For months, I’ve been living in a time warp, half in the present, half in the sixties. The crisis in the Persian Gulf is part of it; I have a son who is eighteen and investigating conscientious-objector status. Recently, a friend twisted a rubber band into a figure-eight and explained that physicists view time as circular: it loops back around with no end and no beginning.
For me, the sixties began the day Kennedy was shot. I was at boarding school, where I led a sheltered, protected life. The bullet ended my childhood. I was seventeen.
For a few years, I remained insulated from the outside world. I finished school, went to college. Then my friend Mike left for Vietnam. I ran into him in the college coffee shop the day he was sent out. I remember how his scalp shone through his short-cropped hair.
He was killed in the spring of 1968. The losses in those days became a blur: Martin Luther King, Jr.; Bobby Kennedy; someone’s brother came home from Vietnam a heroin addict. I said goodbye to a friend who headed for Sweden; I watched another seek conscientious-objector status, saw others burn their draft cards and get dragged away.
Then my cousin Eddie was killed. As a helicopter pilot, he flew rescue missions. He came home to Arlington National Cemetery in a flag-covered box.
The sixties began and ended in violence. Still, there had been hope; there was the thrill of love and sexuality and friendships that might last forever, the surge of music, the catharsis of dance. But because of the Gulf War, the dark side of the decade has resurfaced.
I watched the lights in my eighteen-year-old son’s eyes fade when he heard that the bombing of Iraq had begun. We know now that when names are engraved on a black wall, they create wounds that never heal.
Liza Ketchum Murrow
What I loved about the sixties was the proverbial sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. I was a goody-goody in my small-town Oklahoma high school, but then I moved 250 miles away to the state university. If the times were a-changing, then here was a place where I could change, too.
I had been raised to be the classic Southern tease. I feel sorry for my high-school boyfriend. He took me to all those movies, bought me all those Dr. Peppers, and we spent all those hours parking — only for him to go home night after night with blue balls.
In college, I immediately fell in love with a city boy in my English class. John was a gentle and affirming first lover. We went to the medical center together, and I started on the pill. He taught me that sex was fun and natural. He showed me how nice it was to put on some music, smoke a joint, and make long, tender, playful love.
I fell in love easily, but always with the same type: attractive, longhair misfits who were bright, gentle, and experimental. I saw them as heroic in their courage to resist the war. Like Joan Baez, I was a “girl who said yes to boys who said no.”
I smoked grass or hash several times a week; I cannot remember a time when I did not enjoy it. I loved how relaxed and sensual I became. I seemed to experience life with a deeper sense of gratefulness. Eventually, smoking grass led me to realize that it would be best to experience these insights without any veils — including the veil of my drug use.
Rock-and-roll served as a backdrop, too. It was exciting to be surrounded by nonstop music exhorting me to take risks, live my dreams, change the world.
Time went by. I left Oklahoma. It is hard to believe that the summer of love happened twenty-four years ago. I know that we were naive and simplistic. I know my experience was shaped by my race and class and sex. I know that it was a time of violence and anger and many mistakes were made. But personally, it was a time of liberation and joy. I am profoundly grateful for having grown up in Oklahoma in the sixties.
My father died of cancer in 1967, the year I turned eight. My brother was barely three months old, and he needed all the attention my mother could give him. That year I spent a lot of time alone. The library was a few blocks from my house, so I went there every afternoon. Fairy tales and science fiction were my favorites. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was the best, because in the end Meg and Charles Wallace Murry rescued their father, and brought him home again.
At night after dinner, I watched the war on TV and fantasized about how my father wasn’t really dead, that the box I had watched them lower into the ground had been empty. I pretended he was on a secret mission in the jungles of Vietnam, drafted personally by LBJ. This mission was so top-secret that my father had to fake his own death, but I knew he would come home a hero someday.
In 1969 my mother remarried, and we moved to a small town buried in the backwoods of southwest Georgia.
