We pull on uniforms assigned us as young guys, kids really, plastic, molded into shapes and colors that are completely new. Our heads are shaved, our bodies toughened. But nothing prepares you for slaughter or the relentless stew of fear, guilt, dread, anger and anxiety from which there is no escape until you are killed or maimed or someone leafing through a stack of papers finally reaches yours and stamps “Discharged” on it.
You come back to, roughly, the same world, if you survive, but everything you piece together as you put on your pants, comb what hair has returned and step out the door slants toward strange in your eyes.I expected that, the alienation, before I landed in San Francisco and knocked off a couple of days before catching connecting flights on to New York. First day in America, again, I took a city bus that rattled up to The Haight and got off before it crossed Stanyan Street into Golden Gate Park. Hippies hanging out under ancient trees like musty clouds of unnecessary humanity seemed to know my story. I was in street clothes, but my hair…and probably my expression…
One of the dudes, a guy propped up on one elbow, his beard, streaked with gray, sent strands onto the middle of his chest, raised a rolled cigarette in my direction. He might’ve been lifting a funky salute, but I assumed he was offering me a hit. I smiled, shaking my head enough to decline gently and kept walking under the trees and into the meadows. My mind wasn’t ready to let down its guard the way it had when Jon and I knocked off lunch hours at school with a joint and bottle of Thunderbird. Maybe it never would be, this planet more fearsome than we knew then.
During the Summer of Love and the next where I tried to grab strands of freedom and Selective Service geared up to escort me down the road to Southeast Asia, I read as much as I could about the counterculture’s hopes for changing the world. We had some spirit but were far from the mainstream in Binghamton. I agreed that things should be changed but not necessarily to what. Hippie daydreams contrasted the depressing mechanism of physicals and interviews and dread about what was inevitable on the bloody horizon. Thanksgiving break, the year before, Jon and I drove down through the Catskills to wander around Greenwich Village, once we found the jumble of unnumbered streets under the towering city. Hippie culture had been overwhelmed by invaders. The music clubs were too loud, the head shops on Bleecker too obvious, the girls from Long Island panhandling for bus fare in Washington Square Park too young and uninteresting. The movement hadn’t held its ground very well in the big city.
But all I read about Haight-Ashbury implied that some legitimacy lasted. Peace might prevail, hope defying the reality of what I was going through on my way to induction. Two years later, on the ground in The Haight, all I saw in the free clinics, hippie shops and lost souls standing on corners were relics of a burned out hallucination. The best of hippie culture, the passions for peace, freedom and expanding awareness, had gone political, meaning mainstream, gobbled up by process. It probably had to. How long could you survive inside the bubble, outside the endless parade? Kicked back lifestyles retreated into tiny urban pockets, communes and hopeful, subdued retreats. I hoped to find something else in the park.
No historical markers with funky logos had been erected where the first love-in took place or where Jerry Garcia sat under a tree and strummed a banjo, singing Zen songs about the universe. The park was as it had been when my one-time idol, Rod McKuen, wrote about his troubles on Stanyan. The meadows rolled and old growth trees held their breath on a sunny afternoon. Sooner than expected, I walked by the surprising Dutch Windmill, wondering what the hell it was doing there and, before any good idea came to me, crossing over onto the beach, the Pacific, pretending to be endless, stretching in front of me.
I hadn’t talked to anyone since handing over my key at the Y where I woke up to the Bay Bridge rumbling with traffic out my transient window, and I didn’t know what I was going to do.
Rolling, washing waves brought a soothing pulse along the mostly empty beach, certain and consistent. I walked toward the Golden Gate, Tamalpais hazy across the bay, focused roughly on a building up on a cliff, certain I wasn’t going to walk that far.
It was confusing to feel so divided about continuing my travel home. I’d expected no such uncertainty. But I kept thinking I could stay right here or veer off to some interesting sounding place, like Denver or Chicago, and settle without ever crossing the Mississippi again. Binghamton was not for sure. As much as I loved the place, all my life so far, being there now, being me, felt hard.
And it wasn’t just the standard veteran returning home reluctance about being lost in an invisible sea of change, as the world kept turning, the chemistries mingling, in your absence, or the unavoidable conversations that got one and all off the hook. Relationships I’d deferred resolving had not melted away. As the years passed, I’d learn that they never do. Loose ends stay loose ended. But now, as I was just beginning to tangle with any of some consequence, I accepted the truth reluctantly.
