S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Happy Endings,” Park illustrates instances over his life that prove Rule No. 1: Better lucky than good.
The forest beside me is being torn down for a housing development. The two fifty-by-a-hundred lots that abut this property were on the market for several years, but zoning and access problems scared buyers off.
Which was fine with me. I write in a studio that looks out on those lots and, not only are they replete with old growth cedar and fir trees, but the silence is absolute (even the deer and coyote slip past quietly).
I can’t imagine a better workspace. It’s so superior to other places I’ve written and drawn, in fact, that I’ve nothing to compare it to.
But it’s 2020 and Port Townsend (like much of the Left Coast) is under siege from property-hungry Boomers. I arrived just ahead of them and have reminded myself to enjoy it ever since. The north swath of the forest sold last Spring, and this Fall a lesbian couple from Olympia, Washington decided that—permit problems or not—they wanted to build on those lots. One of them was maybe 6’2” and three hundred pounds, the other a spindly woman who barely reached her waist.
I didn’t want to contemplate the logistics of that in the years ahead. Worse yet were their dogs. They lugged them everywhere—one a Yorkshire Terrier, I think, the other a Maltese—and the little bastards never stopped yapping.
This wouldn’t do. I tried to make the best of it, even went outside and introduced myself at one point, but when I discovered they were from Olympia and mentioned I’d gone to Evergreen State there the big one looked me up and down and sniffed.
“Yeah,” she said, “you look like it.”
So that’s how she wanted to play it? I went back inside, grabbed a signed copy of my first memoir, returned and gave it to them. It’d scared off everyone else to that point, but later—when she thought I wasn’t looking (or maybe hoping I was)—Jumbo flung it into the forest.
Things were looking bleak; I even contemplated moving again myself. Then last month, after the two of them toured the property with an architect, they returned to their SUV as Pancho lumbered by. He’s older than I am and, as usual, had the leash to his beagle Frank in one hand and an aluminum softball bat in the other. I asked him about it once and he claimed to use it as a cane, even as all I’d seen him do is swing it back and forth.
But it hardly matters around here, as this is the home of the Old Ones: stand out front long enough and you’re liable to see or hear anything. After Pancho passed I lifted my garbage can and lugged it out to the street.
Jumbo, still clutching that nasty Yorkie to her bosom, strode over to me.
“My God!” she exclaimed. “Why was that old man carrying a baseball bat?”
It’s important (as the sand runs out) to look up, thank the universe for small favors.
“Well,” I said finally, “you gotta remember this is North Beach: if your dog weighs twenty pounds or less you have to carry a bat. Coyotes will attack it, anyway, but at least you’ll be armed.”
“I pack an axe myself.”
Now see … if she’d read my memoir, she wouldn’t have believed a word I said. Instead she hurried back to their car and that was the last I saw of those characters. After the deal collapsed the owner of the lots sold them to a couple south of me; they love the woods and plan to leave them undisturbed.
All because Pancho walked by when I was outside myself (which, other than my daily walks, is pretty rare). It’s why, when young people ask me for advice, I always tell them Rule No. 1 is: Better lucky than good.
When young people ask me for advice, I always tell them Rule No. 1 is: Better lucky than good. … You had to be lucky to survive a life like mine.
My life is rife with examples. Being born a cartoonist, sprouting to six-and-a-half-feet in an average-sized family, surviving those brain diseases and then—when I was in high school—picking Dr. Culp as my physician. The rest of my family went to a clinic, but I preferred Culp’s proximity to the school.
I was an hour north in Longview when I received my draft physical in ’66. I immediately headed to Portland to see Culp, hoping I could waggle some kind of excuse from him. He was a stern, humorless bastard, and it seemed like a-million-to-one shot, but this was my life we were talking about. What did I have to lose?
To my surprise he was less sanguine about my military prospects than I was. He wrote me a note that was so absurd (“As a taxpayer I don’t want to pay for the two years this boy will spend in the stockade”) that I only brought it to the physical for laughs. It got plenty of those, believe me, not just from my peers (whose own excuses were way better than that) but the soldiers who saw it.
Then I reached the last interview, resigned to my fate and wondering if the stockade might be preferable to ’Nam … and became the second of four hundred attendees to fail that day. (The first had one arm.)
