Saturday, February 18, 2017

Two Cousins Far Apart In the Spring Of Tin Soldiers And Nixon

As a reflection on the late sixties, my Xavier series has two serious flaws.  Well two that I notice anyway.  Xavier was a single sex high school.  I still believe that single sex with uniforms is the best way to run a high school, but it has the effect of having all my contributors having been, you know, boys.

There is also the problem of our youth.  Born in 1952, we were high school students when the really big stuff happened.  It is fairly common for kids to believe that the kids a few years older are way cooler.  Ultimately though you get over it.  Unless you were born in 1952.  The peak of the "sixties" phenomenon was probably the spring of 1970 when many, if not most, of the colleges in the country shut down in reaction to the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings.

At Xavier, I remember the wearing of black armbands and a patriotic counter-reaction of American flag pins.  In a marvelous display of consistency the JROTC instructors gigged both the arm band wearing protesters and the American flag pinning patriots.  Out of uniform is out of uniform regardless of the sentiments behind it.  Two months before, just five blocks from Xavier, a Greenwich Village townhouse had been blown up as SDS Weathermen a few years older than us prepared to up the ante of their bombing campaign.

As it happens I did have a family connection to the SDS.  My cousin Marianne a few years older than I was quite the radical.  We got together recently and she finally succumbed to my begging for a submission.  
                                                        Taken For A Ride
                                                        by Marianne Reilly Dwyer

It was the Spring of the Cambodian invasion, Kent State massacre, and general unrest.  Easter was early that year and it snowed in New Jersey where I was in college. The snow was an event that seemed to propel me to Berkeley California to join in political and communal life with Hank Dwyer (later to become my husband) and some others who had already committed to the wild idea of world changing revolution.

On that snowy Easter, Hank was already on the west coast with his friends from Ithaca, NY, who had been members of a commune there and were now charged with the task of establishing a Californian contingent.  I was to join them after the current semester ended, but I had little stomach for my studies at that time and, well..., snow on Easter? I’d had it!... and booked a flight that very Sunday.

Our commune turned out to be a shared apartment on College Avenue near the Oakland/Berkeley border next door to a Lucky’s Supermarket.  Although we spent evenings discussing Marx, Trotsky and quoting from Mao’s little red book, the days were spent in finding a way to survive.  The guys would “shape up” at a Manpower franchise and I became a Kelly Girl with temp assignments at offices in Oakland.  Although I didn’t sign up for this, I exchanged my bell-bottoms and dashikis for skirts and blouses and tied my long hair back like a good soldier going incognito for the well-being of the troops.

It was on the way back from such an office job in downtown Oakland that I was hitchhiking east on College Avenue to save the bus fare.  After all, money was tight, we had even started adhering to a macrobiotic diet of brown rice and stir fried field greens in order to conserve cash and remain healthy.  It was just this sort of purist revolutionary lifestyle that made us feel uplifted.  Never mind that we regularly added mind altering  substances to our regimen, we were the revolutionary future!  I tried not to admit to myself that I would kill for a cheeseburger and was beginning to detest brown rice.

And so, on this day in a late California Spring, as I hitchhiked back home wearing my office girl camouflage, a long car pulled up and a back door opened.  It wasn’t until I was inside and looked around that I realized that something seemed odd.

The driver was a man wearing a black suit jacket.  I could see a ghostly pale, thin hand extending from a white starched cuff as it gripped the steering wheel but the position of his head looking straight out the windshield did not allow me to see his face.  His hair, combed straight back, was black and reached the collar of his stiff white shirt.

Next to him was a young woman, equally pale, wearing a white, high collared blouse, a black maxi-skirt and very long straight black hair.  She turned to look at me with a steady gaze, eyes dark with mascara, and asked simply, “Where to?” with little inflection or concern.  Her mouth, dark red in an odd shade of lipstick, smiled as if secretly amused as I managed to stammer, “Just drop me at the Lucky’s.”   She turned to the front and did not address me again.  The car sped off.

My seat partner was a fidgety young man with floppy brown hair, crazy eyes with large dilated pupils and a silly grin.  He said nothing but just stared at me nodding. OK, so I knew the signs, he was tripping and somehow I thought I may be tripping too.

When I first entered the car I had the impression that it was some sort of station wagon but as I looked behind my seat it became clear that I was in a hearse.  The place for the casket yawned out the back as I wondered whose body it would hold next. My seat was plush and the air conditioned air felt stale, the ride so smooth and quiet that I lost connection with the city.  Only the strange reality of the moment had any meaning.

It was expected, in those days, that when hitchhiking one would offer pleasant, interesting conversation in exchange for a ride.  But I was struck dumb and the others were silent.  I gripped the door handle as the hearse glided east.

When the hearse drew up across from the supermarket the young  man stopped nodding and started laughing maniacally.  I managed a quick “thanks” and jumped out gratefully.  The two in front never turned their heads but the woman lifted her hand as if in blessing as the car continued on.  As I crossed the street to the apartment I looked up at the Berkeley Hills shining orange in the evening sun.  I shook my head and laughed.  By the time I climbed three flights and opened the door, I was practicing how I would tell the funny story of the freaky folks who took me for a ride.

So if you ever wondered what it was like to live in a commune, now you know.

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