Mid-year ‘72. Southern Utah. Back up against a road reflector. I was 26. My buddy, Hal, four years younger, set his camera timer and positioned himself behind me. Hal and I met three years earlier at the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD), i.e., boot camp, in San Diego. Through our shared experience, Hal and I struck up a close friendship. When I returned home from active duty to Sun Valley, California, I informed my roommate, Steve, that I was moving out and in with Hal, on the opposite side of the San Fernando Valley.
In June ’72, Hal and I decided to drive his 1966 Volkswagen 1,700 miles, from Los Angeles, up through California on Highway 1, through Oregon and Washington, the width of British Columbia and into Alberta, north to Jasper National Park. I don’t remember the conversation or the circumstance that inspired us to undertake the adventure. To understand my part, we might begin by figuring out this particular three-year transmogrification:
I joined the Marine Corps Reserve after I graduated from college in 1969 and lost my student deferment. I was waiting to be drafted. On one of my first days at MCRD, I remember being crammed into a small bathroom with forty other guys – asshole to belly button, as the drill instructors called it. The DI screamed at us, pushed us, punched us. As I was slammed against the wall, looking forward to the next fourteen weeks, I thought that I would never give in to the insanity and abuse. Of course, I quickly did, to make it through. By the time the photo was taken of me in my dress uniform, a few months later, I was a proud Marine. For my graduation ceremony from boot camp, Steve drove down from L.A. and brought my youngest brother. As happy as I was to see them, I could not help thinking of them as “slimy civilians.” I was brainwashed.
The treatment and training the Marine Corps implemented broke me down as a slimy civilian and built me back up as a Marine, a walking, talking killing machine. The Marine Corps designed the program to help me not only survive battle in Vietnam, but also to survive prisoner of war camp, if I was captured. I was as much a prisoner of war at MCRD. I couldn’t leave if I wanted to. The government forced me there, tormented and tortured, surrounded by fences, with the threat of imprisonment, or worse, if I tried to escape.
It was a few years after my time at MCRD that psychiatry began diagnosing PTSD. I don’t know whether or where I fit on the spectrum, but when I returned home in January 1970, I felt displaced, distressed, depressed. I had a hard time functioning. I got back into my life but memories of the traumatic experience that my country put me through turned to anger, resentment, distrust, and resistance.
In Spring 1970, I hung out at my younger brother’s apartment in Burbank. He and his friends smoked some weed and passed me the joint. I was 24 and had never smoked marijuana. After that day, smoking weed became a bit of a lifestyle.
Besides those two factors literally freaking me out, I found much to resist in the country – the war, racism, misogyny, pollution, greed and corruption, the list seemed endless. At the time I became a weed smoking hippie, I also attended Marine Corps Reserve meetings one weekend a month. My white-side-walls haircut needed to pass muster every fourth Saturday. So, I went through apocalyptic life looking like a narc. In fact, I took mescaline with Hal one Saturday morning and drove to downtown L.A., to walk around and hang out. I stood at the corner of Sixth and Flower Streets, waiting for the walk sign, blazing, when a young dude came up to me, leaned in, and whispered, “Mornin,’ Mister PO-lice Officer.” The last thing I wanted was to be undercover, but, regardless, by my looks, my cover was blown.
Hal and I both got medical discharges and exited the Marine Corps Reserve within two years. It was about that time that we took off on our road trip.
So, we were cruising the Trans-Canada Highway at latitude fifty-two, high as the massive cumulus clouds towering above us in the cerulean sky, when the engine in Hal’s VW made loud knocking sounds and quit - one of us, it was never clearly established who, forgot to check the oil. The mechanic outside Wynd, Alberta told us that it might be a two-week wait for parts and the cost of fixing the car would most likely total more than the car was worth. Hal traded his Bug for the price of the tow and diagnosis.
