As the Greyhound bus neared the terminal, my pulse quickened. Regardless of how I wished to appear, 18 and naive were written all over me. My trip last year to Candlestick Park had given me big-city exposure. How different could Oakland be?
The reason for being here, I thought, proved my worldly sophistication. Joining the Air Force was an obvious adult step. It was July 17, 1969, and on the following day I would be signing my name to a contract for the next four years. It would have been nice to take my induction physical in Salinas, but here I was in Oakland.
As I stepped off the bus, sights I’d viewed from the window fused with smell and noise. The results were powerful. What was that odor? At this point in life my strong odor encounters had been ranch-related or poverty-driven—mostly cow manure or the family outhouse in July. This new smell was overwhelming. People, buses, factories and trash created a strong brew.
In the years ahead, I found that many cities of the world have unique smells. Air around a large city is a combination of many things. Centuries of cooking styles, sewage treatment and transportation waste combine, creating a lingering aroma. Some are good. Some are not so good. Memories of those smells remain, surfacing at odd times. I am confident that if blindfolded I could still identify Madrid, Bangkok or Tangiers by smell. Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Phoenix have no significant odor. Brooklyn does, but I spent so little time there it didn’t create a file in my brain.
On that day, however, as I made my way along the bustling Oakland street, my young heart raced. My worldly belongings were inside a small suitcase clutched to my side. The small brown case popped open on occasion, and the handle had a tendency to come off on one end. My possessions weren’t enough to interest anyone if they did fall out, but the possible embarrassment made me hold the suitcase closely. In the distance was a sign bearing the name of the hotel listed on my orders.
Nearing the Claremont Hotel, I became a bit more aware of my surroundings. It dawned on me that I was seeing many black people. Except for me, in fact, everyone was “colored,” the proper term of the day. But I was hip, I thought. Willie Mays, my boyhood hero, was black. And of course there was my 10-minute experience in Watsonville the previous year with the Black Panthers. They were supporting Cesar Chavez and the grape pickers in a fight against the wealthy vineyard owners. Standing outside grocery stores, they would suggest that customers boycott grapes. Entering a market one day, I held a pleasant conversation with one of the Panthers. Polite but scary. One thing for sure, I wasn’t going to walk out of that market with any Thompson seedless. Surely all these people of color in Oakland knew of my support on the grape issue.
Even with that in my favor, I moved quickly, soon reaching the hotel. It was the best hotel I’d ever been in. Actually it was the only hotel I’d ever been in. The inside mirrored the society outside. At one time it may have been the showpiece of the city. Now it was old and musty, with overstuffed furniture and faded flowery carpet.
Going somewhere else wasn’t possible in my limited world. My orders said the Claremont Hotel. They also gave me my choice of two restaurants—one a Chinese place, the other a diner—on the same block as the hotel.
Placing my suitcase in the room, I turned to the next goal: dinner. Evening was approaching. My worldly sophistication didn’t cover bad neighborhoods in Oakland after dark. The Chinese restaurant was closer, so I ate my first Chinese meal.
I have no recollection of the food that was served. I was 18, male and from a large, poverty-based family. If it was edible, I ate it. The restaurant was a dive, but I didn’t know that. My dining-out experience was limited to a four-for-a-dollar chili dog stand in Watsonville.
Upon leaving Wong Ho’s finest, I encountered some really friendly ladies. Maybe they knew of my support of the Black Panthers? Several of the ladies offered to be the best friend I’d ever had for a large portion of the money in my front pocket. At least for the next 30 minutes.
I declined the offer to bond with anyone, and was scolded for wasting their time. The spokesperson of the group strutted back to her companions, telling me I should find out what I would be dying for before getting my white ass shot off. Five minutes later I was happy to be in my hotel room with a book.
Sleep was impossible. The Claremont was full of young males heading for the same place as I the next morning. Over the next eight hours, the ruckus was loud and constant. Boys lodged here considered this night their last bit of freedom. Many were draftees, headed for Vietnam before the year was out. Most were raising hell, but many were trying to pump enough drugs and alcohol into their bodies to fail a full physical the next morning. Several knocked on my door inviting me to the uprising, which seemed to be everywhere but in my room.
Anything not bolted down found its way out a window, crashing to the alley below. It sounded like we were already in a war zone. At 4:30 a.m. the phone rang, and a voice told me it was time to wake up. The voice also warned of many protesters near the induction center and recommended that I leave early and avoid conflict.
What protesters? This was confusing to an 18-year-old who had little exposure to world events up to that point. Television was limited to the one channel we received when we managed to align the foil-wrapped rabbit ears correctly. Other than John F. Kennedy’s assassination, news programs were turned off. They were of a different world than the one we lived in.
More anxious than hungry, I headed to the induction center about five blocks away. The street was fairly empty of people, with much less commotion than the night before, though the smell was still there.
Nearing my destination, I saw a crowd gathered in front of the large federal building—mostly women. As I walked closer, the throng swelled in my direction. Several women approached, bombarding me with pleas to turn around and go back. Some wept as they held up pictures of boys like me who had been killed in Vietnam. Any path through the crowd was eliminated. I was stuck.
Being jostled constantly, while emotions poured from everyone nearby, scared me. Captured in the crowd for several minutes, I finally broke through. One woman with her son’s picture around her neck grabbed my ankles as I went up the steps and begged me not to give my life for the evil war.
“Go to Canada,” she urged. I tried explaining that I was here of my own will, when she turned nasty, saying I was too young to understand. My reasoning was simple, but words escaped me. How do you tell a weeping mother that your reason for being here has nothing to do with her dead son? How do you explain that you are taking the only available path to escape oppression from poverty and an alcoholic father? How do you say to her that you haven’t weighed the pros and cons of your actions because of limited cards dealt to a weak hand?
The five minutes or so in that crowd seemed like a lifetime. More thought was prompted in my young mind than ever before. Not even the hassles with my drunken father could produce the emotions gathered in those few short yards.
When I finally turned and went into the guarded building, part of me stayed outside—a part I’ll never return to. I succeeded in making it out of the place I meant to escape from, but nothing in life was ever simple again.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.