So it was my great pleasure to have been invited recently to hike in the Berkshire hills with some male friends, not to mention a privilege to be able to bring along my nearly ten year old son on what is usually a “boy’s” outing rather than an activity for actual boys. I wanted to go but my wife was working, and I couldn’t very well have left my son on his own.
In the course of a wide-ranging discussion, we boys got to talking about the kind of protests that might occur at the upcoming political conventions, and that some of the same folks behind the Occupy movement had reportedly been disrupting Trump rallies. I reminisced about my visit to the Occupy Wall Street camp down at Zuccotti Park back in 2011, and how it seemed like a small scale version of the hippie encampments that overran my hometown of Miami Beach during the Democrat and Republican national conventions in 1972. That was the summer I turned ten years old. Everything I experienced in downtown New York in 2011 I remembered having seen in 1972 — the earnest shabbiness, the shabby earnestness, the high-decibel sloganeering, the crude political posters pasted thick around trees and lampposts, the omnipresent whiff of menace, and, most of all, the general seething.
Miami Beach in 1972 was a much heavier happening than Zuccotti Park, it seems to me. Though Occupy taps into a segment of society’s feelings of outrage, as a movement it exists only on the margins. What happened in Miami Beach was instead part of a mass generational upheaval, the Baby Boomer rebellion against the Man, the System, parents, organized religion, Spiro Agnew, you name it. The 1972 protests at the political conventions would be one of the last meaningful gatherings of the counterculture birthed in the 1960s before it redirected its focus inward during the so-called Me Decade. For better or worse, the movement would soon mellow, but no one knew then that it was going to, and so the conventions were pretty intense.
For whatever reason, my reminiscences then took a less socio-historical tack. I started waxing about how I had seen my first unclothed adult women during the conventions — a milestone in any male’s life, I suppose. The hippies had occupied Flamingo Park in the heart of South Beach, erecting a sprawling tent city on the playing fields and commandeering the men’s and ladies’ locker room facilities, which were declared unisex for the duration of the convention season. One of our little pals had wandered in to the locker room to take a leak and, in a thank-you-God moment, found himself surrounded by naked hippie chicks. He reported this news back to my circle of friends, which was centered upon the sons of our family rabbi, who lived a few blocks from the park.
It was the most exciting news that had ever come down the pike, the most exciting news that ever would come down the pike. We got on our bikes.
Though no one would have stopped us from waltzing in to the locker room, the consensus was that we needed a plan, a ruse to justify our hanging out in the shower area. What we came up with was that one of us had lost a watch, and the other six of us were there to help lift up the wood planks on the locker room floor so we could look for it. I remember the seriousness of the older kids when they drilled us younger kids to make sure we could keep the story straight.
The hippies did not disappoint. There were about 15 of them, women and men, showering together when we entered and started lifting up wood planks and speaking theatrically about where our friend might have last seen the missing timepiece. The unclothed hippies didn’t seem to be paying us much mind, and what impressed me most (besides the obvious), was the insouciant naturalness they either possessed or affected as they soaped up. Contrary to what I’d been taught, it was like men and women showering together was the most natural thing to be doing — and maybe it henceforth would be in the groovy hang-up-free world that these iconoclasts were creating. They were the vanguard of the movement to free co-ed showering of its prurient overtones and transform it into a manifestation of our higher natures, all of which would transpire with a new locker room protocol in which men, women, and children would cast aside their bourgeoisie attitudes along with their clothing and keep their eyes trained on the promise of an egalitarian future instead of each others’ bits.
I was more retrograde, or maybe just 10 years old. One woman in particular captivated me, a kinky-haired brunette with John Lennon glasses and a bright smile who must have been 19 years old or so, unclothed, soapy, and convinced she was on the right side of history. I was convinced, or at least hoping, that she was on the right side of history, as well. “All these years later,” I explained to my hiking buddies, “I can still picture her if close my eyes.” And close them I did.
Perhaps it serves me right that the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was the appalled face of my 9-year-old son.
TMI? Inappropriate? Icky? Hell, yeah. But then my approach with him has always been to be frank about the business of life, an approach that is, like life itself, kind of hit or miss. If certain things don’t make sense to him, all I can say is that when I was a boy, people were not frank with me about the business of life so that things, in their estimation, would make sense to me. Consequently, instead of being confused as a youngster, I find myself, as an adult, still confused about the business of life on a daily basis.
Just because I’m frank as a parent doesn’t mean I’m comprehensive in the information I impart, much less useful, even less so wise. Case in point: as I looked at my son on the hiking trail, his face frozen in an expression of surprise and disgust at hearing his father publicly relating a 40-year-old memory of naked hippies, I realized that I have never spoken to him about the birds and the bees. With a shiver of dread, I understood that my wife and I were going to have to do that soon. Real soon. And I had no idea how I was going to handle my part. I always hoped that conversation would unfold along the lines of Absolutely Fabulous, when Edina reminisces with her daughter Saffron about their special conversation.
