The First Few Friends I Had

First Few Friends Cover005

The Pondering Pig is relieved to announce his long-sought collection of stories about being young in San Francisco during the maelstrom of the early 1960s – is finally done, published and available on Amazon.  Here’s the link:

The First Few Friends I Had

and here’s what I said about it:

Someone asked me who the first hippies were, those unknowns who kicked off the psychedelic era of the 1960s. Were they born-too-late beatniks who arrived at the party after everybody had gone home? Or were they something else? Something new?
I actually knew some of those first freaks. In fact, they were the first few friends I had.
This trip starts in Nineteenth Avenue Park, San Mateo, California, winter of 1958, muddy raw subdivision streets, brine shrimped salt flats stretching to the Bayshore Freeway and beyond to sorrowful tract houses of Norfolk Street. The ground I sprung from.
But we won’t tarry. We’ll hit the road through the vast Sonoran Desert on solitary two-lane highways spring of 1961 to adventures in Mexico, then on to steaming East Village summer to swirling fog over North Beach, broken hearted spring of 1962.
Along the way, we’ll stop at the corner of Seventh and Judah Street in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset to watch a girl named Solveig rush out our door with ‘Ban the Bomb’ placards banging against her shoulder. We’ll scene shift till midnight to watch Peter Weissinger swing over the stair rail into teens crashing our big peacenik party and whomping on them in peacenik joy. We’ll contemplate a ghostly Carmen O’Shaughnessy stride through the archway in badass logger boots, tawny lionhair in long braids, brassy confident smile and my handmade Mexican chaleco.
Snow is falling over Long Island, the first winter rains are pouring into the sewers of Lily Alley, San Francisco. Carmen has jumped off the bus in Barstow, hitched home across the desert and there is not a damn thing I can do about it.
Summer 1964 in the Langley Porter Psychiatric Day Care Center for Mind-Blown Proto-Hippies and Hysterical Teenagers, the passengers are unraveling hidden meanings within Sally Go Round the Roses by the Jaynettes. They hear the Bomb, the war, the police dogs attacking demonstrators, fire hoses of death, J Edgar Hoover vs the Commies, peyote, pot, fear, angst, and – hey everybody, it’s Mashed Potatoes Time.
Look, the sky has gone blue, the golden city beckons. It’s spring again. Let’s stroll down to the North Beach Arts Festival to find my friends. Come on, they want to meet you. The First Few Friends I Had.

It’s been getting great reviews so far – so I hope you have a chance to check it out soon.  PP


Carmen in the Morning


Born in San Francisco, nineteen forty-two
First thing my Daddy say was, “Son,
that Carmen O’Shaugnessy gone make a fool of you.”

uc hospital 2

Whenever I think about getting born, I think of UC Hospital, where they dragged me from my mother’s womb one rainy morning, and whenever I think of UC Hospital, I think of how it looks from Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco,

DCF 1.0

and whenever I think of Children’s Playground, I think of Carmen O’Shaughnessy.

margaret o'brien

Carmen was more beautiful than Margaret O’Brien, the famous child star, and she wore her honey-blonde hair in braids like Margaret O’Brien did. They streamed out behind her when she got going on the swings, which was the only way she ever swung, getting higher faster than any of the boys and laughing with joy and pride. Except sometimes she let her hair blow free. Then I couldn’t look away, even when she made faces at me.

1948 rabbitville childens' playground

In my memory, it’s always Saturday morning. Chickens are running round the playground because they haven’t been scared back into their safe little barnyard yet. Carmen is wearing brown corduroy bib overalls with a striped tee-shirt under it, and Keds. In those days, Keds meant black high top basketball shoes.  They were for boys only. Girls were supposed to wear white lace-ups or black patent-leather Mary Janes with a strap across the top. But if you tried to tell that to Carmen, she’d grin at you and run away. So I didn’t say anything. Who would want Carmen to run away?

