In 1971, Canada’s psychedelic rockers Five Man Electrical Band had a top ten hit entitled “Signs.” I had the record, both the 45 RPM disc and LP on which it appeared, entitled “Goodbyes and Butterflies,” and my friend and I regularly drew it from its slip-sleeve and spun it over and over on the mustard-colored portable Zenith with the drop-down turntable that I had in my basement bedroom. I was 14, on the cusp of the teenage years, and the words of the song produced some empathy in me for the then ubiquitous “hippies,” a word often used in the pejorative in my home.
I missed Woodstock. I missed the Summer of Love. I missed the civil rights milestones, like Selma. I was born too late. That’s not something to lament and yet, oddly, I do.
“Sign said: Long haired freaky people need not apply,” sang guitar player Les Emmerson, going on to address the put down the narrator faced in trying to get a job, eat in a restaurant, or walk onto someone’s property--all because of hair length. And then there were all those signs saying “do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?” Not cool, not cool at all, and we nodded in assent to this sticking it to “the man.”
Hippie was not a term that had any currency in high school. It was “freak.” The long- and frizzy-haired guy and his chick hang-on in the black cape--a mysterious couple that always seemed to be loitering under the trees while we sat in geometry class sweltering in then non-air conditioned rooms--were simply freaks, and while we treated them with some derision, as weird, we also quietly respected them for their independence. We labored over Pythagoras’ Theorem; they, well, over each other.
My teacher stood at the window, hands on her hips. “Look at them,” she said. “Disgusting.” She shook her head. No, I thought, just sadly weird. Respectfully sad in a way I could not articulate.
I grew my hair long, bought a pair of moccasins, wore ripped jeans. I thought it gave me outsider status and dared to think I might be cool. Yet I declined the regular offers of joints and LSD by high school pushers. I wasn’t a freak. I was an imposter, a wannabe; grace kept me from ever dropping out and turning on.
Author Flannery O’Connor once said that “[t]o be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” In 1960 when she wrote those words, she was pre-hippie, though not pre-freak. Even then, in a South she described as “hardly Christ centered,” she recognized that it was “Christ-haunted,” adding that “[t]he Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.” She said “the freak can be sensed as as a figure for pure essential displacement.”
I know O”Connor didn’t have in mind the freaky kids in my high school, the non-conformists. And yet like the grotesque characters of O’Connor’s stories, they too were displaced, and as we had some sense of the whole man, we knew they were outsiders. Off. Weird.
Even at 14 I understood that I was made in the image of God, even if I did not know what that meant. I had read Genesis 1 more than any other passage of scripture, and I accepted as a given that it was true, that at least I was made and not a cosmic accident, no matter what we were told in science class. Made for what I wasn’t sure. But I felt confident that the displaced, freaky couple under the trees were somehow “off,” that they had lost a reference point for life beyond themselves. That went up in smoke somewhere under the trees where the wind snapped the flagpole rope and, carrying the slightest odor of marijuana, wafted in the open windows. These latter-day beatniks had some attraction for me, yet I was very much afraid that I had been formed in the image of God and not in an image of my own making. I was still trying to figure that out, the freak tugging at me. But God had set up camp in me.
Oswald Chambers once said, “When I stand face to face with Jesus Christ and say—‘I will not,’ He will never insist; but I am backing away from the re-creating power of His Redemption.” In high school “I will not” had some attraction to me. The freaky, freaky people in the corridors of my school, the outsiders, were a society of “I will nots,” and their anti-establishment mantra appealed.
For whatever reason sometime during my junior year I began reading Christian books--missionary stories on my mother’s bookshelves, Jay Kesler’s “I Never Promised You a Disneyland,” Barclay’s commentaries, and InterVarsity’s now defunct HIS Magazine--all of which brought down into reality the Bible stories and sermonizing I heard as a kid but which seemed like fairy tales about some far-away place and not my life.
Perusing the record store bins one afternoon, I found a treasure: Larry Norman’s “In Another Land.” Norman was dressed in black with shocking near white shoulder-length hair on a background of what looked to be another planet. A genuine Jesus-freak.
When I played it at home, when I heard Norman sing, “He’s an unidentified flying object,” all I could think was “wait until the freaky, freaky people hear this.” Just wait. That did it for me.