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Time Travel Part II: Take a sad song, and make it better

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Look back 50 years to 1972. The Vietnam War had spread to Cambodia, the US was bombing the jungles with the toxic defoliant Agent Orange, the Cold War with the Soviet Union meant the world was under the constant threat of MAD (mutually assured destruction). It was the era of Watergate, student protests, black power, and the birth of the modern feminist movement.

The first Earth Day was in 1970, with the iconic first image of the Earth from Space on the cover of The Whole Earth Catalogue. “1968” was a symbol of global change, and not just a year on the calendar. In the background, rock music building on the blues, which had come out of slavery and the work songs on the plantations.

As Canadian Gordon Lightfoot sang, “Motor City’s burnin’,” his apartment in Toronto was the hangout for other genius songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. It was a time of change. The counterculture was emerging and it promised a brighter, cleaner, fairer inclusive world.

These days we seem to be going backwards, all that progress slipping away. Populists, dictators, and tyrants of all stripes wield power across the ideological spectrum. They have a simplistic solution to every problem, mostly blaming others, while we ignore global warming and other consequences of destroying the biosphere – Covid included.

How did this happen?

Recently, I made a trip back in time. Let’s see what patterns emerge.

For the 200 years when the British Empire dominated the globe, “public schools” like Eton and Harrow helped to send a wealthy elite to the far-flung outposts of empire. These young men – it was almost exclusively a male occupation, in more ways than one — had gone to universities like Oxford and Cambridge or had military training, or both. As the ancient Persians knew, running an empire required lots of skill and organization.

In the 19th century this model was replicated in the New World. I know. Fifty years ago, I graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. With only about 500 students, it is a world unto itself.

St. Paul’s is a sort of mini-Harvard for teenagers, with brick buildings set amid lawns, ponds, fields, and forests – rigorous academics and a competitive sports regime. I was an international student, although not as foreign as those from more exotic locates like France, Germany, and Japan.

My parents dropped me off at the school one hot afternoon in September 1968 and I carried my gear upstairs to the top floor of Simpson House, part of the “quad” for third formers. Rock music blared from several open windows.

I didn’t know it then, but the school was to transform radically over the next three years, almost leaping ahead from its nineteenth century origins to “1968,” that mythical year that set the stage for decades of reforms that seemed inevitable — until now.

Those first months I felt like a stranger in a strange land, but so did almost everyone else. Certainly, the black guys did. Most of them were from “inner cities,” where somehow their parents or someone in their world had encouraged their love of learning. Most benefited from a generous scholarship program, as did I.

But the guys from well-off neighborhoods in New York, Boston, and San Francisco also felt out of place. Those years were a strange trip for everyone including the teachers, administration, and staff. We were all in it together.

In the 1960s and 70s, the school was infiltrated by turmoil from the greater world: the war, protests, social change, drugs. At first, the traditions held: coats and ties, chapel six days a week, no long hair, no smoking, and certainly none of the drugs that were part of the counter-cultural experience.

One crack in the edifice: the first girls arrived. The class ahead of mine reflected that turbulent time. About half did not graduate. They were either expelled or dropped out. Yet somehow the school did adapt. Some of the core traditions survived. That was a good thing.

In class we talked about ethics and the history of civilizations, plural. The Old Testament as history. The epics of gods and heroes striding the earth. Gilgamesh. Hammurabi’s “an eye for an eye,” which was an advance for the primitive ethics of the time. You had to think on your feet and respect others even if you disagreed with them. That is fast becoming a lost art.

Discussing Shakespeare after an afternoon of rowing in the spring heat, I learned that the bard was a cagey observer of a tumultuous time. Disagree overtly with the monarch, for example, and you could face the Tower and execution. The fact that our teacher was a “shell-shocked” war vet gave him an extra cachet, at least in my eyes.

Now, in June of 2022, Donna and I are driving south through New Hampshire, on our first post-Covid lockdown trip. I ask myself how best to deliver a short tribute to my late friend Joe. Classmates like Joe had fallen off the curve in a predictable mathematical pattern. Someone had plotted the graph.

On campus, Donna and I half jog up a slight incline to Sheldon, the former library built of grey stone. That a half century has passed is unimaginable, a sort of “missing time” as they say in alien abduction stories. Back then, those alumni at the reunions looked ancient, ravaged by time. Surely, we would never end up like that. Death seemed a more respectable outcome.

A statue of an American soldier from the Spanish American War overlooks the pond, atop a plaque listing the alumni who died in that war. Who remembers that now?

In this library I discovered an early copy of Setting Free the Bears, the debut novel by John Irving. The protagonist was a young American living in Vienna who liked to visit the zoo and became attached to the bears who were trapped in their small cages. He hatched a plan to free the bears. Today environmentalists lobby for more space for large animals, and sometimes get it.

