Back to the Garden, August 2019

Parts of this essay appeared originally in Changes magazine, August, 1969. This version is adapted from Chapter 10 in my book of memoirs and essays titled Warbaby: Talking About My Generation, 2009.

I came upon a child of god

He was walking along the road,

And I asked him, where are you going

And this he told me.

Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

…My wife and I ended up working together in New York City for an “underground” newspaper, and we both truly enjoyed the time we had at home watching Ian become his own unique person. I was enjoying some real success as a writer and photographer, and I felt I was beginning to leave the war behind me.The social and professional circles we were running in were the “alternative lifestyle” folks whose world-views were largely formed from anti-war politics, anti-establishment values, and the perceptual enhancements of psychotropic drugs. Being a veteran was not a comfortable role for me, so I simply discarded it. I found some comfort in knowing that there were other vets who wanted the war to end—I had attended the first New York rally of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, but had remained on the sidelines. Frankly, I was not ready to join any movement, and I seemed to be completely unable to stand in a crowd and “demonstrate.”  While I wasn’t very conscious of it at the time, I remember that rally as the first dawning of a nagging anxiety that would soon come to dominate my life.

The Big City can be hard on one’s spirit, so in the summer of 1969, my wife and I decided to take a vacation. As it happened, all the buzz around the city was for the upcoming Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. The posters promised “an Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music.” One simply had to look at the long list of incredible artists who were to be performing at this music festival to know this would be THE greatest gathering of “freaks” since the 1967 Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury. It even seemed like almost as many folks would show up for this big deal as had gone to San Francisco wearing “flowers in their hair.” I talked a couple editors into helping pay our way and decided that writing my Woodstock stories would be our ticket out of town. Nothing sounded more soothing to my soul than “Three Days of Peace and Music.”

Then can I walk beside you

I have come here to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog 

in something turning

What follows next is the text of the article I wrote for Changes, one of the magazines that had sponsored my sojourn to Woodstock. This article was published in August 1969.

***

 

We were on the road very early Friday morning, leaving the city on the way to our first vacation in years. The morning sun bore its way through the valleys of the Catskills and reflected mirror-like on the silver thread of river below. My wife and I were young and touched with memories of a dream reflecting from the valley, passing by like a slow pan through the bus window. Ian, the baby, was sleeping soundly. We wondered how those people alone in the occasional houses growing on the slopes earned their livings. We speculated about how soon it would be before we could leave Brooklyn and the fifth-flight apartment to bring trees and blue skies back into the perspective of reality. Then we slept too, comfortable in the promise of the weekend to come.

I awoke as we passed through a small town. There were freaks and friendly faces everywhere; I figured we were getting close, but was surprised to learn that we still had miles to go. The countryside slowly transformed from naked hills to rolling fields dotted with tents, then unending pastures packed with people and lined with cars. The bus kept rolling. We moved slowly down a narrow dirt road as clouds began to gather in the sky. We stopped for a moment while the driver checked out an empty bus, off the road in a ditch. The sky grew darker. Finally the bus came to a stop and we all got out. As we emptied the bus, the rain came and, along with it, a lot of bitter cursing. As we ran for a wood-frame pavilion with picnic tables underneath I noticed a makeshift stand to the right surrounded by about a hundred people. There were signs advertising sandwiches for a dollar each. Things started to seem a little less perfect.

The rain stopped and the morning sun came through once again. There was a life-flow of people on the road headed toward the festival grounds, so we joined it. We reached the main street where the cars stretched out to the horizon. This was going to be big. Holly carried Ian, and I took the duffle bag with our blanket and extra clothes off to where the action seemed to be. After about a mile’s walk, we decided to look for a john, and found one. It was a small chemical toilet behind a watermelon stand with ten people waiting to use it. Our turn came then the walk began again, up the hill, through trees and past fields. One man coming down from the hill had a canteen full of water from which he was selling swigs to thirsty hikers—for $3.00 a piece. No water around? Impossible. 

Just as the duffle bag started to seem too heavy to carry any further, a Ferris wheel appeared over a hilltop like a monolithic symbol from a Fellini set misplaced among the oaks. There was a small amusement park where the rides were spinning and dancing – stupidly empty of people – against the darkening sky. The rides were laughable in their emptiness, but the hamburger, hot dog, chicken and popcorn stands—at 11 o’clock on the first day of the Woodstock Festival—didn’t seem so funny with their sold-out signs. We shared a warm coke and a plate of greasy French fries, which was to be our breakfast and lunch—in fact, the last solid food we’d have for nearly 14 hours. Now Ian had to go to the bathroom, so we asked the girl in the ticket booth where the toilet was. The reply: “Any place big enough to stand without hitting somebody.” That’s exactly what we used. At the festival gate we picked up press passes and noticed that the ticket takers were no more visible than the Ferris wheel riders had been. 

People were swarming in from every direction, and no pretense was being made to collect admission. After finding the press tent where I picked up promo material on the performers, we headed down the hillside to the front of the mammoth stage. Once again I thought of Fellini as we took a seat on the ground behind one of the huge light towers. Solid structure had bloomed on the pasture the last few weeks; in the middle of the back-country the light and speaker towers, stage, fence and crane came off like a science-fiction environmental architect’s nightmare. A beautiful nightmare, however.

We passed the waiting hours in sunshine. As we waited, what remained of the country open-air feeling dissolved in the constant influx of people. The city had followed us. The empty hillside became jammed as people no longer walked down; they climbed, crawled and squeezed their ways, trying to get close to the action. But the action was running late. The huge crowd hushed at the sound of  technicians working on the stage starting to set up. Something was about to happen. Over the speaker came a conversational voice giving microphone placement designations. “Mic one is on the drum, right? O.K. Mic two is on…” etc. The hillside was silent. “No. 4 is Richie’s voice.” 

