For good or ill, I was born too late for the brunt of the 1960s. I was not drafted to serve in the War in Vietnam. I wasn’t 18 until 1973, and by then the war was winding down. I have no idea what I would have done had I been drafted. My parents were good, middle class Americans, Democrats, but by no means radical. We talked in a loose way about my slipping over into Canada to avoid service in a war we all felt was a mistake, especially my mother, but I feel pretty certain that if I had been drafted I would have been too conformist and cowardly to resist. My father was a McGovern Democrat, an anomaly in a small town on the Great Plains. He and my mother once participated quietly in an anti-war observance in front of the Dickinson post office. He and I would not have wound up in a Freudian struggle over the war, because he regarded Vietnam as an insane act of American colonial imperialism. But I do remember him saying, several times during my childhood, that I should consider joining the army after high school. He said it builds character and it would, thanks to the G.I. Bill, get me free tuition to college.
My friend Philip Howard’s brother Jon enlisted to avoid the draft, and wound up being stationed in Germany. I was at the Howard house the day he left—a very sad day for a comparatively safe posting. He did not go to Vietnam. Nobody that I know from my childhood went to Vietnam. Just under 200 North Dakotans died in the war, six from my hometown of Dickinson. But I did not know any of them personally.
I never smoked marijuana in high school. I suppose I had chances to do so, but we were denizens of rural America, and it was beer that was the intoxicant of choice for my high school friends. I did not drink two beers until I was 30. So far as I can remember I was only drunk once in high school—and that was on wine, when I was mooning over a young woman named H. M. She was considered wild by the standards of the upper crust of Dickinson, population 13,000. She came from one of the “best families.” I remember when she told me of her attempt to buy birth control pills at one of the two downtown drug stores. The pharmacist called her father the minute she left the store and all hell had broken loose in the M. household. She did not want the pills for sexual activity with me. She was smoking dope and opium, and she was frequently high on uppers in those days. She was sleeping with a man five or six years older than she was. I was her safe platonic boy-friend. A horrible fate.
Of course I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was killed. Ann Parsons came back from lunch and told our third grade class that the president had been shot. I think I remember the teacher telling her that could not possibly be so. We were dismissed from school early that day. That was a time when everyone walked to school. I walked with Ward Letvin to Cub Scouts half a mile from school. We were making Christmas decorations for our mothers out of fake berries and fake leaves. My mother still has the brooch I made that day. My parents were devastated by the assassination. My sister and I went down into the unfinished basement of our little square lower middle class house and played library that day and the next. I remember the gray gloomy light of that basement room, and the little desk where we were making faux library cards. She was ten. I was eight. I remember that we already begrudged Lyndon Johnson the presidency, and said things like “I hate Lyndon Johnson,” and “he’s not a real president.” Where we got this I have no idea. Such sentiments would not have come from my parents.
My parents stayed glued to the black and white television set through the weekend. It was the first time I saw my father cry. He sat quietly with tears streaming down his face. My sister and I had a particular interest in Caroline and John, jr.
We saved Life magazine and the newspapers that announced the assassination. We bought a commemorative record album of some of JFK’s great speeches, and we played the album many times, though it was only by special permission that we were permitted to take the record from a special drawer.
The word “Vietnam” first entered my consciousness a year or two later in a different house, I believe. My mother and I were in the living room. It was after school. She was ironing. She had a bottle of water that she would sprinkle on the clothes before she ironed them. Steam irons had not yet found their way to North Dakota. Walter Cronkite was anchoring the CBS Evening News. I remember him saying something like, “Today in Vietnam….” I turned to my mother and asked, “Mom’s what’s Vietnam?” She wore thick glasses in those days. “I don’t know,” she said.
We would soon know. I don’t think we heard about Vietnam every night, but we certainly heard about it every couple of days for the rest of the 60s, at least until I graduated from high school in 1973. We lived a very long way from the coasts, from the great universities, from the centers of power and protest. We trusted our government. We were part of what Nixon later called the silent majority. We assumed, at least until 1968, that if the president said it was important to be there, it must be important.
I remember in junior high my friend Brother Baird and I talking about draft dodgers one afternoon. Just why this was part of our conversation I no longer quite remember. We were in my house, after school, maybe watching Star Trek. My friends all used to gather in our den in those days to watch Star Trek and Batman after school, and consume chips and sodas. We had a low brown coffee table in front of the couch. My mother would come home about an hour after we got there and grumble at us for our slovenliness. Still, she picked up the empty cans and wrappers. We had a color television set by now, with a rounded screen. My father purchased that color television when the Minnesota Twins went to the World Series in 1965. They lost.
At some point my father came home and began to mix himself a drink. That was increasingly his routine. Brother and I were in the den, alone I think, and we agreed that if we found any draft dodgers in our circle we would love to beat them up. My father was a careful and discreet man. There was no bluster or posture or male assertiveness about him. He did not say anything at the time, but when Brother went home he got alone with me and gently questioned me. Had I ever thought about why people resisted the draft? Did I really mean that I would try to beat up a draft dodger? Had I ever actually been in a fight? What did I know about the war in Vietnam? How long had I been thinking this way? Did this come from me or from Brother Baird or his father (yes) or someone else?
