The Sixties (7)

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.

Growing Up in San Francisco, Part One

My mom and dad were married in San Francisco in April, 1934. It was in the middle of the Great Depression.

In August of that year, they took the Suntan Special, a train that ran from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, for a vacation. According to my mom, I was conceived on that trip, and born in San Francisco in April, 1935.

I was the first-born in the family, and my parents didn’t quite know how to cope with me. I wasn’t so much rebellious as curious and energetic. Plus at an early age I didn’t believe in following rules.

At one point they took me to a psychiatrist and I remember having a great time hammering wooden pegs into different shaped holes and answering his questions about ink blots. I suspect he told my folks that I wasn’t psychotic, just high-energy. Years later, when my mom was in her 90s (she lived to be 103), she would reminisce about my stunts. “You remember when you…”

I’m writing all this stuff about early years to give you a picture of my background, attitudes and outlook on life, which all led up to my finally breaking out of the prescribed business career.

The Neighborhood

My mom and dad on their honeymoon in April, 1934 at Weaver Lake, a remote lake (then) in the Sierras. My dad and his fishing buddies had built a cabin and pier there. The lake was full of trout. I had a happy childhood. My parents loved each other. We always had food and shelter. Our family functioned. I’ve often thought how lucky we were.

There were 26 kids on our block. (The 100 block of Ulloa Street — next to the intersection of Portola Drive and Laguna Honda Blvd.) On any given day, there would be at least a dozen of us playing in the street. Kick the can, hide and seek, bike riding, roller skating, riding Flexi racers, playing football or baseball. No parental supervision at all, ever. No little league, no automobile transportation to distant soccer fields. We were on our own.

There was a cave about half a mile away; we never went very deeply into it. In wet years, there was a shallow lake across from our house and we had a raft.

There was a Catholic church across the street (St. Brendan’s) and everyone on the block was Catholic except for us. My mom was a Christian Scientist (we never went to doctors).

During World War II we had a large community vegetable garden on a quarter-acre lot next to our house, and my dad and the neighbors raised a ton of vegetables.

We went all over the city on foot, bikes, roller skates, streetcars, and busses. It was about a 2-mile walk to West Portal grammar school, a 4-mile bike ride to Golden Gate Park.

Some city kids made their first skateboards in the ‘40s by taking apart metal roller skates and mounting the wheels on a piece of wood. On our block, the Guzman brothers built a funky flat-roofed little house on metal roller skate wheels and rode it down the hill. A bunch of us then did the same — early RVs!

10-Year-Olds Getting Stoned

We would go into the “cloak room” of our classroom (out of teacher’s view) at West Portal grammar school, take deep knee bends until we were out of breath, then put thumbs in mouths and blow until we passed out. We got in trouble once when I failed to catch Fletcher Pence as he fell, and he cut his forehead.
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What the ’60s Wasn’t

1960, me (at left) and my Stinson beach lifeguard friends in Mill Valley about to take off on a surfing trip to the Point Reyes Peninsula in my 1937 Chevy (with square-cut gears) truck. This was a few years before everything started to change.

Getting It Wrong…

In 2017, there was a media blitz on “The 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love.” There were TV shows, magazine and online articles, and museum exhibits on what supposedly took place in San Francisco in the summer of 1967.

I read all these stories and articles, watched the films, went to the exhibits, and was puzzled. This wasn’t the way I saw it, and I was there. There were a bunch of things wrong with all this coverage:

What the ’60s Wasn’t

  • The “summer of love” was a disaster. An estimated 100,000 kids trekked to San Francisco, most of them looking for drugs, sex, and rock and roll. A lot of them inspired by the lame song about wearing flowers in your hair if you came to San Francisco. The city wasn’t prepared for the inundation; the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was overwhelmed. There wasn’t enough food, housing, or sanitation for the influx. Things deteriorated rapidly.
  • Secondly, the Haight Ashbury district wasn’t the ’60s.

    “The Haight-Ashbury was a neighborhood. The ’60s was a movement.”
    –Ken Kesey

    Kesey nails it here, as he did so often. The media has focused on the Haight-Ashbury, since it’s been so well documented, and it’s easy to interview people who were there.

    But the ’60s was about much more than the Haight, it was about a lot more than rock and roll and smoking pot and living in old Victorians in San Francisco.

    It was nationwide, arguably worldwide, and it encompassed a staggering variety of subjects and events and changes.

  • Most of the books, films, articles, and exhibits about the ’60s are by people who weren’t there — second-hand accounts.

My first thoughts were that these versions didn’t reflect what really happened.
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Stop, Children, What’s That Sound…

Photo of me in 1965 in Providence, RI, shot with my Nikon by Linda Connor. I was on a 30-day cross-country hitchhiking trip — a “vision quest.” When I got home, I quit my job as an insurance broker and went to work as a carpenter.

I started out to write a book about the ’60s because most of the media coverage (TV documentaries, books, exhibits) in 2017, prompted by “The Summer of Love” theme, didn’t coincide with what I saw happen:

1- in the ’60s
2- in San Francisco

I began by making a list of the ideas and concepts that I learned about in the ’60s. A lot! It was surprising.

Then I thought that if I’m going to take people on a trip — my trip — through those years, I should explain who I am, my background, so readers will know “…where I’m coming from.”

I’m starting with scenes from childhood. Focusing on the past is fun. It’s opening up a suitcase of memories and I’m having a good time remembering good times.I recall scenes from past years, then I run out to the computer and type a few paragraphs about the ’40s, the ’50s, a few about Pacific High School in the ’60s, a few about the Haight-Ashbury district — in no particular order. It’s not an organized way to write a book, but as I go along, the book is taking its own form.

A builder I know once told me, talking about each house he builds, “I fire the bullet and then try to catch up with it.”

I’m starting by describing growing up in San Francisco, what the city was like then, grammar school, summer vacations, high school (in the Haight-Ashbury district) and college and surfing days….

This will be the way I saw the ’60s; I’m not trying to be comprehensive or complete about the era. You can’t make a cohesive narrative about the times because the times weren’t cohesive. It will be purely what I saw happen.

If any of you experienced the ’60s directly, your memories are welcome here…

Note: I’m going to publish the book, bit by bit here. I’m not ready to make a real book out of it yet. I have two other books to get done first.

The posts will all be available under “THE SIXTIES” tab at the top of the blog, so if you want to read about the era, they’ll all be in one place.

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