Bad news came around the 1st of November when Buster Lafontaine learned that he had been drafted. We threw a big party for him down in the North End in the garage at 314 John. It was a nervous affair because Patty insisted on coming with me. All that Patty cared about was the beer and wine. She brought her own whiskey. I couldn’t protest too much lest she become suspicious. I wasn’t sure what the sisters Lafontaine might say or do. Would they be jealous? Would they inform Patty of my unfaithfulness? Would I still have balls in the morning?
Everything was cool, though. Loraine and Mary had their own guys in tow and everyone focused upon Buster who was scheduled to leave before Thanksgiving. It was impossible to think of life without Buster. We asked him to be very careful. One guy offered to shoot him in the leg to get him out of it.
“Naw, it will be cool. I’ve fought tougher guys than the Viet Cong,” he said bravely. “I’ll be just fine. Hell, it looks like they’ve got Charlie on the run. That war will probably be finished before I get out of basic training.”
I had a bad feeling about it all. I was worried for Buster. He was an Indian going into the military, which meant he’d be assigned to a mostly black battalion. Black battalions were always the first into battle. Even though the military had been officially integrated for over a decade and officially banned racism, the fact was that most of the officers and First Shirts (high ranking enlisted men) were from The South and this was still the 60’s and people of colour were far more dispensable than whites.
Patty noticed Loraine and Champlain disappear up the ladder to the loft. She looked at me and said, “What are they gonna do up there?” in a voice that indicated she knew full well what they were going to do up there.
I played dumb, “I don’t know,” I replied in a voice that confirmed that they were going into the loft to fuck. “What could a guy and a girl do in a loft?”
Somehow, I survived the night having no secrets revealed. I wasn’t sure how my Wild Irish Patty would react if she found out what I’d been up to in the loft and I sure didn’t want to find out.
We said goodbye to Buster around midnight and walked through the crisp air back to Patty’s house. The feeling of foreboding wouldn’t leave me. I told Patty, “I don’t know why, but I have this sick feeling that I’ll never see Buster again.”
She tried to reassure me, “Like he said, the war is almost over. The US will win. We always win. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
“I certainly hope so, but… I wish this feeling would go away.”
Thanksgiving zoomed by, as did Christmas, and before we knew it a New Year was staring us in the face. I wasn’t ready for a new year. I liked the old year. I had so much fun in 1967 that I didn’t want it to ever end.
Dynasty rang in the New Year down in Hayward at the ski resort. We were playing a new song that hit the airwaves in early December titled “Incense and Peppermint” by a band named The Strawberry Alarm Clock. It was a cool tune with great organ parts and the crowd really dug it. We played it at least three times that night by request. It was quite a drunken night for all at the ski lodge. It was like nobody else wanted the year to end either.
Somehow, Patty managed to juke her parents into believing that she was going skiing with the girls. Either her parents were extremely gullible or they trusted that their daughter knew what she was doing. Patty got totally shitfaced that night. It was a good thing her parents didn’t know what was really going on.
Drinking always made Patty more amorous. At the stroke of midnight she was on the stage with me behind the organ. I had recently changed to playing in sweat pants with no underwear, which Patty didn’t approve of at first but got onboard when I pointed out the easy access it afforded her. She reached around and grabbed my bare ass with both hands as we kissed in the New Year. She was ready to go right there on the stage.
We slipped and slid our way to the chalet shortly after 2am. Bars are allowed to stay open an extra hour on New Year’s Eve in Wisconsin, another arbitrary nonsensical law that makes me question all authority.
I got a good blaze going in our fireplace to warm the place up. There was no other heat source. Patty grabbed a large quilt from the bed and we huddled together near the fire while drinking Irish whiskey out of a Ball pickling jar, which was strangely appropriate given that we were trying to pickle ourselves. We had way too much blood in our alcohol systems.
We talked, sang, and drank as the fire warmed us enough to shed layers of clothes one at a time. Before long we were naked and doing what drunken naked people do in the frigid winter. We banged, cuddled, drank, banged, cuddled, drank, banged, drank, cuddled for the next few hours. On at least one revolution I forgot to don a rubber. It didn’t occur to either of us at the time in our inebriated state. It wasn’t until the next morning that we both realized that we had been careless, or I had been careless since it was my whacker that needed the wrapper. A sick feeling, that had nothing to do with alcohol, descended upon us. Oh shit, here we go again.
I doubt that either of us breathed for the next two weeks. How were we in this position again? Why didn’t we learn with December’s frightful scare? Was 1968 going to be as bad as my premonitions indicated?
I noticed around the 12th of January that Patty was a bit cranky. A day later our relief was renewed by Aunt Flow’s monthly visit. We both swore that we would never get careless again. Yeah, right.
A few days later Dynasty opened at the Duluth National Guard Armory for Strawberry Alarm Clock, the band that recorded “Incense and Peppermints”, which was near the top on Billboard’s Pop Charts.