My father asked me to think carefully about the ways in which I let others influence what I believed or said or did. He said he had read a good deal about Vietnam and that it was his opinion that the war was wrong. He did not necessarily judge draft dodgers harshly. He was not urging me to resist the draft if it came to that. That was a choice only I could make and only if the situation actually presented itself. But he urged me to study things before I formed opinions about them. That conversation changed the trajectory of my life, not merely about Vietnam.
I was more fascinated by the moon landing in July 1969 than by Woodstock, which took place a month later. I can remember the moment when the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) landed on the moon, July 20, 1969. “Houston, this is Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.” I was downtown, at the Coast-to-Coast store, watching the landing on a series of television sets. Everyone in the vicinity was hovering around the TV sets in the store. Later, when Neil Armstrong dropped down onto the moon’s surface we were all four of us in our living room, the other three on the couch. I had a tripod set up with several spare rolls of Tri-X 35mm film. I made us turn off all the lights as we watched the great historic moment. I took a picture every thirty seconds or so during the first hour of the moon walk. I took many dozen photographs of the television set, and when the lunar excursion was over, rushed into the back room, off the kitchen, to develop the negatives. My parents had permitted me to create a darkroom there, in a prominent place in the house. I regarded Apollo 11 as the most exciting moment of my life, and I knew even then that it was one of the greatest moments in human history.
The space program had always been a source of fascination to me. During the Gemini program, we were allowed to watch the launches, the dockings, and the space walks in the grade school auditorium at Lincoln Elementary. We took pride that North Dakota native son Eric Sevareid sat at a desk outside of Cape Canaveral intoning good thoughts about the brave men up in those rockets. He used words like “empyrean” and “surly bonds of earth.” Most of my first school reports were about the space race. I could cite rocket throw weights, the names of astronauts, and facts about the moon at will. Even now I have a library of many dozens books about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and I can remember just where I was when John Glenn first orbited the earth and when Ed White became the first American to walk in space. I knew we would meet JFK’s challenge of putting a man on the moon in the 1960s, and returning him safely to earth.
One of the greatest moments of our time was Christmas Eve 1968, when the crew of Apollo 8, led by mission captain Frank Borman, read the first chapters of the book of Genesis from a few dozen miles above the lunar surface. To a certain degree, that was a more characteristic and enduring Sixties moment than the moon landing seven months later. Even my father, a quiet atheist, was moved. A silly Californian protested the astronauts’ violation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. But it is, I think, indisputable that that was the greatest public Bible reading in history, to the largest audience, and that that moment deepened the space program in a way that defies rational analysis. Nor did anyone conclude that the astronauts were evangelical creationists.
Earlier, in the time of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, my neighborhood friend Donnie L., the child of Bible thumpers, told me his preacher had said, “What boots us to send men up into space in their little tin cans?” Nobody in my family ever said, “Think of how many people we could lift out of poverty if we didn’t waste our national treasure….”
I know in retrospect that that was the same week that Ted Kennedy killed a young woman in an automobile mishap at Chappaquiddick in Massachusetts (July 18, 1969). I’m not sure whether his troubles registered much with me then. I know that my parents were deeply saddened by the accident. They knew that he was culpable in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in all sorts of ways; they were certain he was not telling the whole truth about what happened; they reckoned that he had been intoxicated, that he was probably sexually involved with Miss Kopechne or wished to be; that the head brace he wore to the funeral was a cheap attempt for sympathy. But they were extremely sad and disappointed, and not in any way righteous. None of us were Kennedy idolaters. My father regarded JFK as not much more than an average president, certainly not a great one. He was never caught up in the Kennedy aura, and I don’t remember him having any special feeling for Robert Kennedy in the 1968 presidential race. My father had been impressed by the insurgency of Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy, whom he regarded as a man of integrity and principle. He thought of Robert Kennedy as an opportunist who jumped into the Democratic race only after McCarthy had proved that the emperor had no clothes. He believed RFK was trading on the Kennedy myth. But my parents were not cynical people then, or later, and the prevailing feeling we had about Chappaquiddick was a terrible sadness.
Woodstock came and went as something far, far away. I was enthralled by the idea of Woodstock, and I suppose I at first envied those who were there, but I was not a huge rock n’ roll fan, did not have a large collection of records, did not own a guitar or any other musical instrument, and did not particularly care about any bands beyond the Beatles, who held a very special place in my life. Woodstock instantly became a symbol of the Age of Aquarius and the cultural power of young people. “Three days of fun and music and nothing but fun and music,” is how one of the farmer hosts put it. I was a little shocked and secretly delighted that Country Joe used the F-word from the Woodstock stage. Nobody in my family would dare use such a word then. I suppose I might have used it since in the presence of my mother, but even now I am reluctant to use any swear words when we are together. At the time it would have brought grave consequences.
I was more interested in the Zip to Zap, North Dakota, that occurred on May 9-10, 1969, three months before Woodstock. Several of the teachers at my high school decided to sell t-shirts and food concessions at the event. They lost their money. I had no interest in going. I have never been attracted to mass events of any sort. At any rate, my parents would not have let me go to Zap, though it was only a couple of hours away, because I was only 14 years old and I barely had a driver’s license. Brother Baird’s father was a stern law & order man, always huffing and puffing about hippies, liberals, draft dodgers, anarchists, and communist sympathizers. His view was summed up on the bumper sticker: “Love It or Leave.” He was either a police commissioner at the time in Dickinson or a member of the Dickinson City Commission. I was with Brother in their house, three blocks west, when Robert Baird, sr., was interviewed on local television about contingency plans for the city should hordes of Zap-bound Hells Angels or other ruffians appear in our part of the state. He spoke with great severity and pomposity. Brother and I were by now cynical enough to burst into wild laughter as we saw his father bloviate on black and white TV, explaining how he and the National Guard would save the city from the barbarian hordes. We felt the generation gap in his bluster, and we felt for him nothing but contempt.