I dreamed about Carmen again last night, for the first time in years. In the dream I spent long hours inventing carefully nuanced speeches so sincere she would finally love me and never leave me anymore. I spent night after sleepless night like this when I was twenty-three. But I’m old now.

I woke alone in the darkness with my mother’s voice in my ear. “Chris! Watch out!” She was trying to wake me up. That was part of the dream too. But I did wake up, and I was too spooked to go back to sleep. I was sure I’d heard her.

Carmen, why won’t you leave me?



Rabbitville photo courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

How Do You Find A Childhood Pal, Anyway?

So, this morning Patrushka and I were sitting on the deck we built off the back of my pigpen, wondering where all the damn yellow jackets were coming from. It’s always like this in August, maybe for you, too.

Suddenly I had a mental picture of being ten years old, back home in San Francisco. Me and my best friend Peter Walters had just knocked down a big yellow jacket nest with a broomstick and we were laughing and running like hell was after us.

So then I thought, as I have many times before, whatever happened to Pete? We were really good friends, had a lot of city kid adventures together, but, when I was thirteen we moved to the suburbs and I never saw him again.

I’d like to find him, if I could. I’m curious about the arc of his life. We had a lot in common as kids, but I never met him on the beatnik-hippie trail I traveled in my youth, or further on either.

But how in the world do you find someone with a name as common as Peter Walters? I just checked on Facebook, there’s 194 of them listed. The only things I know for sure is that in 1954 he lived in the big house at the corner of 47th Avenue and Balboa. He had a couple of older sisters – teenagers who weren’t interested in us or our doings. I think his mother was named Rosa. He went to Lafayette Elementary school. And that’s about it.

OK, my amateur detective readers, what do you suggest? If it’s a good idea, I’ll do it and report what happens.  Here’s his mug shot.
Peter Pain

But Now We Are Sixty-Six

Oh boy, 1948, the year I turned six. First of all, for my birthday I got a pull-dachshund on a string whose legs moved as I pulled him along. And it got even better! We went to the Russian River for a week that summer and my brother showed me how to play Cruisin’ Down The River On A Sunday Afternoon on his uke. I got to go down the dusty road to the general store all by myself and I could buy any funny book I wanted. Except no horror or crime comics. But that was okay – I could read those on the comic book stand until the owner got wise.

Now I’m sixty-six, and what do I get? I get to chop ice all day. Shovel snow. Oh well, I shouldn’t complain. For birthday dinner my German mother-in-law made her famous beef roladen, red cabbage, mashed potatoes and gravy, and for dessert my favorite home-made creme caramel as only my mother-in-law knows how to make it. Smooth, creamy and wonderful with that rich burnt sugar syrup slooshing down its sides to make a little lake in the bottom of the bowl. And we polished off a bottle of top-notch Cabernet, grown in my current home state of Washington. Then we watched a French movie called A Very Long Engagement. It stars Audrey Tautou, the actress who played Amelie.

You probably won’t like it. It’s relentlessly melancholy, like me. About a young woman who, also like me, knows to the depths of her being that love is forever. She refuses in the face of all evidence to believe her lover was killed in the Great War. For the Pig Of The Grey Skies And Rain, her performance and her character provides the penultimate revelation of a true heart. In fact, I’ve got to go watch it again right now.

(Two hours later) Where was I? Oh yes, I was about to start complaining.

You know me, the Complaining Pig. I’ve made a career out of never being satisfied. So here’s what I’d really like for my birthday. I’d like to know what happened to all the loved friends and befriended lovers of my youth. All the kiddos who are wrapped in gold in my heart and whom I can never and will never forget. Here, for the third year, is my birthday roll call, with updates since last year…

Was Anyone Left Alive?

