This Day In History: February 4, 1968

This Day In History: February 4, 1968

For many years afterward I’d approach this date with deep, dark trepidation, convinced that some sort of disaster was certain to befall me. The one time, though, that an actual disaster happened, I never saw it coming.

That’s not completely true. In fact, I’d sensed an oncoming catastrophe at least as far back as October of 1967, which, as I remember, was when we stopped paying rent on our cozy little apartment on North Hamilton Street. If nothing else, I was at least vaguely aware that we were ultimately going to be homeless, and probably right about when the full, sullen force of a Michigan winter was about to kick in.

That wasn’t our intention, of course; the apartment, on the ground floor of one of the many 19th century houses that made wandering the streets of Ypsilanti a bit like time travel, was the nicest place we had ever lived. Oh, sure, it was a dump in many regards, and lacked most of the niceties – but also the sterility – of our parents’ suburban homes, but it had character. Had it been in our power, we might have stayed there for years, but we knew we had no such power, that life was inexorably spinning out of control, and that it was only a matter of time before our little world was relentlessly torn apart.

If pressed I could trace the origins of that foreboding to the day in mid-September, 1967 when we took LSD for the first time. I remember lying on a bare mattress on the living room floor listening to side one of Are You Experienced? and thinking that life would never be the same again. It wasn’t, either, and though the trajectory was not always straight downhill, the general trend was in that direction.

Until LSD entered the picture, things seemed reasonably innocent. A bit mischievous, perhaps, and certainly bereft of taste – I mean, we actually went around town wearing hippie love beads and with tinkly bells dangling from our belts – but essentially harmless. At least that’s what we told ourselves, even as evidence piled up to the contrary.

I’d met Darrell the previous spring when, through another set of unfortunate circumstances that mostly involved me being a jerk, I’d found myself living on the streets, and he let me move into his dorm room at EMU. I was nominally a student myself, though I hadn’t attended class since February (this was sometime in May). Between us we’d resolved that come autumn we’d turn over a new leaf, get an apartment together, get serious about our studies and, simultaneously become full-fledged hippies.

During the intervening summer we discovered marijuana – or rather, discovered where we could buy it on a regular basis – and that, without our noticing at first, began to change our perspective. We were still intending to go to class and study, but other things began to take priority, smoking pot as much and as often as possible being foremost among them.

Subtle and not so subtle changes ensued. Furniture gradually disappeared from the apartment to make room for the mattresses that made for easier lounging. Paranoid about the neighbors, we covered the windows with heavy curtains and lived in a timeless sort of twilight. The only decoration I recall was a giant poster of Allen Ginsberg wearing a sign that read “Pot Is Fun.”

And it was fun, at least for a while, or we wouldn’t have kept doing it. By now we’d made contact with a couple dozen other budding hippies, and if we weren’t hanging out at our place smoking pot and listening to music, we were at one of their houses doing the same. Still, we seemed able to cope – just about – with the demands of everyday life, even if our plans to attend school and get part-time jobs had been jettisoned when September was barely underway.

But once LSD entered the picture, everything else went out the door, including what was left of the furniture. The idea of paying rent became a meaningless abstraction, something that the bourgeoisie might be hung up on, but wasn’t going to trouble us.

By the time our landlady realized what a couple of deadbeats she was stuck with, October and part of November had slipped away. When she tacked an eviction notice to the front door on the first of December, you might think we’d use the month’s notice it gave us to make some plans or come up with some money, but instead we decided we needed a holiday and I bounced a check to buy us tickets to New York.

Christmas dinner was a can of corned beef hash and a store-bought pound cake, financed by pulling a wagon up and down the block collecting pop bottles, and then came New Year’s Eve, our last night before homelessness. Darrell’s parents had sent him a few bucks. What were we going to spend it on? More LSD, of course.

