This column appeared Tuesday, June 19, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.
If you were to select a single place as the epicenter of an American social, cultural, generational, anti-war revolution in the summer of 1968, it would be Berkeley, California.
My father was a junior high science teacher in Wichita when he was accepted for a summer-long physics/astronomy fellowship from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California.
Our 1968 Wichita existence could not have been more mainstream. Two cars in the attached garage, dozens of neighborhood baby boomers, come home when the streetlights come on, baloney on white with Miracle Whip, back-to-school clothes from Sears in the Twin Lakes Shopping Center.
In a part of town that was actually called Pleasant Valley.
Just a couple of weeks before we got to Berkeley, at what became known as the Vietnam Commencement, eighty percent of the young men graduating from Cal took an oath to dodge the draft. The students left town for the summer, leaving the radical hangers-on, hippies and summer fellowship families in the neighborhoods near campus. Our apartment was in the heart of the action on Ellsworth Street, a block west of Telegraph Avenue.
It was the summer after the Summer of Love and thousands of young people had made their way to the Bay Area to turn on, tune in and drop out. I remember one neighborhood flower child had a doobie fired up pretty much every time we saw her.
On June 28, two days before my Mom turned 33, all hell broke loose. Some 2,000 young people rallied on campus in support of kids just like them in France, who were trying to topple De Gaulle. The crowd spilled out onto Telegraph Avenue and closed it down.
John Law freaked out. The fuzz fired tear gas and the kids countered with rocks. A full-scale street war, replete with flaming barricades, curfews, hundreds of arrests and a general civic unraveling for three days.
Happy birthday, Mom.
My Dad and I were on the balcony of our second story apartment grilling burgers when a cop pulled over and bullhorned at us to get inside, it was past curfew. We did. As the cop motored north on Ellsworth Street, we returned to the balcony.
Grilled burgers trump curfews mandated by The Man.
I guess the cop thought he was safer hollering at a couple of innocent burger grillers up on the balcony than risking his neck to quell the nearby riot.
On our way to kids’ programs at the public library, we’d walk past Black Panthers membership recruitment rallies. They wouldn’t let me join. Something about not suffering enough economic and social inequality. How did those guys know I was from Pleasant Valley?
My father would bring home copies of the Berkeley Barb, an underground newspaper serving the civil rights, anti-war counterculture. Outwardly, my parents were straight-laced, button-down and did everything Pleasant Valley would have expected of them. I can’t say they were sympathetic to violence, but they each possessed an underlying intellectual curiosity, which they passed on to their kids.
That was the summer I started paying attention to the world around me. I would read my father’s U.S. News & World Report and then devour the Barb.
On weekends we’d cross the Bay Bridge to San Francisco or traverse the Golden Gate to Sausalito in our 1967 red-over-white Volkswagen microbus. We’d tool through Haight-Ashbury in that VW bus and look right at home, except maybe for the wide eyes, Brylcreem and Keds.
Dr. King called the war a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. Today, young people who oppose gun violence are staging die-ins and sit-ins to draw attention and protest the status quo. Today’s protesters feel it as deeply as the Berkeley hippies, Black Panthers and revolutionaries fifty years ago who sought to revolutionize the fabric of American society.
When I relive my summer of 1968, it has the feel of a Netflix documentary in my mind. Ten-year old white boy from Pleasant Valley transported to the mean streets of Berkeley, exposed to a counterculture that began a lifelong process of examining what motivates people.
Back in the safe, predictable environs of South Pleasant Valley Elementary in Wichita, surrounded by kids who looked like me, my 6th grade teacher singled me out on the first day of school in late August, 1968.
“Mike? What did you do on your summer vacation?”
Gather ‘round, kids. This may take a while.