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An independence Day trip down memory lane

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July 01, 2013 | 11:51 AM
I'm not an angry man, but I felt angry when I was writing a story last week.

It's the front page feature about the riot in Lake Geneva on July 4, 1967.

Those punks, I thought. Tearing down statues. Beating up a Marine. Damaging property.

Then I thought back to my own days on the edge of civil disobedience.

I was 20 back in 1967, about the age of many of the Lake Geneva rioters.

I was living in sheltered Sheboygan, Wis., where the anti-war movement was still a West Coast kind of thing. Most of us looked clean-cut, more like Pat Boone than the "long hairs" who made up the Chicago Seven.

But a few years later, everything had changed.

I was attending college in Oshkosh and fell in with those identifying themselves as part of the counterculture.

They were fun and intellectual and nothing like the buttoned-down friends I grew up with. I was on the college newspaper and that engaged me with members of the rebellious elite. I was proud to be among them — albeit always as more of an observer than a participant.

One of my roommates was a self-avowed disciple of Trotsky, an early communist. Another had his entire room, wall to wall, painted black. It was said he'd been stoned since his freshman year.

Another roommate was a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (Now he's a Republican living in a retirement community).

It was a heady time and my friends talked seriously about "The Revolution," when hippies would take over the world and, I guess, we'd all have peace and love.

It is my fate to always be the conservative in a group of liberals and the liberal in any group of conservatives and it was no different then.

I was to the right of my hippie friends, but still quite a bit left of mainstream America.

It was during those days that I attended two events.

One was the May Day "peace march" to Washington in the spring of 1971.

The other was camping out in Flamingo Park in Miami, protesting during the 1972 Republican convention.

They were billed as anti-war events. For some that may have been true, but for most of us it was an excuse to have a party.

A lot happened between 1971 and 1972 that sobered me up.

When we marched on Washington, it was the last vestiges of the peace and love movement.

The music was still about wearing flowers in your hair and "Groovin." During that Washington March, we watched Country Joe and the Fish perform in front of the Washington Memorial, the reflecting pool linking it with the Lincoln Memorial was gently streaming before us. Everything still seemed to be pristine and fun. Wholesome in a slightly edgy way.

A short year later everything had darkened.

Camping out at Flamingo Park in 1972 was like living in a slum. The drugs were hard. The talk, gibberish. The ground was muddy. Those around me looked homeless even though most came from nice middle-class homes. The idealistic hippies were replaced by the Zippies and the Yippies whose only goal was hedonism.

Everyone complained about actress-turned-war-protester Jane Fonda (aka Hanoi Jane) being uppity because she was in a hotel room instead of down with the masses. At that moment at least, she was just (a little bit) smarter than the rest of us.

The freshness that I felt in 1971 was gone, replaced by sloth, stupidity and disrespect.

For me, my slide into cynicism about "the movement" came at the end of that 1971 march. A group of us passed a man in uniform. My "friends" started harassing the soldier, calling him part of the war machine, when he was just a man doing his duty.

I felt sick hearing their comments. Sicker still that I was silent.

I should have stood up for what was obviously right — the idea that despite our political differences we ought to be able to treat others as fellow human beings, as flawed and interesting as we all are.

Whether we were on the right side of the war or not, the man my brethren were bombarding with insults had a lot more backbone than the rest of us. Fighting a war is a lot harder than partying.

Preparing the story on the '67 riots in Lake Geneva made me wonder how many of those rioters grew up to be productive members of society. How many regret their actions? How many knew they were at least partly wrong at the time?

How many knew at the time, as I did, that the true idealists among us were few? Truth be told, most of us were doing "our thing" because it was fun being part of a group and one of the benefits was being able to have a good time under the guise of idealism.

Unlike the rioters in Lake Geneva, I didn't damage property or take part in hurting anyone.

For me, the early 70s was a time of learning. I don't regret going through it (though I do regret not speaking up when I could have). There was an excitement I can't deny. An idealism about life itself. And a lot of good music.

But here we are, four decades later.

As we near another Independence Day, I'm thankful that I live in a country that allowed me my youthful exuberance, tolerated my ignorance, ignored my indiscretions.

I wonder how many of the rest of us have a similar story.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News. Send any comments to jhalverson@lakegenevanews.com.


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