The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories
My Summer of Love
It’s not always the big names and big places that make the biggest impression. Sometimes, when I look back on my travels, it’s a brief incident, a passing encounter, a glimpse, a glance — something that seemed inconsequential at the time—that I remember most. Occasionally, if that moment touched me in a special way, it will linger in my memory, clear and intense, years later. That’s what happened when my friends and I went on a road trip to California one summer many years ago.
The summer was a special one, 1967, the Summer of Love. Gary, Steve, Jack, and I had just finished our junior year at the University of Washington and had set out for the Bay Area. We planned to spend a few days in San Francisco and then continue on to LA.
San Francisco was the big draw. According to a popular song by the Youngbloods, there’d be a “whole generation” of “gentle people” there that summer for a “love-in.” I don’t think we swallowed the whole story, but the bit about the love-in sounded pretty good. I remember a lot of stupid wisecracks about “scoring.”
The drive from Seattle was a little bumpy, figuratively speaking. We spent the first night squeezed four to a car in a cornfield just off the Interstate, and the second in a funky motel arguing about who’d have to share a bed with whom. Finally, three mornings after leaving Seattle, we crossed the Bay Bridge, slipped into the fog that permeated the city, found our way to Haight Ashbury, and parked alongside Golden Gate Park.
Any fantasies about the Summer of Love took a big hit right there. As we got out of the car, I saw a raggedly line of young people in jeans and coats standing in the park holding plates while others ladled out food from big steaming pots. Here and there people sat on the grass, bent over the dishes on their laps, eating.
The food ladlers were the Diggers, a group of local hippies who’d come together to help feed Haight’s down and out. I could appreciate the community spirit, but the sight of so many young people waiting for a free meal on a cold, gray June morning was less than exhilarating.
Over on Haight, we passed clothes, record, and hookah shops, some with bars over their windows and doors. The sidewalk was littered with sandwich wrappers and cigarette butts. Now and then I’d catch a whiff of marijuana. Guys in pea coats and army jackets stood around watching other curious interlopers who were probably wondering, like us, where the Summer of Love had gone. Occasionally, a panhandler would hit us up for money, or a pea coat would mumble something to us about acid or weed. I felt like I was running a gauntlet.
Before long, we ducked into a bar, ordered sandwiches and beers, and asked the bartender about crash pads. He recommended a house up the street where people got help finding rooms. There’d be a meeting there that afternoon, he said, to announce what was available that night. With an hour to kill, we paid and went back outside.
A few blocks farther up Haight, we stopped into a record shop. While I thumbed through rows of psychedelic albums, “In a Gadda Da Vida,” a thundery rock song about love in the Garden of Eden, began playing on the record shop radio. One aisle over, a tall, long-haired guy, probably in his mid twenties, in leather jeans, embroidered blue shirt, leather boots, and granny glasses nuzzled a slim, stylish blonde about the same age. They looked like something out of a hippie Gentleman’s Quarterly.
Cool lovers, flamboyant albums, a portentous love anthem—it was almost like an ad concocted by some Haight promotional bureau. Still, the whole thing was a lot more appealing than the gritty street counterculture we’d seen so far.
By the time we got back to the clearinghouse, the meeting was underway. In a small room, a man in a black sweater and horn rimmed glasses sat in a chair describing the sleeping options available that night. About thirty of us sat on the floor listening.
My friends and I had been hoping to luck into a room with girls. That the audience was exclusively male was not encouraging. Neither were the rooming options. The host outlined the final one.
“This one’s Albert,” he said, glancing at a note card. “He’s about 70. He wants boys only. You’ll have to share a bed with him, but you shouldn’t have much trouble fending him off.” Jeez, I thought, who’s gonna be that desperate? How’s a guy supposed to sleep?
We wound up that night throwing down sleeping bags on a beach near Golden Gate Park harassed by sand fleas. Still, it had to be a lot better than fighting off Albert.
