When Things Were As Hot As They Were Cool

Remembering That Hippie Summer: 1968

Sammy Lamb
Remembering That Hippie Summer: 1968
CCO Public Domain / Tookapic on Pixabay

Have you ever had a life-changing experience, one that so altered the world around you that you could never see it the same way again?

I did. It was the hippie summer, 1968. Maybe you were there, too.

1967 brought the Summer of Love . The counterculture turned San Francisco's Haight Ashbury into a tiny, new nation, but in small towns like mine, the tidal wave of change didn’t reach us for another year.

It was only a few months after I first let my hair trickle over the tops of my ears, a radical gesture then, a flag that let everyone know you’d dropped out or, at least, planned to.

Our long hair provoked nasty comments from former friends and family alike, many whispered as asides or behind our backs. Our gender and sexual preferences were in doubt, but it was too late to go back, no matter who, friend or family, preferred the old clean-cut us.

We'd become traitors

As  e. e. cummings saw it: "listen: there's a helluva good universe next door; let's go" from Pity This Poor Monster Manunkind.

Being a hippie as the summer of 1968 warmed up was a little like that, like jumping off into to a next universe..

Radical In 1968

The summer of '68 pushed the inevitable at us. It was time to change.

My girlfriend, turned out by her family after a dispute about me, found a one room apartment, and without much contemplation, we found ourselves "shacking up," a term you don't hear much today, but one that implied an informal, disapproved living arrangement.

To satisfy our landlord, we had to tell him we were married and went off to Woolworth's to buy fake wedding rings.

We took turns cooking really simple meals and shared a communal bathroom in, oddly enough, a small building in which all the other tenants were senior citizens. Waking up in a bed shared with someone to whom I was not related felt strange and thrilling, almost grownup.

I was all for free love and serial marriage, and if she disagreed, she never said so. Mostly, this was a mistake of inexperience, romantic optimism and over-confidence.

But for that hippie summer of freedom, it fit the new Age of Aquarius we thought we’d keep alive.

For a while, Bobby Kennedy's death took political passion away from me, but with the presidential campaigns so focused on the War In Vietnam and myself close to being drafted, I got it back. I became a coordinator at the Broome County Peace Center, organizing rallies and protests.

When Curtis LeMay, the running mate of racist George Wallace, came to speak at the American Legion, my friends and I were there, engaging people attending the rally as they walked up the front steps and planning to walk out of the auditorium in silent protest when the radical war hawk took the stage.

Bit the Legionnaires refused to let us in. Somehow, they got the idea we were not in tune with the intent of the proceedings.

Movement In Hindsight

Nobody knew what to make of the hippie movement when it happened. Everyone was taken by surprise.

The beats had rattled cages, but this was bigger and more charged.

Now, however, it seems, a lot of people have opinions about our short stint as a counterculture. I doubt anyone will ever get it entirely right.

Instead, we'll see multiple versions that, held together, make some kind of reasonable approximation.

Why Did We Become Hippies?

Before we were hippies, we were dropouts. We left without going away.

For me, it was two things, two complicated things. The first was being reminded to the point of numbness that the generation before us, Tom Brokaw's alleged "Greatest Generation," gave us everything, including the most prosperous nation the world has ever known.

But what about the baggage?

What about the racism, the misogyny, the violence, the brainless consumerism?

What about the suffocating conformity, the widely accepted blacklisting of dozens of writers, actors and performers who thought socialism might be a solution for America's fundamental racial and class inequality?

Actor Zero Mostel (The Producers), writer Dalton Trumbo (Johnny Got His Gun), playwright Lilian Hellman (Pentimento), Singer Paul Robeson (Old Man River), composer Aaron Copeland (Appalachian Spring) and dozens of others were denied the right to work at their crafts.

Why?

Offenses like signing a peace petition or once attending a communist meeting were enough to get you booted aside. In the Land of the Free.

None of the blacklisted were traitors, and many served in the war. 

But Congress sponsored and encouraged it all with the nodding consent of the Greatest Generation, most of whom later formed the passive-resentful Silent Majority and brought us Richard Nixon, fighting change that had to come.

