“…and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”–Joni Mitchell
Outskirts of early anti-Vietnam war demonstration, New Haven CT March 1968.
Photo by Jonathan Sa’adah.
Sometimes I’m not sure I had an adolescence. The personal details of those years seem forever pressed, like a prom corsage, between heavy events: inseparable now without tearing either the pages or the petals.
I was eleven when Kennedy was assassinated: we heard about it over the loudspeaker wired into our sixth-grade classroom. The teacher put her head down on her desk and cried. One girl was terrified to walk home alone because the killer hadn’t been found; someone said, Bonnie, are you nuts, he’s in Texas, do you think he can get to New York State in two hours? I left school and walked my safety-patrol route and went home; later that week my father and I were watching our small black-and-white television when Oswald was shot.
That year we still had girl-only birthday parties where we wore dresses and white ankle socks and danced the twist. The next fall we moved up from the long brick elementary school into the junior/senior high school building — and childhood was over. At another pajama party we squealed over the Beatles, and later the girls whispered in the dark about French kissing and having periods and making babies.
“I think it will be gross,” one of them said.
“I won’t know, I’ll be asleep when he does it,” said another, envied by all of us for already having a boyfriend.
Bob Dylan wrote The Times They are a Changin’ in 1964. I was twelve that summer, when Los Angeles erupted into the Watts riots. Already the bard-poets – Dylan, Simon, Lennon – were planting the idea in my head that vibrant, powerful poetry could grow out of one’s own roots and alienation both.
They called us flower children, but really we were children of the Cold War, raised on fallout and expected conflagration. The explosion finally came in 1968: the My Lai massacre happened in March, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April, Bobby Kennedy in June while we were taking New York State Regents’ exams. I had long hair and wire-rimmed glasses; spent hours listening to music and reading, playing a half-hearted guitar and trying to sing like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell. Part of that summer, I knocked on doors in my hometown to campaign for Eugene McCarthy, witnessing the fissures in the country at close range as people I’d known all my life invited me in to talk, or kicked me out of their houses.
The first day of senior year we stood around the black tables of the physics lab and listened to two kids who had managed to go to Woodstock; it wasn’t all that far from where I grew up — in fact, my cousin, a state livestock inspector, used to test the cows for mastitis on Yasgur’s newly-famous farm. That December, just in time to coincide with the deadlines for our college applications, the Selective Service held the first draft lottery for everyone born between 1944 and 1950. We were two years younger, but we knew what was coming: the thunderheads were piling up, the leaves turning upside down in the wind. Country Joe and the Fish sang the Fixin’ to Die Rag; Jimi Hendrix demanded to know if we were experienced. Everyone was going through the motions of SATs, college essays, relationships, career choices, but none of us were sure we’d live to grow up, or what life would be like if we did.
I spent a lot of that year in the library or the art room talking to my friend Kip. In the absence of any AP classes in our high school, we’d both been pulled out of English and American History and were doing those classes as tutorials with two barely-motivated faculty members. It was a loose structure, to say the least; we had big term paper assignments and lots of books to read, but mostly we talked about politics and history, art and poetry, racism and class warfare. Kip wore his poor background like a breastplate and chided me constantly for having come from the middle class. “What do you know?” he’d taunt. “I had rats in my cradle when I was a baby. What makes you think you have anything to say?” He made oil paintings and wrote long Ferlinghetti-inspired poems on the back with lines like “bombshelter brainrooms in crystal and silver”. I argued back, and painted a twice-life-size nude on a cooperative mural that scandalized the cafeteria staff; together he and I edited the yearbook and, without ever saying so, prized our stormy friendship.
In April Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, in May the country blew up over Kent State… and a month later we graduated.
I was bursting with unexpressed feelings, experiences, longings. I wanted to be a writer, but I was enough of a self-critic to know that the stuff I was writing was crap: my voice inauthentic, my eye too close to the lens. Kip’s words would haunt me for another decade and a half, as I struggled to understand the carnage left by Vietnam and the tumultuous trajectory of a personal life emerging, finally, from those dense pages. It would take a new set of mounting injustices, together with a long inward journey, to finally swell the seed planted back in the sixties – the seed with the words inside.
Written by Beth Adams of the cassandra pages.