My first contact with the Beatles came in 1964 when they first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. I have no recollection of our family watching that event, but probably we did. My sister was more enthusiastic about the Beatles than I was at that point. She had a portable record player in her room, with a frilly bed and walls painted pink, and Barbie dolls strewn about. My parents gave her a copy of the American debut album Meet the Beatles for her birthday. She and I sat in her room, on the bed, playing that album over and over during the next weeks and months. My mother had wrapped the gift badly, so that when my sister pulled off the paper the Scotch tape pulled a bit of the album cover off, leaving a kind of half-inch white scar across the perfect smooth black surface of the album. My sister was not happy about that, but there was nothing to be done. There was either a fact sheet that came with the album or she had purchased a teen magazine with a Beatles feature. I remember studying with her each of the Beatles’ favorite colors, their favorite songs and musicians, and other Beatles trivia, as if we were studying the personal facts about the life of Jesus or Gandhi or George Washington.
I remember our fierce advocacy of the Beatles against the routine skepticism of the adults around us. My parents did not care one way or the other. They were not hostile to our love of the Beatles. They did not object to our playing their records. They did not see rock n’ roll as sinful, or even subversive. But one of their best friends, Jerry Sundet, the symphony conductor in Minot, North Dakota, was at our house one weekend, with his wife Dee, and their two children Mitchell and Becky. Jerry dismissed the Beatles as nothing but noise. We argued with him. To his credit, he said, “Ok, show me.” So we played whatever was our latest Beatles album for him while he sat listening carefully, as if we had selected Bach or Mahler. He sat in a chair smoking (everyone smoked indoors then), and we lay or sat on the floor watching him listen. He closed his eyes. We played the album on our big family stereo—eight feet wide, tall and deep, a lovely heavy piece of wooden furniture with a tube-type stereo inside. When the album was finished, Dr. Sundet met us part way. He acknowledged that the music was in some ways beautiful, that the Beatles sang in lovely harmony, that one could actually understand the lyrics, that there was poetry in some of what he had heard. We regarded this as a great triumph.
Through all of this I was still just a boy. My voice changed in the eighth grade, without much drama. I had my first kiss that winter, at a skating rink, after an excruciating period of uncertainty, insecurity, and frayed nerves. Her name was Linda K. She was far more advanced than I was in social development. I was pretty sure it was not her first kiss, but I can remember all the circumstances of that magical Friday evening as if it were yesterday. I began to come sexually alive when I was either in eighth grade or my freshman year of high school. I could get an erection in an instant for no reason whatsoever. In fact, at school we boys spent much of our time talking about “boners”—getting them, hiding them, dealing with them. I was a virgin until I was late 16 or early 17, and then I had sex with a pliant older girl, a friend of my sister’s, two or three or so times and then desisted. Why I don’t know. I was scared my parents would find out. She said she was on the pill but in those days one never really knew how safe that was. It was still very early in the age of birth control. Probably some of it was Freudian. I know that I backed away from what would have been a great couple of years of easy lovely sexual exploration with a beautiful agreeable woman. That might have changed the direction of my life. I have never understood quite why I backed away. My parents had had much difficulty in their marriage, and I found myself, like it or not, at the vortex of many ugly fights. That was a deeply humiliating experience. To get away from their troubles I moved downstairs into the grim unfinished dank basement, painted the walls black, got a water bed, crafted my own low-tech shower, bought a black light and black light posters, bought a used reel-to-reel tape recorder, put all my favorite albums (Joplin, Woodstock, Blood Sweat and Tears, Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young, etc.) on tape, retreated to my own sanctuary almost as soon as I walked into the house, and listened to that music at a high though not piercing volume every night, to drown out whatever insanity was unfolding upstairs.
Rock music has a way of infiltrating the soul of an adolescent between the ages of 12 and 25, and not only helping to sooth those terrible uncertain insecure years but to shape and define us. Music speaks to us as no verbal discourse or writing can, and somehow it seems at times that the band or artist is singing precisely to one’s unique, wounded, aching, dreaming, uncertain heart. I have said that music was not a big part of my youth, but the Beatles had some kind of automatic status in my soul. I was a conformist in that regard, I suppose.
I can remember when Abbey Road came out (September 26, 1969). I bought it instantly at the record and music store downtown. We had only one stereo. I had wired things so that it could play on speakers in my room, but even with an automatic record changer that meant bounding the stairs to change records or play one again. So I would spend afternoons lying on my back in our big empty living room—it was more a museum than a room with an actual family purpose. I’d put Abbey Road on and then lie on my back on the strong thick gold carpet. I’d slip into a kind of altered state as the album approached “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” half awake, half asleep, but listening fully to every word and nuance and every guitar lick. It was an intensely erotic experience—not at all sexual—but somehow deeply erotic, and somehow transgressive. It was my own private universe. I was involved in a dialogue with experience that I never attempted to explain to anyone else—not Brother Baird, certainly not my parents, not a minister, no one. As I lay in a yoga position in that big comfortable isolated room, I could feel myself being transformed from a boy to a man. Abbey Road got in harder and deeper than any previous cultural experience of my life, perhaps than any experience whatsoever. There was a kind of numbing erotic bliss in my soul, a carnal knowledge that had sidestepped the rational sectors of my brain. I was fully alive. I was doing something that belonged to me alone. I was finding a way to accept myself as a person with pubic hair, erections, wayward thoughts, alienation: adulthood. I repeat that this was not a sexual experience, but there is no question that it was profoundly erotic. I don’t think I can explain it any better than this.
