Rowdy Days

Walnut Hill

In January of 1971 I hitchhiked into Omaha Nebraska.  I had gotten out of the army a few months earlier.  That tour had included a year in South Vietnam.  I was confused, disturbed and shell shocked–standing on the highway outside Omaha.  I was broke, hungry and underdressed for a cold northern plains winter, but in that strange way known only to the poor and disconnected, I was free.

A young woman rescued me from the highway late at night and took me to an old house where she and several others with fairly serious drug dependencies were more or less squatting.  We huddled around an electric kitchen stove that was the only source of heat.  The next day I got a casual labor job and had a bit of money for food.  Low paying jobs were plentiful in Omaha then and after a week or two of getting work by the day, I landed a full time minimum wage job in the Walnut Hill district at the New Market Wooden Toy Company.  The first day on the job one of my new coworkers invited me to his house for dinner.  It turned out he lived in a small urban commune on the second floor of a big old house just down the street from the toy shop.  I met the other members that evening and moved in the next day.

At 21 I was the oldest person in the house and the only one who had been in the military.  The commune had been started by a native Omaha woman and was very informal;  somewhere between commune and just a bunch of people sharing a house.  Several of the residents were from Chicago.  They had arrived as immigrants often do–one had found his way there, established a foothold, written home about it, and soon another would arrive.  There were six members when I arrived.  We ate together, hung out together, planted a garden and occasionally smoked a little dope.  My room was a closet under the slanted roof.  It had a door about waist high and just enough space for sleeping and keeping a few personal items.  As winter turned to spring we pitched in and bought a car; a 1953 Cadillac with white side-wall tires that needed air frequently.  A couple of members used the caddy to get to their own low paying jobs.  Once a week we raided supermarket dumpsters for fruits and vegetables.

We read and talked about books by Alan Watts and Carlos Castaneda.  Tom Wolfe and Kurt Vonnegut, Back to Eden and Black Elk Speaks.  In the midst of the Cold War and social discontent we were looking for an alternative way to understand our place in the world.  It was peaceful and calm in that house on Hamilton Street.  One time when the landlord came to collect the rent he asked me “What are you guys doing here?”  I said “Living.”  He said, “You know, I asked Gary that question and he said exactly the same thing.”  I do not recall a single instance of real anger or arguments that resulted even in raised voices.  We had occasional visitors and over night guests, but the main group was our matriarch Diana, and five young men, our little Neolithic family on Walnut Hill.

At the top of Walnut Hill, on the corner of 40th and Hamilton, was a donut and coffee shop. Next door was the toy company and farther down the street a small diner open for breakfast and lunch.  In between our house and the top of the hill was a park with big beautiful trees and luscious grass in the summer.  Once tribe member Andrew, a truly lovable and disarming fellow, introduced me, both the donut shop and the diner would extend me credit for a meal or a cup of coffee or a pack of cigarettes.  There was some small sense of community there on the hill that reached beyond our house.

The toy company was owned by Herby and was equipped with a drill press, two wood lathes, a band saw, a jig saw, a table saw, 2 or 3 small power sanders, a collection of clamps and some jugs of Elmer’s glue.  For our raw materials we tore up wooden pallets and other pieces of wood scrap from wherever.  We made wooden cars and trucks of various sizes, a series of circus vehicles and animals, a string operated dancing man, a block set with numbers or the alphabet engraved with a wood-burning tool, and a hammer and peg set.  I never knew how or where Herby marketed these toys, but a crew of 5 or 6 worked full time to produce them.

Herby had a big head of frizzy hair.  He talked and dressed like a sort of conservative hippy.  I myself wore a red necktie from the thrift store as a belt to hold up my baggy dungarees, and cleaned the sawdust out of my nose at the end of the day by snorting Golden Seal tea.  Sometimes I played the harmonica while I walked down the street and I had no ambitions whatsoever for material success.  In terms of counterculture Herby and I were not even in the same universe but he didn’t care and neither did I.

