California Hippie Capers: 1968

Midpeninsula Free University catalog: 1968

Midpeninsula Free University catalog 1968

Vic and I were in Palo Alto at the Free University Psychodrama Commune where residents were free to express every feeling and do what they wanted as long as they told the truth about it. Robb Crist swept into the living room while Vic and I shared a welcome-to-California smoke. Robb was surprisingly pleased to see us and asked if we could spare an hour to help him out. Vic and I were in California for adventure, so why not?

Robb was a wild man, but you’d never know at first glance. He looked as straight and sober as a banker, although he was willing to join any revolution, ingest any pill, or try any experiment. He was also the disciplined driving force behind the 1000+ member Midpeninsula Free University.

We drove into the foothills to a small cottage at the end of a verdant driveway. The cottage yard was a jungle of overgrown vegetation hanging with jingling wind chimes and floating prayer flags. Without knocking, Robb opened the door on a single large room with shabby furniture pressed against one wall and a white sheet hanging on another. A cloud of floral incense overpowered the pungent smell of eucalyptus trees. A photographer stood in front of the white sheet, messing with a professional camera and two floodlights. I followed Robb inside, clinging to Vic’s hand.

Elaine and Vic 1968

Elaine and Vic (post beard) 1969

“Poke around and find something that fits,” Robb directed, pointing to a cardboard box of black graduation caps and gowns. Vic and I put the gowns on over our clothes, giggling over the combination of his bushy beard and graduation cap. “Perfect. You are the Berkeley couple,” Robb said.

“Find one that fits you,” Robb told his woman friend. He rummaged around in the box, put on a black gown, and looked in a mirror. “Great!” he said, “We are the Stanford couple.”

“Hey, Heather! Michael! Are you ready?” Robb shouted up the ladder to the loft.

“Yeah, we’re coming,” a man’s voice called down.

A young guy descended the ladder, grinning and slightly bashful. His girlfriend came after him. They wore only beads, flowers, and wide grins. “This,” Robb said with a flourish of his hand, “is the Free University couple.” No matter how this turned out, it was already worth the cost of our plane tickets.

When the photographer was satisfied with the geometry, he coached, “You from Berkeley and Stanford, look unhappy and gaze away from the camera. You are bummed out and bored.” He handed Robb, the “Stanford” guy, an umbrella and me, the “Berkeley” chick, a rolled up sheet of paper—my diploma. I struggled to keep a straight face. “You Free University folks, look directly at the camera and groove. Be cool. You are having a fantastic time breaking the rules.” Yes, they were. We all were. He took a series of photographs and sent us on our way.

A few weeks later, the Midpeninsula Free University catalog arrived offering exciting courses on yoga, auto mechanics, sexual healing, weaving, women’s liberation, meditation, and the Tarot. The photo taken the day we arrived was on the inside of the front cover (censored here to protect the naked).

I was sorry that Robb didn’t choose Vic and me to be the Free University couple, but Robb knew better. We were sightseers, window-shopping in this world. We were not gypsy-wild, stoned-out hippies crashing in the Haight. Underneath the beard and bells, we knew where we would sleep that night and that we would sleep only with each other. We had money to buy groceries at the food co-op, had been to the nude beach just once, and had plane tickets back home to Ithaca. Besides, Vic refused to wear flowers in his hair.

***

I’d love to hear about your early adventures. For more stories about my early relationship, see My Hippie Wedding or The Art of Argument: Essential Marriage Skills 101.

26 Comments
  1. The last sentence made me burst out in snorting chuckles! Love you and your stories!

    • I loved that line, too, and it was so true. I bought Vic a little bell to wear once before we were married. He put it on for about ten minutes and said it made him feel like a cat. No going there–and not a chance of wearing flowers in his hair. Thanks for reading and sending love and encouragement, Liz.

  2. Thanks for the memories! I was in Florence in ’68-’69. Just missed you guys. Moved to Palo Alto in Jan. ’70, and stayed (increasingly begrudgingly!) for 32 years before moving to Eugene–the Berkeley of Oregon!….

    I certainly remember the Mid Peninsula Free University. I bet we have friends in common. How long we’re you in Palo Alto? Subsequent visits?

    Right On!
    Ava

    • Hey, Ava. We were destined to connect, even though it took a long time. We stayed in Palo Alto one month in 1968 and moved there from September 1969 to August 1970. After a year, it felt right to return to Cornell so Vic could finish his Ph.D and we could return to our meditation teacher in Ithaca and change our lifestyle. We also wanted to own our own land and realized we would never be able to afford to live above the smog line in CA. It was a magical year. If that culture didn’t break you, it opened many positive changes.
      Yup. Right on! Sending you love, Elaine

  3. What a handsome “Berkeley couple” – moreso in the post-beard, happy photo!

    I always enjoy reading your posts . . . ~

    • Hi Lisa. Thanks for admiring the Berkeley couple. Vic had quite some beard–deep red against his black hair. We both looked Berkeley and I almost went to graduate school there, but a year before this photo was taken, I returned to Ithaca to be with Vic. He felt more important that graduate school. Thanks for enjoying and letting me know you do. Warmly, Elaine

  4. Love this soul FULL truth!

    • Thank you, Kay Marie. Life was so much fun and full of possibility in those years. A magical dream that only lasted a short time, but I’m grateful to remember and laugh.

