Crossing the Atlantic Chapter 4

In February of 1964, during a season of serious storms in the north Atlantic, we got on the SS America, and headed out of New York harbor for Liverpool in England. Our ship’s quarters were more like a locker than a room, miniscule, with four bunks and a sink. We were stuffed in there with a German who never washed and an East Indian guy who never stopped throwing up. When the German wasn’t pissing in the sink, the Hindu was puking in it. Naturally, this made us want to spend as much time as possible outside the room. And that wasn’t easy because the sea was huge with mammoth rollers, the aftermath of some ferocious storm. We could hardly stand up to walk. In the lounge, the easy chair I was sitting in all of a sudden took off across the room, sliding a good fifty feet. In the bar, all the bottles broke. At dinner there was a board around the table to keep the dishes from falling off.

          This is how we crossed the Atlantic, full of hope for the romantic adventures we would have and full of youth and positive forward motion. I think the biggest fallacy in my thinking at that time was the notion that somehow great things would happen on their own, that I would be recognized by the unknown masses for the talented and wonderful person I was. Now, in my advanced years, I understand that a nineteen-year-old doesn’t get much consideration from the world. But I was nineteen then and the center of the universe! If I could just get myself in an interesting situation, I thought life would provide. And of course, it does provide and did provide but not in the ways expected.

           Mark went on to Paris and I stayed in London to negotiate, through a lengthy correspondence with my parents, for release of my savings so I could buy a motorcycle. This was difficult work for me because my mother, who had always given me a very long leash, extracted a solemn promise from me a few years earlier that I would never ask for a motorcycle. As a young woman she had seen an accident and a boy’s brains spilled on the pavement. Unfortunately, young men don’t have much compassion for their mothers.

           A great deal of my time in London was spent finding motorcycle shops and looking over the motorcycles, BSA’s and Triumphs, the classic English bikes famous throughout the world. My heart went out to Triumph and particularly the 650 cc Triumph Bonneville with low road racing handlebars, spoked wheels, a big head lamp, twin carburetors and kick-start ignition. The one I wanted had a gold and white gas tank.

Zionist

         We grew up as Zionists in New York in the years after WWII. Even though there were few Jews in our town, Pelham Manor, the few we knew were smart and decent. Micky Schwerner came from our town, went to high school with my oldest sister. He was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan  in Philadelphia, Mississippi while trying to help black people register to vote.

          That is incidental. What is not incidental is the fact that, as a little boy, my first exposure to naked bodies, other than my parents, was seeing piles of them pushed into ditches by bulldozers. They were the murdered victims of Nazism. Those newsreels were played over and over and over again.

          As I got older and more involved with New York City and photography and the arts, I met more and more Jewish people. Some had numbers still tattooed on their arms, from the concentration camps.

          At that time Leon Uris’s book, Exodus was popular and many of us were caught up in the idealism and excitement of Israel, a new homeland for the Jewish people after the holocaust.

          We all admired David Ben-Gurion and Gold Meir and many others who led the early country and defended it passionately.

          There never has been co-equality and hardly even co-existence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What I know about Palestinians is that they hate the Jews and want to “push them into the sea.” Since the Israelis are highly developed and disciplined, have all the weapons, and know how to use them, it seems to me that the Palestinians should adjust their attitude.

          Not only do the Israelis hold all the cards but they also control the water. This might be the most important of all. Israel is a beautiful, lush country and Palestine is a desert by comparison.

          One card Israel does not  have is the suicide card. Apparently, the one thing Palestinians can do is blow themselves up and take as many Jews with them as possible. I still remember the “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in my thinking. A pregnant Arab woman got into a big Jewish wedding and blew up about fifty people including herself and her unborn child. Any kind of sympathy I might have had for the Palestinian cause disappeared.

          Currently there has been more violence in the West Bank and Gaza, ugly violence, with lots of people killed and many buildings destroyed. I am always shocked to think of all the effort it took to build those buildings, and now to have to build them again.

          It is ever the same. What could possibly change it? As long as the Israelis think the Palestinians hate them and want to destroy them, they will keep making sure that can’t happen.

          Note: Some of my friends were shocked by my thoughts, “dismayed” was a word I heard. It is only my perspective, one perspective, but also a history of how I came to feel the way I do. That is all we have, to express it as we feel it and experience it. There is dualism before non-dualism to be philosophical about it.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

It’s All Bullshit

   The writer and activist, Grace Paley (RIP) was someone much admired by almost everyone in the progressive/left community. We knew her in Vermont and one day a group of us were rehashing the tribulations of the peace and freedom movements of the sixties. In response to something she said, I replied, “I am too cynical,” to which she countered with, “Don’t be cynical; it’s too expensive.” I have thought about that often over the years.