In retrospect, the name Herby chose for his business was far more revealing than I understood at the time… The New Market Wooden Toy Company.  I suspect now that Herby thought his work force of hippies was foolish and feebleminded but, as we were willing to work for minimum wage and were a relatively docile and happy group who made no demands on him beyond getting our $1.60 an hour, and were not addled by drugs–it was labor relations paradise for him.  He let us fantasize whatever we liked about how far-out and Aquarian Age the toy company was.  I can remember times when someone would talk to him about this better, cooler world stuff and see Herby smiling slightly behind his mustache and saying nothing.  Herby knew the score.

Herby was of the new generation of niche market entrepreneurs and did not have a socialist bone in his body.  He was obviously hip to the corporate concept of “externalization” because somebody was paying for those pallets though it sure wasn’t him.  By late summer 1971 he had found some investment capital and started moving his operation to the Old Market in downtown Omaha.  At that time it was in the early stage of the urban renewal that turned it into what it is today.  Old Market now has its own website and is, like old downtowns across the nation, the home of restaurants, pubs, boutiques and specialty shops whose target market is middle class and above.

In the process of making this move we all lost our jobs and it changed the character of Walnut Hill in a small but significant way.  Even if it was based largely on an illusion, the presence of the toy company on Hamilton Street had made it a livelier, friendlier and more hopeful neighborhood.


Since I was unemployed I decided to head west.  With a few belongings in a backpack I had sewn myself out of a surplus duffle bag I hitchhiked out of town headed ultimately for Oregon.  I was soon picked up by an Okie in his sixties named Cal who was going to drive a grain truck in the wheat harvest near Valentine, Nebraska.  He had a job lined up already at a farm where he had worked before and thought they might need another truck driver.  They hired me basically on his say-so and he taught me to drive the kind of split-axle dump truck used to haul wheat from the combine that cut it in the field to the granary.  He also told me some stories of his life and though he was not a particularly thoughtful or articulate man, I was fascinated to hear some first hand accounts of Depression Days and Dust Bowl Days and riding freight trains, hobo jungles and so forth.  I was also rather amazed to see him still living this kind of life in his sixties.  He said he now mostly stayed home in Oklahoma, living in a small house with his brother.  They survived on odd jobs and social security and considered themselves semi-retired.  But each year he ventured to Nebraska and then Montana to drive a truck or a combine in the wheat harvest.

As field hands, transient labor, seasonal migrant workers, or rubber tramps as Cal called it–meaning we traveled by car–we were housed in a small bunkhouse near the barn.  We had breakfast and dinner in the main house with the farmer and his wife and two kids.  We were given a sack lunch to take to work.  It was all pretty casual and friendly.  After about two weeks of that, Cal and I headed for Montana.

Missouri Breaks

Cal and I arrived in Montana a week or two early for wheat harvest.  We hung around in the park at Fort Benton on the Missouri River, along with other wheat tramps drifting into town.  The park was where farmers would come looking for workers when they were ready, we just had to wait.  We laid around reading for a couple of days but one day around noon I felt a serious need of motion and adventure.  I decided to go for a swim.  I got hold of a map that showed a gravel road crossing the river about 12 miles downstream.  I gave Cal the map and asked him to pick me up there in a few hours.  I put on a pair of cutoff shorts, a close-fitting T-shirt and a pair of canvas sneakers with no socks, waded in and headed for the Missouri Breaks.

The river was about 100 feet wide and flowing around 3 miles an hour.  Big trees shaded the banks, birds sang, the sun sparkled on the water–I was utterly gone from human civilization in minutes and felt immersed in a timeless world.  Once in a while a duck or other bird would become curious about this unfamiliar creature–sometimes swimming, sometimes more or less crawling over the pebble bottom – and would come near to check me out.  Occasionally I would surprise a fish or a frog.  Sometimes the whole river was so shallow I had to stand up and walk.  This was clearly not a usual event for the regular inhabitants, a strange figure rising suddenly out of the river and walking upright.  They seem torn between their nervousness and desire to study it.

