DAY-GLO AND NAPALM: UCONN FROM 1967 to 1971 Introduction to a University of Connecticut Archive Exhibit George Jacobi ©2019
A small innocuous on-campus house is surrounded by angry UConn students, its front porch protected by armed, helmeted State Police and University Security Officers. The Riot Act has already been read to the 100 or so protesters, whose shoulders are hunched in Navy peacoats against a bitter north wind. It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, 1968. Some of those students spent the previous night with faces lit only by black lights, psychedelic music swirling around them. Smoke from illegal hash pipes drifted out dorm windows. A relaxed but resolute fellowship, they temporarily dwelt in an imaginary world.
Today, back in the daylight, they want UConn to divest itself from the military industrial complex, to end its involvement with Olin Matheson, manufacturer of missiles for the Vietnam War. In fact, they insist. They chant, they yell, they watch as the most committed among them climb onto the recruiting location’s porch to put their bodies in the way of the war machine. This world is far from imaginary. Clubs swing, rocks fly, heads are bloodied. Twenty-one are arrested.
Within two years, the Student Union Mall will be filled with 4000 UConn students – now the entire college is on strike. What is it with these young people? For many, trust in the establishment, from government to church to the University, has completely evaporated. Something is badly broken. How have these middle-class kids, in just a year or two, come to a point of complete resistance to America herself?
The 50th Anniversary of 1969 is more than an appropriate time for this exhibit; it’s also the last significant anniversary when many participants in this bit of history will be alive. Most of the counter-cultural political drama at UConn took place between 1968 and 1970 – ‘69 is a fitting centerpiece. Despite continued racial and anti-war protests, such communal events as the Woodstock Music Festival made 1969 almost feel like a short respite between the more violent bookends of the other two years.
Today America is again divided. Truth, progress, and respect for differences are in retreat; ever-present media make it seem like unrest bordering on fury is on our daily menu. There is critical work to be done. Perhaps increased discernment can come with a look back at a tumultuous period right here at UConn. We continue to live in the safest, most peaceful period in recorded history (although a strong argument can be made that the bill for that hasn’t yet been paid). Technology and medicine have changed the world more than politics. Notwithstanding today’s alarms, since World War Two Earth’s humans suffer and die from war, poverty, and disease at a much lower rate than at any time since the birth of agriculture. And some of that is the result of students in those years directing the world’s attention to healing the environment and the divisions between us that inhibit human freedom and justice. Noam Chomsky: “That decade bore testimony to the value of the democratic idea. It just changed consciousness in a lot of ways.”
Though the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the rest of the political and social trends began much earlier, this is when they erupted into flames on college campuses, and UConn was no exception. That short period encapsulated what we refer to as “The Sixties”. As students then, we had a first-hand look at the battle line – and many of us were on it. In retrospect, it’s no surprise that the older generation was alarmed. If the tide had turned further to the left, America would be a very different place now. But it didn’t. As Peter Tork of the rock group The Monkees said, “The revolution was not tolerated anymore.” Forces of conservatism struck back hard, and the generally gentle pioneers were no match. They faded from the scene in bitter disappointment, taking shelter while retaining their desire for a fair and peaceful world. Most blended into normal society and attempted to make things better for others.
One’s perception of events depends on age and life experiences. My spin on the era is mostly positive because its effect on me was positive. You may suggest I drank the Electric Kool-Aid. Yeah, I did. For me the era was life-affirming in consciousness; the political principles that followed came from that initial perception. Despite the fact that it may have all been an illusion, the counter-culture ethos provoked positive change. Human psychology stretches across a continuum from ‘me first’ to ‘all together now’. I see the late sixties as a brief interlude when the forces of community fought back and succeeded (in some respects) against the usual power dynamic of individual greed.
The photos from Archives and Special Collections were taken by a University-contracted photographer, who I’m sure we all suspected was the FBI. Every face tells its own tale. Each walked a part of this path. And many of them, whether they mention it here or not, engaged in some degree of chemical consciousness experimentation. Their comments illustrate a variety of viewpoints, thus this is not a scholarly history of events that forms a coherent story of a time and place – those attempts (and attempts they remain) are abundant elsewhere. As much as we might strive for universal truth, life is ultimately a story of individual experience.
