I first met Tony Hempstead twelve years ago, on my first day at the University of Texas in 1970. We were both on the floor of Gregory Gym, trying to pick out the classes we wanted to attend and create a workable schedule. It was 103o outside and even hotter inside. The giant box fans were moving air around but moving really hot air didn’t seem to alleviate the problem.
I was trying to decide on a course that could work into the schedule. I had already attempted to get several courses and found out they were full and had no availability. I was down to trying for Russian 401 at 8 AM M/W/F or an Egyptian Art Class that met Tuesday Thursday at 1:30 PM. I only needed one class. I didn’t care which, though I knew my dad would freak if I took Russian so I was hoping it was available. And, eventually as a Math and Physics major I would need foreign language courses before I could graduate.
A hand tapped my shoulder. A short man with stringy black hair stood there. “Can I see your course guide?” he asked. “I just missed getting my class. Now I’ve got to find another and my course guide is back in my room.”
He was Tony Hempstead and he was from Houston, trying to stay in school and away from the University of Southeast Asia – Hanoi campus where so many non-students of our age were studying. I passed the book up to him. “My name’s John Charles Canales,” I said, extending a hand. “What are you considering?”
“I’m thinking my old man might freak if I took Russian,” he said. “He’s a retired E7 from the Army and he would just shit a brick if I took it. Sounds kinda cool, too. Dots feedonya! Means ‘Goodbye’. Letters are weird, but what the Hell! It is the language of Math and Science and Diplomacy right now.”
“I’m considering that myself,” I said. “Want to go down in Cyrillic flames together?”
He considered it for a second. “Absolutely,” he replied and off we went to find that the Russian class had plenty of room, particularly with that early a class time.
I worked hard in that class, eventually squeezing out a C. The first one of those I had ever gotten in my life. The letters were hard for me. With English characters I can see a word and have a fair idea of how it is pronounced. With the Russian, I had to sound out every letter like a preschooler first learning to read, which is sort of what I was. Tony quit attending the class in October, just after Texas –OU Weekend.
It was a wonderful time to be young and in Austin. We protested the war regularly and marched in the street. We got tear-gassed on a semi-regular basis. We saw concerts by everyone of any importance, sometimes for free. We got stoned. Often. We drove my small green Gremlin, the Green Goblin, all over the state watching the University football and baseball teams.
We lived in a small house off campus after that first year and got involved in local politics. We worked trash jobs and were frequently broke; we stayed up until 4 AM playing bridge and Risk during Finals Week. Somewhere I changed majors to Accounting. We took six years to complete four year programs. In short, we had the time of our lives.
Eventually Tony met Inez and moved in with her, which was fine with me. My girlfriend Pat didn’t like Tony much anyway and Inez for sure did not like me. So we drifted apart for a while.
I got a job in Houston, Pat got one in Dallas. We went different ways with the idea of finding out who won the best job and then getting back together. Six months into my job I got a wedding invitation from her. I guess she won.
Houston didn’t work out so I moved back to Austin, taking an accounting job with the State of Texas. Not a great job or great pay but a nice leisurely atmosphere. And, it pretty much required an act of Congress to lose that job. Once you had it, you had it for life. Regular hours, lots of holidays and time off. State jobs, you gotta love them.
So it went for a while. I got a new girlfriend, Janice. Then Mickey and Eileen after that. Karen and others followed. It continued that way until Tony returned. I was dating Lora then.
I was sleeping in that Saturday morning. I was hoping for a quiet weekend doing very little. I wanted to catch a film, listen to some music, and maybe check up on Lora for dinner. My clock radio had gone off and I was listening to it while still half asleep. I became aware of a small pressure on my chest. Thinking it was one of the cats, I ignored it, keeping my eyes shut, hoping that I could doze off one more time. Suddenly, the weight shifted and began dancing to "Light My Fire" (the long version, not the wimpy single track). When I cracked open an eyelid, there was this white rat dancing on my chest. (Except he wasn’t really white.) He was a light purple paisley in places.
I screamed and threw the covers one way while exiting the bed on the opposite side. I called for the cats, cursing them for not being mousers. I looked for a broom to swat the beastie. The rat crawled out from beneath the covers and stood on its hind legs. It balled a front paw into a fist and began to squeak at me. Then it stuck out a single digit in a universal signal.
