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Reality–What A Concept
A Memoir of Life on a Commune in the ‘70s

Sunsh Stein


It was the early 1970s and magic permeated the air on the 165 lush acres of upstate New York called Chillum Farm. The world belonged to us -- a scruffy, skinny bunch of passionate hippies -- and unconditional love and marijuana made anything possible. We planned to change the world by example, living simply with no electricity, plumbing or telephone, working the land and growing much of our own food, and sharing everything. Our lives ran happily on circuits-overload as we worked and partied till we dropped. Celebrating the demise of the nuclear family we created a dysfunctional one of our own. And like the typical American family we lived with hopes, dreams, tractors, sex, chain saws, gardens, animals, births, food, nudity, singing, and ultimately, relationships that went awry.

Previous Installment: The Alien Adventure Begins

In the last installment I arrived at Chillum Farm, a hippie commune, to visit my best friend Spindle who had moved there the previous fall. Her cousin Midge and Midge’s husband Lem had bought the farm the year before with a man named Shadow, whom Spindle became involved with. He left her shortly before I got there to be with Joy, another woman on the commune. Spindle had a rough spring but was now nurtured by the garden, and blossoming herself. I quickly became indoctrinated into commune culture and worked hard alongside the others. They rewarded me with brown-rice-onions-ketchup-optional meals and lots of marijuana. I discovered that while eating brown rice twice a day didn’t necessarily please me, being stoned all the time did.

The day of summer solstice started like all the other June days since my arrival three weeks before: sunny, hot, and dry. It was so dry that earlier that week we’d formed a human chain to water the most needy parts of the several acre garden -- straining even more my screaming-in-pain muscles. While handing off eight-gallon buckets of water, we decided that if it didn’t rain by summer solstice we should do a rain dance. Now, here we were on that welcome-to-summer day, and our bare feet kicked up the dust of the cracked clay soil. I assumed the rain dance was on.

Summer solstice ushered in the season responsible for nurturing and maturing the crops that would feed the Chillum family through much of the year, and they celebrated it as a major holiday. To give this hallowed day its due required a big party and the invite went out by word of mouth to the hippie community; it was a sure bet that everyone --  whoever they all were -- would show up to boogie.

Party prep started early. Midge and her sister Laurie, who arrived the week before, took advantage of the morning coolness  and whirled through the house like twin cleaning machines. The rest of us scattered outside to do endless garden maintenance and field work. Joy was baking bread and shuttled between house and garden all day, engaged in a mysterious and involved project —I still thought bread just miraculously appeared on bakery shelves. In late afternoon when the rest of the food prep began, I learned more about their vegetarian macrobiotic-style commune cooking than I had in the three previous weeks.  I watched Midge grind soybeans that had been sitting in water overnight for a soybean casserole.

“Why’d you have to soak them?” I asked. 

“Dried beans are so hard that if you don’t soak them they’d be cooking forever,” Midge answered.

“Oh.” What did I know. My bean experience was limited to eating canned baked beans with hot dogs and boiling the shit out of fresh green beans to guarantee that anything worth eating would be destroyed.

I’d been recruited to slice veggies for legless rolls, the commune’s version of egg rolls  -- no eggs, no meat. They were the big culinary treat I’d been hearing about all week, and after a steady diet of brown rice I was psyched to savor such exotic fare.

“You have to cut the veggies into matchsticks, like this,” Joy instructed, giving me a quick demonstration. Then she handed over the humongous cleaver and pointed to a pile of carrots, onions (store bought), and peapods. Armed with my weapon and a cutting board, I sat at the kitchen table and started slicing. I’d hardly used this big knife and I worried that a finger might end up in thin pieces along with the veggies.

Just then Laurie came through the kitchen. “Oh, they got you, huh?” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I hate cutting those matchsticks. It’s a real pain in the ass. Is the gang from The Dome coming tonight?”

“Probably,” Midge answered. “It’s not like them to pass up free food and dope. Spindle, what do you think?”

Spindle, busy peeling garlic at the counter next to the sink, played dumb. “Why you asking me?”

“Thought you might be interested.” The small dimples on the top of Midge’s cheeks flashed with her grin.

“Why?” Spindle responded, pushing the garlic through the garlic press and into the jar for the yogurt and tamari salad dressing.

“Come on, Spindle.” This time it was Joy, taking the bread out of the oven, its fresh-baked aroma having an immediate Pavlovian affect on me. “You know Patrick has his eye on you.” She took a hit of the dubie that Laurie carried around to each of us.

