Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dawn of the Counterculture

Despite the predominant blandness of most college towns in the 1960s – with notable exceptions such as San Francisco, the East Bay, and New York – campus life did open up in the second half of the decade. While I was reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind, others were beginning to organize, dissent, smoke pot, lighten up, make fun, expose wrongs, and generally experiment. God was "dead," we were told, and anything seemed possible.

Of course, Syracuse was still very much a Methodist university, more into real estate than research, and not much concerned about each student's development as an individual. God forbid! If you wanted education, you'd go to a college. What universities did was "produce" a crop of graduates. We were on an assembly line, where knowledge was implanted and citizens were made.

But even a university had to change, so the administration decided to allow "visiting hours" with the opposite sex in dorm rooms. Ever cautious, they tested it out for a few hours on weekends. We still felt like prisoners, but it might have helped -- if the deal hadn't been rigged. As it turned out, you had to keep the door open at least the width of a matchbook.

In the era of Jefferson Airplane. Andy Warhol, the Tolkien Trilogy and Bob Dylan, it was absurd to think that healthy, albeit largely vacuous young adults would take seriously such sex and stimulant taboos. Benign repression just helped fuel extreme reactions. People drank anyway, heavily, and literally footsteps over the line in off-campus sanctuaries. Others rented apartments for their trysts. Or settled for cars. Or broke into classrooms. And some people began to experiment with drugs. On Marshall Street, hippies with beads, ragged clothes and headbands began to congregate. Rumors circulated about rock stars on LSD and why Disney's Fantasia was so weird.

A few students stopped attending school altogether and spent weeks just wandering around town, staying up late, drinking, or smoking pot. Usually they flunked out before too long. But a more stable subculture did begin to coalesce. Some of its members were revolutionaries, others merely very high. Eventually it was labeled the "psychedelic community" and word went out that there would be weekly gatherings on the quad. Known as "Gentle Mondays," these became a short-lived series of happenings, a time to "turn on, tune in, and drop out" on the installment plan.

Some diehards went further, bagging school for a Kerouacean odyssey across the country. One friend, who went from an LSD colony in Mexico to panhandling in Haight-Ashbury, returned with a personal philosophy based on drugs. He believed things like this: "Everybody who smokes is a pusher at one time or another. I mean, it's part of the thing. A pusher does a little bit of turning people on -- not always for cash, a little bit of selling his grass, a little bit of trading his grass, perhaps a whole lot of smoking his grass, some stashing of his grass, some looking at his grass, and some grass just so he can pour more grass on top of it. It's some kind of security, like having grass in the bank."

More conventional ways to escape the multiversity cookie cutter also revealed themselves. Extracurricular pursuits could introduce you to a community of kindred spirits. The serious core of most clubs and projects was usually a diverse mix of young and older, exchange students, and part-timers. This aspect of education felt almost real.

Predictably, I went the media route with a group of writers, artists and rebels. The magazine I created and edited, Vintage, was actually a potpourri of poems, criticism, jokes, fiction, news, opinion and comics that changed form with each issue. One cartoonist, a married vet who had gone AWOL and been given a psychological discharge, began to create an ornate fantasy world inhabited by creepy-cute wizards and lizards from space. In 1966, Syracuse witnessed the emergence of Vaughn Bode, whose lazy reptiles, buxom cherubs, and brutal machines would reach a vast audience as the underground comic scene exploded.

Like many members of the emerging counterculture, Vaughn assumed that a grim, machine-run future was in store for us unless we took some strong steps. For some, the necessary magic was an altered state. But others started to make aggressive political moves. When the man from Dow Chemical, maker of napalm, came to recruit in 1967, hundreds of students blockaded the placement center. Soon we were holding teach-ins, sit-ins, takeovers, and a lot more. Most college kids were still apathetic, but they could be organized, and some were being educated – by the government's brutal escalation in Vietnam and the general rigidity of many college administrations.

Most undergrads skated along, only vaguely aware of the cultural rebellion bubbling up. But they were learning, despite themselves and the school, and were still basically optimistic. There were so many choices ahead, we'd been promised, and most students did have high hopes -- at least to be successful and choose their own pleasures. Freedom actually seemed within reach, if you survived college and military service. And getting a good job after graduation? Hey, no problem. Those were the good old days.

Part seven of “In the 60s: Education of an Outsider.”

Next: 1968 – When the World Was Watching

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