The author with then-wife Laura, 1968
In Mexico during spring of 1968, Laura and I explored the west coast of mainland Mexico, accompanied by our friends Ben, Steve, and Larry. I suffered the aftereffects of a Methedrine habit. In April Laura and I left the others and their peyote in a village called Huanacatlán, because my quest was for peace and innocence, while Ben, Steve, and Larry sought the perfect high.
The Crudest Year
As Laura and I drove the rim of the Sierra Madre, away from Ben and Larry with their pills and peyote, my panic broke and gradually cleared, like the tail of a storm. By Morelia, I only fretted about Larry’s brother, Steve. Steve was convinced that any day a spaceship would arrive to carry him off; I considered him the most fragile of the three.
Still, Laura and I laughed together and marveled at the villages, the mountains and canyons. My heart lightened daily. Even in Mexico City, where our bus got broken into the first two nights before we learned to tip the Zona Rosa parking cop with pesos, sandwiches, or cookies, I maintained a carefree spirit. It seemed the amphetamines had been flushed from my blood and memory.
We stayed with a wretched old woman who had rented a room to my friend Henry and me when we attended summer school at the University of the Americas a few years previous. The señora nagged and belittled her grown son, who explained that he abided her abuse because of her money. The hag could have whipped Larry in a cussing match. Whereas Larry used some form of the verb “to fuck” in every sentence, the señora growled its Spanish equivalent every third or fourth word, even while attempting to act gracious, since we paid her $3 every day. We could have found cheaper lodging or stayed at a campground off the Toluca highway near my old school, but the apartment was close to Parque Chapultepec and a block off Paseo Reforma. A cab could deliver us all the way downtown for a peso, about eight cents. We spent days exploring the ruins and castles and ponds and trails and museums of Chapultepec, which made Laura so happy, several men approached us to praise her vivaciousness. One man tagged her the world’s greatest beauty.
We visited the cathedral beside the hill where the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego; we toured the Plaza de Tres Culturas with its Aztec and Spanish ruins fronting modern apartment complexes a city block square. For siesta, we taxied to the zocolo and rested on a bench in the shadows of the government offices — massive, colonial, and somber — and watched the pretty people march by. We drove to the pyramids, where Laura stuffed pottery fragments into her pockets. Our last excursion was to the floating gardens at Xochimilco, over the same highway tourists would drive to the 1968 Olympics, less than three months away. At least a thousand men were employed along that road, using jackhammers and shovels to fix the ruts and chuckholes.
We drove to Acapulco because Laura wanted to see the cliff divers. We camped on a vacant lot just north of the Hilton at the south end of town. Among the 20 or so squatters were a family we had known in Mazatlán. Tom and Toni Terrific and kids, we called them, due to their comely exuberance. They were still meandering toward Costa Rica, still so disillusioned with the U.S. that they wouldn’t return. They introduced us around and explained that the place was free and nobody objected to our camping there as long as we cleaned up the trash and only used the outside shower beside the Hilton’s pool after dark, when our scruffy appearance wouldn’t disturb the Hilton’s uptight clientele. For a toilet, we had the ocean.
Our neighbors were a pastel artist, a tarot card reader, and a fellow who claimed to be a novelist, who spent his days hunting and pecking at an old portable typewriter. Parked next to us were a schoolteacher with the shortest hair of anybody on the beach and her husband, a building contractor whose black beard featured stripes of gray, though he was only 29. They were aiming to drive all the way south to land’s end. Every afternoon, they played bridge with a retired couple in a camper. When the retired couple pulled out, they invited Laura and me. She liked cards, and I didn’t mind, so we let them try to teach us. But the third day the contractor took sick with a fever that made his hands shiver and blistered his face and shoulders. The teacher borrowed a thermometer, stuck it into his mouth for about a minute, then peeked, gasped, and ordered him into their pickup.
He spent a week in the hospital with amoebic dysentery and returned emaciated, with pale blotches on his skin. He couldn’t sit up or concentrate long enough to play bridge. Sometimes the teacher and Laura swam together, leaving me to watch him. He talked with an urgency, which hadn’t shown before the sickness, about how many children they should have and whether to live in the city or country. His talk prompted me to consider the future, now that my nerves were healed and my brain filtered out most of the dreadful apprehensions. Maybe I would accept the offer Laura once made to support me while I tried writing a novel. Only now she wanted to go to college. And there was the war in Vietnam. My college deferment had expired.