My parents or my sister would interrupt my idyll or the phone would ring. That broke the spell, and after that it was just rock music in the living room.
My friend Craig S. and I went on a road trip to Denver in the summer of my junior year. That was a distance of about 750 miles. I explained to my skeptical parents that Craig’s brother lived in Denver, so we had a free place to stay. Craig was almost identical in age to me, but he was light years ahead of me in his adolescence. I was still a virgin, he not. I did not drink or smoke dope. He had done both, a good deal of the former. He had a hot new yellow car, souped up, a babe magnet. It had an eight-track tape player. I remember listening to Ten Years After (“Going Home”) at the top of our lungs for many hundreds of miles. The stated purpose of the trip was to visit Denver for no good reason, but the unspoken purpose was to bring back a large supply of Coors beer and of course to get laid—somehow. We did manage to bring back the Coors, at a time when it could not be commercially distributed beyond the borders of Colorado. The rest was just a silly adolescent pipedream, of course, but throughout the seven-day trip we felt like men, like adults, like Jack Kerouac. It was one of those rites of passage that mark the principal transformative periods of our lives. It turned out that Craig’s brother and his wife were engaged in some sort of shady escort business, so the journey wound up feeling a bit like a scene out of the later Risky Business. We returned with our (my) virtue intact, but for several years Craig and I looked back on that auto excursion as an adventure of very serious significance.
In 1968 I was in eighth grade. For a civics class we were given the opportunity to do one of several projects. I chose to make a chart of the presidential primaries. This was the age of tag board, magic markers, and stencils that you could buy at Green Drug or any place that sold office supplies. There was no Kmart yet, no Wal-Mart. I took a yardstick and a black magic marker and plotted out the primaries and the candidates. I chose only to chart the Republican primaries, featuring Richard Nixon, George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan, because it was perfectly obvious to us all that Lyndon Johnson would be the nominee of the Democratic Party. This must have been in the fall of 1967. What I didn’t know at the time, what nobody knew at the time, is that Richard Nixon would coast easily to the Republican nomination and all the drama would turn out to be in the Democratic Party, which I hadn’t given any space on my poster. Nobody in my part of the world could see Gene McCarthy coming or LBJ’s shocking sudden withdrawal from the election on March 31, 1968, after the Tet Offensive and McCarthy’s surprising showing in the March 12 New Hampshire primary. I so wish I had saved that tag board chart, as a kind of relic of the political innocence of that moment—between the early 60s and the profound 60s, the age of innocence and the age of experience, that line of demarcation that occurred sometime in the 1967-68 corridor. But it is gone like almost everything else in my world.
My father was a political observer, at times a political junkie, so we watched the CBS special report in which Walter Cronkite concluded that the Vietnam War could not be won; we watched as LBJ said he would not seek nor would he accept the 1968 nomination in the Democratic Party. We watched the catastrophic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. My father was visibly upset by Mayor Daley’s police riots at the convention, though he thought much of the hippie activity on the streets of Chicago was juvenile and potentially damaging to the legitimate anti-war movement.
Two years later, at the time when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, I drove my father’s elderly boss Evelyn Nachtway to a funeral in Killdeer, North Dakota. She had a magnificent red Cadillac DeVille, with cruise control and electric windows, when those luxury items had not yet found their way to North Dakota. I was scared to drive so expensive a vehicle, and I was pretty sure I would find a way to wreck it. Somehow the subject of the Pentagon Papers came up during the 43-mile drive. She denounced Ellsberg as a traitor and said the New York Times had no right to publish the documents, which had been commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to chronicle the history of America’s Vietnam policies. The argument became quite heated. I worried that I might be jeopardizing my father’s job at the bank she owned, but when I got home he told me I had been right to stand up for what I believed. The next day he went into her office and told her he was proud of me. She admired and respected my father, in spite of their political differences.
I had a science teacher at Dickinson High School who was a bombastic patriot and defender of the status quo. He called Mao “Mousey Dung,” and threatened to throw out of his physics class anyone who wore an American flag on his clothing, “even if they fire me for it.” He spent about ten minutes per day denouncing hippies, defending America’s conduct in Vietnam, dismissing Seymour Hersh’s allegations about My Lai, calling the Viet Cong “gooks,” and praising John Wayne as the greatest American. We were afraid of him, because he had power over us, and we sensed that he would carry through with his threats, but we loathed the way he politicized our time in his class, and dismissed him as a jingo and a moron.
When the movie M*A*S*H was released in 1970, one of the “hoods” (hoodlums) in the school saw it a few days before the rest of us, and essentially memorized the plot and dialogue. His name was Dean Z. He regaled us in study hall with something like a full oral transcript of the film. We all went to see it, and we appreciated it for its general cynicism and subversiveness, and its brief nudity. We watched a silly motorcycle series called Then Came Bronson on television (1969-70), and we expressed instant enthusiasm for Easy Rider when it was released in 1969. We all watched Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, though my father regarded it as juvenile, but even he admired the way that the Smothers Brothers teased the edges of propriety in their jokes about Vietnam.
