Throughout the 1960s and ’70s I was a flower child at heart, meaning: it didn’t show much on the outside. No true flower-child-hippie-chick wore makeup, after all, or teased her hair sky-high in imitation of Audrey Hepburn and the latest “smashing” Bond girl. (James Bond, that is.) I stayed in high school and brought home good grades, and sometimes even performed mundane home tasks willingly. I did dishes and laundry and cared for crying younger siblings so my Mother could rest. I obeyed my parents whenever they were looking and barely dreamt of protesting my Dad’s occasional cooking, let alone the Viet Nam war.
The main evidence I can offer for the existence of my inner flower child is this: I hardly ever, almost never, wore shoes. When I sneaked out of my second-story bedroom on rainy summer nights to meet my best friend, I was always barefoot. We walked in gutters swollen with warm water, and I loved the feel of slippery concrete under my feet. An added bonus: dancing in the rain gutter washed away the asphalt-black of hot summer streets that marked my soles.
On summer days, whether running for joy or traversing a sticker-infested yard to rescue my younger sister, my bare feet flew like the wind, oblivious to pain. My feet served me well the time they gripped sun-baked rocks and boulders with ape-like skill, facilitating a desperate climb out of the river. They saved me from “falling” over a waterfall which had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Crunching over discarded popcorn and gooey stickiness at the local movie theatre? Such was life. I barely noticed. Driving while barefooted? Illegal, but who had time to find shoes? I was forever running (literally) on to the next thing. Foregoing Dee’s Drive-In (an old-time Utah predecessor to McDonald’s) to eat in a real restaurant? I just pulled those wide-legged pants (close cousins to a gaudily-flowered bedspread) down over my feet, and voila! My naked toes were hidden, and the hostess never knew that I was one of thoses seriously dagnabbed young rebel-types.
My friends and I just loved VW Beetles. (Until I learned that VWs were first produced in Hitler’s Germany, I thought the Beetle was named after the Beatles – you know, George, Paul, John and Ring, prioritized herewith according to my 9th-grade concept of handsomeness. I prioritize them differently now: RGJ and P. What can I say? Now I know how age has treated the Beatles who are still living.) While in high school, I dated three boys who each owned a Beetle, or “Bug.” I don’t remember whether it was the boys, the Bugs, or the forced physical closeness that I found so attractive. Hmmmm….
At twenty, I finally bought myself a Volkswagen, but because it was brand new and baby blue I found myself disinclined to decorate it with words like “PEACE” and “FLOWER POWER” all done-up in psychedelic paint and hard-to-decipher bubble letters. I thought it wise to keep my pseudo-hippie leanings mostly private., anyway; and I lived in a small town and doubted that our hardware store carried a single can of the required type of paint.
I loved nature, as was common among all the peace freaks I knew (meaning: none). However, my family couldn’t spare the funds to access nature at its priciest. We didn’t ski, go on fancy vacations, or carry expensive cameras with which to create amateur photos that would cost more money to develop. We would just toss most of them anyway because they were, well, amateuristic. Instead, my friends and I purchased smelly, black rubber inner tubes and filled them with air for free at a local gas station. In winter, we carried those tubes up the highest road on a nearby mountain, jumped on and careened downward, screaming with half-frightened glee through scrub brush and over boulders. When the last bit of momentum gave out we’d stand up, check ourselves for injuries and then, ignoring blood or other indications of bodily harm, we’d tromp energetically up the mountain to start all over again.
Despite wearing shoes in winter, I was never warm enough when snow tubing. Still, what’s that famous saying attributed to over-achieving insomniacs? ”I’ll sleep when I’m dead?”” I swear, had my friends been as obsessed with tubing as I, I might’ve said “I’ll get warm when I’m frostbitten.”
In summer, our snow-tubes became river-tubes. I liked to wear the avant-garde waterproof hat my grandmother had crocheted for me using light blue grocery bags. I also wore the modest two-piece, full-coverage swimsuit my mother had purchased for me right before I cut and stitched it into something like a modest bikini. Better than being a true hippie. I’m told that they hung out in the nude.) Parts of our river run were slow and lazy; others, fast and what we called dangerous (see comment regarding waterfall, above). We lived in a perpetual state of sunburn and suffered painful chafing where the tender undersides of arms had screeched over the wet rubber tubes a thousand times. We fought the river, arms and legs frantically paddling in a quest for directional control of our course. This was, honestly, a lesson in futility.
Years later, I would take my younger brothers and sister on a tubing excursion for her 16th bithday. This was no fun at all. Despite having traveled the same river dozens of times with no injuries whatsoever, my mind was filled with scenes of beloved siblings drowned and dead. What would life be like without them? What would I say to Mom? I will never make that mistake again. In fact, I doubt I’ll ever take my children, either. And they’re in their thirties.