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair and Aquarian Exposition took a deep breath and came alive with the first of what would be hundreds of thunderous cheers before it was all over. Richie Havens came on and so did everyone else. Havens wasn’t quite together, but he was the first act, and the quarter million waiting freaks knew it had all begun.

Throughout his performance people kept climbing up the light tower directly in front of us, and it didn’t look as if it had been designed as a grandstand. As fast as one group was told to come down, another would clamber up. Richie himself chased one group off the tower, but replacements followed like drilled infantrymen holding a hill. At one point, a wild-haired young stud of about 16, when told to come down, went after the fellow who had told him with clenched fists. Behind him ran a 12 year-old sidekick, unsnapping the sheath to his Boy Scout hatchet. A girl in the audience rose up to tell the first hellcat not to start any trouble, but before she got to him the other pint-sized punk had knocked her down, pulled out the hatchet and told her to keep her hands off his friend. Within the next half hour these two were to be called down off the tower four more times, and were to try to start four more fights.

After Hindu chants by Swami Satchidinanda, the second act, we were asked to observe one full minute of total silence, when “not even the cameras would click.” Instead of silence we got barking, screeching, mooing, and obscenities from a pack of peanut-brained numbskulls—the kind with short hair and long sideburns wearing new Sears and Roebuck denim jackets. Three hundred thousand people lost their minute of silence to half a dozen douche-bags.

The next act was Sweetwater, who came on so bad people were ready to leave. About then more people started up the light tower. This time, when told to get down, they didn’t bother. One guy climbed up about halfway and started shouting “the time has come.” Sweetwater started getting together, and the people sitting next to us handed my wife and me a joint. It was some of the most potent grass I’ve had in months and months. The vibrations were flowing on stage and the grass was seeping into my brain as Sweetwater went into their last and absolutely most fantastic number. The jerk on the light tower went up to the top, partly undressed himself, dropped clothes to the ground, and pissed on the crowd. I couldn’t figure out if he was crazy or just a “Crazie,”  one of a rather theatrical band of young New York-based anarchists/street artists.

At any rate we were afraid he wanted to jump and, if he had, he could easily have landed in our laps. I looked back over the hill and the hordes had gone beyond being simply impressive, they had become oppressive. Everyone seemed to be grooving on the stage, the sounds and the great universal connection, but—maybe because of the grass, maybe because of our proximity to too many bad things coming down around us—my wife and I got up and left. We climbed over heads for twenty minutes until we found a spot up the hill by the make-shift restrooms to sit down. Always being one to take advantage of any situation, I decided to use the john once more. They were all full, and I don’t mean full of people.

The rain began once again as evening settled firmly on the hillside, and the music shifted well into high gear. I finally wised up and decided to throw a blanket down in the press tent We parked the duffle bag and decided to go look for some food for the baby. After all the walking we had done that day, a bus coming down the road, stopping and offering us a ride, seemed like the angels’ own chariot.

“Where’s this bus going?” 1 asked the other riders. “Who knows?” was the only reply I got. No one knew until we got there. “There” was back in Bethel where we had arrived that morning. No, the bus wouldn’t be going back up the hill tonight.

Tired, hungry, and disgusted, we only found consolation in a food stand open 24 hours. For two and half bucks we got two small cartons of milk, a ten-cent bag of potato chips, three five-cent doodles and a pack of cigarettes—not even my brand. The land around the tiny town was becoming as jammed as the hillside we had just left. We ate, rested a few minutes, and headed back up the hill where, a few miles away, a blanket, tent, and blessed sleep were waiting.

The rain was merciless. The night rolled on and down it came. There were no crickets, no chirping frogs. The only sounds we could hear were the driving wind and rain, ambulance sirens and occasional strains of Arlo Guthrie, Melanie or Joan Baez. We were warm and comfortable in that tent, feeling pity for hundreds of thousands sitting on the muddy hillside. We needn’t have. It was 3 a.m. when the tractor came and pulled the tent down. They needed to use it for a hospital. Bad acid, accidents, miscarriages. There was trouble. The first aid people couldn’t handle it They needed every shelter they could find, so we sat under a table in the empty field, and still the rain came. A new, smaller tent arrived and we tried to put it up, but some of the posts were missing; there would be no more nice warm press tent. And the rain kept coming. A little after 4 o’clock we fell asleep in the staff tent. We would have to go elsewhere in the morning, they told us. The staff tent was also to be converted to a hospital.

There was no sunrise really. It just slowly became morning. The rain hadn’t let up at all, and there was no more reason to stay. We wrapped the baby in a raincoat and blanket, stepped out into the deluge, and started the 3-1/2 mile trek down the hill where we thought we would catch the first bus home.

Gray is a mood and a temperament. The world was grey on Saturday morning: grey in feeling and in texture. The road was longer and longer with every step. Still the unceasing life-flow moved, both up the hill and down. The first night had washed out thousands but thousands more waited to take their places. The cars stretched out on the main road, immobile. People slept in them, huddled close for the familiar touch of warmth and comfort. Saturday awoke to find itself immersed in grey.

There were no buses. There would be no buses. There was no water. There were no working telephones. There were only thousands of tired people, all sick or disgusted but somehow happy, somehow satisfied in the spirit of uniqueness that had become Woodstock. Radios talked about “hepatitis,” “disaster area,” and “bad trips.” Figures were juggled as if they could evoke the real magic of it all for parents, friends and straights all across the continent. They warned not to come to Woodstock. They spoke in statistics about people, drugs, miles of cars, acres of mud, and hundreds of blown minds. The festival had become like heavy acid. It was elation. It was beauty and joy. But it was heavy and unending. There was no getting out of it once you were in. Everyone spoke in superlatives, but no one ever said it was good or bad. For many it was a beautiful dream they wanted to end, but there was no ending in sight. No buses. No cars. The only things that moved, moved on foot. Newcomers would drop their packs and stretch, telling how they had just walked 8 miles to get here, then look crushed when told they had 3 or 4 more miles to go. They would lift their packs and head off the hillside where they would find no food, no water and no space to sit within half a mile of the music.


