April 19, 2022by Jon Kramer

Psychedelics, Part 2 Rainbows and Strategic Bombing

Copyright 4-19-22 / 1,397 words
by Jon Kramer

Nonfiction. These events took place in the around 1970 in Maryland.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of world-ending doom, or sunny bright optimism, depending primarily on which side of the generation gap you were smoking.

US paranoia about the nefarious spread of world Communism resurged in the late 50’s. France recognized this opportunity and talked the US into taking on the role of fixing things for them in Vietnam. It seems they were unhappy about having their ass kicked out for a second time in 1954 after trying to reestablish their prior colonial domination. So, like a good neighbor, the US offered to help.

A few years later, as the conflict broadened and began consuming American lives at an alarming rate, General Curtis LeMay stepped up and offered the ultimate solution, which he called “strategic air assault”. With modern aerial technology we didn’t need ground troops. All one had to do was reconnoiter the enemy via spy planes, pick out the important targets, and blow them to kingdom come with well-placed bombs. In speaking about the North Vietnamese, he said “…we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” Welcome to the Paleolithic, General.

Meanwhile, on the campuses, in the parks, and on the beaches, Young America was getting behind a different view of the world, one quite the opposite of the war and strategic air assault. Wherever your joy is, go after it!, remarked Peter Max, an up-and-coming artist of the New Psychedelic World Order. The only fuel needed for the journey was Flower Power and the flowers in question were predominantly those of the herb Cannabis.

At the time, all the surf shops and tourist stops in every beach town in America featured the sunny rainbow world of Peter Max, whose wild and colorful prints were on towels, totes, and kitschy merchandise. Everywhere. My sister Diane loved it, and her enthusiasm became mine as well. By this time Max had become iconic. His simple, primary-color whimsy hit the proverbial art nail directly on the head in the mid to late 60’s.

I’ve always loved color and light. And, in appropriate cases, I’ll take whimsy with it. So, it was natural that I would become a fan of such childhood heroes as Dr Seuss and later – partly as a result of successful merchandising – Peter Max. At the family homestead in Ontario there yet abides an ancient, tattered, original copy of the Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham. And, I’ll have you know, I still have in my closet a couple towels from our family beach days five decades ago. They’re faded and thread-bare but are yet in use on occasion. Surprisingly, they sometimes still evoke a “Hey, isn’t that a Peter Max beach towel?” Sure is…

To his everlasting dismay, I’ve never met Peter Max. I came a little late to the Counterculture Party and by the time I really started grooving on his colorful pop art, he’d already made many millions and the cover of Life Magazine, while for my part, I’d registered a miserable performance in my Junior Highschool art class at St Jude.

Life Magazine – September 5, 1969 Cover story: Peter Max: Portrait of the artist as a very rich man

For some reason I still cannot fathom, Sister Mary Carmilla was unimpressed with my 8th grade sculptural masterpiece “Stoned in Ocean City”, which attempted to show the dichotomous human condition on display at a Maryland beach town as viewed through the lens of a slightly rebellious adolescent. The older “Establishment Minions” were appropriately fashioned out of dark clay – all fat, stoic, and properly humorless – while the “Carefree Young” were trim, bright-painted rocks and pebbles with cheerful smiley faces and a fun-in-the-sun look. It took me all weekend to construct.

Sister Mary called it “interesting” as she gave me a D, which contrasted greatly with the grade given to the very next piece in line. “Haunted Jewish Country Club,” by my friend Kevin, was a pathetic, thrown-together, magic marker sketch of what was supposed to be a country club golf course, but looked more like a landfill. It took all of 5 minutes to make. I know, because I watched Kevin do it that very morning before school. It featured a bunch of Casper-style ghosts floating around hooting things like Oy-vey! Caddie, anyone? Boooo… How stupid is that? Kevin received a B+. There is no justice in Junior High art class. Sister Mary was obviously an antisemitic Establishment Minion.

So, as you can see, I was well on my way to not being a famous artist. Despite that, for reasons beyond my control, I was not sent a single invitation to any of Max’s many openings, and to this day have never attended a Peter Max showing. I’m sure Peter is beside himself with regret and consternation about all that, but I can’t be held to blame. It’s an obvious deficiency in his marketing department, one they have been exceedingly slow in remedying. As I said – beyond my control – just like Sister Mary’s attitude. I’ll bet she’d have given Peter Max a D in art class as well. Art misery loves – and deserves – company.

Peter Max was born to a Jewish couple in Berlin, Germany in 1937. Can you imagine being in that situation? The Nazi tsunami is starting to flood across Europe, Nationalism has a death-grip on society, fellow Jews are being murdered right in front of you every day, and here you have a new baby brought into the world? At the last minute Max’s family fled and escaped to Shanghai, China in 1938. Ten years later they moved to the new nation of Israel where they lived for several years before decamping to Paris, and ultimately to Brooklyn, NY in 1953. All along the way, Max’s parents encouraged his interest in art, enrolling him in drawing classes. Once in America, he received formal art education at the Art Students League of New York in the late 1950s. By the mid-1960s his bright colors and happy canvases were attracting mainstream attention.

As much as I enjoyed drying my sea-soaked, sun-burned, adolescent skin with a large and loud rainbow-colored Peter Max towel at the beach in the 1970s, it was not until much later that I learned more about Max and became a true fan. One incident in particular made me take notice. It was twenty-five years later. It was about a cow.

In 2002, a particularly independent Charolais cow, standing in line at a slaughterhouse, decided to take Max’s maxim seriously and go after her joy. She was no longer interested in becoming product for someone’s dinner, so she took it into her bovine head to escape. This she accomplished by apparently jumping over a six-foot fence – a Herculean feat for any cow – while the slaughterhouse workers were on break. She then disappeared and eluded capture for eleven days. Eleven days! By the time she was corralled, Charlene – later named “Cincinnati Freedom” – had become a celebrity.

Max caught wind of her plight and immediately donated $180,000 worth of his art to benefit the local chapter of the SPCA as well as an animal sanctuary to ensure that she was allowed to live free. Amid great pomp and ceremony, Cincinnati Freedom arrived at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York where she remained for the rest of her life.

By all accounts, she was happy at the sanctuary and apparently made a number of friends, including Queenie, another cow who escaped a slaughterhouse in Queens, New York, in 2000. They had their own exclusive survivors club. If it were up to me, I’d have every cow saved from the butcher’s knife to live as free as they did. But I guess it’s not up to me…

Cincinnati Freedom died at home – the Farm Sanctuary – in 2008. The sanctuary is yet thriving. You can learn more and donate at: https://www.farmsanctuary.org/

Peter Max still lives in New York City, albeit far diminished from his former larger-than-life, sunshine self. He’s 85. Sadly, he has advanced Alzheimer’s and his world is greatly reduced. But it must be said he followed his own advice.

Wherever your joy is, go after it!

Good advice.