A World Away

A World Away

“Hey, man, it’s cool if you’re a fat little girl, everybody’s beautiful.” The tall young man was looking directly at me, his fringed vest swinging as he swayed to the earsplitting organ crescendos of the psychedelic band Mad River.

“I beg your pardon?” I replied.

At that instant Mr. D. led me away by the arm. “You don’t have to talk to him; he’s . . . uh . . . tripping.”

“Tripping? What kind of trip? Was he insulting me or complimenting me?”

“It doesn’t matter—he thinks everybody’s beautiful and that’s a good thing.”

It was the summer of 1967 and my mother, sister and I were on an outing to San Francisco with Mr. D., our middle school art teacher who had befriended the family. On that day, the band was Mad River, but on other weekends that summer we heard the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company playing for free in Golden Gate Park. I was a self-conscious 12-year-old, but when I saw how the music was moving everyone around me, I danced.

I was the younger, late-blooming child, one of two overprotected daughters in an Alameda West End family not affiliated with the Navy. Most of our neighbors were civilians who worked at the Naval Air Station just a block from our house, but our dad was a city employee. Almost all of our school friends were children of enlisted men and Chief Petty Officers. My sister, Ellen, and I acquired a new best friend every 18 months or so. At our school, the boys had ultra-short haircuts and hardly anybody dressed like a hippie.

We were so close to the base that we could see when the aircraft carriers were in port and we learned to instinctively pause in conversation to let the screaming fighter jets pass overhead, leaving their omnipresent soot on every horizontal surface. I know that our liberal parents—who were vehemently against the Vietnam War—probably felt oppressed by our proximity to the naval base, yet they doggedly stayed there, finally breathing a sigh of relief when the Navy packed up and left in 1997.

Mr. D’s progressive methods of teaching art raised eyebrows among the middle-school parents. With his full beard and Japanese kimono (worn in lieu of a lab coat or apron) as Bob Dylan brayed from the classroom turntable, Mr. D. instructed us to remove the paper label from each brand-new crayon (“You need to know the color, not the name of the color”) break each one into thirds and store them in a one-pound coffee can. We were expected to use every surface of the crayon. Girls who had spent their lives carefully peeling, sharpening and preserving their crayons cried at the prospect of “ruining” them.

Probably because of Mr. D.’s radical ways, and our mother’s perception that he might also be a pacifist, she bucked the trend of the “concerned” parents and embraced Mr. D., who became a frequent visitor to our home. He usually arrived with a Joan Baez album, fresh-ground Peet’s coffee and a jug of red wine.

Ellen and I had been to San Francisco before. We had seen the Wax Museum, been to Coit Tower and squealed in the back seat as our dad navigated Lombard Street. But San Francisco as shown to us by Mr. D. was an entirely different experience.

Alameda has its Victorian houses, but they were drab compared with the ones alongside Golden Gate Park—painted in bright, wild colors, their steep stairways full of hippies, beatniks and squares playing guitars and singing. The smells of incense, patchouli and what I later learned was marijuana drifted everywhere, and the pretty, long-haired girls and bearded boys who inhabited the park were seemingly unconcerned with the mundane things our parents worried about. It looked like a great life.

Mr. D. took us to the museums. In the El Greco room at the DeYoung, Mr. D asked us “How much did that guy love his God to paint like that?” I still think of that every time I see a painting by El Greco. Mr. D. took us to the real Chinatown where instead of shopping for woven finger puzzles, we explored alleys so narrow that I wondered when the sun would ever come around to dry the laundry that hung there. Mr. D. selected restaurants with the fewest “round-eyed” diners. When the waiter passed us menus and forks, Mr. D. just as quickly gathered them up and ordered for the table by pointing at the posted daily specials, forcing us to use chopsticks and rice bowls. Soon we would be served whole fishes, head and all; piles of slippery noodles; fatty pork and unfamiliar vegetables—new combinations of salty, sweet, crunchy and oily flavors and textures that had me filling my rice bowl again and again.

“See if you can get any of this at your Alameda take-out place,” Mr. D. teased our mother.

“How did you know what to ask for? All the signs were in Chinese,” I asked him.

“I didn’t know—isn’t it fun to just take a chance?”

We went to bookstores where he turned us loose to browse the stacks of well-used, dusty paperbacks and recycled textbooks to our heart’s content. Mr. D. gently removed a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl from my pubescent hands and replaced it with a paperback of Peanuts comics.

San Francisco is 20 minutes from Alameda’s West End, but in 1967 it could have been another planet. Mr. D. allowed us to temporarily leave behind the base, bars and tattoo parlors and go where we could be transfixed by electric guitars, colorful clothing and jammed-together houses on steep hills. Somehow, Mr. D. kept it magical and wholesome while managing to delay our own inevitable discovery of the seedier parts. I don’t recall that I fully understood the significance of those extra-fragrant cigarettes. I can’t remember hearing Country Joe actually say “Gimme an F . . . ” It was a time and place that the world would never see again, but one that two Alameda girls got to experience for a few special weekends during that Summer of Love.

In the fall of 1967 when I started the seventh grade, I felt a little smug as I looked at my military-issue classmates. That summer, while those kids rode skateboards, drank Slurpees and watched TV, I had danced joyously in Golden Gate Park.

Nan Johnsen Horton is a native Alamedan and 28-year employee of U.C. Berkeley. She writes short stories, memoirs and is working on a novel.

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