THE OTHER SIDE OF EDEN: LIFE WITH JOHN STEINBECK
17. The Scene
In the spring of 1989, Abbie Hoffman died; on accident, as my kids used to say. I felt that I had lost a good friend, and so had my generation. He was a surprisingly kind and gentle person who also loved to shout a lot. He provided an enlightened and rousingly important sort of misbehavior.
I remember running around the West Village with him one summer in 1973 trying to unload zip-lock baggies of frozen mushrooms before they melted down and turned into a disgusting mottled swill. But then, after they inevitably did, his perky question became, "Was the value increased?" Of course this kind of question, as well as most all others, got more serpentine the more of the product that we ourselves consumed. Eventually there was nothing left but a wet stain on the floor of my car. As anyone will tell you, including the FBI, as a dealer in drugs, Abbie was a complete washout. As a provocateur of conscience, he was one of the sweetest and best.
I thought about him a lot the night he died. He had been a remarkable and totally energized commentator on the conditions of the day. With him gone, it will be like missing an important trick card in a Tarot deck. I had a hard time getting to sleep, and the next day, as if ambushed, I woke up to the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of another social commentary, my father's book The Grapes of Wrath. More death and coincidence, I suspect.
I don't necessarily want to sing a paean to Abbie Hoffman, but he was a force for an awareness that had not been mine before I was drafted. I don't know what would have happened to me without him or others in the sixties like him. I might have become just another button-down soul and grown prematurely complacent. I know for sure that the times would have been dumber and duller. He was a hard man to satisfy and it is sad that he is gone. For the most part, despondency was not one of Hoffman's public trademarks. It took just plain bad medicine to take him from us.
When asked once by the "Authorities" just what the hell he thought he was doing, Hoffman said, ''I'm just shouting 'theater' in a crowded fire." It was a fire, but for many of us, the fire was also on the inside, and it would smolder for years, camouflaged as rage toward the fixtures of any discerned official oppression.
As this book has me casting backward and forward trying to figure out who I am and where I come from, to be honest I need to begin to get into what kind of person I began to make of myself, apart from the torque of my parents and childhood. My natural environment stretches from those formative days to the present, but despite my upbringing, I'm now responsible for the majority of the stretching. It's a bit like the journalistic quandary of when does the story become part of the event?
Definitely, when I was a young teenager, I felt dispossessed and betrayed by forces beyond my control. These feelings come cruising back from time to time. Without a doubt, a lot of this has to do with the crazy episodes that defined my childhood as well as the events that were compounded by the ricochet of my own erratic solutions. With Abbie Hoffman's death, however, I'm forced to remember that though I may have been clever, I wasn't really all that smart. I didn't have a lot of information to go on outside of the reactionary snap of witness abuse. I just knew something was disarranged.
At first I thought perhaps the chief problem was with me. That's how a program of borrowed shame frequently translates and transfers itself anyway. You witness people acting shamelessly and then you take it on as your own stuff. Typically, it starts with witnessing your parents acting out, and pretty soon you're carrying around a load of shame that was transferred from their shoulders onto yours, while they continue to blissfully ignore their abuses.
Then, right on schedule in the early sixties, my youth and opinions really began to mount as I grew into a "know-it-all" adult. It wasn't until later that I experienced the possibility of real conscious blame upon my perpetrators. Along with my peers, I knew something was about to break open. I didn't know what, but I began to feel nameless discontent just before the spark of articulation. And even when it started to happen, there wasn't a breaking open of floodgates, but just the bestirring of complaint; the old generic type of institutional anger that starts by way of a slow under-chorus, like the way babies begin to cry while parked next to each other in their baby carriages. First, they hear the noise of one comrade crying. Then, by way of imitation, one or two more rise to the wonderful sound of pure emotion, and before you know it, twelve babies are screaming bloody murder.
By the time I first returned from Vietnam, a curtain of betrayal hung everywhere. We were way past the gripe stage by then. From our side, it was largely due to what we felt were patriotically enforced lies about America's actions throughout the whole of the past, compounded with other crimes that were born of a decrepit white horror and a facile sense of superiority. We soon realized that even Saint JFK had been jerking off to his ballad of the Green Berets, or screwing Marilyn and reading James Bond every night, for chrissake!
Biologically, a seemingly drastic "punctuated equilibrium" happens all the time, and as the word implies, it's hardly ever a smooth transition, even for a mollusk. In freethinking people, the big lurch forward has the distinct sensation of a real double cross. Perhaps it was inevitable and maybe essential. Then bitterness and anger became ornaments that were pleasing to wear.
Our parents weren't really all that stupid. They suspected correctly that we were about to abandon them to their vanity, their fear, and their dusty domino games. So, by 1966, though we didn't know exactly what was going on, young people definitely felt something, and in my generation, the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Bob Dylan were some of the first babies that screamed foul.
Today, I get a little worried wondering what is going to happen in a world where a lot of younger people think that the Holocaust is a Jewish holiday, and the DMZ was a pre-rap rock group who performed at Vietnam, an unpopular but famous antiwar demonstration somewhere near Woodstock. I have met people who think that the Black Panthers were some sort of an expansion team, and the Dalai Lama is a Peruvian newspaper. I know that before his death, Abbie was somewhat dazed about this sort of thing, too. Without a blink, I saw him say on TV that now he didn't trust anyone under thirty. However, the twinkle in his eye was soothing, as if to say we could educate the young and give them some more time to see what a pickle they might really be in.
Because of the many habits that began to overwhelm me in the seventies, it had been a while since I thought about all of this, but shortly after Hoffman's death, my sixteen-year- old son, Michael, was sitting in the back of the car with his Walkman on, trying to compete with whatever it was that I was blasting over the other system. As I glanced back at him atonally mouthing lyrics, I saw a look of what seemed like rapture and certainty. His jaw was set and his eyes moist. His face was transfixed on a vision floating somewhere just over the horizon of his experience. Curious, I turned off "Hotel California" in time to hear him fervently declare (in that self-centered a capella Walkman way), "The Answer my friend is blowin' in the wind; the Answer is blowin' in the wind." I got a wonderful lump in my throat. At his age, the proclamation of truth is fearless, and the assumption of a basic goodness is basic in itself. It is unconditioned by the questionable kindness or the gauged decencies portioned out from the adult above.
At times, I've seen younger generations look at mine with the hilarity and slightly embarrassed terror of a high school football team from Nebraska watching a serious Japanese porno movie. The sixties and our fine youth recede into caricature as the "No Longer Suited for Prime Time Players." A realm of the senses perhaps, but it was no movie. It was our lives, and it was so tangible; the very Life of Life.
Everyone who was there remembers the burst of energy that brought us the likes of Abbie Hoffman, though they now remember it with varying degrees of fondness. Memories sometimes suffer. For a while it seemed the only way to grasp the era was to pick it up by its shoulder-length hair and dangle it, a sour and silly morsel, over the maw of the eighties. But euphoric recall aside, I can remember the energy and goodness of the time. Our society is still permeated with many of the holistic values and qualities that were distilled in my youth. They linger like the fragrance of perfume in an empty bottle. There were flashes of serenity, and perhaps even an inevitable enlightenment. There was also a notion that happiness or even mere Being, would or could suffice. Maybe, in its quiescence it was superior to action! This was not entirely laziness or hesitation, but a fine caution as the message we were getting was that even excellence seemed apocalyptically suspect. The mastery of science looked like it could be the route of pollution, madness, and nuclear destruction. So ... "Let It Be."
The social and political stops along the way to the present might just seem like a convoluted game of Hippie Trivial Pursuit, however the movements of the day hadn't come out of nowhere. It is true that the little eddies of revulsion and revolution looked like they were coming from youngsters like myself, but a deeper maelstrom had really been a long time swirling and coming, way before Berkeley's free speech movement or Vietnam. Neither did the unmistakable vortex have an epicenter other than the human heart of dissatisfaction. Baby doctor Benjamin Spock and psychologist Abraham Maslow were no kids; and New Lefties like David Dellenger, feminist Betty Friedan, and San Diego's Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse weren't either. They had all spent decades shouldering the Old Left's rugged cross. The Beats, with their Emerson-tinged Eastern religion, had been "on the road" for some time already.
