WARNING: The following contains graphic sex and and drug use, as well as romantic love (which may not be suitable for some Buddhists).
How shall I tell it,
Detached from appearances, unmoved, immediate and true
All things are like a dream, a phantom, a shadow,
A bubble in a stream,
Or a flash of lightening
Although I take a guilty, almost voyeuristic pleasure in reading memoirs, I’m somewhat ambivalent in regard to the writing of one. I most admire the great romantic writers of the past who could create an array of fictional characters, bringing them to life and getting inside their heads — even those of the opposite sex. By comparison a memoir seems vain and self-involved.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to write of certain events and my story would lose its impact if cloaked in the guise of fiction, even if my modest talents were up to such an undertaking,
Instead, I will write as if I were sitting comfortably, reminiscing with an old friend, perhaps over a few bottles of ale and a pipe load of good bud. I have, in fact, been known to hold forth on such occasions, weaving together philosophical observations and short tales from my life, as I’m reminded of some incident, individual, or idea which has stuck with me.
It is my hope that you will find something entertaining, perhaps even instructive, in these ramblings.
FROM THIS VALLEY
This is a story of two ordinary people, whose lives flowed together for almost seventy years. Jane and Kermit both grew up on small farms in southeast North Dakota where the Cheyenne River meanders across the prairie and joins the Red River as it flows north to Canada.
Jane’s parents were immigrants who came with the wave of Norwegians who settled on the vast farmlands of North Dakota and Minnesota at the turn of the century. As the most recent arrivals, Norwegians were looked down on and Kermit would never tire of teasing Jane with “Norwegian jokes.”
Jane’s father, Julius or “J.O.,” was the offspring of the future king of Sweden and a Norwegian servant girl on an estate that the young prince visited in Norway. This was the cause of some notoriety in that area of Norway and J.O. immigrated to America at the first opportunity, apparently to escape the embarrassment this caused him.
Legend has it he could play by ear, any musical instrument he set his hand to. He was a plump, jovial fellow, who plied the squeeze-box accordion with Polka bands and was fond of drinking the home-brewed beer for which he was also noted.
However, J.O. was ill-suited to farming and “lost the farm” more than once. Jane never got over the dirt-poor poverty of her childhood and was pinching pennies and refusing to spend money on herself, long after they were comfortable financially.
Kermit’s father, William, was a restless individual who liked to tinker and was always working on some invention or other, which he hoped would make his fortune, but never quite caught on. In one memorable incident he was driving his model T down the only hill for miles around, that dropped down from a prairie plateau to the Cheyenne River. He was so lost in thoughts of a design he’d been working on for a collapsible egg crate, which could be folded and reused, that he failed to notice a train bearing down on him as he crossed the tracks at the bottom of the hill.
Fortunately the train was not moving very fast and just pushed the model T several hundred feet up the tracks. Kermit said he never mentioned the collapsible egg crate again.
William built a small two story house on a homestead in what was known as the “sand-hills” — marginal land that has since gone back to native prairie grasses. It’s said that you could take a length of pipe and pound it several feet into the ground just about anywhere in the sand hills and heavily flavored artesian water would flow out of it.
On a recent visit to the old homestead, water was still cascading vigorously out of a tall pipe beside a rundown corral. All that was left of the house, which had eventually burned to the ground, was a low concrete foundation.
Long after they had moved on, William would sometimes drive out there for a drink of that water. When he died suddenly of a massive heart attack in his late eighties his body was found nearby,
Kermit was the youngest of ten children, eight boys and two girls, who slept two or three to a bed in tiny upstairs bedrooms. The family lived off the land for the most part, with pigs, chickens and other livestock, along with vegetables and grains. But it was a hard life. Kermit said that as soon he could walk he was given chores to do on the farm.
It got even harder with the great depression, when drought and dust storms blew away much of the thin layer of topsoil.
The brothers made extra money holding dances in a large barn they’d built. Lean times brought people together and dances with live music were everywhere. As a young boy, Kermit sold home-cured ham sandwiches for a nickle at their shindigs, along with “malt” that was mixed with “white lightening” bootleg liquor outside by the watering trough, where muddy fist fights occasionally erupted.
Kermit was slender and muscular, with dark curly hair that had receded back to his ears by his early twenties. Determined to get out of the sand hills, he worked hard in school, even when he had to walk several miles through snow to get there. He was finally able to go off to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, where he financed his undergraduate education working with the Sioux on a reservation nearby — an experience that solidified his decision to major in Social Welfare.
Jane also excelled in school and longed to pursue a higher education, but she was practical, as well as competent and efficient, so she just took courses at a business college before getting a job as a secretary in Fargo. She was very shy, and quite skinny as a young woman. Like her sister and two brothers, she had hair so blond it was almost white.
Kermit and Jane met at a dance hall in Fargo, during one of those dances that were popular back then, where the men and women move in opposite directions until the music stops and whoever is in front of you becomes your partner. The music stopped and there they were, facing one another for the first time.
Over five decades later they celebrated their golden 50th wedding anniversary at one of the annual family reunions in North Dakota. In front of a large crowd of relations, Kermit stepped up to the microphone and in a voice hoarse with emotion, told how he had been getting ready to be shipped to Europe with the Army when he heard Rosemary Clooney on the radio singing, “I don’t want to walk without you.” He decided then and there that he didn’t want to walk without Jane. He proposed and they were married in an Army chapel. He said he never looked back or regretted walking all that way with her and he gazed across at Jane with such love that just about everyone at the reunion, even his old bachelor brother Orin, was moved to tears.
In their wedding photos they are both glowing with youth and vitality — Kermit, handsome in his uniform, and Jane, slender and beautiful. Kermit had to report for duty the next day and he said they thought, “One night without birth control shouldn’t matter.”
Nine months later I was born.
My mother and I spent the war years with her parents in North Dakota while my father served in France, where he wrote us what was to become a suitcase full of letters. He was a clerk in a Headquarters Company and one of his jobs was tallying the horrific causalities during the Battle of the Bulge — an experience that contributed to his later anti-war sentiments.
As the first born, I was lavished with love and affection. Not only my grandparents, but numerous other relatives who lived nearby, all doted on me.
I was especially fond of my Norwegian grandmother. She was actually a Fin, from an area of Norway where many immigrants from Finland had settled. In her later years, she reminded me of an Oglala Sioux, with a beautiful long nose, deeply lined face, slightly Asiatic features, and a long-suffering, stoic, but noble bearing. I remember, as a youngster, lying in her bed, which I shared when we visited, and watching her in a white nightgown, slowly unfold the bun from her head and carefully comb out her dark hair that reached almost to her knees.
All I can remember of my other grandmother is her smell, perfume mingled with the odor of coffee, as she held me uneasily on her wide, soft lap.
My mother said I was an unusually happy child who rarely cried, even as an infant. Once, when the two of us were traveling on a train full of American troops, the soldiers lifted me up and passed me over their heads from one end of the train to the other, while I squealed with delight.
After my father returned from the war, he went back to school, eventually graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors and a doctoral degree in Social Welfare. He was soon recruited to teach at the University of California in Berkeley.
As we drove west across the country to California in our brand new, dark green ’47 Plymouth sedan, whose round shape reminded me of a giant turtle, he sang old standards like the “Tennessee Waltz” in a pleasant baritone, while my new little brother, Paul, slept on my mother’s lap and I lay in the sun on the shelf behind the back seat watching the clouds go past.
My parents bought a small house in the rolling, oak tree studded hills overlooking Walnut Creek, which was still just a little village. Facing us across the town below was the majestic presence of Mount Diablo, which was known as “Spirit Mountain” by the Native Americans who had once inhabited the area.
It was wonderful place to grow up, with a lovely tree-lined creek that wound through the town, providing refuge for wood ducks, red-legged frogs and other wildlife. However, in what was my first bitter taste of environmental degradation, by the time I was in high school the Army Corps of Engineers had turned the creek into a lifeless concrete ditch, after it had the temerity to flood one year and inundate the downtown with a few inches of water.
My father commuted to U.C Berkeley, while my mom stayed home, keeping the house spotless and catering to his culinary tastes, with delicious home-baked desserts at almost every meal. She also had to contend with us boys, of which there were now three, since my youngest brother, Eric, had recently arrived. It was not easy for her. I was a mischievous boy and endlessly inventive when it came to getting into trouble.
After I’d gone off to college, they moved to a lovely old house in North Berkeley where Kermit could walk to campus. Their later years, after he retired, were some of their happiest. They took trips around the country and stayed in B&Bs. Both of them were prodigious readers and they spent a great deal of time reading together on the couch. They got along better than ever, laughing and joking like a couple of newlyweds.
Although my mom had once been high-strung, frequently threatening to have a nervous breakdown if I didn’t change my ways when I was a teenager, in her later years she was as mellow as can be, smiling and laughing at Kermit as if he were a genuine cut-up. “He’s is such a dare-devil,” she said, referring, I suspect, to his habit of occasionally climbing up on the steep roof of their two-story Berkeley home to inspect the ceramic roof tiles, and perhaps admire the view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.
Not long after their 60th wedding anniversary, Jane had a series of small strokes. At first she didn’t seem to suffer any permanent damage, but very gradually, over the next few years, her mind and then her body began to fail. Eventually she could no longer be trusted to cook meals, a situation that struck at the very basis of her identity as a wife and mother.
My dad doted on her all the more, looking after her with a “Janie would you like some of this,” and “Janie can I help you with that.” He confided to me that if she died before him he didn’t want to go on living himself.
Finally she came to require full time care. It was suggested that she be put into a nursing home so that Kermit could enjoy his final years. He refused repeatedly, saying, “She would be lonely there.”
Fortunately she had inherited some money from one of her brothers. With that they were able to hire someone to come in daily and help with her basic needs. Although he worked full time, my brother Eric, who lived downstairs, was devoted to taking care of both of them, patiently spoon-feeding his mother every evening after work, before eating his own meal.
As she gradually declined, and could barely speak or sit up, Jane was put on Hospice Care, for those who have only six months or less to live. But somehow she hung on. In one of her occasional moments of clarity she said, with tears in her eyes, “I didn’t know this would be so hard.”
When she hadn’t died after six months Hospice gave her a two month extension. But still she didn’t die, so she was taken off Hospice.
Half seriously, we started to say, “Maybe she’s waiting for Kermit.”
After another year had passed, Kermit suffered a minor heart attack in the middle of the night. He didn’t wake up Eric, and resisted going to the hospital the next day.
I drove down to see him in the hospital. He had refused to let the doctors do anything other than the most basic tests. I encouraged him to do more, pointing out that he was still sharp mentally and not in any pain, but he said, “It’s been a good run, but now I’m ready to go.”
He had often said that too much health care money was devoted to keeping old people alive a few more weeks, while many poor families went without adequate medical care for their kids. He had devoted his life to improving the lot of disadvantaged children, both as a professor testifying before congressional committees and in his free time as a board member on nonprofit charities dedicated to child welfare.
Driving him home afterwards I asked him if he wasn’t afraid of death. “No,” he said, “The other night as I lay in bed, knowing I was having a heart attack, I shook hands with death. I made friends with it.”
When she was told that he was in the hospital, Jane blurted out, “I’m just wild about that guy.”
After he returned home Kermit tried to continue the routine they had established. Every afternoon, when Jane wasn’t napping, he would lean her up against him on the couch with his arm around her. Sometimes, when she would whimper, he would sooth her by singing, in a voice cracking with age, the words from the old song “Red River Valley.”
“Come and sit by my side if you love me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu,
But remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true.”
Jane was put on Hospice once again. She had lost almost half her body-weight, but before she stopped eating entirely she had a burst of clarity. For a few days she could respond clearly to questions and seemed to know what was going on. Sitting on the couch with her, Kermit was saying how he would probably outlive her, when she suddenly said in a clear voice, “Don’t count on it buster.”
Kermit had another small heart attack the night before his 94th birthday, and then another a few days later. After the last one he adamantly refused any more trips to the hospital. Weakened and barely able to walk, he was put on Hospice as well.
I came down from my home on the North Coast to spend time with them and take some of the burden off my brother Eric. I recalled how my mom had said years earlier, “I suppose you’ll be there when we die” — like she wasn’t thrilled by the prospect.
When I arrived she had stopped eating and drinking altogether and although she continued to breathe, she appeared to have left her body completely.
The eighteenth of June, Eric’s birthday, was unusually hectic. Besides the caregiver, I was there while Eric was at work. The phone seemed to ring every fifteen minutes, and Hospice workers were in and out — for interviews, to bathe Jane, and to help in any way they could. They said this was the first time they’d had two people together on Hospice.
We had just gotten my dad up and into his favorite chair in the living room so his bed could be made, when my mother, always a private person, slipped away, dying shortly before noon while no one else was in the room.
I went back and told him, “Mom just died.”
“Oh my,” he said, lowering his head. A few moments later he murmured, “Well, now I can go.”
My mom had died in a hospital bed we’d set up for her in the extra bedroom, with a twin bed beside it for my father. Later that night Eric and I put him to bed in their old bedroom, in the double bed they’d shared for decades.
I curled up on the couch in the living room. For some reason, I woke up around midnight and went in to check on him.
Lying on his left side facing the window, he had died quietly in his sleep.
The lady who came in to clean house for them said afterwards that the last time she was there, “Mr. Kermit” had climbed onto the bed with “Miss Jane” and was holding her.
When my mother died, while we waited for the men from the mortuary to arrive and take her off to be cremated, I sat on the floor with her body on the bed nearby. I thought of how I had once resided in that very body myself and what a deep connection I had with her as a result.
Suddenly, as is said to often happen when approaching death oneself, her life flashed before me, like a vapor trail left behind by a comet. She had suffered quite a bit in her final years and it was almost a relief that she had finally been able to die.
Later that night I also also sat crosslegged on the floor waiting for them to come and take my father’s body. A street lamp shining through a lace curtain cast a golden light across the bed where he lay. I bowed again and again to him, thanking him for all he had done for me.
