An idea, in the highest sense of that word,
cannot be conveyed but by a symbol.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Biographia Literaria - Chapter 9 (1817)

Nature speaks in symbols and in signs.
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)


The Visible Odds and Ends that
Symbolized Coming of Age

Several years ago I overheard a bit of prose that dealt with the age old phenomena of the grass always being greener in the next meadow. I don't recall who wrote it, where it appeared or if it was only related to me verbally, but today I see it as a timely commentary on man's quest for personal progress.

It described in somewhat simplistic fashion, the historic impatience of growing boys.
The six-year-old on a tricycle wanted the eight-year-old's two wheeler, the eight-year-old wanted the ten-year-old's paper route, the ten-year-old wanted the twelve-year-old's Safety Patrol badge, the twelve-year-old wanted the sixteen-year-old's driver's license and the sixteen-year-old wanted the eighteen-year-old's draft card so he could drive across the state line and drink beer in New York where you only had to be eighteen.

We were all in a hurry to grow up.
We wanted to be able to do what the bigger kids could do.
We wanted - no, we needed - to have those symbols and tokens we considered the trappings of age and maturity. No matter what age you were, anyone a few years older was grown up.

I remember once when I was six-years-old and my wise-ass eight-year-old cousin didn't want to watch cartoons. He insisted on watching a western and said I had to respect my elders. Ididn't know what an elder was but I guessed it had something to do with him having a two-wheeler. I thought it sucked that he had a two wheeler and got to watch what he wanted, but I saw right away that age had its privileges.

One of the best things about being a child was that you could recognize and aspire to the privileges of age without having to accept or acknowledge the responsibilities that went with the territory.
You could look forward to all of the benefits and freedoms that came with growing up without having to think about paying the price attached to them. You knew that all you had to do was plod along from birthday to birthday and sooner or later you would have a license to drive a car, the right to drinkbeer, smoke tobacco, stay out late and not have to take orders.

Unlike our parents - who had to walk miles and miles through the snow to get to school (even summer school), who had to work ten hours a day in a saw mill or textile factory to help support their family from the age of six and who had to hunt, fish and trap to feed and clothe themselves because times were hard when they were young - we were naive and unappreciative of their efforts to give us everything they never had.
We were spoiled because we didn't have to fight bears and mountain lions on the way to the general store. We were lazy because we didn't have to get up at 4:00 am to milk the cows and feed the chickens and slop the hogs before school.

Yeah, right.

If we were actually as sorry a lot as we were led to believe, it's a wonder any of us survived kindergarten.
But most of us did.
We went on to get that two-wheeler and the safety patrol badge and the driver's license.

And we got the draft card.

That was the ultimate symbol. It meant we were adults. We could drink beer legally. We could move out, stay out late, get married without permission or sign a contract.
Everything the future had promised was finally ours. We had it all - we thought! Then as opportunity knocked gently on the door, reality crashed through the living room wall riding in a tank. It was a bit difficult for many of us to keep it all in perspective, this coming of age thing. Just as we come into all this freedom, society turns around, drops this whole responsibility trip right in our draft-age laps and spoils the mood.

It didn't matter who you were or if you were going to college or taking a full-time job. If you were a male in reasonably good health, the odds were that sooner or later you would be called for military service. Some looked forward to it, many more dreaded the thought and there were certainly some who just accepted the inevitability of it and went on about their business, resigned to make the best of whatever time they had before being called.

But there was no one who didn't think about it, especially after 1965.

That was when the simmering pot in Southeast Asia came to a full boil and we all learned that the promise of adulthood was really a promissory note, and it had come due.

In the beginning, it seemed like a clear-cut item.
It had to be the right thing or the country wouldn't have gotten into it in the first place. Every American understood honor and loyalty and patriotism. They were some of the first flowers we recognized when we entered the meadow.
But suddenly, we all developed a convenient sense of color coordination.

The striking but simple red, white and blue pattern clashed with the other flowers, and in our new awareness we were forced to make a choice:
the accepted traditional color scheme or the controversial psychedelic blooms of dissent, rebellion and civil disobedience.

There was no middle of the road. Neither side would allow it. The common rhetoric from both camps was that if you weren't part of the solution then you were part of the problem and this inflexibility was the chief cause for the social unrest that began to permeate the meadow.

Never in history had Americans been divided in such a visually distinct manner.
Even during the Civil War when brother fought brother and father fought son, a black and white photo of the average family couldn't depict the social or political leanings of either side. Everyone dressed alike including the opposing armies.
The blue and grey appeared different only when they stood side by side.

With Vietnam, there were two wars being fought - the one in Southeast Asia and the one at home - and on both fronts each side had their own uniform.
We all know about the uniforms worn in the jungle, but those worn on the homefront were much more distinctive. They expressed the individual's degree of involvement with the new revolutionary movement just as the rows of ribbons and decorations above a soldier's left breast pocket told where he'd been and what he'd done.

The red, white and blue patriots wore their hair short and went clean shaven.
They dressed somewhat conservatively for the most part with only watches, rings and ID bracelets for jewelry. Whether they worked in a factory, gas station, department store or office, or if they attended NYU or UCLA, their conservative appearance was a trademark of their conformity. They made up most of the quiet group who went on with their lives awaiting their turn to be called.