Mark Weitz was their keyboard player. I remember talking with him about the Vox Continental sound he used on their hit song. He explained that he liked the Hammond sound far better, but management said that it wasn’t feasible to tour with one so they insisted that he use the smaller, far lighter Vox. They wanted live performances to sound just like the record so no Hammond. He fooled around with my A-105 for awhile before the show, loved the feel and sound, and was visibly disappointed having to play the Vox for their show.
The only other band member that I recall was a kid named Jimmy Pitman. I only remember him because I met him a few years back in Jacksonville Beach and he seemed to remember me. We got to talking and sure enough he was in the travelling band of Strawberry Alarm Clock. He was a jovial kid and an awesome guitarist who loved to drink. We threw a few pints of Guinness down one night at The Ritz Bar on Jax Beach exchanging stories of the road.
In late January, 1968, the temperature dropped into the -40 range at night warming up to -10 during the day and stayed that way for the next twenty days. For twenty straight days the high temperature for the day never rose about minus 10. That’s not just cold, that’s fucking cold. The magic of living in a winter wonderland was quickly fading.
The cold was replaced by blizzards that stacked snow upon drifted snow banks. There were days that the blowing snow drifted twelve feet high. On the bright side they cancelled school for several days in a row. It was nearly impossible to go anywhere or do anything except sit inside. At least the snow warmed the temperatures into the low teens. I spent most of my time in my room listening to music and practicing on the Farfisa. As much as I wanted to, and I wanted to a lot, I wasn’t able to see Patty much. I wanted to get laid, but I wasn’t willing to walk two miles in a blizzard or in below zero temperatures to do it.
On January 30th, while I was freezing my ass off in the Land Beyond Reality, the Viet Cong launched an all out offensive in the sizzling hot jungles of Viet Nam. It was the Vietnamese New Year, called Tet.. The war that the US was “winning” took a dramatic turn for the worse with what became known as the Tet Offensive. I thought of Buster Lafontaine who was training in San Diego to be a “heartbreaker and life taker” in the Marines.
I also contemplated what might happen if the war didn’t end soon, which seemed quite probable at that point, if it extended past 1971 when I would turn 18 and be eligible to become cannon fodder. The war was stupid. All wars are stupid. The Viet Nam war had no justification. Most of the people of South Viet Nam didn’t care anything about democracy or communism. They merely wanted to work the fields and enjoy a bowl of rice laughing with their family at night.
The anti-war movement was growing in America. I joined that movement to speak out against the war despite what my father thought. “My country right or wrong” was dad’s motto but it wasn’t a slogan that I could adopt. My country was wrong and young kids like me were dying because of it. This marked the beginning of my lifelong activism in the pursuit of peace. I was damned if I was going to sludge off to some jungle to die to insure the riches of some wasicu businessman. Fuck that. Bite the bag, baby, I’m not going. Hell no, I won’t go.
February brought no relief to the snow and cold. Are we entering a new Ice Age? I wondered. It hurt to breath in the out of doors and yet I walked the two miles every day to school in -15 temperatures. Naturally, this made me hate school all the more. Also, I had my fill of cold and snow. Perhaps I should have stayed in New Orleans on my own after our tour.
On February 13th, a near riot broke out on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin over civil rights, raising another cause on my internal radar. We threw our own protest the next day at the Douglas County Courthouse, which was four blocks south of my school. We caught “the man” by surprise. They didn’t know how to handle protesting youngsters. It was an effrontery to their authority and they weren’t about to admit any weakness. Police poured into the old building, pushing and shoving kids around. It all got quite loud. A kid was pushed through a large pain glass window causing him to bleed profusely. Both sides smelled the blood and the scene became uglier and more violent. Handcuffed teenagers were hauled off to jail. The injured were rushed to the hospital. Our protest ended in a draw, yet our point had been made. We weren’t going to accept the status quo. There would be civil rights for all or there would be no peace.
I had an obvious stake in the Civil Rights Movement. I was what was called a Breed, of mixed blood. I wasn’t Indian enough for full-blooded Indians and I wasn’t white enough for the whites. To this day people ask me, “How much Indian are you?” Do they ever ask that of a black person? No. Do they ever ask that of an Asian person? No. Then, why is it ok to ask me that question? I always answer, “100 percent in spirit,” because I am. The people that primarily raised me insured that I would think like and possess the value system of a Nakota Sioux.
I wrote letter after letter to the editor of the local fish-wrap, The Superior Evening Telegram, intelligent arguments decrying the inequities in civil rights contrasted against the words in The Constitution, but none were published. So, I wrote a letter to the editor complaining about his fish-wrap’s biased editorial policies. Again, my letter was not acknowledged. My disdain for the American system grew by the day. They called it the Justice system where in reality it was the Just Us white people system.
More anti-war protests broke out across the country as the body count of US troops mounted. America was no longer winning the war. I had several serious arguments with my dad about the war and protests. Dad wasn’t easily swayed, but when the pictures splashed on the evening news night after night he could no longer defend the Army that he’d retired from a mere three years before. Wrong is wrong.
