A remembrance of the Sumer of '69
(Written September, 2001; updated August, 2019)
(Dedicated to my friend, John Davis, who unwittingly supplied the title.)

(The Usual Suspects. I'm seated, foreground.)

In the summer of 1969, I graduated high school in Virginia. Some friends and I planned a cross-country camping trip to celebrate our brief span of freedom before we entered college. We plotted our westward route, mapped out our itinerary, and bought a load of camping gear. And drugs. Plenty of drugs. Someone’s folks kicked in a gasoline credit card; someone else’s supplied us with a 1965 Chevelle; my own mother supplied a ton of canned food—and we were off on our great road trip adventure!

A good pal of ours had preceded us to California, to vacation with his rock star uncle-- John Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas. He gave us the address of his grandmother's house-- John's mom-- and urged us to come by and stay with him for a while. Chances were pretty good we'd all get to hang out with him at Uncle John's place, and maybe even see some rock musicians or movie stars. Well, yes, please! We'd enjoy the hell out of that! No matter what uncomfortable patch of ground we chose to pitch our tents on each night, no matter how unpleasant or nasty it got while we slept outdoors for the next couple of weeks, in the back of my mind was the thought: “Soon, we’ll be in California, and get to see famous people! How cool! Everyone'll be so jealous! ”

We drove; we camped. We slept in tents and in the car, on picnic tables and beneath trees. We wandered northward and then westward, and saw a good deal of the country-- stopping here to check out some weird, roadside attraction, there to visit family friends, elsewhere to swim in a dazzling lake. We built campfires, sang under the stars, stayed constantly stoned, ate and drank crappy, unwholesome food from jars and bags and bottles and cans, oblivious to calories or cholesterol. We pranked and razzed each other, met and flirted with strange girls, saw fabulous rock acts at the Atlantic City Pop Festival. We stumbled through alien, desert landscapes and amongst sometimes hostile or suspicious people. We alarmed an entire small town (Lake Guernsey, Wyoming) when, our 8-track car stereo blasting Led Zepellin's COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN at deafening volume, we drove up to a tiny laundromat to deal with a week's worth of our grimy, sweaty clothing. We surely looked like Huns to the locals.

We crossed into California the second week in August, by way of the Arizona desert very late at night. Our car wasn’t air conditioned, and the windows were rolled down, admitting a nonstop blast of hot, piñon scented desert air. Gnarly cacti loomed at the roadside; huge, frightened jackrabbits bounded across the highway, briefly and terrifyingly illuminated in our headlights. They'd appear suddenly, loom into view,and sometimes thud off the front fender. It was an extremely surreal landscape. We were also high as kites, as well as being amped up on sheer adrenaline and raw, teenage freedom. I think I maybe slept about 5 hours in the span of a couple of weeks. There was just too much fun to be had, and too much new, cool stuff to see and experience.

Having heard horror stories about being searched at the California border, we were steadfastly and cunningly determined to enter the state drug-free... which involved consuming everything still left on hand that particular evening. We gobbled and inhaled enormous quantities of assorted and illicit substances that we'd carefull hidden away in nooks and crannies of the trusty Chevelle-- and we then jittered and shuddered and jerked and giggled our way westward.

Our arrival at the Agricultural Inspection Station couldn't possibly have been any more anticlimactic. A tiny ranger who looked and sounded like the late Wally Cox listlessly inquired as to whether we had any plants, seeds, vegetables or fruit. When we responded in the negative, a languid wave of his hand indicated we were now free to enter the state of California. THAT'S IT?! I'd eaten three times my body weight in Mescaline... for this? Far out... As dawn approached, we finally arrived just outside Los Angeles. It was far, far too early to present ourselves on anyone’s doorstep, so we decided to sleep in the car for a while and proceed to where our friend was staying, later on, at a more decent hour. We pulled into a driveway behind an elementary school and settled down to sleep. Somehow, despite our advanced state of twitchiness, we achieved blessed unconsciousness... for a time.

The next thing we knew, someone was pounding on the car, shouting: “L.A.P.D.! COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP! POLICE! GET OUT OF THE CAR, NOW! LET'S GO! OUT! NOW! MOVE IT! ” There were three police cars surrounding us! As soon as we opened a door, we were rudely yanked from the car, squinting into the sunlight, jammed uncomfortably up against the school's wall or grotesquely bent over the hood of the car and roughly patted down. We're all half-asleep, confused, and thoroughly scared shitless-- although secure in the absolute knowledge that they weren't going to discover any illegal substances in the car. They spread our tents and sleeping bags around on the parking lot, opened the trunk, the glove compartment, and rummaged thru the layers of crap on the vehicle's floor that only teenage boys can manage to accumulate.

Canned goods rolled across the pavement. Everything was shaken, squeezed, peered at, prodded, sniffed and tossed from hand to hand. They took away our knives and piled them on the hood of the car. A couple of them tore through the Chevelle while the others kept us at bay. My pals were all military dependents. Their fathers were Army or Air Force officers, so in addition to their drivers’ licenses, they all had Government issued, military dependents' photo IDs. (These came in handy, as they allowed us to shop for groceries and cigarettes on military bases we passed-- though we did get a lot of hostile looks from the GI's.) I was from a civilian family, and was the only non-driver, so I had no ID at all, beyond a Social Security card. My mother -- prescient woman that she was -- took me to her bank prior to the trip and provided me with a notarized statement indicating that I was traveling with her knowledge and consent, and that I was not a runaway. "You might find yourself having to present some sort of identification somewhere out there, and this may help you avoid some trouble", she'd said. I offered it to the tall, skinny cop who was frisking me.

