Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I’ve written about my time in the US Army, and about spending time behind bars getting out of the Army, in my story called It’s Not About Me. In that story, I discussed a bit of my view on the Vietnam war, the view echoed by many who have studied it since—that it was the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. My experience was that the Vietnam war damaged every single person it touched, on both sides of the Pacific, and more than anyone it damaged some of the veterans who’d actually done the fighting. I know, I spent months in the nuthouse assisting the physically crippled and the memory damaged, my friends were the shell-shocked refuse of the carnage. It’s not my wish to refight the war or what I did regarding the war, just to tell my story about it, so please, let’s not turn this into a referendum on some imaginary “right” response to the Vietnam War—there weren’t any of those, just levels of wrong responses, plus pain and suffering enough for all.
A couple years after I got out of the nuthouse and the Army, I went to live with the Captain’s Daughter, my beloved grandmother we called “My-mummie” whom I’ve written about before. It was a great experience for me. It was after my grandfather’s death, and my oldest cousin was living there as well and she and I have always been close. We cooked dinner and washed and dried the dishes and kept up the grounds and did house maintenance and such for My-mummie. The best part was that I could hear her stories again (and some for the first time) as an adult and not as a seven-year-old kid. I lived with her about a year, it was fascinating, I’ll write more about her sometime.
After a while, though, I wanted my own place. I loved My-mummie, but eventually I had to move out on my own. A friend of my cousin’s said she needed someone to caretake a tiny one-room cabin she owned near Santa Cruz, totally enclosed by a state forest. I said sure, and moved out there. It was an enchanted place, it always reminded me of Snow White’s pad. It was quite close to Santa Cruz, but totally hidden. You’d drive through the protected forest, and there was an little clearing with a little house in the sunlight, the famous “bee-loud glade”. I continued making and selling sandals.
This was also the first time I ever made money from my art. I mean as opposed to my music. I started making and selling mobiles. I made light fixtures that were mobiles, using glass, and candelabras, and railroad lanterns, and pieces of cut steel, and crystals, and found objects. They moved and spun, casting an ever-changing, entrancing light. They were beautiful, and they were easy to make and sell, people snapped them up as fast as I finished them, so I generally had a bit of money, not much, but enough.
Of course, the Vietnam War was still going on, it hadn’t stopped because I’d managed to get my invitation cancelled. I met some people who were in a loose confederation called “The Resistance”. The Resistance was founded by David Harris, who was married to the singer Joan Baez at the time. Some of the Resistance guys rented a house just behind the Santa Cruz Boardwalk on Second Street. We called it the “Resistance Commune”. We were hippies, we were opposed to the Vietnam War, we believed in peace and love. Bored middle-aged housewives brought food to the house and gave money, so we’d be free to work to end the war. And we did work, we did what we could, and we worked hard at it.
It was a strange time. We believed in something vague called “The Revolution”. We weren’t sure what that was, but we knew we were at the forefront of it. It involved throwing out everything that our parents believed. That much was obvious from the terrible hole it left behind. Beyond that, we were making up the song as we were singing it.
It was also the time of “free love”. I later learned that (for me at least) love is rarely free, but we were young and didn’t know that yet. At the time I was sexually involved with three women. Not at the same instant or in the same bed, you understand, but at the same time. They all three lived in a commune called the “River Street House”. They all knew each other, they were good friends, they all knew about me, there were no secrets between us. None of us thought much about it, it went on for a couple months, it was great … well, it was actually fantastic until I came down with the clap, and I had to tell all three of them.
Gonorrhea. Ugly word, I know, and an ugly reality, but I have to be honest about the bad as well as the good. I’ve said I am telling my tale warts and all, and having the clap definitely qualifies as more than a wart in my world.
I got the usual symptom, a leaky faucet, went to the doctor, got tested, and I got the bad news. So I called the three lovely ladies all together, and told them all at one time so there was no misunderstanding and we could get it clear. I said that I had the clap, and that I must have gotten it from one of them, because I hadn’t had sex with anyone else, and I was willing to swear to that.
