Once I’d been in the valley a little while I began to assimilate some. But still it was very different. The girls were all listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon” album. I was amazed by Joni’s songs. She might have been singing to all the people around me living in romantic cabins in the woods and canyons off the valley. But she wasn’t singing to me. She had a song about Woodstock imagining she had gone, though she hadn’t because of a scheduling conflict. That’s as close as I could come to that event, third hand through Joni Mitchell. I was definitely looking from the outside into a culture I knew little about. For years I had listened to nothing and before that the soul-music fare of WABC in New York. I wasn’t a part of the black culture of New York either but it had become familiar. So now I felt adrift.
“Adrift? That’s how I’ve felt in American culture for decades,” broke in Agnes. “I had assimilated, as you say, to French culture… over a decade or so. But it wasn’t as foreign to me or as unforgiving as American culture. I will always be an immigrant but your hair grew out, you got a professional job and nobody thinks about Viet Nam any more.”
“I still have assimilation problems, just different ones in this technical world. I don’t hold most of their values and they don’t accept anyone without an engineering degree from Stanford as one of them. And I certainly don’t share the values of the sales force.
“You know, Agnes, I wasn’t talking about mainstream culture. I was talking about a counter culture, a secret subculture or it had been for a time anyway. It wasn’t so secret by the time I encountered it but no easier to understand. What Ive learned in the past seventeen years is that hip was an illusion. I was chasing phantoms, a scene that only existed for a very short time and it was impossible to attain, at least for me and probably for everyone else too.
“The magic of Woodstock couldn’t be maintained in the face of the overwhelming momentum of mainstream culture. Just like the magic of San Francisco couldn’t be maintained after the media focused on the “Summer of Love” in ’67. It was fading fast in 1975 when the war ended. It had begun to fade when the draft ended. And not it has almost completely faded, except for pockets in the remote countryside where the back-to-the-landers and the survivalists clustered. And over the years they began to merge.
“So now I see the moral failings of the counter culture as the hippies I knew returned to their fathers law firms or graduate school to get an MBA and make some money for a change. And the pretty girls from the wealthy suburbs didn’t come around any more wearing fir coats they claimed to have gotten second hand from Good will. So where did that leave us, the ones who didn’t see the illusion for what it was? What are we to strive for now?
“In Saigon I had been chasing phantoms too but they carried pistols and were not play acting. But they too wanted to look like something other than what they were. They were actually far more dangerous than they looked. The hippies were just middle-class kids play acting at being hip rather than dangerous spooks trying to look like benign soldiers on a three-day-pass.”
“When did you come to that realization? I thought you knew about the spooks at the time. You certainly were close enough to have seen them for what they were If you’d looked.”
“I didn’t know what I was seeing till I did some reading later.