My father was the only person I’d known who was able to love unconditionally, not just his immediate family, but everyone. I’ve encountered famous Zen masters, gurus and other religious figures, but although he didn’t meditate or practice any spiritual discipline, he was nonetheless the most evolved human being I’ve known, almost entirely without pride or egotism, someone who listened to others and rarely talked about himself. In short, a saint.
Of course as a teenager I found my dad somewhat embarrassing, with his skinny, nervous frame clothed in an outfit he invariably wore when at home — old faded flannel shirts and the kind of cheap shiny work slacks that janitors wear. His head was almost entirely lacking in hair except for some peeking out of his nostrils and in and around his ears and the back of his head. Now that I’ve lost some hair and gained some in those other areas myself, my appreciation of him has only deepened.
I once encountered a former student of my father’s at a party, who said she‘d always wanted to meet one of his children. “What for?,” I asked.
“Because his ideas about child rearing are so far out, so liberal, I wanted to see how one of his kids turned out.” I think she was disappointed to find I was pretty normal, even housebroken.
I hadn’t thought about it before then, but he really was an unusual parent. He was always supportive, even when my choices were not what he might have preferred. I can’t remember him ever criticizing me. He was there if I needed him, without demanding that I be anything other than who I was.
He never raised his hand against me. He had his own, more subtle, methods.
When I was thirteen I started climbing out my bedroom window in the middle of the night. I waited until my parents had been in bed for awhile and then, after arranging my bedding to make it appear I was under the covers asleep, I unlatched the window and slipped quietly out into the night, to creep down the hill in the darkness and throw pebbles at the window of my true love that summer, an overdeveloped young brunette from Texas.
Together we climbed the fence at a nearby community swimming pool, stripped off our clothes and dove into the darkened pool, the water warm in the cool evening air. Chasing one other around, giggling and clutching, making out and playing with each other, I ejaculated into the water, only to worry later that perhaps some sperm had managed to swim into her and get her pregnant.
Other nights I’d meet up with buddies who lived in the neighborhood. Walking the hilly streets under a pale moon was a great adventure. Whenever the lights of a car loomed in the distance we’d shout, “ditch!” and dive into the dark bushes beside the road until the coast was clear.
One fateful summer evening, after one of my nights out, I returned home in the wee hours of the morning and crept around the back of the house to slide my window open and return to my bed.
The window was locked from the inside!
I was thunderstruck, absolutely devastated. I stumbled around the house in a panic, trying to figure out a way to get back in unnoticed. Faced with having to go to the front door, I thought perhaps it might be easier to just run away from home right then and there and become a hobo or something.
After some time, I finally braced myself and knocked timidly on the front door. After an eternity, my father finally opened the door in his bathrobe. “Where you been?”
“Nowhere,” I replied, slinking off to my room. He never mentioned it again, but that was the last time I ever snuck out at night.
Whenever my father would find contraband I’d hidden, alcohol or sex magazines, he wouldn’t say anything, he’d just take them out of their hiding place and put them nearby in plain sight. When I’d see them and realize I’d been discovered, the blood would drain right out of my head and I’d break into a sweat. My own guilt was the worst punishment imaginable.
My mother, using my father’s own psychology on him, suggested my rebelliousness as a teenager was an acting out of his own feelings towards the establishment. I liked that theory, since it added some credibility to my own general dislike of authority. In fact at the dinner table he did frequently rail against corporations and Republicans, at racism and nationalism — a habit I also adopted as an adult.
When I started experimenting with psychoactive substances in the sixties he made it clear he didn’t approve. He said that life was interesting enough on its own, without having to resort to drugs. However, he didn’t condemn me for taking them. He gave reasoned arguments against them, most of which later turned out to be accurate.
When I enthusiastically described how LSD opened the mind up to a vast area of experience of which we are normally unaware, he said that there were good reasons for such boundaries, that without limitations the individual self would get lost and life would be chaotic and meaningless — an assessment which was particularly prescient.
He was more tolerant of my enthusiasm for Eastern religious practices, even when I later became something of a fanatic. Driving him home from the hospital after he’d had a heart attack, I said I had concluded that the ultimate meaning of life had to be personally experienced, it could never be grasped intellectually or put into words — if it could be, there’d be no possibility of salvation in it. He just sighed and said, “I suppose so.”
At one point, after my mother had started to decline, I told him of the Zen masters I’d read about who knew when they were going to die ahead of time and would get their affairs in order, gather their disciples together for final instruction, compose a death poem, and then get into the full lotus and pass away peacefully. He said that when he worked with the Lakota Sioux, he heard stories of some of them who just lay down and quickly died when they were forced onto the reservation.
I realized my father had started preparing for death long beforehand. He’d cleared the house and storage areas of any extra, accumulated stuff that wasn’t completely necessary.
Shortly before he died I took him shopping for a pair of pants to replace the one’s he’d been wearing continually. He was adorable shuffling through the department store, wisps of white hair curling down from under the old floppy hat he favored. Back in the car he gazed at the folded trousers we’d just purchased and remarked wistfully, “My last pair of pants.”
When Eric came in and told me that the men from the mortuary had arrived, I got up and walked out of the room and through the house. My nephew Kevin was sitting in a chair by the dining room table looking out towards the bay. As the first grandchild he had been especially close to his grandpa. When I walked into the room he sobbed and burst into tears.
At a very early age, the image of the slender, willowy girl with long black hair was already fixed half-consciously in my mind, like a haunting memory from some previous existence. Even as a young child I seemed to be searching for her, as if I instinctively knew I would find her somewhere in this life.
At an age when most boys showed little interest in girls, I periodically fell madly, obsessively in love. My dream girl always had long, skinny (often dirty) brown legs and dark eyes that danced with mischief and allure. The sight of little, hairless labia enclosing a mysterious slit, that I was occasionally privileged to glimpse through the rumpled leg of a pair of summer shorts, sent me into an ecstasy of almost spiritual bliss.
My intentions, (at least until puberty) were always high-minded. I showered one hapless little brunette beauty with valentines and gifts, even asking for her hand in marriage with a plastic ring from the dime store.
I soon discovered the power of such focused amorous intent. When I fixed my attention on a particular version of my ideal, around the schoolyard or in the neighborhood, circumstances invariably drew us together like magnets. Without a word being spoken, we would find ourselves running down a dark, musty school corridor, or dashing out after one another into a starry night. Suddenly alone together, as if by silent assent, we’d embrace like long lost lovers, our young lips coming together in that first incredible discovery of shared rapture.
The vision of the dark-haired girl was eventually forgotten in the confusion of adolescence when, in spite of my earlier precociousness, I was overcome with shyness around the opposite sex.
Not until I was eighteen would she surface again — this time in a dream.
I dreamt I was riding a bicycle along a country lane, lit by golden, early morning light. Gliding effortlessly, I seemed at times to float blissfully above the bicycle, almost as if I were flying.
The bicycle slowed as I came alongside a lush hedge of flowers and vines enclosing a garden gate. A slender girl, about the same age as myself, appeared behind the gate. As her dark eyes looked up from beneath lowered lashes, a wave of intense longing and recognition welled up from deep within me.
The next thing I knew the bicycle was moving again, slightly faster this time, the country lane widening into city streets lined with gray faceless buildings. A faint but ominous groaning of human voices could be heard, growing gradually louder.
Rounding a corner I came upon the source of the disquieting sound. A small parade was marching up the street towards me, holding aloof a huge photograph, followed by several figures bent under the weight of a dark coffin. As they came closer I realized the photograph they carried was a portrait of the girl I’d seen at the garden gate.
Overcome with a leaden feeling of despair and sadness, I turned the bike down a side street and peddled furiously away. The street became narrower and steeper as I peddled faster and faster, until I was hurling over rough wet cobblestones between abandoned buildings that loomed on either side of the dark narrow passage. Suddenly something small and white, an infant, appeared directly in the path of the bicycle. I yanked the handlebars to avoid hitting it and careened out of control, tumbling off into the darkness. I awoke with a start.
The dream so impressed me that I wrote it down and turned it in for a creative writing class I happened to be taking at the time. When it was returned with an “A,” I filed it away with other writings and sketches and soon forgot about it.
Like a lot of teenagers, I went though a dark period — or so it must have seemed to my mother. My early attempts at oil painting, of postcard perfect harbors and country roads, quickly gave way to large expressionistic works of agonized figures, executed with thick, slashing, impasto. I even attempted to write poetry, with somewhat less success, but with the same images of strange figures, often falling or sinking into a nameless abyss.
I had discovered blues music and I stayed awake late into the night lying on my bed listening to the rhythmic wailing and moaning of love lost and hopes betrayed, broadcast over KDIA from the black ghetto in nearby Oakland. I was distressed to live in such comfortable circumstances and was sure that no great art could ever come out of middle-class white America.
My social life consisted primarily of hanging out at the pool hall downtown and binge-drinking on weekends. Fortunately we had moved into a new house just up the hill and I now had a bedroom of my own downstairs with a separate back entrance so I could stagger in drunk at all hours without waking anyone. After getting into bed I’d frequently get the tailspins, like a plane going down in flames, falling back into dark space with a wonderful feeling of abandon and letting go — which unfortunately was usually followed by the urge to puke.
No matter how far down the toilet I stuck my head, my mother could always smell vomit the next day, so instead I’d lurch out the back door, across the damp lawn, and hurl barf over the embankment into the bushes below.
One night, after bending over with a violent bout of the dry heaves, I awoke with the morning sunshine beaming down on me and the sound of the neighbors puttering around in their yard. I was lying sprawled at the edge of the lawn in my white jockey underpants.
I jumped up and scurried back inside, wondering if my father might have already come to the big window above, looked down, and perhaps in disbelief called out, “Jane, isn’t that Stephen down their sleeping on the grass in his underpants?” If so, he probably thought it served me right, and left it at that.
It’s a good thing drugs were not readily available in the 1950’s or I might never have made it to adulthood. I seemed to be seeking some kind of oblivion, or at least an altered state.
What must have finally forced my mother to call upon the church to attempt a rescue, was my choice of reading matter. Not just existentialism and Gnosticism, but Vedanta and Buddhism, Zen and Sikhism, as well as the likes of Jack Kerouac and Bertrand Russell.
She informed me one day that she’d asked Pastor Toleffson to come by and have a talk with me. I didn’t protest. In fact I had been having conversations with the good Pastor in my head for some time, and welcomed the opportunity to air some of my concerns about the direction of contemporary Christianity.
I’d always liked Pastor Tollefson. He was a stout Scandinavian who radiated kindness and humility and was genuinely sincere in his beliefs. I think I was probably one of the few people who actually listened to his sermons without falling asleep. I found him thoughtful and at times even inspirational, in spite of my own heretical tendencies.
What I hated about going to church, besides having to get up at such an ungodly hour on Sunday morning, was the hard wooden benches the congregation was forced to sit on for what seemed like an eternity. Ironically it wouldn’t be long before I was getting up even earlier to voluntarily sit erect, with legs painfully crossed, in the pursuit of religious awakening.
My mother had cajoled and coaxed me out of bed every Sunday morning for years with the promise that when I finally went through the ceremony of “Confirmation” at fifteen, I’d be a full fledged, adult member of the church and could make up my own mind if I wanted to continue going or not. Much to her disappointment, except for the annual candlelight service every Christmas, I stopped attending church regularly right after confirmation.
When Pastor Toleffson came down the stairs to my room, I was at my easel, working on a large oil painting executed in bold, jagged shapes. He hadn’t seen me for some time and looked surprised at how much I’d matured. While still slender and fresh faced, in spite of a faint hint of early whiskers, I was now a tall young man with small but distinct biceps bulging from out of a ragged, paint stained tee-shirt. My dark blond hair was longer, combed back on the sides, with a loose wave hanging over my forehead in front. The room smelled of turpentine and cigarette smoke, a combination that must have struck the pastor as decidedly dangerous.
“I haven‘t seen you lately, what have you been up to?” he asked.
“Huh, I’ve been reading a lot about other religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism,” I replied, “It looks like they all lead to the same place.”
“There is only one way to find God, and that is through our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said firmly.
I hated it when they made that claim, which seemed like a veiled threat. Either get on-board or suffer an eternity in Hell. It was hard to respond to such confident certainty.
“What are you painting?” the Pastor asked, changing the subject.
“Its called The Fall.”
“Hmm,” he said squinting at the jagged shapes and raw colors that formed a large figure falling backwards and downwards across the canvass, “Nice colors.”
He left without saying much more. He probably figured he’d done enough to satisfy my mother, and that it was fruitless to waste any more time trying to bring the likes of me back into the fold.
I think I had been something of a thorn in his side during Confirmation Class, the required period of bible study preparatory to becoming a full fledged member of the Lutheran Church. Parents naturally want their children to share their spiritual beliefs, and my mother was no exception. Following the example of my father, I went along with it, intending to do the bare minimum necessary.
But once I started reading the new testament I couldn’t help getting involved.
At one point when the Pastor was going on about how Jesus had “died for our sins,” and what an immense sacrifice that was, I blurted out an objection, “Getting hung on a cross must have been a painful way to die, but people die painful deaths everyday. Jesus got to go right back up to heaven. Where’s the sacrifice in that? If he had just died and disappeared, or worse, gone to hell, THAT would have been a sacrifice.”
“He was the Son of God,” the pastor exclaimed, “He came so that we may have everlasting life.”
I couldn’t help but be moved by Pastor Tollefson’s sincere religious feeling. It was like tasting a fine wine. But it was his own personal emotion that I responded to — not the story that triggered it. No matter how wonderful and heroic that story, and the dogma that surrounded it, I felt something was missing.
Although I was entranced and inspired by the words of Jesus, I suspected that his story had been added to after his death in order to turn him into something other than a mere mortal, which to my mind actually lessened his significance. The notion that salvation was found through somebody else and furthermore that it was something that was experienced only after death, struck me as a chancy proposition.
