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.
It’s August, two-and-a-half months after my arrival at Chillum’s, and I’m totally immersed in commune life. The garden, as Spindle promised, has blown me away. I relish the fresh vegetables, my growing skills as a gardener, and my newly awakened muscles. I love being part of this funky group, and my relationships with family members grow deeper as my previous life recedes into a smoke-filled haze. (The dc king is my ex-husband.)
Business was slow as usual — the solid citizens of Gouverneur weren’t all that interested in, or didn’t want to drive to the south end of town for, the fresh organic veggies that we’d grown from seed, sweated over, and plucked off the vine that morning. I’d loaded the pickup with juicy tomatoes, sweet Spanish onions, a fuckload of zucchini, blue-green broccoli, and the prize, fresh corn – so sweet and tasty that, other than appearance, it bore no resemblance to the starchy shit I’d grown up eating.
I sprawled out on the grass at the side of the veggie stand and started writing a letter. I heard a door slam and looked up to see Charlie McAdam, beer in hand, heading toward me. So much for my alone time. That was the hazard of veggie stand duty, the risk that Charlie might be home and come out to jaw. He was well meaning and decent – he had given us the use of this little structure on his property to sell our produce — but you didn’t want to get him started; he could go off and you’d have no idea what he was talking about, and it didn’t matter if you were stoned or straight. The jury was still out as to how far off the wall he was. Dressed in his usual white T-shirt tucked into work pants, he pulled a chair out of the little shed next to the veggie stand and sat down.
“Not much going on today, looks like,” he boomed. Speaking in regular tones was not something Charlie did.
“Yeah, it’s pretty quiet.”
Please let this be brief, I prayed to my all purpose deity, knowing the odds of that were pretty slim. Charlie revved up, alternately rambling and ranting, as was his wont, his voice, decibels above normal level, coming out of the side of his toothless mouth. He moved from our vegetables to farming to government, landing on the still-not-going-away Vietnam War.
“We gotta keep sending in the troops,” he declared.
“Charlie, we’ve done enough. It’s not working.”
“We gotta be more aggressive — pound the hell out of them.”
“We’ve already done that and it’s only gotten us in deeper.” I felt my blood pressure begin to rise.
“Nope. We need to do more to defeat the Vietcong.”
“Oh man, enough with the senseless death and destruction.”
“Well now, death comes with war. It’s the price we pay for freedom.”
“Yeah? Well my husband died in this war,” I spat out. The words flew from my mouth, bypassing my brain.
It quieted old Charlie right down. He told me he was sorry for my pain and got up and went back to the house.
Feeling rather satisfied that I’d successfully conned Charlie, I drove home and recounted the story, expecting an appreciative audience. Spindle, who had lived through the marriage and divorce with me, would be amused.
“Sunshine, you lied to him,” Joy, wielding the cleaver on a clump of unsuspecting carrots, was quick to point out.
“I know. It was harmless.”
“Was it?” asked Shadow. I’d gotten used to his sarcastic tone, but now it was insinuating.
“Yeah, he doesn’t know the difference.”
“But you do. And we do,” Spindle added, her blue eyes focused on me.
“Come on! The dc king was lifetimes ago.”
“But your lie killed him — that’s not good karma,” Spindle went on.
“He was in the army, he could of died. What’s the big fucking deal?”
“We don’t say fuck,” Joy threw in.
“Stephen says it’s not groovy.”
“Stephen? What does he have to do with anything?” I couldn’t believe this. My warm, loving family was turning on me. I looked around for Midge – my Scorpio sister would be my ally, except she wasn’t there.
“Stephen’s teaching us how to live a righteous life,” Shadow intoned.
Stephen Gaskin was a hippie guru who had lectured weekly in San Francisco on life lessons, then published his talks in a book called Monday Night Class. He’d also acquired land in Tennessee and led a caravan of hippie-filled school buses to settle there in a community called The Farm. We’d been reading his book and taking in his teachings.
“Well, I don’t need Stephen to determine my vocabulary.” Oh man, this was not going well. I had to feel guilty for lying to Charlie and now for saying fuck? I was pissed. I didn’t like being judged for using a word that had colored my speech for years, and up till now, that of my commune family. Who was Stephen Gaskin to tell me what I could or could not say?
I stormed out, walked past the garden where I saw Midge busy at something, and headed for the meadow behind woodchuck hill. Angry at being preached to, my own self-righteousness flared. “Fuck them,” I muttered. “Fuck Stephen.” Lurking under the anger, though, was discomfort about the lie. Why had I so casually killed off the dc king? He was alive and well, in Milwaukee, ensconced in his new marriage. But the lie was in the realm of possibility. He’d been in the army, and we never understood how he hadn’t been sent to Vietnam when all around us guys shipped out right and left. I hoisted myself up onto a big flat fence post, pulled a half-smoked joint out of my pocket, lit it, and stared at the island of trees in the big meadow off to the left. It was so trippy, that stand of trees on a little rise in the middle of this vast sea of green. I took a drag of the joint then dredged up my sojourn with the dc king and the military.