I learned about Woodstock by reading Seventeen magazine, while lying on my mother’s king-size bed in our small green house in Ellaville. When I saw the pictures of the musicians and the audience, I felt like I had missed something, like I was living with the wrong family, and these people whose faces smiled up at me from the slick pages of a magazine were my real family — though I didn’t know how to find them, or how to let them know where I was.
But my oldest stepbrother was right there in the thick of them, or at least as deep as you could get while going to Georgia Tech, in Atlanta. He had long hair and a mustache, and when he smiled at me I was sure he knew some wonderful secret that he might share with me someday.
One weekend he brought two friends, Mark and Lisa, to stay with us. They were like no people I — or anyone in Ellaville — had ever known before. They were out-and-out hippies; they wore long hair, tie-dyed T-shirts, dirty Levis, huarache sandals, and patchouli oil. While my mother and stepfather weren’t sure how to treat them, I immediately fell in love with both of them.
Lisa slept in my room. That first night, I was shocked by her hairy armpits. I had been arguing all summer with my mother to let me start shaving my legs or under my arms.
Even stranger, she ate organic candy — weird candy, with no chocolate, or nuts, or refined sugar. It had an earthy, pungent taste. When I first put it in my mouth, I thought of meadows full of spring flowers, clear, running streams, buckets of syrup hanging from maples in a part of the world I had never seen. Lisa laughed at the surprised look on my face, and hugged me the way you hug a friend you’re proud of.
We stayed up all night talking. Lisa’s parents were divorced, and she hardly ever got to see her father. He had remarried, and started a new family. She told me I was lucky, because at least I knew my father had loved me and wanted to be with me. She told me something I didn’t really understand then, something about letting go of her anger at her father, so that she could let go of her anger at herself.
We still have an old home movie of Lisa and my brother jumping on our trampoline in the back yard. They were too big to be on the trampoline at the same time; my mother worried it would tear. In the film you can see the fabric stretching from the frame almost to the ground, never quite hitting the dirt below. They bounce so high they disappear from the frame completely. Their movements are funny, and awkward, like any grown-up playing with children’s toys, but there is so much freedom, so much love, in their faces.
Lids were twenty dollars, mescaline two bucks a hit, and MDA hard to get. Every Friday at the University of Calgary Tim, Dan, and I took the same corner table in the cafeteria and dealt what we had. We were students, though we skipped classes. Economics and philosophy? We had our own primitive economics and philosophy; our jeans pockets were stuffed with wrinkled fives and tens.
We drank at our local bar, where we smoked pot or hash in the washroom, or if things were cool, at a table covered with glasses of twenty-cent beer. If plainclothes cops cruised the bar, we’d slip the warm hash pipe into a pocket. We never worried about being busted. The collective illusion of innocence and invulnerability was affirmed each day by the sheer weight of numbers. How do you bust a culture?
One warm summer evening, Tim and I rattled across the Crowchild Trail in his ’53 Chevy pickup, the exhaust pipe dragging along the pavement. The radio blasted “White Rabbit.” On the dashboard, an open baggie flapped in the breeze next to several packs of rolling papers. A paper bag stuffed full of seventy one-ounce bags of pot sat between us.
We’d just come from downtown, where Tim made quick trips in and out of men’s clothing stores, stereo shops, and restaurants, dropping off a bag here, two bags there. We picked up a six-pack and headed cross-town, beers in hand and a joint passing between us.
A police car approached on the left. We dropped our beers below the line of the windows as Tim tried to decide if we had been speeding. The speedometer was broken, and we were ripped. I experienced a sudden moment of panic, or lucidity; this was back when you got six months for possession of one joint.
The cops ignored us.
A few weeks later I bought two hundred hits of mescaline for seventy-five dollars. Word spread that I had some good stuff. I had no problem selling them for three bucks a hit. After an afternoon in the cafeteria, I headed for my van.
Two plainclothes cops in a brown Ford were parked behind me. I saw them and they saw me, and while I was climbing into my van I prayed they wouldn’t stop me. I had fifty hits of mescaline in a plastic bag in my pocket and another fifty or so in the glove compartment.