After about an hour and a half of this I spotted a dirt track through the trees on the north bank.  I was getting a little chilled by then so I decided to walk for a while.  The forest there extended quite some distance from the river.  I was walking along this track, warming up in the scattered sunlight when I entered a small clearing and saw a doe and her fawn standing on the right-hand edge of the clearing about 30 feet away.  They saw me too and for a moment we all froze, looking at each other.  Suddenly the doe dashed across the clearing in front of me.  Her hooves pounded into the dirt.  I could feel the vibration through my sneakers.  I could hear her breathing. When she reached the trees on the far side she stopped and turned her head to look back at me.  I glanced at the fawn just in time to see it backing quietly into the bushes, disappearing from sight.  Then the doe charged into the trees and I was alone in the clearing.

I walked on.  I swam some more and walked some more and met up with Cal and went back to town and treated myself to a cheeseburger in the local cafe.  All in all a fine day and a fine meal and life was good but still I felt an odd irritation.  I was not the same person I had been just a few hours earlier.  I had been removed from the normal human environment and felt my return to it as a loss of something I could not name.  All this seemed to have great meaning that I could not quite grasp.  Maybe I had simply realized that I too, was an animal.

On the High-Line

The next day two brothers, wheat farmers from the Montana high-line about 50 miles north, showed up at the park looking for a hand.  They wanted someone who could drive a grain truck, but who was also young and strong to help them finish building an equipment barn.  For them wheat harvest was still a week or so away.  I got the job, said goodbye to Cal, and rode off in the pick-up with them.

We arrived at the original family farmhouse, the “old place”, in time for lunch and I met the rest of the family.  Grandma and Grandpa, in their sixties and still both working but these days leaving the heavy work to the kids.  Four brothers, three of them married, two with kids of their own, and the youngest brother, single and going to college.  He was home for the summer, and with a combination of good humored joshing and restrained respect, it soon became evident that he was the first in the family to enter the halls of higher education and that he had been given and accepted a serious responsibility to bring this learning home to the family enterprise.

All the wives and children were there.  We ate at a huge dining table.  Lunch was meat and potatoes and vegetables and salad and bread and milk and pie and coffee and as much of everything as you wanted and a suitable amount of time to eat it and let it settle and then you went back to work. This was a fuel and a ritual I understood.  The women cooked and served and did the dishes and looked after the kids.  The men went to work on the new barn and in the evening and the next morning we all did it again.  No slackers in this family, just strong, good-natured, hard-working prairie settlers.

The three older sons and their wives had their own houses elsewhere.  The total land farmed by this family was in the thousands of acres–some of it cattle pasture or alfalfa but much of it wheat.  They had obviously bought up two or three other farms because the fields were not continuous but separated by a few miles, a consolidation of Montana farms that had begun during the depression of the 1930s.

The patriarch was like men of the land I have seen all over the West.  Stooped slightly forward and listing to one side, walking with an uneven but purposeful gait. Callused hands and shoulders still padded with muscle.  Thickened around the middle but still strong looking, you could easily imagine him tossing a bale of hay or picking up a young calf in his arms, you just couldn’t quite picture him doing it all day.

It was plain to see that the eldest son was in charge of things now.  Someone asked Grandpa a question and he clearly deferred, saying “You have to ask Sonny”–with a serious sort of tone that suggested this fact had not yet completely sunk in to everyone’s mind but he would just keep repeating it until it did.  And I came to see that Sonny was well suited for this responsibility, knowledgeable, straightforward, comfortable with command but in no way arrogant about it.  Like his younger college-going brother he accepted his position as a responsibility to and part of his deep connection with his family.