Many of the items here may appear to represent frivolous fads. To some they may have been; to others the convergence of music, spirituality and anti-authoritarianism made them more than that. Though together they seem to embody the era, nobody represented the accumulation of all those memes. Take this as a cautionary lesson about group-think of any kind. You know how people from Afghanistan – or Arizona – think everyone in Connecticut lives in a Greenwich mansion with a pool and a BMW? (See, I can do it too). History is a collection of opinions and spin that takes place consciously – and unconsciously. Can’t be helped.
Do the Archives contain truth? This is a sincere effort to communicate through cumulative expression. Like viewing an artwork, what you bring to it is as important as what the artist meant. The rest of this essay is a memoir, a collection of personal thoughts and impressions. I have tried to keep those out of the exhibit space. You can choose to accept it as a valuable reflection of that time or not, just as you can with the exhibit.
I hope something in this room triggers a personal insight for each of you. My understanding of my own life in the Sixties has undergone continual adjustment (particularly since I began this project). Finding truth when one is in the middle of an era is even more impossible, and is a terribly difficult task today. Keep that in mind as you join us in a thought-provoking trip back to UConn in a very different time.
To begin, briefly imagine you’re me, a white kid growing up in a modest Connecticut town as the Nineteen Fifties become the Sixties. A sandlot baseball game takes place every day of every summer. There are endless fields and woods, and a bridge I can jump into the river from. The Mattel Toy Company invents Barbie Dolls in 1959; along with their Winchester Model 94 plastic carbine they are the two most popular toys in our suburban neighborhood. In 7th and 8th grade we sit on the floor in the hall and put our heads between our legs to protect ourselves from an atomic bomb blast. It works!
The Cuban Missile Crisis is now recognized as the closest the US and the USSR came to nuclear war. Destroying the PLANET is a concept that is brand new in human thinking, and that insecurity, that insight, remained in us. Metaphorically the white picket fence around this New England village, which protected it from too much reality, has begun to crumble. The radio plays early rock and roll but my parents rarely let us listen to that trash at home. We’re not allowed to wear t-shirts, jeans, sneakers, or shorts to school. No pants for girls, no skirts above the knee. There is no long hair; no beards outside Greenwich Village. It’s only in the back of the school bus that I discover swear words worse than “damn” or “hell”.
As a freshman in high school, I watch Walter Cronkite choke up on the CBS evening news as the three long days of the JFK assassination coverage burns itself into my brain. Kennedy gave all of America confidence and pride – and now it’s gone. On a small blurry black-and-white screen Uncle Walter shows film every night of racial violence in the South and the beginnings of a war in a far-away jungle to protect our world from the evils of Communism. The TV then goes right back to heroic cowboy shows and situation comedies where all the Dads come home from work in suits and all the Moms wear dresses and stay home to bake all day. This is almost true. It is a rare woman in the neighborhood who has to work – one income supports a middle class life. TV too protects us from an excess of enlightenment. America is the “shining city on the hill”, not only respected, but BELOVED across the globe. Nobody makes waves because we’re great – we defeated the most terrible evil in world history and now we’ve turned our attention to economic success for all of mankind. The United States makes three quarters of the world’s manufactured goods. Heck, the Moon is within reach. This is how the world appears from small-town New England.
By sixteen, I am no longer gullible, but because my parents expect continued ethical leadership, I still assume any mistakes the United States makes are well-meaning errors of judgement. America is an island of safety and success; since Pearl Harbor there has been no attack on our soil, and everybody wants to be an American. But evidence is trickling in that not all Americans are content – and they have good reasons. The rest of the world too is not so easily fixed. I feel an obligation to ignore troubling hints and fit in. Though I can’t define it, I resent it.
