Spring Break 1969
After we ate, the other two freaks decided to remain for a time in San Diego. Glen and I got on the coastal highway going north and stuck out our thumbs. A couple of hippie chicks picked us up, though I can’t understand why two good looking young women would pick up such a scruffy, grimy pair as Glen and me. My long hair was a tangled, moppish mass after being whipped for twelve or fourteen hours in the back of the pickup during the ride across the desert, and my face felt pretty sunburned. Glen didn’t look much better than I felt, though he had a beard to help protect his face. The girls took us up the coast for twenty miles or so and let us out. By now it was after midnight—the witching hour when the crazies came out. And one of them came along and picked us up.
He was a couple of years older than us, driving a Volkswagen Beetle, and tripping on acid. He’d also probably taken speed, because he kept up an incessant stream of ranting and raving that was so voluminous and continuous it threatened to turn into a solid. Despite its density—or perhaps because of it—most of what he said was completely unintelligible.
At one point he took his foot off the accelerator, sort of drifted the car to the side of the road, and stopped. Suddenly and uncharacteristically silent, he stared through the side window as if mesmerized. Glen and I looked, too. Out there in the pitch blackness of the midnight Pacific Ocean, ragged lines and sheets of glowing electric blue were washing towards us. I’d never seen anything like it, and for a second, I thought that somehow I had contact high from the driver and was tripping, too.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Red tide,” the driver murmured. “Little creatures that glow. The surf stirs them up.” It was the most comprehensible thing he’d said.
We stared at the beautiful sight for about ten minutes, then the driver brought himself out of his trance.
“Wow, man,” he said as he accelerated back onto the highway. “I’m glowing, too.” And that was the last thing I understood, though he immediately resumed his aimless rapping and talked all the way to LA.
But at least he didn’t have a wreck, and he finally let us out, seemingly at random, on a mad-house morning rush-hour freeway. Houston’s freeway traffic has gotten that bad—or worse—in the thirty years since that trip, but LA was an innovator and still remains tops in bad traffic. We didn’t get much attention from the busy traffic, so we found a pay phone, and Glen called his aunt who lived alone in a distant suburb west of the city. She came and picked us up and took us home.
As soon as we arrived at her house, I went into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. My nose felt funny, and I wanted to see what was wrong. It was all white and puffy looking—not like the flesh was swollen but as if there was something wrong with the skin. Bending close to the mirror, I touched my nose, and the skin fell off into the sink.
I was too shocked to do anything but stare at the raw red thing that was my nose. It didn’t really hurt any more than a regular sunburn, but it sure looked weird. I wondered how I was going to explain to Glen and his aunt that my nose skin just fell off. I decided not to bother unless they asked. I flushed the skin and went back into the living room. They both looked at me a little strangely at first but quickly got used to my new appearance.
Glen’s aunt was a pleasant woman of about forty, recently divorced, and we stayed with her for a couple of days. She was happy to see Glen, though he seemed embarrassed to be there. We ate well and slept in beds, and she took us to Disneyland.
Nowadays, Disneyland isn’t any big deal. Today there are Disneyworlds all over the place, a lot of Six Flags, and many other large amusement parks of similar ilk, but back in the ’60s, Disneyland was what set kids’ imaginations afire. Sure, there was Coney Island if you lived in New York, or Lake Quassapaug Park if you lived in Connecticut, or Frontier City in Oklahoma City, or the amusement park at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. At the time, that last one sported a dandy roller coaster with a seven-story drop that a friend and I once rode five times in a row. And there were a handful of lesser amusement parks scattered across the nation. But if you were like most American youth who grew up in the American hinterlands in the ’50s and ’60s, you got your kicks only in the fall, when the state fair came alive, or maybe you had to settle for the smaller county fair if you couldn’t make the state shindig.
Walt Disney had not only taken the concept of the fair’s midway and enlarged on it and turned it into a year-round event, he’d constantly bombarded virtually every kid in the nation with images of his super amusement park. Disneyland was on TV, at the movies, and in magazines. For kids at the time, Disneyland was a bit like the Promised Land, only better, since you could actually go there, have a great time and maybe even be on TV, and then go home afterwards and brag about how great it was to your friends and classmates.