  5. Too funny! You both look good in black, though.

  6. Oh, Elaine! How I love these stories and the masterful way you tell them! I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating… what an interesting life you’ve lived! Thanks so much for sharing bits of it with us.
    ~Ann

    • The sixties were interesting times, and I had a mate who loved an adventure, but wasn’t completely foolhardy. So these were fun years. I thought life would alway be like that. So that’s youth for you. Thanks for your encouragement and I equally encourage your important work and writing.

  7. Ohmygosh. I forgot about those days. Those pics are priceless. You two were beautiful.

    • How could you forget, Robin? Or maybe those days weren’t always so much fun. But some of our stories were wild and wonderful and I’m grateful for every lousy point-and-shoot blurred photograph from that time.

  8. Enjoyed your youthful adventure with Vic, Elaine. California always seemed to beckon to me as well, but like you, I ended up back on the East Coast.

    • When we realized the cost of land and living out of the polluted areas of the San Francisco area, we came back home to Ithaca. I’m glad you’re here, too.

  9. What a hoot !! And what a delight to finally meet you and integrate our families. We’ve known much love, and had much happiness, but I’m feeling that we’ve been much too buttoned-down much too long. See you later today !!

    • Yes, David, and Ann, I look forward to meeting you later today. You have no idea how much Vic and I went on the straight and narrow after becoming serious about mediation, spiritual study, and raising kids. But those ’60s with the strong community of war protesters and macrobiotic experimenters at Cornell and all the wild ideas and experiments in California were exciting and illuminating. But after just a year in CA, we scurried home to Ithaca to buy land, finish Vic’s Ph.D., get a serious job, buy a home that needed hard work for many years, and develop a serious life-long spiritual practice. I look back to those early carefree times with great fondness and laughter.

  10. Elaine, you might enjoy a little context for the photograph Robb had you pose for. During the 50s Stanford had, and still has I think, a humor magazine called the Chaparral. It published a recurring cartoon, each time with a different caption. The cartoon had 4 rather dour, squat professors (in gowns I think) huddled under an umbrella. The caption would have them making some inane academic comment about their students, the world or whatever. Robb, a perpetual grad student was around then and would have been familiar with it. I tried to dig up an example for you, but the old Chappies aren’t on line.

    • Thanks, Jim. I was sorry to hear quite a few years back that Robb had died in a bizarre way. Not surprising considering his willingness to experiment. My brother Jim Ware knew him better than I did. After returning to CA and living there for a year with more adventures in psychodrama, the Human Institute, and the Free U, Vic and I returned to Ithaca to buy land while Vic finished his Ph.D. For a few years, we lived on his graduate student stipend and money from running psychodrama groups. Now I live on the 71 acres we bought in 1972. Vic died in 2008, but I am still nurtured by the land. I didn’t know about the inspiration for the photo, but it was a great adventure among many great CA adventures. Thanks for giving me some background. And if you ever find the images, let me know.

  11. Hi Elaine,

    I’m a member of A3M (a group of older radicals from Stanford/Palo Alto area) and am working documenting the lives of our deceased members. Currently I’m working on a memorial page about Robb, but finding info scarce. Could you put me in touch with your brother, please? Or share what additional info you might have about Robb’s life?

    • Joann, my brother Jim Ware died in 2016. There is an obituary of Jim in the Boston Globe in late April or early May 2016. He became Academic Dean of the School of Public Health at Harvard, but his politics didn’t change. We didn’t speak about Robb in recent years and I knew as much about his Palo Alto life as anyone. I don’t have information about Robb either. I know he spent time in India before the Free University days and loved to live on the edge–in his understated persona. Sorry I can’t help.

  12. Would you mind if we repost your article on the A3M site as an anecdote of Robb’s life?

    Thanks,

    Joann

    • Please feel free to repost as long as you attribute the article to me. What’s the link for your site? I wish I had more to offer. I imagine my brother Jim would have had great stories to add. In his last months, we talked about California & the Free U often.

  13. Thanks Elaine. The link is below, and we will certainly credit you for the post. It’s a lovely post, by the way. I’m sorry for the loss of your brother, he sounds like an interesting guys as well.

    • I found the site, Joann. We’ve been doing peace work a whole lifetime. I was in Ithaca most of that time with the East Coast demonstrations and anti-draft actions. I wish we weren’t suffering through an ugly time, but I won’t stop trying.

Leave a Reply