Heritage Of the Hidden-Hippies

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What are my parents? If I claim that they are or were hippies, then what does it mean to be a hippie?
Jeremy Russell

Issue #27, September 1996


I don't really remember her name, but 'Anne' was the little girl down the street. The street was College Ave. in St. Maries, Idaho. I was five and she was three. We were both blondes and the length of our hair was nearly the same. For this hair both of us were called 'girl,' a word which in Idaho in 1979 was synonymous with such words as wuss, wimp, pussy, queer, all of which were bad. She was considered a girl because she was female. As for me, I was a little hippie boy, being taught peace and cooperation. Together she and I played Barbies. I liked playing just about anything, including Barbies, except when the other boys were around, because they insisted that those games were for girls. That day in Anne's yard was to be the last time Anne and I played together.

"Guess what," I said.

"What?"

"I don't have any underwear on." I had at a young age been given the choice to wear underwear or not wear underwear. My father did not wear underwear, my mother did not wear a bra, and although it represented certain risks concerning zippers and unmentionables I had chosen the route of my father. It never occurred to me that other kids weren't given the same choice. I had, however, learned to impress people with the fact that I had chosen the more unusual route and now thought to impress Anne.

"I don't believe you," she said.

"Well, I'll prove it to you." This seemed reasonable to me. All I had to do was pull down my pants.

"Will not."

"Sure I will." After all, hadn't I seen plenty of nudity around the house, weren't people 'mature' about things like this? If she really didn't believe me, wasn't the 'sensible' thing to do to prove it?

I pulled down my pants and she ran screaming into her house. Then her older brother came barreling out with his enormous, loud dog and I barely escaped, pulling my pants up, tripping and running.

He caught me the next day on my way home from school. Just to make sure I never exposed myself to the world again, never revealed the truth of my identity, the secret underwear-less-ness of me, he threw me down and pissed on me. My friends saw my abuse and when they heard what I had done, they all sided with Anne's brother.

After that I started wearing underwear. It was a humiliation and too hard a price to pay to be like my parents.

This was the first time I was made honestly and realistically aware that who I was and who my parents had chosen to be was different from what others desired. I learned from that experience and a few others less spectacular that I was going to have to hide some of the information I accepted as truth. Everyone has information they keep secret, but if a chosen identity is something which must be suppressed, then there is a problem. My parents chose to raise me with unusual beliefs and freedoms, and in school these freedoms became burdensome, disguised things. For this I have felt out of place all of my life and only truly comfortable with people who were tolerant of difference.

Many of my beliefs remain secret to this day, but in this article, as in my ignorant youth, I am threatening to expose myself. I ask for an open-minded reader.


I'll begin at my beginning: I was born at the U.C. Hospital in San Francisco. My mother had begun labor at a concert, Day on the Green, 6/8/74, and the labor pain got most intense during the Grateful Dead's set. This was her first Dead show, but far from her last. The next morning I was out and mewling and my mother, who later remarked "never go into labor at a concert where you're the only one not on acid," sang me "Uncle John's Band" to commemorate both our survivals of the birth:

Well, the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry anymore, because when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.

These vague, fascinating lyrics by Robert Hunter no doubt inspired her because they had become concrete and distasteful when, five months before I was born, the house that my parents shared with some fellow young, wild, flower child types burned to the ground. It was early January and the Christmas wrapping hadn't been cleared up quite yet. Someone, too young and too wild, hung a Christmas candle above the rubbish, went off to bed and the next morning everything my parents owned was charcoal.

My father has told me that he hadn't been planning to stay anyway. He would have liked to spend more time "Truckin" ("hang it up and see what tomorrow brings," as the lyrics go). He might have left altogether, but for the fact that he couldn't leave a single mother. I guess he felt she was a bit overwhelmed as a young women of twenty-three in a big world, which included such exciting combinations as communal living and conflict, co-ops and hepatitis, the sexual revolution and herpes, order and chaos, etc.. The weight of our baggage must have irked him some, when he still wanted to be free-wheeling.

It turned out he was forced to leave us anyway thanks to the FBI, who'd found him after several years of searching New Jersey (even though his mother had told them that he'd gone to California). He wasn't dodging the draft; he'd been granted C.O. status and was in fact running from government issue alternative service.

So, my father disappeared into Governor Reagan's Ecology Corps for six or so months and left my mom and I sleeping in a tent in the coastal forests of California. When a lawyer got him off, he decided it was time to escape the country entirely and we all ended up in Puerto Rico — like the other fugitive hippies imitating Ken Kesey's run to Mexico. While we were there we ate lots of coconuts, because they were free. It's nice to be free and sharing in the tropics where food grows on trees, except that, according to my mother, we almost starved.

My first memories are of Idaho and music piping out of the stereo: Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Paul Simon, The Band, and of course, the Dead. Even far from places the Dead frequented, my parents made listening their religion. Every day was a Grateful Dead day. We listened to them so much I was sick of their songs by the time I was four, although I did like most of my parents' music. Unfortunately, the popular music of those around me was 180 degrees different, John Cougar Mellencamp and Quiet Riot among others, so that music I brought home my parents hated and music I brought away from home everyone else hated. For me, this meant settling on safe stuff, like soundtracks (especially Star Wars and 2001) or Hall and Oates, that nobody had anything against.

Despite my parents' best efforts to rear me with hip values I regressed socially as a child to the point of using racist epithets and sexist slogans. My clothing consisted of hunting gear, camouflage and baseball caps. All of my mannerisms were spitting and cussing. I spent most of my time running around in the woods and getting into trouble in people's backyards.

