Elvis Romero and the Cosmic White Corvette: ‘Flower Power’

- August 27, 2012

A Serialized Novel and Podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato

The following is Chapter Eleven of a serialized novel and podcast. Start at Chapter One.

After my summer visit with my grandparents, I returned to Santa Fe and city life just in time for my twelfth birthday.  I’d been making it clear for some time that there was one present that I coveted above anything else. My dad came through for me and we went over to a local music store and selected a guitar that was amongst several hanging on the display wall. It was a boxy Harmony brand with a plywood back and a thick, black neck. It sold for about $30.00.

It was far from professional but it suited my needs and I fell in love with it. The guitar’s yellow sunburst finish and feminine curves fueled my imagination. For the first few days I didn’t try to do much but pick out a few notes from the TV show “The Munsters” on one of the strings. After my initial infatuation passed, I realized that I was going to need some help if I was ever going to rival George Harrison.

I returned to the music store that was named “Music Villa.” The owner was a short, dark man about thirty-five with a thick, black moustache and wire-rimmed glasses named Roman Martinez.  He had a reputation amongst local musicians for being a slick salesman. I innocently walked into Roman’s store and he approached me enthusiastically:

“Hello young man, you came in last week with your father didn’t you? How do you like your new guitar? Are you playing any rancheras yet?

He laughed and continued, “How can I help you? You know I’ve seen plenty of professional musicians come through this store. Did you know that Johnny Rivers once came in here and strummed on one of my guitars? Maybe someday I’ll be telling people that you bought your first guitar here. So, what do you need?”

 He soon had me loaded down with spare strings, a tuning fork, guitar strap, hard-shell case, humidifier, an assortment of picks, and a Mel Bay book of guitar chords. The accessories ended up costing almost as much as the guitar but my dad swallowed hard and forked out the money after I assured him that I’d pay him back ten times over once my first hit record made the charts.

I sat in my room and studied the chord book intently. The key to playing the guitar was to place my fingers on the strings in certain shapes to play chords. When I fingered a chord correctly and strummed across all the strings, a beautiful harmony of notes rang out that provided the background to a song.

I worked for hours mastering chords and soon I was hammering out basic versions of songs I’d heard on the radio. I was on fire with my new-found passion. I spent almost all of my free time in my room, my mother often pleading with me to stop playing long enough to eat something. The neck of my guitar was an infinite universe.

My spark of creativity burst into flames when I realized that I could invent original songs that lifted their heads into the world like budding seeds. I could bring to life a combination of notes, chords, and lyrics that had never existed before in a unique combination. This feeling of awe and power was overwhelming. It was like tapping into the secret door of my inner being. The energy ran from my fingers straight to my heart.

As I explored the depths of my creativity, I went through some fundamental internal changes. I became more introverted and I preferred spending my time locked in my room, exploring the neck of the guitar rather than hanging out with old friends. Rudy and I began to drift apart as our mutual interests became more dissimilar. The shift happened gradually and our friendship which had made us almost inseparable began to cool to the point that we only saw each other every other day, then only on weekends, and eventually we slipped into separate universes until we barely acknowledged each other’s presence even at school. We never had any sort of argument or confrontation, but we both knew that something had shifted and the special relationship we once had was not the same. It was an inevitable process that could not be controlled, like the changing of the seasons. As we became adolescents, the childhood synchronicity we had once shared began to seep out of our conversations and experiences. It wasn’t like there was something wrong, it just wasn’t as right as it used to be.

Then one day a change came into our comfortable world and made us realize that our friendship was something we should not take for granted. I knew something was up when my mom told me that Rudy had been calling all day after I got home from school. We had not talked in a couple weeks and I was curious so I called him right away.

Vamano’s Rudy, What’s up? Long time no hear.”

“Hey, Elvis, what you been up to man?”

“Nothing vato, my mom told me you called.”

There was an awkward silence and Rudy continued, “Something really weird happened, Elvis.”

I waited until Rudy was ready to go on. “Victor got called up man.”

It toke me a minute to understand what he was saying and I shot back, “You’re kidding man. Victor’s been drafted? You got to be joking.”

“I wish I was Elvis. We’re all pretty freaked out.”

Now it was my turn to fall silent. I finally managed to spit out, “I’ll drop by tomorrow after school if you’re gonna be around.”

“Yeah, cool man, catch you later.”

I felt an unpleasant tightening in my gut. I remembered all the times that I’d been with Victor when I hung out at Rudy’s house. He was such a gentle, quiet guy that I hardly noticed that he was around. Even so, he always had a smile on his face and made me feel welcome. He was the kind of guy that I could never imagine in Vietnam. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He worked at an auto shop and his main passion in life was running marathon races. His tall, lean frame was perfectly suited for this pastime.