But we’re back to hunting wolves in Yellowstone National Park, while global warming spreads southern species into Canada: ticks bearing Lyme disease and other ailments (I know, I had it twice), zebra mussels that clog the waterways, tiny parasites that kill huge mammals like moose, and trees dying from southern insects spreading north.

Irving’s star rose quickly. A few years later, The World According to Garp dove into the restricted second-class world of women, and even had a major transgender character. Like most great fiction writers, he writes about injustice and prejudice, how those in power keep the rest of us in our place.

John, the retired medical researcher and president of our class, stands at the top of Sheldon’s outdoor steps, beside the bishop, and Bob, a venture capitalist. John reads out the names of our classmates who have died. Graeme and I talk briefly about Joe, a legend in our class. Graeme is a music professor whose favorite instruments are the piano and the banjo, although he will play anything that is not tied down.

Joe turned me on to the I Ching, the Nonsuch recordings of classical music, and Pink Floyd and jazz. His quick pen sketches created worlds. He put his original stamp on everything he touched. In the 1990s you might have thought bowling was uncool, but Joe and his friends were into it, not just the social scene but the technique as well. Most of all, Joe was funny.

After Columbia he stayed in New York City where he jogged and swam. Then, during his last school reunion, in 1998, Joe was between chemo treatments for lymphoma. While he had been HIV positive for decades, he did not have AIDS. He had his final treatment a short while later. Then the cancer came back, and he died soon after. The list of the deceased was a reminder of the importance of luck, as well as lifestyle. Death comes for us all, so let’s enjoy the journey.

That evening, we enter the dining hall of the Upper School. It’s like stepping into Hogwarts. Paintings of former rectors line the walls. The rector is the head of school, although the term has taken on a secular ring. This rector, the first permanent woman in that role, gives a talk.

She played varsity hockey at Harvard. Like the English schools, St. Paul’s has a long tradition with sports, with layers of club teams as well as junior varsity and varsity. Some of the varsity games with other schools were fast-paced entertainment, especially hockey, basketball, and field lacrosse.

It is dark when Donna and I walk back to our car with Al and his wife. Al played the harp at school. This is the ultimate blues instrument, small and cheap, but skilled players like Sonny Terry can evoke the howl of wolves and the clatter of trains as you learn about love and loss, with the savage background of slavery in the background.

Here’s the timeless antiwar song Down by the Riverside:

Gonna lay down my sword and shield

Down by the riverside

Down by the riverside

Down by the riverside

Gonna lay down my sword and shield

Down by the riverside

Ain’t gonna study war no more.

In the morning we attend the service at the New Chapel, highlighted by the choir, soloist, and organ. Afterwards, I speak to a man who in his off hours is working on a national gun control initiative. Welcome to the United States of America.

Lunch is in the rink. Terrible acoustics but space for the formal photographs, form by form. John Kerry, Vietnam vet, antiwar protestor, senator and presidential candidate, stands in line for his class picture. I saw him give a talk in the Hargate Art Center back in the day. I would like to talk to him. Let’s go, says Katherine, jumping up.

Long before he was elected a United States senator, John Kerry stood before a U.S. Senate committee, speaking on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He cited an investigation that resulted in over 150 veterans testifying to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. “Not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command,” he told the committee.

The testimonies were filled with horrific accounts of what their country, in a sense, had made them do, Kerry said. “And by sending its men overseas to commit these crimes, America had created a monster.” Most of the Vietnamese villagers, in contrast, didn’t know the difference between communism and democracy, and didn’t care.

Kerry remembers that talk at the school in 1970. He played varsity hockey on the same line as Robert Mueller, another vet, who led the investigation into President Trump.

Back inside I speak to a woman in my class who had been one of the first girls to attend the school. She recalled how she had dysentery after trekking in India and often had to seek out a washroom, but the school had not designated many for the girls. They were still a novelty. It took a few years, but girls are now at the top of academics and athletics.

Now all that progress is in doubt. Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the US Supreme Court, part of a global backlash against the rights of women and other progressive causes that so many fought for in the 1060s and 70s. In many countries, Canada included, it’s less safe to be black, Muslim, Asian – or female — than it was 10 years ago.

Tinpot dictator Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine and disrupted Europe and the global supply chain of oil and wheat, a major factor in the rout of global inflation. Women are very second class in Russia. In the United States, “freedom” has become just another word for carrying an assault weapon. The same movement took over the capital of Canada for more than a month. The environment we leave for our children and grandchildren is a hot mess.

Fifty years ago, we thought the plane of history was angled up, taking us out of the murky past where might meant right, and kings, dictators and robber barons all spoke the same lingo. We were wrong. Nothing in this world is guaranteed. These are global issues. They will be decided one vote, one action or one inaction, at a time. It’s our world. Let’s make it better.

If you enjoyed this article check out Time Travel: Part I – The return of 1968.

David Holt is the editor of Silver Magazine.

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