Toward the end of that schoolyear in 1984, I noticed a slight curve in my daughter’s spine. She was only eight-years old, but I was always concerned about passing on a genetic flaw that had almost crippled me. As a result, I checked my children’s’ backs regularly. Back in 1966, in the spring of my 7th grade year, I was diagnosed with scoliosis which is a curvature of the spine. This was devastating news. As a child, I was extremely shy, definitely scared and a little odd. In our first neighborhood, there were other neighborhood kids to play with. Back then all the kids in neighborhood spent the days outside playing together. When I was ten-years old, my parents bought their first house and moved us to a different neighborhood. We still lived close enough for me and my brother to go to the same Elementary School. Then a couple of years later, I started Junior High School. This would be 7th, 8th and 9th grades.
This was a huge change for me. I’d never had many friends but quickly made a few during the mile walk to and from school. I am still in touch with one of these friends. At that time, we felt as though we were entering the teenage world, even though we weren’t teens yet. We smoked cigarettes together, a couple of us shoplifted, we explored abandoned buildings, flirted a little and fought but basically, we just had a lot of fun being a little bit delinquent. I was also trying new things in school. I thrived in music and art, enjoyed most of my classes and, for the first time, felt excited about school. I discovered gymnastics during my gym class and was trying to negotiate for lessons with my pre-teen dream of someday being in the Olympics. And there was my Girl Scout Troop.
I was a Girl Scout from Kindergarten or 1st grade on through High School and loved it. I guess most troops did a lot of sewing, cooking, first aid, you know … girl things. My troop did those too, but we also went on amazing trips. We went hiking and camping regardless of the weather. We learned survival skills like how to build shelters, build a fire in the rain, cook food over an open fire and find wild foods. We went white water rafting on the Delaware River; we built a little over a mile long wooden walkway through the wetlands at The Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford, Connecticut with a Reader’s Digest Grant, spent a week camping in the Adirondacks and went on a month-long camping trip from Connecticut to the mountains of Wyoming. We had a charter bus that transported us from place to place. We camped in Canada and many northern states before reaching Wyoming where we spent a week camping in the Rocky Mountains. It was the trip of a lifetime.
So, now it was the spring of 8th grade. There was one more year in Junior High before starting High School. Then, my parents suddenly decided to take me out of public school and enrolled me in the all-girls Catholic High School to afford me a “better” education. I was devastated! All of my friends would be going to a different school. Then, I found out about my scoliosis. Ugh! But really, how bad could it be? I went through a battery of tests that spring, each one giving a grimmer prognosis. Finally, they decided that I should see a doctor in New York City. That doctor determined that there were two severe curves and recommended a steel and leather back brace that stretched from just under my chin, lifting my head slightly, to just below my hips. I spent a week in the hospital away from my family while I was examined repeatedly by various classes of doctors at this teaching hospital and was finally fitted for a Milwaukee brace. I wore it 24-hours a day with an hour allowed for showering a couple of days a week. It was supposed to stop the progression of the curve which would have eventually killed me, so I had no choice but to do this until my bones stopped growing. For me this meant just before graduating from high school.
Those years were a nightmare. I was without my only friends and was relentlessly bullied but also bored to tears. Sister Kelliher, the social studies teacher, must have been ninety-years old. She could barely stand and had a voice so weak and shaky that I never understood a word she said. Another teacher, Mrs. Grant, looked like a zombie or maybe a vampire. Her face was long and thin and pasty white with bright red lipstick and dark circles under her eyes. She had orange hair that was parted in the middle and hung straight down on both sides. She wore a dull colored dark shift that accentuated She spoke in a monotone. She was the Latin teacher. It was too bad because I liked languages and wanted to study Latin, but I couldn’t focus on the class at all and did nothing but daydream. Latin was a required course for two years. I had to be tutored both years during the summer to pass. Worst of all, there were no music or art classes offered in the school, and those subjects were my lifeline.
Because it was a Catholic school, most of the kids came from Catholic Elementary schools and entered high school with plenty of friends. Although, my family was of Catholic faith, we weren’t all that religious. We went to church on major holidays and when it was time for me or my brother to do some coming of age event. I had gone to Catechism classes and had also gotten thrown out twice for asking the wrong questions. All of the students in afternoon Catechism were public-school kids who weren’t getting religious education in school. I entered the school knowing one set of twins who lived in the neighborhood.
New kids were immediate targets. I was not only a new kid, but I was different and disabled. In my Sophomore year, classes became co-ed. Conditions in my high school were already bad enough with the other girls. Now they were introducing boys into the mix. Now the girls got nasty and many of the boys were bullies. It was so bad, those of us being bullied wouldn’t even sit together in the cafeteria for fear of being targeted. We tried to disappear in the crowd, a skill I am still good at if necessary. There was one sweet but quite shy boy, who was also bullied so badly, he committed suicide. Another boy a year ahead of me took a gun to the roof of the school and shot it randomly injuring a a student and a teacher, then he shot himself. Although there were no music or art classes until my senior year, I managed to survive with my music. Now, I was worried about Jessie. Had she inherited this scoliosis which can be passed down through the generations? My grandmother had been very bent over. Think Quasimoto. Jessie also struggled making friends, and I couldn’t face a repeat of what I had gone through with my daughter.
I got her an appointment with a specialist. She did indeed have a slight curve, but nothing that needed attention. However, he wanted to examine me. I insisted that I was fine. I explained that I had already been treated, and the curve was stable. He asked a lot of questions, including how much discomfort I was experiencing now. I answered all of his questions then, at his insistence, agreed to an x-ray. He also sent away for my old records. A week later, he explained that the curvature in my spine had started up again, probably because of a combination of gravity and childbearing. He estimated that I had about ten years to live unless I had surgery. It wasn’t much of a choice as I hadn’t yet come into my prime. The surgery was scheduled for summer, after school ended so that I could finish my internship and have my kids go to their grandparents. The operation would be bone grafts taken from my hip and the placement of a Harrington Rod, a flexible steel rod inserted the length of my spine with assorted hooks and wires.
They predicted a 6-week hospital stay and at least nine months in another back brace, not as invasive as the first one. I started looking into herbs and vitamins immediately. I had been utilizing alternative medicine for quite a few years by now and knew that it could only help. I started on a daily regimen of vitamins and had family members sneak them into me once I was out of ICU. I had asked the doctor to give them to me, but he refused insisting that they wouldn’t help anyway, so my outlaw instincts came out. Paul usually came to visit once a day but had a phobia about hospitals and always stayed less than an hour. Because my kids were staying with their grandparents while I was hospitalized, my parents brought them to visit a few times. Mostly, I was alone for weeks, doing a lot of reading and yearning to get out. I managed to leave the hospital in three weeks and only wore the brace for six months, reducing the projections by a lot. To say the medical professionals were surprised is an understatement. I usually know what my body needs to heal and am always determined to have my way.
I got out of the hospital, two inches taller, in time for the big Rok Against Reaganomix concert in Washington Park (Albany, NY) that summer. General Eclectic was on the bill. Everyone was concerned about me doing this performance. I’d only been out for a couple of weeks, but I was determined. Music is the one consistent thing that’s healed me and kept me going. I was not going to miss this show. The stage was always a flatbed truck with rickety makeshift stairs and no railing. The only obstacle to me performing was getting up onto that stage. I was still on pain meds and adjusting to the new brace, but friends in the committee helped me up. Once there, I was good to go and sang my heart out. It felt good to be doing the thing I’ve always loved the most. I had missed it terribly. Now I could look forward to a life without pain, or much less pain anyway. I was also looking forward to being a teacher at The Free School in the fall with both kids attending.
The summer of 1983 ended too soon for us, but we were becoming well-established in this new home. I had enrolled Jessie in The Free School and, with the start of the school year, I was invited to spend as much time as I liked volunteering there with Justin in tow. Although, I had done some home schooling and taught private piano and voice lessons, I had never taught in a school. This was a different school that focused on student-led education and emotional development. It was founded in 1969 and is the oldest inner-city independent alternative school in the United States. The school was tuition-based but was mostly supported by rentals. The school had bought brownstones that needed to be rehabbed at extremely low prices, then fixed them up and sold a few to teachers then rented the rest for reasonable prices. I was fascinated by this unusual model. I mostly stayed in the upstairs part of the school which housed the kindergarten and preschool. I didn’t want to encroach on Jessie’s experience, a decision I came to regret, but I also had my three-year old with me who wasn’t formally enrolled yet as a student.
