I’m at table with Ms. Abby in the tea room of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. My current girlfriend has dressed me with care (Harris Tweed sports coat, matching slacks, shoes, and tie), as women do when sending their man off to visit a great love from the past. You are a representative of the new firm now and must look your best.
Tea time came by way of a call I’d made to an acquaintance in Las Vegas, a professional gambler, the only person I’ve ever known who makes a decent living betting the NFL. I’d called to collect background for a column about bookies. A compliant husband, father of three, suburban homeowner, Little League coach, and affluent gambler, the lad had also been a classmate at dear old NSU. Somewhere between the Jets’ third-round draft pick and the Raiders/Chiefs betting line, I heard mention of Abby. Further inquiry retrieved her address and phone number. I called her that night.
Abby now lives in Mississippi, owns a rare-book bookbinding company and, twice a year, travels to San Francisco to meet with clients. We agreed to have tea the next time she came to San Francisco.
I arrive at the St. Francis Hotel early. I am sweating, and the worry that my sweat will dampen the thin tissue which sheathes the white roses I clutch in big, sweaty hands makes me sweat all the more. At precisely 4:00 p.m., Abby glides down the hotel’s grand staircase into the lobby.
My god, the years have left little trace. Abby looks like a movie star, a watercolor painting in her lavender-and-blue sleeveless dress, her long hair still flaming red, breasts still full, waist tight, legs long — sexy enough to turn the head of the most worldly 20-year-old male. Nicely done, Abby. I present the damp flowers and escort Ms. Pizer into the Compass Rose Room for tea.
Ten minutes earlier, I’d given the maître d’ $100 and instructed him to “Be fluffy.” He leads us to the table I’d already picked out, flutters about, then waves for a waiter, who arrives instantly. Both men flutter. I am pleased as punch.
Tea is ordered. I say, “How have you been?” She says, “How have you been?” Chit and chat and bingo, we arrive at Arden days. “Arden,” Abby says, “that was the worst time in my life. I spent years in therapy dealing with Arden.” She studies the hotel-linen tablecloth, then locks onto my eyes. “You ruined my life.”
I never intended to ruin Abby’s life
And I wouldn’t have — nor, for that matter, would I have graduated from UNLV — had I not spent five years hitchhiking. Oh, hitchhiking! To never be without adequate food and lodging. That’s how fat and happy this country used to be.
Up North, down South, back East, out West. “Thanks for the ride. How far are you going?” “Hi, looking for a place to crash.” “You are a beautiful woman.” “Where is the local hot spot?” “Is there a university or college around here?” “I want to make love to you.” “Is there coffee in the kitchen?” “Just passing through.”
I hitchhiked across this country 20, 30…well, it was all just one long-ass trip, no beginning, no end. Picture a journey from, say, San Francisco to Florida. In Florida, spend a few days in Gainesville, “ball” (a ’60s term) a co-ed, sleep in the dorm, hitch south to Miami, stay in a dirt-bag youth hostel, tour local juice joints, smoke Jamaican weed, fuck what’s available, thumb down to Key West, meet somebody, stay with her for a week, help her brother refinish his 40-foot houseboat, then hitch back to Gainesville, one more night with the college co-ed, then on to Atlanta to stay with a guy I’d met in Seattle who plays bass in a tone-deaf rock-’n-roll band, meet Alicia during band practice, move to her place, help the band pack up, travel to Macon for a band gig, come back, get drunk, take a side trip to Savannah, spend two glorious days in the library reading magazines and a book, do not relate to anyone, meet law student in downtown coffee house on day three, she has to listen to the Eagles when she makes love, attend the symphony with her, the bassoonist is an old boyfriend, get drunk with him after the show, then on to South Carolina, sleep in the bushes beside the freeway, a couple of nights in Charlotte with bikers met at Johnny’s Tavern, then DC and ten days with Mary, who I met in Eugene, Oregon, and three weeks with Todd in Philadelphia, where I cop a ten-day temp job out of Manpower, then NYC, stay with an Alaskan buddy, Boston, more Alaskan friends, Martha’s Vineyard, Buffalo, Erie, back to Philly, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Denver, continue west and carry on. Hitchhiking wasn’t a trip, it was another day at the office.
See, it’s when you stay in one place, that’s when you spend money, on rent and groceries, which means you need skillets, pots, pans, silverware, and dishes, which means acquiring tables and chairs. But keep moving, and you’ll meet people who are happy to put you up for the night. Dinner is on the house. One day turns into the next.
But. I could never have hitchhiked for five years had I not been drafted into the armed forces of the United States, a shotgun wedding, which, after a long and painful gestation, gave birth to a GI Bill made out in my name. The government dole motivated me to attend Foothill Junior College, thence to meet Abby, move to Arden, and commence hitchhiking — which eventually propelled me into the Fairbanks laborers’ union hall, which led to my employ as a writer, and proceeding from there, on a straightish line, to my current position of author and affable host.
The GI Bill, you see, augmented by the odd Pell Grant and NDSL loan, afforded a small stipend, thereby permitting me to hitchhike for years. I avoided a job between the ages of 23 to 30, a formative time of life when contemporaries were dispatched to the employment camps. As a bonus, the Army also introduced me to Alaska, the best part of Alaska, Alaska of 1965.
