It was the summer of 1966, “Summertime,” the languorous song from George Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess,” became a popular hit for Billy Stewart.
His pop rendition of that iconic song perfectly matched up with the endless summer days. The torque of the heat and humidity, the inveterate sense that summer living was easy and a day worth about 20 waking hours, helped this young restless outlier think about the future. Was it time to move on? The bacchanal of the crossroads beckoned, but where would it lead? It’s a big country, an even bigger universe. I had completed my second year of college at Buffalo State Teachers College in June.
My second year, unlike the first, was considerably more rewarding and satisfying. I had become a better student and had the mien that said so. A highlight from the school year was my psychology professor, Pat Tirse - yes, I still remember her name - inviting three students, of which I was one, to a lecture at the University of Buffalo, which was a few miles across town. The renowned behavioral therapist, O. Hobart Mowrer, was giving the lecture.
Professor Tirse didn’t mention to us why we were the chosen, but my proud sense of why I was in that group of three, settled in on one of the main tenets of behaviorism: reward. I was rewarded for turning in a mid-term paper which analyzed the psychological torment of Philip Carey, the protagonist in W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.”
Helping me put some money in my pocket, my father landed me a job where he worked, Hewitt Robbins, a manufacturer of rubber hose products used in aircraft and fire engines. It was my first experience working in a factory. To boot, it was assembly-line work in the department I was assigned to. Today, it would be hard to find anyone applying for and accepting this kind of work. Of course, there is little left of blue collar work in today’s America. The current occupier of the White House thinks he can change this. Then, it was good work, if you could get it. My father was confident that I had the right upbringing - and I’ll throw in genes - for grunge work, as he called it, and I was confident that I wouldn’t let him down. I made about $75-a-week. As the job faded to its last days and came to an end, I was awarded union membership in the United Rubber Workers of America. I carried that membership card like a talisman until years later, when the wallet that carried it was stolen from my car.
I came to accept that life is about intersections; it’s where we get the chance to examine our life. At those intersections we undergo paradigm shifts. College life, which I found liberating and radicalizing, embraced a pedagogy of change. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, spoke volumes about education being the transformative event for the oppressed. For me, it applied equally for those raised in the obscurity of freedom.
In early 1966, I joined the school chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS was quite open and less sectarian to this political neophyte. Its campus based anti-war activists first secured my interest and, second, mentored my activism.
One was a graduate student/student teacher in the math department, perhaps five to six years my senior. He was recognized as a campus leader in the anti-war movement, a gifted teacher, who I later learned was a member of the Communist League. An Irishman, who minced no words regarding his politics, his rhetoric as fiery as his carrot-topped head. I would hang out with him and his girlfriend at their apartment which was quite near the campus. At the time, I don’t think I knew any couple that lived together without being married. Their relationship was very open, a real eye opener for me. The other was a professor of philosophy - Kantian, as I recall - who led many of the ubiquitous teach-ins against the war. She was a tenacious defender of dissent. The architecture of the world that I knew growing up was being replaced by a different architecture, one that was as immutable as the laws of gravity.
During the summer months, less so when the school was in full session, student organizations set up tables along the major walk-about in the central part of the campus. There were the usual sorority and fraternity tables. ROTC was always recruiting, though this was becoming extremely difficult. Campus religious groups spoke the enticing tongue of secular scripture. And one of my favorites, the American Friends Service Committee table, where students could receive counseling on draft deferment, though careful not to cross the line, counseling draft dodging. I happened to notice a new table, or at least one I hadn’t noticed before. Two young people, a female and a male, who could have been students for all I knew, were there representing the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program.
They were recruiters, casually and informally talking about the program to those who stopped. I stopped, and it wasn’t in the name of love, but curiosity. I picked up a couple of brochures from the table, pausing a few moments before moving on. Well, a moment was all these recruiters needed to engage me in conversation. They were recruiters from Washington, D.C., spending the summer months on college campuses on the east coast. When I asked whether either of them had been VISTA volunteers, “no” was the response, because the program, started in 1965, was in its infancy. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, wanted the program up and running, as it was one of the crown jewels of his Great Society legislation.
When I asked what volunteers would be volunteering for, first they said, “think of VISTA as the domestic Peace Corp.” Was I familiar with the Peace Corp? Well, yes, somewhat. VISTA volunteers would be helping underserved and impoverished Americans in the communities they live in. The recruiters were engaging, perhaps voluble to a fault. As I readied to leave our conversation, I took an application. I meandered off campus in the direction of ‘The Masthead,’ the local off-campus watering hole. Over the next couple of days, beset by a torrent of thoughts, one kept returning. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, in his inaugural address of 1961, challenged the citizens of the country: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
I firmly believed he was speaking to the young people of our nation. He was speaking to me. He was reaffirming our greatness as a people and country, and it was up to us to rise to the occasion. In 1961, when I heard this entreaty, I could not grasp what it meant for each of us as individuals. However, five years later, it resonated, somewhat like a calling.
