It is the fall of 1967. My father’s new job with the Hoover Ball & Bearing Co. takes our family from the Chicago suburbs to Ann Arbor, Michigan. The move means moving to a university town as liberal and lively as suburban Elmhurst is sloth-like and conservative. My two years in Michigan will open my eyes to a new way of looking at the world.
But for a shy 14-year-old the move is not easy. The first minor trauma involves leaving my freshman year in high school and returning to junior high school. Entering a new school mid-year, I am the odd boy out, lost in a crowd of new faces and crucified daily on the rickety altar of my adolescent insecurities. Lonely, these first weeks in Michigan I am inclined to exaggerate the significance of every small kindness. My first week at Slauson Junior High a girl in my new homeroom class flirtatiously runs her hand through my hair before class. “I like your haircut,” she says dramatically. The unexpected notice leaves me quietly elated, as if her casual attention represents a reprieve from the terminal diagnosis of this place. The second week I am introduced to a girl named Tracy, who instantly strikes me as the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. The daughter of my father’s new boss introduces us outside the lunchroom.
Unfortunately, the presence of a girl like Tracy inspires in me not clever banter, but paralyzing ineptness. Tracy asks me how I like Ann Arbor so far. “It seems like a nice place,” I reply, explaining that my father’s new job has brought us here. “Well, it must be hard to move during the school year,” she says, smiling. “I hope you like it here.” I want to say something witty or charming, but manage only to mutter a few more words about Ann Arbor being—what is the word?—interesting. When it is clear I have nothing else to say, Tracy just smiles again and then she is gone. I will spend the rest of that shy, lonely year with a secret crush on this girl, the epitome of cool, collected, and popular as far as I am concerned.
Decades later I discover that Tracy has become a well-known children’s book illustrator and artist. I write to her and share my memory her and those days at Slauson. She writes back appreciatively, but also recalls how personally difficult her memories were of that time in her life. The lesson of which is perhaps not only how little surface impressions may reveal a person’s real story, but also that it can this smooth operator up to 35 years to tell a girl that he likes her.
Despite being athletically inclined, I am only slightly more at ease in the sports world than I am with girls. I try out for Slauson’s ninth grade wrestling team, which proves to be one of those euphemistic “learning experiences” we would all rather do without. For what I learn is only how much I hate wrestling. The matches are three minutes of grotesque agony, to be then followed by utter exhaustion. As far as I am concerned misery pervades everything to do with this cursed sport. Once our coach comes up with the brilliant idea to crank up the heat in the gym during practice while we run sprints carrying a larger teammate on our backs. I find myself staggering awkwardly back and forth across the gym floor, weighed down by the heat and 170 pounds belonging to someone else. I must look more like some inebriated old man on his way home from the tavern than the impressive athlete I aspire to be. Typically, the end of practice finds me collapsed on a locker room bench, lying in a stupor before eventually dragging myself to the showers. One of the team’s best wrestlers is also in my weight division, which means I suffer through this routine for weeks without competing in even a single meet.
Growing up in the sixties is not exactly all about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. But life in Ann Arbor does offer my tentative introduction to all three. For this much credit goes to my new friend Bobby, an older neighbor whose family shares a backyard border with ours. Bobby is the oldest of four children, with a mother from the Philippines and a father who is a University of Michigan physics professor from England. In my eyes Bobby is a kind of wunderkind adventurer who knows all about music and girls and has cool friends and seemingly few doubts about anything. Our first year in Ann Arbor I spend many hours at Bobby’s house listening to Jimi Hendrix and Michael Bloomfield records, or local Michigan rock bands like SRC and the Frost. One evening Bobby excitedly introduces me to a new song by a local Ann Arbor band called the MC5. The song is called, “Kick Out the Jams,” and it begins with the singer shouting, “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” At the time we both find this to be an extraordinarily profound cultural statement. These are not exactly our parents’ Perry Como records.
A few months after our move to Michigan, Bobby claims the dubious honor of introducing me to marijuana. Or, I should say, Bobby introduces me to the experience of watching someone else smoke marijuana, get sick, and then vomit into the kitchen sink. This happens one Saturday night while Bobby’s family is out for the evening. I am ostensibly invited over to listen to music, but when I arrive it quickly becomes apparent tonight’s entertainment will be more illegal than musical. I have no experience with marijuana and no desire to participate. Not yet, at least. Instead, I just observe as my friend lights a joint in the kitchen, cracks open the sliding glass door and then stands by the door taking deep breathes on the cigarette. It is the middle of winter and freezing outside so Bobby keeps opening and closing the door, using a magazine to fan the air while the door is open. It doesn’t take long before the effects of the marijuana become apparent.