Unlike President Bill Clinton, unlike President George Bush the Younger, unlike Vice President Dick Cheney, Vice President Dan Quayle, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, former Senate Majority/Minority Leader Trent Lott, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Karl Rove, Phil Gramm, Jack Kemp, Mitch McConnell, Elliott Abrams, Ken Adelman, Don Evans, Harvey Pitt, Tommy Thompson, Bill Bennett, Bill O’Reilly, Pat Buchanan, Kenneth Starr, George Will, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes; unlike the foregoing public servants and opinion-makers, I did not have the stroke to oink my way past odious little people to the front of a National Guard induction line or obtain a deferment by way of doc, college, vocation, or family.
At one point, however, I did possess a certificate, drawn up and hand-delivered to me at government expense, proclaiming that I had been classified 1-Y. For readers interested in obscure cultural artifacts, a 1-Y draft classification meant I was draft ineligible for reasons of physical disability, except in times of war or declared national emergency. Vietnam was not then, and never would be, a declared war or national emergency.
Nowadays, the government hires poor people and people of color to do the killing and dying, this exploitation so natural, so trouble-free, it’s easy to think that’s the way it’s always been. But back in 1965, white middle-class males, and, occasionally, inattentive white upper-class males, were taken, whether they wanted to go or not, into the Army.
The 1-Y came to me in this way. The thugs who ran my local draft board dispatched a communiqué to my personal sanctuary, ordering me to appear at the Armed Forces Induction Center on Clay Street in Oakland, California, for the purposes of taking a physical examination. This examination would determine if I was healthy enough to allow my country to place me in situations and locations where I might be killed or maimed. Starting pay was, and this is not a joke, $78 a month.
This first physical was regarded in my circle as a “free at bat.” If I could work a deal here, I would be excused from more difficult decisions down the road.
You showed up or were bused into the Oakland Induction Center sometime after the bars closed and before the donut shops opened — it’s always 4:30 a.m. when you’re dealing with the military. I stripped to my underwear and got in a long line. All the guys wore white Jockey briefs. We looked like a flock of little boys making a first foray into the men’s locker room.
The line slogged around a gymnasium-sized room crowded with wooden booths. The slap-up stalls gave the space a depressing look, like a circus midway at daybreak. Inside every booth was an Army doc who presided over that booth’s anatomical turf.
I lodged a complaint at every stop. Booth number one might be the chest booth. “I’ve had this pain for the last year or so. Increases when I walk up a flight of stairs.” Then, the eye booth. “Every once in awhile, and this is weird if it happens while I’m driving, I see everything as a blur.” Ear booth. “It’s only the high-pitch sounds; whistles, shouts, fire alarms.” Appendage booth. “Can’t lift my right arm past shoulder height. Football injury.” Foot booth. “Can’t walk down hills. Fishing accident.” Hand booth. “Wrists hurt like hell in the mornings.” Mouth booth. “I choke on food and cough blood. My mother is a drug addict.”
Weeks later, I received another communiqué, this one informing me that I’d been awarded a 1-Y draft classification at the hand-station booth. And that, I thought, was that.
This was fall of 1964, when the U.S. had no combat troops in South Vietnam, the 17,000 American military personnel there officially termed “American advisors.” There was still some wiggle in the meat line, before the monthly order got so big it required every carcass that came down the chute.
At the time, I was living in a seedy retirement hotel on Fourth Avenue in San Diego, smoking a lot of dope/ganja/weed/shit/bammy/buddha/chillums/hookah/hemp/pacalolo/cannabis/kiff/weed/mota/reefer/sinsemilla/ stick/tea/happy cigarettes. I lived in Tijuana during a large portion of that interval. There were too many drugs to keep a coherent timeline, but I recall coming up for air one summer morning in Lemon Grove, a methamphetamine suburb of San Diego. I was crashing at a friend’s house. There was a knock on the door, and another friend from an apartment I’d abandoned months ago delivered a brown bag filled with mail addressed to me, including my draft notice. Those scurvy-mouth draft-board pig-fuckers had reclassified me 1-A, then drafted my ass while I was out of the country.
We are now into July of 1965. The American propaganda machine, so good that to this day Americans don’t believe it exists, was cranked up to battle speed. Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the rest were honking about the commie threat to freedom-loving South Vietnam and how, if freedom-loving South Vietnam went commie, then Cambodia, the strategic hub of Asia, would go commie, followed by Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Pitcairn Islands, Bolivia, Newfoundland, and, ultimately, the state of Delaware. National survival was on the line.
Never underestimate the persuasiveness of a government willing to put its citizens in jail unless they agree to be involved in an evil, senseless war waged on the other side of the globe against a people who have caused said citizens no harm, for a cause no greater than not knowing what else to do.
“I don’t believe they’re [the North Vietnamese] ever going to quit. And I don’t see any plan for a victory — militarily or diplomatically.” This is was what President Lyndon Johnson said to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on June 21, 1965, the day I received my induction notice.