          It is so easy to give up on the world, to think it’s all bullshit, that everything is a lie, that money and power control it all, and there is no truth either knowable or worth seeking. Are there only two choices? Is it either “all bullshit” or, for the new-age person, “all is one.”  My take is “Fuck you, it’s all bullshit. Fuck you, all is one.” To me, those easy outs, either one of them, is avoidance, giving up on the struggle to resolve the contradictions of life.

          One of the brightest guys I knew growing up, John,  became a deep hippie. When I knew him, he was funny and kind. As he got more and more alienated from the establishment and more “out there” in hippy land he became cynical and less kind. He died at age thirty-nine.

          Some years back I met his younger brother, Tom, for dinner in New York. Seeing me, he cried because I had known John well and we were close. Tom said, “His last two years were tough. They were not good years. He got to believe it was all bullshit.”

“Yeah,” Tom continued, “but you still have to take a shit every day.”

          We are in a body, stuck in it but stuck in it for a reason. What’s that? There is a spiritual thinker and writer I like very much, Richard Rohr. He put it like this: “The people who hold the contradictions and resolve them in themselves are the saviors of the world. They are the only real agents of transformation, reconciliation, and newness.”

          Nobody said this is easy. If it was easy, it probably would not be worth doing. A Trappist priest gave me a small Dhammapada, sayings of the Buddha. It has a triangular copper bookmark and on that page: “Few cross over the river. Most are stranded on this side. On the riverbank, they run up and down.”

Ricker Winsor, Surabaya, Indonesia

Things Changed with the President’s Death Chapter 3

          I don’t know how much that had to do with the next thing that happened in my life, maybe a lot. It shook things up, things that were not too solidly in place to begin with. In any case, there was malaise in me, a restlessness and dissatisfaction with the trajectory of my life which, if I kept going, would probably bring me most of the things I already knew from my own family, monogamy and solvency. ”Is that all there is?” That was my question. And I wasn’t alone. There was another guy, Mark, chomping at the bit for some other experience, some adventure. And he was a smart guy, someone who could articulate the inchoate longings of the post-adolescent condition with great eloquence.

          “This shit sucks,” said Mark.

          “Yeah, I know.”

          “Fuckin A, this school is pretty shit too.”

          “Yeah, I know.”

          “Barry and Murray and I were the smartest guys in our school. They went to Yale and I got Brown.”

          “Yeah, it sucks. I could have gone to Harvard. They wanted me but since my father went there… I shoulda gone. Don’t know what I was thinking about. We got to do something else. Take a break. We’ve been in school our whole lives and don’t know shit about the world.”

          “You’re right. Let’s think about taking some time off when this semester ends.”

          “Yea,” I said. Like Jack Kerouac, we could go on the road, maybe to Europe. Isn’t that the place where a young man gets experience, becomes a man?”

          “No Rick, that’s the Marines you’re thinking of.”

          “Fuck the Marines,” I said. “The first asshole who yells at me I’ll punch in the mouth.”

          “That would be a real bad idea, Rick.”

          “I know that,” I said, “which is why I won’t be joining the Marines.”

          “In that case maybe Paris is a better option after all.”

          “Yeah, ‘April in Paris’ and beautiful girls, free love. It did a lot for Hemingway. I want to be a writer but a writer needs experience. I don’t want the war experience he had but I will take the pussy experience.”

          “Fuckin A,” Mark said. “I have cousins in France we could visit. That would be a good bet for me. I’ve been studying French for years.”

          “Yeah man, and you’re real good at it. That would be a selling point since, if we do this, we have to make it sound like it makes sense to our families. I already spent a summer in Mexico tuning up my Spanish. Probably I would head for Spain and keep going with it there.”

          “Sounds like a plan. I guess we’re seekers after the truth or at least a different truth than we know so far. The road less traveled has got to be more interesting than the one we’re on now.”

          “The suburban life I grew up in never did much for me.” I said. “My sisters and I are junior beatniks anyway. It’s just the way we are really. We don’t care about the social shit we’re supposed to care about.”

          And the conversation went on like that and gave us energy and focus. We just wanted something else, even if we didn’t know exactly what it was. And we wanted it enough to           jump into the unknown, ready or not. Our excitement and youthful optimism were contagious. We polished up our salesmanship skills and miraculously, despite their misgivings, our families came to believe this was a worthwhile adventure. We were to take a year off and explore Europe.

The Catcher in the Rye Chapter 2

          Back in boarding school where I had been cooped up learning academic skills, the book of the era was Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Like the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, I felt that the whole show was flawed and phony. Like him, I yearned to find out what was real and I was ready to take some risks to find out.