Bess Farr, AKA Lisa Farr, AKA Lisa McFadden. Dear friend and troublemaker, we were friends throughout the Sixties. The last time I saw her, she dosed me with MDA at a party. I wasn’t mad at her – she just made made me realize how fed up I was with the life I was leading. But I’ve always felt like I deserted her when she was in trouble. And I wish I hadn’t. You okay, Bess? 2008 update: Eva Wilson told me Bess died of ovarian cancer about 1992. I never got to see her again. I always thought one day we would have lunch together and she’d tell me her life had turned out okay. Bye, Bess. I wrote about you in It’s Too Late, She’s Gone…

Bob Gill – brother beatnik, peyote brother and card carrying YPSL. In my mind’s eye, he’s up on the barricades somewhere waving his ancient rifle defiantly and the Nationalists are closing in.

Bob Kaffke – diabetic Communist who rode horseback through Mexico. News: Bob is gone. Died of pneumonia in 1983 on a houseboat in the San Francisco Bay. Leo Sadorf found this link put up by his son. 2008 Update: I wrote about Bob in Kaffke of the Comsymps.

Bob Kuehn – Another of the SF State peace warriors. Ban the Bomb!

Danny Rifkin – So funny and creative. The first on our scene besides me to notice the Beatles were Something New. And he laughed at my poetry (that was good, not bad). News: Danny’s still out there hitting it. I found this article about him in the San Francisco Chronicle.

David Miller – Carpenter of Walrus and Carpenter. My singing partner and best friend until I betrayed him. Last time I talked to him he called to say good-bye. He was moving to Tennessee. Funny how I still miss him after all these years.

Don Auclaire – leader of our pack, the Dirty Peaceniks, 311 Judah Street, San Francisco. 2008 Update: Solveig told me she visited him in the Mexico City jail in 1963. George Howell told me he was living in the Haight-Ashbury with Teresa Sweeney in the spring of 1964. After that he fades from view like dust on cracking film emulsion.

Donna Conroy – Tom Conroy’s beautiful beat street wife from the Delaware horse country. Tom spent half his time fighting off the pimps who wanted to sign her up. Last time I saw here she was great with child.

Ed Ginsberg – comic peyote brother, photographer and a great heart. News: Someone told me last year he is living in Budapest.

Eva Bessie – Bess’ best friend, daughter of Hollywood Ten screenwriter Alvah Bessie. She was immortalized on two Fillmore posters done by her husband Wes. Still living in the Ozarks somewhere last I heard. 2008 Update: Eva is a psychologist in Missouri. Happily married these long years and now with grandchildren on her knee. We’ve talked and corresponded several times. God bless that little piglet who made a success of her life.

George “The Beast” Howell. A legend in his own time. A friend ran into him ten or fifteen years ago in the rugged mountains of Northern California up by the Oregon border. He was on a buying trip looking for high quality virgin wool. Something about Persian rugs. He’d picked it up living in Asia. 2008 Update: Peter Albin gave me his phone number. With awe and trepidation I called George just before Christmas. To hear again after so long that voice of legend, my North Beach comrade George the Beast, King of the Baby Beatniks…it was like watching ice melt around a mammoth frozen aeons ago with daisies still hanging from his mouth and waiting for him to trumpet once more. George lives with his sister near Clear Lake, California. He’s got emphysema and can’t get out much. Still appraises rare and valuable carpets. But he is still here, still on the ground, not in it. God bless you forever, brother. I wrote about George in Famous People I Never Knew #1: Neal Cassady.

Joe Novakovich – Fingerless Joe himself. He had warped fingers due to a birth defect, yet became a masterful autoharp player and stalwart of the San Francisco folk scene. 2008 Update: I’ve heard sad stories about Joe I will not relate until I know if they’re true.

Johnny Chance – Saintly drummer for The Final Solution and first guy on our scene to notice the Beach Boys were cool. Funnier and smarter than anyone, yet he dressed like a Catholic schoolboy. He joined the Moonies and I never saw him no more. I miss his goofy smile and cracked sense of humor and Petaluma intelligence.

Laurie Sarlat – with the Long Island accent, thick black hair and blue-green eyes, she was poet Allen Cohen’s consort and Wendy to this lost boy. She left town with a guy I didn’t know and I never saw her again. Allen told me years later she’d joined a Christian cult. 2008 Update: She’s living in Arizona. I don’t know where.