I pulled out of the parking lot, and they pulled out behind me. They followed me as I meandered through the neighborhoods near the bar, afraid to stop. I didn’t know what to do; I was in an absolute panic. I prayed, “Dear God, please. I will never deal again if I get out of this.”
Something changed for me that day. It was as if I had penetrated the illusion of our world; of course our culture could be busted. It was simply a matter of bringing our innocence to the docket one by one and proclaiming us guilty.
Finally I pulled into the bar’s parking lot, stuffed the drugs into my boots, and got out. They pulled their car less than a foot from the fender of my van; I had to inch sideways past them.
They let me walk away.
Within an hour, I sold what I had left to a friend, and never dealt again.
I went into transcendental meditation.
The other day I overheard some of my younger co-workers talking about the movie Volunteers, which spoofed the sixties, the peace movement, the entire counterculture. Their derision hurt. “In one scene,” I heard, “all these kids were on a plane headed overseas with the Peace Corps. They were singing ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and reading Profiles in Courage.” There was an explosion of laughter. Quickly I jumped in, anger and disgust in my tone. “We really did believe in those things!” I felt foolish when they stopped laughing; their stares exhibited their lack of comprehension. I went back to work.
And yet, we were true believers. We held, perhaps naively, that if everyone did just a little to alleviate social ills, surely our overall condition would improve. We attended college to become teachers, psychologists, and sociologists, adding something to the world rather than only taking from it. We didn’t realize that it’s hard to build a career on altruism.
For most of us, things didn’t work out. One friend went to Africa with the Peace Corps and came back with periodic bouts of malaria. Last spring, he died of cancer at the age of thirty-seven after teaching elementary school for a number of years. He was a gifted, compassionate, loving teacher who possessed a genius for reaching kids. Another friend went to Vietnam. This classically handsome high-school jock came home missing an arm and a leg.
In time, we burned out, whether we realized it or not. We cut our hair and shed our fatigue jackets and faded jeans for business suits and the matching mentality. We joined dad’s insurance agency or law firm. Too often, we felt foolish about the very best part of our humanity.
In many ways, we were better off than this new generation, with its mechanical, unstoppable drive to succeed. Our values were more centered and benign, our hearts were in the right place no matter how foolish we may have appeared. We were more complete people; we had the courage to offer parts of our lives to others. Somehow, I don’t think selling junk bonds can provide the same sense of fulfillment.
Monica G. Finch
Schenectady, New York
In junior high school in the fifties I loved to hold a girl close and slow dance to songs like “Love Me Tender,” but when fast songs were played I just watched. There was no way I would chance trying to jitterbug. One night a slow song that I didn’t recognize came on, and I asked Michelle to dance. Everything was fine until the beat increased and everyone began to jitterbug. I panicked but somehow managed to make it to the end of the dance without falling or spinning into anyone. After that I never danced unless I was sure the song was slow. I didn’t want anyone to see how awkward or out of step I could be.
I was in college in the early sixties, and I still wouldn’t fast dance. Perhaps fast dancing should have been a graduation requirement, like Speech 200 or a foreign language. I would have felt better equipped to face the real world if I had been able to dance.
When I left graduate school in 1967, the Beatles had just put out Sergeant Pepper, and Scot McKensie was calling people to come to San Francisco with flowers in their hair. For the first time in my life, I found myself crossing the Mississippi River. After a short visit with my cousin in Seattle, I planned to head south along the West Coast to San Francisco. But outside of Seattle I saw signs for the Sky River Rock Festival.
Cars were parked along the road. I pulled over, grabbed my sleeping bag, and headed for my first rock festival. I doubted they would be playing any slow songs, but I figured I could watch. I saw a lot of people dancing. I saw a guy stand on his head, his legs kicking to the music. One man was naked except for the balloon tied around his penis. His girlfriend was completely naked.