Spindle flushed and started rearranging the greens  -- red and green leaf lettuce, baby Swiss chard, spinach, and lamb's quarters – that she had already loaded into the big wooden salad bowl.

Patrick was a moon-faced artist with thick blond hair and nice vibes who lived at The Dome, a neighboring commune. We’d been teasing Spindle about him since he was sniffing around her on a recent visit there. Now she just shrugged and went back to making the salad dressing.            

“I bet Patrick will jump right into the rain dance,” said Laurie.

“Oh, the rain dance! I forgot about it,” Spindle said, happy to take the heat off herself.

“Yeah, well, if we don’t get rain soon we’ll be in big trouble,” Midge put in. “The dance is just what we need.”

Good humor bounced around the kitchen. The dubies kept us high, but excitement at the longest day of the year and anticipation of the party to celebrate it really cranked up our collective mood.

After slivering the carrots and crying through half the onions I started looking for a reliever. Lem and Shadow, fresh from creek baths, came in, but both had jobs to do. Lem cut veggies into big chunks for vegetable tempura and Shadow mixed wholewheat pastry flour, water, and oil to make the skins for the legless rolls.

Laurie rescued me. “Okay, Sunshine, I’ll give you a break.” I handed over the cleaver, all ten fingers intact, and went to watch Shadow, and then Joy, who took the brown lump of dough, rolled it out, and cut it into squares.

“How do you get it so thin?” I asked.

“It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it, but you have to be careful or the dough will tear,” Joy answered, sliding the rolling pin in a steady rhythm.

“Couldn’t you just make them thicker?”

“No. Then they’d be doughy, and we want them light and crispy.”

“Hey Sunshine,” Spindle was at my elbow. “Let’s go get dressed.” I followed her upstairs to the big room we shared with Lem and Midge.

“What are you gonna wear?” I asked, suddenly conscious that this was my first hippie commune party and I didn’t know how I should look.

“I don’t know. Let’s see what’s clean.” She went over to the shelves in the hall outside our room that held the shared clothes and rummaged through, pulling out a white Indian shirt with embroidery on it. “I think I’ll wear this with the long skirt we bought last year when we got back from Europe.”

“What do you think about Patrick?” I asked, as I reached for the long white peasant dress with blue trim I had bought in Greece the previous summer. Of course, this was the perfect choice for the party.

“I don’t know. There’s something special about him and he’s cute, but... how do I look?”

“Beautiful. What about me?” The house had one tiny mirror in the not-real bathroom so visual feedback came from each other. “You look just right.” We grinned and hugged each other before going back downstairs.

Shadow was now sautéing the matchstick veggies in the big wok, sending out a tantalizing garlic aroma. As they cooked to his satisfaction he transferred them to a colander with a slotted spoon. “I’ll need help putting the rolls together when the veggies cool and drain,” he said.

“Okay, just let me know,” I said, a nervous excitement creeping through my body. I sat down at the kitchen table to roll a joint to calm my nerves when I heard the front screen door open and voices call out, “Hi everyone!”

It was the Kelly Road crew – a group who lived in the swamps some miles away.  Unlike the people from The Dome, who I thought were sophisticated, older, and together, this younger group from New Jersey, who bought their place in the winter and didn’t know it was swampland, didn’t intimidate me. Carrying guitars, beer, and carrot bread, seven of them trooped in ready to boogie. One of the women headed for the eight-track tape deck – hooked up to the truck battery, ready for action. She picked a Grateful Dead tape, slid it in the machine, and the Kelly Roaders all smiled and began bopping around the living room. One of them located the dubie, sat down in the barber chair, rolled a fat one, and fired it up. After several hits, another guy picked up his guitar and started noodling along with the Dead.

The screen door slammed again and in walked Patrick. The call moved around the house.

“Patrick’s here.”


“Hi, Patrick.”

“Oh Spindle, it’s Patrick.”

There he stood, filling the doorway to the kitchen, with a golden glory I didn’t quite remember -- long tangled blond curly hair framing his round face, thick reddish-blond beard and mustache surrounding his full mouth, bright blue artist’s eyes taking in everything and everyone.

“Hi Spindle, how’s it going?” He walked over to where she was putting a loaf of bread on a cutting board.

She looked up, her face flushed, as much from embarrassment as from the heat of the nearby stove. “Hi Patrick. Where are the others?”

“They’re coming later. I didn’t feel like waiting so I walked over.”

They looked at each other and smiled, the air hanging expectantly around them.           

“You walked over?” asked Joy. “Hey man, you must have been anxious to get here, that’s several miles.”

