MICHAEL BRANCH AND THE ONLY TIME MY FATHER EVER SMOKED POT
by Leslie Bohem
In the spring of 1971, I dropped out of UC Berkeley midway through my junior year because a girl who I was hopelessly in love with had told me that college was stupid. I had formed a band with some friends of mine who I met in Santa Barbara, had seduced two of my high school friends into joining the band and, with notions of being the Grateful Dead, we now moved seventy some miles south of Berkeley to Santa Cruz. The Dead having made a similar exit north to San Rafael the year before, it seemed like the move at the time.
The band settled into an old Victorian home that had served as a dentist’s office until recently, when the dentist, presumably, had died. We practiced every day and went out occasionally to play incompetent gigs in the local bars. The girl I’d left school for dumped me quietly after many tears on my part and an abortion on hers.
Across the street, another Victorian had been converted into a shop that sold waterbeds. They gave us the old models. We dropped them in the dentist’s cubicles, filled them by running a hose through the windows, and we were set. The place was less than a mile from the beach and at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I would listen the seals barking by the pier.
In my memory, these are my formative years. We practiced, discovered obscure music, shared dreams and acid trips. In reality, as I try to set these events in the calendar in my mind, we probably lived in that house for six months. I know that by the spring of the next year, I had moved out and was living in the upstairs of a battered old duplex just across the San Lorenzo River from downtown. Somewhere in the messy fall of 1971, I had gotten a job in a clothing store on Pacific Avenue. I had worked after my senior year of high school in a very hip clothing store in West Hollywood, which has led to a job in a somewhat hip clothing store in Berkeley, and now to this. To this day, my only marketable skill is that I know how to fold a shirt so that it can look good in a display counter. The manager of the clothing store in Santa Cruz, which was called the Pant Tree, was Michael Branch. And it’s Michael Branch about whom I want to write.
Michael was older. He seemed much older to my just turned twenty-year-old self, although I imagine he was thirty or at the most, thirty-five. He was tall and thin, with a woolly mustache of the sort that, in the late 1960s that 1971 was still a part of, had gone with a stoned, loopy smile, sparkling, squint-imp eyes, a dare and, in Michael’s case. a certain air of competence There was something else about Michael that had nothing to do with the fact that he was chronologically older. Michael was a grown-up. He had skills. He could run a business, fix anything that broke in this duplex that he managed, and most importantly, Michael had been to war.
What is common wisdom now about the 1960s is that the war in Vietnam touched all of us, and I suppose, in some peripheral way, this is true. But for my friends and I, entitled middle-class white kids with college deferments and doctors who would write long medical excuses for us if we lost those deferments, “peripheral” is the keyword here. Michael was from another world entirely. I want to say that he had grown up in Portland or somewhere in Oregon, and for the purposes of this picture I am trying to draw of him, that will suffice, although now, Forty-six years later, I readily admit that those details are lost to me. What is not lost to me at all, are Michael’s screams. To bring home the impact of those screams for you, I need to tell you a little bit more about Michael first, and about the only time in his life that my father smoked marijuana.
Michael had done two tours in Viet Nam, drafted early in the 1960s, when the War was on no one’s horizon but the soldiers’. He did not often talk about his experience. I knew that he had these huge welts on his back that were some sort of impacted sweat gland problem that had been caused by months, years maybe, spent underground in that hot, humid climate. Michael’s job had been to fire something, rockets, I don’t know and don’t pretend to know, but something that blew up and killed people. He did this from an underground bunker. An analogue drone operator, he knew that he had killed a lot of people, but he had never once seen the faces, or the mangled bodies, of anyone that he had killed. Michael smoked a lot of pot. He was the kindest, gentlest, softest person I had ever known.
One night, when I had smoked some with him, he took off his shirt, showed me the welts, and told me about his war. That was the only time that he ever talked about his experiences. He was explaining his nightmares. And now we have found our way back to Michael’s screams. I lived, as I’ve said, in the apartment above his. The duplex was further from the ocean that the dentist’s office had been, and at night, I never heard the seals. But what I did hear, almost every night, was Michael’s screams. That night, when he showed me the welts on his back and told me about Viet Nam, he also told me that he had a lot of bad dreams. “I hope it doesn’t bother you,” he said. “But I wanted you to know what it was.”
