During his time in the United States Navy, my late father was stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1966 and 1967. His best friend from his time in Hawaii was a guy named Ron, who was from the Los Angeles area. Ron found out that my Dad was stationed in San Diego for a short time in 1968, so he asked Dad if he wanted to go on a one week road trip when he had some down time. Dad agreed since it sounded more fun than flying home to Pittsburgh, staying in town for a few days, then flying back out to San Diego. I think in the back of his mind Dad knew he would never make it back out to San Diego after the Navy, so every day in the California sun was a blessing and he was going to take advantage of it.
Ron had a newer car and this was his first opportunity to take it out on the open road, so he was looking forward to running it. The weather was cool enough in May where he didn’t have to worry about the car overheating on the highway (Even new cars were prone to mechanical issues in this era). Ron mapped out the road trip since he knew of many places to see around the west coast, and he drove down to San Diego to meet Dad.
Since they were so close to Mexico, they decided to drive over the border. Ron didn’t drive too far down Baja California. They went as far as the Ensenada area, turned around and came back up to Tijuana. After drinking most of the day, they cooled off and stayed in Mexico for the night because Ron knew he had a long drive ahead of him tomorrow.
The next morning, Ron and Dad set out for a quick drive through Los Angeles, then up the coast to San Francisco. When they made it up to Los Angeles in the late morning, Ron drove around to the usual tourist spots, stopped by his place to show Dad where he lived, drove toward the airport to catch the Pacific Coast Highway (California highway 1) and took off north to get to San Francisco by the evening. They drove highway 1 as long as time would allow. It’s a more scenic drive and the road does not allow for cars to go very fast. When they got up to the San Luis Obispo area, they jumped on U.S. highway 101 and got into the San Francisco area around 10 p.m. that night.
After they got their hotel room in the current financial district, they ran over to check out Chinatown since they were close by and then got ready for the next day. That night at the hotel, Ron told Dad that after they drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, rode on the cable cars and got other typical tourist sites out of the way (Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf), he wanted to take the bus around town and check out a neighborhood called Haight-Ashbury. Ron heard from a few friends that a lot of strange sights were to be seen in this area of San Francisco. What Ron and Dad didn’t know at the time was they were about to experience ground zero of an American counterculture revolution.
They got on the bus near the hotel and it took about a half-hour to get there with all of the traffic and stops the bus had to make. They didn’t jump off at the intersection of Haight Street and Ashbury Street because Dad wanted to see Kezar Stadium, which was only a few blocks down from that now-famous place. American football’s San Francisco 49ers played at Kezar until 1970 before their move to Candlestick Park. FROM THE MOMENT Dad and Ron got off the bus around Cole Street, they knew they entered another world.
Greeting them upon their departure from the bus was a man in his early 20’s. He had short but messy black hair, a slick white suit on with shined black shoes, white shirt, black tie, sunglasses and he was smoking a cigarette. It was hipster Colonel Sanders with a question for the guys:
“Hi guys! Need any speed? Acid?”
Dad quickly shut him down. “No, we’re fine but thanks man.”
“OK guys have a good day now!”
“You too man.”
Back in Pittsburgh, if somebody wanted illegal drugs in 1968, you had to go to a secret meeting place in the middle of the night and obtain the product from a trusted source. In Haight-Ashbury in 1968, a college age kid was selling drugs on a street corner to total strangers in the middle of the afternoon like he was pushing Girl Scout cookies. The audaciousness of the kid even surprised Ron who thought he experienced many odd encounters in Los Angeles. After they walked down to see Kezar, they backtracked to Haight Street to see what the neighborhood had to offer.
From the accounts of Dad and from what I’ve read and heard myself over the years, Haight-Ashbury at this time was a precursor to Portland, Oregon. In the United States in 2016, Portland is viewed as a very progressive, alternative way of life compared to other major U.S. cities. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a culture that many Americans have difficulty understanding and/or adapting to since many Americans come from conservative households and communities. I consider myself very open-minded and I would have a hard time adjusting to life in Portland, based on the strict Roman Catholic house I grew up in (I’m convinced that my mother thinks I’m going to hell for not being Catholic anymore). I’m not saying Portland has drug peddlers on the streets like the guy my Dad encountered, but if that happened anywhere in the U.S. now, I would guess Portland!
When they approached the Haight and Ashbury Street intersection, Ron and Dad had their last two memorable encounters in the neighborhood. The first was a man dressed in a full cavalier uniform, complete with a large white feather in his hat, big black boots and A REAL SWORD. Nobody, NOBODY even showed concern that a grown man was walking down the sidewalk with a deadly weapon in plain view. After talking with a local resident, they found out that this man walked around the neighborhood in full uniform EVERY DAY, no matter what the weather.