Before I was drafted there were lots of counterculture seniors, though some had an obvious need for musty control. At first, professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, spun round by the double helix, fairly patronized their followers from their Harvard psychology chairs. With mostly good intentions, they imagined a generation locked like pigeons in a Skinner box. They held out a free radical, a key, a chemical/molecular possibility for early liberation, or a least a sugar cube worth of parole. By micrograms we might just forget the box ... dose ... and "break on through to the other side." Such easy fruition was out of sequence, of course, but what a sensate, delicious solution.
Like flies in a fly bottle which had been dashing against the glass, en masse we began to realize that the top was mostly off. The perceived jailers were in the real prison, dumbly guarding the "Outside." We on the inside were free. The fact that there might be bigger bottles ahead that might demand more, even real work at the lid, we didn't exactly foresee. We were very young, and that had its own sweet virtue and leverage.
Though everyone wasn't eighteen years old in 1965, it was the youth(s') movement. It was the kids in their late teens and early twenties who picked up the ball and ran in dizzying circles from goalpost to goalpost, leaving the Keep-the-Faith Old Guard panting and just a little bit worried. For some, it was for the sheer contrary delight of it all. For others, it was far more than just coltishness. A renaissance of organic politics and philosophy were let slip past and through the "dogs of war" at a perfect moment. The millennium by happenstance was colliding in coincidence with the mass adolescent rites of the most populist and reflexively utopian generation in American or world history. If you had survived to this point, it was really great to be alive.
Now "adolescence" is what anthropologists amazingly call a "high-context" culture; a spontaneous medium in which intuitively shared assumptions and formal nuances are so densely packed that every gesture speaks volumes. Overlooking the bloodless sound of it all, this was definitely true. When Bob Dylan sang about people like T. S. Eliot, he wasn't talking about literature; he was reducing progressive demigods to a Saturday night tag-team wrestling match. He could also sing, "The birdies in the trees go tweet-tweet-tweet," and the poetry and the gall were sublime. It was scarcely even the voice of a singer. It was some kind of antivoice, shamanic, invocative, used for sending complex, compelling messages over long distances to anyone with wit to hear. And by the way, if you could read cold lips, Liberalism was dead. The posture of this disregard and indifference that we began to display toward the worn-out righteousness of our immediate elders, also squared the mass family resentments wafting under the surface like a kelp forest.
Without the army to wake up to, my beard grew, I carried a stash, and learned how to tell long meaningful stories about my smallest possessions, like where I got a hole in my clothes. For now, I was becoming a socialized hippie. We hippies felt distinctly abused because of our soft views, and abjured for no good reason whatsoever. For a time, we tried to legitimize ourselves with examples from history. Though I couldn't manage it, there were long-as-you-could-grow-them locks of hair defended as really American, like, you know, Native Americans, the Founding Fathers, the Apostles. No matter the foolishness, what now seems like only style, set off deep, immensely powerful resonances among us.
It was a while before I really "understood" LSD. I had received a liberal education from inspired family sources. I was familiar with the Elizabethans and their King James Bible, as well as the knots and loopholes of Western psychology and philosophy. I loved paradox and Plato, e.e. cummings, and Wallace Stevens. That is to say, I loved the words, but I only understood the meaning in a jazzy, superficial sort of way.
One day, as I was sitting in my bathtub, amicably confused on a certain amount of acid, I began to look at a friend's copy of the Tao Te Ching. This was the jewel in the crown of Chinese thought. My father had exposed me to the works of Chuang Tse and Lao Tse, and I had found the topsy-turvy logic direct and amusing, if bewildering. But as I sat there this day in the clear water, trying to focus on the vibrating point, much less the sense of this Taoist comic book, I was distracted by a bird in the sky, and BAM, I suddenly "got it." Just like it sounds, the scales fell from my eyes, and that was not all. The bathroom exploded into dripping colors, and all the dumb metaphors I had ever heard danced around the room as holy truth. My mind seemed to become absolutely still, and then to fly up, like that bird in the empty sky, happy and free and away from its ancient prison. Oh boy, our species was actually well programmed for transcendence, but there was also the deep mechanism of ego provoking us to grasp and forget.
Looking out the window at the town, all the streets were actually rolling, like a yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City of my primordial being. My God! In my Father's house were many mansions, and they were all suddenly right here in the bathroom. Everything that I had ever read by the Christian mystics, the Taoists, the Sufi poets, the Concordians like Thoreau and Whitman, the Vedas, Vedanta, William Blake, William James, Buddhist Sutras, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and the Book of Common Prayer, all of these things were pointed at the same damn thing that was luminescing all around me. It was something, that thing, that was inexpressible, but whole and real and eternal. In its ineffability, it was the answer to the suffering of the world.
Yup, I had gotten it, but within a few hours of trying to discuss it and own it with words, I lost it. I dearly wanted to share all this with my dad, but my gushing enthusiasm no doubt made it seem like I was "on drugs" or something. A true double bind. Nevertheless, I was stunned, and my life was changed forever, and like the dead Pascal's ''This morning, fire everywhere" note found pinned under his hair shirt, I sit here even today, meditating on the fullness of the present to keep the memory green.
All in all though, I guess I was not unique. Why, every head shop in town was testament to the fact that a lot of my contemporaries had been in a bathtub or two themselves. The lyrics to the music of the day, though not referring directly to the Blue Cliff Record of Zen Buddhist transmission, were distinctly pushing the core ideas of instant enlightenment. You know, Satori ... the FLASH.
Some things were profound, and also very funny. While still stationed at the Pentagon after returning from Vietnam, I'd already started calling in "well." Innate happiness often made it absurd for me to go to work, especially for the Defense Department. It now seemed necessary for me to "Drop at Dawn" at least twice a week, just to stay in tune with a micromacro cosmos. One had to wonder how it ever got along without me knowing it was there before.
I began to comport myself with the air of a full-blown mystic. Mind you, this was not just vanity. What I had seen, I had seen. It was worth contemplating forever. I also liked sex and rock 'n' roll.
With my new hippie friends, I appreciated what was becoming a family that would play with me, and one that I didn't have to fear would be blown away at a moment's notice. In Vietnam, getting close to someone was risky business. For the time being, it was actually American to try and "love one another ... smile on your brother ... come on people now ... etc."
And we were Americans, after all. No matter if the Swiss had invented it. even acid was American. Certainly the electric slam of it was much more like football than, say, curling or grouse hunting. We were for and about revolutionary change, both inside and out, and we had all sorts of other electric toys as well. With these we could implement that change. We had the technology and the drugs to manipulate our psychobiological view. We could communicate with Arthur Koestler's "Ghost in the Machine."
There seemed to be a chance to erase centuries of Western mind-lock with one protracted burst of amplified feedback. Yes! Amplify the feedback! Everything became louder, brighter, more overwhelming. Make art, music, love. Make yourself free. Sometimes we all had the feeling that maybe one mighty thought blast of wild-eyed, god drunk sound would tumble the walls. It was the beginning of music becoming impossibly loud, and speeded up or else stretched out, with languorous drifting musical figures. These were shades of yet more things to come: make politics, make language. Make more love. Make new drugs as battering rams against the old order.
The new culture of the sixties was bursting forth from the main body in a megamitosis. Tired of neglect, our "true" nature would now explode out of our own subconscious. Also true, it looked like it could get a bit freaky on the edges, maybe even a bit messy; the timid might get splattered, but at least the blood would be Day-Glo, like in the Iliad, or like in the Upanishads. Yeah ... like that.
The stars were changing positions, perhaps swirling up enough centrifugal force to throw off everything the Western world seemed to represent to our simple prejudice and complex frustrations. I don't think hardly any of us really knew it, but what seemed like sociology or politics was also a surge of emotion of such proportion that the increasingly loaded dope- receptor sites were perhaps the only fit landing zones for the anguished and minimized concepts of the new order.