I was no antiwar activist. When I had attended meetings of groups like the Young Socialist Alliance and Students for a Democratic Society, the leaders impressed me as pompous and self-serving. Instead of reasoning, they patronized us with slogans — love, murder, liberty, freedom, democracy— which meant as little as the proclamations of Lyndon Johnson, who’d announced on TV that we were holding to the terms of the Geneva Accords, when we obviously weren’t, since they maintained we wouldn’t send troops into Southeast Asia, which we’d already done, including my best friend Clifford. Every phone call to my mother I fretted might bring news about his death or dismemberment.
Though I might argue against the war, sometimes I asked myself whether my opinions weren’t colored by the fear of losing my leg, life, or mind. In his letters, Cliff painted the war as a killing party.
Every morning in Acapulco, a Mexican kid staggered along the beach carrying a two-pouch canvas bicycle bag over his shoulders, shouting a headline from the English-language newspaper out of Mexico City. Only one or two people from our camp bought the paper, and we passed it around. But when the boy came yelling, “Presidente Johnson resigns!” he sold out.
While conservatives lamented down at the Hilton, we shook hands, whooped, toasted Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy and the maverick Democrats who stood against the political machine. Even those of us who’d only showed up at a few anti-Vietnam rallies basked in the sense of power. To think we had collaborated in toppling a president — it seemed we could truly change the world. We didn’t yet understand that changing the world is a cinch; what’s difficult is making it better.
By noon the next day, half the campers had already gone, anxious to race back home and get busy reforming society. The Terrific family voted to return to Marin.
While tuning the motor on my bus, I broke a spark plug. Since I couldn’t drive to the auto parts store, I set off walking. It was only a couple of miles, and whenever a car approached, I displayed my thumb. Halfway there, a taxi pilled alongside. Out of the passenger window sprang Larry’s grinning head,
He was on his way to Zihuatanejo. According to rumor, Timothy Leary had gone there and passed the word around, so the existencialistas descended upon the place.
Using his favorite obscenities, Larry gave me the story of his past month’s adventures. Larry, his brother Steve, and Ben had rented a hut in a tiny mountain village and they’d spent a week tripping through the forest, loaded on peyote. Then Steve ran out of money so Ben gave him $10 for his clarinet and traded a neighbor the clarinet for a kilo of primo marijuana. Larry bought half the kilo from Ben so that Ben could spend the money on two second-class bus tickets to Tijuana. Steve was going to look for a job on a ship. Ben wanted to see his girlfriend and smuggle his half of the kilo across the border, where he could turn it into a stack of dollars and fly to Zihuatanejo.
Larry bought tequila. Back at the campground, while I finished with the bus, he gathered the firewood campers had left behind, then called me over and broke but the half kilo he was carrying in a leather pouch.
The sun slowed its descent, dropping as if timid of the cold. When it eased into the water, the sea rumbled and magenta streaks blasted off like lasers from a warship. Larry said, “Wow,” and uncapped the Cuervo. We sat gawking until sunset faded, then Larry lit the fire. While I marveled at the spark that grew exponentially as it metamorphosed from orange to crimson to blue and black, Larry got an impulse to use the poolside shower at the Hilton. He unpacked a towel and clean T-shirt and wandered toward the hotel carrying his bottle. He returned before long with shiny hair and a new friend, the Hilton rent-a-cop. They sat by the fire, sharing Larry’s grass and tequila.
Though we’d all heard stories that taught otherwise, Larry believed that Mexican cops, private or public, would allow any behavior as long as you were generous with them. Neither badges nor big guns impressed him. That night, a drunken Larry talked the rent-a-cop into lending him the .45 and holster. The rent-a-cop howled while Larry practiced quick draws and tried to shoot the tequila bottle he’d stuck upside down into the sand.
Tequila allowed me to sleep rather than listen for the Feds’ approach.
The next day, when we were dropping Larry off in the middle of town at a farmacia, with me behind the wheel and him at shotgun and a local policeman standing on the curb peering through our windshield, Larry handed me a full Baggie of marijuana.
“What, are you nuts?” I snapped. “There’s a cop looking at us.”
Larry clapped my shoulder. “No sweat, brother. He don’t give a fuck.”
