Journey Into the Sunset: The Summer of Love
Jordan Rivers, Miami, FL
The ocean sea was crystalline, placid and the continuous exposure to the hot sun was tanning my skin as I relaxed in the sands of Miami Beach, one more soul among the thousands of happy celebrants that were quickly gathering in the area on this beautiful, hot and sunny Memorial Day.
This holiday marks the unofficial start of the summer season and today, in contrast with previous Memorial Days, the weather in Miami was gorgeous. As I looked around, I noticed many families with their children and grandchildren, listening to their radios, cooking on their portable grills and savoring this day of leisure. To my left, there was a couple, perhaps in their late forties, with their family and friends and I couldn't help listening to their conversation which revolved around their wedding day twenty five years ago, on Memorial Day, 1967.
Twenty five years, a quarter of a century! So many events had occurred in those two and a half decades. I began to meditate about Memorial Day, 1967, and the most intense summer of my existence; one in which I learned about life, the importance of home and family values and my duty as a human being to do what I had to, no matter what the price or the consequences were.
I had lived in Chicago less than a year since my family's arrival from Mexico in November of 1966, when my mother was relocated to the United States by the company for which she worked. Even though I was not new to the culture, traditions and social heritage of this country, the change was harsh and onerous.
The nation was confronting a cultural, social and political metamorphosis never seen before in its history. The Vietnam war was alienating the American society and family values were taking on new meanings, while a schism from the Older Order was making itself palpable to all. Afro-Americans, women and other minorities demanded equal rights and recognition, and civil strife and destruction were crippling large American cities.
I was raised in a liberal environment at home and from an early age, my parents taught me to oppose the idea of military intervention in a foreign country, by any nation, including our own. Thus, I became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war or "conflict," as the politicians in Washington labeled it.
The idea of genocide, war and destruction, was repulsive to me and by the time I was fifteen, when I moved back to the States, my mind was made up: I would refuse to fight this war under any circumstances. If needed, I was prepared to go to jail.
The years of living abroad caused me to lose contact with most of my childhood friends and I couldn't enroll in high school until the next school year. So to fight the boredom brought about by not attending school and living in a strange city where I knew no one, I obtained a job as a stock boy in a food store in Chicago. The company was the largest in the Midwest, and the pay and benefits were excellent, especially for a teenager like me.
There, I met a young man with whom I became close friends. His name was Ralph, a junior at the Catholic high school which I planned to attend the following fall. He showed me the ropes around the city.
What initially brought us so close together was our mutual passion for music, in particular, contemporary rock. We were both musicians. He played guitar and organ, and I played drums, trumpet and was trying to learn how to play guitar. We spent countless hours at his house composing pieces and learning the popular tunes that hit the ratio airwaves of Chicago that summer.
Our dream was to start a band and be famous, just like the other groups that we heard daily on the radio. We tried to emulate local blockbuster bands like the Shadows of Knight, Michael and the Messengers, The Buckinghams, The Crying Shames, and other famous Chicago area bands whose music hits were listed on the national charts.
The music of the summer of 1967 was fascinating, trend setting. The Turtles were at the top of the charts with "Happy Together," and on those lazy summer days, we soothed ourselves with the sounds of the Young Rascals' "Grooving" and Tommy James and Shondell's "Mirage." Laying in the sands of Foster Beach, admiring the cold and majestic Lake Michigan while watching the sail boats race across the water, gave a totally new dimension to the words of Every Mother's Son's tune, "Come on Down to My Boat, Baby."
That was the summer when Neil Diamond triumphed with "Thank the Lord for the Nighttime" and Frankie Valli serenaded young and old lovers alike with "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."
The powerful sounds of San Francisco's Jefferson Airplane's hits "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" and the romantic melody of the Association's "Cherish" were a blend too magical to ignore for two aspiring young musicians like Ralph and me. We couldn't remain still in the midst of so much ferment, wanting to be famous and determined to achieve that goal.
