These sample excerpts have been lightly
edited and abridged for clarity and continuity
My flight was delayed. Again.
I was on a layover in the Miami airport on the morning of June 19, 1961. I’d left LaGuardia at midnight on Eastern Airlines and arrived about 3 a.m., at age 20 my first time on an airplane. The connection to my destination of Lima, Peru had been due to depart at 7 a.m., now hours ago. Shaky after the first leg of the journey, I was glad for the reprieve to settle my stomach and my nerves, facing a 12-hour flight on a prop-driven DC-6 flown by Aerolineas Peruanas, the Peruvian national airline.
I’d been up all night, but was too restless to sit still for long or to doze off in the uncomfortable waiting area chairs, and wandered aimlessly around the airport. Suspended in time and space, I had little to do but think about the journey that was taking me to Vicos, a remote village high in the Peruvian Andes. Assuming that the plane ever left and that I was still willing to get on it, despite my anxiety at what lay ahead.
The East Coast of the U.S. was in the same time zone as Peru on the West Coast of South America, so I wouldn’t have to reset my watch. But I was about to travel back in time to a place totally removed from the middle-class life I knew as a teenager in the suburbs of Long Island and as a college student at Cornell University.
In the world I was leaving behind, a crisis was brewing over Soviet demands that the U.S. and its allies withdraw from East Berlin, which they’d occupied since defeating Germany sixteen years ago. Ex-Nazi Adolph Eichmann was testifying in Israel in defense of his role in the murder of millions of Jews. The U.S. Supreme Court was handing down a landmark ruling, Mapp v. Ohio, that illegally-obtained evidence could not be used in a state criminal trial. In sports, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were chasing Babe Ruth’s hallowed record of 60 home runs in a season, set in 1927. On the radio, Gary U.S. Bonds was dancin’ till a “Quarter to Three,” Bobby Lewis was “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” and Roy Orbison was “Running Scared.”
The flight to Lima finally departed at 2 p.m., seven hours late. I was on it. So was my Cornell classmate Harold Skalka. We were among six students chosen for a program to spend the summer in Vicos doing anthropological field work. I only had a vague idea of what lay ahead in the mountains, and we had no formal training to prepare for what we might encounter living there. You just got on a plane and showed up.
The two of us were the only norteamericanos on board, surrounded by Peruvians before we even arrived in Peru. The DC-6 plodded along to the loud drone of its propellers on a flight that seemed endless. After a refueling stop in Panama, it soon got dark and there was nothing to see out the windows, no way of knowing where we were, over land or over sea. For food service we were handed a ham sandwich.
Lima was often under a dense cloud cover, so when we reached its airspace, we circled for what must have been two hours, waiting to land. There was no radar to guide us in. The pilot had to wait until he could see the lights of the city through an opening in the clouds, then dive down through it. When he finally did, we had no warning. I fumbled for the airsick bag. Too late. My body dropped and the partially-digested remains of the ham sandwich rose, only to land on my lap. The Peruvians did their best to ignore me.
We touched down at 2 a.m., 26 hours after leaving New York. When we disembarked down stairs directly onto the tarmac, I was struck by the foreign smell of the moist tropical air, all the stranger in my state of fatigue. Going through customs, with my chinos emitting their own distinct odor from my air disaster, I presented my new passport along with the immunization record of the multiple shots I needed for the trip. Peru and Vietnam were the only two places in the world where to enter the country you had to be vaccinated for bubonic plague, the Black Death which decimated Europe in the 14th century, killing 50 million people. I was glad to have made it to Peru, but had no reason to think I might ever go to Vietnam.
The capital of Peru, Lima was founded by the Spanish conquistador (conqueror) Francisco Pizarro in 1535, shortly after he overthrew the Inca Empire. Our student group spent two days there acclimating and getting to know each other. Lima was growing rapidly due to the influx of indigenous Andeans coming down from the mountains to seek a better life than the hardscrabble existence they eked out in their homelands. But economic opportunity was elusive. They lived in barriadas (shantytowns) on the outskirts of the city. We visited one on the edge of a giant garbage dump, where the inhabitants built shacks out of anything they could find – sheet metal, scrap wood, cardboard – and foraged for scraps of leftover food.
