Note: This is first draft material excerpted from my memoir in progress, Crazy Sorrow - the Secret History of My Foolish Heart. It's rough, it's not political and you may not want to bother reading it - but thank you if you do. I post it here for your potential amusement and possible commentary. Any and all feedback is appreciated.
I was dreaming of the past, and my heart was beating fast.
Quite a number of important things changed for me in 1965, my fourteenth year on this plane of existence. I was newly transplanted from Paris, France to Huntsville, Alabama which depressed the hell out of me. My military father was now retired and in the insurance business. I left the church I was raised in. I discovered rebellion, hippies and Jack Kerouac all around the same time. My awareness of and frustration with the war in Vietnam was in full bloom. And I was coming to realize that far too many of my teachers were...shall we say, unreliable.
I much preferred Kerouac. I stumbled upon a copy of his Dharma Bums in the paperback rack at the 7-11 (of all places) near my home. I’d never heard of Kerouac or the Beats but had a passing if poorly formed acquaintance with Buddhism having lived for two of my fourteen years in Buddhist countries. Maybe that’s why I picked it up and took it home.
My life can, in several important respects, be divided between pre and post Dharma Bums periods. The book had that much affect on me. Maybe Jack would be pleased.
I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.Kerouac's Dharma Bums is a captivating account of Jack's beatnik adventures, his friendship with the beat poet, Gary Snyder (Japhy in the novel), and his process of spiritual awakening. From Zen mountain climbing and the mystical practice of the tantalizingly torrid yab-yum, to monastic isolation in the great northwestern forest as a fire-spotter for the National Forest Service, a journey of discovery like no other unfolded for this grateful fourteen-year-old reader. Its flaws escaped my notice and its wonders fired my imagination. I was completely seduced and delighted. I wanted a journey like that for my own.
"Now you understand the Oriental passion for tea," said Japhy. "Remember that book I told you about; the first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy."Powerful forces were gathering and converging in my particular slice of the space/time continuum: Vietnam, adolescence, sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, hippies, the draft, disillusionment, rebellion, marches, riots, assassinations, demonstrations, turning on, tuning in, dropping out - it was a heady, confusing, sometimes toxic stew. My entire generation was aboil in it, and the whole shebang was boiling over.
Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums
Because something is happening hereOn top of all that was going on socially, politically and culturally, there was the war of wills being waged between my father and me. His world view was far simpler and less confused than my own. In his world, fathers commanded and sons obeyed. In mine, things were not so simple.
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones ?
Bob Dylan, Ballad Of A Thin Man
I had long imagined becoming a man like my father. There were so many things I admired about him. But increasingly, there were important things on which we could not see eye-to-eye. He was, of course, pro-military and thus a supporter of the war in Vietnam. I was coming to question all authority, civilian or military, and sided with the bulk of my generation on the Vietnam question. To him it was all about duty, service, God, country and loyalty. To me it was about using ones head for something other than a place to put your helmet...or anyone else's.
In my father's view, when things got too complicated or unclear, one fell back on faith and dogma. For me, in the midst of a burgeoning spiritual crisis, an awakening intellect and a precocious interest in LSD, things would never again be so simple.
My adolescent self was the very definition of a person torn. I loved, respected and even idolized my father, but loyalty and obedience came harder and harder. Who knows how things might have gone in more placid times? As it was, the tensions mounted with every tick of the clock.
I had discovered a love for reading, and found myself gravitating toward writers who were, on some level or other, antiwar. This was not necessarily a conscious choice, more a matter of following my own natural inclinations and of reading those I most enjoyed and admired.
I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.One writer whom I loved unabashedly was the great Mark Twain. He may have predated the antiwar label, I'm not sure, but he clearly viewed the subject as the greatest of human follies and pure unadulterated madness. He lampooned the war mentality with as much gusto as brilliance.
Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it –I discovered this wicked piece of wit along with Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Lederer's The Ugly American, and Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun all in the space of two or three years during which we all watched night-after-night on the six o'clock evening news as the bodies piled up, the battles raged and the blood ran rivers in Vietnam.
For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!
We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.
From Mark Twain's War Prayer
Just down the block from our house was a large grassy field where the neighborhood boys would gather for impromptu touch-football games. Among the kids who regularly took part were twin brothers who drove a beautifully restored old Studebaker that they had reclaimed themselves. They were a couple of years older than me. I remember looking up to them. They were a couple of straight arrows, both Eagle Scouts if memory serves. They were sort of big brother figures to me, and probably others in the neighborhood. They couldn't have been nicer guys.