Well, the recruiters were right about President Johnson wanting to get this program rolling. Within three weeks of sending my application to Washington, I was accepted into the program. They set me up to attend a 12-week training session in SanDiego, California, starting in early September. With my confirmation, which to me at this point was all but certain, they would arrange airline transport to San Diego. It was late July, perhaps early August. I sure had decisions to make, and fast. Initially, I had not talked to my parents about the application, believing that maybe it was just wishful thinking that I would go ahead and do something like this. After sending in the application, however, I knew I had charted a destiny, but did not know where the maps would lead me. Was I just throwing dice, hoping to get lucky? What would they think, what would they say once I told them I would be leaving for San Diego, California, in early September? I did not want to hurt them, but I knew my decision would. They were quite proud of me because I was the first in both my parents’ families to go to college. It’s important to remember that in 1964, when I graduated from high school, then went on to Buffalo State Teachers College, many high school students did not graduate, and many of those students who did graduate did not pursue a college education. This phenomenon was not due to a lack of aptitude, though lack of interest may have played a part. No, during this era, our country still was in a post WWII economic boom, and there were plenty of good paying jobs for high school drop outs and graduates. Of course, many young men were being sucked into the vortex of the war in Viet Nam. Still, I dreaded telling mom and dad I was leaving. Never a very clever person, I tired of trying to pick a time to tell them of my plans. I considered telling my older brother Jerry and oldest sister Cassie, but quickly stripped the idea from my thoughts. They would know of my plans when my mom told them.
I don’t recall when I told them of my plans, but it was no more than a day or two after I received confirmation from VISTA. Dad was somewhat dejected but remained stoical. This was his nature, particularly when there were strong currents running over and about his usual routine. Mom, on the other hand, became quite animated and emotional. She thought I was too soft and inexperienced to be out on my own. Maybe she had listened to Dylan’s, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Admittedly, her concerns were mine, as well. But at 19, with two years of college under the belt, I was ready to ride. However, neither one of them tried to dissuade me from my decision, although my mother did throw in a mortar shot with, “what about your education?” I replied quite assuredly that this volunteer assignment would be a real education. For her, though she never mentioned it at the time, there was a small consolation because of where I was headed, San Diego. Both her brother and sister lived in southern California. They would become her eyes to watch over me.
There were just under three weeks before I left for San Diego. The lion’s share of this time would be spent on good-byes to my friends; those close, and not so close. Honestly, I don’t think I had a friend who didn’t like drinking, so this interregnum produced many episodes of “Cheers,” with beer in hand. Many friends were surprised, maybe astonished, that I was leaving the steady, but slow-milieu of Buffalo, for the never-never landscape of California. My witty retort was that I had experience with California: I saw the Beach Boys in concert at Kleinhan’s Music Hall in 1964! I had a girlfriend that I still was emotionally involved with, though we had broken up months earlier. She was the first real love of my life. Our last get together was at the Buffalo Zoo, just before I left. I told her I was leaving for California and would miss her. She demurred on returning the sentiment, but steadfastly held my hand, till we separated.
A week before my departure, I received my airline ticket, training program schedule, and a contact to call when I arrived in San Diego. I had an early morning flight which I was ready for at three in the morning. My family, absent my older brother who lived in Rhode Island with his new family, gave me a tearful send-off, my brother Mike, the youngest member of the family, the exception. I think he was happy. My mom hugged me for an eternity, reminding me to write and send pictures, as I got the last call to board the plane. My eye sockets drained as the plane finally hurtled down the runway. I remember three things about the flight. First, it seemed to take forever, which, naively, I attributed to crossing time zones. Second, the airline hostess who serviced the back of the cabin was from Buffalo. She was attentive, assuaging my nervousness which was abundantly on view, and yes, quite attractive. Third, a haze of smoke clouded the cabin, as smoking in flight was allowed in those days.
After a short stop in Los Angeles, I arrived in San Diego mid-afternoon and promptly was picked up by a VISTA staffer and deposited at the community center where we would receive our training over the next three months. After a heartfelt welcoming and a brief Q&A, I was taken to a large apartment building which would house the volunteers while in training. Though the community center and apartment building were within easy walking range, we were admonished not to do that. VISTA had vans that would transport us to and from the training sessions and our living quarters. At that moment, I felt that I was the fatuous Mr. Jones, in Dylan’s, “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
I had $12 in my pocket and I wondered when I would get to see a surfer.