Hangin' with the
2007 by H.B. Koplowitz
Standing in the beer
garden at Sidetracks, a bar in downtown Carbondale,
Illinois, trying to stay upright among the jostling,
talking to some young men who were peppering me with
"You know," I said, during a lull in the conversation,
"it's too bad none of you have (breasts)."
Maybe I should back up a little. My name is H.B.
Koplowitz and I am the author of "Carbondale After
Dark," a 25-year-old, profusely illustrated anthology
of history, columns and short stories centered around
the city's notorious strip in the 1960s and '70s --
from riots to Halloween. I'm a Carbondale native who
went to SIU and was editor of the Daily Egyptian for a
semester, and I self-published CAD in 1982, when I was
working at the Southern Illinoisan. Today I'm a
56-year-old journalist in Los Angeles, and I haven't
lived in Carbondale for decades.
Few current SIU students know much about the social
and political upheavals that shook Carbondale in the
'60s, much less about me and my book, which may be for
the best. Each generation should find their own way.
But I recently reprinted my "lost history of
Carbondale," in part because I was struck by the
similarities between America then and now. In the
1960s, America was torn apart by an unpopular war in
Vietnam. Today, the war in Iraq threatens to tear this
country apart again.
Whether or not the antiwar movement of the 1960s
prolonged or shortened the Vietnam war, as current SIU
students face similar questions of war and peace, I
thought knowing a little about what happened the last
time around might at least help today's students avoid
making some of the same mistakes. In other words, I
thought CAD might still be relevant to today's SIU
students. But when I recently came to Carbondale to
promote the reprint at bookstores, hardly any students
showed up, leaving me to wonder whether they were more
apathetic, or more likely, just too strapped to shell
out $20 on a book.
Be that as it may, after a day of signing books at
Book Worm, and a family dinner at the Giant City
Lodge, I was alone in Carbondale on a Thursday night.
And I decided to do what I would have done 30 years
ago when I was a student at SIU -- I hit the strip.
But rather than look for "action," I decided to
confine myself to "eye candy," which eventually
brought me to Sidetracks, where I found myself in a
veritable Eye Candyland. I live in Los Angeles, where
I routinely see the most beautifully constructed women
in the world. But I was duly impressed by the current
crop of SIU coeds, who achieve the same effect without
so many artificial parts.
Anyway, about the time I began to feel like I had
crossed the line from cultural anthropologist to dirty
old man, who should step up to the bar but "Hickory,"
one of the few SIU students who had shown up at my
signing. Even though he didn't have the right parts,
artificial or otherwise, I went up and said hi, and he
introduced me to his friends, "Dickory" and "Dock," as
"the guy who wrote that book." Seems they had leafed
through CAD and liked the pictures, especially the
ones showing the May 1970 riots, and they had
questions and especially opinions about then and now.
About why there were mass protests during the '60s,
but not so much today, and whether young people were
basically the same or different, the kinds of things I
thought SIU students would find interesting about my
I suppose HD&D were enjoying hanging out with "the
author," but I was equally enjoying the opportunity to
find out what was on the minds of current students,
although it eventually led me to utter my "too bad"
comment. But HD&D seemed as resigned as I was to
not "getting lucky" that night, even though their odds
were a lot better, and eventually we decided to
continue our conversation back at their place.
After a stop at another fond vestige of my past --
Winston's bagel cart in front of Gatsby's -- the four
of us piled into my rental car and headed back to
their place, which turned out to be a dorm room at
Thompson Point. Yikes! The last time I lived in a dorm
was 1969, and I have been in few since. But there I
was, hanging with the dormies and doing what the
dormies do, which was to put a towel under the door.
Only instead of putting on the music, we began to talk
-- rap, as we used to say back in the day.
As with many a late-night rap, I can't remember much
that was said, or even the names of my all-male hosts,
who said they were 19, 19 and 20 years old. But I do
remember them revisiting the question of why there
were mass protests in Carbondale during the Vietnam
era, but except for the weekly Quaker vigil at Main
Street and Illinois Avenue, no major protests have
occurred at SIU over the war in Iraq.