I looked closely at the rat and took a deep breath. It was an ordinary laboratory rat, about three inches long. Or so I thought. The rat blew some smoke at me and then he spoke. I recognized the smell of the smoke.
"About damn time you woke up, Charly, old chum. We got lots of work to do today and it's already damn near noon."
Now, I do not answer to "Charly". Period. I am strictly John (not JC, John Boy, or anything else) and have been ever since I got out of college. And, no one (I mean, no one) ever called me Charly or even “old chum” except Tony Hempstead. He was also fond of calling me “Chuck” or in weird moods “Chuckles”. I stuck my finger out toward the rat and poked it in the stomach. It turned out to be solid and fell right on over.
"Not fair, Charly. You're way bigger than me. C'mon, get up and let's us go bite a bean. I'm hungry and I need to eat a lot! I got the metabolism of a rat. Scurry, scurry, eat, eat, scurry. What a life!"
I poked the rat again. "Bite a bean" was another signature Tony phrase. "Tony, is that you? I mean, really you?"
The rat cocked his head at me. "The one and freakin’only. In the fur and that rah-rah. Now, can we go eat?" He turned away from me and headed toward the edge of the bed. When he got there, he jumped off and I watched the tail trailing behind him. He marched toward the kitchen. I followed, not quite sure of what was happening.
“Tony,” I said, “Not to belabor the obvious but you appear to be a small white and purple paisley lab rat. I don’t think I’m stoned though I smelled some pot a little earlier and I do not appear to be dreaming, so what’s going on here?”
“Food first, then history,” he said.
Tony began his story while munching on some Cheerios. “After Inez split, I sort of drifted along for a while – Dallas, Lubbock, Wichita Falls. Finally ran into Jerry Lawrence one day in Sonora. You remember Jerry? Always had some great shit. He and I were indulging in some chemical alterations to our perceptions of the universe while he showed me his lab. Guy was a fricking Chemistry major! I never knew that. He had a great set up out in Sonora where he was working for some Chemical Company from Houston. Anyway, he had a little greenhouse out there with some incredible foliage of the hemp variety. He showed me some seed he had developed. Damn things are the size of an apple seed.
“Plant it, water it and watch. Within seconds you see shoots coming out of the ground and a fully developed plant is there before you know it. ‘Super Grass’, he called it. Sweet and mellow too. We had to do a little quality control work you know.
“Later when we had come down a little, he showed me the lab and some blotter acid he was developing. When I took the acid it had a really weird effect. The universe swirled kind of like 2001: A Space Odyssey only wilder and faster. Then, I passed out. When I woke up I found myself like this, in the body of one of the lab rats. My human body was still there, just sitting slack-jawed while I was fully aware and operational here in the rodent form. Jerry and I tried to reverse the mind transference. All he could think was that it must have had something to do with the combination of acid and Super Grass and a small peyote button I had taken just before we had met up.”
“Peyote button! Jesus, Tony!”
“Well, I wanted the meeting to be … you know … interesting. Nothing we tried could reverse the process. I even took the same combination of stuff but all that happened was I acquired the ability to change the color of my fur just by thinking about it. I can fade into the background like a chameleon or I can stand out like a shining beacon.” While he spoke, he matched the color of the countertop effectively fading away and then stood there pulsing in bright rainbow colors. “Oh, I can produce some amazing smoke when I chew the Super Grass seeds.” He ate a seed, exhaled and suddenly I was ten years younger, listening to early Cream music and remembering a fabulous light show, wild pulsing colors all around.
We sat around all day reminiscing. Tony put away an amazing amount of junk food for a rat. I guess he did have a weird metabolism though it still took only a little beer to get him drunk on his butt.
We watched Japanese monster movies for a day then switched to cartoons. We saw a Disney cartoon about Johnny Appleseed and that was when our lives changed forever.
Tony sat up and said, “That’s it, man! That’s what we need to do.”
“What do we need to do?” I asked.
“I’ve got a supply of Super Grass seeds from Jerry. We should get the rest and wander the country, spreading it out and letting everyone get a little mellow and stoned.”