The school tuition was on a sliding scale with no one turned away for lack of funds. This meant that the demographics of the students was diverse, which I liked. I wanted my children to be exposed to other children with many different lifestyles, economic backgrounds and belief systems. Unfortunately, like everything, the school had it’s good and bad qualities, and the bad ones were hidden from me for the most part. However, they were looking for teachers and, if I volunteered a couple of days a week for this school year, I could start working there the following year with both of my children attending. They also offered to let Justin attend the rest of that year. How could I refuse? I’d been exposed to alternative education in San Francisco and in Oregon and loved the concepts. I knew I couldn’t afford college and also knew that it would be impossible to go to school while my children were so young. Although I never thought I would end up being a teacher, I was drawn to it and agreed to their offer.
The tactics of the director and founder were, to put it kindly, unorthodox. There were things done there that should have been reported and certainly should have been stopped, but I wasn’t aware of them at the time. Unfortunately, Jessie experienced some of this and was cautioned to not tell anyone or it would get worse, so she kept quiet until she graduated many years later. The side of the school that I was allowed to see was one in which the children learned through play. They learned history through drama and games such as role playing, being Marco Polo and exploring Asia and the Silk Road. They learned math by playing “Math Baseball.” They learned science through experiments and field trips. They learned geography by making artistic maps and going on trips to places around the country. They also learned independence and self-sufficiency by being out in the world but also through calling and attending “council meetings.”
Council meetings were one of the most important parts of the school curriculum. If anyone had an issue with any other person, whether another student or a teacher, they could call a council meeting which was run according to Robert’s Rule of Orders and chaired by a student who was elected by a majority. The teachers tried to stay out of the negotiations as much as possible only speaking up to get things moving along or to relay their own experiences. Sometimes, if the meeting seemed stuck, teachers would suggest something outlandish to heat things up.
It was a powerful process. When someone called one of these meetings, everything stopped. Every student and teacher were required to attend, and the meetings would sometimes go on for days until the problem was solved. With encouragement from the teachers, the students often came up with unorthodox solutions. If a child were being left out, the students doing the leaving out might have to spend a week being alone. Or maybe the students doing the leaving out were paired up with the one left out, having to spend every minute together to get to know each other better. If two students were fighting, they were often paired with each other or a supervised wrestling match was set up. Supervised wrestling was a big part of the curriculum with strict rules of engagement. If mandated by a council meeting, the entire school turned out for these events. The belief was that these kids needed to learn to work out their issues rather than being talked out of it. We all knew that unless it was resolved in school, it was likely to be taken to the streets where there was no supervision. There were kids of all kinds attending school there including some very damaged kids from dysfunctional and violent homes who were violent themselves and tended to gravitate towards gangs and a life of crime.
I learned how to restrain kids in a way that protected both them and me. I learned how to supervise fair fights and wrestling matches. I learned how to encourage the release of emotions in a safe way, and I saw these tactics work to help kids be able to learn and grow and survive their trauma. I also learned how to watch for signs of abuse and deal with aggressive parents. But most of all, I learned how to teach children effectively. It was better than any classes I had taken before or since. In working there, I became a real teacher and found an inner strength I didn’t know I had. Much later on I realized that all of the teachers were becoming educated as well as educating others. As much as I loved my work there, it was difficult working with wild, sometimes out-of-control kids and then going home with my own kids. So, I started taking advantage of the couple of school days I was allowed to be home.
Jessie had acclimated to the city and, since we lived only a few blocks away from the school, started walking her brother home in the afternoons that I didn’t work. Justin, having always been a handful, and never listened to her, started running off during these walks home and doing other dangerous things that scared her. She called a council meeting at which they decided that she would walk him home on a leash. It sounded like a good solution to everyone until he started crawling on all fours, barking like a dog and embarrassing her, so that was the end of that responsibility. I didn’t really mind too much, and it gave her more freedom to do other things on those days.
The school community was very insular with the other teachers’ kids not very welcoming to newcomers and the teachers too close to the situation to see what was going on, so Jessie struggled with her friendships there. Luckily, she made another friend in the neighborhood in addition to the girl who lived on the first floor of our building. Amber was a couple of years older than Jessie, but they hit it off immediately. I even got to know and liked her mother. Kathleen was a radical feminist who informed me that if she had known that she was having a boy, she would have aborted the pregnancy. I was horrified. I’d known lots of radical feminists when I lived on the west coast, but no one had ever expressed this to me before. I knew better than to try to change her mind and tolerated her views as best I could. However, by the end of the first month that we knew each other, she had turned her views around because Justin won her over. He was the first boy she ever liked. This surprised me because he was a wild child, but he was also polite and a lot of fun to be around.
Annette and Chris, some of the first friends we met in the neighborhood, lived next door to Kathleen. Jessie soon started babysitting for their young daughter and also took piano lessons from Annette. When that wasn’t happening, Annette often drove me around town showing me how to find my way, teaching me shortcuts and filling me in on bits of history. I had also started hanging out with one of the Rok Against Reganomix families who had children around the same age as ours. Now there were parties and potlucks again. We were definitely settling in, and I started feeling as though I could stay here. I was making friends and was learning how to be an educator.
Paul was also making friends through his job as well as meeting other musicians. We were both involved with Rok Against Reganomix, organizing concerts at local clubs to fundraise for the big summer concert. We had also found the Half Moon Café which was quickly becoming our home venue. It was only a few blocks away and was open to booking us as a duo and with our band. We played there at least once a month, packing the place with folks congregating on the sidewalk outside when it was too crowded to go inside. More and more, it was beginning to look like we could actually be happy here. But Paul was never happy unless he was traveling and started talking about another move. I reminded him that we had promised Jessie we would stay here while she was still in school, allowing her to settle, and he wasn’t happy. His wanderlust was not giving up, and our arguments started escalating again. Luckily, our shared music always brought us back together. We played the Chateau Lounge one last time before it was torn down for urban redevelopment just before the bass player and drummer, who were also good friends, moved on to other projects.
In 1983, we were excited about our new band. We called ourselves “Cosmo Rock” at that time. Although I had played in various music groups in my teens, this was the first time I had my own band. We had no idea how to run a band, but we made a good team. Paul was always a people person. Everyone loved him. He was personable, generous with his time and resources and had a “bad” joke for every occasion. He also made friends easily. I was almost his opposite. I was very shy and because of that, often came across as “stuck-up.” In truth, I just didn’t do socializing well. For Paul it came naturally, for me it was a job. I was better at the behind the scenes work. Paul went out on the circuit and got the gigs. I made the flyers (with his artistic input) and contacted the press and radio stations. Then together we went to parties and other events, often with our kids in tow. We got some very cool and some very unusual gigs in those early days and beyond.
Paul somehow heard about a compilation album coming out. It was to be called “American Underground,” produced by Mark Ernst. We decided to reach out to him. He agreed to let us submit something. It was tough choosing what song to send. We were writing a lot of songs then, and we thought they were getting better and better. We finally sent what we thought was our best one. He didn’t think it was right for the album. He was going for a certain sound. We sent another, but that one wasn’t any good either. Finally, I turned to Paul and said, “I think we should just write what we think he wants and get on the damned album.” He stood firm for a while but finally agreed. In about ten minutes, we wrote a song entitled “City Flight.” The lyrics were trite and nonsensical, but the meter and rhyming were spot on. The music was also simple and straightforward. He loved it. The release was described as electronic, rock, reggae, heavy metal, hard rock, synth-pop, blues rock, prog rock, new wave and power pop. That was not us at all, but we were determined to have Cosmo Rock on that release, and we did it.
One time, we played at a Battle of the Bands somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea how Paul got that gig. Paul didn’t know anyone except the guy who booked us, and the rest of us knew no one at all. The other musicians were distant at best, although we tried to mingle. The set up on the stage was weird. The stage was long and very narrow with a slightly wider right angle that jutted forward a bit. That was where the drummer ended up because his kit only fit there. There was no sound check. Everyone just went up and down quickly. The other bands sounded fine, so we weren’t worried. We launched into our first song and realized that we had no monitors. We tried to signal and finally ended our first of three songs early to try to get them back on. We were told that the sound guy was on a break, who knew where, we had a limited amount of time for our set and had better get on with it. So, we did.
Paul and I had been living and playing together for years now, and were so in sync with each other, we knew we could pull it off if only the rest of the band could follow along. We’d been with Chuck and Dave for about a year, practicing sometimes two or three times a week. We were pretty confident that we could pull it off. The second song was going along much better. We were all in the groove when suddenly, the drummer’s stool went over the back edge of the stage, tipping him over onto a table of burly bikers. Without missing a beat, the bikers picked him up, still on his stool and set him back up there. We finished that song and started the next, “Glendale Train” by The New Riders of the Purple Sage. We knew this song in our sleep. It should be a breeze. I was singing along and playing my tambourine when I glanced over at Paul and realized that he was singing the words to the chorus while I sang the words to the verse. It all worked musically, and we knew by this time that most people aren’t paying close attention to the words anyway. Nonetheless, we were mortified until the crowd went wild, and we ended up coming in third. We couldn’t understand why they loved us so much. Afterwards, as we were packing up, folks started coming up commenting on our unique style, even mentioning the drummer falling off the stage and our unique arrangement of “Glendale Train.” We handed out a lot of contact info that night.
