Hitching a ride on the Cultural Revolution
After high school, I briefly attended Southern Illinois University. To this day, I have no idea why. I had no interest in anything the school had to offer at that time. By this time, I was immersed in music and I left after one semester to pursue music back in Chicago. After a year of knocking around with a local band, I moved to the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. My parents were now living there as my father was now working for the State Department. I was 20 years old, and I was there in one of the most extraordinary times of my life. It was 1968 and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing along with an anti-war movement regarding Viet Nam. There were drugs everywhere and readily available for those interested in “dropping out” of conventional thinking. Racial animosity was disappearing among people my age, and harmony prevailed. Then things erupted.
On February 4, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a sermon at his Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta which will come to be seen as prophetic. His speech contains what amounts to his own eulogy. After his death, he says, “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody… that I tried to love and serve humanity,. Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major for peace… for righteousness.”
On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. spends the day at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis working and meeting with local leaders on plans for his Poor People’s March on Washington to take place late in the month. At 6pm, as he greets the car and friends in the courtyard, King is shot with one round from a 30.06 rifle. He will be declared dead just an hour later at St. Joseph’s hospital. After an international man-hunt James Earl Ray will be arrested on June 27 in England, and convicted of the murder. Ray died in prison in 1998.
Robert Kennedy, hearing of the murder just before he is to give a speech in Indianapolis, IN, delivers a powerful extemporaneous eulogy in which he pleads with the audience “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
The King assassination sparks rioting in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington, D.C., and many others. Across the country 46 deaths will be blamed on the riots.
On June 4/5, on the night of the California Primary Robert Kennedy addresses a large crowd of
supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco. He has won victories in California and South Dakota and is confident that his campaign will go on to unite the many factions stressing the country. As he leaves the stage, at 12:13AM on the morning of the fifth, Kennedy is shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24 year old Jordanian living in Los Angeles. The motive for the shooting is apparently anger at several pro-Isreali speeches Kennedy had made during the campaign. The forty-two year old Kennedy dies in the early morning of June sixth.
On August 26, Mayor Richard Daley opens the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. While the convention moves haltingly toward nominating Hubert Humphrey for president, the city’s police attempt to enforce an 11 o’clock curfew. On that Monday night demonstrations are widespread, but generally peaceful. The next two days, however, bring increasing tension and violence to the situation.
August 28 By most accounts, on Wednesday evening Chicago police take action against crowds of demonstrators without provocation. The police beat some marchers unconscious and send at least 100 to emergency rooms while arresting 175.
Everything appeared to be out of control at this time. 1968 had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Then came 1969, which author Rob Kirkpatrick calls “a year of extremes.” It was a tumultuous time when it seemed as if history were being made almost every day:
•For the first time, gays fought back against the New York City police as they raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on June 28.
•Camelot lost its luster when Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick on July 18. His young female passenger drowned.
•Neil Armstrong walked on the moon July 20, the first man to do so.
•Charles Manson’s followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four others in Los Angeles on Aug. 8.
•Woodstock, the now-mythical music festival in upstate New York, began Aug. 15.
•Lt. William Calley was charged on Sept. 5 for his role in the 1968 My Lai Massacre, in which American soldiers slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese civilians.
•In an effort to bolster his standing amid protests against the Vietnam War, President Nixon delivered his “silent majority” speech on Nov. 3. Nixon was also employing something called “the Southern Strategy” which was designed to attract those that were dissatisfied with the Democratic Party which was now embracing Civil Rights as the foundation of their platform. If you opposed Civil Rights, then the Republican Party was for you.
Fortunately for me, my father was offered an assignment overseas with the State Dept. and asked if I wanted to move to the Philippines with them. This would be an opportunity to live outside the country and reflect a bit on what I was looking for…which turned out to be myself. What I saw in the Philippines stunned me. I saw extremes of poverty and wealth. There was no middle class. These were the years of Ferdinand Marcos. They were years of brutal dictatorship. Of course the United States viewed the Marcos regime as a friend. We always seemed to be friends of brutality.