The day passed and the sun came out. Through a series of miracles we got out of the area on Saturday and caught a lucky ride to New York with some kids from New England who had decided to spend the rest of their trip visiting the city. The hills rolled back in the angular dusk light and the clouds gathered for another night’s rain. The road reminded me of a scene from Godard’s Week End. The cars lined up, the bodies stoned on the roadside giving up any goal but their heads. Small talk and sharing became the intimate communication of the landscape of a new America. As we rode away from the Catskills, I thought about the people I’d seen and met, from town, from the State Police, from around the country. There had been something there to learn. Still, the A train never moved so slowly as it did that night.  The five flights up to our apartment never seemed so long, and Brooklyn—warm in Con Ed familiarity—had never felt so friendly.


Fifty Years Later

We are stardust, billion year old carbon

We are golden, caught in the Devil’s bargain

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden 

As I look back on Woodstock through the lens of fifty years, it is clear to me that the cultural significance of the event is everything we thought it was back then. It really was three days of peace and music. The performers and crowd and the production crew all worked miracles that weekend to stage the first event of its kind in American popular culture history. It was completely understandable that over the next few years our g-g-g-generation became known as “The Woodstock Nation.”  

For me, though, looking back on Woodstock shows me clearly something I could not see at the time. I found the whole event to be frightening: literally terrifying. The entire time we were there all I could feel was dread that something terrible was going to happen. I was on high alert the whole time, unable to enjoy the music, relax with the vibe, or go with the flow. I could not sit there in that crowd without seeing every bum trip that entered my peripheral vision: every bad-ass city-bred 15-year-old with a knife and an attitude. I worried that our toddler son would be hurt or get sick. I worried that we’d have to witness nut cases taking nose dives off the light towers. I worried that small verbal altercations would turn into mob violence. I don’t know how aware I was that I was doing all this worrying. It was really more like being back in Vietnam, covered with mud and soaked by the monsoon, where the trick was to push on, do the job, accomplish the mission, damn the torpedoes. In hindsight, my experience at Woodstock was nothing more or less to me than a serious Vietnam “flashback,” a body memory of unending tension and the unending effort required to get through it and survive. I see clearly now that my year in the war had made it impossible for me to relax and enjoy even three minutes of peace and music while sitting in a crowd of half-a-million people. 

I am glad I had the chance to go to Woodstock. I’m glad there are recordings and a movie documenting the great performances of many of the greatest artists of my era. And I am glad that I can look back on the experience from my 8th decade and smile and enjoy it now like I could not at the time.  But don’t ever expect to see me in a crowd of that size, or even one-tenth that size, ever.  I’m a whole lot saner and better grounded now than I was in 1969, but even the wisdom of age does not rewire a brain that has become adapted to war.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Terror

1/17/2018

If a man with a handgun openly displayed on his hip walked out onto the main street of Dodge City when the town’s cops were Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, that man was subject to being shot dead on the spot by the marshal or his deputies. How have we come to the place where a disturbed teenager or ‟lone wolf” nutjob with a history of domestic violence and mental illness can carry a weapon of war into a WalMart or a public school? These sorts of incidents would never–NEVER–have happened in the days when I was plinking tin cans with my homeboy buddies back in the early 1960s. Later, I lived on the mean streets of New York City’s Lower East Side in one of the Big Apple’s truly dark periods (late 60s and early 70s). I saw a man felled—probably murdered–by a knife-wielding gang, and I can remember many episodes of running my ass off on my way home from work to get into my locked front door before a band of bad guys could catch me, hurt me, and take my money. It was a tough time in the big city, but in my years in New York, I never ever heard a gunshot. Today, in my quiet, peaceful hometown of Richmond Virginia, I wake up nearly every day to the news that some toddler, or school kid or grandma was shot down in their front yard in some neighborhood a few blocks away. I hear the nearly nightly rapid-fire discharges of 9-mm pistols with high-cap magazine issuing from the windows of cars cruising down the streets of my quiet Victorian neighborhood. Teenagers are gunning each other down daily.

I have no issue with a human being exercising their natural right to protect themselves and their families with a firearm, but since the 1990s gun owners and freedom lovers have been absolutely brainwashed into thinking that the right to keep and bear arms is meant to be totally unfettered, completely unregulated, and that is the result of the National Rifle Association’s dance with the Devil; that is, the firearms industry and its very deep pockets. Our individual freedoms do not grant us the rights to impede others’ pursuits of life, liberty and happiness by sentencing our entire country to an endless round of terrorism from unstable people armed with weapons of war.

I bought my first firearm in 1962 with the help of the NRA through its joint program with the U. S. Government known as the Civilian Marksmanship Program. The gun was a Springfield rifle, model of 1903, a Government-surplus weapon of the type that would be carried by ‟doughboys” when they went to fight ‟over there” in The Great War. It took my teenage body a bit of work before I was strong enough to carry all that steel and walnut, and to not wince at the punishment my shoulder was subject to when I fired a 30-06 round at a target.  My second gun was also from government surplus. It was a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, Model of 1911. My Navy ROTC unit armorer, a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, worked on my pistol, exchanging parts from our armory, to make that gun more suitable for me to use when firing in competition against the shooting teams of other universities. It was good enough that I won my event against the team from the Air Force Academy!

