Getting Current Part Two: 1967-1984
I saw my first snow when I stepped off the plane in Great Falls at 3:00AM, and when I looked out the window next morning I saw my first mountains. They seemed to be just on the other side of the runway, and when I told the guys at breakfast that I was going to walk over there and climb one after lunch, I was shocked to find out they were 60 miles away. The flatlands of Florida and Texas had not prepared me for Big Sky Country.
Home in Florida--1st 30-day leave.
Inspired by the death of God debate, I spent much of my time in the Launch Control Center--a bomb-proof equipment room 70 feet underground--writing a mildly satirical book on the Bible. I also got married again, to Gail, who re-ignited an interest in doing art that had laid dormant since third grade. She also introduced me to a book, ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST, which, along with a friend from Eugene, Oregon, convinced us we should go there after the Air Force to collect G.I. Bill and be hippy college students.
I got out of the service in March of '71, and we had it all set up for both of us to collect unemployment until school started in September. But when Gail went in to claim her unemployment, they hired her on the spot as a clerk in the State Unemployment Service. She was working nine-to-five while I was hangin' out, which didn't sit well with her, so when she found out the railroad was hiring she cajoled me into applying for a job to boost our savings.
I was going to quit when school started, but it turned out that I could work the afternoon shift as a switchman and have enough free time in the shanty to do my homework, going to class in the mornings. I couldn't bear to give up the $33 a day I was making then--on top of G.I. Bill--so here I am, 25 years later, still working for the Southern Pacific.
I was taking English courses--getting paid to read books, what a life--but we bought a house next door to a guy who took it upon himself to teach me how to smoke pot 24 hours a day, and I lost interest in reading. It was much more fun to get stoned and listen to music, lying on the sofa, staring out at the trees. I began an eleven year love affair with marijuana, augmented with LSD and assorted other psycho-tropic substances.
Stoned in Eugene
We'd been in Oregon three years when the lumber industry took a dive and so did the railroad. Our marriage wasn't doing well either, and I moved into an apartment near campus. Money was a little tight on unemployment, so when I found out I could collect railroad unemployment and G.I. Bill at the same time,I went back to school--this time to a community college taking auto mechanics. It was a great year, me and the rest of the vets smoking dope on break and working on cars, but by the fall of '75 I began to realize it was time for a change. G.I. Bill was running out, the railroad wasn't getting any better, and I was tired of the Oregon rain. I started looking for a place I could transfer to and work, and after a short stint in Sparks, Nevada, I bounced over to Oakland, California, for a couple of months, then across the bay to San Francisco.
The change was more than geographic. I had become tired of the hippy life--not the smoking dope, you understand, but the indescriminate socializing that was part of the scene in Oregon. I had been spending time with people with whom I had nothing in common but fundamental humanity and pot. My idealistic college belief that we are all basically the same had held up all right, but some people were more rewarding to spend time with than others, it seemed, and I had decided to be a bit more choosey. At least that was the plan. In fact I ended up spending most of my time alone, wandering around stoned in the woods on Mount Tamalpais with my first good camera: an Olympus OM-2.
Gail and I had sold our house and split the proceeds, and I had invested my part in a suburban rental in Eugene. I became disenchanted with my property manager, however, and decided to sell and buy something in San Francisco. The only problem was timing: the building I was buying on Carl Street was going to close before the one in Eugene, and I had to take my real estate agent on as a partner to keep from losing my deposit. It wasn't long before I became disenchanted with him, too, and sold out to him, buying a little cottage in lower Diamond Heights.
San Francisco hippy. Why so glum?
I lived there with an assortment of roommates for three years, but I began to be overwhelmed with the sense that I had to change something, I wasn't sure what. I was beginning to have occasional anxiety attacks, and it occured to me that maybe my dope-smoking time was running out. It seemed I was going to have to find a way to be happy without it, and I hit upon the idea of living on a sailboat, thanks, I'm sure, to the influence of Greg, a long-time friend and a sailing nut. So I sold the house, bought a 29-foot sailboat, and moved across the bay to the Alameda Yacht Harbor. I also switched from sensimilla to Columbian weed, which seemed to help.
My house had been burglarized a couple of years earlier and my camera stolen, and I had decided in a fit of pique to take up drawing and painting instead--let the thieves steal my pencils and brushes. Then I branched out into wood sculpture and cast polyester resin. There was very little room on the boat to do art, however, and I had rented a storage space that was large enough to do sculpture in. I had been juried into an artist's co-op in San Francisco, Nanny Goat Hill, and had work in a couple of group shows, but life was beginning to get too complicated.