Now, after I published my story about hopping freight trains, people wrote in the comments to say I should issue clear warnings in my stories, so fools don’t try to follow my path. They said I should do that to keep a bunch of maroons from cluttering up the rail yards with their corpses and body parts and drowning in the Kenai and the like trying to follow my lead. Seemed excessive to me, like the sign on my aluminum foil reflective car screen that keeps the sun off of the dashboard when I park, covering the front window entirely. The sign says, no bull, it says “WARNING! Do not drive the car with this sunscreen in position”.
Really? We’ve fallen that far?
In any case, to keep folks from complaining about this story, here’s my Official Warning—kids, don’t try this one at home. Do whatever you have to do in order to avoid telling three women at the same time that one gave you gonorrhea and you might have given it to the other two. I assure you, Miss Manners classifies it as a major social blunder.
Plus it’s not an easy subject to bring up, regardless of how you lay the groundwork, and I’ll tell you, gonorrhea is a real bitch to just casually slip into a conversation without groundwork, like “Oh, yeah, guess what, ladies, funniest thing happened to me yesterday, I was passing by my doctor’s and I thought I’d drop in, you’ll never believe what he told me …”
That wasn’t the hardest part, though. As uncomfortable and painful as it had been for me to tell the three of them that I’d gotten the clap from one of them and I might have passed it on, there was worse. First, though, we all had to walk on eggshells around each other, no sex for anyone until they got their results back from the lab, from memory that took three four days.
Now, for those men out there who have had the unfortunate luck to be falsely accused, and who have had to try to convince a furious woman of your actual innocence, that you have been true to her and only her, you have not been cheating on her, and that you are telling her the 100% facts of the case, I’m sure you all can testify how just how hard and painful that is …
Well, just be thankful that you have not had to try to convince three furious women, who have just gotten out of the car after driving back from the clinic together, three furious women who have been discussing your shortcomings and lack of honesty because all of their tests turned out negative. Consider trying to convince them that you have been true to them and only them, that you haven’t been unfaithful to the three of them in either thought or word or deed, and that you’re telling God’s own truth. I don’t recommend it for the weak of heart.
Of course, they didn’t believe a word of what I was saying, understandably, they had the medical proof, the three of them got in my face all at once, shouting, punching my shoulders … it was truly not a pretty picture, folks, your narrator did not appear in a good light at all. First my faucet starts leaking, then my sacred word is being seriously questioned, and now I’m in the doghouse and getting thumped on by not just one but all three of the beautiful women that I care about … it was a very bad week for me.
Much battered in spirit, not to mention somewhat bruised about the upper torso, I went to the library and studied up on the tests they’d been given. As always, the science helps. It turned out that the test they used for men back then was pretty good, but in women, you got a false negative about one time in four. That is to say, for one woman in four who actually had gonorrhea, the test didn’t show it. I’d always been a good mathematician, I took out my pencil and figured that if there was one chance in four of a false positive for any one of them, there was an excellent chance that one or more of them had a bad test result.
So I went back and told that to the good ladies. They were skeptical, but they all went and got retested. It turned out that one of them actually did have the clap, so my honor was restored, I had been telling the truth. I really had been faithful to the three of them and the three of them alone just like I’d sworn to them, and the very best news was … I hadn’t given the disease to either of the other two. And in the end they all told me they forgave me, although I’m still not clear what I’d done that needed forgiving, but I accepted it with an open heart anyhow, they were wonderful women … but I digress, I’m just happy I was young after penicillin and before AIDS …
As part of our Resistance work, we arranged all kinds of protests against the war, against imperialism, against poverty. We though of ourselves as Dadaist revolutionaries, though. I liked to carry random signs in the marches, signs advertising weird stuff, signs just with pictures, strange signs. On one march, I was face to face with the riot police, with everyone waving signs to end the Vietnam war, yelling slogans. Everyone had their signs, “END THE WAR”, “END THE INVASION”, than kind of thing.
