My Life as a Hippie

This title, of course, is deceiving. I’ve never been a hippie. I was born in 1962, far too late in the century to have become a hippie. I was, however, fascinated by hippies. They seemed cool. They seemed–appropriately enough–hip.

Growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky, there were no hippies or at least there was no real hippie movement. Oh, there were some hippies over in Letcher County–they founded Appalshop. In fact, they’re still there. There was a time when a “busload” of hippies was rumored to be coming to Harlan County to check out our horrible living conditions. Turns out that they were just run of the mill Communists, not really hippies at all.

My older brother knew a guy who was going to become a hippie. Charles was his name. Charles had been in and out of “Reform School,” that shadowy institution that none of us really knew much about it. Charles, however, had actually been there. Charles was quite fond of my brother for some reason. You must understand that my brother was a straight A student and all round good kid. Never got in trouble. For some reason, though, he occasionally attracted “friends” who were sketchy to say the least. Charles would occasionally follow my brother home from school. He’d hang out at the house for a while until my mother fed him. Sometimes, she would even give him a couple of dollars.

Charles once followed us home from school on a rare day when my brother had a bad day at school. He had a dust-up with a teacher over some silly infraction. When we got home, my brother laid out the story to Mom. Mom had no tolerance for injustice doled out to her children and made it clear that she would deal with the situation. Charles sat at our kitchen table and took it all in. When Mom was done, he said: “Don’t you worry, Mrs. Williams. I know a feller in reform school who’s gonna kill that teacher soon as he gets out.” That’s the kind of guy Charles was. Mom just said: “Thank you, Charles.” Secretly, I hoped that guy would get out soon.

One day in the summer, I was walking home from Russell’s Grocery, when–much to my surprise–Charles stepped out from behind a tree. He was probably 15 at the time. His hair was shaved down to a close crew cut. He wore mirror sunglasses, a buck skin vest (no shirt) and love beads. “Do you know me?” “Yes, Charles, I know you.” He explained that he had been released from Reform School. Of course, he followed me home.

Mom talked to Charles about his adventures in Reform School, and he announced that he was going to move to “The City” and become a hippie. I noted that his hair was far too short, but he explained that the Draconian rules of Reform School required that look. I think that’s the last time he was at our house. I don’t think he ever became a hippie, but his ambition gave me a new-found respect for him.

Back to the real hippies. During the Summer, we would sometimes travel to Utah to visit my grandparents or to Colorado Springs to visit the Air Force Academy for whom my Dad was a recruiter. On those trips, I saw the real hippies. I saw one in a Stuckey’s somewhere in the West once. I just stared at him. I saw one get arrested on the street in Salt Lake City, too. Very cool.

Once, when we were in Salt Lake, President Nixon came to speak at Temple Square. My Papaw was a security guard at Temple Square and stood on the stage with Nixon. This was probably 1969. The hippies were out in force. War protesters carrying signs–the whole nine yards. My Dad put me on his shoulders so I could see Papaw, but really I was checking out the hippies.

Somewhere in this sea of humanity are my Papaw and Richard Nixon…and a bunch of hippies.

The only person I ever saw in Harlan County that I thought was a hippie was the son-in-law of the people who lived across the street from us. He had long hair and a beard and wore hippie clothes. My little brother and I would peek out the front window of the house just to get a look at him. I knew he was a hippie, because my Dad said so.

At this point, I should confess that I didn’t really want to be a hippie. First, hippies were draft-dodgers and war protesters, which was really frowned upon in our home. Second, let’s face facts here–hippies were dirty, and I’ve never enjoyed being dirty. Third, they were dope fiends, and I was never into the drug scene. Nevertheless, they fascinated me.

I did have some love beads. My Mom bought them from some Indian kids when we drove through an Arizona reservation one time. I wore them proudly, although I’m sure they clashed with my otherwise cherubic appearance.

I wouldn’t have been a good hippie. Oh, sure, I would have loved the lack of responsibility and free love aspect. I hated school with a passion, so “dropping out” would have been right in my wheel house. Communal living, on the other hand, has never been my “bag”–as a hippie might say. I don’t like sharing my sleeping quarters with family, much less strangers. The being filthy would have been a drag (another hippie word!). Plus, I’m a bit of a germaphobe, and most hippies looked slap eat up with germs.

Typical hippie filthiness. There’s not enough hand sanitizer on Earth to get me in the middle of all that.

Hippies were also liberals. I’m talking real liberals, not the kind people talk about today. For example, a hippie wouldn’t take a political donation from a corporation. Of course, this assumes that a hippie would run for office which he or she certainly would not. They believed in real collective living–everyone living together and lying around in a big pile. I guess the word “Communism” comes from “commune,” and hippies loved communes. Like true Socialists, hippies would have seized the means of production if working weren’t so antithetical to the hippie credo. Now, I never was all that liberal and certainly didn’t live in a liberal culture. As I’ve noted, free love would have been cool or even groovy, but eventually the hippies and I would have clashed over something like the capital gains tax.

