Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Comedies of the ’60s
The destruction of conventional standards of behavior in the ’60s relaxed inhibitions to such a degree that people who in ordinary times would have led dull but blameless lives suddenly strutted forth to do their own thing. Sinister as that was in many cases, in some it was comic relief. Living in Vermont, a Mecca for ’60s people at the time, not far from Goddard, a hippie college, we had plenty of material for observation. The vignettes that follow are absolutely true; only some names have been changed.
Two students were staying with us in the summer of ’63, and one of them, Morris, was my first’60s person. Having known him only superficially when I was teaching at the college, I was taken aback when, after a tour of the farm on his first morning, he said it would be a good place for guerilla training.
“Guerilla training?” I croaked.
“I know some of the top cats in P. L. who’d really dig this joint for maneuvers.”
Speaking out of the corner of his mouth with a touch of weariness, he growled, “Progressive Labor.”
Still wandering in bourgeois darkness, I said, “But I only rent the place.”
Morris shrugged. “You know best whether you want to help the revolution or not.” He spoke coldly and looked away. I was trying to think of a response when he suddenly veered off on another track, frowning and shaking his head. His biggest problem, come the revolution, he said, would be deciding whether or not to shoot his parents who were, as he finely phrased it, “petty bourgeois to their fingertips.” Later, when he was expounding the problem to the other student and Jo Ann, she said we could hardly offer advice in such a delicate personal matter, to which Morris sternly pointed out that it was a “matter of revolutionary justice”! Later, when he kept mooning around about the subject, Jo Ann, exasperated, said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, go ahead and shoot them”! We heard no more about it.
But he was still addicted to great walloping pronouncements. One hot night we were sitting around the kerosene lamp reading and sweating, yearning for cooling drinks or other bourgeois frivolities (we had no refrigeration), when Morris, hitherto absorbed in a deathless pamphlet by Vladimir Ilyitch Ulyanov, slapped it on the table and bellowed,
“What this country needs is a LENIN”!
“Yes,” Jo Ann sourly retorted, ‘A Lenin ice.’”
The trouble with such a response was that it gave Morris the sulks, which were hard to live with, a problem we met when he soon appeared as a Revolutionary Artist, pounding out masterpieces of Proletarian Art on Jo Ann’s typewriter while we toiled outside. How we dreaded the sound of the typewriter as it floated out to us peasants, knowing that soon his demonic energies would present us with another story which we would all, moral cowards, praise extravagantly. To discern any flaws was to provoke massive sulks. I don’t have space to tell about the stories, but here’s a sample of his poetry:
"Yes the people the workers I am with you
black yellow red I am with you yes
the machine guns stuttering stitching red kisses
on the bodies of the ruling class and its running dogs yes . . ."
Morris played his last role — romantic Vagabond — on the day he left. Dressed in faded jeans, a Bull Durham tag hanging from the breast pocket of his chambray shirt, stalk of timothy between his teeth, he looked at the mountains and said feelingly, “When I see those hills, I gotta go.”
Lenny was the most typical ’60s figure, showing just how ordinary such people would have been if the ’60s hadn’t changed their lives. When I first knew him in 1960, he was only a harmless, naïve freshman who wore his red and yellow high school warm-up jacket all the time. On a summer day in 1967, there appeared at our door a rusty bread van, with “LOVE” painted on its sides, plastic flower decals on the hubcaps, out of which stepped sandals, flowing robe, long hair, headband — all attached to Lenny. He had quit grad school (“I split the scene, man, too uptight”); had left a wife in California (“Too many hassles, man. I split the scene on my bike”); had driven across the country on his Honda; and was now looking for organic communal life on the land in Vermont.
Judging from his appearance, we all imagined Lenny would have interesting, or profound, or strange truths for us, but although he was with us for several hours, and various people tried to start conversations with him, his word hoard was limited to the hippie lexicon — “like man,” “y’know,” “far out,” and so on. How could anyone not have one single intelligent thing to say? How could anyone so attired, so groomed, not have anything even mildly interesting to say?
