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What the Sixties were really like

By Lawrence Henry
web posted March 4, 2002

A friend of mine wrote me recently, saying she regretted being born in 1957, missing "the whole Boomer experience" - Woodstock, the Sixties, the Vietnam protests, and so forth. I neither regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it, but I do see it clearly. Let me recall it in a few vignettes.

I arrived at college, at Columbia University, in the fall of 1965. Within a fairly short time, I had managed to make a hash of my academic career, and had fallen instead in with the purveyors of another kind of hash. There was an elaborate code of belonging to this set, with certain elements on conspicuous display. Pictures of me at that time show me with hair halfway down my back, wearing a pair of desert boots hand-decorated in psychedelic patterns - one yin shoe, one yang shoe, so I could contemplate the duality of the universe as I walked.

But this raffish style did not necessarily put one apart from polite society. (It was always possible to be a gentleman hippie.) No, the language did that, the conversation studded with the required "f***" and "s***" and permutations thereof. It was language explicitly designed to shock, to set apart, to shun, to scorn, and ultimately to blunt the senses and morals of the speaker himself.

Which it did.

I lost things. I lost my great-grandfather's gold pocket watch, a hardcover edition of Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment, three guitars, a Leica M3, irreplaceable family photographs. I lost long stretches of time, stretches I cannot recall even now. I lost my connections with my family and my roots. I found myself staring down the barrel of a gun several times.

I came out of the worst of it, as most of us did, with some skills and a job and a halfway decent life. But the perils still lurked.

In 1968, my old pal Enid called me. Enid had broken up a few years before with a friend of mine at college, and wanted a boyfriend - a husband - more than anything. Now, she told me, she had found someone. "Well, more than someone," she said. "We're just kind of all together. And I want you to come over and meet everybody."

I went to the address Enid gave me, in a looming old pre-war apartment building on upper Central Park West. Once inside, I met a bunch of people who immediately started playing Bob Dylan records and plying me with hashish.

Enid sat on the floor with a dazed expression on her face. Various of the young men handling the stereo and the hash pipe seemed intent on pointing out some arcane message in Dylan's lyrics. Nothing much happened, except that I got more and more stoned.

Finally, one young man, seated in a central location, and silent until that time, said, "So you're Larry."

"Yes," I said.

"I'm God."

The universe warped with an audible screech, leaving me isolated in a kind of bell jar with these people, who then proceeded to badger me with a round-robin of alternate abuse, cajoling, and taunting. They wanted me. They wanted to get me. And I dodged and parried and protested, in utter terror.

Finally, I turned to Enid.

"Enid," I pleaded, "come out of here. Come with me. You can't stay here."

Enid simply sat on the floor, with her dazed expression fixed in place.

I dashed for the door. I don't remember how I made the street. I ran downtown, my legs numb, convinced that the people in that apartment would chase after me with knives and guns and haul me back. I never heard from Enid again.

A few years later, Charles Manson and his "family" shocked the country with their bloody crimes, and with the lives they led. They weren't the only ones. In the Sixties, all of us cut ourselves loose from our moorings, little suspecting how dangerous the resulting anomie was. Because among all of us, constantly, stalked the predators, who saw the changes for what they were: a feast. Some wanted bodies. Some wanted minds. Some wanted souls.

And they got them.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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