I left the Philippines after a year, and moved to San Francisco. It was quite different. Discrimination seemed to be absent. Black, white, Hispanic, gay, straight…everyone worked with everyone. During this time it was still safe to hitch-hike and I took advantage of the opportunity. I was first hitching rides around the city, and into Marin County. Then a friend and I decided to hitch to Chicago. I had no idea what to expect. I’d never attempted anything on that scale before. With hardly a dime in my pocket, and a sandwich to eat, we stuck out our thumbs and headed east. We would part in Chicago and I would continue on to the east coast. My parents had returned to the states and I thought I’d make it there for their anniversary. It took a week, but I made it to Falls Church VA in time much to their surprise. Of course along the way I had a gun pointed at me in Nevada and was told to get a haircut. After a short visit I took a Grayhound back to San Francisco. I now felt I was experienced enough to try it again when the opportunity presented itself which it did about 3 months later. This time, I left San Jose and headed north through the Redwood Forest, to Portland, then Seattle and then up to Canada. Once there I got a great ride from a man who stopped and got me breakfast. We then proceeded to Revelstoke BC. I thanked him for the ride and headed to the youth hostel in town. There were many young travelers and they told me it was rough getting a ride from there. Some people had been there for a week. But…there was another way. A freight train came right through town a block from the Hostel and it headed east. I could always hop the freight if I wanted to leave.
Sure enough, within about an hour I heard the train coming into town. I grabbed my things and headed to the tracks where the train would roll through. It was moving too fast, but it was very long and began to slow down enough for me to run along-side it. It slowed even more and I could almost walk at the same speed. I found an open car and climbed aboard, and hid up in the front of the car. The train slowed to a stop and I could hear some men walking up the track. They never checked the car and I was safe and ready for the next leg of this strange adventure.
After what seemed like about a half-hour, I could hear the sound of the cars being yanked in succession and the sound was getting closer. Finally the car I was in jerked into motion and we were moving. As the train built its speed I ventured toward the back of the car and peered out to see what I could see. As I looked out I was astonished to see myself in the midst of the Canadian Rockies. The train was off the beaten path of highways and I could see waterfalls coming right out of a mountain. I couldn’t see either the front or the back of the train. It was very long. I watched the stars and the moon and the incredible mountains that only the engineers would see. It was a magic carpet ride for sure.
It was getting colder and I retreated back into the car to keep warm and fell asleep. I woke up when I sensed the train was slowing down and it felt much colder and this was in the late summer. I went to the back of the car and peered out again, and I thought I was in the Alps. Huge snow- capped mountains everywhere and the train was slowing down. I was in Banff National Park and about to enter the small town of Banff. The train slowed enough as it entered the town, and I hopped off. I would continue on from here via my thumb. I cleaned up at a public restroom and went into a café for something to eat. There I met three girls headed to St Paul. They offered me a ride and I was on my way to the states. From St. Paul I found a ride to Chicago where I had relatives. I spent the day with them and had a great steak dinner. Strip steaks that my uncle Barbequed. One of the best meals I can remember eating. My cousin gave me a ride into Indiana and we spotted a driver with Pennsylvania plates and asked him for a ride to PA. I switched cars and headed to Pennsylvania. I got off in Somerset and from there another ride to Washington DC. Again, the trip took a week and I look back on it as one of the great adventures of my life. I was 22 years old.
I had grown up seeing bigotry and racism as a kid. I had travelled to the other side of the world and saw poverty and more bigotry. I’d lived in California and although my immediate environment seemed free of this ugliness, it was still there in abundance lurking just outside of my safe zone. I’d hitch-hiked across North America twice, and hopped a freight train taking me through some of the most beautiful sights that nature has to offer. All of this had shaped me in some way that I still wasn’t completely certain of. And although I was changing, and growing as a person, I was still existing in a hostile environment that fed off of prejudice, bigotry and hate. I found that those that I knew were still immersed in this ideological prison that served as a convenient comfort zone for their ignorance. They were older, and certainly had different experiences than I had, and yet…they were still consumed by a narrow minded belief system that stunted their growth and perpetuated a divisive ideology. Instead of opening their minds to what people had in common, their minds appeared closed to those that they determined were different and therefore a threat. Ideologies are like that. They never admit new information. How can you grow, if you think you know, all there is to know?
The old familiar “dog-whistles” were there, including the scapegoating of others in order to mollify their own inadequacies. The more things had changed, the more they stayed the same.