Leslie Hipshmann AKA Leslie Van Gelder. Most beautiful and sweetest of the teenaged hangers-on at 311 Judah Street (funny, I was a teenager myself!). She split for New York and I never saw her again. Leslie, I still have the letters you wrote me from the East Village.

Margarita Bates AKA The Bitch. Unforgettable. News: An anonymous tipster wrote to tell me she is alive and where she is living. Thank you. 2008 Update: I wrote about Margarita in Chet Helms, Margarita And Me

Melanie Kinkead AKA Lanie da Kink – as dear a girl as I ever knew. I wrote about her in Famous People I Never Knew #2: Janis Joplin. I am back in touch with Mel thanks to the blog and she is still just as funny as ever, and still the best. 2008 Update: I visited Mel in Sacramento last summer and it was like we had been apart for five minutes. What a pal!

Michael Rachoff – Page Street friend of years but we lost touch in my wanderings. 2008 Update: I’ve talked to Michael on the phone several times and hope to see him in a few weeks. He still lives in San Francisco.

Peter Kraemer – Virgina City filmmaker and leader of the Sopwith Camel – the first San Francisco band to hit the charts. 2008 Update: I recently heard Peter is living in Mexico and planning another reunion of the Sopwith Camel.

Peter Walters – my boyhood best friend who lived at 47th and Balboa. Peter didn’t care if I was sick in bed much of my childhood. He’d always come by and play games and make puzzles and draw battleships with me in bed and him sitting in a chair beside me. What a great kid!

Peter Weiss –tough kid from the Bronx who danced with Ann Halprin’s Dancer’s Workshop. Last time I saw Peter he and his girlfriend were heading for Japan.

Riley Turner – holy tennies street kid from Lowell High School. I wrote about him in Song For Relay Tornfoot.

Solveig Otvos, AKA Solveig Rimkeit, AKA Ruth Weissinger – the beautiful Latvian. Where are you, Solveig? I still hear you laugh in my dreams. 2008 Update: I’ve talked to Solveig, now known as Rochanah at her home in Chico, California. She claims she remembers nothing but she remembers everything. Her laughter still brings joy to ice.

Tom Conroy – the North Beach street kid cartoonist who got me busted in Oakland. Tom dealt in Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon comic strips and could spot newspaper insulation in every blowndown ghetto redevelopment Victorian we broke and entered. 2008 Update: George Howell told me Tom lives in New Mexico and has a successful business running a stock photo archive.

I know where too many of my early friends are today though – in the ground.
Here’s to you, Rodney Albin and Chet Helms and Allen Cohen and Wendy Norins and Tom Hobson and Bess Farr and all the rest of you – friends forever.

I have a lifetime of stories to tell just about these guys. There they are through my window: young and sunburnt and storm-tossed – the best of the best, the San Francisco kiddos of the pre-invasion Sixties – my generation.

It’s Too Late, She’s Gone

Yesterday I learned Bess died. The beautiful girl whose strings are tied into my heart as fast today as they were the last time I saw her in 1968. My sad girl, my wicked girl, a friend who was a lot like me. Somehow I always thought I’d see her again one day and she’d tell me she was all right. She had come through. But she never did.

I first met Bess at San Francisco State in the fall of 1961. I was new on the scene and didn’t know anybody yet. I’d just transferred to State after a season of traveling in Mexico and New York. One night in October or thereabouts I went to an all-night vigil for peace outside the Commons, the schools’ poor attempt at a student union. I brought my Mexican guitar and sang Pretty Polly and We Shall Overcome and There Once Was A Union Maid through the night as the frat boys taunted us and threw eggs. By morning I knew all the peaceniks, the people who became my comrades for next few years, Solveig Otvos, Don Auclaire, Peter Weiss, Bob Kuehn, Eva Bessie, Peter Kraemer, Carmen O’Shaughnessy…and Bess.

