The Sixties (10)

Running a USAF Newspaper in Germany, 1958-1960 — Part 4

Click on “The ’60s,” above, to see preceding posts on the ’60s.

Kerouac Calling

(Or maybe, more accurately, “Cassady Calling.”) I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac in 1959 while still in the Air Force, and boy, did it resonate. Here I was stuck on a military base, chafing at the whole military milieu, and reading about these two free spirits —Kerouac and Neal Cassady — stoned and careening across America in pursuit of adventure (and enlightenment).

My best friend on the base was Mike Phillips, a military police lieutenant. Mike was an intelligent, elegant guy and we hit it off somehow. But when I loaned him On the Road, he gave it back in a hurry, like it was the work of the devil. Hey, come to think of it, that might be just about right.

I managed to get myself declared as surplus (a category where the USAF had too many officers), and got out a year early. We chalked up the days remaining in Roman numerals on our window, erasing one each day. I was sick of the Air Force and homesick for San Francisco.

Free at Last

I was discharged after 2 years of service. I shipped our VW bug to New York. After I was processed at a base in New Jersey, we picked up my brother Bob, who was getting out of the Army at that time, and with Sarah and me in the front, Bob in the back seat, and 8-month-old Hans Peter Kahn behind Bob in the window well, we drove 3000 miles across a snowy America for less than $50 in gas. Cross-country for less than $15 a person travel expenses!

I remember an incident early in that trip that made me feel as if I were finally home: As we pulled onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, heading west, I stopped at the toll station and asked, “How much?” The toll guy handed me a ticket, smiled, and said, “Pay my brother at the other end.”

After two years in Europe, especially Germany with its formality and rigidity, there was something so American and friendly about the ”my brother” phrase… Home at last.

We arrived in San Francisco in January, 1960. Home sweet home. Totally.

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Running a USAF Newspaper in Germany, 1958-1960 — Part 3

Click on “The ’60s, above, to see preceding posts on the ’60s.

The Man with the Castle

Part of my job as the information services officer was to run the base photo lab and edit the base newspaper. I was also in charge of public relations and dealing with the press.

There was a German photographer, Helmut Haak, who photographed troops on American air bases. He was a big, hearty, outgoing man. He contacted me about setting up photo shoots.

I would line up a fighter plane down on our airstrip, and benches for the military personnel, arranged by unit. There might be 30-40 men and women in each photo.

Helmut made a ton of money selling the color photos. Practically everyone bought one. He drove a big Mercedes and lived in a small castle overlooking the Mosel River. One night he invited us, along with my secretary Inge, over for a light supper.

He served food and white and pink champagne in bottles with his own label. He took us up into a small turret at the top of the castle and as we looked down at the river in the mist, he showed us an exquisite little music box with a moving mechanical bird.

Helmut had a 4-seat Cessna airplane, and he made friends with our base commander, Colonel Simeral (a pilot) by taking him flying. It was a spiffy little plane, and the colonel loved flying it.

One day at the base, Helmut took me up. We took off, and were still in the flight pattern when we heard on the radio: “F-86 dogs scrambling,” which meant that at least two of the base’s fighter pilots were taking off in a hurry. Shit!

Helmut was sweating. I was worried. The F-86’s were like rockets with cockpits on top — fast and powerful. Pretty soon, the planes roared past us—phew! — and we came back in.

Helmut told me that one time, when his girlfriend was sailing back to America from Southhampton, he swooped down when the ship was leaving port and dropped a bouquet of flowers for her with a note on the deck. Romantisch!

Before I left Germany, I got word that he had crashed and died in the French Alps, not seeing Mont Blanc in the fog. The report said that he missed the top of the mountain by 3-4 meters.

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Running a USAF Newspaper in Germany, 1958-1960 — Part 2

Click on “The ’60s, above, to see preceding posts on the ’60s.

Old-School Typesetting

We went into town (Kauserslautern) twice a month to deliver typed-up text and photos to the printer. Printing was by the “linotype” process, where the words were produced on lead “slugs.” The typesetters were guys with green eyeshade visors, working on mechanical-looking keyboards.