Naturally, I was excited. Glen’s aunt told us we’d arrived at just the right time. Until just a few weeks prior, Disneyland officials had barred hippies from enjoying the park. I guess they’d been worried that Disneyland might lose its homey image and family atmosphere with a bunch of stoned freaks running around grooving on the rides and making fun of the straight people. But maybe the officials also had begun to worry about antidiscrimination laws, which those same hippies were doing their best to get enforced with regard to women and minorities. So the park finally had begun to allow hippies and freaks into its pleasures. It didn’t last, though—I read a few months later that a massive influx of stoned hippies grooving on the rides and making fun of the straight people prompted Disneyland officials to once again close the park to longhairs. So it was indeed fortunate that I was there during that narrow window of opportunity.
I had a great time, of course. Rode the rides, saw the sights, smelled the smells. It was smaller and dingier than I’d expected, but I was old enough to appreciate the mechanical wonder of it all. I was particularly impressed by the Abe Lincoln automaton because it kept shifting its weight from foot to foot as it stood there delivering the famed Gettysburg Address.
That night, Glen told me he wanted to leave. Not LA, but his aunt’s house. Maybe it felt too much like home to him, with parents watching over his every move and stifling his restless spirit. Or perhaps it was just too safe. Besides, we hadn’t hitchhiked halfway across a continent just to spend our precious few days cooped up in a suburban home. So after breakfast the next morning, we bid his aunt adieu, hopped a city bus, and headed into downtown LA. We wandered around for a while and finally found our way to Sunset Strip. I knew the street from the television show of the same name, and supposedly there were good rock clubs along it where some of the great rock acts of the day—such as Love and the Doors—had gotten their starts. I’m not sure what I expected of this fabled drag, but I remember feeling faintly disappointed that it wasn’t constantly hopping. It looked like any other sallow, seedy neon drag, and we couldn’t find a single club that we wanted to go in, though we failed to find the Whiskey a Go Go.
We stayed in the Diggers’ crash pad, which was a real experience. The Diggers were a hippie sect based on simplicity and communal living, and their crash pad, located in a decrepit one-story building a few blocks off Sunset Strip, was a haven where homeless hippies could find a safe place to sleep. Or, at least, stay. I didn’t get much sleep in the two nights we were there. One guy snored constantly, and another, suffering from heroin withdrawal, was sick and moaning and groaning all night long and getting up and down to go to the toilet. But we were off the streets, and that was probably good. Not that we were in particular danger from the other hippies. LA was a little like West Texas—it was the establishment that was dangerous.
My first inkling of this fact came soon after we first arrived at the Diggers’ pad. It was early evening, and we decided to go out and take a stroll on the Strip, so we stashed our stuff with the Digger clerk and headed out the door. We turned onto a narrow side street that would take us the few blocks to the Strip, and a couple of blocks later, we came to an intersection where a second street met the narrow street we were on. On our side of the narrow street, the intersecting street devolved into a service alley that ran between the buildings. This intersection was protected by a traffic light, which showed red for traffic on the narrow side street and green for the intersecting street and alley.
It was eight o’clock at night, and though there was some traffic up on Sunset, a couple of blocks ahead of us, no cars were bothering with our street or the intersecting one—and certainly not the alley. So, without a pause and without a second thought, Glen and I walked on across the alley.
Not a single car had been in sight as we began to cross the alley, but by the time we’d reached the far side, some fifteen feet distant, three cars were plainly evident—mostly because they were screeching to a halt in a ring around us, roof-top lights blazing, headlights pinning us in their stark glare.
There were two in each car, and to add to the excitement, a seventh on foot patrol was drawn like a moth to the lights.
Seems Glen and I had committed the heinous crime of jay-walking across the alley. We were searched and interrogated for nearly half an hour. Maybe I should say we were harassed for half an hour. I guess things were slow out on the Strip and the cops needed something to do to work off their testosterone. At last, we were each given a ticket for jaywalking—the fine was $10—and told to watch our asses.
