Growing up in Towson, Maryland
Moving to the Country
Life for my seventeen year-old self became nasty in the summer of ’68, when two good friends were shot, executed actually, by a gunman, while working the night shift in a South Towson Harley’s sub shop. The cretin walked in at closing, and told them to lay face-down on the floor behind the counter. He shot them both in the back of the head and walked out. Nothing was stolen. He was never caught. My friend Mike died instantly, my friend David survived because the bullet ricocheted off his jaw. He was never really right again.
I learned too early how short life could be, and how easily assholes could ruin it for you. It was my first insight into how, underneath the attempts at universal peace and love, America was a violent and hateful place, every day. The Kennedy Assassinations, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, the Chicago Democratic Convention, the SDS, the Weather People, endless TV news of armed robberies, murders, and bombings, The Black Panthers, Patty Hearst and the Symbianese Liberation Army. It was suddenly, overwhelmingly, depressing.
America and its gun-loving, violence-loving culture, from football to hundreds of cowboys and Indians movies and crime TV series had so warped baby boomers’ perception of the world, that violence was accepted to be as American as apple pie. The Vietnam War and TV’s litany of nightly death counts was driving the boomer generation insane. That so many escaped to Canada or drugs, or dropped out in the country or a commune, or desperately yearned to do so, did not seem strange.
On top of Eric’s drug problems, which were mainly his heroin habit and a friend’s over-dose death on his bedroom floor, he had managed to get his girlfriend pregnant. She was a classic suburban hippy girl. Tallish and thin, her straight black hair hung over her shoulders. Her bangs covered her forehead, like Cher’s. She was sweet, waifish, and naïve. She was just fifteen, and appeared happy to just hang out with Eric and his friends in his room, having no idea of the thin ice she was on. I can’t remember her ever smoking pot, or even cigarettes. There was never a sign of a sexual relationship, except when he asked her to scratch his back. Plus, Eric weighed at least 200 lbs, and she probably less than a 100. Sex between them was impossible to imagine, so it was shocking when he told me he couldn’t see her anymore because she was pregnant.
What??!! Her parents were extremely angry and forbid him and his friends to ever see her again. What a pickle. Abortions were still illegal. This was a time when most pregnant upright suburban teenagers just disappeared for about six months. Visiting an aunt in Wisconsin was a popular excuse. You never got the truth about such things in the 1960s.
So, Eric was in the middle of two very adult problems, before he had even turned 18. Our carefree exploring trips around Baltimore’s landmarks, its used book shops, and antique stores in the country, were left behind as grown-up reality loomed closer and closer. I wanted to look away from it, so Eric moved to the back burner.
Our best buddy, Tim, having memorized a few dozen Bob Dylan songs, moved to Greenwich Village to become a folk singer. I had moved to DC, now a college freshman living in a sterile dorm with an odd-ball music major from wealthy Great Neck, and a straight-arrow guy from a New Jersey suburb— both worlds away from my gritty Baltimore youth.
It was time for Eric to pay some dues for the carefree past 3-4 years. He had dropped out of high school, and never had a job. He had been arrested for grand theft in the sixth grade. He didn’t have a driver’s license, much less a car. In the eyes of his parents and his old friends, he was no longer a harmless, free-spirit, but a seriously disturbed teenager. The cops were watching him. So following the path of a growing number of disaffected suburban American teens, Eric decided to “go down country.”
Though I had hung with him for several years, I had only recently discovered Eric had an older sister. She had grown up horse-crazy, and now in her mid-20s was renting a small horse farm north in a rural county north of Baltimore. She was four years older than him and had left home a couple years earlier. But she kept in touch, and invited him to escape the suburb’s troubles and temptations. He would move to the little farm and live with her, in her calm and normal life with a new baby, and a new husband. Eric would pay for his keep by tending the horses, and watching the baby.
As a link to the old days, Eric claimed his sister was a former groupie who had followed 1960s English rock groups on their American bus tours. It was a wilder life than we could imagine, no matter how hip we thought our Towson adventures were. Eric claimed that Jack Bruce, the renowned British bass player and founder of Cream was the baby’s father. He would be babysitting Jack Bruce’s son. Top that, hippies!
Eric would have the large loft of the old log cabin house to himself, take care of the horses and become a good rider. It was happy escape from the drug culture and grim suburban life of his Towson bedroom. The hip youth culture was changing. Bob Dylan had left Greenwich Village and moved to rural upstate New York. He was playing with The Band, which was creating a new musical style called Americana, whose roots were country, folk, blues, bluegrass, and boogie woogie. Fuzz tones and loud metal rock were on the way out for the really hip. Brass beds and Granola were in as were marches against the Vietnam War and America’s violent culture. Peace signs and free love were the ticket.
At the same time, violent leftist factions including the Students for a Democratic Society, The Weather Underground, and the Black Panthers were painting a darker future. They believed that boomers should fight violence with violence, put Nixon in jail, bring the troops back home, and create real equality for all, including people of color and women—for the first time. Many of those who wanted to keep the culture of Peace and Love of the early hippie days decided to escape the growing violence, to create a new America by turning on, tuning in, dropping out, and turning their backs on American materialism and militarism. They wanted a new communal culture of peace, love, art, and music. Woodstock would be the following summer. This is what Eric hoped to find on the little farm. With 2020’s hindsight, it was… well, delusional.