Before we left Acapulco, I tossed the marijuana he gave me. There was enough weirdness in the sober world. On the way from Puebla to Vera Cruz, we used a secondary road that deadended in somebody’s yard. We decided to eat lunch before turning back. Campesinos walked past us and across the yard to sit on the riverbank. They weren’t carrying fishing poles or laundry, so we realized they were waiting for a ferry, which finally chugged over and pulled up next to a stubby dock. A ramp emerged out of its side, and we drove on. There was just enough room for our car. Before we shoved off, a band of seven or eight enormous Gypsies boarded. The smallest woman was my height and probably stronger. They surrounded our bus and scowled as if they’d heard of such creatures and disapproved.
While we tried to sleep in the bus curbside near the harbor at Vera Cruz, a hurricane struck. We were on the storm’s fringes, but all night long the bus rocked and nearly tipped onto its side. I kept imagining we’d gotten swept out to ride the high seas.
Up north, about halfway to the border, we discovered a village of blond people. We stopped at a gas station, then at a general store, looking for clues, but they all spoke Spanish and nobody addressed us, so we didn’t bother to ask their story. From their complexions and malevolence we decided that escaped Nazis had founded the village.
We crossed the border at Brownsville, Texas. The customs officers dedicated an hour to blocking our entry and making a trash heap of our jeans, T-shirts, bathing suits. Baggies full of tea and coffee, guitar picks, spatulas, bananas, and Laura’s underwear. When at last they gave up and walked away, leaving our gear in a pile on the asphalt parking lot, I got so incensed by their rudeness that I dismissed Laura’s warning, chased them down, and yelled, “Mind if we spend the night? It’s going to take that long to pack up!”
“Shovel it in and hit the road,” the man said.
A few miles north of Brownsville, we pulled into a truck stop. After three months in Mexico, the cafe prices looked outrageous, but we would have panhandled just to taste an honest gringo hamburger and chocolate shake. I’d seen my share of truck stops and never witnessed such an affable crowd. Not a single trucker sneered or remarked about my hair or sandals. Nobody ogled Laura. Soon enough we learned why. Only hours ago in Memphis, James Earl Ray had shot down Martin Luther King.
A fellow with a stubble beard and a John Deere cap in the booth next to us said, “About time somebody whacked that coon.”
Laura thought I was going to pitch my water glass at the guy. While she convinced me to leave, a tear rolled off her cheek and dripped onto her arm.
Only weeks after we had left Mexico City, a revolt broke out. The San Diego Union reported that a few spoiled college students were throwing rocks, so the policía had to slap them around. In truth there were tanks chasing gangs of protestors through thecolonias around the zocolo. The Plaza de Tres Culturas became a guerrilla zone: the Aztec ruins were stained with tear gas residue, and the rattle of machine gun fire echoed off the old Spanish walls. News always comes censored out of Mexico, but during that spring of’68, the truth got amputated, otherwise people like my mother and my aunt would have canceled their tickets to the Olympics.
Laura found work in a La Mesa school, and I took a job as a high school substitute custodian, while applying to return to college in a student teaching program that would buy me another year’s draft deferment. The war couldn’t last another year; our next president, McCarthy or Kennedy, would stop it.
Except Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 4. In Chicago at the Democratic Convention, the delegates Kennedy had won in the primaries, delegates who should have gone to McCarthy because he viewed issues much as Kennedy had, went instead to Hubert Humphrey.
From Guadalajara, Ben and Steve rode a second-class bus down the western slope of the Sierra Madre. In Tepic, Nayarit, they transferred to first class — the air-conditioned kind with stuck-closed windows, so whenever they smoked, the passengers knew, and the driver turned and shook his finger at them. Steve recommended they only smoke at rest stops.
“It’s okay,” Ben said. “We’ll buy the hombre a righteous dinner.”
The dinner stop was Mazatlán, just after dark. Until they stepped off the bus, Steve and Ben didn’t notice the policía, two of whom drew sidearms. Another two handcuffed them. One officer mussed Steve’s foot-long kinky hair and cut loose a sinister laugh.
The policía held them for a few hours, then gave them over to federates who transported them to the Sinaloa State Penitentiary. An English-speaking Fed interrogated them separately. Ben confessed that the grass belonged to him alone, hoping Steve could go for help. Steve landed in a cell — after they buzzed his scalp.
“Did you cry when they cut your hair?” Laura asked.