In retrospect, considering the reputation the LAPD has built over the years with hippies and any sort of minority, we were extremely wise not to crack wise with them or they’d probably have cracked our skulls. And the political climate certainly was ripe for that at the time, as illustrated by a second incident that highlighted the dangers of LA culture.
It happened the next day, after Glen and I again hopped a city bus, this one headed for Santa Monica. We wanted to see the beach—the Pacific, man!—even if the water was too cold for swimming. So far, the only glimpse of the Pacific we’d had was driving up the coast highway with the tripped-out freak a few nights before, when we’d seen phosphorescent blue waves rolling in from dark infinity.
We were on the bus a long time—maybe an hour—and during the ride, the passengers were predominantly poor working folks and old women. The old women all wore cotton print dresses and sported “Re-elect Mayor Yorty” pins. Sam Yorty was LA’s arch-conservative mayor. It wasn’t an election year—the elections had happened the previous November, about five months earlier. I couldn’t help but wonder why election pins were in evidence so late. Maybe the women were still wearing the pins in a show of post-election solidarity, sort of like a club corsage. Or maybe they’d just forgotten they had them on.
At any rate, when Glen and I got on the bus, there were only three empty seats, all of them on those benches that face inward at the front of the bus. Glen sat right behind the driver, and I sat next to him, with the sole remaining empty seat to my right. At the next stop, two of Mayor Yorty’s gerontological pep squad stumped up the steps and onto the bus. I got up and offered them my seat. They took it and the remaining vacant one, their lack of a thank-you accompanied by suspicious glares.
I hung onto the overhead bar for a few more blocks, then the front seat immediately next to the stairwell came open, and I sat down. The bus jolted on for a few more blocks, when out of the corner of my left eye, I saw another Mayor Yorty acolyte shuffling up the bus aisle. This woman had to have been eighty or more, and she had absolutely no business being on her feet on a moving bus. The bus was closing in on the bus stop as she came between me and the driver, and suddenly the car in front of the bus stopped. Our driver hit his brakes, and the old lady toppled forward, taking a nosedive down the stairwell.
Instinctively, I grabbed her arm and managed to keep her from going down any but the first step. She didn’t even hit her knees, though the effort nearly wrenched my shoulder out of its socket. I weighed about 125, and using only one arm to grapple and haul a 160-pound old woman wasn’t part of my physical repertoire.
I got out of my seat to help her back on her feet, when a strident, cracking voice cut the air. It came from the old woman to whom I’d given my seat earlier. She was sitting ramrod straight, pointing at me like a prophet of doom, eyes were aflame with righteous indignation.
"He tripped her!," she shrieked. "I saw it!"
Feeling helplessly railroaded into a guilty verdict though I was innocent of the charges and had in fact acted the hero, I looked up at the bus driver, who was right there and had seen everything. He looked back at me, his lips drew into a thin line, and he rolled his eyes. I understood instantly that he had to deal with the Yorty pep squad daily—hourly— and that this incident rated only a footnote in his book.
I finished assisting the old woman off the bus and got back in my seat, all beneath the baleful eyes of the woman who occupied my former seat. In fact, she continued to glare at me until she and her friend debarked a few blocks later. As they stood and moved toward the front door, I was sorely tempted to pretend that I was going to trip them, but I prudently refrained.
Santa Monica was a beach with lots of sand, cold water, and a slightly nippy wind. Even so, a fair number of people were out to enjoy the beautiful weather. We stayed for a few hours, warming in the sun, then bussed back to the Diggers’. By now, thankfully, Mayor Yorty's pep squad were all safely ensconced within their homes, and the ride was uneventful.
