It is difficult for me to appreciate or even understand today's severe criticism and condemnation of what we now commonly call "the Sixties generation" (George Will, Newsweek, August 21). I am not of that generation. I was an upper middle-class New York lawyer at the time, living in upper middle-class suburbia, with upper middle-class values. But I was not devoid of idealism. It was an uphill fight to maintain that idealism in a profession which is so adversarial as to make winning more important than justice.
When the "Sixties generation" came about I felt a sense of renewed hope and got involved in their efforts for civil rights, for ending an atrocious war in Vietnam, and for much needed reform in our political system, our educational system, and our over stressed materialism. I began to represent student political committees (Princeton's Movement for a New Congress) and spent time at various East coast Universities such as Cornell U. and U. Mass. The young people I met were bright, involved, and motivated.
In the summer of 1971, trying to get an understanding of the turmoil and a feeling about grass-roots America, my wife and I, both being over 40 at the time, hitch-hiked from New York to L.A. and up the West coast to Eugene. The young people I had met on university campuses were there, on the road, on farms, or in communes, seeking alternative life styles. Their political and social efforts had come up against the brick wall of our money-oriented society and many had come to the conclusion that only their personal action in simplifying their lives could effect change on a larger scale.
I was impressed. So was my wife. Upon returning to New York from this incredible hitch-hiking trek around the country we held a family council (with our 2 children) and decided to do the same, to simplify our lives. I gave up law, after 20 years, and gave my practice away. We disposed of our possessions, so carefully accumulated over the years, bid good-by to our friends and relatives, and drove west to "do something else, somewhere else".
We reshaped our lives and wound up in a very small town. I became a teacher and my wife a cook in a restaurant. We reduced our income to what our government calls just above poverty level and have never been so content. It's been over 20 years now since we made the change and we have had no regrets.
But the "Sixties generation" that changed our lives fell upon hard times. An irresponsive older generation clinging to old values made these wonderful young people shrink and some of them turned to drugs and others went back to the fold. "If you can't beat them, join them". So it is, like Leonard Cohen said, that the hopes and aspirations of a whole generation was swallowed up, sucked into a black hole, never to be heard from again. But their effort was commendable and the poem that follows speaks of the way I saw it and see it still:
The generation of my peers had stuffed themselves into a phone booth
or gone on panty raids. The one before had swallowed goldfish
or climbed flagpoles. But THEY were of a different mold.
They searched, and questioned, and prodded,
and refused to accept the unacceptable.
They held up a mirror we did not want to look at.
They marched for civil rights
and went on moratoriums to protest the war in Vietnam.
They rebelled against the materialism of their parents
and the hypocrisy of their priests, the shallowness of their education
and the injustices of their society.
They campaigned for McCarthy and McGovern
and insisted on honesty in government.
They marched on Washington for the poor people,
for the Blacks, for the Indians.
They listened to Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan
and burned their draft cards
and chained themselves to the gates of the White House.
They grew long hair and beards,
smoked dope and went on spiritual trips on LSD.
They became so numerous we found them among our own children.
They held sit-ins and love-ins
and came from all over to celebrate Woodstock.
They were reproached by their parents and scorned by society,
clubbed in Chicago by the police
and killed at Kent State by the National Guard.
They dropped out of college to get an education.
They read Siddhartha and The Bhagavad Gita and Be Here Now.
They took their knapsacks and their sleeping bags
and hitched around the country looking for a better way.
They learned Yoga and meditation,
ate organic foods and sought out Indian wisdoms.
They lived communally on the land and in the cities
and turned to music and crafts.
They returned their father's check
and his entreaties to "Come home".
They joined hands together across the land and Omed at potluck dinners in communal houses everywhere.
They sat on a mountain and looked at the sunset
and were sure they had spoken to God.
They dug their gardens and planted their seeds
in a soil that was hard to the yield.
They struggled with housing and minimum wages,
and the transmission on their beaten up van.
They lived with old ladies and had a few babies,
children they couldn't afford.
So they went on welfare and collected food stamps
and just took any old job.
They got tired of struggling to make a new world
and slowly came back to the old.
They cut their hair and shaved their beards
and replaced the joint with a beer.
They took jobs in mills, became carpenters and electricians
and went out and bought a TV.
They got to be thirty and dispersed in the crowd
but things will never be the same
because they left their mark and shook our foundation
and God never gave them a name.
Copyright Jay Frankston 1999
(Jay Frankston was raised in Paris, France, and came to the U.S. in 1942. He became a lawyer and practiced on his own in New York for nearly twenty years, reaching the top of his profession, sculpting and writing at the same time.
In 1972 he gave up law and New York and moved himself and his family to Northern California where he became a teacher and continued to sculpt and write.
He is the author of several books and of a true tale entitled "A Christmas Story", which was published in New York, condensed in Reader's Digest, and translated into 15 languages. His latest book is called "The Girl in the Picture" and is his first book of poetry.)
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