it’s 1969. i’m in a car
with mom and dad. they’ve just picked me up at the san francisco
airport about 5 days prior to the upcoming peter paul and
mary concerts in the area. i am carrying a letter that i
received from some christian group on the berkeley campus
asking me to come sing this date on the steps of sproul hall.
mom and dad live in carmel california a bit south of san
francisco and i send a letter back a couple of weeks prior
to my arrival agreeing to make a brief appearance ‘on the
way to my folks house’.
i’m not looking forward to this ‘engagement’...my
private time as noel stookey has become increasingly
important and i get the sense that the ‘paul’ of peter
paul and mary has been asked to come sing here. still,
after reading the letter and praying about the request,
i could come up with nothing but ‘fleshly reasons’ for
not including this request in my pre-concert vacation,
therefore i’ve written the group and told them that i
would be there sometime in the afteroon.
the family car pulls up in front of the
information offices just as a fire and brimstone bible-thumper
is condemning the student community and offering the ‘only
way out of the sinfulness of free love and drugs’. there
are several political folks gathered in this area. one
young woman is handing out pamphlets on disarmnament
while a just plain crazy is dancing in wild gyrations.
it is not a placid walk to the information counter.
‘Hi’, i say through the 4 inch circle cut
into the plexiglass to the lady seated behind.
‘Yes, can I help you?’ she blinks and looks
‘Could you tell me what time Noel Paul
Stookey is booked to sing on the steps of Sproul Hall?’
‘Uh, just a moment please...’. She thumbs
through a well-worn calendar of events. ‘Do you know
who’s sponsoring the appearance?’ she asks.
‘Well, uh...some Christian organization...i
don’t have the name offhand’ i reply wondering if i even
thought to bring the original letter.
‘The only event we have scheduled for today
on the steps of Sproul Hall is a conservation talk sponsored
by the Sierra Club.’ she says a little curiously.
‘Are you sure?’, I ask, a bit jilted at
‘Sorry...that’s all I have", she says.
‘Oh, then...uh, thanks...’. i walk away
from the booth. ‘oh boy’, i’m beginning to think, ‘i
can just bag the whole thing and go play some golf.’
Getting back in the car, mom and dad look
at me inquiringly. ‘Some mistake, I guess. The sierra
club has reserved the space...’. i think about the haphazard
way in which the invitation was extended and how no reply
was received. ‘well, i guess it’s not too surprising’,
i say, ‘i never had received a confirmation of my appearance
there’. dad asks, ‘well then what would you like to do?’.
a grin spreads across my face...’let’s go to carmel’.
the car pulls away from the curb but there
is suddenly this uneasiness. And with each revolution
of the wheel i’m sensing this binding in my heart.
‘what?’, i respond silently.
‘I want you to go back and sing’ comes
this word to me.
‘but they’ve made no reservation for me
‘that’s THEIR mistake’ comes this word
again. and then i get this sense of bringing a little
light and music to that sea of conflicting spirits...and
i understand that if i do nothing more than ease somebody’s
pain today it’ll be enough.
‘I’m sorry dad’, he glances sideways, ‘i’ve
made a mistake, i think i AM supposed to be singing there.’
mom says, ‘you’re sure?’. ‘yeah,’ i confirm, ‘i
don’t know why exactly but i’m pretty sure it’s right
to go back there and sing...’
mind you, this ‘being a christian’ stuff
is new to mom and dad...she being a non-practicising
roman-catholic (probably having received a bunch of static
in 1936 when she marries dad, a divorced salesman for
the Gates Rubber Company), and he being a somewhat reluctant
ex-mormon (his father, my grandfather, having been a
school teacher/preacher in clover, utah in the early
1900’s). though they probe the validity of my ‘experience’,
they are respectful of it’s effect on my life, and as
always, ultimately supportive...
moments later the car pulls back to it’s
original arrival spot (complete with the original welcoming
committee) and, taking the guitar out of the trunk and
assuring mom and dad that i’ll meet them back here at
the curb in about an hour, i make my way through scattered
groups to the lower steps of what has been pointed out
to me as Sproul Hall.
there is someone studying a few feet away
from where i eventually set my guitar case down. he looks
up. ‘uh...i was thinking of doing a little singing here...’ gads...i
certainly hope he doesn’t ask me what for...’would that
bother you?’ he shrugs his shoulders, closes his book,
and regards me with a certain resigned patience...evidently
things like this have happened before...
i take out the guitar and tune up briefly.
some other people see the guitar and stop by. ‘what’s
happening?’ they ask. ‘Uh, gonna play and sing a little...’ i
answer. hopeful that my original audience is not rolling
his eyes behind my back.