Bobby is by nature talkative, but under the influence he turns into an animatron of relentless chatter. While I mostly just listen, Bobby prattles on about girls he is crazy about and nuns at his school who are just crazy and different ways guys had gotten out of the draft and how if you eat dozens of bananas before your military physical it throws off your potassium level and then the government doesn’t want you. This segues into the topic of how you can blow up LP records by sticking small firecrackers in them and whipping them into the air like a Frisbee (later, we try this); and how Jimi Hendrix can play the guitar with his teeth and did I know that the Beatles use LSD (what’s that?). The fever of words is punctuated by moments of silence in which Bobby closes his eyes, suddenly lost in apparent deep thought. Within moments the silence is broken by hysterical laughter at nothing in particular. It is all fascinating and a little scary and I am just starting to think Bobby is having a lot more fun than I am when suddenly he jumps up from the kitchen table and lurches over to the sink and vomits. This shocks me, but in my naiveté I just assume that people routinely throw up when smoking marijuana. It doesn’t occur to me until later that Bobby has earlier also been partaking of his parents’ liquor supply.
I do a lot of growing up in Ann Arbor.
At the age of 15 my friendship with Bobby leads to my first opportunity to kiss a girl. This historic moment occurs one evening at a pool party at the home of one of Bobby’s friends, a girl from the Catholic high school they both attend. It is the middle of winter and our destination is an impressive home with an indoor pool in the hills north of downtown. Bobby is a year older than I and already in possession of that most coveted teenage possession—a driver’s license. He calls me early one Friday evening to see if I want to join him at the party. It is a last-minute invitation, but I am game and swim suit in hand I am soon out the door. When we arrive Bobby’s school friends, none of whom I know, are already there. I quickly ascertain that Bobby’s invitation is motivated by mathematics as much as friendship. With me tagging along, the group now comprises four boys and four girls. We all swim in the heated pool for a while, but it doesn’t take long before the real purpose of the gathering becomes clear. While we dry off our host puts some music on, which causes Bobby to make a big show of running over to the girl he likes and grabbing her hand to dance with him. He isn’t really dancing as much as showing off, making all these exaggerated moves that has everyone laughing. With equal flair, Bobby suddenly takes the girl in his arms and kisses her. Without breaking their embrace, the two move a few feet over and slink down in unison onto one of the pool chairs. There the make-out session begins in earnest. As if on cue, the other two couples begin to do likewise.
Suddenly, all the talking and laughter give way to the reality of the percolating teenage hormones in the air. I find myself sitting awkwardly now with the poor girl I have just met, wondering if I should follow suit like the others. Her name is Karen and she is 16 with long brown hair and that is exactly everything I know about her. She looks at me nervously, but also expectantly. I don’t want to just sit there like an oaf, and so, clumsily, I kiss her. She responds and I kiss her again. The experiment is underway. Unfortunately, my concept of kissing involves some crude notion of dramatically puckering your lips, inspired no doubt from watching too much bad television. I would like to envision myself an aspiring Clark Gable acting out a scene from Gone With the Wind, but Karen’s slightly bewildered look makes it clear this is not exactly a Scarlet O’Hara moment for her. Thankfully, the debacle doesn’t last long. Bobby’s friend soon announces we all have to leave since her parents will be home soon. Karen smiles and touches my hand. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all.
On the drive home Bobby is in an exultant mood, but I am more circumspect. When I kiss a girl I would prefer that it happen naturally, with someone I know, and not be thrust upon me as an awkward sideshow to someone else’s overheated agenda. I don’t share this thought with Bobby, who likely would be aghast at my oversensitive notions on such matters. Still, there is something to this kissing girls thing, I think. I will have to work on that.
As displaced as I feel during those first months in Ann Arbor, I love being in a college town. There are record shops and hip clothing stores, football games and young people everywhere. Our first spring in Michigan I wander and explore the downtown and nearby University of Michigan campus with great interest. I especially enjoy browsing the Discount Records store on State Street with its longhaired clerks and bins of long-playing albums. I eagerly scrutinize music by groups with strange names like Vanilla Fudge and the Mothers of Invention. There is even a section of British import albums unavailable anywhere else in town. But I usually don’t have much money so my record collection is small and carefully selected.
