Forty years ago this summer, a strange, almost otherworldly incident took place that cemented my belief in the ability of mankind to get along.
It was the summer following high-school graduation. Time to make and put away a little spending money for the coming college experience. It was 1972 and though it was still the era of single-digit tuition, the cost of concert tickets, beer and Maui Wowee could quickly empty one’s pocket.
It was also a time of conflict, a lot of it centered on politics – which is to say the war in Vietnam – and there were three primary theaters for the discord.
One was the kitchen table, where in many homes morose teens left the dinner conversation to their parents and it amounted to little more than “Get a haircut” or “Since when is a protest rally more important than homework?” Another was the editorial page, where some columnists were still clinging to the domino theory, although most had noticed the raised eyebrows of Walter Cronkite four years before and agreed that the war was unwinnable, so let’s cut our losses and get out.
Most visible, however, was the discord in the streets, where the anti-war rallies often featured longhairs and flower children engulfed in significant clouds of white, sweet-smelling smoke on one side, and short-haired, clean-shaven or mustachioed males with denim overalls, lunch pails and American flags on the other, especially where the protest venues bordered on construction sites.
The “hard-hats” were the loudest and most physical supporters of president Nixon, who was heading into his reelection campaign while, unbeknownst to the rest of us, he tried his best to let what his press secretary had called a “third-rate burglary” at a high-end Washington office and residential complex known as The Watergate die as quick and unobtrusive a death as possible.
In Connecticut, the state government was also trying its damndest to finish and open the University of Connecticut-affiliated John Dempsey Hospital, a light beige, curved behemoth that dominated the green skyline in both directions of Interstate 84 a few miles west of Hartford, leaving commuters (and many others) to wonder twice a day about the endless delays and nasty financial overruns incurred in getting the place running.
I think I know one reason.
A friend had gotten me a summer job in the medical school’s accounting office. It was our responsibility to take sheets of paper – signed, stamped and delivered for every piece of equipment that was going to make the move – and match each item up with an entry on a very thick binder of dot-matrix computer printouts.
Once it was verified that the item was indeed the property of the State of Connecticut it could be put aside for moving day, whenever that would be.
A couple of weeks into the job they moved us from the semi-decrepit campus on the west side of Hartford to the new building. Little worked except the electricity and plumbing, but the windows could be opened and it helped air out the construction smell. Problem was, it also let in the loud and often colorful talk of the hardhats, and at least once a day you could hear something about “one-a-them longhairs working in some sissy-ass job upstairs,” or something to that effect.
At lunchtime my friend Marty and I, both longhairs, would take our home-packed sandwiches and soft drinks outside onto the veranda.
It was raised slightly above the parking lot, where many of the hard-hats sat eating their own home-packed sandwiches in pickup trucks plastered with American flag decals and Nixon stickers. A couple of the vehicles even had shotgun racks (and this was New England).
Occasionally, some of the hard-hats would pass us by on their way to or from the parking lot. One sometimes elbowed another and stuck his chin in our direction, saying something undistinguishable but seemingly clear in its intention: Couple-a longhairs, probably McGovern supporters.
We weren’t afraid of them, but considering what the country was going through the tension was palpable.
Interestingly, the hard-hats often took their lunch breaks to the strains of hard rock, especially the up-and-coming southern variety pioneered by the Allman Brothers. A lot of the stuff blaring from their eight-tracks was about beer and bar fights and tattoos. Yet even northern longhairs could identify with this music, and as we sat up against the veranda wall with our tuna or salami sandwiches, Marty and I often bounced to the rhythm. When they noticed this, they turned up the volume.
On one of these lunch breaks toward the end of the summer, one of the hard-hats came over.
“You guys wanna see somethin’ cool?” Huh? He laughed and told us to follow him. He was short, slim and clean-shaven, and looked quasiharmless.
Our sandwiches, like our jobs, were boring, so we shrugged and followed the guy into the building and down a couple of flights of stairs.
He expertly navigated a maze of hallways, doors and catwalks that brought us deep into the bowels of the soon-to-be medical center, where the heating and cooling systems were still being built. A wooden ladder leaned into an opening in the side of one of the ducts, which was big enough to walk through while standing semi-upright.
The hard-hat climbed the ladder and, as he reached the opening, he pulled out a flashlight, turned it on and yelled, “Comin’ in!” After a few hunched-up zigs and zags in the dimness a familiar aroma engulfed us. Marty and I looked at one another. Could it be? It could be and it was, for there, just around the final corner, sat five or six roughhewn hard-hats quietly passing around a joint.
The silence continued until one of them looked in our direction, exhaled a huge cloud of smoke and, giggling, said in a semi-whisper, “You ain’t no narcs now, are ya?” And in a way, this faith in complete and utter strangers when breaking a law that back then could get you some serious time under Connecticut’s felony statutes engendered the breaking down of a barrier that, at least for this former longhair, proved that some of the strangest things could bring two completely disparate sides together.
I FIND THIS knowledge useful especially now, living in a society threatening to come undone at numerous hinges, whether between Right and Left, religious and secular, citizen and migrant, mostly because of an inability – or simple lack of desire – to find common ground. It’s common ground that can bring the sides together if not to solve their problems, then at least to realize that we’re all made of the same bone and sinew, and the only thing keeping us apart is the programming in our gray matter.
Of course, the gray matter need not be scrambled by ganja to get us together. There are other ways, whether work or army duty or becoming active in an organization that promotes coexistence.
The point is to break down those damn barriers that prolong the preconceived notions and fears about the “other.”
And I’m not talking about the other on the other side of a border; there will be time for that. I’m talking about all the others here with us right now, all those we have to live with if we’re to even dream of coexisting with the other others.
Yet if ganja is what it takes, then by all means pass the joint. Just remember that I haven’t touched weed since right after college when I made aliya, so think of Bill Clinton and don’t ask me to inhale. Unity is good, but someone’s gotta stay grounded, never mind grumpy.