As the ‘60s arrive, with a last echo of innocence the Beach Boys celebrate surf, ‘chicks’, and cars. Then in February of 1964 the Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. The world is focusing on teen culture through music, partly because this generation is so huge that the smell of money is in the air. Something changes. Suddenly girls want me to comb my hair forward. As silly as this seems, it is the hinge that opens the door leading to my whole life. Music is important, consuming, because there are few visible alternatives to an apparently soulless adult life. Until now, even if I knew what was happening, it was outside that white picket fence somewhere. Exposure to alternative lifestyles has been non-existent in a way it is now impossible to grasp, but it is leaking through. Bob Dylan has made folk music about the alarming present, not some distant past; Beat icon Allen Ginsberg remembers hearing “A Hard Rain’s a’Gonna Fall”, and says he knew the torch had been passed.
Rock music has become a gate through which you can create yourself. In San Francisco people are smoking marijuana and experimenting with LSD, trying a lifestyle of sharing and caring. This I see only through the foggy window of LIFE magazine. Though it quickly becomes a mess, much of it is a genuine desire for spiritual or psychological truth. Any drug use by me at this point would have been viewed by my horrified parents and teachers as a severe mental problem. But this town is too small and naïve for drugs to be available to all but maybe the hippest few kids, and with my quietly religious family I’m not one of them. Thoughtful music, not just tacky teen love songs, is taking over the Top 40 on the AM radio. This too, reflects the search for honesty, emancipation, and relevance sprouting everywhere.
It becomes cool for the very first time to be a skinny guitar player, a poet, an artist, not just a jock. As they spread out through the airwaves, these concepts multiply even while the original idea or place becomes corrupted or co-opted, and coalesce into a new way of thinking. They balance the other side of the future, in which America’s inner cities continue to burn, the draft and Vietnam War beckon to anyone not going to college, and nobody inside the picket fence questions any of it.
In fall of 1967 I’m dropped off in Storrs. Like almost everyone in the post-war baby boom, I‘m the first child in my family, thus there is no older sibling to model behavior. Though my Mother, a New Yorker, had a free education at Hunter College, many of my friends are the first person in their family to go to college. Most of us are solidly middle class, with just a smattering of upper middle class kids thrown in; this is UConn, not Yale. Tuition is free for state residents. Economic growth in the 1950s brought plenty of positives. At UConn the opportunity for a meaningful life awaits. But by now roads have diverged. The wearing of a freshman beanie, the ritual of pledging a fraternity, the following of college traditions in the face of political, military, and religious hypocrisy have become ludicrous. The wind blowing in hard over Horsebarn Hill augurs a growing storm. Critical thinking about important events is exactly what you’re supposed to do at University, is it not? And surrounding me now in the Jungle dorm, by magic, is a small cadre of thoughtful and alienated freshmen who feel exactly as I do. To a quiet artist who never quite fit in high school society this is catnip for the mind and soul.
Not cosmically lovey-dovey, this is a disparate bunch that meshes by some unstated radical sensibility, drawn close by attitude simply because we’re convinced it’s time to go off-road, blaze a new trail. Illogically, we band together out of the desire for individual freedom. The beloved country that we grew up in seems to have disappeared on us. Songwriter Paul Simon agrees: “They’ve all gone, to look for America.”
We accept each other’s differences; recognize connections (the music talks directly to us), start growing our hair, and mock the establishment. All, whether we look weird or not, are sympathetic to political or social ideas that might change the world for the better. Community, rather than personal ambition, is a place to start. Before the snow falls, I’m asked if I want to smoke some grass. My answer is “Well, of course.”
Some of us proudly begin calling ourselves freaks or “heads”. We see the Vietnam War as immoral. We see the laws against drugs and sexual behavior similarly. Smoking ‘dope’ and sharing our affections represent a defiant protest against the repressive mainstream culture. The delightful feeling that we are members of a secret club (a common ailment of collegians) begins there and blossoms. Both stoned and rebellious, we act as if superior in intellect and virtue to the rest of America, our togetherness shielding us from individual doubts. I suspect others also recognize this as silliness; it’s really only UConn that protects us from the Vietnam War. The Jungle dorms in 1967 are filled with marijuana smoke and that year’s astonishingly creative burst of rock music.
