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the sixties
ramblings about personal experiences during that most defining decade

The Sixties were just too big to cram into a single decade. They spilled over into the Seventies and, fortunately or unfortunately for some people, they still exist today. And contrary to popular belief, if you remember them, you could still have been there...

And, like almost anything, they came with side effects. One of the least enjoyable of these, for me anyway, had to be Folk Music. With all of the Free Love going around, there remained hold-outs among the girls that I was interested in. One in particular was able to get me to accompany her to a folk music venue that seemed innocent enough at the time, but ended up causing me to re-evaluate the degree of effort that I was prepared to devote to getting her in bed. My background in music, up until that time, was mostly big bands, jazz, and some classical. That said, my first foray into the then-blossoming world of folk was pure culture shock. B-O-O-O-R-I-N-G! My God, how could people listen to this crap for hours on end?

The evil twin to folk music was, of course, coffee houses. Often associated with the Unitarian Church for some reason, they were the place to go if you wanted to pick up loose, left-leaning, folk music-loving chicks. I believe that in one of these coffee houses, somewhere, at some time, sat the first girl that I ever saw who didn't shave her underarms. I was transfixed. Since the majority of guys during that period seemed to have long hair, if you saw someone from the back it was often difficult to determine their exact gender. I was guessing female, but wanted a "second opinion", so I made my way around the room to afford me a front view. This is where, in this order, in the space of a few seconds, I noticed that this person had a cute face, nice tits, and... yuck, armpit hair! I was not ready for this, and a significant amount of time passed before I could get my mind back to reading just the face/tits information and leaving it at that.

If you couldn't get laid hanging out at "folk" gatherings, there was always the tried and true route of foreign movies to fall back on. Seemingly all shot in grainy black & white from a hand-held camera, you had to be seriously horny to put up with crappy sound, boring story lines, and the dreaded sub-titles. In my opinion, sub-titles in any form or language suck, and they really suck if you're sitting behind some Black Panther with a basketball-sized Afro and can only see the first and last few words. I paid the price for great sex by having to sit through Cries and Whispers, arguably the most boring Bergman film ever made.

This was the chick flick by which all subsequent chick flicks were judged. It seemed like 90% of the film [never call it a movie] took place in some bedroom, and consisted of two women talking to each other. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? The camera would fill the viewfinder with one woman's face, and she would move her lips for a moment while the subtitle said "I had a dream last night", or, if there was the aforementioned Afro in front of you, it looked more like "I had a... last night". The camera lingered on her face for several minutes, slowly closing in until just one of her nostrils was visible, with the nose hairs undulating to match her breathing like some miniature grotto of kelp. Finally, the next shot came up, this time with, you guessed it, the other woman's face, gazing out the open bedroom window, with the curtains undulating to match the gentle breezes like some miniature grotto of kelp...

The camera holds the woman's face for a few minutes, then, for some unknown reason, begins to tilt sideways, while her lips move and below the subtitle reads "Was Michael in it?", but, of course, all I saw was "Was... in it?" Then another 5 minutes goes by with nothing but this head staring off somewhere, while the grain flickers and the whirring sound of the un-blimped camera dominates the background. Then, mercifully we're back to the first woman's head, the moving lips, and a subtitle that I think said something like "Why do you ask?" As far as I can remember, this tit-for-tat reverie went on forever, while the camera revealed details in each woman's face that even the actresses themselves were unaware of. This Bergman dude must have some serious vision issues.

When the "film" was finally over, nobody in the theater made a sound, nor moved. I initially took this as a sign of accolade afforded the "masterpiece of cinematography" that we had all just witnessed. Maybe this is what people did after foreign films just sat there in apparent rapture. I was able to pull it off like a seasoned veteran of the cinema, only it was because my entire lower body had gone to sleep during the ordeal. I would begin to lean forward in preparation of standing up, but nothing would happen. It was as if I was completely paralyzed from the waist down. I wiggled my toes, noting with relief that they did seem to be moving, but my legs and feet seemed to be un-attached to my body. Lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences came to mind as I continued to wonder just what malady had taken over my body. At the urging of my date, I slowly straightened into an upright form, but staggered along the row of seats like a new-born fawn trying to walk on an ice rink. I honestly cannot remember attending another foreign film after that experience.

