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  • Writer's pictureMike Matson

Counterculture Kid

“You say you want a revolution. We all want to change the world.”

-- The Beatles, summer 1968

Surely my parents had an inkling of the experience that awaited their three young children half a continent away in the summer of 1968. A high school science teacher in Wichita, my father was accepted for a summer-long physics/astronomy fellowship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California.

The old man was always one for adventure and maybe he thought a summer of counterculture was just the ticket for three fresh off the farm Kansas kids. Grace Slick and Iron Butterfly on my transistor radio had already planted seeds of doubt in my 10-year-old brain about middle of the country homogenization.

Goodbye Kansas. Hello Berkeley.

If you were to select one single place as the epicenter of an American social, cultural, generational, anti-war revolution in the summer of 1968, it would be Berkeley, California.

Just a couple of weeks before we got there, at what became known as the Vietnam Commencement, 80 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 away from Telegraph Avenue.

That was the summer my siblings and I began collecting baseball cards. For a dime, you got a dozen cards and a fat stick of bubblegum. Hoping desperately for a Willie Mays, I ended that summer with a half dozen Max Alvis’s. The flower child at the corner market where we procured said cards, reeked of the gateway drug.

“Kansas. Groovy.”

Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.

Shortly after we hit town, Bobby Kennedy was killed in L.A. We watched the news on our rented black-and-white television with rabbit ears. On June 28, two days before Mom turned 33, all hell broke loose in Berkeley. Some 2,000 young people rallied on campus in support of their counterparts in France, who were trying to oust French president Charles de Gaulle. (If the sentiment is global, doesn’t it lend an air of legitimacy?) 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 father and I were on the balcony of our second story apartment grilling burgers when a cop pulled over and hollered at us to get inside, it was past curfew. We did. The cop left. We went back on the balcony. Grilled burgers trump curfews handed down by The Man.

It still floors me that our folks let us pretty much run free in this environment. Or maybe they were smart enough to realize the protesters were not child snatchers. All they wanted was political revolution. Power to the people.

On our way to children’s programs at the public library, we would encounter Black Panthers membership recruitment rallies. At age 10, the white boy from Kansas would chat them up. They wouldn’t let me join. Too short, they said. Hmph.

On weekends, we would cross the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, or traverse the Golden Gate to Sausalito in our 1967 red-over-white Volkswagen microbus. Tooling through Haight-Ashbury, we looked right at home. Except maybe for the wide eyes, Brylcreem and Keds.

My father’s fellowship ended, we packed up the VW and headed east. As we crossed the Continental Divide, more cops busted more heads in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention.

Back in the land of baloney on white bread with Miracle Whip, in the predictable environs of South Pleasant Valley Elementary in Wichita, 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?”

Funny you should ask. Gather ‘round, kids. This may take a while.

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