True to his word, our driver drove us out east of Las Vegas and over Hoover Dam before he let us out. You can't do that anymore. Not since 9/11. He returned to town, leaving us faced with having to work our way back to I-10 down the scant ribbon of U.S. 93. Three local boys in a Chevy Bellaire gave us a start. They were whoopin’ and hollerin’ and wavin’ and drinkin’ beer. They'd been drinking beer for some time, by all appearances. That was fine by Glen, who joined in with them, but I didn’t drink and was worried about the way the driver couldn’t seem to keep in his own lane. Not that it mattered, since traffic was virtually nonexistent on this two-lane desert blacktop, and in the desert valleys, you could see anything coming for at least five miles. But just because the driver could see something coming five miles away didn’t mean he wouldn’t hit it when he got to it, and he was driving at an erratic 75 mph—fast enough to cream us all even if he chose a telephone pole to pile into instead of an on-coming vehicle.
Then a Bonneville convertible roared passed us, and if I thought the drunken whooping and hollering and waving had been loud before, it reached pure crescendo when our local boys spotted the two women in the front seat. They were young, blonde, and beautiful in the way of Vegas showgirls, and they were coming from that direction. And they were topless, catching some desert rays to encourage that all-tan look. The driver was clutching a T-shirt across her breasts long enough to pass us, but the passenger simply bent forward until we were behind them.
Our drunken driver developed a foot that was heavy in direct inverse proportion to the lightness of his head, and in seconds, we were careening after the topless women at 85 mph. Then 90 mph, then 100. Unfortunately for our drunken chums, a Bonneville has far greater power than a Bellaire, and though our driver kept his foot to the floor, the girls were soon the requisite five miles ahead and lost to sight. Our driver had been too drunk to hit what he’d aimed at.
The next day, we left LA. Our first ride was with a guy of about thirty. He wasn’t going out I-10, but he was headed vaguely east—to Las Vegas—so we got in. He played a lot of ’50s rock-n-roll on an 8-track tape player—his only concession to more up-to-date music was Velvet Underground’s first album, and when he learned that I liked the Velvet Underground, he played the song “Heroin” for us several times. I couldn’t appreciate the song too much, though, since I hadn’t had enough sleep because of the guy on heroin withdrawal at the Diggers’.
Our driver actually drove us completely through Las Vegas, explaining that he was going to take us east of the city before he let us out. Seemed that Las Vegas cops didn’t like hippie hitchhikers any more than the LA cops or West Texas cowboys did. He took us right past all the big hotels and casinos, so I got a good look at Las Vegas. I know several people who love Vegas and go there whenever they can. I think I’d get bored—I don’t gamble, drink, or whore, and those strike me as Las Vegas’s primary attractions. Oh, yeah, I guess there’s Siegfried and Roy and Cirque du Soleil and Wayne Newton and other shows. But I rode through before Vegas had become “family oriented.” Back then, it was “crime family oriented." This was about the time in which the middle scenes of Martin Scorsese’s Casino are set.
It made a nice bookend to the chase through West Texas, though. Each had involved inferior vehicles chasing Pontiacs, but in West Texas, we'd been the pursued, and now we were among the pursuers. And both chases had proved fruitless, thwarted by the pure V-8 horsepower inherent in big, expensive American cars.
The drunk kids let us out soon after, and we caught a ride with a thankfully sane and sober businessman heading into Phoenix. I remembered traveling through Phoenix on our way out to California and seeing all the artificial greenery, but this time, it was too dark to see anything past the glare of the interstate lights. Our driver let us out on the eastern outskirts of the city at about 10 pm. At least we were back on I-10, and it was a straight shot back to Houston.
We stood on an entrance ramp until 1 am, when a somewhat dilapidated dark blue Ford sedan stopped about fifty feet beyond us. The back door opened invitingly, and Glen and I ran up and jumped in. The car took off and was on the highway before we could look at each other and think that maybe we had made a mistake in getting into this car. We didn’t know it, but our straight shot back to Houston was about to take an instructive and unsettling detour.
Our driver, still accelerating onto the highway, turned and growled, “Are you flower children?”
It sounded like a threat, and the driver looked threatening. He was a rough-looking man in his late forties or early fifties, wearing a grimy plaid shirt and a beat-up black leather jacket. Coarsely cut dark hair stuck out from beneath the beret he wore, and gold loop earrings festooned his earlobes. He had tattoos on his unshaven cheeks.