Elated that 1) the film was finally over and 2) I could walk again, I suggested that we go to a coffee house, which was met with resounding approval. When we arrived, unfortunately, it seemed as though every person who had watched the Bergman flick had the same idea, and I was surrounded by multiple pontifications attesting to the "boldness", or "grandiose" this or that concerning Bergman's latest offering. When someone got around to asking my thoughts on the film, I half-jokingly stated something along the lines of "Words escape me!", which was actually true, as I was trying very hard to get the previous several hours of "entertainment" out of my mind. As luck would have it, my reluctance to spout praises and personal evaluations was taken as being truly moved by the film... possibly "seeing" details and nuances that an ordinary filmgoer would overlook, and the crowd pressed closer and closer as I feigned what I thought would amount to a pretty convincing facial expression showing both understanding and acceptance for what was possibly the most uncomfortable two hours of my life. The climax came when, after holing up in a miasma of cigarette smoke for as long as I could, my burning eyes, as if on cue, produced a single tear that slid partway down my cheek. This simple event was taken as a "sign" by my new-found group of film critics, and, as one, they gasped as if a statue of the Virgin Mary had done the same. In a matter of minutes I was transformed from an incredibly bored sceptic to a sensitive, not-afraid-to-cry-in-public foreign film aficionado.

These hangers-on were asking my opinion on something that I knew nothing about. Nobody challenged my facts. I could have said that dog shit actually tastes good or that wolverines make good house pets and they would have believed me. I began to wonder about how much of Life was based upon wholehearted acceptance in order to build some sort of strength in numbers. Hell, if everyone believes that Bergman films are good and War is bad, how far away can Utopia be?

§

No mention of the Sixties would be complete without bringing up drugs, eh? They were there, all right. So much so that they blended into the background like that stupid music they play through those speakers in the ceiling in markets. Just as no shopper could be expected to actually shop without background music of some sort, it was difficult to do just about anything in the Sixties without the accompaniment of some sort of drug.

Let's start with coffee. At first, since I wasn't a real coffee drinker per se, I had trouble figuring out why people would go to a special "house" merely to drink coffee, since it was available at probably every place on the Planet that served food. Perhaps it was really good coffee, I thought, and that while enjoying a cup of this "good" coffee they would have no need for other food or beverages. How cool. Here was, apparently, something that you could enjoy by yourself anytime, it was legal, it was inexpensive, and it seemed to provide all of the dietary intake one would need. I had to try some.

In order to avoid appearing as a neophyte during my first visit to a coffee shop, I tried some regular store-bought coffee at home. I had heard from someone that it was, as the term went, an acquired taste, which could, and often did, mean that it tasted bad. My first cup bore that out. OK, maybe I mixed it too weak. Early efforts at playing Joe Bartender and concocting bizarre alcoholic mixed drinks had shown that if the first glass doesn't quite "do it", then bump up the Vodka and give it another go. I bumped up the instant coffee to a heaping tablespoon and waited for it to cool down. Jeeezuz Christ! This tasted ten times worse than the first cup, and I could barely finish it, partly due to the fact that my hands were now trembling like I was experiencing hypothermia or something. Maybe they served better coffee in coffee shops, so my next stop was the local Left Wing/Commie Pinko hangout.

With my previous all-of-two-cups under my belt, I sidled up to the counter, eager to experience the Joy of Coffee, when I was stopped in my tracks by the sign on the wall, which listed at least 50 different "kinds" of coffee! Crap. Are you shitting me? With the line of people behind me pressing forward as if they were leaving a burning theater, I finally blurted out that "I'd like a regular coffee, please". Rather than signal an end to my uncomfortable stammerings it began a Litany of whether I'd like it with this or that, or possibly with this or that on top, or several more choices of how I would like it prepared. Deftly holding back an upswell of anger that I was about to direct toward the server, I figured that I was roundly outnumbered by the mob of coffee addicts behind me in line, and sheepishly paid for my cup and sat down.

I barely found a place to sit before the hot coffee cup began to burn the crap out of my hand. Looking around, I made a mental note that everyone else seemed to be actors in some kind of movie. Nobody appeared to be decked out in an outfit that could be termed "casual" they all had some sort of Shakespeare-meets-suburbia look... heavy on scarves and berets, sandals, and the obligatory slogan-filled t-shirts. Perhaps my jeans-and-white-t-shirt made me stand out, because from time to time I was the recipient of various glances and outright stares from the other diners. Soon it dawned on me I was probably the only person who wasn't talking.

