By Cecil Hoge
In the last blog story on music in my life, I predicted that I would flunk out of college. Guess what? By the end of my second year at the University of Virginia, I did flunk out. That was in June of 1963.
1963 was a year of change…not only for me…but also for the country. In June, just as I was preparing to leave The University, John F. Kennedy declared “Ich bin ein Berliner” at the Rathaus Schonberg and Jackie Kennedy was wowing Europeans one and all for her beauty and her verve. I was not paying much attention. We got through the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962, when I still had some hope that I might not flunk out. As things turned out the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved in the country’s favor while my situation with the The University of Virginia was not.
“Surfin’ U.S.A.” was a hit that summer. Later in the year Peter, Paul and Mary released a song called “Blowin in the Wind” written by a fellow named Bob Dylan. It was almost as big a hit for them as “Puff, The Magic Dragon” which came out the same year. I wondered what that “Puff, the Magic Dragon” song was about…it sounded sweet and kind of mysterious. I missed the wacky tobacky reference altogether. Elvis was singing a song called “Devil in Disguise”. Music was changing, but just along the edges. The Beatles were just beginning to be popular. Bob Dylan released an album called “Free Wheeling Bob Dylan” and the Beatles came out with “She Loves Me”. There was change in the wind, but I was oblivious to it all.
What was I to do now that I had flunked out? I did what many young, red-blooded American lads would do in a similar situation. I hitchhiked to California. My plan was to find a new life, maybe become a surfer dude, hang ten on some waves and win fame and fortune as a great American novelist. Unfortunately, none of that came true.
I hitchhiked from Virginia to California and it was quite memorable. I gathered all the essentials – a small duffle bag with all the important stuff…a toothbrush, a razor, hairbrush, a copy of Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”, some underwear, socks, 3 shirts, 2 pair of jeans and a bathing suit. In short, I was loaded for bear.
My first ride, from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, was with a famous architect. At least, he seemed to me that he must be famous, as he talked with great enthusiasm about his many projects which seemed to include roads, bridges and buildings. He had a bunch of rolled up architectural drawings in the back seat of his car and even let me take a look at some, which to my untrained eye looked pretty impressive.
I asked him why he was kind enough to pick me. Hitchhiking was a fairly common thing in 1963, but you often had to wait one or two hours for a ride. And I was mighty happy when, a half hour into my great journey West, I saw this guy slow down and pull off the road about 50 feet ahead of where I was practicing my best thumb action.
“I like to get a pulse on what is going on,” he said somewhat mysteriously. Somehow our conversation drifted to the twin facts that I had just flunked out of college and that he was on his way to Lynchburg to review a new building project…some corporate structure that he seemed very proud of.
When I told him about my year of failure, he was very supportive, “Some the best minds are not formed by college…the school of life is also a great teacher,” he said.
We had a fine conversation, talking about many things…the country growing up, things that were changing, or not changing, young President Kennedy, and the new-fangled music coming out of England and America.
“That fellow Bob Dylan…his voice isn’t worth a damn,” the famous architect told me, “but he has some interesting things to say.”
It was a strange statement coming from a much older man. I really hadn’t listened to Bob Dylan, but I made a note to maybe give it a go sometime.
The architect pulled over and said, “I have to turn right here…good luck on the next 50 years.”
I got out, feeling kind of sad and alone with my dufflebag, on the deserted road. The sun was still fairly high, the day still warm in the way Virginia is in June. Bumblebees and butterflies were fluttering in the afternoon sun, farmer’s fields surrounded by wooden post fences loomed off on either side of the highway.
It took another hour and half to get another ride and that almost immediately turned into a disaster. The guy who pulled over seemed decent enough. I told him I was hitchhiking to California. He told me I was in luck, he was headed to St. Louis.
It was about 7 minutes into the ride that I noticed this guy un-zipping his fly. Not a good sign, I thought, but maybe the guy had some good explanation for what seemed like a strange action. A little bit later I realize that the guy did have an explanation and it was not an explanation that I wanted to know about.
In this day of sexual harassment, I guess you can say that I was sexually harassed by this guy. In any case, I was not buying what he was selling.
About 30 seconds after the reason this man un-zipped his fly became clear, I said; “Pull over here”.
“I thought you were going to California,” the man said.
“That was then, this is now, pull over here.”
I cannot say that the man seemed very happy about my attitude, but he did comply, even if he was quite disgruntled. I got out and found myself about 5 miles further down the same lonely road. So much for getting to St. Louis anytime soon.
I resumed my best thumb action but it was not working. First of all, in order to get a good response to thumb action, cars must pass by. And that seemed to happen only about every 20 minutes or so. After two hours, I just started walking. It turned out that this section of the road was rarely used. So I kept walking and the afternoon sun started to fall and cast shadows on the green fields that adorned the left and right sides of the highway. The mid-day heat gave way to somewhat cooler temperatures. That was the good news.
As far as my trusty thumb was concerned, it had gone on strike. When cars or trucks came by, I would turn around, stick out my thumb and try to look as presentable as possible. It was not working…the cars and trucks came and went. Six hours into this project, the sun had fallen and darkness had arrived and I was walking down a dark and lonely highway.
About that time I was thinking that this idea of hitchhiking to California for fame and fortune might not be such a good idea. I was seriously considering turning around and walking back to Charlottesville. That would have taken quite a bit time, presuming my hitchhiking luck did not improve…I was already about 120 miles from Charlottesville.
I was getting seriously tired and hungry. My hitch-hiking skills, once so sharp and effective, had turned sour on me and I was getting so discouraged that instead of turning around each time I heard an approaching car or truck, I would stick my thumb out while still walking forward. In my mind, any progress at that time was important even if I was only making about two and half miles per hour.
