Let me tell you a story. This is a story about a young family, traveling in their car up a one-lane dirt road, at night. It is mid spring, and still cold outside. The car is a station wagon, and the father is driving. The mother is sitting next to him and the three children are sitting in the back seat. The car is crunching over rocks, sticks and leaves as it travels up the road, heading toward a house full of strangers.
The year is 1969. The young father and mother are both 33.
My grandfather nicknamed my brother Boy, rushing onto the plane after it landed to grab his newborn grandson, his namesake, from my mother’s arms and shouting, “That’s my Boy! That’s my Boy!” My grandparents were from Texas, where family is everything, and the only thing worth value.
In 1969 Boy was the youngest at 9, and he was the only one of us children that my father’s sister tried a couple of years later to rescue.
Our car is heading away from our home, away from the familiar and the beloved. The house had been packed up, some stuff thrown away, more stuff given away, and what couldn’t be parted with stored in the garages of friends in the valley. There was no way for us to know that night that, over the years that stuff, too, would disappear.
The headlights shine up into the darkness, showing the road and bathing the trunks of the trees lining the road with light. My father is telling jokes, laughing, singing, trying to cheer up his stunned children. Suddenly my mother turns to the back and snaps, “Can’t you see how hard this is on your father?”
Good god, what? Was she kidding? I felt the shock go deep into my body, and bewildered by her anger I waited, but my father went silent.
The car continues climbing up to the top of the ridge, to the unfamiliar house, where my family will stay for a few weeks, before moving on to other strange houses, to stay for awhile, a few weeks, a few months. I had no idea where we were going as we crunched slowly up the road, some vague notion of “staying with friends for a little while.” My father parked the car and we went inside with our small bags, but the otherness of the place and of the people I’d never met before made me hang back.
Our house, our home, nestled in the hills of Lagunitas and perched at the top of a small, winding road, had always been filled with love, with books, and with music, famous musicians were always dropping by to jam with my father. He put his heart and soul into our home: he brought home a gypsy wagon that became my sister’s bedroom, he built a huge bathtub out of redwood and countless coats of resin for waterproofing, the yard was filled with his sculptures (artwork the neighbors considered junk!) the light in his woodshop (his sanctuary) always burned bright long into the night. This was the happiest time of my life, I wandered all over the hills, a tomboy, and my sister and I played among the Manzanita trees, using the lichen growing on them to make houses for our Barbie dolls and troll dolls.
The three of us kids shared a room, my sister lording it over us in her single bed, and my brother and I sharing bunkbeds. I would run from the doorway of the bedroom and leap into my bed, taking care to aim carefully and not crunch my head on the upper bed, knowing beyond a doubt that monsters were hiding in the darkness beneath my bed waiting for me!
Susu, my precious cat, gave birth to her squirming litters of kittens in my bed, my mom wasn’t too happy about that but I was ecstatic.
My family was suddenly homeless, our home, bought for us in 1963 by our beloved grandparents, was lost, forever, and we were to be sheltered by friends, by strangers who became friends, strangers who remained strange, and by friends who turned into strangers. We finally came to an uneasy rest at the scattered homes of Peter Coyote’s commune, a loose tribe of people known as “The Family.”
The children did not realize, in the darkness of the car, just how their lives had changed. Sitting in the backseat, wedged together among our belongings, we didn’t understand what was happening to us, or why.
There would be no more normal, everything would be viewed through a prism of “before” and “now.” There would be no more school for the two oldest, the daughters. I would have no more schoolyard friendships, or awkward sleepovers.
There would be, also, no more dentist visits, no more doctor visits, and the clothes we would wear would come from Free Boxes. We would learn to do without. Uncertainty and change were to be constants. There were times when we didn’t know if we would eat at night. There were times when we didn’t eat.
My father had made some mistakes, and his young family was paying the price for his mistakes. We had no idea what those mistakes were at the time, how could we know that what he had done was wrong? My father was unquestionably right about everything, wasn’t he? Even when Travis, the young sheriff, came to question me, a 9 year old, about whether I would have slashed tires on our road (yeah, right), how was I to know this was harassment of my father? Even when I missed him terribly when he didn’t come home for days, even when the other sheriff waited, parked on the road outside our home until I came home from visiting friends and forced his way in to search an empty house for my father, and I stood trembling and scared with the comforting arms of my friend’s mother around me, and even when we went to visit him in jail, I did not have the capacity to judge him.
My fragile mother paid a price for my father’s mistakes, a price that we could not afford. That night in the car was the beginning of her long, slow descent into the heart of madness. She never fully returned.
My father was not a stupid man. He had such a high IQ test score in high school in the mid-50’s that the school refused to tell him or his family what his score had been; I’ve been told that was because his score was so much higher than the other kids in his school. My father had wanted to create a life of art, beauty, music, poetry and love. A rebel from early on, my father lived on the edges of societal norms, and he truly, deeply, believed that art is life, life is art. He had a restless intellect, he was infinitely curious and not satisfied with the way things were. His friends were musicians, artists, free-thinkers, intellectuals, and radicals. His wife, the mother of his children, wasn’t always comfortable with his radical way of thinking, she was especially alarmed with his interest in the philosophy of Summerhill School, but they both raised us, at least in the early years, with love and pride.
Although folk music was the politically correct music of the day, he and his friend David Meltzer listened deeply, for hours, days and months on end, to all music available on LPs: blues, jazz, gospel, country, bluegrass; and they strove to recombine all the sounds they heard when they played their improvisational sessions. Most folkies disdained their attempts, with the exception of some of the musicians who went on to form the seminal bands of the early psychedelic rock scene of San Francisco: Jim Gurley, Dino Valenti and David Crosby. David Meltzer and my father played their unique music at the Coffee Gallery in North Beach, San Francisco, in the early 1960s, Jim Gurley accompanying them, their music shaping and defining the musical style that would later sweep the nation.
I learned all of this later, from David Meltzer, when it became urgent for me to learn more of the person my father had been, and to try to understand why he made the choices he did, and to try to put my life into perspective.
Drugs have been used by musicians and artists for decades, and my father and his friends were not exceptions. Marijuana was the most common drug, and smoking it was considered to be a harmless recreational high, shared among friends and strengthening creative bonds.
Then, in early 1968, a friend betrayed my father, by helping an undercover cop entrap him with a marijuana buy to reduce his own jail time for a prior bust. Jail was a brutalizing experience for my artistic, creative, sensitive father, and it seared his soul. Methedrine offered comfort and escape.
The children’s beloved grandparents came up from San Diego, along with his sister and her attorney husband, to plead with him to enter a mental institution because, to them, his behavior could not be anything other than sheer madness, insanity. He refused.
My father thought he could control the drug, and the drug destroyed him. After we moved from our home in Lagunitas I rarely saw him, he spun off into a world I could not imagine, inhabiting a surreal netherworld of drugs, low-life characters and lost opportunities. I know it was not a world he would have chosen but was his by the twists and turns of fate and fortune. It was not a world that he deserved.
In the end, my father lost so much that was dear to him: first his home; then his cherished parents and sister who could not understand him and shunned him; and then finally, two months and two days after his thirty-sixth birthday, his life.
His only son, named after his father, also died, two months and nine days after his own thirty-sixth birthday.
His daughters, my sister and I, we were the ones who survived, and we have finally learned, although we paid such a high price, to live our lives with joy, strength, dignity and intelligence.
I’d like to ask my father’s sister, the woman formerly known as my aunt, just one question.
Was it you who convinced my grandparents to stop paying the mortgage in late 1968 on the house they bought for their only son and his young family…
… and not tell my mom?