Combustible Elements
By Steve Rees

Allen Ginsberg (left), Maretta Greer (center) and Gary Snyder (right) read poetry and chant a mantra to peace at the Human Be-In. Photo by Steve Rees.

By Steve Rees

I grew up in the backyard of Stanford – home to the Grateful Dead’s predecessor, the Warlocks, Kepler’s Books and Kesey’s pranksters. Although I had enrolled in UC Santa Cruz in September of 1966, my life was already aiming north, to San Francisco. We could get there easily by hitchhiking up the coast highway. But all roads led to San Francisco.

The Bayshore Freeway, Route 101, also carried cargo for the war. A factory in Redwood City manufactured napalm, which men packed into canisters and loaded onto racks which they stacked on flatbed trucks that rolled to the Concord Naval Weapons Station. They were loaded on military transports that shipped them to the war zone, where they were dropped on the people and land of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.  If you drove the Bayshore, you saw napalm in transit. The military command was in full force here. The Presidio was Sixth Army HQ. Treasure Island was the Twelfth Naval District HQ. The Air Force flew recon missions from Moffett Field in Mountain View, looking for Russian subs.

This was a combustible mix, contained in a densely settled peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. The catalysts of underground FM radio, the underground press, the civil rights movement, the art scene were already at work. So when in mid- January 1967, the Human Be-In brought many of these human elements together in a public park, we reached combustion temperature. In one place, on one day, those who were saying “no” to the war and those who were saying “yes” to the music, danced together, dropped acid, chanted, danced, and listened. We made a Maypole of a bomb casing and wrapped it with ribbons. Poets and politicos, long-hairs and rabble-rousers, all were welcome. Mountain men and city boys. Girls in Victorian gowns and girls dressed in nothing at all. New York’s Diggers and Telegraph Avenue organizers. Being there. Building our resolve and our courage for whatever was coming next.

I recall feeling excited, hopeful and energetic. This was more than simple youthful enthusiasm. In the months that followed, my rising hopes met falling bombs with greater resolve. Perhaps it’s a testimony to the power of that day that my hopes continued to rise in the face of disappointments to come: Nixon, and his paraquat spraying of marijuana fields, his Agent Orange spraying of the Southeast Asian jungles, Altamont, the popularity of crystal meth and horse tranquilizers as recreational drugs. All this bad jazz required powerful antidotes. In retrospect, I credit the Human Be-In and other touchstone moments like it—both musical and political—with providing me the stamina for a life full of faith-based moments of “no” and “yes.”

A bomb casing became a maypole. It was the Human Be-In approach to turning swords into ploughshares. Photo by Steve Rees.

Steve Rees‘s photos of the sixties have appeared in books (Season of the Witch, Ten Years That Shook the City, and The War I Survived Was Vietnam), magazines and newspapers. He has lived and worked in San Francisco since 1970. His photos can be seen on the website/gallery “Music and Mayhem: 1965-1975.”

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