The real truth is that Paul and I were both clumsy but were also good at the “save.” I’ve knocked mics over and caught them dramatically. Not because I was being cool, but because I was falling over while reaching for it. One time, at The Chateau Lounge in downtown Albany, Paul lost the strap pin in the bottom of his guitar, causing it to swing out forward and to the left. Luckily, he was gripping it tightly in that left hand in whatever chord he was playing. He just swung it back in again, then stood on one foot, like Ian Anderson, holding the guitar up with that leg and hopping around as we finished the song. Even I had to admit, it was pretty impressive.
We played at The Chateau a couple of times, but mostly we played in Schenectady where the other band members were already established. Schenectady was their hometown. Chuck and Dave had been playing there since they were young teens. We got into a couple of festivals in Central Park and a few of the local bars including The Electric Grinch. One of those nights, this guy started spinning on the floor and doing “The Worm.” Everyone in the band was stunned. Although we crossed genres, we still played psychedelic music, and we’d ever had anyone break dance to our music before. It was a little odd but sure made that night fun. A few months later we played there again, and someone asked us to describe our music. Paul answered, “Well, generally speaking, we’re pretty eclectic.” As he said that, I was looking at the General Electric neon sign and thus was born the name “General Eclectic.”
As I said earlier, Paul made friends easily and, when he could, he brought them home to meet me and jam or just hang out. Most of these folks didn’t have kids, so it was easier for them to come to us. We jammed with all kinds of musicians back then. I loved it. I have always loved all genres of music, though some of it I need to listen to in small doses. But still, there’s nothing I don’t like. We also tried to incorporate many genres of music into our sets. It wasn’t unusual to see a table of punks in one corner, some country folk in another, a few Deadheads sprinkled around, some straightlaced families, we seemed to attract everyone, but not in large numbers. We started struggling a bit to get gigs because we couldn’t be pigeon-holed. In a typical set, we would play jazz, blues, pop, originals, swing, country, The Dead, punk … you get the idea. You might like a few of the songs but maybe not all of them. Paul insisted that we had named ourselves General Eclectic for a reason, and it wasn’t time to compromise our values.
I was all for being an individual and having a creed, but I was also trying to be practical. I was a musician and had been gigging when I met Paul. I wanted to do that work again. Paul was jealous and wouldn’t be fun to live with if I went out on my own. So, we kept going along the same way, writing lots of new songs and finding new covers. Meanwhile, Chuck and Dave were also used to getting paying gigs. They started doing side gigs and liked that income. Paul continued to refuse to let anyone dictate what songs he did, so they eventually, and quite reluctantly, moved on. It was the end of more than a band. We spent most of our time together, not only as a band but with our families. Now, everyone got busy, and we were back to being a duo again. We looked for and found other players but also decided to keep the duo going, taking what small gigs we could get while still booking the band. I kept telling myself that this was temporary, that once the kids were older, and we had more mobility and more income, things would turn around. I knew we were good musicians, but we kept being told that our music was too varied. On the other hand, that same variety was one of the things our fans loved. I kept thinking about our friends in Oregon who had encouraged us to go to Caffé Lena, saying that our music was folk rock. I started pestering Paul about going to Saratoga Springs for an Open Mic.
He finally agreed until we got to the door and saw that there was a one-dollar cover. There was no way he was going to “pay to play.” Although I understood his point, this was Caffé Lena, an internationally renowned folk club. I was starting to get mad now. I insisted on going in and raced up ahead of him. Everyone was friendly. Lena met us at the top of the stairs and took our money as Paul glared at her. We played “No Free Lunch” and “875” (or “The Mouse is Everywhere”). She loved them both and invited us to please come back again the next week. I was thrilled. Paul was not. He refused to pay another dollar the following week. No matter how much I begged him, no matter how angry I got, he never set foot in there again. He was a very stubborn man. That was not the last time I regretted not playing an instrument to accompany myself.
Finally, in 1983, Paul and I had enough money to get an inexpensive apartment in the South End of Albany. It was on Green Street, in “The Pastures” area. The city had just finished putting up a new development with two- and three-story buildings made to look like brownstones for “section 8” housing. We were eligible for one of these which meant that we would pay a percentage of our combined income each month rather than a pre-determined rent. The city was trying to spruce up the ghetto and also provide alternative housing. It was a good deal for us, so we moved in June. The city later built new homes for sale to low-income families which was a good idea in theory. Absentee landlords are always a problem in low-income neighborhoods. When people own their own homes, they care for them more responsibly and don’t have to depend on someone else who may or may not care much. In practice though, the contractors for this project used shoddy materials, and unfortunately those family-owned homes deteriorated fast. I remember walking by after only a year or two and see the façade peeling off. It was sad to see that broken promise. However, our buildings were made to last.
We lived on the second floor in an apartment with three bedrooms, a long living room/dining area, a small but workable kitchen and a bathroom with a tub. There were parking lots for all of the residents and a small playground in the central yard. After too many months of living in my parents’ basement, we were excited to settle in. Each of the kids had their own room for the first time. We were in a real neighborhood, close to downtown, in the State Capital with so much to do and lots of exploration ahead. Yes! This was the adrenaline rush I love.
Very soon after moving in, Jessie came running up the stairs crying that some kid had stolen her bike. He came up and asked if he could have a turn riding it, and she agreed. Then he rode off laughing. We knew nothing about this new city we were in, not the demographics or the different neighborhoods. Paul and I both grew up in the suburbs and knew how to get by on the road but living in the ghetto would be a change for all of us. Paul immediately called the police who immediately came and laughed at us. Then, seeing that we needed to adjust, they gave us some advice. Always lock your doors and bikes or keep your bikes inside. Don’t trust the kids in the neighborhood to tell the truth. Don’t really trust anyone and “Don’t go over to Morton Avenue because that’s where all the drug dealers are.” We thanked them for their wisdom, waited an appropriate amount of time, then Paul headed over to Morton Avenue to replenish our stash. It had taken a lot of smoking to get by at Mom and Dad’s! Now, thanks to the helpful police, we knew right where to go.
We met a few neighbors, but most of them were cautious. The kids in the neighborhood didn’t know what to make of our kids. Justin had been raised in the country for the most part and was totally comfortable with peeing on a tree. These city kids were horrified, so I had to break him of that habit. Our immediate downstairs neighbors were hard-livers and very personable. We got along well. They had a daughter Jessie’s age which was nice for both of them. We also met a couple of Deadheads who lived a block away. They had a baby, and Annette was home with her, so we became fast friends. Before long, Jessie started taking piano lessons from Annette and met one of their neighbors who had a daughter a couple of years older than her. They hit it off immediately. Even before school started back up in the fall, Jessie had made friends and seemed to be fitting in. Then we’d see what happened once school started.
When I knew that we were moving to Albany, I started looking into the local public school. After the issues I’d had with the school in Beaver, Oregon with their paddling rule, I wanted to know ahead of time what we were getting into. When I spoke with the principal of this public school and told him that we had recently relocated from Oregon, he assured me that security had been tightened up that year. They checked every child for weapons before they entered the school. I asked him to repeat himself, thinking I must have misunderstood. I even drove by one morning to see for myself. There was no way I was going to send my child there. She would be mortified and eaten alive or turned in a direction I wasn’t prepared for. I remembered that my friend from the East Greenbush town beach, Linda, had told me about The Free School. It was an alternative school located only a few blocks away from our new apartment. Not long after that, I met one of the founder’s sons who also mentioned it. We didn’t have any money for an extra expense like tuition, but after meeting her son, I decided to go visit. I immediately loved the vibe of the place. It was filled with hippies of various ages and lots of laughing, playing children. Jessie, Justin and I had visited for a week before the end of the school year, negotiated a very generous sliding-scale tuition and signed her up for the following September.
That summer was a whirlwind of activity. We were back in a city with music, art and theater everywhere. We went to outdoor festivals and street festivals. And we started making new friends. One of the first events we attended was a Rok Against Reaganomixconcert held in Washington Park. It was an all-day affair with bands, solo artists and speakers. Paul and I had written a song called “No Free Lunch” about Reaganomics and approached the organizers about the possibility of performing it onstage. At first, they said no because the roster was so full which was understandable. They didn’t know who us. Then one of them asked to hear a little bit of it then managed to squeeze us on the schedule. That song became so locally popular that it was requested all the time, but we got sick of it. Eventually, we started including a coupon for “No Free Lunch” on the bottom of our posters that could be redeemed for the song. We met a lot of people that day including the bands and musicians who played, Glenn Weiser, Terry Phelan, The Stomplistics, Fear of Strangers, Begonia, The Units and more. We also met many local activists. We had finally found our tribe.