Despite the bliss-inducing psychedelia, and the copious painkilling, our anger, though it was almost always obscured in smoke, was alive and palpating our unconscious family dreams. There was real hatred for the mad conquest of nature, the worship of inhuman technology. By 1968, the Chinese Year of the Monkey was upon us with all four thumbs, and rage and grief were to eat our spines from the inside out. It was the year of the Tet Offensive, where children of both sides foddered and salted Vietnam's soil as if the fucking Hittites had joined the fray. The Democrats at their convention in Chicago goose-stepped on the bodies of their natural heirs, and it was also the year that Martin Luther King's and Bobby Kennedy's assassins would make us question any sort of providence and the value of human evolution. It was also the year that I returned to Vietnam as a journalist.
Using my definition of things, returning to Vietnam in 1968 was probably the first really adult thing I had ever done. It fit all the requirements of my long-ago dream in the elevator shafts of Manhattan. It had danger aplenty, which now, as a civilian, was of course voluntary. It had romance and love in the form of Vietnamese womanhood and the abundant blessing of a matriarchal society, and then of course it was history in the making.
Sometimes memories can or should be obsolete, but though I have tried from time to time, it's impossible to forget Vietnam. In any case I spent such a long time there -- far more than a normal person might -- that to try and get a grasp I have to go back there as surely as a vet sometimes must board a plane to revisit the battlefields of his youth. But for me, the fields of Vietnam had a wide variety of meanings, the symbolism of which colored my life in ways that are probably different than most.
There has been so much misapplied pathos and sloppy thinking (confused as "the Brightest") both before and after "our war." This arrogance derailed us into Southeast Asia in the first place, and we then tried to impose our limited and linear thinking on an ancient world with seasons that could last a decade apiece. So, even today, America is stuck with a Vietnam that won't decode easily and a sensation of quicksand between our toes no matter where we go.
Still, I was struck by a tremendous jolt of inspiration while in Vietnam. Among other things, the Vietnamese saved me from the certainty that technology was supreme. This inspiration included a growing political sophistication. Certainly, the John Wayne war movies that had been the real basic training for my age group had lacked much in preparation for the lethal truth of American sanctimony.
Often when people ask about the war, I glibly say that I grew up in Vietnam. I think many Americans shyly feel the same. Since my first year there more or less kept me bound to the U.S. Army, when I returned to Vietnam I tried to "find" myself by way of doing something different from what one normally does in an army at war. And again, to be truthful, the women of Vietnam and the sweeping gardens of cannabis sativa had as much to do with the pull of returning as a drive toward conspicuous good works or an affectedly bleeding heart.
Saigon was once called the Paris of the Orient. Come to think of it, I believe Phnom Penh was, too, or was that a Pearl? In any case, there are probably more Paris and pearls of the Orient than fleas on a poodle. This was due in part to the old colonial French municipal architecture, which had a wonderful way of accommodating the climate and soul of the people who lived in these towns. There was a sort of built-in decay with a comforting feeling that smoothly supported the ceaseless human pastimes of birth, romance, commerce, old age, and death.
Though at first I didn't really notice it, the Saigon that I returned to held out a different bouquet than the city that I had left in the army. Though I had only been gone for about a year, the city was choked with two million more refugees from the countryside. The Tet Offensive had just finished its roll through America's notion of invincibility and had now left even deeper scars on the people and the architecture.
As a soldier, I had found myself in bars a lot. These were the requisite relaxation spas for military boys, even if you preferred to smoke dope. There one could find the jubilees of male bonding stamped with the fear-driven sexual preening of the condemned. This class of business was quite often cloaked in a self-conscious walkie-talkie-radio-procedure chatter designed to distance its users from all feeling; "Baby-Stumper, Baby-Stumper, Friendly zeroing-in at two-o-clock ... Roger?" The reply would be "Roger that Tango, I'm loaded with 'Nape &. Snake'!" This means something like, "Look at that pretty girl."
Though times had changed in so many ways for me, my impulses set in motion by the scenery returned to their old grooves. Scarcely stopping to feel my way, the very first thing I did when I got back to Saigon and checked in to a hotel near the main bar street called Tu Do, was to lose all my money in a sleight-of-hand exchange on the black market. The amazing thing was that I had watched this sort of back-alley shuffle go down dozens of times and yet I fell for it anyway. I just stood there in the shadows fully aware of what was going on, and watched like a toad blinking on a hot rock as my $400 in greenbacks miraculously turned into about $7 of wonderfully manicured newspaper with just a taste of real piasters on the top and bottom of the stack. After the numbness wore off, the second thing I did was to look for some old friends so I could eat and have a place to sleep the next day.
The first past acquaintance that I ran into was an old, and I mean old, prostitute who went by the name of Monique ... of course. She had been a dance-hall girl who had performed various wondrous routines for the French army. She still thought of herself as something of a chanteuse, and had fascinating gruff stories of those long-lost Foreign Legionnaires. Monique had been a friend of mine since my first days as a green private. In times past I had lent her money as she was rather poor herself, and I had gone shopping at the PX for her. She liked Chanel No. 5, and had considered changing her name to Coco. Now her age, or rather vintage, had given her a certain dignity, but also a look that wasn't all that popular with the free-spending young GIs. I liked to speak French and she had taught me a lot about the romance and ambiance of the previous war in what the Europeans preferred to call Indochina.
Having seen it all, the span of Monique's charity was limited. The blessing of a good- hearted prostitute is perhaps eternal in archetype, though brief in function; I had a day to crash -- tops! Friendship got in the way of business. Short as the benefaction was, I thought that Confucius should have allowed room for a hexagram in the I Ching dedicated to this eternal icon and protectress of foolish boys like myself. Anyway, such was the life of a wandering mendicant, or so my finances forced me to assume.
Looking around my old haunts, I found other friends from the year before who had volunteered for further duty. They had stayed either for the money, or to get out of the army earlier, or because they were in love. The latter was a strong pull. In a couple of years, GIs were staying because of the comforts of another lady, another heroin far more demanding than your basic girl.
For a week or so I hung out with these old army friends, sleeping in their hotel billets, borrowing money, and feeling my way in my new civilian guise. After recovering from a lot of reminiscing, I started getting my freelance press credentials in order. My status as a tourist had a seven-day time limit. However, I had managed to get letters of accreditation from my friends at the Washingtonian, on the strength of the marijuana article that had launched my infamy.
After receiving my press card and my visa, I cashed in my return ticket for money to live on. Back home, my mother was drunk, my father was emotionally unavailable, and my brother was somewhere in the army. The last time I had seen him he had been miserably stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I, on the other hand, felt happy and alive with all my bridges burned in the existential vacuum of youth, immortality, and careless self- propulsion.
There was a certain lawlessness that I believe had to appeal to anyone beyond the reach of the California Highway Patrol, or the Connecticut State Police. And though we were to lose the war, in the cities that we financed, it appeared that we round-eyed Christians were the privileged boys on the block. In truth, any Vietnamese civilian could have killed you in a heartbeat, but on the face of it, colonial arrogance was met with the genuine politeness of Confucian people. It also helped to form the illusion of personal sway over the population. This was very intoxicating to young men with guns, both in the cities and the countryside. It also sometimes led to tragedy.
The nerve center of all journalistic alliance and dalliance was on the veranda of Saigon's Hotel Continental. From this lovely perch one could watch the main boulevards of the town intersect in front of the National Assembly and drift with the monsoons over gin and tonic, argue the distinctions between the French war and ours, or commiserate over the tides of network benefits or the per diem. Just a couple of blocks away, the daily afternoon briefing known as the Five O'Clock Follies gave out onto this same veranda where interviews and lies could be swapped before dinner.
One day, lonely and a bit shy during that first week, I ordered a beer and sat at the hotel trying to feel the transition in my identity, the new view from the vantage point of personal recognizance. For most Americans, Saigon was a very small town. They traveled by taxi, frequently not knowing the location of where they were going or how to pronounce the names of the streets anyway. Generally, Americans had only three or four destinations in their entire stay: the PX, the airport, their hotel or villa, and the veranda of the Hotel Continental. I actually knew the neighborhood well. I had worked mere yards from this veranda at the first Armed Forces Radio station before it had moved to its vast complex on the other side of town. I had been deeply though unrequitedly in love with a married woman who had lived around the corner, and when my father had been "in country," I had slept in his suite at the Hotel Caravel across the street.
