I graduated from high school in 1961 as a budding Young Republican. College changed my perspective.
I spent my first two years at Sierra, a small, rural community college nestled in the rolling foothills east of Sacramento. I then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, the flash point of worldwide student unrest in the 60s. Sierra liberalized my view of the world; Berkeley radicalized it.
Three things happened at Sierra that changed my political views. The first took place in the first hour on my first day at school.
On Being a Minority
The faculty had arranged for a speaker to kick off the school’s welcome and orientation. He was a Chinese man who stood up in front of a sea of white faces and smiled like he had access to secrets we didn’t.
“You think I look funny?” our speaker asked with a grin. His question was greeted by nervous laughter. As naive as we were, we still knew enough to be made uncomfortable by such a question.
“Well I think you look funny,” he went on to much more laughter, “and there are a lot more of me who think you look funny than there are of you who think I look funny.”
It jolted my perspective. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the South in the early 60s and I was sympathetic with its objectives. Providing people with equal rights regardless of race, sex, religion or other arbitrary factor seemed like the correct thing to do. I also had a vague concept that we all lose when we limit a person or group’s ability to succeed because of prejudice.
But I had never perceived of myself as being a minority. Instead, I belonged to an exclusive club. In 1961 white males dominated the US and the US dominated the world. It was easy to assume that this was how things should be.
The fact that it might be otherwise put a new spin on the issue. What if we ended up in a situation where we were in the minority and lacked power? I added enlightened self-interest to my list of reasons for supporting equal rights. They might be the only protection we had.
On Facing Nuclear Oblivion
The second event was one of the most scary our generation would face. All of our lives we had been raised under the threat of a nuclear cloud. We were constantly treated to photographs and television coverage of massive, doomsday explosions and their tell-tale clouds.
Growing up in the 50s meant growing up paranoid. In elementary school, we even practiced drills where we would hide under our desks and assume a fetal position for when the big bomb hit.
Atom bombs, which could destroy whole cities and kill millions of people, weren’t massive enough. We needed bigger bombs and we needed more. It was important that we could kill everyone in the world several times over and blast ourselves and the rest of life into times that would make the so-called Dark Ages seem like a Sunday picnic in the park.
None of this was our fault, of course. We had the evil Russian Communists and their desire to rule the world to blame. “We will bury you!” Khrushchev threatened and we believed him. Losing a soul to communism was worse than losing a soul to the devil. Better Dead than Red was the motto of people whose fingers were very close to the nuclear button.
The closest we have come to the nuclear holocaust took place during two terrifying weeks in late October 1962. I, along with most of the student body and faculty at Sierra College, sat tethered to the radio in the Campus Center as our nation teetered on the edge of nuclear abyss.
It all came about because a cigar chomping right-wing dictator we liked was replaced by a cigar chomping left-wing dictator we didn’t. It was known as the Cuban Missile Crisis and has its own headlines in the history books as being a highlight of the Cold War.
Castro and his revolution had provided a toehold for Communism in the western Hemisphere. Jack Kennedy waged a crusade to get rid of him that included an alleged assassination attempt using Mafia hit men and the invasion fiasco known as the Bay of Pigs.
Castro called on Khrushchev for help and Russia responded by offering nuclear missiles. This made the folks in Washington rightfully nervous. Kennedy set up a blockade of Cuba. It was here that things got dicey. Fingers hovered over the launch buttons.
Fortunately, Khrushchev blinked. Aided by promises that the US wouldn’t invade Cuba and that we would remove our missiles from Turkey, Russia retrieved its nuclear missiles and we entered our decades long stare-down with Castro.
From that point on in my life, I became convinced that here had to be solutions to solving international differences beyond blowing each other off the map. Nation states rattling sabers was one thing; nation states rattling nuclear bombs and other forms of mass destruction was something else.
On Becoming Green
Another concept I was introduced to at Sierra was environmental activism. For this, I owe thanks to Danny Langford. Dan liked to talk and could fit more words into a minute than I could five. One Monday morning he proudly informed me that he had spent his weekend pulling up surveyor stakes in a new development called El Dorado Hills.
“You did what?” I asked in a shocked and disapproving voice. Pulling up surveyor stakes was malicious vandalism.
“I pulled up stakes to discourage a developer from building houses,” he responded in greater detail assuming it would make sense to me.
It didn’t. Why would someone want to discourage a developer? My Republican roots were offended to the core.
“Why would you pull a destructive stunt like that?” I wanted to know as I pictured several days of surveyor work going down the drain.
“It’s a beautiful area,” Dan responded, “covered with oak trees and grass. They are going to cut down the trees, plant houses, and pave over the grass.”
Suddenly what Dan was talking about made sense. I wasn’t about to join him on one of his destructive forays but his comments made me think about how fast we were paving over California.
Many of the wooded areas I had wandered as a kid a few years earlier had already met their demise at the business end of a bulldozer. Progress was how this destruction was defined and progress was a sacred American tradition. For the first time in my life, I questioned its value.
Possibly there were other costs that needed to be considered and weighed in our blind rush toward the future. It would be nine years before I made the leap into being a full-time environmental activist but the seed had been planted.
So here I was in mid-1963, part internationalist, a future environmentalist, and a Civil Rights advocate. I had definitely made a left turn out of the right lane. I figured I was ready for Berkeley. Not.
Next blog: I am held at gunpoint.