They say it is darkest before the dawn. But that night it was darkest around 9:45pm. It was not actually chilly at that time, but since I was wearing a knit short-sleeved shirt, it seemed chilly, especially after a big truck would woosh by. Talk about blowing in the wind…I was blowing in the wind and it was an ill wind filled with carbon dioxide and dirt and dust flung up from the road.
It was then my luck changed and I proved categorically that you can get a ride hitch-hiking even when you have not bothered to turn around. I am not quite sure how my thumb was visible on that dark and dank night, but a truck lumbered to a halt a few hundred feet ahead and I sprinted towards it with my last bit to energy.
Fortunately, the man driving the truck was not a pervert. In fact, he was a very nice older feller, a little bit heavy for his size, in late 50s or early 60s. He had a smile and a large, round face as I got in. Immediately, I was greeted with a Johnny Cash song on the radio…I was back in the land of hope. It seemed my new ride was a country music aficionado. He seemed like a regular guy, with soft, Southern drawl and a kind dignified face.
“Where you headed,” he asked.
“California,” I said.
“That ain’t here,” he said with a laugh, “I can get you to just outside St. Louis.”
“Anywhere down the road is great,” I said.
And so off we went to St. Louis. I was back on track.
By around 11 I was realizing that I had nothing to eat since a super egg breakfast in Charlottesville. That was a good 14 hours ago, so I was mighty hungry. Fortunately, great minds think alike…maybe I should say hungry stomachs can align. It turned out the man was also hungry, so we pulled into some truck service station and walked into a big diner that was part of the service center. A sandy-haired waitress came up to us as soon as we walked in.
“Where you wanna sit, Walt,” and almost instantly afterwards, “Who’s the kid?”
Anyway, we had a fine meal. Walt downed 3 or 4 cups of coffee and I matched him Coke for coffee. The burgers and fries were greasy and most delicious. Within an hour, we were back on the road.
I rode the next day and half with Walt. Country music was our constant background. The conversation was good, but a little depressing. Walt took to criticizing my hitchhiking to California.
“What you doing that for? You should be going home, with your tail between legs, fessing up and starting over. Hey, I never went to no college. I learned on the road of life. Running away ain’t the way to go.”
I tried my best to defend myself.
“I need to do this, Walt. I need to find my own way.”
“There is nothing wrong with finding your own way, but you ought to tell your folks.”
I kept silent on that point and we drove on into the night with more country music wailing away as we went. I have to say Walt was very kind and considerate and concerned about me doing the right thing. He told me he had a son who was hard to handle and it was problem and his wife had passed a few years earlier. He told me life on the road, hauling goods across America was the only life for him. He liked the freedom and the control of the work. He would make 2 or 3 cross-country runs and take one or two weeks off, go fishing, hang out at honkytonks, catch up with a lady or two in some lost town along the highway. Yes, Walt was old guy and I enjoyed every part of that truck-driving experience except the lecturing on going back home and starting over.
Johnny Cash was singing, “Ring of Fire” concerning certain passions a man and woman face. Loretta Lynn sang, “The Other Woman” talking about who was first to cheat on who, and Buck Owens singing, “Act Naturally” regarding becoming a big star and acting naturally.
Sometimes when Walt ran out of country stations, he would flip on a pop station and something weird would come on like Lesley Gore singing “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I want to”. It was all good…..as Mr. Dylan was to say many years later.
We hauled down different roads, some back country, some major highways, winging our way to St. Louis. We went through Knoxville, down to Nashville and up to St. Louis and Walt let me out on a not so lonely road just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. He left me off, wished me well and turned to go back towards the western side of St. Louis where his cargo was supposed to go.
Just before letting off, he said, “You headed West now, son. If you keep going you’ll make it to California.”
I was making progress. I waved goodbye And wished him well, and assumed my best hitch-hiking position at 4 pm. I was almost halfway out West. I was at the great gateway to the West. This just could work, I thought.
I caught a few short rides in the direction of Springfield, Missouri. None took me very far, about 20, 30 miles at a time. It was getting dark and noticed a sign for a local motel with a restaurant next door that said “Good eats”. Luckily, the motel had a room and the eats was good. It was nice to sit down and have real meal. It seemed I was in a dry county, so my thirst for beer was not slaked. That said, I had a good night’s sleep, got up the next day with a whole new attitude, took a shower, had eggs over medium, sausage, grits and biscuits and headed out on the great highway of life, thinking, yeah, this just might work.
Not long afterward, I got a ride to the other side of Joplin Missouri and then, a little later, after exercising my best thumb action, I got the last ride to California. And what a ride it was. A seedy looking man in a big Chevy pulled off the road. I came running and he said, “Where you headed?”
“Malibu Beach, California,” I said.
By that time I had decided that Malibu was my official destination. There were so many choices open to a young enterprising man…surfer dude, actor, screen writer, novelist, busboy. The future was wide open, as Tom Petty was to sing many decades later.
“You are in luck, I can get you to San Diego.”
I hopped in, throwing my duffel bag in the back. I noticed that the center of the front seat was occupied by maps, a lunch box and a very large Thermos jug. This was good, in case the guy wanted to press his intentions on me, I had some obstacles in the way.
But, I had nothing to worry about. The gentleman turned out to be a sleep-deprived short order cook. Hence the large thermos, which I learned was filled, as it should be, with coffee. He had shaggy black/gray short hair, a stubble beard and deep-sunken eyes. If I did not know better, he looked like he might have been wandering around the Bowery after two or three weeks on a Ripple wine diet. But, in truth, he turned out to be a reformed alcoholic who had substituted his consumption of alcohol with his consumption of coffee.