“I cried later,” he said, and told us about the big cell he shared with rats, scorpions, poisonous lizards, and a dozen humans, several of whom tracked his every move as if they were ravenous cannibals. He spent his last few dollars on tacos for himself and his cellmates, purchased from a vendor who passed through at mealtimes. Thereafter he ate the three tortillas and watery cup of soup on which penniless inmates survived. Each afternoon, they were led into the yard, where Ben told Steve that he had called his folks; they were wiring money so he could rent a cell for the two of them and buy meals and drugs.
Mordida (the bite) can get complicated once jailers, warden, and judges enter the scene. You have to satisfy everybody, and nobody hurries to let the golden goose fly. After you pay off the police and arrange with the warden for safe board and room, you need to bribe somebody to pay the clerk of the court to move the preliminary hearing date up — otherwise it could be years later. The warden released Steve so he could raise money. He arrived home before we did.
Ben wrote to his girlfriend, Jane, complaining that although he could get marijuana, morphine, speed, and downers in prison, hallucinogens were scarce. Could she please send him a few tabs of LSD?
Jane was a bright Australian girl with a steady job as a Pacific Bell operator. I tried to talk her out of sending him anything that tweaked the mind. “Any thug can pay a nickel and get let into Ben’s cell,” I said. “Sure, Ben’s tough, but these guys could qualify for the Olympics if they had machete competitions. The guards in that prison,” I explained, “one of their main jobs is carrying out dead people. Every minute you hear some maniac scream. The tarantulas are as big as cats and screech all night long. Ben’s going to flip if he drops acid in that place.”
“Oh no,” Jane said. “Ben’s doing fine. Dope doesn’t make him paranoid. It only deepens and clarifies his mind.”
We kept expecting Ben to show up, but whenever we talked to Larry, Steve, or Jane, the news remained the same — Ben’s parents, through an attorney, were still negotiating and paying.
We only learned of Ben’s return through Larry, whom we saw frequently because Steve had moved into a room at the place Laura and I had bought, a small house on a half acre in Spring Valley, a good party house. Larry asked if he could throw Ben a party. Sure, we said. The next day Larry called it off; Ben wouldn’t come.
He just sat around his folks’ house, eating and watching television. When we visited, he looked like himself only skinnier and pale. You had to know him to sense he was acting peculiar. Before 1968 he was lively, spontaneous, open-hearted. Now he seemed sleepy yet watchful, as if he suspected we’d come to steal his dog and stereo.
He confided in Jane, who in turn told Larry—who couldn’t stay sober long enough to keep Ben’s secret — that he believed a group of his old partners had conspired with Mexican authorities to destroy his mind from the inside out. The Mexicans; he theorized, had implanted an electrode through which they could torment him with visions, fears, and ominous prophecies. For reasons he hadn’t disclosed even to Jane, he thought Tom was the ringleader.
Tom was a friend since high school, a big guy, but I’d never known him to bully anybody. At parties, he might dislodge his two false teeth, make scary faces, and bounce up and down like an ape, but there was no mean streak in him. He liked Ben and held no grudges against anybody. He hadn’t a clue about the origin of Ben’s theories.
One morning at his cabin in Jamul, 20 miles from Ben’s home, Tom was woken up by a thump on the wall near his bed. He tiptoed outside and around the cabin to find a body sprawled in the flower bed under his bedroom window. He nudged the body with his foot. , Ben rolled over groggily, then sprang up, and with no explanation except that he’d fallen asleep, said he’d better go home.
Worried that Ben might be plotting mischief, Tom called Jane, who got Ben to confess that he’d posted himself outside Tom’s window hoping to intercept messages being sent to Mexico, instructions about what the Mexicans should transmit to the electrode in Ben’s mind.
Larry came to our house regularly — to visit his brother or hang out in the basement when our rock and blues band rehearsed (I played guitar). A dozen people lived at our house. One by one we’d given up or cut back on substance abuse, so Larry brought companions. He introduced us to a beauty named Jill, already a junkie at 19, and Roger, who could have become a fine painter or sculptor except he was too stoned to bother, and Rick. When we could talk Rick into sitting in on bass, he outplayed anyone in our band. But usually he declined and watched us, wearing a cockeyed grin after shooting crystal or swallowing 30 diet pills.
