You never know where a conversation with your dentist will go. When I went in for a checkup this month, Dr. Gittings wanted to know where I was 50 years ago during the Summer of Love.
The question triggered a warm glow of remembrance. Flower children cavorting in Golden Gate Park. The patchouli-scented hippies of Haight-Ashbury.
What a time it was. A time of exuberant youth. And I was there!
Actually, no. I wasn’t anywhere near “there.”
In ‘67 I was living the polar opposite of the Summer of Love. I spent that summer at Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, a small army base in central Pennsylvania.
I was an ROTC cadet off to summer training. I tromped around in army gear, doing basic training-type activities, my hair in a severe crew cut.
Instead of spreading peace and love that summer, I was more worried about how to clean a machine gun in boiling water and not have it rust. (I suspect they don’t boil machine guns these days.)
Despite my ROTC affiliation, I was mostly sympathetic to the cultural upheaval of that time. I loved the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” I grooved on Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” I figured hippies balanced out America’s bleak commitment to winning a war in Vietnam.
While practice-marching on campus with my fellow ROTC cadets in the spring of ‘67, I had a confrontation with an anti-war peace protester. She came up and sweetly offered me a flower.
Exactly what is a cadet in uniform supposed to do in that situation? Make a fearsome grunt? Plead with her to leave him alone?
In the end, I took the flower. It was the polite thing to do.
I got my orders in 1968. The army was sending me to ... San Francisco!
I was going to the Summer of Love a year late.
My fellow lieutenants couldn’t believe my good fortune. Because of the Summer of Love, San Francisco was considered one of the most magical places on the planet.
A fellow officer who had gotten orders for Germany wished he could trade with me. Everyone wants to go to San Francisco, he said.
When I got to S.F., it was clear the army didn’t want me hanging out with the Jefferson Airplane on my off-duty time. They immediately dispatched me to a missile battery outside Travis Air Force Base in rural Solano County.
The experience was surreal. Day and night, military planes were departing Travis carrying young troops for the war in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, because I had regular hours at the missile battery, I headed into San Francisco on weekends for a Summer of Love encore.
In S.F., my crew cut made me the freak, but I didn’t mind. I went to free concerts in Golden Gate Park. I hung out with actual hippies.
I speak of Paul and Mary who were in my class back at Rutgers. Paul was known to be one of the very first people in New Brunswick, New Jersey to use LSD. The effect was powerful. He dropped out and never graduated.
Paul and Mary were among a wave of Rutgers grads who headed to the West Coast during those years to experience the counter culture before settling into more somber, sustainable lives.
Classmate Ed, for a brief time a self-styled logger, planted himself in a funky encampment on the Blue River outside Eugene, Oregon. At night, the bliss seekers gathered around a fire circle and passed around joints.
I participated in the passing but not the toking. No way, Jose. However, I did fully participate in a tie-dye party.
When I last saw Paul and Mary, they were living in a ramshackle Victorian on Castro Street, up the hill from Market Street. It was summer, yet they kept a roaring fire in their fireplace.
Paul had improvised a way to get firewood. He was burning the furniture.
This is what hippies do, I remember thinking. They burn the furniture.