High Times

Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire

There we were, a handful of teenage boys tripping on acid, when a firefighter appeared, covered in soot and needing our help

High on the list of things you should never try under the influence of LSD is firefighting, and yes, I'm of that generation of (mostly) former drug users that once thought it was funny to begin a sentence with, "High on …"

The first time I took acid I was 14, which means it must have been 1969 and the Sixties had caught up with the little California town where I lived. I'd been hearing the rumblings for a while—I remember my excitement at seeing the letters "LSD" painted in various colors on a sidewalk in Capitola a few years earlier. I had a read an article in Time magazine about a French village that had been dosed with acid in 1951; at the time, some cursed mold on rye bread that replicated the effects of LSD was blamed, though an investigative journalist has since determined that the CIA was responsible. One guy tried to strangle his grandmother; another saw his heart leap from his body and run away.

I remember reading it and being intrigued.

I don't know why I took to psychedelics as quickly as I did. I had little associations with hippies at the time, and it was years before I read Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" (though it became my bible for a time). My favorite books as a young boy were "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" and maybe I was just looking to have that down-the-rabbit-hole experience. I do remember, after my parents broke up and our family was split asunder, my mother telling me I had to be a man now (I was 11) and thinking, Oh shit.

And those early trips were, well, magical: insane laughter, beautiful colors, emotional tears, a sense that literally anything was possible and that everything was alive. Those last ideas got ugly before I was finished and I had some flat-out psychotic episodes: Once I thought everyone was phony, not in a Holden Caulfield kind of way but literally fake—kind of like "The Truman Show" with me in the starring (and only) role. Another time I was convinced I was Christ or someone a lot like Him. A few more of those and I quit tripping and finally hung up the proverbial phone.

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But when I was 16 I was still at it, going out with my friends—the same four or five guys almost every weekend—and scoring what we were told was acid by the nice dealers who hung out in front of Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, where I saw most of my rock concerts then. If the quality of the acid varied, and I'm sure a lot of it was not even acid, the quality of the music was of a piece, and a lot of it bad. By the early Seventies, most bands of San Francisco's '67 flowering were starting to wither: the Jefferson Airplane were becoming a Starship, and Quicksilver Messenger Service (whose first couple albums were tripping staples—"The Fool" on the band's first record held some particular significance that the passage of time has erased) were morphing into something more commercial.

I'm sure that Dino Valenti, the group's late co-founder and sometime front man, would turn in his grave to be called that, and by "commercial" I don't mean the Monkees or the Archies—though I would take "Last Train to Clarksville" or even "Sugar Sugar" over Valenti's post-prison polemics like "(Have Another Hit of) Fresh Air" or "What About Me." Watching them onstage that night—Valenti staggering around yelling at the crowd; legendary studio pianist Nicky Hopkins hidden behind a mountain of hair (and probably cocaine)—I remember thinking, These guys suck. Even though the acid rocked.

Whatever we had ingested had me feeling like I was flying above the crowd and by the time we got back to Auburn, in Marty Agee's VW bug, we were still tripping enough that we decided to drive down into the American River Canyon where we found a brush fire engulfing the small trees and bushes that clung to the rocky incline running up from the river. We parked to watch the action and there we were, a handful of stoned teenaged boys leaning on a VW, when a firefighter appeared, covered in soot and conscripted us.

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I remember some version of the words, "By the power invested in me …" drowning out our feeble protests: We didn't know nothing about fighting no fires! And we certainly weren't dressed for the occasion; the green boaters I wore (identical to the ones John Lennon wore in "Magical Mystery Tour," or so I told myself then) had holes burned in them by the end of the evening. And we certainly didn't tell him we were tripping, though it probably wouldn't have made any difference. He just needed able bodies and, barring that, bodies.

"What you're going to do is cut a line down that ridge," he said pointing up to the side of the hill that was burning. "You want to clear a path large enough that the fire can't leap over and start burning on the other side." He armed us with shovels and hoes and work gloves and sent us up the canyon, bitching and moaning the whole way.

Suffice it to say that if the pioneers had been taking acid, no one would have gotten further than Missouri. The smoke choked us, the coals burned our feet, even our hands were blistered by the time the sun was rising —and the fire still jumped the gap we had created, and rather handily at that. I remember the firefighter muttering something about longhairs as he sent us off into the morning to fend for ourselves.

Marty knew a single mother who lived nearby and drove us all to her little house, assuring us we could take showers there. We were pretty much down from our high by then—aching, smoky, covered in ash—and in no mood to argue. He took his shower first and then disappeared into the woman's bedroom while I somehow got stuck with her daughter, who was up and wanting breakfast. Good thing I was there. Pouring cereal was something I knew how to do.

Tags: memoirs