by Robert C. Koehler
When’s the last time you had your mind blown? Was this something that only happened in the 1960s?
Well, I had my mind blown a few days ago, when I took part in a sort of reunion I could never have imagined. It wasn’t a “reunion” so much as a reopening of the counterculture — specifically, the revival of a publication from the late ’60s called the Western Activist, a renegade (you might say) student newspaper that emerged at my college, Western Michigan University, in 1966.
The Activist! Oh my God! I wrote for it, indeed, wrote a column for it called (can you believe?) The Left Eyeball. For the last five and a half decades that column and the paper itself have been tucked into my memory. They were a crucial part of my becoming. I started believing in myself and claiming my right to participate in the world . . . not by obeying the rules, getting good grades, fitting in, doing what I was told, but by facing that world directly and challenging it to its core. That meant challenging it politically, of course: The Vietnam war was raging, the Civil Rights Movement was waking up the country to its racism, both blatant and hidden. It also meant challenging the world culturally and spiritually — challenging its assumptions and, ever so nakedly, its certainties.
I felt proud of my participation in the ’60s counterculture. I loved those old days and still feel them bubbling and simmering in me half a century later. What I never imagined, however, was that they would achieve actual, historical preservation. Then a few weeks ago I got an email from my old pal Dan Foley, the Activist’s first editor, who told me that the old issues of the Activist were being digitalized by the university’s library — in other words, there were old issues still around, and they were going online. They were becoming available, once again, to the world at large, indeed, to a larger audience than the Activist had in 1966, 1967, 1968, when we sold it to our fellow students for a nickel (and ultimately got kicked off campus, thanks to an issue with a quasi-obscene drawing of LBJ on the cover).
And this digitalization process was being celebrated. Yeah, there was going to be a reunion from the old days and even a panel discussion at the university, open to present-day faculty and . . . wow, students. They would listen to our reminiscences and reflections.
Hence, the mindblow.
I think of myself as still growing up, still learning. I don’t think of myself as a purveyor of historical wisdom. I was stunned. But it turns out a number of men and women from those days would be coming to Kalamazoo and I knew I had to join them. Indeed, this was a remarkably complex, well-organized event, held together by Amy Bocko, digital projects librarian and Western professor.
And it got me digging through my own file cabinet, poring over ancient copies of the Activist that were still in my possession. I started reading, uh . . . The Left Eyeball, not sure how I’d react.
Here’s one thing I learned: The counterculture — the hippies — focused not just on the big stuff (war, civil rights, the environment) or the psychedelic stuff, but on the clichés of the previous decades: the proper way to dress, the proper way to comb your hair. In a column called “Fire Up,” written in the Oct. 19, 1967 issue, I wrote about the homecoming parade at Western, and the reassurance of tradition. And I did my best to shatter that reassurance:
“. . . yes folks winning the Big Game is still most important in our lives even though this is a spreading urban multiversity and we can get drafted and get our balls shot off, we’re not concerned with that so long as we win first prize for our house display. . . .
“I’ve just realized that I’m tired of the word ‘youth.’ It conjures up images of old guidance class movies where girls with long skirts and husky shoulders and an armload of books stroll beside their gawky fella and talk serious talk about goin’ steady and I’m so glad you invited me to the weeny roast and everybody knows these kids don’t have real opinions (being so busy just growing up) and war protest as Time Mag says is just the latest fad . . .
“Missed the parade this year but last year I was there and I remember wishing desperately that I had my camera along. Not to take pictures of any of the floats, they weren’t that good, but some of the people were great. In front of the whole deal four ROTC boys marched, high-stepping along, serious as hell about their solemn duty. The two boys on the outside had rifles slung impressively over their shoulders, the two on the inside were carrying flags. I’ll never forget this one poor fellow with the blond hair and glasses, carrying the American flag. The wind was whipping hard that day and he was having trouble keeping the flag up. The pole was pressed against his stomach and his arms were straining. There was such fear in his eyes. I think had he dropped the flag the two boys on the outside would have shot him. The rest of the parade would have continued on down West Michigan, avoiding the body.”
I get where the sarcasm was coming from. I — we — didn’t want to grow up in a world of clichéd values: not when those values — winning the big game, dressing in a suit and tie (or a skirt properly below the knees), saluting the flag — hid the national lies of war, racism, sexism and so much more.
“Shhhh, that’s not to be talked about,” the authorities told us. We begged to differ.
It was all just a stage in my own growth process, mixed in with drugs and plenty of mistakes and dumb decisions. And, yeah, we all ultimately grew up, found our place in a world that both changed and stayed the same.
How unprecedented to return, as an old man, to who I was in my early 20s, hug my friends and see myself in the parade.