Soon after I ordered my second beer, a very friendly man looking somewhat like a blond bear came up to me and asked if he could sit down. He introduced himself as Dick Swanson, a Life photographer. He had recognized me from photographs that had been taken during my notoriety and arrest in Washington, D.C.
I was something of an anomaly. Though I knew nothing about the legitimate $300-a-day press world, I had been "in country," in fact all over the country as long as most of the reporters who flocked to get their wings singed in Vietnam. And, of course, I knew the military in Vietnam better than most, having just been in it.
I ran into some other young Americans who were not aligned to any particular enterprise other than the curiosity of conscience and a mutual resolve to immerse ourselves further in this bloody passion called Vietnam. We all spoke the language, some extremely well, and we shared a common love for the Vietnamese and their culture.
Trying to understand Vietnam is a task that is beyond the Vietnamese themselves, but just learning some basic things about Vietnam is also an involved project, and one that most Americans were unwilling to take on. This was made evident by the way we Yanks tried to prosecute a war in this already mysterious bamboo forest of contradiction.
As a country, we never made much of an attempt to locate even our position in the cultural terrain, if only for convenience sake. I mean, why were we there? James Kunen, the author of The Strawberry Statement and other documents of the era, once went up to the MP guard in front of the American Embassy and asked him "Why are we in Vietnam?" Jim was referred to the guard's sergeant, forever onward and upward, all the time taking earnest and diligent notes, until he found himself in front of General Abrams who referred him to the president. Needless to say, no one had a very satisfying answer.
For many of us critics, there was a distinctly racist component to the conflict. So it seemed that in trying to defoliate the truth of our real instincts about racial equality and our desire to "help a yellow democracy," we got snagged by a far more rugged relationship with our projection. We tried to con the Vietnamese and ended up conning ourselves in a quicksand war.
This is nothing new. Not under Kipling's sun, or even Joseph Conrad's for that matter. Why, it has taken us fifty years to be able to just focus a little bit beyond our prejudice to see how the Japanese function. In short, even though understanding the East (or now the Mideast) will probably never be the forte of American diplomacy, just trying to learning some basic facts about the people and the countries where we think our interests lay should be obligatory for our leaders.
Our small group began to coalesce and gather itself together around the little soup stands in backstreets and the world of shoeshine boys, shopkeepers, and beggars. Before we knew it, we had become sort of an American counterculture phenomenon right in the heart of a volcano. Again, it was all very street level. This was sympathetic and great for the little city boy in me who had traveled alone as a child through all the backwaters of my own old city.
Vietnam was a magnet. It also had the kind of bohemian, revolutionary cafe-society style that students love to get all worked up about. Indeed, this sort of refreshment was Ho Chi Minh's mother's milk, though he had a different agenda. Our hatred for the war, and our particular disgust in the way it was being reported eventually prompted us to start Dispatch News Service. Because of our simple language skills, this news agency quickly became completely independent of the flow of information dispensed by the Joint United States Press Office or the various embassy spokesmen. It wasn't just a problem for reporters to get past the political bias of these sources, but the texture of the air-conditioned foreign correspondent's life also made it next to impossible to grow beyond the "compound mentality" that governmental Public Information Officers provided and typified.
We at Dispatch were soon joined by defectors from various volunteer services, such as CARE and others who knew the country and had been duped into converting their cultural acumen into military intelligence. With their talents, Dispatch developed into a reliable, if amateur news agency. We were the first to disclose the My Lai massacre and the Con Son tiger cages, as well as other stories now long forgotten. How many people remember the Vietnamese spy who was shot out of a canoe by the CIA like a scene out of The Godfather?
Since I was the only one who knew anything at all about Eastern religions, that became my beat. As I have already hinted, the literary fascination that I had for many years with Buddhism and Taoism had been supercharged with the psychedelic advantages I never had as a child. Thus, with a kind of lysergic warp-speed, I returned to Vietnam as a more or less fully blown acid mystic with a post modern, nonspecific Aquarian view of what was metaphysically on line, so to speak.
To be fair to myself, as much as I may have liked the Doors and Jefferson Airplane, I was not much of an "Oh Wow" recruit when it came to what people use to call transcendentalism. Though I have always managed to associate with them, I was not a very gooey guru junkie either. My conceit spared me much of that. Then, I was mostly a student of the highly literate mystical view of people like Meister Ekhart, the Sufi poet Rumi, or passionate nuts like Sri Ramakrishna, St. John of the Cross, and of course the industrially iconoclastic Sixth Zen Buddhist patriarch, Hui-neng, who founded the notion of instant enlightenment.
As fatuous as it may sound, for a kid who didn't practice much meditation in favor of dope, I knew or at least had read a lot of stuff. And after all, this was more than a hobby. I genuinely felt and still feel that the solution to the entanglements set forth by a discursive and egocentric mind and the emotions that carry its painful though powerful argument could only be set free through spiritual principles. Every culture I had studied knew about this, and each had its own style of bringing about or recognizing the tension necessary for this radical awareness to break free. I was even sometimes smart enough to remember that scholarship alone wouldn't do it, but it helped. In fact, the more you knew, or thought you knew, the greater the release when the conceptual world was turned upside down leaving one dumb in contemplation of the unthinkable. Though this all seemed pretty simple, I already "knew" that pursuing the unknowable with the lantern of knowledge was a wild ride on the Mobius Strip, much like trying to hang on to the dizzy context of this very sentence. It was this kind of tricky business where I felt some professional guidance or example might be helpful.
With all this in the back of my mind, I set off to work. The Buddhist riots in May and June of 1966 allowed the monks of the powerful An Quang Pagoda in Saigon to become a major political force and a tremendous embarrassment to the then South Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Cao Ky. The two most imposing figures were a young firebrand named Tich (Venerable) Tri Quang, and an older monk, Tich Tien Minh. I set out to find out whether or not they were politicians or spiritual leaders, or both. It wasn't until years later that I realized that there was no such thing as one without the other, but at the time my confusion came about because of the violence of the riots in the city of Hue, north of Saigon.
Many monks, with mortars and machine guns, had blasted away at the government opposition. A friend of mine, a photographer for Time, had been shredded by a venerable old monk with a grenade launcher. They had their reasons, but from my understanding of the traditional nonviolent Buddhist point of view, this approach seemed odd. Also, self- immolation was not really a Buddhist or even an oriental way of doing things.
I spent a good deal of time studying and interviewing the leaders of the An Quang, and came away feeling that they were in fact more master organizers than master mediators. However, within the precincts of the war itself, and given the political strength of the An Quang Pagoda as a third force, there was no question but that these men were an extremely compelling crew. Yet, despite their achievements at political activism, my notion of Buddha activity, at least in the blissful realm of Absolute Universal Silliness or even "right action" was not appeased.
In the spring of 1968, a few months after interviewing every Buddhist and Catholic leader in sight, a Vietnamese friend of mine told me about a large peace conference on an island in the Mekong that was hosted by a silent yogi called the Coconut Monk. I bussed the seventy kilometers south from Saigon to My Tho City with a party of novice monks. Arriving with a lot of pushing and tickling, we all climbed into sampans at the My Tho quay on the Mekong.
The river here is about four miles wide, segmenting the delta between little My Tho and Kien Hoa City. Phoenix Island was hidden by other small shreds of land that seemed to float like peach slices along with a salad of coconuts and mango, garnished and strewn together with palm fronds in the swift brown water. As we came around one of these spits of land, what I saw made me almost fall out of the boat. There, like a hallucination floating in the middle of the river, was what resembled a Pure Land Buddhist Amusement Park built on pilings. At the prow of the island, a towering pagoda rose from the top of a seventy-foot plaster mountain. The summit was crowned by a Buddhist swastika, a triangle and a cross, which looked down on a huge terrazzo prayer circle, separated by color scheme and the elegant sigmoid line of yin and yang; duality in motion. Sporting neon lights on their heads, the nine dragons of the Mekong sprouted a full forty feet high from the prayer circle. The dragons were ancient and revered figures, symbolic of the nine fingers of the Mekong River's alluvial fan that had in fact created the amazingly rich delta.
