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This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the so-called Summer of Love, that mythical three months in 1967 in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood when visions of peace, love and harmony -- aided by bountiful quantities of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll -- reigned supreme.
The Summer of Love has since become legend-- an expression of countercultural revolution, particularly in the minds of those recollecting the glory days of their youth. However inaccurately, this three-month period encompassing a tiny fraction of the population and an eight-block stretch has become a symbol for the entire decade.
Among '60s disciples, it's an article of faith that everything that came out of that summer was a boon to American society. This has certainly been the impression conveyed through popular culture. Rarely are the more pernicious offshoots of the social and political experiment known as the Summer of Love referenced in the glowing and groovy portrayals seen on PBS and the History Channel.
But in its haste to dispense with all tradition that came before, the Summer of Love generation threw out much of the good along with the bad. The attempt to live in a manner that is essentially unsustainable led to a proliferation of divorce, drug-use, promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, and all the perils and problems associated therewith. Too many people left their families, became addicts, and in some cases, lost their lives.
When all social boundaries are tossed aside and self-fulfillment becomes one's raison d'etre, society breaks down and, with it, all sense of morality. Seen in this light, the Summer of Love starts to seem more like the Summer of Folly.
Innocents in the park
Yet the temptation to look back at that period through rose-colored lenses remains strong. I grew up romanticizing the era myself, believing that the largely playful picture put forth in films such as the adaptation of the play "Hair," which was an early favorite of mine, was the reality. The childlike innocence of the film's hippie characters roaming free in Central Park appealed to my own youthful naivete.
I had more than a passing familiarity with the type of people portrayed in the film because, as can be discerned as soon as I introduce myself, I am inexorably linked to the Summer of Love generation. I was born in 1970, but it is the '60s to which I owe my first name. And I'm not alone. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to pass through states such as California, Oregon and Colorado without running into those of a certain age, all bearing the unmistakable mark of the hippie baby.
Growing up in Marin County, back when artists and hippies were just as likely to inhabit its enviable environs as the rich and famous, the remnants of the Summer of Love were all around me. I knew many true believers who didn't just talk the talk, but also walked the walk. Aiming for a simpler life, they moved to rural parts of Northern California and coastal areas such as Stinson Beach, Bolinas and Point Reyes. I grew up alongside their kids and we became the children of the counterculture.
While there was many a happy childhood among the bunch, including my own, also evident around us was the fall-out of the '60s. There was nary a classmate of mine growing up whose parents had not been divorced, and more than a few had been through rehab by the time they got to high school. Casual sex and, inevitably, abortion were de rigeur.
As the children of the counterculture grew older, we sought to emulate what we viewed as our parents' participation in a mythical time of peace and pleasure, but instead ended up inheriting patterns of self-destructive behavior. While most of us made it out unscathed, there were definitely bumps along the road. This is a darker side of what the Summer of Love ushered in and it's one we don't often read about in the history books.
My mother's reflections from that period bear out this picture. She didn't experience the Summer of Love itself, but was caught up in the cultural wave still cresting in the late '60s. Having grown up in Australia and spent two years entertaining the troops in Vietnam, she arrived in San Francisco in April of 1969. She had met my father, a U.S. Marine, in Vietnam and they spent some time together in San Francisco before eventually going their separate ways. Thus was I, like so many of my peers, the result of a fleeting pairing.
When I was a toddler, we lived briefly in two communal settings, one in Santa Cruz and the other a gay household in San Francisco. It was in such environments that my mother witnessed the type of anonymous sex, rampant drug use, narcissism and opportunism (she maintains that many of the men in the countercultural movement were there to get laid) that soon propelled her off in her own direction. Unlike the acid casualties and other sacrificial lambs to the excesses of the '60s, she made it out with mind and body intact. The same cannot be said for our nation, which has never been quite the same since.
A lost war
Along with the social upheaval, the political fallout of the period also took its toll. The political climate of the late '60s eventually forced America to lose a war in Vietnam that, many argue, it was winning militarily. Two years after with withdrawing U.S. personnel in 1973, cutting off funds to our South Vietnamese allies was the final blow.
While it's often thought that the 1960s antiwar movement encompassed the entire nation, in reality a relatively small portion of the population was involved. This explains why, despite the military draft, two-thirds of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers. By comparison, in World War II, two-thirds were draftees.
But the antiwar movement had a great influence in helping to shape the outcome of the war in Vietnam, for better or for worse. The millions killed, imprisoned or made refugees under the banner of communism in both Vietnam and Cambodia following U.S. withdrawal would seem to indicate the latter. The Summer of Love may have been pleasant in theory, but when applied to the world stage, the facade quickly crumbled.
None of this is to say that all that came out of that period was negative. As in all experimental movements, there was joy to be found and knowledge to be gained. I have many pleasant memories of the gentle spirits that brought to the post-Summer of Love period their kindhearted, if naive, hopes for an unattainable world.
But in looking back, it can only be concluded that their attempts to change the world didn't exactly turn out as planned. Human nature will inevitably rear its sometimes ugly head. Only through confronting that reality can progress be achieved.
Eventually, the true story of the Summer of Love will be told. And along with the good times and good intentions will be seen the darkness that lurked just below the idealism.
-------------------- "absolute power corrupts absolutely".