As I’ve already admitted, my memories of those days are stretched, as the memories of everyone’s days of their late youth are, I suspect. And they are spotty, as I know so many of my own memories are. I think spatially or that is, I remember spatially. I can tell you in great detail the direction in which almost every bed I’ve ever slept in faced, even if I can’t tell you who was in the bed with me. In what direction I was facing when I saw The Godfather for the first time. In much the same way, I remember snippets of the time I spent in Santa Cruz. Some of the gigs my band played, up in the mountains in a town called Felton, at a Hell’s Angels bar somewhere out by the beach. I can tell you in what direction the stage faced, but not what songs we played. I remember an acid trip gone kind of wrong, as it came on the heals of an unsuccessful night spent with our next-door neighbor from the waterbed house while I was still trying to get over the girl who had gotten me into all this, who by then had moved back to Lawrence, Kansas and to her family.
My parents were worried sick about me. I’d left school, was living in a commune with some boys they barely knew. Drugs were involved. In addition to that, my father’s younger daughter from his first marriage had been killed in a car accident the year before. My father was seventy. At that time, he was just my father, but now, as I near that age myself, I cannot even begin to imagine his pain. I have two memories of my father in Santa Cruz. The first is of him and my mother. They had come up to visit. My father loved photography, and there are still some photos somewhere that he took of the band, posing on the porch of our Victorian – trying ever so hard to look like the Dead on the porch of their house in the Haight. I suppose that, by taking these pictures, immortalizing what he saw as the biggest mistake that I had ever made. My father was trying to show that he had not totally given up hope for me. The memory I have is not of the picture being taken, but of my parents, the two of them, in a place called the Catalyst. The Catalyst was a restaurant where bands played at night. We were never good enough to play the Catalyst. Real musicians played there. Jerry Miller of the Moby Grape and once, Neil Young. In the day, it was a coffee house with a deli counter. I was there with my parents, in line for food. Music was playing, from a record player. It was the music of my parents’ courtship. Something from the Big Band Era. “Remember this song,” my mother said. She turned to my father and the two of them started dancing. There, in front of the deli counter. Now, probably, that dance lasted less than half a minute, just the two of them spending a moment with a song-induced memory, but the image of it has stayed with me ever since. A window into the people that my parents had been when they weren’t mine, and when their worries and their hopes had nothing at all to do with me.
My other memory is of my father and Michael. My dad had come up to Santa Cruz again. He was by himself. I don’t remember why. Michael had an extra room in his place and my father was staying there. They liked each other a lot. Michael was kind and could talk to anyone. My father was a lovely man, with old world manners and a sweetness with strangers that I never once saw fail to engage. I had gone out somewhere – maybe I was working, or had gone back to the dentist’s office to practice with the band. I have no idea. I just remember that I walked into Michael’s and found the two of them, my father and my friend, smoking a joint. Michael was one of those guys back then who firmly believed in the importance of drugs. And my father, I think, wanted to see what it was that he and my mother were so frightened of. I remember where they were both sitting, Michael in an arm-chair at right angles to the couch where my dad sat. The couch faced the river. I remember those things, but I don’t remember what any of us said. I was not a proselytizer for pot, in fact I always felt, and still do, a bit guilty when I’m altered. I feel as if I’m wasting time. But I do have a vague recollection of what I was feeling. I think that I felt a bit cheated, a bit as if I’d come in late. I felt that I’d missed something important.
I left Santa Cruz a few months later and moved back to Los Angeles. I only saw Michael once after I left. I was living in the house where I grew up, a place that my parents still owned, in Studio City. I had met my future wife by then, and many of our early dates consisted of going to West Hollywood to a theater where a Busby Berkeley festival was being held. They showed a double feature of his musicals each night and we were intent on seeing all of them. Michael come to Los Angeles, I don’t remember why, nor do I remember if he was staying with me, but I do remember that he joined us for one of these double features.
And that was the last time that I saw him. He stayed in Santa Cruz and I heard, some ten years later from a mutual friend, that he had died of cancer. He was a smoker, of tobacco I mean, as well as pot, but I think that it was not cigarettes but complications from whatever had happened to him in that underground sweat-box in Viet Nam, that had killed him. I knew at the time that I heard about his death, but now, I don’t remember. I do remember sitting with Michael in that movie theater in West Hollywood, a theater, by the way, in which the screen faced North, towards Mulholland Drive, watching the frivolous dances of Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, and thinking about those huge welts on his back, his unrelenting smile, and his screams.
About the Author:
Les Bohem has written a lot of movies and TV shows including A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 5, The Horror Show, Twenty Bucks, Daylight, Dante’s Peak, The Alamo, Kid, Nowhere To Run and the mini-series, Taken which he executive produced with Steven Spielberg. and for which he won an Emmy award. His stories are up and about in numerous places as is his novel, Flight 505. He’s had songs recorded by of Concrete Blonde), and Alvin and the Chipmunks. His first solo album, Moved to Duarte, was released last year to rave reviews and absolutely no sales or downloads.