They say that if you remember the 60’s that you weren’t really there. This motto, of course, argues that anyone who actually was there spent the majority of the decade high on drugs. But the adage forgets a faction of people who were there and didn’t take drugs; and that would be the children.
The hippie, in his tie-dyed t-shirt and long flowing hair has become an enduring archetype that rivals any archetype before it, and although only a child, I have always been grateful that I had a front row seat to this revolutionary time. The world was in flux; and that unrest had even reached my front door.
My father told me he was too old to be a hippie. He was in his early 40’s, after all, and the majority of the hippie movement involved optimistic kids in their 20’s. But being an artist, and an always forward-thinking individual, he embraced the movement.
At least at first.
“You can trust anyone with a beard,” he once told me. And as short-sighted as that sounds now, it was true for a time. I still remember when he eventually retracted that statement, saying a beard was no longer a guarantee of benevolence.
My father railed against the Viet Nam war, and raking Lyndon Johnson over the coals was a nightly ritual which I came to enjoy. The images of war haunted the poet inside of me, and I had taken to carefully cutting out various war pictures from magazines and gluing them in scrapbooks. Later some of these images became famous; such as the Vietnamese child running screaming and naked after she'd been burned with napalm toward a bashful camera. I had cut that picture out in a circular shape, and I can still see it stuck on the manila pages where I’d put it; it was an image that I referred to often when I needed to cry.
When Wallace was running for President, my father called a family meeting, and told us that if he were elected, we’d be moving to Europe. This was a frightening thought for a nine year old; and I became engrossed with the Presidential race that year; praying every night that Wallace would lose and we could stay in Moss Beach, only footsteps from the ocean.
During those years, my father uncharacteristically took my sister and me out on many excursions; he told us that a lot was happening in the world, and he wanted us to be a part of it. I remember several Peace Rallies and Protest Marches; all of which I took very seriously. We would sing Joe McDonald’s song religiously, “And it’s one, two, three what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn; next stop is Viet Nam.” I loved the line about being the first people on the block to have your son sent home in a box. Even then, its sarcasm fed me.
During the Summer of Love he took us on a special outing to the Haight Ashbury district. He spent an inordinate amount of time explaining the “scene” as he put it, as we drove to San Francisco that day. I had no idea what to expect; but I will never forget it; and I am grateful that I had a glimpse of that historic display from the back of my father’s white Volkswagen bug. He wouldn’t let us out of the car to roam about; but he did take us up and down the street several times at a snail’s pace. My face was pressed against the glass as I stared out into a cacophony of color, sound and motion that I could hardly comprehend. Young people were everywhere; we could really only inch through the crowd slowly anyway, and we were glad. The street was awash with every color under the rainbow; and the scent of patchouli oil and marijuana drifted through my Dad’s open window. I couldn’t take the sights in fast enough; I spotted a group of young men wearing dreadlocks and playing bongos; then a circle of girls painting hearts on each other’s cheeks. It was a kaleidoscope of long hair, beads, psychedelic signs, top hats, and peace signs. I remember a group of girls all sitting in a circle, creating daisy chains. I had never seen anything like it, and I excitedly pointed, “Look, Look!” as we paused beside them. The chain they were working on was long; perhaps six feet or more; and they each wore smaller chains as wreaths upon their long straight hair. I couldn’t wait to get home and make my own daisy chain.
To be sure, that was a memorable excursion. But there was an excursion that my father took us on that I remember far better than those. It was on Christmas Eve, after a holiday party.
In those days, children hardly ever accompanied the adults to a grown-up party. They were appropriately left home with babysitters, so that the adults could enjoy themselves unfettered. They didn’t want children around trying to eat the pot brownies, for instance, which I tried to do once. I was so incensed when they told me I wasn’t allowed this treat, without any explanation whatsoever.
If my parents had their own party, we were escorted to our bedrooms after a quick hello to the guests, armed with a T.V. dinner and television to entertain us. If my parents couldn’t find a babysitter, we were brought along, but we’d be ushered immediately to the children’s room, where we’d spend the evening with the children of the host and hostesses. This particular Christmas Eve was exactly that scenario.
