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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Just a Shot Away

Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont

Saul Austerlitz

Thomas Dunne Books



There had been a fire. The walls were scorched, and scrub as they might, they could not quite get the stain out. The day I was scheduled to first interview Dixie Ward, after six months of planning and discussion, I received an email from Ward’s daughter Taammi Parker. Her mother had had a small kitchen fire the night before, and the interview would have to be postponed until later in the day. When I arrived at Ward’s home in Oakland, just off Telegraph Avenue, on a rainy Sunday afternoon in December, her nephew Larry, who is blind, was precariously perched on a stepstool in the kitchen, scrubbing at the white walls with a fistful of paper towels and a bottle of Fantastik.

I waited in the living room while Dixie oversaw the work in the kitchen, looking out at the colorful murals visible just outside the window on her quiet, leafy street, and studying the objets d’art on display: an oversized pocket watch, framed prints of leaves, wooden bookends carved to resemble African tribal masks, and a marble statue of a pearl-clad mother cradling two children. Glass cabinets flanked a mirrored fireplace, with a series of figures pinned to the glass. The figures, on closer inspection, appeared to be running.

That day, Ward and I wound up talking for more than five hours, beginning with my prepared list of questions and proceeding to a more freewheeling conversation. At the end of our interview, I gingerly mentioned that I had gone earlier in the week to visit the grave of her brother, Meredith Hunter. In response to one of my questions, Ward had mentioned that over the years, she had not made a habit of going there: “I don’t go to cemeteries, because I have to go too often. I’m the only one left standing.” I was concerned she might see it as my chiding her for her oversight. But I had wanted her to know that someone had been there, that her brother, dead these forty-six years, was not forgotten.

I took out my iPhone and offered to show Ward some photographs I had taken at the gravesite. She studied them intently, looking at the place only a few miles from her home where her brother was interred, and where she could not bring herself to go. She had had to attend too many funerals, had to face the bleak future too many times from the windswept plateau of an unfilled grave. Each time had been like the end of a world, and the pain of each loss accrued, one piling atop the other in an endless pyramid of grief: her first husband, her mother, her siblings, and above all, her brother, snatched away violently at the age of eighteen. He would never become a man, never raise children, never make a life for himself. And Dixie would have to carry on without him.

* * *

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Jordan Davis. The news had been full of the stories of young black men (and black boys) who had been killed, each of them targeted for death by overzealous police officers or crusading self-appointed vigilantes. There was a renewed debate rocketing around the country, impassioned and tragically necessary once more, over the value of young African-American lives. Visiting Meredith Hunter’s grave, speaking to his sister, watching the video footage of the last moments of his life furnished to me by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, I was reminded that this was hardly a new story. We had come so far as a country, and yet we still acted out these miniature dramas of racial discord and violent backlash.

The week prior had been the forty-sixth anniversary of Altamont, and of Hunter’s death, stabbed by a Hells Angel at a free Rolling Stones concert intended to be the West Coast Woodstock. Altamont’s story had often been told as a musical tragedy, or a cultural one, but its epicenter was not to be found at the speedway, now a derelict ruin, or the Haight-Ashbury, but here in this living room. Here was where the catastrophe of Altamont had taken root. Here was where the story of Meredith Hunter’s all-too-brief life and horrific death had lived for nearly half a century, untold and unrecognized.

Talking to Dixie Ward, feeling her still-raw anguish, reminded me of Lucia McBath. McBath was the mother of Jordan Davis, shot and killed by a middle-aged white man after an argument over loud music in a Florida gas station. The man, Michael Dunn, had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (a notably different outcome from many of these other cases), and McBath had addressed her son’s murderer in court at the sentencing hearing: “For me, there will be no college graduation. For me, there will be no daughter-in-law. For me, there will be no grandchildren. For me, there will be no future generation to carry on the heritage of mine. For me, there is only the hope I cling to that I will walk hand-in-hand with Jordan again when I come home to heaven to rest.” Here was another African-American woman left to live her life wrestling with an absence. She was haunted by the life unlived. There were so many things her brother had never had the chance to do.

For decades, Altamont had served as a shorthand version of the story of the counterculture formed in the Bay Area in the 1960s, or of the violence endemic to American life during that decade. It was a symbol, a totem that could serve as a free-floating indictment of the hippies, or the Hells Angels, or the Rolling Stones. What it almost never was was a story about an African-American family whose son and brother and uncle was snatched away from them by violent men who had been pledged to protect him. The story of Altamont was, as so many American stories were, about the fundamental trauma of race. A black man had gone somewhere white men did not want him to be, and had never come home.

Meredith Hunter was a familiar name to students of the 1960s, or those who had lived through the turbulent decade, but his was a name with no face, no body. He was just another forgotten black man, killed in part for his presumption to equality in an American republic that often sought to deny him that right. Jordan Davis or Michael Brown could have been Meredith Hunter’s grandsons, had he been granted the chance to live. They were reminders, on this rainy December afternoon, that the promise of America had not yet been fulfilled for everyone, that some were protected while others were at the mercy of the elements.

* * *

When I had driven up from Los Angeles, earlier that week, and pulled through the gate of Skyview Memorial Lawn in Vallejo, twenty-five miles north of Oakland, I had swiftly realized that the information I had in hand for the grave’s location—Lot 63, Grave C—was not enough to find Meredith Hunter’s final resting place. After a helpful cemetery employee pointed me in the right direction, I walked down a sloping hill in the mostly bare cemetery—no burbling fountains, no benches, no crypts, no real décor to speak of—and wound up standing under the shade of a willow tree whose drooping branches shaded the grave from the afternoon sun. I had been told that Hunter’s grave was unmarked, and was given the name of Madeleine De Vos to steer by. When I came to De Vos’s gravestone, I would know that Hunter’s would be the next one above it.