          Once I got to college, I stayed between the lines of conformity but ventured out intellectually. I wrote a paper about the Communist Party of America and attended their presidential convention held in a decrepit building on the west side of midtown Manhattan. The presidential candidate was a half black/half white guy whose name I don’t remember. There were very few people there. I remember that I stood out. I definitely remember that. Then I wrote a paper about Malcolm X, somebody nobody in the white world had heard about unless, like me, they had a sister who subscribed to Ebony Magazine. That paper made me famous in the Sociology Department for ten minutes or so. I believe it is still in the archive there. So, even though I was still an Ivy League preppy, I was leaving those values behind.

          On the most memorable day of my freshman year at college I walked across the campus of Brown University and down Angel Street where my psychology class was soon to begin. This was a giant lecture class taught by a little Mr. Peepers-type man with a few strings of gray/blond hair plastered on his bald pate, a luminary in the statistics branch of psychology, the dullest aspect of psychology at least for me and most of the other students as well.

          Disappointment hung over the lecture hall like a dripping miasma. Endless rows of Pembroke girls wearing coke bottle glasses sharpened their pencils ready to attack the impenetrable material with their stratospheric IQs. No subject was too dull to keep them on the losing side of the bell curve! Just before class, my girlfriend, Charlene, met me on the street in front of the psych building. She knew my schedule but had never intercepted me like this before.

          “Hi, what’s up?” I said.

          “President Kennedy has been shot.”

          “What? Are you kidding? This is bullshit. Everybody loves the president. Is he ok?”

          I couldn’t imagine that he was shot. Things like that didn’t happen at that time. He was the hope of our generation, the promise of good things, good changes in our world, brotherly love, civil rights, maybe even free sex, which would be a fine improvement. It was a shock; it just didn’t compute in my head.

          “Ok Charlene, he is shot but he will be ok, right?”

          “No, he is not ok Rick. They didn’t say he is dead but he is definitely not ok.”

          So much for the psych class. We just walked together down to a local diner, Greg’s, and sat in a booth drinking coffee and listening to the radio with a lot of other people who had heard about it. We all listened not knowing what to do or say. And then the word came. “The president is dead.”

The Air Conditioned Nightmare Chapter 1

Dawn broke gray and silent on another dreary London day. A cold March rain hit my face and drizzled down my neck as I snuck past my landlady’s apartment and out the door and onto the street where my new Triumph motorcycle waited. I was ready for my escape. I was just nineteen years old and I was ready for adventure. It was 1964.

          In the early nineteen sixties, America was the ruler of the world. Compared with the other countries involved in WWII we came out unscathed and ready to rock and roll economically and in every other way. The next generation after the war enjoyed prosperity, solid middle-class status, TVs, washing machines, cheap gasoline and big cars. My two sisters and I were born into all of that and we embraced it.

           But the human spirit is always trying to break out. In the midst of all this gray-flannel normalcy and wealth, white shirts and ties, a counter culture began to develop. Jazz, the beat poets, abstract painting, were all part of a spirit breaking out of the mold insisting on its uniqueness, its independence, “total harmony and total diversity,” as Edmond Swedenborg thought of it. The “total diversity” aspect was what interested us and people like us, the “rebels without a cause.” 

          In 1961, led by our oldest sister, Ann, we started hanging out in Greenwich Village, in New York City, downtown Manhattan, at the Gaslight Café and the Bitter End and the Café Wha. MacDougal Street was a different world teaming with life, clatter, and bang, offbeat, imaginative and dangerous, too, since people there were not following the same rules we knew. We couldn’t get enough of it.

          Mary, the next sister, started dating Tom Paxton, the folk singer. I was about sixteen when all this started so I just kept my mouth shut and absorbed it all, the wildness and adventure of it. My focus was on learning how to play the guitar. Beyond the guitar, which I struggled to learn, I absorbed the politics too. The freedom rides to the South to help with voter registration for disenfranchised blacks had begun. Civil rights turned culture upside down, first in the South and then in the North. A classmate of Ann’s was killed down there. He was Mickey Schwerner, one of the first white casualties of the movement.

          The war in Vietnam started slowly without anyone’s noticing for a while. Gradually, the draft for the Army became a more serious concern. Phil Ochs sang passionately from the little stage at the Gaslight, “I Ain’t ‘a Marchin’ Any More.” The Scottish poet, Ewan McCall, wrote a song called “The Ballad of a Carpenter” that portrayed Jesus as the leader of a socialist movement. Many forces conspired to bring down the status quo which Henry Miller called the “Air-Conditioned Nightmare.”