As a teen and a young adult, I loved shooting and shooting sports. I never hunted anything, although that same Gunny once took me on one of his favorite forays careening around the New Mexico desert in a jeep shooting at jackrabbits with a pistol.  I didn’t care to kill anything, but I enjoyed deploying the power of the gods to smite soda bottles and cans at a distance. As a young soldier and husband awaiting the birth of my son, I was assigned duty on the machine-gun training range at the Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. There my job was to help maintain safe practices on the range as trainees learned how to operate the potent M60 gun. The day I arrived at my new unit in Vietnam, I was handed my new ‟best friend,” the enormously heavy and awkward (but highly lethal and accurate) M14 rifle. I was also asked about my experience with the M60 and was immediately assigned duty as machine-gunner for my combat engineer platoon.

Both the M14 and M60 use the same 7.62mm NATO ammo: a hefty 30-caliber high-power round. I found myself going out on missions armed with a heavy rifle, an even heavier machine gun, at least two 20-round magazines of ammo for the rifle, two bandolier belts of ammo for the machine gun, a beefy tripod on which to mount the gun, and at least one box of additional ammo belts to feed the gun in case of enemy ‟contact.” The only good thing about being in command of such enormous firepower was that I had an assistant gunner to help me, and we went on our missions in the backs of trucks. While I always felt incredibly fortunate to be in a combat engineer outfit rather than infantry, at least those weary foot soldiers got to carry one of the new-fangled very lightweight M16 rifles which shot the relatively speedy but tiny 5.56 bullets.

Months later, I was transferred to a new job at battalion headquarters, where I worked in the ‟S4” yard, the heavily secured zone where combat-priority materiel were stored. I often found myself being the sole person on night duty at the yard. There was a .45 auto pistol in a holster and web belt that hung on a hook inside the S4 tent. My immediate superior, a staff sergeant, asked me if I knew how to use it. I told him about my NROTC shooting squad days and he encouraged me to wear that pistol and shoot anyone who tried to come around and ‟requisition” materiel from the yard without proper paperwork, even if it was ‟the colonel himself.” Occasionally I had to drive out into ‟Indian Country” accompanying a truck loaded with construction supplies for building helicopter landing zones or forward artillery fire bases. The sergeant encouraged me to carry the pistol in those cases.

I was very fortunate in that my year of duty in the war zone was relatively free of serious combat episodes. Our base was routinely rocketed and mortared. Our trucks were peppered with sniper fire. We had to search, find, and disarm booby traps—what today would be called IEDs—along the roads we travelled, but heavy firefights were not part of my experience. Nonetheless, I know for a fact that my having been armed and trained with both an automatic weapon (the M60 gun), and a semi-automatic pistol (the 1911) saved my life and the lives of others.

Once I was out of the Army, I had no interest in owning a gun at first. I was trying to find a normal life with my family. Besides, I was living in New York City, and guns were just not available, and the consequences of being caught with a firearm were serious. Eventually, I tired of city life, moved to the Virginia countryside, and renewed my old love of shooting. I reunited with the NRA by joining up so I could read the monthly editions of The American Rifleman magazine. The NRA had always been a patriotic and somewhat conservative organization, but its primary focus was marksmanship, gun safety, and education.  In the late 70s this began to change. Rather than simply informing members about various state, local and national laws or proposals related to gun ownership and shooting sports, the NRA transformed itself into a lobbying organization. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the NRA became more and more extreme in its efforts to affect legislation and advocate for the complete freedom for citizens to own all sorts of firearms while fighting any efforts at regulation or restraint. Their political stances moved very sharply to the right, and they became an unabashedly partisan organization.

I could no longer read The American Rifleman without becoming furious. The drumbeat set up by The NRA was quickly reflected in all the gun press as enthusiasts’ magazines, technical journals, shooting-sports reviews and other gun-related media began reciting often nasty partisan and contemptuous language ridiculing anybody or anything vaguely to the left of center and promulgating paranoid conspiracy theories of upcoming gun-grabbing forays by Democratic leaders. It is in the writings of many of the gun magazines of the 90s that I find the beginnings of the ugly ironic rhetoric that we now associate with the sort of alt-right ‟deplorables” who gang up on any internet ‟snowflake” post that might favor gun control, women’s equality, civil rights, or common decency. While it is certainly the case that much of the incivility in today’s rightist language is clearly a desperate reactionary response to advances of the past few decades in the civil rights of people of color, women, GLBT folks, and immigrants, the pattern (and patter) of the discourse is one that I feel was presaged and shaped by NRA’s CEO Wayne LaPierre and his take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises, philosophy beginning in 1991. This was the very approach taken by the GOP’s Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich beginning in 1995, and it has remained the dominant attitude of the American right ever since.  It is the dangerous and tiresome song that is sung by ‟gun-rights” activists every time another mass murder takes place. Gingrich is a lifetime member of NRA and a longtime fan of LaPierre. When we look around today and see ourselves swamped by the powerfully divisive nature of our contemporary politics, I believe it began with Newt Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker, and his strategy came straight from the the pro-gun-lobby strategy of NRA’s LaPierre.

I cannot go to WalMart and purchase an M60 machine gun. The laws of the United States do infringe my right to own a machine gun. They just make it expensive and very difficult to do so, and they require a strong measure of accountability on the part of those who choose to own such weapons.  I guarantee you that, even though I am trained and experienced in the use of a machine gun, I cannot own one and would be subject to some deadly consequences at the hands of law enforcement if I tried to carry one in public. An AR-15—the civilian version of the M16 military assault rifle—is the weapon of choice by most mass murderers in America these days. (That said, they could be equally efficient in affecting their evil intentions with a much cheaper and arguably less finicky Kalashnikov AR-47 or one of the many variants easily purchased any day in our country). The difference is that the machine gun is fully automatic while the assault rifles are simply semi-automatic. 