When they drove, hippies drove vans. I don’t even like mini-vans. Regular vans are certainly out of the question. Nowadays, full size vans are the typical mode of conveyance of serial killers. I prefer BMWs–definitely not a hippie ride.

Typical hippie van. I prefer my metallic gray BMW 328. I won’t even put a bumper sticker on my car.

I would have been good at sounding like a hippie. I’ve had an annoying habit of using the word “man” most of my life, as in “What’s up, man?” “Man” was very much a hippie word. So was “dude,” although it’s made quite the comeback in recent years. I always wanted to use the word “groovy,” too. Maybe I could bill myself as “The Groovy Lawyer.” “Cool,” of course, was a staple of the hippie lexicon, borrowed from the Beatniks. I still use “cool” in everyday conversation.

I also liked hippie music. The Beatles were liked by hippies, and I like the Beatles. Same goes for Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and countless others. Hell, I heard a recording of Charles Manson singing once, and he wasn’t half bad for a psychotic, murdering hippie. Say what you will about hippies, they dug some cool music.

So, I didn’t become a hippie, and I really had no chance to do so. That’s probably good, because you eventually become an old hippie. Worse, you become a former hippie and end up kowtowing to The Man like the rest of us, unless you become The Man.

Example of the tragic outcome of the old hippie. Nothing groovy about this.

In Maui a few years ago, I met a guy who said he moved there in 1969 to live in a commune. He never left. He didn’t look much like a hippie. So, I asked him what he did now, forty years later. He said he worked in construction, but added: “I’ll always be a hippie, man.” What could I say? “That’s cool, man.” It was a groovy exchange.

Still yet, I have admiration for the hippies. I know many folks–now conservative pillars of society–who proudly declare that they are former hippies. I also know people who still claim to be hippies, although that’s doubtful. Being a hippie now is like claiming to be an anarchist. Maybe you are, but the glory days passed long ago.

So, if you’re an old hippie, I salute you. Now, get a haircut and take a bath.

© 2012

Love and the Color TV

Your author pictured in the middle being forced to watch black and white TV. I can’t even look directly at it. December 1962.

“This is the happiest day of my life.”  Thus I spoke one day in 1967.  I was 4 years old and talking to a television salesman.  Why was I so happy?  My family had just purchased its first color television.  Color TV, my friends.  It was that simple.  I had seen Batman and Get Smart with their tantalizing “In Color” graphics at the bottom.  Until that day, I could only dream of what that really meant.  Lost in Space, too was in color, as were many other TV shows.  Even at 4 years old, I knew that a life-changing event was unfolding.

My first color TV. No, it wasn’t crooked. That’s the photo–I think.

I think the TV was an RCA.  Could have been a Philco or Zenith.  Of course, it had a round screen.  No remote control, either.  The only remote control I had ever seen was on an episode of Dennis the Menace.  It was roughly the size of a brick.  No, our new TV had a dial.  That was okay, because I liked to sit so close to it that I could just reach up and turn the channels as needed.  My mother told me that sitting close to the TV would cause me to die of radiation poisoning, but I was willing to risk it.  (As a side note, she said standing beside the TV would give one a mega-dose of deadly radiation waves.  I never bothered to find out if any of that was true. After all, you couldn’t see the screen).

TVs used to be complex.  They were called TV “sets,” for some reason.  If you removed the back, the cabinet was full of vacuum tubes of every size imaginable.  Those tubes held all the magic, especially the big one–the picture tube.  I was never allowed behind the TV.  My mother made it clear that to venture to the back of the TV was almost sure to result in sudden and fatal electrocution injuries.  I did, however, have occasion to watch the TV repairman work on it.

Oh, yes, there were TV repairmen.  They would come to your house and work on the TV.  They carried large cases full of vacuum tubes.  Once, I mistook the Jewel Tea Man for Mr. Simms, the TV repairman.  I furiously castigated him for being so late to fix the TV.  I think I was 6 years old at the time.  I was serious about the TV.

TVs used to be full of these. They held all the magic.

Remember vertical and horizontal “hold” dials?  If you do, you’re as old as I am.  For the uniformed, these were tuning knobs you could use to adjust the picture if the screen image began rolling or zig zagging. “DON’T TOUCH THOSE DIALS.”  If you messed up the picture, you might never get it right again.

TV was dangerous in those days, too.  If you broke the picture tube, the TV would explode, killing everyone in the house.  “DON’T HIT THE SCREEN WITH ANYTHING.”  There was the poor boy who–for reasons that remained obscure–kissed the screen and died immediately.  My mom never said whether he was related to the boy who died under similar circumstances kissing a toaster, but it seems likely.  Perhaps my unbridled love of the TV made mom concerned that I would get carried away with passion.  At least I understood the toaster story, given that I liked to stare at my reflection in it like a small Narcissus.

TV stations used to go off the air at midnight, some at 11:30.  They’d usually sign off with The Star Spangled Banner.  You’d just have white noise or maybe a test pattern until 6:00 a.m.

