Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Young Heart by the Bay

 I’ve been criticized sometimes for dwelling in the past, focusing my writing energies on that long forgotten period of lost youth, unrequited love, wandering ambitions and unfocused goals. That theme has crept into two of my novels and a number of my blogs. Sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant but always present.

I plead guilty. And after observing some of the lives around me, I am more than content to continue fighting that long slow slide toward mediocrity. Without dwelling there, I think I can revisit my past, reflect on the good and the bad planted there and still relish my present situation.

I thought about that when I read Scott McKenzie’s obituary in the San Francisco Examiner a couple of weeks ago. It’s a heck of a thing when one song can perfectly encapsulate the soul of a city. San Francisco has two such songs.

The first was “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett. Tony’s song, although great make-out music, was really for the old guard. The more mature, three-piece suit and formal dress folks who sipped martinis and talked race horses. That was their world. Mad Men, anyone?

On the other hand, Scott McKenzie’s song helped define my generation. Or at least a large part of my generation. It gave San Francisco its moniker as the epicenter of the 1960’s counterculture. The city has always been a kind of border town, attracting both freaks and fearless alike. It still harbors that open, accepting attitude for folks of all kinds. Boulder, Colorado, boasts a bumper sticker which reads, “Keep Boulder Weird.” San Francisco has been weird since its gold rush days.

Scott’s song was able to capture that very brief period in 1967 when flowers were in bloom and flower children captured our imagination. The sixties was a magical time at the Presidio of San Francisco and San Francisco in general. I was very lucky to experience both of them briefly when I was in the service and stationed at the Presidio.

Without really knowing it, I was experiencing the whole pre-hippie era, mixing and mingling with hippies and diggers, black panthers and anti-war activists, Berkeley intellectuals and disciples of the Age of Aquarius. All from the security of an army bunk at the Presidio.

The Presidio of San Francisco (originally called El Presidio Real de San Francisco) is a former military base located on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula.

Originally built as a Spanish Imperial Outpost from 1776 to 1821, the Presidio was the Spanish empire’s northernmost military outpost. In 1821, the Presidio changed from Spanish to Mexican sovereignty. Then during the Mexican-American War in 1846, the army took over the post and occupied it until 1972 when it was included within the boundaries of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. In 1996, it was formally closed and transferred to the National Park Service.

I only spent a very brief period of my lost years at the Presidio. It was between the summer of 1964 and spring of 1965. I had just left basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (affectionately known as the armpit of the army) and was being transferred to the Presidio of San Francisco (romanticized as the country club of the army, which it was!). I would later be transferred to Fort Polk, Louisiana (correctly known as the a…… of the army).

As an Information Specialist in the Command Information Office, I had a nine to five job and plenty of spare time to explore my newly adopted cityscape. The view from my office was spectacular. For the relatively brief time I was there, I managed to pack in a lot of experiences. Unfortunately I only captured a few of them on film.

Before the service, I had never been out of Minnesota, flown in an airplane or done a cross country road trip. San Francisco opened my eyes to a wondrous new world all around me. It defined the beginnings of my wanderlust and a quest to answer those long dormant hunger pangs.

In a very short time, I became one of the wealthiest men in my barracks – in service lingo. I had a library of over 100 paperback books available for lending out, a record collection of: 45 rpm hits, a Vespa motor scooter and most importantly, a second job at an art theater.

That job earned me almost one hundred dollars a month after taxes. I was saving my army pay of eighty dollars a month and only spending part of my secondary income. I was the classic big fish in a small khaki pond.

The Larkin Theater was an art house theater that specialized in foreign films. Most of the time, two girls and I ran the place. At least the owner let us believe we did. My job was ticket taker, usher, janitor, Saturday morning phone secretary and overall gopher. The two ticket takers (whose names I’ve long since forgotten) were high schoolers working part-time until they could squeak through 12th grade and move on to cosmetology school. Our backgrounds were similar and we became comrades in the arts.

I absolutely loved my job. It was my first introduction to foreign films, which I love to this day. Ninety percent of my films from Netflix are foreign films.

