You Say You Want a Revolution?
By Henry Allen
But who knocked? Who asked? Which one among you can recall your personal version of the 1960s and say you seized all the opportunities laid out across the psychic landscape of America like cocaine on the mirrored nightstand of a girl you hadn't been introduced to because there just wasn't time?
You missed it.
Who rode the stock market run-up? Who got laid? Who shivered with a velveteen mouth and camouflage eyes in the pre-dawn tree-line funk of Phu Bai? Who hung out at -------- when -------- was still hanging out there? Who surfed? Frugged with kohl-rimmed apathy at Maxwell's Plum? Rode south with the Freedom Riders? Thought America could save its soul with its mind its Kennedy White House cello concerts, its Harvard LSD mysticism, its sexual mystery plays? (Regardless of the fact that saving a soul with a mind is like fixing a leak with a bucket.)
Few, few, few of us.
Who was "booted, pantsuited, birth-controlled and pleasure-goaled," as Gail Sheehy wrote of the women of New York singles bars ... soldiers in the sexual revolution ... all the Mustang Sallys who lived in Torrance, Calif., and went to courtyard-apartment pool parties in frilled bikinis?
And boys who jacked up the back of a 409 Chevy, mounted cheater-slick tires and installed blower scoops that sucked the astonished oxygen out of the lungs of every small-town boy in America?
And wore a Mary Quant/Twiggy/go-go dancer miniskirt so short you had to practice getting in and out of the car?
And got stoned for the first of a thousand times and realized that air is, like, a thing ... like you move through it and it's cool on your forehead and the backs of your hands as if you had a fever and ... what is that music?
And, O sad-eyed lady of Bloomington, Ind., whatever happened to the boy with long, long hair the color of a cocoa butter tan and the knack of making you believe that anything you gave him was a gift he'd never been given before? And years later why in God's name did you think of him in the middle of your bar exam?
You missed it.
Even in the middle of the fun or the craziness you kept feeling like a byproduct for which there was no product, like the side effect of a drug somebody else had taken, the effect being the sense that something had been right there, right in the palm of your hand like a baby bird and then it tried to fly and the cat got it.
The thing was, you should have been there last night/month/year before it got ruined, commercialized, co-opted by the pigs; back when it was really the Rolling Stones, a commune, Mississippi, the Peace Corps, the revolution; back when you still needed four-wheel-drive to get here, before the rip-off artists showed up acting like they invented the goddam electric-guitar/sit-in/lotus position/orgy/American Indian/Peace Corps/New Hampshire primary/geodesic dome/rock festival/boycott.
It's time to call my old Marine buddy, Peter Dunne. He lives in New Jersey and answers the phone for a car alarm company.
Like me, he hates nostalgia, so talking with him is like a tongue searching for a sore tooth, then playing with it for laughs.
"Like you should've gotten wounded," Peter says.
"Christ, I guess," I say.
He says: "When I got hit, I'm coming up out of the water in the paddy, I'm alive, and I'm saying, 'Good, good, good, it's a wound, I'm going home.' And I never wanted to go back. It was so strange, I'm sitting there blood all over and the first thing I see is Domville remember Domville? and before he helps me, he stands back and takes my picture, and later on he sends it to me in the hospital. Why did he do that?"
"He wanted to make sure he didn't miss it," I say. "Or you didn't miss it."
He says: "I try to tell people about the '60s my memory is like a book that got burned and what's left is charred ovals of pages, and they're out of order."
I say: "But there are moments, like you never forget where you were when you heard Kennedy was shot."
"I was on some ship, debarking at Okinawa, humping all our equipment, in line for hours. Somebody says Kennedy got shot, we all thought it was Sergeant Kennedy in C Company, we said 'Good, somebody got that mother.'"
"I saw John Kennedy in 1960," I say.
"Great. Was it cool?" he asks, with the tiny tang of irony one picked up in Vietnam.
"I was working as a dishwasher on Cape Cod, and he flew back to Hyannis after he got nominated. We met the plane. He got off and he just looked like an actor to me, like he had make-up on "
"And nothing behind it," Peter says.
"Later, after he got killed and everybody's so worked up about it, I wondered if I'd missed something. I'd think maybe I should've joined the Peace Corps. Then I'd run into Peace Corps volunteers just back from Botswana or someplace, and they were completely out of it, no idea what was happening with dope, music, the war, politics ... "
Peter says: "I could've gone to Haight-Ashbury, the Summer of Love, but I didn't. I went out to Chicago for the riots during the Democratic convention in '68. It was great, but I'd be in a riot and I'd know there was a cooler riot going on in another part of the city."
"You got to Woodstock," I say. "I missed it sleeping on the ground. The rain. It sounded too much like the Marines."
"It was great. I did acid. I got naked."
"And then the Hell's Angels killed that guy at Altamont, with the Rolling Stones. I mean: If Woodstock was so great, how come we couldn't have more of them?"
"I thought things would change," Peter says. "I thought we could make people peaceful, we were going to change mankind, and then you see you're getting ripped off by the manipulators, SDS, Joan Baez marrying David Somebody because he was going to jail and that made them both cool. You remember 'Be Here Now'? That thing from Baba Ram Dass, the guy who did LSD at Harvard with Timothy Leary? I believed that. It messed me up for four years, that's what my working in the gas station for all those years was about. I didn't take hold of my life, I was being here now. Or acid: You bought into it, you thought you were going to have a revelation that would change everything, and then you didn't."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company