Me, I was in front, hollering at the cops, and I was waving a lovely international orange road sign with black letters I’d found mounted on a post along the protest route, and had brought with me … I was a bit unclear on the “let’s all protest something” concept, I guess, but I knew how to have fun. I used to say that a Revolution you couldn’t laugh at wasn’t worth having.
The Vietnam War went on and on. In December, The Resistance leaders, based in Palo Alto, arranged for the second big mass sit-in at the Alameda Induction Center. At the first Resistance sit-in, everyone had gotten arrested, it was all peaceful, and they all had to do five days at the Santa Rita prison farm. The papers picked it up, it was a one-day wonder, we were all abuzz about how the war machine was cracking and how the Resistance was famous and we were starting to win …
However, the first sit-in had had absolutely no larger effect of any kind that I could tell. After the one day of news, that was it, no follow-up articles, the entire sit-in and the arrests and the jail time just vanished, and the war rolled on without the slightest change.
So the decision was made to do the exact same thing again, another identical sit-in, same time, same place.
Hey, don’t look at me like that, they didn’t solicit my opinion, although at the time I might have agreed. I likely was dumb enough then to do something a second time expecting a different result. So the Santa Cruz Resistance Commune (those of us who could) went up to Oakland for a sit-in in at the Army Induction Center to see if we could raise a public outcry and get arrested. “Clog up the gears of the war machine”, I believe was the catchphrase of the time.
I gotta confess, I wasn’t crazy about the whole idea. After spending a month or so locked up in the Navy nuthouse, and then five months behind bars in the Army nuthouse, I was kinda over the whole razor wire and cells and bars and guards experience, the thrill was gone. I’d done my time. But I went along. We were part of The Revolution, so no sacrifice was too great.
Our friends drove us up to Oakland early in the morning. We all got together around six AM, maybe 120 people or so, and we sat down all around the doors of the Induction Center. It was funny, that’s exactly where I’d been inducted a couple of years before. I was one of the few guys in the crowd who’d actually been inside, I’d spent hours in the place.
A “sit-in” is a non-violent event. It’s also, for that very reason, boring as hell. First off, we figured they’d open at eight, but they didn’t even open until nine … so we sat around and told each other stories about how noble our cause was, and how wrong the pigs and the war merchants were, and how much difference we were making. Like I said … booooring.
Eventually, the cops came. The Oakland Police were practiced at the action by then, it wasn’t their first rodeo. They backed up the paddy wagon, the police prisoner van, right up to the mass of sitting people, and just started tossing us in the back. As one wagon got full and left, another pulled right in. It was assembly line arrests, Henry Ford would have been proud. We thought we’d clog up the gears of the war machine? No worries, they had them well greased. By noon we were all hauled away and they were back to inducting draftees into the Army as though nothing had happened.
I’d never been in a paddy wagon, the “Black Maria” van the cops use to transport prisoners. But as you know, I’m always up for new experiences. The main thing I remember about it was that it smelled like vomit, no surprise there, it served as the rolling drunk tank most nights of the week. Given a choice, I’d advise taking alternate transportation. They hauled us away to the Justice Center by the packed van load.
We were put in a big cell. No windows, kind of dark. We waited for hours and hours. Waiting bothered some people a lot, they walked and paced, rattled the bars. I’d been locked in rooms like that before in the nuthouse, so I knew waiting of old, waiting was a good friend of mine, I could wait with the best of them. One by one people left the room to go before the Judge. None came back. We had no idea of our fate.
When my name was finally called, after the darkness of the holding cell the courtroom was blindingly bright. I blinked and looked around. The Judge was on a high dias, I had to look way up to him. He said “You are charged with Disturbing the Peace. How do you plead?” Like all of us, I plead guilty to Disturbing the War. The Judge looked just like a frog, puffed up, obviously frustrated by the unending long line of people waiting to come before him and mock his court. He sentenced me to twenty days like everyone else before me, and they started to take me … say what? Twenty days?