At the end of September the first protest takes place. Against the accreditation of ROTC and its place on a campus, it attracts 8 students. By December a third protest, against Dow Chemical recruiting, effectively blocks the event from taking place. Forty-five students and faculty take part. Dow is the maker of Napalm, essentially jellied fire that the military uses to defoliate Vietnam so that the enemy cannot hide. Peasant farmers always seem to get in the way; they are “collateral damage”, although we don’t use that terminology yet. Less than an ‘Ivory Tower’, UConn and other colleges are closely tied to the military/industrial complex through recruiting and the stock market.
The folks that defeated the Depression, then great evil in World War II, and watched it immediately recreated in Russia are not about to give socialism much of a chance in the US. That group had a lifelong sense of purpose: survive the Depression, win the War. Maybe they need the American myth to justify their own sacrifices, which have been enormous. Maybe they’re tired. We grow up inheriting their respect for order, religion, and the government, but it dies a slow death, especially after Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are killed. Bobby seemed actually angry at America’s failures – just like us. We truly think we can make the world fairer, cleaner, more peaceful, more ethical, and that is now OUR responsibility.
The revolutionary tactics we use most are tolerance and compassion. The logical next step seems like expanding consciousness, which will lead to truer understanding and acceptance of each other, and it looks like it has begun. We have role models: Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Thoreau, and King. A lot of the negative press hurled at my generation for self-centeredness comes from the fact that we DO reach for the skies. Thus when we fall it’s a long way down.
Most of America and UConn, though, chugs on as usual in the late sixties. The bells of Storrs Congregational Church still chime Handel’s four notes on every quarter hour. The ‘freaky’ hippie or radical element is a small part of the 18 year Baby Boom generation; thus when you see a statistic or comment about the lives of Baby Boomers, it may not be representative of my viewpoint at all. My era lasted less than half a decade; babies kept coming afterwards. Nobody I knew was a spoiled rich kid. Everyone got a summer job to help pay for dormitory room and board. There has not been a single study that comes close to my own understanding of our experience. Voices on the right still deliberately misinterpret us.
By the fall semester of 1968 the UConn antiwar movement, led by Students for a Democratic Society, is fully engaged. The faculty too is full of creative energy, not just the Political Science or History Department, and not just individual professors who are politically active. Len Krimerman and Robert Luyster find their Eastern Philosophy classes to be full of captivated students. Jim Scully and Roger Wilkenfeld teach a literature class called “Versions of Paradise”. In the Art Dept. Paul Zelanski nurtures the art of seeing, and in Music, Peter Hugh-Larsen demonstrates polyphony with rock music instead of classical. In Psychology, Ken Ring begins studying the near-death experience and Michael Turvey applies his perception to studying perception in standing room only lectures. It’s a vibrant time to think and learn.
As the Vietnam War persists, news leaks out that it is not going as well as the government says. (In perhaps a mirror of today, America is divided by those who are educated and those who are not). Most of literate America knows Vietnam is a quagmire we cannot win. As a potential draftee, I can accept getting killed for something I believe in. The question is: can I kill others for something I do NOT believe in? Protected from that thunder and lightning, I have time for contemplation. That’s a luxury that will not continue much longer. The conflict in Vietnam and the Draft has a personal effect on everybody’s conscience and life in a way that has not been repeated since. The lack of a draft today facilitates the continuation of two separate Americas.
By trying peaceful protest while looking and acting as we do, we bring the might of the inflexible, profit-directed machine down on us hard. Our reaction to this is amazement – we really DO have the power to at least provoke alarm. C’mon, we‘re just making good suggestions. Try sharing some more and not taking advantage of the helpless around the world just for economic advantage. Try living up to the fairness ideal that we pitch to everyone else.