Tubing will always remain one of my favorite memories of youth. In fact, it’s one of my very favorite activities today. Without the company of younger persons, and only in summertime.
Authentic flower children were reportedly unwashed, over-the-top, and in a state of persistent rebellion, although this was just hearsay. Personally, I was a little rebellious, but I also liked showers. True flower-kids might have suggested using alcohol to enhance our river-running experiences, but my friends and I would not have agreed. Drinking alcohol was against our religion. Our religion, we thought, would keep us safe in a world where being a Catholic had not protected President John Kennedy, who was assassinated when I was in 5th grade; and where Martin Luther King and Senator Bobby Kennedy had each met with separate, violent ends the summer I turned 15.
These terrible events were followed in 1970 by the shooting deaths of 6 college students as they protested the U.S. invasion of Cambodia at both Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi. Many more students were injured, all were killed by peacekeepers responding to taunts and rock-throwing. As we now know, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia protested by these students was illegal and unnecessary, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 4,000,000 people whose country was neutral to the Vietnam War. Had I been the least bit informed, and had my college staged such protests, I’d have been there in a heartbeat. Who knows? Perhaps I’d not have survived to marry and have children, enjoy a tremendously fun and fulfilling career, garden, and write this blog.
All in all, the world was a scary place for a girl who attained almost-adulthood from 1963-1970. I choose to cut a little slack for kids who were so frightened by this nightmare of death that they took to the streets, threw some rocks, and perhaps even turned to drink.
I respect the fact that young people barely older than I changed history by challenging whatever they saw as unfair, archaic or without value. They weren’t smarter than their parents, but they insisted on being more free and more vocal. In the decades since, I have come to reflect this aspect of their movement as well. I stand solidly for myself and my beliefs, with sensitivity to others but no thought of sacrificing my integrity for their comfort.
There was a lot of hitchhiking going on in the ’60s, but not by me. I didn’t even consider thumbing to New York State to attend the week-long rock festival that marked the end of the Summer of Love. To be honest, I didn’t know there was a Summer of Love until it was over. (Clearly, I was not cool enough to merit a place on that phone tree.) When Richie Havens came to town four years after wowing ‘em at Woodstock, his toothless guitar playin’ and husky voice moved me so much that I nearly jumped up to do the crazy dance right there in the aisle. I said “nearly.” Only my toes were dancing at all, and no one could see them hiding under the cousin to the flowered bedspread. Nonetheless, I knew where I stood that night. I stood on the precipice of uninhibited behavior, something I’d managed – to that point – to avoid. Perhaps I was a rockster at heart, too, but I kept this inclination so controlled that even I will never know what might have been.
I do wish the photo above were of me instead of a stranger; but such a photo is impossible to find so I had to choose one that is clearly an advertisement for istockphotos. Dot com. As stated, I never danced like that, not even in the privacy of my own bedroom where my siblings may have happened in. Oh, well. One of life’s little missed opportunities, I suppose.
Okay, I confess: I misrepresented. I was and am only a flower-child wannabe. I’m okay with that. Some flower children of the ’60s and ’70s were pretty strange and stinky, after all, and not very nice to their families. Many wound up becoming materialistic, narcissistic yuppies whose commitment to sharing the wealth lasted only until they were wealthy.
But I have carried with me through the decades some qualities that I identify as being both positive and flower child-ish. I write poetry and silly songs for children and am able and willing to temporarily lay my own opinions aside in order to feel the truth of another person’s perspective. I once contemplated a lovely bush as the sun rose behind it, bringing translucence to its stunningly beautiful blooms. The moment brought me to tears of pure gratitude. My favorite fabrics are cottony, wispy and floral. I continued walking barefoot through life until my early 30′s, when I delivered my last baby at home, with a midwife, and without drugs of any kind. Listening to music just fills me up. Well, not Paul and Mary music; and certainly not the Rolling Stones; but the quiet sounds of piano, cello, guitar and the melancholy oboe. For me, wordless music allows room for creative mental wanderings and the deep reflection I find essential to my happiness.
My name is Rea Jo (REE-uh Jo). These are the stories of my life as a flower child at heart who is now peaceful and content at age 59. My youth was wonderful and terrible, filled with discovery, reflection, and friendship, all mixed up in a bowl with some pretty shattering, coming-of-age experiences and observations. Thankfully, I am still under construction, but my foundation took permanent shape in the ’60s and ’70s. I can’t wait to remember, and to put my pen to paper at last. I hope you will enjoy.
Signed sincerely and in comfort because my feet are bare,
Rea Jo Whicker Cloward Richey Walton
(and as they might say in Texas: all those names? That’s a whole ‘nother post.)
February 1, 2013