I start off with john henry bosworth...it’s
a loping kind of country feel with a singable chorus...a
song about a man’s move to the country with his family
and how the trials of the city multiply...leading to
a knock on the door of his peaceful rural retreat, where
having undergone a lifechanging experience he’s encouraged
by his faith to invite them in...and by the time i’ve
finished, ten or twenty more people have joined my ‘crowd’.
we strike up a bit of a conversation (i
don’t think anybody has really connected me with the
group Peter, Paul & Mary yet...ever since my conversion,
i’ve been fully bearded; the gotee a design of the past.
after a couple more tunes, i invite the
audience to participate in an extended version of Puff
the Magic Dragon. by the time the last Honoahlee has
faded away, there must be 200 people on the steps and
i notice that a television camera has joined us.
i think to myself ‘aha...a bit of an opportunity
for the campus t.v. folks to get some live coverage experience
i talk a little about my becoming a Christian...about
looking in all the strange places that one looks for
a realtime relationship with God...and about backstage
in texas and answers to prayer. and there are some songs
mixed in and i do the Talking Candy Bar Blues; commenting
about mistrust in our society and then i’m singing something
else and while i’m introducing the next song i hear what
sounds like chanting off to our right about two or three
hundred feet away...well there must be 300-400 people
in our group now and i can’t see a thing except those
folks immediately around me. ‘What’s going on?’ i shout
up to the people higher on the steps. ‘What’re they doing?’
‘They’re fufilling prophesy!’ someone shouts
back. and most of the audience laughs.
it’s a sunny afternoon now, a little breeze
now and then and a wisp or two of a cloud floats by and
we’re singing ‘get together’, the youngblood’s hit tune
and then a couple of more tunes and it’s over and i’m
walking away with my guitar case in my hand and there’s
about 400 of us spreading down the steps of Sproul Hall
and i’m answering a few pp&m ‘fanclub’ questions
when someone introduces themselves as a member of the
christian group that had written me and explains that
since they had never heard back from me (...never heard
back from me?) they had let the reserved time go but
wasn’t it just God’s way to give us a beautiful day and
nobody showing up for the Sierra club? i have to agree,
and by this time we’re at the curb and he thanks me very
much and i have this real ‘completed’ buzz inside as
i’m putting the guitar in the trunk of the car and dad
says ‘how did it go?’ and i say a little amazedly, ‘well
it was okay...i’m glad i did it...i’m sure i was suppose
little did i know.
so. we’re off to carmel and there’s golf
with dad and my uncle dale and another day and another
18 holes worth of a humbling experience at pebble beach
and then comes the day of the first concert of the pp&m
weekend (we usually work thursdays through sundays and
then have three days off) which is in Berkeley - though
at a municipal auditorium - not on campus.
it’s about 4pm in the afternoon when i
walk into the cool shade of the backstage area and set
my suitcase and guitar on the concrete floor. peter is
1-2-3’ing into the microphones and ed sarkesian (our
production manager) and charlie rothschild (our road
manager) walk toward me.
‘hey, congratulations, stook’, says Ed.
‘yeah,’ concurs Charlie, ‘that was really
my mind is racing. during my absence PP&M
must have won some recording award or something...
‘KQED had shots of them marching on the
administration building and they were talking about the
confrontation that would’ve happened, ‘ charlie continued. ‘and
there you were...’ed said shaking his head admiringly.
‘KQED?!’ i asked.
‘yeah, ‘ said charlie, ‘lots of coverage
and as charlie went on to describe the
event that they saw on television, i slowly pieced together
the facts that had remained unassembled from that day.
some student organization obviously had planned a march
on the administration building and were counting on support
from the students in the common area to which the steps
of sproul hall abutted.
apparently, and obviously unknowingly,
i had begun a spontaneous concert ten or 15 minutes before
the march began had stolen the interest of enough potential
participants to be interpreted by the Bay area public
television station (and i thought it was the school tv
staff) as ‘stopping the riot’!
‘i had no idea.’ i said.
‘huh?’ said charlie.
‘i just went there to sing on the steps
of Sproul Hall, i wasn’t trying to stop anything from
going on...i didn’t even know there was a march planned!’
‘is that right, stook?’ said ed. and then
as my disclaimer settled in on the both of them he grinned
and scratched the back of his head. ‘well, i’ll be damned...’
‘no’, i thought, ‘blessed...i’ve been blessed.’
so what’s the miracle here? i’ll probably
never know. sufficient was the fact that i obeyed a higher
calling and discovered that it had consequences beyond
what i could imagine. i don’t know if there would have
been physical harm that day as a result of the student
unrest...i’m not sure that physical harm would have been
the worst result of a violent assault on either students
or administration...and somehow that’s just the point.
we CAN’T know the manifold permutations of our actions
- at best we guess at the immediate consequences but
as the ripples play out from the center all things are
affected; some more subtly than others.
regardless of what the effect on others
might have been, the major lesson for me was the realization
that at all times is the opportunity to listen to the ‘higher
calling’ and that my choice to follow would always have
some consequence of which i might not be aware...there
may seldom be a television camera there to record or
broadcast the deed, but there is always a more important
Audience...and ultimately a more eternal ratings system.