Palmer, Mark



1969 Nineteen Sixty Nine was the year that everything in my world changed. This was the year that I lost my innocence, my journey into adulthood, the most transformative year of my life; my trip down the “Rabbit Hole,” so to speak. For me, it was the most important year of my life. I was 16 and very seriously trying to be an adult. It wasn’t working out as well as I wanted it to. I was trying to do too much for my age, education and worldly experience. Innocence, once lost, can never be regained. That said I learned quickly some very hard lessons. I make no apologies for 1969 or any other year of my life. All of my choices were mine and mine alone. Some of the choices I made may not have been in my best interest, but I had to learn those things for myself. Some of my choices had adverse effects on the people around me. People I loved and cared for. For that, I have always felt a little personal remorse, but I would still not change the things that I have done or the way that I did them. I wanted to experience everything. My desire to learn was boundless. My mother had taught me to read at an early age, and I read everything. Nothing was off limits. My father taught me how to swim in the Mississippi River. I had no fear and no boundaries. The world was mine to explore and absorb. If I wanted to go somewhere, I would get on my motorcycle and just go. I wanted it all, I was indestructible and invincible. School was getting seriously boring for me. I learned quickly and had a thirst for knowledge. The problem was that, in 1969, the style of teaching was fairly static. My teachers could not challenge me. I learned fast and wanted to move on just as fast. I read everything that I could get my hands on. Had there been the programs, I most likely would have been enrolled in the University of Minnesota before I was out of the 9th Grade. Those opportunities just didn’t exist for me back then. They do exist for advanced students now. The war in Viet Nam was in full swing. Some of the members of our little group were looking at being drafted and chose to enlist in the different branches of the Military rather than being told where they would go and what they would do. “Doc” was the last of my friends to go and when he headed out for California, I decided it was time for me to take a little trip as well. Looking back, I was experiencing a mixed sense of loss and the need for a new adventure. A small group of us spent most of the night before Doc’s departure drinking and driving around the country roads north of my home town. Early in the morning, we drove Doc down to St. Paul to the train station for his trip to California. I had my backpack with me and about $20.00 in my pocket and after we dropped Doc off, I said “Goodbye” to my friends, stuck out my thumb and headed south. I had no real firm destination in mind; just south. Maybe Texas or Mexico or Florida or maybe just wherever the roads took me. I was restless and dissatisfied and wanted “more” out of life. My first ride was in a brand new Ford Mustang Boss 429. It was cream white with a black interior. The hood scoop was huge. I had heard about the Boss 429, but had never seen one, much less ridden in one. The guy who bought it had taken the bus up to St. Paul, MN from Iowa City, Iowa. When we got out of St. Paul, he punched it to the floor and planted me into the seat. What an experience! That was absolutely the fastest car that I had ever been in up to that day or would ever be in again. When we got to Iowa City, he dropped me I set out in search of another ride. In 1969, hitchhiking and finding rides was no problem at all. Just stick out your thumb and get picked up. You didn’t have to worry too much about who picked you up or where they would take you. When you wanted out, they just pulled over somewhere and off you went. Back then, it was a relatively safe and fun way to travel, not to mention free. About this time, it seemed like a good idea to call home and let my parents know that I had taken off on my own for a while. Needless to say, they weren’t at all happy with my decision. They tried to talk me into turning around and coming back home, but when that didn’t work out, they reminded me that my cousin, Nancy, was now living in Florida. Oh, the power of suggestion! I now had a destination. It took a while to get another ride in Iowa and I ended up walking about 26 miles in the middle of the night. It was pretty cold out and I was starting to get a little desperate. I finally got a ride into Keokuk, Iowa and stopped for something to eat and a little rest. I actually fell asleep in a Burger King and they let me sleep for a while before they closed up for the night. The Mississippi River is about a mile wide at Keokuk and is crossed by an old steel grate bridge. You can see right through to the water and everything else below. There were boats and barges and I don’t know what else down there. I walked across that bridge in the very early morning hours. That was one of the more spooky experiences of the entire trip. It was still