25 February, 2011

Hippie Feat

The People have a lot of power - once they decide to use it, and if they can find the patience to see it through, they can bring about dramatic change. Tunisia and now Egypt are ample evidence of that. These current events have reminded me of a time when my generation - the "Hippies" - created their own dramatic feat as well - ending the war in Vietnam.

I'm not so sure we were patient, but ultimately the war ended. In our frustration with being drafted and forced to fight a war when we weren't old enough to vote led many to dropout from a society we did not like or feel part of. It didn't really start out as an effort to force change. We simply had lots of other things with which we wanted to experiment.

So today I'm thinking about "Hippies" - at least that became the common label for much of my generation in period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Whenever I see demonstrations in the news, I always think back to that era - especially the spring of 1970.

I was in my final year at the University of Virginia and recovering from serious illness. When I went off to college, I planned a career as a naval officer, and the navy paid for all of my education. As I matured though, I became less enchanted with that course. I would have happily served out my six year commitment, but I was very unhappy about the events in southeast Asia. By the time I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease in December of 1969, I was well along the road to being thoroughly anti-war. Then, once I was physically disqualified, I left the ROTC - Honorable Discharge in hand.

We were about to have a momentous spring.

April had been wonderful - a glorious Virginia spring. Following my surgeries and radiation therapy, I was beginning to recover my strength, and there had been a very positive development with the celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22. I had been accepted to graduate school, and life was good

Then the storm clouds began to gather.

On April 30 President Nixon announced US ground forces would begin an invasion of Cambodia the following day. Not only were we not to leave Vietnam, the war was widening! We were not happy, and demonstrations began on campuses around the country. Some began planning for a nationwide Student Strike, and we would refuse to go to classes.

Did I say clouds? How about lightning?

One of those demonstrations was tragic. On May 4 at Kent State, National Guard soldiers fired their weapons into a crowd of students, killing four and wounding nine. Such sadness - to be shot while demonstrating for peace.

Then we heard the thunder. It always comes later.

Please understand that the University of Virginia was a fairly conservation institution. My goodness - the College of Arts and Sciences, in fact, was still all male. Well, not quite. The courts had just admitted two women. Rallying the students to action was going to be a challenge, but on May 6 in University Hall (our field house), "help" came. Radical lawyer William Kuntsler and social activist Yippie Jerry Rubin spoke to me and 9000 others.

I don't remember the exact words, but I do remember that Rubin told us more students had died at Kent State (they hadn't) as he tried to fire us up. It didn't work, but Kuntsler was more effective. As I went to my fraternity house to see what was happening, he led 2000 students to Maury Hall, the home of the Navy ROTC unit. They were going to take over the building.

That didn't happen, but they were there quite a while. Shortly after I got back to my apartment, my roommate who had just been appointed to the top student command position in the Navy unit was called and informed about the crowd. He set sail - full speed - for Maury Hall. Fortunately the professionals had control of things, even though someone had set a mattress on fire in the basement.

The strike (by some) and teach-ins continued. On May 8, 200 police stormed the Lawn and arrested 68. I'm not sure for what, but after that there were nightly rallies at the Rotunda - primarily, I think, to keep students on campus and in less trouble. One of my fondest recollections is of listening to someone read telegrams and letters students had sent the President. My favorite: "Congratulations, President Nixon. You've finally done it. You've pissed off a conservative institution!"

On May 10, the University's President spoke from the steps of the Rotunda and basically expressed solidarity with the students. He asked faculty to work with students who wished to honor the strike. The details are murky at this late date, but I recall one of my instructors walking in and asking if anyone wanted a final. No one raised a hand. He said, "Here are your grades then. The course is over."

It was an ugly time, but the memories are good. Although there was much in the movement I liked, I wasn't really a true Hippie, but that is about the time I bought the glasses you see above in the head shop of a coffee house on Rugby Road, just a few blocks from the Rotunda. I was already wearing bell bottoms, and my hair was significantly longer than when I was in ROTC. Rose colored and prism-ed glasses. The funny thing is that as I looked through them, I didn't see a rose colored world - only one that was confused and beginning to break apart.

The times they were a-changing. And we were the change we wished to see.