One of the most fun during that day was meeting LoAnne (with WolfJaw) and Yuma. Paul and I usually wandered our separate ways at events, especially when in a new town. As I wandered, keeping my kids in sight, I met a woman and her big dog. I’ve always loved dogs, grew up with them and often owned them as an adult. This dog was special. We started talking, realizing how much we liked each other and decided to go look for our partners and bring them in on this meeting. I found Paul and almost simultaneously, we both said, “I just met the coolest person. You have to meet her/him. I know we’re going to be great friends.” Apparently, the same thing was happening with LoAnne and Yuma. We were all amazed at the synchronicity of that meeting. And we did in fact become good friends.
We also joined the Rok Against Reaganomix Committee which kept us busy organizing fundraising concerts at the local clubs and the big summer concert each year. We all became close, an extended family, having potlucks and parties, with our children playing together, and some of us have remained friends for many years.
The East Greenbush Town Park is where I made my first New York friend.
Although we had anticipated a rough adjustment, it turned out to be rougher than we’d hoped. It was the end of the school year, and I had made sure that Jessie and Justin were both learning along the way. They had, in fact, learned some things that most adults haven’t yet learned about navigating your way through life, especially a life with difficulties. Jes. remembers some parts of the trip vividly, but Justin was 3-years old and doesn’t actively remember much, if any of it. However, those experiences are still in there and have an effect on both of their abilities to survive when necessary. I learned along the way that surviving is quite different from living life. It’s good to have that skill when you need it.
After our incredible journey from the Pacific Coast, and our dramatic arrival in East Greenbush, New York, we settled into my parents’ basement and started looking around. My parents had been begging us to move back east and promised to help us settle. We’d been advised by two different friends in Oregon to go to upstate New York to the Albany/Saratoga Springs area. One fellow, Carlos, told us to look up his parents who were part of the PSG (Pickin’ Singin’ Gathering). Another friend kept urging us to go check out Caffe Lena, the legendary folk venue. Paul, although he disdained folk music, was intrigued, so we finally agreed to move. My family had relocated there while was still out west. We arrived not knowing anyone there except my parents and siblings. Their suburban neighborhood wasn’t our ideal location, but we were determined to make the most of it. Now, Paul was out every day looking for work while I went exploring with the kids.
When Jessie was first born, Paul and I had decided that I would stay at home and raise our children, picking up work where I could. During that time, I had driven a school bus, been a crossing guard, made macrame plant hangers for a wholesaler, done childcare, worked for a pot grower and at an herb farm. I had also given music lessons here and there and homeschooled my kids for a couple of months at a time when traveling. In Portland, while Justin was still a baby and Jessie was still not school-age, I was given the opportunity to work for the phone company. It would have been a great salary with benefits at a time when, as usual, we were struggling financially. We researched childcare, looked at the numbers and talked it over. We realized that the cost of childcare would take up almost all of the extra money I would make while our kids were being raised by someone else. Paul had a grave look on his face as he explained that, although I would be bringing in so much more money than him, if I took the job, he would never be able to do what I was doing at home. The kids would be neglected, the house would fall apart, and we would both be miserable. We understood that it would be a disaster. Paul was raised in an even more dysfunctional family than mine. He and his siblings were left to raise themselves amidst violence and total chaos. He struggled with being a parent because he had nothing to base it on. He was angry often - at the world, at life, at his job and at home. I actually loved being a stay-at-home mom, I thrived on it. I felt like I was in my element and could give rein to my creativity in new ways. I was also getting tired of the economic struggle and knew we had to get out on our own as soon as possible. Mom refused to watch my children so that I could work. It being summer, I became determined to explore my new environment. I learned about the town beach with their free swimming lessons for kids, so I headed over there at the first opportunity and signed them up. I knew that I would need activities for them and also saw this as an opportunity for me to meet other parents.
Meanwhile, I was at home with my mom and sister during the days. My sister was only six years older than Jessie, having been born when I was almost sixteen. She was incredibly jealous of Jessie and had a vindictive streak. Jessie was a spitfire when riled and wasn’t going to take it. My mother was very protective of my sister, and I was protective of my daughter. Mom and Dad had been trying for years to have another child after my brother and had dealt with a few miscarriages. When they were finally successful, Mom was almost forty, and my sister had many serious health issues. But now, in 1981, she was older, physically stable and spoiled rotten. She and Jessie started fighting the first day and fought constantly. This also meant that Jessie and I were always in trouble with Mom.
Mom and I were like oil and water. It had been that way for as long as I could remember. I know that she loved me, but I never felt as though she liked me very much. She certainly didn’t like the choices I’d made. When I was around her, I only heard complaints, some of them valid, and unwanted advice. Nothing I did was the right thing in her mind whether it was how I raised my children, who I chose to marry, the lifestyle I had chosen, or just about anything really.
A couple of days after we had arrived, after complaining that our cat was annoying her by walking across the piano keys, located with us in the basement and which we thought was very cool, she showed me a puddle she had found by furnace in the garage. We checked the furnace for leaks but soon realized it was urine. I cleaned it up but the next day it was back. We asked the kids if they knew anything about it. Jessie didn’t know anything, but Justin explained that it was “the bear.” My mom replied that the bear had better cut it out or he’d have to leave, glaring at me as she said it.
One of the conditions for us moving in, a condition that was stated the day after we arrived, was that I was not allowed to cook in the kitchen but that we would have to eat meals with them. Mom hated that Jessie and I were vegetarians. She was determined that she would break us of that silly notion. They ate all processed foods, vegetables that were frozen or from cans and lots of red meat. I had been baking my own whole grain bread, growing fresh vegetables, picking fruits from the Hood River Valley orchards, making jellies, jams and canning applesauce and other fruit. It didn’t matter how much I argued, she had an explanation for everything. There wasn’t enough room in the refrigerator or the cabinets for another family’s food. She didn’t like other people using her appliances. I would be in her way, even if I did my cooking opposite hers. The list went on until I finally realized that I had no choice. We were already here and would have to try to make the best of it.
My parents had assured us that there would be plenty of good paying work available, but Paul was not having any luck finding it. Tensions in the house were growing the longer we stayed, and I knew I had to take the kids out of the house every day or someone would lose it. Paul and I were not doing so well either. After all of the adrenaline from the cross-country saga, this was more than anti-climactic. There were four of us living in one room with a large heating vent in the ceiling amplifying every conversation throughout the house, not to mention any potential nighttime activities. We fought now in vicious hushed tones. Something had to give soon.
Finally, the swim lessons at the town beach started up. I drove the kids to their first lesson and sat on the sand glumly looking around at all of the suburban housewives staring at me in an unfriendly way when a woman walked up and introduced herself as Linda Baker. She said that she’d noticed me drive up in my hippie van with the Indian print curtains in the windows and wondered if I’d like to go sit in the bus with her for a smoke. Wow! What a blessing. We got high together every Monday through Friday while my kids were occupied with their lessons and spent most of the summer hanging out and getting to know each other. These were the high points of my week.
When she found out that my name was Cavanaugh, she asked if I was related to Dick Kavanaugh, who was a good friend of hers. I replied that we weren’t related, and she suggested that I should meet him because she was sure I would really like him. She must have sensed something because many years later I would finally meet him and end up in a long-term relationship with him. She often invited us to come jam at her house nearby, but the jams at her house were folk music, and Paul had a preconceived notion that folk music was boring. He had always been jealous of my music and ability to make money with it, and things were already tense between us, so I never managed to make it to any of her jams.
One evening, Paul and I went for a walk and talked about the need to move on. This just wasn’t working. My family was impossible to live with and were actively aggressive toward Paul. He had finally found a job, so we could start saving up some money to make another new start somewhere else. That night, we told the kids what we were planning. Jessie threw a fit. She refused to move again. She wanted to have extended family and wanted to settle somewhere. In spite of her troubles with my sister, she was determined to stay with Grandma and Grandpa if we insisted on moving again. We looked at each other, sighed and reluctantly agreed to stay. That next morning, my mom informed me that since Paul was now working, they would charge us room and board. We realized that this was only fair. We had been there for the whole summer, but it was making moving out next to impossible. I was also pretty sure that they had overheard us talking to the kids the night before and wanted to keep us local.
We needed to get on with our lives and our music, make new friends and settle in. We knew that we couldn’t do that in East Greenbush and wanted to move to Albany. We weren’t sure anymore how to do that successfully, and now there was school to think about. I broke down and registered Jessie in the East Greenbush public school. Everything was a huge culture shock to us. I worried that Jessie might have a difficult time fitting in. Up to now, she’d lived a gypsy life full of adventure, surrounded by street musicians and circus performers. She’d been uprooted over and over again and was struggling with making friends in this foreign land. I hoped that school would help. We also answered an ad in the local entertainment newspaper, Metroland, and started a rock and roll band. The drummer and bass player both had kids similar ages to ours and things started looking up. At least now we could get out of the house with the kids for band practice in Schenectady a couple of times a week. We all became fast friends, relieving a lot of the pressure on us and enabling us to hang on a little longer. Soon, Cosmo Rock started getting gigs at local bars and festivals and hanging out together with our families.
