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 and bought camping gear. Someone’s folks kicked in a gasoline credit card; someone else’s supplied us with a 1965 Chevelle; someone else's supplied a ton of canned food—and we were off!
A good pal of ours preceded us to California, to vacation with his rock star Uncle John. He gave us the address, and urged us to come stay at John’s place in Bel Air for a while. All sorts of rock musicians would be there. 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 sleep at a rock star’s house! How cool!”
We drove; we camped; we saw a good deal of the country, stopping here for a rock festival, there to visit family friends, elsewhere to swim in a lake. We built campfires, sang under the stars, ate food from cans, wandered through alien landscapes and amongst sometimes hostile or suspicious people. We alarmed an entire small town in Wyoming when, car stereo blasting Led Zepellin's COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN, we drove up to a laundromat to deal with a week's worth of our grimy clothing...
We crossed into California early in August, by way of the Arizona desert 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 jackrabbits bounded across the highway, briefly illuminated in our headlights. It was an extremely surreal landscape.
As dawn approached, we arrived in Los Angeles. It was 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. We pulled into a driveway behind an elementary school and settled down to sleep.
The next thing we knew, someone was pounding on the car, shouting: “L.A.P.D.! COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP! GET OUT OF THE CAR, NOW! MOVE IT! ”
There were three police cars surrounding us! As soon as we opened a door, we were yanked from the car, jammed up against the school's wall or bent over the hood of the car and patted down. They spread our tents and sleeping bags around on the parking lot, opened the trunk, the glove compartment, and rummaged thru the layers of trash on that only teenage boys can accumulate.
Canned goods rolled across the pavement. They put our knives on the hood of the car. A few of them tore through the car while several others kept us at bay. My pals were military dependents, so in addition to their drivers’ licenses, they all had military dependent's photo IDs. I was the only non-driver, and I had no ID, at all. My mother -- prescient woman that she was -- provided me with a notarized statement indicating that I was traveling with her knowledge and consent, and was not a runaway. I offered it to the tall, skinny cop who was frisking me.
“What’ve you got?” asked another, older cop.
Skinny said: “They’re all from 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 bird Colonel! Whattaya know? Oh-- and this kid here’s got… (squinting at the paper) what the hell…? He actually has a note from his mommy!”
There was general guffawing and merriment as my face turned red. The upshot of all this was that 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 our scattered belongings and drove toward Bel Air. 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. His partner joined him and looked through the car. We were asked for identification. “I have a note from my Mom,” I volunteered. Nobody seemed amused by that. We were eventually dismissed. Several blocks further on, another police car pulled us over.
As we were once again asked us 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 mommy...
Thanks to my petulant outburst we were detained for a while as they went through the car. 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.
“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 Bel Air, a private community; you have to be admitted by security people at the gate. They gave us the stink eye, and weren’t remotely helpful. I shoved the piece of paper with Uncle John’s phone number at the security guy. “Screw it! Call this number and announce us!”
“Nobody’s being admitted today. Don’t you guys watch the news?” he asked.
“What's going on around here?” I asked. "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 and a bunch of other people were all killed. It was pretty brutal", he said. "The cops’re going crazy, and everyone's hunkered down at home, scared outta their minds, man!”
We’d hit town the day the Manson Family murders were discovered! The next day, the bodies of the La Biancas --the second set of victims-- were found, and it was like Paranoia Squared. You couldn’t walk down the street without some policeman stopping you and giving you a thorough once-over. I know this for a fact, because we tried it. We became experts at "assuming the position" as were stopped and frisked any time we ventured out to fill the car with gas, see the sights, or just to try and buy ourselves a burger and an Orange Julius. Even mall cops messed with us.
We never did get to hang out with any rock stars. We spent a few days crashing at a poolhouse in our pal's grandmother's back yard, and then we headed for home.
So, we were mistaken for the Manson Family that summer. I mean, nobody knew exactly who they were looking for, but it was apparent to even the lowliest, rookie LA cop that we were obviously up to no good!