Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2020
In the summer of 1966 I moved to Washington, DC, to take a job I’d been offered at the Smithsonian Institution as a biological illustrator. I’d been making detailed paintings and pen and ink drawings of insects, birds, and animals since grade school. I was getting published regularly in wildlife magazines around the country, starting while I was still in high school.
In college at Virginia Tech I had a job making drawings of insects for scientific papers written by one of the entomologists there, and was becoming well known in the small population of professional biological illustrators, while studying biology.
I’d become sort of a pen pal with Andre Pizzini, one of the Smithsonian artists, who became my mentor, and helped me get the job there.
So that’s when and why I moved to DC. This was in the American social catharsis that was 1960s, when the civil rights movement was going full bore, the protests against the Vietnam war were accelerating, music was transitioning from Elvis to The Beatles to acid rock, and all of American society was in foment.
The despised Lyndon B. Johnson was president, followed by the even more hated Richard Nixon.
We were asking ourselves why, in idealistic America, we had a two tiered society, with blacks as second-class citizens. “White Only” signs were on restrooms, restaurants, and in other places. We were drafting our young men and shipping them off to southeast Asia to be slaughtered. Country Joe was singing the “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” — “And you can be the first ones on your block to have your boy come home in a box.”. Many of my high school friends were drafted and some did come home in boxes. All for a stupid war the US should never have gotten itself mired up in.
I got caught up in the protest fever. I joined protests, picketed the White House, was teargassed on the lawn of the Pentagon, holding and calming a hysterical friend. Saw soldiers lined up in front of that imposing building to guard it from us, unarmed kids. Saw those same soldiers. break down in tears when girls put flowers in the barrels of their rifles. They were no older than us, didn’t want to be there, caught up in an idiotic confrontation.
The Smithsonian Institution was created by a gift to the United States from James Smithson, an Englishman who never set foot in America. He left us a fortune in his will to create, “in Washington,DC, an institution for the increase and dissemination of knowledge among men.”
Unfortunately, the Smithsonian depends on Congress for funding, Smithson’s money having run out long ago. Projects I was working on often lost their funding, and I bounced from job to job, working for a while at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland, just outside DC, drawing mosquitoes for the Southeast Asia Mosquito Research Project, that I learned was a CIA front when the Washington Post outed it. So I actually worked for the CIA for a while, although I was never a “spook.”
Please remember that America in the 1960s was like an alien planet compared to today. Many years of inflation hadn’t yet made the dollar practically worthless like it is today. Gasoline was less than 25 cents a gallon, an expensive car was under four thousand dollars and you could get a hamburger for fifteen cents and a bottle of Coke for a dime. I paid fifty bucks for my first serious camera, a used Nikon F with lens and a separate handheld light meter. That was a significant investment for me, since the museum projects paid me sixty bucks a week, which also happened to be the monthly rent on my big, two-bedroom apartment in central DC.
The sex, drugs, and rock and roll movement was in full flower, and I leaped in with both feet, going through a succession of live-in girlfriends, popping psychedelics, which were still legal, and going to rock concerts.
Some people I knew had bought an old movie theater, the Ambassador Theater near Georgetown, and tore out the seats, leaving a bare concrete floor. They brought in west coast bands like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and many more, plus local bands like The Andorene, and had an elaborate light show projected behind the bands on the old movie screen. Since I knew the people, I never paid admission, and was there just about every weekend.
For live music, there was also the Merryweather Post Pavilion just outside DC, founded by the Post cereal fortune heirs, which was an outdoor theater, with seating and overflow onto a big lawn. I listened to Ravi Shankar there, and folk groups like Peter, Paul and Mary.
I was making Beardsley-esque pen and ink drawings of nudes for the Washington Free Press, an underground newspaper of the day, doing art on commission for anyone who’d pay me, and living well, but not extravagantly. When I was between grants I’d head up to New York City and hang out with people I knew, taking in the East Village scene, going to concerts by groups like The Velvet Underground, The Grateful Dead, The Mothers of Invention, The Fugs, Pearls Before Swine, Bob Dylan and many others. I was in my twenties and enjoying life to its fullest.
In 1968, for reasons I no longer remember, I moved to Richmond, Virginia, and lived in “the fan,” the area near Virginia Commonwealth University, where my cousin, the same age as me, was living. We’d grown up more like brothers than cousins, and many who knew us in school thought we were brothers. I lived with him and his wife until I found an apartment of my own and was happy in Richmond until early summer of 1969, when the apartment I shared with four others was raided by the Richmond police. One man, who was visiting from DC had one marijuana “joint” in his pocket, and they arrested all six of us for possession! Marijuana possession was a felony back then, and we could have been given up to thirty years, but we all got three years each, suspended. That meant being on probation for five years. That was my first brush with the American “justice system.”
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read Bob Shell’s, first essay on civil war, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/parole-denied/
Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on Amazon.com . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Amazon.com.