pajamas, by the way. I said, “I need to borrow some street clothes and get out of here.” The driver said, “I know someone with clothes you can have. We’ll take you there.” I got the change of clothes (just my size too), thanked my benefactors, and started hitchhiking back to L.A., “pumped” at the prospect that I would soon see my girlfriend, whom I’d started seeing again before I turned myself in to the Army. About half the way home I spent the night sleeping under a HWY 1 overpass, along with about twelve other itinerants. No one asked what I was doing there.

End of part 3 of 4

*Appeal for C.O. Discharge, by R. F.  September 1969

As a person believing in non-violence and the dignity of Man, I sincerely believe that I cannot, in good conscience, remain in the military because its main function is and always has been to destroy lives and property. I believe that the destruction of lives (or property) cannot be justified for any reason. I cannot,’ without being treasonous to my own conscience, contribute in any way, to the military because of its intimate relationship with destruction and the willful commission of violence. One can see that my intention is honorable. It is my duty to my country and my conscience to stand up as an objector to war and be recognized. I do not want America to become like Hitler Germany, where the people neglected. to challenge the build-up of militarism, or like the Soviet Union, where the people do not have that right at all. If there is to be peace in the world, I believe that it is up to the people who believe in non-violence to affirm their belief in it by saying no to death; by refusing to participate in the military.

Any man who is forced against his convictions to participate in an armed conflict or war or to contribute in any way to the military, is being compelled to commit treason against his own conscience. I am no better than any other man regardless of the color of his skin or the part of the world he lives in. I believe that any man may cherish his life just as much as I cherish my own. Life is the most important possession we have. Without life we are nothing. I do not believe in a hereafter. What is important is what we can do with our lives. Salvation is having led a constructive life. There is no reward for fighting and dying violently in the defense of some arbitrary ideal. Religious groups, such as the Christians and Shintos, have killed and been killed because of their belief in a hereafter. This is the basis of heroism in our society. The Christians, who fought in the Crusades and other “holy” wars, missed the point of Christ’s teachings. He practiced and taught non-violence; the turning of the other cheek. He taught that love is the only satisfactory answer to the question of human existence; that men must learn to live as brothers.

I do not claim to know of the existence of a god, as some do. However, to me all that we are conscious of is but a part of the unique omnipresence of being, which encompasses everything. This universal wholeness is the dynamic and omnipotent force to which we owe our existence. In the face of the beautiful unity of the universe, it seems strange indeed that men kill one another and commit other acts of violence. Actions which destroy life and property and bring trauma to human beings are counter to the will of the cosmos, which is to maintain order and harmony. Albert Einstein held a similar view. This is why he repeatedly appealed to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman not to develop and deploy nuclear bombs, which his theories accidentally made possible.

Doctor Rollo May states in his book Love and Will that hope is born out of love for one’s destiny. This is why most people living in ghettos, for example, have no hope. By the same token, because most of the conditioning of the Army was counter to my beliefs, my hope for the future was destroyed. In desperation, I did the only thing I felt that was left for me to do, I went AWOL. In an attempt to overcome these feelings of desperation, I went to a psychiatrist. Doctor. Fabian impressed upon me the fact that the way to counter hopelessness is for one to become receptive to one’s inner feelings and then to take positive action by doing that which he feels he must do. The encouragement and help I received from Doctor. Fabian have led me to make this appeal for a C.O. Discharge. I believe that I can contribute to the welfare of my country and my fellow man by spending the next several years in college; studying to become a doctor. It is my hope that as a doctor I can disseminate a positive attitude toward living and help others just as Doctor. Fabian helped me.

