YOU'D ASK YOUR MOTHER, "What was it like in the olden days?"

Not the cavalcade of treaties and earthquakes, the history book stuff, but what it felt like to be alive then.

How could she explain . . . the dusty heat of '50s television sets . . . men who whistled (with trills) and wore hats tipped to one side and got killed in wars . . . the champagne disenchantment of the '20s . . . what it felt like . . .

Yeah, sure, why not, cool, c'mon in, crash here with me for the night, knock and it shall be opened unto you, ask and ye shall receive.

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.

Bummer.

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.

"Here's a weird thing," I say. "I hated being in Vietnam. But about a year after we got back, I started having this terrible yearning to be back there. Even when I started demonstrating against the war. It was like I didn't do enough, like at Chu Lai we got attacked with grenades and rifle fire but I should've gotten under rocket fire--"

"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."

What made the '60s great was the '50s-fostered belief that Everything Was Possible. For a few years there at the beginning, it seemed so easy, like one of those dreams where you discover how to fly, you just arch your back just so, nothing to it . . . no heroism necessary, enjoyed where prohibited . . . just consume, consume, consume . . . sex, sports cars, ecstasy, Bermuda shorts, enlightenment, Playboy bunnies, bare feet in the park, stereos, freedom, justice, truth, art . . . a pastel ease to things. Oh, smell the new smells of non-dairy creamer, tear gas, marijuana, Tang, Cool Whip, sand-candlelit sex, button-tufted Naugahyde car interiors, dormitory cat pee and sandalwood incense . . . hear the cool rustle of beanbag chairs, the think-I-can whirring of VW Microbuses climbing the Continental Divide.

There was the Cuban missile crisis and people kept getting assassinated . . . Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights workers. But those things seemed like mere accidents, at first. We had a right to happiness, as if it were something we could demand, like the vote . . . a wild joke on the old Depression-head Larry Lunchpails also known as "Dad" . . . while the background music had the Lotus-Land melancholy of "California Dreamin' " by the Mamas & the Papas, or "Ooh, Baby, Baby," by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, who slid through your mind like a lost kite drifting down the beach . . . this being early in the '60s when musicians still smiled and bowed when they performed (except for Bob Dylan, who always had the poignancy and anger, the possibility and paranoia working together).

What could go wrong?

Science and liberalism had repudiated the notion of the innate depravity of mankind, so every little baby boom baby was pure, innocent and perfect. John Kennedy would wipe out stodginess. Then Lyndon Johnson said: "The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice. But that is just the beginning."

I drove south in 1962, back when the South was filled with people who despised me or craved my approval. Times were changing. Everybody knew it. There was a high subliminal tremor to things, as if you were looking at an abandoned child whose only toy was its father's bowie knife. Too much was possible. I left a few weeks too early to see James Meredith integrate the University of Mississippi and I completely missed the inevitability that it would be the North, not the South, that was going to explode in all its Yankee sanctimony: Burn, baby, burn. In 1964, when the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts blew up, the black Marines I knew stopped acknowledging my presence when they walked past in groups. Clearly, I had missed something.

Of course if you were black, you didn't have to worry about missing it because it was happening everywhere, the sit-ins early on and the Black Power later, and with long hot summers of riots being either fact or fear (or hope, until the bodies were counted) in cities across the country; not to mention the fact that for all those years your self and authenticity weren't something you had to go looking for in the manner of some Princeton kid hitchhiking to Vermont with his dog Flash. Because every time you woke up and walked out the door it was the white man's America and Something Was On the Line. You didn't even have to think about it.

You just may have believed there was a glamour to be found in the company of the beautiful young gunmen known as the Black Panthers. And the long-lost continent of Africa arose as homeland and Eden. And either you'd read Frantz Fanon's "Wretched of the Earth" or you hadn't--it was a consciousness thing.

Or, black or white, maybe you missed all of this sort of '60s, the decade that the documentaries are about, from acid to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to shootouts.

