Recollections of An Unrepentant Hippie
Last week’s post — “Mining My Memories For Meaning” — was about meeting my first and second wives as a man on his own in the city.
Here are a pair of memories that go back further to the time I was a hippie freak.
We’d finally done it, just like we’d been threatening for weeks! The day before, I’d walked the halls of Queensborough Community College’s Administration building with my girlfriend Ruth, addressing her way too loudly, spraying words like a baby with a machine gun: “So we’ll take over this office over here, and maybe use that desk there for a bed; and barricade ourselves behind this door over here…” The secretary’s freaked out faces gave me a sense of power I’d never felt before.
President Kurt Schmeller (you can’t make these names up) had stonewalled us for too long. He’d fired three of our favorite professors, using some ruse, when we knew it was because they were anti-war radicals. It was April, 1969. The war was raging abroad and in our over-heated adolescent brains. We had to do something to stop the machine. That day, as we stormed the building and took our places, Professor Silberman, one of the fired profs, handed me a roll of dimes and said, “Call ABC; CBS; NBC; The Times; WINS. Tell them what’s happening!” By night, I found myself talking into a CBS News camera, saying, “We’re not leaving until we get satisfaction from the president of this school!”
The crowd cheered. The news team went home. The core group settled in for the night, and sent me out to scout for food.
But just as I approached the exit, Security was closing the gates. Because there, on the other side, were students gathering from nearby Queens College, who’d just heard the news and came running to lend their support. Security wouldn’t let them in, or let me out. And that’s when these kids did something I’d never seen before or since. Without a way to join us, they reached into their pockets and took out…money! All the money they had, and pushed it through the chicken wire fence into my hands. These were the same older kids who five years earlier, their hair all greased back, might have picked on me in junior high. But the world had changed. Now – we were all in this together! What was theirs became ours, and we were all feverishly trying to inspire and embrace and embolden each other.
There was not just me anymore – there was a we. And we were each comprised of equal parts rage and love. The full moon shone down that night on a once-isolated young man transformed into a freak, part of a rising youthful tide of revolutionary possibilities. I was ecstatic!
Later that same year, my roommate Russell, my girlfriend Anita and I took the L Train out of the East Village to board busses and join the march on Fort Dix to demonstrate against the draft. I knew Nixon was considering another call up of fresh blood for Nam, and I thought I could maybe make a little difference here, and that if the demo were large enough, he’d get the message.
A few hours later, the buses let us all off at the entrance. And there they were – waiting for us, bayoneted and at the ready.
“The G.I.s are our brothers!” we chanted over and over. Russ, Anita and I and the others wanted them to know our fight was not with them.
While we were assembling at the gate and chanting, over at the front of our group, the officer in charge was telling the leaders that he’d allow us to march onto the field, over in this direction, but not in that direction. The three of us could barely hear or see him. Soon, however, we were all pouring in, hundreds of us, chanting anti-war slogans, carrying signs, pumping our fists in the air, and generally looking like the ragtag gaggle of radicals, street freaks and flower children that we were.
And we were maybe 200 feet onto the Fort Dix marching field when suddenly we saw the men in uniform on command point their rifles – or whatever they were – up over our heads, and fire dull-sounding “pow-pows” s which ricocheted off the barrack walls. Little puffs of smoke appeared above us. Were they arning shots? But the smoke slowly wafted down, and the chanting soon stopped, replaced by coughing sounds. People started panicking, screaming. I tried to run, but that just made me breathe the gas in harder. I fell to my knees, sweating, weeping, puking. Everything inside of me came out. We were demolished.
In time we hobbled back to our buses. “The G.I.s are motherfuckers with guns!” I had never been gassed before, and I found it a rather cathartic experience. Really: As I entered the bus, I felt somehow cleansed, like I’d given my all for the cause.
But the thing is, as we soon discovered, it hadn’t been the G.I.s who had fucked us that day. A group of revolutionary women had commandeered the front of our march. They were the ones who had been told by the officer in charge that we could march over here. They then proceeded to lead the march over there. They wanted to “radicalize” us hippie kids.
I learned a lesson that day: Our side, in its righteous crusade against madness, hypocrisy and lies, had caught every disease it had been fighting. Where did this leave me…and us?
Being part of something bigger than oneself; fighting for radical and fundamental change, can truly be a joyful thing. But who is right and who is trustworthy is not always such a simple matter.
Russell (on right) and I at Pad Six, our hippie home on E. 11th Street, summer, 1969.