From the time he was a child, what made Owsley unique was his extraordinary family background and the power of his mind. His grandfather, also named Augustus Owsley Stanley, was a trust-busting Democratic congressman from Kentucky who spent twelve years in the House of Representatives. Elected governor in 1915, he became a United States senator and served on the commission that oversaw construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Owsley adored his grandfather, but his relationship with his parents was difficult. "Neither one of them really wanted to be parents," he says. "They had no skills at it. If you feel you can't love someone and you are universally told that you must love, you become very guilty."
After the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington was blown out from under Owsley's father during the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War II, he began drinking heavily and became a lifelong alcoholic. When Owsley was eight, his parents separated and his mother took him to Los Angeles. Three years later, she sent him back to Virginia to live with his father. Owsley says that psychological problems made him "unmanageable in the public-school system," so his father enrolled him in Charlotte Hall, a military prep school in Maryland. The headmaster later told High Times magazine that he remembered Owsley as "almost like a brainchild, a wunderkinder, tremendously interested in science." Even then, Owsley was possessed by what he calls "this rogue, get-high nature of mine" and was expelled in ninth grade for smuggling alcohol into school during homecoming weekend, getting virtually every student on campus "blasted out of their minds."
When he was fifteen, Owsley spent fifteen months as a voluntary patient in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where the poet Ezra Pound was also confined. "I was just a neurotic kid," he says. "My mother died a few months into the experience, but it was there I sorted out my guilt problems about not being able to love my parents, and I came out of it pretty clear." After leaving the public high school, where his physics teacher gave him a D for pointing out that she had contradicted the textbook, he attended the University of Virginia for a year. "I never took notes when I was in college," he says. "During the first week of the course, I'd buy my textbooks and read them all through. Then I'd sell them all back to the bookstore at full price as if I'd changed classes, because I never needed to look at them again."
Over the course of the next fourteen years, Owsley — known to his friends as "Bear" because of his prematurely hairy chest as a teenager — enlisted in the Air Force, became a ham- radio operator, obtained a first-class radiotelephone operator's license, worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and served as a summer-relief broadcast engineer at TV and radio stations in Los Angeles. He married and divorced twice, fathered two children and got himself arrested on a variety of charges. He also studied ballet, Russian and French.
In 1963, Owsley moved to Berkeley so he could take classes at the university, where the student protest movement was growing. A year later, Mario Savio made his historic Free Speech Movement address from atop a police car to student protesters gathered outside Sproul Hall. In Berkeley, as well as across the bay in Palo Alto, young people seeking a new way to live had begun using LSD to break down conventional social barriers. Until then, the drug had been available in America only to those conducting serious medical research. In 1959, the poet Allen Ginsberg took LSD for the first time, at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto. A year later, the novelist Ken Kesey was given acid at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park as part of a federally funded program in which volunteers were paid twenty dollars a session to ingest hallucinogens. Taking acid soon became the watermark. Until you had tripped, you were not part of the new culture. But before Owsley came along, no one could be sure that what they were taking was really even LSD.
In Berkeley, Owsley began smoking pot and selling "Heavenly Blue" morning-glory seeds (250 for a dollar), which served to get people "not high but weird" when taken in great quantity. In April 1964, Owsley took LSD. "I remember the first time I took acid and walked outside," he says, "and the cars were kissing the parking meters." During the same week, he also heard the Beatles for the first time. "It was amazing," he told Jerry Garcia biographer Blair Jackson. "It all seemed to fit together. We had Meet the Beatles! within a few days of it coming out. One of my friends who was a folkie brought it in and said, 'Man, you gotta listen to this!' And I was off and running. I loved it."
Later that year, a friend gave Owsley 400 micrograms of pure LSD manufactured by Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland, where Dr. Albert Hofmann had first synthesized the drug in 1938. At the time, Owsley was living with a Berkeley undergraduate chemistry major named Melissa Cargill. They decided to try to make acid that was "at least as good or better than any pharmaceutical firm." It took Owsley just three weeks in the UC Berkeley library to learn everything he needed to know about the process.
Around this time Owsley also began studying The Kybalion, a book of purported ancient wisdom that elucidates the seven basic principles of alchemy, which he describes as "mental transformation," explaining, "It was never about transforming substances. Those were all allegories. The lead and the gold is the lead of the primitive nature into the gold of the enlightened man. Alchemy didn't talk about lead into gold until it had to deal with the church in the early Middle Ages."
For Owsley, The Kybalion "was perfect because it put into total context all the things I had experienced on acid. The universe is a creation entirely within a being that is outside time and space, and dreaming what we are. Everything is connected, because it's all being created by this one consciousness. And we are tiny reflections of the mind that is creating the universe. That's what alchemy says."
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