“I came the back way, on the abandoned old Lead Mine Road; it’s a little shorter that way. I wanted to see what you guys have done around here before it gets dark,” he added. “Want to show me around?” The last directed at Spindle.

“Okay,” she said, and led him out the back door while the rest of us rolled our eyes at each other.

The screen door banged with the arrival of each new person or group. The longhairs drifted in -- I barely knew any of them -- rapidly filling the house with bodies, drink, conversation, food, music, and smoke – the bowl of dubie and the turquoise Bugler tobacco can were in constant motion. The Dead tape finished playing and another guitar player joined the first as he launched into "Friend of the Devil" -- the first song in their never-ending Dead repertoire. Two women sang along and danced, their free-floating movements now confined by the crush of people.

I emptied a bag of Wise potato chips (store bought, obviously) into a bowl and munching as I went, brought them into the living room. I heard lots of talk about the weather and crops, particularly the dubies. Everyone grew their plants in remote areas of their land, and the lack of June rain meant a lot of watering -- a real pain in the ass. They could only transport water so far by tractor because of location and to avoid detection – it was rumored that either the state or the feds flew over in small planes looking for plants -- so the hippies carried the water the rest of the way through the brush. I went on the last watering trip, excited to see my first live marijuana plants. These were pretty puny looking and crying for the water we hauled in. No one could say these people didn’t work hard for their high. A rain dance would definitely help the growth of that crop.

I looked for people I knew in the crowded living room. Between the Chillums and Kelly Road that numbered a fair amount, but it was a small percent of the total and, of course, I didn’t really know any of them well. Being stoned helped so I found the dubie  can, plopped down and rolled another joint. I lit it, toked, then handed it to a wispy-haired guy named Clyde, who lived over near Kelly Road. “If this dry weather keeps up, we’ll get hay in, no problem,” he said to Lem, sitting on his other side.

“Yeah, if it doesn’t burn up in the fields first,” Lem answered, taking the dubie.

“That’s why we’re doing a rain dance later,” Joy put in, reaching for the joint.

“Aw man, you guys work too much and worry too much.” It was Richard from The Dome. “A rain dance, hmm, I’ll watch and cheer you on. Let me have that smoke.”

“You’re such a lazy fuck, Richard. We have to think about our garden too,” his woman, Ruth, sitting on the floor nursing their baby, chided him. She handed the joint off to Shadow, who took the last hit.

“Okay Sunshine, “ he called to me. “Let’s make legless rolls.” He and Joy threaded through the crowd to the kitchen where Midge already had oil heating for the tempura.

While Shadow heated oil in the wok, I watched Joy take a square of rolled-out dough, pile a small mound of veggies down the center, and fold the dough into a neat package around them. I folded a few bulky ones before I got the hang of it – it was easier than rolling a decent joint -- and together, Joy and I folded like pros stacking them up for Shadow to cook.

Pretty quickly the smell of veggies sizzling in hot oil snaked its way into the living room, mingling with the cloud of smoke and smell of beer.  “What are you guys cooking?” Shay from The Dome asked, wandering into the kitchen, beer in hand. “Need help?”

Spindle, back from her walk with Patrick, was lighting kerosene lamps. Shay went over to give her a hug. “You guys seen Patrick?” she asked

“We went for a walk and I left him outside talking to Woody. He and Martha and the kids just got here.”

“Yeah, how was your walk, Spindle?” Midge asked, turning from the spatter of batter-coated veggies.

“Will you guys leave me alone!” Spindle pleaded, and moved on to light lamps in the living room.

I added a loaded platter of fried legless rolls to the growing banquet on the kitchen table, plucked one off the top and chomped into it. “Shit! This is hot!” I cried. “I burned my tongue.” I blew on it for a minute, then stuck it in a tamari-ginger dipping sauce and took a smaller bite. Oh yeah. Now I could taste it. The outside crunched under my teeth, light and crispy, just like Joy promised, while inside, the veggies, moist and soft, but still chewy, gave off the taste of garlic and hints of herbs I couldn’t begin to identify. The dipping sauce wrapped the whole thing in a spicy, salty coating and in one more bite it was gone. “These are far out,” I called to Shadow, as I reached for another.

The kitchen was hot and I was hungry so I fixed a bowl of food for myself. It was hard to fit in everything I wanted -– more legless rolls, tempura, green salad, soybean casserole, pasta salad, tabouleh. After three weeks of mostly brown-rice-onions-ketchup-optional, my eyes grew wide as I tried to stuff as much as possible in my bowl. 

