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1968

1969


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 up pleasantly.

‘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 first awareness.

‘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 there’.

‘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 eh?’

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 to!’

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 terrific’.

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 of the...’

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.


 

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