Good-bye To The Sixties

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The sixties ended for me one parents Day at a New England prep school. On that brilliant October morning 20 years ago, I sat in an oak-paneled classroom, one of a small group of adults holding the nervous gaze of a young history teacher. Sitting next to me was Joan Baez. Her hair was cut short; her clothes were dark, slightly artsy perhaps, but subdued. Could this be the heroine of the counter-culture defiant and pregnant at Woodstock? And could her child really be, with my daughter, a member of this history class? We smiled politely at each other, and I wanted to say, “How did this ever happen? How did we get from there to here? How can one lose such certainties?”

In Vermont, in 1969,1 was convinced that I was living in a world changed forever. Nothing I had grown up with mattered any more. We had entered a new era. Honey would always be unfiltered and bread whole grain. Making things—tables, stone walls, clothes, maple syrup—mattered; money and what it could buy did not. We grew vegetables. I baked bread and made goat-milk yogurt. Other people raised sheep and spun wool or kept bees and made honey. Our children swam naked in the pond and played with wooden toys in shapes merely suggestive of animals or trucks. I read Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing , A. S. Neill’s depiction of the famously progressive school that he had founded, and I thought that a move to England might achieve two goals: Summerhill for the baby and my young husband’s avoiding the draft.

Even though there was no TV reception in our Shangri-la, the war that raged in the jungles of Vietnam was very present. Discussions of deferments, resistance, C.O. status, and Canada lasted far into those long winter nights. Carloads drove to Washington for Pentagon marches. Those of us who had to stay behind with babies packed food for the marchers and waited for bulletins shouted over crackling pay-phone lines.

We didn’t have CDs, of course, just a record player and a very few records. The Beatles, naturally. Bob Dylan. But the voice I remember, the descant to those years, belonged to Joan Baez. I first heard it in the coffeehouses of Cambridge when I was a student in the early 1960s. By 1969 her songs had changed. No longer laments for lost loves, blood feuds, and mortal wounds, they were ballads of protest that gave shape to a new order. We would overcome, she sang, alone, the crystalline voice uncompromised, accompanied only by the chords of an acoustic guitar.

By that October day, a decade and a half after Woodstock, very few of the people I had known in Vermont lived there still. I rarely made bread, although my daughter’s vegetarianism had sent me back to Diet for a Small Planet . I knew a few artists, but no one who made furniture or wove blankets. Certainly the parents in that classroom were people who made money—and so, finally, was Joan Baez. And so too, in a small way, was I. At least I had a regular job. Now here we were sending those “free children” to a school as conservative as its saint’s name would suggest, a school built on principles we had once derided. What did it prove except that the certainties of the sixties were no more durable than those of any era? The only constant, it’s said, is change. And maybe that should be a comfort.