My parents certainly partied. They loved their martinis; they smoked a little pot; and one day I even walked in on them smoking banana peels. There was a fleeting urban myth that banana peels could get you high; but these myths were followed by many more. But regardless of any of this, my father was far from an alcoholic, and in fact I’d never seen him really drunk in my life; not until that Christmas Eve.
When it was time to go home, my sister and I were retrieved from the back bedroom. We had been sound asleep, and as my mother steered us toward the car, I noticed something was wrong with Dad. He was slightly slurring his speech and behaving erratically. And he was ranting and raving, standing proud atop his very own soap box, spilling diatribes to anyone who might listen.
Of course my father got behind the wheel. In those days, driving drunk was nothing like it is today; it was done with great regularity by plenty of revelers. But on this night, my mother offered to drive; something I had never heard her do. My father wouldn’t hear of it.
The memory is dull, but I remember a frantic yelp from my mother, and as I looked up I read the sign in front of me. It was red, and it said “Go Back. You are going the wrong way.” The car lurched into a panic, my sister and my mother pleading with my father to pull over. At the time, I didn’t really realize that we were going the wrong way down the freeway.
My father spun quickly in a hasty U-turn, driving right over a bumpy median, and soon we were facing in the appropriate direction, speeding down the highway at a fast clip. I remember my mother saying in a strained voice hardly above a whisper, “This isn’t the way home, Dear. Please let me drive.”
“I know where I’m going,” my father snapped back. “I want to show the children something before we go home.”
I remember those words, because I found them far more terrifying than driving down the highway in the wrong direction. It was Christmas Eve, and it felt very, very late. Santa Claus had left the North Pole hours ago, and he would surely arrive at our house very shortly. I hadn’t even hung my stocking on the fireplace yet, let alone put out a glass of milk and cookies, which I always did. It was a tiring night for Santa, and anything I could offer in the way of sustenance and refreshment, I was happy to oblige.
“We have to be home before Santa gets there,” I yelled out. “Please can we just go home right now?”
“No,” my father said. “You won’t want to miss this.”
His answer filled me with dread. Because sometimes he would say these words right before he did something horrible, that only he thought was funny. I thought back to earlier that spring, when I lovingly carried around a chocolate chicken that I had received in my Easter Basket. I loved that chicken, and called it “Chick Chick,” and I took it everywhere; it would even sit with me at the dinner table. One night my father insisted I put Chick Chick in the middle of the table and close my eyes. I resisted because I feared the worst; then he told me I wouldn’t want to miss what he was about to do. I did as I was told, and when I opened my eyes upon his command, Chick Chick was in the middle of the table, but missing its head. And my father was licking chocolate from his lips and laughing.
“I don’t care if I miss it,” I pleaded with my father. “If Santa comes and we’re not home, he will just leave. Mom told us that if children aren’t in bed and sleeping when he comes, he won’t leave the presents! Please!”
My father ignored me. We were hurdling down the streets, and soon I recognized the group of tall buildings on the horizon; we were headed toward San Francisco. For a moment I imagined that we might be going to see the gigantic tree in Union Square; I loved going there, with the giant ice rink on the roof and the buildings swathed in Christmas decoration.
But we didn’t head toward any glittering lights. In fact with every block we drove, the streets looked darker and more sinister. I stared out my window from the back of the Volkswagen bug, and I could see the wet streets; they were muddy with rain and littered with garbage. Everywhere I looked, I saw indigents camped; squatting under newspaper, or sleeping under garbage bags. “Why are all of those people sleeping on the street?” I asked.
“They’re homeless,” my father answered, and I noticed he was looking for a parking place. It all felt very ominous.
“Dear, please tell me you’re not parking the car here,” my Mom spoke, her voice rising ever so slightly. “It’s dangerous. For Christ sakes, dear, this has gone too far. We would like to go home. Now please.” My mother spoke with a British accent.
My father found a parking place and pulled in. “Okay, I want everyone out,” he said.
My mother cupped her hands over his, which were poised over the ignition. “This is the tenderloin district and it’s the middle of the night,” she said. “Don’t be daft. We’re not taking the children here.”
“I don’t want to get out,” I said fearfully. An old decrepit man began tapping on our window, begging for spare change.
