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Hangin' with the Dormies

© 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 questions.

"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 book.

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 Eve.

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 Vietnam.

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 'hood."

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 will stick.

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 Dormies."

"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.

They shrugged.

I found my own way home.