While we got closer, the noise of our little outboard motor began to fade and disappeared beneath the din of large wind-bells that hung from the corners of the seven-tiered pagoda. There were hundreds of them. Their size was oddly familiar though and I later learned that they were made out of the brass casings of 175mm howitzer shells. As we came around in front of the island to a landing quay, I saw an extremely large and elaborate relief map of Vietnam, fully seventy feet from end to end, suspended horizontally above the flowing Mekong. The map was complete with little toy towns and cities, mountain ranges and jungles. Sprouting out of the North and the South were pillars that were at least five feet in diameter which rose to the sky to support two ends of a rainbow bridge more than a hundred and fifty feet above the surface, with a little hut on each end.
When we finally edged up to the docking area, I saw about two hundred monks and nuns doing prostrations in the main prayer circle, bowing toward the funny plaster mountain that supported the ascending tiers of the pagoda and looked like something designed for not-so- miniature golf. In a little alcove near the top of the central plaster mountain the Coconut Monk sat grinning. Without a doubt, he was the true embodiment of the classic "Don't Worry -- Be Happy" posture that is eternally endearing and mystifying in a world gone mad.
On this particular day, the little community of about four hundred was choked with tourists and guests for the two-day peace festival. With others I made the pilgrimage up the micromountain to receive a blessing from the master. My friends introduced me as an American Buddhist. His eyebrows rose comically and he began clapping. For a silent man, he was a most communicative person. I somehow understood him perfectly when he questioned in a gesture whether or not I ate meat. I did, and he sort of unclapped, and sent an attendant running down the mountain to the kitchen area. The attendant quickly returned with mangoes and coconuts. The master made me eat. He watched intently until I gobbled the juicy fruit down completely. My genuine enthusiasm was applauded by all as a sign of conversion, or at least sympathy.
I explained to the Coconut Monk (Dao Dua in Vietnamese and pronounced Dow Yua) that I was very interested in Taoism and of course Buddhism. The day before, when I had sat stoned in the Dispatch office staring at a map on the wall, I noticed that if one drew a circle around Vietnam, a simple yin-yang curve appeared. Ton Le Sap Lake (yin) in Cambodia and Hi Nam Island (yang) in the South China Sea, separated by the curved coastline of Vietnam itself, made a perfect, classic yin-yang symbol. The center of the completed visualization lay smack on the infamous DMZ.
When I told him about this discovery, the Coconut Monk's eyebrows jumped up again and he stared at me seriously. After a very long moment, he suddenly sent another monk scurrying down to a little library in the grotto/heart of the pagoda mountain. When the monk returned he had an exquisite map of Vietnam highlighted with the exact same circle around it which Dao Dua had drawn himself the day before. He was going to release this meaningful cosmo-geographical discovery to the guests later as a kind of explanation for the Vietnamese predicament; and here this round-eye had stumbled on the same thing, perhaps picking up the master's vibrations. It was a tremendously awkward moment. The surrounding monks and nuns started clucking their approval, and whispering to each other about my prophetic perceptions. Dao Dua and everyone began complimenting these friends who had invited me. No mere coincidence this, which had brought the American Buddhist to Phoenix Island. Within an hour of being there, I had become a sign, of what I'm not sure. Nonetheless, I was to pay for that little exchange of symbol-awareness with a mixture of pride and embarrassment for the rest of the years I was to be associated with Dao Dua, as the incident eventually spread on the Taoist tom-tom circuit throughout the delta.
I didn't see it happening at first but an increasingly deeper understanding of the life-and- death lessons of Vietnam were to be miraculously furthered by this jungle monk, whose eccentric attitude indicated a compassion and humor that made pathos and simpleminded commiseration unworkable. For me this lesson has never become obsolete.
My year in Vietnam as a soldier had left me with the memory of being a very realistic target. I was always frustrated by my army role and the desire to be near the people without my olive-drab identity. Soon I started going down to Phoenix Island every weekend on my little motorbike. I felt happy in the countryside and that I was no longer such a juicy bull's-eye in the dress of the foreign invader. My shoulders were light as I motorcycled through the flickering sunlight on my little bike under the palms. I felt very secure with the people and as my accent got better, I began to lose the notion of what it was to be non-Vietnamese.
On Phoenix Island, the mutual grief about the war was honest and penetrated all cultural barriers so that I felt like just one of the million carp swimming along in the silt-rich brown water of the Mekong, whose bounty travels all the way from Central Tibet to fan out here in the delta and on into the South China Sea. I was happy here. Perhaps happier than I had ever been in my life. The island became my refuge for the next five years.
Any sort of happy equipoise was Dao Dua's play. He was the father figure I'd longed for and we forged a deep affection for each other. Inversions, centering in chaos, transmutation, and a hilarious annihilation of negativity, were seemingly possible here. An incestuous exhibition of symbols swung around on a pole in the wind. A sign pivoted there, displaying Buddha with his arm around Christ; the flip side, the Holy Virgin, Mother Mary embracing the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Quan Yin. Always, bells out of bullets, inverted aggression.
In response to this extraordinary display of concrete pacifism, and to his Harpo Marx impression of a Buddha, my commitment to the Coconut Monk grew.
One day, the Coconut Monk summoned me. He asked me to stay more permanently with him on the island. He handed me his coconut begging bowel, and I accepted. That night, in the small hours I was woken up, and all the monks took me into the large cave in the plaster mountain and handed me the maroon robes (pajamas really) of the community. Having accepted the robes and the rules of the community such as they were, I moved into a tiny hut which we built on top of an old wooden river barge.
No war and a dragon's roar of nonaggression were the most tangible, and often mysterious part of Dao Dua's influence. It seemed to rule the environment, and I mean this quite literally. It is one thing to emanate kindness or manage to deflate a kitchen quarrel, but there was something deeper going on here. There actually was no war, or the jagged vibrations of war on this island. Above and around it, yes. Many evenings I used to sit eating pineapple under my thatched hut in the moonlight, watching both banks of the river rage at each other with howitzer shells and tracer bullets whistling back and forth over my head, while the colored lights of Dao Dua's prayer circle embraced the sadness and the huge bells of Phoenix Island slammed, exchanging and diffusing the suffering.
From a logical or pedestrian point of view, Dao Dua was quite mad. His presentation was beyond ridiculous, though in fact he danced in a desperate political world surrounded by an electronic battlefield. He made one's mind spin, but his style penetrated the heart. A purely analytical mind could never get purchase on his vision.
Whether or not the person you take teaching from is completely out of hand or represents the truth is often an unavoidable problem. This is more and more the case as we have to spiritually grow up and have to take responsibility for our own truth, rather than hide behind a dead doctrine or any old emperor's new clothes. But in Vietnam, with everyone else in sight trying to slaughter each other, I found it easy to be relaxed about Dao Dua's debatable relevance.
Dao Dua was the epitome of his creation. When I met him he was well under five feet tall. He used to be taller, but he had fallen out of a tree that he was meditating in and broken his back. He asked his disciples not to worry, and get him back up in his tree. His lower back became fused in a sitting posture. His arms seemed to sprout out of his chest instead of his shoulders. His expression mixed a mock-seriousness with a huge approval of everything, except the demonstration of war. The fact of it, however, didn't phase him.
Dao Dua was special. He normally wore his ponytail wound around the top of his head with the tip tucked in at the back. He thought this could symbolize Christ's crown of Thorns. Sometimes he let the ponytail hang own in back, which he said represented Maitreya, the coming Buddha. Then again, he would pull it full around like a beard under his chin and stuff it over the far ear. This one always eluded me. Abe Lincoln perhaps? Symbols are always good advertising, but Dao Dua's knees and the overall shape of his body reflected years of really industrial sitting practice and prostrations.
The Coconut Monk always wore a large crucifix over the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk. It rested on a large round saffron collar, similar to what a clown might wear. I'd never seen anything like it. I studiously asked Dao Dua its origin. He scribbled a note which when translated said, "It's really a bib. I invented it. I only eat vegetables, but I always seem to spill my food."