The family used me as a bit of a conduit and opportunity to tell stories on each other.  Expressions of fondness and respect, it seemed to me, that were awkward to make too directly to one another.  I was treated kind of like a distant cousin who they hadn’t seen for a while and who needed to be asked a few questions and ribbed a little bit and brought up to date on a few family facts and then given a good meal and put to work.  The economics and time frame of harvest demanded more labor than they had available.  To utilize that labor they had to share some of the wealth, but they also shared the human community generously, of course with the understanding that when harvest was over that cousin would become distant once again.  A distant cousin who interacted acceptably would be welcome again when similar conditions arose.

We worked on the equipment barn for about a week, but when we started to cut wheat the routine changed.  The dew had to dry off before we could go to work so morning and breakfast were unhurried.  Once we started though, we might work until midnight.  The brothers drove the combines and unless they broke down, they stopped for meals and for fuel and that was it.  The grain trucks drove alongside the combines to unload them on the go and then got out of their way.  When the truck was full it headed for the granary.  Two wives and the hired man (me) drove the trucks. Granma and the other women and girls saw to it we all got fed.  We ate four times a day, two or three times in the fields.

The Montana High-Line runs along highway 2.  It was named after the railroad line that was put through in the 1880s.  Standing out in the fields I could see the snowy peaks of the Rockies far to the west.  To the north were the Sweet Grass Hills with their three buttes poking into the big Montana sky.  I was afloat in a sea of golden grain that extended as far as the eye could see. A dropped paper plate rolled and tumbled and bounded in the wind across the high prairie.  The hawks soared overhead and the sun shone down and it did seem like it would all go on as long as the grass grows and the river flows and like being in that river I was not apart from it.  I was immersed in it and belonged to it and I could feel the waves of wheat moving through my body like my own breath and my own blood.  It was unimaginably beautiful.

In air that clear and clean the stars don’t twinkle so much as stare back at you, curiously, perhaps benignly, wondering what you’re up to, as you might be wondering about them.  Late that night I drove the last truckload of wheat back to the home place.  Sonny was in the cab with me, along with his daughter, another brother, and two more people in back with the wheat.  Going up a small hill I double-clutched smoothly down into low-low gear.  Nobody said anything but I saw a tiny smile drift across Sonny’s face and the chatter in the cab quieted for a couple of seconds.  I felt a subtle change in the air, like a small sigh of relaxation.  The hired man was working out all right, the wheat was good, no hail storm had appeared, no one got run over by a combine.  Except for a shower and maybe another piece of pie, work was done for the day.

Hood River 1971

With a good paycheck in my pocket I got back on the road to Oregon.  I spent my first night in Hood River, Oregon at a campground near Mt. Hood, where I met another Okie in his sixties, sitting there at the campfire with his beat up Gibson guitar, beaming through his whiskers and missing teeth, glad to have the company of a number of hippies hanging around there.  He noodled on his guitar and occasionally sang a church hymn or a song from the 1930s by the singing brakeman Jimmy Rodgers…

but sometimes I still recall
my good old rough and my rowdy days
yodel lay ee oh lay ee oh lay ee

Late in the evening he put another chunk of wood on the fire, looked up at me and said, “Keep the home fire burning” with a shy expression, as though that somehow said everything worth saying.  He was the last authentic dust bowl Okie I ever saw.

Picking fruit is not just hard labor, it is a performing art.  The stage in this case was Mount Hood cradling the hilly valley in its arms as they reached to the Columbia River.  Green forests, green apple and pear trees, luscious green grass underfoot.  Because of the narrowness of the valley this was not the Big Sky of Montana, but it was just as blue and full of sunshine, and clouds working their way east from the Pacific Ocean.  In 1971 pre WWII biplanes still did the bulk of crop dusting work, winding intricate patterns through the air above the complex grid of orchards.  On the ground there were tractors and flatbed trucks but for a picker there are only three tools beside your own body and your own wits: a three legged ladder, a picking bag and a wooden bin to put the fruit in.

