A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 6
by Jake Rohrer, June 9, 2011
I received my working orders high on acid. The Lord came down and told me what to do and I have been doing it steady. I haven't received any other orders countermanding those.
— Ken Kesey
It was not long after the loss of my father and John Kennedy, that new and curious events began to happen nearby, piquing my interest and getting my attention. Dad's auto business, now run by my mother and me, was located in Albany, a conservative community bordering Berkeley, where social and political upheaval was about to change the world as we knew it.
It started with The Free Speech Movement which seemed to be raising hell on the Berkeley campus. I was moved to go take a look at these commies, often with my good friend, Sheldon. Once or twice a week as schedule would allow, in my business attire, sport coat and tie, we'd go have lunch on the Berkeley campus just to take in what was going on at Sproul Plaza. Tremendous crowds would gather and speakers with bullhorns would address the throngs. I heard the Free Speech Movement leader, Mario Savio, speak to the crowd one day, but I couldn't make out much of what he had to say. On another day, a right leaning politician seeking the governorship of California came to deride the students for their bad manners, the news cameras in tow. He got smacked right in the chest with an over-ripe tomato that left its messy mark on his bright blue, tailor-made suit. That was William Penn Patrick whose privately owned Sabre jet, an early military fighter, would one day cartwheel off a runway in Sacramento into an ice cream parlor, killing several children.
I wasn't at the campus to man a barricade or throw a brick or express an opinion. I just wanted to observe and try to understand this phenomenon that was beginning to divide families, friends and our whole society. It was unthinkable to me then that people of my generation would oppose our government when it came to war. I had to learn to think about these things all over again. Actually, I had to learn how to think independently and question my beliefs, many of which would fit the mold of the average redneck.
In the conservative community of Albany, anti-war protestors lined the railway tracks that went through town with signs and placards urging soldiers in the passing troop trains to revolt and to “make love, not war.” This spawned the “Clear the Tracks Committee,” Albany's answer to the protestors. It was headquartered right around the corner from our auto business at Vince's Barber Shop, where I'd often have Vince cut my hair. He was a cracker with a tough edge, but personable if you happened to be a white person. I had no idea what the Committee proposed, but it was my assumption that it would probably include confrontation with the protestors, armed with, if not guns, then clubs and rakes and the like. Mainly, though, I think it was just a fraternity of rednecks letting the community at large know on which side of the great divide they stood.
One day while having my hair cut, a mixed-race guy came into the shop and took a seat. I didn't pay much attention to him and don't remember which races he may have represented, only that he was brown rather than white. Pretty soon Vince stopped cutting and turned to address his new patron: “Hey, man… are you a nigger?” The man just looked at him, put down his magazine and left the shop. “I don't do nigger hair,” said Vince. I soon found a new barber.
It was during this time of turmoil and protest when Sheldon explained to me that in order to get laid in Berkeley, you had to be against war. That was a new concept for me. Sheldon, though, vouched for this doctrine and supported its conclusions. I was happily married and faithful at the time, but Sheldon's sincerity and belief that we had to change our way of thinking seemed reason enough to take a closer look at what I believed.
My one-time high school sweetheart, Arvalea, a very bright and progressive woman, returned to the Bay Area from Vassar. She and some of her very smart friends took up residence in an apartment on Green Street in San Francisco. At Vassar she would hang around with Ivy League people, including the famous Harvards, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass, who is now a resident in the community where I live. I would visit Arvalea now and then at the Green Street apartment and listen closely as she and her friends and guests ventured intellectual opinion and anti-war dogma, posed in confident and fascinating conversation over a backdrop of marijuana smoke and Miles Davis. Still and always a sweetheart, Arvalea would protect me from the barbs of her smart and enlightened friends amongst whom I felt a rube, and who on occasion wanted to know what I thought about something. I tried not to say much, afraid of exposing my naivete and possibly redneck past, but soon enough I came to understand and agree with much of the opinion that was bantered about at Green Street. But I never got laid by any of them. Arvalea took me to see “The Committee” a hip and early comedy troupe who would supply the abstract for Saturday Night Live. She was dating one of the Committee members, creating in me a mild and fleeting jealously.