The guy riding shotgun couldn’t have been a greater contrast, though no less strange. He was nearly gaunt and wearing fancy and immaculate dude cowboy clothes. Black dude cowboy clothes. All black. His hat was black, his shirt was black, his pants were black, his boots were black, his hair was black, and his upper lip sported a thin little black mustache. Perched on his long, sharp nose were a pair of black wrap-around sunglasses.
Remember, it’s the middle of the night in the middle of the desert.
“Uh, no,” Glen stammered. “We’re students.”
“Ah,” the man with the tattooed cheeks nodded sagely. “Scholars. What school you go to?”
Glen told him, and the guy introduced himself and his friend. He was Gypsy and the black-garbed cowboy was the Kid.
The Kid nodded a greeting.
“And this is Maisy,” Gypsy said, gesturing to the seat between him and the Kid.
We peered over, and lying there was a smallish, three-legged female mutt nursing a fresh litter of pups.
Gypsy and the Kid were truck drivers. They’d just dropped off a truck in Phoenix and were on their way home. These pleasantries over, Gypsy abruptly swerved onto the next exit ramp.
“We’ll get out here,” Glen and I said in unison as the car left I-10, but Gypsy didn’t bother slowing to barely sane ramp speed, and in five seconds, we were on a two-lane blacktop, the lights of Phoenix fading into the darkness behind us.
“Naw,” Gypsy said. “Trust us. We’re truckers and this is a trucker route. You’ll get lots of rides up this way.”
Yeah, right. In the hitchhiking I’d done up until then and all that I did after, I’ve only been picked up once by an eighteen-wheeler. But there wasn’t much we could do except jump out, and by now the car was going sixty-five. We’d just have to sit out the ride with Gypsy, the Kid, and three-legged Maisy.
Gypsy liked to talk, and he kept up a steady stream of it, mostly about trucking life, until about the time we drove through Superior. That was when he began telling us about his and the Kid’s involvement in the local KKK. He told us, among other things, how they and a bunch of others “took this nigger out into the desert and strung him up.” What fun it was.
There was no way to know if he was telling the truth or just trying to freak us out. He certainly did the latter. But just as easily as he’d started the KKK diatribe, he segued into something else, though I couldn’t pay much attention. All I could think of was their purported victim’s fear and anguish because I was feeling the fear myself and expecting the anguish. After all, people who would commit heinous crimes against others because of racial differences wouldn’t hesitate to do similar things to “commie hippie scum”—especially if we were “scholars,” which also meant “intellectual commie bastards,” to a redneck America that then was preaching “Love it, or leave it.”
A few miles before we reached Globe, Gypsy abruptly and without a word twisted the wheel, and the car spun off the road and lurched into the pitch-black desert. In an instant, fear filled me completely. I looked at Glen, who was staring back at me with bottomless pits of eyes that said he was feeling like I was—that we were about to experience the final moments of our lives in the middle of the desert at the hands of two insane truck drivers who would later joke with their buddies about the two hippies they strung up. What fun it was.
The car jolted on for another couple of minutes, and I was beginning to grope for the door handle, thinking about jumping out and trying to escape into the darkness, when suddenly Gypsy hit the brakes and the car ground to a stop in a clatter of gravel. This is it, I thought as dust billowed around the car and across the headlight beams. Where’s the rope?
Then the dust began to drift and settle, revealing a trailer home, half-obscured by weeds and cactus, lying just in front of the car. The Kid gave Maisy a pet, nodded good-bye to us, got out, and sauntered to the trailer.
The fear that had ballooned inside me sucked away, leaving a stunned void. We were just dropping the Kid off at his home.
Then into the void rushed a blessed breeze of relief that buoyed my spirit. It wasn’t my time to die quite yet. And fluttering on that breeze was an amusing note: During the hour and a half we’d been in the car, the Kid hadn’t said one single word.
Gypsy stayed just long enough to light the Kid’s way to the door, then he turned around and, in a few moments, was steering the car back onto the highway.
“Now, where was I?” he said. “Oh, yeah. This truck stop up here. I’m going to drop you off there. I know the waitress, and I’ll tell her to take care of you. You’ll do fine. A truck’ll pick you up in no time.”