Two months ago, I bought a necklace with a black metal pendant cut in the image of Hunter S. Thompson. Ever since then, his spirit has been following me around, reminding me to “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” More even, than his words on the paper, he has a lot to tell me.
Away at a Writer’s Refuge, working on research for my memoir, I found a note I made twelve years ago that read, “Read Hunter S. Thompson.” I turned around from the table where I was sitting and looked at the five books I brought along with me. One was Thompson’s Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ‘80’s, a collection of articles he wrote in the mid-eighties for the San Francisco Examiner.
My favorite bits are Thompson’s personal tales of car explosions, raising peacocks, owning a strip joint, bad gambling deals, people out to slit his throat, incognito travels, and random chats with people like Nixon’s secret Chinese mistress who lived on a Houseboat near the Sacramento River where a humpback whale was causing a ruckus.
As Thompson floats through good ol’ boy territory and rebel remnants of the west, it’s hard to decide which is more loony – his crazy life or the Republican Party. His articles cover batty political figures and power-hungry televangelists trying to make their play for the White House. He manages to make them all look like corpses in an article entitled, “The Other George Bush” where his friend Skinner recounts a bender:
“… he’d spent the last two nights arguing with George Bush about the true meaning of Plato’s Republic and the Parable of the Caves, smoking Djarum cigarettes and weeping distractedly while they kept playing and replaying old Leonard Cohen tunes on his old Nakamachi tape machine (Thompson, 298).”
Skinner was convinced, here was a man “smarter than Thomas Jefferson,” who could “stand taller than the two Roosevelt’s put together.” Thompson doesn’t resolve the mystery for us, but he has plenty of dirt on “Big George.” As for Reagan, “Old actors never feel guilty for crimes they committed at work – because all they ever really did was play roles, and that was all Reagan did as President (Thompson, 215).”
The religious right permeated culture throughout the eighties. Even beyond the church, the mentality of doom and destruction and punishment were prevalent. Ronald Reagan told People magazine in 1986, “This generation may be the one that will face Armageddon.”
“That is the hallmark of the Reagan administration – a Punishment Ethic that permeates the whole infrastructure of American life and eventually gets down to George Orwell’s notion, in Animal Farm, that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others (Thompson, 206).””
The pendulum swung, as it always does throughout history, into an era of fear and a backlash from the orgiastic drug spree of the 1960’s. Aid’s hit, though it took the mainstream a long time to really admit that it existed. Instead, there were reminders that sex could kill you, and living means dying. “… “safe sex,” the meanest oxymoron of our time (Thompson, 206).”
Thompson’s stories collide with recollections of my childhood. I was born in 1979. My first experiences of the world were in a decade that I now look back on with words like – fear, greed, power, money, poltergeist, apocalypse, punishment. It’s no wonder that my generation flipped out and went grunge.
“The President’s wife, in her role as main spokeswoman for the administration’s War on Drugs… has created so much pressure on a whole generation of confused pimply teenagers who may or may not “Say No to Drugs” that the last of the ‘80’s seems destined to produce another generation of criminals like the one that got caught on the cusp of the ‘60’s, when Jell-O conformity of the Eisenhower Era finally created so many socioeconomic rejects that it eventually became fashionable to be one (Thompson, 207).”
My mother was highly susceptible to all of this fear. I wasn’t allowed to own a Cabbage Patch Kid. She had heard a story that one became possessed by a demon and talked to a kid. Dolls with creepy faces were suspect in general, especially ones with eyes that blinked. Our house was at constant risk of becoming a poltergeist. As long as you clung to Jesus and said his name over and over, you could avoid spiritual catastrophe.
Alcohol and drugs, it seemed, were the ultimate invitation to demons – just try it and they could infest your house like fleas, hiding in the carpet and the crevices of the couch just waiting to claim another soul for the dark side. All it took was a moment of weakness. Life had the horror and magnificence of a Sci-Fi film. Any mistake could cause you a lifetime of punishment. Perhaps the extremes were what made me want to screw up in the first place, just to test it out. All that striving for perfection and bullshit can really weigh you down.
It was a strange era to spend the first ten years of my life. Stranger still, that the current Republican nominees resemble something more akin to the ‘80’s than 2012 – slippery slicksters who might just bite us in the ass because we’re too anesthetized to do anything about it.
When I talk to people just ten years younger than I am, I get the feeling I’m actually talking to the Internet. They spit out facts and ask me, “Have you heard of this band?” “Have you seen this video?” “Do you know who this guy is?” and pop out their iphones at me with the source of their never-ending information that they want to spew in my direction.
What happened to the human beings? Are we all just extensions of machines now? Showing off our prowess through information rather than active imagination?
I’m grateful that I was born before the era of the Internet and the cell phone. While I enjoy the ease that they provide, I appreciate being unplugged and fully committed to the moment. Thompson reminds us, that if you’re not living you’re really dying.
Nature is tough. To survive, you have to be a warrior, but to thrive you have to remain open, even when struggles make you want to go into seclusion. For those with courage, life is full of thrills, ups and downs that bring you closer to your own true nature – honest and pure.
The smoke from Hunter’s cigarette is drifting in tendrils around his face as he gives me that devious half-smile. He’s still wearing his Aviators even though we’re in some dark seedy restaurant with holes in the booths. I watch him sling a few back, and have a feeling he has more chaos to share before the night is through.