Then there were the paisley patriots.
They were sincere in their disagreement with the direction that society and government were taking.
They grew their hair longer, dressed in worn out jeans and cords, tie-dyed T's and peasant shirts, ponchos and sandals. They rejected capitalism and adorned themselves with flowers, feathers, beads, headbands and earrings. They painted their cars, trucks and vans with murals of nature scenes and when they spoke to their adversaries, they talked about peace and love and everybody getting along with each other. They didn't much care how the rest of society viewed their lifestyle. It suited them and they were determined to maintain it.
They sometimes flocked together in communes where they grew their own subsistence in organic gardens and lived a life not unlike that of a religious sect. Some advocated the use of drugs, many practiced free love and all received the scorn and ridicule of the contemporary conservative establishment.

There was also a sizeable contingent of yellow patriots.
They included for the most part, those draft age baby-boomers and their girlfriends (and occasionally their parents) who had a good thing going for them. The only burden they carried was to maintain a grade point average that allowed them to keep their 2-S draft deferment. They had parents who could afford to provide them with a college education and a start in business after graduation.
They spent their vacations cruising the boulevards in their mom or dad supplied cars, looking for the ultimate party. If they had a part time or summer job it was to provide them with the pocket money they required to maintain an active social life. Admittedly, that was a lot to give up for two years in the army.
Pragmatic enough to realize that the good life they were living was the result of their parents' dedication to capitalism, they knew that they couldn't denounce capitalism without giving up all they were so anxious to retain.
Simply refusing to go would be cowardly and that wouldn't do either.
Responsibility had turned out to be a real bitch.
The solution was to juggle perspectives, redirect the focus and establish a different rational.
They justified their questionable positions with the honest rhetoric of the legitimate peace movement.
It wasn't the cars or money or social life that was the issue. It was noble opposition to an illegal, immoral and unjust war that motivated them.
And since the material items had nothing to do with it,they might as well hang on to them.
They were new to the morality shtick so in order to establish credibility they needed to educate themselves on the peace movement.
They went to rallies and demonstrations, adopted the clothing and hair styles, made friends among the movement's legitimate members and in a short time, a number of these reformed conservatives got an inside look at some of the fringe benefits.
Parties, sit-ins, shutting down school for days at a time, grass, drugs and free love.

Wow! It was one helluva lot better than a safety patrol badge.

This peace thing was a real blast.They couldn't wait to tell the others. It was unbelievable. It was fun. It eased the stress of responsibility. It was like belonging to something. It was all about rebellion and it had nothing whatsoever to do with peace.
This involvement of the self-serving suburban faction in the peace movement may have been the primary catalyst for the hostility that plowed up the meadow in the late '60s.

Their uninformed and mis-directed activities undermined the credibility of a large but unorganized group of true conscientious objectors who had a very real message that they wanted to deliver.
By exploiting the hedonistic values of drugs and free love while doing nothing in the cause of real peace, they alienated a segment of the conservative population who might otherwise have been persuaded to join hands with the legitimate peace movement and end the war through political action.

Another group were the red and blue patriots.
They had taken pure white values and cast them aside in an equally self-serving manner.
They were made up of those who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by prolonging the war for as long as possible.
They were the pro-war 4-F rejects who knew they would never be called but supported the war because it generated profits.
They claimed they would have gone; wanted to go but they were disqualified because of a bad back.
The fact remained that unless you were bent double, the only way a doctor could know you had a back problem was if you told him.
Others in this group were non-veterans with jobs in law enforcement, science or the defense industry who were deferred by occupation. They seemed to be the most vocal of the civilian pro-war faction and their credibility was as suspect as that of the yellow patriots.
There was one other important group whose contribution was so significant it may never be accurately measured. They were the volunteers who joined the military on their own because they felt it was the right thing to do. We all know what they did and what was done to them when they returned. For that reason I refer to them as the "Black and Blue" patriots.

Today after what a hopeful society likes to refer to as the healing years, the multi-colored patriots of the Baby-Boomer generation continue to peek at the flowers we have pressed between the pages of our inner diaries and consider what it was all about.
A lot of the paisley patriots are still looking for peace and living a hard but productive life.
Not surprisingly, some are living underground or on the run to avoid prosecution for excesses that might never have occurred if they hadn't embraced the yellow patriots.

Most yellow patriots have returned to the mainstream and reaped the profits of capitalism and the red and white patriots are still safe and comfortable and counting their money. They may have forgotten walking in the meadow but the rest of us remember. And if we forget for a while, we need only to dig through the box of keepsakes that each of us has accumulated over the years.

Somewhere among the old prom pictures, graduation tassels, sections of gum wrapper chains and trendy key-fobs is a symbol or memento that will bring back the scent of the Meadow.
It may be a string of love beads or a peace sign.
Perhaps it's an old concert ticket or "Woodstock" poster or a macrame headband. In some cases it may be a draft card or even a dog-tag. But it's in there. Go look for it. And when you find it, hold it. Close your eyes, remember what it meant and the Meadow will come back to life for a moment.
Walk through it more slowly and this time try to smell all of the flowers.
They each had their own special beauty.