As it turned out, Hunter’s grave, which had once been unmarked, now did have a stone. Still, finding De Vos was the easiest mode of navigation, and my eye settled on the small pot of purple-and-white flowers resting on her grave. “1904–2005,” her gravestone read, a reminder of the span of a full life.

I knew nothing of Madeleine De Vos, but her 101 years were a tangible aide-mémoire. I was surrounded by people who had lived full lives, spanning the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first, but I was here to visit someone who would be, tragically, forever young. Flower petals dripped onto the ground, and the only sound came from the cawing of crows and the distant hush of cars on Interstate 780. I stood there silently for a number of minutes, taking in the final resting place of a man who had been dead nearly three times as long as he had lived. For an exceedingly brief moment, the name of Meredith Hunter had been on the lips of practically every young person in America. Now, he was just the answer to a trivia question, a dimly remembered name from the past.

There was something especially melancholy about an unvisited grave, a place intended for memory that no one remembered. I knew Hunter’s family still kept Meredith’s memory alive, but this place stood as an erasure of an erasure, a forgotten place for a forgotten man. I decided to find a stone to leave on Hunter’s grave. In Jewish tradition, cemetery visitors leave behind stones as a marker of memory. The stone is an indication that the dead are not forgotten. We would go on remembering for as long as the stone itself would go on existing.

I placed my Mets cap atop my head and recited the words of the kaddish—the ritual prayer for the dead. The recitation of the kaddish ended with two fervent wishes that were all the more poignant for being so rarely fulfilled: “Y’hei shlama raba min-sh’maya v’chayim aleinu v’al-kol-yisrael, v’im’ru: amen. Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol-yisrael, v’imru: amen.” (“May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, amen. He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, amen.”) The words, repeated so regularly they had become rote, took on special significance for me. I fervently wished that Meredith Hunter, whose life had ended so abruptly, and with such violence, had found some measure of peace in death. More than that, I hoped that his family might, too.

The Rolling Stones at Altamont. (Courtesy of Robert Altman)

* * *

Dixie handed back my phone and quietly asked if it would be possible for her to have a copy of the photos. Dixie did not have a smartphone or an email account, so I offered to plug my phone into her computer and upload them there. I sat at a small desk in the kitchen while Larry bustled behind me, scouring the scorch marks. I sought unsuccessfully to get Dixie’s computer to find my iPhone, and eventually just emailed the photos to myself, opened them in my Gmail account on her computer, and saved them to the hard drive in a new folder I labeled “Meredith’s gravesite.” While I was at work, Dixie glanced over my shoulder, directing my attention to a folder on her desktop. In it were JPEGs of family snapshots that had been lovingly scanned and collected.

The folder only held twenty or so pictures, but they spanned generations, taking in the sweep of a family’s journey from Texas to California, and the story of a life foreshortened. There was Meredith and Dixie’s mother, Altha Anderson, as a child, and, later, as a woman, staring at the camera with bloodshot eyes from the seat of a barstool; there was Meredith as a baby, Meredith in a cap and gown. The folder of photos felt empty, lacking all the pictures that should have been: Meredith as a young man, Meredith in middle age, Meredith in recent years. They were a reminder that there were no pictures of Meredith’s children, or of his grandchildren. He had been denied the chance to pass a part of himself on to the next generation.

Dixie’s house was a repository of memory, a place where the family’s past lingered on. Sometimes this was metaphorical; mostly, it was quite literal. Dixie led me into the dining room, where a glass cabinet was stuffed with elegant dishware and silver. It was all, she told me, unwanted. Her mother had collected these things, all these markers of elegance that might prove life was not quite so brutal as it might otherwise seem. Altha had saved them, and now she was gone. Dixie was stuck with her mother’s treasures, stuck with the unusable past. They were her inheritance, constant reminders of how tiring the journey had been. Now more than seventy years old, she was worn down by a life of unending crisis. Being asked about Meredith—his death, and his life—was a reminder of what she had lived through, and each repetition was another descent into the depths of the past. But it would have to be endured. Her brother had died, and it was important that someone remember.

Dixie returned to the figures near the fireplace, which she mentioned she had found to decorate the living room cabinets. Only after having them for some years did she realize they were running—running just as her brother had. Every time Dixie looked at her reflection in her living room, she also saw this mute runner gazing back at her, a tiny apparition reminding her of all she had lost.

She had never watched the footage of her brother’s last moments, the footage that was all anyone outside her family had seen of Meredith Hunter’s life. But in her head, she could see him there, could feel his terror and shock, could see him running for his life. Some stains, Dixie Ward knew, could not be scrubbed away.

* * *

The story of the Altamont festival would become forever intertwined with that of Meredith Hunter, the eighteen-year-old who attended the concert and never came home. Hunter’s fate would come to stand in for a nearly endless array of dashed hopes, foiled dreams, and crushed expectations. The late 1960s offered the promise of inevitable social and cultural change, and music was at the white-hot center of that promise. Music was to be the linchpin of progress, and everyone involved in Altamont, from the musicians to the organizers to the attendees, knew it.

Instead, Altamont became an easy symbol of the failings of that hopeful time. Hunter’s fate would represent the idealism and naïveté of a lost moment in American history, one that summoned three hundred thousand young men and women to a racetrack fifty miles east of San Francisco for their encounter with destiny. That the encounter would prove to be nothing like what they had imagined would be Meredith Hunter’s tragedy above all, but it would also form the untold stories of so many others who turned up to hear the Rolling Stones perform on December 6, 1969.

Copyright © 2018 by Saul Austerlitz