Twenty days? We’d figured on getting five days like the last bunch … and since that day was December 13th, that meant we wouldn’t see freedom until the second of January. We’d miss both Christmas and New Years. Pinche cabrón, I hadn’t planned on that, but there it was, my choices were dig it or bitch about it, and besides, no sacrifice was too great because we were making such a difference, it just made us more noble. Plus any mathematician could tell you, if we stayed in twenty days we’d make four times the difference that the folks made who stayed five days … of course, that had been zero difference, but we were comforted by the thought that we’d do four times as much.
So I reset my mental retirement clock, my next retirement wouldn’t be in time for Christmas, no, no. I reset for twenty days. No problem, I’d done months inside, I could do twenty days “standing on my head” as they say.
They took us, busload by busload, out to Santa Rita Prison Farm. They had two big connected barracks set aside for us, likely to avoid trouble with the cons. Or maybe to keep us from talking to them about sit-ins, I don’t know. I believe they’ve torn those barracks down since and built something else. We were over 100 guys, including David Harris, the founder of The Resistance. The much smaller number of women went elsewhere.
Being locked up this time wasn’t too bad. I was in a big barracks surrounded by like-minded friends. And best of all, I never once woke up lashed down to a bed, as had happened before several times, and that’s always a huge plus in my world. We talked stories and compared lies.
The best day in jail for all of us was Christmas, but not for the usual reason. I woke up and my friend Rodney said “Hey, check this out!”, with a big grin. He held out a box and told me to look inside. Damn, it was a treasure chest!
What happened was that some guys from the San Jose Resistance had broken into the jail late Christmas eve. That’s right, not out of the jail, but into the jail, like some lifer’s fantasy of Santa Claus for cons. They cut through the outer wire, came across an open area dodging the searchlights, cut through another fence around the barracks area, made it to our barracks, cut through the wire around our barracks, and came right inside.
Zowie. Tip of the Hat.
I talked later to one of the San Jose guys who had done it. He said going that direction was much easier than the alternative, because they’re never looking for people breaking into jail. He tried to down-play the whole thing, but I was still very impressed, because even if getting in was easier, the guys had still had to get back out again … that took some serious stones. I told him what a great gift it had been and what a difference it had made.
In any case, I woke up Christmas morning, and Rodney said that the San Jose guys had awakened him about 2 AM. They had brought in boxes and boxes of cookies, along with several cigarette packs full of joints. Damnbetcha, regular cigarette packets full of cigarettes of the mystery herb of the ancient Hindus, the eponymous “Indian Hemp”. Plus, there were a few tabs of blotter acid (LSD).
Of course, at that time marijuana and LSD were very illegal, particularly in jail, duh.
But we were in a funny place. Our barracks were the last two in a long row of similar barracks. There was only one way to get to us. It was a long path visible all along its way from the main street to us, and it had four locked gates with long walks in between. So they couldn’t rush us or do anything fast, it took them a couple minutes from when they appeared at the end of the row, out at the far end of the path with four locked gates, to the time when they arrived at the barracks, after they had walked and unlocked and relocked and walked and …
So we made no attempt to hide the dope. Instead, we distributed all the joints as fairly as possible, then we all went outside to the veranda. We all lit up at once, and we stood around sharing joints and eating cookies. We knew that we’d have plenty of time to laugh at the guards if they tried to stop us, and that the cookies and joints would be long gone by the time they got there. The guards did finally show up, late to the party as usual, the weed and the cookies were gone, the acid well hidden. We razzed them, told them they’d missed the party, if only they’d come half an hour earlier we’d have given them cookies and offered them a joint … somehow they didn’t see the humor in it. They ran us all back inside, and lectured us, and searched the veranda area, and then ran us all outside again, and shook down the whole barracks, and found nothing …
The best story of the whole Santa Rita farce, though, happened to one of my friends. He was put in solitary confinement for fighting, not his fault, somehow he’d ended up in a regular cell and his cellmate had attacked him. We smuggled in messages to him, letting him know he wasn’t forgotten.
After Christmas, through our contacts in the joint, we were able to smuggle him one of the tabs of blotter acid that the San Jose guys had brought in. My friend figured, hey, best place in the world to drop acid, nobody can mess with me. What are they gonna do … throw me in solitary?
