Features & Columns

The Final Beat:
Remembering Al Hinkle

Hinkle sitting in the back of the 1949 Hudson used in the 2012 film adapation of 'On The Road.'

The beat and hippie movements that drove America's cultural and political transformation in the 1950s and 1960s were also key links in Silicon Valley's creation, as the counterculture's mind-expanded vision fused with a fledgling defense electronics cluster. What if everything from the Grateful Dead to the sexual revolution, trillion dollar company valuations and the global infestation of pocket computers and talkable home appliances could be traced back to one person? If anyone deserves employee badge No. 1, I'd nominate Al Hinkle.

He was a family guy living in suburban San Jose who'd spent his entire career working on the Southern Pacific railroad. He wasn't a celebrity or author and had little to do with high tech or the spread of popular culture. He was a gun-owning libertarian, not a hippie. When I'd share my theory, Hinkle would just laugh.

It all boils down to two weeks in Denver, where Hinkle grew up. In 1947 Hinkle's father took his wife for a vacation in California. Al had a key to his father's apartment and spent two weeks partying hard with his friend Neal Cassady and a rotation of female companions, not all of whom were old enough to be called women.

They cleaned the flat well, but a neighbor tipped Carl Hinkle Sr. to his son's indiscretions. A police detective, Carl Sr. had his colleagues on the force scour Denver for Al, who hid out until his father caught up with him when he paid a birthday visit to his grandfather.

Al was given an ultimatum. He'd join his uncle in California, who'd arranged a job for him with the Southern Pacific railroad, or he'd be thrown in jail. He took the San Francisco option.

After settling in California, Hinkle invited Cassady to join him on the railroad. The money was good. Friends like author Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg followed, framing with their literary works an alternative reality to the postwar period conformity that gripped America in the 1950s. The Beat Generation defined itself around the jazz clubs and bookstores of North Beach, and Kerouac's On The Road chronicled a cross-country car trip with Cassady, Hinkle and his wife, Helen.

The Hinkles put down roots in San Jose and raised a family, and Carolyn and Neal Cassady settled in Monte Sereno, off the Los Gatos-Saratoga highway. In 1960, the CIA dosed Stanford student Ken Kesey with LSD, and four years later Cassady drove Kesey's psychedelic "Further" bus on another legendary road trip across America, chronicled in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The Grateful Dead played their first show where San Jose City Hall's plaza now sits and a generation embraced long hair, rock music and drug experimentation—and rejected the notion of blindly following leaders to war. The gender, sex and racial landscapes were transformed.

Santa Clara Valley's electronics companies went from places like IBM, where employees wore white shirts and thin black ties, to ones where CEOs wear hoodies and attend Burning Man.

More than a half-century of American history was catalyzed by some random friendships and a family drama. Al Hinkle, who passed away at age 92 last month, sought no fame or profit from his famous companions, they were just his friends, he said. That modest normalcy makes his life and story so compellingly unique.

A salute to Al Hinkle will be held at Café Stritch on January 27.—Dan Pulcrano

A middle-aged Hinkle.

He was probably the least likely person on Earth to be taken for a seminal figure in the annals of the Beat literary movement, but lanky, easy-going, sweet-smiling Al Hinkle was certainly a critical lynchpin in that history.

Raised in pool-hall Denver with his childhood pal, the iconic Beat figure (and writer) Neal Cassady, it was the recently married Hinkle (along with his bride, the former Helen Argee) who jumped into Cassady's brand-new maroon-and-silver Hudson sedan for a crisscross continental journey that eventually included Jack Kerouac (then an unknown writer), Luanne Henderson (one of Cassady's many girlfriends), and an assortment of other hitchhikers and hangers-on who were all immortalized in Kerouac's seminal 1957 Beat novel, On the Road.

Al Hinkle was there from the beginning.

Of equal importance, I would argue, it was Hinkle who first headed west to California, finally settling in San Jose, where he took a job on the Southern Pacific Railroad. His buddy Cassady, down and out in Denver with a pile of romantic woes bearing down on him, soon followed Hinkle west, and was later joined by both Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the poet laureate of the Beat movement. They joined a ragtag assemblage of novelists and poets in the Bay Area, with both Cassady and Kerouac (briefly) working with Al on the railroad.

Hinkle (with a home, family and a regular paycheck) was the steady, gravitational anchor of the Bay Area literary Renaissance that reached its apotheosis in 1955 with the reading of Ginsberg's epic poem Howl—in which Cassady was acknowledged as the "secret hero" of Ginsberg's work.

While Kerouac and Cassady flamed out early—Cassady died at the age of 43 in 1968, and Kerouac, at 47, the following year—Al Hinkle, who died this past December from heart failure at age 92, held it steady at the wheel and outlived his two more famous pals by a full half-century. He was sweet and unassuming until the very end.


Born in Florida in 1926 (his father was playing minor league baseball), Hinkle and his family returned to his father's hometown of Denver when he was 2. Al's mother died when he was 8, leaving him free to roam the Depression-era streets with his buddies and siblings. It was in the late 1930s that Al first met Neal Cassady at a YMCA recreation hall.