All because Culp (unbeknownst to me) was an active Major in the Marine Medical Corps. He’d sent the Draft Board a note identical to the one he handed me, but this one included his military rank, which made what he said holy writ. They couldn’t kick me out the door fast enough.
I returned to the Bay Area shortly thereafter, only to run headlong into alcoholism. When I vowed to make the most of it enablers lined up to help. First was Lonesome Louie: he gave me free room and board and stashed me in airport lockers when I passed out. Then Jud LeFay, my boss at Bank of America, who topped my thermos with vodka every morning. Their generosity of spirit allowed me to experience blackouts, hangovers and drunk tanks with a minimum of distractions.
So when I woke on a pay toilet in Los Angeles later—with no idea how I got there—I had my sea legs under me. Rustled up a car wash job and a bush to sleep under the very same day.
I was working a thousand miles north in a pulp mill that Spring when I checked a gas tank with a lit cigarette in my mouth. Did the subsequent explosion blind, kill or maim my drunken ass (as it should have)? No, all I lost was every hair on my face, plus any pretense of hipness. I wasn’t even fired, in fact, as the union stepped in to save me.
Leaving me to fall twenty feet from a water tower later (only surviving because I landed on the wood chips I’d failed to clean up earlier), drive a dump trunk through a corrugated wall and smash one rail car into another at such high speed that I was thrown from the cab.
I landed ten feet away on the frozen ground. That’s where the foreman found me later, still unconscious but otherwise intact. I’d pushed my luck as far as I dared in that town, so retreated to the Bay Area.
Just as the Summer of Love and psychedelics (the perfect complement to booze) appeared on the scene. Now I could not only stay up all night but have a chance at remembering it afterwards.
And when I was ready to begin my chemical journey who shows up but Carl Sampson. He was an old buddy from high school and had taken LSD several times himself, so offered to be my “spirit guide,” give me (as he put it) a “head start” on the weirdness.
Instead he waited until I was high, then drove me (in my own car, no less) to the nearest park and dumped me. It seemed treacherous at the time, but he told me it was the best he could do, that I’d either cut it on mind benders or I wouldn’t.
“It’s sink or swim time, High,” he said. “And if you lose it, if LSD turns out to be too scary for you? Well, who wants to see that?”
I’ve always admired the logic and clarity of my Bay Area buddies, Sampson in particular. Plus he’d given me Owsley acid, maybe the best psychedelic ever made, and I so loved it I asked him for more later that night.
You had to be lucky to survive a life like mine; maybe the best example is the Russian River nuns. I was up there with a hundred friends for a river float, and the first night—fueled by alcohol and two hits of street acid—I slipped into the forest by myself. Carl and I had come upon a group of nuns in a guarded compound there earlier, and delirious as I was I thought they’d appreciate my take on religion.
Which wasn’t even the craziest part. That came when I tried to navigate a tangled, pitch black woods with a pitcher of beer in each hand. I lost the first one immediately and had to hug the other to my chest while I stumbled blindly forward.
Only to spill it minutes later when I leapt from a tree. The nuns were spread out on a hill beneath me, praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary, and I’d shimmied onto a limb so I could drop out of the sky and surprise them. My plan was to land on the front of the statue and, considering it was a six-foot drop, my aim was surprisingly good: unfortunately it wasn’t made of concrete but papier-mache. So when I hit it—proclaiming myself Chonga, God of Tarpaper! (an old Lenny Bruce line)—my boots went straight through it. I pitched forward and rolled down the hill, toppling the nuns like bowling pins.
Terror ensued, of course. (My being huge and dressed head-to-toe in black didn’t help.) This all went on without me, as I was busy extricating my feet and legs from the statue. Once I had I rose to my full height, spread my arms and proclaimed any self-respecting deity would loathe supplicants. Had barely managed another sentence when I looked around, realized I was talking to myself.
The nuns were fleeing across the lawn, headed for the safety of the lodge. They’d obviously misinterpreted my intentions and were too far away to catch: I’d barely reached the porch when the last of them slammed and locked the doors behind her.
It’s at this point, if I were relating the tale to young people, that I’d cite Rule No. 2: Never take two hits of something you haven’t tried before. Because those doors were glass paned and I could see right through them, observe the hysterical nuns running around in circles.