I completed boot camp at Fort Ord, located on the romantic Monterey, California, peninsula, under sedate, even pleasant conditions. There had been a meningitis outbreak in the class preceding mine. Someone died, which caused one or two stories to appear in nearby newspapers. My company was not allowed to run or indulge in blatant physical activity. We were bused around Fort Ord to our kill classes and ordered to sleep eight hours every night. Mostly, I recall being loaded on pharmaceutical speed, courtesy of a girlfriend who was a doctor’s daughter.
The most important moment in boot camp was the typing test. (I owe my skills to Ms. Louise Pendleton’s tits, having in 8th grade followed them into a beginning typing class and never looking back.) During my first week at Fort Ord, I signed up for, and aced, the Army’s career-enhancing typing test.
On graduation day, I was dubbed an Army finance clerk and ordered to Fort Wainwright, located on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska. I viewed this posting as an undesirable beginning to my military service. I felt I could better serve my country at the Presidio in San Francisco.
But the Army didn’t care about my needs. My entire military career was spent at Fort Wainwright. The tour passed without incident except for one savage paper cut inflicted upon my right index finger while filing a form at the end of a hectic week. (Old timers look back and remember it as the week when military pay rates changed and many unfamiliar numbers had to be entered into many rows.) I lived off-base, hung out with locals, and, most importantly, went native.
My transformation was aided by the previously mentioned Freddie Galloway and Kermit Beeman, met at the University of Alaska student union on a perfect September day in 1966. I was taking an art appreciation class and had dropped by the student union to gawk at women. Kermit and Freddie were drinking coffee at a corner table, the only other long-haired males on campus. I knew, like a dog knows dinnertime, that I’d found the next stop on my train ride.
Kermit had arrived in Fairbanks a couple of months earlier straight out of the University of Idaho with a master’s degree. That was enough to get you a job at a small state university, and Kermit was a lecturer in the psychology department. He wore cowboy boots, jeans, checkered wool shirts, and a hand-stitched leather jacket to class. He was stocky, barrel-chested, 5'10", with long dark-blond hair and a perfect Santa Claus beard, save for the blond. He talked about existential phenomenology, using the word existential as a universal descriptor, as in “Ex-is-ten-tial!” or “That’s pretty existential,” followed by a heartless chuckle, and he lived with an artist chick in a wood-heated cabin with psychedelic posters on the walls and LSD in the sewing-table drawer. He reeked of cool. Thirty-eight years later, he’d be working as a laborer in the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay.
But being a laborer does not necessarily mean being stupid. Kermit went into his golden years with 40 acres of land, seven rental cabins, an enormous, three-story, built-by-his-own-hand house, a yard full of trucks, an alcoholic wife, estranged son, and the respect of his community.
When I met Freddie Galloway, he was 19 years old, a slender 6'2", with black eyes and hair. He had the longest beard I’d ever seen, a ZZ Top beard, which, even then, had streaks of gray. Smart, funny, athletic, stubborn, and a loyal friend, he is someone who takes time for coffee in the morning, time for his banjo at night, time to read in the afternoon. No time for steady work.
Freddie was born in Fairbanks; his parents were homesteaders. This Fairbanks pedigree gave him an identity rock. He was sure about who he was, about what was right and what was wrong. He was sure Fairbanks was the only place in the world that mattered. He would live in the woods, take up carpentry, then fine woodworking, raise three children, marry, never hold a steady job, all that being only gloss and glow because he was Fairbanks born and bred, something, dear reader, you and I will never be.
Kermit and Freddie, two years from our first meeting, will (as you may recall from earlier installments) buy five acres on the east slope of Ester Dome, where I’ll help build Freddie’s cabin, then tree house, the same tree house I fled to after the tragic sexual bust in Santa Fe, which inevitably led to Pipeline Days, and from there on to a career as journalist and literary lion.
It has come to this: I am sitting at my desk in Berkeley, California, examining a photograph. The portrait shows a beaming, middle-aged man. Middle-aged hair flares hindward from the shoreline of his egg-shaped dome. Snappy Victorian sideburns and a Santa Claus beard and mustache add mix and meat to his angelic ether. The man’s cheekbones are set high. His raven eyes squint. The image was taken at sunset, thus drenching his countenance in luscious rainbow hues.
This is not a true representation of a human being. This is an advertisement, another box of breakfast cereal, and another solicitation to spend money. This, to be specific, is a book jacket. Regard, pilgrim, the colorized facsimile of Dr. Andrew Weil, who, at present, is staring up at me from the cover of his seminal work, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health.
Let me not fail to mention that alongside Dr. Weil is Bill Moyers’s Healing and the Mind, Dr. Neal Barnard’s Food for Life, Martha Rose Shulman’s Light Basics Cookbook, and George Foreman’s Knock-Out-the-Fat Barbecue and Grilling Cookbook. This wellness archive was acquired at the Ashby Street flea market, Northern California’s finest discount book outlet and literary browse-ateria.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, your best-o’rama pal is embarking upon a thorough retooling of his physical, mental, and spiritual states. But I want you to understand that I did not go down easy.
Go to Part One of "Work Ten Weeks, Take Ten Months Off"