As we walked through the dump, I noticed the partial carcass of a pig, its rear quarters missing. Strangely, it was wobbling and shaking. The cause of this eerie phenomenon was revealed when a scrawny dog backed out of the body cavity after scavenging what it could from the innards. At the edge of the dump I looked down into enclosures holding hundreds if not thousands of pigs. Crammed together, they were waiting to be slaughtered, squealing and grunting, emitting an overpowering stench, steam rising from their bodies, a porcine purgatory. We’d seen enough of the city. It was time to head for the mountains.
I was ambivalent about going back in September 1963 for my second year at law school, but my father put a lot of pressure on me. I knew he was right, don’t quit now. He even offered to buy me a car. I took the bribe, and left for Cambridge in a 1955 XK-140MC Jaguar roadster, which I bought used for only $900. It had a brilliant red custom paint job set off by a black leather interior. Driving around town the dual mufflers rumbled loudly, but accelerate on the highway and they roared. I was curious how fast it could go. Early one Sunday morning I took it out on the Mass Pike. There was only one other car on the road when the Jag screamed past it at 125 mph. It was designed to perform at high speed. Some things work better going all out.
The weather didn’t help me focus on school. It was an unusually warm and sunny fall, perfect for driving around with the top down, cruising through the Square and enjoying the attention as people checked out the Jag. One October afternoon I parked my car on Mass. Ave. and walked into Harvard Yard. Sitting on the ground under a large tree facing Widener Library, enjoying the sun, I lazily watched people going to and fro, especially the girls. I suddenly became aware of someone standing over me. Looking up, I could see hazily against the backlight of a brilliant blue sky that she was tall, statuesque and beautiful. She said, “Do you mind if I sit down?”
Of course I didn’t mind. Her name was Beth. She confessed that she’d been watching me for a while, and after hesitating, got up her nerve and came over. We had the usual get-to-know-you conversation. I could see she was impressed that I was at Harvard Law. She was a freshman at Radcliffe who’d just graduated from Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. I’d never heard of it, but she explained that it was a prep school for the sheltered daughters of the very rich. Her roommate there, Janet Auchincloss, was a younger half-sister of Jackie Kennedy, who also had gone to Miss Porter’s. Through her mother she was a direct descendant of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman.
I was a little overwhelmed by all this, since she was from a social class that was way out of my league. She could tell, given my ignorance about Miss Porter’s. Yet she wasn’t being boastful, and spoke of her background almost sardonically, as if it was something she had to get out of the way in our introductions. For someone so young she was very self-confident, more so than I. She came across as brash and tough, spunky, with an offbeat sense of humor, a bemused way of seeing things and expressing herself. She was really fun to talk with, and we lolled away the afternoon together under the tree, our mutual sexual attraction obvious but unspoken. The heat intensified when I gave her a ride back to her dorm in my red sex machine.
We began seeing each other, our feelings for each other growing. She confided that one of her goals coming to Cambridge was to lose her virginity. So she did, on the mattress on the floor of my bedroom. Afterwards, she was all smiles -- she’d done it! Maybe her plan had been to consummate her rebellion against her background by fucking some Harvard guy and then moving on. But she fell in love with that guy, and I fell in love with her.
Beth asked me to visit Miss Porter’s with her, so I could see it for myself. She wanted to show me off to the girls there – look what I got! – signaling that she was no longer a virgin. So we drove down to Farmington one sunny afternoon. I would have dressed for the occasion, to look like a Harvard Law student. But no, she wanted us to go in jeans.
We pulled into the parking lot, top down. Some faces appeared at school windows when they heard the car growling. Beth greeted a school official and introduced me, then led me through the library. It was dead silent, as the rules required. It was rare for the girls to even see a young male during the middle of the week, much less in the library. I could feel their eyes on me as we walked, their repressed sexuality permeating the room. No wonder Beth wanted to get laid after leaving Miss Porter’s.
Early one Friday afternoon in late November I went to meet my friends Rick and Ron at their dorm to walk together to our 2:00 class. When I entered the room, it was dark, except for the light from a small black and white TV set. Strange for them to be watching TV in the middle of the day. Walter Cronkite was talking about the assassination of President Kennedy. We were all profoundly shocked. It was a blow to our rationality as law students. This was not how we expected our Constitution and government to work, presidential succession by reason of murder.
