The graduate

1968 | In 1968 I headed down a path that began with low-rent existentialism and took me all the way to Communism

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

Since I'm one of the older WORLD staff members, and since in 1968 I lived in Boston and New Haven, two centers of the sprouting cultural revolution, I'm the one obliged to write about that revolution not as seen from afar or read about, but lived through.

What was the cultural mood like in those precincts? Exhibit A: my high-school yearbook. I was the editor and turned it weirdly from a standard happy memory book to a study in sophomoric angst. Other students grooved on it. Pages 24-25: photos of students looking bored, with the headline, "What can I do? Where can I go?" Page 26: photos of students stepping in puddles or sitting in trash containers. Page 27: photo of a "Please Keep Off the Grass" sign on an area covered with snow, under a headline, "The absurdity of it all."

It gets more embarrassing. Other pages had photos of barred windows, trash on the grass, the school buildings in a blizzard, football players covered in mud, more students looking bored, more photos of school buildings shot through chain-link fences to give them a prison feel, with headlines like "What's it all about?" and "Nothing really changes."

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Two full-page images jump out at me. Page 38: a girl reading a big book with big letters on the cover, "Holy Bible," and looking startled. Page 295, a full-page ad from a high-tech company with the headline, "History is being made in your backyard. And you can be a part of it." In my own copy a friend crossed out the first two words and scrawled in a substitute: "Napalm is . . ."

Sure, the yearbook had the obligatory headshots of graduates, but the discretionary parts added up to low-rent existentialism with an overlay of hostility to Scripture and a soupçon of anti-war politics. The spirit of '68 involved lots of sophomoric sneering like that, but when "nothing tastes"-as Marie Antoinette reputedly said-many choose potentially dangerous diversions: sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, or political extremism.

I headed down a bad path that took me all the way to Communism.

If it were only my story it would be important, but many of my cohorts headed left during that period and became tenured radicals. Many are still propagandizing in the classroom, overtly or subtly. The only difference between me and they is that I doubly damaged my career prospects by going further, all the way to card-carrying Communism, and eventually through God's grace coming to Bible-carrying Christianity.

Why did 1968 send me scurrying so far to the left? I'd like to say merely that my head was messed up, but the truth is that my heart was covetous. I entered Yale on scholarship in the fall, packing my two polyester sweaters, and met one roommate who brought his own dresser just to hold all his luxurious woolens. The other roommate, son of a Virginia banker, brought a great stereo system but sat for hours in the corner of the living room next to a high intensity lamp that he focused away from himself, so he was invisible and everyone else had to squint.

I should have been thankful to have access to expensive sound, but we didn't get along and I became bitter. Here's what made 1968 and a few years after a particularly perilous time: Wise counselors and professors should have told me to grow up, get over it, count my blessings and stop my coveting. But the teaching I received was as screwy as anything offered by Screwtape: I learned in history classes that America (aka Amerikkka) had a deeply embedded class system within which those without expensive sweaters or stereos should hone their wrath.

My politically hip professors also explained how Amerikkka's industrial machine manufactured death, particularly in napalmed Vietnam. The success of the machine threatened to turn all of us into machines. I devoured required readings about individual alienation and became more alienated. I had a hole in my soul. I needed a good pastor, but Yale provided William Sloan Coffin preaching in Battell Chapel about the Vietnam war, and gay Malcolm Boyd hanging out with young men and writing Are You Running With Me, Jesus? I didn't need a friend who could run: I needed God.

Yale was not without a remnant: Had I sought, I would have found, but I wallowed and God at that time let me alone as I sought gods human and ideological. I took a course offered by Charlie Reich, who soon had a No. 1 bestseller in The Greening of America, a book that extolled my generation as the one that would solve the nation's problems; Reich took notes for the book while listening to student dining hall conversations. In his course I received an Honors (Yale didn't have letter grades) for cutting out pictures from old Red Sox yearbooks and interspersing them with commentary about baseball racism.


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