Tuesday, March 27, 2007

23.) The Hitchhiking Years: A Conclusion Near St. Louis


American History is never as simple as we were taught in school. There's always more to it, but we make our own approximations and do our best. I'd say America in 1972 was about a generational divide. It really looked to me like it came down to the parents and the kids, and to us, the parents seemed to be driving the station wagon right off the cliff. That was what we thought of Vietnam.

We would become known as the Boomers, and we dressed differently, talked differently, and partied differently. We had landed in a pretty soft set of circumstances when you compare our time to the Great Depression, and rather than be ashamed of how we responded, I'm sort of proud. I mean, we were given an opportunity to have fun and did we ever. Sex, drugs and rock and roll were not just for rock stars back then. All three were hugely popular with our entire generation.

Any thought to the pitfalls of what we were doing, had not crossed our minds yet. We were too busy focusing on how our parents had screwed up the world, and Vietnam was a classic example. I distinctly remember looking at Nixon and knowing he was a weird creep. The fact that the adults seemed to go for him was proof they were out of it. But not to worry, we had a plan. For a brief time including 1972, it seemed possible to party our way to a better world. More than possible - it seemed like a sure thing.

So we weren't just having fun, we were doing something heroic. I really miss that level of delusion. I'm sure beautiful young girls still take rock musicians by the hand and lead them outside the gig to kiss them, but there is some realism now. Back then they would do it with a look in their eyes like you were a political hero. Merely by strumming a guitar you were fighting the establishment. The young foxes would offer themselves up partly as a reward for your political courage - even though you had not technically done anything. It was a time I am very glad I did not miss.

The history books will also discuss the Cold War. We were in a struggle with the Soviet Union and there was a serious fear that humanity could end in nuclear annihilation. Incidentally, that did not endear the establishment to us either. It was horrible enough knowing they had screwed up Vietnam - that they were snatching young men by the tens of thousands and shipping them off to die. There was also distain for the idea that the whole crazy situation could end up in a nuclear mushroom cloud. And unlike Iraq, the Soviets really did have the weapons.

We still had hope though. Hope and a plan: Maybe some kid with an acoustic would sing the right song and save the world. Hey, we're still here so apparently, it worked.

When I hitchhiked into St. Louis, I made a mistake. I went too far into the city, late in the day. I should have stopped outside of town. I was actually right under the arch - I just saw the exact spot again on TV during the NCAA Regionals of March Madness. I decided I had to ask for help and advice so I approached 3 young counter-culture types and asked where I should go to camp. They said to come with them - they would take care of me. It became apparent that at least 2 of them were on LSD. We got in the car and the Children of the Butterfly Gods drove me around 20 miles into Illinois to where they lived. Unfortunately, that was on an air force base.

I still don't know what their true motives were, but as we approached the check point for Scott Air Force Base, the guards recognized them and waved them in. Apparently I was also with some Children of the Cold Warriors. Okay, this was not a Strategic-Air-Command base where the big B-52s took off full of nukes in their continuous patrol for Armageddon, but it was close enough. Once more, I was screwed.

What had just happened? Why not drop me off somewhere else? Perhaps these tripping kids were trying to help. Perhaps they were using me to lash back at their parents. It had elements of both. Who knows? Maybe it was just a laugh. At any rate, they dropped me off at a baseball field and I went to the bench on the third base side, stretched out my sleeping bag, and began a troubled sleep.

I didn't know how close I was to the actual center of the Cold War, till the next morning. That's when a large military plane came thundering down a runway aimed right near me, and took off over the left field fence of the baseball diamond. My God, what a roar. It was not a B-52 but the symbolism was impossible to miss. I was camped out on a baseball diamond in America's heartland and part of our military industrial complex was taking flight right over my head. It was another ominous morning in America - the beginning of a long day of nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. I scrambled out of my sleeping bag, realizing one thing immediately: I had to get the hell out of there.

I started walking along the perimeter fence warily. I saw ominous signs stating how anyone found on the base could be searched and detained, and at the time, I didn't know what kind of base it was: Would you want someone carrying a backpack full of God-knows-what getting close to our nuclear arsenal? So I was very concerned about being caught.

This was a classic example of the problems of my generation. These kids on acid were - at the very least - having trouble fitting in. Their efforts to help me had not been wise - their plan simply did not mesh well with the United States Air Force.

This said a lot about the gap we had with the establishment. It was also a preview of what we would learn later about the perils of drugs. Just the idea that there were people on LSD on an air force base was weird enough. You throw in the Cold War, and from a historical perspective, this was a defining moment of the trip.

So I was walking along the perimeter fence when I looked ahead and saw some kind of electrical installation. Lo and behold, there was a civilian literally on his knees facing the other way, working on it. Best yet, he had unlocked the gate to the outside world. It was a chain-linked, door-sized gate complete with a scary sign on it about the dangers of trying to come onto the base, and it was wide open.

I started walking really slowly and carefully. I snuck up within 10 feet of where the guy was working away and I eased out that gate. It was a close-call and a real glimpse at what could go wrong in the Fail Safe world of nuclear war. I had survived my night on Scott Air Force base and the world would survive another day on the nuclear brink. I was once more free to head home.