I like to believe that—on a single dose of acid (and maybe a couple less pitchers of beer)—I would have come to my senses and headed back to the river float. Instead I punched my fist through the glass, swung open the door, raced inside and grabbed the nearest nun by the ankle.
She’d been hiding beneath a couch and struggled mightily as I dragged her into the light. I was trying to talk over her screams, explain how I was only there for a chat, when I heard a loud voice at the top of the stairs:
“HEY, ASSHOLE! WHAT THE HELL’S GOING ON HERE!?”
I looked up, recognized the old watchman I’d met earlier that day. He’d chased off Sampson and I with the same shotgun he was loading now.
That was my Come to Jesus moment. I dumped the nun, raced through the still open door. Was maybe halfway across the yard when the watchman’s first barrel took out the fence to my right. I started zigzagging and his second shot passed so close I could feel the draft.
Then I was over the fence and into the woods. I stumbled ahead for a bit, finally leaned against a redwood to catch my breath, let the acid/adrenaline rush subside. As the minutes passed the incident devolved into a silly prank in my mind, a clumsy attempt at livening those nuns’ day.
Good Samaritan stuff, really. So I was as surprised as anyone when the cops arrived later. They pulled into the party site, strolled up to the bonfire and announced they were looking for a belligerent, drunken giant, dressed all in black, who’d tried to rape some nuns.
It was me or Johnny Cash and he was nowhere around. I was handcuffed and driven away in a patrol car and here, once again, is where the Lord of Drunken Losers intervened. Because the next thing I knew it was morning and I was waking in the cab of Tony DeBola’s truck. How had I got there? What had the cops done with me? What about the attempted rape charges? No one at the party knew anything, least of all me. I was missing a hundred bucks, so either the sheriff had rolled me or I’d offered it as damages for the door and statue.
Which seemed exorbitant at the time (like the scorn of the partygoers who’d swallowed their drugs in a panic the night before) but hey! my luck only stretched so far.
The summer before, after a month in New York City and a week in the Bahamas, Tony DeBola, Dick Hale and I drove a Buick Grand Prix from Miami to California. We were supposed to deliver it to a dealer in Sacramento but the damn thing was a lemon that we, of course, abused mightily in our haste to get home.
By the time we limped into the dealership steam was billowing from the engine. This was a problem, as I’d put up the two-hundred-dollar deposit (the last of my pot dealer cash) and we were due twice that upon delivery.
If the car were in good condition. It was ten in the morning and already a hundred degrees outside as we walked into the manager’s office. I handed him the keys and papers and he looked us up and down skeptically. (It was September of ’67: he might never have seen a hippie before, much less three as scraggly as we were.)
“How’s the car running, fellas?” he asked.
“Oh, great!” I replied.
“Uh huh.” He motioned to a salesman on the floor, tossed him the keys.
“Hey, Larry!” he said. “Drive this Grand Prix around the block, make sure it checks out!”
I kissed my deposit good-bye as we plopped down outside the office. It had been a long, difficult drive and we’d spent every dime we had. Now we’d have to hitchhike to the Bay Area in that suffocating heat.
From where we sat we could watch Larry pull out, then steam around the block. When minutes passed and he still hadn’t returned we feared the worst.
But finally he straggled back. Parked the Buick and sauntered inside with a smug look on his face; gave us a long sideways glance, as if to say Listen to this! then tossed the keys on the manager’s desk.
“Damn thing runs like a dream!” he declared.
What!? Had we heard that right!? Was this possible!? It shocked even us, and we were jaded young men. We signed the appropriate papers, received our four hundred in cash, then the manager motioned to Larry again.
“Hey!” he said. “Grab one of the loaner cars, drive these characters to the Greyhound depot.”
We followed him out to the parking lot; loaded up and started across town with DeBola and me in back and Hale in front. I didn’t want to queer the deal but fuck it! I had to know.
“Hey, Larry!” I said finally.
“Why’d you tell your boss the Grand Prix was okay? It’s pretty fucked up.”
He laughed. “Pretty fucked up!? Did you notice how long it took me to get back? Damn thing died twice just circling the block!”
“So you lied to the manager because …?”
“Oh, fuck that asshole. I’m quitting today, anyway.”
This is what I wanted to tell those nuns, how that’s when you know God loves you.