Black and White Test Pattern. What this was supposed to test or why it had an Indian on it are beyond me.

I don’t know the purpose of the test pattern, but someone used it to test something every night.  The old TVs were powered by the magic of the cathode ray:

Diagram showing the basic set up of a TV picture tube.

To this day, I don’t understand any of this.  To me, here is how it works:

Your author’s basic understanding of television technology.

We all know the power of television.  Dress up any troglodyte and put him on TV enough, and–PRESTO!–he’ll be elected to public office.  Have you ever been on TV?  Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re just a little better person than you were before?  People will say:  “Hey!  I saw you on TV!”  You could be on TV eating a live squirrel and people would still think:  “Hmmm.  There’s something different about him, now.”  The first time I was on TV, I was probably 8 years old.  It was the Harlan County Poke Sallet Festival Parade.  My brother and I were riding in a convertible.  I think it was John L. Belcher’s car.  If not, it should have been.  It was the kind of car John L would have driven.

Virgil Q. Wacks filmed the parade for his TV show, Virgil Q. Wacks Variety Time.  If you’re not familiar with Virgil Q, I can’t describe his show.  It was a kind of an advertising/travelogue program.  He filmed us in the car and there we were–on TV.  His film collection is archived at East Tennessee State University where we live forever.

There were many disadvantages to growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky, but TV wasn’t one of them.  We had cable.  That’s right–cable TV in the 1960’s  It was the only way to get a TV signal in the mountains.  (As a side note, I am the owner of 1 share of Harlan Community Television, Inc., the longtime local cable company).  In those days, TV channels ranged from 2 through 13, with the little understood UHF channel to boot.  We had signals on all the channels on the dial:  Lexington, Kingsport, Knoxville,  Asheville.  We might have been Ground Zero in the War on Poverty, but by God we won the TV War before it even started.

I loved that color TV.  Eventually, the dial (or channel changer, as I called it)  fell off.  As most families did, we replaced it with a pair of pliers until it could be located, a minor inconvenience.  Sometimes, I would lie on my back and watch the TV upside down just for the hell of it.

I spent many hours in front of that TV. Yes, Batman was in color.  Spectacular color, too.  By the end of the ’60’s, everything was in color! When I was around 8, I started watching sports on that TV.  Hey, kids:  There used to be one Major League Baseball game a week on TV.  It was called, fittingly enough, The Game of the Week.  It came 0n Saturdays, and I always watched.  There was also an NBA Game of the Week.  My earliest sports memory is Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers vs. Lew Alcindor and the Bucks.   You rarely saw some athletes at all.  The only time you’d see some players would All-Star games or playoffs.  The NFL, being ahead of its time, always had a couple of games on Sundays.

I am part of the TV Generation.  I knew the TV schedule every night of the week.  When I was 3 years old, I surprised my parents by counting to 100 one night.  When my mother asked where I learned that, I could only reply:  “From the TV.”  I was told–and still am–that TV will rot my brain.  Perhaps it has.  I know the lyrics to the theme for Gilligan’s Island, yet I will sometimes forget my children’s birth dates.

One of the calling cards of the intellectual is the refrain that “I don’t watch television.”  I’m not an intellectual, and I do watch TV.  Always have, always will.  I watch sports on TV.  I watch movies on TV.  I watch sitcoms and true crime and reality shows.  I’ll watch anything for a few minutes.  I’ll watch Toddlers & Tiaras just to get outraged.  I’ll watch shows about 900 pound people.  I’ll watch reruns of King of Queens just to marvel at how it could have been on the air for years.  It’s as funny as a truck load of dead babies, but I’ll watch it.  I’ll watch the news, the weather, the History Channel.  I’ll watch Road House for 500th time.  I may know more about the Beverly Hillbillies than any person alive, and I’m proud of it.  TV series, miniseries, short films, previews, reviews–everything.

That first color TV didn’t stay around all that long.  Within a few years, my father enjoyed some financial success, and we had TVs everywhere.  We even got a remote control Zenith.  We had a TV in our bedroom (technically, it was my brother’s).  We had a TV in the kitchen, too. The old TV was relegated to the basement where we continued to use it, but it was now like an old horse put out to pasture.  Like a horse, it sat in that basement for many years after it quit working entirely.

Now, I have monstrous TVs.  46 inch, 60 inch, plasma, LCD, high def–you name it.  Hundreds and hundreds of channels–all at my finger tips.  I not only have a remote control, I have a pillow which doubles as a universal remote. None of them, though, ever thrilled me like the first one.  I’ve loved them all, but none of them–none–ever made me declare that it was the best day of my life.

One day, there may some disaster which destroys society and forces us to start over.  The first thing I’ll do is try to figure out how to build a TV.  TVs–like ships and airplanes–work on some kind of magic, I’m sure.  So, I don’t where I’d start, but I’d get right on it.

Oh, and it would have to be a color TV.

© 2012