Tuesday, November 13, 2007

#27

Subject C and I sat in the shade of an old mimosa in his backyard. b. 1942 -- NYC


I grew up in the burst of post-war prosperity. My father was a junior high school music teacher and my mother was a pretty typical middle class housewife. I was marginally successful in school and with no goals of my own went to small Lutheran college in Pennsylvania. When I graduated I had no more idea of what I wanted to do with my life than I had when I was in high school. I’d say that “the sixties” didn’t begin for me until I was living and working in NY City and then really not until the Beatles invasion hit. It was the civil rights struggle that first grabbed my attention although at that time I knew nothing about protest and precious little about inequality in America (my boyhood hero was Jackie Robinson and his story was compelling but I remained ignorant of the pervasiveness of racism in America and ignorant of the Jim Crow south).

Public protest of any kind was a foreign idea to me. I knew nothing of labor’s history or the history of suffrage marches. It seems that “history” in school never made it to the 20th century. Of course there were no protests of any sort at my college. But after college the civil rights movement was getting cranked up, and that got my attention. In 1964, my new wife and I traveled to Morocco and, in a youth hostel in Tangiers, I had to defend the blazing ghettos of Detroit to a group of black Africans. I think civil rights was the beginning of my Sixties consciousness. I found myself cheering for the people who were burning down the ghettos, sharing their anger.

The last 5 years of the decade finally gave shape to my life. The civil rights struggle was on television and in the streets around me, the war in Vietnam compelled me seek a draft deferment by teaching school in the ghettos of NY, and all around me young people were acting up, growing their hair long, taking drugs, dropping out of the 1950s middle class.

You know, I’m a child of the 50s, and I got all that Eisenhower stuff -- diving under my desk for air raid drills, wearing dog tags -- WWII movies -- very much a part of my growing up -- cowboy movies, people acting from principle, regardless of the consequences. My aggressive nature and something else in me resonated with that notion of acting out of principle.

In 1966, I became a school-teacher in NYC - started off teaching special classes of emotionally disturbed grade-schoolers for two years, then 4th grade for three years, then again emotionally disturbed. But teaching in NY’s poor and colored neighborhoods was my way out of Vietnam. They said that with a bachelor’s degree and a minimum number of education credits, I could receive an emergency license to teach in those schools. I never understood why such a deferment was proper. It was tough work in tough neighborhoods but comparison with the experience of combat is pretty lame.

Being in those neighborhoods, dealing with those kids and getting a first hand look at poverty and social adversity heightened my appreciation of the civil rights movement. In 1968 there was a teachers’ strike in New York born of black-white conflict. The board granted the community in the Bedford-Styuvesant section of Brooklyn control of their schools. They immediately fired seventeen white teachers saying they were racist, were underqualified or underperforming. The union struck and I crossed the all-white picket lines together with one other white teacher and all the black and Puerto Rican teachers.
I was, up to then, a United Federation of Teachers union delegate for my school. The split in the teachers in my school by race was symptomatic, I believe, of the atmosphere of fear that drove white teachers to betray their principles.

When I was a student protests were unheard of and I found the 60’s campus protests kind of self indulgent, immature behavior. But in the 60s I drove to Washington DC to march in support of civil rights and later against the war. Me, a white man, talked to my 4th graders about black pride and about racism – as best I understood it at the time. I supported the Black Panthers and opposed the war.

Although the whole hippie phenomenon was happening all around me I stayed separated from it. It was too wild, too druggy, too irresponsible. I didn’t smoke marijuana until 1968. I was unprepared for the experience but ready to embrace the new perceptions I had from the drug. It put me on the path out of the mainstream.

F and I had gone to San Francisco for the summer of love. We had seen people our age – well, mostly younger than we were – living outside of the culture in which we’d grown up and outside the law as well. We did psychedelics for the first time - we stayed with my sister in San Francisco, were given some mescaline, and went to Yosemite to take it. As with my experience with pot this trip was seminal – again it changed my view of the world completely. Not like it made me crazy, or anything -- it gave me the knowledge that there are other ways of looking at things, that my sureness about reality was not very firmly grounded. It informed me that change was possible, that I didn’t have to do what I was “supposed to,” that I could change myself and that I could find other ways of living. This was the overall effect of drugs. I didn’t do psychedelics very many times in my life -- maybe six times. I smoked marijuana when I could get it, which wasn’t very often back then. But I think that drugs were responsible for, if not raising my consciousness, making it acceptable to think new thoughts, to admit to other realities. It made me open to reading about yogis, and reading Ram Dass and Carlos Casteneda, and rejecting my very rigid scientific background.

In 1970 F and I discovered Mother Earth News, and here were these descriptions of people living out in the country, growing food, taking care of themselves, and it was a world removed from my urban world. NY was increasingly becoming a place where I couldn’t live peacefully. I was a paranoid and aggressive person throughout the 60s -- I was angry and it was getting me in trouble and the city was becoming more dangerous. My hair was getting longer and hair covered more of my face. I didn’t know where I was going but the winds of change were pushing me.