Cooking eggs and sausage quick was his game and by the time we crossed the great plains of Kansas and Oklahoma, I had learned everything one needed to know about short order cooking.
“It’s hard work, it’s hot work. You are standing over a hot stove for hours, it’s sweaty and you drink gallons of water…when I was younger I used to drink gallons of beer, but I gave all that up…no more alcohol for me…you got to work fast if you are a short order cook because them orders keep coming, but it is good-paying work. It’s much better than bussing or waiting.”
This was probably more information than I needed to know, but he was in a talking mood and I guessed that was the real reason he picked me up. I quickly understood that listening was part of the price of getting a ride from Joplin, Missouri to San Diego, so I listened along and tried to be as respectful as I could. He also shared everything about the short order cooking trade. His employer was Howard Johnson’s, which, at the time, was the most successful motel/hotel chain in the U.S. He was coming from Wooster, Mass and he already was suffering from acute lack of sleep.
“I got to have someone to keep me awake,” and that also was part of the price of a free ride from Joplin, Missouri to San Diego. That was OK. I understood my mission and I soon found out that Burt was on his own mission.
“Why you headed to San Diego?” I naively asked. Almost immediately, I came to regret my question.
“I am going to pick up my son…the sonuva bitch ran out of money.”
I had a sense of future Deja Vu. Was that to be my fate?
“Why you headed out to Malibu?” he asked.
I pondered the question and came to the conclusion that a little creative fibbing was in order.
“I got a job waiting for me in Malibu. I am going to spend the summer with some friends out there and they got me lined up to be a busboy in big Malibu restaurant.”
“Ever been a busboy?” he asked, looking a little dubious at me with his deep sunk eyes.
“No,” I answered truthfully.
“It’s a shit job kid. You are the bottom of the bottom…you will be lucky if them waitresses share some tips with you. Most likely, they going shit all over you and give you nothing…no nooky, no money…not a goddamn dime.”
His eyes began to droop with tiredness and the car began to swerve, which is not a good thing when you are careening along in a big Chevy at 60 or 70 miles per hour. It must be remembered that at that time, American cars were not known for their tight steering controls. Driving a Chevy was more like driving a big boat…you kind of naturally swerved and that swerving was not helped by the fact that his sunken eyes were almost fully closed.
“Sir,” I said loudly, not knowing what else to call him, “you are falling asleep.”
That’s when he told me his name was Burt.
“Burt Tampone is the name.”
“Nice to know you Burt, my name is Cecil Hoge.”
“What kind of name is that,” He asked, now keeping careening to a minimum. I was happy to try and keep Burt awake and give him some family history…how my father’s name was Cecil and that was because my grandmother’s name was Cecile and how our family name came about. I even recited the little ditty my father had told me.
“Hog by name, hog by nature, changed to Hoge by legislature.”
I am guessing that Burt was beginning to think he was not on a need to know basis, but he took in my explanation fairly seamlessly and he kept driving, his eyes now open most of the time. And we kept plowing along down the road.
Most of the time, Burt kept the radio off. But every hour or so, he would check in on the news. The radio was talking about a mysterious airplane crash of DC-7 that went down in the Pacific Ocean somewhere off of British Columbia. Apparently, 101 people were lost. Most of the news was U.S. based, but even careening down that road there was talk of John Profuma, the British Minister, resigning because an affair with a young lady named Christine Keeler.
It seemed that Christine was a sexually active lady and she had also found favor with a Russian spy pumping her in more ways than one for info on her British boyfriend. And then there was the story about George Wallace trying to prevent blacks from enrolling in The University of Alabama. Apparently, the Governor thought that was against some cherished Southern tradition and I suppose it was. And then there was the story of two Russkis returning from space.
Occasionally, Burt would leave the news on for a little bit longer and some music would come on. That was a relief for me. On one of those occasions, “Please. please me” by the Beatles came on. It was not the deepest song every written, but it was a wonderfully vibrant and catchy tune.
As I soon came to learn, Burt’s mission to get to San Diego, was time sensitive. Apparently, his son’s money problems were rather dire, having just broken up with his wife, having been kicked out of his wife’s house, having almost zero money and presently living in some public park in San Diego. For this reason, Burt was planning not to sleep at all, except for an hour or two, when we would pull off the road just before falling asleep for the fifth time.
I became so concerned several times that I simply suggested he pull over while we both napped for an hour or two, for which he was only too happy to comply.
And sure enough, after a one or two hour nap we were wailing down the highway again, passing through Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, vast empty spaces, Amarillo, Texas and onward West. The trek across Texas is only recommended for the hardy. The miles flew by as we sped West, stopping only for some sandwiches and thermos fill ups and coke for me. We made ample progress and we did not stop when the sun went down, but kept going and going, with only an occasional stop for coffee, cokes and sandwiches. The only downside was that it was pretty hard to get any radio stations as we passed by some of the great stretches of road in Texas.
Two days of stubble adorned his face. He told me long stories of early hard-drinking days and how he had put that behind him. Burt said he used to drink 3 six packs of beer a day, but no longer.
It took us two full days to get to San Diego. Burt left me off at a Trailways Bus Terminal somewhere near the center of San Diego around 11 one morning. The sun was shining as it was supposed to in Sunny California. This made my life simple. I went into the terminal, chowed down on burger and fries, checked the bus schedule and got onto a bus heading past Malibu, my intended destination.
Seated next to me was a friendly looking young girl, seventeen or eighteen. On the way up the coast I got to talking with her and pretty soon I found myself getting friendly. It seemed we both had some things in common – the most being she was a girl who liked boys and I was a guy who liked girls. She had just finished high school and was planning to go to college. I had just flunked out of college and could tell her all the things to avoid…like classes. That led to a conversation about how much fun college was and the fact that I had just flunked out and that I was going to find fame and fortune in California.