The next morning we tossed our sleeping bags in the car and started on down the coast. After a brief stop in Carmel to pick up some food, we were back in the car heading south. Gradually, the sky began to clear and the air warmed. Not far from Pismo Beach, a shiny red Pontiac GTO rumbled out from a side road and roared past us. A surfy, not overly bright looking teenager was driving, a pretty blonde scrunched up against him. “Typical California guy,” I muttered, “in his typical California car, with his typical California girl.” We chuckled: a warm sun, a flashy car, a pretty blonde. It felt like we were entering a different world.
By dusk, we’d reached the outskirts of Santa Barbara. In the distance, against some hills off to our left, lights were twinkling on in the fading evening light. Neon signs glared along the highway. Our car windows were open and the air was still warm. A voice murmured low on the radio. “Find the good station,” Steve said, glancing over at Gary. Gary turned up the volume and flipped the dial. “Wooly Bully,” a bouncy rock song pounded out. Wolfman Jack came on with his growling patter. It was a moment of contentment. I felt like we’d finally made it to California.
At about ten that night we got to LA and checked into a motel. We planned to stay there that night and then find a room near Malibu. Gary and Steve, though, weren’t ready to call it a night. They wanted to see Sunset Strip. 77 Sunset Strip, a popular TV show from a few years earlier, had turned the Strip into an American icon. Personally, I’d had enough time in the car that day, so while Gary and Steve set off, Jack and I stayed in, watched TV awhile, and turned in.
A couple hours later, Gary and Steve came back, boisterous and excited. They’d just got to the Strip, they said, when they pulled up next to a pink Cadillac at a stop light. Gary recognized the driver, Jo Collins, the April 1967 Playboy playmate of the month. She was cruising with a couple of girlfriends. Gary and Steve yelled over to her, they talked a bit, and Jo invited them to ride along in back.
I’d seen Jo Collins in Playboy; she was a knockout. I could just imagine Gary and Steve cruising up and down the Strip with Jo and her friends. I heartily wished I’d been there.
||The next day, we drove to Hermosa Beach, rented a corner room in a faded old beachfront hotel, and settled in for a short stay. The beach had seen better days. Every couple hundred yards, rickety old wooden piers jutted into the ocean, blocking any view of the coastline. The sun was barely discernable through thick smog that shaded the ocean a dull gray. A decade earlier, when my mom and I had come down to visit my aunt in Hollywood, enough sunlight had filtered through to cast a soft golden glow over everything. Those days were gone.
Still, people seemed intent on having a good time. On our first afternoon there, a surfer girl in a boardwalk Taco Bell told us, in all seriousness, that Hermosa “rocked out” on summer weekends. The phrase killed me. Where but LA, I wondered, could anyone, even a teenager, say something like ‘rocked out’ with a straight face?
The next day, while he was body surfing, Steve banged his shoulder into the hard packed sand and nearly passed out from the pain. We drove him to a nearby emergency room, where the young doctor who attended to him diagnosed a dislocated shoulder and quickly popped it back into place. They talked awhile. The doctor told Steve he used to go to the beach himself occasionally to catch up on his reading, but had to give it up because he wasn’t getting much done. The girls were too distracting.
On our last afternoon there, as I lay on the sand trying to read, a slim, pretty, bikini-clad blonde hobbled past me toward the boardwalk, her right leg withered by polio. Her face looked strained. In the soft sand she was obviously struggling, determined not to let her disability get the better of her. Here at a beach in la la land, where looking good was a priority, where teenage girls came to show off their bodies, she refused to conceal hers. No self-pity and a whole lot of heart, I thought. I almost fell in love on the spot.
The next day we packed up and started back to Seattle. I was pretty much ready. We’d done enough to store up a carload of memories. As the years passed, of course, most of them would grow dimmer, but not all. The hippie lovers in the Haight record shop, Santa Barbara at dusk, those images are still pretty clear to me. They’ve endured, I suspect, because they matched so well what I hoped California would be.
But the girl on the beach was another story. She wasn’t about expectations; she was just someone going about her day, an ordinary person, really, but with something special that set her apart: a quiet resolve not to give up, not to give in, to live a life like everyone else. I admired her then and I still do. That’s why, I suppose, of all my memories from that time, it’s her image I still see clearest of all.
© Paul Michelson September 2014
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