Revisiting the Intensity of the '60s

IN the spring of 1979, I realized for the first time that the '60s had passed. Throughout the early and middle '70s, though I knew I had dated my letters and checks differently, I never realized that the turmoil and liberation I had felt in the '60s were of a different era. During that era - the late '60s through the spring of 1970 - we seemed poised for a leap into revolution.

As we inched our way through the '70s, I thought that, though the leap might be delayed, it must surely come, never understanding that the experiences of the '70s were of a different order from those of the '60s. Two events in the spring of '79 made me realize that, in the words of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters, that period was ``gone'' and would ``come back no more.''

One event was seeing the movie ``The Deerhunter.'' Though some of its scenes strain credulity, I found others strongly affecting. One in particular captured what is to me quintessentially the Vietnam War: Two American helicopters appear from behind some trees, fly in low, and bomb a village, engulfing it in flames that blot out all forms, leaving only the gray of smoke and the orange of fire. It is the orange of flame and red of blood that stand out in my mind as the colors of the Vietnam War.

Seeing ``The Deerhunter'' in itself would not have impressed upon me that the Vietnam years were over, but the orange fireball splashed across the screen linked with another image. During that spring of '79, I was using in my survey of American literature an anthology of poetry, ``The Voice That Is Great Within Us,'' the cover of which pictured a dominantly orange, five-petaled flower.

Each petal contained what I supposed to be representative scenes of the '60s. One petal showed the outline of a dove. A couple showed war scenes. Another petal pictured a black youngster looking at a chalkboard, on which was drawn an incomplete ban-the-bomb symbol.

But the petal that most strongly affected me showed some young people in a sit-down demonstration; superimposed on the demonstrators was the blown-up picture of a young woman, her hands raised as though she were saying, ``Give us peace.'' Staring at the petal made me especially understand that the '60s had passed. The young people it pictured were of a different generation from those in my classes: They dressed differently, wore their hair differently, and, above all, acted differently.

Realizing that the '60s had gone, I came to understand that I would probably never again experience a time as intense, especially as intense as the academic year that began in the fall of 1969. That year ended in the spring of 1970 with the killing, by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, of four students: Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer, Bill Schroeder, and Jeff Miller.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of Kent State, I remember the whole semester that, in some sense, the killings brought to a close. The college where I was teaching had been jittery enough before the invasion of Cambodia and the events at Kent State. In February, a portion of the gymnasium had burned under mysterious circumstances that did not preclude arson. Students had demonstrated to protest the suspension of a dance instructor. And during the next month, about 300 students had marched on the local draft board to protest the Vietnam War and military conscription.

The campus had been simmering before Cambodia and Kent State; after those events, it exploded. I remember vividly the day after the killings, Tuesday, May 5. To protest the invasion and especially the killings, students had planned a strike, which was to begin at 1 p.m.

My wife and I went to a rally that began the strike and then to the front lawn of the university, where a confrontation had developed at the flagpole between 50 or so antiwar students and two or three prowar people. The antiwar students wanted to lower the flag and probably turn it upside down, as they had done earlier, to symbolize protest or show distress, but the prowar people held onto the ropes. The antiwar kids could at any time have overpowered their opponents, but they did not, largely because I restrained them; our struggle with the prowar students remained verbal, though intense, until the tension dissolved and people began to drift away. I felt exhausted but, because the confrontation had remained nonviolent, exhilarated.

At 6:30 that evening, I convened a class, which I intended to hold only long enough to tell the members that I was honoring the strike and would not be meeting with them. We spent the whole period, however, talking about Vietnam, the Kent State killings, violence, and nonviolence.

Looking back over the distance of two decades, one may have difficulty remembering how deeply threatened students felt by the killings at Kent State. One young woman said, however, in response to my arguing for militant but nonviolent action, that nonviolent demonstrators would be gunned down. We had a thorough discussion, and after the hour-and-a-half period was over, one student said it had been the best class of the semester.

IT may have been the best class of the semester, and it may not have been. I know it came at the end of an era during which American kids had exhibited some of the worst and some of the best tendencies in American society.

On the one hand, as one of my colleagues who had worked with radical students on the underground paper Counterpoint noted, young radicals then were mindless; I think he meant that they mouthed the shibboleths of the time (``power to the people''; ``if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem'') without much thought as to their meaning. On the other hand, young people of that time showed a level of moral and political commitment that helped blacks achieve a measure of equality and helped turn this country from war to peace. It is a kind of commitment that is missing today.

Or so it seems. The anthology to which I refer at the beginning includes a poem by Robert Frost called ``The Black Cottage.'' In it, a minister says,

...why abandon a belief

Merely because it ceases to be true.

Cling to it long enough, and

not a doubt

It will turn true again, for so

it goes.

Most of the change we think we see

in life

Is due to truths being in and out

of favor.

Thus, Frost's minister might say that, although the ideals that engaged large numbers of people in the '60s are now seemingly in abeyance, people will eventually swing back to them. If the '60s happened once, it could happen again.

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