Author Rice revisits his "Summer on Haight Street"
Back in 1967, a young Robert Rice Jr. hopped into a 1959 VW Bug with a friend of his sister's and headed out of his hometown of Milwaukee to make his way to the West Coast. Rice's road would eventually come to an end in Sacramento, the location of his new Air Force duty station, but his path would also lead him into a collision course with the legendary intersection of Haight and Ashbury.
"When we finally arrived, I was just shocked at the amount of people who were just sleeping and congregating on the front porches of these Victorians," Rice said. "It was just chockablock everywhere you went. I went, 'What the heck? What's going on here?'"
Rice's surprise and enthusiasm for San Francisco and the Summer of Love, however, would soon turn into disappointment. More than 45 years later, Rice turned those highs and lows, excitement and disillusionment into a novel called "My Summer on Haight Street."
The book – a hybrid of fiction, and real-life people and events from Rice's past – follows three graduates of Milwaukee's Riverside High School as they navigate their way through the highs and lows of the Vietnam era. One character, John Haus, enlists in the army and winds up fighting in Vietnam. Another, Jim Gaston, manages to beat the draft and uses his freedom to find a new, alternative lifestyle.
The final character, Bob Ralston, decides to travel to San Francisco. And while Rice never explicitly said it, the character sounds a great deal like an author's surrogate. It's not just because of their similar trips out to the coast. Both Rice and Ralston also found the Summer of Love environment and hippie culture unable to live up to their expectations. It was that sense of disappointment that actually drove Rice to start writing the novel 20 years ago.
"I wanted to write the book because I had something to say," Rice said. "The book is really about growing up as a teenager during this tumultuous time, which really ended up defining the nation and a generation. And a lot of it, I thought, the expectations were one thing, but the reality was another. Things were not what they appeared to be. Everybody thinks that the Summer of Love was just a wonderful, good old time, but there was a lot more going on than just that. I wanted to get that story out before it got forgotten."
As the decades have gone by, history has begun to find some of the darker, hypocritical corners of the hippie movement. Despite their overall statements about peace and love for all, there were also remnants of racism and sexism still lurking with some members of the culture. Rice himself remembers feeling strangely alienated for not appearing the part.
"Since we were in the military, we had shorter hair than most of the males there," Rice recalled. "As a result, we were always viewed with a little bit of suspicion and skepticism. I was not in favor of the Vietnam War. I shared many of the same values as these other individuals, and I was the same age, yet it was sort of like I wasn't admitted to the club. I thought, 'Well gee, I thought we were talking about more substantial things here.'"
The experience ended up leaving "an enduring mark" on Rice's memories of the Summer of Love and hippie culture. In fact, it was one of the main pushes for writing "My Summer on Haight Street." In addition, Rice had a hard time relating to other popular, seminal books of the counterculture movement, such as "On the Road" and "Catcher in the Rye." As a result, he wanted to write a version for the '60s, one that spoke honestly about his experience.
Of course, life – including working full-time and having a family – got in the way of Rice's literary plans. Eventually, though, Rice felt a need to pick the writing back up and finish the book.
"Frankly, the vast majority of this book is targeted for the 76 million Baby Boomers that are alive in the United States," Rice said. "It's a huge target audience, but time is getting to be of the essence because they're all getting older."
A part of that target audience is also Milwaukeeans, especially those who grew up during the late '60s timeframe of the novel. The book makes plenty of references to Milwaukee and some of the city's institutions, many of which are too detailed to not have been pulled straight out of one's memory. One chapter, for instance, starts by talking about seeing "Woman in the Dunes," a classic Japanese movie, at the Downer Theatre.
Rice – who currently lives in Santa Barbara – has revisited Haight-Ashbury many times over the years. And despite his disillusioned experience, the legendary locale still strikes a chord in the author.
"When I'm there, it still strikes me because there are some places on Haight or Ashbury Street that still kind of look like they did 46 years ago," Rice said. "It's like, 'Wow, that didn't change much."
The only thing that changed less over the years are Rice's memories – the good, the bad and the honest.
Post a comment / write a review.
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.