I asked him one simple question that changed everything for him. “Are you ready to send me, your only son, to die in Viet Nam?”
He choked up, fighting back tears, and said, “No, son, I’m not.”
Game, set, and match to Armond.
Events grew crazier by the day. Nerve gas escaped at the US Army Dugway Proving Ground near Skull Valley, Utah. Anti-war demonstrations multiplied and spread to other countries. Poland dived deep into political unrest. France was nearing the point of revolution. Peaceful protests broke into bloody skirmishes across the planet. Students took over administration buildings at Howard University to protest the university’s ROTC program.
All this madness was amplified by the desolation brought on by the remoteness, relentless snow, and unending cold of Northern Wisconsin.
I saw my mother tilting closer and closer to madness. I was frustrated that I could see it happening yet there was nothing I could do to stop it. I couldn’t fix her. My dad couldn’t fix her. Hell, not even the doctors could fix her.
On April 4th, 1968, I caught a ride from my mother’s brother, Vinnie, and his wife, Mona. To call Mona a slut would do disservice to all sluts. Her favourite saying was “Cock-a-doodle Do, any cock will do.” As we turned onto 31st Street a news bulletin interrupted the Rock and Roll. “From Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King has been shot dead at the Lorraine Motel. Repeating, Dr. Martin Luther King is dead.”
I was in shock as waves of sadness washed over me. I started to cry. Mona asked, “What are you crying about?”
“This is the worst news I’ve ever heard,” I replied through my sobs.
“Well, that’s just stupid. It’s just one more dead n****r,” said Mona.
“Fuck you,” was my reply to her. Who did my uncle marry? What did my uncle marry? I got out of the car and rushed inside to watch the news on TV. Vinnie and Mona drove off. A few minutes later the phone rang. It was Vinnie. Mona was crying and he wanted to know what I had said to upset her. I told him. He laid into me with a barrage of bitter idiot ramblings.
I listened for less thirty seconds when I said, “Fuck you, too,” and hung up the phone. That was enough of these people and their ugly minds. I wanted nothing further to do with my mother’s family.
Riots swept the nation in the days follow Dr. King’s murder. Detroit was in flames. More than 100 US cities erupted in a volcanic backlash against that unimaginable crime. I was depressed. I reached the lowest point of my life in those days. I’ll never shake the memory. It was cathartic to watch the cities burn in righteous retribution.
Mother was incensed at my outburst to her brother’s slut wife and her brother. I would not back down, not even for this crazy lady. I didn’t care how they felt because they obviously didn’t care how I felt, nor did they understand the source and depth of my grief. I left the house and walked in the beautiful spring weather over to Tim O’Neil’s basement where I met up with Patty O’Leary who was still my girlfriend. The mood in the basement was somber in contrast to its normal festive atmosphere. My Irish friends understood the source and depth of my pain.
I called my dad at work and told him what had transpired and that I wouldn’t be coming home that night nor going to school the next day. He understood and told me to grieve as I needed to. He said that he would smooth things out with mother and try to make her understand if he could find the right pair of ears inside her to listen. She heard voices when the schizophrenia took over her mind so that we were never quite sure which person we were talking to in her brain.
Patty had to be home early for some family function so after walking her home I walked down to the North End where I knew I would find ultimate solace and comfort. The mood in the garage was somber and worried. Momma Lafontaine had just received a postcard from Buster who was on a layover in Hawaii on his way to Saigon. The worry among my brothers and sisters was palpable.
The last batch of homemade wine that Buster had fermented was ready for drinking. We toasted him and danced for his safety. We sang in Ojibwa a plea to Gitche Manitou to watch over our brother Buster and keep him safe.
I lead them in the Nakota Sioux chant of, “Hoka hey, hoka hey – it is a good day to die. Hoka hey, hoka hey – it is a good day to die.”
Before long, Loraine pulled me into the loft where we consoled each other in naked bliss. Soon, we were joined by Mary and Champlain, then, Auggie (younger Lafontaine brother) and his girlfriend, Rita. There was no swapping. Each stayed with their own mate, drinking and banging to ease the pain.
I didn’t return home that night. None of us went to school the next day. I rode the bus out to Granny Blackwater’s house early in the morning. I needed to hear the words of the Spirit Woman, the only words that would ease the pain. She assured me that all this craziness would pass in time. I believed her. I trusted her above all others, a vibe that I’d gotten from my dad.
We dedicated our next gig to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and proceeds were donated to the Freedom Movement. We played Dr. King’s favourite song to a packed bar, “Take my hand, Precious Lord,” which was way out of character for Dynasty. The outburst of applause and cheers was heartening and brought tears to my eyes. The younger generation galvanized around the concepts of equal rights, peace and justice for all. Perhaps there was still hope, even in these darkest of times. Ted Anderson led the bar in song,
“Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on,
Let me stand.
I am tired, and I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”
I was moved to see over 100 beer-guzzling teenagers sing the song along with us.
One week later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The rioting had ceased. People got back to their normal lives.
Things would never again be the same in America.