That hadn’t stopped me from having visions of Jesus. Not major ones, just quick sightings out of the corner of my mind. I’d see him sitting on a stone wall or at a rough, wooden table in a crowded inn — a charismatic figure who seemed to exist in an exalted state of indescribable bliss that I was somehow able to share for a brief moment.
I should say a few words about “visions,” because they also figure in later parts of my story. In those days a vision was not something I could just decide to have anytime I felt the urge. They were spontaneous, unplanned events, that swept me up and out of my usual narrative, while still somehow managing to fit seamlessly into the normal course of life.
Such experiences were internal and accompanied by a feeling that was strangely visual and can only be described as ecstatic or blissful. They had a timeless quality, although they were usually brief.
Some of my visions could be ascribed to an overactive imagination, triggered by something concrete, such as my exposure to Christianity. However, at other times, they were more subtle and harder to attribute. They might involve real people, whom I didn’t even know. I’d be walking through the neighborhood on my paper route and I’d suddenly find myself for a moment in one of the homes nearby looking out through another person’s eyes.
The most provocative vision, which recurred several times throughout late childhood and early adolescence, involved a disembodied person or presence, like an “imaginary friend” described by some children. I’d suddenly be drawn, as if pulled by a mysterious voice, to hidden spots, under trees beside a small stream or across hillsides to protected gullies, where I would spontaneously sit cross-legged on the ground as a “being” appeared to me, not a physical being, more like a being of light, that nonetheless felt like a real person, appearing both inside my head and up above in the space in front of me, who would wordlessly guide me to a state that can only be described as meditation — completely present in the moment and the immediate surroundings, but at the same time infinitely expanded internally until time and space became meaningless.
Looking back, these experiences seemed unremarkable — no words of wisdom, no golden tablets or anything of that sort. Just sitting quietly, looking out through my eyes with a clear mind, along with my visionary friend.
Later, when I read about Tibetan Buddhism, I was struck by the similarity to the practice of visualizing meditation deities and gurus in the same manner. Was this a memory or visitation from a previous lifetime or a glimpse of a future self?
Such experiences were especially frequent and powerful when I was approaching puberty, after which they quickly diminished and finally almost disappeared altogether. It was as if a part of me, a way of seeing and being in the world as a young child, was breaking up and dissolving and the visions were scattered fragments or brief regressions to an earlier state, which was disappearing under the weight of adolescence and early adulthood.
I felt as if my mind and perception, which had been innocent and open, peaceful and blissful in childhood, was being poured into a funnel and narrowed down to a rigid, self-conscious entity, constantly engaged in thinking and worrying.
Where the movement of time had once been wonderfully slow and spacious, now it was speeding up, making the days seem progressively shorter.
I assuaged my adolescent angst by reading voraciously, often into the early morning hours. With a stack of my mom’s cookies and a tall glass of milk, I plowed through classic romantic novels, Jude the Obscure, The Red and the Black, Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, along with more philosophical works such as Being and Nothingness, Thus Spake Zarathustra, The Upanashads, and many others.
I was especially drawn to books on Eastern Religions. I was transfixed the first time I saw an image of a figure in meditation, a photograph of a stone statue from ancient India sitting in the half lotus, with open hands on lap — a perfect expression of peaceful grace and equipoise.
DOWN THE SNAKE
The summer after I graduated from high school, when I was just seventeen, I left home to work on a wilderness fire crew in the panhandle of Idaho. I packed a single suitcase with some work clothes and a new pair of steel-toed boots — along with several paperbacks by the likes of Bertrand Russel and Albert Camus, weighty for their content if not their size.
Among the books was one that would leave a lasting impression on me — “Thais,” by Anatole France, the story of a beautiful courtesan and a Christian monk from the desert who tries to reform her. She dies and because of her pure heart, she ascends directly to heaven, while he goes mad with unsatisfied lust.
After a long bus ride through Oregon and Washington, spent half asleep staring out the window at stunted, closely-spaced trees whizzing by, I was deposited in Avery, a tiny town, not much more than a post office. From there I hitched a ride down a dusty gravel road that wound alongside the Snake River, flowing wide and quick over round boulders. The air was sparkling clear and fresh with the resinous smell of fir and cedar.
The remote fire station that was to be my home for the next three months was set in a small meadow in the center of a large expanse of wilderness area. Our job, when we weren’t putting out the multitude of fires that were ignited every time there was a lightening storm, was to tediously clean up the branches and debris left behind after the big logging corporations had clear-cut huge swaths of pristine forest. I couldn’t help but wonder who picked up the bill for our work.
In Idaho I would learn a little about two mysterious and potentially dangerous creatures, bears and women, in encounters that were both exciting and aerobic.
First the bears.
I’d barely unpacked my suitcase, before I was treated to bear lore and bear stories. Black bears were almost as common as the huge elk that were constantly charging across the road before our trucks.
Grizzly bears, while less prevelant, were far more dangerous. One woodsman from the area was reputed to have had the presence-of-mind to play dead, closing his eyes and going limp when he was surprised by a grizzly. The grizzly just chewed on his arm a little and walked away. That’s what you had to do, I was told in utter seriousness. If a bear grabbed hold of you, just play dead.
You can never outrun a bear on level ground or uphill. For a short distance, about a city block, they can move faster than any human being.
Downhill was another matter. Because their front legs are shorter than their hind legs, going downhill is awkward for them.
But the best thing to do if a bear takes after you is to climb a tree. Not just any tree though. It has to be a skinny tree, one that’s small enough in diameter that the bear can put his arms clear around it. Apparently bears can only get a good enough purchase on larger trees. Plus small trees have branches extending down lower, making them easier for humans to climb.
I would have occasion to test both of these theories in person.
There were twenty young men on the fire crew that summer and we had our own full-time cook who served up heaping plates of T-bone steaks almost every night. The station brought in whole sides-of-beef to feed us and the remains were thrown onto a dump in the nearby woods, which, of course, was a favorite haunt of the local bears.
Late one afternoon I had the bright idea to test the “a bear can’t climb any tree it can get its arms around hypotheses.” Armed with a long rope, a couple of us climbed carefully selected trees at the edge of the dump, where a big pile of fresh bones and beef trimmings had been deposited.
Right on schedule, just as the sun was getting low, we heard the crashing and thumping of bears coming down through the underbrush. Apparently bears don’t have any natural predators, so stealth is not a concern for them.
They were not quiet eaters either. Listening and watching them snort and chomp loudly as they devoured the beef scraps, from our perches about twenty feet above them in our little trees, was immensely entertaining.
Finally, I decided the time had come to see if a bear could actually climb a tree it could get its arms around. I tied the end of the rope into a lasso and after several misses I managed to drop it around one of the biggest and blackest of the bears.
I’d tied the other end of the rope to the tree just below me. When the bear tried to move away the whole tree shook and threatened to come down with him. When he realized he was attached to the tree overhead, he stopped and looked up at me sitting there. With a thunderous roar he attacked the base of the tree and started to climb it.
I began to wonder if I should try to move higher up my skinny little tree or whether it was possible to leap over to another tree.
But sure enough, after climbing several feet the beast faltered and couldn’t go any further. With that he dropped down and proceeded to vent his furry on the rope, shredding it in a matter of moments. With one final roar of indignation, the bear rumbled off the way he’d come.
Not long after that adventure, on a sunny day off from work, I took a hike up to a fire lookout tower on a nearby peak. After chatting with the young chap who manned the lookout, whose solitary lifestyle I envied for the opportunities it provided for meditation and reading, I headed back downhill on the narrow, switchback path I’d hiked up earlier.
I was walking along the side of a steep slope covered, appropriately, with tall “bear grass” native to that area, when a huge bear stood up a few feet uphill from me. It’s height, due partly to the upward slope, looked to be seven or eight feet tall. It gazed directly down at me.
Another caveat might be — never look a bear in the eye. As it silently dropped down towards me, I leapt off the trail in the opposite direction down the steep side of the hill, running like I was falling, my legs spinning to keep up with me.
I heard the bear thundering behind me for a minute or two but it couldn’t keep up. As it turned out, it is really true that bears can’t run fast downhill — but I sure as hell could. Ignoring the switchbacks in the trail, I shot straight down the mountain. I didn’t stop running until I’d arrived exhausted back at the Fire Station.
I’d had enough of bears. I was ready for some women.
One weekend several of us firefighters traveled north to Wallace — a wild, grubby, logging town of dirty brick buildings and smelly barrooms, where prostitution was apparently legal or at least openly tolerated. There were establishments with names like the U & I Rooms and the Come On Inn, with half-naked women beckoning from upstairs windows.
With several drinks under our belts to buck up our courage, we picked one of the more respectable establishments (if such a term can even be applied here) and climbed the stairs to a dingy waiting room.
As we sat back, the “girls” paraded into the room, one by one for our perusal, wearing only lacy undergarments.
I held out til the last. I never could buy any item without first examining each and every one that was available. Also I thought that this might be my first time, that technically at least, I was probably still a virgin, since I was not really sure if I’d ever actually completed the act in my numerous forays, usually executed half-drunk in parked cars.
I was the only one left in the room when a raven-haired woman sashayed through the door in red lace and held out her hand seductively in my direction.
Somewhat apprehensively I stood up and followed her wiggly behind down a long hallway to a small private apartment. It had a comfortable, lived-in look that made me think she must actually reside there.
Quite a bit older than me, she was still attractive, with smooth, very white skin and slightly plump thighs and tummy. She carefully filled a basin on a low washstand and told me to undress.
Taking my already erect penis in her hand, she gently pulled me towards the washstand where she began to wash it, almost tenderly, with warm, soapy water. With a loud exhalation I ejaculated.
“Is this your first time,” she giggled.
“Yeah,” I admitted, shamefaced.
“Well, we’ll have to give you another shot at it then.” On her bed, engulfed in sweet perfume and soft flesh, I lasted long enough to begin to get a feel for the rhythm of it.
Afterwards, instead of rushing me out for another customer as I’d expected, she lingered with me on the bed for some time and talked. She confided that, yes, she was hooked on heroin, which is why she was in this particular profession, but this was a very clean establishment, with all the girls getting regular medical exams.
Before we parted she reached into a cupboard beside the bed and pulled out a stack of neatly folded tee-shirts. “These were left here,” she said handing them to me, “They’ve all been washed.” I was profoundly touched and wore them proudly after that, even though they reeked of her perfume and some of the other firefighters made unflattering comments.
Near the end of that summer I would have one more close encounter with a bear, when the entire crew was dispatched to numerous different lightening fires in the surrounding area.
A helicopter took two of us firefighters along the side of a steep barren ridge so we could jump out the open door towards the ground on the high side, which looked close enough — except for the fact that we tended to fall straight down after leaving the chopper. Luckily, we weren’t hurt despite wearing heavy packs.
It was already dark by the time we hiked to a point where we could see two separate fires about a half mile apart in tall snags (dead trees). Although we were not supposed to go out on fires alone, I suggested we split up. My companion went to the closest one while I hiked through dense brush, wet with the recent rain and thunder storm, towards the other fire.
Sudden loud crashing sounds, probably elk bolting away from me in the dark, made me jump nervously. It was first time I’d been so far out alone in the woods at night. As I trudged along, through what was now pitch darkness, towards the orange glow of the burning tree in the distance, I suddenly ran face first into a soft, furry chest, that I realized later was a bear standing in my path. Luckily we both ran off in opposite directions.
When I arrived at the fire it was burning about fifty feet up a tall cedar snag. Using my Pulaski, a tool with a wide flat pick on one side of its head and an an axe blade on the other, I began clearing saplings and brush from around the base of the tree so that when it fell it wouldn’t catch the rest of the forest on fire.
When I figured I’d cleared enough around the burning tree, I began chopping halfheartedly at it’s huge trunk. The dead wood was rock-hard with age. Before long I gave up and went to sleep instead, being careful to note which way the snag was leaning, so that I was on the opposite side from where it would fall.
I awoke just as the top half of the burning snag was coming loose. It toppled down onto the edge of the space I’d cleared, torching a clump of resinous evergreen saplings which burst into flames.
I attacked the blaze with all my energy, and for awhile it was uncertain if I would prevail. Finally after an hour of two of horrendous exertion I manage to extinguish the last of the blaze.
For the rest of the day I sat and watched the snag continue to burn down and ate some K rations I’d specially packed for myself, containing my favorites of baked beans, beef stew and canned pears. That night a freezing cold front came in. Fortunately the fire was so dead by then that I was able sleep inside the remaining stump, which had hollowed out and was still nice and warm.
I’d been in radio contact with a nearby lookout tower and the next morning I was directed to a main trail up the hill, where I met up with other firefighters and hiked back to the station. It was the end of the season and I was happy to finally head back to civilization. I was looking forward to starting college that fall.
Note — there’s another chapter to be inserted here.
IN THE FLESH
The first time I laid eyes on Patty was at a party thrown by some students in the journalism department in one of those nondescript, boxy, pastel-colored, stucco apartment buildings near campus. The large main room, darkened for effect, was crowded with students talking like crazy and apparently trying to get drunk as quickly as possible. Most of the guys wore madras shirts with pale blue or khaki colored slacks and parted their short hair on one side. The girls, with mounds of hair stacked and waved about their heads, had on tight-fitting, knee length skirts, and pale, fuzzy sweaters that wrapped them in a soft, seductive halo of angora wool.
Loud music throbbed in the background as I clutched a can of beer and peered through the dim, smokey light. There was no one there I knew, but I relished the feeling of freedom such anonymity conferred.
She was sitting across the room in the light from the apartment’s kitchen, smoking a long, filtered cigarette and speaking earnestly to someone nearby. Her full lips, glossed with pale pink lipstick, moved sensuously when she spoke, pausing occasionally to exhale smoke towards the ceiling. With an unconscious thrust of her head a thick wave of black hair was thrown back and she emitted a loud, almost masculine laugh.