Sally, that was her name, was heading further up the coast to a small town a couple of hundred miles above Malibu. One thing led to another and pretty soon we were making out. Happily, she brought along a blanket that was perfect for hanky panky. And so up the coast we sped, curving and swerving our way up old Route #1.
I was enthralled and when the bus driver called out Malibu, some hours later, I stayed on the bus. The bus driver called out Malibu again, muttering “I could have sworn someone was going to Malibu”. But, I stayed on the bus.
It was about two hours or so later when Sally suggested I come back to her home and meet her parents. Her home was only two more stops up Route #1. That sounded a little too serious to me. I decided that maybe love was not the answer. Shortly thereafter, I got off the bus promising to write her and hook up with her later that summer. That promise might have been fulfilled if I had gotten her last name and address. As it was, it turned out to be a short romance.
I got off the bus about 140 miles past my intended destination, went into the Trailways Bus Station and bought myself a bus ticket back down to Malibu Beach. About 5 hours later (two in the bus terminal, three on the bus), I got off in glorious Malibu.
It was not what I expected. Coming from the East Coast and used to the beautiful scenic beaches of the Hamptons, I was shocked to see that there was a major highway running right along the Pacific Ocean. More than that there were all these small beach houses and motels and gas stations and traffic lights and traffic. That was the biggest surprise. There was a lot of traffic going up and down the highway. And the traffic was not moving that fast in either direction. It was all a stop and go mess.
It was not the secluded and elegant houses that I was used to with huge “cottages” surrounded beaches by high green hedges. In fact, there seemed to be no green at all. The mountains and hills that ringed the coast were high, sharp, brown and sandy. Where was the surfin’ safari, I wondered? In truth, I could see it right across the street. Because on the other side of the highway was the beach and blue ocean water of the Pacific with surfers, catching waves and some paddling out through waves, some out beyond the break, bobbing up and down, waiting for waves.
Yes, I was in the right place, but I felt lonely and homesick.
I started walking the highway in search of a place to stay. Before going further I probably should enlighten you about my financial situation. I had started off with what I thought was a King’s ransom – $127. It turned out even cokes and burgers in the 60s cost something and in just the three and half days I had taken to hitch-hike out to California, somehow I had spent $43. That left me with $84. I was still good, but obviously I was going to have find a place to stay and obviously I would have to eat.
Not far down the road was a motel on the right side of the road. I went in and talked to a big man behind the counter who had a surprisingly gentle and flighty voice. Rooms were $27. a night. Not bad, considering that the motel was just across the street from the ocean, although crossing the street seemed decidedly hazardous. I secured a room for the night, told the big man I was looking to find a job fast and asked if he knew anyplace looking for eager young workers. He suggested that maybe the restaurant across the street had something.
I took the key, carried my dufflebag back to my room and got myself organized to go look for a job. A shower, a shave and a change of clothes did wonders. By this time it was about five in the afternoon and the traffic going up and the down the coast kept up a steady hum. This California living, I thought, was mighty busy.
Re-invigorated I walked down to the restaurant to see what were the chances of getting a job…quick. This restaurant was on the ocean side of the highway which meant that I had to negotiate the traffic. That was made easier by the convenient placement of a traffic light just past the restaurant. The manager of the restaurant seemed decidedly upbeat. Yes, they did hire help and the summer high season was coming on so no doubt they would need someone soon. Maybe I could get a job as a busboy. I should stop by in a day or so and see if they were ready to pull the trigger on a new hire.
That was encouraging. So I went back to the motel room and had nice long satisfying sleep. The next day it was sunny, as I gather was the norm. I walked along the Highway for a few block and found a seedy looking Cafe and had a greasy egg breakfast with some hot, strong coffee. Afterward, I walked back toward the motel and then walked across the street to see the Pacific Ocean and fantastic Malibu Beach.
To my surprise, access to the fabulous and fantastic Malibu Beach was not that easy. I had to walk several blocks to find an actual access point to the beach. No matter, in a few minutes I was out on the great sandy beach that California was so famous for. I was surprised by a lot of things. One was the fact that the beach seemed to have a lot of people on it. That was not surprising considering that it was a perfectly beautiful day in the low 80s. I guess I had gotten the mistaken idea that Malibu was this open, wild and secluded beach where the mountains met the sea.
I was right about the mountains (well, maybe they were hills) meeting the sea. Otherwise the scene was far different from what I imagined. Lots of people walking and sitting and sunning themselves on the beach. Surfers, just as I imagined hanging out in clusters just beyond the surf break…some waiting for the right wave, some paddling through the surf, some actually catching waves, but even the ocean was more crowded than I thought with surfers seemingly fighting for a good position to catch a wave.
There was a big pier not far from where I walked onto the beach. It looked big and ugly, as if it should not really be there. But there it was and I can verify that because I walked down to it, found away up to a wooden boardwalk and walked out over the ocean. Along the pier, the further I got out there lots of fishermen, also seemingly fighting for a position to fish in the ocean. It all seemed kind of industrial and seedy to me, not like the scenic rock piers jutting out into to the ocean by Shinnecock Inlet in Southampton.
What also surprised me was how close the houses were to each other and how close they were to the ocean itself. It seemed to me that the natural beauty of the beach had been lost. No matter, fate had decided that I was not to stay in Malibu long.
As I walked along the beach, there were couples and groups lying down or sitting on the beach, usually with a transistor radio cranking out some music. And of course, the music of the time was playing. It being California, I heard plenty of Beach Boys tunes, including, of course, “Surfin’ Safari”. Other tunes of the time were blaring out of different radios. As you walked down the beach different tunes would rise up in your ears, only to fade away as walked on by.
