At times I felt it would have been easier if I had just died in the crash of the helicopter in Vietnam because for a long time after that, I felt as if my life had ended there and although I went through the motions of life, I felt very empty. I sat on a ward in Bethesda Naval Hospital for six months before being released to limited duty. I began drinking at my bedside in the hospital and continued when I moved to the barracks. There were mostly new recruits in the dorm and I felt old and out of place with them. I drank myself to sleep every night and thought about suicide often. Then one night, some of the guys came over to my bunk and invited me to “The Room”.
At twenty-two years of age, I thought I knew it all. My world was well defined and I knew exactly where I stood and where others stood in relationship to me. When I left for Vietnam I was given a White Bible by the church and told that they were proud that I was going over to do the Christian thing. I was also proud of the fact that I was an American and more importantly a Christian American but now, just a few months later, I was questioning the very foundations I had built my life on.
I had heard rumors that there was wide spread drug use in the military, but I had not seen anything that unusual. I had heard that “The Room” was where they did drugs and at times when I passed it I could smell incense burning or something burning… but I was not stupid. People who did that kind of thing were the scum of the Earth, un-American and definitely not Christian. I was certainly much better than them, drinking my Jim Beam alone, writing my poetry, and wanting to die.
Randy was one of the new Corpsmen, fresh from Great Lakes Naval Training Center. He had just started working on Tower Nine with me, the contagious disease ward for Officers, at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He appeared to be a know it all and about as different from me as you could get. He had grown up in New Orleans and was street smart by the age of 12. He was a gang leader, in and out of trouble with the police, outspoken and not only was he not a Christian, but he didn’t even show any interest in GOD.
John had lost his parents at an early age and grew up in an orphanage. He lived in his own little world and was not really Corpsman material. He worked night watch in the kitchen of the hospital; shooting rats with rubber bands for entertainment. My only dealings with him were when he would walk over to my petty cash drawer and, without saying a word, take out 2 quarters to buy a can of Coke.
Needless to say, I was a little defensive when the two of them walked over one night and started a friendly conversation, halfway through my bottle of Jim Beam. “You like that stuff?” Randy asks.
“It does the job.” I reply.
“Did you ever do any weed in Nam?”
“Weed?” I respond, innocently.
“You know, Marijuana.” John says, “There must have been a lot of it there.”
“If there was I never saw any of it.” I respond.
“Would you like to try some?” Randy asks.
“No, that’s okay,” I answer, holding up the bottle, “this is all I need.”
“You can take the bottle if you want; we just don’t like seeing you drink alone every night.” Randy responds.
“No problem for me guys, I prefer it that way.”
“Well….. if you change your mind, you’re welcome anytime.” Randy says as he begins to leave. John gets up and follows him out but then stops and turns around. He walks over to my desk and takes out 2 quarters and then runs to catch up to Randy.
My head begins spinning but it is not from the Jim Beam, it is because for the first time since I returned from Vietnam, someone has offered me their friendship and I didn’t know how to handle it. Without realizing it, I had closed everyone out of my life and suddenly it hit me just how lonely I was. “Wait up guys!” I shout as I jump up from my bed. “Maybe I will join you, just this one time.” Inside my head was shouting, ‘THIS IS WRONG Wayne! It goes against everything you believe in.’ but inside my heart was saying, ‘Anything has got to be better than what I have now.’
When the hallway was empty we walked over to the room in the back of the dorm. Randy knocked two times and then after a short pause one time. The door opened a crack and someone asked, “Who is it?”
“Randy and John with a friend,” Randy responds quietly. The door opens and the sweet smell of incense rushes out to greet us. Inside the room, there are several young men, a few of which I recognized, but to my surprise, there were also some older men who were fairly high in rank and I wondered what they were doing there. I was introduced to them but it was evident that they had checked me out quite well before this night because some of them knew facts about my past duty stations that were not general knowledge.
Lights go out and a candle is lit. One of the older men pulls out a large hand rolled cigarette and lights it. He inhales deeply and then takes in more air without exhaling. He then hands it to the next guy, who repeats the procedure. My mind races back to Vietnam and my first night in the field and suddenly everything begins to make sense.
There is not much left of the cigarette by the time it gets around to me. I hesitate and can feel all of the eyes in the room focusing on me. I bring the cigarette to my lips and inhale. It burns my lungs and I cough. They laugh and breathe a sigh of relief and acceptance. I have just knowingly broken the law and was now as much in it as they were. One of the older men begins talking about upcoming events and I realize that this is not just a group of guys having fun, it is well organized and they had a common goal; END THE WAR IN VIETNAM!
In the next few weeks, I hear talk of a Peace March on the Capital and I began to feel there was something worth living for again. I looked forward to those meetings that came at an hour’s notice. I continued to smoke the joint containing weed with them but didn’t know what they saw in it. The only thing I ever got from it was a headache, but I did enjoy the friendship and the feeling of belonging to a group that seemed to have the interest of the people in mind. The only problem was none of them were Christians. There were Officers involved in the group and later I found out that there were many civilians as well and as I began to realize how big the movement was, I began to get excited. The music wasn’t that great at first; I enjoyed Classical music and thought that rock music was just a mockery of real music, played by people who never went to their piano lessons when they were young. I declined to go to the outdoor concerts because they were too noisy and the people seemed to be there more for the drugs than for the music. Many were starting to take LSD but I had decided from the beginning that I would never be that stupid. I could fake smoking the joint but it is more difficult to fake taking a pill.