In this powerful and intense atmosphere we spent the first few weeks of that summer working at the food store during the day and touring the nightclub circle of the Windy City at night where we searched for prospective musicians for the band that we were trying to organize and that would propel us to the top of the music world.
The event that changed our lives began to unfold one Friday in late June, when we purchased two tickets to see Neil Diamond's performance at the Cheetah, a popular concert hall on Lawrence Avenue in Uptown. At five, we arrived at the front door and joined a large crowd that was already there waiting for the doors to open. Almost two hours later, much to the surprise and chagrin of the crowd, the promoter announced that Neil had to cancel the show as he had suddenly become ill with the flu. After a few incidents of rock throwing, which resulted in several arrests by the police, the multitude dispersed.
The night, while driving home on Lake Shore Drive, radio station 89 AM-WLS, played a tune that was making its debut in Chicagoland. It was a song by a newcomer named Scott McKenzie, called "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)."
The lyrics depicted an Eden like no other, a utopia, and at once we knew that the time had come when we had to decide our future. We either remained in Chicago, or we moved west, looking for fame, fortune and a heaven where we would actualize our musical and political dreams. The idea of meeting "Gentle people with flowers in their head," as the song said, made that city very appealing, and in a few days we were packed and ready to go.
There were, however, other reasons that fostered our decision to leave our homes and families in a journey into the uncertainty of the sunset.
The news media kept the nation well informed about the peace movement emerging out of the San Francisco Bay area and we felt a duty to travel there to join others in this epic to better the social conditions of our country and the world. It would be tough, we knew, but we hoped that someday our children and grandchildren would look back to their ancestors and hail our generation as the ones that saved their planet from the destruction and human pain caused by war and social inequities. It was a socio-political commitment to the world and to our families that couldn't wait.
While it's true that music was the initial hub of our friendship, our mutual concern for the social problems facing our society, particularly the war, solidified our comradeship and gave us a common purpose in life. We were inexperienced idealists, young dreamers determined to bring about victory for the cause that we believed in.
Breaking the news of this decision to our families was not easy, but surprising, not as difficult as we had anticipated. I received my family's support and blessing for my trek and was reminded that they would always love me, no matter what. Ralph's family reacted similarly.
We departed Chicago on board a Greyhound bus one Sunday morning and arrived at the bus depot at Freemont and Mission in San Francisco, three or four days later. We couldn't believe our eyes. The city was beautiful, heavenly beautiful. It was everything that Scott McKenzie's song depicted and we were thrilled to be there.
The terminal was filled with travelers, many of whom were flower children like us, innocent and friendly, eagerly looking for acceptance from the others. We were greeted by many strangers who smiled and in some occasions even gave us a flower. I didn't know that in our society there was still so much love and affection among people and I was happy with my decision.
Ralph and I were wandering around the depot lobby carrying our guitars and bags when a couple approached us and introduced themselves. His name was Sammy, hers, Venus. I didn't know if these were their real names but it didn't matter. What mattered was that they offered us a place to stay in exchange for helping the others in the house with their work load.
We gladly accepted their offer and they drove us a short distance across town to a house near a park known as the Panhandle, in the Haight-Ashbury area, where we had our first real-life encounter with what the world commonly refers to as a Hippie Commune.
The members of this commune were convivial and close knit and helped us feel at home right away. Some of them were there because they wanted to get away from the oppressions of their strict disciplinarian parents, while others were trying to evade the draft and the war in Vietnam.
Still, there were some that were world dropouts, running away from responsibilities and without any useful purpose in their lives, like nomads that followed others not knowing or not caring to know why. What most of us had in common, however, was a firm belief that the country couldn't survive heading on its present course and that unless the citizenry took drastic corrective action, very soon there would be no Mother Earth for our future descendants to inhabit.