It turned out that sailing as crew on Greg's boat was much more laid back than being the captain and sailing around the Bay in what was now my home. Other boats came at you from every direction, and pulling over to take a break was no casual affair--nothing like stopping to sit on a rock in the woods. On top of that, and getting sea-sick, I had to work a midnight switch engine to avoid the 3:00AM parking lot tally at the yacht harbor--the method they used to nab illegal live-aboards, which I was. I didn't sleep well on the boat in the daytime, and it was getting to be time for another change. I stayed with a girlfriend in a studio apartment on Nob Hill till the boat sold, then moved to my own studio on 16th near Dolores.
I managed to hold onto my pot habit for another year, but it couldn't last. The anxiety attacks got worse, my right shoulder went into a continual cramp, and I realized the end had come. I had smoked pot because it made me happy, perpetually contented. This, however, was not contentment. Six days after my 40th birthday, I swore off--it would be my first day without pot in years. I was actually doing pretty well, I thought, until the morning talk shows were over. When the game shows came on I started to panic. What was I going to do with myself. Nothing seemed like fun. I couldn't think how to proceed with the day.
I decided to take a walk to Dolores Park. There would be children laughing and playing, excited to be alive--maybe some of it would rub off. It didn't work. The children were like ants. That's what human beings were--ants. Mindlessly propagating, digging their burrows, generation after generation. What was the point. I couldn't go on with it. I began thinking how I could kill myself as I started back toward the apartment.
By the time I got back there I had decided to give Suicide Prevention a chance to change my mind. I couldn't imagine their saying anything that would make a difference, but it couldn't hurt. I poured myself a whisky and water, lit a cigarette, and called them up. No sooner did the guy answer than I started crying and blubbering about the state I was in. He listened for a few minutes and asked if I didn't know someone I could call, a friend. I said yes, Andrea was probably at home, and we said goodbye.
It occurred to me as I was dialing her number that perhaps a mental institution would be a good idea. Andrea had just gotten her master's in psychology and had a friend working in a mental hospital, she could fill me in on the details, I thought. As I cried and we discussed the possibility--her telling me it definitely was not a good idea--I remembered the drug and alcohol counseling poster on the wall at work, and told her I would give that a try. I called a clerk I knew at the yard office, who gave me the number, and an hour later I was checking into St. Mary's Hospital for a 28-day program--safe!
That was the beginning of a great period of my life--a nine-year involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was nervous and anxiety ridden a great deal of the time at first, and in fact it took me months to begin to get some equanimity. I did everything they told me to do. I gave up drugs and alcohol. I went to two AA meetings the day I got out of St. Mary's, and at least one a day for months thereafter. I read AA literature, I worked the steps, I got a sponsor, I even prayed, knowing there was absolutely no point in it. I began to feel confident I wasn't going to do myself harm, but I doubted I would ever really be happy again; that life could ever be the fun it once was.
First trip home, right after St. Mary's
Still pretty shakey, fakin' it
After seven months of the clean and sober life, Southern Pacific decided they needed more engineers, and as usual would hire within the ranks of experienced employees--like me. I had passed up earlier opportunities to go into "engine service", as we say, because I didn't think I could do it stoned; that was no longer a problem. The change in craft involved a change in location as well, to Tucson, Arizona, but that seemed like a good idea--the bay area had a lot of associations I could as well do without. The important thing was they had AA in Tucson; I would not be alone.
I had been in Tucson a couple of months and was getting by--nothing great. I kept on praying because they told me to, but "God" had a lot of negative connotations for me. Just saying it made me feel immanently alone. Things came to a head the evening I watched "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," on Showtime--it seemed I was not that different from the crazy people. Afterward as I lay in bed looking out the window I could see the Santa Catalina mountains in the moonlight. They looked cold, massive, and they were totally unconcerned with me. I felt myself clinging to the edge of sanity, needing to believe there was something out there that cared about me. And so I decided to believe. It seemed the choice was either to believe or go nuts.
"God" was still a meaningless word, of course, but perhaps I could call it something friendly. My first choice was "Buddy", but since my sponsor's name was "Bud" I decided that was too close and I ended up with "Bubba". Bubba was my friend. He became my constant companion. I referred all my thoughts to him for his perusal, and he was always understanding--never critical. It may seem a childish device, this invisible playmate, but it worked wonderfully well for me. I have never had that sense of aching aloneless since then, although Bubba, as you shall see, has faded out of the picture.
We are now up to the end of 1984, and as they say in AA: Keep coming back; more will be revealed.