In the decade that Americans of several generations are obsessed with, whether it’s to love it or hate it, we had a war and social strife, but most young Americans believed that our country was a good-hearted place that had, from its inception, haplessly spawned evil inequities. Just like prior and later generations, most of us were focused on finding a lover or a spouse and learning enough to make a living. So why did the myth persist that our entire generation was deliberately and confidently revolutionary?
When a TV movie called 1969 was released in the mid-90s, I gathered the family in front of the set to watch, hoping for some minimal support for my recollection about how naïve, frightened and passive I had been during my freshman year at UC Berkeley. Within minutes, I was on my feet, shouting “Everybody out! This is nonsense!” And then, of course, the family wouldn’t leave.
With entertainment objectives superseding the political ones, everyone in the film was a stereotype, speaking words designed to titillate. Girls were gorgeous and mindless, aggressive she-beasts craving “free love.” Guys–unless they were among the deluded soldiers and veterans–were either violent, grubby political radicals or violent, grubby drug addicts. Guys of all backgrounds were obsessed with not getting drafted—well, at least that part was true—but miraculously, they had acquired the ability to analyze every American blemish as if they’d earned PhDs in sociology. And courage! What bugged me most was the courage they all supposedly had: to change the way they looked, to expose themselves to loss of family and friendships, to attack and be assaulted physically, to risk everything for their ideals.
But I remembered. For most of us, it was not that way. Not for teenagers and college students in their early 20s. Out of over 7 million U.S. college students, estimates hover at only 40,000 demon-strating against the war. Then in January 1968, the Vietnamese Tet Offensive brought international aware-ness to the immoral and tragic mess stirred up by our leaders in Washington. Suddenly, at each demonstration, 10,000 to 100,000 people hit the streets, not just in America, but all over the world. The numbers grew from there and reached into mainstream society, but that was in the 1970s, when social revolutions for women, gays and other minorities were launched as well. Determined to find physical proof of the truth, I began pulling out old pictures and yearbooks from our Los Angeles high schools and UC Berkeley. Suddenly, there we were, thousands of trim-haired, neatly-dressed, conservative-looking young-sters, with perky, forced smiles, encased in identical inch by inch-and-a-quarter boxes for our children to snicker at. Only they did not snicker.
“Mom, this isn’t the 60s, is it?” our daughter spoke first. “I mean, these kids are all so conservative. Look at the short hair on the guys, and the girl’s hair. What are those little wings growing out from their cheeks?”
I laughed. “That was the ‘flip,’” I said. “That was the style.”
“They’re all so…so middle America!”
“Look at you!” our son recognized my picture. My hair hung past my shoulders, wings nevertheless quite pronounced. I remem-bered pinning in the rollers at bedtime each night. Eyeliner and lipstick were care-fully applied, designed to construct a face like Natalie Wood’s—on the make, yet still an innocent young girl.
“What happened to hippies and commies and anger?” our son asked. “You all look like a bunch of nerds. You don’t look like you could fight your way out of a paper bag, let alone defy cops to save the world.”
I came to put my arms around them both and drew them in with a tug. “This is real,” I told them. “Remember it the next time you see those more exciting versions in the movies.” But our son moved away from the yearbook, shrugged his shoulders and grew silent. Our daughter was still flipping through the book, disappointment furrowing her brow.
That was the night I decided to create a work of fiction to convey my recol-lections about how we looked, felt, struggled and persevered. How every day those conformists photographed in the Berkeley yearbook confronted awkward questions, beckoning quests, and critical decisions. And how all over the world in the spring of 1968, there was unavoid-able turmoil as abrasive as stone and change as unstoppable as time itself.
The first time I saw UC Berkeley, I held fast to Aaron Becker’s arm with both hands as we strolled beneath Sather Gate and over to the side of Strawberry Creek bridge. Above us, the Berkeley hills shimmered in green and gold, the buildings rose white and majestic, and the promise soared as large as the picture on a giant movie screen—football games and fraternity parties and sunlit arms heavy with textbooks. Wasn’t I the lucky one to be on campus, a senior in high school visiting my college boyfriend for the weekend? Then, as I leaned against Straw-berry Creek’s retaining wall, a crisp paper flyer crackled against my hip. I glanced down at a boldface word—“protest”—and gave out with a startled “ohh.” But before I could back away for a better view, Aaron wrapped his arms around me. He stroked my hair and placed a strand neatly behind my ear. His warm breath on my cheek steadied my own. “Never mind about all that,” he whispered. “You’ll hear about it soon enough. I’m so happy you’re up here with me, Janet. Just let me hold you...” My heart pounded wildly at the mere thought that by next fall, I would join Aaron for his final year at the university. We kissed passionately, then once again more tenderly, as if to seal a bargain we had made about our future.
Excerpted from "A Time to Cast Away Stones" by Elise Frances Miller. Copyright © 0 by Elise Frances Miller. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.