I do not remember the death of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. I have no idea where I was. I do not remember seeing Robert Kennedy’s magnificent speech that night in Indianapolis (I have watched it many times since). But I do remember where I was when I heard that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. We were at my grandparents’ farm in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. I was just waking up on the morning of June 6, 1968, and their small black and white television set was just on the other side of the door of the room where my sister and I slept. I heard my grandparents, who were rock-ribbed Goldwater Republicans, moaning in the next room when the news was announced that RFK was dead.
The fact that I do not remember where I was when Dr. King was killed is a source of deep shame to me. I remember the other signature moments: JFK, RFK, the Challenger disaster, 9-11, but I do not have any contextual recollection of the assassination of Dr. King. We think we are not racists, but we are.
My first realization that there were black people in America came from television when I was in second or third grade. On Sunday afternoons, CBS often televised NBA basketball games or the Harlem Globetrotters. Even on our grainy black and white set, I could see that the majority of the professional basketball players were black. Our town had a Job Corps base when I was in grade school. North Dakota was then a profoundly homogenous and white place. Just one black family lived “in” Dickinson—actually at the base about five miles east of town. Because of that, and that alone, a girl in my class was black. Her name was Rosaria Cobb. My mother attended the PTA in those days. When she learned that there was an African-American student in my class, she sat me down and told me I must never treat Rosaria Cobb badly, and that I should not let any of my friends call her by any bad names. My sister and I were instructed that hereafter on the playground we must say, “Eeny meeny, miny mo, catch a thimble by the toe.” That made no sense but we immediately complied.
I did not really see African-Americans again until I went off to college in 1973. At Vanderbilt, where 5,000 young people studied, precisely nine were black. The university was in a state of great self-congratulation about this “breakthrough” in civil rights. Nine black students: but virtually all of the work staff of the university—janitors, food service, lawn care, facilities—were black. In the food line, the shy and over-worked black women would mechanically say, “What foh you?” as we neared their stations. I found it all very wearying, coming as I did from the egalitarian Midwest, and I grew tired of hearing southern white folk, then and for the next thirty years, explain—to anyone who would listen—how far they had come since Brown v. Board of Education. They were so eager to establish their comparative enlightenment that they grasped onto any outsider like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. There were thousands of black students at the University of Minnesota, where I finished my undergraduate education, though none in my English literature classes.
After Robert Kennedy’s death, a version of Dick Holler’s song “Abraham, Martin, and John” was released by the musician Dion, which closed with a passage spoken by Ted Kennedy at his brother’s funeral. I immediately memorized it, and spoke it many, many times in the months ahead. I cry every time I hear it, with Ted Kennedy’s voice breaking as he tries to make sense of the senseless murders of his brothers. I listened to it just now in preparing to write this paragraph, and I burst into tears all over again. I do not pretend to know why, but Robert Kennedy’s death seemed to me a greater blow to America than that of his older brother the president. Perhaps it is because I was much older when it happened. Perhaps it is because the first killing was shocking but the second one seemed almost teed up by some kind of Greek fate. “My brother need not be idealized, nor enlarged in death beyond what he was in life” Ted Kennedy said. “To be remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. As he said many times in many parts of this country to those he touched and those who sought to touch him, ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.’”
Maybe these magnificent words explain the difference. Ted Sorenson was the most gifted Kennedy voice of them all. I don’t think it can appropriately be said that Jack Kennedy “saw suffering and tried to heal it,” or “saw war and tried to stop it.” He took us to the brink in the Cuban Missile Crisis. As far as I’m concerned he was responsible for Vietnam. In spite of his hesitating talk, all of his actions were to increase our military presence there. His attitude towards the suffering of his fellow humans was largely detached—as he was generally detached, ironic, cool, self-contained. Selfish. “Those who sought to touch him” brings back indelible memories of Robert Kennedy in the last fatalistic weeks of his life, when he tried to let as many Americans touch him as possible, even when they were ripping his cufflinks and shirts right off of him and scratching his hands and legs. When I learned much later that RFK spent several days during the crucial run-up to the California primary on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, sitting quietly with young broken Oglala Indians, my respect for him turned to love. Something magical happened to him between November 22, 1963 and his death five years later. He became—not purposefully, not opportunistically—a kind of Christ figure for the shattered America of the 60s. He had plenty of faults, but there was a kind of godliness about him. You cannot think about him without asking, “What if?”
We lived so deep into the heart of the continent that the events of the larger world hardly touched us. My father read the Minneapolis Tribune, a good newspaper then, but nobody in my part of the world read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. We got most of our news from CBS, from Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid, who was a North Dakotan whom we greatly respected. It’s not that the great world did not find its way to us, but nobody could argue that North Dakota in 1969 was a hotbed of counter-cultural activity or war protest or drug use or anything else. We were square, and we lived, as Sevareid said, in the large blank spot in the nation’s consciousness. Most of the mayhem of the Sixties occurred somewhere else.