My father jumped out of the car and handed the old man a few dollars from his wallet. He sent him away, and then opened the car doors for the rest of us. “We’re going for a walk,” he told us.
And we did.
We went on a long walk. My mother grabbed my hand, and I clung to her with everything that I had. I was fighting back tears as we traveled up one block and down another, stepping over sleeping bodies which littered the pavement. It was sprinkling lightly, and I was shivering; both from cold and apprehension. People who appeared crazy came to us and tried to begin conversations. Empty beer and liquor bottles rolled noisily into the gutters. The streets were silent, except strangled nonsensical screams from its many inhabitants.
Suddenly my father stopped us all. He said, “Merry Christmas” to a sad neglected lady standing near by, and then he turned to us. “Tomorrow is Christmas,” he told us. “And I brought you here because I want you to reflect on a few things. Christmas is a time when we come together to celebrate the brotherhood of man. A time when we reach out to our neighbor, who might not be doing as well as we are, and offer them a helping hand. Good Will Toward Men. But no one has reached out a hand to any of the people here. They don’t have a warm bed to go home to,” he said as he looked sternly at me.
The neglected lady asked my father for spare change. He gave her a few dollars. “So I took you here tonight,” he went on, “to remind you all how lucky you are. When you wake up tomorrow on Christmas morning and you tear into your packages, maybe you won’t receive everything you had hoped to receive. But I want you to be grateful for what you have, and think about these people you see here tonight, who won’t wake up to anything tomorrow morning. That’s why I took you here tonight. Do you understand?”
We nodded. And with that, he agreed to take us home.
But the torture wasn’t over yet. When we were only minutes from home, my father pulled to the side of the cliff on a road called “Devil’s Slide,” a mountain road which snakes around sheer cliffs, and connects the coast to the rest of the world. The road always terrified me; I was certain we would drive over the steep cliffs and plummet to our deaths. But worse yet, only a week before we’d read in the newspaper about a father who asked his family to step out of the car on this same stretch of road under the rouse of his wanting to take their picture. Once they did, he pushed them unceremoniously off the cliff.
“Get out of the car please!” my father demanded.
I was shaking with fear; I was certain I was about to be murdered. But I did as I was told. I was careful not to stand too closely to him. “I just wanted to show you the Moon,” he said beaming. “Isn’t that a beautiful sight? It is hanging so low in the sky and is so full. I would love to paint it.” I could hardly even listen to what he was saying. The only thing on my mind was fear, Santa Claus, and bed. In that order.
I resented my father as we finally drove home that Christmas Eve. I was shaking as I hung my stocking above the fireplace; certain that Santa had already come and gone. I couldn’t get warm; and it didn’t feel like Christmas Eve; a night I was usually filled with so much joy I could hardly stand it. It felt cold and lonely, and I could still smell the stench of the homeless; like stale beer and bacteria; like urine, decay and death. I crawled into bed shaking, and cried myself to sleep.
But something happened to my psyche as I slept.
When I awoke, the world seemed much clearer. I had gleaned some sort of understanding that I previously couldn’t grasp. And I felt the true spirit of the holiday, the way I had never experienced it before. The crisp paper crackling in my stocking filled me with a joy; it no longer mattered what was inside the package. It was the delicious smells and the laughter and the tree and the love. It was being grateful just to be alive; grateful to have a warm meal and safe haven. And I couldn’t stop thinking about that glorious full moon; so ripe above the dark crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean; just tinged with purple. That image was a holiday card in my mind; I started understanding what Peace on Earth really meant.
That morning I realized that “good” and “bad” and “right” and “wrong” are merely perceptions. Because it is often the situations we perceive as “bad” that provide us with the greatest growth and insight. And as we careen down the highway of our lives, perhaps the best we can hope for is to spot that imaginary sign that warns us to go back; that tells us we are going the wrong way. In fact, you'll never even see that sign unless you take the wrong road. And perhaps the only way to find the right way is by going in the wrong direction first.
It wasn’t Santa Claus that inspired me to scribble reams of poetry that winter. It was the frightening car ride, the homeless, and that giant tinted moon.