very dark and that bridge was creaking and moving with every vehicle that passed by. I could hear the water below me and all of the night sounds. That second morning I got a ride with another young guy in a really fast Chevy Camaro. I guessed that he was probably in his middle 20’s. He took me a long way down the road and we stopped a few times for gas and food and cigarettes. He would just buy me whatever I wanted and off we would go again. He seemed like a great guy and we had a nice long drive and good conversation. It was late in the day when we pulled into a small southern town and wound our way through to a dingy little pool hall in what appeared to be a rather run down part of that town. It was straight out of some 50’s or 60’s movie. When we walked in, he had me wait by the door while he went looking for someone he knew. I watched him turn over the keys for the car and the credit cards that he had been using to pay for everything to a rather rough looking character and get a hand full of cash in return. As it turns out, I had been riding in a stolen car and having all of my meals paid for with stolen credit cards. At 16, I had no idea that that could even happen to me. I continued to head south and east. My destination was Jacksonville, Florida and my cousin, Nancy, and I was determined to get there. I got a series of short rides that wound through the southeastern states. These were interesting times and interesting people. There was a pot smoking lumber jack in a van full of saws and other tools and equipment. A couple of farmers and a couple of truck drivers picked me up at different times. I got a lot of rides with a very diverse group of people. I cannot remember which state I was in or what city we drove in to, but one of the more enlightening experiences along the way happened when I was picked up by an auto parts salesman. We drove for some time before we came to a large community. We entered through the very nicest part of this town and continued on for some miles to a somewhat more rundown and obviously very Black neighborhood. Having grown up in a predominantly White community, I was a bit unsure of myself and my surroundings. My driver pulled into a large service station. When we got into the station, he pointed out the men’s room and asked me if I wanted anything to eat or drink. There were several older gentlemen standing around who were watching me quite closely. Apparently, they didn’t get many White kids in that part of town either. Suddenly, I became acutely aware of all of the racial tension that I had heard so much about, yet had never experienced. He got his sales order filled and bought us sodas and candy bars and off we went again. We were destined to take different paths at the outskirts of that town and I thanked him sincerely as we said our goodbyes. It took several more rides to finally reach Jacksonville, Florida. I arrived late at night and had no idea where to go and, not much money left. As I walked into the northern parts of town, I came across a highway cloverleaf that had trees and shrubbery planted throughout. For some odd reason, that just seemed like a really good place to lay down for the rest of the night. In my little backpack, I carried an old Army poncho and two heavy Army blankets. I laid the poncho down on the ground and the blankets on top of it and rolled up and went to sleep. In the morning, I awoke to the February Florida sun shining on me and the realization that there was a great deal of traffic moving all around me. I was hungry and I seemed to have things crawling on me. At some point during the night, a whole herd of snails and slugs had moved in with me in my bed roll. It was kind of funny, but not real comfortable. It was quite late when I reached Don and Nancy’s house. Nancy wasn’t home and Don didn’t recognize me at first. Once he did, he got really angry. He and the other serviceman who lived with them chewed me out until Nancy got home and settled them down. She wasn’t all that happy with me either, but we were cousins and she had always looked out for me and stuck up for me. That and my parents had called her to tell her that I might just show up on her doorstep. Of course, she was still mad at me, but happy to see me as well. Nancy made up a bed for me on the couch and let me stay there for a few days while she continuously worked at talking me into going back home and finishing school. I knew she was right, even if I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted adventure and a complete change of scenery and a whole new life, whatever that meant. Reason and logic prevailed and Nancy talked me into going back home. She bought me a carton of Camel cigarettes and made a few sandwiches for me and set me back on the road north, towards Minnesota and home. Just at the edge of Jacksonville, I got picked up by a man my father’s age and his 14 year old daughter. They were headed back to Georgia. As it was, she had run away from home and been picked up in Florida and held until her father was able to come and get her. There