JOHN EHRLICHMAN: How do you know that, Mr. Chairman?
SENATOR SAM ERVIN: Because I can understand the English language. It’s my mother’s tongue.
I watched the 1973 Watergate hearings from a motel room. No, scratch that: many motel rooms. I had dropped out of college and was working as a maid at the Vagabond Motor Inn in Santa Barbara. We had 30 minutes to clean each room. Strip beds, remake with fresh sheets, vacuum, clean bathroom, put ribbon of paper over toilet seat to prove it’s been sanitized. (Really? You fall for that?) Then lock up, move to next room.
I figured out pretty quickly that I could do the job in about half of the allotted time. And even better, I could do it while watching TV. Lucky for me, there was actually something worth watching.
JOHN DEAN: The plans called for mugging squads, kidnapping teams, prostitutes to compromise the opposition, and electronic surveillance.
Upon entering the room, I’d close the curtains, turn on the tube, get to work. After completing my cleaning tasks, I’d sit on the newly made bed and watch Senator Ervin duke it out with Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Mitchell.
ERVIN: You said the burglarizing of the office of the psychiatrist of Ellsberg was justified by the President’s inherent power under the Constitution, didn’t you?
EHRLICHMAN: Yes, sir.
ERVIN: Well, I have here…
As I watched the hearings, my initial feeling was one of amazement — not that Nixon and his gang would stoop this low, but that their dirty deeds were being exposed on daytime TV, unedited, gavel to gavel, sparing no one.
JOHN DEAN: I told the President that there were money demands being made by the seven convicted defendants… He asked me how much it would cost. I told him it might be as high as a million dollars or more. He told me that was no problem.
And the hits just kept on coming. I caught pieces of John Dean’s seven-hour whistle-blowing testimony while wiping down toothpaste-smeared sinks and picking up wet towels. I grinned as Senator Ervin — eyebrows arching, jowls flapping, moral indignation mixing with country-bumpkin humor — took down one arrogant Nixon henchman after another. After the hearings ended, Ervin had this to say about Haldeman and Ehrlichman: “I don’t think either one of them would have recognized the Bill of Rights if they met it on the street in broad daylight under a cloudless sky.”
I was living at that time with two roommates in a funky, ramshackle rental house near downtown Santa Barbara. The house sat in permanent shade under a sprawling oak. Another tree out front dropped berries on the sidewalk which stuck to the bottom of our feet. I was 19 and had no car, so I’d pedal my bike to work at the Vagabond on upper State Street each day. I had no idea where I was going with my life, how I fit into the big picture, or even the small one. Nobody else I knew seemed to have much of a clue either.
One of my roommates, Lisa, worked at the county probation department through the VISTA program. Sometimes when the weather got chilly, one or another of her junkie clients would wind up at our house, crashing on the couch. “Hey,” Lisa would shrug if we complained. “It’s either here or jail. It’s cold out there.”
My other roommate, Suzanne, was just killing time until she moved up north for a teaching job in the fall. Suzanne usually stayed in her room, sewing long hippie dresses covered with ancient lace and dried-flower embellishments. We’d hear the sewing machine’s BRRRRRRRRRRRRR behind the cascade of Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, and Moody Blues that we blasted on the stereo.
That rules the night
Removes the colors
From our sight
Red is gray and
But we decide
Which is right
Which is an illusion
Old album, but still a house favorite. Lisa had once dated a Moody Blues roadie, so she considered herself an expert on the band. And that song: So psychedelic! So deep! But was it cool orb or cruel orb? The roadie had told Lisa which word was correct, but she could never remember which it was.
My boyfriend, Johnny — an unapologetic alcoholic and gorgeous Greek god with bronze skin and curly brown hair — came by now and then. I can still picture him, kicked back on our old, saggy couch in his jeans and dark green corduroy jacket with the fleece collar, expounding about something or other. Johnny was a chess fanatic, and the great chess rivalry between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was one of his favorite topics. “Fischer’s a punk, so ya gotta feel for Spassky. But what about Game 3? Allowing Spassky to shatter his king-side pawn structure! Was that brilliant or what?!” Other times Johnny would just sit quietly, throwing back slugs of his beloved Bacardi 151 rum, while Lisa and I sat cross-legged on the floor and chatted.
“Did you hear the judge ordered Nixon to turn over his tapes?” I might have tossed out, fresh from a round of Watergate TV at the Vagabond.
Johnny: “What an asshole.”
Lisa: “The judge or Nixon?”
Johnny: “Very funny. They’re gonna fry that guy who snitched…what’s his name…?