The Hood River Valley in August can hit 105 degrees.  A full bag of pears weighs about 40 pounds.  A competent pear and apple picker picks 3-4 tons of fruit per day in about 10 hours.  Some pear trees require a 14-foot ladder in addition to the more usual 12-footer.  On some days I literally staggered out of the orchard at the end of the day and managed to shower and eat by sheer force of will before collapsing into bed.  But after a few weeks of this you are in pretty good shape – your legs and back are strong, it has cooled off a bit and the harvest moves on to apples which are lighter in weight.  Unlike pears, apples are ripe enough to eat when you pick them so you can munch on them all day which helps meet your caloric requirements which are understandably huge – one of the side benefits of hard labor.

Now that the work is no longer physically grueling and you have brushed up on your technique, the aesthetic pleasure begins to manifest more clearly.  Picking apples efficiently, safely, and without damaging the fruit is a highly complex suite of physical and mental skills that no creature on earth other than Man can perform.  Balance, hand-eye coordination, handling a ladder, imagining and carrying out sophisticated sequences of motions all come into play.  Many of the skills become largely automatic once learned.  They require only enough conscious monitoring to deal with the novelty and uniqueness of each moment, which leaves you free to think about other things like Nietzsche or sex or what you will do with the money at the end of the harvest.  It becomes a graceful dance, which is extraordinarily satisfying.

Adding to the satisfaction is the sense of community.  At that time nearly all the fruit orchards in the Hood River Valley were family farms being actively run by family members.  Owners, pickers, tractor drivers, biplane pilots, all took pride in their work and cooperated to get the harvest in.  If they could keep up, tractor drivers would move your bin in order to save you 2 or 3 steps.  Farmers would give you a ride to the grocery store or the dentist.  You were putting food on America’s table.  You lived in a little cabin or had a room in a bunkhouse with a shower and a washing machine and you dwelled in the midst of the emerald green of the Cascade Mountains in a truly beautiful place and you got paid for it.  The entire valley depended on the fruit harvest and your labor was a key element in that and so, however temporarily, you were a valued member of that community who could get a library card, cash a check, get a ride on the highway.  It was not only beautiful.  It was economically successful.  It was humane.  Of course, like on the High-line, when your job is done they expect you to move on.  That’s the way things are here on earth.

Hood River 1972

By the time I got back to Omaha and the house on Hamilton Street, the downstairs part of the house had also been taken over by hippies. The people were more diverse and generally the scene was not as calm.  But there were still plenty of low-paying jobs around and it was all still interesting.  We all got by.  By the time August came round again Andrew and I had bought a Jeep Wagoneer together and were making plans to go to Hood River.  Craig, a guy from downstairs heard about this and wanted to go too.  We had very little cash after buying the Jeep.  Craig had none, but he did have a grocery sack full of home grown marijuana.  We tested this and decided it was marketable.  Diana packed some food for us and the three of us took off for Oregon.

We stopped in Valentine Nebraska to get gas and spend the night.  To our surprise we managed to sell a bag of pot to a local couple.  The next day we drove into Rapid City South Dakota and emboldened by our success the day before, began approaching hippie-looking people and trying to peddle our dope.  We soon met an interested party. She called several of her friends who called some of their friends and by nightfall they had pitched in enough money to buy the whole grocery bag full which was a very pleasing transaction for all concerned and gave us enough cash to head on west.

We arrived a little early for harvest but we got a job and a place to stay.  The library and the park beside it was where hippies foreign and domestic hung out then.  As Andrew and I came out of the library one day our companion Craig introduced us to a local guy named Don who had some pot for sale.  We had sold every bit we had in Rapid City, figuring we needed the money more and that it was safer to travel clean.  So Craig took off with Don and $10 to go get a bag of weed.  Andrew and I went back to our orchard cabin.  Craig never returned.

The next day we went back to the library park and managed to find someone who knew how to get to Don’s house, which was out of town, in the woods at the edge of the valley.  We got there around noon.  Don had just got out on bail.  When he and our mate and several others had arrived at Don’s place the day before, the cops were hiding in the woods and shortly swooped down upon them and took them all to jail.  They had found very little dope, which was of course disappointing to them, hoping as they probably were that they were smashing a major and heinous criminal enterprise, but they charged them all with possession anyway and locked them up.  Being a local guy with money in the bank, Don wrote them a check when brought before the judge that morning but others, including Craig, were still sitting in the hoosegow.

