When I was young, in the 70s, I spent a good deal of time on the road, sticking out my thumb, heading for adventure. The summer of 1972 was pivotal for me personally, a reckoning that came when my naive countercultural wave crashed on the rocks of human nature. That is a long story, and I wrote about it a bit a few years ago, of the draft hanging over me that summer (my lottery number was 5), of many adventures and characters encountered, of contracting salmonella at Earth People’s Park in Vermont, of hitching to the first Rainbow Family of Living Light festival in Colorado, where I had a relapse, of my disillusionment with the counterculture of the time.
But I have never written about, and seldom thought about, the STP Family.
The STP Family was a rough tribe of street hippies that seemed to be everywhere the counterculture was collectively burning out in the early 70s. Originating in NYC, they moved en masse to the mountains near Boulder, but traveled widely. They could be found panhandling in Boston and Berkeley, by the side of the road, thumbs out, just about anywhere, in the camps reserved for drinkers at various festivals.
The story I heard was that “STP” stood for “Serenity, Tranquility, Peace”, and that the STP Family was formed by a group of Greenwich Village hippies who vowed to stay high on STP, a psychedelic drug of the era that kept one in a hallucinatory state for 72 hours, as opposed to LSD’s 12.
Why anyone thought that such a regimen would bring serenity or tranquility or peace is beyond me. Though they were very young.
Another version was that it stood for “Sagittarius, Taurus, Pisces”, the astrological signs of the three founders.
And there are other accounts.
Whatever the case, the Family evolved into a very hard living, drug addled subsect of the counterculture. Most people just thought of them as burnouts, and some called them “street monsters”.
They were panhandlers and dealers and thieves, ripoff artists and drunks. They took any drug they could score and were noteworthy for the glazed look in their eyes.
You could spot them by their clothes. Their “habit” consisted of denim patched with leather and scraps of cloth, with an “STP” emblem, the logo of the oil treatment company, somewhere in the mix. Often their clothing was decorated with the skulls of small animals.
They were dirty and smelly and they were violent ( unlike most hippies outside of Detroit, they liked guns). They were violent not least because also unlike most hippies, who limited alcohol use to the occasional bottle of wine, they drank heavily.
Very heavily; mostly rotgut wine, but liquor of any kind they could get their hands on as well. One concoction, of grape Kool Aid and Everclear grain alcohol, was called Purple Jesus.
In Colorado they lived in the mountains in tents, lean-tos and cabins. They claimed to be mountain men, and bragged of killing bears. Probably bullshit, but they did have necklaces of what they said were bear claws, and leather laces from which hung alleged bear teeth.
More bizarrely, there are eyewitnesses that said the Family ate their dead in a spiritual ceremony. Granted, these witnesses had imbibed large doses of hallucinogens and God knows what, but you never know.
They were the original primitives, the Neanderthal tribe of the counterculture.
I never knew anything about their individual backgrounds. The vibe was rough, like the Hell’s Angels without bikes and resources, and one assumed that these were working class folks. Like I said, they brought Detroit to mind. But maybe that was part of the facade; the Village origins, and some rumored history with anarchist offshoots of the Yippies may indicate that these were grad school dropouts, the sons of lawyers.
They had colorful nicknames, like Spooky, Deputy Dawg, Grody, Patty Rotten Crotch, Wabbit, Daisy May, Asshole Dave (of the affiliated Asshole Family).
I knew Spooky a little; I met him in Boston, where I was peddling underground newspapers on Harvard Square to make money for travel. He was stoned out, for sure, but oddly gentle, for an STP guy. He always carried a grey kitten and his eyes looked to some place far away.
If the Family had one virtue it was loyalty to one another. They called themselves a “family” and like a family they stuck up for one another, as many a hapless fool discovered when he insulted one of them.
A lot of them met violent deaths. Deputy Dawg, for example, was murdered by a Colorado cop, who got away with it but made a confession on his deathbed. Dawg was all of 19 when he died.
I recount all of this because the other night, goofing on the internet, I searched for the STP Family.
And found, to my surprise, that not only were they not all dead, but they have an online presence and occasional reunions. There are pages of photos posted by their kids, of when dad and mom were the dregs of the counterculture, like the albums we have of my mom and dad as young spiffily dressed newlyweds, straight off the farm.
It is a testimony to human resilience that not only are a lot of that ragtag band still alive, they have children and grandchildren, some of whom wax nostalgic about their folks, like, well, most people.
That those so far gone did not die but lived to see children and grandchildren, to navigate the earthly sphere with some semblance of normalcy after such a druggy, dazed sojourn, is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and of the human body. It is like me, reconnecting with old druggy friends, to find that not only did the ones who did not OD make it through, but many of them appear to have done better than a lot of my religious friends from the era. It is purely anecdotal, but the stoners have a much lower divorce rate, with the girlfriends they married, than my zealous Christian friends had with their spouses.
Life is full of mystery and complexity. Any conclusions are tentative.
I had no love for the STP Family in my traveling days. I was wary of them, as was anyone with any sense. Indeed, they were only the most colorful examples of the sorts of characters I encountered in my travels that summer, who collectively soured me on my counterculture dreams.
But I am unspeakably grateful that so many of them appear to have survived and prospered.