By the spring of 1965 resistance to the war in Vietnam had been growing, intensified by the launch in March of “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a massive U.S. campaign of bombing North Vietnam. The first large antiwar protest in Washington, with 25,000 marchers, took place on April 17, organized by Students for a Democratic Society. I was a little leery of leftist groups like SDS, but my own opposition to the war was growing too.
When I would graduate from law school in June, I might well be drafted. So I decided to seek another student deferment by applying to the Littauer School of Public Administration at Harvard [which later became part of the Kennedy School of Government]. It also made sense from a career standpoint, since I was focused on working in the public sector and not corporate law. I would fill in gaps in my education with courses in government and economics I never took at Cornell as a math and anthropology student. And I could stay in Cambridge with Beth.
Ordinarily the Masters in Public Administration degree required two years of study, which would get me past the age of draft eligibility. But when the school accepted me, they said that with my legal background, I would earn my MPA in one year. That would leave me out of school and out of deferments having just turned 25, but eligible for the draft until my 26th birthday. I decided to go ahead and buy the year, then take it from there. When I appeared before my draft board in Great Neck to request my student deferment, they had no choice but to okay it. But they weren’t happy about it. As I was getting up to leave, the chairman of the board said, “We’re going to get you, Mr. Nelson, we’re going to get you.”
My twenty-one years of school days ended in June 1966. I got my degree, but having just turned 25, I still had a year of draft eligibility remaining. During the spring I’d landed a job with NASA, in the Office of the General Counsel at Washington headquarters. The Apollo Program to send a man to the moon was in full swing. The job seemed like the perfect fit for me, a lawyer with a science and math background. Plus, and critically important, I was unofficially assured that I wouldn’t get drafted out of NASA, because of the military applications of its work on long-range rocketry. It had no connection to fighting in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, or to bombing Hanoi, so I didn’t feel conflicted about being against the war while working for the space agency. In June I wrote my draft board in Great Neck requesting an occupational deferment. They brushed that aside, replying that my employer would have to make such a request.
My job didn’t begin until September. Before then I took the bar exam in D.C., then spent some time around Cambridge. One weekend I went down to Woods Hole, on Cape Cod, to visit my brother Peter, who was working for the summer at the Oceanographic Institute. He was really eager to play me Dylan’s new album, Blonde on Blonde. We listened in his room on his KLH Model 11 portable stereo. Made in Cambridge, the system had a turntable and two speakers which clipped together into a molded-plastic suitcase. It was a trailblazing product which made stereo equipment available at a reasonable price, about two hundred bucks, ideal for younger people who moved a lot and just had to hear the latest stereo LPs. It provided the technology for rock groups to have their records played, while those recordings in turn drove the market for stereo equipment like KLH.
In mid-August I appeared before the draft board in Great Neck for a hearing on a request by NASA that I be classified as 2-A, deferred because of the nature of my job. As a lawyer, I expected a certain amount of decorum in the proceeding. But waiting outside the meeting room, it was unnerving to hear raucous laughter inside. When I was called in, it seemed like a social gathering, not a hearing. The board members (all men) had taken off their jackets and loosened their ties. The table was littered with coffee cups and pastries.
In the course of the discussion, one of the members asked me, with a smirk, if NASA was going to send me to the moon. That got a big laugh from the board. My fate was in the hands of a bunch of clowns. NASA’s request for my deferment was brushed aside and I was ordered to report for a Selective Service physical later that month, which I did. Afterwards I received in the mail a small slip of paper called a “Statement of Acceptability.” On it the box was checked saying “found fully acceptable for induction into the armed forces.” That made me 1-A, prime draft material.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
In April 1966 the literary magazine The Paris Review threw itself a benefit at the famed New York music club The Village Gate. A Harvard friend of Beth had two spare tickets and offered them to us. We couldn’t pass them up, and went down to New York for the night. The event attracted the literati and glitterati of New York society, over 1000 people including Senator Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel, according to The New York Times. Guests were greeted at the door by the Review’s editor George Plimpton. Aside from the magazine, he was popularly known for writing about his athletic stunts, like quarterbacking a few plays in an intrasquad game with the Detroit Lions [soon to be the basis of best-selling book and feature film Paper Lion].