At midnight we went our separate ways, our plan being to find sympathetic and/or gullible college girls to crash with. Darrell, being a smooth talker and (at least prior to his hippie incarnation) dresser, had no trouble charming his way into a house one street over, but I, not so gifted in that department, was at a loss. Then I remembered two girls I knew who’d just moved into an old (c. 1845) stone house just off North Huron Street. They had what was nominally a one-bedroom apartment, but it had a lot of odd corners and cubbyholes and I could see it had potential. Better yet, they didn’t seem inclined to throw me out.

What had begun as two girls sharing a student apartment morphed within days into a full-on hippie commune known around town as Insanity House (a nickname given us by the other local hippies; it would be years later before I realized they hadn’t meant it as a compliment). Each night more people would come over to hang out and drop acid with us, and most of them seemed to end up living there. By late January I counted 34 people as more or less permanent residents.

I also counted the number of consecutive days that I’d taken LSD: 30. In one of those inexplicable bits of drug-fueled logic, I decided it was important that I continue taking LSD until my day count matched the number of people in our “family” (yes, we actually referred to it as such). Which I did, hitting 34 days on the 2nd of February. That night’s trip wasn’t too pleasant; we’d run out of both money and the good stuff, and whatever it was I managed to scrounge left me thinking that everything had become a photographic negative of itself. Worse, I had a sickening feeling that this time I’d crossed a line, that something in my brain chemistry had been permanently altered, and that things were always going to look this way.

Late that night I found myself raving like a lunatic to a bunch of strangers in an apartment near campus. Desperate to impress them, I told them how Insanity House was actually a revolutionary organization, and that though we financed ourselves by a combination of stealing and selling drugs (true), our real work involved sabotaging government and corporate institutions to oppose the Vietnam War and bring down the government (a complete and utter lie). I bragged that we were making bombs and were going to take out the local draft board (also a complete lie), and when somebody asked how I was going to avoid getting arrested, I breezily assured him that I had a “system” that made it impossible for the police to pin anything on me.

“Sounds like you’ve got it pretty well figured out,” said a mustachioed character who’d been introduced to me as Maurice. “Can you get me two kilos of weed?”

“No problem,” I lied. In fact, I’d done almost no drug dealing on my own, not least because it was impossible for me to hang on to any amount of drugs without using them and/or giving them away. Most of the dealing that supported Insanity House was handled by a hard-boiled but soft-hearted (maybe a bit soft-headed as well) woman named Winnie, who’d somehow inveigled some local drug barons to advance us 300 hits of LSD. Unfortunately, we’d ended up eating almost all of it, and the money from the little bit that was sold mostly went to finance late-night pizza parties and the like.

Winnie was freaking out, not knowing how she was going to pay back the money, and the rest of us were freaking out, not knowing where we were going to get more acid (food was mostly an afterthought and rent had never been thought about at all). As a result, and also because I was feeling fried from my previous night’s experience (the latest rumor was that the CIA was putting speed in LSD to sabotage the hippie movement, which in my mind explained why I hadn’t been able to sleep well lately), February 3 was the first day since New Year’s Eve that I didn’t take acid. Winnie had disappeared, and the rest of the Insanity House crew sat around disconsolately staring at the walls and wondering what was going to become of us.

She showed up the following morning bursting with good news: she’d managed to talk some Detroit dealers into fronting her another 50 hits of acid. “But this time we really have to sell it all,” she insisted. “Then maybe we can start getting back on our feet again.” She added that the Detroit dealers were not hippies, they were gangsters, and would probably kill us if we stiffed them.

Having conveyed that cheerful bit of information, she pulled me aside and handed me the vial of acid. “Hide this somewhere safe,” she said. “If I hang onto it, everyone will be asking me to give them some, and you know me, I just won’t be able to keep saying no.” Considering my own track record, I thought this was a strange request, but I’d actually come to be viewed as a sort of quasi-leader of Insanity House, no thanks to any merits on my part, but possibly because everyone else seemed even crazier than I was.