Without giving it a second thought I cast aside my usual shyness, walked over and asked her if she’d like to dance. She looked up coyly with a quizzical expression. Without a word she put out her cigarette, set down her drink, and stood up, almost as tall as me.
I followed her to the center of the room where a few other couples were gyrating to the booming beat that surrounded and suffused everything in the darkened apartment. We stopped and faced each other a few feet apart on the dance floor, pausing for a moment like two combatants about to duel, before picking up the beat and moving our hips and arms to the rhythm.
Despite an awkward but endearing ungainliness to her movements, she seemed to say to herself, “To hell with it, I’m going to dance and enjoy myself.” Absorbed in the inner world of her body and the music, her dark eyes lowered beneath long, black lashes and with the self-satisfied expression of someone who knows she is being watched and admired, she moved towards me like a vision from some distant past.
A few days later she showed up unexpectedly at my apartment between classes. I was living in an older, somewhat seedy, second story walk-up near campus. The windows afforded a distant view of students lounging on a broad lawn in front of the physical education building. Down the back stairs, in a small courtyard, my motorcycle leaned against a wall, slowly dripping oil and giving off gasoline fumes in the warm sun.
We stood close together just inside the apartment, with the bed in view through an open door to one side of us. As she explained how she just happened to be passing by, surges of sexual energy slowly uncoiled and began moving upward around our bodies. We started making out, pressing and moving against each other. She held her lips stiffly against mine, as if that was all she could do and still breath in deep gasps.
I tentatively lifted her skirt with one hand. Meeting no resistance, my fingers glided under the soft, silky fabric of her panties, across smooth skin, through crinkly pubic hair and down into the warm, wet slit between her thighs. Wild with desire we tore our clothes off and I entered her as she lay back on the bed.
With a few frenzied strokes we both came. As I settled into a more measured rhythm her vagina contracted and gushed again and again.
“Do you love me?” she asked as I moved back and forth inside her. “I do, I do love you,” I gasped.
I lost count of our orgasms. When I finally slid off her, wet with our mingled fluids and sweat, we both lay back exhausted. She looked up with a shy smile as I gazed at her naked body spread across my bed. “You’re beautiful,” I said softly.
Her breasts, surprisingly large on her slender frame, were pear-shaped, the nipples rising up like the top of the fruit where it attaches to the tree. Her small torso and high hips curved down to long, slender legs. Below a soft round tummy, between smooth brown thighs, her shiny black pubic hair thrust forward over a vagina so lovely and sweetly formed that I approached it like a supplicant worshiping at some dark, hidden altar.
She squirmed, crossing her legs and turning towards me. “I’m not really beautiful. I’m too fat.”
“You’re even skinnier than me,” I laughed, glancing at my stark white body next to her golden brown hues. “You’re darker than me too.”
“I’m Italian,” she said proudly throwing back her mane of shiny black hair in the afternoon light.
“I’m half Norwegian, on my mother’s side, although my grandmother was actually Finnish. My father’s side is a bit more complicated.” I was preparing to launch into the fascinating history of my forebears when she ran her hand over the sparse blond hairs on my chest and sank her fingers into the cavity where the ribs meet.
“You have a hole in your chest,” she exclaimed.
“It’s a birth defect. It used to embarrass me but I’ve got used to it. In fact, I’m thankful for the body I have. It hardly ever fails me. It rarely gets sick. It’s not at all accident-prone. I know a guy who’s accident-prone, he’s always getting wrecked, cutting himself, crashing his car. I remember one time…”
“I have a birth defect too,” she interrupted, “a blockage in my intestines. If I smoke cigarettes and eat potato chips, I get backed up and start farting.”
I laughed as she farted loudly — an incongruous sound to erupt from such a lovely creature. “Well, at least yours don’t stink, I sniffed, “If I cut one you’d better watch out.”
I lay on the bed smoking a cigarette and watched her get dressed. “You are so beautiful,” I said again.
She smiled coyly, pulling a silky stocking up a long, shapely leg and attaching it to garter strap at the side of her thigh. “Go on,” she said dismissing me with a wave of her hand.
Later, sitting in class, I could still furtively smell her sweet, pungent odor on the deliberately unwashed fingers of my right hand.
After that Patty and I started spending most of our spare time together. She was still living with her parents in a suburb about twenty minutes from campus. I traded my BSA motorcycle for a baby blue and white ‘55 Oldsmobile hardtop with a big, wide, front bumper and chrome, breast-shaped bullets that protruded from either side of the grill. Almost every evening I drove her home after making love in my apartment.
Sometimes she would cook us dinner, her back to me in the light of my tiny kitchen, wearing one of my shirts above her small, naked buns, while I sat back with a glass of red wine and looked on with admiration.
Afterwards, quiet and relaxed from our lovemaking, cruising towards her house down the long straight highway, past warehouses at the edge of town and scattered buildings lit up in the night, with the deep satisfying rumble of the Olds V8 welling up around us and the warm valley air blowing through the long, open windows, I’d feel like that moment was completely sufficient — all I would ever need.
One day as casually as she might mention what she ate for lunch, she said she’d had sex with someone else, a guy from one of her classes who answered the door naked when she showed up at his apartment to get some lecture notes.
“Oh…how was it?” I asked lamely, smiling back at her to conceal my pain, like a trained prizefighter who has just taken a hard shot to the stomach. I was astonished at the visceral effect her announcement had on me.
“Not as good as you.” She must have sensed my discomfort, because she changed the subject and didn’t mention it again.
In all my twenty-odd years I’d never felt pain like that, not even a twinge of jealousy. This was a new sensation. I examined it as one might lift the scab on a wound, bringing it up in my mind and turning it this way and that, the energy of the pain standing out clearly before me. It struck me as totally irrational and I soon forgot it in the pleasures of our relationship.
One evening, she turned to me and said, “When we were having sex that first time, did I ask you if you loved me.” She seemed chagrined to have broached such a personal question so early in our relationship.
“Yeah, you did,” I said smiling at her embarrassment, “But I do completely love you.”
In spite of herself, it was a question she would ask often. The emotion that traveled between us when I told her I loved her turned both of us on, like an electrical current flowing from me to her.
“You won’t still love me when I’m old and fat,” she pouted, lowering her eyes.
“I can’t imagine not loving you. I feel like I’ve always loved you.”
Marijuana was still very difficult to find in the early sixties, so it was a big deal when Patty and I finally managed to “score” some for the first time. We were both nervous as we lit one of the incredibly skinny (about an eighth of an inch thick) hand-rolled cigarettes. It smelled and tasted like wet alfalfa. We passed it back and forth with anticipation.
We lit another one and poured ourselves some more Vin Rose from a big jug. We were already expert smokers from maintaining our cigarette habits. Patty did her trick of letting the smoke drift slowly up out of her lips while inhaling it again through her nostrils. I blew perfect smoke rings.
Halfway through the second marijuana cigarette, just as we were plotting how we would get revenge on the guy who had sold it to us, we realized the absurdity of the whole thing. It was ridiculous getting all worked up over some phony weed. We were actually almost relieved to find out it had no effect on us. Our nervousness evaporated. We laughed as we passed the remainder of the pathetic little thing back and forth, enjoying the camaraderie of our mutual gullibility. We laughed at our own ridiculousness.
We laughed and laughed. We kept laughing until we were howling, until tears were running down our cheeks, until we had forgotten what we were laughing about.
When I finally paused and took a good look at Patty, I stopped laughing. Her laughter had taken on a different, ominous character. I couldn’t tell anymore if she was laughing or screaming hysterically. She was shrieking so loudly I became concerned that the neighbors would be alerted that there was something weird going on.
We were in a new studio apartment I’d just rented on the ground floor of a fairly large apartment complex. The only neighbors I’d met, upstairs in the apartment directly over us, were an animated group of Nigerian exchange students who listened constantly to Afro-Cuban jazz music. I could hear their music at that very moment, drums and horns, throbbing and blaring down on us through the ceiling.
Patty was out of control. I expected the Nigerians to shut off their music at any moment and come down, along with the other tenants in the complex, to investigate the dreadful screams coming from the new tenant’s apartment. For an instant I saw inside all the other apartments at once, as people looked at each other and wondered where those screams were coming from. I imagined the flashing lights of police cars outside.
I had to do something. I grabbed Patty and started kissing her. Within minutes we were on the floor, my pants down and her skirt up, making love on the carpet.
The compelling rhythms of the Nigerian jazz flowed over us from above as we moved together in time with the beat in a kind of erotic dance, only executed horizontally.
I closed my eyes. The sound of the drums, Patty’s body, my pulsing inside her, all moved and merged into one rhythm. Suddenly the darkness was lit up by a bonfire, the flames dancing and flickering to the beat. A line of naked, black African women danced in front of the fire, their sweaty bodies glistening with reflected firelight, their arms and hands moving gracefully up and down their bodies, their hips and breasts thrusting and shaking with the drums, moving faster as the beat became more urgent, harder and faster, until Patty, the black dancers, myself, the whole world, all came at once in a delirious, pulsating orgiastic rush of pure pleasure.
“Wow,” I exclaimed as we caught our breath afterwards, “I hope we didn’t disturb the neighbors.
A NEW GENERATION
After President Kennedy was assassinated, the internal tensions and divisions in the country began to manifest. The sixties were heating up, fueled by the civil rights movement in the South and opposition to the Vietnam war, along with a new element — LSD, which was suddenly available.
An intoxicating sense of purpose and destiny was awakening in many of the young people of my generation — children of the post war “baby boom.”
While some of my friends became involved in civil rights and the later anti-war efforts, I remained somewhat aloof from it all, envisioning myself as sort of a theoretician behind the movement, rather than a foot soldier,
My friend Mel was probably the most active. I’d met him one summer when we were both working for the Forest Service in the Sierras. He was already a radical, leftist revolutionary who, without wasting a lot of words, acted out against the “establishment” and corporate power. Like me, he was a student at San Jose State, where he was, oddly enough, a Physical Education major.
On a trip to the nearby town of Oroville, Mel decided to engage in a little radical political action by “liberating” some sirloin steaks from a Safeway market — an obvious corporate oppressor. A clerk saw him stuffing steaks down the front of his shirt and when he left the market a couple of employees chased after him. Catching a college P.E. major was not easy, but they were determined, and they pursued Mel down back alleys and through yards. Finally he clambered over a tall fence and ran across a back yard, only to plunge over his head into an open cesspool. Looking back as he climbed out of the stinking slime and slunk off, he said the clerks were hanging over the fence and laughing so hard they gave up the chase. They probably figured justice had been served. Needless to say, the steaks were a lost cause, but the fact that Mel was even able to recount this story without embarrassment, is a testament to his humble character.
The following summer Mel traveled to Mississippi as a “freedom rider,” putting his life and his liberal beliefs on the line in the struggle for racial equality.
Except for an occasional marijuana joint, Patty was not particularly involved in the revolutionary currents that were beginning to swirl around us. In fact we were something of a mismatched couple. She wore makeup and silk stockings and always looked dressed up around the campus. She seemed to know everyone and was active in student government. I, on the other hand, was a loner, with dark, scraggly blond hair and a reddish goatee — a brooding Dostoevskyian character given to long, late night walks, who wore the same outfit everyday, apparel with what I considered to have just the right patina of age and venerability.
If I was out of favor with her she called me a “beady-eyed beatnik,” and when I was in her good graces she addressed me simply as “poopsie,” which, since it was intended as a term of endearment, I soon learned to like.
Always aware of her appearance, she wore contact lenses most of the time, which she frequently lost on the carpet of my apartment, forcing us to crawl frantically around on our hands and knees until we found them. At other times she wore ridiculous oversized, black-rimmed glasses that made her look like a cartoon character of a librarian.
With the contrast between her proper femininity and my bohemian appearance, I could easily feel like I was violating her when we made love, which only aroused me the more.
I found it interesting that our birth signs were exact opposites. I was a Sagittarius, born just before the winter solstice, and she was a Gemini, born right before the summer solstice. It seemed to fit somehow — I was the cool, introverted Scandinavian of the north and she was the warm-blooded Italian of the south.
Our families were opposites as well. My father was a left-wing liberal, if there ever was one, and an avowed socialist. Her father, a right-wing conservative, was a retired brigadier general who worked for Lockheed Aerospace Corporation. In the entryway to their upper-middle-class track home hung a print of Rembrandt’s “Old Soldier,” with his absurd gold helmet, sad eyes, and long face. Patty confided to me that they referred to her father as “Briggy” at home, and that he frequently cried when they picked on him at the dinner table.
Her mother, on the other hand, was a stout, formidable Italian, with a large bosom. I couldn’t resist trying to picture her as a young woman, wondering if she had ever been slender and graceful like her daughter was now.
Although Patty said her mother confessed to liking me personally, she didn’t approve of me in general, particularly because I was an art major, and a scruffy one at that, who was obviously heading for a life as the proverbial starving artist — not a good match for her daughter.
It soon became clear that her mother had launched a campaign to undermine our relationship, which became more vociferous the longer we continued seeing one another. I tried to mollify her by presenting her with one of my best paintings, which promptly disappeared, never to be seen again.
I suspect Patty’s parents thought I was a bad influence on her, that I was leading her astray. If they only knew — she was the one who bragged about having been rampantly promiscuous before we met, while this was my first real sexual relationship. In addition, her brother, Bruce, only a year younger, was a raging homosexual, a classic queen, who wore as much makeup as his sister as soon as he was out of the house.
Patty and her brother were very close and they clung to one another like two children in a hostile world. I remember one especially poignant scene when we were all quite drunk and they sat on my couch leaning against each other and singing “Blue moon, I saw you standing alone, without a dream of your own.”
