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Remnants of War and Peace in People's Park

It's 1986 and I'm in People’s Park, Berkeley, California. I’m photographing the remnants of the late 1960s, a time when tripping hippies and protesting students made national news. Drugs are still here but no longer synonymous with enlightenment. There...
April 7, 2014, 3:44pm

Photo by Scot Sothern

People’s Park, Berkeley, California. I’m photographing the remnants of the late 1960s, a time when tripping hippies and protesting students made national news. Drugs are still here but no longer synonymous with enlightenment. There is a nice vegetable garden and a supportive community but, ultimately, it’s just a bunch of fucked up people, shell-shocked from drugs and war and capitalism. There are a few tie-dyed young people here but mostly it’s just baby boomers who look as if they were here back when and never left.

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Marijuana smoke leads me to three guys on a stage platform passing a joint and a bottle. I say hey, how’s it going? Can I take your picture? The tallest guy tells me his name is Dusty Sunset and I should take pictures of all of them together because these two guys are his true brothers. They were in Nam, just as he was, and they came home broken, just as he had done. And what about me, dude, am I a brother? Where was I during Viet Nam?

I was 18 and the draft was the law and the war was escalating and there was no fucking way I was going into the military. Uncle Sam could go fuck himself. Of course I protested the war. I protested everything I didn’t want to do, and I sure as hell didn’t want to get up at five in the morning to take orders and march like a mindless cog.

When my draft notice came I gathered my medical records: I’d fractured my back the year before and had ulcers. I’d sat on a shrink’s couch since junior high and had done overnights in the local jail. I ate white-cross Benzedrine tabs for five days prior to the physical in Kansas City. I wore girl’s panties with little hearts on them that said “My Heart Beats for You.” Waiting for the charter bus with the others, it looked like most of these guys had nothing better to do than join up and go get killed.

The bus arrived and I was hanging at the back of the line when Stephen Hess showed up. “Scotty! Scotty! Oh, my God I’m so happy to see you.” I’d known him since first grade. Stephen was the kind of guy everyone knew but nobody invited to their birthday parties. He lacked charisma and he wasn’t handsome. He had followed me around for as long as I’d known him. I still remember him pissing his pants in second grade when the teacher locked him in the closet because he couldn’t keep still. I remember sitting at my desk and listening to him cry. I was an asshole to most everybody, but I’d had always been nice to Stephen. I had a soft spot for born-losers.

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I hadn’t seen Stephen in a couple of years; he had dropped out of high school at 16 and disappeared. His hair was long, down between his shoulder blades; he was wearing white boots and tight purple crushed velvet pants and a frilly tuxedo shirt unbuttoned to the waist. He was high on orange-sunshine LSD and he told me his name was now Steffon. In all the years I’d known him it was only now that I noticed he was gay. I was happy to see him and we sat together on the bus.

In Kansas City they fed us, then put us in a fifth-floor hotel dormitory with 20 single beds, told us lights out at 8:00. We were hanging together looking out the window at the city, talking, lying about our exploits, sipping from a short smuggled bottle of Old Crow, when three white guys decided it would be easier to beat the shit out of us, the two faggots, than start something with the black guys. I didn’t think we could win a fight but I didn’t figure it would go further than a few poorly-thrown punches. Stephen was freaking out. I’ll always remember Stephen jumping from bed to bed. “Leave me alone,” he kept saying. “I know karate, I know karate.” He had tears running down his face. I finally stopped it by shoving the lead idiot and telling him that’s enough. We both postured like roosters and then let it go with a fuck-you and fuck-you too.

Stephen couldn’t take it anymore. His mind was blown and paranoia had set in. He had to leave. He couldn’t stay another minute. He was going to thumb to Canada if he had to. He didn’t have any money, but I gave him all I had, 30 bucks, enough to buy a bus ticket to somewhere else. I walked to the lobby with him and said goodbye.

At five in the morning they woke us and lined us up for the physical exam. The army doctors poked me and pricked my finger and told me bend over and spread my cheeks. They ignored my medical records and my homo drag, but toward the end of the day I told the eye-tester I had double vision. He held up his pointer and said follow my finger. I did and he said OK that’s it. I was 4F, unfit for military duty.

In People’s Park I listen to war stories and drink from the communal bottle and take a hit of the joint. I walk around the park and take pictures. I’m rolling up the film when Dusty Sunset flips a bipolar switch and starts dancing around and yelling in my face. “You’re no brother, you’re no brother, man! You don’t know shit about what it’s like!” All I can do is back away and apologize. I’m sorry you got more fucked-up than I did and I’m sorry you’re insane. I’m sorry you don’t have double vision, now get the fuck back out of my space.

Photo by Scot Sothern

I ran into Stephen Hess on the Sunset Strip in the early 70s and we talked about the coincidence of meeting here, so far from home. I was with a group of friends and he was with a more flamboyant group of his own. I kind of wanted to hang out with him for a while, but instead we said goodbye like it was just another day at Sunshine Elementary school. I never saw him again, though in 1975 he rang the doorbell at my mother’s house at two in the morning. He told her he just stopped by to see how I was doing and if I’d ever moved back to Springfield. She told him no I haven’t moved back and I was doing fine and it’s a bit late to be socializing.

A couple of months ago a hometown friend of mine was visiting a family gravesite when he came across Stephen’s grave. He died in 1998 at 49 years old. I write this in his remembrance.

Scot's first book, Lowlife, was released last year, and his memoir, Curb Service, is out now. You can find more information on his website.