“What’ve we got?” asked another, older cop, who seemed to be the guy in charge.
Skinny said: “They’re all from... uh... Alexandria, Virginia, Sarge. That one’s an Officer’s son; so's that kid, and the one against the wall-- oooh! his old man’s a full, bird Colonel! Whattaya know?
Oh-- and this kid here (pointing to me) he’s got...… (squinting at the paper) what the hell…? He actually has a note from his mommy! Ahahahaaaaa!

(Dramatic recreation of my humiliation)

There was general hooting, snickering, and much merriment as my face turned red. The upshot of all this was that... well, we hadn’t done anything wrong, and weren’t being arrested or charged with anything. They’d just rousted us to see who the hell we were, apparently. They blustered and postured and told us to move along. We gathered up all our scattered belongings, dumped them back in the ransacked car and drove on toward our destination. About seven minutes down the road, a police car pulled in behind us, with lights and siren going. We pulled over, and an officer approached the car.

“What the hell’s going on?” my friend Peter whispered to the rest of us.
The cop asked him for his license and registration, and had us all get out of the car and raise our hands. His partner joined him and looked through the car. We were all asked for identification. “I have a note from my Mom,” I volunteered. Nobody seemed amused by that. After a pretty thorough examination of our car and ourselves, and some radioing back and forth, we were eventually dismissed. They'd taken our knives, and then returned them. Several blocks further on, another police car pulled us over.

As we were once again asked to step out of the car, I sputtered: “Don’t you guys talk to each other? This is the third time for this. We haven’t done anything wrong since y’all stopped us the last time, a few blocks south! Really, we haven't! ” This cop gave me a look like he wanted to backhand me from one curb to the next. “You-- show me some I.D.!” he barked. “Oh, for God's sake, man... IT’S STILL US!” I said, handing over the by now much-examined note from my mom...

Thanks to my petulant outburst we were detained for a while as they went slowly and deliberately through every square inch of the car and our persons. There was a lot of poking about in our gear as they examined our clothing, tents, sleeping bags, canned goods, hatchet, dirty socks and underwear, and our sheath knives. All these cops seemed fascinated by our knives.

“Far out; welcome to L.A.!” said my friend Ted.
“Yeah. And this is supposed to be the coolest place in the country! You believe this?” our pal Jim added.
We were told to drive on. We’d done nothing wrong except to be… Teenagers In A Car, apparently!
We finally arrived at our friend's grandmother's home, and we asked her “What's going on around here? Everybody seems pissed off and suspicious as hell, and we can't get three blocks down the road before the cops stop us and hassle us."

“There were some murders up in the hills last night. Sharon Tate-- the actress-- and some other people were all killed. Stabbed and shot and.. it was just horrible ", she said. "Nobody feels safe. Everyone around here's terrified. I spoke with John, and he's been trying to reach Sharon's husband, Roman Polanski, in London.”

We’d hit town the day the Manson Family murders were discovered! Holy shit! The police interest in our knives was suddenly clear, anyway. The next day, the bodies of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca --the second set of victims-- were found, and it was like... Paranoia Squared! We literally couldn’t walk down the street without some hyped-up policeman stopping us and giving us a thorough once-over. I know this for a fact, because we tried it. We became experts at "assuming the position" as we were stopped and frisked any time we ventured out to fill the car with gas, attempt to see the sights, or just to try and buy ourselves a cheeseburger and an Orange Julius. Even shopping mall security guys messed with us! I actually bought and presented one such especially over-zealous rent-a-cop with an ironic "Thank You" greeting card for behaving like such an officious, hostile, unpleasant and relentless asshole. We'd gone from tourists to targets in a heartbeat

Wow. So, my 60's-era claim to fame? My pals and I were mistaken for the Manson Family that summer.
I mean, to be fair, nobody knew exactly who they were looking for-- but it was apparent to even the lowliest, rookie LA policeman (and to one jumped-up, snotty, shopping mall rent-a-cop) that these sketchy-looking hippie kids  were obviously up to no good and needed to be checked out-- repeatedly!
It was a very weird time, and it defined a real turning point in my life. It was truly the end of an era. The innocence of youth and the Hippie culture crashed into the reality of criminal psychosis and cult-like evil. The world-- and my perception of it-- changed very rapidly that Summer. From zonked-out, peaceful aimlessness to sudden and incomprehensible violence and the presence of fear and paranoia. Woodstock had just happened; Altamont was coming.

We never did get to hang out with any rockers or movie stars, more's the pity. We spent several days crashing at the poolhouse in that sweet grandmother's back yard (where the photo at the top of this page was taken, August 12th or 13th,1969) and then we headed for home. That's fifty years ago, now. Fifty years this very week, as I write this. Man, it hardly seems real-- though it's still incredibly vivid in my memory. Time was pliable and fluid; it seemed to stretch out ahead of me forever, then. I sure didn't want that Summer to end. The real world-- college, gainful employment, responsibility, young adulthood, first love, the 70's, Watergate and beyond, the drudgery of Middle Class American life awaited us all. Very little of it was anywhere near as exciting and enjoyable as that Summer road trip, though. It's corny as all hell, but that Brian Adams song, "Summer of '69" has the power to choke me up. Helluva time it was...

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