Eddie: I did tell you the facts of life, didn’t I, sweetie?
Saffie: If you mean that time you sat on my bed and shook me awake at two in the morning, stoned out of your brain, and slurred into my ear ‘By the way, sweetie, people have it off,’ then yes, you told me the facts of life.
At that moment, I understood the moment was not going to unfold that elegantly for us, and that I’d better come up with a different plan of action to inform him about the facts of life and stop counting on Nicky Minaj songs to take care of the job for me.
What can I say — I am an inadequate parent. At that moment on the trail, I felt like I had slipped up, that I should be doing a better job as a parent of sheltering him from the fact of naked hippies and the impression they can leave on a person. But then I thought — what exactly would sheltering him entail? I mean, I was almost exactly his age when my friends and I were independently marshaling biking parties to reconnoiter real live naked hippie chicks. And we got to the locker room via city streets on our bikes, none of us wearing helmets, maybe some of us riding on the handlebars, which is something my son has never done with his friends because his mother and I, who monitor his bicycling, would not allow it. My locker room adventure, though memorable, doesn’t stand out in my memory as anything particularly daring — I had been roaming far and wide across South Beach with my pack of friends for years. By the time I was ten, my friends and I had seen car crashes, brawls, arrests, a septuagenarian pervert’s hard dick, raving drunkards, a matinee showing of Super Fly, domestic disputes, and old people keeling over with heart attacks. Friends and I fled together from security guards, store detectives, and bottle throwing youth gangs. We had trespassed, vandalized, shot BB guns, drank big grape Slurpees, and were once even converted to Christianity by a wild-eyed Jesus freak. And we all turned out…well, we all turned out.
When I was a child, we kids had our own society, which our parents either respected or, more likely, didn’t care about. Why do I know they didn’t care about whatever it was that we were up to? Because mere blocks from our homes, our local park was overrun with tuned in, turned on, and dropped out fabulous furry freaks frolicking in a miasma of marijuana clouds, free love, blotter acid, Marxist political subversion, violent protests, class warfare, Yippie pranksters, the actual Abbie Hoffman, Black Panthers, Anarcho-syndicalists, Jane Fonda, vegans, Maoists, billy-club wielding “pigs,” tear gas, and, yes, soapy ungarbed coeds in a full blown everything-under-heaven-is-in-utter-chaos-and-the-situation-is-excellent Hippie Apocalypse. This ingathering of the counterculture was formed to take down the Tin Soldiers and Nixon Coming 1972 Republican National Convention. It represented the antithesis of the ordered middle class world our parents lived in, an existential threat to all they held dear in an era in which this kind of social upheaval was raw, explosive, and uncharted. And all they told us as we biked off into its savage maw was: “Be home by dinner.”
Maybe they thought it would be good for us. Toughen us up, you know?
In contrast, my wife and I had never allowed my son do anything independently. His life is planned up between school and activities we drive him to, plus the play dates with friends that generally confine the youngsters to backyards and PS4 consoles. What’s more, our lives are equally planned up, as we scurry to chauffeur him somewhere and then cool our heels waiting to pick him up. Though I never would have characterized myself as a helicopter parent, that is pretty close to what I am.
I realized I am a full member of what is arguably the weakest generation of parents in American history, the late Baby Boomers. We created the campus crybabies clamoring for safe spaces and groaning about being triggered by microagressions, and who attend public forums to shout down the presentation of facts and opinions that discomfit them. Since my son is only nine, I sometimes forget who my peers are, but then I look at posts by my Facebook friends about their children’s college graduations and realize that, my goodness, the enemy is us — not my friends, exactly, but parents of our generation, people not unlike me.
During my walk in the woods, I started to see how despite being appalled by the behavior of many of today’s young adults, I was following the same parental playbook that made them what they are. In my mind’s eye, I seized upon an image of what, if we continued following that plan, my son might be in ten years — every father’s nightmare.
So one week after my walk in the woods, I happened to have four of my son’s friends over the house, all about my son’s age. Seeing them trying to play ball in our backyard, devising ground rules regarding the shrubbery and dog turds on the lawn, I told them to get lost, to go to the playground a few blocks away and play there.
They were only too glad. I asked them if they knew what to do if a stranger started bothering them — gather together and leave. I asked them if they knew what do if someone tried to show them a puppy or asked them to get into a car — say no, gather together and leave.
Those were the correct answers. I had not let my son roam because I was afraid for him, even though here in the Berkshires hills of Western Massachusetts, the greatest danger he’d face (so long as he looked both ways before he crossed the street) would be from a piece of space debris that had broken off of Halley’s Comet landing on his head. (Actually, a tree could fall on him, or a big dog attack him, or a mosquito give him the Zika virus — possible, but unlikely.) I watched the four boys walk down our cul-de-sac.
As they turned the corner, I tried to remain nonchalant, but wasn’t, and waited anxiously for my son to return. For the first time since he was born, we were finally on our own.