He was a '60s Burn-out, they said. The man was Wasted. The people who knew Dennis Sweeney talked about him in terms we seem to reserve for druggies and former movement people. Burn-out. Wasted.
They talked about him as one of the thousands who spent the '60s mainlining idealism, and spent their 20s getting high on activism.
They talked about him as if he were one of the people who get hooked on a movement -- its community, its rhetoric, its anger and hope, its speed -- and after withdrawal has nothing left. Burn-out. Wasted.
Dennis Sweeney met Al Lowenstein, when the student was 20 and the mentor was 34. He was arrested for shooting him when Sweeney was 37 and wasted and Lowenstein was 51 and still an activist.
It must have been private craziness that pulled that trigger, the craziness of a man who was afraid of the fillings in his teeth. But it was also public craziness.
"In a sense he was paradigm for a lot of young people who took part in the civil rights movement, then became radicalized," sais an old friend from Stanford. "They became permanently alienated and were lost to us, just as surely as those who were killed in Vietnam."
There is a generation of people in this country who went through their youth believing that, as Conrad once said, "An ideal is often but a flaming vision of reality." Now they live in a world in which idealism is smothered with protestations of practicality.
The survivors of the '60s range from the burn-outs to the cop-outs, from the crazed to the co-opted, from the strugglers to the serene. But we are just now beginning to see again the continuing effects of the era so many of us classify as past.
Suddenly '60s people have become a subject again. "Marge Piercy's new book, "Vida," is a human description of life in the movement in the '70s when it had been reduced to a small band of radicals limping their way across the landscape.
The main male in Margaret Atwood's new book, "Life Before Man," is a stock figure from the Alternative Movement, the Lawyer-turned-carpenter, revisited. Without much joy of income, he makes wooden toys that only the rich can afford. In Ann Beattie's writings, we have, one after another, collections of disconnected, disoriented, affectlesss, wandering exiles of the time. The bean-sprouted children who seem unable to grow up.
The cast of '60s Survivors has other familiar characters. The ones who rejected their ideal of change for 1980 "realism" and Kierkegaard: "One must be very naive to believe that it will do any good to cry out and shout in the world, as if that would change one's fate. Better take things as they ones and make no fuss."
The others who left storefront action groups, talking about the "need to move on" and melting into law firms. The ones who occassionally feel nostalgic, with Bob Dylan and Peter Seeger records. The ones who occasionally feel guilty.
And, of course, the Al Lowensteins, those who keep putting one foot in front of the other, who cannot abandon injustice as a priority. Those who keep pushing for a better world, while others turn to talk of private schools and go to work on their tenure or their "heads." Those who dedicate their lives to making one difference at a time.
Every passionate conflict , between peoples, between ideals, between social visions, creates its immediate victims and its wounded. And its lifelong effects. It seems that we are just now separating out the survivors, the walking wounded of that frenzied era, the commonality of many who have lived through the same vast social movements.
Lowenstein and Sweeney began on the same side an were bitterly estranged by the furies of time and of the mind. Sweeney was a casualty of that struggle and Lowenstein the victim of this final injustice.
A few years ago he expressed his worry about Sweeney: "What I'm saying about it is that if you understand all that [the '60s lived at its most intense], there isn't any way you can underestimate the reasonableness of going crazy.
"It was a very sad sort of end to a very talented person that hacked out the fillings in his teeth because he said the CIA would use the fillings to damage his brain. He just simply had gotten to the point where I don't know if there was any way he could be reclaimed from this tragedy."
It is no comfort, but Allard Lowenstein understood.