The next day I went over to see Rudy and I realized how much I missed his family. Everyone was so glad to see me and they took me right in again as if not a day had passed. Although Rudy’s family was trying to be upbeat, I could sense the tension that hovered in the air. When Victor came home from work, he came over to me and messed up my hair and asked,

Hombre, Where you been?”

“Hey, Victor, how’s it going?” I nonchalantly replied.

“I guess Rudy must have told you by now Elvis, Uncle Sam picked my number. I’m gonna be a GI Joe.”

Mis Dios,” Rudy’s mother sighed.

“Oh mom,” Victor laughed, “You’re such a worry wart. Lots of guys are getting called up. I’ll put in my time and be back before you know it. I’ll have lots of great benefits too. I might even try college or apply for a home loan.”

This didn’t seem to appease Mrs. Gonzales and she shook her head as she walked into the kitchen.

“Hey, Victor when are you heading out?” I tentatively asked.

“I’m due to ship out in a couple of weeks for basic training and after that, I’ll be in Nam.”

I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Victor are you scared?”

Victor leaned over and got me in a headlock and began rubbing my scalp with his knuckles until I howled for him to stop.

“”Why should I be scared you little peep-squeak? You’re not getting soft on me are you?”

Rudy and I went outside and sat in the front yard.

“Your brother sure is brave,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess so” Rudy replied and he lay on his back and stared up at a big white cloud that was passing by.

“You know Elvis, I’ve been thinking, if I ever get drafted I’m not gonna go. I don’t care if they call me a draft dodger, I’m heading to Canada.”

“I’m glad you told me Rudy. I’m with you all the way, man. If this stupid war is still going on in five years, we’ll pack our bags and head north.”

Rudy and I shook hands on our pact and the act repaired our waning friendship. It felt good to have my old pal in my life again.

In 1967, the summer of love expanded from its epicenter in San Francisco and washed across America. The counterculture gained momentum fueled by protests against the War. Young people in Santa Fe had their hyper-sensitive antennas out and took in the message that emanated from the media and rock albums that a new era had begun and profound changes were happening everywhere.

The Albuquerque television stations and local newspapers inundated us with stories about demonstrations on college campuses and unrest in communities in far away places like Chicago and Los Angeles. All of this seemed distant from northern New Mexico but eventually the outside world began to creep in through the gaps in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The issue that was on many young people’s minds was the draft. It seemed inconceivable that the government could force young men in Santa Fe and the rest of America to leave their hometowns and travel to a jungle in a far-away land to a war that seemed to make no sense. I agreed with my childhood hero Cassius Clay who had since changed his name to Mohammed Ali when he said, “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietnamese” and refused to be drafted even though it meant that he would be stripped of his heavyweight crown.

I couldn’t understand why we had to sacrifice our lives because of these old men’s fears. What did President Johnson know about the Age of Aquarius? All he seemed to care about was keeping a country full of poor rice farmers on the other side of the world from calling themselves Communists. What business was it of ours what they called themselves?

Another aspect of the draft that seemed totally unfair was who was actually getting drafted. If you were privileged enough to get some kind of deferment or go to college, you were one of the lucky ones. However, most of the young men in Santa Fe like Victor didn’t fall into this category. All across the country it was the poor Blacks and Hispanics who were carrying the heaviest load and providing the bodies to feed the war machine. Any way you looked at it, something smelled rotten as far as I was concerned.

Several months passed by after Victor went to Vietnam and everything seemed to be going as well as could be expected. He wrote letters home saying that even though things sometimes were pretty tough , he was doing alright. He said he couldn’t wait to get home when his tour of duty was over and breathe some clean Santa Fe air and have a big green chili enchilada.

Victor eventually returned home unscathed and picked up where he’d left off. He never did go to school as he imagined, instead he went back to work at the auto body shop and started running again. However, Victor’s smile somehow didn’t seem as bright and carefree as before. He seemed more sullen and he talked less. Everyone figured that it would take him a little while to readjust and with all the love and support he had, he would come back around and be the same old Victor again.

However, as the months went by Victor’s behavior became more worrisome to the Gonzales family. He quit his job and stopped running. He would stay up half the night and when he did drift off to sleep he often woke up screaming crazy things. Then he would throw on his clothes and go walking into the hills in back of the Gonzales’ house. He would wander back down to the house later the next day looking disheveled and exhausted and sleep most of the morning and afternoon. As time went on, Victor spent less and less time at the house and more time in the surrounding arroyos and hills. He would only occasionally come back for some food or a few clothes and he hardly acknowledged anyone. His mother begged him to stay and get some help but he just looked at her with a blank expression and took off again to join his homeless friends.

Eventually, Victor did get some counseling through a church and he seemed to be more at peace with the world. But the old Victor we knew and loved seemed to be gone forever and this was a source of unending sadness for his entire family.

