First Taste of Freedom

“Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together”
“I’ve got some real estate here in my bag”
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America.

“America,” lyrics and music by Simon and Garfunkle.

The year was 1968; I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside, my hometown campus. I had originally been accepted at UW-Madison, until a bureaucratic snafu at the 11th hour involving my leadership scholarship, work-study grant and student loan caused me to revert to “plan b.” I became homebound in Racine, Wisconsin. This was not the dream I had for myself. I was a smart working class kid, the first in my family to go to college and here I was, still languishing in my hometown — bummer.

As both luck and fate would have it, I met and fell in love with Frank that first semester. He was a tall, dark, handsome man of Hungarian heritage, with long wavy brown hair and a Van Dyke mustache and goatee.  He resembled d’Artagnan of the Three Musketeers and was just as cavalier and mischievous as the fictional character. Frank presided over his court in the student union, playing cards and discussing politics. I was quickly welcomed into his entourage of student radicals and campus misfits.

One day on a dare as we sat bored playing cards in the union, Frank stood up with bravado and stated, “Let’s go to San Francisco.” One of our friends asked, “When?”  Without a moment’s hesitation he exclaimed, “Now!” In 1968 “now” was a magical word and living in it was to be admired. The seven us immediately left the table, not wanting to be the first to bail out of the dare.  We all jumped in one car, making stops at each of our banks to withdraw travel money (remember this was a time that pre-dated ATM machines), but didn’t stop at our homes to pack a toothbrush or a change of clothes, how curious.

As we travelled south to Chicago before heading west to California, we smoked a little weed on our way to the Brat Stop in Kenosha for a lunch of beer and bratwurst. Stoned, hungry, and full of ourselves, the reality began to sink in that we were leaving home. As we devoured our brats and downed our tap beers, we waxed sentimental about the things we’d miss most from our home state of Wisconsin.  After we finished our lunch, Frank exclaimed, “Enough, let’s hit the road. We’re going to San Francisco!”

It quickly became clear as we got closer to Chicago that this was not a “psyche,” the 1968 equivalent of getting “punk’d.”  We were divided into two camps, those ready to turn around and go home and those of us with Frank at the helm, wishing to push on to our destination.  When we took a poll, four, including the owner and driver of the car, wanted to return home leaving three of us, Frank, his best friend Charlie and myself committed to forging forward, our paths separating. They drove us to the Chicago Greyhound Bus Terminal in the Loop on the corner of Clark and Randolph and we borrowed most of their cash, capitalizing on their guilt for abandoning the journey.

After purchasing bus tickets to San Francisco with stops in Omaha, Nebraska and Denver, Colorado, we crossed the street to the diner kitty-corner from the terminal for a cup ’o Joe, a bite to eat, and time to write letters home.  This was the first in a series of letters I wrote my parents over the years when I shared news signaling a turning point in my life. This was the “Your Eldest Daughter is Dropping-Out of College to Search for America and the Meaning of Life” letter.

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
he said, “the man in the gabardine suit was a spy,”
I said “Be careful his bowtie is really a camera.”

The three of us entertained ourselves playing cards, napping, making up stories about our fellow travelers and the people we encountered during our rest stops. We were considered “hippies” by the public and treated with distrust or disgust, due to nothing more than the men’s long hair and our shared non-conformity in dress and behavior.  We didn’t care, we were simply happy together, our band of Three Musketeers.

The journey became a little more complicated when just outside of Omaha Frank developed a raging abscess tooth.  His left cheek was swollen and he’d taken to eating triple the dosage of aspirin twice as often as recommended to quell the pain.  We had a long layover at the Omaha Greyhound Terminal and I tried with no success to find a dentist to treat him on an emergency basis. Instead, I found a dentist in Denver which was the next major stop on our trip. While I had been on the pay phone scheduling the appointment, I was being watched by a young man with a crew cut holding an olive drab duffle sitting on a wooden bench, adjacent to the bank of phones.

As I was walking back to Frank and Charlie, the man with the crew cut stood up and approached me. He made a couple of lewd remarks about how he could make my trip more memorable and he could take me places I never dreamt of before.  I said, “No thank you.” I already had travel companions and pointed to Frank and Charlie. He turned his head, glared at them, looked back at me, grabbed my arm and said, “How could those faggot hippies please you like a real man could.” As his voice grew louder and his intentions more threatening Frank and Charlie approached to intercede.

Frank was six feet four inches tall and barrel-chested, a big man. Charlie stood just a couple inches shorter than Frank, but carried more bulk. They were gentle giants, peace-loving men prone to resolve conflict with words not fists, yet the crew-cut, strong, lean man accosting me was prepared for a fight as I tried to dislodge his hold on me as my rescuers approached.