I don't recall when I lost track or many of the details of what became of these brothers, but I remember vividly the last time I saw the one of them. He couldn't have been more than eighteen, making me maybe sixteen at the time. He was fresh back from Vietnam where he'd been only briefly, but long enough to have left a large chunk of his right leg there. I visited with him in his parents' home not more than half a mile from my own. He lurched around awkwardly on new crutches. He still had his right leg but it was withered and a full foot shorter than the left. He told me the story of what had happened to him on his very first patrol as a newly minted soldier in Vietnam.
As the FNG (Fuckin' New Guy), he'd been assigned to walk point, a position volunteered for by few. The 'point' is the lead guy in a patrol who walks ahead of everyone else. When there is trouble, he is usually the first to find it.
On this day, his very first patrol, they were walking single file through high elephant grass that formed a thick wall on either side of the path. As they rounded a corner he saw a man with an AK47 who got off the first shot. The round hit him in the thigh knocking him with great force and violence off the path and into the grass. It didn't hurt at first he said. It felt like being hit with a baseball bat. He felt the impact but not the pain. He found himself lying on his back staring in shock and disbelief up through the arching elephant grass at a merciless sky. He described how he slowly ran his hand down his leg to see how badly he was injured, and when his hand got to the wound...it fell in.
He was in good cheer as he told this tale but I was horrified and I will never forget it. There is something in that brief tale about Eagle Scouts, FNGs and being shot by people you don't know for invading their country for reasons no one can fathom that should be telling the rest of us all we need to know about war.
Of course my father saw everything differently. In fairness to him, there was more than just disagreement about the war going on. It was all the other stuff too. The damned Beatles, long hair, civil rights, bell bottoms, sexual revolution, kids doubting their government and defying their parents, draft dodgers, rock and roll. The whole world was going to pot and his own son, to his horrified amazement, was turning into a hippie right before his eyes. He was bewildered. The same dynamics were at play and the same arguments were taking place in households across the land. The kids were in open rebellion. Everyone and everything had gone plum crazy and no one seemed to know what to do.
My father was a very hard-headed man. Opposing him was nothing to be taken lightly, but, in what might be a dangerous trait in a fourteen-year-old, I always ended up doing what I thought was best. When the impasse became too great, I ran away from home and hitchhiked to Cocoa Beach, Florida, a journey of some seven-hundred miles or so.
Where are you goin' toI hit the road with my thumb out and was, for the first time in my life, a free 'man,' a dharma bum, a psychedelic adolescent Zen monk on a spiritual journey of exploration and discovery, an epic expedition of awakening and adventure, a vision quest second to none. I had much to learn about the world, and I was raring to learn it. The open road, the whole earth, the indivisible universe. Here at last was something worth writing about - unlike my former routine of waking up early, scarfing down breakfast and scrubbing up to go spend the day being shoved around by boring, uptight, unimaginative, authoritarian, conformist cogs-in-the-wheel who would never in a million years understand my point of view. Here was utter freedom and unfettered possibility, things I interpreted and anticipated with great optimism and hope. Ah, youth.
What are you gonna do
Do you think that it will be easy
Do you think that it will be pleasin', hey, hey
Steve Miller, Living in the USA
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"Hitchhiking, while nothing I would recommend these days, was for me in those days a sure-fire vehicle for learning about and exploring the realm of free-range humans. I never knew who was going to pick me up. It was nearly always surprising in one way or another, but my experiences were mostly good. There's nothing like riding a couple of hundred miles with some crazy-assed stranger, so like and so unlike yourself, who you just met through a series of random events and snap decisions. I suppose it's fair to say that people who pick up hitchhikers form a class all their own, but it is a diverse one. Every person who pulled over to pick me up was, each in their own way, a conundrum, a Zen puzzle, a complicated, cryptic koan in a car. Each ride came with a new set of stories, which was like an infusion of life's-blood for a budding would-be writer. It was like popping from one human drama to the next. It was entertaining, enthralling, and sometimes a little scary. But like I say, I was lucky. I came to count on it.
I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.When I finally got to Cocoa Beach I found it to be a much hipper scene, to borrow language from Kerouac. It made Huntsville look like a podunk town by comparison, which was not so very hard to do. It seemed light-years more advanced, which again, was not a terribly impressive feat. It was full of surfers, pot smokers and the earliest hippies east of California. It may not have been San Francisco, but it was close enough for my purposes.