were lots of kids like myself who just took off to see the world on their own. “Free Spirits” they called us. The father had hitch-hiked all over the country when he was in the Military Service and now picked up everyone he could when he was out and about. As we crossed over into Georgia, and we stopped for some lunch, he suggested that I come and stay with them for a few days and rest up. I graciously declined their offer and they dropped me off where the Freeway split, heading both due north up the East Coast and northwest towards Chicago. I had no more than gotten out of that car and stuck out my thumb again when a VW Bug came flying across all of the lanes and stopped a short distance from me. I ran to meet them and quite to my surprise, there were two young ladies in the car. They asked where I was headed and I just said, “Wherever you are!” We went to Boston. Not exactly what I was supposed to be doing, but, at that moment it seemed like the thing to do. Pretty girls! A free ride! What can I say? We took turns driving non—stop through every major city all the way up the East Coast and through a major portion of Boston. (I ended up getting a speeding ticket in North Carolina and had to pay the fine for that by mail in March). When we arrived at their apartment in Boston, the electricity had been turned off because they hadn’t paid their bill. They had left a window open so that their cats could come and go at will and it looked like every cat in Boston had moved in there. The place was cold, dark, and smelled like a giant cat box. They decided to go to a friend’s place to stay for a few days until they could get their place cleaned up and the electricity turned on again. That seemed reasonable to me. These “friends” lived in a real small, real shabby basement apartment in what appeared to be a rather run down part of Boston. When we arrived, they were having what appeared to be a never ending party. Alcohol, marijuana, and all sorts of other drugs were flowing freely through this crowd. We blended in with the rest of the group and eventually, the girls found a bed for “us” and we passed out for the night. When I awoke in the morning I was alone in bed and the whole place was still as a morgue. I quietly gathered up my things and slipped out without ever seeing those two young ladies again. I will never forget them or those two days in 1969. One of the many things that I didn’t know about hitch-hiking in other states was that it was illegal to hitch-hike on a “Turnpike.” I was to find out the hard way that Massachusetts takes this law very seriously. As I started getting rides west, I ended up on a major freeway and would just walk along with my thumb out as I had during all of the rest of my trip. Apparently, this is acceptable practice, if you stay on the entrance ramp, not on the freeway itself. No one told me that. As I was walking along the highway, a car stopped on the other side of the highway and the driver started yelling something to me out of his window. I couldn’t hear him, so I just ran across all six or eight lanes of the highway and median to his side. It was an unmarked Police Car and it didn’t take long for me to be arrested by two local plain clothes officers and taken to a small town courthouse and jail. The officers took all of my belongings and put me in an old, steel jail cell. They told me that there was a $50.00 fine for hitch-hiking on the “Turnpike” and that I could be sentenced to up to 30 days in jail and paid $1.00/day towards the fine. I would have to shovel snow and clean the place and do whatever else needed to be done. Needless to say, I was scared. I was supposed to be on my way back home and back to school. I had never been in any real trouble before and didn’t want to spend a month in jail in Massachusetts. I knew my parents wouldn’t be at all happy about this either. I sat in that cold, dingy cell for maybe an hour before the same two officers came back to get me. By some strange weird twist of fate, or just possibly all the stars were properly aligned that day, I had ended up in the small town of Palmer, Massachusetts. They told me that the Judge took one look at my driver’s license and told them to get me out of his jail and send me on my way. I never saw the judge, but I was very grateful for his decision. They took me about 20 miles to the west and dropped me off on the old highway. The difference is that the old highway travels through every little town and borough, up and down every little hill and vale, and across every little river and stream in all of western Massachusetts and the rest of New England. That is where I ended up and trying to catch a ride was more than just a challenge. I did get rides, but they were all short and I spent a lot of time walking along cold, snowy New England roads in February. My travels took me into Vermont and again through a series of small towns. If only I could remember the names of all of the beautiful places that I traveled through. I was cold and tired and feeling very pressured to get back to Minnesota