The M60 can fire 600 rounds a minute, while the AR-15 can only fire about 90 rounds a minute in the hands of an average experienced shooter with 3 loaded 30-round magazines. Obviously 600 rounds a minute in a crowded ‟soft target” situation could do unimaginable carnage before the barrel of a machine gun overheats or the ammo runs out. It is unimaginable because it has never happened. Not in America. The ‟right” to keep and bear machine guns has been effectively infringed by the government, as it should be. Is a fire rate of only 90 rounds a minute so much more acceptable? Isn’t Congress an eensy-teensy bit allowed to infringe the rights of some gun owners sometime? I would love to be able to ‟plink” with an M79 grenade launcher and I really enjoyed learning how to fire a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher with a High-Explosive Anti-Tank rocket at an old tank hulk back in basic training or A.I.T.  Weapons of war can be fun, but, alas, my right to keep and own such toys have been infringed by Congress, and I can’t play soldier in my back yard.

This notion that gun-owners’ rights are absolutely not infringable is a very new thing. It has nothing to do with the history of firearms in this country, nor is it something that was ever conceived by the authors of the second amendment. It did not come about until hardcore reactionary nuts like Wayne LaPierre and Newt Gingrich got their grips on the country’s conservative politics. This is nothing but libertarianism taken to its most absurd limits, and it is not a perspective that was shared by any of our country’s founders. It is certainly correct to say that the second amendment was designed to protect individual communities and states from despotic leaders. Remember that tories and British troops quartered themselves on American colonists’ farms and in their houses and seized their firearms and their provisions. The second amendment assured citizens of the young new nation that they could keep their muskets. It was never intended to mean that any citizen of any sort in any instance could wield the power to murder dozens of other citizens in a moment. This is a perversion of our nation’s sacred Bill of Rights by fanatics, and it must end now.

To my libertarian, freedom-loving, unlimited-gun-rights-advocating friends, I beg you to invoke your better sense and drop this idiotic facade of unrestrained firearms rights being somehow woven into our historic fabric as a free people. That is bullshit and you need to stop consuming it. It is killing our children and grandchildren, and it is destroying our country. The terrorism of mass murder continually moves us closer to, not further from, authoritarian rule and the loss of more personal freedoms. Your AR-15s are much more likely to be seized with each new homicidal horror, and it won’t be by snowflake liberals. It will be by your neighbors when they are sick to death of this idiocy, or by some ‟law-and-order” autocrat who can’t tolerate dissent or resistance by mere citizens. Please support strong, appropriate gun laws everywhere before we no longer have any liberty left to protect.

 

 

Monumental Decisions

 

Some Timely Thoughts for August 18, 2017

In 1996, I was asked to participate in a panel of scholars and prominent citizens in an open forum as the Commonwealth of Virginia struggled to decide whether the time had come to ditch its official state song, a slightly modernized version of Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, composed by African American songsmith, James Bland in 1878. Many found the song to be offensive due to its romanticization of slavery and its lyrics that used minstrel-like parodies of of African American speech. On the other hand, it was at that time the only state song in the country that had been written by an African American. My advice at the time was that a work of art that offends a substantial portion of the population should be somehow honored for what it is, but demoted from its public pedestal. It could not properly represent all the people of Virginia. Virginia decided to designate the song as “state song emeritus,” retired it, and went on to seek a new state song more suitable to Virginia at the turn of a new millennium.

One and a half centuries after the end of the Civil War, much of the South—the former Confederacy—struggles to decide what to do with symbols that trouble many citizens. One of these is the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. This so-called “Confederate Flag” was never used as an official flag of the Confederacy, but it has nonetheless come to be viewed as symbolic of the South as a distinct “nation” within the larger United States rather than as a bottle flag of an Army that raised arms against the United States.

Similar symbols of the South are the numerous statues of leading generals and statesmen of the Confederate States of America that are found throughout the South. Like the old battle flag, they too have become bones of contention between folks who find them to be offensive reminders of a not-so-grand historic era of White supremacy, slavery and racism versus those for whom they are romantic and honorable memorabilia of a time and culture that formed the South into a distinctive cultural region of the nation.

Today the South deals with this question: Is it time to “retire” the monuments and symbols of the Confederacy? Nowhere is this question more important than here in Richmond, Virginia, the former Confederate capital, and no other display of public art and artifact in Richmond can begin to compete with the grandeur, beauty and intensity of feelings generated by Monument Avenue. Depending on who you are and what you know about the grand avenue and its monuments, you may view them as commemoratives to honor Confederate leaders, especially military leaders, or you may view them as disgusting and reprehensible reminders of the evils of racism. Perhaps you have never really thought about them in depth and they are simply the decorative artifacts of Richmond’s grandest public avenue.

It helps to understand what they were built for, and at this point I believe most knowledgable scholars would argue that they are clearly the product of the so-called “Lost Cause,” a massive cultural mythos evolved in the hope to have the South “rise again” after the period of Union occupation and Reconstruction. Southerners had it found humiliating and degrading to be forced to permit African Americans to vote, to own property, to get education, and to hold public office. No sooner had the occupation ended than the South immediately launched the oppressive Jim Crow era which aimed to undo the progressive actions of Reconstruction and to institute laws and extra-legal sanctions against African American (and other non-White) citizens. Thus began the long ugly rein of lynch mobs, the Klan, and segregation.

Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney has created a commission of scholars and prominent citizens of the city to address the possibility of finding acceptable ways to “contextualize” the monuments on Monument Avenue and, perhaps, elsewhere in the city as well. The mayor’s vision was to seek a solution that would teach the actual history of the monuments, warts and all, without having to take the extraordinary move of decimating an enormously important historic district and its unparalleled artifacts of both the beauty and the beastliness of Gilded-Age Richmond.

