When the Beatles began their stellar career, I was finishing eighth grade. During that summer I was reading the books which I chose from off of the reading list required by the high school I would attend in the fall. It was the summer of 1965. We had just lived through 1964: Johnson over Goldwater (WAY over); on TV were Bonanza, I Love Lucy, Lassie; first race riots–Haarlem, Mississippi; Vietnam War widened in scope; Cassius Clay; movie, “Dr Strangelove”; Turkey attacked Cyprus; Kruschev fell from power in the Soviet Union.
The Beatles had just released “I wanna hold your hand.” At school, it was popular to ask each other the question, “Who was your favorite Beatle?” Well, I couldn’t have cared less for that question or its answer; however, I sure did like all of them from the viewpoint of their hair. So, I let mine grow out. But wait. If you are not old enough to remember this era, you might think of what long hairs look like now. You might want to look at some old photographs: long hair meant that the front of the hair grew long, hanging in the eyes. But the hair in the back of the neck and ears was still barbered short. These mid-60s long-haired youths such as I went about constantly throwing their heads to one side, to get the hair to fly out of the way. After a minute or two, the head throwing would repeat itself. The long hair was a way in which we youths were proclaiming ourselves. Such are things with adolescents: childhood fades; the awesome challenging and intoxicating freedom of adulthood beckons. We knew little of responsibility and a lot of longings and vision! Growing the hair out differently like that was a way of saying “I am ME and not YOU.”
Only some three years later, after earning my high school diploma (I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade due to boredom and took the state GED exam–hey, I am free, right?), I left my native New Jersey and began a journey across the country, working odd jobs and hitch-hiking. Flipping burgers in New York, working in a leather clothing factory in Albequerque, picking fruit in California, tree planting in Oregon, apple harvesting in Washington. During these travels, I encountered many wonderful people: strange ones, scary ones, loving and compassionate ones. During my journey across Kansas I got a ride with a guy driving a juiced up Chrysler with a huge engine. He had a gallon jug of some clear liquid which he swilled constantly while he gesticulated wildly, foot hard-pressed on the accelerator: I believe we flew over the mild rises along the roadway. His speedometer pegged out at 110, I think. After begging leave from that ride, I got a ride with a couple of guys who demanded “payment” after a few miles. I lost everything to them except the clothing on my back. Other encounters rather less edifying can remain undescribed here, but through mercy’s sake, I lived through them. So, this is freedom?
Then I arrived in the wild West. Yes, “wild West,” you see, because I grew up on TV westerns like Bonanza. I thought that folks out west still rode horses everywhere and that lumberjacks still walked in Oregon with calk boots and lumberjack shirts. There was one night when I fell asleep standing up, by the side of the road. NOT A SINGLE CAR CAME BY ALL NIGHT! And, indeed, I awoke from sleep standing there. I walked dreaming of hot coffee for hours… Then, there was the time when I was picked up, but it was by a Colorado State Police cruiser. I was booked and jailed for hitch-hiking: such was illegal in Colorado. Now, what of my freedom? After three days confinement, I was escorted to the county line. At least I liked their coffee.
After journeying to California, I celebrated my 18th birthday: February 26. It was 82 degrees out, in a quiet dirt road passing through the San Joaquin Valley just west of Bakersfield. 82 degrees in February! How is that possible? I was in California, that golden state of mythic proportions in my young mind. I camped in heat, in rain, by the sea, under the coastal forest canopy. My heart ached within me. What is the meaning of freedom? Does freedom mean that I may do whatever I like, go wherever I like? Is there not something more to freedom than this? How is it that the world I am discovering is so beautiful and free and my heart so dull and shackled?
Then, just north of San Francisco (what a disappointment S.F. and Berkeley held for me!), I traveled up the winding state route 1 along the coast. Near Mendecino, north of grape country, a small VW bus (that was the closest thing there was in those days to the modern mini-van) stopped to give me a ride. Other long-hairs! But these were much different. There was no electronic wild “music,” no intoxicating or inebriating substances, and yet they were “hip.” And what they would offer me, and the impression they would make on me would forever change my life. I could sense it and I knew: these guys were FREE!