Jeff Hammer: Thoughts on human behavior

I have mentioned in one of my previous columns that I am an amateur people watcher, a part time student of human behavior, which is to say that I do it for the fun of it. If I was a serious, professional people watcher, I would have most likely maintained a career in the realm of human behavior research; but I have no doubt that decision would have sucked all the fun out of the activity, and I would have suffered through years of endless boredom before eventually deciding to do something else. 

I can’t say for sure when I began the practice, but thinking back through my life, I remember one particular instance that may have been the catalyst for my interest in observing what people do or maybe even don’t do that has made an impression on me. 

I believe the year was 1973, which has been a while if one cares to do the math, nearly a half century ago, and the Rainbow Family of Living Light had decided that an area near Limestone Mountain would be just the place for that loosely knit organization to hold its annual seemingly chaotic gathering. 

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According to the website rainbowfamilygatherings.net, the Rainbow Family makes this claim: “Had it not been for the Rainbow Family, the hippie culture might have been doomed.” So one can see how this “loosely-run affiliation of individuals with the common goal of achieving peace and harmony on Earth” might be of interest to a fourteen-year-old boy who had rarely been outside the confines of one of the most conservative states in our great nation. 

My brother, Bob, who had only a few months before had earned his driver’s license after passing the age of sixteen and who was maybe more interested in human behavior than me at the time, asked our parents if he could drive the family’s 1967 Ford Bronco up to the site of their gathering so that we could “check out what those crazy hippies are doing up there.” 

At the time, I didn’t know a conservative from a liberal, and could not have cared less, but I knew, from listening to their conversations with my aunts and uncles at family gatherings that my parents did not approve of the lifestyle choices of men with hair longer than that of their female partners nor of women who refused to wear a certain undergarment, whom I am sure they regarded as “loose women.” 

I am unclear if their negative feelings toward certain members of the younger generation was in regard to their perceived use of illegal drugs or perhaps their unwillingness to secure longterm employment. I suspect both characteristics contributed to my parents’ attitude that these may be people of unacceptably low morals.

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Both of my parents were children and young adults of the Great Depression, and given that experience, they understood the value of hard work and providing for themselves and their families and could not condone the communal nature of the hippie culture, nor could they accept that anyone would choose to live in poverty when other choices were available.

For that reason, when my brother made his request to our parents to visit the site of the Rainbow Family’s gathering, an assemblage of folks completely different from themselves, I knew with one hundred percent certainty that my parents would deny that request. I was also sure that a lecture, the topic of which would be something along the lines of not associating with drug users and lazy hippies, would also be forthcoming.

So, I was astonished, no I was flabbergasted, when I heard my mother say, “I guess that would be okay. It might be a good experience for you to see how other people live.” She then looked at my father, possibly for confirmation, but he called her “The Boss” (not in her presence, of course) for good reason, and just shrugged, as if to say, “Why not?”

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My brother could not go alone, of course, and generally at that time in our lives, where Bob went, so did I; and for reinforcements, our neighbors Bruce Johnson (Crow) and his older sister, Janet, also made up the foursome who, one summer afternoon, loaded into our small SUV, before that acronym became popular, and drove the short distance to Pass Creek near Limestone Mountain. 

I can’t speak for the others, but I will never forget my observations of human behavior that day. Keep in mind this scenario occurred many years ago, and over that much time what really happened and what I think happened may have blended together to form memories that may not be completely accurate, but they are my memories.

Anyway, when we arrived at the location, we parked in what appeared to be the designated parking area, near all the other vehicles, all of which had out of state license plates; and then we were directed to walk along a four-wheel drive trail up a slight grade to the campground, where we were sure all the interesting behavior would happen. 

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We did as instructed. If nothing else, our parents taught us to be compliant. We were soon on our way to what we could not guess, but could only imagine. However, we didn’t have to wait long to observe behavior we could not foresee. 

Part way to our destination, we encountered a gentleman walking down the path toward us without a stitch of clothing on except for a pair of worn dirty sandals. As embarrassed as I was, and I was really embarrassed, Janet, who was around the age of seventeen, was measurably more so than any of the rest of us. 

Growing up, we were corrected by our parents whenever we stared at human behavior we found interesting (“Don’t stare! What will people think?”), and we were trying to follow those teachings, but were failing miserably. The unclad fellow continued strolling past us to some unknown destination without even glancing our way or acknowledging our presence, which was just as well.

Collecting ourselves, we continued on our way and in a short time, came upon a loose assemblage of people, tents, and campfires arranged in the most haphazard manner one can imagine. 

Over there, just outside a small tipi, a young couple seemed to be arguing loudly in front of everybody, which was new behavior for me. When my parents argued, it was usually behind closed doors and somewhat subdued lest their children become scarred. Even more interesting, none of their “family” members were paying the slightest bit of attention to the loud exchange of opinions. 

Unlike the unclothed gent mentioned earlier, this couple were wearing enough clothing to cover up the essentials. Picture an image, if you will, had that not been the case. Most situations do contain a silver lining if one looks closely enough.

Closer to us, sitting around a fire, were a couple of lads, not too many years older than me, and they seemed to be passing a hand rolled cigarette back and forth, the odor of which I could not identify, having never encountered marijuana smoke before; and they seemed to be smoking it in a manner unlike any cigarette I had ever seen any of the adults with whom I knew perform the same task. 

What puzzled me most was that, although there was no conversation between the two, both young men were smiling broadly, as if sharing an unspoken but rather amusing anecdote. Curious behavior, indeed.

Shortly thereafter, we made the collective decision that we had experienced enough human behavior to last us the rest of the afternoon, and so we retraced our steps back to our vehicle. I cannot remember our conversation recounting our observations on the return trip back to Lander, but I sure it was insightful.

When we arrived home, my brother and I knew that we would be asked to recap our experience to our parents, and we also knew that discretion would be called for so that our parents’ decision to let us go would not be regretted. When that question was asked, our answer went something like this, “It was kinda boring, really. Just a bunch of people camping together on the mountain.”

I think they sensed that we were not offering them the complete picture of our experience, but they were also wise enough not to question us further. We came back home unscathed, and they knew, as all good parents do, that sometimes they don’t have to know everything.

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