I was personally glad to hear about Mayor Stoney’s commission, because as an archaeologist-historian I am a firm believer in preserving our cultural artifacts precisely so that different communities and different eras have their opportunities to appreciate, interpret, loath, and/or love the manifold meanings such artifacts can elicit. I was equally glad to hear that the mayor extended the mission to include gathering public comment and input on the possibility of removing the monuments, especially because he added that he finds them personally offensive. He is African American and does understand what they meant to those who erected them and what they mean to many Richmonders and other Virginians today. Like that old state song, how can a landscape that is so public be permitted to stand when it is offensive to so many citizens.

So to return to my original question: who owns these artifacts of history and culture? Legally they belong to the City of Richmond, I suppose, but I question whether or not the Mayor or City Counsel have the ethical right to remove these monuments without some sort of city-wide, and perhaps even state-wide or nation-wide referendum. At the very least we need a long, ongoing, serious public discussion. As the Mayor’s commission discovered in its first public meeting, this will be a loud, emotional, not always rational discussion. There will be lots of heat before there is any clear light to light the way to a decision that can be broadly supported.

I find the so-called Confederate Flag offensive because it represents institutionalized racism. It always has done and it always will do, ever since it was taken up by the KKK and then again by post-1964 redneck racists opposing integration and civil rights enforcement. My thought about the flag is that if you view it primarily as a romantic icon of the South and Southern culture, then hang it on your living room wall and enjoy it. But keep it out of my face in public places.

I find the question of monuments to be a much thornier thicket, especially the monuments of the Confederacy on Monument Avenue. There is no question that these are major elements of the city’s architecture, landscape and history. They define a major central neighborhood—a neighborhood designated as historic and significant by the national, state and city governments. The monuments have stood for nearly a century and have, therefore, played a very significant role in the spirit and culture of Virginia’s capital. Most Richmonders, I suspect, can barely imagine what a loss they would feel if the city were to have them removed.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied, that they, like that battle flag, came into being through the post-Reconstruction institutionalization of White supremacy in Virginia. It should not surprise anyone that some of our city’s citizens and visitors who understand that truth find them as offensive as I find the “Confederate” flag to be. Nothing could be more “in your face” than these huge bronzes of generals, an admiral and a president of the rogue nation Confederate States of America parading endlessly down the grandest boulevard in town.

My recommendation to the Mayor and his commission is this. Recent history reminds us pointedly that we have not outgrown the hunger by some to keep alive a state of White supremacy in Virginia and elsewhere in this country. Richmond has been making some very fine progress in conquering that evil in recent years. I am proud of my city, my home and its people for that reason. Let’s not make any rash decisions in the current environment of political rancor, the rise of the “alt-right” and the beyond-the-fringe element of White supremacists currently stirring their long-simmering pot in the Federal government. If the City feels a need to take some action sooner rather than later, then please don’t make it an irreversible one.

Let’s try something like this first. The City could seek help—financial help and planning help—from both the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Park Service which has designated the district as a National Historic Landmark. The effort would be to continue considerably extend the mayor’s original plan of seeking the best practices for contextualizing the monuments. I would personally love to see fairly prominent signage at the major entries to the district on and adjacent to the Avenue. Such signage would state unequivocally that the district began shortly after the Civil War as a search to erect a monument to General Lee upon his death. That initial idea lay mostly dormant until after Reconstruction when it became perhaps the most prominent urban-art expression of The Lost Cause. Further signage at each statue could address both appropriate histories of the persons represented there, but they should also detail the complex meanings of the Lost Cause, the rise of the myth of Southern honor and chivalry as well as the unambiguous effort to subjugate African Americans and codify White supremacy in the South.

Perhaps the messages of such signage could be more extensively interpreted through a Monument Avenue museum: a small but purpose-driven institution perhaps run or advised by the Virginia Historical Society, the Valentine or the City, funded, one would hope by both private benefactors and public governments up to and including the National Park Service or other appropriate Interior Department entity. The mayor’s current commission might best give way to a permanent entity responsible to the city’s public for the ongoing interpretation of Monument Avenue.

This is just one citizen’s ideas, not even fully formed. That said, they are the ideas of someone who devoted most of his adult professional life to discovering, conserving and interpreting the history and culture of Richmond and its surrounding region of Central Virginia. I have probably given as much thought as anybody to the meaning of our material artifacts and how they can be used to help our communities progress towards an ever more enlightened understanding of our shared histories and destinies.