He liked to meditate, that’s what he’d been doing in solitary the whole time. So he took the LSD and figured he’d spend his time doing some really intense meditation. Sat down on the floor, crossed his legs, pretty soon he was soaring.
Just as the main rush was starting to come on to him, and the cell walls were starting to melt, and the paisley colors were starting to appear on the backs of his hands, he had the very realistic hallucination that his cell door was opening. Of course, being on acid, from the time he first hallucinated hearing the aliens coming towards his door to the time he hallucinated the door finally opening was something was something like five or six weeks … at least it sure seemed that long, but it was hard to tell, there was that wooshy-wooshy noise that kept coming and going that distorted time too. It seemed to him in his elevated state that two aliens came in, they looked kinda like guards, he said, but you could tell the difference, he knew they weren’t guards. They said they had a directive from the home planet or something, their words kept echoing and bouncing around his head, or maybe it was just the echoes in the cell, but they were very hard to understand. They said to come with them, so he followed them meekly, wondering vaguely, where were the aliens taking him? But he didn’t wonder long, because the prison walls of the corridor were so interesting. How come he’d never noticed before that the walls flexed slightly inward and outward when he breathed? He tried to tell the aliens about his discovery, but they told him to shut up.
The faces of the aliens kept changing and melting, but he said he wasn’t afraid, he could tell they were friendly. At one point, the aliens lost the form of guards and then assumed the form of prison officials. They put a paper bag on the counter, had him sign some papers. One of the alien official people talked to him, he couldn’t hear him at all but there were little cartoon balloons over the alien’s head. He tried to read them, but they were hard to follow. They said something about how the warden was letting him out two days early because my friend was such a wonderful person, or that he got extra credit for meditating while in the hole, or something, he was never clear on that part, but the aliens walked him right out of the front gate of the prison and left him there. He said he thought they had some power over the guards to let him go.
So before he knew it, there he was in front of the prison farm, let out two days early because of getting credit he didn’t know about for good behavior, all alone, peaking on acid, and gazing at the world in total wonder as the miraculous sun shone, and the grass grew, and he was free, free, free! He sat down in the grass right there in front of the Santa Rita prison farm, and started talking to the grass, and in a while the grass grew right through him, he could hear the grass taking over his body, and he became just another part of the very grassness of the world … and after while he fell asleep.
In the morning, he woke up next to the paper bag containing his wallet and his possessions, and didn’t know where he was. He sat up, looked around, saw he was outside the prison, and the memories of the acid trip and his miraculous escape and the aliens came back to him. He got up, walked to the road, and hitchhiked back to Santa Cruz.
And ever after that, he was convinced that LSD could do anything, melt steel bars, open jail doors, and nothing we could say about time off for good behavior would ever convince him different. The belief never seemed to do him any harm, he never tried to fly off of buildings on acid or anything stupid. He just had an unshakeable faith that everything would turn out right for him … and as is sometimes the case for folks who believe that, for him it always did. Go figure, he got out in time to celebrate New Years Eve.
They let the rest of us out the day after New Years, a cold windy day. The year had turned while we were away, we’d given stopping the War our best shot, and the War didn’t seem to notice at all. We’d missed Christmas. We’d missed the New Years party. We’d even missed our fifteen minutes of fame, we were in the slam the next day when the newspapers hit the streets … and by the time we were let out, after twenty days, the world had totally forgotten the sit-in, the story was dead on arrival …
“Oh, you were in a sit-in? I didn’t realize there had been one. Was it exciting?”
On that last day, we went through the standard drill, lines for this, sign here, lines for that, initial the form, put our civilian clothes back on, they handed us our wallets and belts and out the door with you, boyo.
Two of my three girlfriends picked me and a couple other Santa Cruz Resistance guys up outside the jail, and we all went back to Santa Cruz to plan the next step in the noble fight against the war. One thing was clear, though. Throwing my skinny okole in jail, whether they did it or I did it to myself, didn’t seem to change the war one bit. I’m a slow learner sometimes … but I never tried that brilliant plan again.