That afternoon, I walked back by the restaurant to see if my job prospects had gotten any better. This time the manager seemed a little put out.
“Give it some time, kid, I said we might have something in a few days. 24 hours is not a few days.” he said.
I tied to express my best bus boy interest without seeming desperate. I got the feeling that my efforts to appear professional and somewhat disinterested did not quite come off.
When I got back to the room, I checked my resources. Somehow I was down to $36. It seemed that my daily expenses were evaporating before my very eyes. I tried to figure out how the money seemed to be leaking from pants, but I could not come up with an exact reason, although I was beginning to realize that if you try to eat three meals a day and pay for a motel room, money disappears surprisingly fast.
From there things went downhill fast. The motel manager told me he had a room for that night, which I boldly paid for, leaving me $9 of remaining capital. Things were getting serious. My California Dream was just not working out. I tried to get by as best I could. The motel manager said I could stay with him one night.
By this time, I was already getting suspicious.
“Well, I suppose you could stay with me,” he had said. I could tell from the tone of his voice that he seemed overly eager to help me. I asked to see where I might be staying.
“I got this really big bed. I promise to stay on my side.”
That did not sound promising.
He showed me the bed and yes, it was big, but he was also a big guy. I figured two “me too” moments in week was too much and I politely turned him down.
He offered me a second alternative, which was to sleep the next night in the laundry room. And that is the alternative I took.
But first I had a real run-in with the truth and I asked to make a collect call to my parents. It was humiliating, but given the circumstances, it seemed like my best solution. Strangely, they were happy to hear from me. It seemed that they were glad to know that I was still alive. When I told my father that I was in a bind in Malibu, he offered to wire some money the next day and get me an air ticket home. It was all very humiliating, but staying in Malibu was getting pretty stale.
So I ended spending one comfortable night in my own room and a considerably less comfortable night on a cot in the laundry room. The next day I went down to Western Union and collected $50 cash. And the day after that, after tossing and turning the night on a cot in the laundry room, I took a cab to the airport where my airline ticket was waiting for me. I had crashed and burned, but at least I had found a way out.
And that was the end of my West Coast adventure. In almost no time, I was back in New York, comfortably housed in my parents summer house in Southampton.
This of course led to a new crisis. What to do with the rest of my life? I decided I better give college a second try. This caused me to review the damage I had already caused my scholastic career. I decided the best way to get back into Mr. Jefferson’s University was to take a correspondence course in American History. American History was a requirement of The University and in my second year, I managed to fail Russian History, which I had taken on a whim. I really liked that course, but attendance in Russian History conflicted seriously with attendance at the Cavalier (the local pub of distinction), not to mention fraternity parties, which generally accounted for 5 days a week.
But no matter, I was back on the East Coast, back in Southampton, reorganizing my life for an ideal college career. I signed up for the American History course and took a job with Betty’s Taxi. This proved to be an ideal opportunity to meet weird people and to brush up on my American history. That was because, at Betty’s Taxi, you often had to wait one or two hours for a call to come in for a cab and, even then, you were not necessarily chosen because there were 3 drivers to choose from…Thomas Jefferson, Claude Haines and me.
I have written about my Betty’s Taxi experience in another blog story in Tangled Tales called “I Am Sorry About Thomas Jefferson”, so I will not go into all the details. Should you feel the desire to learn more, please check out that story. I will only say that the interludes between driving strange people to various parts of The Hamptons offered ample opportunity to take my American History correspondence course and still left my evenings free to peruse the pleasures of the Hamptons in the 60s.
In no time, the summer passed pleasantly and I found that not only did I have many eclectic driving experiences running people around the Hamptons, I successfully completed my correspondence course and even got an A- in the process. It is simply amazing what you can do if you apply yourself.
As my parents house rental was being closed up for the summer, I had no choice but to go to New York City and live with my parents at 330 East 63rd Street. Now, even though I had successfully passed my correspondence course, that was not enough to get back into the University of Virginia. They had higher standards and they informed me that having passed my course they would let me go to The University the next summer and take some more courses. And if I passed those courses, then I could go back as a full-time student the following Fall.
So, now I had a plan to get back in, but I still had to find something to do the fall, the winter and spring. That led me to getting a job as a mailboy at Nabisco. The mailroom, as you may know, has been the starting place of many a company man and surely if I kept at it, I could rise up the corporate ladder of The National Biscuit Company. The thing was, the person in the human resources department, recognized that I was a short-timer. I could tell she had a gut feeling I would return to college.
I tried to lie about it, but the lady was rather attractive and in end the I blabbed the truth and told her the whole story about flunking out, hitchhiking to California, working for Betty’s Taxi and taking an American History correspondence course. I even blabbed my improbable plan to get back in college. I assured her that it was unlikely my plan would work and if not, I would be the best damn mailboy they ever hired and in short order work my way up the corporate ladder and become a Cookie CEO in the years to come.
I am pretty sure she didn’t believe my Nabisco dreams, but she hired me anyway and this gave me an interesting experience in the drab corporate world of Cookie sales. Learning the trade consisted of being in the mailroom located in the basement of the building with about sixteen other incompetents. We would chat and shout at one another and sort mail first by categories. Once we got the mail in a bunch of different bins, each signifying a department or a floor, we would then put the bin in a shopping cart. The bin had little folders, each subdivided into letters and envelopes, by either name, department or floor. We would take our shopping cart full of letters, envelopes and packages to the different floors or, if it was big enough, a different department.