The plan to make the best time we could went slightly awry when we made a necessary stop for gas and bathrooms and inadvertently left our cat at the truck stop. We realized as soon as we got halfway up the entrance ramp, which was longest ramp I’d ever been on and was also very curvy. There was no backing up, and the next exit was much further than we anticipated. Jessie cried the whole way, certain that Autumn would be gone by the time we got back. This was the same cat that I had gotten at Saturday Market as a surprise for Jessie and the same one who had had her first litter of kittens behind my chair on the day that we had rushed Justin to the ER with a concussion after he fell off a tall slide onto asphalt. When we finally did make it back, there she was sitting in the parking space we had vacated, just waiting for us. We scooped her up and went on our way, stopping at dusk, just to be sure, and made it all the way to Ohio before our next challenge. Before reaching Ohio, however, Paul insisted on going to Peoria, Illinois because years earlier he had heard, “If you can play in Peoria, you’ve got it made.” He rather foolishly decided that this included street music and not just vaudeville, so we found a street corner, set up and played some music on the street which was fun but not very profitable and ate up too much of our daylight traveling time. We finally got as far as Ohio when the car broke down on the side of the highway in broad daylight. Ugh! What now?!
Our flywheel fix from early on in the trip finally gave out, and our flywheel was shredded. As we stood there looking sadly at the engine wondering what to do now, a young man came by and offered Paul a ride to a dune buggy shop he knew of. The shop specialized in VWs, turning them into dune buggies and maintaining them. The shop was called “Mud, Sweat and Gears.” Then he offered to take me and our kids to his house. His parents were away and had left him and his sister home alone. So off we went. My kids were used to strangers and had grown up learning how to stay safe and feel out people’s vibes, so they were good to go. I always found that children seem to have a better sense about people than adults do sometimes, and I’ve always tried to listen to them if they felt uncomfortable around someone.
While Paul was off doing car business, the kids got baths, I showered then actually got a nap on a real bed while the younger folks played with my kids. These young folks loved hosting us. My kids were always very friendly and adaptable to new situations. They were having a blast. The sister was making chicken and dumplings for dinner and invited us to stay. At this point, we’d lost most of that day already, so staying put with a real meal sounded good to me. Both kids were having a great time and also looked forward to trying dumplings for the first time. I learned much later how important that meal was to Jessie. Here is what she wrote to me after reading this the first time I posted it in “Memoirs from a Hippie Mama.”
“So.. The thing about the chicken and dumplings...
One thing that you haven't mentioned in all of these posts were how we kept ourselves entertained on the road. Games like I Spy, license plate games and sing-alongs. A big favorite was "She'll be coming 'round the mountain" and one of the verses was "we will a have chicken and dumplings". To me they were almost like a mythological food. Something you hear about in weird magical ways, but don't generally get to try. I'd put it in the same category as Turkish Delight from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
So "She" had finally come. Or maybe I was "She" in that moment. But it was a major moment for me. That song had been part of our soundtrack, and I finally understood it more deeply than ever before.” - Jes. Cavanaugh
Meanwhile Paul arrived at the car shop where the owner gave him three flywheels, just in case we needed them, with the understanding that the payment was to help out three people on the road in the future. Whew! That was easy. We did that all the time anyway. He made the repair then took a shower. After dinner Paul announced that we could now travel at night and had better hit the road. We still had a long way to go and were both burning out fast. The kids were disappointed but also anxious to get to our destination which was their grandparents’ house. We said a tearful goodbye and headed out again.
As dawn approached, Paul and I realized that we were never going to make it to the herb farm where we had the promise of work on the gas left in the tank and also didn’t have enough money to make up the difference. We thought long and hard then made a detour to Wheeling, West Virginia to pawn his twelve-string guitar. He loved that guitar, having bought it in Santa Cruz many years before, but we didn’t have a lot of choices left, so we left it in the pawn shop never expecting to see it again. Paul kept that ticket safe in his wallet for many years until he gave it to one of my maternal uncles who had heard our story and decided to go to the pawn shop to see if he could retrieve the guitar. We assured him that way too much time had gone by. It had been many years, but he insisted. My uncle was a real character and had his share of crazy adventures. He kept telling us that it’s important to have faith because you just never know. He actually got that guitar and, before driving home to Florida, brought it up to a second cousin living in western Pennsylvania who would be going to visit in-laws in Chatham, NY. When my mother got the phone call, she went to Chatham to pick it up, and Paul was reunited with that much-loved guitar more than 10 years later. We usually had faith that things would work out, but this was a good reminder not to give up when things seem impossible.
We arrived at the herb farm and breathed a sigh of relief, forgetting for a moment that Paul and his sister were like oil and water. The visit didn’t go very well. She constantly complained about Paul to her husband, who was a quiet unassuming man. He finally went to sleep in his tree house which was a fully furnished cabin retreat ten feet in the air. We worked for a couple of days weeding the herb beds, which was back-breaking work, but in a couple of days we made enough money to go on our way. We now had enough for the rest of the trip and were even able get a motel room that night, with cash this time. It was going to be our last night on the road. Paul and I were exhausted by now, aching from bending over the gardens for days, even more stressed out than when we had arrived in Pennsylvania from dealing with Paul’s sister, and we wanted to arrive in New York well rested and freshly bathed. Plus, the kids had been real troopers on this trip, going along with all of our craziness. We wanted to give them the treat of another night in a motel room. I think the trip for them was just one big grand adventure full of games, songs and new people and places. While for us it was worry and scheming as we made our way across the continent. But now, even with the cost of the motel room, we would arrive with some money left over, or so we thought.
We woke up that morning excited, knowing that in a few hours our trip would finally be at its end. We had breakfast in the motel restaurant, confident that we would arrive in the afternoon. When we went outside to the bus, we found that one of the tires was not only flat but had big chunks of rubber out of it. We needed a whole new tire. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised us. We’d just gone over three thousand miles on that tire. But, so much for arriving in the afternoon well rested and relaxed. Now even the kids, who had been totally engaged in the trip until now, were done with this adventure. It took hours to get the new tire, but we were finally headed toward Albany, NY. We had been on the road for over three weeks.
My parents lived in East Greenbush, a suburb of Albany. We got off the thruway in Albany and started heading east to cross the Hudson River when suddenly Paul jumped out of the driver’s seat and started running alongside the bus, trying to stop it with his feet and body. I thought I was watching Fred Flintstone for a minute, remembering the way Fred would drive his car with his feet on the road. Both kids started laughing, not realizing the dangerous situation we were in. I was sure that Paul had finally lost his mind and wasn’t sure what to do. Then he turned sharply into a Mobil gas station and crashed into a pilon, stopping the bus abruptly. Apparently, we had lost the brakes.
After a brief but frantic discussion, we decided to go on, as slowly as we could, using our gears to slow us down when necessary. We were so close to the end of our journey now. We made it to my parents’ house, pulled into their driveway, making a huge entrance by crashing into their stone wall. I sat silently in the passenger side of the bus watching the stones come down like dominos as my family came running out of the house to see what all the commotion was about. There were no cell phones back then, and they had no idea when to expect us, although I did call a few times from a pay phone so they wouldn’t worry. I wish I’d had a camera to take pictures of the looks on everyone’s faces, or maybe I’m glad I didn’t. Anyway, seeing their grandchildren made everything a little less intense. A journey that should have taken less than a week, took us more than three. The kids were thrilled to be there; My parents were thrilled that we had finally arrived safely; and the next day, Justin, who was three and a half years old, came running in the house proudly exclaiming that he had fixed the bus for us.
We dashed outside to discover that he had found a can of oil in my parents’ garage and poured it all over the engine. We stood there not knowing whether to laugh or cry. The engine in those old VW buses were in the back, easily accessible to a three-year old, especially if the hood is not attached securely, which it wasn’t. As Paul and I looked at each other, all we could do was laugh which my mom and dad couldn’t understand. But they hadn’t been on the trip with us with all of its ups and downs, and never understood me anyway. Luckily, the only harm done to the VW was the smoking as the oil burned off. It seemed an appropriate ending to that saga. Now it was time to figure out how to settle in this new area for who knew how long. And, even more importantly, how to get out of my parents’ house and into our own home as quickly as possible. It was not going to be easy living there.