Johnny: “Yeah, Butterfield…like a fresh fish filet.”
Me: “I don’t think Nixon can worm out of this one.”
Johnny: “We’ll see.”
Lisa (lighting up a joint): “Anybody want a hit?”
Johnny and I had met the year before, in 1972, at an anti-war demonstration. It was night. We were sitting-in at our tiny Santa Barbara airport, with a pumped-up crowd of several hundred demonstrators. The evening had started as a peaceful protest march against the bombing of Cambodia. Then word got around that some war hawk (Reagan or Agnew, I think), was scheduled to land that night at our local airport. We were determined that he wouldn’t. I was sitting on the tarmac next to Johnny (who until that moment was a total stranger), when the cops brought out the tear gas. Johnny put his corduroy jacket over my eyes to shield me from the burning white vapors. A few moments later, we all took off running — across the tarmac, over the embankment, onto Highway 101, and back into Isla Vista, the student community of cheap stucco apartments and pizza parlors where we lived.
Later that night, I found myself next to Johnny again, standing with a group of people up on the roof of an apartment building near the center of town. Down below, the streets of Isla Vista were blazing. Police cars were zipping around corners, sirens blaring. Protestors were setting fires in trash dumpsters, then pushing the dumpsters into the middle of the street. Cops were shooting canisters of tear gas; protesters were throwing rocks. One trash dumpster was on fire and bashed up against the door of the Bank of America. Bash! Pull it back. Bash! Pull it back. The B of A had been burned down in a protest a few years earlier, then rebuilt as a riot-proof concrete fortress, so the door didn’t give. And this time there was nothing to burn.
Eventually I went home and, lying on the floor mattress that passed as my bed, listened to the sirens and shouts and popping of tear gas canisters until the riot quieted down towards morning. Somewhere in that crazy burning night I had given Johnny my phone number.
On our first date, at a pizza parlor in Isla Vista, Johnny told me that he drank and had no intention of giving it up.
“I’m an alcoholic,” he said. “And I don’t want a girlfriend who tries to make me quit.”
“I understand,” I said, understanding only the electricity between us.
“My last girlfriend was always trying to get me to go to AA, so I had to cut her loose. That’s why I’m telling you right off the bat.”
“That seems fair,” I said, secretly thrilled that Johnny was already thinking of me as girlfriend material.
“For me, booze is a substitute for smack,” he added matter-of-factly. “I got hooked in Vietnam, but I didn’t want to come back a junkie, so I switched.”
I was surprised to hear that a person could simply switch one addiction for another. But not wanting to appear naïve, I left that issue alone.
“You’re a vet?”
He nodded. “Army. But don’t ask me to tell you all about it. Girls always want to know the details, but trust me, you really don’t.”
Johnny went on to explain that he had done things in Vietnam which he didn’t want to think about, and alcohol was the solution to that. He said if I could accept his drinking, we could hang out. No problem, I said. Of course.
Johnny’s main hangout was The Donut Shop right across from the pizza parlor where we had our first date. He’d commandeer one of the two booths by the window and stay there for hours. Both booths at The Donut Shop were upholstered in grey vinyl that had seen better days. The linoleum floor was pitted and cracked. The display case was shabby, but always full of freshly baked apple fritters and glazed jelly donuts which pulled in a stream of sugar-starved students. The air inside The Donut Shop was so thick with sugar and grease that it practically stuck to your skin. The guy who owned the joint was a fellow alcoholic, so having Johnny around suited him just fine. After closing up for the night, the two of them would head out for some serious drinking.
Besides alcohol, Johnny’s great passion was chess. He carried around a small set with cheap plastic pieces and would challenge anybody, anytime, to a game. Buzzed or sober, he would zero in on that chess board like a hawk on a field mouse. And then he’d beat you.
All sorts of characters would drop by The Donut Shop to play chess with Johnny — everyone from nerdy chess club champions with thick glasses, to local psycho derelicts Walnut and Chestnut, twin brothers who were so stinky-dirty that Johnny always made them wash their hands before touching his chess set. The only difference I could discern between Walnut and Chestnut was that Walnut was taller. They were both rail thin and had bushy, tangled sun-bleached hair and scruffy beards. They both wore dirty jeans, identical cast-off sweatshirts (navy blue with UCSB imprinted in gold block letters), and old work boots. I don’t think either one ever changed their clothes, or washed them.
