Authors: Lisa Michaels
First Mariner Books edition 1999
Copyright Â© 1998 by Lisa Michaels
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For information about permission to reproduce
selections from this book, write to
Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Split: a counterculture childhood / Lisa Michaels
1. Michaels, LisaâChildhood and youth.
2. Authors, AmericanâCaliforniaâBiography.
3. HippiesâCaliforniaâBiography. 4. Subculture
âCaliforniaâHistoryâ 20th century.
5. Communal livingâCaliforniaâHistoryâ
20th century. 6. CaliforniaâBiography. I. Title.
] âdc21 98-11867
Printed in the United States of America
Book design by Robert Overholtzer
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
The poem "The Burden of Protest" is reprinted
with permission from
Copyright Â© Time Inc.
For my sisters and my brother
My thanks to Mauricio Schabes for his easy companionship, to Leslie Jonath and Bill Hayes, who took time away from their own writing to read drafts, and to Ann Lewis and Bernard Cooper for long-distance moral support. Dawn Seferian, Andrew Wylie, and, in particular, Sarah Chalfant had faith in this project from the beginning, for which I am amazed and grateful. Carl Walesa gave the manuscript a careful once-over. William Lung and Jin Auh helped with countless details. To Wendy Lesser I owe a debt that I can't repay. This book would not have been possible without her.
FEW YEARS AGO,
when I was visiting New York, my Grandma Leila (the archivist of the family) produced a pristine copy of
magazine, dated November 21, 1969: the day I turned three. Johnny Cash is on the cover, playing acoustic guitar in front of the massive wheels of a freight train, steam gusting up around his waist. He has one pointy boot poised on the edge of a railroad tie, and a silver lamÃ© scarf glitters at his neck: "The Rough-Cut King of Country Music," the headline reads. Inside is an article on Jesse Jacksonâ"black hope, white hope"âand photographs of Dr. Elisabeth KÃ¼bler-Ross's first seminar on death and dying, in which a beautiful young woman talks about her leukemia while health care workers weep behind a two-way mirror. It is a sampling of the times, but that wasn't why my grandmother saved it for twenty-five years.
On the last page of the issue, under the heading "Parting Shots," is a picture of me just shy of three, carrying an unfurled Vietcong flag across a patch of trampled grass. At the top of the frame, the flag bisects the body of a man, leaving a diagonal of rumpled coat, one arm stuffed into a pocket. Long, bottle-nosed cars are parked on the street behind him, bleached white by the glare. What looks to be cold autumnal light shines through the flagâtwo silky panels with a star in the centerâand lifts a white corona around the edges of my head. I look highly serious, hunched over to counter the weight of the long pole, wearing a short dress and little brown work boots: a pintsize protester, trudging along, head down, my chin slung forward in concentration.
The editors at
wrote a poem to go with the picture, which they called "The Burden of Protest":
Is toting a Vietcong flag
In a war demonstration the bag
Of a child or a parent?
We'd say someone's errantâ
This kid should be off playing tag.
It's a smarmy piece of copyânever a good idea to take the moral high ground in a limerick. Notably, the poem took a potshot at my mother, who to the editor's mind was conspicuously absent, having loaded me up with my ideological burden and disappeared.
But my mother says she was there that day, and the picture lied: I had picked up the flag on my own. She can almost recite the doggerel from memory. "That poem was a criticism of my parenting," she said once with a laugh. "Some mothers worried about stuff going on at those rallies, but me, a nice girl from the suburbs, I was a trusting soul. I came to pick you up from your dad and there you were dancing around with that flag. Your dressâyou can't see this from the picture because it's black-and-whiteâwas red velvet, a real thick velvet, and some part of the flag was red and you looked gorgeous. They found one shot where you seem burdened, but really you were having a blast. And the photographer knew it."
The first time I saw this picture was in my father's house. I must have been eight or so. He had trimmed away the offending poem, framed the photo in mat board, and typed his own caption. I can't reconstruct his text entire, because the picture was lost in some move, but his final line sticks in my head: "Could it be that at three you caught the spirit of the worldwide movement for socialism, and shouted, 'Hey, everybody, wait for me!'"
Clearly, he had caught the spirit. I imagine that at three I measured the world on more intimate terms: my father was the sun; my mother was the moon. Years later when I looked at my father's handiwork, hung in the living room, the site of many a strategy meeting and leaflet-folding session, I felt a mixture of pride and pique. I was the treasured one, matted and reframed. But his gaze fell on me at an odd angle. That caption says much about what my father wanted me to be: a comrade, a willing enthusiast for the work to be done.
But caption or no caption, looking at that picture now takes my breath away. November 21, 1969. Two months earlier, my father carried that same flag into the Harvard Center for International Affairsâan organization that did counterinsurgency research for the governmentâand along with twenty of his fellow Weathermen ran through the building, dumping over filing cabinets, breaking windows, and tearing out phones. In the tumult, blows were exchanged between protesters and staff. Two months after the picture was snapped my father would be in prison. When I swung that flag across Boston Common, it was a swath of fabric to me, nothing more. I waved it over the sunlit grass in a calm between emergencies, one sock up, one down, oblivious to what was to come.