Having discovered the peaceful eye of the hurricane, I felt a little selfish abut my niche, but Dao Dua's generosity compelled me to invite friends from Saigon to come down and spend a few nights on the island and enjoy his peace. Most of my friends were combat photographers working for the networks and wire services. They, too, found Phoenix Island and its master the only refuge available when the succor of gallows existentialism ran dry. Quickly Dao Dua realized that he had a built-in public relations department through me and these new war-orphans. In some way the Aquarian age had delivered AP, UPI, Time and Newsweek, CBS, the BBC and French television, as well as National Geographic, into his lap.
One full-moon night Dao Dua decided to make a move. I was awakened at about 4:00 A,M. by my friend Dao Phuc, the Coconut Monk's only English-speaking devotee. The wind was blowing small ripples across the Mekong and Phuc threw his cloak over me against the chill as we walked across the wide prayer circle to the plaster mountain. The morning star had risen over the river palms but the moon was still up and Dao Dua was eating his breakfast of coconuts and hot red peppers. He wanted me to go to Saigon and arrange for my journalist friends to come to lunch as his guests in Saigon's Chinese suburb of Cholon. My motorbike was already trapped into a sampan waiting to take me to the mainland. When we hit shore I started out nervously for town. I knew that if Dao Dua were to meet his luncheon date and leave the island, he was risking imprisonment. As for myself, I was risking my visa and general credibility. In a way, it was really like being Soupy Sales's press attache.
I contacted everybody I had ever brought to the island, many of whom had grown to love the Coconut Monk. The lunch was a huge feast prepared and served by some of Dao Dua's Saigon-based devotees who ran a Chinese pharmacy. Dao Dua did not appear at first, but about halfway through lunch he arrived in a 1954 Buick Century with a saffron-painted roof. Though he wouldn't leave the backseat of his car, he handed me an outline of his plans. He wanted my friends in the media to know that on the following day he would arrive at the presidential palace, and then march up the boulevard to the U.S. Embassy to present Lyndon Johnson's emissaries with his updated plans for peace.
After lunch we all went our various ways. Dao Dua had disappeared in his car, leaving us all apprehensive about the mess that we knew would follow any public demonstration on the streets of Saigon. Dao Dua had managed to get off his island by meeting the car at a secluded part of the river, but his presence in the backseat of his car on a Cholon street had started a buzz through the city.
Having seen the head-smashing methods used to break up street demonstrations in Vietnam, I was worried about him. People were passionate and the police often cruel. The solution I thought was to go to the U.S. Embassy right away and warn them that a peaceful monk wanted to drop by and deliver a letter for President Johnson. The political section treated me politely, and after informing them of the next day's activities I left feeling that this little bit of diplomacy would smooth things over. I was very naive.
The following day my friends and I rendezvoused in a side street near the palace. Everything looked fairly normal except perhaps for me -- a Westerner in maroon pajamas. Dao Dua's car came around the corner and when he stepped out, half the people on the street stopped and stared and began to giggle among themselves, or make prostrations of obeisance to the jungle holy man. The other half turned out to be plainclothes policemen, many of whom had apparently been following me since leaving the U.S. Embassy the day before. Police jeeps quickly tore in, blocking the way to the palace, so Dao Dua started strolling towards the embassy. He had brought one coconut with a naturally formed peace sign on the bottom. Actually, all coconuts have this, but he thought that there could be the outside chance that the American president might be moved sufficiently to halt the war though this lovely organic sign of universal harmony.
Our corps of friendly photographers and journalists snapped away, as the small band of ten monks and nuns made its way up the street toward the U.S. compound. The police were actually very delicate with Dao Dua. The central command had made a faux pas by sending a captain to lead the operation whose family was from Kien Hoa where the Dao Dua was most revered as a saint. In fact, the old man knew him as a boy. Anguish and confusion covered the captain's face as he tried to persuade the Dao Dua to please go home to his island and not make any trouble. The Dao Dua just kept walking and grinning and as always, pointing his finger to the sky with huge approval as if complimenting the weather or heaven itself.
As we approached the embassy, a company of marines surrounded the building and locked a huge linked chain around the main gate. As I looked up I saw about forty more soldiers on the roof with quad-barrel 50-caliber machine guns staring down at us. Helicopter gunships began circling overhead to defend U.S. soil from my four foot eight inch teacher. At this show, the Dao Dua sat down on the sidewalk and refused to move. After twenty minutes someone in the embassy began to realize that a little old man was making a ridiculous spectacle out of the police and American military might, all with a single coconut.
Since the old man seemed to have half the press corps cheering him on, the atmosphere began to change into a weird sort of party. The Dao Dua started preparing his lunch on the street. By this time the Vietnamese crowd, past their nervousness, were howling with laughter. Eventually, a tall and typically sweatless diplomat came out and accepted the letter through the bars of the gate. He refused the coconut on the grounds that the president of the United States could not accept gifts from foreign dignitaries. The Dao Dua was satisfied and moved off. Once again with police escort, he was taken back to Phoenix Island with the threat of more severe imprisonment if he ever set foot on the mainland again. To help make the point, a raid had taken place in his absence, and thirty of the Dao Dua's closest monks were arrested.
In his letter the Dao Dua had asked LBJ for the loan of twenty huge transport planes to take him and his followers, plus building materials, to the Demilitarized Zone on the Seventeenth Parallel between North and South Vietnam. There, in the middle of the Ben Hai River, the Dao Dua would build a great prayer tower and deposit himself on the top without food or water. Along with three hundred monks on one side of the river and three hundred on the other, he would pray for seven days and nights. He assured the American president that this project would bring peace to Vietnam.
In the following years the Dao Dua and I played many games together. I was nearly thrown out of the country on several occasions, and it was probably the aura of his wackiness that saved me. Anyway, after this first incident and test of my commitment, 1 don't think I was ever really taken seriously again as a serious journalist. I, too, was transformed into a nuisance and a nutcase. Time magazine ran a picture of me in my robes with the caption:
In the course of the next few years, with the help of myself and his other new friends, the Coconut Monk escaped his island many times, always to be carted right back by the police, who eventually kept a flotilla of patrol boats circling the island. A police station was established on the edge of the community and soldiers began little patrols on the island. Once in a while, U.S. helicopter jockeys would drop tear gas in the middle of the prayer circle during prostrations, but never once did a bullet penetrate the Dao Dua's domain.
It's all over now. Ho Chi Minh is in his grave, and so is Dao Dua. At first 1 heard that Dao Dua had left his island and moved back to Seven Mountains. This was in 1973. Then later in 1986, in a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris I overheard my name and his mentioned by some Vietnamese exiles. The Communists had tried to turn the island into a tourist attraction after the war. Later I learned that the Coconut Monk had been put under house arrest by the North Vietnamese and eventually killed. When 1 saw him for the last time we didn't say goodbye. He touched his eye, indicating a rare tear. Then grinning, he pointed to the sky where he lived. Memories are obsolete and I can't forget.
Toward the end of 1968, I found Thom in Saigon standing right in front of me at the PX. I didn't even know he was in Vietnam. One night, flying on Romilar cough syrup (I got everybody drinking it to the point that we bought out all of Saigon), Thom had a vision of Dad dying. Unable to convince him that it was the dope, he went home on emergency leave and naturally, was accused of goldbricking. However, he did spend time with our father who, though supposedly sick in bed, was actually Dad very alert and in bed; clearly not in pain, reading the galleys of my book In Touch.
My father never spoke to me after my dope bust two years prior, which I believe was set up by the U.S. Army to discredit my testimony about the use of drugs in Vietnam. Dad's last words to me, when he heard I'd been found innocent, were, "They should have thrown you in jail." However, that day he told Thom that I was "a damn fine writer."