What follows this discovery is a gleeful yanking of the establishment’s chain. As you would expect of kids our age. The more over-reaction there is, the more amusing it becomes, until it gets serious. This is why there are Yippies – the combination of political freaks and the counter-culture. In the case of UConn, an October 31st, 1968 protest led by SDS (against Dow of course) advertises that the group will napalm a dog. This effective hoax brings the Humane Society and the State Dog Warden to UConn. Of 130 demonstrators, eight students and four members of the faculty are disciplined, but not before they make the point that there is more concern for a dog than for Vietnamese peasants in a war zone. “In the minds of the older generation and straight Americans in general, the Yippie platform represented what they had long suspected and feared about the hippie counterculture: that lurking beneath the ‘peace and love’ façade was a sinister drug-crazed revolutionary anarchist who had cleverly disguised himself as Jesus when in reality, his ultimate purpose was to destroy the American way of life”: “The Hippies – a 60s History” by John Moretti.
It is true I think of myself both as a benevolent anarchist (don’t bother me and I won’t bother you) and also as the conscience of America, the imaginary ethical America that now appears is destroying itself from the top down. “Turn on, tune in, drop out”: Timothy Leary’s facile quote actually frightens the power structure. Society is simply a system made-up daily by all of us so that order will prevail. It’s not unalterable. The anti-war movement has already morphed in my mind into a thought revolution against default-mode ‘civilization’.
Nationally and locally, when a demonstration takes place and is instantly crushed, it has the opposite effect intended, creating more sympathy for those directly on the front lines. Some SDS people, though, students or faculty advisors, display arrogance and a holier-than-thou-attitude. While sincere, they have become victims of their own egos. In that they unfortunately mirror national leaders (Leary, Hoffman and Rubin, and Cleaver). We already distrust leaders, not just individuals but the concept itself. Some, too, are die-hard Communists – and it is already clear that is no answer either. Marxism is a fantasy with tragic results. We distrust SDS – there has to be a Russian mole and/or an FBI provocateur there someplace. Little patience is given to create a situation in which open and thoughtful negotiation can take place. SDS is right about this, though: people are dying NOW.
November 11th, 1968 brings me along in a 200 person sit-in at Gulley Hall, President Homer Babbidge’s office, which he greets with equanimity. Friends of mine remember him holding the door open. This aura of peacefulness is a mirage, a bubble which pops later in the month. Recruitment for military contractor Olin Matheson takes place November 26 at 7 Gilbert Road, a date now remembered as “Bloody Tuesday”. Efforts by SDS to block the process involve trying to get into the building or onto the house’s front porch, which is protected this time by State Troopers in addition to UConn cops. Professor Jack Roach and others attempt to get themselves arrested if they cannot actually stop the process. It works – and leads to more troopers, the Riot Act read, cherry bombs and bricks thrown, and the porch cleared, not without some swinging of nightsticks and bloody heads. Twenty one students and faculty are arrested. It’s clear now that nobody is kidding anymore. Gentlemanly President Babbidge calls it the saddest day of his life.
I and many others are there, loyal but not sure such a dramatic personal commitment will yield genuine results. This earnest effort pales when compared to 1964 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the original “Bloody Tuesday”. It’s hard for me now to write about those times without being an advocate for counter-culture positions, yet most UConn SDS-led actions then were seen by sympathizers as non-productive. I disagree with this view today, and salute their sacrifices. We are not a warlike fringe group, not the Weathermen, Panthers, SLA: we believe in non-violence. (Note that despite the reputation of those groups as the dangerous element of the left, almost all of those later bombs went off safely in the middle of the night.)
The whole era is now intoxicating. It is evident that young students are actually moving the needle of world events. The positive ideals of the anti-Vietnam War and anti-discrimination movements continue to attract despite the unsatisfactory reality of each. Both sides are unethical much of the time, so we just continue efforts toward creating our own community of peace and justice. Mistakes are made; they get spun, exaggerated, in retrospect. Participation continues to grow. Alongside the drama powered by the politically active is a much larger group with common beliefs. It’s the cumulative effect of the engaged anti-Vietnam War citizenry, their visibility, in combination with many simpatico observers and the alternative culture being practiced, that creates political muscle.
