1971 was a mixed bag. Disney World in Florida opened. Intel produced the world’s first microprocessor. A ban on TV cigarette ads was instituted in the US. The National Public Radio programing was broadcast for the first time. The People’s Republic of China joined the UN. The Soviet Union launched the first space station. War between India and Pakistan erupted over a border dispute. A Clockwork Orange was a popular movie. All My Children and Mary Tyler Moore were TV hits.
And, there was a lot of political unrest in the United States stemming from the anti-war and civil rights movements. The Vietnam War which started in ’64 was slowly winding down but still with close to 200,000 US personnel involved from a high of over 500,000. Over 50,000 US military personnel and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had been killed, both military and civilian. Most Americans considered the war to be a mistake; opposition was growing exponentially. As the historian Howard Zinn said, “…the greatest antiwar movement the nation had ever experienced, a movement that played a critical role in bringing the war to an end”.
It’s hard to say when the civil rights movement started in America. The first slaves arrived in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia. Slavery was abolished two hundred years later by the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865. However, it was replaced by racial segregation throughout the country via unfair housing restrictions, banking rules, employment practices, and police abuse of power. In the South, a more virulent form of legal segregation took hold known as Jim Crow which was reinforced by intimidation and violence. A century later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Implementation was and is an ongoing struggle.
Adding to the tempest was the upcoming presidential campaign between the incumbent Richard Nixon, the Republican, and the unknown nominee for the Democrats; a contentious selection process was dividing the party. And, the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed giving “citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older” the right to vote. In large part, the amendment’s adoption was fueled by the military draft and the elimination of the college deferment. Up to that point, young men between the ages of 18 and 21 had no say, no vote, on issues such as the war in Vietnam. I would be voting for the first time in the upcoming presidential election.
The summer of ’71, after high school graduation, I drove cross-country with my girlfriend, my first love, and her family from Ft. Lauderdale, FL, to Palo Alto, CA. We lived in a sorority house on the Stanford campus near their old neighborhood where they used to live. They rented the house much like folks do with vacation rentals near an ocean or lake. Another sorority house down the street was rented by the Esalen Institute which was an innovator in the Human Potential Movement. One day I happened to walk by the house and heard my first rendition of the chant Om. I became quite fond of the Bay Area and surroundings from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. One afternoon while I waited for my draft lottery number to be announced over a local radio station, I busied myself with a paint-by-the-numbers landscape. My heart dropped when my low number was announced; there was no doubt I would be drafted into the Army the following year. I never finished the paint-by-the-numbers landscape.
Later that summer upon my arrival in Gainesville, FL, to attend my freshman year at the University of Florida, I consulted with a draft-dodging agency off campus. They informed me that I didn’t qualify for conscientious objector status since I didn’t’ have a religious background such as Quaker. However, they told me about a psychiatrist involved with the anti-war movement that dispensed diagnoses guaranteed to get one disqualified: drug and alcohol addiction. A few weeks later after a brief consultation where I described my frequent marijuana usage and infrequent beer consumption, he presented his diagnosis as promised: drug and alcohol addiction. However, I opted not to use the diagnosis for fear it would upset my parents and negatively impact my future job prospects. Also, a few months earlier draftees had been exempted from serving in Vietnam, so I didn’t have to worry about that prospect. Having lettered in three sports in high school, I figured the Army would be akin to playing for a sports team.
