Culture Shock

June 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

Everything in ’69 is bigger, better, louder, faster
younger, happier, angrier, opinionated…
We’re not in Europe any more.


Sand Castle 69-2

Dad and Ellen pick me up at the Charleston airport and we go to the beach with Sally and Glenn—the only time I ever see the old man in a bathing suit. I build the first (I think) of my unique “drip” castles castles in the sand, and find myself in a different world than the one I remember.

Back in the old home town, I find out Daddy’s given my flathead Ford to Willie, who’s wrecked it. What gives him the right? I call Sandra; I can’t come until I get a car, we have to drive to Kansas next week at the latest. She says Pat can bring her down, and we three visit Mama and April, spend the evening with Dad and Ellen. I car shop for a day or two and buy a used Ford station wagon, drive up to PG to pick up the dog and cat and say goodbye.

Somewhere in this time sweet Sandra selflessly arranges for me to sleep with her best friend, hoping I’ll be pleased. Sadly, I am.

Our brief visit home abruptly reawakens our awareness of how big our country is compared to Europe, and startles us by how it’s grown while we’re away. There’s so much more of everything, and all bigger, better, shinier, pricier.

On the other hand, in our conservative suburban south, our family and friends, there’s little evidence of social change. Nobody talks about the war, nobody does dope. The real culture shock doesn’t come until we get to Kansas.

Cross Country

From home to Kansas is a twenty hour drive through the mountains, the Tenessee Valley, across the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers for the first time (both of us), and into the nation’s bread basket. I drive straight through, bypassing Nashville and St Louis, all the points of interest, stopping only to grab a bite, fill up with gas, and pee.

We make this journey back and forth at least a half a dozen times in these three years, for holidays, occasions. I do almost all the driving; Sandra spells me when I nod, catch a few Zees in the back seat. Never do we stop for a night on the town, a day in the Land Between the Lakes. Once, with Dane, we picnic on the bank of the Mississippi; otherwise, it’s here to there and back, deadhead. Even through a blizzard in the middle of the night at twenty miles an hour from Columbia to Kansas City, I plow on, addicted to the road. Only twice do we stop to sleep—once when I take a shortcut (on the map) that crosses the Tennessee by a ferry that’s closed for the night, and once when I’m asleep in the back and the sun comes up in Sandra’s eyes, over a rise at sixty-five and a suddenly a dump truck doing twenty; she jerks the wheel and the car flips over and skids 200 yards. A little glass in my scalp and major disorientation for an hour or so (“What about the guy in the back?” confusing myself with a hitch-hiker we let out in Nashville); otherwise, we’re okay. I call Daddy, who reluctantly—against Ellen objection (“It’s not your business!”)— comes to pick us up ‘s nagging

Double Whammy

It’s a quantum leap from the Old World to the middle of nowhere. Kansas is a vast, flat nowhere, green with high corn in August, and as we gaze through the tunnel down the long, stright road ahead, few trees, the pale blue sky above, monotony sets in. This shock is numbing. We’re going to miss the mountains and the coast, the cities, architecture, art, fondu. (It’s just a year, then Yale, then back.)

On the other hand…

When I leave Chapel Hill in 1965, I know only one person, a beatnik type, Chris Munger, who shows up now and then at parties (not a drama major), who is whispered to smoke marijuana. Now, in ’69, in Kansas, like, nobody (under thirty) doesn’t. Wow. Granted, I’m among the few (I naively suppose) in the US Army, Europe, who occasionally ingests hashish (or smokes it through a biro), so this shock is pleasant.

More than that, the campus is a liberal oasis in the conservative cultural desert. Black is beautiful, gays are proud, women liberate themselves, soldiers from nearby Fort Riley hang out with the hippies—half the student body wears love beads and black armbands, flowers in long hair and beards, no bras, mini-dresses. Kansas is the Land of Oz, all Peace and Love. It’s going to be a fun year.

The cultural change that hits me hardest doesn’t come, however, until I’m in too deep to escape.

In ’65, the Master of Fine Arts degree is barely on the academic radar, focused on the practice of art with little if any emphasis on scholarship. None of my professors has an MFA. Two or three are PhD’s, the rest are plain old solid, scholarly MA’s, if that. By the time I get mine, MFA’s are Terminal, along with PhD’s, and required for virtually every college teaching position in the country.

This has no bearing on me if I go on to “terminate” at Yale, of if I go pro. As it happens, this shock knocks me for a loop a few years down the road.





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