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Fifty years

May 4, 2020

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Fifty years is an ample span of time to absorb the meaning and digest the lasting effects of any event, and at risk of playing the finger-wagging geezer, those lasting effects need to be aired if we are to learn from history.

Today is Monday morning May 4th, 2020.  I recall with absolute clarity a different Monday morning May 4th, 1970.  We had recently celebrated the first Earth Day, one important event that sparked this idealistic sixteen-year-old to volunteer to clean up a quarter-mile stretch of riverbank by himself.  The particular river was infamous for having repeatedly caught fire, although the worst of the pollution was introduced many miles downstream from the small university town of my birth.  But there was a whiff of optimism in the air as young people were wising up to the consequences of consumerism gone mad, and were rejecting the greed of the corporate culture that had led us to believe that they were with the best of intention spreading democracy across the globe.

In May 1970, the Spring sky was lightening by degrees, the air was warming and the gloom of Winter was washed away with the rains.  The world seemed a slightly more innocent place.  It was a time when the public still trusted what the news outlets were reporting, although young people were beginning to peek behind the curtain and point out the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of our collective lifestyle.  University students were having none of it, and shouting to the world that those manipulating the levers had no one’s interest at heart but their own.  There was a growing awareness that some of the widespread misery that was reported in the news was indeed caused by the cabal that had wrested control of the US and had imposed absurd and abhorrent policies on the population, both foreign and domestic.

In context, only six and one-half years had passed since the assassination of JFK, and the public did not really believe the fairy tale concocted by the Warren Commission.  The unjust war in Southeast Asia was consuming the airwaves, and was also consuming those of us at or near the age where being drafted into the military was a certainty.  University students had ample reason for concern, and the stories that were filtering back from those who had been to Vietnam were very different from the mythology reported on the news.  It was no wonder that young people were disturbed by the report that the US was now indiscriminately bombing another country.

My home town was small enough that the student population of the university significantly outnumbered local residents.  There was the usual amount of friction between small-town locals and students originating from larger population centers, but there was a meeting place where distinctions were largely put aside for the sake of the commonality of consuming vast amounts of alcoholic beverage.  Water Street was one of the two main cross streets of our small city center, and the north stretch of the narrow street was largely given over to a collection of bars and nightclubs that featured mostly local bands and their fans, whose enthusiasm was fueled by watered-down beer and whatever else could be smuggled past the bouncers.

A favorite meeting place was Walter’s Cafe, a bar that was closed off to all under 21 years of age, but was a melting pot of local regulars and university professors wanting to distance themselves from the hormone-driven students.  A regular townie always in residence at Walter’s was Andy Anderson, a lanky, angular man, probably in his 50’s, who sported a crooked pair of horn rim glasses with lenses thick enough to add an air of blurred indifference to his personality.  Andy was a quiet relic of a different era, a man who spent his days ruminating at the bar over an unknown and probably unfulfilled past.  But whenever those who knew his particular talent teasingly dropped a quarter in the jukebox and played the antiquated music of Benny Goodman and Glen Miller, Andy would spring to his feet like lightning and perform a solo dance that summoned a time when he was even more limber and the music was new.  It was a sight to behold.

For whatever reason, I was given the stamp of approval to hang out at Walter’s even though I was obviously 16 and looked my age.  The bartenders just ignored me and I managed to sit in with the rowdy collection of outlandish Art and English professors and soak up the ambience, if not the alcohol.  It was there and then on Friday May 1st the subject of the illegal bombing of Cambodia was brought up and discussed with much vigor.  It was there and then that young people began pouring out onto Water Street and expressing their rage at a government that not only put the world at risk, but put young Americans at risk as well.

I had the sense to go home when the window smashing began, but the rage was palpable and it spread like wildfire.  Within 24 hours, the National Guard occupied my small town and imposed a curfew on all residents.  Within 60 hours, the Guard had gathered in formation on the campus commons, knelt into position and opened fire on students, many of whom were  merely on their way to their next lecture.

The ensuing finger-pointing resulted in nothing substantive, and those who were responsible for the deed literally got away with murder.  Popular novelist and millionaire James Michener was engaged to chronicle the event and divert the blame for the Reader’s Digest populace. The culture of corporate greed only intensified as the years passed, reaching absurd proportions during the next decade of Reagan, and the rage at the policies of our leaders was effectively numbed by a culture and lifestyle that was increasingly dependent upon technology.  Young people cared less about the outrageous actions of their leadership, and more about lifestyle choices and electronic devices that eventually became essential to daily life.  Now we have new corporate villains that include Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Today is Monday May 4th, 2020, and the world is currently facing a serious crisis that threatens our lives, our liberties and our pursuit of happiness, presumably from a random and uncontrollable source.  There are responsible things we all must do individually to weather the crisis and emerge whole.  But the lesson learned from living under occupation all those years ago, is that resistance is essential.  We cannot let those in power assume they can control the narrative without adequate justification.  We must use our intelligence and question the motives of our leaders and their corporate mouthpieces at every step as they, without checks and balances, determine our reality and control the message.  And we must always remember what the MS of MSNBC stands for.

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