I was assigned the fourth floor. So I would take my cart up to the fourth floor and I would wander around, trying to figure out who got what. At first, I blundered around a lot, but as I got to know “my route” I became more familiar with who was on the fourth floor. And most of the time, most of the people of the fourth floor got most of the mail. Occasionally, there would be a little mishap, like a letter falling on the floor while I was trying to chat up some of the younger and prettier secretaries. The mishap might mean that an envelope to two was lost for a day or two, or a week or two and just plain lost forever. Despite all, after a time, I became a pretty decent mailboy and pretty soon the fall of 1963 became the winter and spring of 1964.
Work during the day did not mean that there was no play during the evening. And so on evenings, I would go out with my rich buddies and we would hit the big city discotheques, jazz clubs and bars. Unfortunately, even though my income at Nabisco brought me in about $60. a week, money for nighttime activities was limited, considering I was contributing money each month to my parents (it was thought this would improve my character) and because drinks at L’Interdit, a hot discotheque of the time, charged about $4 or $5 a drink even in the lowly 60s. That meant that the money I had for palling around with rich kids was limited.
One of the things I also did around that time, was introduce myself to Mr. Bob Dylan. Not in person, of course…what I am talking is getting to know something about this new young guy who had voice that sounded like a croaking frog. So I bought “Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan”, an album released earlier the year before. After getting through the croaking frog voice, I realized that Bob had something to say and it came to me that this young man was talking directly to me. What I guessed I liked about Mr. Dylan was that his music made me kind of uneasy. It was as if he was channeling some kind of skill that mixed folk music with prophecy. I remember a particular song called, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. Bob’s message was a little different from the Surfin Safaris.
And almost immediately after hearing that song, a truly sad event occurred, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, at 12:30 pm in Dallas, Texas President John F. Kennedy was shot. They say that everyone remembers where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and I am an example of that being true. I was rolling around a mail cart on the fourth floor of the Nabisco building around 3:30 pm East Coast Time, when my supervisor came up and tapped me on the shoulder.
“The President has been shot. Everyone is being sent home.” he said.
At that moment it was not known what the Presidents condition was. I tried to ask my supervisor what he knew but he didn’t know anything other than his superiors had told him, that the President had been shot and everyone was to be sent home for the day.
I did not argue. Nabisco’s offices were located at 425 Park Avenue between 54th and 55th Street, a short walk to where my parents were living so I walked over to my parents apartment and sat myself down in front of the TV. My parents were not yet home so I had a good long time to immerse myself in TV.
I remember the apartment seemed particularly dark and lonely that day. The apartment itself, with two bedrooms and a fairly decent sized living room and was never that bright to begin with, but on this somber day, it seemed particularly dreary, dark and desolate. I flipped through the channels watching Ed Silverman and Ron Cochron of ABC, Chet Huntley of NBC, Walter Cronkite of CBS try to explain the horrific event that had just occurred.
In between viewing the TV explanations of the assassination of President, I would periodically turn off the TV set and turn on the record player and listen in particular to Mr. Dylan’s song, “A Hard Rain’s is a-Gonna fall”. It seemed to me that Bob had almost predicted our Good President’s assassination.
Within five minutes of me turning on the TV again, it was announced that John F. Kennedy had died from gunshot wounds. This was unthinkable to me…a 21 year old college flunky. I may have been kicked out of college, but I was basically optimistic about pretty much everything, and I was particularly optimistic about John F. Kennedy. He was older than me, but he seemed young and fresh and he had this aura of youth and invincibility and optimism about him.
“Ask not what your country can do for you,” he famously said when being sworn in, “ask what you can do for your country.”
At the time, I had the feeling that he was going to solve all of America’s problems. He was going to bring us together. He was going to heal us and he was going to be a great President.
And in truth, he had already done that when he led us through the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was a strange and terrifying time…a time when nuclear war seemed not only possible, but likely. I wrote about those 3 days in Volume #2 of It Was The Music and it was a scary time, when the world seemed on the brink of total destruction. There are no words to describe what those 3 days actually felt like. They were tense…tense like you are in a room and a guy has a gun and he is waving it at you and there is no place to hide. And Kennedy brought us safely through those few days and we had emerged with greater hope and a greater belief in the future.
All of America was shattered by the assassination on November 23, 1963. Suddenly, it was apparent that even the good can die. Suddenly, it was apparent that life takes unexpected turns. Suddenly, we knew chance played as big a role in the future as ability and youth. Suddenly, the optimism and hope of that brief Presidency was obliterated and we were left with sad and somber pictures of Jackie Kennedy hanging on tearfully to Lyndon Johnson while the new Prsident was sworn in. It was a tragic moment.
Like all terrible events that involve loss and despair after some months it subsided. But the feelings about it did not, they were always there. This new knowledge that something can go wrong, that the best of us can be destroyed was a new feeling that took literally years to subside.
Nabisco, aka, The National Biscuit Company, gave all of us a three day paid holiday to recover from JFK’s death. It was not enough, but it was well appreciated and for the next few days we all watched TV as the transition of power took place, and the funeral procession as it made its way from the Capital to the White House. We watched Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and other news people speak muffled words, trying to make some sense of it, trying to grab some meaning from a sad event that seemed impossible to conceive.
For me, at age 21, it was just impossible to understand. It just never occurred to me that a President of the United States, especially a young man, seemingly in the prime of his life, could ever be assassinated. Through the TV, I learned that 3 other Presidents had been assassinated. Of course, as mentioned above, I had just completed a course in American history and I had read just weeks earlier that Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley had been assassinated. But that was in a history book. Now I was watching it on TV and that experience of seeing the funeral on TV gave the word assassination and the event of John F. Kennedy’s death a special meaning.
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the whole nation mourned the death of the President and that the whole nation, be they Democrat or Republican, came together to watch and mourn the death of our young President. Truly, it was a time when the whole country was shaken by an event that both sad and profound.