The War is Never Over. The Revolution is Never Won

I am an unreconstructed Flower Child, matured and mellowed a bit, but I have never surrendered to what seems to be any version of “normal” USA culture. Back in the 60s and 70s we “freaks” felt that we were instigating tremendous change, and we were, but these battles have to be fought again and again, generation after generation. Of course, there is such a thing as progress, and nobody can deny that there has been much positive change in our culture’s way of treating women, minorities, the poor, LGBT folks, immigrants, and other “others.” Nonetheless, the battles rage on, sometimes hotter and sometimes cooler, but they never are over and done with.
Mass murders in a Southern church are a reminder. The never-ending flood of black-on-black violence and police-on-black violence is a reminder. The rude, disgusting misogynistic comments in mass media and social media about Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are a reminder, as are the equally ugly and hateful blathering of Donald Trump and the Brown Shirt/Hitler Youth-type behavior of many of his supporters. North Carolina’s HB2 and similar legislative actions in other states, whether passed, proposed, or pending, are a harsh reminder.
I was a witness to the so-called Stonewall Riots and the birth of the Gay Liberation movement in New York in 1969 (see my Facebook Note from 2010 titled “The Queens are Bashing the Cops”). While I am thrilled that our country has finally granted the fundamental human right of marriage to same-sex couples, it is clear that there is still an abundance of potentially violent hatred against anyone queer, and this current rash of anti-queer legislation and litigation are simply the more civil expressions of that hatred. Beneath the veneer, violence is on the prowl, and whether it is fully expressed or not, it is hurtful.
No sooner had North Carolina’s HB2 been announced I found myself awakened by my transgender spouse one morning, as he told me of a terrible nightmare he had just experienced. In the dream he was traveling to see friends in North Carolina and, as a result, a woman was murdered in a woman’s room simply for being Rob’s friend. This past weekend we were, in fact, traveling in North Carolina to visit friends. On three occasions we were out in public places when Robin experienced nature’s call. Two of these occasions occurred in fairly hip restaurants in a college-town urban setting. In one of these cases, there was an available gender-neutral loo available for folks with physical disabilities, so he chose that one.
The third occasion was a very different situation. We were on farm in a very rural area. Many farms rely these days on various forms of agri-tourism to supplement income, and that was the case here. A large dairy farm has opened a popular ice cream parlor to promote their rich Jersey milk products. It was a sunny, warm Sunday, and the place was crammed with families bringing children for a treat. There were lines for ice cream, a crowd of kids waiting a chance to pet the cute Jersey calf, and, of course, there was predictable demand and use of the two gendered restrooms. I’ve been married to Rob for over 34 years, so even if he hadn’t felt the need to talk about it today, now that we are back in Virginia, I would have known that this situation had rattled him.
It seems that an awful lot of people still seem to feel it is quite okay to rape women, to roll queers, to beat up folks who support a different politician, and to assault a person whose looks don’t conform to someone’s notion of what is properly gendered appearance or behavior. In just the past week the news has reported on two different women being roughed up in public simply for looking a bit butch. This shit is real. If you are a friend or relative of a GLBT person, please understand that the rabid hatred being floated in the news, the social media, and in the state capitols of this country has real-life effects on people you love. Be sensitive to this and be ready to be supportive if you can. Offer to go into public places with a gender-non-conforming person. Speak up loudly when you hear bigotry spoken. Offer hugs, even if they don’t seem immediately necessary.
There is a strong effort in the land by millions of people to revitalize a romanticized golden-age vision of the 1950s. There was nothing golden about it that dark era of coat-hanger abortions, repressed sexuality, racist lynchings, patriarchal dictatorships in the home and the office, and queer-baiting gang-rapes. I was there, and there was nothing there that I would ever want to return to (except, perhaps, for a Republican Party led by the wisdom of Dwight D. Eisenhower). I hope that we are simply witnessing the death-throes of a tired old order, but we must be vigilant. Revitalization movements often die away quietly, but they can–as in the case of the Third Reich–light a spark that turns into a conflagration. It’s not just about politics–not by a long shot. No matter who you vote for, the cultural wars must be fought every day, again and again and again.

Pink or Blue? A War Veteran Learns to Knit

This essay was first published, in an earlier form, in “Genderwonky” on Blogger.

