BY BILL WILSON
Bill Wilson © 2009
I don’t know what is the most amazing part of my first Christmas in San Francisco – how much I recall, how much I don’t recall or the fact that I survived at all! It was 1968. The new year would bring the summer of love and my cousin Susan was part of the hippie invasion. When she was two her mother divorced her alcoholic father and moved back to Elda Farm. At the time my family was living in the tenant house at Elda Farm.
My parents had agreed to pay for my college education at any institution of higher learning as long as it wasn’t in the state of California. I thought Oregon was close enough to California that I could at least vacation there. I had planned on spending Christmas with Susan and her boyfriend. I don’t remember where the house she was living in was located but I assume it was near the Haight -Ashbury if not on it.
The first night I arrived her housemates were having a party. I don’t remember what they had to eat only that I didn’t eat much. They served hot wassail, made up of apple cider, spices and something else. I’ve never learned what it was. I hope it was alcohol. I really suspect it was something else. I’ve never had a more powerful drink, whatever it was it went directly to my head. I went looking for a place to crash. I thought I had found the perfect place. There was only one other person in the room and the couch was empty. It wasn’t until I had plopped down on the couch that I realized the reason there was no one else in the room. The person sitting across from me on the beanbag chair was injecting himself with a needle. I don’t know what he was injecting. I didn’t ask, he didn’t volunteer the information and I didn’t stay long enough to strike up a conservation!
My prayer, “Dear Lord, Get me out of here!” was answered when Susan’s boyfriend got home. He had run into a friend whose parents were looking for a house sitter. The family was going to spend Christmas in Canada with the one son who had gone to Canada to avoid the draft, which back then was sending people to die in Vietnam. Since they were trying to sell their home in the Berkeley Hills they wanted some one to stay their so their real estate agent could show the house. So on the day before Christmas, Susan, her boyfriend and I moved to the gorgeous house in the Berkeley Hills.
Susan and her boyfriend had plans to go to a party on Christmas Eve to which I wasn’t invited. Given my previous experience that was okay with me. They left me with instructions that for dinner I could eat anything in the refrigerator. Unfortunately they didn’t tell me the owner of the house was a doctor who kept his supply of ether and other drugs in the refrigerator. I had had several operations on my eyes that they used ether to put me to sleep. When I opened the refrigerator door I became nauseated. The only thing to eat in the house not in the refrigerator was a pan of brownies that Susan had made with marijuana in them. I forgot that part although I”m sure that even if I had remembered I was so hungry it wouldn’t have mattered. I ended up eating about 3/4 of the pan.
When Susan and her boyfriend got back around midnight they had a little tree with them. I think it was the inspiration for Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree it was so puny and scraggly. They wanted me to help them decorate it. Earlier in the evening I had watched video of the astronauts walking on the moon. The video was so primitive that every time the person moved it became blurry and took a few seconds for the image to catch up with itself. That is exactly how I felt when trying to put tinsel strands on the tree. I would put my arm out and then it would take a few seconds for my body to catch up with it. More tinsels ended up on the floor than on the tree. After several valiant attempts on my part Susan said that I really looked tired and should go to bed. I did.
The next morning when I got up Susan was making breakfast in the kitchen. I said to her, “Did I seem a little strange to you last night?” She laughed and said, “Don’t worry I threw the rest of the brownies down the disposal so you won’t be tempted again.”
When people asked me why I chose to go to a college in Oregon, my standard reply was because it was the furthest away from my parents I could get without swimming. I’ve come to realize that wasn’t quite the joke I originally thought. My parents had given me a strong moral compass but I was the only one who could test it. Of course I made mistakes. But they were my mistakes. For many in the glbt community alcohol and drugs were a means of escape, but for me I never wanted to lose control because it meant someone might figure out my secret.You have to remember that at this time homosexuality was still considered a disease to be cured. So this was the beginning of a long journey of learning from my mistakes, not fearing to make them and eventually having the confidence to learn that who I love wasn’t a mistake.
See Related: ON SCENE WITH BILL WILSON ARCHIVE
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past six years. Email Bill Wilson at email@example.com.
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