This is to Linda and Eli and Jessica and Ondine and Connie and the other people who loved Damon. I'm sure you are many today. Once again the three thousand miles keep me from participating with you just as they have intervened for much of the last twenty-five odd years. Even though we weren't in contact very much over those years, Damon was always a special presence for me. The fact that he was out there and that once and a while we talked was a joy. My children knew that there was this special person named Damon from my past who was in California long before they ever met him. He was a presence for all of us.
Damon and I met at a fortuitous time, a time of transition and reassessment for us and for the country. We were all college dropouts, come to North Carolina to do good work. Maybe it was what work we could find. Maybe it was to make up for the sense of failure that we hadn't made the "grow up and go to college" program we were supposed to be on work. But I promise you that in those days there was not one of us that could have said "time of transition and reassessment" with a straight face. What we were doing was important and we knew it, so mostly we just talked about things that were fun and funny. We were working at a brand new residential school for "underachieving" eighth grade boys from all over the state of North Carolina. We were in an old hospital building in Winston-Salem, my hometown. The school was Capital "I" Important, funded by Ford and Carnegie and the Office of Education. It was the first integrated residential school in the South, and we were one third Black, faculty and students. By 1965 lots of schools were integrated in North Carolina. None of them were residential and none of them were integrated beyond the most token level. Everywhere we went we were the first really Black and White group together that anyone had ever seen. Jaws dropped. People talked behind their hands. Once in a while, when we went traveling out of the city, there were scary incidents, but no one was hurt. For the faculty, it was everyone's first time in social contact with people from the other race. None of the Black faculty had ever hung out with White folks and none of the White faculty had ever hung out with Black folks. In the middle of this general culture of curiosity and adventure and commitment to a new way, there was this group of young men counselors who almost never stopped laughing.
For me, coming upon Damon and Reebee and Teague was a life-changing experience. I didn't know that there were people out there that were really like me. They were already friends, but I slipped into the circle without a ripple. It didn't take long for Damon to be the closest of the close group for me. He had an open way of welcoming you that made your day. And he was so unique, in addition to being totally familiar. He would sit with both feet on top of a stool, hunkered down reading the paper or drawing, smoking his Pall Mall and pushing his hair out of his eyes. He was interested in everything and very smart, but never full of himself. I never made even the most obscure allusion that he didn't get. I never met anyone like him.
I want to tell a few stories from that time. I know this is running long, but since it won't be read out loud, I hope it's alright. Those of you who knew him more recently might appreciate it. I was at the Advancement School for a calendar year beginning in January of 1965. Damon was there a year and a half and went back to school in the fall of 1966. Sometime in the late spring we went to a talk by two professors from Wake Forest about the Vietnam war and the history of the conflict. Up to this point, all of our experience and all of the news that we were involved in was about civil rights. We hadn't heard anything much about the war. It was an eye opening experience for me, to imagine that there might be other ways of thinking about the world than the "domino theory". In the Fall, we went to Washington to march against the war. I never knew that a protest march was also a really cool concert. We heard Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Pete Seger. We all wore our nice clothes so that "people" wouldn't think that everybody who was against the war was a flake. I don't know what people we were thinking would be checking out our clothing. For most of us, though not for Reebee, it was our first encounter with the extremes of American political stances. There were people with Viet Cong flags cheering for the North Vietnamese and there were Nazis, haranguing the crowd and trying to start a fight. It was a beautiful sunny day and we marched a lot and talked a lot and learned a lot.
We were counselors living in the dorms with the kids. We got paid $100 a month plus room and board. The founders of the school had taken the salary they had budgeted for a full time psychiatrist on staff and broken it up to pay for the entire residential staff. You see, the designers of the program, the ones writing all the grants, had forgotten that someone had to mind the kids when they were not in class. No one even imagined what the kids would do when the kids were not in school. That created an instant market for college dropouts. Joel Fleichman, one of the designers, went back to Yale and was actively recruiting for the school.
We each had a "house" of about ten boys. The kids came for ten weeks at a time. Then we got a new group. Eighth grade boys can come in a lot of shapes and sizes, from cute little goobers to big imposing dudes. One session, Damon had the goobers. They were cute and they were nice and they thrived in his benevolent and creative presence. The school had a closed circuit television system, up to then unused. It was part of the "state of the art" design of the program. Damon's guys decided that we needed a nightly news program. The model at the time was the Huntley-Brinkley Report with two anchors pitching the camera back and forth and closing with the famous, "Good night, Chet" "Good night, David." So at suppertime, once a week we had the Advancement School Nightly News that we could watch from the cafeteria. The anchors were Theophalus Woodley and Malachi Ricks. All of us lived for the closing of the show, "Good night, Malachi" "Good night, Theophalus."
In the summer of 1966, I was back working at Upward Bound in Winston, a few blocks away from the Advancement School and Damon was in his last session at his job. That was the summer of our commando raid. Being the only one from Winston-Salem, my connections were both a resource and a source of embarrassment to me. My family lived a middle class life of the time. My father was a physician. My mother was a housewife. They had three kids and lived in the "good part" of town. They were sometimes proud of me and sometimes embarrassed by my connection to the Advancement School, my slightly long hair and my opposition to the war. The part of their and my life that I found most embarrassing at the time was their membership in a country club. I hadn't been in a long time, but I grew up there. I spent almost every summer day there when I was small. And out at the country club, which was all White with all service provided by Black people, there was striking reminder of the institutional racism of the Old South. Out on the golf course at various intervals there were water bubblers, drinking fountains that came up on pipes within a large concrete pipe standing on end, maybe four feet across. In each concrete pipe, there were two water bubblers. One side of the pipe was painted white and the other side was painted dark green. It wasn't very hard for both the white golfers and the black caddies to know which bubbler to drink from. Damon and I decided that something must be done. We went out to the Club and eyeballed the offending installations in the daytime. We wanted to get the exact color of the green in our minds. Then we went to the hardware store and bought a gallon of green paint. That night, when it was fully dark, in our dark clothes with black hats on, the commandoes were abroad on the golf course. The next morning all of the bubblers came out of pipes painted solid dark green.