It was 1966, four months after we were married. The dc king got a letter from Uncle Sam. Vietnam was calling, and the pleasure of the dc king’s company was requested. We were stunned. This just didn’t happen in lives like ours. Vietnam was a faraway place to be seen on TV, and the army, well, what kind of place was that for a nice Jewish boy?
“Should I try to get out of it?” he wondered. “I might be able to.” We agonized over the right thing to do. Our square way of thinking (what would we want to tell our children?) won out, and down the patriotic path to the local induction station of the U.S. Army he marched. My lower lip trembled in an effort not to cry. Suddenly I was alone.
Early in his absence I went to my secretarial job, came home to our conjugal apartment, ate a bowl of Cheerios, and wrote to him every day. Once a week I had dinner with each set of parents. I missed him terribly. A serious dent had been put in my life. But I was 20. I began to get bored with this daily routine. I wanted some adventure. I fantasized about being a nurse and going to Vietnam. Then I discovered an easier way to liven up my life.
Spindle had traded in her secretarial job to learn graphic arts with some commercial artists 20 years older than us. Their studio, a block from my office in downtown Milwaukee, was a happening place filled with art and unusual characters. I found lots of reasons to leave work during the day and visit there. Then I started going drinking with them and their artist friends after work. My lonely “war bride” existence spiced up considerably. I felt so grown up. I had my brown Barbra Streisand wannabe hairstyle cut into a trendy short one, then had the front of my new do frosted platinum blond. I was just too sophisticated. I still wrote to the dc king regularly, but a corner of my mind pretended I was single. I dug living alone. I honed my flirting skills.
Then four months after the dc king’s departure he completed his army training, and I prepared to give up the single life and join him. I stored most of our things, shipping only kitchen essentials to my new home in North Carolina. Then I packed as many of my clothes as possible and flew to North Carolina to resume wifely duties, which at this point I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to resume. Life had been good when I was pretending to be someone else.
We rented an apartment in Fayetteville, a few miles down Highway 87 from Fort Bragg where the dc king was stationed. The King George Apartments were attached townhouses that shared a big open stretch of backyard and had piped in Muzak. Our neighbors were other military men, with and without wives. Young guys training to be helicopter pilots would buzz the apartment complex early on weekend mornings to wake their wives and cohorts. It was a friendly, sometimes circus-like atmosphere; the military, the threat of Vietnam, and our youth bound us all together.
It was intense, though not like the bonding I shared with the family, fueled as it was by the cosmic consciousness of acid trips, among other deep things. I jumped down from the fence post I was sitting on, looked at the still bright sun, and smiled at the memory of the King George Apartments — of afternoon volleyball and gin-and-tonic parties — and I wondered idly what had become of our neighbors. I started walking toward my favorite meadow by the back creek thinking about Fort Bragg and how teeming it was, so overrun with personnel and dependents that it was the largest city in both Carolinas at that time.
The army was the employer du jour. I took a civil service test and got a job on base helping process new recruits. I didn’t fit in. I had no respect for authority, a key factor for military (and civil service) success. The word “Sir” was not in my vocabulary. This bothered the other civilian personnel — mostly other military wives — more than it did the army personnel to whom I reported. They didn’t care if I showed respect as long as my miniskirts showed a lot of leg. But the wives grumbled, saying, “Mrs. dc king has a bad attitude.” It was true. I did. I didn’t like being part of the military.
I swatted a deer fly about to take a jab at my thigh as I walked through the narrow overgrown lane that connected one meadow to the other, and I laughed out loud at the memory of it all. I had always prided myself on my bad attitude when it came to authority — probably one reason I now balked at Stephen’s words. But back then I was really chomping at the bit, and at more than just the military. I didn’t like living in the south. I didn’t like living in a town with a sign on the outskirts saying, “The United Klans of America Welcomes You to Fayetteville.” And I was beginning to not like active duty as a wife.
One day a hip young private, who wore nonregulation tapered fatigues, shared my disdain for authority, and ran the offset press in my office, handed me a sheet of paper. On it he’d handwritten the lyrics of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album. “What do you think of this?” he’d asked. I’d been listening to a lot of Frank Sinatra and not much rock and roll so I thought this was something he’d written. I read it and reread it, trying to understand, so I could intelligently comment on his work. “I didn’t write this. It’s the Beatles!” He laughed at me then loaned me the record. I discovered that the Beatles had evolved from their “I Want to Hold Your Hand” days. I bought the album. I played it incessantly, driving the dc king nuts. He wasn’t into music and this particularly annoyed him, but I’d found a link to something that didn’t exist in my Fort Bragg experience. It was also my first step toward this hippie farm I now called home.