Talking! That was it... as I looked around I noticed that each table was hosting some animated discussion about something. And by animated, I mean almost non-stop. Finally able to sip my coffee without scalding my throat, I started a barely perceptible increase in my own thoughts and motions. It was getting more and more difficult to just sit still and stare at the table. I began tapping my foot, drumming my fingertips, nodding my head. What was going on? How could these people keep this up for so long? Were they drinking the same kind of coffee that I ordered? It was probably a year or so until I found the answer, when I popped my first "speed" pill.

§

The town I lived in had a campus of the University of California nearby, and through casual encounters here and there I made friends with some students, even though I was still in high school. Some of these students were in the Chemistry Department, and some of them were eager to have me act as a guinea pig for some of their "extra credit" projects. The Sixties had many, many things going for it, and one of them was free drugs. Think how many more liquor stores alone are robbed today to maintain a drug habit, but if the drugs were free, who would bother? It seemed like any gathering of two or more people in those days would host the appearance of a plastic bag filled with multi-colored pills. Some you could identify by their shape and color, but others were just a "hope and a prayer". Pleased about the high that I got from coffee, I wanted to try some speed, and see how I could stack up against the pontificators at the coffee house. Being a weenie, and still harboring a bitter taste in my mouth from my early attempts to find the proper quantity of instant coffee to use, I began with half of a pill. Well, it looked like about a half, after my crude attempt to slice it in two with a butter knife catapulted most of it across the room. Scraping up the miniscule pile of powder, I dumped it in my cup, gave it a swirl with my spoon, and sat back, eager to espouse and expound on the ills of the World...

Yeah, Baby! This was what coffee was supposed to be like. Now I could see how those Jesus-looking dudes could stay up all night and talk about the most boring shit in the World. After a while I got tired of just talking about stuff... I wanted change! I wanted War to end. I wanted little brown babies to be able to play with little white babies. But right then, sitting on a hillside overlooking the high school I went to, I just wanted to come down and go to sleep, because I had class in... Crap! It was almost 6am! My friend and I been talking about shit all night and I didn't even notice how fast the time went when your brain is doing 100mph. Since I had only 2 hours before I needed to get down the hill and deal with another day in school, I just relaxed and enjoyed the high. Below me was the main parking lot, along with dozens of streetlights that were left on all night to deter vandalism or whatever. We began to count the lights. After starting and getting interrupted and starting over again several times, we just tried to estimate how many lights there were. This was easier, but our answers were nowhere even close to each other. Settling on some overly generous figure, we tried to multiply that by whatever wattage the lights were, even though we had no idea ourselves how much wattage each light used. After a few minutes of rapid-fire calculating, forgetting the answer, and re-calculating again, we still kept losing whatever train of thought we had. In an act of utter futility, I stood upright and yelled as loud as I could something along the lines of "Goddamnit! Turn those fucking energy-wasting lights off!", or something along those lines. To our total and complete astonishment, as I sat down again, every light in the parking lot went out! Stunned, we looked around for a bit, then made our way down the hill, hoping to find a reason that my prayers were answered. None came, and I groggily began yet another school day a few hours later. After the sleepless night I stumbled around like a zombie, but never gave much thought to the "Miracle of the Lights", as we called it. A year or so later I found out that the lights were on a timer, and were set to turn off around sunrise, which was probably the exact time that I made my impassioned plea. I went back to coffee after that and didn't miss a thing...

§

My first memory of actually backpacking wasn't until the early 70's. The "Back to the Land" movement was in full swing, and if you had any brain cells left after going through the Sixties, your first thoughts were to get out of the evil cities and go live in the woods. Since my job was in the evil city, I had to make do with occasional trips via freight train to the Crags, where my friends and I built a sweat lodge on the lower part of Sulphur Creek.

For some reason we figured that if the water smelled as bad as it did, it must have some magical regenerative powers, or thoughts to that effect. We found a willow tree next to the creek, cut off most of the branches, and bent it over so that the tip was at ground level, where we tied it to a large rock, creating a framework to add more branches to until we had what looked like a lot of willow branches resting on a bent-over willow tree. Throwing a tarp over the whole "structure" and piling rocks along the bottom edge gave us our "sweat lodge". All we had to do, or so we thought, was to build a fire inside, pile a bunch of rocks on top, and pour water over it. What could be simpler?