Bess didn’t notice I existed, of course. Isn’t that how these stories start? Maybe she smiled at me once, I’m not sure. It wasn’t till months later I realized she was nearly blind without her glasses, which she refused to wear and she probably couldn’t see me.

Somebody invited me to a party on Clayton Steet that weekend, and Bess was there. Some haunting quality in her face drew me towards her. It must been her face because we’d never spoken. To me she was a charming, Audrey Hepburned sort of long-haired, brunette, eighteen or nineteen, mildly pre-Raphaelite, the kind of girl we called ‘woodsie-nymphsie.’ She had a big crush on a pink-cheeked, black bearded young radical named Steve something. She looked longingly at him, I looked longingly at her, and I sang “Oh my love, I’ve hungered for your touch a long lonely time” with great feeling. The party got real quiet. I had a good voice in those days and I knew how to sing.

Well, Bess and I never got together in the way you’re expecting, because Margarita got in the way. Margarita Bates. For now, let me just say she was peerless, I hungered for her magical presence, and Bess disappeared in her shadow – except she didn’t really. Instead, the oddest thing happened. Bess and I became friends.

As my love affair with Margarita proceeded from horror to horror, I found solace with Bess. She understood. She listened. She cared about me. As we got to know each other better, I discovered we also shared sensibilities. We both liked the same books, the same films, the same foggy streets, and we shared the same sliced up feeling inside.

As the sixties slowly burned down to the stub, I was never far from Bess. We spent days together wandering North Beach, drinking coffee in The Enigma or The Hot Dog Palace, playing Desafinado over and over on the juke box, sharing intimate secrets or just gossiping about mutual friends. I called her Ivich, after the character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy.

Late one afternoon in 1962 we were hanging out in Solveig’s place on Page Street. Solveig wasn’t home from work yet and there were just the two of us, listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet on Solveig’s record player. The late afternoon light faded away until there was only the light spreading from the little kitchen. You can guess what happened. Our buried longing for each other took over, and we lay together on the couch in the darkness until Solveig got home.

I felt horribly guilty, because I was married to somebody else, who was pregnant with my child. Cheating on my wife was the last thing I wanted to do, I thought. Turned out I was wrong. We never touched each other again. But I couldn’t keep away from Bess. I loved her.

Funny, I never considered that spending so much time with another woman was a form of cheating.

Bess was never cool, never a freak. She got her BA in English in the requisite four years, married an earnest young carpenter, settled down in an apartment on Downey Street and got a big dumb Afghan dog. She grew fat. She was unhappy. She was a bore. She didn’t go to the concerts or listen to the bands. But I couldn’t keep away from here for long, she was too deep a part of my life. Their apartment was a regular stop on my rounds of the Haight-Ashbury. Her husband got me work on his remodeling crew. By 1967 though, we had lost touch. Our lives had finally diverged too far. It was around then they moved home to Marin County.

OK, my first wife and I eventually split up and by mid-1968 I was living in the Eureka Valley neighborhood. The Haight had become a threadbare circus. The Hell’s Angels and meth freaks were taking over and the original hippies had mostly moved on.

But one morning I was over there for some reason, and standing and laughing on the street with a group of freaks I’d never seen before – I saw Bess. She was thin again. She was extroverted. She was merry. She was delighted to see me. She introduced me to her new friends and I was polite but I could see right away they were creeps, and they gave me the creeps. OK, I admit it. I was a complete snob in those days. Only the original hippies were cool. Everyone else please show your hip credentials before I’ll speak to you. But I knew a creep when I saw one, and they looked like creeps to me. Speed freaks.

We exchanged phone numbers and Bess (who by now was calling herself Lenore) invited me to a party at her house in Marin that weekend. I was playing guitar and singing with Hugh Harris at the time and suggested he come with me so we could try out our new set at the party. Saturday night we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge in Hugh’s VW bug, and soon we were somewhere deep in the redwood sided streets of Corte Madera.