In 1964, Haight-Ashbury was just a nondescript street corner in a rundown part of town. I went there many times to hang out with a couple of ex-servicemen. They had girlfriends upstairs and weed in the fridge. And a lot of very strange visitors. A quiet night was lounging in their hammocks, drinking cheap wine and listening to jazz or pre-psychedelic rock and roll.

When we were buzzed enough, I’d climb aboard my Vespa and weave my way back to the Presidio, hoping that neither cop nor curb would curtail my long ride home. I’m embarrassed by my actions now but back then it was all part of the lifestyle of any service man on the loose in the big city.

With my Vespa under foot, I began exploring the city. Flying up and down the hills, I rode through the Marina, the Palace of Fine Arts (before restoration), Nob Hill, Market Street, Golden Gate Park and the beach. Just to name a few. Back then, I was probably riding too fast, drinking and driving and never wearing a helmet. Fortunately, I survived the stupidity of my youth.

I traveled up and down the coast on weekends, south down to Half Moon Bay and north up to Sausalito, Stinson Beach, Mount Tamalpais and the numerous World War Two fortifications across the bay from the Presidio.

Back then, Sausalito was just a small town across the bay. It began as a ship repair yard during World War Two and grew exponentially after that. By the early sixties a lot of the Beats had migrated from San Francisco to Sausalito. They hung out in the dank dreary bars and coffee shops that dotted the waterfront.

Everyplace I’ve lived, visited or hung around has had its fair share of characters. The Presidio was no different.

My entrepreneurial skills were nothing compared to the young dark-skinned fellow who always had several girlfriends in his posse. He lent them out to friends and associates-for a price. We thought he was quite a businessman back then. Today you’d just call him a pimp.

There was the natural born hustler who worked evenings attending to the mainframe (pre) computer in company headquarters and then did other people’s KP duty (kitchen patrol) five days a week. His going rate was $25.00 dollar cash per day, non-negotiable. He always had willing takers lined up outside his barracks door. That’s $500.00 cash per month – back in 1964. And he didn’t pay taxes on it either!

I befriended an angry black man who hated whites. Go figure. He liked me because I wanted to be a writer. He was a writer and felt a kinship to my vernacular struggles despite my pale skin.

I envied the two GIs whose sole job was to travel each day to Sausalito to maintain the general’s yacht docked there. They were even allowed to take it out for a cruise just to test the engines. I begged to go along but they always refused my request. Something about their Golden Egg.

There was a German immigrant who got drafted and meant to better his English while serving his new found country. While he practiced his diction on me, he introduced me to the arts in San Francisco. Together we attended numerous plays, art gallery openings and museums. We saw “Fantasticks” and the song “Try to Remember” broke my heart thinking about someone back home. My friend was a lot smarter than I was but I think he found in me a willing student to learn about the arts.

We had an illustrator in our barracks. He and I would get into heated arguments all the time because he hated Joan Baez. Who doesn’t like Joan Baez? Other than that, he was an incredibly talented artist and great guy in his own right.

I befriended the intellectual of our group of malcontents. Evenings and weekends, he was flipping Victorian houses, ‘Old Ladies,’ before it became trendy. He invited me to join him in his real estate ventures. Like an idiot, I said no because I had a real job. Besides, who makes money by fixing up old houses in San Francisco and then selling them for three to four times their purchase price?

We always laughed at the fellow who got blind drunk every weekend. We thought it a bit obsessive but not particularly out of character for the characters around us. Strange how attitudes change over time. Now I feel nothing but compassion for him and wonder what must have become of him.

But most memorable, was the young female recruit in my office, who was working her way up through the ranks (literally). She preferred officers, especially the married ones whose wives were in other states. She had no shame. She was a working girl. And very good at what she did. Mind you, her typing skills were atrocious. Not that it mattered very much.

My stay in San Francisco ended all too quickly with marching papers to Louisiana and an end to the wonderful fantasy world that had been all mine for that brief period of time.

I’m grateful I was able to capture on film some of those moments if for no other reason than to use them as screen savers and as an excuse to reflect back on a time when peace and love ruled the world and a kid, full of wild ideas, lived briefly in that city on the bay.

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