Chapter 1: “Plea”

At two a.m. he lay awake in a tent in a part of the compound reserved for those who had yet to face trial. From his cot, the sound of a Huey helicopter landing at the nearby hospital, the heavy whump-whump of its rotors pummeling the tropical night air, and the sight of flares illuminating the horizon at the base’s southern perimeter seemed familiar. Sights and sounds no different here than back at his unit, less than a mile away on the sprawling Long Binh Army base.

Yet, at this moment nothing else felt the same. The double chain link fences topped with barbed wire coils, the guard towers, and the sweeping arc of the powerful flood lights reminded him of that stark reality at every turn. After the MPs delivered him to the stockade and removed the handcuffs, he was assigned a number, photographed and fingerprinted, strip searched, ordered to shower, and issued prisoner garb that told neither his rank nor the unit to which he belonged. Not even his name.

He still felt in shock as he sat alone in the mess hall with his tray of food, none of it touched. Looking around at the hundreds of others held in this compound, he assured himself that he was not like them. He’d avoided speaking to anyone since being processed in hours earlier and felt relieved that no one harassed him.

He pictured what the guys in his unit had been doing that day, the 1st Sergeant’s weekly inspection and a goodbye party for Olson. Did any of them know where he was? He smiled when he thought about his buddy Rudy who would surely roar with laughter, eager to rib him mercilessly for getting into such hot water. That smile vanished, however, when he thought about being called in by his CO who wouldn’t have seen any humor whatsoever in the day’s events.

Would they have told his parents? He pictured his folks reading an official letter about his arrest. Would his 11 year-old brother find out? He felt the tears welling up and quickly suppressed any sounds of the sobs that racked his chest in case anyone else in the tent was awake and might hear.

In those initial hours he realized the likelihood that he’d spend months in a place just like this after being convicted. He urgently wanted to regain what had been, to put back the pieces of a life that so unexpectedly had been yanked away. He was eager to tell them he was deeply sorry, that it would never happen again. Would they please give him another chance?

But, at that hour no one was there to listen.

From Chapter 15: “The First Time”

Seth and Emily had moved to Berkeley with their two kids from the east coast where Emily had been a child care worker in a state school for developmentally challenged youth. Seth had been a social worker in a mental health diagnostic facility serving children and adolescents.

Sharing a love of working with children, each seemed cut out for this work. Seth wore his hair long and drooping over his left eye, sported a moustache, looked a bit like Ricky Nelson, and spent hours jamming with that era’s version of a garage band. With her youthful appearance, long straight hair parted in the middle, and hip clothing, Emily could easily have been mistaken for a high school student.

It was Seth’s turn to go back to school, and Emily agreed to be a stay-at-home mom for the next several years. While I keenly felt the disdain of many at Berkeley for the role people like me had played in the Vietnam War, Seth and Emily made it clear that issue wasn’t on their radar in our relationship.

I had joined them the night before for dinner in their rented mission-style stucco house. When we finished eating, I read a story to their son and daughter while the dinner table was cleared. In a while, the kids went up to bed, and Emily put a Miles Davis record on the turntable.

After we had listened for a few minutes, Emily asked, “Roger, ever heard Roberta Flack?” As she pulled another album out of a stack of records, Seth unlocked a filing cabinet, removed a cigar box, and took out a package of rolling papers, a baggie of pot, and a rolling machine. After looking my way with a questioning glance, to which I eagerly responded with a smile and a nod, he began the preparations.

“No, what kind of music is it?”

“Think of what you’re about to hear as dessert,” Emily replied, laughing.

Seth lit the joint, inhaled, and a pungent odor of a brush fire, maybe with a hint of skunk, began to fill the room. He held the smoke in his lungs and exhaled slowly. I doubt he was aware of how closely I watched in order to see how this was done.

Seth passed the joint to me and, remembering how easily a deep inhalation could set off a bout of coughing, I took in a small amount, waited, exhaled, and then inhaled again, holding it this time. It felt hotter and more raspy than cigarette smoke. The joint went back and forth two more times, and I sensed – initially from light-headedness and a rush of warm feeling in my body– that this time would be different.

A minute or two later, Emily switched the records, plugged in and handed me a headset, and invited me to lie on the plush blue carpeted floor with my head on a throw pillow from the couch.

“Prepare yourself for some magic.” She moved the tone arm to the specific cut she wanted me to hear.

I closed my eyes and noticed how good it felt to be cushioned by the thick carpet and the soft weave of the pillow on which my head rested.

The music began with three strummed notes on a lone bass, repeated and then repeated again, a rhythmic percussion that would even have been enough to elevate had nothing else followed. It transported me into a hypnotic groove, a groove with a hint of infinity. I experienced these tones both as deep mellifluous sound and as a tingling reverberation in the back of my skull.