and back to school before I got kicked out for the rest of the year. I really didn’t want that to happen. Still, everything was truly beautiful and memorable. The last town that I stopped in was picturesque and, from what I understand, quite typical of New England. I needed a meal and a place to sleep and had been told that just maybe the local police would let me sleep in the jail, if I asked nicely. That was not to be. I did manage to find a local law enforcement officer and ask him about sleeping in the jail. He said that I would have to commit a crime to get a jail cell and he didn’t want me to do that. He did tell me that there was an all—night laundry down the street that had benches in the back and that no one would bother me there, if I wanted to give it a try. I did and slept quite well. The next morning was colder and there was more snow on the ground. My sense of adventure was waning and my cousin’s voice kept echoing in my head, “You need to go back home and get back to school.” I called my father, collect, and he wire transferred bus fare to the local bus depot. I got a ticket right to my home town, by way of every major city including a long layover in Chicago. That was a little scary. That place smelled really bad and there were lots of what appeared to be drunks and burns and I don’t know what else. My parents were more happy to see me alive than they were mad about me taking off for two weeks and travelling the country on my thumb. Looking back, I can see that they had reason to worry, but at the same time, the world was a different place back then. People were kinder, more accepting, and more willing to help each other. No one expected anything in return nor asked for it. A kid hitch-hiking just needed a ride, and maybe a meal. Just the same, they worried and I felt bad for having caused them to worry. The following Monday, I went back to school. For a few days, I was somewhat of a hero. I had lived my dream for a couple of weeks and seen the world through my own eyes. I had had experiences that I would never forget and that I shared with my friends. They were somewhat disbelieving, at first, but came to accept that I had really done the things that I said and gone to the places that I said. It seemed as though everyone wanted to live a little piece of my life vicariously through me. School was different for me when I returned. Everything was different for me when I came home from that trip. I was different. I spent the rest of the school year working harder and studying harder and trying to be a better student to my teachers and devoted son to my parents. I behaved myself and stayed close to home. In the spring, I even got involved in track and field. I got an after school job and was responsible for my own bills and bought a car. I was dating a girl named “Bonnie” in a neighboring town as well as “Mary”, the little sister of one of my friends. Life was really good. For all appearances, I had spent my wanderlust on that little trip to Florida and up the East Coast and other parts unknown. Nothing could have been further from the truth. When school let out for the summer, I took a job at a tree farm shearing Christmas trees. It was hard, dirty work, but it paid quite well. I worked with a cousin and some of the kids that I went to school with and a bunch of kids that I had never met before. I made friends quickly and started hanging out with another “Mark.” We talked about school and girls and cars and motorcycles and future plans and where we would like to go and what we wanted to see. The talk turned to my little excursion to Florida and somehow we started formulating plans to take a trip together. We were 16 and invincible, bulletproof. It didn’t take long for us to quit our jobs and head out into the world. Suzie, my new girlfriend, didn’t care for the idea of us taking off for parts unknown and made that quite clear. She also didn’t like that I had been dating two other girls when I met her, but continued to see me just the same. Mark and I packed our backpacks and left home one Friday after work and rode into Minneapolis with Suzie and her older sister, Sharon. They talked us into spending the weekend with them (and their roommates) and we could take off on Monday morning, if that is what we really wanted. It turned out to be a wild weekend. I was the only one who could get away with calling Suzie, which I got from Frank Zappa, “Suzie Cream Cheese.” Anyone else would get punched. Sharon was dating a Viet Nam Vet named Gary who rode a big motorcycle and drank hard and smoked pot and sniffed glue and did who knows what else. The bunch he rode with were called the “Satan’s Servants” who spent a lot of their time at the duplex just hanging out and drinking and doing whatever they chose. Anything and everything goes. This was the age of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll. I was in Heaven! Totally free and able to do anything I wanted without anyone to tell me I could not. Bikers who drank beer and smoked pot and rode motorcycles wherever and whenever