I noticed a new breed of visitors that were beginning to frequent the Santa Fe Plaza. In addition to the tourists with cameras around their necks wearing Bermuda shorts and tee-shirts that read “I Love Santa Fe,” appeared a roving army of young people carrying sleeping bags and backpacks. The men’s hair flowed down past their shoulders and many had full beards. The women wore colorful blouses and beads and made it a point to avoid shaving their armpits.  Many wore the standard hippie outfit of blue jeans, sandals and army surplus shirts and jackets. They traveled to Santa Fe in brightly colored Volkswagen vans painted with peace signs and flowers on the sides. Some just stuck out their thumb and hitch-hiked their way in from towns across the country.

They were for the most part a friendly and peaceful lot that desired only to be directed to a good place to buy a hot meal and the nearest campground.  They hung out around the Plaza or sat on the grass near the Santa Fe River playing guitars, reading poetry aloud, and having heated conversations about the evils of the war machine, the establishment, and selfish materialism which would be the downfall of western civilization.

Everywhere there was the sweet smell of marijuana. It hung in the Santa Fe air like perfume during the summer of 1967. My eyes and ears were filled with the color and excitement of flower power. My beloved Beatles were now transformed into St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and were singing about “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and John Lennon was beckoning that “I’d Love to Turn You On.”

The swirl happening around me was intoxicating and I was soon a full-fledged hippie imitation with long, black hair, patches on both knees of my jeans, and an old army jacket with peace signs drawn up and down the sleeves.

My musical and philosophical attitudes were strongly influenced by musicians like Simon and Garfunkel, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead. In particular I was drawn to the lyrical mastery of Bob Dylan. I was amazed by the intensity of “Like a Rolling Stone” which seemed like the most amazing song that I had ever heard.

My parents were amused and partly dismayed at the sudden transformation that had overtaken me. My dad believed that it was just a fad that I’d get over once something new came along.

He kept asking me, “Elvis, you’re getting a little shaggy around the ears. Don’t you think it’s time for a haircut?”

However, my mother instinctively knew that whatever was happening to me ran deeper and the bright-eyed, innocent boy she had known was beginning a journey of self-discovery and things would never be quite the same again.

It was as if I was being torn between two worlds as I entered adolescence. One of the identities I embraced was that of the all-American kid with a television and a radio that kept me fed with information about what was important to know and care about. I passionately followed all of the news and world events that were going on outside of Santa Fe. I closely monitored the major league pennant races and lived and died with my beloved Dodgers every year. I could recite a dizzying array of batting averages and pitcher ERAs from memory. I was on top of all of the new record albums that appeared on the Billboard charts and I religiously watched the same television shows my peers were tuning into across the country. Some of my favorites included, “The Man from Uncle,” “Lost in Space,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Get Smart,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I desperately wanted to look, act and think like the average American 12-year-old growing up in the 1960’s.

However, there was also another cultural river running through my veins. It was more ancient and ran deeper than pop culture.

My grandparents on my mother’s side were very traditional. Roberto and Maria Lopez were old-time Hispanos in many ways. Neither was able to converse confidently outside of their native tongue and they depended on their children to help them navigate the increasingly English-speaking Santa Fe environment. They were both deeply devout Catholics and attended mass daily at St. Francis Cathedral. Entering their small adobe house on Agua Fria Street was like stepping into a shrine. The walls were covered with portraits of Jesus, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a long succession of Popes. Although I found the atmosphere a little overwhelming at times, I loved the relaxed, homey feeling I experienced when I visited. Grandpa Roberto had a large coffee can that he brought out just before we were ready to leave and he’d announce grandly,

“Muchachos, it is time for you to reach your hand in to the Folger’s can and see if this is your lucky day.”

 The red, tin can was filled with old silver dollars and he let Angelo and me pull one out whenever we visited. We marveled at the huge silver coins that didn’t seem to exist anywhere else other than in our Grandpa’s Folger’s can. I never dreamed of spending any of them and I kept my collection in a drawer in my bedroom. Grandma Maria always sent us home with a bag full of something delicious like apricots, green apples or cherries.

As I was captured in the grips of adolescence, I became more dissatisfied with everything around me and I found myself judging my world more critically. My family appeared backward and unsophisticated. The adults laughed too loud and their Spanish accents were too pronounced. The world I lived in wasn’t like the one I saw on TV. Our skin was too brown and no one else in America seemed to eat beans and tortillas all the time. I wished that I had blond hair and blue eyes so that I could look like the all-American kids on the beaches of California. I realized that almost all of the movie stars, politicians, and celebrities had whiter skin and spoke a different kind of English than everyone around me. All of the NASA astronauts I looked up to seemed to fit into the Anglo Saxon mold like John Glenn. None of them had names like Romero, Martinez or Gonzales.