As we were leaving Salt Lake City, Paul and I realized that the trip was going to take a lot longer than anticipated unless we could figure out a low to no-cost way to repair the bus. Now, we were really glad that we had made a stop in Reno before hitting Salt Lake. We both knew before we left Oregon that this journey across the country would require more resources. When it was just the two of us, we could go hungry for a day or two, hit grand openings to get a free buffet and jump at opportunities, even if they were a little risky. Now we had two kids to care for and keep safe. We’d planned lots of stops into our itinerary for running around and seeing some sights, had packed what food we could and budgeted money for more supplies and a couple of meals out. When we went through Nevada, we saw billboards advertising an all-you-can-eat buffet for $2.99 (and kids eat free) in Reno. What a great opportunity. There were four of us, and we figured we could take a doggy bag or two or four. We didn’t realize at the time how important that stop would become.
So far, the flywheel was still holding out from it’s first repair with the barn nails and the old leftover brake part. In spite of the stop for that repair in the mountains, we’d made pretty good time. We arrived at “Circus Circus” in Reno, paid our $6.00 and walked into a huge place with flashing lights, lots of noise and various circus performers all around. Both kids were awed, though Justin, at 3-years old was mostly wide-eyed and slightly scared. It turned out that the money was for admission to this extravaganza, not just the buffet. Of course, this was Nevada, and they were counting on everyone gambling. They could afford to give away food and entertainment when you were losing so much money to the games. We dragged the kids away from the acrobats overhead and entered the dining room. I could not believe how long the rows of tables were. They ran the entire length of this huge hall with an amazing assortment of all kinds of food available. Then, there was another smaller room with desserts and beverages. There was food for any type of meal, too. You could eat breakfast, lunch, dinner or a light snack.
After eating, Paul suggested that we hang out for a while and let the kids have some fun. Maybe we could spend enough time to have a second meal. Finally, someone from security told us that we really had to spend money to stay. Paul went over to a slot machine in the gambling room and lost a few times. He grumbled about wasting our time here and suggested we leave. I reminded him that I hadn’t had a turn to try and wanted to have a little fun, too. He shrugged and agreed to hang out with the kids while I hit the slots, and I agreed to only spend two dollars. Justin still didn’t like being away from me, and minors were not allowed in the gambling areas. Paul, who didn’t ever do much of the childcare, carried him off to see the clowns. Justin loved clowns and was fascinated by them. Jessie, however, was frightened of them, well maybe more like terrified. I knew that Paul would have his hands full but thought I’d have my quick turn and we’d resume our trip. Then, I won on my first try and slipped another coin into the machine. Wow, I won again and again and again. I was smart about keeping my winnings in a different pocket but just kept winning again and again. I didn’t lose once. I’d started out playing the cheap machine, but it was starting to add up, and I was afraid to go to a different machine and ruin my streak. I also wanted to keep an ear and eye out for my family, but the bigger winning machines were further in the interior of the beast.
Pretty quickly, Jessie had enough of feeling terrorized by the clowns and wanted to go back to the jugglers and acrobats who were near where I was working. As soon as he spotted me, Justin broke away and came running over, hanging on to my leg and crying. Paul whisked in, with Jessie right at his side, and dragged him off of me taking him back out into the hall. It didn’t last long though. He soon broke away and was back at my side. I was starting to get annoyed. This seemed like a prime chance to fill our coffers for the long saga, and Paul couldn’t seem to keep Justin away. This went on for a little while until the same security guard, who had been watching us the whole time, told us we had to leave. Apparently, the manager had noticed because we were causing such a scene. I realized that it was over. Justin was pretty upset by this time; Jessie was bored; and Paul was frazzled. We figured that we had gotten our money’s worth and it was time to move on, so we did. We had spent $6.00 to get in and left with a little over $50.00. We didn’t realize at the time how much we would need every extra dollar. Now, as we were leaving Salt Lake City, having successfully traded for a motel room, we also realized that we were going to have to stop every night around dusk, making our trip brutally long. This extra money would help, but maybe not enough now to make it all the way to upstate New York. We’d researched what towns allowed busking, but there weren’t very many along the way. We’d have to get creative. At least we didn’t have to worry about high peaks any more.
Many people believe that the mid-west is flat, and I guess it is compared to other parts of the country. They often complain about the tedium of traveling across such flatlands, seeing nothing but fields and farms. If you have ever driven through that part of the country in a VW Bus, you’ll know that it’s not as flat as it looks. We breathed a huge sigh of relief once we passed through all the western mountains until we realized that the bus slowed down slightly on every rise. It didn’t look to us like we were going up or down hill, but the bus certainly always let us know. And, the road just went on and on. Even though we managed to stop at rest areas or truck stops before dark most of the time, it felt as though it took forever to cross the Great Plains.
In general, we really liked driving through Nebraska. For the most part, the people were friendly and helpful, and Nebraska had the best rest stops for children. There were always playgrounds, picnic tables and lots of shaded areas to run around and play. One evening, as it was just starting to be dusk, we decided to try to go a little further and get off at the next exit to find a place to spend the night. Unfortunately, the next exit was closed, and the next one was too many miles away, so we were finally forced to turn on the headlights as the dark settled, slowly coasting to a stop on the shoulder of the highway. We sat on the side of the road, hoping in vain that no state troopers would come by. However, they soon did. As they pulled up behind us, Paul started rummaging around for our registration and hopped out of the car as they were starting to walk towards us. Suddenly, both cops crouched down with their guns drawn and Paul immediately threw his hands up yelling, “There are kids in the car!” The troopers slowly walked forward and patted Paul down, then shone their flashlights into the car. They made both of us get out and yelled at us for what seemed like quite a long time telling us both to never jump out of the car or rummage around again when stopped. To them, it looked like we were up to something. I never forgot that lesson.
Eventually, they asked why we were stopped and if we needed help. We told them about our car issues and started explaining why we were sitting on the shoulder when the volunteer fire department showed up. Now there were four emergency vehicles surrounding our little family. The troopers were insisting on calling a tow truck to get us out of there, and we were protesting vehemently, explaining that we had little money left, certainly not enough to pay for the tow and the rest of this ill-fated journey. We were trying to get to Pennsylvania, where we had the promise of some day-work at an herb farm owned by Paul’s brother-in-law. I had been growing an herb garden and using them medicinally since 1975. I was looking forward to doing some work there.
The police didn’t seem interested in my hobbies and weren’t feeling very sympathetic to our plight, but I’d always taught my children to be friendly with law enforcement. They always waved when we passed them, and Jessie often engaged them in conversation if we were stopped for any reason. My kids helped me get out of a lot of speeding tickets back in my younger days. I know that they helped immensely that night, too. All of the volunteer firemen who had stopped were enjoying hanging out with them, asking them about their trip so far. Luckily, the kids were also street wise by now and knew what not to say to officials. After going round and round with the police, begging and arguing, with the eventual support of the volunteers, and the pleading eyes of our children, they finally agreed to give us a jump and let us drive in the dark without our headlights while Paul and I held flashlights out the windows with the emergency vehicles in front and behind us with their spotlights and flashers on. The flashlights were the cops’ idea, which I thought was more than a little silly, but we did it anyway. The kids loved being in their own parade! Somehow, we were always able to spin difficult events into something fun and exciting.
When we got to the truck stop, the volunteer firefighters handed us money to buy breakfast “for the kids” with enough left over to fill our gas tank. They had taken up a collection. We were so impressed with their kindness. I even cried a little. We ate breakfast at around 3 or 4 am then took the kids out to the playground, swinging on the swings and sliding down the slide until the sun came up. As we headed down the road, Jessie exclaimed that she’d had the most fun ever. She was totally impressed by not only the parade but also with being able to play outside at the playground in the dark. For her, it’s a fond memory. She remembers the big puddles on the ground under the swings and her dad pushing her on the swing while trying to avoid those puddles. It's always interesting to me how people in the same family, experiencing the same things, remember them so differently. For me and Paul, the "responsible" adults, it was incredibly stressful. For the kids, it was fun and exciting, an adventure to be remembered and treasured.
I almost forgot to write about one last thing that we needed to do before leaving the West Coast. Remember our cat Autumn who’d had her first litter of kittens behind my chair on the night of Justin’s concussion? Before we could get her spayed, she had another litter of kittens. As soon as they were weaned, we took her in for her surgery but still needed to find homes for the kittens. We packed them into a box and headed for Portland’s Saturday Market where we had originally gotten her. We had so many good memories of playing there and wanted a final goodbye. It turned out to be the hottest day of the year, an unusual occurrence for springtime. The poor kittens were getting overheated in the covered box, so we opened the lid to give them air. They started scrambling all over the car. The kids were in the back seat trying to hold them in, but it wasn’t working. We finally pulled off the road to stop at a park for lunch and to let me get into the back seat for damage control. When we opened the doors, as carefully as we could, to get out, so did the kittens. There were five kittens running all over the park. As soon as we captured one and put it back in the car, another one would escape. It was crazy! After chasing them for over an hour, Paul was all for letting them fend for themselves and going back home. Both kids and I were not okay with that, so we continued to chase them around, finally giving up after another hour or so and heading to town with only two of the original five. I felt terrible, but what could we do? We couldn’t even see the other three anymore. We got to Saturday Market just as it was closing down for the day and did manage to give the two kittens away then turned around and went back home. What a fiasco!