It occurred to me that no one was going to notice or care whether I knew the right dance steps. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any dance steps. I just started to move to the music like everyone else. Since that day I’ve been dancing fast, slow, and in between.
Camden, New Jersey
August, 1968. I wanted to leave suburbia, to change my life, to be as far away from home as possible. I wanted to catch up, before it was too late. I chose the University of Arizona. The desert sounded exotic.
Eight other freshmen from New England joined me on the flight. When the plane landed in Tucson, the stewardess announced the temperature: 107 degrees. “Don’t worry,” she said, “it’s dry heat. You can hardly feel it.”
A swarm of sorority and fraternity Greeks were at the gate, offering a free bus ride to campus. They were tan, bubbling with confidence, wearing white tennis shorts, thong sandals, and tank tops. We were waxen, shocked with “dry” desert heat, wearing dresses and pantyhose, blazers and ties.
In the bus, frigid air, rank with chemicals, blasted from overhead ducts. My lime green linen dress clung to my back, under my arms, and between my breasts. Matching pumps, adorned with lime green clip-on bows, pinched my swollen feet. I applied fresh pink lipstick in the reflection of the bus window.
We sped through miles of flat, brown sand and green cactus, followed by neon signs for burgers, strip joints, Mexican pottery, and lube jobs that stretched along Speedway, Tucson’s main drag. I nodded, but did not listen, to the jiggly blond from Delta Chi who sat next to me.
The next morning, thirty-five thousand students tried to register for classes. Every class I wanted was filled. At week’s end, my schedule included History of Law, Introduction to Economics, Political Science 100, Abnormal Psychology, and Microbiology. I intended to be an English major.
My political science teacher was a graduate student who required us to read Black Elk Speaks, assigned a research paper on Herbert Marcuse, and loaned me his own copy of Angela Davis’s autobiography.
During Thanksgiving break, he asked me to visit the Yaqui Indian reservation with his friends from a group called Students for a Democratic Society. The Yaquis were deadlocked in an undeclared war with the U.S. government. I bought my first pair of high-topped combat boots for the occasion.
Soon after that outing, I stopped setting my hair with electric rollers, stopped shaving my legs and underarms, and stopped wearing a bra. My everyday wardrobe consisted of baggy green Army pants, sleeveless undershirts, boots, a rope ankle bracelet, and flowers tucked behind my ear.
In March of 1969, I dropped out of the University and moved to the Yaqui reservation as an employee of Legal Aid. I roomed with four other political science students in a grimy shack. My English-language skills were helpful in drafting threatening letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs — not threatening enough, though.
In early June, the Yaquis were told they would be relocated by the BIA in the next few weeks. We students expected to step up the fight. Instead, the Yaquis planned a farewell purification ceremony for the entire tribe.
On the final day we fasted. I plucked strychnine tufts from a bag full of peyote buttons and gathered dead cholla spines for the bonfire. At sunset, the ritual journey began.
That sacred night, the explosive culmination of the previous ten months and the past nineteen years, I changed my life, got as far away from home as possible, and caught the tail end of the sixties right between the eyes.
Placitas, New Mexico
Thirty years ago, when I was eighteen, I necked on the living-room sofa with my boyfriend in front of the television. When the late movie ended, the black-and-white test pattern came on. We never bothered to shut it off.
We married three years later and had two sons. Sometime between the purchase of a braided rug and buying cotton candy at the circus, the Vietnam War escalated.
“Thank God my boys are babies,” I remember saying. “I have nothing to worry about.” I went about the business of washing diapers.
What I remember most from that time is a small mouth encircling my nipple, full pink lips surrounding my areola. Tiny hands were pressed to my breast. Only a few years later those hands would stretch to be lifted. “Up, up,” he would say, and I would wipe chocolate frosting from his lips.
When my first son was two, I gave birth to another boy. I remember the scent of warm baby breath, rice cereal running down the corners of his mouth. I remember running my finger across his lower gum, the sharp edge of a tooth jutting out. I remember bathing him, a soft blue washcloth cleansing his neck and shoulders, his belly, the folds of his thighs.