Almost all the tenants were known by a nickname and no one seemed to care what their real names were. I received the nickname of "Chico" and Ralph, "Music Man." Other flower children in our "family" included "Spanky," "VD," "Winnie," "JC," "Pills," "Guru" and many more whose names I have forgotten with the passing of the years.
Our days were busy and time went by fast. Early, after breakfast, the women did the domestic chores while the men went to work for the local merchants of the area who contrary to popular belief, liked us hippies and helped us the best they could. Without their contributions, which included food, medicines and even cash, none of us would have been able to subsist in such a harsh environment for too long.
During the afternoons and evenings most of us attended political meetings at the Panhandle or at some other location where demonstrations against the war and the system were held and where peace movement leaders pronounced ideological speeches that brought hope and encouraged our militancy. While these assemblies were peaceful, they were unpopular in the eyes of the "establishment," which perceived them as anti-American or Communist. Most of the time these gatherings ended with a violent display of force by the local police department joined by supporters of the war.
As a result of the tyrannical show of force of the San Francisco Police Department, I often came home bruised and cut, as if I was a common criminal, when in fact, my only crime had been the exercise of my right to free speech guaranteed under the Constitution. The beatings and abuses degraded me spiritually and numerous times I cried in anger, but I felt it was well worth it. The future of this country and the world was too important to me.
Pain and humiliation were the brutal price that needed to be paid in exchange for hopes of a better life and everlasting peace in society. What an irony! Was this what our so-called "democratic society" defined as democracy?
Whenever Ralph and I found some free time from our obligations to the commune and the cause, we tried to establish contacts with producers and talent scouts that were looking for musicians for either new or established bands. However, the field was tougher than we had anticipated and even though we tried vigorously we didn't succeed in landing any auditions. A few months later, rejections started to take their toll on our spirits and we realized that our dreams, musically and politically, were not being fulfilled as we hoped they would be when we started on our journey to this magical land of love, music and peace.
The enthusiasm that brought so many of us together started to dwindle and we convinced ourselves that the political movement was heading nowhere. Victory over the old order seemed out of our reach and to make matters worse, drug abuse and other calamities joined forces against us. Almost daily, someone in our "family" had to be rushed to the nearby health clinic, the victim of a drug overdose. On several occasions those children never returned and to this day I don't know if they lived or died.
Our efforts to stop the war and to make the world aware of the atrocities taking place in Southeast Asia were not as successful as we hoped they would be. In fact, our attempts, sincere as they were, couldn't compare to the propaganda that the "other side" was marketing on its behalf. The results were that our comrades were being beaten and injured by policemen in riot gear, who, assisted by politically paranoid people, saw in us a threat to decency, family and the American way.
Under severe pressure by some of the local leaders, the merchants that favored our cause were forced to turn their back on the young people they once supported and this resulted in severe scarcity of food and other means of survival. Soon afterwards, we were evicted from the house and forced to seek refuge in the streets. With the quarters and dimes that people handed out to us and with the help of local charity organizations in the Bay area, we were able to buy some food and other necessities, but decent human survival was by now almost impossible. Painful as it was, we came to the conclusion that the time had come to call it quits.
The paradise that Scott McKenzie sang about in his song and which Ralph and I searched for in that city became instead a living hell. The streets of the beautiful "City by the Bay" were now a scene from Dante's Inferno where drug dealers and pimps proliferated, making tatters of children who saw drugs and vice as a way out of their misery and sorrow. Most kids didn't have a family and a home to return to, or were too scared or ashamed to go back to them and ask for their forgiveness.
Their desperation, escalated by a bad trip on LSD or some other drug, led many from the streets of Haight-Ashbury, to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, and from there, to the bottom of the frigid and shark-infested waters of the San Francisco Bay.
The neighborhoods became battlegrounds where those of us with long hair, earrings, beads, and other marks that identified us with the peace movement suffered harassment and physical abuse. I was lucky because I was never arrested or fell into the tangled web of the drug world and I am proud to say that I never experimented with dangerous drugs, but my friend Ralph, however, was not so lucky, paying dearly for his dream to improve conditions in society and his love for music.
