It is not rebellion itself which is noble but
the demands it makes upon us.
Albert Camus - La Peste (1947)
Would you realize what Revolution is,
call it Progress;
And would you realize what Progress is,
call it Tomorrow.
Victor Hugo (Cosette)
The meadow of the '60s was seeded years before it first blossomed.
The plowing and sowing had been going on for at least a full generation. The roots had been nourished by underground streams of curiosity and desire but the sky had been so overcast with fear of the unknown and unfamiliar that there was never enough sun to pull the blooms through the hard dry earth and out into the light.
It took years of steady rain to soften that earth and a few storms to clear away the dust and clouds and let the sun shine through. When it finally happened, the meadow burst like a giant technicolor bomb, painting the social, economic and political landscape in myriad hues like a Monet canvas.
In essence however, that's what revolution is:
Drastic change for purpose, hopefully in a forward direction, with no looking back before the appointed time. In many cases, the only reason for looking back is to reflect on what went wrong. The trend in the meadow however, was to avoid looking back for fear of losing momentum. Or perhaps the world was just moving along so quickly that we were afraid to take our eyes off the road ahead.
The entire concept of questioning authority was foreign to us. We'd always been taught to respect our elders, our teachers, the clergy, elected officials and crossing guards. We were supposed to mind our manners, watch our language, eat our vegetables, go to church, keep off the grass, not pick the flowers and always wear clean underwear in case we were in an accident. We could not smoke, drink, swear, sass our mothers or tease our siblings.
Those were the rules. Everybody had them and all of us lived by them just as our parents had lived by them. No one ever asked why, even though everyone thought about it.
Then suddenly we found ourselves in the meadow.
Here were all these beautiful blossoms waiting to be plucked and sniffed and all we could hear were our parents warning us not to pick the flowers.
But it was bound to happen sooner or later.
Somewhere along about 1960 we stopped blindly accepting their stock explanations for the meaning of life and started to ask why the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes.
For many of us, the predictable response from clergy, parents, teachers, politicians and authority figures in general was:
"Trust us on this one. He is wearing clothes. You just aren't able to see them."
That one flew until one by one we gathered our thoughts, looked around at each other and collectively decided to seek a second opinion. We didn't have to look very far either.
When we asked the establishment why, we got a stock answer.
When we had the unmitigated gall to ask for proof, the storm of self righteous indignation at our impertinence was so strong that it ruptured the clouds over the meadow and the ensuing rain of oppressive criticism, condemnation and pontification irrigated the meadow and pushed the flowers of rebellion out into the light where we couldn't help but to see the colors and breathe the intoxicating fragrance.
And like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, they were all too obvious and compelling to be ignored.
Despite the good times at the drag strips, new music groups debuting on the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday, regular dances at the local CYO every Friday night and the occasional media events like race riots in the south and the more and more frequent reports of the conflict in Southeast Asia, life was more or less routine.
With our parents doing their best to give us everything they'd never had, whether we wanted it or not, the challenge of day to day life was usually about as frustrating as watching a giant anaconda sneak up on an unsuspecting wild pig in a National Geographic documentary. You knew what was coming. You knew that was the way of Nature. You knew you couldn't do anything to prevent the inevitable but you still found yourself rooting for the pig.
That was life. We were just kids and we didn't know anything because we didn't have to walk ten miles in the snow to get to school.
Until we were older and had kids of our own (who if there was a just god, were going to torture us with the same disrespect and irresponsible behavior we demonstrated towards our parents) we were just going to have to toe the line, obey the rules, let the powers that be run the show and above all,
GET A DAMN HAIRCUT!We were too young and too inexperienced and had had it too easy to appreciate traditional American values like the draft, segregation, respect for authority, freedom of speech for conservative thinkers, freedom of religion for good, God fearing Christians, freedom of assembly for supporters of popular causes and freedom from want and fear for those citizens who went along with the program.
After years of: If you sit too close to the TV you'll go blind, if you listen to rock music you'll go deaf, if you make a face at your teacher your face will stay that way and if you tell a fib your tongue will turn black, now they were telling us that if we picked the flowers the country would fall to the communists.
