Photo by Scott Anderson
Joe Gallagher, a local carpenter, drove slowly down the main street of town in his old Chevy pickup truck. He passed the County Sheriff’s office and glanced over. Sheriff Hardel’s patrol car wasn’t there. Probably out harassing another kid with long hair Joe thought. Joe hated the sheriff and the feeling was mutual.
The small town in the fall of 1969 looked very much like it did in 1945. It was 15 miles from the nearest city and the new major highway had bypassed it. Not many travelers went out of their way to visit. The town center had a small monument with a plaque in memory of soldiers who died in past wars and next to it a new addition for those that had been killed in Vietnam. There were only a couple names but the plaque left room for more. A wreath from Memorial Day was still there.
It was a quiet town and this past summer young men and women arrived seeking a sense of peace and tranquility they could not find in the nearby city. The townspeople showed little hospitality to the newcomers with their long hair, hippie clothes, and radical politics. They had seen the news on TV of the concert at Woodstock. They wanted no part of a hippie invasion in their town. Restaurants had signs that said, “No Hippies Allowed”. Meanwhile, County Sherriff Hardel stepped up the patrols and encouraged his deputies to make them feel unwelcome. He hated “long hairs” and a peace sign on a multi-colored VW microbus guaranteed you would be pulled over and checked out.
A few that had arrived earlier in the year had rented the abandoned Prescott farmhouse outside of town with its big barn and field. They named it the New Beginning Commune. Money for rent was pooled together from those that worked in the city or from the produce that they cultivated on the farm and sold. Some just donated their labor to fix up the place. No one had much but they were happy and free. The big barn was their community center and a haven from the oppressive scene in the city. Young people would come from miles around to hang out or play whatever instruments they had brought. The only drugs allowed were marijuana and hash. Hard drugs like heroin and speed were prohibited. In fact, some of the people that stayed for a while came to the commune to clean up from being hooked. Star, real name Gail, who had been at the commune for several months, was a nurse. She brought a few hard cases back from the brink. She didn’t do any drugs but liked the back to nature living of the commune.
They called themselves a tribe and thought it would go on forever.
It was early afternoon when Joe drove up the dusty road to the commune. He was 20 years old and had dropped out of community college. He and his parents had a falling out over his lifestyle, long hair and anti-war politics. Joe’s work as a handyman was welcomed at the commune and before long he was living there.
Joe pulled his rattling pickup truck up next to the barn. A big homemade wooden table under an ancient oak tree was being prepared for lunch. Of the small group of people living at the commune, some gathered the food while others wrapped up chores. Anthony, who went by the nickname Leaf, shirt off and his long brown hair falling to his shoulders, had just finished patching up the roof on the old ramshackle farmhouse. Sheila set the table with food served in her homemade pottery. Jeffrey, who worked at the head shop in the city, filled up pitchers with spring water from the old but still working pump and put them around the table. Carol, or Moon as she preferred to be called now, was sitting on the ground strumming her guitar while Ray, a Vietnam vet, walked out of the farmhouse carrying a basket of acorn squash that had been cooking in the old stove. He was a recent arrival. Star had met him at the hospital where he had come in after an overdose. His time in ‘Nam had damaged his soul and his short time back in the states had damaged his health. Star brought him to the commune to heal.
Star walked over to Joe and wrapped her arms around him. Since Joe started living there they had become a couple.
“How was your shift at City Hospital?” Joe asked.
“The usual knife wounds and OD’s. Just another night. By the way, we have a new refugee. Skeeter is here.”
“Is he ok?”
Skeeter was another local and a longtime friend of Joe’s and he wasn’t ok. Two days before he had suffered the brutality of the sheriff and his deputies. Arrested on a trumped-up marijuana charge they threw him in a cell and then paid him a visit. They screamed at him, grabbed him by his long hair and asked if he was a boy or a girl. They taunted him then beat him up. The worst of the deputies was Charlie Stone. He was known for his violence. It was rumored he broke the wrist of a hippie he pulled over and told him not to come back. He took special delight in beating Skeeter. Skeeter’s friends bailed him out and took him to the commune to recuperate.
