The Summer of ’70, Onion Stew, and the Children of Tomorrow..
The year was 1970
It was the year after Woodstock, and every long-haired, sandal-shod college student in the nation decided the most important civic event they could participate in was attending some sort of outdoor rock concert, or love-in, mass demonstration, or out-and-out riot.
I was seven years old.
Much cultural hay is made about the late 1960′s and early 1970′s– watching neo-nostalgia pablum in the movies, or on television, where the old and wizened Baby Boomers are trying to sell you Cadillacs to the tune of "Purple Haze", you would be lead to believe that such times were filled with screen-printed groovy protest signs, flower children, and feminist marchers with bell-bottoms the size of kites. All very sunny, and socially aware, you see.
Actually, it was a rotten time to be a small child. To us, most older college-age kids (-young adults, really) had a very menacing air to a kid back then. They threw rocks at the local cops, and set fire to the local office of the ROTC. They seemed to yell and scream a lot. These hippies wore army-surplus coats, (which were often emblazoned with power-slogans spray-stenciled on them) and held their greasy hair in place with beaded headbands. They reeked of BO and pot and incense. The music they played on their car radios was so loud that it shook the windows and was so discordant it was jarring. It was not an unusual sight to see some student tripping on acid, floating around the decent population like a bumper car at a catholic mass.
Such was the scene during the summer of ’70. Here in Michigan, hundreds of thousands of college students descended on a heretofore lazy and quiet rural likeside retreat called "Goose Lake". It was there, in the southern part of the state, near the city of Jackson, that a makeshift stage was cobbled together in the middle of field near the lake, a sound system was trucked in from some second-hand joint, and the bands shuffled onto stage, one after another: Jethro Tull, Mountain, Chicago, and so on. Goose Lake was one of the first big American venues that Rod Stewart played.
Goose Lake was a disaster. 60 or 70,000 advanced tickets were sold, but the gates were breached, and upwards of 250,000 college kids stormed the place, (evidently in search of a good — and now free — time) overwhelmed the inadequate police, public safety and sanitary provisions, and tore a swath of destruction many times larger than was set aside by the organizers. Illegal drug use was rampant. And, while the event avoided the decent into madness that attended other festivals such as Altamont that year, the violence was kept at bay only by the intervention of the Michigan National Guard, who was obliged to set up first-aid stations, and open-air kitchens to feed the spaced-out rock refugees something called "onion stew".
Goose Lake is now faded and obscure, even in the obscura of rock legend, and pop history. But, an even more obscure, and even less known event occured in Michigan that same summer, some two hundred miles to the west of Goose Lake, on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan. It was the July Fourth weekend, 1970.
My Dad was 46 years old.
Now, Dad was (and is) a rather taciturn man, father of us four brothers, husband of my mother, and veteran of World War Two. He was grabbed by Franklin Roosevelt in late 1942, at the age of 18, and sent over to Italy, where he was part of the garrison assaulting the Nazi-held guns at Mount Lungo near San Pietro. Around mid-morning on the 19th of December, he was told to "draw fire", by running about the hillside to attract the tender mercies of the 88′s the Germans had pointed at Dad’s position. Sure enough, a shell came screaming near him, and exploded about twenty yards away, dislodging an ancient oak tree, and flicking away a piece of shrapnel that ripped my dad’s right leg, from ankle to knee, flaying it open like a lobster tail.
He spent the next year shuffling between field hospitals, and fighting off horrible infections, and hepatitis, and dysentery, and jaundice. Eventually, he healed well enough to be shipped off to an army intelligence unit, where he decoded messages about potato shipments and laundry schedules. Eventually, Dad was well enough again on his feet that he was able to get stumbling drunk– and shipped back to duty.
After V-E Day, Dad got a thirty-day furlough, was sent home to Lansing with instructions to ship out again from New York, bound for the Pacific, and the Japanese invasion. It was while he was home, sleeping in the boyhood bedroom he’d left three years earlier, that he heard on the radio that Japan had surrendered. The war was over for Dad.
Except that he, by his own admission, joined the "52-50 club", which was a combat veteran’s repatriation benefit, where a soldier received $50 for 52 weeks immediately after they got home. "Why would I get a job when they were paying me to play golf?" Dad asked rhetorically, years later when remembering that time in his life during the mid-1940′s.
Well, eventually the benefits ran out, Dad started a commercial sign company, had a family, and prospered. He and his wife –my Mom– even were able, in 1960, to buy a piece of vacation property, a lot right on Lake Michigan.
The little parcel of beach-front land was north of the city of Muskegon some fifty or sixty miles, in a long, stretch of low-dune sandy scrub. It was covered with beach grass, and juniper bushes, duneberry, and cedar trees. The Lake Michigan shore gently washed the sandy beach, and a lone Lighthouse (the tallest on the Great Lakes) watched over the quiet summertime comings and goings. Dad built a tiny little cottage on the lot, just up from the beach on the low shoulder-dune. The cabin was essentially a plywood box, twenty-four feet by twenty-four feet, just big enough for two bedrooms, and a bath. But, it had all the modern appurtenances, and a big picture window nearly floor to ceiling, to look out at the magnificent Great Lake Michigan. Dad got the materials to build the place by bartering sign work with hardware stores and lumber yards. Life was simpler then.