I first became radicalized on May 4, 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded nine others on the campus of Kent State University. By now I was old enough to see through the official illusions and justifications of our government. No member of our family thought Richard Nixon was a good or decent president of the United States. My father had been a Nixon hater long before it was cool. Nixon had campaigned with the promise that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam, certainly wind it down, and here he was on national television announcing an expansion of the conflict by way of a ground invasion of Cambodia. I’m sure many student protests, including the one at Kent State, were at times unnecessarily vulgar and dangerous to public safety, but I could not then, and I can not now, believe that it can ever be necessary to shoot college students on college campuses for protesting an unpopular war. What were real bullets doing in the guardsmen’s rifles? Two of the four victims were merely walking between classes. They had no involvement in the protest. The other two were part of the protest that Monday at Kent State, but they were unarmed, as were all of the students on campus. What kind of nation guns down its young on college campuses? What did those four students do to deserve death?
My father suggested that we read the report by one of America’s most trusted writers, James Michener, who was asked to write a book about what happened at Kent State. The result was Kent State: What Happened and Why?, published in 1971. I devoured the book. My father devoured the book. Michener concluded that there was plenty of blame to go around. He did not try to whitewash the misdeeds of the students at Kent State, who burned down the ROTC building on campus two days before the killings. My father and I discussed the shootings over many hours, agreeing on most points. I gave a report on the book at school. My principal warned me that I was a troublemaker.
Two weeks after Kent Statae, students and concerned adults gathered from all over the region at the ABM missile site that was being built at Nekoma, in extreme northeastern North Dakota. They were protesting Kent State, the widened war in Cambodia, the Vietnam war generally, and the creation of a new nuclear facility on the prairies of North Dakota. I was not among them on May 16, 1970. Our governor at the time was a moderate Democrat by the name of Bill Guy. He had come in to the governorship in 1960. He was a good-looking young man with a handsome wife and children, and he had formed a friendship with President John F. Kennedy.
As the ABM protest loomed, so soon after the madness at Kent State, the whole country was on edge. So were the people of North Dakota. Governor Guy was visiting the University of North Dakota to advise faculty, administration, and students about how to comport themselves at the ABM site when he was interrupted, at the podium, by a UND official. The Attorney General of the United States John Mitchell was on the line. Governor Guy excused himself and took the call from Washington in a private room. Mitchell told Governor Guy that he expected him to keep order during the protest. In fact, he told the Governor of North Dakota that he expected him to “go out and crack some heads” at the demonstration. Governor Guy explained to the Attorney General that the protestors had every right to demonstrate, that he was certain they would behave responsibly, and that peaceful demonstrations were not only a constitutional right but an honored American tradition. Mitchell was aghast. In the terms of unmistakable contempt he asked Governor Guy just what he planned to do about the demonstrators. Puckishly, Guy said, “Well, I’m thinking about joining them.” At this point the principal law enforcement officer of the United States slammed his phone down in a rage.
My parents bought me a Nehru jacket when I was a freshman in high school. I had a couple of pair of bell-bottomed trousers. Beyond that, I was just a kid wearing the kinds of clothes that Midwestern kids wore in those days. My sister was much more in sync with the fashion trends of the era. I was a square. I never broke curfew. In fact, I had no curfew, because my parents trusted me without hesitation to do whatever I wanted to do. I worked 60-70 hours per week at the local newspaper, in part to escape from the emotional chaos of our home.
My sister had a Peter Max scarf. She frizzed her hair and sometimes left the house braless when my father didn’t object. Partly because she was two years older, partly because she was wired differently, she was somewhat more a child of the Sixties than I ever was. She smoked cigarettes from a young age.
I got a G.I. Joe for Christmas when I was about 12 years old. My grandfather Dick Straus made his displeasure known. Boys didn’t play with dolls. My mother valiantly tried to point out that they did, now, actually, and that G.I. Joe was the very epitome of manliness. But my grandfather was not persuaded.
If there were gay people in my hometown, as surely there were, I was unaware of it. We boys reckoned that there was something vaguely wrong with our male classmates who participated in school theater. I later learned that Alan W., who was in many school plays during my high school years, had had a very difficult life and had committed suicide when he was in his 40s. Until very recently, and even now to a certain extent, gay men in North Dakota tend to marry women and father children, as a coping mechanism in a place that until recently, and even now to a certain extent, is not afraid to exhibit a grim and righteous homophobia. I first got to know gay men at the University of Minnesota. Anthony Ray sat next to me in my Survey of English Literature course. We became close friends. He was a beautiful young man—lean, elegant, handsome, fastidious, impeccably dressed, funny, always a little sad. He invited me to a “party” one weekend. I walked several miles to the house in question, where I found myself among thirty or forty other young men, all or most of them gay. Tony was a little apologetic, but I shrugged and we had a great evening. I was the focus of several incidents of gay sexual harassment at the University of Minnesota, but such things were not reported in those days, and I would not have reported them even if there had been a harassment response infrastructure at UM. One such incident might have led to my death, but I managed to extricate myself successfully, terribly disillusioned and not a little wised up. I have not eaten a crepe from that day to this, a full forty years later.
I did not even smoke dope in college, where it was almost a curriculum requirement in the early 70s, first at Vanderbilt, then the University of Minnesota. Once, at Vanderbilt, I agreed to eat one of Samuel Midkiff’s Seven Layer Cookies at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, egged on by my classmates in Hemingway Hall, who insisted that I try dope at least once. I ate the brownie with great hesitation. For the first thirty minutes I kept working in my room. Then the world suddenly exfoliated and I saw what all the fuss was about. I was like Aldus Huxley in The Doors of Perception, suddenly seeing “the Dharma body at the bottom of the hedge.” But I did not try marijuana again in college. Nor did I drink much. I was a total student, determined not to follow my father into excessive drinking.