One day before I was to enter the Army as a draftee, I enlisted. At the time, I was confused about what the Army represented and uncertain about what my role could be as a contributing citizen of this country. Had I felt then as I feel now, I would have started my pre-med in college and been exempted from the draft. I signed up for medic because my convictions about war and killing had been somewhat formulated, but I became more disenchanted with the Medical Corps the longer I was exposed to it. First, I learned that corpsmen are expected to function as infantrymen, as they are assigned to infantry units. Then, I learned that the corpsman’s function is to patch up and evacuate casualties so that they can be “returned to battle as soon as possible.” To me this meant that as a corpsman I would be required to contribute to the perpetuation of violence. I became further disenchanted when some of the medical personnel at Fort Sam Houston expressed their disgust at the fact that captured Vietcong, human beings like myself, were being used as guinea pigs for practice operations and other “medical” procedures, which often resulted in their deaths. As a matter of conscience, I cannot function as a corpsman in the Army because it perpetrates such inhuman practices. (The Vietcong are notorious for their atrocities, of course, but because they are wrong does not make us right.) All war breeds such atrocities, and I am, for that reason, against all war. The military’s primary function is to engage in war; therefore, I cannot, in good conscience, engage in the activities of the military.

Another Bozo on the Bus, by R.F. Part 2 of 4

4 Jan

R.F. lives in L.A. with a deaf, but talkative, elderly female cat. He is retired, meditates daily, practices tai chi and yoga, and loves his friends (including Kitty Kroger).

Part 2 of 4

LSD

One day a friend invited me to his house near the beach. He wasn’t home and his door was unlocked (common at the time) so I let myself in. While looking for something to eat, I found a small capsule in the freezer. I didn’t know what it was but, being game for anything, swallowed it. After about 30 minutes I began to feel a high I had never experienced before. I felt one with the Universe. The drug I’d taken was LSD.

Soon I walked to the ocean and waded in. Bobbing weightless there in the water, it felt like the ocean was making love to every cell of my body, enveloping me in a state of oneness and bliss. I had no idea you could experience things like that; it was a complete surprise–very positive, very cosmic–and I’m grateful for having experienced LSD that way the first time. Not everyone does.

A happy coincidence was that I first heard Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? that same day. It changed my life. I had never heard of Hendrix but knew then that I’d never forget him. Here was the most amazing guitar playing I’d ever heard. People still talk about him as being the greatest electric guitarist in history. What a privilege it was to first hear him in that altered state of consciousness. Yes, Jimi, now I am experienced! Like they say, “The Universe provides.”

In the next couple of years I would take a lot of acid. It gently reminded me that all of the hard, judgmental things I’d been told since childhood weren’t necessarily true and that life can be much more expansive, inclusive, vibrant, joyful. Getting high was a kind of homecoming, in much the same way that meditation is for me now. With LSD I could see that there was a whole universe out there, and within me, to embrace–the unity of all existence. The Beatles’ Within You Without You, written by George Harrison, is about this. I had the revelation that there was so much more to think about and to explore beyond what I’d been told, more than the narrow, detached establishment way with everything seemingly so black and white, separate, cold and calculating–my father’s world, the one I was never quite comfortable in.

Getting Ready To Hang Up The Phone

In 1968 a movie came out starring Cliff Robertson called Charly. It cinematically told the story of a developmentally challenged man, who is administered an experimental drug which renders him a genius. The climax of this fine movie comes when we learn that the effects of the drug are temporary, and that Charly reverts back to the way he was before. This movie impressed me as a morality tale for users of drugs like LSD. I’ve written above how acid changed my brain and my outlook. That was well and good; however, the effects were always temporary. When the drug wore off, I would find myself back in the flat, restrictive, black and white world, where my fellow humans showed no interest in the insights I’d gained while high. Worse, the mellowness of my acid-infused brain didn’t transfer over either. I was always back to being my self-conscious, disillusioned, cynical, angry self again. I could see that the self-medicating wasn’t working in the long run.

When drug-taking becomes a chronic behavior, everything can become distorted; a person can get lost to herself and become dysfunctional. The harder the drugs, the deeper the trap. The Beatles’ Everybody’s Got Something To Hide, ‘Cept For Me And My Monkey, written by John Lennon (who used heroin), is about this.  A couple of years later, while high on acid, I realized that I needed to remember what I’d learned from the drugs and stop taking them. LSD taught me something that stayed with me. After using, on and off, for about five years, I stopped taking drugs. Timothy Leary said taking drugs is like being on the phone, and when you finally get the message, you have to hang up. I got the message and–click. That was around 1972, but way before that I experienced the following:

Bobby

Robert Kennedy made a campaign speech at Cal State Northridge in March 1968 that I attended. It was estimated that over 12,000 people were there. Following his speech he was enthusiastically mobbed by maybe ten thousand of them. The quad was full of people, shoulder to shoulder. His handlers completely lost control of the situation, and he was carried along by this sea of human beings over shrubs, curbs and anything else in the swarm’s path. I knew immediately that there was a security problem with that man. I waded through the crowd to shake his hand and then waded out again. I’ll never forget it. I was a big fan of him and his agenda. Three months later, during another breakdown in security, he was shot dead.