Finding a place to live and work in the valleys and flatland carved by the Susquehanna and the Chenango meant dealing with things mishandled when I was much more able. Hardened emotions offered less effective tools.
Maureen wrote me when she knew I was close to being discharged. Probably, she’d probed my family for details. Everyone liked her. They thought she was “the one,” as the saying goes.
“Well, you don’t have to deal with her being so fucked up though, now do you?” I said to the imagined crowd in my mind, each individual looking at me with suspicion and curiosity.
My family, assembled like a jury in my mind’s eye, huddled together as the first persons I talked to in hours, however virtual. Now, they shrank back, partly in disappointment, partly disliking the casual profanity.
“Jesus,” I hissed out loud, and they vanished like vapor. After two years of war, they could still get up my ass.
Here I was, back in America, and I realized I could laugh with some innocence again. That settled one immediate doubt. I might as well go on home as long as there was still enough of me left to tango.
I found a pay phone at the house up on the cliff that I thought I’d never walk to and called my brother’s number.
It was Tim’s wife, Margaret, Marge, Margie. I liked every one of her incarnations.
“Hi, Marge. It’s me, Pete.”
“Peter! Oh my gosh, we were wondering when we’d hear from you. Where are you? Are you in town? Are you okay?”
Pete, I whispered, turning away from the phone to look out at the sea.
Too much to answer in a single phrase, I picked the easiest piece.
“I’m in San Francisco. Just flew in last night. Still adjusting to the time zones,” I added, filling up the empty space. “What’s it, late afternoon there?”
“Actually, I’m just starting supper. Your brother will be home in a little while. He’ll be so happy you called.”
As I’d so often been reminded, I talked too much, didn’t know when to stop. Actually, I dreaded a wobbly silence more than I loved the sound of my own voice.
“San Francisco? So, you’re back. When will we see you in this neck of the woods?”
Neck of the woods? There was a gentle phrase that would never be the same for me again.
“I need to check on the flights, but if I can get on a plane tomorrow, I think I will. No reason to stay here all by myself.”
And who was that message for? Me? Or them? Did I want my family to believe I was hankering for a reunion, an anecdotal sit-down where I’d give in to telling war stories that left the blood and mud behind at the door?
I’d already decided on the ones I would never tell, not in full at least.
“We can’t wait to see you. You won’t believe how much we worked about you.”
“I think I might have some idea.”
“This call must be costing you a fortune, and I’ve go food on the stove. We better say, ‘Goodbye,’ for now, but let us know when you’re coming, and we’ll come out to the airport to get you. But call collect, next time. You won’t have to fill your pockets with coins.”
Marge laughed at the picture of me jiggling dimes, quarters and nickels in a phone booth.
To be honest, the nickels, dimes and quarters I needed to pay for the call were not in my pockets, and the lingering juvenile delinquent in me laughed again when I heard the public telephone protesting to an empty booth as I walked back toward Golden Gate Park.
“You fucking owe me,” I said to Ma Bell and added to myself, “You may be coming around.”
Walking back past the inexplicable windmill, I thought that coming around was not something I necessarily wanted to do, if coming around meant getting back to normal, back to neutral. That would not be possible. I had so much more than a duffel to carry through the rest of my life, normal would never do.
Easy enough to remind myself: If I knew then what I know now… But nothing could be more futile. The meaning of life is in the journey, right? Why hanker to land when you’ve barely taken off?
It wasn’t the next day, but the one after that, when I caught my first flight east. Because my hometown was not considered of any consequence in the American march toward world domination, it took two connections in pinball game directions to get me to the little airport parked alone on a hilltop.
I’d spent my last day in California on a trek through hippie places that still had resonance, nostalgia not completely washed away. I walked all the way up Columbus to North Beach where I ate pizza for lunch before spending an hour in City Lights, hoping Ferlinghetti would show up and strike a conversation. Maybe Brautigan? Then, I wandered through the Embarcadero and on to Fishermen’s Wharf. Out in the bay, Alcatraz was defiantly soaking up sun. And up on one of the hills, I spotted Coit Tower, saluting firemen. I wasn’t going to bunk there either. Finally, I clung to the rail on a cable car along Powell all the way to Union Square. Then, I was done with it.
That was enough of being alone in an unfamiliar city. It was time to be alone in one more familiar.