There were rumors that Walnut or Chestnut, or both together, were responsible for the murder of a woman on the Isla Vista beach that winter. She had been beaten to death and then hacked up, the killer never found. To me, the Nut Brothers seemed to lack the necessary energy to do much of anything, much less muster up the considerable physical strength and stamina it would take to beat and hack up a human being. Besides playing a mediocre game of chess, mostly the Nut Brothers just stood around on street corners, looking down at the ground. Eventually, they’d shuffle off in unison to stand somewhere else with a bit more sun. Neither of them would ever look you in the eye, and they rarely talked. When they did, it was more an indecipherable mumble than actual speech. So okay, Walnut and Chestnut were weird, even creepy-weird. But killers?
I never saw anybody ever beat Johnny at chess. Not even the nerdy chess club champions. On the other hand, I didn’t hang out at The Donut Shop all that much. Sometimes after my classes at UCSB finished for the day I’d pass by The Donut Shop, and if I saw Johnny in his booth by the window, I’d stop in. I’d slide into the booth beside him, the charge between us sparking as always. I liked how Johnny would put his arm around my shoulder, stop whatever conversation he was having, whatever chess move he was contemplating, to concentrate for a few moments on “us.”
Then I might hang around for an hour or so, taking in the scene. In small doses The Donut Shop, or Johnny for that matter, was interesting and intriguing and kind of fun. Stay too long and the whole scene got depressing.
As alcoholic boyfriends go, though, Johnny wasn’t all that bad. He never got belligerent when he was drunk, not even a little bit. But he did have a lousy habit of peeing on the floor in the middle of the night. I guess he was too out of it to get all the way to the bathroom. I was thankful that my apartment didn’t have carpet.
Also, Johnny disappeared for days at a time — presumably to drink. Where he went for those binges, I never knew, but I wasn’t too bothered about it. I had classes to attend, homework to do, and other friends to hang out with, smoke pot with, and sit on the cliffs of Isla Vista and watch the red sun drop into the sea.
Over time, I got to know Johnny, at least somewhat, and learned about his life. He had grown up in New York, working class Greek family, a couple of years at City College, then grunt work at a New York radio station until getting drafted and shipped off to Vietnam. He had a scar going up the back of his leg which he got during an ambush near An Khe. His convoy had been returning to their base after delivering supplies to another regiment when they were attacked by Viet Cong guerrillas. The battle lasted only minutes. The guerillas blew up a couple of American army jeeps, killing a few dozen soldiers, then disappeared back into the jungle.
“Good for them,” was Johnny’s take on the incident when he told me about it. “Why the fuck were we over there in the first place? It’s their country.”
The part of Johnny’s military service that he didn’t want to talk about had something to do with hand-to-hand combat. But that’s all he’d say on the matter.
By the summer of Watergate, when Johnny was dropping by our oak-shaded house in Santa Barbara, he wasn’t actually my boyfriend anymore. In my mind at least, we had broken up. I had tired of our relationship (such as it was), but somehow had never mentioned this to Johnny. Which sounds weird now, but at the time the omission didn’t seem all that significant. After I dropped out of college and moved from Isla Vista to Santa Barbara, we just stopped seeing each other very often. Johnny seemed to accept that we had drifted apart, or at least that I had drifted, no explanation necessary. Maybe he figured it inevitable that his college girlfriend would eventually move on. Maybe an alcohol haze prevented him from caring about much one way or another. Maybe he was as done with our relationship as I was. Or maybe it was the times, when drifting was simply what we did. I’ll never know.
I left Santa Barbara at the end of 1973, moving to Los Angeles just days after Nixon declared, “I am not a crook,” maintaining his innocence in the Watergate case as long as he could.
A few years later, while living in L.A. and working as an assistant film editor, I got a letter from my old roommate Lisa. She was still working at the Santa Barbara probation department, now a full-time, salaried employee. She was putting aside money to buy the ramshackle house with the sprawling oak tree where she was now living with the Moody Blues roadie who had quit the band in exchange for some stability in his life. In the same letter, Lisa told me that Johnny had been found dead in a cheap, pay-by-the-week motel room down on lower State. He had died of liver failure at age 29. The County was still looking for someone to claim the body.
I procrastinated for a while, then phoned the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department. A detective told me that they had been unable to locate any of Johnny’s relatives. They had checked U.S. military records, but couldn’t find anyone listed with Johnny’s name. So at this point, they weren’t even sure who he was. The Sheriff’s Department had found $150 cash on Johnny, which they used to pay for his cremation. They had kept his possessions — a pocket watch, a political button with the words Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and a small chess set — in a paper bag.
A couple of months later, I headed up to Santa Barbara to retrieve Johnny’s stuff. I didn’t know exactly why I was doing it…some vague feeling that Johnny was owed this respect, that it was important for somebody to care enough about this human being to pick up his possessions.