One Saturday afternoon in late March, Dad drops me off downtown with plans to pick me up in a couple hours. The weather is warm for the time of year and I look forward to the time to myself. Unexpectedly, Dad pulls an extra $10 from his wallet and gives it to me. My first thought is to look for some music to buy. Near the Michigan Theater is a traditional record shop, the type with listening booths and a middle-aged owner who when you enter the store always tells you about some new album he thinks you might like. If you show any interest, he will offer to play it for you on the store speakers, or you can listen in one of the private listening booths. I decid to stop in and immediately the owner is pitching a new album just in from a group called the Lemon Pipers. They have a hit song, Green Tambourine. But I am not interested. At this juncture in my life the Lemon Pipers are strictly grade school.
A short while later I walk down the street to Discount Records. There no one tells you about new albums. There are just too many. Nor are the clerks middle-aged men, but college students or hippie types just a few years older. I decide to use my extra cash to buy The Who Sell Out album, an album that will prove a favorite and over the years earn an indelible association with this time in my life. On the way out I browse the free reading material on the rack at the front of the store, grabbing a flyer from a campus peace group that calls for an end to the Vietnam War. I know a little about the war protests, but have never actually read anything by a peace group. Standing outside on the sidewalk, I read the flyer with great interest.
I want to know more.
Unbeknownst to my parents, Ann Arbor is a lively outpost of the 1960s youth counterculture. These are days of new ideas and for myself a time to discover the power of ideas and idealism. This passion for education is given impetus by the Vietnam War, which troubles me deeply. There is evidence of the sickening violence everywhere. I see the magazine photos of soldiers with bandaged heads, their muddied clothes and weary faces betraying the official reports that the war is going well. I see the photos of anguished Vietnamese refugees fleeing the fighting, carrying their babies and belongings along uncertain roads toward even more uncertain futures. There is the recent photo in the news of South Vietnam’s police chief executing a captured Viet Cong on the streets of Saigon. The photo’s shocking image stays with me.
In response, I begin to study history and politics with the same passion I used to reserve for Strat-O-Matic baseball, backyard astronomy, and other childhood joys. My trust in the older generation’s inherent wisdom is on a slow crash and burn. The old-fashioned notion I grew up with of America as “the greatest country in the world” begins to give way to a more critical, restless, and uncompromising way of thinking. For a debate in sophomore English class on the military draft, which I oppose, I read Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, contact a coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee for information, and ponder what I will do if drafted. The elderly man from the Friends committee whose doorbell I ring sees my mother waiting in the car and asks if she is my “wife.” When I tell him I am only 15, he just laughs.
After the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, my sense of hope for the world takes a nosedive. The subsequent riots in nearby Detroit turns my father a little crazy when he comes home with a rifle he has just bought. The following conversation then ensues between my parents.
Mom: “What is that for? Why do you have a rifle?”
Dad: “There’s rioting in Detroit. I want you to learn how to use this when I’m not here.”
Mom: “What? Are you kidding? I’m not going to shoot that!”
Dad: “You don’t have to shoot it. You just have to point it. Anybody who sees a nervous woman pointing a rifle at them is going to get out of here fast.”
Mom: “I’m not going to point that thing at anybody. You’re crazy!”
He is not crazy, but my father is a white, middle-class businessman, a Mormon Republican from Utah. Like many white people, he sees Dr. King as a “troublemaker.” However, I have never heard him use racist language. His own Mormon parents are liberal Democrats and not racist as far as I know. If Dad is prone to moments of conservative thick-headedness, he is not by nature vindictive or hateful. My mother’s reaction to his rifle purchase quickly brinks him to his senses. With a little reflection he realizes the likelihood that the Angry Black Masses are going to storm Delaware Street in Ann Arbor are remote. Dad gets rid of the rifle.
I react differently to Dr. King’s murder. The upheaval that follows evokes only sympathy on my part for the rage and grievances of the Black community. Among my few acquaintances at Slauson is a Black student named Fred whose family has also only recently moved to Ann Arbor. Fred and I are in gym class together, and since neither he nor I have many friends we sometimes eat lunch together. But after King’s murder, Fred’s demeanor changes. He begins hanging out only with other Black students. Our budding friendship evaporates in the heat and conflict of our times.
I understand even then this is not just a personal problem.