I went back to work, as did the rest of the country, and we all kind of started up again. This time with a new consciousness, a new sensibility, a new sense that you cannot control fate. The transition was relatively smooth with Lyndon Johnson, struggling at first like the rest of us, taking up his new position and of gradually leading the country on. Where we went is also history. Johnson went on to propose a War Against Poverty and to expand our involvement in Vietnam.
Me, I spent the remaining fall and winter working and going out with friends in New York City, exploring, drinking, having a basically carefree life, since I knew my job was temporary. The money I was giving my parents, which was token in itself, still left me with some actual cash to burn and burn it I did with my friends…in bars, in restaurants, in discotheques. It was an exciting time to run around as a young man in New York.
The fall of 1963 became the winter of 1964 which in turn became the spring of 1964.
Douglas MacArthur died that year. He had famously promised to return when he had been kicked out of Korea. He was about as famous a general that existed at that time. The Beatles invasion of America came into full bloom and the Ford Car Company introduced the Mustang convertible. As I remember, gas was around $.25 per gallon and the Mustang cost just $2,368. That virtuous combination resulted in an explosion of Mustang sales.
I continued as mailboy up until the end of May. I was a pretty damn good mailboy, if I say so myself. And I had a heck of a good time gallivanting all over the city at night.
Pretty soon, I was back in Charlottesville, suffering through the already steaming summer temperatures. My father, who had also attended the University of Virginia, offered me the advice that he had received down there from an elderly black gentleman.
“Walk a little slower.”
And it seemed to me that everybody in Charlottesville took that advice. In fact, I often had the impression that I was walking through a thick, warm soup during that summer. One had the feeling of sleep-walking in slow motion.
Back in Charlottesville, knowledge of new music from England had taken hold. While the Beatles were singing about “A Hard Day’s Night”, the Rolling Stones had just come on to the scene with songs like “It’s All Over Now”. They seemed to be the polar opposite of the Beatles and they had a raw, new world sound that seemed to fit the new times that we were in.
At this early date, I could only think of The Stones as fascinating barbarians with a raw, down to earth sound. They had nasty long hair and they looked considerably shabbier than the Beatles. But music has a way of changing a person’s mind and that was the case with the Rolling Stones. At first I thought of them as this really nasty band that somehow had created some great sounding songs. I was sure that they were a one shot mistake, but as time went on, they came to be my absolute favorite band.
Back in Charlottesville, I fell into the slow swim of school and, unlike the my last previous year at the university, I took my courses seriously.
I took three courses, geometry, which I had previously failed and needed to get back in, geology, which I also needed, and English literature which I had also previously failed. Here I must defend myself. I did not fail that course because I did not know English literature. No, not at all, I was quite proficient in English literature and had even read many of the prescribed books. It is just that teachers are not in the habit of passing students that do not take the trouble to take their final exams. And unfortunately, I had scheduled a particularly good road trip before I was to take the above mentioned exam, and, as sometimes happened, fate intervened and prevented me from returning in time to take that final exam. I could blame it on a car breakdown that did slow my return, but a fearful hangover also had an influence on my absence.
No matter, I did much better the second time around. I did take the summer school final exam for English literature, Geology and Geometry. By the end of the summer I had completed and passed all three courses with two B+s and an A-. The A- was in English literature, proving the second time around is the trick. With these blisteringly fine grades, I was actually now able to get re-instated as a full-time student at the University of Virginia. In short, I was back on track.
There was only one problem with that. By the time I got these good grades and the University officially recognized those grades, they told me I was too late to get back in that fall. That meant, I had to wait out the fall, winter and summer to officially re-enroll.
This of course was a disappointment but I was always a late bloomer, so I took the news in stride. What did I do? I immediately headed up to Southampton and spent the waning days on the beach, surfing, playing tennis during the day, partying and dining out during the night. In short, I had blast for a few weeks before the shocking news settled in that I would have to find a job.
I called up my buddy Merrill Magowan and asked him to get me a job at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith, which was what it was called then. Since Merrill was the grandson of Charles E. Merrill, the founder, I figured he could help me out getting a job. Now this is the same Merrill Magowan whose car I smashed into coming back from Charlotte Ford’s debutante party. Now Merrill always seemed pretty cool and friendly after that in spite of the fact that I had destroyed his car and ruined his golf date the next day.
In any case, when I got Merrill on the phone, he did not sound too enthusiastic about the prospect of recommending me to his famous company. Despite that, he said he would put in a word at the “HR Department”. I let him know that any help he could give would be greatly appreciated. He asked me to call in a few days. And I did and the HR Department told me to come down to their offices on Wall Street and fill out the appropriate employee application.
I told them I had been kicked of college (which was true) and that I wanted to set my life on a new career course (which was half true) and that I planned to work for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith for the rest of my life (which was not true).
The skeptical lady said the only job she could offer me was a job in the Proxy Department. She didn’t think it was the greatest job but I said I had to start somewhere and maybe in time I could work my way up the great corporate ladder. I had no idea what the Proxy Department was, but I took the job. She said that was the only opening that she felt she could assign me to at that time.
I was very grateful and asked the lady what the Proxy Department did. “It’s where they count the votes of stockholders.” That didn’t quite clear it up for me but I took the job anyway and started my job as a “proxy supervisor”. It sounded very important to me but it turned out that the title was somewhat misleading. The manager of the Proxy Department was more skeptical that I was a long-term employee prospect.
“I know what you are going to do,” he said, “after 12 months you are going to scoot your way back to college.”
Since I was already enrolled to go back to college, I thought I had come across some kind of corporate prophet. I tried to lie my way out of his prediction and said that it was my dream to become a Merrill Lynch man for the rest of my life.