they wanted. What more could a couple of sixteen—year-old kids want? We decided to stay in Minneapolis and live with this house full of girls for a while. There were Sharon and Suzie, a model, a prostitute and another secretary who worked with Suzie and a girl who worked with Sharon. I didn’t get to know most of them all that well even though we lived together and partied together. It was simply a convenient living arrangement. We were a bunch of young people sharing the same living space. The bikers floated in and out at random. It seemed that they always knew when there was beer or food available. I spent every night in Suzie’s bed and still saw Bonnie and Mary on the week end whenever I chose. Suzie would drop me off at Bonnie’s house or take me back to my parents place so that I could take Mary out. What an arrangement! Suzie was great! She took care of me and guided me and loved me. She forgave me when I said or did something stupid (which was quite often) and kept me from getting into too much trouble. Being a year older than me and having graduated from school already, Suzie was a little wiser and more “worldly” than me. I didn’t see it, but my life was spinning out of control. Sixteen years old and I seemed to have it all. We drank and partied whenever we wanted. I got into drugs, hard and fast. Opiated hashish on top of a bowl full of really good marijuana was my first experience with drugs and it was love at first puff. Euphoria, colors, sensations, sounds, all new and exciting. I wanted to see and do it all. My whole world just got better, or so it seemed. The bikers knew a guy named Bruce who always had a supply of real good drugs. He showed up at the duplex one night with a paper bag full of Orange Sunshine LSD. One million hits of Acid! Raw acid, brand new, unpackaged. I was in awe. He just smiled and said, “Help yourself.” What an invitation! Of course I would help myself. What a trip. If only I had all of the words to describe what I felt. Euphoric, mind blowing, beautiful, scary, completely memorable, and yet a confused mix of real and unreal memories and phantasies. LSD has a way of messing with your mind. It opens “doors” and “windows” into the mind and lets in all sorts of things that would normally be filtered out by personal experience and reason. The first part of August, a few people were talking about going to a big concert in New York. It sounded like a lot of fun and I really wanted to go, but Suzie didn’t want to take the time off of work and I didn’t want to go without her, so we stayed home and did our own thing. That and I had been through New York in February and was a little wary of going back. It turns out, the “big concert” that they were talking about was Woodstock and I had the opportunity to go and turned it down. Maybe it was a good thing and maybe not. I guess I’ll never know. Looking back, it sure seems like it would have been a good time. My birthday was a blur. None of us really needed an excuse to party. The drugs and alcohol were readily available and we used them freely. Steppenwolf’ s “The Pusher” became our theme. Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” was another. Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, Iron Butterfly and Led Zeppelin were all our staples. Suzie and I were drifting apart and I had no experience to tell me how to fix it. I was irresponsible and still immature. (And then there were the drugs.) She finally told me that I should go home and go back to school. That hurt, but it also made sense. My education was still important to me and her push was all I needed to go home. At the end of August, Mark and I left Minneapolis and moved back to our parents homes. My Senior Year was another life changing experience for me. I left Minneapolis, physically, but brought everything that I had learned and experienced back to my small town school with me. No one else there smoked marijuana yet. No one was growing their hair long. No one else dressed the way that I dressed. None of the other guys had a pierced ear. I was new and novel and exciting to many of the kids that I had known all my life. It was crazy. We had a big Halloween Party that year dubbed the “Halloween Freak-Out.” There was a contest to vote for the “Freakiest” person in the whole school. It was a tie between me and our Track Coach/Art Teacher, Mr. Tony Mayo. He conceded to me because I was a student and he didn’t feel he should be representing the school in that capacity. After that, I became known as “Freaky” to many of my friends. That name stuck with me for some years. Postscript Doc came home from Viet Nam a real mess. It took some time for him to pull himself together, he finally managed to get into a Physician’s Assistant training program and into a field of work that was rewarding for him. In 1972, he went to work for the Federal Prison System in Danbury, Connecticut. I ended up taking a few days off of work just to drive him out there. That was to be our last “good time” together. We both moved on with our lives after that week. He eventually