In the summer of 1968, Dad buys a pontoon-style motorboat and we learn to water ski at a nearby lake. The lake puts my father a light-hearted mood and it is then that I feel closer to him. Once while skiing he puts the tow-rope around his head and holds his arms out as if to say, “Look, no hands.” I am driving the boat and Mom waves her hands disapprovingly at him to cut out the hi-jinks. But toward the end of summer, Chicago erupts in riots during the Democratic Party Convention. Despite evidence that Mayor Daley’s police instigated their own riot against citizens, Dad blames the “hippie protesters” for all the trouble. Watching the TV news, he makes comments about how the student marchers are only encouraging “our enemies” while we were at war. They have the right to their views, he says, but they should wait until the war is over to debate whether our government was right or wrong about Vietnam. For the first time I challenge him. “What good does that do, Dad?,” I ask him. “So we’re all supposed to sit around and wait until the war is over before we say we disagree with it? People are dying now!” With unfamiliar defiance, I tell my father that if he believes what he has just said then he doesn’t really believe in democracy. Uncharacteristically, he responds quietly that I have a lot to learn. Then he gets up and leaves the room.
Everything is changing.
As big as I am on ideas, I am in other ways still just a kid. One evening Dad gives in to my repeated request that I be allowed to smoke a pipe. He gives me his knowing that 15 or 20 minutes of pipe smoking for an inexperienced teenager will likely lead to nausea or worse. It does. I feel weak and nauseated and never smoke again, which, of course, is Dad’s intention. It is also his intention shortly after to have the required “birds and the bees” talk with me. I already know anything he could possibly tell me, I figure, so I am irritated when he broaches the subject one Saturday afternoon on the back patio. I deflect his every inquiry as to my exact knowledge until finally he gets fed up and tells me to just shut up and listen. He then quickly goes through the ABCs of sex. I feign attentiveness, nodding my head and looking pensive and thoughtful at just the right moments. But inside my thoughts are less patient. Does my father really think at the age of 16 I don’t know how babies are made?
But Dad has his reasons for “the talk.” Her name is Corrine and she is a student at the local Catholic high school. She is my first real date. Bobby knows her older sister and introduces us early in the summer of 1968. We do things like climb the stairs at Burton Tower and eat grilled cheese sandwiches at a downtown diner. We see the Mel Brooks movie The Producers at the Michigan Theater. Corrine lives in a modest house on the east side with her mother, older sister, and brother. She is a friendly, flirtatious girl, but I sense an underlying sadness about her. I learn from Bobby that her father committed suicide a few years ago. This is unsettling news, but I never ask her about it. Instead, I find myself quietly pondering what it all means, if anything.
On our next date a feeling of sympathy for Corrine moves me to impulsively kiss her while we wait to cross a downtown intersection. She looks surprised and smiles, but says nothing. Later, she leans her head against my shoulder during the movie. This sense of closeness to a girl is a new feeling. A good feeling. I put my arm around her and we laugh together during the movie. But Corrine will soon teach me the meaning of the term “summer romance.” After the school year begins, I get the cold shoulder from her at her school’s first football game. She is now interested in a player on the school team, Bobby informs me matter-of-factly.
He acts as if it is nothing.
On my 16th birthday in 1969, I acquire my driver’s license. I am banging on the door of adulthood, eager to take my place in a beckoning new world. As far as I am concerned the first manned moon landing of that same year pales next to this momentous accomplishment. I celebrate accordingly by immediately cruising Interstate 94 with a school friend at 105 miles per hour. We are in the family station wagon and only slow down when the car begins to shake. We are reckless, stupid fools and happy as birds. Fortunately, I never drive anywhere near that fast again.
I spend more time reading. “We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system,” wrote Thoreau in his famous civil disobedience essay. These ideas have a strong impact on me, leading me to declare myself a pacifist. Growing up in the shadow of the Vietnam War, Thoreau’s ideas strike me as about as pure and uncorrupted as any. I do not want to make peace with society’s many injustices. I do not want to compromise. It is a sense of conviction that will in time only grow stronger. As a child, my father had always been my North Star, a luminous presence who filled my world with a sense of possibility and promise. Now, as a teenager beginning to question the world, I no longer see him or his generation in the same light. I am growing into a young man who wants to set a match to society’s whole rotten edifice of violence and injustice. The little fifth grade boy, who used to play third base in Little League baseball, so proud in his baseball uniform, casting sideways glances to see if his father is watching from the stands, is now emerging into ideas of his own. He is growing into a son his father struggles to understand.
I only want to change the world.