Our lot was just north of the lighthouse. A small state park surrounded that tall spire, and a few bathing beauties, and an occasional family would wind their way out in their Buicks and Fords on the sand-filled two-track dirt county road and enjoy the rustic little encampment. It was a summertime idyll. The visitors would spread their blankets in the scorching summer sand, turn on their transistor radios that blared the top-40 hits from WOKY across the water in Milwaukee, and eat sandwiches they’d brought in their scotch-plaid picnic coolers.
We’d watch these visitors from our cottage, on the little dune just north of the Lighthouse. And the summers would come and go. Nothing much changed.
Until the summer of 1970.
Something DID change that summer. Somewhere, somehow, the word went out to the college campuses in Michigan and Indiana, that our little lighthouse state park was the place for all wander-lusting college kids to congregate. Mind you, I mentioned the little two-track road that serviced our cottage, and the lighthouse further down. If a car came in one direction, and encountered another car on that road in those days, the one car would have to back up, and find a place to duck into, and let the other vehicle pass. Then, you could go on your way.
The few other cottages that had been built out by the lighthouse, like ours, were tiny little things, none of them winterized, or with central heat and insulation. They scarcely had telephone service, and the single "party-line" phone often was tied up with two or three conversations. Our little slice of Michigan was used to the appearance of a couple dozen beachbathers each day. On that Fourth of July Weekend, suddenly we were host to 40,000 drug-addled, intoxicated, trippy-hippies. Our little road, barely able to handle a single car, was now overwhelmed with thousands of cars and pickups, clogged to the point where the Michigan State Police had to sort it out by helicopter. Thank goodness no one out at the beach needed a fire truck or an ambulance. They would never have made it out.
The marauding hippies camped here and there, piddling among the bushes, setting up tents and parking their VW’s wherever they could wedge or shoe-horn in. In spite of the "No Camping" signs on the parklands, and the obvious inability of almost any car to navigate the sand-filled road, they parked where they wanted, camped where they wanted, and crapped where they wanted. They drank where they wanted, toked where they wanted, and shouted at the Michigan State Police when they finally came out to restore some order to the public park lands.
As I say, I was a seven-year-old boy.
My nearest brother was nine, and he and I, along with two of my beach friends, ran into our little cottage that bright, sunny holiday, and told my Dad what we had just witnessed: A couple of long-haired hippie freaks were clawing their way up our dune with an axe, and were now trying to chop down one of our trees right in front of our window .
Remember: Dad is a World War Two combat veteran. He’s also only five-foot seven, and was about 135 pounds at the time. But, he’d also stared down the Nazis, taken a hit from them, and sure as hell wasn’t going to be scared by some dope-smoking hippies with axes trying to chop down his trees.
So, he nearly ripped the screen door off the hinges trying to rush out to the two freaks, bellowing every four-letter word I’d ever heard at them, and then some. I really thought Dad might kill them. He’d had about enough of the indecent, rude, immodest, high college hippies, most of them draft-shirkers, hooting it up while honorable young men were dying in Vietnam. These creeps were trashing the little park, tearing it to bits, lighting campfires and starting wildfires without remorse, ruining private property, and Dad had about all he could take. The hippies rightly fled like cockroaches when they saw this crazed man rushing them, and then heard Dad yelling and cursing them. They dropped their axe, and ran.
What these idiot kids intended to do with a green, water-filled Poplar-tree trunk, I have no idea. But then, I’m sure, neither did they. They just drove up from East Lansing, overflowing with student naivete, expecting to "camp out" on the Lake Michigan beach, without the first bit of knowledge of how to do it. But, they started with chopping down poplar trees. Until, that is, they caught the attention of my dad.
Later that weekend, I stumbled upon an entwined couple, buck naked, scrumping each other on their blanket about fifty yards from our cottage. I was innocently walking home from my friend’s cottage in the early afternoon. Remember, I was seven, and this was my first encounter with the, er, "primal scene". Again, when I got back to our cottage, I told my dad.
This time, though, the Old Man was thoroughly nonplussed, and he sat there, puffing his pipe, and reading the paper. All he said was, whistfully and resignedly, "I wonder what the hell kinda kids will come from that little arrangement".
Well, forty-one years later, we have the answer to Dad’s simple query:
The kids are now adults, and are steeped in a culture that expects the government to swoop in, provide free onion stew, and medical attention. They expect to help themselves to other people’s private property, despoil it at their leisure, and scoff when told there might be consequences to their bad behavior. The kids of tomorrow, conceived in the wild abandon of hedonistic, loveless sex, are now completely at ease running up trillion-dollar debts, without a single care in the world about the kids that follow them.
No one threw a bucket of cold water on them in 1970, or in the intervening years. And it’s too late to do it now.