During school breaks and holidays, my father occasionally told me that he would quite like to try marijuana, at least once, but when I said that if he really wanted that I could probably figure out a way to get a small supply, he pulled back. I wish we had done it. He was as brilliant a person as I ever met—technically a genius—and he might have been pretty interesting stoned. He had been a bohemian during his college years in the late 40s and early 50s, an opponent of the hydrogen fusion bomb, but so far as I know he had no access to marijuana or hashish.
I wore a crew cut throughout grade school, a “butch” as it was then known in North Dakota. When I was in eighth grade my parents let me grow my hair out a bit—not much—and I wore it progressively longer an inch per year until I was thirty, when I gave up and opted permanently for the lowest maintenance hair styles possible. When I was a junior at the University of Minnesota my hair was shoulder length, blonde, and scruffy, and I wore a long green army surplus coat throughout the winter. One of the most prim and elegant men I have ever met was my Eighteenth Century English Literature professor, Robert Moore, who displayed original Piranesi prints in his home library and office, and confessed a love of opera that was greater than his love of Pope and Swift and Dr. Johnson. I shudder now sometimes, and even blush, to think what he must have thought of me when I showed up for office hours looking like a shabby Vietnam vet or, worse, a wannabee. He helped me win a prestigious international scholarship. I wonder if his letter of recommendation urged them not to judge a young scholar by his cover.
On the other hand, things had been so traumatic at the University of Minnesota during the Sixties that the new administration building had been designed as a bunker so that the grave work of managing a university of 53,000 students could continue no matter what mayhem was unfolding on the turf above. The previous president of the University, Malcolm Moos (1967-74) had attempted to sympathize with the student movement, much to the disgust of the Board of Regents. He was said to have been the author of President Eisenhower’s famous farewell paragraph warning us to “beware of the military industrial complex.” My father admired him.
My father made few demands on me in the course of my life. When I decided to transfer from Vanderbilt to the University of Minnesota, he told me he would of course pay for my tuition and expenses, on one condition. I must take a course from a man named Mulford Q. Sibley, an eminent political scientist who had come out against the war in Vietnam as far back as 1963, before it was cool. My father greatly admired Sibley, a tall, ethereal, soft-spoken but courageous man who had been on the right side (meaning the left side, actually) of every question in the course of his distinguished career. I took three courses from Sibley on the history of western political thought. Even though they were difficult courses about not very popular subjects, his classes had to be held in large auditoriums, because no fewer than 300 students per class signed up to sit at the feet of this venerable liberal icon. He reminded me a little of the older Bertrand Russell, whom he often quoted. I got to know him a little in those years.
On the last day of every course he taught, he would read aloud the most recent Amnesty International list of terrorist countries, stopping to comment on some of the worst human rights abuses from time to time. We all knew what was coming, but the list always ended, at about minute 53 of the lecture, with, “And, of course, the United States of America.” After detailing the latest sins of the United States at home and abroad, Professor Sibley would look up in sadness at the multitude seated before him and say, “I had hoped to continue teaching until the day came when I would not have to read that last sentence, but I am afraid mortality is going to win this race.” We would stand up first in silence, and then quietly applaud the great man as he walked disconsolately out of the room.
I also took courses from one of the great American Studies scholars of the United States, David Noble. He portrayed historical characters in his classes—Nixon, Jefferson, MacArthur, Lincoln—and he said, one day at coffee in the student union, “My radicalism? It came suddenly, in Chicago, in the summer of 1968.”
The American Indian Movement began in Minneapolis in the late 60s. My sister’s boyfriend Doug Gillund urged me to read a book called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. So I did. I’m with Thoreau: “How many a man has dated a new era of his life from the reading of a book?” Dee Brown’s horrifying romp through the history of the white man’s crimes against Native Americans is not only heartbreaking to anyone with a shred of conscience, but it localized some of the worst American crimes against humanity right in my own Great Plains. From that moment on, I have been especially attuned to the “Indian wars” and skeptical/cynical about any comfortable mainstream narrative about American history. One of my English professors at Vanderbilt invited me to go camping with him in the Wind River Range in Wyoming just after my freshman year. My parents let me take their big Chrysler New Yorker, I know not way, as a reward for doing well in my first year in college. That trip involved some pretty amazing adventures, but I had to rush home at the end to start a summer job with an eastern North Dakota newspaper. I was about 100 miles northwest of Wounded Knee when the occupation took a desperate turn in late May 1973. I so wanted to turn my father’s big car around and hasten to the Pine Ridge reservation, but I knew this would upset both of my parents almost beyond reckoning and my father would worry every second until his car arrived back in our driveway in Dickinson, ND. So I ducked the opportunity to get into one of the maelstroms of the Sixties and limped home instead. To this day I believe that Leonard Peltier was framed for killing an FBI agent at Wounded Knee. Every Democratic President spends some time at the end of his term trying to decide whether to pardon Peltier, who is old now, and ill, and still languishing in federal prison, but the justice department that cooked the evidence to convict him is so certain that he did in fact commit the crimes for which he is imprisoned that they always manage to dissuade even such idealists as Bill Clinton. Peltier will die in prison one of these days. I’m a radical on Indians rights—an extremely unpopular position on the northern Great Plains—so I try not to get drawn into many arguments about such questions as dam removal and the return of the Black Hills to the Lakota and the Cheyenne.
