JFK Dies, a Barrel of Tequila, and Political Suppression… Berkeley in the 60s

In my last post from my Peace Corps book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam that I am revising and blogging, I wrote about the growing unrest on the UC Berkeley Campus in 1963. Today I finish up my semester and move on into 1964.

John Kennedy signs legislation creating the Peace Corps. (Photo from the JFK Library.)

Without student government concerns, Berkeley became more doable and even fun. I disappeared into the library for long hours whipping out term papers, devouring books and becoming a serious student. The end of my first semester approached. Christmas vacation was coming. There would be a break in the endless studies, a time for long walks in the woods and more time for Jo Ann. 

One crisp fall day in November, I came blinking out of the library to a brilliant sun and a hushed silence. Students and faculty were emptying out of classes. A young woman with long dark hair was standing on the library steps with tears streaming down her face.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” I asked.

“They’ve shot the President in Dallas,” she replied as her voice broke.

John F. Kennedy was dead. It was November 23, 1963. The young president who was standing up against racism in the South, the man who had created the Peace Corps, the leader who had called for international justice and inflamed people’s hopes worldwide, had been shot down in the streets of Dallas. And with his death, some of the hope he had created died; it died on the Berkeley Campus that day, and it died in me. Each of us lost something of the dream that things could be better, that we as individuals could be better. School stopped and we headed for the nearest TVs, newspapers and radio stations. Time and again I watched the car speeding away with the wounded President, watched Walter Cronkite announce that the President was dead, and watched as Lyndon Johnson was sworn in. It was a day etched into the collective memory of our generation.

Thanksgiving arrived and Christmas followed. Somehow, I worked up the nerve to ask Jo Ann to marry me. It would be a long engagement with marriage taking place after graduation, a year and a half away. The engagement ring would have to wait for me to dig up the money. She cried and said yes. It was a bright moment in an otherwise bleak year.

The battle between the Administration and the student activists continued during the spring semester while I focused on studies. On March 3, 1964, I turned 21 and became, according to law, an adult. Soon I would have to decide what I was going to do with my life. But on that particular day, I went to La Val’s Pizza and consumed far too much beer. Summer brought the resumption of my laundry route between Placerville and Lake Tahoe.

A new living arrangement greeted me when I returned to Berkeley that fall. Before summer break, two of my dorm-mates, Cliff Marks and Jerry Silverfield, had agreed to share an apartment with me our senior year. Landlords had a captive student population to exploit so prices were high. We ended up with a small kitchen, bathroom, living room, and bedroom. Things were so tight in the bedroom that Cliff and I had a bunk bed. He got the top. I would later wonder why this was superior to dorm life. We had more responsibility and less privacy. 

We christened the apartment by consuming a small barrel of tequila Cliff had brought back from his summer of sharpening his Spanish skills in Mexico. Later that night, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and watched myself drool in a hallucinogenic haze, totally fascinated by the process. Cliff’s reaction was to talk nonstop. I’m not sure it was important whether anybody was listening. I drifted off and when I woke back up he was still talking. It led me to kick his mattress from my lower vantage point. This broke the bed and brought Cliff and mattress tumbling down on me. We roared with laughter and Cliff ended up sleeping on the floor. We all suffered appropriately the next day. 

While Cliff, Jerry and I were recovering from our well-deserved headaches, the Administration moved decisively to eliminate on-campus political activities. There would be no more organizing of community-oriented demonstrations from campus, no more collecting of money from students to support causes, and no more controversial speakers on campus without administrative oversight and control. The Bancroft-Telegraph entrance free speech area was out of business, closed down. That incredible babble of voices advocating a multitude of causes would be heard no more.

The campus exploded.

Next Monday: The birth of the Free Speech Movement as student activists, advocacy groups, and the Administration clash in an ever-increasing spiral of conflict that involved more and more of the students and faculty.

NEXT BLOGS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: Peggy and I return to Pt. Reyes where we go for a cow walk in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

12 thoughts on “JFK Dies, a Barrel of Tequila, and Political Suppression… Berkeley in the 60s

  1. I guess all of us who were in college at the time remember the exact moment we heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. But as big as that event was for you, I enjoyed reading about your proposal of marriage. It’s hard for me to remember that far back, but those two events in my own life are clear as bells!

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