Im gettin bugged driving up and down the same old stripI had three friends in Huntsville whose fathers all worked together for Boeing Aerospace. They had all transferred to Huntsville from Seattle some years before, and eventually from Huntsville to Cocoa Beach, just down the road from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. It was to go and see these guys that I chose Cocoa Beach as my destination.
I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip
The Beach Boys, I Get Around
My closest friend out of these three was a kid named Gary. His family had a place at Satellite Apartments, right on the beach. I looked up the address in the phone book and went and knocked on the door. Gary's mom was shocked to see me. She told me Gary was out on the beach with his friends. I found them surfing. All three of my pals were there: Gary, Steve and Kim. We had a fine reunion.
Along each side of the Satellite Apartments was a strip of parking spaces covered by an aluminum awning to protect the cars from the fierce Florida sun. There was an old broke down car permanently parked in one of these spaces that Gary claimed as his own. It may have been his older bother, Don's, I don't really remember, but somehow Gary had squatter's rights. He'd spray painted the windows from the inside so no one could see in and scratched tiny peep holes for seeing out. It was his clubhouse and lounge, and my new crash pad. It was perfect, a bit too warm during the Florida day, but just fine after sundown with the windows cracked to catch the breeze.
Gary's closest friend at the Satellite Apartments was a kid named Kip whose older brother had scored some blonde Lebanese hashish. It had the sweetest, most intriguing bouquet I'd ever smelled: exotic spices, temple incense, pine sap and jungle orchids. To this day, that pungent heavenly aroma floods my brain with endorphins and eases me into a calmer, more contented state of mind, even before smoking any of it. Gary, Kip and I convened in the dead car crash-pad and smoked a small amount in a miniature hash pipe. I'd smoked pot before but it was such a rare and precious commodity in those early days in my part of the country that every joint I'd ever seen was what would be called a pinner today, skinny as a needle with as little actual grass in it as could be parceled out by a penurious proprietor – more rolling paper than cannabis. The 'high' was mostly psychological, or if you prefer, imaginary. This first experience with high-grade hash was quite different. Kip had a gram of it, and while that was only about the size of a piece of bubblegum, the quality was excellent and it was way more than enough to stone us all to the bone. A tiny ball of it smaller than a BB, when put to the fire, produced an intoxicating lung-full of the smoke of the gods.
We smoked through a few of those little BBs, holding each toke in our lungs for as long as we could stand it. When we emerged from our lair, everything was subtly but undeniably different. My eyelids were heavy, my body seemed to move through space on its own volition and the effects of gravity seemed increased or somehow distorted. I had become aware of the atmosphere through which I moved, the air against my skin, the rustle and textural qualities of my clothes, as endorphins, terpenes and cannabinoids coursed through my veins and through my brain, chemically thrilling and delighting me in a thousand subtle ways. Colorful psychedelic patterns played at the periphery of my vision. Colors and lights were brighter, sounds sharper and the simple joy of living magnified. There was nothing psychological or imaginary about this. I was stoned to the gills for the first time in my earthly existence. Life had taken on a seductive dream-like quality. We looked at each other with red swollen eyes, involuntarily grinning so hard it hurt.
“Let's go to Arby's,” said Gary, and off we went into the night. The short stroll seemed an expedition, everything was either confusing, intriguing or hilarious and it was all we could do to remember our mission, but we made it. We stumbled and fumbled our way through the line, the ordering, paying and receiving processes, acquiring napkins, straws and packets of sauce while marveling over how difficult it had become to operate on a simple level and how complicated were the voluminous details of ordinary every day life. So while life was more interesting like this, and more fun, it was also more challenging. It takes courage to be a stoner.
By the way, that was my first Arby's sandwich ever, and man was it delicious! The munchies can transform a mystery meat sandwich into pure goodness.
So I bummed around Cocoa Beach for a while until I began to tire of the homeless life, irregular showers, meals, etcetera, and headed home to face the music and see if I could put the pieces of my former life back together. It worked for a while. My parents took me back in, I cut my hair, one of their conditions, and started back to school. I held it together for a time but all of the elements that led to the previous impasse with my father were still there exerting their influence. My return to the fold would not last.
Keep a good heart, the worst is yet to come.
Walt Whitman Sr.