Joe went to the farmhouse to see him. He was half awake on one of the mattresses thrown on the floor in one of the sparse bedrooms. The curtains were drawn but there was enough light to see Skeeter’s face. It was swollen and bruised.
“Hey brother, how are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m just fucking groovy.” Skeeter tried to laugh but it just brought a moan. “I will never let them grab me again, ever,” he said as he drifted back off to a restless sleep.
The next day Joe and Leaf drove into town to get more supplies for the commune. As they parked near the hardware store Sheriff Hardel pulled up and rolled down the window of his patrol car.
“Hey Gallagher, you gone native?” he said with a smirk on his face.
Joe and Leaf turned around. Leaf could tell Joe was itching to say something.
“Don’t,” Leaf warned.
“You and your girlfriend have a good day now,” he chuckled as he pulled away.
“Damn that motherfucker! He just pushes,” said Joe.
“Shit, now look whose coming. When it rains it pours,” said Leaf.
Coming down the sidewalk was Worm. A greasy looking guy. Everyone knew Worm was tight with the Sheriff and not one to be trusted. He tried to look like a hippie but looked more like a scarecrow.
“Hey, Leaf, I got some good weed for sale. Want to score?”
“Get the fuck away from us, Worm,” said Leaf.
“That damn sheriff probably sent you over to us didn’t he,” said Joe, barely hiding his contempt. “You’re probably the one who set up Skeeter.” He pushed Worm away.
“OK guys. No need to get hostile, no need to get hostile.” Worm repeated himself when he was nervous.
Joe and Leaf went into the hardware store and picked up what they needed. The owner didn’t care for hippies either but he knew Joe and he liked their money.
Worm scuttled over to the Sheriff’s office.
“Well, Worm what do you have for me,” said Hardel. He detested Worm but he served a purpose.
“They didn’t want the weed but they offered to sell me speed. They said they had a lab at that commune. That Gallagher guy said don’t get any ideas ‘cause they had guns.” Lying came easy to Worm.
A malicious smile on the Sheriffs face told Worm he struck a nerve.
“That should be worth something right, Sherriff Hardel?”
“Come back in a few days, Worm. I will see what I can do.”
That night the commune held their weekend gathering. Musicians from the city came with acoustic guitars, fiddles, and washboards and created impromptu jug bands. Even a poet or two made an appearance, showcasing their latest work. The barn had bales of hay for people to sit on and the wood floor was swept clean so people could dance. Wine, homemade cider and joints were plentiful but if you wanted to smoke you had to do it outside, hay was flammable. A bonfire in the field took the night chill off with buckets of water nearby just in case. Other than that you were free to do what you wanted.
Joe and Star sat on one of the hay bales and watched people arrive.
“This is what makes this place so special,” Star said as she leaned into Joe. “It’s not just city people coming. Look even some of the local kids are here. See that girl over there with the long blonde hair in braids with the turquoise headband? That’s Judge Cornwall’s daughter. And the guy with the love beads and the hair just past the point where his barber is going to be pissed? That’s the Deacon’s son. I bet hell and brimstone is raining down on that poor lad at home.”
Joe looked at Star and smiled. “Dylan said ‘Times they are a-changin’. He’s right.”
“Not fast enough,” said Star. A look of concern was on her face. “Leaf says you had a run-in with the sheriff.”
“Yea, nothing new. We go way back. His son was a bully in elementary school and always picked on the little guys. Well, one day he was jumping on Skeeter and I thrashed him good. Of course, he went crying to daddy and before long Sheriff Hardel, who was a deputy then, paid my parents a visit. I got grounded for two weeks. Ever since then he has harassed me. The last time was when I was handing out anti-war flyers in town. That seemed to push him over the edge. His son joined the army last year and is in Vietnam.”
