The ‘60s must be remembered, but not so much for the wild party associated with that decade, as for the object lesson about the vulnerability of good intentions.
Despite the superficially happy circus, the yellow submarine in every garage, dark forces — greed, addiction, fundamentalisms of every stripe, and myriad other evils — exerted control.
The decade that began under the slogan “the Golden ‘60s,” served their purposes all too well.
There was some love, little peace and, eventually, Richard Nixon and Charles Manson.
Novelist Robert Stone was a major part of the happier happenings of that decade. He helped usher in the “counterculture” as a small part of Ken Kesey’s gang of inappropriately labelled “merry pranksters.”
He knew Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and other luminaries who are somehow associated with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. But Stone, at least, lived to tell the tale.
In novels like Dog Soldiers, Damascus Gate and Bay of Souls his protagonists bear burdens of dreams and preconceptions on a collision course with evil forces; his memoir, Prime Green, his first book-length work of nonfiction, pursues the theme.
In the 1950s Stone was better prepared to shed illusions than were many white American children.
For a boy raised by an impoverished single mother, the options were limited. The military, then as now, proved an opportunity for his class and situation.
“The Navy I’d joined contained many young men who had never seen a television set in a private home. I was one of them. I was also a New York boy; I had never owned a car and couldn’t drive.”
Being the astute writer he is, Stone provides a very simple, charming, and evocative synecdoche for the naiveté of the era: “One summer in 1955, a cook at the Naval Training Station, Bainbridge, Maryland, had the idea to serve the recruits pizza as a treat. He advertised it as pizza pie. Back where most of these men came from, pie was festively served with ice cream. Predictably, more than half of them put their ice cream on it.”
As a sailor, Stone saw the world, though experiencing it as a member of that world’s most powerful military machine, allowed him a somewhat lofty perspective.
During that time, he entertained vague dreams of becoming a writer, a reason for mustering into civilian life.
In the ensuing struggle to support a family, he had his nose pressed deep into dirty realities of the post-war dream.
“The first jobs I found were two temporary gigs on local assembly lines. Up until then I had missed out on the mass-production experience in America. First at an instant-coffee plant and then at a liquid-soap factory, I became acquainted with labour discipline as practiced mid-century.
“In both places people got fired as the day lengthened … At mezzanine level, a railed catwalk led to a small glass booth in which two observers watched the line below. One faced left, the other right.”
Over the course of the day, these minders would target workers who dared to whisper. As colleagues were fired, the other workers struggled to maintain production speed. It was a dehumanizing version of musical chairs.
When Stone tried to sell encyclopedias door to door, he was arrested as a possible civil rights agitator. He did however manage to make one sale, to a man who said, “You say you sure nothin’ in it about evolution or the mixing of races?”
Ah the enlightened ‘60s! They briefly appeared to herald an end to such darkness, but several forces pulled the rug out from under the many good intentions.
The primary destructive force was drugs. “It turned out that the lovely liberating drugs came out of the Stanford Research Institute too, funded by the CIA,” writes Stone. The substance that permanently psychedelicized a sorry segment of a promising generation was, in fact, developed as a weapon of the Cold War.
Recalling time spent with Kesey in Mexico, Stone writes: “From the start, I think, the authorities in the state of Colima understood there was more hemp than Heidegger at the root of our cerebration, and many of us had trouble distinguishing Being from Nothingness by three in the afternoon.”
In that state, how could decency triumph over the machinations of amoral corporations?
Stone has great sympathy and admiration for, Kesey, Ginsberg, and Kerouac. A faithful friend, he tends not to dwell on the fact that Ginsberg became a parody of himself in time, and his later poems slipped into shallow self-indulgence.
Handsome, talented, hard-working Kerouac, Stone admits, did sadly devolve into a booze-bloated reactionary. As for Stone’s pal Kesey, well the 20th century lost a great writer as the drugs took him over. Hunter S. Thompson destroyed his own gift in the same way.
And poor Neal Cassady, free spirit, prototypical beat, and, as Dean Moriarty, hero of that children’s classic On the Road. “Cassady in Manzanillo was extending his career as a literary character in other people’s work — Kerouac had used him, as would Kesey, Tom Wolfe and I.
“The persistent calling forth and reinventing of his existence was an exhausting process even for such an extraordinary mortal as Neal. Maybe it has earned him
the immortality he yearned for. It certainly seems to have shortened his life.”
Neal’s last years were spent performing stage tricks with a carpenter’s hammer. He died in the desert at age 41 in 1968.
Another destructive force was political extremism. The New Left’s pioneers bravely fought against segregation and war. But by the late ‘60s, those of us who hung around artsy bohemias were meeting a new sort of ‘politico’: young middle-class blabbermouths, self-professed Stalinists, Trotskyites and Maoists (whose hero was butchering his own people even as teenage Americans were lofting copies of his Little Red Book).
After performing their nasty little roles during the spectacle of ‘the revolution’ the majority of these punks likely went on to buy into gated communities and own BMWs.
“Like most people, I never trusted anyone who offered a formula that transcended the instincts of ordinary decency,” writes Stone.
The staggering debacle of the Vietnam War caused rifts in America and fueled some awfully foolish thinking and behaviour on both sides. The scars have yet to heal.
Infuriated and heart-broken as I was over the debacle taking place in Vietnam, I was also suspicious of those sophomoric Americans who wanted to include Ho Chi Minh in the ‘60s group hug. Stone felt something similar.
Troubled by the conflicting reports coming out of Vietnam, he decided to see that quagmire for himself. Landing in Saigon, he found dishonesty and demoralization all around him.
“(T)he North Vietnamese Army, briefly in control of Hue, treated the city and its inhabitants the way special Kommandos of the Totenkopf SS treated the average Byelorussian Shtetl,” he recalls.
The belatedly doveish North American press ignored that. To dwell on the genocide perpetrated by the North Vietnamese Army “would have been the occasion of moral confusion,” says a sadder and wiser Stone.
However, despite the vicious baby radicals, spaced-out baby boomers, and some self-indulgent art, I agree with Stone that ultimately the intentions of the era were good. If anti-intellectualism, drugs and absolutisms debilitated some of the best efforts, memorable steps were made toward a more equitable society.
“In some ways the world profited and will continue to profit by what we succeeded in doing,” says Stone.
By the late ‘60s many privileged westerners were finally able to admit that racism, sexism and homophobia thrived all around them, and that the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower had warned of, was a reality.
For a moment, many voices were raised in agreement: The world’s major democratic powers needed a serious course correction to fulfill their great potentials.
Yes, venal neo-cons resurged while many who came of age during the Summer of Love were regrouping their faculties and belatedly growing up. However, the best ideals celebrated during the ‘60s and have not been completely forgotten.
“We were the chief victims of our own mistakes,” says Stone. Prime Green is a message from the proverbial palace of wisdom that sits at the end of the road of excess. As long as the lessons are learned, there is hope.
Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, by Robert Stone, Harper Collins, 230 pages, $32.95 cloth