“Chop me some broken wood
We’ll start a fire
White warm light the dawn
And help me see
Old Satan’s tree.”
– Katmandu, Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), 1970
Cat Stevens once saved my life. At the age of 29 I was still living out my teenage fantasies while in the eyes of my Dad’s semi-retired poker-playing buddies I was the hippy no-account son of a good friend whose tank of happy-go-lucky was long overdue-to-be running on empty. Fair enough: in those days I had indeed deluded myself into thinking I was an immortal and was destined through no effort of my own to strike it rich.
I had the unusual bad habit at that time of partying with Romany Gypsies till near daybreak and then, on impulse streaking dead drunk on automatic pilot across the breadth of Los Angeles from El Monte to Panorama City to attend to other vices. My buddy in PC resided in a rustic guest house ensconced within a quiet grove of tall eucalyptus trees capped in crows’ nests. The door was always unlocked and the kitchen cabinet was always stocked with Southern Comfort. My life was thus divided at that time between two fantasylands.
I wore hemp neckties designed, woven and sold by some hippies in Calabasas and I drove a 1956 simulated gold-plated Triumph TR3. I imagined I was the cat’s meow.
I loved that faked-out automobile, as did my Gypsy friends. For one, it was the color of Luck – and those Gypsies worshiped Luck. My TR3 was “powered” under the hood with a crude twin-carbureted four-cylinder tractor engine concealed within a small streamlined carriage by clever British craftsmen. It was pretty much all-show and no-go; barely capable of reaching a peak highway speed of a 90 mph. My Triumph commenced to shudder at 70 and shake at 80. To compensate for its lack of speed it featured Jaguar-like fenders and low-slung doors. With its removable hard-top off to expose its convertible mode, my ride looked fast even when standing still.
In daylight, the Gypsy kids would have me park the Triumph on the grass in front of their rented house facing Peck Road. They would put one of their Dad’s many “For Sale” signs on the windshield and then just sit in it for hours on end, waving at their kin driving by, or practicing their selling techniques with any gaje (non-Gypsies) who might stop at the curb and try to negotiate a bargain price. The kids had strict orders never to sell my Triumph at any price.
It was easy to forgive myself for acting like a Greek God when whizzing along a moon-lit California freeway at 60 mph. on a summer night with my hemp tie flapping in the wind and with my elbows hanging over the low-cut doors, parlous close to the scabrous tarmac rushing underneath. From the Triumph’s tiny cockpit all alight with dials and funky switches, and with the radio blasting away, I carried on as though I was a pampered princeling piloting his screaming 16-cylinder Ferrari full throttle along the German Autobahn. Of course I was no such thing, but even so women young and old invariably waved out their windows to me and honked their horns. Meanwhile, their jealous hard-working husbands and boyfriends occasionally gave me the one-finger salute. Those were heady days.
My radio dial was welded to KFWB ~ Channel 98. Their disc jockeys in the summer of ’71 were promoting around the clock a lot of Cat Stevens: Katmandu, Peace Train – all the latest from the Cat Man.
It happened that one early afternoon in the summer of 1971 I woke up in Panorama City to the familiar sound of cackling crows, and yet astonished that I could not even remember the previous night’s long ride from El Monte. Then and there I experienced what I now call in retrospect my “Peace Train epiphany.” Thanks to Cat Stevens singing Peace Train on KFWB I’m convinced I finally came to see that I had been mindlessly hanging my hammock on “Old Satan’s tree” and had been taking Life for granted for too long. I was living on borrowed time.
And so I decided to forgo my fantasies, to stop faking my life in my fake car, and to get real about planning for the future. I took a hint from the Cat Man and joined the Peace Corps. I sold the Triumph and paid some debts. I bid farewell to my friends in El Monte and Panorama City and headed overseas to Jeju Island, Korea. Once there I began to make a conscious effort to gradually work on changing my ways. And that is how I ran free of Satan’s Tree. So thank you Cat Stevens for saving my life!
Walking the straight and narrow in Korea was not all that easy at first. I had to watch my p’s and q’s. For example, no sooner had I officially agreed to serve with Peace Corps in Korea than the Korean government drafted and implemented some strict new rules of conduct that I was sworn to abide by:
I was told by veteran Peace Corps volunteers that the advent of these new rules marked the tipping point between “old” and “new” Korea. Mainlander Korean males, anyway, were being reinvented and regimented for the factory floor as well as for white-color careers. Korea was suddenly all about “getting down to business” by following the Western industrial model. Fortunately I was headed for the subsistence agricultural backwater of Jeju Island – still another world within Korea – where the “old” rules for the patriarchy (anything goes) still had broad local support and so would persist to resist modernization for at least another decade.
However, anyone who has been to Korea recently can testify that many of those draconian “new rules” for behavior modification enacted in 1972 have been dramatically reversed by the advent of the Internet and K-Pop; especially those rules once regulating long hair, nudity and strict regulation of distinction in appearance between young men and young women.
Not that I was any threat to the new public order in Korea on my arrival there. My bladder was disciplined and I had planned ahead cleverly: There was no trace left of the Hairy Rogue of El Monte that was me in the summer of 1971. Instead, when I stepped off the plane at the Seoul Gimpo airport in the fall of 1972 to begin my in-country Peace Corps Trainee phase, I looked like a choirboy:
But anarchy still burned within me. That hemp tie, for example, was a nostalgic link to the past that stayed with me throughout boot camp. Three months after arriving in Chuncheon I was an official card-carrying Peace Corps Volunteer and on my way to Jeju Island.
My two years in Korea were full of surprises. For example, I thought I had seen the last of Gypsies when I left the U.S., but it turns out that traditional Korea had its own version of ethnic peripatetic peoples – mobile entertainers and such – called gwangdae. I ran across a troupe of their present day remnants in a small town during the summer of 1971, and snapped this photo:
They traveled about in three vehicles, including a unique large panel truck, perhaps of Japanese origin. Among them were a ringmaster/announcer, a fire eater, a tightrope walker, a clown, several musicians, and three lovely dancing girls. One paraded around salaciously with swords. This band of gwangdae numbered about 10, and each one played multiple roles. These entertainments, some of them rather skilled and spectacular, drew a large crowd. During frequent intermissions the female members of the troupe successfully hawked to the crowd all sorts of phony elixirs in dark bottles. I watched them perform for the local rubes close-at-hand for about three hours – but not without an initial fight.
It didn’t take long for the Gypsies to discover me standing tall at the sidelines ogling their act. They immediately became perturbed and tried to incite the crowd to evict me. You have to be thick-skinned to intrude among Gypsies against their wishes, no matter where you find them in the world. I was and so defiantly stuck around. At one point they deployed their maidens to taunt and embarrass me into drinking down some of their bottled hooch in public. For several long moments I became part of the act. This generated plenty of laughs at my expense. The crowd, however, was delighted. I proved that I could beat these gwangdae at their own game. Gypsies respect that. It was like old times.
That was 40 years ago. I’ve since had a satisfying career and raised a family. Given the opportunity to live my life again, would I choose to live it over the same way? But of course! I’ve traveled the straight and narrow for half a lifetime and have lately decided that I have finally paid my dues to civilized society. Now, I want that Triumph back!