“Just be careful, Joe.”
They settled back and listened to the music while people danced and laughed into the night.
The gathering ended after 2 am and those that had to head back to the city or town started getting into their cars. Joe warned them all to go slowly through town and not all at once. Those that wanted to could crash at the farmhouse.
The following week was uneventful at the commune but in town, plans were being put in place. The Sheriff, acting on Worms tip, visited some of the county and town leaders. They sent him to Judge Cornwall.
“What can I do for you Sheriff,” said the Judge. The Judge was in his early fifties, paunchy and bald. He still had a Goldwater for President poster in his office.
“I have reliable information that those bunch of hippies at the old Prescott farm are running a drug lab. My source says they are armed. I need a warrant to shut it down and arrest them.”
A deep frown erupted on the Judge’s face. He looked straight at Sheriff Hardel and slammed his fist on his desk.
“This has got to end Sheriff. You see what has been going on with our local boys and girls. That place has become a hang out for them. Damn hippies infesting our county. Bunch of communists if you ask me. You’ll get your warrant.”
With warrant in hand, the sheriff assembled his deputies. They grabbed shotguns and long rifles. They all had holstered pistols. Two cars full of men left the sheriff’s office for the 10-mile journey to the dirt road that led them to the commune.
It was a quiet late afternoon. The fall weather was still warm. At the commune, people gathered at the table for an early supper. Skeeter, well enough now, joined them. They held hands and thanked Mother Earth for the food.
A worried Leaf turned to Joe.
“I was in town this morning picking up some more shingles and ran into Bobby D. He said word was that Worm was causing trouble for us and we need to be prepared for a bust.”
“They won’t find anything here except what people are carrying. And that’s why we keep that fire going nearby. Just dump what we have and relax,” said Joe.
The supper finished and a couple joints were shared around the table. People picked up plates and what little leftovers there were and started to head to the farmhouse.
“Hey, it looks like we have company coming,” said Star. A large dust cloud erupted on the dirt road. She put her hand on Joe’s arm. “They’re driving too fast for that road.”
Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked. Joints were thrown towards the fire pit just in case.
Around the bend of the dirt road, half sheltered by trees and bushes, the first of the two police cars snaked its way towards the farmhouse. Only then did they turn on their sirens and red flashing lights.
“Shit, Joe, the grapevine was right,” said Leaf.
‘OK, everyone, just stay calm. Don’t give the cops an excuse to beat us,” said Joe.
Star looked over at Skeeter who looked panic-stricken.
“You OK, Skeeter?”
Skeeter didn’t answer.
The Sheriff and his deputies stopped at the edge of the farm, stepped out of their cars, guns raised and pointed.
The Sheriff called out, “OK you all, just stay right where you are!”
Skeeter saw the Sheriff and the deputies that beat him and ran.
“Go get that son of a bitch,” the sheriff yelled at his deputies.
A deputy took off, pistol in hand and chased Skeeter as he ran through the field towards the tree line near the barn.
Almost in reach of Skeeter the deputy stepped into a gopher hole and fell. His gun went off, the round going harmlessly into the ground. But when the other deputies saw him fall and heard the gunshot they thought he was shot by Skeeter.
Skeeter continued to run, blinded by fear.
Charlie Stone stood still. He wiped the sweat from his eyes, calmly raised his rifle, looked through the crosshairs on the scope and shot Skeeter in the middle of the back.
Skeeter’s body flew forward, twisted and came to rest in the field.
Screams, crying and shouts of anger burst from the tribe.
‘You killed him you bastards,” shouted Joe. Star ran towards Skeeter to see if she could help him. A deputy grabbed her. She struggled to free herself but was no match for the burly cop. Joe lunged for the cop but was quickly subdued with a rifle butt to his stomach.
The other deputies surrounded the rest of the tribe itching to do some damage to a bunch of hippies.