A guitar added just a few simple notes of reply to the bass foundation and then a piano, its tones higher, expanded and brought lightness into what had been a darker musical patina. The resonance of each note from each instrument seemed to hang in my hearing, and I found myself enveloped in this music, a part of it rather than a listener, aware of each tone, feeling a sense of awe at the music’s structure, even at the beauty of the moments of silence. I hadn’t dreamed music could be experienced this way.

As the music flowered, a fourth instrument joined in, Roberta Flack’s voice.

The first time, ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes

As her smoky voice filled my head, all my senses magnified and I felt as if I might implode. The lyrics of this sumptuous love ballad captured the earliest breath-taking moments of romantic spark, her voice, the bass, the piano, and the guitar seemingly flirting with one another phrase after phrase. And then, from a near whispered beginning, her voice rose and then soared with a full-throated and pure crescendo and my pulse quickened. I felt carried deeply into her story.

The music ended and I lay there with my eyes closed. Time passed and my friends waited while I resisted letting go of this reverie, resisted the necessity of departing from a space I hadn’t known existed. The high had been immaculate, and I had flowed – physically and emotionally – with the music and story, feeling enraptured and spellbound.

“I can’t …. I can’t find the words.” I had removed the headset and sat up, wanting to talk about what had happened, but was incoherent. Seth and Emily laughed, sensing my consternation, and I laughed with them. There’d be another time for a conversation. For now, however, we just listened to the rest of the album.

I later learned and came to appreciate the diversity of marijuana highs, the various circumstances in which being stoned could enhance experience, and the differing levels of intensity that were possible. What had happened that night, however, was quite extraordinary.

It was my first time.

From Chapter 30: “I Want You Back”

“I want you back. It’s as simple as that.”

We had agreed to talk about it after dinner the next night, and during the day I had been mulling over what I’d say and anticipating the feelings Cheryl would likely express when my pot smoking was on the examining table. But I hadn’t expected what I had just heard. I started to say something, but Cheryl held up her hand in a gesture that said stop.

“Look, I know this is going to be tough for you, so I’ve been thinking very carefully about what I want you to understand.” She unfolded a sheet of paper on which she had written notes, looked up at me and paused for a moment before continuing. “Give me a few minutes to tell you what I’ve been seeing and how I’ve been feeling about it, and then you can reply. Deal?”

I nodded. In the four years we’d been together, some of our difficult patching ups had got off on a sour note, with one or the other of us finding something to object to in the other’s words or tone. No such detours tonight, at least not at the outset. I was listening.

“Look, I think you’re in over your head and I’m worried about you. You’re getting high much more often than you used to, and I think you’re paying a huge price for it, and so am I.”

In my mind, I was already drafting the script for what I’d say when my turn came. It’d include the fact that I only smoked in the evenings, that it wasn’t every evening, that we both had fun when we got high together, that I knew what I was doing and was on top of the situation, that……” But, she had said she was paying a huge price, too, and that stopped me. I didn’t understand.

“I’ve watched you become stressed when you’ve got high instead of preparing for a class session, and then setting the alarm for 4:00 a.m. so you’d have time to get ready. That hasn’t been easy on you, and I know you’ve sometimes beat up on yourself for it, for thinking you could do your class prep while high and then realizing that was just not going to happen.”

She saw that I was squirming and wanting to reply, but she didn’t stop. “That worries me. And, what if you don’t make tenure when we’re up for review next year? It’s not just your class prep that’s getting short shrift, but it’s also your writing. What’ll happen to us if I’m promoted and you have to look for another job?”

I was adding to my script, wanting to talk about the writing projects I had planned or had underway. Surely she’d see there was no need to catastrophize about our careers.

“But even if these things weren’t a problem, there’s another issue that I need you to understand. It’s about us. I feel you’ve abandoned me, that the person I married – even when you’re sitting next to me on the couch when you’re high – is not there.” She was beginning to cry, and I felt terrible about the painful ordeal she was describing.

“Your mind goes to a different place, and talking with you when you’re stoned is really frustrating. I can’t help think that if you really cared about me, you’d want to be with me. You, not the stoned you. I feel rejected by you and it hurts.”

She had stopped and was folding up the piece of paper. We were both quiet, and the only movement in the room was Popoki, our Maine Coon cat, jumping up to settle on Cheryl’s lap. My script was in shambles, and her having said I had abandoned and rejected her was reverberating in my mind. I stood up and went to the window, searching for the right words. I wanted to say, “I love you and I’m sorry,” and soon would do just that. But at the moment, I was filled with awareness of what I had become.