Don was friendly and seemed in good spirits about the whole deal.  We smoked a joint with him.  He told us a few weeks earlier a friend of his had shot himself in the leg with a Colt .357 magnum while attempting to twirl his pistol in true western style–right where we were standing, which we all thought was sad but pretty funny.  And Don suspected the raid might have its roots in that, since gunshot wounds are reported to the cops by hospitals.  He gave us a tab of acid for Craig by way of apology and said he didn’t think things were actually very serious.

Andrew and I went back to town and parked near the jail.  We discussed what we should do.  We were sure we didn’t have enough money for bail.  Andrew suggested we go talk to the prosecutor and tell him the truth… we were here for the harvest and Craig just wanted to buy one itsy bitsy little bag of dope for personal consumption and… Andrew wasn’t quite sure what came after that but I thought the idea was so outrageous that I immediately agreed to it and we went into the courthouse.  Andrew had that kind of effect on me.

Like I said, I played the harmonica in those days.  I split my repertoire between John Mayal blues and ballads that I played slow and mournful.  We were dressed in our raggedy best, both with hair to our shoulders and me with a tab of acid in my pocket I had forgotten about.  We found the prosecutor listed on the directory and proceeded upstairs to his office.  I played Old Susanna on my harmonica, which echoed down the long hallway and high ceiling of the halls of justice.  When we went in the secretary was off somewhere and the prosecutor invited us into his office.  He had heard us coming of course.  We sat down and gave him our truth-telling spiel.  We were so ridiculously honest and naive and unthreatening and childlike and just plain unusual that he began smiling almost immediately and though he tried to hide it he was obviously enjoying the whole thing immensely.  We charmed him like a couple of 4th graders.  Through his office window we could see the mighty Columbia River flowing toward the Pacific.  He told us he would see what he could do.  We thanked him and left.  I was by this time fully aware of my role and responsibility in this bit of theater.  I played the chorus of My Darling Clementine as we exited and the curtain closed.

As we went around the back of the courthouse on the way back to the Jeep, Craig called out to us.  The jail was in the back and he was at the window.  The window had bars and expanded metal mesh and glass with chicken wire embedded in it but nevertheless there was a small hole in the lower corner, obviously designed to allow the passage of small items in to prisoners.  We told Craig what we had done.  He too seemed in good spirits.  I remembered the tab of acid and passed it in to him.  He ate it on the spot.  Andrew and I left.  The next morning the charges against Craig were dropped and he was released from the slammer, slightly the worse for wear by his acid trip behind bars but… on the loose again.

Game Theory

There was a sign in the window soliciting paid participants for an experiment.  This was on East 13th Avenue in Eugene, a block or two off the University of Oregon campus.  I went in to inquire.  It was an experiment to investigate human behavior.  I was told something vague about research on how people made decisions in a group and that I would have to wait until there were ten people.  I would get an indeterminate amount of money for participating, depending on the outcome of the experiment.  It would take about 30 minutes.

How mysterious.  I was intrigued.  I had free time.  I could use a few extra bucks.  I signed up and sat down to wait.  There was a lot of foot traffic on 13th Ave and it wasn’t long before a group of ten experimental subjects had gathered.  We were ushered into a room that had a big oval table with ten chairs around it.  After we were seated we were each given a sheet of paper with the rules of the experiment and a place at the bottom to state our individual decision and write our name.  We were told to announce our completion via a phone on the wall.  Someone would come collect our paperwork and we would then get paid in cash within a few minutes.