Despite their closeness, I never sensed any hostility or jealousy from Bruce. In fact he enjoyed teasing me when we were alone by coming on to me, running his tongue over his lips or around the neck of a beer bottle and making eyes at me. I sometimes suspected that he coached his sister in how to please a man in bed, because she seemed to know exactly what would drive me wild and flatter my male ego.
A BAD TRIP
Patty moved in with a girlfriend, into a house not far from my apartment — which pleased me no end, since it meant I could see her almost anytime.
One weekend afternoon we each swallowed a 250 microgram capsule of LSD, which was a standard dose in those days, enough for a strong eight hour “trip.” LSD was still legal and the general public had no idea what was going on inside us as we wandered aimlessly through town in a vortex of brilliant, undulating colors and up-welling energy patterns.
At an intersection we came upon an automobile accident that had just occurred. Two cars were smashed together — steaming metal, twisted and bent, pulsated and undulated, giving off palpable waves of shock and horror.
We quickly went in another direction to a nearby city park where the pastoral landscape changed the mood entirely. We stumbled around, exclaiming and marveling at the intricate patterns in the bark of the trees and the colors of the plants and foliage.
Sitting and looking down a gentle slope towards groups of picnickers lolling on the grass like a colorful Seurat painting, Patty suddenly became agitated and wanted to go somewhere else. She mumbled something about “families,” the presence of which apparently upset her.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking, for what seemed like several years, each experience and scene incredibly profound and intense, but quickly lost to memory.
Finally, as it was getting dark, we got back to the street by my apartment. On a corner nearby was a large mortuary. As we walked past it, Patty suddenly turned and ran, giggling, up the walkway, opened the front door and went inside. I quickly followed, feeling apprehensive.
Inside, we crept across lush carpet down a long hallway. Before I could stop her, Patty opened one of the doors to the side of us and went in, with me right behind her. As we entered, soothing music came on and the lid on a large ornate coffin in the center of the room slowly opened up, revealing a man in a suit and tie, encased in fresh linen and made up to look peacefully reposed but, nonetheless, obviously quite dead.
I pulled Patty away before she could get any closer and quickly led her back out the way we’d come.
Once safely inside my apartment I tried to engage her in lovemaking but she was unresponsive and easily distracted. Suddenly, she pulled back. “I’m going home.” she said coldly, without emotion, “I don’t want to see you anymore.”
“Ever?” I asked, recoiling.
“Never,” she said and walked out the door.
I fell back on my bed. After awhile I closed my eyes and tried to calm my myself in the yogic “dead pose.” Lying there, breathing slowly, palms upward at my sides, I progressively relaxed each part of my anatomy, from my face and head, all the way down to my feet, slowly letting go with each exhalation.
Before long I realized that I actually was dying. As I fell back into darkness, I just went with it, letting go of my life — through stage after stage of the death process.
The next morning I awoke, disappointed to find that I was still alive.
For an agonizing week I forced myself to stay away from Patty. I hoped she would approach me instead, but she didn’t. Finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I went over to her house one evening.
Her roommate answered the door. “Hi Carolyn,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant, “Is Patty here?”
“No, she went out,” Carolyn said, turning pale and looking uncomfortable.
Unable to resist, I asked, “With someone?”
“Yes,” she replied and told me Patty was seeing a Psychology Instructor from the University, whose name I didn’t recognize.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, as she closed the door.
I stumbled off into the night and spent the next week or two, unable to do anything but walk the streets at a rapid pace, head lowered, with both hands thrust deep into my pockets. I couldn’t sleep. I could barely eat anything.
Finally, I realized, if I didn’t pull out of it, that my grades, which had been quite good up to that point, would suffer irreparably. I made an appointment with a therapist at the University clinic. As I told her what was going on with me, her sincere sympathy and compassion was like a soothing balm. She said I was the most depressed person she’d ever seen, which somehow made me feel better, like my pain had been validated and I could start moving on. I realized my depression, while painful, had a cause — namely someone I deeply desired had rejected me. Unlike, a more general depression, the cause of which is usually obscure, my depression would eventually heal, like any wound, even such a deep one.
Gradually I recovered my composure, but I avoided Patty entirely and tried not to think about her.
My good friend Mel must have felt sorry for me. He told me about “A most gorgeous black chick,” and shortly afterwards I found myself sitting opposite Cindy at his tiny kitchen table. He also must have said something to her about me and made me sound pretty good, because as we sat together and made small talk, I realized she was flirting with me in the most alluring fashion, smiling and glancing at me beneath lowered lashes, turning her supple body this way and that in striking poses. When our eyes met a bolt of energy shot through me, arousing a hot, swelling movement between my legs.
“Would you like to come over to my place for a drink,” I asked, “It’s just up the street. I have a little vodka and orange juice in the fridge.”
“Sure,” she smiled and gave me a look that sent another surge through my groin.
My current apartment, at the edge of downtown, was on the second floor. One whole side of the living room wall was taken up with a row of four large windows above the street entrance to a Laundromat below. For privacy I’d painted over the inside of the windows with white, water-soluble tempera paint and then carved out large Chinese letters through the paint of each window with a damp sponge so that light could come through the letters from both directions — letters from a zen book which when translated meant something like “peace’ and the “Way.” From the street the lit up Chinese writing made it look like a sign for a Chinese laundry, which I thought was pretty cool.
Sitting on my old over-stuffed sofa, beneath the four white windows with their illuminated calligraphy, Cindy told me about her new job as an airline stewardess. Mel had said earlier that she was the first black stewardess in the country.
I could see why.
She was truly gorgeous — six feet tall, with a naturally regal bearing, thin graceful wrists, full round breasts, a narrow waist and long elegant legs. She was colored a wonderfully deep, dark brown, with classic features — wide-set nostrils, high cheekbones and big full lips, the upper lip chiseled with a sharp line where the two sides came together. She had large, almost oriental, almond-shaped eyes.
I was amazed at my good fortune, that she would take an interest in me, a pathetic, recently rejected white boy.
When we ran out of vodka I suggested we walk to the liquor store across the street for more. We went down the hall and out the back way, across the dark roof towards the outside stairs.
“This is where I do my painting, out here on the roof,” I explained, “I use enamel paints from the hardware store down on the corner, and drip and flow them on large wood panels and then go in with a brush to finish them up.
Without a word, she grabbed me, slammed me down on the rough surface, pressed her body and lips down on mine and thrust her tongue into my mouth.
Once again I marveled a my good fortune.
Back inside my apartment, with the awe and excitement of the first explorer on a dark, mysterious continent, my fingers traversed her body, gliding around taut, black nipples and over lush brown, satiny skin, across a firm, flat tummy with softly rounded muscle on either side of a tiny belly button, then down through tight, steely black pubic hair, to finally plunge into the hot red interior of a lush black vagina.
After that I became her man and Cindy treated me in a manner befitting my newly elevated status. She brought me gifts when she came back from her airline flights, most notably a thick, black wool turtleneck sweater, that I was to wear almost constantly thereafter. She even cooked me dinners of delicious, crispy fried chicken and greens.
I couldn’t resist driving up to Walnut Creek and introducing her to my parents. Over dinner Cindy appeared uncharacteristically nervous and I realized that my parent’s upper-middle-class home, with a view of the town and mountain in the distance, must have seemed opulent to her.
I’d never met any of her family and didn’t even know where she lived. The black neighborhood in San Jose was characteristically poor and run down. Once, on one of my long walks through that part of town, I saw Cindy in a tiny beauty parlor having her hair straightened. She was embarrassed for me to see her there and shooed me away.
My father was suitably impressed with Cindy, but my mother was noticeably shaken. She warned me later what a hard time we would have if we were to get married and how difficult it would for our children. I said I thought that if we had children they would be beautiful, and I let myself imagine what they would look like.
Once, when Cindy stayed with me between flights, I talked her into sharing a marijuana joint with me. She was reluctant, making vague reference to a bout with some kind of mental illness when she was younger.
After several puffs, she became acutely aware of the slovenly untidiness of my apartment, jumped up, and started making the bed, throwing dirty clothes into the closet, washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen with such abandon that she seemed to be moving in fast-motion, like one of those old silent movies — only even more uproariously funny.
Cindy was a Jehovah’s Witness and she was soon trying to convert me to that unique brand of Christianity. She emphasized their pacifism and other characteristics she thought would appeal to me. I let myself be led to one of their meetings, mainly because she was such a fox that I loved to be seen in public with her. The speaker (they apparently weren’t ministers or preachers) spent the entire sermon (or talk) inveighing against the evils of “fornication” — which only served to make us horny.
When we returned to my apartment we tore our church clothes off and started going at it like dogs, me behind her on the bed, leaning back on my knees, the shaft of my cock looking surprisingly large gliding back and forth through raspy wet labia and the tight juicy warmth between her round, up-thrust, brown buttocks.
She came down with a bladder infection after that and I wondered if it was brought on by guilt for having “fornicated” with me. If it was she never expressed any such reservations.
Things were not going well for her at the airlines. She said they gave her the worst flights and generally made life difficult for her in whatever way they could. I guessed that Mel and other activists had pressured the airline to hire her and now the management was taking it out on her.
Finally she couldn’t take it anymore and quit. She wasn’t a crusader. She said she just wanted to do a good job and get along with people.
Unfortunately, her wimpy white boyfriend would only add to her sorrow.
One afternoon my phone rang. The familiar voice was soft and tremulous, with just a hint of desperation.
“Hi poopsie. I miss you.”
For a change the poles were reversed and the current was running from Patty to me, flowing straight down the phone lines. I was powerless to resist. She must have heard about my relationship with Cindy and was jealous, but at least she cared.
Cindy reacted with anger when she found out I was seeing Patty again. She stormed into my apartment with her friend Mable and threatened to disconnect my testicles from my body. I instinctively went into a defensive crouch and told them to go ahead and try. This surprised both of them so much that they backed off and left with a few parting epithets.
After that I would never think of Cindy without feeling a twinge of guilt and remorse. At the same time I couldn’t help entertaining some hubris over the fact that two beautiful women had both wanted me.
A MARRIAGE PROPOSAL
Patty graduated that summer and moved back in with her parents. We continued our relationship as before, but I began to sense that I was losing her again, that her mother was trying to pry her away from me. Finally, Patty told me she was going to take a job teaching journalism at a high school in Wheeling, West Virginia, where some relatives lived, including a grandmother that she could stay with until she got settled.
Painful as it was, in order to spend at least a little more time with her, I agreed to drive her to the airport. On the way to San Francisco, in a last act of desperation, I asked her to marry me. Although I had come to view marriage as just another empty, bourgeoisie form — given the situation, I was completely serious.
She politely demurred, which was not surprising at such a late date, just as she was going off to an exciting new job.
As we walked through the airport terminal, we passed a very tall black man, who I recognized as the basketball star, Wilt Chamberlain. “Man, that’s a beautiful lady you got there,” he said to me. I nodded begrudgingly, knowing that she was not mine for long.
On the boarding platform we embraced a last time. Somewhat awkwardly, but with evident sincerity, Patty said, “I’ll never forget you. You’ve meant so much to me.”
Then the familiar, slim figure disappeared down the ramp to the plane without looking back.
With Patty gone, I busied myself with school and work. I still had to take a few classes to finish my undergraduate degree in painting and I was working part-time painting signs to pay for my education — which was easier in those distant times when rents were low and tuition at California universities was next to nothing.
I also sold paintings. In fact, almost everything I did was bought by someone, albeit for fairly modest prices. Starting at the age of eleven when my father took paintings I’d done and hung them at the University, where they sold surprisingly well, painting was a source of both monetary and psychological support. Taking simple, portable raw materials, canvas and paint, and making something that people would want and even pay for, was immensely satisfying.
I came to deeply identify with the role of painter. I invariably had a pair of “paint pants” with so much paint encrusted on the front that they were waterproof and could almost stand up on their own. Wherever I lived, I became the familiar paint-splattered figure in the neighborhood — the mad artist.
Shortly before I graduated, the head of the Art Department took me aside and offered me a full fellowship if I stayed on and did graduate work at San Jose. This came as a complete surprise to me, since I felt like an underachiever, who usually did a semester’s work in a frantic last week of all-nighters. But my grades had been good and many of my teachers had asked to keep my paintings for their “files” — a subtle form of extortion that I was happy to engage in.
I knew that a fellowship was a fast-track to a career as a college art instructor, but I’d already applied and been accepted into the graduate program at San Francisco State. I was tired of living in San Jose, with its oppressive summer heat and lingering memories of my time with Patty. San Francisco, “the city,” was calling me.
So despite feeling flattered and grateful, I regretfully declined the offer.
I sometimes wonder what my life might have been if I’d stayed in San Jose and eventually became a professor of art in the painting department. Things might have turned out very differently.
When I traveled to San Francisco to scout out possible places to live, I answered an ad for a flat in the Haight Ashbury district. Nestled between Golden Gate Park and the surrounding hills, where wisps of fog floated up gray streets lined with ornate, once-prosperous Victorian homes standing upright side by side like faded but still beautiful women, the “Haight” whispered of something subtle and mysterious, stirring in me a delicious sense of hidden possibilities.
It was a diverse neighborhood. Russian and Armenian immigrants, who still owned most of the retail shops and restaurants on Haight Street, had moved in when the once spacious homes were first divided up into flats. Young people, attracted by the low rents and funky ambiance, were beginning to arrive, bringing with them a culture of art and music, along with LSD and marijuana. The term “hippy” had yet to be coined, and the beatnik era, of coffee houses and jazz in North Beach, was just coming to a close.
The house in the ad was a huge, imposing, cosmically ornate, three-story structure standing at the corner of Ashbury and Page. It had once been painted white, but the delicate woodwork gracing its lofty exterior, complex patterns of ornamental swirls and scallops, was weathered and graying like driftwood in the moist ocean air.
Haight Street was a short block up a slight hill. In the opposite direction, just down Ashbury, was the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, a wide strip of tall trees and lawns between two streets.
