I can’t help but experience a sense of real dread and outright pessimism when reading about the threat of nuclear war, the fragility of Social Security and Medicaid, and, of course, the health of the entire planet. This is not the way I envisioned spending the autumn of my life. Yet, I’m not alone. So many in my generation seem to be struggling to find a positive take on national and world events. But, this was not always the case.
One rendition of the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” is all it took to transport me to happier times, both personally and generationally. It was the Summer of Love (1967) and thousands of young people sporting hippie fashions flocked to San Francisco. “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Happy Together,” “Light My Fire,” and “San Francisco” dominated the radio waves. Timothy Leary successfully promoted the phrase, “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” The “counter-culture” was not just relegated to California. It was everywhere.
I was entering my sophomore year at Fordham and enjoyed every minute of my time there. It was the summer of ’67, I and many of my friends returned home sporting long hair, much to the chagrin of our parents. In addition, I had grown a moustache. My mother was so worried that my father would be upset that she purchased a fake one that I could remove when my dad was present. It sounded like a reasonable compromise until I discovered that the fake stache didn’t set well and appeared crooked on my face. The moustache was soon removed but my long hair remained.
As the ’60s proceeded, I noticed that we “counter culture” rebels fell into two categories. The first were the hippies, whose ideas included communal living, political decentralization and dropping out. The second were the political radicals, who felt unconstrained by political convention and demanded dramatic and sometimes revolutionary change. They rejected both political parties and sought a newer, more-just world unfettered by traditional political concerns. It was rare to find someone who bridged both worlds. My friend Frank however was one such person.
Frank was originally majoring in biology but after a brief exposure to the wonders of philosophy quickly changed course. He had a brilliant, fine-tuned mind, able to devour entire books while I was still on the first chapter. Eventually, he found Libertarianism and became a regular attendee at the Nathanial Brandon Institute, where he would absorb weekly Ayn Rand lectures in the basement of the Empire State Building.
Frank was a lover of ideas. He would begin a conversation by asking a simple question: if you found a rock in the woods and picked it up, would it be yours? If you answered yes, he would claim you were a natural Libertarian. I always found it interesting that pure Libertarianism, like pure Marxism, shared a common end result: the complete elimination of government. Frank and I would argue for hours about his Aristotelian framework, the nature of society, freedom and many other ideas that we felt passionate about at the time. I once went with him to one of Ms. Rand’s lectures. He introduced me to her and as I was shaking her hand he said to her, “he is a liberal.” She withdrew her hand while exclaiming “I feel dirty even to speak with you!”
My Libertarian friend was also involved in the counter-culture. One summer evening, while we were roommates, he decided to find out what Professor Leary was talking about. Having consumed a small quantity of LSD, he decided to take the D train into the city (from the Bronx). He was disappointed given that everything appeared normal, until the train pulled into the station upside down. After boarding the train he soon realized that he could change the number of doors by a mere wave of his hand. He tried to speak to the passenger next to him but his words came out as pure gibberish. Alarmed at what was happening, he wisely he decided to come home. After arriving back in the apartment he plopped down in the middle of a circular rug and began to speak very loudly. When I asked him who on earth he was talking to, he responded, “God and He just told me a joke.”
Frank, I and thousands like us felt that we were part of a movement that would somehow make the world a better place. Charles Reich in his 1970 book, “The Greening of America,” agreed wholeheartedly that the future indeed would be brighter because of the efforts of my generation. Recently, author Robert Love added his name to this chorus applauding the Summer of Love generation: “What’s undeniable is that our world has improved in ways that can be traced back to that summer. The air is cleaner, and the nation’s rivers no longer catch fire; we can find healthy organic food…older Americans have become quite used to more personal freedom than our parents ever had and more willing to accept a bit more weirdness in ourselves as we grow older and weirder.”
Frank and I drifted apart after graduation (1970) only to reunite as Facebook friends a few years ago. He told me that he now lived in San Francisco and had become a somewhat radical union organizer now more enamored of Walter Reuther than Ayn Rand. A year ago around this time, I learned of his untimely passing.
The vision that Frank and I shared back in 1967 was not just of clean rivers and organic food—although they are wonderful developments. A half century ago we enthusiastically embraced the hopeful lyrics of the song “San Francisco” by Scott McKenzie: “There’s a whole generation with a new explanation-people in motion.” We shared a dream of a society which finally had achieved social and economic justice, where racism and sexism were a distant and horrifying memory.
On that score, unfortunately, my generation fell terribly short.