Meanwhile Sheldon and I, together with other friends, discovered the joys and perception bending properties of marijuana. Once or twice weekly, night would find us cruising Grizzly Peak Boulevard high in the Berkeley hills, surveying the incredible sea of lights that was the San Francisco Bay Area, and getting high while listening to Tom Donahue when he was still an AM disc jockey on radio station KYA. Then we'd visit Baskins & Robbins, amazed at how good ice cream could be when you were stoned, and stroll Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, teeming with exotic people, smells and sounds.
One night, stoned again, we happened upon some sort of Buddhist prayer meeting where we were invited to come in and learn how to chant “…nahmiyohorengaykyo” in rapid succession while fondling sacred beads that would bring us peace of mind and material wealth. Who's going to say it was bullshit? I think today I have a reasonable amount of each, even though both took a few decades to arrive.
* * *
I never took hallucinogenic drugs because I never wanted my consciousness expanded one unnecessary iota.
— Fran Lebowitz
Following this process of awakening and learning the true merits of ice cream, it was inevitable we would one day try LSD. Sheldon always seemed to have the good connections and we chose as a setting for this initiation San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
“Mind expanding” hardly does justice to my first experience with this remarkable drug. It's understandable to me why some people are convinced they talked with God. I never thought I had encountered the Creator Almighty, but I remain convinced I met my own very real and personal — for lack of a better term — guardian angel, an experience that has stayed in my consciousness ever since, never to be forgotten.
Under the influence and completely immersed into thought and contemplation while seated on some park monument, I somehow managed to look inward, into the very center of my being and soul, and there I discovered an entity in addition to the self, and that entity appeared to me in my mind as through a mist, robed and indistinct, and it spoke to me, calm, clearly, and matter of fact, “…don't worry. I've been here all the time.” Had been and will be. And thus spoken, sensations as unbidden and miraculous as those created by my first kiss flowed through and engulfed me, an intoxicating, life affirming warmth and knowledge, a courier of a loving peace, elevating my conscious mind to a reality I seemed to know was there, but heretofore hidden from view. I would always be the same and never be the same, for all time. Unlike my first kiss, though, this revelation didn't result in a boner.
Though I would try, almost expecting it, I would never again create this epiphany. Once it enters your consciousness, it's there for all time, its only requirement, I think, is respect. I came to understand it's not the sort of thing you play at, some cheap psychedelic thrill. I have read of similar events happening to other people, and how the wisest of those people would praise this drug for its ability to expose an inner reality, at the same time warning against its use as a pathway of ease to gain enlightenment.
Enlightenment. Now there's a goal maybe worth the pursuing if only I knew how to go about getting there, and then how to recognize it once I arrived. What would happen if I over ran it, somehow passing it by? If it turned out to be a constant state similar to the discovery of my inner entity, as I have heard some people describe it, then I would have to decline the reward because I have too much left to do in the material world. Those of who it is said have attained enlightenment seem to be holy people who sit around in bliss, contemplating things like “…the sound of one hand clapping,” or “…there is no teaching to teach — that is the teaching” and other such paradoxes. I think to be such a person would require a trust fund to exist because enlightenment's necessity, as I envision it, would require removal from the conflicts of the material world that surround us. But it could probably be a modest trust fund because such people as these need only a little bit of rice now and then.
One such elevated soul was Meher Baba, whose mantra and message was “…don't worry — be happy,” awfully close to what my inner entity had to say to me, especially if you extrapolate the comfort of knowing an inner peace into happiness. Meher Baba successfully removed himself from the world around him, foreswearing speech from the time of early adulthood until the time of his death. Cared for by his followers, he wrote books and simply sat around and beamed. And who's to be the one to say it was no good what he'd done? Not me.