got married and had a bunch of kids. I did bump into him a couple of times over the years, but we were never close again. I saw Mark on and off that following year and then we only saw each other a few more times over the next 25 or so years. I saw his brother and sister—in—law from time to time and always asked how he was. Mark was never the same after that summer. Everyone knew that. I guess none of were. LSD was not good for him and left, what I believe to be, a black mark on his very soul. We grew up too fast and all of our experiences changed us forever. The last time that I saw him, he was married and had kids and was heavily into Christian religion. I never saw Suzie again. I asked about her when I ran into someone who had known us. She did well for herself. Suzie got married and had a family. She furthered her education and got a good job. I found out that she had asked a few people who knew me about me as well. I loved her that summer of ’69, and I guess, maybe a part of her stayed with me and a part of me stayed with her. I have always wondered... what if? I ran into Sharon from time to time into the late 70’s. She and Gary had kids together and Sharon always seemed to be doing OK. Gary couldn’t stay out of trouble and the last I heard, he was doing “Life without Parole” in a prison in Minnesota. His crimes involved drugs and alcohol and somebody getting killed in a car accident. It’s really too bad. For all of his craziness and quirks, I liked Gary. I thought he and Sharon made a great couple. The last I saw of her, she was living on the north side of Minneapolis and still married to Gary, even though he was in prison. Mary and I got married in 1971, before she graduated from High School in 1972 and had two sons together before we got painfully divorced. She had been a huge part of my life and a part of the summer of ’69 and I really didn’t want to let go of her. Unfortunately, we were meant to take different paths and lead totally different lives. Mary’s was a life of religious devotion and simplicity. Mine was to take me to places far and wide with experiences that would again change me and finally lead me to help others. 1969 changed me indelibly for better or worse. There are some things that I would do differently, if I had the ability to go back and do them over. There are others that I would not change for the world. My past and my experiences have made me the person that I am today, for better or worse. I truly believe that I was never meant to live the type of life that most other people live. I had to experience more, see more, do more, and live more. I had to die, literally, in order to know how to live and to help others live. I have used all of my life’s experiences to guide me in the decisions that I have made in my life. There have been many successes as well as many failures. It all goes with living. I have no way of knowing what my life would have been like were it not for the experiences of 1969. I quit drugs for good on August 25, 1975 and quit drinking on October 25, 1979. That led me back to school to study business and psychology. All of that lead to starting ALPHA Line, a 24 hour Crisis Line, which I ran for three years out of my home and handled more than 3000 phone calls. I was trained as a “Domestic Abuse Advocate” through a program started by Justice Alan Page, so that I could help people work their way out of violent situations. I graduated from the Johnson Institute as a “Group Facilitator” and did my internship at Hazelden Pioneer House in Medicine Lake, MN. With the help of two other people, I started a county wide organization called “The Sherburne Alcohol Drug Advisory Committee” or “SADAC” for short. My adult life has been a long series of advocacy and volunteer projects. It’s been 46 years and all of the memories are still just as clear as can be. I can see all of the faces and places; hear the sounds and smell the smells; and, if I think about it, I can still taste a variety of flavors from 1969, good and not so good. All of it is etched on my brain. I learned so much that year; love and trust and sharing. I learned about letting go and starting over and prioritizing. I had to make so many decisions on my own for my own benefit. I have used those lessons my entire life and I hope to hang on to these memories for the rest of my life. I make no excuses for my life. My parents were wonderful, well educated people who both graduated from McAllister College in St. Paul, MN. They loved me and taught me and raised me to be a responsible person in everything that I chose to do. I blame no one for my life. The mistakes that I have made have been my own. 1969 influenced me, but it did not make me who I am today. I am more than the sum of my experiences. I am Mark C. Palmer and I am very proud of who I am. 21 Jan 15- 15 May 15 /rt Mark C. Palmer JRCC—21986 2521 Circle Drive J amestown, ND 58401

Author: Palmer, Mark

Author Location: North Dakota

Date: October 24, 2016

Genre: Essay

Extent: 15 pages

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