Having made the decision to move back east to live in my parents’ basement in upstate New York until we could get a place of our own, I was filled with trepidation. I knew we were making a good to move, but my parents and I had never gotten along, and they hated Paul. I never understood why considering that he literally saved me from eventually overdosing on speed at the beginning of our relationship, giving me an ultimatum – be with him or keep shooting up. Of course, my parents only saw his long hair and radical politics, which actually were less radical than my own. I knew that the living arrangements would not be easy and hoped we could settle quickly into our own home. I didn’t realize at the time how difficult it would turn out to be, or for how long.
We had our VW bus all prepped for travel. I had attached edges to the table in the back that stuck up above the surface to keep any crayons or other toys from rolling off. It was already set up with curtains and beds. I sewed pockets into the curtains to make drinks, snacks and other necessary items for children easily accessible. There were still no seatbelts or car seats at that time, but I knew I didn’t want them running all over the bus. I had also learned by then what kinds of food traveled easily. I remember thinking that I should write a book on safe and reliable traveling with children because I had already done so much of it. We left in late April and planned to travel for a week. We didn’t consider the fact that we were traveling in a VW bus loaded down with all of our possessions, two children, two adults and a cat over a couple of different sets of mountains.
The first leg of our journey took us southeast toward Salt Lake City. The first leg of our journey took us southeast toward Salt Lake City. We were almost at the top of Donner’s Pass on I-80 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains when our bus just stopped. We could see the summit. It was so close, but we just couldn’t get there. We jumped out of the bus around to the back to look at the engine and see if we could figure out the problem. There it was, right in front of our eyes. The two wheels of the fly wheel were shifting back and forth and had widened the slot that held the two pieces together. We looked at it for a while when I remembered the jar of barn nails that Jim had given me as we were leaving. We pounded a few of the largest ones in there, but it still wasn’t quite enough. A year earlier, our left rear wheel had come off our Plymouth Valiant and passed us on the left as we rode over a narrow bridge with a logging truck headed our way. I don’t know how he did it, but Paul managed to steer the car straight as our back end was up in the air and all of us held our breaths. After chasing the tire into a corn field, he put it back on and tightened the lug nuts as tight as he could. Not long after that, Paul repaired the brakes and had one small piece left over on that same wheel. We worked on those brakes together a few more times and still couldn’t figure out where it went, so he finally threw it in the toolbox, hoping for the best. The brakes worked fine after that, and now that old leftover brake part fit perfectly with the nails into the leftover space in the flywheel. That repair took us all the way to Ohio … but not without too many stops along the way.
Although we thought we had fixed it, the car now only ran during the daytime. Once we turned on the headlights, it would totally drain the battery, so we slept the first night in the bus. We also stopped more frequently than anticipated to let the kids run around. And I did make them run – literally. Every stop, we ran circles around each other and all around the rest areas. By the time we stopped running, they were happy to sit back down in the bus. The next day, we drove into Salt Lake City just as night was falling. We turned on the headlights and, as the car died, we coasted into a motel right off the exit and went in to see if we could afford a room. We did have money, but we had a long way to go. We hadn’t budgeted in car repairs and had hoped to only take a week to make the journey. It already looked like it was going to take much longer than anticipated, so we needed to conserve our resources. We thought , if it was too much money, maybe they would take pity on us and let us sleep in our bus in the parking lot.
The attendant took one look at us with our long hair, hippie van with curtains in the window and our kids trailing along behind us and asked if we had any pot. At first, in our paranoia, we denied having any. He kept at it, insisting that we must have something and explaining that Salt Lake was the driest town in the US. He pleaded with us! When he offered to trade us a room for a few joints, we finally took pity on him. We gave him more than he asked for since we had gotten paid for our work harvesting in weed and had more than enough for ourselves. He threw us the master keys, turned on the No Vacancy sign and asked us to keep an eye on the place while he was off partying with his friends. No problem! We got nice soft beds, showers, and the kids even got TV, a rare treat. This wasn’t going so badly after all. The young man came back the next morning looking a little bedraggled but with a big grin. We tipped him well, in weed of course. We even sold him some of our quite large stash and went on our way. We still had a long way to go.
Looking back at it now, we must have been crazy carrying all that weed in our vehicle with our two kids. But things were very different back then, and it never occurred to us that we were taking a big risk. Also, we didn’t know anyone where we were landing and knew we’d need our stash to survive my family.
We found a rental at a trailer park in Beaver, Oregon and had to downsize quite a bit. We were always flexible and quickly figured out how to make do with a much smaller residence and a tiny fenced in yard. We were still in the same area with the same community, and we had a reliable babysitter right next door. However, Jessie did have to change schools. This was a little bigger school than the one in Hebo and less personal. The first big change was that they didn’t believe in letting the kids move up a grade for certain subjects that they excelled in. The second one was asking me to sign a waiver giving them permission to spank my child if necessary. What?! No! It amazed me how hard they tried to convince me of this necessity. I was ready to pull her out and homeschool her when they finally (reluctantly) relented.
Then, one day Jessie brought a permission slip home from school for me to sign. It was permission to join the “Good News Club” which would be meeting during school hours. Good news sounded okay to me. Paul and I talked it over and couldn’t see any harm in it. Of course, there was no description sent with the slip, so we had no idea that it was a religious club. Jessie would come home talking about how much fun she had and never mentioned any religion until one day when she brought home another permission slip. This one was asking our permission to let her sign her soul to God. That was the end of the Good News Club. She was unhappy about it, but Paul and I had both been raised Catholic, were not religious now and had agreed long before this to teach her about all religions and let her choose for herself when she was older.
Although Paul and I didn’t practice any organized religion, we were very spiritual and believed in the connection of all things in the universe. We also believed in the power of our minds to change the course of things. One example of this was when we had taken our VW bus to a remote beach that was only accessible during low tide. We lost track of the time and suddenly noticed that the tide was coming in. We hauled the kids back into the car quickly but realized we were running out of room for a running start up the steep hill. After trying three or four times to make it up the hill only to have the tires spin out in the sand and the bus roll back down onto the beach, Paul decided that we should try something different. He very solemnly explained that we were all going to hold hands and concentrate very hard on getting the bus up the hill. The water was almost up to the back wheels by this time. We’d run out of room for a running start and certainly were running out of time. We knew this was our last chance. He counted to three, and we all concentrated on moving the bus. I could even hear us humming. We very slowly and smoothly rode up to the road with no spinning at all. Even Paul, the biggest believer of all, was astonished. We were sure that was the end of our vehicle.
In spite of the changes we were undergoing, we still loved the area and our friends. There was always something to do, lots of potlucks and music jamming with many alternatives around as well. One day, a friend told us about an event happening that afternoon in a big open field nearby. It was a traveling Chautauqua. Paul was at work that day, so I packed up the kids and went. A Chautauqua is a traveling show that combined education with entertainment. The very first one was held in Chautauqua, NY in 1874. The tradition was revived by Patch Adams and The Flying Karamazov Brothers in 1981. They arrived in a hippie school bus and entertained the crowds while teaching self-health. At this one, The Flying Karamazov Brothers entertained the crowd with their band and unbelievable juggling tricks. In between acts, Patch Adams talked about how to take care of your teeth by demonstrating flossing technique with two large dancing teeth and a big piece of rope. He did other things, but that’s what I remember most about him, this big goofy clown dancing around and tripping over his big clown feet while flossing between these two people dressed up as teeth.
Ken Kesey was there and, I found out within the last 10 or so years, so was a current friend of mine who was traveling with those folks in his youth. Kesey was not the friendliest guy, but everyone else was very cool and welcoming. The high point for Jessie was Lancelot, the unicorn. A couple of hippies had bred goats until they finally got one with a horn in the middle of its forehead and the silkiest curly mane and tail that I’d ever felt. They bred a few more later, but Lancelot was the first. It was a real live unicorn, and Jessie was awed! Unfortunately, like so much from those crazy days, I don’t remember many of the details, but that was an amazing day. Many years later, when I was living in Albany and part of Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh, we got to open for Patch Adams at an alternative education conference. I also ran into one of the original Karamazov Brothers at The Oregon Country Fair in 2014, after living in upstate New York since 1982. We enjoyed a waffle breakfast together, then I went to see him juggle again at one of the entertainment sites. It amazes me, in writing these memoirs, how much living we packed into a relatively short amount of time and how the same people keep popping up no matter where I go.
