Posted by: Bill Tracy | February 23, 2010

Cong or Hippies? Choices We Give Our Young

For those who come to San Francisco

Summertime will be a love-in there

In the streets of San Francisco

Gentle people with flowers in their hair

All across the nation such a strange vibration

People in motion

There’s a whole generation with a new explanation

San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)

— 1967 hit by Scott McKenzie

It was 1967. I was a 20-year-old in the military. It was the “Summer of Love.” I looked for the love; I only found the summer. Love was never really an option.

Spring weekends that year were spent chasing beautiful young women all over the white, soft-sand beaches of Panama City, Florida. My military base, in Selma, Alabama was a four-hour drive away so it was easy for a bunch of us to carpool to fun-in-the-sun on any given Friday afternoon. By June, the Beatles had dropped their historic manifesto, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the world. And I had received orders for Vietnam duty — my turn to meet the Viet Cong. After a few weeks leave time at home, where my Mother indignantly proclaimed she was “not going to let me go” to Vietnam, I spent August in hot, windy Victorville, California. There I trained on the F4 fighter aircraft we were using in the war. In early September, they gave me orders to hie to Seattle and catch the Pacific flyer for Vietnam.

Russ Lewis

Russell "Pop" Lewis in our barracks at George Air Force Base, August 1967. He got the nickname being so much older than the rest of us. We were 20, and he was an ancient and unfathomable 24!

Allowed military travel time between southern California and Seattle was several days so my fellow Airman, Russ “Pop” Lewis and I decided to take the bus. We figured we’d see some countryside and also lay over in San Francisco at least one night. I met a lovely young woman that first night on the bus. I thought we were in love; she thought otherwise. So Pop and I got a cheap hotel room in San Francisco and played the tourist role.

What Pop didn’t know about our San Francisco stopover was that I intended to try on the hippie world in Haight-Ashbury. In contrast to the cities being burned down in riots that year, there was this “Summer of Love” thing headquartered right there in San Francisco. I figured if I liked what I saw I’d give myself a hippie deferment from the Vietnam War and just disappear. Pop, being a straight-laced Idaho farm kid was going to Vietnam for certain. There was no need to share my options with him. My options were not his options. After the conventional tourist boat ride around San Francisco Bay, we hiked up to the Haight to see the hippie madness we’d been hearing about all summer long.

Alcatraz

Snapshot of Alcatraz Island I took on our boat tour of the bay in 1967.

Making the most of an otherwise bad situation in the city, the Gray Line folks offered a hippie tour. They called it the “San Francisco Haight-Ashbury Hippie Hop Tour.” Much as I like local Gray Line tours, Pop and I opted for a direct reconnoiter. I wanted to talk with some of these hippies and see what they had to say for themselves. The view from a tour bus window wasn’t the experience I needed.

Even in civilian clothes, Pop and I did not look like hippies, or even hippie wannabes. Even today, I’m not sure I ever really met a hippie, and I couldn’t tell you for sure what one actually is. I hear that nebulous term often, and a lot of words get associated with it – long hair, drug use, counterculture, anti-authority, but I have never seen a coherent, defining treatise. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough. I’ve also never seen a membership application, and I have no idea who proclaims your membership – perhaps the police when they arrest you and call you a “dirty hippie.” Who knows! What I found in the Haight, for the most part, was arrogant children looking for something different than the world they’d seen on television. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” the LSD guru Timothy Leary was telling us at the time.

SF Bay Tour

This is what the San Francisco Bay boat tour looks like 40 years after the "Summer of Love."

What I saw in Haight-Ashbury was pretty awful. Surely, it could be no one’s idea of “love.” Deluded children who thought somehow life could be lived without effort — free love, free food, free clinic, etc. Pop kept his distance, but I talked with them. They were mostly dirty and unkempt, so mellowed out on marijuana they seemed like zombies to me. Where, I pondered, were the free showers? I saw LSD trippers literally jumping out of trees in Golden Gate Park. I guess it’s a “bad trip” when you wake up and find out the hospital isn’t free. Like preying lions shadowing a herd the Hells Angels were there feeding on these mostly middle-class, naive children. Pop and I were tested by them, but they retreated when they found out we weren’t having any of it. The “scene,” such as it was seemed hellish to someone accustomed to even rudimentary rigors of military life and disciplines.

There may be people who were there that summer who can tell a different story. I’m open to testing it against my perceptions. We do know that Charles Manson was there, apparently recruiting members for his “family.” That’s a pretty sad legacy. In some respects, it may have been no more than a summer vacation experience for college kids. The next month there was a “Death of Hippie” funeral event in San Francisco. I guess they figured it ended with a whimper.

I had no idea what lay in store for me on the other side of that Pacific Ocean. I did know what it was like in San Francisco. I figured the unknown couldn’t be any worse than the sad spectacle I’d seen in the Haight. A couple of days later, Pop and I were on that Pacific flyer headed for Vietnam. Who needs drugs to block out your parents when you have fire-breathing napalm bombs and 20-millimeter high-explosive-incendiaries at 6000 rounds per minute!

Bill Vietnam

I found the sandbags in Vietnam were softer and more protective than the streets of San Francisco during the 1967 "Summer of Love."

Hindsight being what it is, today it’s easy to see that Vietnam was far worse than Haight-Ashbury. Still, it was a lousy choice to give a young kid.

Behind door number one: You can hang out on the streets of San Francisco with people who use drugs to inoculate themselves against the unpleasant reality of their parents.

Behind door number two: You can work with our team burning Vietnamese children with napalm and slaughtering innocent civilians in their primitive villages.

Given the state of this country today, I wonder if the choices we’re giving young people are much better. If they are, I guess that’s some progress.

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Responses

  1. My husband was in the military at that time. He was stationed — are you ready for this? — in New York City, in the Federal Building, which was right around the corner from the then-being-built World Trade Center.

    He was NOT permitted to wear his uniform except in the building. So he would carry a clean shirt (he had to wear his green suit all the time) with him each day, and then bring it home with him that night. He would change from jeans and t-shirt into his uniform when he got to work. He did that for two and a half years. Then as he was being sent to Viet Nam, Nixon ended it, and he didn’t have to go.

    But, he did go into the National Guard after he got his discharge from the Army, and spent 20 years in the Guard. He loved the Guard. I didn’t particularly because it left me with the three little ones alone too often. But he still has very fond memories of his Guard time. Not so much the Viet Nam/New York City time.

    People were really cruel to the military folks in the 60s and early 70s. It was a shame, a real shame the way our servicemen and women were treated just because some people didn’t like the politics. The hatred was aimed at the wrong folks.

    I commend you for serving and surviving.


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