Friday, July 29, 2016


Strolling idly through YouTube the other day, I clicked on something purporting to be The Best Hippie Songs of All Time, “from this historic era of freedom, expression and rebellion.”  Included, of course, was Buffalo Springfield’s counterculture anthem For What It’s Worth.  I first heard that haunting “Stop, hey, what’s that sound” from the radio of a convertible parked on a curb in Berkeley. I lost track of it after that until Justin told me a few years ago what it was, adding that every movie that has anything to do with hippies or the Sixties uses it.

The images that accompany “For What It’s Worth”: begin with the 1970 photo of the girl at Kent State kneeling beside the body of a slain protester.  Do I remember correctly that at the time the powers that were congratulated themselves on having taught these protesters a lesson, maintaining that now that they know they can get killed they’ll stop demonstrating and otherwise making trouble?

Other familiar photographs follow: the Vietnamese villagers with the naked, badly burned 11-year-old girl in the center; young people facing National Guardsmen and spiking their guns with flowers; psychedelic buses and improbable pyramids of riders on trailers; and the obligatory naked young people with flowers in their hair smoking dope.

A minute and a quarter into the song a video shows a group of motorcycles leading off a crowd of demonstrators, followed by a view of a street packed with marchers ("A thousand people in the street/Singing songs and carrying signs"). A later photo showed a crowd of people outside a high chain link fence looking through it at a bare patch of ground littered with bits of paper; another featured young people in the street apparently replacing a piece of pavement with grass.  That, it occurred to me, had to be the People's Park March in Berkeley in 1969.  I gleefully emailed it to my son and his wife: "Natalie and I were there."  Amanda pronounced that to be cool.

As I remember it at this distance, the People's Park was a small lot south of campus.  It belonged to the University, but it may have been vacant and have functioned as an informal neighborhood playground, rather like the Junkyard in West Medford where Justin and other neighborhood kids had their adventures.  The University announced plans to use the space for a parking lot; but before the plan got started, people in the neighborhood took it over and built a park there.  The University fenced off and padlocked the lot, and bulldozed the park.  There was some kind of sit-in, and at least one demonstrator was killed.  (A professor commented that during the events leading up to and including the Free Speech Movement, a year or two before I came to Berkeley, the students kept doing these provocative things and the University invariably reacted in the worst possible way, perpetuating and deepening the crisis.)

The pro-park forces organized a mass demonstration.  For days beforehand, rumors flew: tear gas would be used, the National Guard would be posted on buildings with orders to shoot to kill, other scary things I don't remember.  Our intrepid group at Kip's and the Rathskeller declared that they would have nothing to do with the march  Natalie and I went by ourselves.  She told me that if we were gassed, to close my eyes and stay with her since, like Nydia, Bulwer-Lytton's blind flower-seller who guides her friends out of Pompeii through blinding and suffocating fumes and volcanic ash, she would have no difficulty finding her way home (Natalie also read Victorian fiction; she may also have had Nydia in mind).

The march was led off by a motley group of motorcycles and scooters: Hell's Angels, some news sources said.  My impression of those vehicles was that no self-respecting Angel would be caught dead on any of them.  One effect of my years in Berkeley was a firm sense that news sources aren't necessarily to be trusted.  Among the marchers, I remember seeing Vincent Duckles, the professor of musicology who taught the course in Music Reference and Research that I took in library school.  Natalie and I joined the parade somewhere toward the end.  I remember a great deal of standing around as all those people threaded themselves into the narrow city streets.

The march began west and perhaps a bit north of the university, as I remember, and made its way southward past the campus, where it turned east up the hill and ended at the chain link fence where the park had been.  It was a day of bright sunshine, hot and dry, and a festive air prevailed.  Along the route, people watched from windows and roofs, often wielding stereo systems:  "This Is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius" poured from the rooftops of Berkeley in the blazing California sun.

Somewhere along the way I was startled to hear from behind me the trilling double-whistle that I associate with my father; turning around, I identified the whistler as a woman (somewhat, irrationally, to my relief).  Toward the end of the march a young man with a black beard and a decent  voice started to sing:  "Do-na  no-bis pa-cem, pacem/Do---na no-bis pa---cem."  Others in our vicinity picked it up and sang in harmony, and I joined in.  Natalie didn't; she said she felt as though she were in the midst of a bunch of religious fanatics.  I have since had a fondness for Dona Nobis Pacem because of the circumstances under which I learned it.

When we got to the park there was a movement in the direction of damaging the fence or digging up the street.  Some group had brought shovels and picks for the latter purpose and Natalie wanted to join in; but I had a plane ticket for Boston at home and wasn't up for getting arrested.  I'm not sure I remember seeing any armed gendarmerie, although I rather think that was the march where young women came up to some armed persons and put flowers into the muzzles of their guns.  There was no tear gas, and no one got shot.

# # #

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!"  I wasn’t quite young enough to be a hippie, and always was much too sensible.  I never expected that peace, love, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll would defeat the blue meanies, old Moneybags, and the military-industrial complex; but neither could I have imagined that, like Wordsworth’s French Revolution descending into the Terror, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius would disappear in the Gotterdammerung of Donald Trump.

No comments: