A New Ocean

At five in the afternoon one day in the fall of 1963 my “guide” took the sleep mask from my eyes and helped me to sit up on the deep couch on which I’d been lying since eight that morning. He told me that the mixture of LSD and mescaline that I’d been given had now passed through my system. How did I feel?

I could not answer him. The drugs had tilted my brain and breached a barrier, and visions from my subconscious had been pouring unstoppably into my conscious mind. Some had been literal, or had made me laugh — the desk I’d worked at in the Ivory Coast, a snapshot of a friend’s expanded waistline — but most had been so heavy with significance and reproach that they had squeezed my heart to groaning. My father’s wide eyes and yearning, boyish smile, shadowed by the brim of his fedora, had fixed me. At his death several years before, our difficulties had been unresolved.

A Chanel suit belonging to my separated wife hung flatly in a dim and empty closet. My four-year-old daughter’s thin legs and pretty shoes had skipped back and forth, back and forth. My hair behind the temples, and the cushion that had been under my head, were soaked with tears.

My guide led me to a chair before a window and drew its curtain wide. “How does it look to you?”

“Awful.” An asphalt parking lot stretched to a tree-lined street down which cars appeared to be moving at violent speed. Solitary people were squinting against the slanted autumn sunshine.

“Do you want to go out there?”

“No, I don’t.”

He wrapped a blanket around me, for I was shivering, and left the room. Beyond the closed door I heard the murmur of a consultation, and I could picture him with the blonde woman doctor who had checked me physically and had replaced him at my side when he needed relief, and with the wiry psychoanalyst who was the program’s Director. There were others of the staff, but I could not identify the voices.

Some of these others had medical or therapeutic credentials, some did not, but titles and qualifications seemed unimportant to them. They were of all ages and complexions. Something they believed could change the world had been discovered, and anyone of useful intelligence would probably have been welcomed by them. Not long before, John Kennedy had spoken about Space as “the new ocean,” saying that we must sail on it simply for that reason, because it was a new ocean, and this group shared that spirit. So far, they had every reason to be optimistic about these inner-space voyages.

The friend of mine who had proposed insistently that I take the drugs, who knew the extent of my depression since my separation from wife and child nearly a year before, had worn a most unexpected, beatific smile from the day of his session onward, and he was not exceptional. The short-term benefits to troubled lives had been excellent, and no one had broken down.

My guide came back into the room and said, “We’re going to give you something more. O.K.?” He was pale, and his dark stubble looked days old.


A vertical canister of C02 was wheeled in and a breathing mask attached over my face. A valve was turned and the sound of rushing air filled my mind. I breathed deeply and was suddenly weightless and flying, relieved of my body. Without friction, without any sense of speed, I shot straight up into the constellations, and there, in the star-dotted blackness, I arrived at peace. My heart was freed, and in a silence in which there was no temperature, no gravity, no wish or will or conflict, no need, I felt an overwhelming, blissful gratitude.

I rested there a while and then I started down. The Earth was far away, a speck and then a dime against the blackness, but it quickly grew. The continents and the oceans became distinct, the tan deserts, the ice at the poles, and the dark forests of Canada, Russia, and Africa. I began to see the conglomerations of towns and cities, and to sense the variety of people, especially those where I’d lived — New York, Paris, Abidjan, and San Francisco. Nearing the ground I recognized with starts of joy some faces in the crowds, and I saw with the force of revelation that my father and my wife, and others whose specters had distressed me, were the same size as the rest, as robust and as frail.

As I slipped into my body and the floor became real under my feet, I felt my essential sameness with all these thousands of beings around me who were speaking in hundreds of tongues. Their warmth invaded me, and when I opened my eyes I was shouting with excitement at joining the world of humans.

My guide greeted my arrival and others came into the room to pat my back. After a time, one of them took me out into an evening of commonplace miracles.

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I watched the ash-yellow oatfields rippling in a windless sunset and found that I could see the sap moving in the branches of the liveoak trees, even in the capillaries of the leaves. After dark, the lighted bridges crossing San Francisco were bemusing, as were those wonders of human order, traffic lights. In many of the people we encountered I saw beauty of body or spirit, and everyone of them seemed a miracle of gathered energy. Now so would I be.

My friend of the beatific smile had talked about “psychoanalysis in a day,” but this was something much better, I thought. There was no need for “analysis.” I was free.

Next morning I learned from a waitress at the counter of a strangely quiet, twenty-four-hours-a-day restaurant that John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. He had been taken to a hospital. That was what was known.

I had never seen such things as the scrambled eggs on the faintly patterned, brownish plate, or the nicks in the tines of the fork. Yet I ate. My mind attempted sporadically to interpret the news, and, at other moments, images from the day before took over. A man standing beside me spoke up in a loud voice, proposing a date to the waitress, and she turned pink and hurried away to the kitchen. This episode seemed no stranger than the food or the coffee.

The follow-up appointment with my guide was for eleven o’clock, still an hour away. I started walking without purpose and stopped outside a barber shop, for in it I could see a TV set turned on.

Both of the barbers were idle, one sitting in his chair, the other leaning against the back of his. Closest to the set was a black shoeshine man, an older man, sitting. Their concentration was such that I momentarily felt I should not disturb them, but I went in and was motioned to sit down.

The TV camera was at the hospital. Just after the barber had begun to snip my hair the announcement came that Kennedy had died.