The coroner’s office was located in a new, modern stucco building on the outskirts of town. A white-haired clerk wearing a navy blue dress suit listened patiently while I told her what I wanted. She nodded, told me to wait a moment, then disappeared into a back room. A few minutes later she returned — empty-handed. She told me that the paper bag was gone. Johnny’s pocket watch had been auctioned off, the button and the chess set tossed into the trash.
Driving back home from Santa Barbara on the coast highway that night, traffic was sparse. For one dark, snaking stretch of blacktop near Point Magu, there were no other cars at all. Moonlight glinted off the ocean, refracting on a million tiny surface waves. I opened the window and let the cool sea air flow through the car. I had really wanted to get Johnny’s chess set. I felt a tightness in my chest, then just let the tears run out. I thought about Johnny’s life: what it might have been, what it was, and how it’s impossible to seal ourselves off from the emotions within us or the events around us. Johnny had tried. He had tried and tried and tried. Now I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that he was truly dead. I pictured the last time I had seen Johnny. It was the summer of Watergate. Johnny was sitting on our sagging couch in his green corduroy jacket, a bottle of Bacardi cradled in his lap. We were watching President Nixon on TV explain to the nation why he was claiming executive privilege in not turning over his secret Oval Office tapes to the Senate investigating committee.
“They’re gonna impeach him now for sure,” Johnny had said. “Go get ’em! Go get the sneaky lying asshole!”
When I got home from Santa Barbara that night, I turned on the television. The 1978 Academy Awards ceremony was moving towards the finish line. Richard Dreyfus won Best Actor for his performance in The Goodbye Girl. Paddy Chayefsky chided Vanessa Redgrave for using her acceptance speech to make a political statement. Annie Hall won Best Picture. It had been only five years since I last saw Johnny sitting on the couch, holding forth about Watergate. But those five years seemed to span back to another time and place that was now as completely gone as he was.
I switched off the TV and went outside onto the balcony of my apartment. The full moon was glowing high in the sky. I suddenly smiled, remembering Lisa’s letter. “By the way,” she had written in the brief P.S., “it’s cool orb, not cruel.”
Eve Goldberg works as a writer and filmmaker. She lives in Northern California with her partner and two cats. She can be contacted through her website.
Good catch, Pamela! But are you sure the sound recording by the Moody Blues quotes the written “Late Lament” exactly? Just kidding. I will accept “Cold-hearted orb.” It is almost as good as “Cruel orb.” The idea is that Eve says “Cool orb” is correct because she has been able to attain some objective distance between herself and Johnny, and the time of the Watergate hearings and Vietnam war. I say “Cruel orb” because I have not been able to attain that objective distance. Vietnam is still as much a part of me today as it was in the 1970’s. The year before I joined the army, I was taking part in anti-war protests on the CSU campus. CSU wasn’t Kent State, but a lot of us had stayed up late into the night to watch Old Main burn down as part of the violence that was sweeping the country at the time. By the way, and off-topic, I just read your “Stitching the Womb”, which I thought was very fine. I left a comment.
This is a wonderful, layered piece that packs an unexpected final punch. What does our time on earth mean? How wrecked can we become by age 29? What, from our past, emerges with significance?
I recall the Watergate hearings, but I was adolescent and unaware of the historical magnitude.
I have to correct you both, having loved the song Nights in White Satin, and checking this to be sure … the lyric is this:” Cold hearted orb that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight, red is grey and yellow white but we decide which is right, and which is an illusion.” The poem is called “Late Lament,” and a quick Google search will confirm this.
So evocative of time, place, person. I was there, too–in that era, I mean. I had joined the army only a few days after Nixon’s election for a second term. In advanced training a few months later, I had a buddy who would pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal each day. It wasn’t the Washington Post, but we still followed the news. Then, after I had been at my permanent duty station for a while, Watergate became a tv event and we brought a small black and white into the office where I worked. It was important to us because Nixon’s policy of “peace with honor” was keeping our nation mired in the increasingly ugly war. That war scarred so many of my friends–military and civilian alike–if it didn’t kill them outright. I am still uncertain which was the preferable outcome. After Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford had the courage to begin the pullout, and the Watergate hearing we had watched on tv became replaced by images of helicopters being pushed into the sea from the decks of aircraft carriers. Who can forget the chaotic film vignette of that last evacuation helicopter taking off from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon? Thank you for writing about something that matters! Like it or not, those times helped define the rest of our lives for some of us.