They input the text, and slugs were created from a hot pot of lead. The whole process seemed medieval. (This was the stage of newspaper/magazine printing before the IBM Composer and later the Macintosh.) The slugs were then lined up in “galley” trays (hence the term “galley” used in later methods of printing), which were used to stamp the words onto paper.

The secret service on the base had a spare 35mm fixed-lens Leica that they let me use. I started developing and printing in the photo lab, learning from the sergeants and airmen who ran the lab, It was the beginning of my lifelong passion for photography.


After I’d been on the job for about a year, I went to Wiesbaden for a week to work on the news desk of The Stars and Stripes, the big military newspaper for troops throughout Europe. This was an exercise that was available to information services officers. I loved the newsroom — my heart was (is still) in journalism — but I just couldn’t write copy fast enough. There went any career in journalism.

However, to my surprise, we were given an award for the best newspaper in the USAF in 1959. I sent the notice of the award to our base commander, who had been on my case for running an “alternative” newspaper — with a note saying, “It’s interesting that we got this award at the time we were being criticized by some base personnel for the quality of the newspaper.”

Germany was still in a semi bombed-out state in 1958. There were neighborhoods in Wiesbaden and Frankfurt that were still rubble. Living was cheap for Americans with the almighty dollar.The base had its own supermarket (commissary), chain store (BX), bowling alley, gym, officers’ and enlisted personnel clubs, and housing. If you stayed on the base, it was like being in a small American town, not in the middle of Western Europe. A lot of Air Force personnel never left the base.

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Running a USAF Newspaper in Germany, 1958-1960 — Part 1

I started out to write a book about the ’60s because none of the accounts I saw of the era seemed right. As I went along, I decided to document my background — which ended up taking up about half of the book. Ulp!

I’ve published the first 3 autobiographical chapters — click on “The ’60s,” above. However, I still have about 10,000 words of my story before getting up to 1958, in this order:

  • Summertime in the ’40s
  • High School in San Francisco, 1948-1952
  • Stanford, 1953-1957
  • Santa Cruz/Surfing 1954-1957
  • Three Months Through Europe on a Motorscooter, 1957

I’ve decided to skip ahead of these chapters for now, so we can get right into the ’60s. I’ll publish them sooner or later in some form — maybe in an eventual print edition of this book, or some kind of autobiography.

You’re in the Air Force Now

I was in the USAF ROTC at Stanford (to avoid the Korean war), and had signed up for a 3-year tour of duty upon graduation. I graduated from Stanford in 1957, and was scheduled to report to pilot training school in spring, 1958, at Marana Air Force base in Arizona.

However, after I’d graduated and when I returned from a motorscooter trip through Europe, I got a letter from the USAF saying they had changed the rules and I now would have to sign up for 5 years if I still wanted to be trained as a pilot — or take a 3-year non-flying tour.

No way was i going to commit to a 5-year military career. I wrote them and said that (in other words): you guys double-crossed me; for 4 years you said it’d be a 3-year commitment, now you’re changing it to 5. So, I want a non-flying tour and I’d like to be in information services (base newspaper, photography, press releases), and I’d like to be stationed in Europe.

Lo and behold, they gave me just what I asked for. (I figured some sergeant in the Pentagon saw my letter and decided, why not?).

When we got back from our motor scooter trip, I was told to report for active duty at Sembach Air Base, Germany, which was about 60 miles south of Frankfurt. My job was to run the base newspaper and manage the base photo lab.

My mom was upset when she saw this photo. She said I looked sad. She was right. Fish out of water, in more ways than one.

I reported for active duty in February, 1958 and lived in the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters for three months until Sarah came over. We first lived in the nearby small town of Enkenbach (and had Sunday afternoon coffee klatches that included rich creamy German cakes with our landlady, Frau Elner and family and neighbors) until we moved into an apartment on the base.

Trouble with the Military

The job and location were great, but I disliked the military. I hated wearing a uniform. I was a second lieutenant, but didn’t feel like an officer. I never did get the officer/enlisted man relationship right. I neither liked giving orders nor being ordered around. I didn’t feel superior because I was an officer. It was awkward.