In 1968, “Hair” opens on Broadway (are you kidding me?) and attempts unsuccessfully to make the whole climate frivolous. We are not hippies – genuine hippies were long gone by then and we are not inclined to be worthless in order to be “free”. Being insultingly called a hippie just means that the name caller doesn’t get it. We might have long hair, might take drugs, might lean toward the most experimental music, art, and rebellious behavior, or not. Some are simply determined to express it outwardly. To have long hair is to invite ridicule. In fact, to have long hair and appear unwilling or unable to defend yourself is to provoke physical assault. Looking weak, having hair ‘like a girl’ triggers physical violence. (For example, two weeks after the Kent State shootings 200 construction workers attacked a huge anti-war march in New York City while the NYPD looked the other way. Seventy demonstrators were injured.) For some of us, that’s not a threat, it’s our everyday reality. It both stiffens our resolve to be ourselves – and tutors us in what it is like to be an oppressed minority, in danger just by being alive. And that lesson stiffens our resolve even more.
Spring 1969 begins with a March sit-in at a Board of Trustees meeting, students suggesting that UConn go on strike. The UConn Women’s Center is created that year, as is the Black Studies Program. Slow progress has begun but confrontations break out through the school year. My summer of 1969 begins at UConn with two art classes. It includes an idyllic mescaline day sitting high in the cherry orchard next to McMahon Hall. Late summer brings me to the Woodstock Music Festival. I’m glad to have gone but I leave early, driven out by the rain, and hitchhike home. There is an immediate sense that it is an iconic event. It reinforces the fact that there is now a substantial social divide in America. By October the second violent racial conflict at a fraternity forces President Babbidge back from a sabbatical. The same month a one-day anti-Vietnam War strike begins at 500 colleges and universities. Yet an impromptu and refreshing get-together at Mirror Lake attracts Homer Babbidge and his kazoo. Each day I breathe an atmosphere of hope and dread, sailing the ship of UConn through a dark sea.
Heads altered by psychedelics have difficulty conceiving of political action as useful. Can you solve a problem with the mindset that created it? Nevertheless, most of us attend the next demonstration against on-campus recruiting and many choose to be non-violently arrested. In an act of civil disobedience, sixty nine line up in the snow, gently shove a police officer, and are peacefully arrested December 11, 1969 at the skating rink. This is no longer just SDS, which has new leadership (some have been arrested and/or kicked out). Professors and close friends are included, now making a personal statement despite the potential negative fallout in their lives.
At the end of 1969 the Draft Lottery is instituted, a last straw for many of us who have lost all sense of patriotism, and it is so poorly executed it is not even random. No more college deferments; now those of us with low numbers can be called up at any time. I can find no honor left in the government. My choice for the Draft Physical, like that of several other friends with low numbers, is to first see a psychologist whose letter explains my “unfitness” for service. In this climate, “unfitness” is a point of pride (and it remains so). I will not take part in the deadly charade. Walking up Hillside Road on my return to campus, it feels like there is no going back. An unclouded view of all institutions results from that year, one that has never changed.
Time’s momentum carries me toward graduation and an uncertain future. National protests grow angrier and include bombs. They precipitate more confrontations at UConn and elsewhere; New Haven and Washington DC are also on our agenda. The student government itself now shows anti-war leadership, organizes buses to demonstrations. John Froines and Dick Gregory speak of revolution to a Student Union Mall filled with rapt Huskies. The country appears to have gone off the rails. It seems important enough to us to put aside normal college doings. The administration and most of the student body have trouble coming to terms with this – until Kent State University in April of 1970, when four students (not even the protestors) are shot dead by the Ohio National Guard. Immediately afterward, two more are killed and a dozen wounded at Jackson State. If it wasn’t clear before, it is now that “the government is willing to shoot you”: Todd Gitlin.