Moving to California at age ten, I found all the social behaviors I had learned in Idaho suddenly, and in some cases absolutely, unacceptable. Suddenly I was a hick, known by such flattering names as "the Idaho potato" and "Spud-boy." The only thing saving me from being completely excluded from cultural cool was my parents past hippie status — exactly what had been unacceptable in Idaho. In fact, in California as a child going to a Grateful Dead show was something to brag about, so needless to say I started to like the music again.

Ironically, my parents stopped looking like hippies when we moved to California and into the wine country retirement community of Sonoma; obvious, loose behavior vanished; underwear appeared; and even the aesthetic around the house shifted toward conservative. They both took full-time jobs; my father went to work for the government and my mother found a shipping job at a natural body care distributor's in Point Reyes. They both started to dress straight, with shorter hair. About this time I began to hear the term 'hidden-hippie,' which I believe was meant to differentiate my parents from the 'yuppie sell-outs' that they bad-mouthed.

Soon after the move I fell in with a bad crowd — bad meaning they were mean, weird, funky, in one case mentally ill, sometimes violent and often perverse, and really the only crowd that would have a poor potato boy, even if he had hip parents. My mildly delinquent friends lasted until my grades slipped and my parents began to pull rank to move me in a better direction. This mainstreaming of their once more radical parenting — it had been suggested that I could do home schooling or some other alternative when I was younger — led me to improve in school, a fact I won't let them take all the credit for. Sadly, it was about this same time that they married after fourteen years of living together, an event which precipitated their divorce.

Since then I've done a great deal of thinking and reading. Who were these people that were my parents? They were certainly unique, but did this uniqueness do me any good? As self-proclaimed hippies and Dead Heads, they'd once done drugs, which eighties paranoia had forced them to hide from me. I had gone through a hard core Nancy Reagan phase and I suppose they were afraid I might turn them in, or that some of my friends might. They were always very realistic with me about sex, however. They admitted their faults and embraced change. Of course, they both had their own values. For instance, my mother was really into monogamy and marriage — values I lean towards now myself. Whereas, my father had more of a wandering urge, although he has recently re-married. Perhaps he just wanted to learn something about freedom.

My parents, like a lot of hippies escaping the oppression of the fifties, the awfulness of the Vietnam War and whatever personal traumas they had, were tying to have fun in their lives and not be immediately captured by drudgery. Assuming that was the quest, however, they sublimated it into something else. My father, a practitioner and teacher of Tai-Chi, liked to call it Tao: The way of life.

Taoism is, as far as I can tell, a particularly seductive type of Eastern Mystical philosophy which manages to prove that whatever makes you happy is right. Imagine water flowing down a mountain side. Through soft constant force it flows the easiest way down. Unlike water, we have to concentrate and make choices, but our choices should reflect in ease. Tao is a great and dangerous concept, offering simplicities like, "The Tao which can be named is not the true Tao," that, while wonderful to contemplate, are difficult, even ridiculous, to teach to others as Wisdom. Especially considering the individualistic nature of the philosophy -that each must come to enlightenment on his own — it has a tendency to be used as a justification for any behavior.

I asked my mother about this Tao and she said, "Even when I'm most confused I'm not confused, because I understand that I am just a part of the Logical Randomness of the Universe." That mouthful, I think, she best summarized later as "Never shut the door on possibilities."

Despite its fluid and confounding nature, Tao is a big part of being whatever it is I am. Never shut the door on possibilities -for all the complaints I have about their strange philosophies and for all the secrecies I inherited from my hippie parents I do appreciate them for teaching me that. If I shut the door, I will not be able to grow. It has only been a question of how wide I am able to open it without offending my society. That's why the Grateful Dead and their live shows, no longer a factor in anyone's life, were so important to my parents, me, and so many other people. They offered, at their best, an alternative society, a utopia, where the doors could be thrown wide. This ideal is the heart of hippie-ness, its attractiveness.

Truth to tell, even at the shows it wasn't always that way. I remember more than one bad scene. Still, these shows have stood for hippies in my mind for a long time. Watching them as a child I decided they were like kids — they wanted to play. But sometimes you have to grow up. That's the point, because if nobody takes responsibility, then everybody loses. Philip K. Dick described the process best, "We were really all very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it" (from the Author's Note in A Scanner Darkly). Watching it happen I kind of had to grow up fast myself. Nevertheless, it remains true that those hippie experiences, those influences of literature, music and fashion (including Dick's own) were inspired by the hippie ideals: the quest to experiment, challenge old and invoke new ideas, be skeptical about status, hierarchy and authority and to remain open to possibilities. As Timothy Leary said, "The message is very simple: Think for yourself and question authority." Growing up, these ideals finally led me away from the Reagan set and towards the stance I take now, so close to the hippies and yet "hidden" in my own way.

Ultimately I'm still left with the question, what are my parents? If I claim that they are or were hippies then, what does it mean to be a hippie? If you can be a hidden-hippie, then it's not the clothes or the drugs. It itches me, like a series of clues that lead to a blank. There is no answer or, worse still, there are many answers. But I can't satisfy myself. I want to know if I should be proud or not of what happened and what was accomplished. I don't know if I can. On the other hand I sure don't want to go back to 1950 or get sentenced to fight another stupid third world war. Like the fashion, the crazy books, the rock n' roll and the psychedelica, the remnants of another age draw me. I want the things my parents wanted: the music, the freedom, the kindness and maybe even the drugs. All I hope is that I don't need to learn all of those same hard lessons again.

Jeremy Russell is a student at UC-Berkeley, double-majoring in Comparative Symbolism and English. He has published in the Berkeley Fiction Review, and is currently completing a novel called Kiss Apocalypse. Reach him at crypt@uclink4.berkeley.edu.

Copyright © 1996 by Jeremy Russell. All rights reserved.

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