I buried the vial under a few inches of snow at the back of the yard before leaving to set up the marijuana deal I’d talked myself into two nights earlier. At the last minute, a fit of paranoia overtook me. What if someone had seen where I’d hid it? I looked around for a better hiding place; not seeing one, I stuffed the vial back into my pocket.

Maurice – what kind of name was that for a hippie pot dealer, I asked myself? – picked me up in his car, and we drove to Ann Arbor. We parked on Forest Street, just off South University, and I told him to wait there while I went to the dealer’s house. Michael, a soft-spoken grad student, hadn’t been expecting me, and looked at me as though I were crazy when I asked for two keys. “I’ve never had that much marijuana here,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever even seen that much marijuana.”

“Okay, I’ll take what you have,” I told him, which turned out to be four ounces, and the most marijuana I’d ever seen in my life. I took it back to the car, told Maurice there’d been a misunderstanding and that it would be a day or two before I could get the rest of his order. He didn’t seem perturbed at all, just sat there staring straight ahead. “Well, guess we’d better get back to Ypsilanti, then,” I said, but Maurice still didn’t say a word, nor did he make a move to start the engine. In that same instant I saw two rough-looking men come running toward us from across the street. They were both carrying guns pointed in our direction.

“Maurice, get the hell out of her now!” I yelled, but he continued to sit there as the car door opened and I was dragged onto the sidewalk and handcuffed. They frisked me quickly before hauling me down to the police station; it wasn’t until the second search, conducted just before they locked me in a cell, that they found the vial of LSD. Ironically, that was only a minor detail as far as the police were concerned; at the time Michigan’s laws against marijuana were far more severe than those against LSD. The LSD might have gotten me a year in jail; for sales of marijuana I was looking at 20.

So that was how I spent February 4, 1968. Overall, a bit of a bummer, as the hippies liked to say. However, it was not quite over yet. Sometime a bit before midnight, the police cut me loose, for reasons I couldn’t comprehend at the time, but which I later learned involved them wanting to shadow me and see who I might lead them to. In an all-night planning session with the Insanity House brain trust, fueled by – naturally – still more LSD, it was decided that I’d go underground (it was all the rage in those days) and wait for the revolution.

At dawn I set out for New York City in my friend Jay’s ’41 Mercury. No headlights, so we couldn’t drive at night, and no heater, which meant that even swathed in blankets we were miserably, miserably cold. We got stopped by cops in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but the warrant hadn’t gone out for me yet. A couple weeks later, the FBI came looking for me at Jay’s parents’ house in Flatbush.

His mother covered for me “as long as I never see you around here again,” and I bounced around the country, to Ohio, back to New York, then to California for the rest of the year before it sunk in that the revolution wasn’t going to happen soon enough to save my ass. Eventually, when all the hubbub had died down, a lawyer was able to broker a deal that left me serving only minimal jail time and a couple years of probation. By 1969 things were more or less back to normal. Insanity House was long gone, of course, busted and trashed by the cops as soon as they realized I’d slipped away, and Jay, the kid who drove me to New York, was dead of a heroin overdose, his body left behind at a rest stop on the Rhode Island Turnpike by his buddies who didn’t want to miss the rock festival they’d been headed for.

Jan, the girl I’d been paired up with at Insanity House – as the alpha-couple, we’d had our own “room,” a closet big enough to accommodate a single mattress – got religion, married a preacher, and, the last I heard, had five kids. A couple years earlier she’d been talking (literally) to trees and insisting she was reincarnated from a cat. I hung around Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor a while longer, but it just wasn’t the same anymore, and as soon as my probation was up, I got the hell out of there. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Ann Arbor, and try to visit from time to time, but Ypsilanti (Ypsi-tucky, as the locals often call it), with its brooding Gothic houses and the dark, baleful cloud that seems to hang over the place on even the brightest of days, still scares the hell out of me. I’ll go there every once in a long while, mostly as a way of reminding myself that I’m still free to leave.

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