The second encounter was more Dad than Ron. There was a woman with two HUGE braided pigtails that came down her back beyond her behind. Holding on to the two pigtails was a young girl about three, smiling and laughing, swaying side-to-side like she was on a swing. It was the hippie version of the modern Baby Bjorn. Ron yelled at Dad repeatedly for an entire city block because Dad was running behind the woman with his hands under the girl in case she let go of the pigtails. The best part was that the woman didn’t even know Dad did that because she was too busy talking to another woman that was walking beside her.
Ron and Dad enjoyed their time in Haight-Ashbury since the neighborhood was so culturally different than anything they’ve ever seen, but they were eager to get back to the hotel since they had many more places to see on their road trip. The plan was to drive to Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada in the morning.
They got to Lake Tahoe by the late morning and were surprised how cool the weather was for late May. They knew there would be a huge jump in elevation, but they were not ready for high temperatures in the 50’s. The area was picturesque and the air was so clean compared to L.A., but since they didn’t ski and were poor Navy buddies, they made their way over the Nevada border to Reno, where they found some cheap places to drink (Cheap compared to big city California prices) and to get some food. They grabbed a hotel room and briefly went to a few places around Reno and Carson City, but Ron and Dad were going to sleep most of the evening since they were driving to Las Vegas in the middle of the night. The temperatures were supposed to climb well into the 90’s, and Ron didn’t want to break down in the middle of the desert under the unforgiving heat of the sun.
Dad told me Lake Tahoe had a vibe that it was for rich people and honeymooners, and he knew that he and Ron weren’t going to pick up any “ski bunnies” that were enjoying the beginning of the summertime season at the resorts. Reno was fine, but they weren’t big gamblers (Remember: Poor Navy buddies) and were basically passing through to continue on their road trip. When Dad saw pictures of Reno years later, he told me that it resembled what Las Vegas looked like in 1968!
Ron and Dad left Reno around 3 a.m. to drive to Las Vegas. To this day, there is not a major interstate highway that runs between Reno and Vegas, so they sped down US highway 95 during the night. Despite frequent stretches of speeding along the 450 mile journey, they didn’t arrive in Vegas until late morning.
In addition to their Haight-Ashbury experience, the timing of their arrival in Las Vegas was historically significant. 1968 was the final year of the first boom of movement to the desert town. Most of the activity accelerated in the 1950’s, and when Ron and Dad arrived, there were about a dozen hotels and casinos along the main strip. They had other forms of entertainment besides gambling, but the population was nowhere near the current metropolitan mark of 2,000,000. They checked out a few casinos, ate at a few cheap restaurants and tried to stay cool in the desert heat. Dad said that the high temperature on the day they walked the strip was 98 degrees. Again, they didn’t gamble much but Ron and Dad wanted to experience Las Vegas while they had the opportunity to do so. They missed the atmosphere of Elvis Presley’s 1969 Vegas-centered comeback by six months, which spawned the second phase of growth in Vegas. In 1968 Las Vegas was about to become a mainstream entertainment destination, creating the blueprint for the current identity of Vegas in 2016.
The next morning, Ron and Dad drove out of Vegas early to avoid the heat again, and made it back to Los Angeles around noon. They mainly stayed at Ron’s apartment when they got back, except for a few stops at Ron’s local bars that he liked to visit. Dad said they were both beat from all of the driving anyway, so he didn’t mind just hanging out in L.A. for the day.
Ron drove Dad back to San Diego and they went out for a few beers before saying their goodbyes. They didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last time they would actually see each other. Dad spoke to Ron on the phone a lot before I was born, but they lost contact over time, especially when Dad married Mom in 1973, and I came along in 1975. I remember Dad got a random phone call from Ron on Christmas morning in 1984, and that was the last time Dad spoke to him.
What I learned from Dad
I had many talks with Dad before he died, especially when I still lived at home. Dad would have loved to make that road trip a month-long excursion, but he knew he was limited by how much money he had. Even if it meant being somewhere for hours instead of days, Dad still wanted the experience of visiting places and meeting different people. He made the most of his time in the places he visited. Fast forward to the present, and I find myself in the same situation as my father. I might not have the means to take my young son to numerous places around the world, but I will discover activities for us to build memories upon and share my stories of the past with him. Hopefully my son can learn from the experiences I had growing up and the unique experiences he will have going forward. I like to think I’m a better version of Dad, and I believe that’s what Dad set out to accomplish through me. If my son becomes a better version of me, then that will confirm that I am a good father to him as well.