I have a recollection of sitting in Brooklyn in ‘69 or ‘70, writing page after page, trying to conceptualize how people could live together, how you could restructure relationships among people as a commune, as a community. This was not based on any experience, it was not even based on reading about other communities. I was dreaming about what might be, but I don’t think I would have been dreaming if the 60s hadn’t happened; I would have continued being an unhappy straight guy. I was still working with a 50s’ head.

F and I went to a few meetings with neighborhood people -- by this time, Brooklyn -- of other ‘’hippies” -- people who were saying that life here in the city, in the mainstream, was crazy, that there was a better way –with Mother Earth News and United Farm rural land catalogs we started dreaming about leaving.

Our first attempt to leave got us as far as upstate NY – only a few hundred miles from the city. We were miserable there, without friends or compatriots. I taught school again and with my beard and long hair and uppity views about teachers’ rights I was pretty unpopular at work. Our first daughter was born.

Our attempt to escape from our NY City life was a failure. The next year we came back close by the city and rented a house in northern New Jersey. We were even more miserable there, both with our circumstances and with our personal relationship. I hustled a piece of a living as a cabinet maker and general carpenter. We came perilously close to breaking up and would have if we could have afforded two rents. We went on welfare. I worked as a stockboy in a department store and walked out after two weeks. We had committed to two years in the house we were renting and counted the days until we’d be free to leave north Jersey and find a new life.

Finally in 1973 we headed out once more. We stopped in southern Ohio and stayed with a friend on his farm, the first experience I’d ever had actually living in the country. We came to Arkansas because we had made some contacts with a guy in Pettigrew -- his letters to Mother Earth News brought quite a few people here. From our first drive through these mountains and the first hippies we met we knew we’d come to the right place.

Our first home here was a little shack up on Wharton Creek near Huntsville that we rented for $25 a month. Located in a deep valley on a horrible road this primitive old homestead was paradise to us. That first year we met M and his wife – they had moved here from California the year before. They had bought lots of land, and said why don’t you come build a place on our land. And we did. We moved to their farm, cleared a space in the trees and put all our youthful vigor into building a house, establishing gardens, and hustling a very small living doing carpentry and farm work.

F, who had a BFA and considerable experience as a calligrapher, started painting signs. We became ‘the’ county sign painters for 7 or 8 years. Even with that we earned barely $2500 a year. We got food stamps on and off, until we found the process too demeaning to continue. We had a second child in 1976 and a third one in ’79. By then we had started a crafts business using F’s calligraphy and combining it with pressed flower collage and making framed pictures which we sold at crafts shows. By the early 1980s it was providing a small, welfare-free income.

We derived great pleasure from our surroundings - sitting outside and looking at a bug on the ground, watching flowers bloom and trees change color and grow, interacting with wildlife and farm animals, growing our own food – and from the wonderful community of friends, all of them in-migrants like us.

We never had running water for the eleven and a half years we lived at M’s - well, we did have a line running from a muddy pond half of the year - in cold weather, the line would burst, because it was just half-inch black plastic on the top of the ground. For years, we hauled all our water from the creek behind the house, a hundred yards downhill, in buckets. We did and our children did. The summer [drought] of 1980 ruined the spring at the creek; it never recovered. The drought killed huge oak trees in our yard -- it was awful.

We didn’t have electricity for the first six years at M’s, just kerosene lamps. Bathing was in a wash tub in the middle of the cabin -- we would ladle water over each other. In warm weather, we had a shower of sorts - water coming from the pond to a hose hanging in a tree.

By the time we left in 1985, F was really dissatisfied. It had become oppressive to live as primitively as we were. Our oldest daughter was 13 and she was ready for something else. After a 3-year attempt to find a new life in Lawrence, KS we ended up back here in Arkansas at this house on the edge of town.


The whole hippie thing of the 60s was truly a rebellion, a cultural rebellion. For me it was a real act of defiance to refuse to wear a tie, to let my hair grow, to have a beard. You have to remember where I came from, culturally, and what expectations others had for me that I pitched overboard. I feel like I grabbed the 60s by the tail, and it kind of whipped me into the 70s and 80s. I really was too old to feel the rebellion from the innocent inside as all the young hippies but the spirit of it had a firm grip on me.

None of my college classmates that I’ve had any contact with followed the course I did. They all went on to become doctors, lawyers, ministers, college teachers, professionals of one sort or another. I never found anybody who freaked out, which is all I can call what I did, relative to my generation. But in no way do I regret my choices. I found my way to a freedom I didn’t have when the decade began. I found I could dream of another way of living, that I could act in ways that suited my feelings and philosophy and not be tied to what others thought I should or shouldn’t do or think or believe. I think I’ve become a more compassionate person and certainly more conscious of how people live together in the real world. And these are the basic values.

I have a job now, a business, and we can afford rent on this house. When we were doing craft shows we needed some kind of tent to keep us dry, and a fellow craft exhibitor and I designed and built one. When we took it to a show other exhibitors wanted to know where we bought it and so I started to make them – in the shade of an oak tree using hand tools - with the help of C sewed the tops on an industrial treadle machine in her tepee. Now we have drill presses and power band saws and C has electricity and commercial sewing equipment.