The University of Florida wasn’t my first-choice college. I was accepted at Tulane, but my father decided against such because of its anti-war movement and, especially, the burning of an effigy of Nixon the previous year. Dorm life quickly proved not to my liking. Within the first two weeks, I was placed on social probation because I was caught by a resident assistant with a woman in my dorm room while smoking pot; both were rule violations. Yep, both. Marijuana was against the law, but women? Some fundamentalist Christian state legislator had gone on a rant about dorms at state universities being dens of sexual misconduct which resulted in a ban on all visitation between men and women. The social freedom that college life promised proved to be an illusion. However, I did enjoy one of my classes, English 131. The professor, a grad student, required all of us to write papers which we would deposit at the English department offices, Quonset huts from WWII, so classmates could read them and comment. I wrote an 800-word paper provocatively titled “I Don’t Need Him” which elicited quite a few comments, mostly negative. Basically, it was an explanation of why I didn’t believe in religion. I ended the paper with a passage from the popular poem, Desiderata, that expressed some of my sentiments.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees & the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be and whatever your labors & aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery & broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy. (Max Ehrmann; Desiderata)
It was easy for me not to believe in religion; neither one of my parents subscribed to a religion or, for that matter, a belief in God. Mom and Dad didn’t discuss religion even though they were quite capable of doing so since both had been reared in church-going families. Mom’s upbringing was Mormon and Dad’s Catholic. I felt no attraction towards such nor did I feel inferior or disadvantaged by my lack of religion or belief. Actually, that is somewhat of a misstatement. Occasionally, I wouldn’t understand a word or a concept that was from the Bible. Because of that, to this day I think it helps to have at least a cursory understanding of religion and the Bible. Beware of the side effects.
By spring of ’72, the presidential campaign was in high gear between incumbent Richard Nixon, the Republican, and George McGovern, the Democrat. Nixon had a substantial lead in the polls; the Democrats weren’t optimistic about the result come November. Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam wasn’t going well; a humiliating defeat was a real possibility. The peace negotiations in Paris had broken down. To get the North Vietnamese to compromise, the Nixon administration conducted a massive bombardment of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Anti-war demonstrations, sometimes violent, were held throughout the country.
On May 9th word of an anti-war demonstration spread through the dormitory. The protest was planned by an assortment of organizations and individuals from Vietnam Veterans Against the War to various faculty and clergy members. At first, it was kind of fun; sort of spring frolics with a political twist. We were smoking weed and drinking beer openly. The demonstration was held in front of the administration building on 13th street, which in effect shut down the thoroughfare. This didn’t go over well with the authorities, so they brought in police along with water cannons and batons to clear the street. Then we, the protesters, moved caddy-corner and occupied University Blvd. The police regrouped and cleared University Blvd. We went back and forth in such a fashion a few times.
Since county and city police weren’t allowed on campus, we were protected. It was a cat and mouse affair…we thought. As the protest progressed, the police started targeting individual protesters and arresting them. They used excessive force which angered many of us. With nightfall, the dynamics changed; anger morphed into a riot. Barricades were erected with benches, and some of us threw stones and bottles. The police responded with a massive charge. Seeing the oncoming onslaught, I ran towards the library and the supposed safety of a crowd of onlookers when I sprained my ankle on a curb. Hobbled, I continued to make my way until a plainclothes cop stepped out from the spectators and hit me across the back of my head with a baton. I blacked out. When I came to from my concussion, I realized I had pissed in my pants, and that I was surrounded by a handful of policemen ready to beat the shit out me if I resisted. I didn’t. They handcuffed me and dragged me by my long hair to a bus filled with other protesters.
Close to four hundred of us were arrested and fined $50 each for our overnight stay at the city jail. I gained some approval, some attaboys, from friends and faculty, but was left feeling disenchanted. The Vietnam War would drag on for another three years resulting in a debilitating brew of bitterness throughout the country. It was rude political awakening and one of many political disappointments to come in my life.
On September 1, 1972, I reported to the draft board in Coral Gables, Florida. It looked and smelled like a government building with uniformed men barking names and ordering young men to go this way and that. This was accomplished by following colored lines on the floor, converging and diverging down various halls. I was told to sit until my name was called for a physical. While waiting, a guy my age approached the desk I had just left. He had a shaved head except for an equilateral triangle of hair above his forehead with one angle pointing towards the back of his head and the other two pointing toward his ears. I was still wearing my hair long. We made eye contact along with an unspoken acknowledgment that we might have something in common. He sat next to me. I asked him about his hairstyle which he explained had something to do with the Egyptian Book of the Dead which was Greek to me. Matt and I became fast friends. I was told to follow the yellow line.