As Frank broke the man’s hold on me he wound up his fist to hit Frank in his swollen left cheek. Instinctively, I started pounding on the man screaming “Stop, it!”  By this point we had drawn the attention of other travelers and the terminal security guard.  The stranger with the crew cut grabbed his duffle, cursed under his breath, and escaped outside the terminal.

“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat”
We smoked the last one an hour ago
So I looked at the scenery, he read his magazine
And the moon rose over an open field.

We arrived in Denver, Colorado and checked into the Hotel Republic. It was one of those residence hotels on the periphery of downtown, where old men and people down on their luck would stay permanently or for a night or two to take a bath and get out of bad weather.  It reeked of booze and cigars and the rooms were hot and humid from the steam radiators.  Our plan, get Frank’s abscess tooth treated, take a bath, sleep in a bed and then back on the road for the final leg of our journey. We were exhausted.

The next morning Charlie knocked on our door. With a look of concern on his face he said, “I’ve made a decision I’m going to head home and let you two go on to San Francisco without me.” We were dumfounded.  We didn’t see this coming at all. During the trip we were like the “Three Musketeers,” a merry band of outlaws. I paid as much attention to Charlie as I did to Frank, and Frank and Charlie were best friends. We’d take turns sitting with each other. We asked him why. He responded. “Let me tell you about the dream I had last night.”

Charlie proceeded to detail his dream.  He was a farmer and I was his wife, the crops he tended were acres and acres of carrots.  These carrots were unusual in that they grew upside down, erect, pointing skyward.  He looked at us as he shared this, first with a furrowed brow and a look of concern, before he broke into a broad smile after a long pause and said, “I don’t need to tell you what this means, other than it’s time for me to go home.” Later that day, Frank and I re-boarded the bus to San Francisco after we gave Charlie plane fare home and said our good-byes.  The moment the bus departed the depot we were missing Charlie and the spirit of our trip had already changed.

Frank and I finally arrived in San Francisco a few days after departing Wisconsin. We found a cheap hotel, bought a map of the city, took showers, and counted our cash. After Charlie’s plane ticket we were left with a pretty meager reserve, meals for a few days and a couple nights in the hotel; we’d have to find jobs or panhandle. The reality of our prospects hit us pretty strongly, yet here we were in the place where it was all happening, though we were one year late for “the summer of love.”

"Hippies" Credit: tumblr

“Hippies”
Credit: tumblr

Over the course of the next few days we explored Haight Ashbury and Golden Gate Park, the epicenter of the hippie movement and the migration of counter-culture youth to California.

“The Summer of Love” attracted a wide range of people of various ages: teenagers and college students drawn by their peers and the allure of joining a cultural utopia; middle-class vacationers; and even partying military personnel from bases within driving distance. The Haight-Ashbury could not accommodate this rapid influx of people, and the neighborhood scene quickly deteriorated. Overcrowding, homelessness, hunger, drug problems, and crime afflicted the neighborhood. Many people simply left in the fall to resume their college studies. On October 6, 1967, those remaining in the Haight staged a mock funeral, “The Death of the Hippie” ceremony, to signal the end of the played-out scene.” *

Yes, the peace and love from the summer before had been displaced by gawkers, amphetamine freaks, and drug-peddling motorcycle gangs.  We weren’t going to find jobs before our money ran out and clearly panhandling was not an option since the streets were already full of them including musicians playing for coins or an offer to get turned on.

We returned to the Greyhound Station where we could sleep free overnight if we kept changing places. There were restrooms, vending machines, and pay phones, all our basic needs could be met. Frank and I discussed our future and for the first time I witnessed the vulnerability of this man I loved and would have followed anywhere.  We agreed to swallow our youthful pride and we called our parents asking them to wire us money so we could go home. This was the first time we talked with them since we mailed our dreamy letters from Chicago, talking about finding ourselves and searching for the meaning of life.  Yes, we found ourselves alright, ready to return home.

We picked up money from our parents at Western Union, including the telegraphed memo, “We hope you use the money to come home, stop. We love you, stop.” Frank and I boarded our United Airlines flight back to Chicago. It was my first plane trip. When I arrived home my mom had prepared my favorite meal, Chop Suey that according to urban legend:

“…was created in the 1860s, when a Chinese restaurant cook in San Francisco was forced to serve something to drunken miners after hours, when he had no fresh food. To avoid a beating, the cook threw leftovers in a wok and served the miners who loved it and asked what dish is this—he replied Chopped Sui.”**

*Wikipedia

** Wikipedia

A vignette from the memoir, Perfectly Flawed, by Linda Lenzke

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