Emotional Health · Politics

A Brief Life in the Counterculture

UngratefulIllustration by C.A. Martin

In 1969-70, the year chronicled by Clara Bingham’s remarkable oral history, Witness to the Revolution, I was a junior in high school and there was no prom that year, or the next year either. The intraschool athletic teams had been abolished, as well as a number of similar groups deemed too “square” to be tolerated. Along with these traditions, however, we also lost the competition, materialism, and judgmental games that are usually part of life as an adolescent.

What we gained in that uniquely utopian time far outweighed what was lost. An air of acceptance encouraged individuality, openness and creativity. While we may have been judging one another’s “coolness factor” — we were kids, after all — doing so was discouraged. Everyone deserved a chance to be brought into the fold of peace, love, and rock ’n’ roll. If you were against the Vietnam War, you were cool. If not, we welcomed the chance to change your mind.

As Bingham details so beautifully in her book, suddenly all the rules were different. Just imagine the way the Beatles, for example, changed from the days of their initial popularity. By the time they broke up in April 1970, they were no longer four young men in matching suits being managed by corporate culture. They were distinct individuals, brilliant and refusing to be fit into anyone else’s mold. They may have lost their group, but they had found their “souls,” as Bingham characterizes it in her subtitle: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul.

The Sixties began as a natural extension of the Fifties: most of the mores and customs of the Eisenhower era went unchallenged. When my sister graduated from high school in 1967, girls still wore skirts and demure jewelry, had “steadies,” and were expected to be virgins. As a seventh grader, I visited her the following fall at the women’s college she attended. On Saturday night, everyone in the dorm curled her hair, dressed up, and went out on a date, leaving me behind with the lone studious girl who did not have plans. The girls had to be home by a certain hour (the notorious “parietal” system), and men were not allowed in the dorms under any circumstances. Two years later, such a Saturday would find my sister working with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society).

When I went off to college in 1971, there were coed dorms and even some coed bathrooms.  My wardrobe consisted of jeans and Indian blouses, and I was surprised to find by mid-fall that the sandals I wore on my feet were not always adequate for the climate in Northern California. Boys wore jeans at all times, whether skiing, swimming (cut-offs), or attending a wedding. Many of them had longer and prettier hair than I did.

Parents were frightened by what was going on. Even liberals, like my father, were threatened by the idea that student radicals might cause classes to be canceled, occupy the president’s office, or even endanger the students on campus as had happened at universities across the nation. At mine, a professor was fired for his membership in a radical Chicano-based leftist group called the Venceremos Organization. The name Venceremos came from Che Guevara’s “battle cry” and meant “we shall overcome.” The group and this professor, H. Bruce Franklin, were later discovered to have been targeted by the FBI, which , in an agency program called COINTELPRO, used disinformation and violence to discredit leftist organizations, including many of the subjects in Bingham’s book.

Like the people Bingham interviewed, many students cared deeply about ending the war and seemed to thoroughly espouse the values of the counterculture. The idea of getting a degree in order to join the establishment was anathema. A new order infused with the spirit of community and cooperation was changing our conception of the future, and we were going to remake the world in our image. But the backlash from the right was considerable. In California, boys with long hair were routinely pulled over and hassled by the highway patrol. Considered troublemakers, kids who looked like hippies were “unofficially” barred from many facilities, including Disneyland. We felt that the administration had declared war on us and that the Silent Majority, having been called to arms by Nixon, was organizing against us.

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  • Patricia. Moscatello June 3, 2016 at 10:23 am

    I enjoyed the book review very much and will strongly consider reading the book.