For one thing, we didn't get started until late afternoon, and when it came time to build the fire, it was hard to find decent firewood that we could cram into our soon-to-be-overcrowded sweat lodge. Our initial estimate as to how big the "lodge" should be was determined by all three of us sitting in a circle on the ground, as we expected we would be doing inside the lodge. Mistake number one. On the plus side it just happened that the only tarp we had would be perfectly large enough to cover the three of us in our "sitting circle". On the minus side we neglected to figure in the size of the fire ring in the middle. Oh well, we thought, if it got too hot we could just go outside and jump in the creek to cool off. Mistake number two. In our wanderings to find the perfect willow tree to serve as the ridge beam for the lodge, we ended up choosing one that was near the creek alright, but up a 8 or 10-foot embankment.

By the time we brought in enough rocks to make an effective fire ring, and a supply of wood for the fire, it was dark. Guided by our feeble flashlight beams, we all stripped down and crawled inside, only to find that we could barely sit up without having our feet in the fire ring. After spending quite a while trying to sit comfortably while bent forward from the close confines of the tarp, we now realized that we should probably get a supply of grapefruit-sized rocks to put on the coals after the fire died out. Mistake number three. Slowly and painfully we all extracted ourselves from our pseudo-yoga positions and somehow managed to come up with a half-dozen suitable rocks to generate the steam that would course through our skin and make us... "Indian-like". Fortunately, before we all had to re-enter the lodge again somebody remembered that we didn't have any water to pour on the rocks to make steam, so another stumble down to the creek was made and several bottles of water brought back.

By now my bare feet were killing me from sliding/stumbling up and down the embankment in the dark, so I also brought in a bottle of Hearty Burgundy, certainly one of the "Ten Essentials" of backpacking at the time. A candle was lit and we began whittling down some of the wood into kindling. Carefully we made a small "tee-pee", and piled larger and larger pieces of wood on top to ensure a good bed of coals for our steam ceremony, which I hoped would ease the growing pain in my back from leaning forward all the time. The wine was doing its magic as the fire was finally lit, and we felt a sort of renewal, or something like that. We had all moved so far away from the fire ring that the bottom edge of the tarp had pulled away from the ground, allowing a rush of cool air that fanned the fire into life. As the fire grew larger (and hotter) we kept moving farther and farther away, so that my entire backside was now outside of the lodge, and the added airflow created a miniature blast furnace in front of us. Fully satisfied that there were indeed coals somewhere in the bottom of the fire ring, out of a combination of anticipation of just how this steam thing was going to work and an undeniable yearning of self-preservation facing a growing bonfire, we dragged the fiercely-burning logs outside, and went back into the lodge to pile the "ceremonial rocks" on top of the coals. Banking some dirt around them to keep in the heat, we worked on the Hearty Burgundy and wondered how long we needed to wait before we added the water. Somebody put their finger on one of the rocks to see if they were "ready" and a loud scream told us that they were.

The Hearty Burgundy made another round and the water was held aloft, each of us mumbled something like "It's about fucking time!", and slowly the water bottles were emptied on the rocks below. What happened next was truly unexpected. Apparently [we learned after the fact] you're not supposed to put "river rocks" in a fire and pour water over them, because the moisture inside the rocks starts to boil, and since the steam has no way to escape, the rocks explode, which they did in a spectacular fashion. One minute we were sitting in a warm fog, drinking wine, and the next minute there was a noise like an M-80 going off inside a Volkswagon Bug. After inching away from the fire for so long we were almost sitting outside of the tarp, so when the rocks exploded we all tumbled backward on the ground, trying to figure out what the Hell just happened. Looking back into the smoke-filled lodge, there was now an intricate pattern of holes spread around the top of the tarp, allowing moonlight to filter through like our own little planetarium. I guess the dirt piled up around the rocks caused the blast to go upward, instead of outward, which we all agreed was a good thing. No one was hurt, except for a possible ingestion of smoke and flying dirt, and there was still a little Hearty Burgundy left to toast our first (and last) sweat lodge.

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