It is said that the ‘60s were about self indulgent youth, about sex and drugs and parties and rebelling as children rebel. It is said that all that noise and fuss had no merit and can’t be looked at for its long term effect. My feeling is that the experience of the ‘60s (and ‘70s) changed not only America but the world. First of all, the rebellion didn’t just happen here. It happened in Prague, in Paris. There were lots of places where the youth were saying the whole mind set of their parents, of the ‘50s, was crazy and hypocritical. It was the ‘60s that brought anti-war protest to the mainstream. In the ‘50s, there was no such consciousness. War was glorious, heroic. The ‘60s exposed the underbelly of the principled America we’d been taught about in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It was shocking to see television pictures of dogs attacking black people in the south. Up to then I knew nothing of Jim Crow. The ‘60s gave the lie to everything I had been taught, all the values I had been brought up with. My search was to find some ground to stand on because what I had been given as a child was pulled out from under me by the ‘60s. I couldn’t rely on any of it. I had to rely on what I thought, what I felt.

Then there was the practical thing of working with those new ideas. I don’t know of any communes that have succeeded but our communities here in the Ozarks have survived. I have learned that change itself is necessary and inevitable. I have learned not to be complacent, not to become too established, because everything will change. And that’s not a consciousness I grew up with. I grew up with the idea of immutability, that there are principles, things that are absolutely true -- and the ‘60s said there was no truth, that you have to find your own truth. The hippie idea was that each of us has to find his own truth.

All those people who took on the values of the ‘60s came from the ‘50s -- and much as they wanted to change, there was an awful lot ingrained. And we repeated some of the mistakes we rebelled against and failed at our attempts to create a different way of life - open marriages, communes, exotic religions. But understand that we had no basis for these experiments. We didn’t know, for instance, how to live together, and it was proved out time and time again in the many failed communes. They would break up because people had no experience in the principles of communism or the practice of it. When they tried to live out their ideals they constantly ran into themselves, or their former selves.

So much changed when I came here to Arkansas. We really were divorced from the mainstream, and this setting made it possible to be. I didn’t have a radio, no tv, I didn’t read newspapers. In 1974 we founded Headwaters School. We were establishing our own world, and we stumbled numerous times, but I think it’s testament to our determination that many of the people who came here in the 1970s are still here. We still talk about community values. We talk about who we are as a group and how we function together. It’s an ongoing topic of conversation within the community of people who came here -- old hippies.

It’s taken me a long time to learn how to be a good teacher, how to lead learners to learn. I taught two of my daughters for three years, here at home. Thinking about it, I became a better teacher. I think I’m a good teacher at this point, but I’m not doing it professionally. I’ve been warned by several principals I met while taking an upper graduate level course here at the University that I’d never make it, that the system would chew me up. The system these days requires that you to do it their way precisely, that at 10:15 am you’re teaching science, and following the prescribed curriculum. And those folks are undoubtedly right. The only way I -- and I still fantasize about going back to teaching because I think I am good at this point -- the only way I could do it at this point is to go into a really bad school where I won’t be bothered, where they’re not going to make me walk any lines, and I know I could connect with the kids. My solution to the educational crisis we have now is to fire the entire administrative staff, put more teachers into classrooms, and have no more than ten kids per class. You don’t need expensive books, you don’t need elaborate equipment, you don’t need athletic stuff. One teacher, seven to ten kids and a small budget, and then go -- my guess is that 90% of teachers would become successful, because they wouldn’t be dealing with an impossible situation. Most teachers didn’t become teachers because they didn’t have anything else to do with their lives. They had – and have - ideals, but they’ve never been put in a situation where they could put them into practice. I still might find myself back there one day. I think there is a possibility. I’m not sure I could function with the system the way it is now. I want to give back and I think I have the skills to do it but I don’t know if it will ever happen for me. My sister went back; she’s teaching in Harlem, one of two white teachers in a totally black school. She’s a really good teacher and puts a lot of energy and time into it. She’s in a state of perpetual exhaustion compounded by the frustration of large classes in a difficult environment.

I think that in my interaction with the local community here just being whoever I am has always had an influence. I just finished working with some local guys on a job and we talked about stuff, about owning your own land and immigrants coming in, current events. I don’t try to push my point of view -- when possible, I just state it and let it sit there. Think about it if you feel like it. I don’t proselytize. I think that the consciousness and ideas of the ‘60s have permeated the general culture in ways. For instance the idea of brotherhood and sisterhood is straight out of the hippies and ‘60s, and the black power movement – that idea of our interconnectedness and responsibility for each other has spread to a large portion of society. If it is nurtured, it could be brought out. The whole environmental movement -- so many people have accepted these principles and ideals that they are now mainstream.

So many ideas that are now mainstream were dismissed as hippie dreaming. The sense of social justice that came out of the civil rights movement, the first time many of us had to think about social justice, happened to us in the ‘60s. Life-directing experiences like meditating, being conscious of what we eat, doing yoga, greeting each other with hugs – all have insinuated themselves in the mainstream.

1 comment:

CresceNet said...

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