The house was owned by a bank in Palo Alto, which meant the owners wouldn’t be a cumbersome presence there. I met the agent out front and followed him under an ornate arch at the entrance and up a winding flight of stairs to a landing on the second floor, where he unlocked the door to the flat.
It was complete mess — littered with trash and debris from the previous tenants.
As I looked around inside, I experienced a subtle feeling, almost like being on LSD. For an instant I sensed the previous occupants drug experiences still hanging in the air, like a lingering perfume. Most people would have been put off by the atmosphere inside, but I found it oddly attractive.
The flat had two large main rooms. From the first room, a small round balcony jutted out from under an overhanging arch above page street. The second, larger room, through double french doors, was lit by a huge vertical window that looked up Ashbury towards Haight Street. Next to that a bay window projected out around the corner of the room to an ornate fireplace with ornamental mantels and intricate tile work framing a small gas heater with an open burner behind its decorative metal front.
Past a full length, inset, beveled mirror, was a small kitchen that looked to have been a walk-in closet at one time. Another door led into a commodious bathroom, where a high ceiling soared up above an extra long, claw-foot bathtub.
Since it was such a mess, the agent offered it to me for fiftyfive dollars a month, with no deposit. I took it on the spot.
After thoroughly cleaning the flat, I proceeded to paint the two main rooms a pale olive green, with a darker shade for the woodwork and trim, mixing my own paint to get just the right hues. I painted the bathroom a rich shade of vaginal, reddish pink with darker red trim, and did the tiny kitchen in deep blue.
On Mcallister Street in the Fillmore district down the hill from the Haight, a trove of secondhand furniture stores provided me with mission oak furniture for a few dollars apiece and old oriental carpets in soft, faded shades with sensuous, intertwining floral patterns, whose psychedelic quality I never tired of looking at.
While I was hauling furniture up the stairs, I met the lady who occupied the flat opposite mine on the same floor. Her name was Mary Pat Fey and, as I was to learn later, she was an LSD dealer of some repute. She was nice looking, about my age (twentythree), petite but voluptuous, with sharp features, short, black hair, eye-shadow and heavy makeup over pale skin. All she ever wore were short black slips, dark patterned nylons and shiny, black pumps. When she went out she put on large, dark sunglasses and donned a black trench coat over her slip.
I immediately felt a certain sexual attraction between us, but I was hesitant to get involved with someone living right next door. I also found her a little scary. Ned, who lived upstairs in the attic flat, would tell me in a hushed tone that she was a witch. But then Ned also had a reputation as a warlock, which I think he cultivated. Mary Pat never had anything good to say about him. When she did refer to Ned, her eyes glanced up at the ceiling in his direction and she spat out his name in a venomous tone.
Ned’s flat, at the very top of the building, was graced with a round turret and cupola, where he liked to hold court, surrounded by walls decorated with colorful but cryptic pictures of occult subject matter. A cut-crystal globe hung from the center of the ceiling, refracting rainbow colors in all directions. He was a follower of Alister Crowley, one of the original renegade hipsters, who spurned the social and sexual mores of his time.
Like Crowley, Ned reveled in all things magical and arcane, hinting of mysteries beyond the kin of ordinary mortals. Women invariably described Ned as “creepy” and were afraid to be left alone with him. He was of average build, angular, with a high, pointed forehead and straight, greasy-looking black hair. He told me he’d been discharged from the army on psychological grounds, but he made it sound like it was all part of some larger, hidden plan.
On my visits to his turret Ned invariably had something amazing to reveal to me, which he prefaced by squinting his eyes and rubbing his hands gleefully together while chortling like Igor about to unveil some new monster on an unsuspecting populace. I don’t think I ever saw him smoke or ingest much in the way of mind-altering substances himself, but he liked getting visitors high so he could regale them with his various discoveries in the dark arts.
Ned introduced me to the Tarot cards. As an artist I found their suggestive imagery and associations fascinating and I immediately went downtown to a tiny “magick” store and bought several different versions of them.
Lacking curtains, I’d been thinking of painting the big, south-facing window with water soluble tempera paint, as I’d done on the windows in my last apartment in San Jose. Playing with the Tarot cards, it occurred to me that they would be a ideal subject to paint on the window, which was just the right shape for a tarot card — about six feet tall and four feet wide.
I shuffled the cards and picked one at random — “The Lovers.”
I held the card up towards the window and squinted. Perfect. The two large widow panes exactly fit the composition. In the lower pane, two naked figures, Adam and Eve, stood on either side of a distant blue mountain. In the upper pane, under a yellow sun with descending rays, an androgynous winged angel with autumnal leaves for hair, sat on a cloud with hands out-stretched, as if to join the pair of lovers below.
I’ve always been good at copying things freehand, so painting the large image on the window, using high-quality tempera colors, was easy. When it was finished I thought it looked even better than the original, especially from down below in the street at night when the interior lights lit it up like stained glass.
I think it became something of landmark in the neighborhood and I even imagined it set the tone for what was to follow.
Note — There’s another chapter likely to be inserted here.
When I first encountered Wolf he was standing on Haight Street sucking on a lemon half — which I was to learn he did whenever he was fasting.
“Do you know where it’s at man?” he asked
From the way it was uttered, between sucks on his lemon, the question of where “it” was “at” had vast implications. Here was a fellow seeker and spiritual friend.
Wolf was my first introduction to living Zen, or Zen as embodied in real people. With his simple, direct manner, he sometimes struck me as a total idiot, or at best a god-intoxicated holy-fool. But he could come up with surprising insights into a situation or relationship, uttered in three or four words — that would “stun the common crowd and shut the mouths of the Patriarchs and sages.”
Stocky, with a large squarish head and chiseled features under ringlets of brown hair, Wolf had once been a member of the Gypsy Jokers motorcycle club. More artistic than menacing, the Jokers were much admired for their grubby style and charisma, for which they were even respected by their ruder, more violent brethren, the Hells Angels.
A man after my own taste in sartorial matters, Wolf would find a distinctive article of clothing, such as his thick, khaki-colored coat with a fur collar, and wear it continually, until it became a part of him, absorbing his energy (along with food stuffs and various other substances) and it had acquired a delicate patina of age and venerability, like the robe of some wandering mendicant. He wore that particular coat until it was hanging in shreds down the backs of his legs before finally relinquishing it.
Wolf had a placid countenance, a calmness that gave the impression of great weight and gravitas. There was also a subtle sadness in his large, liquid, brown eyes that belied his gruff exterior. He was an orphan, but when he told me of being shuffled from one foster home to another as a child, he said it matter-of-factly, as if it was of little consequence.
In a neighborhood that was awash in marijuana and psychedelics, Wolf was unusually cautious with drugs, especially LSD. I sensed that he felt somewhat fragile in regard to the ingesting of such substances. I only heard him mention having taken LSD once and when I saw him shortly afterwards, he was visibly shaken by the experience. He said that a homosexual had come on to him in the park while he was on it.
Wolf had found the perfect employment for a former motorcycle gang member — driving a Harley Davidson delivery motorcycle around the city.
One day I was treated to a dizzying display of his motorcycle prowess when the sound of a horn honking vigorously outside my flat drew me onto the small round balcony overlooking the corner of Ashbury and Page.
The street below was empty.
Then I heard the roar of an engine coming up Page Street. An old, black delivery motorcycle shot into view and zoomed around and around the four-way intersection — from curb to curb in a speeding blur, the side-car compartment lifted almost vertically into the air.
As he sped off up Page street, Wolf grinned back at me and honked his horn again.
Wolf’s lair, a few blocks down Page Street from my place, was at the top of a flight of steep, narrow stairs in a drab Victorian apartment house. On the wall at the top of the dingy stairwell, dwarfing all the other nondescript stains and scribbles, was the word “AT,” crudely painted in large letters.
On my first visit, he reverently handed me his worn copy of “The Three Pillars of Zen” and guided me to the translation of an essay by the Japanese Zen Master Dogen, titled “Being Time” — one of the most profound works by that most abstruse and complex of religious philosophers. “THAT’S where it’s at,” Wolf breathed, patting the page tenderly with a big, blocky hand.
It turns out IT was at many places and no place at the same time.
Wolf showed me through his squalid, disheveled, sparsely furnished apartment like a tour guide in the Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t see what he was so proud of — until he lifted a rear window and gestured for me to climb out onto what I soon realized was a level section of roof, high above the streets.
Stretching out below was a magnificent panoramic view of the city, with precise rows of buildings shining in the late afternoon light, and the bay and Berkeley hills in the distance.
It was there that I first met Hugh Banks, whom Wolf spoke of with rare respect. Huey, Wolf intimated, was some kind of Zen adept, who periodically shaved his head and engaged in long bouts of deep meditation with Suzuki, a Zen priest who had recently arrived in San Francisco from Japan. Suzuki had a temple in Japantown on the other side of the Fillmore District, almost visible from Wolf’s roof.
As the three of us lounged on the roof and passed a thick marijuana joint, I took a closer look at Huey. His hair, barely a quarter inch long, was just starting to grow out again. In an era when most of us sported long locks and thick beards, his cropped head gave him the mad look of someone who had just escaped from a prison or insane asylum. In fact, he was a certified schizophrenic (with delusions of grandeur) who had spent most of his early years in mental institutions.
But it was more than simple insanity that set Huey apart from anyone else I had met up to that point. He had a certain presence that I found strangely appealing. He always seemed to be “on,” like an actor who must pay attention to his every movement in order to fit the part he was playing. He even had a peculiar way of walking, slowly and deliberately, as if watching himself from some distant vantage, with his weight back on his heels and his feet turned outward, like Charlie Chaplin’s character, the little tramp.
Later, when his stringy, blond hair had grown down to his shoulders, leaving a round bald spot at the crown of his head like a medieval friar, with a thick red beard flowing down from either side of his face, his chin tucked in and his eyes gazing upward, he was the image of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism.
When Huey first visited my flat he said that life itself can become a work of art, which summed up my philosophy precisely. His highest compliment was to say that someone was “real,” the implication being that most people were not really real — an estimation which I also tended to agree with.
Huey and Wolf adopted me, informally, as their apprentice. I became their straight man, the foil and audience for their Zen antics. They reminded me of the two legendary Zen cutups, Hanshan and Shidei, popular subjects of Chinese ink painters, whose inexplicable banter pointed to deep cosmic truths.
I was happy to let them show me their favorite hangouts around the city — beat generation holdovers, like the graffiti and candle wax encrusted Blue Unicorn Coffee House, where poetry was spontaneously recited aloud and intense philosophical discussions routinely occurred.
Another chapter to go here
Finally, Huey proudly escorted me to Japantown to sit with Suzuki. After what was, for me, an exotic and delicious first taste of tempura in a tiny street kiosk, we approached the ornate wooden facade of the “Soto Zen Mission,” which had formally housed a Jewish Synagogue.
Suzuki met us just inside the door. After we took off our shoes and exchanged silent bows, he ushered us in, moving smoothly about like a solicitous host. He was very small in scale, but with an impressive presence, an erect but relaxed bearing, crisp dark robes over a spotless v-shaped white collar, and a smoothly shaved head.
He and Huey seemed to have a special relationship, circling in stylized movements and eyeing one another like two combatants, but with obvious enjoyment.
Since I was a newcomer, Suzuki escorted me to a sitting cushion for initiation into the Soto Zen style of meditation. Although Huey had shown me the basic posture, I let Suzuki gently place me into position, basking in the warmth of his attention.
I had already meditated sporadically for short periods over the last few years and could sit in the half-lotus fairly comfortably and even get into the full lotus for a few intense minutes. But I was unprepared for what lay ahead.
Gradually, in my rapidly expanding peripheral vision, others silently entered the room, bowing from the waist with palms together towards round, black sitting-cushions, each on its own wide, flat pad, arranged in a precise row along an expanse of wall. Turning and bowing again to the room, they sat down on their respective cushions and spun smoothly around to face the wall in meditation posture.
Suzuki moved silently about the room adjusting peoples’ postures, his hands touching their bodies with a tenderness that was remarkably natural and unselfconscious.
I checked my position: half-open eyes gazing slightly downward, the natural forward curve of my lower back slightly accentuated, chin tucked in, the crown of my head pointed toward the ceiling as if suspended by a cable, shoulders and arms relaxed downward, elbows out and hands resting lightly on my topmost foot with palms up and thumbs barely touching at a point just below my navel, making a circle or “cosmic mudra.”
A surge of pride came over me. This wasn’t so difficult.
I went over Suzuki’s instructions, counting my breaths from one to ten, starting over at one whenever my mind wandered into fleeting thoughts or sensations.
After awhile I went to the next step — watching my breath, simply letting it go slowly in and out through my nostrils, slightly emphasizing and prolonging the outbreath. Whenever my attention strayed, I pulled it gently back to my breath.
Finally, I felt my concentration was sufficient to attempt the final step — Shikantaza or “just sitting,” the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of Soto Zen practice. Concentrating on the blurred light coming through half closed eye lashes, I explored the feelings in my body.
My body! Holy shit!
My body was screaming at me, “What are you doing, have you gone mad!”
My folded knees were being pierced with hot steel rods of pain and my feet were turning into huge, numb blocks of wood. My shoulders and neck contracted like vises cranking tighter and tighter. I broke into a sweat as time ground to a halt, the ensuing minutes crawling painfully past. I repeatedly imagined standing up abruptly and dashing for the door.
Just as I was convinced I couldn’t stand another second, a deep, resonant bell sounded. I bowed to the wall with palms together, following along with the others on either side. We rocked from side to side, got off our round, black cushions, fluffed them up with both hands, stood up stiffly, bowed again, turned, and very, very slowly began walking forward, each step taking us only a few inches as we snaked slowly around the room.
I looked over the line of shoulders. Up ahead was an exit that I decided I would bolt out of the instant I reached it. But as the line painstakingly flowed past the doorway, I was unable to make my move, as if I was being pulled along, like an object on a conveyor belt.