As the summer of 1966 wound down, Damon and I decided that we were going west. We spent a good deal of time at the motorcycle dealer looking at matched Ducatti 250's. There was something about the elegant Italian line of those motorcycles that touched us deeply. I will always be grateful to my father for helping us decide what a stupid idea that was. The first time were driving in my old 1961 Dart and one of us went to sleep in the back while the other one drove, the wisdom of the choice we made came home to us. And what a trip it was. I don't remember why we thought we were going. I think that Damon had all the reasons. But it was not far into the trip that it became clear that we were looking for George Rarey. I heard all of the George Rarey stories that Damon knew. Then one day we arrived in a little town in Colorado. Damon knew of people there. They put us up. They were friends of his father. They told more George Rarey stories and they were thrilled to have George Rarey's son near them. They saw him in so many of Damon's mannerisms. To watch how moved they were was moving to both of us and brought Damon farther inside his dad's world and closer to touching his spirit.
Damon introduced me to the music of Lonnie Donnigan. If you don't know his music, don't listen to his one hit. Get an album and you will start to hear echoes of Damon, not Damon as a singer, but Damon as a great listener. He knew the real goods because he was the real goods. Lonnie Donnigan was British of some persuasion who sang America's most interesting and true music while almost no other White person did. He sang Leadbelly's songs. He sang songs from the Depression. Every song was powerfully human and told a story. He was known in England but unheard of in the US. No Lonnie Donnigan, no Beatles.
Damon and I and our friends were never big druggies. We mostly only got stoned on special occasions, like it being Tuesday or something like that. I only remember one truly memorable stone. I guess that's something of an oxymoron, isn't it? In his senior year at Yale, Damon was living with Reebee and another roommate in an apartment in New Haven. Sometime during that year Connie moved in with him. At some point, some of us who were the North Carolina wing of our group came up to visit. It was just when "Sgt. Pepper" came out. None of us had heard it, except maybe Reebee. Reebee had made a light machine. It was a work of art and a work of love. It was a 4 x 8' plexiglass sheet stamped so as to refract light, the kind you could put in the window of a bathroom. The little refracting surfaces broke up any image behind it. Out of a second sheet of the same stuff, Reebee had cut four large circles. He had mounted them at the corners on the back of the main sheet, each one on a spindle so it could turn. Each was connected to a large makeshift belt that was connected to a small electric motor. When the motor turned, all the wheels turned very slowly. The light going through the two layers of Plexiglas constantly changed refractions like in a kaleidoscope. Behind the center of the sheet and behind each of the circles, he had mounted different colored Christmas lights in various arrangements. The lights were wired to a keyboard so that each key lit a different color and/or a different part of the board. So . . . there we were, having gotten stoned, sitting on the couch, all leaning back listening to Sgt. Pepper for the first time in the dark watching the light machine that took up much of the opposite wall being played by a professional percussionist who was totally in tune with the music. When the first guitar intro started for the first cut of Sgt. Pepper and the lights came on, in time with the music and changing color and pattern to fit the mood and story of the music, our little minds melted and ran out our little ears. We all knew it was a special day in the history of the species.
One of the Damon stories I used to tell a lot was of Damon's wedding to Connie. It's more a California story than a Damon story. I always felt like such an Eastern stick-in-the-mud, once Damon had moved to the Bay Area. I didn't feel that people's politics were that different from my circle's back East, but they sure looked different. Everything looked Really Radical. And Damon and Connie were just your regular everyday Bay Area types, totally radical to my eyes. By this time his hair was all the way down his back and he walked around with his cowboy hat on. I didn't have hair all the way down my back for another two years. So then here came this radical wedding. It was up in Marin County which is radically beautiful. I tried to dress as absolutely far out as I possibly could. That meant a striped short-sleeved shirt with a knit tie. You can't go to a wedding without a necktie, for God's sake. And then we were all hiking up to Mt. Tam, and mine was the only necktie in the bunch. People had on flowing shirts and long billowy dresses and flowers in their hair and long hair and mustaches and I don't know what all. The only thing I remember about the service was the man who was presiding and his robe. He wore a full-length robe that was made of some kind of shiny stiff material. At one point, toward the end of the service, he lifted up various symbolic objects from the table by him and raised them each to the four compass points. When he raised his arms, in the stiff material, it opened the front of his robe. I hadn't really wondered what he was wearing under it before hand, but when he started flashing everybody, it was interesting to learn that he wasn't wearing anything. And we still had several more objects and many more lifts to go.
Then we all went back to Connie's mother's house and it was more "California" than I could imagine. People drank beer or smoked a joint and played music and sang and danced and had a time that was more relaxed than was possible anywhere east of the Mississippi, and probably not in Kansas either.
I feel like I want to keep going forever. As long as I'm thinking up stories, I am still in the process with you. We are still doing something related to Damon. He is not quite gone. Letting him go feels like letting the best part of myself go. He brought out the absolute best in me, and when I would see him after twenty years, in ten minutes it would all be right back the way it was. He brought out parts of myself, easy ways, friendly understanding nice parts that I don't see enough and that I have never been guaranteed of seeing in anyone else's presence. He called them out of me without trying, all by being who he was, friendly calling friendly, joy calling joy, the best and dearest calling in kind.
Sandy BlountJanuary 15, 2003