I told my mother the story of my father's caption, nearly thirty years after their divorce, and she laughed with a rueful note of recognition. Still, I was surprised that she didn't leap at the chance to peg him. Instead, her laughter wound down to a sigh: "Well, I suppose my reading is just as suspect. So Pollyan-naish: the sun was shining; you were the perfect child." And it's true, out of the tangle of the past my mother preserves mostly primary colors, the quality of the light, my power and exuberance. Even though she knew that in those months my father was anxiously preparing for his trial, that she was planning to pack up and head for Mexico, that our lives were about to fly apart.
My parents met at Cornell in 1962, on a grassy slope overlooking Lake Cayuga. My father, a junior, was a fitful student; my mother was a freshman, thrilled to be taking up the scholar's life. When I asked her what she thought of him that first day, she squinted off into the distance, choosing each word carefullyâ"lean, intense and witty, sparkly-eyed, charming." She wore her hair shoulder length, bobbed up like a Ronette, her eyes rimmed with black liner. And the clothes? "I think we wore skirts, for crying out loud. Short skirtsâabove our knees." I wanted to see how they looked, what they wore, but my mother would rather describe the surroundings: the big drop down from Cornell to the lake, a narrow band of silver visible through the trees, the magnolia in the library courtyard that scented the air at that time of year.
My father invited her to see a musical at the playhouse. It was
and at the memory of it she started into one of the songs, something I'd heard her sing when I was a child, never understanding the reverence that came over her as she sang the maudlin lyrics. "Do you remember that kind of September when days were long and oh so mellow?" It was a love story, of course, and when they came out and walked through the darkened campus, my mother and father stopped on a wooden bridge, one of many that spanned the hillside's narrow gorges. The water rushed through granite pools below them, and over the white roaring they spoke perhaps too intimately for people who had met only that afternoon. It didn't seem odd to them. "I was aware of this immense electric energy between us," my mother said.
"You don't know," my father told me once, "how stunning your mother was. I was in the Jewish fraternity, and we used to sit around with the yearbook looking at the incoming freshman girls. She was a knockout."
I came across that yearbook picture in a family album when I was still a gawky schoolgirl. It's a three-quarter profile shot, my mother's thick straight hair spilling over one shoulder and beyond the frame, her long nose and smooth forehead catching the light.
"You were so pretty!" I told her, unaware of how I bungled the compliment with the past tense.
My mother bent over me, studying the photo as if it were of some other girl, someone she knew once and with whom she had long since lost touch.
As my mother tells it, she and my father were rarely apart in that first year. She helped him with his homework, and they spent many long nights exchanging storiesâthe way all lovers talk in the beginning, I suppose, with the kind of eloquence that passion allows. It wasn't all directed inward. That spring, in Michigan, SDS released its Port Huron Statement, and at the same time word was beginning to filter up from the South about the protests there, tales of sit-ins and marches and lynchings. It seemed that all around them, on the lawns and in the ivy-covered brick buildings, there were signs of a general awakening.
I suppose you could say my parents were both idealists, though that word has become tinged with naivete. I mean it in a positive sense: they both believed that human conditions could be made better, and they were willing to work to make such change come about. Over that year, they talked a lot about where they had come fromâthe first step toward deciding who they would become.
At the end of her freshman year, my mother went to live with her parents in Huntington, New York, and took a job at La Guardia, which her father, who worked for the Port Authority, had arranged for her. She sat alone in an office all day, doing the books for a company that serviced private aircraft. Outside on the runway, planes lifted off for Istanbul or Paris, while she tallied columns across and down: how many gallons of waste were emptied out of the Lear jets, how much fuel had been sold. The boss came in for an hour or so in the morning, then disappeared for the rest of the day, casual about his sinecure.
That glimpse into her father's world disillusioned my mother. Bob Inman bore a resemblance to Bob Hope and shared a similar humor, voted for Goldwater, and was known for his business smarts and sociability. At home, he dropped the devilish charm and turned gruff. My mother once came home with her report cardâfive As and one A-minusâand presented it to her father, aglow with pride. "I'll give you five dollars when you get all As," he told her, turning back to his ball game. In her final year of high school, my mother spent her evenings with him in the den, memorizing every word in the Latin dictionary, a task he fell to with a sportsman's relish. It was the last hoop she jumped through to please him, but she finished with flairâbeating out students from eight states at sight-reading Latinâand waltzed into Cornell with a Regents scholarship.
The summer after her freshman year, my mother rode back and forth to the airport with her father and the chief of maintenance, who chauffeured them in a Port Authority car. It was 1963, and the Long Island Expressway was being paved along the north shore. Since the car had special plates and a rack of lights, the maintenance chief drove around the construction barriers and rode the empty freeway all the way to Huntington. My mother traces her first serious thoughts of social justice to those evening rides, as she sat in the back seat staring at her father's balding head.
My father spent that same summer living with his mother in Valley Stream, not far from my mother's house by car, but a world apart in mood and history. His mother, my Grandma Leila, grew up on New York's Lower East Side, where her father ran a series of confection businesses. He was good at his vocationâfrugal and hard workingâbut the Depression almost put him under. Leila's mother died when she was still a young girl, and the stepmother who replaced her on short notice was a hardened woman, shrewd enough to keep house and feed another woman's children in hard times, but prone to harping on Leila's shortcomings. When my grandfather, Charles, came along and wanted to marry, Leila was quick to the chance.