Look at high school yearbooks, even college yearbooks in the '60s. Where are the hippies and the revolutionaries? Forget it. Here is page after page of the future dentists of America, the kindergarten teachers, aluminum siding salesmen and cops, guys who went to Playboy Clubs; kids who went to work with Dad in his plumbing and heating business, who thought Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack were cool, who didn't notice that John Wayne masculinity was going out of fashion, who didn't have any idea what the Beatles meant when they sang:

I read the news today oh boy

About a lucky man who made the grade

And though the news was rather sad

Well I just had to laugh

I saw the photograph.

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn't notice that the lights had changed

A crowd of people stood and stared

They'd seen his face before

Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords.

Ah, the news. It just added to the notion that everything was possible and nothing was quite real.

Starting with John Kennedy's funeral, the news became drama. The heroes of Vietnam were correspondents, not soldiers. Walter Cronkite was more important than any astronaut he ever covered. Reality became entertainment, turning Americans from citizens into critics. The rising media-political class actually believed that television had brought the war and everything else into their living rooms. When they heard you'd been in Vietnam, they'd say: "Isn't the Times doing a wonderful job? Did you see that series on NBC?"

Such comfy folly.

The '60s have never ended for some people, but for most, they lasted as long as you could imagine that the bad news was just a freak: The killings of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the students at Kent State and Jackson State, the rioters in Newark, Detroit, Washington . . . When King was killed, I remember a TV station in New York whose coverage consisted of the camera fixed on one word handwritten on a white card: SHAME. That was the news, that day.

Finally, there were so many possibilities floating around that either nobody was a freak or everybody was: from Richard Nixon with his face like a biopsy sample to Allen Ginsberg coyly swaddled in 19th-century-bard beard and Uncle-Sam-hat irony. I recall reading about deb-party drunks in white tie singing World War I songs at the Plaza Hotel--the old WASP anthems--the same night the Rolling Stones walked past them, checking in, each group no doubt trying to figure out which was the native, which the raj.

The Syllogism of the Sixties: When everything is possible, nothing is real. When nothing is real, everything is folly. When everything is folly, things turn nasty with ulterior motive, opportunism, psychopaths, acid burnouts and radical politicians who smoke dope and dig Hendrix and all, but then they start laying this stuff on you about Marcuse's concept of repressive tolerance and how killing cops is an act of liberation. From Nixon to some 16-year-old getting high in his basement, the working paradigm is paranoia.

Total paranoia is total awareness, said Charlie Manson, the Hollywood butcher-guru, but he was wrong. It's also the militant wing of self-pity, of which there was a lot when '60s America ended up in the liberation quagmire of which Vietnam was only the saddest part.

It began with a first joint, demonstration, surfboard, whatever. The medium was the message. It ended when you were overwhelmed by a sense of psychic disenfranchisement.

Anyway, it's your '60s. Feel free to start and end it whenever you choose.

The joke of it all turned into self-righteous vandalism, the smashing of bank windows and all. You got older. You had to stop acting like children when you started having them. There was anger and chagrin. Cocaine replaced flower-painted cheeks with eyes full of power-trip condescension.

Or, as we started to say, at the end of an era that began with such grace, hope and fun: Heavy . . . heavvvvYYYYY.

CAPTION: In the 1960s many Americans took to the streets in protest, and if the police weren't far behind, they were often just up ahead. The drama that resulted made for some of the decade's most searing images: Civil rights marchers make their way from Selma to Montgomery; a policeman uses his nightstick on a youth after a march in Memphis; Alabama Gov. George Wallace vows "segregation forever" from a schoolhouse door; a phalanx of officers prepares to sweep Washington's streets during the riots that followed the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

CAPTION: President Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam was paralleled at home by the rise of the counterculture in a nation traumatized by what would become the 1960s' most notorious hallmark--assassination. The murders of President Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King were the horror show in a 10-year-long newsreel narrated by Walter Cronkite and intercut with scenes of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Hollywood's "Rat Pack," American Olympians giving the black-power salute and man's first steps on the moon.