‘Lenore’ met me at the door in a transparent gown with a drink in her hand. Her new friends were eating and drinking and grinning at me, showing off their missing teeth. Scott, Lenore’s husband, was kept busy running out for more beer. While he was gone, Lenore made laughing, snide comments about him. His earnest, straight-forward self was comedy material to her new crowd. There were no other women at the party.

I got the creeps big time and withdrew into myself. Hugh and I played some tunes, I talked with Scott a little bit, and we left early. On the drive back to the City, I realized we’d been dosed with MDA, the “love drug”. It must have been in the punch.

The high itself was nice, pleasant. It wasn’t that. It’s that she hadn’t told me. It was her little joke, a mischievous joke on me.

That was it. I wrote Bess out of life. She shouldn’t have done that. She broke my trust. And I didn’t dig her new friends.

I’ve never forgotten that night, and the knowledge I knew my dear girl was in trouble and I just wrote her off. Why didn’t I say something? Beat her up? Ask her what the fuck she was doing? Listen to her like she’d listened to me. Cared about her. Been there for her.

I was such a hippie. No interference. That’s cool, man. Good-bye.

I looked for her half-heartedly over the years. She’d moved. Changed her name. Who knew? But I always thought one day I’d see her again. And her face has haunted me these long years.

The other day Greg Hoffman mentioned he was going to interview Wes Wilson for his new book. Wes is the artist who basically created the psychedelic dance poster in his early work for the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms. I remembered his wife had been Bess’s best friend in those early days at State, so I asked Greg to see if Eva knew what become of her. Last night Greg called me. She’s laying in the ground these fifteen years. From uterine cancer. I’ll never see her no more. It’s too late, she’s gone.

What Happened To Playland-at-the-Beach?

1958 00 Susana at Playland San Francisco copy

Is it true all good things must finally come to an end? It was certainly true for Playland at the Beach, the great amusement park that once promenaded along the western coast of San Francisco, out by the edge of Golden Gate Park. In its heyday in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, even into the late Fifties, the place rocked with kids and young people and sailors and fun – and they measured their cost in nickels. San Franciscans didn’t need a car to get there because Playland was at the end of a couple of streetcar lines, as amusement parks usually were in the early twentieth century.

A traveler climbing aboard the B car heading downtown late on a weekend afternoon in the 1950s might find himself surrounded by packed-in black families from the Fillmore District. They were heading home tired, cranky and sandyfooted after a terrific cotton candy and enchiladas day. Latino families from the Mission, Irish and Italian families from the Richmond and Sunset districts, city teenagers mixed with teens from San Bruno all the way to San Mateo twenty miles down the brand new Bayshore Freeway, they were were hotfooting down the Midway, looking for fun, looking for thrills, looking for girls. On sunny days in September, Ocean Beach itself, across the Great Highway, was packed with families on blankets listening to big black portable radios or dabbling their toes in the ferociously cold surf. As Bugsy said to Shifty back in 1957, “I want to stick around while I get my kicks!”

I don’t know what happened, but parks like Playland were closing all over the country. Perhaps the opening of the original Disneyland in 1955 had something to do with it. Week after week Walt Disney used his television show, conveniently named Disneyland, to flog the wonders and delights of his new Magic Kingdom. Maybe the traditional family-oriented park at the edge of the big city was looking a little tawdry and old fashioned. Most young people had access to cars now. They could drive to big modern theme parks like Great America, the Bay Area’s first. It was (and is) just off the Bayshore Freeway, and, unlike Playland way out at the edge of a labyrinthine city, is easily accessible by millions of Bay Area families.

Besides, by the 1950s, the blue collar and middle-class families that formed Playland’s primary market were leaving the City in droves, off to their new martinis and togetherness playgrounds in the suburbs. But let’s not talk about that sorrowful day in 1954 when the moving van arrived at our beautiful San Francisco house on 47th Avenue two blocks from the vast, fogbound, eternal Pacific ocean and trucked the furniture to our new, open floor plan, wall to wall windows and a patio, subdivision miracle stranded on a mudflat on the San Francisco Bay. It’s too traumatic. I think I’ve been trying to get back home my whole life.