The selective service instituted a lottery system. One night on TV, numbers were drawn. Birthdates. Mine came up high. Almost surely, I’d been freed from the threat of conscription. I celebrated, though the sudden liberty alerted me to my lack of purpose, and I felt a dose of shame for escaping what guys like Cliff hadn’t. Cliff was sleeping in a storeroom off our garage, waking up to Colt .45.
I took a job substitute teaching for the Grossmont high school district and tried writing a novel. My desk was in the dining room, but most of my roommates had day jobs, so the afternoons were quiet enough, except when Larry and a sidekick showed up. Larry greeted me one day, then without asking, put an album on the stereo. The Velvet Underground and Nico, a group I enjoyed around midnight, didn’t serve well as a background for my typing. Attempts to write in the passway between the living room and kitchen had improved my concentration, but Nico’s sexy moan still broke through.
I confronted Larry and his friend, who lay sprawled on the living room rug. “Look,” I explained, “I’m trying to write a story.”
“Oh yeah? What kind of story? You ought to write something like ‘Conan the Barbarian.’ ”
“Sure, and how about you guys hang out in the back yard or someplace until I’m done.”
“Hey, no problem.”
They staggered through the kitchen and outside while I turned off the stereo. Returning to my desk, I typed a few lines and had just made the passage from the real world to Mexico when four feet clomped through the kitchen. The next minute, Nico was droning even louder than before.
This time I yelped, “What’s the matter with the back yard?”
Larry slapped his brow and wagged his head. “Hey, sorry, boss. We fucking forgot.”
So when Larry asked if he could move to our place, I voted no, even though Steve argued that Larry was promising to kick his habit. Larry was addicted to heroin, desperately enough so that he sneaked into the attic of his parents’ home, found the coins his beloved brother Steve had collected since childhood, and used them to buy a few days’ contentment.
We saw Ben only by accident, in the grocery or crossing La Mesa Boulevard, and then he would look around for escape routes. I imagined he would kick his delusions when evidence failed to materialize, as Steve had kicked his belief that a spaceship was going to come and carry him away. One day, I believed, Ben’s common sense would return; he had always seemed irrepressible, perhaps the strongest of us all. One day, I trusted, we could gather — Ben, Larry, Steve, Tom, Clifford, and I — and laugh the way we used to, before 1968.
If Jane or anybody knew what offense got Ben committed, she wasn’t talking. Maybe he committed himself for safe keeping, in hopes that Tom and the conspiring Mexicans would let him be.
A couple of years later, Ben and I met by chance on La Mesa Boulevard and went into Palenno Pizza. I ordered a beer. Ben got a soda. He seemed lucid and glad to be home. I didn’t ask if he still feared Tom or anybody, nor did I ask about the Mexican prison or the hospital up north or even mention our season in Mexico. Neither did Ben mention the past. He was staying with his parents, keeping to himself, thinking of college. He’d turned himself over to Christ and spent lots of time reading the Bible. He invited me to his church. I believed in God and Christ, and though I hadn’t formally rescinded my promise given at the Billy Graham crusade, I shunned the authority of churches.
The next I heard, Ben had returned to the hospital.
Our band reunited for a weekend when Larry asked us to donate music to the methadone treatment home where he’d landed. He stayed there long enough to beat the heroin, but soon he got strung out on alcohol. Later it was speed. Then alcohol once more and back to heroin. For a while, he lived with a girlfriend. He stayed in a trailer in his grandma’s back yard. Lived out of a derelict car on a vacant lot in Spring Valley. Occasionally, he checked into missions. A couple of times he got sent to road camp. I would hear about him through Steve, who’d gone off to college in Humboldt, then to a graduate school back East where he learned art restoration. After graduate school, Steve worked in San Francisco, New York, Texas. He flew home every three or four months, and we always got together.
About five years ago, Steve visited unannounced, looking distressed — and we’d seen each other through breakups, breakdowns, separations, all kinds of grieving, but this was deeper. He’d just learned of two tragedies. A newspaper reported Ben’s death in an institution, cause of death unstated. And just hours after Steve read the article, the police phoned Steve’s mother: two weeks ago, the trolley had killed her oldest son. Larry must have jumped or been pushed into its path. Since he carried no ID, identification proceeded slowly.
Laura and I have two excellent children, not much younger than we were in 1968. Laura is a teacher. Last month, she married her second husband. Steve lives in Amsterdam, where he restores paintings at the Rijksmuseum.
About the ’60s, I tell my-kids — they were interesting, if you survived.