So the half dozen or so times I would again experiment with LSD, it turned out to be strictly for the lark, an examination of other-worldly perceptions. I don't think I ever had a “bad trip” although on one occasion I can recall physical discomfort and anxiety I thought were brought on by a badly manufactured drug, feeling as though spiked with amphetamine. To escape the ravages of a particularly bad hay fever season, Sheldon and I did a road trip to Victoria on Vancouver Island in Canada. Sheldon's source would claim this dose as “pure Czechoslovakian laboratory” LSD, and miraculous visions and hallucinations occurred, full color cartoons materialized on the underside of clouds and so forth. It wasn't scary; we just rode with it, dumbstruck and amazed. We encountered what we first thought was an admiral, but who turned out to be merely a meter maid who ticketed our car with the most civilized citation ever: “Greetings, Friend. Welcome to Victoria. We beg to inform you that you have infringed on our parking regulations...We will overlook it in hopes that you will henceforth observe…” and so forth. It was a polite warning and we laughed and laughed at the charming other-worldliness of the event. I have to this day saved that citation. We enjoyed Victoria immensely, the quaint European-like setting, its parks and gardens brought to shimmering life under the influence of the Czechoslovakian pure.
My explorations into psychedelia were usually a joint venture with Sheldon and Golden Gate Park seemed a favorite setting. Stoned on LSD, we stood in a queue of thousands to see the priceless and original collection of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, on tour and now appearing at the deYoung Museum. Angry crows over the wheat field took wing and flew around the enclosure, the madness contained in some of the paintings electric and vibrant, the genius of his work stunning and undeniable. But I don't think you need to be stoned on LSD to see and appreciate these things in Van Gogh's art. Fun, though.
I once did a hit of LSD and visited my grandmother at a nursing home in Berkeley, taking her for a springtime tour of Berkeley in her wheelchair, when all of the plum trees lining the streets were in full bloom. The blossoms rushed past my peripheral vision in a mad spate of psychedelic, kaleidoscopic color. We had a great time together that day, carefree and laughing. It was not an easy thing to achieve this state of kinship with my grandmother and I am grateful for this day, one of the last I would see her.
Back in Golden Gate Park with the drug just coming on, Sheldon and I on foot crested a rise just in time to see, right in front of our eyes, a couple in their Sunday best flip their canoe over in the lovely, tree lined setting of Stow Lake. The water wasn't very deep and I can still recall the expression of abject horror on the woman's face, standing soaked in waist deep water, her bonnet still in place, probably wanting to throttle her date in this otherwise serene picture of gliding swans and leaning willows, perfectly framed by our state of mind. Sheldon and I seemed to attract such humorous and unexpected scenes, always when peaking on one drug or another. We did our best to suppress our laughter. We had no desire to add to the unfortunate couple's embarrassment, but we couldn't hold it in. We had to go back over the rise and roll on the grass for several minutes where we laughed until it hurt.
In late summer of 1968, we took in the Big Sur Folk Festival at the Esalen Institute, high on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, one of the most spectacular settings on the country's entire west coast. Big Sur is one of those special places on the planet with a magic all its own. This day our drug of choice was a synthetic peyote, Sheldon's connection again coming through with top quality psychedelics. It was a stunning, sunlit day, Joan Baez opening the festival with a laughing and facetious, “…sorry about the weather.” To my surprise, there again was Milan Melvin, today getting married to Joan's sister, Mimi Farina. Then, to my delight, a future friend and associate to be, Mark Spoelstra, performed his song, “Sound of the Rainbow” for the bride and groom. Mark was someone whose music and guitar styling I had admired for several years, but I had never before seen him perform. Following the concert, we hiked trails high into the backcountry, walking off the effects of the psychedelic.
These were the years of turmoil and social division throughout our country and it seemed at the time that I was expected to choose one road or the other. As it turns out, we each cut our own. I learned about and experienced many things foreign to the life that had been laid out for me, more often than not in the company of my good pal, Sheldon. Though I truly loved my children and my family, I often longed to cast off the restrictions and obligations of running a business that often struggled to make ends meet, and a marriage that had found me at 17, rather than me finding it. Jeanne was and is a fine woman and I cannot imagine my children having a better, more loving mother. Though at times perhaps an unsteady father, there was no shortage of love. I had managed to create an ulcer within my stomach by the time I was 21, but overcame it once I found out what it was. My doctor said I worried too much and I needed to watch my diet. He was right on both counts. I had no inkling of what lay in store for me, how dramatically life would change, or the choices I would make further on down the road.