U.S. Army, 1969

I was 20 when I entered the U.S Army early in 1969. By this time I had knocked around in several different colleges, dabbled in drugs and wasn’t focused. I had no sense that college graduation would mean anything to my life. I would just re-enroll because I thought I was supposed to. Due to poor academic performance, I wound up losing my student deferment. The day before I was to be drafted I enlisted so that I could choose my MOS. [Editor’s note: a Military Occupational Specialty code (MOS code), is a nine character code used in the United States Army and United States Marines to identify a specific job.] I chose 91alpha10 (aka combat medic) to do something positive rather than contribute to the violence of the war. I thought I could patch people up and get them off the battlefield, save lives–I had all that idealism going on. Besides, I didn’t even know these people we were fighting on the other side of the world. Why should I kill them? I thought. Maybe the old white guys who run this country have something against them because they’re Asian, much like some older guys who still talk about the “dirty Japs” of WWII. I hoped I’d be assigned to duty in the States.

I completed basic at Fort Ord, California and was one of five nominees for Outstanding Trainee of the Cycle. By this time the idea of being the best I could be appealed to me, and the disciplined environment of army training seemed to make that goal much easier to accomplish. I had taken the training very seriously, much like in H.S. football: Keep your head down, don’t complain, do the work. For example, on daily jogs with the platoon, I was focused and I never rested. At the end of basic we all had to take a Physical Training (PT) test. I was one of three to receive 500, the top score, in a company of about 250 soldiers. (And one of the other two guys was a Major League Baseball player who’d been drafted.) One of the tests consisted of running a quarter mile in fatigues and combat boots. I won that race. In another we had to carry a guy on our backs for 50 yards within a certain time. Yet another was to run an obstacle course, again in combat boots and fatigues, and also timed. I got the maximum scores on all of them.

I excelled at firing the weapons they gave us to train with: the M14 carbine and the M16 assault rifle. I easily qualified “Expert” on both. I had never even touched a firearm prior to going into the Army. Someone suggested that maybe I just didn’t have any old bad habits to have to unlearn.

On the other hand, in Advanced Individual Training (AIT), where soldiers were trained to do the jobs they’d be assigned, I learned that when your patrol is going through the jungle, the Viet Cong shoot the point man (the one at the head of the line). Then they shoot the medic (easily identified by his specialized field gear) because that eliminates the potential for an immediate medical response for the rest of the squad. I would have been a main target if I were in the field. Another thing I learned was that when patching people up, the idea was to get them back to the battlefield as quickly as possible so they could kill more Viet Cong. My idea was to get them out of harm’s way and maybe back to the States with their loved ones. Instead, all my idealism about doing the humanitarian thing could be undone by the armies’ agendas, both theirs and ours.

AWOL and The Family

Having learned the truth about being a combat medic, I felt betrayed but still duty-bound. A lot of people were confused at the time about the war. I certainly didn’t have enough knowledge and experience to have a cogent perspective. When I was ordered to Vietnam after AIT, my father said, “Son, you’re not going to Vietnam. That’s a stupid, disgusting war, not like the just war I fought in (WWII). This time our government is lying to us.” Still wanting approval for being the “good son” I said, “Dad, Uncle Sam is saying I need to go. It’s my duty to my country, and I love my country.” He said, “No, you’re not going.” I had to choose between Uncle Sam and my dad, so I chose to go AWOL, a status I was to have for 11 months.

I’m glad that my father was willing to speak his mind. In retrospect, I think it was one of the most important things he did for me. And, of course, he was right about the war.