Loaded down with food, I grabbed a beer, squeezed into a spot on the living room floor, ate, and watched the light on this longest day of the year fade. As dusk settled in, the house took on a soft glow that contrasted with the noise and crowd of the party. Midge sat down next to me. “Having fun?” she asked.

“Yeah. But I feel a little overwhelmed.”

“Me too. I don’t even know who some of these people are and I live here!”

We sat together watching the goings on and emptied our bowls. As Midge got up to take them to the kitchen Spindle came by. “Isn’t this fun?” she said, all smiles. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah,” I answered. “There’s so much to take in. Where’d all these people come from?”

“It’s a big community and when word gets out about a party they crawl out from everywhere. Oh, there’s Carl and Iny,” she motioned toward a man and woman with long gray hair then she vanished into the crowd. I got up and knocked into a black man who looked so tall that I thought I had smoked too much. “Oops, sorry,” I said. “I’m Sunshine. Who are you?”

“I’m Chuck. I haven’t seen you around.”

I drew myself up to my full five feet one inch and announced, “I’m visiting here at the Chillums.” I didn’t want to misrepresent myself as living there. “Cool vest,” I said, looking up at him. He was the tallest person I’d ever seen in my life and he wore an incredible looking, multi-colored, fringed, suede vest.

“Thanks,” he said. “I do leatherwork.”

It took a minute for it to sink into my stoned brain that he made the vest. Then I found out that he lived in a house down the road from the wispy-haired guy Clyde, with a woman named Sheila and their son Masai. He moved on, and feeling pleased that I met someone new on my own, I relieved myself of the responsibility to meet anybody else.

The guys picked up their guitars again after a food break, and some people danced, mostly to their own inner beat. I looked for a circulating joint, found one, and when I felt sufficiently stoned, began moving to the sounds in my own head, keeping to the perimeter of the room. The musicians swung into “I’m Glad” by Cream. I sang along --  “I’m so glad, I’m so glad” -- swaying, becoming hypnotized by the words, simplistic as they were, or maybe none of us knew all the lyrics. “I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad.” I harmonized -- or thought I did. “I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad.” It became a mantra. I don’t know how long I stayed there moving and singing and getting bumped by other people, it could have been hours, it could have been five minutes. I inhabited a complete little world as the song went on forever.  Forever, until a ruckus outside interrupted my reverie.

What the hell? I opened my eyes, trying to take in the dimly lit room and tune back to the particular reality around me. Then it hit me. The rain dance! I forgot about it but from the noise outside others had remembered. I pushed my way out and saw Spindle, Laurie, Midge, Joy, Patrick, and several more longhairs running up and down in front of the house, alternately whooping like Indians in old Hollywood Westerns and calling for rain. I ran with them, hollering and whooping. Then taking each other’s hands we formed a circle and danced around. “Rain! Rain! Give us rain!” we chanted. More people came out of the house, some to watch, while others jumped in and grabbed hands with us. Round and round and round we spun, yelling and screaming at the sky. Laurie broke away and stepped into the middle of the circle.

“Oh Great Spirit,” she intoned, as the rest of us quieted down. “Please send us rain to feed our crops and quench the thirst of the earth.” She pulled Midge out of the big circle into the center with her, and clutching each other’s hands they twirled frantically. Patrick fell to his knees. “Oh god of our great sacrament. Give us rain to feed it!” he demanded, as Shadow sat on the ground outside the circle, pounding his own steady rhythmic command on the bongos.

The rest of us whirled and ran, alternately demanding and pleading for rain until exhaustion claimed us. I dropped to the ground, along with several others, and lay on my back, my heart beating wildly. My first rain dance – we didn’t do them in Milwaukee -- left me high and exhilarated. Part of me believed the dance would work its magic. I looked up. The vast dark sky, its masses of sparkling stars winking at me, gave no hint of having heard our message.

The sounds of people saying goodbye drifted on the night air, and in my prone position in the Chillum’s front yard I suddenly felt partied out. I dragged my tired ass off the ground and into the house. Stumbling through a quieter, much less crowded living room, I picked up a few dirty bowls and empty bottles in my path, depositing them in the kitchen. “I’m going to bed,” I said to no one in particular and slowly climbed the stairs. Alone in the big room in my bed, I closed my eyes. The music, the food, the smoke, the drink, the rain dance, the people all swirled through my mind, creating a kaleidoscope of sharp colorful images that, as I drifted toward sleep, slowly began to blur, the colors running together, as though washed by rain.