We lived in the streets for the next few weeks, but the quest for social change was not the same. We were weak, defeated and with the fall season approaching, the bone-chilling rain fell on us almost every night while we slept outside the apartment buildings, covered by old newspapers.
Our purpose was lost, the antiwar movement was in total disarray and we needed to go home in order to go back to school, get a job, or give our music another chance. All our options, however, had one common denominator--we needed to go home! I then realized, perhaps for the first time, the importance of having a loving family relationship as well as friends and relatives to lean on in times of pain and sorrow.
With some money that I borrowed from an old man who owned a pawn shop near 24th and Mission, I purchased two one-way bus tickets and took a Greyhound bus back to the Windy City, our home. I was very depressed and felt guilty for the failure of some of my efforts and for Ralph's drug addiction, but I was also proud that at least I had tried my best to do something to help a cause in which I fully believed, and that to this day, still do believe in.
My consolation was knowing that I had participated in one of the most monumental efforts in our history aimed at bringing about peace and love to our society, doing as Timothy Leary preached in those days, "Turn on, Tune in, and Drop out." Now it was time to "Drop back in" and I was afraid that I wouldn't fit in. These fears proved wrong.
My friend and I arrived in Chicago on a cloudy and cold Saturday evening, one in which the gray skies of the upcoming winter covered the firmament. Our families were there to greet us but didn't recognize us. We had changed so much. I had lost a lot of weight, from malnutrition and the perils of street living.
Ralph was immediately admitted to a drug rehabilitation hospital for a severe drug addiction and he would never be the same again. Although he is no longer a substance abuser, he is now a manic depressive under constant medication and has not left his house, alone, in years. I keep in touch with his mother and visit him when I travel north to see my family. I always leave his house with tears in my eyes. It is such a tragedy!
When I got to my house, I showered for the first time in days and slept soundly for hours in my bed. The following Monday, clean cut and shaven, I attended my first day of school and slowly began the adaptation process to readjust to my new life.
The days turned into weeks, months, and years. In 1970 I graduated from high school at the top of my class and received a football scholarship to play for a large Midwest university. In my freshman year, due to a severe ankle injury, my football career came to a halt and in 1971, I moved to Miami where I graduated from college. Here is where I have lived for the past twenty-one years, have a nice family and a good job.
At times I have wondered if it was a mistake to have traveled west that Summer of Love, but every time I think about it, I come to the conclusion that this was not the case. I am very proud of my effort and mourn the loss of those who succumbed while trying to improve the world in which we live. Many people to this day do not realize our importance in history, when we journeyed into the unknown, alone, at such a young age, with nothing in our possession but a strong spirit and firm beliefs.
Twenty-five years have passed since that pilgrimage into the sunset, to the land of fairy tales, where young men and women died, physically or spiritually like my friend Ralph. I hope that thanks to our efforts the war was shortened and many human beings did not lose their lives for such an unworthy cause.
On this Memorial Day, as in the past, I reflect on our mission that summer of 1967, praying to God for the eternal repose of the men and women that died in the war and for their families, so they can find solace. I pray that God will forgive those government leaders responsible for such carnage, and I also pray for the flower children who traveled to San Francisco and other cities in search of peace and love, and who, unlike me, did not return in body or in spirit.
Those kids who died that summer deserve a special place in our hearts, as do the ones who died in Indochina. They too were Americans, advocating an ideal in which they believed.
As I awoke from this reverie to the voice of my daughter announcing that lunch was ready, I observed my son playing in the sand with several newfound friends and I couldnt help wondering if they, too, will be required one day to travel into their own sunset, to experience and learn the mysteries and obligations of life as I did.
If fate has it written in the destinies of their lives that they must do so, I hope that it is for a goal other than to resist a war. Frankly, I do not think that we could survive another Vietnam conflict.
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Updated Thursday, January 28, 1999