Late in the evening Frank Sinatra showed up at the Gate. The club had three floors. At the entrance level people mixed and mingled. One floor up featured jazz, one floor down rock bands. That’s where Beth and I were, in a seething swarm of dancing bodies. Under my lawyerly suit I was wearing a vest Beth had custom-made for me out of snakeskin, with Boston Police brass buttons. She was wearing earrings made from my teeth.
I saw Sinatra coming down the stairs, pausing before he reached the bottom. The band had their amps cranked way up. Flashing strobe lights added to the chaos, creating a stop-action effect like jumpy frames in an old movie. Sinatra took in the scene, blasted by the sound and the light. With a shocked look on his face, he quickly turned around and fled back upstairs. Definitely not his scene. I didn’t know who the band was, maybe I’d missed the introduction if there was one. I’d never heard anything like it, so powerful, so pulsating, so hypnotic. Beth and I kept on dancing into the wee wee hours. The sound echoed in my head for months.
The Harvard Coop had a huge record department, mostly classical with a good selection of jazz. As a token nod to what was happening in popular music, they had a couple of bins of rock LPs. I would stop by from time to time and flip through them, to see what was new.
One day in April 1967 I came across a white album with a yellow banana on front, above Andy Warhol’s name. I was a fan of Warhol’s pop art, so I pulled the album out from the bin. Turning it over, I saw in bold lettering at the top, “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” Under that there was a picture of a band playing, and at the bottom individual headshots of band members with light patterns projected on them.
There was something familiar looking about them. Could this be that unforgettable but unknown band I’d heard a year ago at the Paris Review party? I bought the record and went back to my apartment. When I played it, I immediately recognized that yes, it was them, The Velvet Underground.
Not long after, on a bus ride from New York to Boston, I couldn’t help but notice a beautiful young blonde in the seat across the aisle from me. It took me a long time to get up the nerve, but before we got to Boston I struck up a conversation with her. Gail was living in Somerville, next door to Cambridge, and gave me her phone number. I went to see her one evening and stayed the night. She blew me away when she mentioned that she was a friend of The Velvet Underground’s manager. They’d be playing in a couple of weeks at The Boston Tea Party, a local rock club. She said she’d put my name on the guest list.
The Tea Party was in an old brick Victorian building in Boston’s South End, a pretty rough neighborhood. Members of a motorcycle club were parked out front, dressed in their colors – “Devil’s Desciples” (as they spelled it) across the back -- and revving their engines, just in case you didn’t happen to notice them.
We went up a short flight of stairs to the front door, over which hung a large sign with stylized lettering reading “Filmmakers Cinematheque and The Boston Tea Party.” Then we walked up a long flight of stairs to the ticket window and coat room, and took a left up another long flight to the main floor. At the landing off to the right was a short corridor with black lights which made everyone walking by look spooky. Ahead was the performance space, a big boxy room with a ceiling that must have been forty feet high, a mirror ball suspended over the middle of the hall, the stage at the far end. The Desciples were hanging out in back of the balcony, from where the light show crew projected colorful blobs pulsing with the music onto the back wall of the stage, as well as experimental films and other images. On the wall, large arcing black letters proclaimed, “Praise Ye The Lord,” painted there by a religious group which once used the building. With the blasting volume of the band, the kaleidoscopic imagery of the lightshow, the whirling reflections from the mirror ball making the room seem to spin, the ecstatic dancing bodies, and the stoned vibe, this was Boston’s psychedelic temple of rock.
I’d heard The Velvet Underground at the Village Gate and listened to their album repeatedly. But I was hardly prepared for how much more powerful they sounded at the Tea Party. In that big box of a room, with its high ceiling – unlike the basement of the Gate – their sound exploded in my mind and body. The whole space vibrated with the music, the floor rising and falling, people dancing in a trance. It was the apotheosis of rock ‘n’ roll, and yet at its most primitive, driven by the relentless pounding of their girl drummer Maureen Tucker.