Five years later, Al, by then a lanky 6-foot-6, joined the Merchant Marines and headed off to the Pacific. He served two years before returning to Denver at the end of World War II. It was then that he reconnected with Cassady—six months his junior and always in trouble with the law—in the pool halls and beer joints of Denver.

In December of 1948, the kinetic Cassady and Hinkle made plans for a great American road trip that was to be immortalized in numerous works of Beat fiction and, later on, re-chronicled in dozens of literary biographies and several films. Hinkle, however, threw something of a wrench into the plans when he met a young woman named Helen Argee on a night of jazz-club hopping in San Francisco.

A dark beauty of Greek and Portuguese descent, Helen was an intense conversationalist, and both she and Hinkle sensed immediately that they were kindred spirits. Hinkle informed Helen about his impending journey with Cassady and added a caveat: "I thought you and I could make it our wedding trip." They had known each other all of two days.

On Dec. 18, barely a week after they first met, Al and Helen were married in a Congregational Church in San Francisco. Cassady served as best man.

The newlyweds and their eccentric driver headed out into the "dark American night," as Kerouac called it, but by the time they reached Tucson, an irritated Cassady decided to send Helen off to a friend's house in New Orleans—that of another wild-eyed Beat legend, William Burroughs. Helen was none too happy about the arrangement. Only four days into her marriage, Hinkle was abandoning her for the open road and his buddy.

With Helen out of the Hudson, Hinkle and Cassady made their way to Denver and eventually to New York City and beyond. What was supposed to take four or five days took more than a month. At one point along the way, Kerouac reported that Hinkle said to him, "Last night I walked clear down to Times Square and just as I arrived I suddenly realized I was a ghost—it was my ghost walking on the sidewalk." Hinkle's specter became something of a recurring motif in the novel. "I guess I was worried what Helen was going to do to me," he joked years later.

Kerouac, Al and the kids—Jami Cassady, Mark Hinkle, Cathy Cassady. Spring, 1952.

In fact, Helen forgave him soon after he met back up with her in New Orleans. Finally free of their Beat entourage, Al and Helen decided to rekindle their honeymoon in the Crescent City, where they stayed for three months, Al taking an office job with a tile setter.

"We couldn't have been happier," Helen remembered long afterward. "New Orleans was like magic."


One night in the early 1990s, Al, Helen and I stayed up until nearly dawn, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and recounting stories of their earlier days when Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg were part of their daily social milieu (see Metro, Dec. 17, 1992). Both Al and Helen felt it was important to normalize much of that history.

"You have to understand that they were our friends," said Helen. "They were our friends not because they were writers or famous or notorious. They were our friends because they were kind and interesting, and we liked them. We've never really looked at them as famous writers. We look at them as people."

"Neal was my friend, that's all," added Al. "We grew up together and came out West together. It was just life, just like anyone else's. Not really anything all that unique or special about it, really."

It was in the late 1940s that another Denver chum of Hinkle and Cassady's, Bill Tomson, introduced the irrepressible Cassady to a beautiful Bennington graduate named Carolyn Robinson, then pursuing a master's degree in theater arts at Denver University. After more than a few false starts, Neal and Carolyn eventually married.

Both the Hinkles and Cassadys would eventually settle into new tract homes in the burgeoning Santa Clara Valley, with Al and Neil holding down steady jobs with Southern Pacific. The Hinkles had two children—Mark and Dawn—while the Cassadys had three—Cathy, Jami and John Allen (the latter named after Kerouac and Ginsberg), all of whom grew up in and around San Jose and all of whom still live in Northern California. "The Cassadys were like family," Al's daughter Dawn Davis recently told me. "We were always very close."

Al received a degree from San Francisco State and studied for his master's degree at Stanford (which he never quite finished). He ran unsuccessfully for Congress on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980 and then retired in 1987 from Southern Pacific with more than 40 years on the job.

After Helen died in 1994, Hinkle remarried briefly and kept up a daily routine as friend, father and grandfather. He enjoyed cards and engaging in long conversations. A few years ago he put together a booklet (based on an interview with Stephen D. Edington and some other writings) entitled "Last Man Standing," in which he consolidated some of his memories about his Beat friends.

I visited with Al last winter, and although not as physically spry as he once was, his mind was still sharp. He was also willing to go a little farther with some of his stories than he had a quarter-century earlier. He was always very fond of Kerouac, and, when we first met, spoke only in glowing terms about the famous novelist. At our final meeting he acknowledged to me that Jack's drinking posed some real problems to their friendship and that Kerouac had turned into "a mean drunk." That was one of the few times I ever heard him be critical of anyone.

Hinkle is survived by his two children, Mark Hinkle (of Morgan Hill) and Dawn Davis (of San Jose), and a grandson, Logan. According to his daughter, there will be no formal memorial service at her father's request. "Dad didn't want anyone to fuss over him," she said. "That's just who he was."

Non-Memorial wake for Al Hinkle is scheduled for Sunday, Jan 27, 5pm, at Cafe Stritch.—Geoffrey Dunn