My mother taught me to knit. Mind you, I didn’t learn how to knit from my mother, but she taught me nonetheless. She also taught me to sew. I don’t know why. My brothers weren’t taught these things, as far as I know. I don’t even think my sisters were. Maybe I was the only one who seemed interested. Maybe I just tended to hang around Mother too much.
I think I was probably 9 or 10 when she taught me to knit, but I didn’t actually begin learning how to knit until I was 58. I enrolled in knitting classes at a local knitting shop. Richmond, my hometown, has at least five knitting shops. For reasons I can’t fathom, I chose to take lessons at the oldest, best established store in town: the “West End” shop, whose habitués are mothers of children enrolled in the city’s exclusive local private academies. They are the wives of lawyers and doctors and politicians—no that’s not quite right. They are the wives of judges, chief surgeons, and governors of the Commonwealth. I drive to my lessons in my ratty little ‘72 Beetle. They drive in humongous Lincoln Town Cars, 700-series Beamers, and Range Rovers.
There are other places to learn knitting and to buy yarn. There’s the store with all the high-fashioned glitzy yarns and the workshops taught by international knitting stars. There’s the newer shop full of hip, high-end luxury fibers, all natural of course, down in what passes for Richmond’s version of Greenwich Village. Then there’s that newer shop with the laid-back, crazy, funny women who smoke too much and, I wager, keep bottles of whiskey or brandy tucked away with their stashes. They are fun-loving yarn-addicts, pure and simple. But, for reasons still unclear to me, I wound up in the high-brow shop with the tennis-club and equestrienne set. Go figure.
Let’s make one thing very clear. I am the only man taking these lessons. I continually hear rumors of other men who knit, but, so far, they are just rumors. “Lots of men knit these days,” says one of the shop’s owners. “But Dan’s the only straight guy, isn’t he?” Straight guy? But I knit! Some would say I can’t be straight by definition.
I point out to all who will listen that men do the knitting in Peru, that men were traditionally knitters at various times in “The Old World,” and that male soldiers in World War I routinely knitted their own socks! I get quiet, knowing smiles. No sense trying to tell anybody anywhere anything about gender. It is, after all, completely “natural,” and everyone knows all about it practically from the day they’re born.
I am working a cable row in the front on my alpaca sweater. I hope to complete it by the time it’s cold enough to wear an alpaca sweater. The ladies of the shop love to talk about the multi-colored socks I knit myself last year. “He even wears them,” one hastens to add. While I quietly knit away, my teacher, the shop ladies, and the other students all talk about babies. Always. Someone at the table is always knitting a baby sweater, or baby booties, or baby blanket, or a baby hat. Sometimes these items are being knit from a pure-white soft cotton or washable wool. More often, they are either pink or blue.
The talk invariably turns to when “the baby” is due, and whether the mother or grandmother in question yet knows “what it is.” That means, in case you didn’t get it, whether the fetus in question is on its way to becoming male or female. Even in this day of sonograms, lots of people don’t know. The parents-to-be all know, but they’re not saying. So even the expectant mothers are not revealing the big secret: they knit in white, or they make one item blue and one pink… “just in case.”
“Why don’t you make something green? Or purple?” I ask, playing the devil’s role, of course. Nobody bothers to answer. It can’t possibly be a serious question. I don’t follow up, because I’ve tried dozens of times. That conversation just doesn’t go anywhere, and, anyway, I’ve just dropped two stitches in the middle of a “cable back,” and that demands all my attention.
When the conversation isn’t about babies, which is rare, it’s about the older children: the boys in St. Benedict’s and the girls in St. Catherine’s. They don’t talk about the students’ grades or their sports accomplishments. Instead they discuss their summer art programs in Florence, and their intensive language programs in Moscow, and their pending appointments as congressional pages. But the real concern is not for this ascending generation, but for the babies, for what is being knit for them, and “what they are.”
Doing It In Public
My cousin recently needed someone to accompany her to the hospital for a surgical procedure. I knew I’d be stuck in the waiting room for three or four hours, so, naturally, I took my knitting. As time passed, other patients and their drivers/helpers/loved ones arrived. And every so often one would have a bag of knitting. Each of these knitters gravitated to my side of the room, made friendly inquiries about what I was making, gave their compliments, then took up an adjacent seat. After a couple hours, we had a phalanx of knitters, all sitting along one wall of the waiting room, chatting away merrily.
Knitters don’t just knit when they get together. We shared knitting stories. We shared knitting tools. We commented on color combinations and yarn choices. All the other knitters were women, of course. One of them noted my wedding ring and asked me if my wife were also a knitter. Of course I (and all the other women) took her question to really mean, “So, are you married or available?”
And so I comfortably lounged away a few hours, surrounded by women of all ages, knitting, knitting, knitting. Were I to suddenly find myself single, it would never dawn on me to go seeking company in a bar, when I could find myself a corner in any public space—say, a Starbucks Café—open my knitting bag, and soon have plenty of company.
Of course, not everyone is happy to see a man knitting in public. There is clearly something odd, suspicious, maybe even frightening about such a scene. I remember one time taking my knitting to the clinic at the VA hospital. It always takes my doctor way more time than seems reasonable to see me on appointment day. No sense complaining, though. I might as well just plan on getting some knitting done. And so I do.
On the day in question, I noted that my knitting had just the opposite effect as what I had experienced the day of my cousin’s surgery. I soon found I was sitting surrounded by empty chairs. Other patients were giving me a rather wide berth. But then, none of the other patients was also knitting. You see, most of the other patients were men: men my age or older. Men wearing their veteran’s hats, their combat colors, their manly accomplishments on their proverbial sleeves. These guys don’t knit. Or, if they do, they damn sure don’t do it in public! I’m the odd man out. I’m also a war veteran, and I’m wearing my colors, too. My combat engineer’s hat is set off nicely by the colorful stripes in my latest silky-soft scarf.
Finally, into the waiting room came a couple. They were much younger than I. Both were wearing some indications that they were in or had served in the military. I later learned they had both served in Iraq. She carried a knitting bag. After registering at the desk, she walked directly over to me, asked about my project, asked if she could join me, plopped down beside me and pulled out her work. Her partner—her husband, I soon learned—stood across the room glaring at me. He stood! He couldn’t even bring himself to sit. My knitting companion kept gesturing to her hubby to come join us, but he insistently stood and glowered.
After a few minutes, a nurse appeared and called the wife’s name, then took her back into the clinic to test her vital signs, etc. The man slowly approached me. I stopped knitting, met his eyes, and held my hands with the #3 needles angled just enough to suggest that they could serve as defensive weapons if need be. (For some reason, I tend to knit a lot of things with sporting weight yarns and small needles. For once I wished I had been working on a bulky Icelandic sweater. I would have been holding # 13s instead of # 3s!)
He stared into my soul and, I suppose, something he found there told him I was not really a threat to his marriage or his masculinity or anything else. Or perhaps he decided I was too dangerous, or too deranged, to tangle with. He grabbed a hot rod magazine off the rack nearby and walked back across the room to sit by himself.
What would happen to our planet if, all of a sudden, infant girls were swaddled in baby blue blankets? And what disastrous consequences could ensue if baby boys came bedecked with little pink pom-pom hats? What in the world can the world possibly find frightening about a 6’2” 200-pound man with a bag full of wool and knitting needles? What in Heaven’s name leads some people to a murderous rage at the very thought of a man in a dress and panty hose?
A former high school friend is a highly accomplished and respected poet. He’s 60 years old and holds a professorship at an major New England university. He has published numerous books and won many awards. Lately he has been writing to some of us, his former classmates, online, pouring out his heart full of hurt and his still-hot fury about how he was treated by the bullies in high school nearly a half-century ago. I, myself, harbored a fantasy of taking a baseball bat to one punk’s head for more than 30 years for beating me up and calling me a sissy. A recent study suggested that the rash of violent school shootings we have experienced in this country over the past few years were almost all perpetrated by boys who had been bullied and hounded and terrorized for not meeting some arbitrary norms of masculinity. In our culture we seem to think that violation of gender codes is an egregious offense upon society, punishable by torture and death.
It starts, innocently enough, by choosing to knit pink or blue. It proceeds from there by making girls who would rather have a Jedi’s light saber play with Barbie dolls. And if the gender variance hasn’t been shamed out of our children by the time they reach high school, we find it acceptable to let society’s goons try to beat it out of them. Besides schoolyard bullies, we have skinheads, good ol’ boys, queer-rollers, tranny-bashers, and many other sorts of “concerned citizens” waiting to finish the job. Call me Pollyanna, but I think we could end this sort of violence by knitting the rainbow for babies without first stopping to inspect their plumbing.