“An interesting proposition, but won’t the Russians or someone invade us and enslave us and rape the women while we’re all happy and incapacitated?”
“No, I don’t think so. You been listening to President Ray Guns again. They’ll probably join in as soon as they get here. Troops are troops and young guys make up the majority of the force. They see weed, they’ll smoke. And, if we do it right, they’ll see weed everywhere. Same with the Chinese troops.”
“And we won’t do just the US. We’ll do Europe and Asia and China, too. And Viet Nam, for Christ’s sake. The whole freaking world will really be … freaking. Peace, Love, and Understanding. One giant hippie world working together. Maybe then we can build the starship and go cruising out to the stars, like Grace and Paul wanted us to.”
I looked at myself in the mirror. Gone was the suit, white button down shirt and tie. The beard was raggedy and so was the hair. If the beard had been a little fuller, I might have passed for one of those portraits of Jesus. Good old JC, same as me.
I had an industrial strength pouch slung over my shoulder, filled with the Super Grass seed. We had been out to Sonora and visited with Jerry. He had trouble looking Tony in the eye. We checked out Tony’s physical body. Jerry had moved it from the lab and then called the police anonymously. It was taken to a hospital and hooked up to a million wires and tubes. Looked sort of peaceful.
The hospital staff asked me questions which I answered to the best of my ability. They didn’t have a name so I told them this was Tony Hempstead and gave them information on his folks, etc. He looked OK, just not very aware. Tony (the rat) seemed fascinated by the process. He watched the body – his body – with detached ease.
When we left, he looked up at me from my shirt pocket. “They’re going to let him die, you know.” A small tear ran down his fur.
“Him”, I noticed. Not “me”. I found this to be an interesting choice of pronouns.
“There’s not going to be anyone to pay any bills and they will either just taper off feeding him or ‘accidentally’ trip over a plug or something. No one will notice or even care.” Another tear and maybe a slight sniff. “Well, maybe my mom, but not even really her. Tony Hempstead was a loser. But, Tony the rat! Now there’s a winner. Small but powerful. Ready to conquer the world. Bwahh, ha ha ha!”
I shivered involuntarily. Tony felt the shiver. He punched me with his little rat fist. “C’mon. You’ve seen those old B movies and serials. I’m joking with you here. Who ever heard of a white lab rat conquering the world? We can’t conquer the world. They’d stop us from doing that. But … we can sure change it.”
He started dancing slightly and singing a jingle from an earlier time “I’d like to buy the world a Smoke and teach it Harmony …”
I quit my job with the state and removed all my retirement funds. It wasn’t much but it would keep us on the road for a while. Eventually we could trade Super seeds for food and lodging if we needed to do so. So now, we were ready for our first foray into the worlds of Peace, Love, Understanding, Chaos, and Community.
We went to the Governor’s Mansion in Austin. It’s right by the capital and moderately accessible. I wore my long hair, beard, sandals, jeans, tie dye t-shirt, and seed bag. Tony and I were about to change the world. At least, our world and it had the feeling of DESTINY attached to it.
As we approached the building, I noticed that there were Texas Rangers all around. This mansion was old and accessible but it was a historic landmark for the state. Tony was riding in the seed bag, staring out as the world passed before his eyes.
A group of school kids were touring the building, mostly bored, and looking for trouble in ways that would not implicate themselves. Several stared at me. One saw Tony staring from the bag and pointed at him, yelling to his comrades. I had reached into the bag for my first handful of seeds to spread in the front gardens. The closest Ranger saw me with my hand in the bag and began to pull his gun.
“SIR!” he said. “PLEASE REMOVE YOUR HAND FROM THE BAG! Slowly! Raise it where I can see it! One false move and there will be trouble!” Kids began to scatter.
I did as I was told. Tony stayed in the bag. No reason to start a big fight and possibly hurt the children.
With my hands in the air, I dropped the few seeds in them as they cuffed me. “Name?” cried the Ranger.
“You can call me Johnny,” I said.
There were still too many children around, so we were lead to the Ranger station where I was photographed and fingerprinted. The Captain himself came over to talk to me. “They call you Johnny, eh? Johnny What?”
“You can call me Johnny Cannabis,” I said.