The next day, Thom went back for a chat about the war and what was going on with him, and was told by Elaine that it's all over. Dad was dead. Apparently he had gone out on a purposelessly suffered overdose of morphine; this before Dad or anybody else considered that it just might be important to say good-bye. Thom and I are to this very day left completely adrift about all of this, without any closure. Elaine had been carrying around a vial of morphine with strict instructions to administer it by needle if Dad asked for it because he was terrified of suffering a painful death. This practice was secretly quite fashionable among their posh Manhattan brownstone set during that period. However, Elaine was not the one who overdosed him. Neither Thom nor I have a clue about Dad's situation and state of mind at the time of his death. I want to examine the underlying dynamics of his family of origin, the seeds of which were carried forward to create, with Elaine, a really unfair and even disgusting display of irresponsibility, and, in her case, greed. Thom is the only witness I have to the darkness that runs through our veins. Readers can find it in my father's stories, but we live with it daily.
Thom returned to Vietnam marginally out of his mind on some THC pills, complete with a highly defensive altered personality, i.e., like Artie Johnson's old man routine from Laugh In. It was days before he came down. In fact, in some sense part of this whole book is because neither of us have; we are bitter that this maneuver took place.
With my father's passing, my brother's eventual rotation stateside and the monsoons coming, I felt it was time to return to America for a brief visit in the spring of 1969. It had been six months since my father's death. I wanted to look into the family affairs of the estate, see my mother, and attend the wedding of my old boarding-school friend Ali Rubottom.
By this time, my mother's unmanageability had just about edged her out of Palm Springs. She was fighting with everyone with the exception of a few aging queens who were ripping her off and exalting her alcoholic tirades as sublime bitchiness. Her ventures in dealing art had all blown up in her face, in part due to her desperate grandiosity and her inability to distinguish between honorable business associates and cirrhotic drinking buddies. These lower companions had robbed and flattered her into virtual bankruptcy. Even her anger had shrunk into little spasms. If by describing her in this way one only gets the picture of an alcoholically churlish woman, I am doing her a disservice. Little Gwyn (my grandmother was Big Gwen) had a lot to be angry about. Her history wasn't a happy one. It wasn't till much later that anyone bothered to figure out that she had been sexually abused by her drunken father. In the light of today's understanding of the pathology of sexually abused women, she had always been right where she ought to be. Haunted, drunk, and pissed off.
She now smoked a little marijuana to be hip, but it didn't sedate her resentments and fears as well as rum and coke. It was more sad than difficult to be around her.
To my way of thinking, the really big event of this return to America was my friend Ali's wedding. Friends of the bride and groom were coming from all over. Though I probably came the farthest, the fabulous Anonymous Artists of America band, America's oldest commune, were going to drive their magic bus from Novato, California, to Newton, Connecticut, for the gig. Their bus had obviously copulated with Ken Kesey's. In fact, they had originally paid for their musical instruments with proceeds from acid sales donated by Richard Alpert, aka Baba Ram Das, and hung with the Merry Pranksters, the Grateful Dead, and other infamous characters of the time. Most of them had been graduate students from the University of Chicago and were among the first to actually "drop-out and tune- in." Indeed the Triple A gave real meaning to those words. Outside of being hippies, for the most part they were actually brilliant.
Ali's brother Sam and I drove across the country in a brand-new "You Deliver-it Drive- Away" Cadillac. This Drive-Away system, where a car owner handed the keys over to a perfect stranger, had been our preferred mode of transportation, though why anyone would have turned over their new car to the likes of us was a testament to auto insurance advertising or desperation.
Arriving in New York, I went to my father's apartment on Seventy-second Street. Because of my arrest in Washington, more than two years had gone by since I had been there. It was so odd seeing his things, knowing he was gone forever. That sounds extremely simpleminded, but even after witnessing so much death in the war, just smelling the odor of his Florida Water cologne made it hard to imagine that I would never again see his lower lip jut out as he polished a knife, or began the process of covering whatever was at hand with leather and glue. Though I tried to be a "grown-up" and hide the fact from myself, I actually missed Dad terribly. But Elaine's apartment was not the place for me to share my sadness even if I could have found it. With the exception of the devastating anguish that overcame me when a pet died, my survival skills and then my homegrown cosmic attitudes had never allowed or prepared me for grief. With my mother's thrashing about and Dad's more saturnine style, there was no model, no proper way to relate to grief. This was not lacking just in my family either. Most Americans are completely lost in space when it come to grief. As usual, all anyone had was the movies! One of the alternatives, for which I did have a model, was anger. Though it didn't yet apply to my father's passing, when it did I liked to think it was on the "warrior" level. Though I may talk later about my walk with grief, during this period my ancestor's genetic proclivity for mood alterations would mask that process before I could get any of it in focus.
At Tower East, over lots of cocktails with Elaine, I was quickly told that my father's will would be in probate practically forever, though I could already see in its content that my stepmother basically inherited everything except a small percentage of some of the domestic copyrights. Thom and I were assured "that your father never wanted you to inherit money." And in truth, the lawyers' fees would far exceed anything that my brother and I would see for decades to come. Blinking in good faith, Thom and I signed all that was put before us. Anyway, as nonmaterialistic hippie types, this was all "cool"; why, this was the first New Age and a revolution taking place, and who knew what role mere money would have in the days to come. Better, I thought, to inherit the wind than fight over more of my father's character-shaping routines from the grave. Anyway, my brother and I could be easily convinced that we hadn't "earned it." And yet, we had a society that all of us were given to shape, and with our own sense of betrayal as legacy enough, try and shape it we would. Later, when we woke up to the fact that we'd been cheated, we hired a lawyer and went after the estate with a vengeance, ending up with a larger share than Elaine had originally intended.
I would soon discover it wasn't just my family that was topsy-turvy. Things back in "the world" had progressed dramatically by the tail end of the Year of the Monkey, 1968. In New York, boys from City College had started hopping Canadian freighters to Cuba to hack sugar cane with the campesinos on the Isle of Youth. North Vietnamese kids who knew the lyrics to "Purple Haze" were there too! If this was a zephyr of collective consciousness, considering the murder, the international foul play, and everything else that was going on, why stop?
And so, around the world the people of my age began the first active deconstruction of our old societies with their gold standards and love and sex standards; in fact any standard was suspect with perhaps the exception of the hashish standard.
In France, a bunch of students chanting "All Power to the Imagination" nearly overthrew the government. Though it had first started as an academic strike, it quickly spread to the workers and after a few days, nine million people stopped going to their jobs.
There was a growing feeling that the whole thing, and I mean the whole thing, was about to topple. In Washington, the Bureau of Standards would probably have to close its doors, and like in the old French Revolution when the calendar and nearly everything else had been changed, all the antediluvian rules would just plain disappear.
Less overtly political than the French, the future cream of American society at Yale spilled stark naked onto State Street, dancing like sylphs through clouds of pepper gas. At Columbia, American Red Guards armed with The Strawberry Statement locked their professors in their dens. As for the boundaries, were there any lines worth drawing at all? Why not breach the divisions between audience and actor, art and action? Why not performance art? Action painting? Wasn't everyone an artist, a genius, a sleeping god? Was there such a thing as criminality? If one were to talk about the politics of experience as the only politics that really mattered, then surely madmen were political prisoners. "Let the men out!" was the slogan of the Black Panther Party newspaper.
And all along, in the foreground was the draft. Because of my family loyalties and background, I had been too old and was already out of the army by 1967 so I didn't quite get the full thrust of this most visceral part of the general revolt, but to everyone else that I knew resistance was obvious. Cards burned. After all, rather than appreciate the new imagination or our higher solutions, the bastards were actually trying to kill us.
Instead of their missions to search and destroy, but still searching, we looked for a unifying principle that would magnetize the disparate fields of politics, the arts, and the spirit into a solid-state approach; one that would ease our outrage and pain.
When all you suddenly want is to stop participating in the hurt created by others for you to live in, you start asking a lot of questions. Why this? Why that? We became like children woozy with agape. Why clothes? Why marriage? Why work? Did you really have to eat meat? Eat at all? And why did the sky have to be blank or blue when it could be purple and populated with avatars and Alpha Centurions. What if C-A-T spelled "dog"? "WOW" became the first guileless retort in a new Esperanto. Language was becoming less than slang, it was becoming epiphanic, almost placental.
Since we were all pretty well stoned, the logic and lineage of things got a little bit fuzzy around the straight edges. If we were to totally follow the dictums of our noble savage hearts, we would soon be running down wild game with our bare teeth in "back to the earth" zeal. Mind you, some logical extensions weren't yet worth the stretch. With the appropriate attention span, you had to backtrack a bit to get it all in focus. After all, it has been said about the sixties that if you remember them, you weren't there.