I reached the back meadow and as I sat down on the grass in front of the creek, a small frog jumped up near my feet, startling me. I watched it hop to the water. Man, I loved this cozy out-of-the-way spot bordered by trees and the creek. I belonged here, just as I belonged with the family, something I didn’t feel with the dc king, though I had cared for him and worried about his military future.
In late 1967 we held our breath when the next levy came down for Vietnam. My young hip private was on it, but the dc king was not. With about six months left to serve it meant he was safe. Why him? I had wondered. All these poor schmucks around us were getting sent over, how did he manage to escape it? It’s not that I wanted him to go to Nam. I just didn’t want to be with him anymore. Another separation furnished by Uncle Sam would have bought me time to figure out what to do because I was afraid to extricate myself from the marriage. I knew both sets of parents would freak – my father would scream and cry, his father would accuse, his mother would plead, mine would guilt me, and I’d bring shame on both families. There was no way out. Unless, of course, he was sent to Vietnam and didn’t come back. It was a horrible thought. I tried to banish it, but it skulked around the recesses of my mind. I was so ashamed of myself. I didn’t want him dead. I just wanted him to disappear from my life, leaving me free — and still honorable. In our world, widows garnered respect, divorcees were pariahs.
The far-off sound of the tractor interrupted my thoughts. That would be Lem plowing or harrowing to get a field ready for planting. Now that was important, not what people might think if you got divorced. How ridiculous to be concerned with such trivialities when here we were learning to be as one with each other and the land. But back then, when Uncle Sam kissed the dc king goodbye and we left Fort Bragg, marital status mattered. We returned to Milwaukee, he to the bosom of his family’s business, me to my old secretarial job. I made a half-hearted attempt at the marriage. But as we settled back into the same young marrieds’ enclave we’d lived in before the military hiatus, where the drapes conveniently fit the windows and the gold shag carpet went back down on the floor, it became increasingly clear that I’d been living in a time warp. Black was beautiful and all kinds of people were taking to the streets. A whole generation was screaming Bob Dylan’s line, “Everybody must get stoned,” while smoking marijuana, and dropping acid. Drugs permeated music, art and lives. The Age of Aquarius had risen, and I was still wearing dresses with matching shoes and purses. Life was swirling around; I needed to dive in.
Spindle’s crowd had broadened to include hippies and civil rights workers. Much to the displeasure of the dc king, I plugged back into that scene when I could.
“I don’t like you hanging out with those guys,” he’d say.
“Why not?” (As if I didn’t know. The poor guy just wanted his wife and pre-military life back.)
And so it went until I had no choice but to accept that the dc king’s and my common interests had been reduced to movies (not art films) and popcorn, and I was no longer even remotely in love. The final cue came when the dc king sat on the blue-and-green couch in our candle-lit living room and watched while the assembled guests, myself included, sprawled on that re-laid shag carpet giggling and getting blasted smoking a hookah. He was ready for the suburbs. I was ready for a different reality.
I bagged it, enduring the anticipated angst provided by all parents, including my mother’s admonishment: “Now dear, when there are problems in a marriage, it’s the woman’s place to work them out.” There was rioting in the streets, Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden were arrested at the Democratic convention in Chicago where police were bashing protesters, and my mother still talked about divorce in the same hushed tone she reserved for death.
Yup, him dying in the war would’ve been a lot cleaner ending. Old Charlie McAdam provoked me into blurting out a scenario that had been hiding in my mind for years. Funny how good it felt to let it escape and to feel, for one brief moment, like the self-righteous widow I never was. It was like tying up a loose end. But the family was right. It wasn’t cool. I now led a life without lies and that was the way to be — much better than the brief high of dressing in imaginary widow’s weeds.
That was one of the beauties of life at Chillums — we lived life out in the open, and the group wouldn’t let you get away with words or actions that weren’t groovy. Communication and openness were the only way.
I had to tell Charlie the truth and then apologize. It was the righteous thing to do. I got up and left my secluded little meadow, swatting mosquitoes as I scurried through the lane. I turned toward the house thinking about what I’d say to the family. “You’re right,” I’d announce when I walked into the kitchen. “I shouldn’t have lied to Charlie. He didn’t deserve it and the dc king didn’t either.” Spindle would beam and there’d be hugs all around. The straightforward approach with Charlie would be best too. “Charlie, I lied about my husband dying,” I’d say. He wouldn’t be hugging me, but maybe he’d offer me a beer and we’d sit on the grass, watch the cars go by on Route 11, and talk.
The sun was sliding down the sky as I neared the house. I heard laughter and I hurried to join the family. I loved them — those fuckers — that issue of language still needed resolution.