In 1969, John Kay was on a ride with Steppenwolf. And so was Don Clark.
Kay's ride was one that much of America shared vicariously. When Dennis Hopper's seminal biker movie "Easy Rider" hit theaters, it sported Steppenwolf's hit "Born to Be Wild" on the soundtrack, and the song, sung by Kay, fused with the image of actors Hopper and Peter Fonda to create a counterculture landmark.
Meanwhile, half a world away, Clark took a much different journey related to the band. The Costa Mesa resident and his comrades spent a year in Vietnam riding a gunner truck, protecting fellow soldiers in convoys and sometimes exchanging fire with the Viet Cong. Their vehicle's name? Steppenwolf, bestowed by the soldiers who were previously assigned to it.
"We took care of their name for them," Clark says in the living room of his home near the 55 Freeway, where engine roars waft through the open screen door. "Like I said, Steppenwolf never let us down — the truck. It did well."
The band Steppenwolf hasn't let Clark down, either. Over the years, he's collected its CDs and encouraged cover bands that play at local American Legion events to learn "Born to Be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride." Still, for all the impact Steppenwolf has had on his life, Clark has yet to check one milestone off his list.
That would be seeing the group in concert. He'll soon take care of that.
When John Kay & Steppenwolf, as the group is now billed, plays the Pacific Amphitheatre at the OC Fair on Sunday, Clark plans to be in the audience. The 65-year-old retired landscaper doesn't know if the band will acknowledge him, but in any case, he won't be an anonymous member of the crowd: Steppenwolf's website recently posted on its home page a newspaper story about Clark reuniting with his former truck mates.
Kay, the band's lead singer and only remaining original member, also doesn't know yet if any interaction will take place at the show. He often gets requests for onstage tributes, song dedications and the like. But the recent missive about Clark isn't the first time he's heard about his music helping people in trying circumstances.
For now, Kay will guarantee just one thing.
"I would imagine we have a very good chance of all of us having a great Sunday evening together," he says.
'It was our time'
Clark answers his door before a knock is necessary. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and navy blue shorts, his gray hair cropped in a near-crew cut, he holds open the screen and leads the way in, where a pair of decades-old photo albums and a green Steppenwolf cap wait on the dining table.
The photos provide the cue for his first few stories. As he turns the plastic-covered pages, Clark points to his younger self sitting at one of Steppenwolf's machine guns and gives a whirlwind account of his year in combat: who got wounded, who went home first, which trucks got "knocked out" — in other words, destroyed by enemy fire — and which didn't.
When Clark was drafted in 1969, he was recently married and living in Costa Mesa. During basic training at Fort Ord, near Monterey, he met three other men who would later stand beside him in an Idaho newspaper photo: Mike Paton, John Sanders and Eddie Engstrom. They became friends and, as fate had it, wound up serving alongside each other.
Those duties revolved around the Steppenwolf truck, on which Clark, Paton and Sanders took turns driving and manning the guns. Engstrom served as company clerk. The soldiers took it upon themselves to name their vehicles, and pop music themes abounded: Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly. Not all the names reflected hard-edged tastes. One truck went by Puff the Magic Dragon in tribute to Peter, Paul and Mary's sing-along folk hit.
Was Clark a fan of Steppenwolf by the time he boarded his transport for the first time?
"We all were," he says. "It was our time of music. Between Steppenwolf and Neil Diamond and Creedence Clearwater Revival, those were all our time."
Clark is keen to note that the Steppenwolf truck never got knocked out, even though it sustained enemy bullets. After he returned home, two of his mates got caught in an ambush and suffered major wounds. But they all survived the war, and a different opposition started when they touched down on U.S. soil.
The antiwar movement had crested around the time Clark arrived home in fall 1970. Paton, he says, once had a protester spit in his face and call him a baby-killer. Clark, and others he knew, heard that slur as well.