At first, while AWOL, I lived with my mom—my parents were divorced—but I couldn’t stand staying with her. She had more emotional problems than I did, so I moved out. I had been hanging out with some guys, smoking pot, and dropping acid, as I had before joining the Army. Needing a place to live, I finally talked them into letting me move into the rental house they shared on Cerro Gordo in Echo Park, and it turned out that the only available space was the crawlspace under the house. All the rooms inside, including the closets, were filled at various times with ten to fifteen people. Mattresses were strewn wherever there was space. It was the classic crash-pad. The regulars that lived there called themselves The Family. One day the police knocked on the front door and reported that they were looking for the Manson Family. There I was, AWOL, and the main dudes that ran the place were using it to deal lots of drugs. When the person at the door said that we weren’t the Manson Family, the cops just left. When I learned of this, I thought, Wow, this is amazing. In another country they’d probably make some excuse to barge in, search the place, and question each of us. We’d all be in big trouble. I was so relieved.

Strange Days

At this time, I was working for an acquaintance helping him clean carpets for the Red Lobster Restaurants in the L.A. area. A little pickup job, not steady work, but I didn’t need much. The drugs being re-sold at the house on Cerro Gordo paid the rent. The landlord didn’t seem to know, or didn’t care, what was going on, which was typical of those times. Also typical was the fact that most of the cleaning up was done by the women who lived there full-time, so the place stayed pretty clean. I recall there were four women attached to three of the four main guys (The fourth one’s girlfriend lived elsewhere). One of these guys had long, straight blond hair and had a face like Errol Flynn. An (outside) woman we knew, who would show up with her boyfriend to buy drugs, would occasionally come over alone and present herself to “Errol” for sex (His own live-in girlfriend was not home, and how the visitor knew this I’ll never know). He told us that she wouldn’t say a word, just show up, get it on, and leave. Another of the main dudes had a woman (whom he called his wife and who was clearly psychotic), their child of about two years and mute like her mother (not a good sign), and his pregnant mistress (pregnant by another man) all living with him in one of the bedrooms. Signs of the times.

It was the summer of ’69, a time of free concerts known as love-Ins. In Elysian Park I saw Janice Joplin on stage fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company. At another concert I saw The Jefferson Airplane. Their most recent album was called “Volunteers.” I told a friend that I didn’t get the title. “Well, maybe they’re going to join the Peace Corps.” I was out of it enough to think he actually meant it. Wow, they must be really dedicated to peace and justice! So when I saw them later that month I approached the stage and asked Grace Slick, “Are you guys going to join the Peace Corps?” She said, “What? You mean the band?” Clearly, she didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.

I stayed at the Cerro Gordo house two or three months, sleeping in that crawl space. We were smoking pot, hashish, and dropping acid. Visiting dealers would treat us to some cocaine, MDMA and other recreational drugs, but none of the regular residents had a hard-drug habit. I was really into the psychedelics, and like many people, was actually self-medicating. I had suffered from depression since childhood due to family issues, bio-chemistry, genetics, whatever. Interestingly, researchers are now telling us that some of these substances actually do have therapeutic value.

It was at about this time that I had a near-death experience from an unintended drug overdose. I was at an after-concert party in Hollywood when my “friend” offered me a heaping spoonful of some drug. At first I refused it. He persisted until I took the spoonful and swallowed it. It turned out to be 100% pure pharmaceutical Nembutal, a powerful barbiturate, and the amount I took was an overdose. I went out like a palooka who’s just been hit with a haymaker. Someone there must have noticed that we were both slumped over. Reportedly when they first found me I had no detectable pulse or respiration. Later, my first realizations were that I was in big trouble–completely out of it–and that I was being “walked” around–almost carried really–by a couple of guys. This was standard practice at such parties where ODs were common. The idea was to keep the body moving so that respiratory collapse or cardiac failure was less likely. After walking us around until they were satisfied that we might survive, they left us crashed-out on the sidewalk and went back inside. They did save my life, however, and my friend’s too. I never got the chance to thank them. Sign of the times.

Today pharmaceutical Nembutal is approved for assisted suicide in the state of Oregon.

End of Part 2 of 4