July 20, 2011
When we left the Independence Day parade of July 5, 1971, at the end of last week’s column, the "peace float" had just passed our position on upper Main Street while a water balloon, its mathematical vector assured, flew overhead toward its moment of destiny.
With the longtime simmering cultural differences between Park City locals and the burgeoning ski-bum population finally coming to a boil, it didn’t take much of a "butterfly effect" for suppressed tensions to surface.
As I wrote in the Summer 1996 issue of Park City Lodestar Magazine: "It was the time of Vietnam, Nixon, Agnew, the Pentagon Papers, and the Angela Davis Defense Fund." Rampant anti-war sentiment among the younger newcomers butted heads with the more-traditional "my country right or wrong, love-it-or-leave-it" ethic of the older locals.
All who found themselves on Park City’s Main Street that historic midsummer day have their own stories as to how the infamous "riot" evolved. Over the years, more than likely, emotional perspectives have influenced actual memories – including my own recall of the day in question.
The first fisticuffs I witnessed were when an off-duty Park City policeman and his father accosted a newcomer and, while beating him roundly about the head and shoulders, accused him of hitting their wife and mother with a water balloon. Soon, shoving and screaming matches escalated into violence up and down the street as more water balloons filled the air.
John Bircumshaw, a close personal friend during later years but, at that time, a member of the PCPD, appeared next on the scene as his patrol car careened up Main Street to make an arrest. Leaving his door open, he jumped out to collar a "hippie" suspect while a barrage of raining water balloons found their target and entered the vehicle.
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As a crowd of newcomers protesting the impending arrest surrounded the unfolding vortex, the suspect’s girlfriend affixed herself to the officer’s back. An equal amount of locals immediately came to the officer’s aid and the police vehicle was able to leave the scene with suspect in custody.
When locals began chasing down and isolating "longhairs" for early implementation of "enhanced interrogation techniques," I, in possession of a front-door key, quietly slipped into the darkened Crazy Horse Saloon for both shelter-from-the-storm and a shot of Jack Daniel’s.
Outside, the donnybrook continued unabated. Stepping out to capture a few of the more outrageous antics with my Instamatic camera, I caught Town Marshal John McAlevy standing not far from where the Banksy graffito is now while he pondered early retirement.
The town was soon quarantined by roadblocks at Highways 224, 248, and Guardsman Pass as law-enforcement backup arrived from outlying communities. Plans by many of us to journey to Heber in support our local softball team that evening remained in place, however.
Afterwards, we would coalesce around a campfire back in Park City out at "the grove," where Rotary Park is now. I recall brother McGee strumming his guitar and singing Robert Johnson’s "I Got Ramblin’ On My Mind" before stumbling into the fire and, after jumping up, toppling into the creek.
During this time, local vigilantes were going bar to bar on Main Street, tossing out and roughing up longhairs, a state of affairs that gave rise to a hastily called gathering of the hipster tribe the following afternoon at our haunt of choice, the Alamo Saloon.
Proprietor Bob Dean kicked things off by pulling out a shotgun from under the bar and announcing that, furthermore, a repeat of the previous evening’s gang violence would never again be tolerated. All who wished were allowed to air their own views on the previous day’s clash of cultures.
My soon-to-be radio compadre, Dan Wilcox, was one of many who stood up to express a view that there was enough blame to go around for those on both sides of the issue. For the most part, those who remained in town would bond individually throughout the ensuing years as differences softened and both sides began listening to one another.
For a while, however, I found myself toting a baseball bat whenever I walked uptown. Luckily, however, communities, like people, have a way of adjusting. Free will and fisticuffs helped to forge a community. Seems like only yesterday! Forty years in the blink of an eye.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for the past 40 years.