My Own Newspaper

But I liked running the newspaper, and decided to have some fun. Soon after I took over the paper—The Sembach Jet Gazette—I converted it to a tabloid and started featuring photos that the base photographer shot in his spare time, with a full-page photo on page 1.

The photographer, Sgt. Jim Tyson, who was used to shooting photos of such exciting events as the Officers Wives’ Club meetings with a 4×5 Graflex camera, also had his own 35mm camera, and was happy when I told him to go out and shoot human-interest photos. He shot artistic black and white pictures and we converted a boring military publication into something quite different.

We did an April Fools’ issue that went over well. But then we did a parody of the Overseas Weekly, which was a National Enquirer-type semi-scandal sheet newspaper put out for the American military in Europe. We called our version The Overseen Locally, with the slogan “All the News That Fits, We Print.” We made fun of a lot of the base’s clubs and practices.

It didn’t go over with the brass. I was already in trouble with the base commander for refusing to pay for officers’ cocktail parties that I didn’t attend. An American journalist in Wiesbaden told me that he had heard rumors of a court-martial, the theory being that this was a subversive act, that the Russians could use it for propaganda. (Puhleeze!) It all blew over, but it didn’t endear me to the base commander.

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The ’50s in San Francisco

This is a continuation of my book on the ’60s. All the chapters are gathered under the button above, “The ’60s.” To read in chronological order, click on “The ’60s,” go to the bottom and scroll up.

Just a few words about the ’50s in general, in that they were the prelude to the ’60s. If you want a comprehensive picture of the ’50s, a good book is The Fifties by David Halberstam.

The ’50s in the United States was an era of prosperity and optimism. World War II was over and America turned its war-time production facilities into consumer production.

The GI Bill paid for veterans to go to college, and provided low-interest loans for buying homes. (The benefits went mainly to white veterans.)

A Wave of Prosperity

It was a time of plenty. There were jobs, with benefits; unions were strong. People bought large homes in the suburbs, along with labor-saving appliances.

The “baby boom,” referring to the population growth that occurred between 1946-1964, with its peak in 1957, added 50 million babies by the end of the 1950s; it was the highest birthrate in American history.

It turned out to be an era of consumerism; it was an era of conformity.

The Man in a Grey Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson, was written in 1956, and followed by the movie with Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, about conformity and the struggle of an individual to escape devotion to material culture. The Organization Man, by William H. Whyte, published in 1956, depicted the empty life of people working for corporations, who sacrificed individuality for corporate safety.

I read these books with interest when I was in college (1953-’57), and, early on, worried about conformity, the blandness of business life, the dullness of the business world.

“The Best Minds of My Generation”

Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Laurence Ferlinghetti, Dianne Di Prima and Michael McClure are some of the most prominent names associated with what Kerouac titled the Beat Generation. (It seems to me it wasn’t a “generation” at all, but a very small group of artists, mainly poets and writers.) The term “beatnik” was coined by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, apparently taking the “nik” from the Russian satellite Sputnik. It seemed sarcastic; “beatnik” was a watered-down stereotype.

As with the ’50s, I can’t write about the beats with any authority or expertise. But these were the artists of most interest to me in the ’60s, before the hippies came along. Especially Kerouac, Snyder, and Burroughs.

The Beats grew up during the depression and rejected consumerism and convention. Many of them expressed their alienation from “straight” society in vocabulary borrowed from jazz musicians.

I picked up a copy of Howl by Allen Ginsberg at City Lights bookstore on one of my lunchtime walks when I was an insurance broker in the early ’60s. “Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! spectral nations! Invincible mad houses! Granite cocks! Monstrous bombs!”

The Beats were saying things that no one else was. They took drugs, believed in free sex, despised materialism, and pioneered new methods of expression.

The most influential books for me then were Kerouac’s On the Road, and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

But to me, there was something dark about many of these artists. Some kind of resentment, whatever you might call it. I was drawn to the poetry, the rejection of the dull and materialistic ways of the era, the notion of expanding one’s consciousness, the improvisation, yet…

Darkness of the Beats

It seems to me that the word “beat” was used both in the sense of having the beat of music, and at the same time as in “beaten,” or down and out. There seemed to be threads of nihilism and pessimism running through much of their art. Society sucked, and there wasn’t much you could do about it.

