It’s been said that if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there. Well, that’s nonsense. Phil Polizatto remembers, and that’s why we have this amazing, delicious fictionalized memoir to read. The narrator, Giacco Giordano, was an omnisexual youth in an era when young people proudly called themselves freaks. Like so many in that magical time, he looked for love and/or God, and often found both in the same place or person. His wanderings took him to Woodstock, various counterculture centers on the West Coast, and eventually, other parts of the world.
Giacco has a real way with words, and reading Hunga Dunga is actually almost like being there, which is a trite thing to say, but I don’t care. I constantly wondered what would happen next, and never wanted the book to end. I recognize these conversations, the kind we used to have (and some of us still have). I recognize the authentic quest for transcendence, and the goofiness. Parts of the book are very funny. Its title is the name of a commune, which in turn derived from a gag in a Marx Brothers film.
Other parts are very erotic. Giacco is, for instance, ecosexual before the term is even invented. It’s not all sparkly rainbows, of course. We get an eyewitness account of the 1969 Venice Beach police riot, which destroys a peaceful, beautiful anti-war gathering sponsored by the Free Press. One of the things worth looking at, about the Sixties, is why events like this radicalized some toward violence, while others were drawn even farther in the opposite direction, toward peace.
The descriptions of the physical world are wonderful and evocative, but here’s the thing: the very best part is being a tourist in Giacco’s head. There’s a basic, unquenchable sweetness to the guy, and crisply fresh insights, and an undertone of ironic wariness even in the midst of the most warm and fuzzy love-fests. Appreciating his worldview, seeing events through his particular eyes, listening in on his thoughts, and having the inside track on his responses to situations and people – these are the real rewards. I’m so happy to have met him.
So, studio at the beach having been wrecked in the police riot, Giacco is on the move again. He stays for a while with a couple who keep up a straight front for the neighbors while smuggling pot and hanging out with Timothy Leary. Then he joins up with Hunga Dunga.
Giacco is blessed with a personality uniquely suited for communal living. He’s both mystical and grounded, able to handle a spiritual crisis or run a farm. He has a willingness to roll with the punches that is sometimes literal, because longhairs both straight and gay attract a lot of harassment in some places. But that’s the outside world. In the context of the close-knit domestic group, the same inner resources provide the needed tolerance, and especially a gift for living in the moment. “I always tried to create a physical and emotional environment which left a window open for that rare breeze of opportunity.”
How did a Sixties commune actually work? How did a household of 12-16 members actually get along? Think it doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment? Well, when was the last time you saw a family of even 4 or 6, that was able to create an ambiance where everyone could thrive, day to day? The Hunga Dungans may have worn mis-matched socks, but they figured out how to handle the finances. Being released from worry about food, clothing and shelter freed each person to do what he or she was best at, which is always a state to be desired.
Of course, a lot of these hippies lived on disability pay of one sort or another. This, Giacco says, “created in all of us, to varying degrees, a sense of obligation to justify the money we were getting from kindly Uncle Sam.” They joined up with a bunch of other communes to provide free services to the community. “We hoped we would become role models for the rest of society. When they saw how much sense it made, they would eventually ‘catch up.'” In other ways too, they did their best to model the kind of behavior they wished the larger society to imitate. “If there was any competitiveness at Hunga Dunga, it was to be a good example.”
We learn, intimately, what life was about in the big blue house. Lots of sex, for sure. Lots of drugs. Like the rest of the nation, they found that marijuana increased bonding, and so did the entheogens like psilocybin and LSD. Among other dangerous tendencies, this book could start a Peyote Cult revival. Also, like the rest of the nation, they found that when speed and cocaine came in the door, harmony flew out the window.
The recipe for harmony includes a whole constellation of customs and conventions and rituals that spontaneously develop to cope with ordinary human quirks. Thanks to Giacco, we eavesdrop on family meetings where issues are handled with a peculiar brand of non-handling. Differences are settled in non-traditional ways. “A Hunga Dungan might say at a family meeting that they did not enjoy living with so and so, but they would never feel they had the right to ask that person to leave. The hope was that the person would leave of his or her own accord. If not, we learned to live with it.”
Whether in the States or traveling in exotic lands, Giacco meets freak after freak, all with astonishing stories to tell. People turn up in odd corners of the world, whose karma is intertwined with his. One of the characters is a guy named Jon. Whatever comes to pass, his mantra is “This is much better.” And the optimal way to get through life with grace, is to walk toe-to-heel like a stalking Indian.
Some of the commune members start to hanker after land to farm, and wilderness to roam. Jon and Rosie get a farm, then sell it and take Giacco along with them for a round-the-world trip. Now, this is the kind of thing I mean, by a “you are there” feeling. “The floor was dirt and the only heat came from a small fire pit in the center of the room, which we fueled with small bundles of sticks, or sometimes pancakes of dung, sold by young boys whose sold job it was to deliver them to “subscribers” much like I delivered newspapers to my neighbors when I was a boy.”