The ten of us were left alone in the room.  We sat in silence around the table reading the rules.  The decision we each had to make was to choose either “self” or “group”.  The experiment was set up so that if we all agreed to share equally we would, as a group, get the largest total pay-out of money.  If one person chose “self”, that person would get more money but it would reduce the total pay-out and reduce the equal shares of the other nine people.  If two people chose “self” the total pay-out diminished even more.  The two greedy sons-a-bitches would each get less than if there was only one of them and everybody else would get less too.  As the number of people choosing “self” increased, the whole scheme arrived at a tipping point where even the greedy sons-a-bitches got less than they would have if they decided for the best interest of the group.  This did not, however, improve the fortunes of the pollyannas with a social conscience, who kept getting less and less and less as more and more people abandoned the concept of social benefit in favor of individual profit.  And of course, in order to maximize their profit, profiteers would have to lie about their intentions and encourage everyone else to vote for “group”.

It looked like this:

0 self @ $0 each = $0
10 group @ $12 each = $120
total pay-out = $120

1 self @ $29 each = $29
9 group @ $9 each = $81
total pay-out = $110

2 self @ $18 each = $36
8 group @ $8 each = $64
total pay-out = $100

3 self @ $13.66 each = $41
7 group @ $7 each = $49
total pay-out = $90

4 self @ $11 each = $44
6 group @ $6 each = $36
total pay-out = $80

5 self @ $9 each = $45
5 group @ $5 each = $25
total pay-out = $70

6 self @ $7.33 each = $44
4 group @ $4 each = $16
total pay-out = $60

7 self @ $5.85 each = $41
3 group @ $3 each = $9
total pay-out = $50

8 self @ $4.50 each = $36
2 group @ $2 each = $4
total pay-out = $40

9 self @ $3.22 each = $29
1 group @ $1 each = $1
total pay-out = $30

10 self @ $2 each = $20
0 group @ $0 each = $0
total pay-out = $20

We were given no other instructions or guidance, but obviously we could discuss this verbally if we wished, though no matter what anyone said out loud, our final vote was secret.  It was a truly diabolical experiment.  The raw and terminal truth of capitalist free market economy revealed!

It was a fairly mixed group around the table: 6 women and 4 men; young, middle aged, one woman in her 60s; dressed like students, retail employees, house wives, teachers–a reasonable cross-section of white folks you’d see around the U of O in the 1970s.  For a few minutes no one spoke as we tried to decipher and digest the meaning of the paper in front of us, the problem these devious pinko social scientists had posed for us.

Since no one else was speaking up I took the initiative to summarize and ask for people’s thoughts on the subject.  Several of them said they thought we should just all vote to share the wealth.  Nobody contested this.  Everyone verbally agreed to do so.  We wrote our votes on our pages, someone stepped to the phone and reported we were done.  Our votes were collected and shortly we were called out one by one to get our money in an envelope.

The amount we were given revealed the vote–one person out of ten had voted for their own profit, the rest had voted for the greatest, equally distributed profit for the group as a whole.  I was suspicious of a young man dressed like a hippy student who made no eye contact with anyone that I saw and had hurried from the room when his name was called, but who knows?  I was a little disappointed in the outcome but still, I thought 9 out of 10 was encouraging.

I took my $9 down the street to a natural foods bakery and cafe and treated myself to lunch.  There was a young woman playing the harp in the corner and about 40 people sitting at tables or standing at the counter seeking food.  By the time I got my sandwich and found a place to sit, the harpist had packed up and left.  The babble of conversation took the place of her music for a few minutes but then a man seated in the center of the room stood up.  A very ordinary looking man in his late thirties–clean shaven with short hair, wearing khaki slacks and a sport shirt.  He began singing an Irish ballad in a clear, soaring, expressive tenor that brought the room to absolute stillness.  Conversation, cash registers, kitchen sounds, all ceased.  Two people who had just come through the door froze in their tracks, their eyes riveted on this unexpected marvel.  When he finished the song the man sat down again.  The stillness in the room lingered.  We were all a little stunned by the beauty of this spontaneous gift.  I saw someone wipe a tear away.  Several voices said thank you.  Mine too.  I finished my lunch and left the remains of my profit from the social experiment on the table.


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