Some of the first exuberance of the era came pouring from the gates of the academies. Those nutty professors, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, had begun distributing the drug, that drug that could, it was said, turn convicts into saints and make Matisses out of bank clerks; the drug that could disengage the clumsy rational gearbox and send you hurtling to godhead.
Love was a rush, and life was rushing. In a hurry to seed and flower an enduring New Age, it seemed there was just no time. Since everything was essentially questionable, this would be the Omega generation: vision first, reality later. Bands like the Anonymous Artists and the Grateful Dead learned to play their instruments on stage in front of fifty thousand people. There was not time to digest reams of accumulated wisdom. In a synthesis, all the needed answers would surely be laid out with synchronicity like wish-fulfilling gems. Anyway, effort was the probable glue-on to rigidness, and we'd had more than enough of that!
It was to be the passing of poor Homo sapiens, the man heavy with knowing, and the birth of Homo ludens, the man enlightened by play. Enough with television father figures, this emergent creature was going to be the new steward of the garden, with a sharp eye for previous contradiction. We looked over the cultural savannah and saw a society creating an ever more carcinogenic environment even as it spent more than $100 million dollars on cancer research, and an "atoms for peace" program that was spreading atomic war materials across the globe. A senseless game of chicken was being played, for brittle honor, with the Four Horsemen.
Suddenly, the new tribal spokesmen, myself included, were thrust up out of nowhere. With no credentials, no papers other than disenfranchisement, and sincerity, we began to bob like a flotilla of bright little wooden ships on the ever rising tide.
After Ali's wedding, the usual buggy summer came to Connecticut. Sensing a good thing and tired of their California truck-farm style (that is to say, many trucks, but no farm), the hitherto rolling commune of Anonymous Artists now didn't move at all. This was nothing out of the ordinary. "Flopping" was as much in the posture of all-around Aquarian recline as anything else. So were the little dope deals that were needed to pay for brown rice, lentil soup, guitar strings, war paint, and of course more dope.
Though some Newton cops had actually been at the wedding, some of the local police in this almost antique part of the New England Parkway eventually began to worry about the increased hippie traffic up from New York City and the gaily painted buses whose engine parts began to expand like lichens over the once manicured lawns of the leased estate. The overall petri-dish effect of so many people living on so little land was beginning to become noticeable in the agar of the heavy summer air.
An unusually late rain came that year. It went on for weeks and then the property, which had been so verdant during the spring wedding period, began to literally rot and slide into the central pond which had been sensibly abandoned now even by frogs. Instead of the Dionysian reflecting pool that it had been in springtime, it had turned into a sort of La Brea tar pit. A sewer really. I had never seen actual ground rot before. The concept astounded me.
After scabies took over the management of the band and the sylvan arc of the honeymoon's orbit started to decay into the dog days of August, I began to think that maybe at least some of the things they were saying about us hippies might be true. I thought it was as good a time as any to return to Vietnam. In the delta they at least understood the principles of seepage, and anyway, I missed my island and the Coconut Monk a lot. Also, Americans, even if it be this tribe of brothers and sisters, appeared to me to be too big and ungainly when compared to the plums of my acquired Asian taste. But in the process of going all the way back to the war zone to nuzzle with dragons, I also wanted to make a pilgrimage.
In order to fulfill my long-held dream and my childhood identification with Kipling's Kim on the Great Trunk Road of the Raj, I wanted to walk where Buddha and the great yogis had walked. Starting around the world again, I wanted to go to India. I wasn't exactly looking for a guru, and fortunately I didn't find one. Anyway, I wanted to see and play with them all.
Many of my more practical friends longed for the natural high promised by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Transcendental Meditation, or TM were the initials on a lot of people's minds in 1969. It was not really on my mind. I rather liked drugs, and also there was something about the old goat that I didn't entirely trust. But I had to admit that even though the metaphors of his presentation were extraordinarily cloying, his overall sales pitch toward a measurable (in alpha waves) and drugless encounter with God Consciousness in some ways made good business sense. He was after all appealing to what was to become the spiritual entrepreneurs and prototypical Yuppies of the Western world.
The Maharishi had actually made a remarkably successful march through the Ivy League, and with a stream of lisping giggles he had wooed and won the hearts of many students who had been milk fed on marijuana, Hermann Hesse, and Swami Yogananda's all-time classic, Autobiography of a Yogi. Even for this infant New Age where drugs were still relatively harmless and the new intelligentsia had tried and even manufactured most of them, the possibilities for straight-up yoga were tantalizing. The Indian connection and the desire for excursions to the subcontinent was now also fanned by the release of the phenomenally successful book Be Here Now by the old Harvard man himself, Dr. Richard Alpert, now Baba Ram Das. His account of his experiences with his guru were wonderfully received and the miracles waiting in India were vouchedsafe in great measure because Richard had helped to start the mind-drug covenant to begin with. He was "one of us."
Though the Maharishi lacked the golden heart of Swami Yogananda or the deceptively self-effacing Himalayan/Catskill humor of Dr. Ram Das, what the old man did offer was technique. "Enough with the 'trip' stories already ... teach us how to meditate" was the sentiment of functional, pragmatic minds and the searchers who had not yet slumped into marijuana-induced apathy. Those still imbued with the energy and desire for achievement, however sanctimonious, now reached for the subtle bubbles that the "Big M" said were the Perrier of God, expanding exponentially as they reached the surface of consciousness. When the Maharishi then scored the Beatles, for however short a time, it more or less clinched the deal as far as that was concerned.
There is a lot that can be said for Transcendental Meditation as a technique for relaxation and general good health. To be sure, building any sort of formal relationship with one's own mind is the epitome of friendship and patience, not to mention the possible resulting compassion derived from such a slippery endeavor, knowing that other people have the same basic problems with their heads. But the Maharishi claimed more, like levitation and walking hand in hand with him for an interview with Ram or Krishna or other significant nabobs in the Hindu pantheon. That sort of thing remains a matter of interpretation with TM or any other technique. A deeper understanding of what the psychobiological root of what these divine entities really are, or what such a colorful experience might really be comprised of, needs serious discussion. Nevertheless, I felt that the characters along the shore, pilgrims and gurus alike, were often deliriously funny and genuinely touching. As for me personally, suffice it to say that obviously no one on their way back to Vietnam voluntarily could possibly be serious about looking for an offhanded technique for relaxation.
It has been said that pink is the navy blue of India, but additionally it has to be said that grandiosity is also a specialty of that culture. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was no exception. He needed lots of instructors to spread his new and improved mantra system over the surface of the globe. Ali had been practicing TM long enough for him to be eligible for teacher training. Fortunately, during this early period in his career, Maharishi's income taxes were still low enough that he could afford to be in India instead of Switzerland, so for pilgrims who wanted to go farther than the Alps, one had to get to the foothills of the Himalayas to take the training course.
Maharishi's ashram lay above the little settlement called Rishikesh, near the ancient city of Hardwar on the Upper Ganges north of New Delhi. This was where the Beatles had gone. Now too, Ali and I and our women set out for India and the Maharishi's ashram nestled in the jungle woods. I was just along for the ride to the old Fatherland as it were. And so it was, as a Buddhist/Taoist mendicant with my eyes set on Vietnam that we started planning the trip.
Like all good dream trips, I seem to remember that this one was to start out gloriously on twin BMW motorcycles which we would purchase in Bavaria with pro-stock sidecars. Ali and I had been friends since our early teens, and with the help of a little hashish and Southern Comfort, we could dream well together. Also, there was something in my memory of going up and down the road from Saigon to My Tho that made this approach to world travel seem plausible. However, by the time we had all of our plans in place, winter had long since hit the Hindu Kush!
As for me, I had my area of responsibility. Since I was surprisingly "happiest" there, I planned to return to Vietnam in short order. It was, after all, sort of my spiritual home, and it stood as the central metaphor for my generation's dissatisfaction with the massive tactics of aggression which had stirred us to loathe the status quo to begin with.