Poet Jonathan Greene just wrote me: “Back in the day there was a claim the term for the Beats came from beatific.”

The Beats seemed to put you down, or to put you on. It was subtle. At a Fillmore concert one night, Peter Orlovsky was walking around with Neal Cassady, and came up to me and said, “This is Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road,” as if he were talking to a tourist.

It’s hard to pinpoint it, but I often felt as if the Beats were making fun of me. I wasn’t as hip; I wasn’t as cool; I wasn’t an artist.

I think a lot of what made them distinctive was drugs: marijuana, speed, heroin, yage, and peyote. Later, LSD, opened up the “doors of perception.” Drugs gave then an insight, a different take on reality, and set them apart from “straight” people.

With the musicians and artists that came along in the ’60s, it was entirely different, as if a window of sunshine opened up. No more bitterness, no more sarcasm…

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Growing Up in San Francisco, Part Two

When I start a project, I’m never quite sure where it will go. I started working on a book on the ’60s last year, and found myself laying a lot of groundwork on my earlier years (1935-1960), so that the reader would know my background. I ended up with a sort of autobiography for almost half the book.

So when you click on “The ’60s” button in the blog header, there’ll be a lot of autobiographical stuff until I get to the ’60s.

Hitching Streetcar Rides

The “L,” “M.” and “K” (my initials) streetcars ran through the Twin Peaks Tunnel, which went from the West Portal district to the Castro district. The mid-tunnel stop was about a mile walk from our house.

This rare photo shows one of the old-style streetcars from the ’40s. The cowcatcher is being lowered here. When the direction of the car was reversed at the end of the line, the cowcatcher would be tied up on the back end via a cable through that round fitting in the center. Throughout the city, us kids would creep up behind a slowly moving car (crouching so the conductor, who was in the back, wouldn’t see us), then run up and jump on the cowcatcher.

We rode all over the city. The big deal was to ride through the 2-mile long tunnel — sparks flying overhead from the electric trolleys — whoo! Lots of alcoves where someone who somehow ended up on foot in the tunnel could jump when trains came by. The trains probably went 20-30 mph, rocking through the darkness, to emerge into the dazzling daylight at Market and Castro.

San Francisco Was a Port

San Francisco Beltline Railroad. In this photo taken July 6, 1938, the E-Embarcadero streetcar line is running alongside the state-owned freight line. Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Until the ’60s, the city, surrounded on three sides by water, was a shipping center. The waterfront was a deep water port, dating back to the clipper ships, with a series of piers. It was (is) called The Embarcadero, and when we were kids, it was a city within the city, with its own hotels, bars, and restaurants. Loading and unloading of ships was controlled by the Longshoreman’s Union. The streets were filled with cargo and busy with forklifts.

Fisherman’s Wharf, now a tourist mecca, was at one time the fishing center of the west coast, with its 16′ Monterey Clipper fishing boats modeled on the felluca sailing fishing boats of Genoa.

I mention this because this was the city of our childhood and one would never guess this by looking at the tourist-oriented, sanitized, palm-tree-lined waterfront of today.

Fishing in the City

Around the turn of the century, my grandfather had a bait and tackle shop at the foot of Hyde Street (in later years, it became Muni Bait), and that’s how my dad got started fishing; he and his friends went fishing in the ocean and also fished for trout in lakes in the Sierras.

My grandfather used to import hexagonal bamboo rods from China and tie on the casting guides with red and gold silk thread. It’s a craft he taught my dad, and my dad taught me.

My brother and I had our city version of fishing, which didn’t require any parental transportation or guidance. We would walk down to the tunnel, carrying fishing rods and a crab trap, and take a streetcar to Van Ness, where we’d take the H streetcar down to Muni Pier.

We’d catch crabs and use the orange part of the innards as bait to catch perch. We’d go back home on public transit and our mom would cook a fish dinner.
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Note: All my posts on the ’60s are gathered under “The ’60s,” above. Being a blog, these posts are in reverse order. If you want to read them from the beginning, scroll down. Chapter 1 is at the bottom, chapter 2 above that, etc.