Hal and I discussed our options. We could catch a bus straight back to Los Angeles, shortening our adventure by half. Or we could blow it up: ship home what we couldn’t carry, load our packs, and hitchhike back. Thumbs up, thumbs out. Our first ride, down to Banff. Then Lake Louise, Calgary, Lethbridge, into the U.S. and on Interstate 15, down through Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and across the bottom of Nevada and California.
Forty-three rides in ten days. Challenging, grueling, taxing, but Hal and I did survive Marine Corps bootcamp.
I will risk speaking for my late friend: one of the best decisions he, and I, ever made.
The Bridge of Sighs, Venice, Italy
When I heard of it, the notion of a bridge of sighs struck my aching twenty-some-year-old soul as romantic. A bridge that people cross or pass through that evokes sighs for all human suffering. I listened to a song about a Bridge of Sighs in 1974 by British rock musician, Robin Trower. While Trower’s consummate blues song is lyrically minimal, it conveys the pain of a barren soul and broken heart. How could Bridge of Sighs be other than a haunting and bitterly cold blues song?
I stood on the Canonica Bridge, over the Rio di Palazzo in Venice, and looked along the canal at the Ponte dei Sospiri, the enclosed, white limestone, baroque, thirty-six-feet-long bridge, built in 1603, that connected the Doge’s Palace’s notorious prison and interrogation and torture rooms with the new prison across the river. I could see a row of eleven faces carved into the top of the arch, at the base of the Bridge. Only one of these faces is smiling. The others show the emotions of the prisoners crossing the Bridge.
I could imagine men feeling Trower’s exact sentiments crossing into the Prigioni Nuove, the New Prison. It is said that a man on the way to his cell would let loose a sigh, looking through the window at his last sight of magnificent Venice.
English poet, George Lord Byron, in Canto IV of his 1812 narrative poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, used - and reputedly popularized - the name, Bridge of Sighs.
In his notes to Canto IV, Byron describes in detail the Bridge and the prison to which it allows entry:
CHILDE HAROLD'S PILGRIMAGE.
“I stood in Venice, on the ‘Bridge of Sighs;’ A Palace and a prison on each hand.”
“The communication between the ducal palace and the prisons of Venice is by a gloomy bridge, or covered gallery, high above the water, and divided by a stone wall into a passage and a cell. The state dungeons called pozzi, or wells, were sunk in the thick walls of the palace: and the prisoner, when taken out to die, was conducted across the gallery to the other side, and being then led back into the other compartment, or cell, upon the bridge, was there strangled. The low portal through which the criminal was taken into this cell is now walled up; but the passage is still open and is still known by the name of the "Bridge of Sighs." The pozzi are under the flooring of the chamber at the foot of the bridge. They were formerly twelve; but on the first arrival of the French, the Venetians hastily blocked or broke up the deeper of these dungeons. You may still, however, descend by a trapdoor, and crawl down through holes, half choked by rubbish, to the depth of two stories below the first range. If you are in want of consolation for the extinction of patrician power, perhaps you may find it there; scarcely a ray of light glimmers into the narrow gallery which leads to the cells, and the places of confinement themselves are totally dark. A small hole in the wall admitted the damp air of the passages and served for the introduction of the prisoner's food. A wooden pallet, raised a foot from the ground, was the only furniture. The conductors tell you that a light was not allowed. The cells are about five paces in length, two and a half in width, and seven feet in height. They are directly beneath one another, and respiration is somewhat difficult in the lower holes. Only one prisoner was found when the republicans descended into these hideous recesses, and he is said to have been confined sixteen years."
A sigh can, of course, express the light side of the human spirit. There is another explanation for the name, The Bridge of Sighs. Tradition tells that any couple kissing under the Bridge in a gondola at sunset, with the bells of St. Mark’s Cathedral tolling, will enjoy eternal love. The romantic legend attached to the Bridge of Sighs might have originated from the fact that the renown adventurer and lover, Giacomo Casanova, spent fifteen months of a five-year sentence in the Doge’s Palace prison, before he escaped.