Why should we believe them now?
Hell, they'd been wrong about everything else!
We wanted to see for ourselves just what would happen if we broke one of the rules. And when the world didn't end after the first infraction, we declared it to be open season on tradition, convention and the establishment.
Occasionally we got help and encouragement from some of the rare free thinkers in the adult camp.
My eleventh grade homeroom moderator taught history and was relatively popular with his students. He didn't look like a movie star by any stretch of the imagination and he wasn't an easy test grader. On the contrary, he made you work for a B. But he did go the extra mile when it came to answering our questions.
One morning during homeroom he casually asked what we thought of a recent news story about a teacher in another town who'd been fired for refusing to salute the flag. The home grown patriotic responses were predictable and he listened without comment until one crewcut football player asked him how he felt about it.
He went on to say how the pledge of allegiance was an expression of love and respect for the flag and everything that it stood for like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Then he continued at length about the freedoms we enjoy as a result of the efforts of men and women who had carried that flag into battle in every war since the Revolution.
He talked about freedom of speech and freedom of expression and the right to dissent. He explained what they meant and how ironic it was that in effect, our war heroes had died to protect that dissenting teacher's right to refuse to salute the flag.
It didn't create a groundswell of support for the fired teacher in the other town, but it did make us think and I'm sure that was his intention.
Every school has its class clowns, but our school had a class of clowns.
The next morning, he asked if we'd given any thought to the previous day's discussion.
When it came time to salute the flag, everybody refused to stand up.
It was a joke. A joke in poor taste perhaps but in looking back I can see that it was a perfect example of the attitude that was growing in the meadow.
The establishment had spent so much time telling us what to believe that it had never given any consideration to explaining why we should believe.
In the minds of the day's more educated and advantaged youth, that refusal to explain why, had to suggest a certain lack of conviction on the part of those pushing the buttons and pulling the strings.
Maybe they didn't know why.
Subsequent events have proven that they really were right more often than they were wrong, but they tainted their credibility by refusing to address the issues that were important to us - the children who were to inherit the responsibilities of an uncertain future.
In our short lives we had already witnessed more and greater changes in the structure of society than any two generations that had preceded us. All we wanted were answers to the questions raised by the appearance of all the new flowers in the meadow.
The answers were there. We had a right to know and if they weren't going to check it out for us then we were going to do it ourselves.
So we rebelled and we looked and we touched and we sniffed the flowers. We questioned authority and we defied convention. We dressed weird, we talked crazy, we took chances and we made changes.
Some of us still sat too close to the television set, some of us drank too much, some of us tried drugs, some of us burned our draft cards and some of us went to Canada.
Some of us moved to New York to find fame and fortune, some of us hitch-hiked to California to find ourselves, some of us traveled to Tibet to find the meaning of life and too many of us went to Vietnam to learn the reality of death.
But the most important thing we did was to prove that it's okay to take an unpopular stand, ask a forbidden question, make a decision and then change your mind. We proved that true democracy does work and that dissent isn't synonymous with treason. We ran barefoot through the meadow, we picked the flowers and sometimes we got poison ivy, but we made the journey and we brought back some great souvenirs.
When the meadow faded into the past we put most of our flowers away for a time. There was an Astro Turf pasture ahead and the wax tulips and plastic carnations along the path looked pretty real for a while.
They didn't have to be watered or cared for and they came with the promise that they would last forever.
Now as we drag our hard fought principles on through the '90s into the 21st century we're finding the promise of immortality may have been a bit premature. The Astro Turf is wearing thin and when the wax tulips melt, nothing grows up in their place.
The artificial landscape won't last forever though.
Soon some of the old flowers are sure to break through and the meadow will have a new start. Then the rains will come and the whole process will begin all over again.
The latest pampered generation will have a whole new set of questions about a whole new set of issues. They'll come to us looking for the answers, and hopefully we'll know what to say.
But if they ask me, I'll hand them a pair of garden shears and a flower basket.
And I'll tell them to watch out for the cow patties and the poison ivy.