My answer was two words: The draft. During Vietnam,
the draft made the Vietnam War real to everyone, in
school and out. To paraphrase Sen. John Kerry's famous
gaffe, if you partied too hard and flunked out of
school, you could get stuck in Vietnam. Kerry's
flashback was inaccurate, because today if you flunk
out of school, you don't get stuck in Iraq unless you
enlist. Or happen to be in the military reserves or
National Guard, many of whose members are middle age
men and women with families and jobs, which both
raises and answers the question of why, with the
exception of a few Cindy Sheehans, my generation isn't
out there protesting, either.
Listening to HD&D, I began to feel like my
generation had failed theirs by distorting the real
lessons of Vietnam, and passing on a revisionist
history that America could have won the war had we not
lost our resolve, and the war would have been over
sooner had the antiwar movement not caused politicians
to tie the hands of our military and give comfort and
aid to the enemy. As if 11 years and 58,249 dead or
missing Americans weren't resolute enough. Not to
mention napalm, carpet bombing, hamletization,
defoliation, My Lai, the Phoenix Project, the
Cambodian incursion and bombing Hanoi on Christmas
So here's a refresher course: We never would have won
the Vietnam War for the same reason we will never win
in Iraq -- we're no better than any other empire at
imperialism, colonialism, nation-building or whatever
you want to call it. There are limits to even a super
power's power. And if it weren't for young people
willing to be called traitors and hippie scum for
standing up for their beliefs, we might still be in
When I asked my new friends who they wanted to be the
next president, they were undecided. But one hated
Hillary because she was bitchy, and disliked Obama
because he was inexperienced and weak. Another liked
McCain because he was "wacky." I sighed. Another
legacy of Vietnam is that dormies have the right to
vote -- if you were old enough to be drafted you were
old enough to cast a ballot.
"In or out," I said. "It's that simple. Would you
rather have a bitch or fairy in the White House who
will get us out of Iraq, or some macho wacko who wants
to keep us in?"
"On 9/11, everything changed," Dickory persisted. "I
want a strong president who will protect me."
"On 9/11 you wanted your daddy, not your mommy," I
said to laughter. "We all felt the same way. But get
over it. There are some places in this country where
9/11 was viewed as just another day of violence in the
We all agreed that Iraq was a mistake, but disagreed
on why we went there in the first place, more shades
of Vietnam. We also disagreed on how to get out. Their
concerns were valid -- the chaos and carnage we'd be
leaving behind, the terrorists who might follow us
home, and what losing a war would do to America's
psyche and standing abroad.
I told them that bad things did happen in Southeast
Asia when America lost the Vietnam war, including
"re-education camps" and the killing fields of
Cambodia. But at least it was no longer Americans
killing and being killed, and we have now repaired
relations with most of the countries in the region. I
also reminded them that when we lost the Vietnam War,
the "dominoes" did not fall -- the rest of the world
did not go Communist and we ended up winning the Cold
War without firing a shot.
As for the hippie antiwar movement, I said many people
think it damaged the country, but far from tarnishing
our image, the '60s were the last time the rest of the
world was inspired by the spirit of America.
Finally, I said that the tragedy of Vietnam was caused
by American arrogance, and that what hawks call the
Vietnam syndrome is what doves think is the real
lesson of Vietnam -- humility. There are worse things
than losing; it's called a quagmire. We are learning
that lesson anew in Iraq, and hopefully this time it
It was getting late, and I was mentally tabulating the
number of campus, city and state laws I might be in
violation of at that moment and imagining the next
day's D.E. headline -- "Author Caught Cavorting with
"Do any of you guys know a surreptitious route back to
my motel?" I asked.
They directed me up the strip, and at first I thought
they didn't know the meaning of surreptitious. Then it
hit me. "None of you have cars, do you?" I asked.
I found my own way home.