The three of them go to a place that is a pilgrimage destination for Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, where everybody gets along peaceably, and where, incidentally, the sun rises twice. They visit Sai Baba, my personal pick for the most intriguing of the holy men. They find the counterculture hot spots in Hawaii and Thailand. In Ceylon, they watch dead bodies float by in the river. In India, they buy ganga from children, and Giacco gets to know the deity Ganesh.
He visits Israel on his own, and spends time as a kibbutz’s unauthorized guest. There’s a horrendous boat ride on the Mediterranean, which is not all peaceful and sunny! He’s stoned in Turkey – literally, with rocks. He’s mistaken for a Turk by Greeks, and mistaken for a Greek by Turks, two of the most uncomfortable situations a person can be in. The locals don’t like waist-length hair on a male. In Samos, he visits a friend he made elsewhere, and it doesn’t work out too well, and he hears an amazing story. Amsterdam is “so damn civilized I could barely handle it,” and so much like San Francisco, he might as well have stayed home.
Back in the States, Giacco is reunited with the Hunga Dungans. He’s in the scouting party that goes to check out land. They find a great place, and have papers drawn up defining themselves as a church, so the contractual red tape will be less obstructive. They make friends with some of the locals. Just in time, they discover the Whole Earth Catalog. “We were determined to build a tasteful little Victorian dome that would blend in nicely with the neighboring farms.” In the city, they get demolition jobs and carefully take apart some houses, saving the building materials. A baby is born to the commune.
Still, Giacco is uneasy and feels that things are unraveling. People are a little too eager to envision how they will stake out a private section of the land. “Even though that was anathema, we knew deep down we all wanted someplace to go where we could be alone.” Like any sensible person, he acknowledges his ambivalence. Is this evolution, or devolution? And, much as he wants to keep the group spirit, ironically he winds up having the whole country place to himself for long periods of time.
The big new name in the spiritual realm is Guru Maharaj Ji, practically still a child. Giacco resists, figuring that anybody with that many followers can’t be authentic, an attitude borrowed from Jon. Then – one Hunga Dungan hitchhikes a long way to hear Maharaj Ji, and comes back converted. When another member decides to take off to find the Knowledge, Giacco spontaneously decides to go along. His motto is, “When in doubt, let the universe decide.” The first car that comes along is going to exactly the city they want, and the second ride takes them straight to the ashram.
There’s some weird stuff between Giacco and Maharaj Ji. Though he doesn’t capitulate right away, when three more Hunga Dungans announce they’re going to live at the Divine Light Mission in Hawaii, he goes along, carrying nothing but a wallet and a passport. It turns out to be not his kind of place at all, so he ditches the ashram after less than a day, and lives with a family. He holds down a regular job for a while, and visits the areas where the good weed grows, and a cave dwellers’ colony, and a cliff-dweller’s paradise.
Eventually, back at Hunga Dunga, he finds that his disloyalty is not popular. He’s not exactly shunned or ostracized, but he won’t be allowed all the way home, either. Instead, he’s deported to the country house.
It’s not total isolation, of course. People come up from the city, and they get close to some of the locals. Working naked in the garden, they distract pilots, who veer from their courses to ogle. Jon shows up for a while, then goes away again, and Giacco is alone at the Dome. On a hiking trip, he meets up with a ranger, and they have a three-day wilderness honeymoon. “We seek to satisfy our primitive and functional need for connection. Sometimes we do it in the least expected ways. There is a strange magic about it I like.”
In the country, after harvest, there’s the social season, of astonishing variety in such a remote place. More freaks are discovered holed up in different parts of the hills. The peculiar brand of morality and misplaced judgmentalness of some of the long-term residents is disturbing, and there is some friction with the Christians. One friend is scolded by his own collective: “You are spending too much time with Hunga Dunga. You are spending too much time with Giacco. You have fallen into their devil’s trap!”
And the snow comes. Lots of it. Cross-country skiing becomes the main occupation. Giacco is into and out of an affair with a confused man. A couple of Hunga Dungans arrive and he catches up on the haps. One member has become the first female master plumber in California. Another has bought the house in the city, and become their landlord. And one has a serious relationship with cocaine.
Then once again, Giacco is the only one at the Dome, which becomes the meeting place for the anti-ski resort activists. His life in the country is rich and satisfying, but it has very little to do with the other commune members any more. Reflecting on this, he wishes, “If Hunga Dunga is going to fall apart, let’s make it as graceful as possible, OK? Let’s make it end as beautifully as it started.”
Well, it does, and it doesn’t. Here’s the part I like. Giacco says the same thing about the commune as I’ve said about Venice, California. Not everyone who would like to live there, can. It’s not the same place it used to be, anyway. Living there is beside the point; it’s what you bring to the place and what you take away, that count. Here’s how Giacco says it: “So many have come and stayed for varying lengths of time in this big Blue House, and then left. When they were here, they were Hunga Dunga. And when they left, we can only hope they shared our vision and remained Hunga Dunga.”
The book at Amazon.com