Talkin’ ’bout my generation
Former hippie blames the culture he helped create for causing today’s drug epidemic
This morning I read a puff piece about a ’60s poet I once met. He is described as being part of a movement that transformed America from the gray-flannel-suit colorlessness of the 1950s to the multi-hued psychedelic vitality of the 1960s. My college students tend to see me as a relic of a period in cultural history when things were generally sunnier and more innocent. Mop tops and quaint mod gear.
But before an utterly benign view of the ’60s gets set in stone, it might be good for people of my baby-boom generation to consider the unintended consequences of some of our ill-considered attitudes.
Travel back in time with me to a middle-school classroom in San Leandro in 1969. I am a substitute teacher there. See me, with bell-bottom pants and hair to my shoulders. “Ooh,” I hear some kid say, “our sub is coo-ool.” It embarrasses me now to remember how pleased I was to hear that, though I was far too coo-ool to let it show.
A girl in third period is acting strangely, swatting at things I cannot see. I check the seating chart, call out her name, ask what’s the matter. Before she can answer, she slides to the floor and begins to convulse.
“Get somebody,” I yell, and soon there is a nurse and an assistant principal kneeling next to the girl who is now a ghastly shade of yellow-green.
They take her away. “Far out,” the kids exclaim. My classroom is abuzz with a mixture of excitement and dread that always seems to accompany a break in the routine, as though life itself, in the form of a brush with death, had paid an unexpected visit to this dull place.
A few weeks pass before I am reassigned to that school. I see the girl on the playground at recess and I go over to introduce myself. She doesn’t remember me, but she’s willing enough to tell me what happened, mostly, I suppose, because the implicit message of my long hair is that I will not be judgmental.
“Yeah, man,” she says, “I went to this Grateful Dead concert and this guy was just givin’ out everything. Reds, yellows, rainbows. I had some left over so I just dropped ’em before first period.”
Everyone had assumed it was a drug reaction. The fact that we all assumed this is utterly unremarkable, even though a few scant years earlier, as the decade dawned, it would have been unthinkable that an eighth-grade girl would experience a drug overdose while in her suburban classroom.
“So, anyway, it was cool. They just pumped my stomach and I got to stay home all week. Had a sore throat, though. Bummer, man.”
I have two daughters, one 6 years old, one 18 months. I look into the face of the girl on the playground and I can see my daughters’ faces as they might appear in fewer years than I care to imagine.
A few months later, I flee the Bay Area, take a teaching job at a small college, and move my family to a remote town tucked away in the Sierra. There I will raise my daughters far from the drug threat that preys on kids in every urban center in America. I, of course, will still smoke a little pot or hash on weekends. No harm in that.
The locals aren’t particularly glad to see me, or the other new arrivals who look like me, as we try to establish ourselves in the midst of their long-settled lives. Loggers yell insults from their trucks as we walk down Main Street. Sheriff’s deputies give us extra scrutiny. Our hair, our clothes, our music are all threatening to a vision of life they feel we imperil. We band together and return their derision. They are rednecks and reactionaries, after all. We, on the other hand, carry the Aquarian banner of love, peace, freedom, brotherhood.
The Doors, to mention just one powerful cultural influence, take their name from the title of an Aldous Huxley book—The Doors of Perception—and the idea is that drugs provide the key to unlock those doors. Bob Dylan sings “everybody must get stoned,” and the Beatles record a string of songs inspired by their psychedelic experiences, songs meant to accompany our psychedelic experiences.
On movie screens, the drug experience is Hollywood-approved in movies like The Trip and Easy Rider. Head shops open in places ever farther from the Haight-Ashbury, selling drug paraphernalia openly. The book The Making of the Counterculture is a national best-seller, extolling the Dionysian and life-affirming spirituality often associated with drug use.
It is a few years further on when my eldest daughter, pedaling to her piano lesson in our idyllic mountain hideaway, takes a spill on her bike because she has ingested more milligrams of school-corridor Quaalude than her 15-year-old body can handle.
Still, I fail to make a connection between this event and the glorification of drugs found in nearly every media outlet I’ve supported since she was born, fail to see the connection between my family emergency and the fact that I’d known people in Berkeley and in mountain communes who gave their children LSD-laced Kool-Aid “sacramentally” when their kids were 5 or 6 years old. Nor do I see an ounce of causality in the fact that, as a college teacher, my office walls are adorned with pictures of the Grateful Dead and other icons and advocates of excess. It does not occur to me that the influence of bands like the Dead is surely responsible for more deaths than all those young Americans who perished in that war we protested against so self-righteously.
In the year the century ended, we witnessed two candidates for the highest office in the land, both survivors of their own significant use of illegal drugs, campaign on platforms that promised to maintain harsh penalties for drug use. Meanwhile, lesser-privileged peers of these presidential candidates moldered in prisons across the nation, often for offenses no more egregious than those once indulged by the candidates themselves. Their generation—my generation—had not only created a drug problem of global reach and proportion, we’d done it in the most hypocritical way possible.
My daughter came through that Quaalude episode, and also managed to negotiate the rapids of her adolescence without being sucked into the whirlpool of drug abuse. My younger daughter was equally lucky, but I often wonder about the 14-year-old San Leandro girl who had her stomach pumped back in 1969. Was she as lucky as my daughters? If she survived her own adolescence and skirted all the perils that lay in wait for her through the rest of her teens and twenties, she may have made it to the present, may have survived the psychedelic era of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the cocaine epidemic of the ’70s, the crack and meth contagions of the ’80s, the Ecstasy fad of the late ’90s, and the OyxContin (“hillbilly heroin”) addiction now sweeping rural areas of the nation. If she survived all that, resisted all of the social pressures to use and abuse, she would now be a woman closing in on 50 years of age.
In their famous anthem “My Generation,” from 1966, The Who sang “ … hope I die before I get old.” Quite a few of us had that hope realized, and so, it seems, did many of our children, our grandchildren, and uncounted numbers of people around the world who died supplying us with the substances my generation had taught so many to want and need.