These tragedies precipitate a continent-wide collegiate strike. The aura hanging over us is expressed in a Neil Young song: “We’re finally on our own. How can you run when you know?” Here at UConn, it’s an opportunity for those who wish to engage in dialogue about world events instead of Microbiology or Chaucer to do so. Students can choose no final exams and take an “S” (Satisfactory) in lieu of a grade. Efforts to engage classes that want to continue normally lead to discipline and expulsion for more radicals. Though actively involved, I escape punishment.
The first Earth Day, April 22, happens this spring, driven by some wise souls who are not otherwise politically involved. In the morning a celebratory sign hangs on Mirror Lake’s island. I’m attending Superior Court in Willimantic to watch an SDS friend on trial most of that week. Earth Day sounds perfectly logical to me, thus its profound significance flies under my radar. I still regret not helping insert that piece of the puzzle.
On a mid-May Saturday, the Mirror Lake musical event is recreated more formally. Organizers include the Inner College, an experimental education offshoot created mostly by Philosophy and English Dept. faculty, in which students invent and pursue their own interests for credit (I build a geodesic dome with friends and study blues music). Rock bands play, hundreds of people attend to listen, dance, and enjoy spring. Called “The Garden”, this of course follows the example of the Woodstock music festival and is a bright spot in a dark time. Like Earth Day recognition, it’s another example of students taking creative action themselves.
In 1971 the Voting Age goes from 21 to 18. That’s right, all this happened before potential draftees could even vote, or drink, for that matter. Though riots and demonstrations continue, Nixon is thinning out the troops in Vietnam. In June, the New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers. The cumulative effect of student activism, despite some of it being stupid or tragic, despite some being deliberate provocation, has influenced Middle America. Sixty per cent of the country is now against the war, though the White House and the Congress are not swayed by public consensus. There is a turn to harder drugs in society, away from enlightenment and toward “let’s get wrecked, man”, taking away the last enthusiasm for hippiedom. This decline enables the deluge of negative press later to focus on indulgence, not the initial wave of spiritual exploration. Note that Tom Wolfe called the Seventies the “Me Generation”: that’s the people half a decade behind us. Most “hippie freaks” did not become Yuppies; younger Yuppies, though, are technically part of the Baby Boomer Generation.
At UConn and other universities, the tempest begins to settle down. SDS has splintered and the result (Weathermen, etc.) becomes so violent they lose all support. The Beatles break up; Janis, Jimi, and Jim Morrison are dead, and music evolves back toward commercialism. Antiwar activists graduate and are replaced in the fall by a quieter but no less stoned group. By 1973 the Draft is over, Watergate brings Nixon down, and except for the continued social efforts of Black students and women students, campus life turns back to ‘campus life’. The Movement as a positive force is over, imploded from within as much as destroyed from without.
A talented and caring administrator between a rock and a hard place, Homer Babbidge is gone – he retires in 1972. A final scary thought – what if President Babbidge had been a hardline conservative instead of an open-minded and progressive liberal? Nobody DIED while I went to UConn in an astonishingly turbulent era.
Some of my UConn friends (and they are still friends 50 years later) include: A High School Valedictorian, a non-confrontational SDS member who spent his life as a teacher, then Director, of a Day Care Center. The Alpha male guy – he retired early from an international executive position to spend more time chopping his own wood, growing his own garden, and fishing. His roommate, from a big Italian family, who was lost and unhappy at UConn, though he hid it well, became a Baptist Minister who keeps a fossil on his desk. There’s a once well-off Fairfield County woman who became a Child-care Center Director and lives in a house you visit by driving your pick-up across a brook. My collaborator on this exhibit left the insurance industry to spend 15-20 years as Director of a homeless shelter. The most masculine, athletic and confident guy, who could have played UConn Varsity Basketball, has been an RN most of his life.
The Sixties challenged me to think about: Religion and Spirituality (how are they related?), Patriotism (where is it on the scale between deep religious belief and just rooting for your home team? What about people who think patriotism is above religion?), Brotherhood/Racism (who is ‘us’? who is ‘them’? Is there a ‘them’?), Society and Culture (what of it means anything?), but especially Consciousness (does it exist apart from the rational brain?) We are a naturally competitive species. How do desire and ambition interact with justice and compassion, for me and for everybody else? It looks like fear (generously described as ‘insecurity’) rules many human minds – how much is ENOUGH wealth, weaponry, whatever? How do we spread out power, control rapacity, yet still have freedom and forward momentum? Nothing new here, is there?
