Years before Jerry Garcia was the founder of the Grateful Dead and a hero of the hippie generation, he spent some time as a member of the United States Army. So the story goes, Garcia borrowed his mother’s car in 1960 and, as a punishment, was compelled by his parents to enlist.
As Garcia explained in a 1972 Rolling Stone interview conducted by founder/publisher Jann Wenner and Dr. Charles Reich, “[In the late 1950s,] we moved out of town up to Cazadero, which is up by the Russian River, and I went to a high school for about a year, did really badly, finally quit and joined the Army. I decided I was going to get away from everything. Yeah, [I was] seventeen. I joined the Army, smuggled my guitar in.”
He continued, “I lasted nine months in the Army. I was at Fort Ord for basic training and then they transferred me to the Presidio in San Francisco, Fort Winfield Scott, a beautiful, lovely spot in San Francisco, overlooking the water and the Golden Gate Bridge and all that and these neat old barracks and almost nothing to do. It started me into the acoustic guitar; up until that time I had been mostly into electric guitar, rock & roll and stuff.”
While Garcia seemed to look back on his time in the Army with a note of nostalgia in that piece, official documents filed by his commanding officer in 1960 tell a different (albeit unsurprising) story about Private Jerome Garcia: He was the Army’s worst nightmare.
Images of Jerry Garcia’s official Army personnel files have made the rounds on social media thanks to Eric Schwartz of Lone Star Dead Radio and writer/noted Deadhead, Steve Silberman, who have highlighted various excerpts of the 99-page file that are undoubtedly amusing to anyone who became acquainted with Jerry’s work and persona after 1960.
In one document, a letter from Garcia’s commanding officer, Captain John H. Downey, Jr., reads, “I am aware that this man has had three battery punishments and one summary court-martial during his relatively short period of assignment to this unit. On 10 November 1960, I personally interviewed Garcia to determine whether he could be persuaded to make an effort to cooperate with me if I gave him another opportunity to prove himself. However, Garcia indicated to me on the 10th of November 1960, that he had no desire to improve himself as a soldier, and that a change of duty assignment or even a change in unit assignment would have no bearing on his present defective attitude toward military life, and that he was only interested in getting out of the Army as soon as possible.”
Continued Captain Downey, “During my association with the respondent in this unit, I have found Garcia to be unreliable, irresponsible, immature, unwilling to accept authority, and completely lacking in soldierly qualities. … His conduct is unsatisfactory and his efficiency is unsatisfactory. … I predict that if this man remains in the military service … his character and behavior disorders will become more evident and quantitative.”
In another statement in his file, First Sergeant Walter L. Heller had similarly unflattering things to say about Private Garcia: “During the first two weeks of his assignment here, Garcia came to my attention because of his personal uncleanliness and the filthy condition of his personal billeting area in the barracks. I counseled and advised his squad leader and platoon sergeant that improvement was necessary. Shortly thereafter, Garcia was punished under Article 15 of the Code for willful disobedience of an NCO, and this seemed to set off a chain of behavior disorders on the part of Garcia. … In my opinion, Garcia should be eliminated from the service … without delay.”
More evidence that Jerry Garcia was not cut out to be a soldier, but was meant for… other things. pic.twitter.com/8yV5SUiuo3
— Steve Silberman (@stevesilberman) July 9, 2020
Luckily for his commanding officers, Private Jerome Garcia was given a general discharge on December 14, 1960. Soon after, Garcia met a very important ally: Robert Hunter. As Jerry explains in the 1972 Rolling Stone piece, “That’s the period of time I met (Robert) Hunter. Immediately after I got out of the Army. Hunter, who is like a really good friend of mine all this time, he’d just gotten out of the Army—he had an old car and I had an old car when I got out of the Army, and we were in East Palo Alto sort of coincidentally. There was a coffeehouse, ’cause of Stanford, university town and all that, and we were hanging out at the coffeehouse and ran into each other.”
That encounter blossomed into a friendship, which in turn grew into a collaborative artistic relationship: “We had our two cars in an empty lot in East Palo Alto where they were both broken. Neither of them ran anymore but we were living in them. Hunter had these big tins of crushed pineapple that he’d gotten from the Army, like five or six big tins, and I had this glove compartment full of plastic spoons, and we had this little cooperative scene eating this crushed pineapple day after day and sleeping in the cars and walking around. He played a little guitar, we started singin’ and playin’ together just for something to do. And then we played our first professional gig. We got five bucks apiece.”
Soon enough, as we now know, that little scene turned into a big scene and that little collaboration turned into the glowing ember at the heart of the Grateful Dead. Private Garcia became Captain Trips and the rest, as they say, is a long strange trip toward history.
You can peruse Jerry Garcia’s full military personnel file here.