DuncanHightower

The Bay Area Underground

I am often asked how I first became enamored of my companion, my paramour, my smoky, seething obsession. Who has the distinction of first introducing me to cannabis?

Was it a long-haired older cousin, a schoolyard congrès, a chauffeur’s cheeky secret? No. The answer is stranger than that.

You may blame Republicans.

My bedtime was nine o’clock as a child, but a curious mind often kept me from dreaming. One night, I lay awake in my Batman pajamas and heard the muffled voices of
a visitor talking with my father.
I crept out to the top of the stair
to hear. 

“Won’t miss being Secretary of State, I’ll tell you,” said a low, gravelly voice. I dared to peek around the bannister towards the library. A balding man with a bearing of quiet authority was sharing a laugh with my father over the tinkle of ice cubes in crystal.

You see, George Shultz, holder of four cabinet posts from Nixon to Reagan, was a confidante of my father. They had something in common, a shared trait. Members of the Bay Area underground, which held its conventions here and also at one time occupied the mayor’s office, and of which Shultz was a patron saint — that is, the Republicans.

Sneer not. Upon coming of age, I secured a spot at Stanford, despite the institution where I boarded having had no record of my attendance (though truth be told, I was something of a recluse and rarely left my dormitory except via the roof). As I was preparing to leave for my first year at Stanford, where Shultz is still professor emeritus, Father sat me down.

“Son, this is San Francisco. Everyone you meet is a Democrat — the Aliotos down the street, your old schoolmates the Pelosis, your cousin’s friend Gavin, almost everyone. But never turn up your nose at a Republican.”

Father paused. “Do you remember Bohemian Grove?”

O, did I. I was 11, still a small boy, when I was first taken to Sonoma in the summer. I stared up at the redwoods in awe. But I was stunned when I was squired past armed security into the sprawl of cabins nestled in the trees. Our campground was like a secret world that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, left, with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. (AP Photo/Veder)

U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, left, with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. (AP Photo/Veder)

After we’d secured our luggage and I’d seen my steamer trunk brought to my quarters, I was left to my own devices until sunset. Piqued by the sound, I’d wandered off toward where the men shoot skeet. I was not interested in idyll. I wanted to see the wildfire I had heard about. It had much troubled the outing’s leaders, who’d informed Father that cancelling the night’s inaugural festivities for the first time since 1881 was but narrowly avoided.

Just past the skeet range, I found a clear spot on a bluff overlooking the vale. It was palled with smoke. I did not know it then, but the fire had just caught a disused little hovel.

At that moment, the wind turned. A strong breeze blew that smoke toward your lone little narrator, who breathed a lungful before he’d known it.

Well, there are no words. Suffice to say that someone has stashed a bale of top quality cannabis in the hovel, and so my life began. I felt I had met my Maker.

All night, captains of industry, in polo shirts bearing their firms’ logos, elbowed each other and joked about the aroma coming all the way from the city. But I had borne the brunt of it, had stood in that pungent stream, as blinded by smoke and the mind-expanding rush as Paul was on the road to Damascus.

I was called by some well-meaning adult with a Texas drawl back into the fold. Opening night of the retreat had fallen, and the crowd had gathered for the Cremation of Care ceremony. An effigy representing the heavy burdens of the ruling class was poled across a little pond, lifted from the boat by robed and hooded figures, and placed in front of an enormous idol in the shape of an owl.

The owl spoke some lines in the voice of a famous newscaster whose name I could not place. Or was just it my fired imagination?

I turned to the man, the same one who had called to me before, and informed him of what I was suddenly certain: that reality was three clicks out of phase.

“What now?” he said.

I stumbled into him as I came closer.

“Whoa, now, don’t spill my coke,” he said, although I am sure he wasn’t holding a glass at all, just a small item that resembled a salt shaker.

When I repeated my revelation, he said, “Oh, I think my daddy woulda known ‘bout that. He’s th’ president.”

The man from Texas turned to greet a man who turned out to be my father.

“Duncan,” Father said, pointing at me with a hand that held a highball and none too steady on his feet. “Where have you been?”

“Father, I want a hamburger. No, a cheeseburger. And a cake.”

“We’ll get you one,” he said. “Did you like the owl?”

Fortified with this broadening experience, I readied myself for Stanford, where I achieved distinction. I halted a linguistics lecture with wild laughter, I ruined my bespoke coat in the mud at a festival in a field, and after showing up for a final examination exactly one year late, my stunned professor awarded me the first and only perfect grade.

And though I have never returned to that grove of trees in Sonoma, I learned: don’t worry. The Republicans are in control.