The shine man pointed at my shoes, but I shook my head. He said, “They couldn’t let him live. Not after Bay of Pigs. Couldn’t let him live his life.

The broadcast went back in time to Kennedy’s arrival at the Dallas airport with Jackie. Smiling officials greeted them. He was handsome and jaunty. Everyone was full of daylight.

“See him there?” the shine man said. “He’s too much for them. Too much. They can’t abide it.”

The broadcast showed pictures of the motorcade, of the cars coming into Dealey Plaza. Then it was broken into and a voice told us that a suspect had been arrested, and that his name was Lee Harvey Oswald.

“They get someone. Oh, yes.”

The images shifted to the hospital again, to Washington about the governmental consequences.

The shine man said, “He let them look real bad. CIA. Military, too.” He wiped his eyes with his knuckle. “Lee Harry Oswald, indeed.”

I paid the barber and walked to my appointment.

My guide had not yet come in and when he did, brisk and clean-shaven, he seemed too glad to see me. We sat at his desk and he asked some clinical questions. Had I slept? Had I dreamed? Was I experiencing flashbacks?

Then he dropped that manner. “Arc you really O.K.? I thought of you first thing after I took in the shock, whether or not you’d be all right.”

“I’m O.K.”

“I was afraid you might lose it, the good stuff you finally got yesterday. “

“I’ve got it still,” I told him.

“You were tough,” he said. “You wouldn’t let go. I tried what I could to help you though … Then the news. It’s your universe. And then.” His face showed pain, but a more superficial frustration as well. His treatment had been interfered with. He said, “Maybe you’ll want to take it again. Do some more exploring.” I was embarrassed to be talking about myself, my case. “Not tomorrow,” I said.

“Oh, no. Maybe months from now, certainly not tomorrow.” It was a strange handshake. The muscles of his hand and his skin were extraordinary vivid, although there was nothing unusual about them.

I spent most of the next few days alone in my San Francisco apartment, the TV showing me the aftermath, the official events, the caisson crossing the Potomac Bridge. Sometimes I felt I knew where he had gone, out there in the cosmos. I could feel its weightless silence. For me it had been paradisiacal, but for him the timing was all wrong.

My apartment off Buena Vista Park had a small balcony which looked out on a sweep of the city’s south side that included Twin Peaks, Diamond and Dolores Heights, and the bay toward San Leandro. Some of the Victorian houses facing me had been whimsically trimmed with bright paint. Wind chimes and bicycles hung on back stairway landings. I brooded on these clues to their inhabitants and on the backyard gardens below me, some neatly planted, others beaten down around a children’s swing, a kiln, a trampoline. Mad and dangerous though some of my neighbors no doubt were, I admired their putting the next meal on the table, doing what they had to, and getting on with it. I was of them as I had not been before.

Fifteen years afterward I decided to find out what I could about the people who had run the program and those who had passed through it. I knew it had been shut down when LSD had been declared an illegal drug not long after my session.

I called the woman doctor who had sat with me part of the day. She had become a psychiatrist with a practice in Menlo Park.

On the phone she sounded professional and guarded, but said she would be glad to talk. I asked her if she’d like to meet for lunch, or any other time that suited, but she said, “You can make an appointment, if you like. I’ll have to charge my fee.” I was mildly shocked, but accepted her terms.

Her office was near where the “Center” had been, and it seemed a standard therapist’s environment with comfortable dark chairs and a couch, and the curtains half-drawn. She was very much as I remembered her, a blonde woman, somewhat overweight, with a smile that at moments looked tentative, at others a touch cynical.

She told me that when they had had to stop the program there had been no money to follow up on those like me. She could not tell me anything about long-term results, except in isolated cases. “Now you’ll be one,” she said. “What’s happened to you?”

I told her that I’d remarried and had two younger children, and that I’d continued to teach and write. I’d published a novel and shorter pieces, and with another writer I’d started an annual writers’ conference. On the other hand, I felt I hadn’t been productive enough. I had had a drinking problem, but I had quit five or six years before. “What about you?” I asked.

“You can see,” she said, without much enthusiasm. She added wryly, “I still haven’t lost weight.”

There was not much news she could give me of the others who had been on the staff. So-and-so was still working at Syntex, another had taken a job in Los Angeles. In her responses there was a shade of tedium, but also sympathy.

I asked about the psychoanalyst-director.

“He’s at a Vets Administration hospital in Maryland. I have the feeling that he’s serving out his time.”

Did she remember that Kennedy had been killed the day after my session?

“Oh, yes. Yes. That day changed a lot of things for us. For everyone.”

“What changed?”

“You know as well as I do. Many things.”

“Things always change.”

Her mouth twitched impatiently, but she replied, “The mood. The feeling of the possible.”

We said goodbye and wished each other luck.

Outside the building’s sunny entrance I stopped to look at a liveoak tree, an old one with a great reach of gnarled branches and glistening dark leaves, which stood protected in the middle of a traffic island. I concentrated on it, and, after a bit, I saw the sap moving in its new, lighter limbs. The vision soon vanished and I could not revive it, although I was patient, blinking and staring intensely.

Then I let the effort go. Rather, it was swept aside by a rush of gratitude, part warm from memory, part fresh, a buoyant wave that lifted me from what had seemed a flat sea.

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