The sharp sound of a wooden clapper signaled the line to speed up to a normal pace — until we each stopped again in front of our black pad and round cushion, bowed, turned around, bowed to the room, sat, swung around and faced the dreaded wall again.
I nervously folded my legs into the half lotus. To my surprise, I felt refreshed and comfortable as I renewed my efforts to count my breaths and relax into “just sitting.”
When the second forty minute period neared an end, time once again slowed to a halt. The minutes stretched out like hours and I began to wonder if the timekeeper had fallen asleep on the bell. As the pain became unbearable I did what I’d done many times on LSD when things got too extreme and threatening — I gave myself up, surrendered, and threw myself into the void. The pain didn’t go away, but I stopped fighting it, relaxed, and merged with it. Before I knew it, the bell sounded and I stood up, exultant to have survived.
Afterwards, I felt buoyant and naturally high, my feet seeming not to touch the pavement as we walked back through Japantown. I marveled at how something as simple as just sitting still for a length of time could have such far-reaching religious implications. Facing the wall, there was no escape. It was like facing the vast pain of humanity. I thought of Jesus nailed to the cross. Everything, all creatures, the great earth, the entire universe, all of time, was contained within the simple practice of zazen.
After that I started going to the afternoon sittings in Japantown, often walking all the way from the Haight, through the Fillmore, to get there. My own meditations received a huge boost and a renewed focus. I began meditating every morning when I first got out of bed and every evening before going asleep, for the length of time it took a stick of incense to burn down, or about half an hour.
I also went to Suzuki’s weekly talks. I felt like he was talking directly to me — as I suspect many of us did. I’ve since heard people say that his English was poor and he was hard to understand but all I remember is how simple and clear were his explanations of often subtle and recondite matters, even to a neophyte like myself.
Unlike the recollections of many of his students, some of whom insist that he never even mentioned the word “enlightenment,” my memory of him is of urgent exhortations to develop a “way-seeking-mind” and to practice with all our might, “as if our hair was on fire.”
Most everyone who sat with Suzuki in those days appeared to be in their early twenties like myself. His formal students, a few of whom were already wearing black robes, seemed to be quite impressed with themselves. Unlike Suzuki himself, who accepted everyone just as they were, I sensed that they looked down on Huey and I, as drugged-out, hippie outsiders.
However, one incident convinced me that Huey was the only one among us who had actually realized Suzuki’s True Mind. I can’t remember where we were, or even if we were high, or on what, but I suspect we were, since in those days we were high more often than not.
Huey was sitting off to my left, when, suddenly, I “saw” him — not with my usual eyes but with an eye that we somehow both shared. Perfectly still, looking slightly downwards in profile, his face radiant with golden light, he was the Ancient One, completely clear and present, with a Mind that cut through the usual stream of phenomena to give me a glimpse of something eternal, something infinitely mysterious and subtle that embraced all of creation but was still intensely intimate and personal. For that timeless moment we were one being.
Huey was indifferent to the respect I accorded him, pointing out that he was actually a year or two younger than I was — the implication being that as his senior I had no business acting like he was my teacher. Such a relationship was unspoken, but I was convinced that he had managed to drink much deeper from the mystical experience to be found in this life than most of us ever will.
Although he was so adept in many ways, Huey was definitely crazy. In fact it might have been that craziness, his schizophrenia, that allowed him to realize such states. Even his schizoid delusions were just rational enough to make me wonder if there might be some truth to them.
Like most of us he frequented the incredible array of concerts in San Francisco during that time, some for free outdoors in the Pan Handle near my flat and others at places like the Avalon Ball Room and the Fillmore Auditorium. He claimed that various bands, most notably Buffalo Springfield, had asked him to travel with them, presumably to be an “audience,” a shill, who could generate the ecstatic energy that would bring everyone together with the music in a crescendo of bliss.
Through meditation one can become more aware of such states as they come and go and it’s easy to imagine that one is consciously creating something, like the coming together of music and audience, especially under the influence of marijuana or LSD. I had experienced such moments at concerts myself — the difference being that I wasn’t convinced that I was causing them to happen, but that I was probably just part of a spontaneous arousal.
One day he came into my flat manically exclaiming about an experience he’d had sitting in the front row at one of Suzuki’s talks. He said they were both vying (with their minds) to control the flickering of a flame on a candle nearby and at the end of his talk Suzuki pointedly strode over and blew out the candle.
Much of Huey’s delusive thinking was self-referential in the connections his mind made. Following, or “tripping,” on a string of personal associations, like verbal puns and double meanings, can be very compelling. I found that if I fixated on a certain word or phrase that it would appear everywhere in my environment, as if in a mental mirror. It’s natural for the mind to pick out such connections but this seemed to go beyond that.
I was amazed at how easily I was able to adopt his view of causation — as if schizophrenia could be learned or caught from someone else.
As his mental state deteriorated, Huey’s delusions and hallucinations became more prolific. He told me that little men were all over his apartment — a common apparition in both schizophrenic and shamanistic visions.
He had started injecting meth, which was beginning to invade the Haight with malefic consequences, destroying minds and casting a dark pall over the neighborhood. I instinctively avoided using speed, except for the occasional Dexedrine when working all night painting for classes, which, while quite effective for putting off sleep, didn’t produce the best work,
I did smoke what was probably an early form of crack cocaine once, with Huey and some of his friends. After a few deep hits, a stream of bliss engulfed me, lighting up all my senses, especially my visual sense, with indescribably ecstatic feelings. It only lasted a few minutes and I was left wanting more and bereft of any of the insights LSD and marijuana sometimes provoked. I could see that it was addictive and indulging in it further would be a mistake.
Huey finally ended up injecting “speed balls,” a combination of meth and heroin. Before long he reported that his wife had taken their young son and left the City. He spoke longingly of how smooth her skin was and how much he missed her.
After I’d left town myself, I heard that Huey was living on the street and had lost all his teeth. I recalled how he had once told me that nothing really mattered and it was all right to take drugs, because this was all an illusion anyway.
The last time I saw Wolf he was managing a head shop in Marin County north of San Francisco. He had grown his curly brown hair out into an impressive Afro and was wearing bell bottom pants.
Note — The following two chapters occur later in my story.
In the late sixties, while I was living in a shack by a pond in the Sierra foothills, I visited my old buddy Mel and his new girlfriend, a slender little redhead. They were living on a small, secluded island in the Sacramento River Delta, in a ramshackle house which hung out over the water’s edge on tall stilts that provided support for impressive spider webs woven by large yellow and black spiders, each sitting motionless in the center of her shining orb.
A narrow, floating, wooden dock reached out into the placid, green water where an old boat, which had deposited me there earlier, was tied up. It was not much more than a rowboat with an outboard motor on the back, but we went put-putting merrily around the delta channels that stretched out in every direction, the three of us sitting naked in the little boat with the hot summer sun beating down, occasionally stopping to jump into the river and swim around to cool off.
At the end of the day I walked with Mel to the garden behind the house to pick some vegetables for dinner. The center of the little island was lower than the perimeter on which their cottage rested. As we walked down the path we went past a round bush, almost as tall as myself, festooned with white, trumpet-shaped flowers with soft yellow centers. When I passed close by the bush I felt a familiar psychic rush, which I immediately took to be an LSD flashback. Although I’d never experienced flashbacks, I’d been warned that someday I would.
“What is that plant?” I asked Mel, “I felt like I got a hit of LSD when we walked by it.”
He explained that it was a Datura bush, grown from seeds he brought back from a trip to the Grand Canyon when he was teaching at an alternative high school and he took the kids on a field trip to the Colorado River Basin. He said they picked some leaves from Datura growing nearby and mixed it with hamburgers they barbequed at their campsite.
After that things got really crazy, with real-looking people appearing out of rock formations and everyone hallucinating and staggering around. Some kids even fell into the river and Mel had to go in and pull them out.
“We were lucky no one died,” he exclaimed.
On the way back to the house I stopped at the bush, reached in and picked a green seed pod, about the size of a golf ball, with little spikes sticking out the sides that reminded me of the explosive, floating mines used to destroy ships. I brought it with me when I returned to the foothills and placed it on a shelf over my desk, where it sat for several weeks. Until one day…
I awoke that morning feeling like I wanted to get high and do yoga. I searched everywhere for some marijuana, but couldn’t even find a roach. Then my gaze fell on the seed pod on the shelf. “Aha,” I thought.
Excited by the prospect of trying something new, I made a hot mug of home-grown peppermint tea, with a generous spoonful of honey, and proceeded to break open the seed pod. Inside was about a half cup of small flat seeds similar to poppy seeds. I chewed up several mouthfuls, washing them down with tea.
“Doesn’t taste too bad,” I thought, as I finished the last of the seeds and sat back with anticipation to wait for the Datura to take effect
It didn’t take long. With unexpected force, wave after wave of body rushes enveloped me, similar to LSD coming on, but way stronger — huge waves of energy that made every hair on my body stand on end.
I noticed that the mug I was drinking tea from was becoming unusually heavy. It was a large hand-made ceramic piece, somewhat weighty, but nothing like this. It felt like it weighed about thirty pounds. In fact, everything, my body included, was getting very, very heavy — as if on the planet Jupiter, with way more gravity than what we’re used to here on earth.
“This is too much,” I thought as I sank to the floor under my own weight, “I’ve got to get rid of it.”
I crawled on my belly out the front door into the morning sunlight and stuck two fingers down my throat as far as they would go, hoping to vomit up what I had swallowed. I gagged a few times but nothing would come up.
Resigned, I crawled back inside. “I can handle this,” I told myself bravely, “I’m a Yogi.”
Taking big doses of LSD had taught me to let the ego die, relax into the fear, and go out the other side to a place where nothing could touch me because I‘d given myself up completely.
As I always did before yoga practice, I slipped out of my clothes, only this time I did it while lying flat on the floor, like a snake shedding it’s skin. I grabbed the thick canvas gym mat, with the red, four-peddled lotus chakra I’d painted on it, and rolled it out into the center of the room where the old floor curved gradually up to a slight peak.
I crawled onto the mat, folded my legs into the full lotus, straightened my back, and gazed over at the undulating, silky, white curtain that separated the main room from my small kitchen. It was a relief to be back on my usual meditation spot. The repressive feeling of excessive weight dissipated.
I don’t remember much after that, except that I know I wasn’t passed out or unconscious. I spent the entire day sitting there, tripping wildly, hallucinating like crazy, leaving my body and showing up in different places. It was jumbled and chaotic, one disconnected episode after another, with memory blackouts in between.
I was to learn later that sitting in the full lotus, with legs locked so that the body can’t get up and run around while the mind is tripping elsewhere, was apparently a good thing to do and might have even saved my life, or at least spared me major embarrassment. Like Mel’s field trip students who fell into the Colorado River, people on Datura (or Jimson weed, as it is called in the Southwest) frequently run off cliffs or onto busy highways.
When I finally stood up, the sun was going down. I’d been sitting in the full-lotus the whole day, way more than what I was used to (I was to learn later that datura was once used as an analgesic for bone setting and surgery).
The drug had apparently worn off enough for my memory to start functioning again.
The next thing I knew I was in Berkeley. I was walking up the sidewalk past Live Oak Park towards my parents house, as I’d done numerous times. Everything seemed normal. I completely forgot I was on Datura. I went up the steps and rang the doorbell. No one answered. The front door was unlocked, so I went in.
As I often did when visiting my folks, I walked through the house to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and peered inside to see if there was anything good to eat. Sure enough, a big, beautiful, red apple beckoned from one of the shelves. I reached for it and in an instant I was back in the foothills again, my bare legs painfully tangled up in a barbwire fence on a hill overlooking the few buildings that made up the town of Copperopolis.
Somehow I managed to extricate myself from the barbwire and stumble back down the hill in the dark. I was grateful I’d returned to my body before I got to the highway — where I probably would have run naked through the town, whose residents were already skeptical of me.
I realized later that without my awareness, my body had walked up a hill that was about the same slope and distance as walking up the sidewalk to my parents house, which apparently was a mental projection in a duplicate body — a parallel hallucination that had seemed perfectly real, even ordinary, with nothing out of place or unusual. The pain from the barbed wire must have provoked an abrupt return to my original body
Once I was back in my room again, I lit the kerosene lamp — only to discover I was bleeding profusely from deep gashes across the top of each thigh. I didn’t even have a Band-Aid and this looked like it would require some stitches.
I did the first thing that came to mind. I visualized myself drawing light energy from my solar plexus into both hands and then I glided my open hands above my thighs while directing the light down into the wounds. It was a healing ritual I’d come up with and practiced on many an ailment, but never with such success — the bloody slashes closed up and disappeared, leaving behind a clean white scar across each thigh.
I’d write it off as an hallucination, except for the fact that both scars, several inches long, are still visible almost fifty years later. A little memento from the Datura Lady.
I’d hardly had time to compose myself, when headlights shone through the window and I heard a car coming down the hill. I looked out the window. Sure enough, a small Hillman coupe was pulling up outside. It didn’t occur to me that there was no longer a road to my place and I hadn’t had a visitor in over a year.
“What a time for someone to show up,” I thought, “When I’m totally out of my mind on some exotic drug.”
I peered out the corner of the window as three people got out of the car. A younger man who was the driver walked around the pond and disappeared into the woods. An old man with a white beard went and sat down near the edge of the pond and gazed into the water. The third person, a woman, came in my back door, through the kitchen, and walked into my room.
That’s when I remembered I was still totally naked. I grabbed my pants but every time I tried to get my legs into them I fell over backwards like I was drunk. After several clumsy attempts, I laughed sheepishly and stood up to confront my visitor.
She was a stout, nondescript, middle-aged woman with dark hair, possibly Hispanic or Italian, quite unremarkable — like she could be somebody’s mom. As I looked at her, she suddenly changed into a life-sized, color photograph on a cardboard cutout, such as might grace the aisle of a grocery store next to a stack of canned beans. I blinked, and she changed back into what appeared to be a real, normal looking person.