“All right boys, you two go over and guard that kid Charlie shot. Doubt if he will give you any trouble. You others help me search this place for the drug lab,” said Sheriff Hardel.
“What drug lab?” demanded Leaf.
“Our sources say you got a speed lab up here and guns to guard it.”
A chorus of denials and derision greeted the sheriff.
“We’ve been set up,” said Leaf.
Star held Joe in her arms. He was shaking so bad from rage and grief she thought he would break into a million pieces. Sheila, Jeffrey, and Moon sat around the oak tree comforting Ray who had withdrawn into his own world after hearing the shots fired.
Deputies searched the farmhouse and barn. They turned everything upside down destroying much of it in the process. After a thorough search, the deputies reported back to the sheriff that no drug lab or guns were found. No gun near Skeeter either.
The sheriff called the county coroner and within the hour he came to pick up Skeeter’s body.
Sheriff Hardel found the burnt down joints by the fire pit and wanted to charge everyone, but Leaf said they were his.
The rest of the tribe watched in stunned silence as first Skeeter’s body was put in the coroner’s ambulance and then Leaf was put in the back of the sheriff’s car. He turned to them and held up a clenched fist, tears running down his face.
Skeeter’s funeral was held at Dobson’s Funeral home. His parents and his younger sister stood off to the side of the coffin. Joe and Star told the family what happened at the commune, disputing the sheriff’s public announcement of a suspected drug lab and an armed Skeeter. Leaf was out on bail and joined Sheila, Jeffrey, Moon, and Ray. Friends of Skeeter, as well as all those who made the Red Barn Commune their home, even for a few hours, were there. They came in their finery–tie-die shirts, headbands, bell-bottom jeans, and love beads. They came to make a statement– you can’t kill us all.
A few days later the tribe mourned Skeeter in their own way. A lilac bush was planted on the spot where he was shot. A lasting reminder of a crime.
They gathered at the old table near the oak tree to decide what they were going to do. Everyone but Leaf was there.
“I want to leave this place,” said Jeffrey. “The vibes here are bad now.”
Star shook her head. “We can’t give up. You know Skeeter wouldn’t want that.”
Joe looked at her. “Do you think we can make it here?”
As he said that a cloud of dust and the sound of cars came from the road.
“God, what now,” said Moon.
Everyone was expecting the worst.
The cars turned the bend. An assortment of VW bugs, pickup trucks, and muscle cars pulled up to the edge of the farm.
Leaf stepped out of a VW and smiled. The judge’s daughter hand in hand with the deacon’s son waved to them. Others from the city and town started to unload furniture and supplies from the pickup trucks.
Leaf walked over to his friends.
“Thought you might need some help rebuilding this place.”
Joe grabbed Leaf in his arms in a big bear hug. “You got that right brother, and just in time.”
“Joe I got someone you need to meet. This is Alex from the underground paper The Phoenix in the city. He wants to talk with us about what happened here.”
“The Phoenix huh? Sounds like a new name for here,” said Joe.
Joe and Alex went over and sat by the tree with the others.
Alex gave them the latest news.
“You heard Charlie Stone was absolved of the shooting of Skeeter, right? Judge Cornwall said it was ‘Justifiable’ considering the other deputies thought Skeeter shot first. The Sheriff said that based on a reliable tip that a drug lab was on the property the raid was warranted. Of course, the judge agreed. Your local newspaper was no better. The editor and county officials cheered on law and order and decided not to look into it any further. Worm has disappeared by the way.”
“He better stay away. He is the one who set us up, I’m sure of it,” said Leaf.
They spent the afternoon talking with Alex, getting their side of the story out. They owed it to Skeeter, his family and those that called the commune their home.
Like worker ants, those from the cars unloaded the material and worked their way to the farmhouse.
One of the girls from town came up to Joe.
“I brought a bunch of seeds for the spring planting.”
Joe smiled and thought, yes we can make it here.
With that, he joined the others. There was rebuilding to be done.