The young urban professionals who took their places, filling the swinging Tony Bennett bars on Union Street, were not likely to suggest a date night at Playland riding the Wild Mouse.

More tomorrow.
Photo of Playland, 1958 by my brother Gary.

Reprise: We Shall Not Be Moved

Still looking at this picture. The guy with the intense expression and Buddy Holly glasses is me, Christopher Newton. I’m playing the Spanish guitar Don Auclair gave me because he felt bad about sleeping with my ex-girlfriend before she was an ex. Today it’s sitting in my daughter’s closet gathering dust but with every molecule in its cracked sounding board and warped neck still charged with power.

My current girlfriend Linda Lovely – she’s sitting behind me. Linda at 20 is a true innocent heart in her own way, but not very happy today – she just found out she’s going to have a beautiful baby who has given both of us joy ever since – but it’s a bit unexpected, and she’s not used to the idea.

The soulful intellectual pondering my kazoo is Joe Pratt, subject of a lost short story Joe Pratt at Stinson Beach. The hair in the foreground belongs to Solveig Otvos, nee’ Rimkeit, and as good a friend as I ever had. We are sitting in Golden Gate Park’s Rose Garden on a foggy day in the summer of 1962, four friends and a nameless photographer.

Linda and I are still tight and see each other several times a year. Joe wandered off into another life as friends of our youth tend to do. Perhaps he became a wandering kazooist. Solveig followed a spiritual path, Subud, and changed her name to Ruth. We lost touch as I got deeper into it and she climbed further out. She’s the one I miss most — sensitive, loyal, able to see bullshit for what it was and laugh it away. And that sexy Spanish/Latvian accent!

We’d all met through the San Francisco State Student Peace Union. It’s hard to remember now just how imminent the end of the world seemed in those Cold War years. But it just absolutely freaked my generation (this was a couple of years before Viet Nam). Russia and the US were playing a galactic game of poker called brinkmanship and the whole world could explode in cosmic fury at any time. Hey – we were young. We didn’t want to die in flaming fission because one player called the other’s bluff. Would you?

The Peace Movement at San Francisco State coalesced around the immediate issue of atmospheric testing of H-Bombs, which had started up again in 1961, the year I transferred to State. The Air Force was exploding them in the Nevada desert to learn how to kill more people and the fallout was drifting across the desert into California and eastward into Utah. The breeze was full of a radioactive substance call Strontium-90 that was getting into mother’s milk among other places. (Where is this stuff today? Has it decayed by now?)

And it made me mad. That was my politics. Still pretty much is, I’m afraid. It was just one more, but the worst example yet, of an adult world I wanted no part of running amok and preparing to cremate the world to make it safe for freedom or something. But to me and Joe and Solveig it was just cold death leering at us in an unpleasant way.

The FBI thought we were all working for Nikita Khrushchev, or else Communist dupes. The best thinking of the era had decided that Communists were like demons and had supernatural powers over the minds of all young people who didn’t prefer nuclear destruction.

I’m not saying the Commies weren’t trying to use us to their strategic advantage – but I had met members of the San Francisco Communist party and they were tired, worn-out. Their time has passed. In our snotty youth we thought them laughable and knew nothing of their struggles in the hunger-wracked Thirties.

There was a song we used to sing at demonstrations. The chorus ran “Just like a tree, standing by the water, we shall not be moved” and we would make up the first line. The head local Commie was a guy named Archie Brown, and we used to sing “Archie is our leader; we shall not be moved” just to bug the FBI guys who were usually wandering harrumph with little cameras at the demonstrations.

For Joe and Solveig and Don Auclair and my ex-girlfriend Carmen at least this was not a political issue – demonstrating was an existential fist in the face of our imminent demise. Maybe there was nothing we could do to stop it – but we weren’t going to go peacefully. To the barricades!