Moccasins and freedom
The moccasins felt strangely wonderful on my feet. They were light, not like any shoes I ever wore. These are different, I thought. These are what freedom must feel like. I’ve got to have them. So I bought them and, from that point on, never looked back.
On my first day at UC Santa Barbara, I woke feeling like a caged bird. I stretched and looked around. Where the hell am I, I wondered. It took me a few seconds to realize that I wasn’t living at home with my brother and parents. With a smile on my face, I hopped out of bed and brushed my teeth. I put on my only pair of jeans, my favorite but ragged Jim Morrison T-shirt, and pulled on my worn pair of sneakers. I ran down the stairs and over to the cafeteria, just making the last call for breakfast.
After eating enough scrambled eggs and sausage for three people, I walked outside. Singing the refrain from It’s A Beautiful Day’s White Bird, I left the College Inn to get a feel for my new home in Isla Vista. The weather was cold and overcast but instead of sitting in my cage alone, as I had for the last 18 years, I was free. So this is what it’s like to live on your own, I thought.
I walked up Embarcadero del Norte and stopped at a store displaying a pair of knee-length moccasins. They were beautiful. I had never worn anything on my feet except for an occasional pair of dress shoes and many, many pairs of sneakers. I wondered what it would be like to wear moccasins, but the $25 price tag was extravagant. I knew I should save money for food and other necessary stuff but the moccasins’ call was more alluring than any siren song. Put us on and be free, they called. Put us on and transform.
Knowing I couldn’t afford them, it was with a significant amount of trepidation that I tried on the moccasins. I looked at myself in the mirror and liked the look. Best of all, the moccasins felt good. They didn’t just feel good, they felt damn good. I paid for them, wore them out of the store, and continued to explore Isla Vista. An indie movie, The Learning Tree, was playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. At the top of the circle, where Embarcadero del Mar meets Embarcadero del Norte, was a small restaurant. A menu was posted near the takeout window and, looking to see what they had to offer, my attention was drawn to the Brown Rice Bowl.
I liked rice, but I had never tasted brown rice. The Bowl included steamed brown rice, shredded cheese, sunflower seeds, alfalfa sprouts and, if you wanted, a sprinkling of soy sauce. I would never have thought to eat rice with sunflower seeds and alfalfa sprouts. I confess that I had not even heard of alfalfa sprouts. A new world was open to me and I was going to take advantage of it. I promised that I’d return to sample everything on their menu. The moccasins and I moved on down the road to a store that would become the Isla Vista Food Co-op. Life was good.
Crosby, Stills and Nash came to campus about three weeks later. My roommates and I attended and I proudly wore the moccasins to their outdoor concert. CS&N were coming off a successful performance at Woodstock and although Neil Young hadn’t yet joined them, he was sitting in. They performed Crosby’s Almost Cut My Hair. It was then that I decided to let my “freak flag fly,” but that’s a story for another time.
My parents did not have the savings or the cash flow to help me with school. My high school grades were good and my aptitude test scores were high, so I applied to the University of California system hoping to attend UC Berkeley. I took out a student loan to pay the first year’s tuition of $105. The money I saved working over the summer at the cannery would serve to get me by, but it was barely enough to pay for books, room and board. As it turned out, I had applied too late to get into Berkeley but was offered entrance to the new UC Santa Cruz campus, to UC Davis not far from home, and to UCSB. I was assured that I could transfer to UC Berkeley after attending one of these campuses, if the draft for the Vietnam did not get me.
Gran lived in Santa Cruz and offered her spare bedroom to me but I intuitively knew I was not mature enough for any of the new UC Santa Cruz colleges. Davis sounded boring, plus it was too close to the home front. I knew nothing about the UCSB campus and in fact, had not even heard of it. When I checked it out, it seemed OK and, because it was the farthest campus away from home, I decided to go there. The plan was to attend UCSB for the first quarter and then transfer to Berkeley.
That was the plan. My grades, however, were not good enough in the first quarter so I stayed for the next two quarters. After my first year, my grades still weren’t good enough to transfer, so the moccasins and I stayed at UCSB for another year and then transferred. In my last few weeks at UCSB I attended a Richie Havens performance. I was, of course, wearing the moccasins and when Havens broke into his song Freedom, I felt as if he was playing it just for me.
It was good to be on my own, even if I was, “a long, long way . . . from my home.”
Postscript: It was during my first year in college that antiwar sentiment found roots in Isla Vista, culminating in riots and the bombing of the Bank of America building.
As a result of the riots, a curfew had been imposed on Isla Vista (although not on the campus). No one was allowed outside after 7 p.m. Knowing that I needed to bring my grades up, I was determined to go to the campus library to study, in spite of the curfew.
On the third night of riots, I slipped out of my bedroom window and dropped to the ground on campus. I grabbed my bike, which I had parked in the back of the building for just this purpose. The moccasins and I peddled to the library where I studied for an organic chemistry midterm exam and outlined an essay for English 1A.
I studied until the library closed at 11 p.m. and then peddled back to my apartment. There were rumors of cranky sheriffs. Not only were they getting cranky, but after two days and nights in an explosive Isla Vista, it was rumored they were looking for revenge. With my bedroom window in view, and not seeing any sheriffs, I let out a sigh of relief. As long as I stay on campus, I thought, I’ll be OK. I was so naïve then.
As I pulled up next to my bedroom window and started to get off my bike, six sheriffs in riot gear jumped out from behind the bushes, knocking me to the ground. It may have been the extra bulk from their gear but I could swear they were as big as NFL linemen. I remember one of them yelling, There’s one, as they ran toward me. Batons pushed my head into the ground, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was when they let me up and marched off. The moccasins had been pulled from my legs and lay a few feet away. My treasured moccasins were scraped and torn and never looked, or felt, the same again. I thought I heard them sing Welcome, our young man, to the real world.