"America, where are you now? Don't you care about your sons and daughters? Don't you know we need you now? We can't fight alone against the Monster." -- Steppenwolf, "Monster"
This is a Florida Gators story, but no, it's not about football or academics. My Bulldog buddies can lighten up. But the University of Florida once was No. 1 in the South in one important department -- UF was the Berkeley of Dixie -- and memories make me proud.
Deep inside me, I know, but seldom admit, there is a core of nostalgia. It is often a curse and occasionally an ecstasy. Each period of my life replays in my head, like old videotapes that must be ritualistically viewed for reasons long ago forgotten, losing a little more definition with each peek at the past.
On one tape is my official history, my resume. It says I went to the University of Florida, got a degree in 1969, did some graduate work, wrote and edited for the Florida Alligator, was selected for several honor societies.
All true, and simultaneously all lacking a dimension of truth. I did those things, yes, but at the time, they weren't very important. The school, classes, football games, the student newspaper are shadows in my memories.
My real activities, those that mattered, were marching in an endless number of protests, cranking out antiwar and Civil Rights literature, organizing and occasionally leading a succession of groups, almost all banned by the university.
Southern Students Organizing Committee, the Student Peace Union, Student Mobilization Committee, Students for a Democratic Society -- SSOC, SPU, SMC, SDS. The volatile, fractious protest groups were the true fraternities of my college days.
The memories of Gainesville are recorded on a higher quality tape in my mind than many of my life's periods. The reality, the texture is bright and sharp, painfully so at times.
I often return to Gainesville -- reporting a story, seeing a brother who taught law there, watching a Gators game. I usually pause in my business to stroll out onto the Plaza of the Americas, the university's heart and hub, and its Hyde Park free speech zone. Many ghosts lurk on the patch of grass, cornered by old and new libraries, where I made and listened to speeches, where I sat at card tables handing out movement literature, where we gathered for rallies and marches.
A few years ago, students were having a merry protest at the plaza during one of my pilgrimages. It was familiar, and yet, not familiar. Gay students were having a "national out-of-the-closet day." I sat on the turf with a few kids, listening to speakers. The students were nicely organized, with a stage and a sound system, snappy T-shirts. I asked one of the leaders if he had ever used a bullhorn. In my day, a bullhorn and a mimeograph machine were the essential tools of protest. Impromptu demonstrations were chorused by chants crackling through the bullhorn ("One, two, three, four, we don't want your fucking war!" is as good today as then). And the ink-smeared mimeo za-swished-za-swished with its fire-up-the-masses leaflets ("Legal Harassment Continues at UF! Fight Political Repression!").
The gay student activist looked at me blankly. "Why?" he said. "The university furnishes the sound equipment." I sighed, "Times change. The administration wasn't quite so friendly when I was here." I was afraid to ask if he even knew what a mimeograph was.
"4 Students Killed in Kent State Riot," "Students Surround Miami Building," "Strike Forces ROTC to Cancel FSU Drill," "3,000 UF Students On Strike," "Shutdowns Hit Campuses as Demonstrations Mount"
-- Headlines from Florida Alligator, May 5-8, 1970
I am, I must conclude, just another aging radical, an avatar of a breed of middle-class firebrands who, credentialed only by our youth and idealism, and with incredible naivete and ineptitude, believed a rock-'n'-roll-driven revolution was just over the horizon.
When I trek to a protest nowadays -- the G-8 Summit in Brunswick, the School of Assassins at Fort Benning, or just the weekly antiwar gatherings at Peachtree and 14th streets -- I feel like an American Legion member watching young soldiers. I am a veteran, like John Kerry, of both the Navy and the antiwar movement, and I have affection for both.
Some of us began in the early 1960s as foot soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement. Others became radicalized by autocratic college administrations. Women rebelled not only against a male-dominated society but also against the rampant sexism of radical student leaders -- such as me. The gay movement first cracked the closet door in the late 1960s. The seeds of the environmental movement were planted. A hundred other causes, some decidedly weird, many confused, a few prophetic, pushed the youth of the '60s onto the streets armed with placards, adorned with peace symbols and love beads.
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