Then, there was the violence. It started with the clubbing of unarmed protestors, attack dogs and power hosing directed at civil rights demonstrators guilty only of demanding that equality and opportunity be more than a national slogan.

Then, they killed John F. Kennedy. I loved Jack Kennedy, elected when I was twelve years old and ready for heroes and idealists.

The Vietnam War just grew and grew until all the guys in my generation had to face the prospect of being asked to fight in a brutal conflict none of us understood.

Later, we found that what we feared was true: the Gulf of Tonkin Incident used to justify attacking a smaller, distant nation was faked, and the lawlessness grew from there.

Killing A King

Then, they murdered our Nobel Peace Prize Winner, the man with a dream, Martin Luther King, under mysterious circumstances that have never been adequately explained, and before we got done reeling over that, they killed Bobby Kennedy too.

Don't get me wrong. I still loved America, but not this one.

I wanted the America they told me about in school, the shining city on a hill, the one where presidents were not assassinated in broad daylight, struggling minorities were not beaten for protesting, children weren't killed by bombs blasted in Sunday school, and civil rights workers were not kidnapped and murdered by racists for having the nerve to help the underprivileged register to vote.

Yes, it was a long time ago, but it happened, right before our eyes, and dropping out seemed the only sane course of action.

So, I did. Then, I became a hippie.

Sixties Hippie

There's a saying, "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy." 

Some things stick.

For me, dropping out in the summer of 1968 did.

It's hard to describe what a rush the freedom was without seeming to exaggerate. As the '60s wore on, the conformity that hovered over the decade after the war was eroding. When the Beatles led the British invasion, the changes were more affecting than is usually recognized. It was as much about lifestyle as it was about the music.

The music just made it sweet to break away from the crew cuts and social inhibitions, thumbing your nose playfully at the conventions and pissing off the grownups.

It wasn't simple, nor was it welcome. We met a lot of resistance. As the spring of 1968 warmed to summer and I finished my last year of high school, my hair began creeping past my ears. The disparaging remarks started, as if having long hair changed something about me.

It didn't. I'd always been an outsider, stubborn and inclined to drop out. In school, I'd done it four times, until I was finally able to cap my rebellious streak long enough to finish.

Some rejections cut deeper.

My resistance to the war, my independent lifestyle, all blossoming that summer, led to fissures with my family that never completely closed. My sister married, and I wasn't invited to the wedding or even notified. When my draft board sent me out of town, only my girlfriend's family was there to see me off.

I think, all in all, they didn't know what to make of me. I think, too, that they thought it was a phase that would pass. It didn't. It matured, I adjusted, but it never went away.

Look at pictures of hippies from the 1960s, and you see two things: happiness and passion. Our hippie crowd really was a happy one. We laughed a lot and got a kick out of the conformist routines we left behind.

And we were passionate. We were passionate about love on all its levels, from the universal to the intimate. We were passionate about peace and, in our innocence, about making the world a better, kinder, gentler place.

And we were passionate to discover the truths behind the myths of American culture.

Then, there was the drug thing. Although I'd smoked a little grass before, during the hippie summer of 1968, I gave it and all other drugs, including alcohol, up entirely.

(I was American enough to continue smoking tobacco, like everyone else, hippie or straight.)

I swore off because the importance of being clean while trying to win politically was important. If you wanted to end the war, you had to do more than sing loud. You had to persuade.

That's where the divide was. Among our band at the Peace Center, there were people who took all kinds of things. Speed kills was a growing realization. And there were those of us who did none. In the end, neither abstinence not indulgence won out. Violence did.

We lost the battles and the wars. And after Nixon got elected, we scattered.

Most of my hippie friends, I never saw again. On the few occasions when I reached out, I found that some just didn't want to go there again.

Some did, but the promise of that summer was wasted by then in the struggle to be true in spirit within a culture that didn't like it.

And therein lies the puzzle — how to live a life dedicated to peace, freedom, equality, and universal love… in a world that resists at every turn.

I haven't found the answer yet, but we’re still looking.

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