I was never a flower child, never smoked marijuana, and the only protest I marched in was for black rights in high school. We rode to Washington in a bus and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
As the war in the Persian Gulf enters its second week, my two boys, twenty-four and twenty-six, are marching in protests. My younger son attended civil disobedience training; as a gay man, he also fights the war here at home for gay rights. My older son is a photographer who captures wonderful images of children. He is studying to be a kindergarten teacher.
I marched the night before the war began, the night of the new moon when the planet and each of us is open to new possibilities. Another mother was marching that night, pushing her infant child in a stroller. She was carrying a sign that said “Peace Baby.”
Though many now regard the sixties as a time of foolish indulgence and naive idealism, I can’t forget how much of what I value most in myself was shaped in those years.
But it’s getting harder to define the sixties in space and time. Did they begin with Elvis? With Sputnik? Or with Kennedy’s assassination? And when did they end? Did the sixties die at Altamont? Or with Watergate?
It’s a mistake to define the sixties historically, as if that spirit is peculiar to a certain time. Whatever the sixties were, we cannot afford the luxury of consigning that period to a distant past. Whatever quality made the sixties special is still essential to our lives. In whatever ways those times changed us, we stayed changed. Here it is, 1991, and we still use the sixties as a cultural yardstick. What did we see in ourselves then that seems missing now?
Last year I found myself at the twenty-first reunion of the Woodstock Festival on Max Yasgur’s old farm site. I hadn’t planned on going, since 1989 was the big one, complete with media blitz. But then word went out from Woodstock that people were ignoring the legal order and gathering anyway. The reunion was developing a momentum of its own, an unpredictable magic characteristic of events in the sixties. Whereas the twentieth reunion was created by the media, this one was created by the people.
There are moments from that week that will always be with me. That first morning, I woke to multicolor tents and buses covering the hillsides. Three flags flew together above the mist — a flag of the planet earth, a Rainbow Family flag, and an American flag. Off in the distance, a stereo played John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I rarely have moments of feeling anything I could call patriotic, but whatever nation had been created here, it felt like this was the one I belonged to.
There was the Vietnam vet camped next to me with his son. He had been in combat in 1969. “I’ve been trying to get here for twenty years,” he said.
And I remember standing hand in hand with thousands of others under a starry sky, singing “Amazing Grace” in four-part harmony. Up on stage leading the chorus was Arlo Guthrie, with his twenty-one-year-old son singing beside him. Except for his long gray hair, Arlo Guthrie looked and sounded much the same. We were no longer all under thirty. We were now a chorus of parents and children, even grandparents, old hippies and young deadheads, Vietnam vets and rural townsfolk.
Later, walking back up the hill to my tent, I passed village after village of twentieth-century gypsies. There was the timeless scene of glowing faces huddled around campfires, the smell of food cooking, guitars playing, someone beating on drums in the distance. I asked myself what had drawn me here. Beyond my sentimental curiosity, what was I looking for? It seemed to be a sense of human community — a living and sharing on a day-to-day basis that develops and nourishes a concern for something larger than yourself.
Just last month I was traveling with a friend through Bloomington, Indiana. He hadn’t been back since he’d graduated more than twenty years ago; he wanted to give me a tour. As we drove through the campus, he pointed out the administration building; he described how it had appeared during the 1968 war protests, with flames shooting through its broken windows. Looking at the tranquil scene that now prevailed, it was hard to believe anything had ever happened there. The meadow where students used to gather, hear speeches, and camp out was now vacant. It was difficult for me to imagine another generation ever feeling as involved and unified as we had then. What would it take to bring back that sense of community? An economic crisis? The environment? A war?
Culture, made up as it is of human beings, is neither simple nor predictable. The sixties, whatever else we may say about them, were certainly a decade of surprises. Sometimes the changes seemed to come suddenly out of nowhere. The thought that we might be headed for another such wave of change is both exciting and frightening. Yet it makes me realize that I not only remember the sixties; I also look forward to them.