“Fat chance,” said Charles, the Proxy Department manager, “Anyway, Steven will teach you the ropes.”
Steven turned out to be this really great guy with an Irish boiled red face and a broad smile. He took me under his wings and in no time I was counting paper ballots with the best of them. It turned out that “proxy supervisor” was a glorified term for paper stock ballot counter. The job basically consisted of opening envelopes, stacking ballots and then counting them by hand. High tech it was not.
There were computers in those early days, but they were reserved for more important work, like figuring out paychecks and keeping track of stock prices. Merrill Lynch had rooms filled with these giant computers, but even that entailed a certain amount of manual labor. People seemed to take stacks of what looked like 3″ high x 9″ long cards with a lot of holes and perforations in them from one end these giant box computers and move them to the other end where they seemed to be eaten by the computer. What happened thereafter I will never know.
Anyway, within a few weeks I was getting the hang of proxy game and me and my fellow employees would go out for lunch for drinks. Whether we went for lunch or for drinks after work, it usually amounted to same thing – drinks. We tried all the local hot spots…The Blarney Stone, a really seedy Irish bar that Steven favored because hot corn beef sandwiches came free with the beers, to some trendy bars/lunch places, to some high-end places such as Delmonico’s (that was my idea, having heard from rich kid friends it was the place to have lunch or dinner when on Wall Street). We even occasionally visited Fraunces Tavern where old George Washington once held court.
In short, I quickly acquired a lay of the land and while working was kind of a drag, gallivanting around the Wall Street area was a gas. The pay at Merrill Lunch was somewhat better than my pay at Nabisco, so now I could contribute more at home, and certainly I had more money enjoy my evenings in the city.
It turned out that Steven Donahue (that was his last name) was a truly fun guy who had a serious taste for booze. He would regularly knock back three or four beers at lunch and an uncountable quantity drinks and beers after work. He lived in New Jersey which meant he had to take a number subways and trains to get to work. Speaking of that, I also had to contend with transportation issues, experimenting with subways (always standing room only, but fast), buses (standing only with a view of daylight between buildings, but slow) and taxis (exceedingly pleasant, but often, also slow).
The previous summer, the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred where Communist boats supposedly attacked U.S. ships and Congress had given had given President Johnson additional powers to expand our involvement in Vietnam.
I did not pay too much attention to that as I was too busy finishing up summer school.
By the spring of 1965 many things were happening in the country. The Vietnam War really started to heat up. In 1964 136 Americans had died in the Vietnam War. In February of 1965 we began launching air strikes on North Vietnam in earnest. By April, it was reported that we were regularly using napalm on the “Viet Cong”. By that time, young people were beginning to protest our involvement in Vietnam.
By June, American soldiers were officially authorized to fight alongside of their Vietnamese counterparts – it seemed the South Vietnamese soldiers lacked good old American discipline and get up & go. Surely, our boys would soon turn round the dismal performance of the South Vietnamese soldiers.
It was then that a strange event interceded with all my plans. Guess what came in the mail…a draft notice. This was a surprise since I was scheduled to go back to college in just a few months and college students were generally not called up for the draft.
It turned out that my case had fallen through the cracks, you might say. Sure I was scheduled to become a college student, but I wasn’t one yet. Hence, I was fully eligible for the draft. There was a lot of excitement then, many young people were fleeing to Canada to escape the draft. And, many were burning draft cards. Not me. I was horrified by the increasing daily death count in Vietnam that was being reported on TV each day. You could say that I thought that our involvement in Vietnam was a profound mistake, but that did not mean I was going to burn my draft card.
Given the fact that I did not plan to go to Canada or burn my draft card, I went down to 39 Whitehall Street, which was as depressing a building as you can imagine. It was gray and drab and a big box of place with many floors and many doors. This building was later made famous by Arlo Guthrie’s song, “Alice’s Restaurant”. That song turned out to be a pretty exact description of my own experiences down on Whitehall Street.
I went into that building, showed my draft card and my draft notice and was sent to a line after which I was sent to another line, after which I was asked to go upstairs and get on another line, after which, I was sent to yet another line, and another. After which I was asked to go downstairs, take off my clothes and get on yet another line holding my clothes, after which I was poked, prodded, inspected and injected, just as Arlo’s song says.
All of this took 5 and half hours, with multiple trips up and down stairs. At the end, when I got into what seemed like the last line, a doctor put on a surgical glove and poked me a sensitive part of my anatomy and said, “Cough.”
I coughed and he said, “You got a hernia kid. You need to get that fixed one day. It is not a problem just now, but you should get fixed someday…you don’t want a hernia in your 60s or 70s.” I was then sent over to, you may have guessed, The Group W Bench and there I sat for another two hours until somebody said all of us reprobates could go home.
I always wondered if that doctor took pity on me or if he really thought I had a hernia.
I did not go to another doctor until some years later who said I did have hernia and that I probably should get it taken care before it got serious. And yes, eventually, about ten years later I did.
So, how did I feel after going down to the Whitehall Street building? Well, fortunately, around that time there was a song that kind of captured my sentiments about the Whitehall building.
In the meantime, I had escaped the draft with no deliberate intention to do so. It seemed I was not fated to go to Vietnam. Surely, my life would have been different if I had gone. Maybe better, maybe worse. I went back to the University of Virginia and eventually graduated. But that is another story and probably soon to be the subject of “It Was The Music – Volume #4”.
I thoroughly enjoyed your story. I had no idea you were almost drafted and saved by of all things, a hernia. I’m extremely glad your name is not among others etched forever on the Vietnam Memorial.
By the way, I loved the musical selections.