Travel was cheap in those days if we wore our uniform we could fly anywhere in the USA as stand by and pay only half the fare. My first outing was to visit Randy in New Orleans. He was on a two-week leave and invited Mike, another member of the group, and myself down for the weekend. I had never been there and I thought it would be good to get away from the military for a bit. We flew in Friday evening and Randy picked us up. He showed us all of the interest points and then we went to meet his family. We slept at the house and after breakfast in the morning, we hit the streets. We drank off and on and occasionally Randy would light up a joint and share it with us. I was a little apprehensive, not knowing what the penalties were if we got caught. Randy only laughed about it.
The weekend went fast and before I knew it, we were on our way back to the airport. We stop and pick up a strange-looking guy, obviously not military, with long hair and very “Hippie” looking. I feel uncomfortable having him with us but Randy seems to know him well and introduces him as James. He is quite friendly and I notice that on at least 3 occasions as we are walking to the terminal, he goes out of his way to help someone like he was just looking around to be nice to people.
We check-in for our flight and find out we have about two hours to wait, so we decide to go back to the car. In the car, Randy rolls a joint and passes it around, then James asks if we would like to try LSD. I say positively NO! He says that he only has one tablet and he would break it up into four pieces. I again say NO! Mike however sounds interested and asks them what it would do.
“Just makes you relax, man.” James says, “This is straight from California, it don’t get no better than this.” He breaks the small tablet into four pieces and offers it to everyone, but I am still hesitant.
“We are not going to do it unless you do,” Randy says reassuringly, “it’s only a small amount.”
I give in to the pressure and swallow the tiny fragment of pill James hands me. For twenty minutes we listen to music on the radio while watching the air traffic just across the wall in front of us. I do feel relaxed and begin to think there is really nothing to drugs, so why does everybody make such a big deal about it?
“HIT THE BRAKES!” I shout, as it suddenly appears that the car is lunging forward into the cement wall.
“What?” Randy responds as he sits straight up behind the steering wheel of the car.
“He’s just getting off,” James replies, laughingly. “Wait just a minute and we will be going backward.”
Sure enough, a short time later we were going in reverse, then forward and then back again. I began seeing strange things but Randy assured me they were not real, “Just enjoy it like you would a good movie.”
The walk back to the terminal was like a dream. When we got to the counter the agent informed us that the Economy Section was full and the only thing available was First Class, would we mind paying $5.00 extra for the ticket?
All of my senses were working at maximum capacity as I sat back in the lush Leather Seat of the First Class Cabin. I had no sense of time and saw and heard everything in a delayed action like being on the other end of an echo chamber. I looked out the window and saw the small moving lights below us. “Wow!” I exclaimed, “That was the smoothest take-off ever.”
“Ahh… I don’t think we have left the terminal yet.” Mike says.
“Oh, I guess that must be the ground crew.” I answer … but a short time later I see many lights and add, “But why are there so many people under the plane?”
“I think those are the lights of the city, we took off a few minutes ago.”
The man in the seat ahead of us turned around and started staring at me and I realized I was drawing attention so decided to lay my head back and relax for a while. It was then I heard the most beautiful music I had ever heard in my life. It wasn’t classical, it was rock guitar and to this day I do not know if it was actually playing somewhere on the plane or if I was just picking it up from somewhere inside my head but from that day forward I was addicted to Rock Music.
Over the next year, I did LSD nearly every week and sometimes twice. We smoked grass whenever we had a chance, and often in the open. My favorite trip, however, was Ritalin with Hashish and I use to carry a block of it with me for emergencies. We went to concerts nearly every weekend and usually had our choice of bands to see. Some of the highlights, for you 60’s rock and roll fans, were; The Who at Columbia Maryland with a new band from England playing warm-up called Led Zeppelin. On other nights in the same amphitheater, we saw Credence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin in one of her last concerts before her death. We also saw Jimmy Hendrix, just before he died, The Guess Who, and Blind Faith all in Boston. Savoy Brown, The Band, The Who playing TOMMY, all at the FILMORE EAST. Chicago and Ritchie Havens in Chicago’s ELECTRIC CIRCUS, and the list goes on. We were on our way to Woodstock when the radio reports of traffic jams came in. Because we were in the military and had to be back on the job bright and early Monday morning we turned around and went back to Bethesda, but had we known what Woodstock was to become, I think we would have continued our journey.
It was an exciting time to be alive and to belong to a movement that seemed to be leading us to somewhere. It was during this time I met up with people who were every bit as much American Heroes as any I knew in the Military. They were draft dodgers, deserters, and people willing to risk their lives and their futures because of their beliefs, but few of them were Christians and I began to realize that the world was made up of many kinds of people who saw things from different perspectives than I did. Christianity was just a word that described people from similar backgrounds as me but it had little meaning to most of the people I was with. What confused me most was the fact that I could see more CHRIST Like behavior in many of them, than in most of my previous friends, who called themselves Christians.
I do not know if it was the drugs, the music, the people, or the times that opened my mind to the realities of life around me? I would suspect that it was a combination of all of them and while I often dream of having a reunion with my friends, in some dimly lit concert hall with parachute silk ceilings and Blacklight posters of Hendricks and Joplin, I know it will never happen in this life and nothing I do will ever compare to the memories I have of those times. Right or wrong, they are as much a part of the foundations of my present beliefs as anything else in my past and although they haunt me at times, I am very grateful for having had the experiences.