Friday, March 4, 2011

well, your railroad gate

Everybody knows about the railroad gate now, of course, but nobody knew about it then.

N and I had built an altar when the album finally arrived. It had taken well over six months by boat to get to Jerusalem and then through customs — and I'd ordered it before it was released in June of 1966. Well now it was spring, 1967, and we'd been waiting all that time for the thing to arrive.

We lit candles. We reverently ingested some of Owsley's finest, and waited patiently before we put the needle down on that precious vinyl. N played a little on his guitar for a while as prelude. And when we were ready, the needle went down.

And then, the moment.

I don't think we moved at all except for turning the records over. It was a double album! And I don't think we breathed at all until we heard that fateful line:

Well, your railroad gate, y'know I just can't jump it ...

We both jumped when we heard it. We knew that gate.

We grabbed our cameras and headed up the hill that divided Jerusalem at the time. The plan was to photograph the train as it headed right through Bob Dylan's gate.

Right. Pretty stupid, I know.

A man was running up the hill after us screaming in Hebrew, "No, no, it's forbidden! STOP!"

Like, right, we were gonna stop.

"If you don't get away from there," he threatened us, "I'm going to call the Police." Pretty over the top, don't you think?

We could see he had a uniform on, so we thought well, maybe we should at least respond. But the uniform turned out to be for the gas station he worked at the bottom of the hill. So of course we blew him off. Besides, we could hear the train coming. N got out his camera and snapped away.

And when we turned to head down hill, sure enough the cops were there and we were arrested.

"Give us your film," the cops demanded.

We were being arrested for taking pictures of Bob Dylan's railroad gate.

I mean, even Owsley couldn't have conjured that one up, right? The film in that camera was becoming more precious by the minute. No way we were giving it up.

We were brought to the director of the program we were studying at.

"Give the police your camera," the director said, not expecting much.

I remember that we giggled, but I could be wrong.

Turned out we weren't under arrest. Yet. Turned out these cops didn't have the authority to arrest us. They were just cops.

No, apparently what was needed was Mossad, or the military police. Something like that.

So they brought us outside in front of our Institute to wait for the paddy wagon to arrive. But by then we were starting to get the munchies. N complained loudly about missing lunch.

The cops bought us some ice cream on a stick. Vanilla on the inside. Chocolate on the outside. Which just makes you thirsty. Torture.

At that point I remembered that I had my camera with me too.

"Can I take pictures of us getting arrested?" Chutzpah, right? But I was so polite.

Nobody thought that seemed strange for some reason. The cops started posing. They put us in the cop car, back seat, front seat, me on the walkie-talkie, eating ice cream. Yah. Big smile, everybody. And then the paddy wagon arrived.

They threw us in the back, and we waved the cops goodbye. And off we went. There were tall stone walls and a huge gate which swung open as our wagon arrived. And those big iron gates closed behind us, with sentries on either side. It looked like an old British fort (not that I'd ever seen an old British fort. I was 18 at the time, and had never seen much of anything).

Inside the stone walls was a huge field, with lots of military and jeep-like vehicles. Everything looked like the color of dust. They drove us to the far end of the field, stopped, and took us out. They grabbed each of us by the arm and brought us into a dank building. Pushed the button and the light for the stairs came on, but it was still pretty dark in there. We climbed up a flight or two of stairs. Stumbling. And they brought us into this room.

There really was just one lightbulb hanging down above a wooden desk. There really was a captain or agent (or whatever they're called) sitting behind that desk with a piece of paper in front of him. And there were two chairs on the other side of the desk. With his eyes he commanded us to sit. We sat. Sentries stayed at the door.

The captain looked at N and barked at him.


Instantly, N handed over his camera.

The captain opened the back and slowly pulled all the film out in a long dark strip, exposing and ruining it all. He handed the camera back to N. And looked at each of us with furrowed brows, scowling.

"WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE," he boomed.

And then he leaning back in his chair.

"And that's why I'm going to tell you this," he said, and paused for emphasis.


And then he proceeded to tell us that the gas station guy wasn't really a gas station guy. And that the gas station wasn't really just a gas station. And that the hill wasn't really a hill, and the railroad gate.... Right, you get the idea.

He told us that munitions were not allowed in Jerusalem at that time, but that they were going to be needed. And so — inevitably — it turned out that N had photographed the hidden munitions at the border between the two Jerusalems. Oops.

But he knew who we were. A couple of American teenagers studying abroad, whose families checked out, I suppose. And so, we were given a ride out of the fort and back to our Institute, and made it in time for dinner.

We played the song again.

Well, I been in jail when all my mail showed
That a man can't give his address out to bad company
And now I stand here lookin' at your yellow railroad
In the ruins of your balcony
Wond'ring where are you tonight, sweet Marie...

And we'd been there. And I've got the photos to prove it. And then came the war that changed everything...

But not before I got picked up by the military police. Again.

In the meantime, N and I went back to our altar, lit more candles, and played Side 4 — but that's another story...


  1. Postscript:

    Today, of course, you couldn't possibly control photographs the way you could back then. You couldn't have such a jocular exchange with members of the Jerusalem police force. And today, we are unlikely to have emerged from that dank military outpost entirely unscathed.

    But we two, no matter how innocent our original intention, were nevertheless shifted dramatically in our direction. Now we were awake. And paying attention.

  2. I think today you would get away with exactly the same thing but you would have to be 18 and innocent again.