However, as much as we loved the area, our stay there was not as long lasting as we’d hoped. Paul lost another job, the unemployment rate in Oregon was skyrocketing and we had just gotten a large tax return. It was time to think about a new plan. The trailer park was okay, but not ideal. We missed having a large yard and a little more privacy. A few other things came into play right around that same time. One was that our son Justin had developed a recurring rash on his back that just wouldn’t quit. Every doctor I spoke to told me the same thing. It was a fungus, similar to athlete’s foot that was caused by the wet environment. I could keep treating it with an antifungal cream, but the best solution was to move to a drier place. Our babysitter’s mother had been encouraging us to move to upstate New York for our music. She told us about Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York and said that our music would fit right in there. We also met a new friend, Carlos, whose parents lived out there and were part of a group called the PSG (Pickin’, Singing, and Gathering). He encouraged us to go look them up. Coincidentally, my parents had recently moved to East Greenbush, New York for my dad’s new job at The Troy Record, the local newspaper and were also pushing us to relocate there. We could stay in their basement as long as we needed.
Paul and I always lived our lives listening to and watching for signs that come along to show us the way. It sure looked like the signs were pointing us to the Albany area. Growing up in Southwestern Connecticut, we always thought of New York as the metropolitan area of New York City. I had gone camping once in the Adirondacks as a teenager but otherwise only knew the Big Apple and bits of Long Island. But it was time for a move and going there would be a new adventure with a place to land until we could find work and our own place. We already had our VW bus and knew how to pack well, so we started that process. We threw a farewell Open Mic, packed up our VW and went to say goodbye to our good friends, Jim and Patty. Jim came by to see us off the next day, walked up and handed me a jar of old barn nails of varying sizes. Jim is an eccentric and a kind of gypsy. He’s an amazing artist and writer. He has always lived an unusual life as did we, and I greatly admired him. He was older than us and had been around, taking his bumps along the way. As I took them, he said, “You never know what you’ll need on the road.” I agreed and put them in our toolbox, knowing that somehow, at some time, they would come in handy. I had tears in my eyes as we left our beautiful Shangri-La. This was the hardest leave taking so far, but we were headed for new adventures which always cheered me up.
Paul was always one for “bad” jokes and puns, so he started telling at least one joke a week. It was an immensely popular segment of the show. Most of them were real groaners. After a year of hearing these jokes week after week, folks started getting tired of it and came asking me to do something about it. It was around the same time that Aron Kay and other yippies were pieing political figures such as William Buckley, Phyliss Schlafly, G. Gordon Liddy and many others. They even pied Andy Warhol because he had dinner with the Shah of Iran. Every pie's flavor was chosen on purpose. Paul really admired the yippies for doing that, so I decided to give the “bad joke of the week” segment a big ending. I had already pleaded with him and knew that Paul would never willingly give it up. One week, I came up with a plan to pie him in the face after his joke. I chose whipped cream because it reminded me of the old comic routines with cream pies. Later on, a friend, Clinton, suggested that shaving cream is a kinder way to do it, but at the time all I knew was whipped cream. As he told his joke, I filled up a pie pan with whipped cream and waited … and waited … and waited, while he told more and more jokes. He usually only told one, maybe two, but this night, he went on and on. The crowd was getting antsy, and the whipped cream was melting. Because I was holding the “pie” in the back of the room, I couldn’t go up and give him the hook. When he finally finished, I hit him with this pie pan full of half liquid cream. Sploosh! The crowd loved it. Paul was shocked but had always been a good sport and, that was the end of “bad joke of the week.” It was fun while it lasted but everything must end sometime, and even Paul had to admit that this was a great ending.
We met a lot of interesting characters at these Open Mics. One man we met there was a songwriter named Mitt. He was not a hippie. He was a local and was very conservative. He had a connection with a local radio station in Tillamook and hired us to record one of his songs in multiple harmonies. There were six of us on that recording. It was my first experience in a recording studio and my first time hearing myself on the radio. I was hooked. One day, he came to the house to jam and met our kids for the first time. At that time, Jessie loved to dress her brother up in her old dresses. She even had a name for him in drag. She called him “Rubessa.” He enjoyed it too, probably because of all the attention he was getting from his sister, and we saw no harm in it. That day, he was wearing a frouffy, lacy dress, toddling around without anything on underneath because he was potty training. I always found it easier to teach my kids to use a potty when it was easily accessible, so they had a potty where they could see it, not hidden away in the bathroom, and didn’t wear training pants. It worked very well for all of my kids. This was well before they started making disposable training pants, which in my opinion are too much like diapers to be highly effective. The kids were playing around us as we jammed, dancing and listening to the music when Justin fell, and his dress flew up around his face. The look on Mitt’s face, as he realized that we didn’t have two daughters, was priceless.
We also met a woman flutist, Marla, who lived on a farm with her boyfriend Tom. One Easter, we were invited to an egg hunt at their farm. Most of the eggs were in the barn, so off we went with a whole troupe of friends to find them. Jessie decided that she needed to use the bathroom, so we left the group and started walking back to the house when we were suddenly attacked by their flock of geese. They surrounded us and started trying to bite our legs. Justin was still small, so I scooped him up while holding on to Jessie and kicking at the geese. Finally, another adult came out to help us, and we made it to the house. Jessie’s memory is that I picked her brother up and left her to the strong beaks of those geese. She still reminds me of that. In reality, I was trying to protect both children and could only lift one of them, but we all remember things in our own ways. Another incident at that farm happened when we arrived one time for a visit. They had horses, so there was a metal gate that had to be opened to drive through. Jessie loved being a “big girl” and opening the gate for me. This one day however, there was a curious horse that strolled over as she opened the gate. It startled her, and she screamed, scaring the horse and sending it galloping down the road. Tom came running out and chased the horse almost all the way to the highway before he finally caught him.
Of course, our friends, Patty and Jim were living there as well. They were the reason we ended up moving there in the first place. Although they didn’t have a farm, they also raised animals and gardened. They bought a lamb, who they named “Buck Burger” as a way of letting the kids know that this would someday be food. They were all cautioned not to play with the lamb for that reason. Predictably, they didn’t listen and played, not only with the lamb, but with the baby rabbits, too. We would chase them away, and as soon as our backs were turned, they’d go right back. Nothing could keep them away from these cute little babies. One day there was an unusual heat wave, and all the baby rabbits died. We were invited to a delicious dinner that night. Jessie raved about how good the food was and wanted to know what we were having. When Jim told her that we were eating Buck Burger and rabbit, she cried and never ate meat again. It was a hard lesson but one that farm kids have to learn. She was obviously not destined to live on a farm.
Another man we met was a stand-up bass player named David. He had one of the longest beards I’d seen and braided it in creative ways. He was a gentle giant, and Jessie was fascinated by him. He often joined us in our sets at the café. He was one of the few friends who didn’t have children of his own. David introduced us to an older man who had landscaped his yard as a fantastical playland for kids and adults. There was a rope swing that went out over a deep pond, gardens with fun decorations, play structures for all ages and unusual trails. Looking back on it now, I realize how much of an inspiration that was for my own landscaping.
There were lots of couples with kids including one couple who worked on a dairy farm and a pot farmer and his partner who had recently had a child. This man grew square plots of marijuana scattered throughout the National Forest which bordered his home. Every square was kept separate and pollinated by hand with every one of them being a different strain. He often hired his friends to help out in the fields and paid us with any branch we would like to cut. I often babysat for his child and was also paid in weed. He had studied the genetics, creating his own strains very scientifically. He eventually made enough money to pay all of his tuition for medical school, much like our friend in San Francisco who raised her tuition for art school by being an upscale call girl. That year, one day right around harvest time, he heard a knock on his door. When he answered it, he saw a man from the Forest Service in his uniform. He admitted later that he was a little worried. The Forest Service official told him that he had received an order to fly the planes over that part of the forest the following day. He wanted to warn him so that he could get his friends together to do the harvesting immediately. A bunch of people worked all afternoon and almost until the morning getting all of the plants in before the fly by. I always thought that was such a nice service.
We had finally landed in a community with like-minded people, many of whom had kids that befriended our own kids. I soon found out about an alternative school that was there. This was the second time I’d heard about alternative education, the first being in San Francisco in the artist community we were in briefly. As you’ll find out later when I make the move to Albany, New York, the third time was the charm. There was so much that I could relate to, that inspired me and influenced my life for many years to come. However, like many things, it wouldn’t last for us. We soon got word that our landlord had found himself earlier than expected and was coming back home. We had a month to move out. In all fairness, he had offered to let us stay there with him as long as it took to get a place. He soon found himself fending off well intentioned travelers who had gotten the word about our hippie bed and breakfast. I guess that went on for years, much to his chagrin. Although, I’ve heard that he had a good laugh about it.
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