I tried to say something, to explain or apologize for my lack of clothing, but my words came out garbled and high-pitched, like a raccoon, as if I’d just inhaled helium.
I finally gave up trying to talk when I realized that my visitor was speaking with her mind, her words appearing directly in my head as if I were thinking them myself. She said she was the plant I’d eaten earlier and explained in great detail who she was, who I was, how it all worked. She revealed the profoundest secrets of existence, what seekers like myself long to realize, everything.
Unfortunately I forgot most of it immediately.
One thing I did remember is that near the end she said something to the effect that every person was like a drop of water, and that each of those drops eventually flowed into a little stream. The streams flowed together until they became a river and all the rivers eventually flowed into the ocean, which was one, huge, all-encompassing being.
She said that she was like a mighty river. With that she changed into a different person, then another, and another, both male and female, each one distinctly real and unique. Countless faces, one after another continued to appear and disappear — even after I realized I was lying on my bed, fading into a deep sleep.
I awoke the next morning, and sat bolt upright. Was I still on Datura? I cautiously got out of bed. Everything seemed like it was back to normal. I opened the front door and stepped out into the sunlight. For a moment it looked like any other summer morning in the foothills, when suddenly, in a flash, the entire scene turned red, like a red filter had been placed over both of my eyes. I gasped, turned, ran back inside, got back into bed, closed my eyes and tried to relax.
After awhile I ventured out again. This time the colors were normal, but my relief was short-lived — I’d become incredibly farsighted. Picking up a matchbook, I couldn’t read any of the words on its front cover until I’d placed it on the ground about ten feet away from me. I could see a car going up a ridge several miles away, in almost perfect detail, even the people inside, along a road I’d not been able to see at all before.
“Shit, what have I done?” I thought, almost laughing to myself, “I’m an artist. I depend on my eyes. I’ll have to get special brushes ten feet long,”
As the day wore on I was relieved to see that I was getting less farsighted each time I placed the matchbook cover on the ground in front of me. By nightfall my vision was back to normal. Later, when I went to the Optometry Department at the University of California in Berkeley and had my eyes tested, they were perfect, even better than they had been before.
It was interesting to read Carlos Castaneda’s book, The Teachings of Don Juan, when it came out a few years later. He also saw Datura as embodied in a similar woman, but one who is just as evil and dangerous as the plant. Don Juan warns against ingesting any part of the plant, especially the seeds, because she can easily kill you. In the book a paste made from Datura root is spread on Castaneda’s legs that causes him to fly and have various hallucinations. “Allies,” or strange, very real-looking people who appear out of nowhere, also figure predominantly in the book, but not connected directly with Datura — while that’s the only time I’ve seen such beings.
After taking Datura I realized that LSD, Psilocybin mushrooms and Peyote or Mescaline, are in an entirely different class when it comes to Hallucinations. Those drugs merely alter the perception of the immediate surroundings but are unlikely to create completely separate experiences of being somewhere else or of seeing people who did not exist before ingesting the drug. That’s what was so remarkable about Datura — each event, and the people who appear, are ordinary and real, rather than ephemeral or distorted, but they are still total hallucinations, or at least not a normal part of this reality.
Unfortunately the experience of Datura is so disconnected and disorienting that it is both unpleasant and without much benefit in the way of insights or transcendent experiences, such as psychedelics can sometimes reveal. The one thing I did learn from Datura is that the mind can create an entire reality out of thin air. We are dependent upon our senses for a perception of reality. That’s all we know. When we meet someone or find ourselves in a particular physical location, we assume it’s real. Datura showed me everything might instead be “only mind.”
Mrs. Gretzinger’s old Toyota Corolla hardly seemed capable of climbing the steep, dusty road up out of Carmel Valley to Tasajara Hot Springs and the Zen Monastery that had recently been established there. The little car vibrated and jumped around as I drove us up over row after row of washboard ruts, around sharp corners (hoping we wouldn’t meet someone coming the opposite direction), until finally we reached the top of a high plateau, where panoramic views of blue ridges fading in the distance and the clear air made me imagine we were on a journey across Tibet.
It was the summer of 1971 and my friend Mrs. Gretzinger had taken it upon herself to make sure I got out of my little hermitage in the Sierra foothills in order to visit what she considered significant places and people. I teased her about being “spiritually promiscuous” because she was personally acquainted with every type of religious practice imaginable, from various, often exotic, forms of Christianity, to psychics and yogis — and now Zen Buddhism.
As we drove along a ridge towards Tassajara, she made me pull over by a huge, very singular oak tree growing right on the edge of the road. The trunk looked to be over ten feet in diameter, with huge spreading branches.
Mrs. Gretzinger got out and circled the tree, lovingly caressing the rough bark and putting her face close to it. She had recently lost her job as a teacher in the tiny foothills town of Copperopolis because she had taken her grammar school class out to gather around a notable local oak tree and “listen to what it had to say.”
I think the townsfolk were already suspicious of her for visiting the hippy hermit (yours truly) who lived in the old pump house beside the pond outside of town. “Talking to trees” must have been the final straw.
She didn’t seem to mind losing her job and it hadn’t deterred her from continuing to converse not only with trees, but with various other denizens of the natural world. She said she was ready for retirement anyway and was about to take up permanent residence in her home at Capitola on the coast. Once there she would doff a little bikini every morning, her skinny old body wrinkled from sunbathing, walk down to the beach nearby, wade into the freezing water of the North Pacific and swim until she was out of sight and then back in again.
I would miss her occasional visits. When she first hiked over the hill from where she rented a room from a local matron in Copperopolis and walked through the graveyard and across the meadow to my door, I’d already been residing in my remote shack beside the old pond for several years.
I must have impressed her, because not long after that first visit she brought another old lady with her, who was apparently wealthy and well-connected. They offered to set me up in an ashram for people to visit, where I could, presumably, impart some of my hard-earned wisdom.
I found the idea preposterous and laughable. Granted I’d been meditating and practicing yoga quite strenuously for some time, but I’d only had one moment of real insight and that lasted just a few seconds. Although it was enough to keep me going, it hadn’t left me with much real understanding.
Looking back, I do think that my power of bare, concentrated attention had developed to a higher degree than I realized, because the offer to turn me into a guru didn’t engender the least bit of ego in me (as it probably would now) and I just laughed it off as absurd.
As we drove down the incredibly long, steep grade into the narrow Tassajara Valley, I was careful not to lean on the brakes too hard, lest our little car end up like the rusting vehicles in ditches along the roadside that conjured up images of dedicated seekers abandoning their disabled autos to rush into the monastery, never to come out again.
Once inside Tassajara, Mrs. Gretzinger disappeared into the women’s side of the hot baths.
Left to my own devices I walked up Tassajara creek and found an isolated spot beside the rushing water to meditate. I especially like sitting beside a stream, where the characteristic downward slope provides the same effect as sitting on a meditation cushion, with the added benefit of fresh air and sunshine.
When we’d checked in at the office earlier I’d overheard that Suzuki Roshi was currently in residence. My inclination to sit zazen (meditation) whenever I was alone was given renewed purpose by the thought of his presence there.
I hadn’t seen him since my days in the Haight Ashbury, but he remained an ever-present inspiration. His simple method of counting and watching the breath and “just sitting” had informed my meditations ever since, and I intended someday to become his student.
I remembered how he spoke once of “really meeting someone.” He said that most of us had never actually “met” anyone, that what we thought of as meeting, was not even close to what it was like to really meet someone.
Meditating beside the stream I had an intense vision of Suzuki sitting in zazen. I saw him from outside and inside simultaneously, like I was both myself and him at the same time. His life-stream flashed before my eyes, first in Japan, then coming to America, and then right up to the present moment, as if he were running across time towards me.
I stood up and wandered downstream to the mineral baths. Along the wall at the entrance was a faded mural of a Native American chieftain cradling his daughter. Legend has it that the healing waters of Tassajara hot springs came gushing up out of the ground as a result of the chieftain’s tears and fervent prayers for his sick daughter who was dying as he carried her towards the ocean for healing.
I went into the main bath on the men’s side. The smooth plaster in the big hot pool was a unique turquoise blue characteristic of hot springs from the early part of the twentieth century when Tassajara and similar resorts had enjoyed great popularity. I marveled at the color and how whoever had built the baths had managed to create such a perfect hue, like the blue of the sky in landscape paintings from the same period.
I had the large bath all to myself. Between plunges into the fiery hot, sulfurous water, I was doing hatha yoga and meditating naked in the full lotus, my body flexible from the bath — when a tall shaved-head monk entered the bathing area, holding a smoking stick of incense between raised palms.
Following behind him was Suzuki Roshi.
I jumped up and asked if I was supposed to be there, or if it was the monks bathing time. The monk assured me it was OK and to just continue what I was doing. Then he left me alone with Suzuki.
I slid into the bath and looked up as Suzuki disrobed and somewhat awkwardly got into the hot water, one hand held politely over his genitals. With his small body and shaved head he reminded me of the little guys in Japanese wood block prints wearing breech-cloths and running with water buckets.
Neither of us spoke as we faced each other across the steaming water. Normally I’m shy and non-confrontational but there was something about Suzuki so calm and accepting that my agitation and anxiety quickly melted away.
The surroundings faded into a round orb of consciousness, like “seeing” with eyes relaxed in zazen. Suzuki was transparent. I could see right into his mind, except that it was my mind as well, a mind totally clear and open like empty space, free of all discriminations such as self and other or teacher and student.
Since the experience was without images and thoughts, it’s difficult to remember or say much about it — even how long we remained that way.
The spell was finally broken when a feeling of deep suffering and pain arose and Suzuki abruptly got out of the bath and disappeared. I couldn’t be sure who’s pain it was, but since I’d recently been experiencing both physical and emotional pain, I assumed it was mine, reflected back at me.
Later, as I drove away from Tassajara with Mrs. Gretzinger, we stopped at the little spring on the side of the road. As I leaned over for a drink of cold water, I had an urge to go back to Tassajara. Something told me this would be my last opportunity, that Suzuki would die soon.
No, I thought, that’s ridiculous, he had looked strong and healthy. I would wait until I felt ready and then I would return and become his student.
A few months later I learned he had died.
For Suzuki to engage with a wild-eyed stranger like myself on such an intimate level struck me as absolutely fearless and compassionate. He encountered me as an equal, though my foolishness must have been apparent. Even if I couldn’t see my own Buddha Nature, he could. There was no opposition in him, no need to dominate or instruct. Because of that openness, his influence was profound.
Not long after Suzuki died I returned to Tassajara, intent on finally becoming a member of the community and practicing zen there. Immediately upon arriving I approached a young man in the office and informed him of my intention.
“I’ll paint watercolors on location around the area, sell them and donate all the money to Tassajara to pay for my room and board,” I offered.
“You can’t do that,“ he said smiling benignly at my naivete. “Everyone here is assigned a job.”
“But I would be worth much more as a artist. They must need carpenters, plumbers, even lawyers. It seems a shame to let those skills go to waste.”
“Baker Roshi doesn’t want us to become attached to an identity like a job,” he said, referring to the new Abbot, Suzuki’s successor, “He even makes everyone rotate jobs periodically so they won’t become attached.”
“What about him, does he rotate his job periodically so he won’t become attached?”
He laughed, and that was that. Painting was more than just an ego-identity for me. It was a disciplined practice, like meditation, that I wasn’t willing to give up just yet.
It would be over a decade before I returned to Tassajara again, this time for a week as a “work-study student” during the summer guest season. A fresh-faced and bright-eyed Reb Anderson, who would later replace a disgraced Richard Baker as Abbott, spoke to the assembled new guest students. He apologized for the laxity of the summer practice, hinting that it bore little relation to the real practice periods that took place during the winter when the guests were gone.
“Everyone comes to Buddhism by a different path, with a different story,” he said.
Assigned a bed at the end of a long dormitory that looked like it had once been a barn, I was somewhat distressed to discover a crack in the wooden wall right over my bed which was home to a nest of strange bees, the likes of which I’d never seen before — very large, fuzzy black, and much longer than ordinary bumble bees. They made an extremely loud buzzing noise as they zoomed back and forth to their crack in the wall just inches above me.
Several times during my week-long stay there, when I would try to catch a short nap during breaks in the schedule, one of the giant bees would somehow get under the covers with me and make a dreadful commotion, which sent me hurling out of bed. Incredibly they never stung me.
The toilets nearby, which were touted as some kind of cutting-edge technology, consisted essentially of a hole in the ground which one hung over and threw ashes in afterwards.
Despite these inconveniences, I took to it like a duck to water. The dark figures in robes floating silently up the path towards the Zendo in the faint early morning light, sitting upright in long rows listening to birds chirping and the sound of the creek flowing past, chopping vegetables in the kitchen with my hair tied up in a bandana, as guests peered in awestruck at the sight a real monk at work, and especially the delicious vegetarian food — all helped open my mind to the streams of bliss flowing though that narrow valley.
I had taken a translation of Huang Po’s “Transmission of Mind” with me and when I visited the little Tassajara Library I discovered they didn’t have a copy. I located the librarian and offered to donate it to them but was politely rebuffed with the explanation that it wasn’t the proper school of zen.
So instead I gave the book to a pleasant young fellow who occupied the bunk across from mine. He was working on a medical degree at UC San Francisco. I told him of my encounter with Suzuki and explained that even though Huang Po was the teacher of Rinzai, the founder of a rival Zen school, his teachings were very similar to the Soto school and Suzuki. It was the first time I’d mentioned my meeting with Suzuki to anyone.
At the end of the week we had some free time and I hiked up to a large rock that was a memorial to Suzuki Roshi, placed over his ashes. When I approached, a little lizard scampered to the top of the massive stone and looked directly at me.
I remembered Suzuki’s kindness. Tears streamed down my face. Even without the opportunity to practice with him further, in that brief encounter he had shown me all I would ever need to know.