MY FRIEND Mark and I walked across our New England town together, talking over the news. "It's a good thing," he said, "that somebody shot Kennedy." We were fourth-graders at our neighborhood school in Wellesley, Mass., on our way home for lunch. We had just overheard a teacher trying to explain what had happened to a crowd of first and second-graders in the schoolyard. I had been looking forward to watching my favorite noontime show on television, but now I realized "The Three Stooges" would be canceled. This was the first political event that I can remember which had any importance in my life. "I'm glad," continued Mark. "He was a nut." In the basement of Mark's house was a small concrete room, with walls four feet thick. His parents had built it shortly after Kennedy was elected.
My mother was sitting with my two younger brothers on the living room rug before the television. She was crying. We all got on our knees and asked God to let the president live. The day the caisson went down Pennsylvania Avenue is now only fragments in my memory, but thier aura haunts my mind. The day seemed cold, and I remember scuffing my shoes across frozen mud puddles as my family walked to a neighbor's house to watch the procession. The sky was a milky color and there was a scent of smoke from burning leaves. The streets were empty and the air was so still you could hear a dog barking a mile away. I can remember clearly the beat of muffled drums, and a horse caparisoned in black, churning and skittering past the corwds as a young soldier tried to rein it back, riderless and going out of control.
When I was in junior high school, at the age of 14, I got an idea that President Nixon was going to try to form a police state. He had been in office about six months, the war seemed to be getting worse, and at demonstrations I had seen short-haired men in military sunglasses and love beads, carrying Nikons with long lenses, photographing faces at random. My friends and I had a vision of Nixon unleashing slavering phanlanxes of police, all of whom had rolls of fat on the backs of their necks and the souls of Doberman pinschers.
Self-defense was going to be necessary. I went down to the local police station and signed up for riflery course with a kindly, red-faced sergeant, who, as far as I could tell, did nothing but show interested town-people how to shoot a gun. For months, while the sergeant gave me helpful tips, I practiced on the police range, firing first from a prone position, then a sitting stance, and finally standing up, until I had a National Rifle Association rating of "Sharpshooter." I told my friends that if police really went out of control, I was going to be ready for them. I believed I was one of the few sane people left in the country.
A lot of people were arming themselves in those years. A friend of mine often described to me how his father had sandbagged the roof of their house and stockpiled weapons in the attic, including a Browning Automatic Rifle with a firing rate of 600 rounds per minute - "in case the niggers get out of control," my friend said, quoting his father.
We knew the police were watching us. On summer evenings we used to hang out at a small park next to the Unitarian church in Wellesley, smoking dope and sometimes taking LSD. In a phone booth across the street a man stood reading a newspaper and occasionally dialing calls.
He wore a trenchcoat and at times sunglasses, even after dark. We thought he was preposterous and often jeered at him, but he never spoke back. One afternoon at this park, I smoked so much hashish that I passed out. When I came to my senses, I was lying on my back, looking up through the lacework of a tree, not knowing where I was, or how I gotten there, or the time of year, or what my name was.
I think it was George Wald who once said that my generation was the first to be born with the sword of the nuclear bomb already hanging over us. At the time I was in high school many of us blamed this state of affairs on our parents. Between the ages of about 10 and 20, I had fairly regular nightmares about the destruction of the world with nuclear weapons. These dreams almost always began with a flash of dazzling light, followed by a murky series of episodes in which I stumbled through rubble, always looking for someone - a friend, a member of my family, a pet - whom I could never find. Often I was chased by sinister figures, but my legs could hardly move. I would try to warn people that we were in great danger, but my mouth would be locked as if with tetanus.
A young woman who is a graduate student at Princeton remembers being awakened one night, at the age of 11, by two sonic booms. She thought she was hearing the end of the world. "I was paralyzed," she said. "I couldn't make any noise or call out.I just lay there and prayed."
In the autumn after Woodstock, 1969, oposition to the Vietnam War suddenly began to resemble the breaking of a dam. Many people began to believe that there was something eerie about the president and his policies. One of these people was the mother of a friend of mine who was announced to her children one day that she was going to participate in the Nov. 15 demonstration at the Washington Monument. Her children were somewhat surprised. She incited her youngest son, Jon, my friend, to accompany her.Jon got me interested in going. My parents were almost panicked. So was Jon's mother. She thought the police might go berserk, even kill people. But she felt that if you believed strongly in a cause, you should be able to risk your life for it. My mother packed us a huge box of food. Jon and I were both 15.
The day before the demonstration, Jon, and I loaded the box of food into his mother's car, and she drove us to Washington. We stayed with a military man who worked at the White House. His job brought him into frequent foreign dignitaries. He had also thrown open the doors of his house to several friends of his daughter, who sat crosslegged on his living room floor and muttered about the Fascist State.
Our host was a short, balding man. He sat on the living room couch and leaned forward, trying to make sense of the leftist rhetoric coming from the people on his floor. "Here, have some of these," he said, passing out books of matches embossed with gold letters that read, "The White House." Somebody asked him if he supported the demonstrations. "Well, I don't know," he said. But one thing was clear: his opinion of Nixon. "Kennedy was a great guy. God, how I loved him! He always had a word for us. He used to slap me on the back. He knew the names of my wife and children. Johnson was a good man, although I thought some of the other members of his family were retarded. But Nixon. Nixon! That son of a bitch! He picks his ears like a mortician."
The next day Jon and I (with his mother behind us) wandered through a crowd of several hungred thousand, listening to rock bands and speeched, smoking dope (Jon's mother didn't want any), and passing out my mother's food. In the afternoon it got cold and Jon and I warmed ourselves by diving into a squirming mass of hundreds of people who were groping one another's bodies. This was called a "people-pile." By then, Jon's mother had left, not before severly warning us to stay away from violence. Naturally, when the rioting started, Jon and I were in the middle of it. We got teargassed on Constitution Avenue and felt as though we had lost our political virginity. Jon's mother drove us home.
My favorite teacher at the Wellesley High School was named Gerry Murphy. He is a heavy-set man who grew up in a tough blue-collar neighborhood north of Boston. He taught Driver Education and Humanities. One day he was lecturing on history. He suddenly broke off and asked if any of us knew "Dover Beach," a poem by Matthew Arnold. We weren't sure if we had read it or not. Murphy put his head down and said he would give it to us; we thought he was going to read from a book; but suddenly he raised his head and began to speak. "The sea is calm tonight. /The tide is full . . ." When he got to the last stanza - ". . . for the world, which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams . . ." - he broke off and put his head down once more. We waited in silence, thinking he had forgotten the end of the poem.
Somebody began to snicker and said, "You blew it, Murph."
Murphy raised his head again and we saw his jaw and mustache were glistening with tears.
There was a kid in the class who was well known to the local police. "That's OK, Gerry," he said.
Finally Murphy was able to end it. "And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night."
Our generation is hungry for great teachers. One wonders why so many people who are in college now or who are only for a few years out of college have allowed their minds to be captured and mangled by smug and pathological dogmas like Marxist-Leninism, Krishna Consciousness, marcrobiotics, the Reverend Moon, terrorism, or, for that matter, the suicidal cult of getting into a professional school - at all costs. Each of these systems boils down to a game, the object of which is to avoid having to deal with life.
Perhaps this happens because we confuse the difference between a teacher and a leader. One senses a deep need for teachers, but we somehow end up with self-promoted, self-packaged leaders. If any lesson has been hammered in again and again to this generation, it is that to put trust in leaders may be supremely dangerous. We need teachers who are strong and elastic enought to ask the right questions rather than sell the wrong answers.