In 1973 I read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That same year I read his Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972. I was a McGovern Democrat because my father was a McGovern Democrat, though he knew from the start that McGovern’s quixotic campaign was doomed. I was a McGovern Democrat because my mentor Mike Jacobs was a McGovernite, though he (less than my father) recognized that McGovern’s campaign was doomed. I was at Vanderbilt when the Arab-Israeli war occurred in October 1973. There was a Kuwaiti on my floor of the dorm, Hamdi, my first anti-American, the first person who told me that the United States was a Zionist stooge, a loathsome imperialist and terrorist nation that supplied arms to “the Zionist entity known as Israel,” and helped the Jews torture their enemies. We argued with him as best we could, but we were naïve and very badly informed about a part of the world we did not yet care to notice, while he was passionate and full of examples of our national perfidy. We knew in our hearts that he was at least partly right, but we still wanted to believe in America. At night, when the dope started to fill our dorm hallway with its sweet aroma, and the Rolling Stones held forth on half a dozen stereos, Hamdi would smoke hashish that he had smuggled in from the Middle East. At some point, we’d ask him how he was doing. “I am high as a big deer,” he’d reply. That became the mantra and the goal of my dormitory.
Stereos were a serious business then. When my parents dropped me off at the Kissam Quadrangle at Vanderbilt in August 1973, barely permitted to inspect my new digs before they were shuffled back to Dakota, I noticed that the first thing every other boy moved into his room was an expensive multi-moduled stereo system with colossal speakers. Each boy’s poor parents carted suitcases and electric fans up the stairs to the fourth floor of the dorm, but he carried in his stereo as if it were the last egg of the last condor on the planet. Every boy had his stereo up and running before his parents had even disappeared, and the first week was not much more than the battle of the bands. Our RA, a hapless graduate student from Alabama named Byron, would come out every fifteen minutes after 11 p.m. and say, “Kwy-aat Arrrrhs!”
I was in my freshman year when the Saturday Night Massacre occurred (October 20, 1973), in which Nixon fired the Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox and several Attorneys General before the dust settled. I remember arguing the crisis with some of my dorm mates, who somehow still believed in Nixon and felt an affinity with the Young Americans for Freedom. We knew we were living in remarkable times, and we all sensed that we were witnessing one of the great constitutional crises of American history.
When I went home for spring break, the South Dakotan who let me share the 1300-mile ride and I had a great deal of trouble finding enough gasoline to complete the journey. That was my one encounter with the energy crisis.
My father was a banker. He asked for a leave of absence from his job so that he could stay home mornings in the summer of 1973 to watch the Senate Watergate hearings. His boss, who was a very conservative Republican who believed that “they all did it,” and that Nixon was certainly not worse than the average Democrat, gave him the leave. He and I sat in the den watching the hearings gavel to gavel. He bought every book he could get his hands on about Nixon, Watergate, and the Senate investigation. He even cross-referenced those books to locate discrepancies in testimony by Dean, Haldeman, Erlichman, and others. Later, he met John Dean and stumped—not to mention enraged—him with a question about something Dean had said during that long and fascinating summer. My chief regret is that my father did not live long enough to learn that Deep Throat was, as he partly suspected, FBI member Mark Felt; and that VHS or digital recording did not exist then, because he would have watched the key testimony countless times with a notebook to mark down time codes. For his birthday one year I flew him to Washington, D.C., and arranged for the two of us to take the shuttle to somewhere in Maryland where a few of the Watergate tapes were available for listening. We sat in a dilapidated building with dirty headphones and we were permitted to order one or two of the handful of available tapes at a time. My father knew precisely what he wanted to hear. He had been planning his listening strategy for months.
There were five or six scholars working on Nixon-related tapes in that room. My father got the giggles over some horrible and absurd thing Nixon said on the tapes. I had to rebuke him at that satellite facility of the National Archives. “My dear father. This is a research facility. We are not here to be entertained by the Nixon tapes, but to ‘study’ them.” Much as he regretted embarrassing his only son, he could not stop laughing. It was one of the best days of our lives.
I never took LSD or smoked opium. I was never in an encounter group, though my church had a weekend retreat for “teens” once in which we came as close as you can come in the clunky heartland. I was never involved in anything that could be called free love. I have never been arrested. So far as I know I have never called the cops “pigs.” I did not skinny dip with my friends. At this juncture, forty or even fifty years later, I wish I had dropped acid, gone to Woodstock or at least to Zap, thrown a brick through a window, or stripped naked at a be-in. But no. I was born too late and too much in the heartland to indulge in such things. My somewhat older friends used to belittle me gently for having had the bad judgment to be born too late for the great circus. I have read dozens of books about the Sixties, and I have tried to make sense of them for much of my adult life. Had I grown up in Berkeley, Madison, or Boulder, things might have been different. The first lesson I learned at Vanderbilt, in Political Science 101, was “where you stand depends upon where you sit.”
I left the country to live for a few years in England in the fall of 1977. I was listening on the BBC at Oxford University in November 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected 40th president of the United States. The British had a hard time believing that the American people could elect a former actor as the leader of the free world. I remember lying in my Spartan bed in Hertford College and thinking late that night that—whatever else was true—the Sixties were finally and truly over and whatever came next would be dramatically different from all that had so far crossed my consciousness.
Clay S. Jenkinson