From the chapter “Naked Girls and Lost Planet Airmen”
Summer, 1972….how sweet it was–for some
I started getting into fly-fishing and the American West. Huey, Frank, Bruce Campbell, and several other guys and I took a life-changing road trip to Montana in the spring of ‘72. We drove out there in my ‘57 Chevy pickup and a couple of other old junkers. It was our own fear-and-loathing trip: We were modern-day Kerouacs without the literary skills. We had blow for the drive, bags of pot, cases of beer, pints of bourbon, sleeping bags, guitars, flyrods, and even a couple of dogs. We started by driving up to Reno in the late afternoon and hitting the casinos for a few drink-filled hours and then driving all night—snorting coke and drinking beer—to Weiser, Idaho, the home of an old-time fiddler’s convention and bluegrass festival.
Driving near the Oregon–Nevada state line at four A.M., I saw huge, black Carlos Castaneda monsters charging out of the sagebrush at the truck. I outraced them all. We finally got into a whitewash-sky Idaho at dawn and crashed amidst camping bluegrassers, most of whom came in RVs and camper-shells on pickups. We were way out of our normal, long-haired scene. The pickers mostly wore Stetsons and nice boots. Some couples had matching fringed outfits. There were folding chairs and tailgate parties and pavilion tents and crafts, very straight middle-America stuff. I don’t think those folks had seen many long-hairs. Frank woke up on the lawn camping area in his sleeping bag at noon. He was surrounded by circles of guys in white straw rancher hats strumming, picking, and fiddling. He squinted into the bright Idaho sun and croaked, “When does it fuckin’ start?”
We moseyed out of Weiser after a day or so and crossed over the Lolo Pass into Montana, and for the next three weeks we camped out on free-running rivers under the Big Sky. We fished, and beat the friendly local short-hairs in softball games, and drank and played music in the legendary old cowpoke and gambler bars in Virginia City, Montana, where Danny Morrison and other Marin expats were tending bar and playing Cowboys and Indians. Some of our buddies were up there hiding from the draft, sneaking in and out of Canada, working on no-questions-asked mining, timbering, and ranching jobs under assumed names.
Virginia City—VC, as it’s called—was a real drunkard’s dream if you ever did see one. It was a Wild West town, a one-street affair with hundred-year-old false-front red and tan brick buildings with step-sided roof lines and arched brickwork windows, and a handful of authentic saloons (way more than the tiny population should require) including the Bale of Hay, where Wild Bill Hickok once played cards. You could see the original log houses and half-dugouts, with their tiny windows and bend-down-as-you-enter doors, built by the first cowboys and miners that came there after the Civil War. Our buddies were living in them. The original Boot Hill overlooked the town. Rustlers and other outlaws were hanged up there. We went up and cracked a six-pack and lay on their graves. It was still an outlaw town. There were long-haired wannabe artists, some of them with real talent for western art, bloodshot early morning drunks, and lean, sun-baked miners and wranglers tossing back a shot and a cold one in the bars at noon. The local sheriff was in the bar as well. He had a stick-on light that he put on the roof of his car when he made an arrest. Guys had names like Knot-Hole, Buckshot, and Red. It was the kind of place where you might invent for yourself whatever character you wanted to be. It was a good place to avoid the draft, for sure.
The Vietnam War had made guys make radical moves. None of us thought that fighting and killing our little yellow brothers was a good idea. It’s funny, because I grew up playing army and good guys and bad guys and all that, but when it came to the real thing: Forget it. There was no way in hell I was going to go get killed or kill someone. Not for some trumped-up bullshit like the Commie threat. As Mohammed Ali said, “I ain’t got nothin’ against no Congs.” One man’s Commie is another man’s freedom fighter. A few years later, we were buddy-buddy with the people of that land of killing fields.
We all evaded the draft in different ways. Some fled to Canada, some dropped out in Montana, some painted bulls-eyes on their asses and got deferred. I was called up, but I found the ultimate way out, by using the Selective Service’s own bureaucracy. The first time, I went to the induction center in grimy downtown Oakland. There were two hundred draftees in the cold, old government building trying to get into the army and four of us trying to get out. I refused a blood test on the grounds that needles scared me and was told by a gentle psychologist to go home.
Two years later, I was called up again. This time there were two hundred guys trying to get out, including the guy with the painted bull’s-eye on his ass (and the guy with the dead lizard tied to his privates with a leather thong—most inventive—don’t think it worked for him, though), and four young bucks trying to get in. I passed that pre-induction physical and was told that at the next one in a few weeks I should bring my toothbrush because I’d be leaving directly from there for boot camp! Sorry, but no way, Jose. I waited until two days after the induction physical and typed a letter on my mom’s old Olivetti stating that I’d been out of town on that date and would they please reschedule me for the next one? The next time I heard from them, Nixon had resigned and our troops were being pulled off the embassy roof in Saigon.
Fifty-eight thousand of our guys died. Countless Vietnamese were killed and maimed by napalm. Thousands of vets came back broken, and they still are. You can’t raise a generation on “Leave it to Beaver” and then ask them to slaughter women and children. It was way too schizophrenic. America’s egomaniacal leaders conducted a proxy war with the Soviets and the Chinese, and used our schoolmates, our buddies, as machine-gun fodder. It was as obvious then as it is now. A shameful waste. All we are saying is give peace a chance.
That Montana trip made quite an impression on me. I’d always pictured it as a bit of Shangri-la. My dad was born there and summered at ranches when he was a teenager and regaled us with tales of tough cowpokes, quarter-horses, cattle drives, and starry nights around the campfire. He tried to recreate that for us in the Sierras during our California childhood and succeeded to a pretty high degree. Some of that old Montana was still there in ’72. We camped up in the Pioneer Mountains and caught cutthroat trout and cooked them in bacon grease in a skillet over an open pine fire and washed them down with iced Budweiser and pints of bourbon. We drove on gravel roads over high ridges—where snowfields lay back in the aspen and graced creases of the bare peaks—and through wildflower-starred meadows. We saw the lonely old log cabins out on the open slopes, falling back into the earth log by log. “One more payment and it’s all ours, honey,” read the postcards. The state wasn’t much touched by tourism yet, though that would change in time. The roadside bars and mercantiles still had jackalopes and elk heads above the bar and wagon wheels on the wooden sidewalks not because of tourists, but because it was Montana, dammit! We came up against some tough, hard-working men with short hair and sun-and-wind-burned leathery faces who turned out to be good guys, once you bought ‘em a beer and talked some fishing.
The day we drove down out of Idaho through the Lolo Pass into the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana, my beat-up grey ‘57 Chevy pickup, the one with the Appaloosa Horses logo on the driver’s door, broke down. Frank wrenched on a new distributor under a funky corrugated metal awning next to a gas station/auto parts store where the Lolo Pass road met the then two-lane Highway 93, the north–south main artery of the Bitterroot Valley. Towering black-bottomed thunderclouds were rolling up the valley from the south. Snow-capped peaks rose into the sky to the west. A warm wind blew through the lodgepole pines and cottonwoods. The country was big! It was beyond words. My heart said to me: This is the place, this is where you belong.
Someday I’d be back. For a while, anyway.
(excerpted from my book, “867-5309/jenny, the song that saved me”,..online from Charles River Press/Amazon/Barnes & Noble…..OR, BETTER YET!! buy an autographed copy or two from me –a great Christmas present – message me ‘Alex Call’ on Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org)