It is and has always been about the haves and have-nots. Short-term individual gain consistently trumps collective conservation, thus socialism remains tempting to many. We tried to build a semi-intimate community, a village, for its social and psychological advantages. We wished to live on a planet where greed and its children, violence and oppression, are under control, where avarice is recognized as the negative side of ambition. A just and fair world that rules against aggressive economics instead of celebrating it. In other words, the bonds of that community, an extended family, reproduced in society as a whole. You can make the argument that none of this will ever work, but you can’t deny that trying it was worth the effort. In fact, it may be all that got us to where we are now.
I remain uncomfortable with the following observation, but I suggest that without the excesses, the threats of violence, the interruptions of others liberty we engaged in, social progress and the end to the war would have come grudgingly if at all. Similarly, Martin Luther King’s pacific message was heeded in part because Malcolm X stood angrily behind him. Turmoil was needed. Great change only comes under great pressure. And what sad story does this tell us about humanity?
There exists an anxiety-fueled savagery in man which has flourished for 10,000 years. Susceptible to magical thinking and illusions of power, we seem ill-equipped for peace and love. It is the job of some of us to fight barbaric evil with equivalent force and ferocity. This we justly call heroism. The calling of others is to strive peacefully for justice and dignity among all people for all time. Civil Rights marches and anti-Vietnam War sit-ins exemplified equal courage and sacrifice in the face of violence. This is sometimes called childlike naiveté. Yet without it what is the sense of pretending we have civilization at all? We need both examples, over and over again. So upon reflection I wouldn’t trade those years for any others, and I remember them with pride and affection.
Yes, the vision of a ‘hip’ community is and was a mirage; our differences quickly became apparent. Perhaps it was music that held us together. We knew full well that the ‘counter-culture’ was imaginary. Well, so is a corporation. Our idea was a better one. Remember to include capitalism and socialism, money, religions, and nations in your list of invented concepts. In short, everything you think of as real is a culturally-created illusion. We too are each a story we continually self-create as a response to our environment. Thus it’s also possible (with a wink) to view ourselves mythically as a minor mutation in the species, or as messengers from God –somehow born at that exact time and place to fulfill that mission, make this course correction.
A lot of unfortunate things happened, but in everything we protested about we were right. We’re still right. The environment became a legitimate and constant priority. The very possibility of world peace, not even a dream before, has become a positive influence on international behavior. Imagine that. Even aspects of the psychedelic-influenced mind are now seen as beneficial. We were also right that the power structure would continue to crush such advances to protect the status quo. Much of the good we accomplished is now taken for granted, under the radar. The anti-war movement would not have generated the momentum it did without the simultaneous vision of a better way provided by the counterculture. How did a mistake-prone illusion of togetherness have such positive results? Simply, below the media’s glare, Sixties people generated a reawakening of morality in which human goodness flourished.
The Earth is now facing an unimaginable future despite our best efforts and those of well-meaning humans from all generations. The bill is truly due. Who will now blaze the trail forward? My friends had a moment on the stage, and left behind an increase in social awareness, one that spawned the Women’s movement, Gay movement, Ecology movement, Yoga and Meditation, Back-to-the-Earth, Organic Gardening and Health Food, Earth Day and the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. One that vastly improved Civil Rights, Indigenous People’s Rights, led to Handicap Access Rights and respect for the Disabled, and even Animal Rights. One that created the beginnings of our open, integrated multi-cultural and more relaxed society – and as a side benefit, increased variety and choice in the world in ways that didn’t exist before. It never was about self, it was about community. As my generation turns from cliché to anthropology, I’m still proud we opened wide a door to spiritual consciousness and deepened our connections to each other and the natural world.