As Lenny pulled out in his bread van, I said to Jo Ann, “I’m afraid he’s the same old Lenny.”
“Yes. He traded in his warm-up jacket for a funny robe, that’s all.”
I knew ’60s homesteaders, too, like Brad and Solange, who lived in a VW microbus, flower pots in the windows and all. Not content with what seemed to me a cozy arrangement, however, they yearned for a vine-covered cottage with a garden, and since I had sold them the VW in the first place, there seemed to be a general expectation that I would provide the cottage, etc. I tried, but by the late ’60s, rentals in northern Vermont, especially vine-covered and prettily cultivated, were scarce.
Brad and Solange pestered and pestered us until I told them they could squat on a piece of our backfield. How excited they were! Solange immediately began pacing off the herb garden. Brad, however showed his down-to-earth practicality by pacing off the lines of the cottage first.
When I went out to get them for lunch, they had drawn all their plans with twigs, pebbles, and bunches of grass. Here was the goat pen, there was the loom room, this would be a row of marjoram. . . .
That afternoon we let them plant a garden in a corner of ours, or rather, we let them cover the seeds, or really, we made them cover the seeds. Then they were off to consult a hippie architect friend for cottage plans. We didn’t see Brad and Solange for several days, but the architect’s sketch they showed us, drawn in crayon on a large piece of dirty cardboard, was well worth the waiting. We looked at it for some moments before I asked what it was.
“A yurt! A portable yurt”!
Jo Ann suggested that it looked a bit large for portablility.
“That’s what the ring on top there is for,” Brad, ever the practical one, said. “We just get a helicopter, hitch it to the ring, and we’re off”!
The portable yurt was intensely discussed whenever Brad and Solange turned up — they spent a lot of time consulting with other friends here and there — and many hours were fruitfully spent shifting the twigs around in the back field. Then they disappeared. Where they went or why I never found out. Maybe they were just tired of the whole damned thing.
When Brad and Solange reappeared in September on a motorcycle they were sore at me because the VW had broken down, but I cleverly placated them with the harvest from their garden, which we had tended all summer. I cherish my final memory of this courageous pair of homesteaders: Solange holds out a radish to Brad and says softly, moistly, “From our garden.” Motorcycle fadeout in the sunset.
We knew a couple, Peter and Meg Magwitch, who ran a health food store. Actually, Meg did all the work while Peter looked at nudist magazines in the storeroom. He got away with it because Meg worshipped him as a guru. He looked the part — tall, with lots of curly hair, a reddish beard, and an uninhibited, earnest delivery as he expounded his teaching, of which the bizarre Magwitch folkways were the exemplar.
“Underwear,” Peter would boom out, standing in the middle of the shop, “decreases fertility, so when we come in from outdoors, we hang ours on the hatrack.”
Points to lingerie on hatrack. They had to cut it out, though; fetishists were stealing the undies. Since they were then spawning at the rate of one child every 11 months, I thought they should both wear two pairs of woolen union suits, sewed on, but I kept mum until Peter took me upstairs to show me their bedroom: One large mattress on the floor.
“Where do Dakota, Dawn, and Sundance sleep?”
“Right in there with their Mommy and Daddy.”
“Say, Pete, uh do you think that’s the best idea for little kids”?
“Absolutely! Why, there is a New Guinea tribe in which the whole family sleeps together in one hammock.”
For whatever Peter did, or rather, for whatever he was having Meg do, no matter how absurd it might seem to the uninitiated eye, he had a tribe somewhere to back him up. One of their biggest routines was birth. Meg had all her babies on the family mattress, filmed by friends, and Peter chewed the umbilical cord in two (Baffin Island Eskimos). I know you won’t believe what they did with the afterbirth, but so help me Adelle Davis, Peter froze it, ground it fine, and put it in a blender with tomato juice. For Meg, and anyone else who happened by that week. Full of vitamins, antibodies, etc., etc. I asked him for the tribe on that one, but all he could give me was cows.
I knew many more, but that’s enough for now. *