It started with the Northern California Folk Rock Festival at the Santa Clara County Fair Grounds in 1968. This was an event that, for the times, blew Woodstock out of the water. It was two days of music and love from Country Joe and the Fish, The Animals, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin, The Youngbloods, The Electric Flag, Kaleidoscope, Taj Mahal and Ravi Shankar. There was also an un-announced appearance by a small local band known as The Grateful Dead. This was my first concert. I was awestruck by the mixture of love, and music, half naked women, and patchouli oil in the air. Swept into a “oneness” that would have made the Buddha proud, I found myself wandering through the vendors tent, spinning and whirling in my mind right past the US Army enlistment desk (no joke) to a desk that offered me an alternative to going to Viet Nam to fight an un-seen un-known “enemy” with whom I had no issue. Although only 16 at the time, I exercised my illegal right and registered with the Peace & Freedom Party (an act that would eventually not escape the personal scrutiny of J. Edgar Hoover himself, nor the ramifications thereof forever effecting my suitability to serve in the armed militia of my country as it chose to hate a particular Indo Chinese group of people who had ostensibly irritated the French enough as to incite us to eventually not declaring war on them as we dropped roughly 5 pounds of bombs on each and every square foot of their land).
Did I mention that I was born in Oakland, at the Kaiser Hospital on Grand Avenue, a poor black child in a white man’s body. If you have ever seen the Steve Martin movie “The Jerk” I have too. My dad was quite literally colorblind, a fact that kept him out of WWII much to his chagrin, and I was raised that way too. I literally had no idea what people were talking about later, that peoples skins were blessed with a greater or lesser amount or tone of melanin. Of course they were. So what? They had always been. I’m told I had a black part-time nanny as both of my parents worked. I was not aware of her blackness until subsequently informed.
At the time that the United States Army wanted to take a closer look at me (my draft lottery number had turned up 17 – the subject of a subsequent blog) I was again summoned to Oakland. This time it was to the Army Induction Facility. In my adolescent arrogance and ignorance it was appalling to me that this was indeed not an Army Interviewing and Social Interaction Facility, but that the word INDUCTION was to be taken literally. If you met their criteria for being fit to travel abroad to burn women and children they put your freeking arse on the bus and carted it off directly to Ft. Ord for basic training. This was entirely unacceptable and I was sure mother would be quite upset if her baby were to take that minor excursion instead of returning home straight away sans body bag. I was, however, equipped with a rather damning letter from my Canadian Allergy Doctor ( I shall never forget you Dr. Chardon) extolling in great detail the myriad afflictions of several bouts of pneumonia and asthma that had rendered my lungs fit for nothing more than keeping my ribs from crashing into my spinal vertebrae. This, combined with the aforementioned communist affiliation which the Army interrogator was quick to mention as soon as I was officially classified 4F, was enough to have me set on the “group W bench” and marked as unfit. As my running-mate (thankfully with a much higher draft number) was not similarly dismissed, I was left with the afternoon to kill in downtown Oakland. With nothing better to do, I settled into the nearest movie theatre to watch the newly released “Super Fly.” Written around a black pimp/drug dealer, with music by Curtis Mayfield, it felt like home for Oakland. The fact that I had the only white face in an otherwise packed movie theatre had little or no effect on me, and thankfully no-one else in the place. I was grooving to the tunes, muttering an occasional “right-on” and generally keeping to myself. I had a great afternoon, my friend was released and told not to leave the State, and we made it home. Upon notification of the imminent departure to war that her son had so nearly averted my mother was hysterical. Upon notification that I had spent the afternoon literally in the middle of roughly 150 urban black folks she merely said “oh, that’s nice dear.”
Next up: Sacramento and Caesar Chavez, Ronnie and the Dart Board, Willie the Pimp, and the Italians