My sophomore year in college continued in the tradition of my freshman year. Socially, I was golden. Academically, I counted on short bursts of manic studying with equal parts dumb luck and using my charm whenever I could. By spring, I was squeaking by. Barely.
I looked like the same girl who had arrived on campus two years before. My wardrobe of choice was one of the miniskirts my mother had made me, a matching headband, and a blouse I was sure rendered me “cute.” I slept every night with my hair in rollers so big it was amazing I didn’t throw my spine out of alignment.
April 30, 1970, at the tail end of sophomore year, I decided to get serious about grades. This Hail Mary maneuver happened every semester, but I sensed I was in more trouble than usual. I was studying. But then I got hungry and walked to the Student Union for a slice of pizza.
There was a crowd fixated on the television there. I couldn’t see the screen.
“What is it?” I asked the person next to me.
“Nixon just invaded Cambodia.”
Lots of short sentences have changed the course of my life. “Let’s get married,” was one. “You’re pregnant,” was one. “Try it,” was one.
“Nixon just invaded Cambodia” is up there with all of them.
Here’s where I go off on a little tangent about my generation’s place in history. This is what makes Baby Boomers annoying to anyone who came before or after us. But the truth is, when we were teenagers, so much came shooting at us all at once. Things gave way.
The war had been going on since we were in junior high school. Most of us knew someone — or knew someone who knew someone — whose life had been thrown into utter chaos because of it. Some had a closer view of the loss. Some were the lost.
All of this happened: Four girls killed in a Birmingham Church. Protestors crossing the Pettus Bridge. Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney. The March on Washington. Stokely Carmichael rose up and shouted “Black Power” for the first time.
My senior year in high school witnessed the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Robert Kennedy nine weeks later. Trusting the universe, something 1950s kids were really good at, became harder to do.
And as women, the role we’d been taught to believe was coming our way was not coming our way, it turned out. We would not get married weeks after college graduation. We would not become housewives and have babies in our early 20s, the way our mothers had. And we’d have a lot more sex. Our mothers did not like that part at all. So we felt jubilant some of the time and guilty the rest.
As soon as Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia that night, several groups — all with differing agendas — started forming outside, loud and angry. They ranged from “America, Love it or Leave it” to a less structured group chanting “Drop Acid, Not Bombs!” And a few in between, with messages harder for me to glean. It was a political smorgasbord. I had a lot of catching up to do.
In the next few days, I listened to speeches and read as much as I could. I irritated friends by lifting slogans, sometimes complete paragraphs, from works I didn’t fully understand. I wrote my parents terrible letters about how horrified I was that we were middle class. My mother wrote back: “Would you rather be upper class or lower class?” and I screamed at her into the phone that she’d missed the entire point — in fact she missed every point of my entire life.
Cortland, like almost every campus in America, had upended. We were officially on strike. I had a fleeting moment of worry about my grades. As always, I’d been counting on a miraculous showing during exam week to carry me through. Finals wouldn’t happen now.
I had to put aside childish worries, like grades or what my parents thought. I had more serious commitments now, a revolution to join. I jumped. No parachute.
[Next Thursday: Love in the Revolution]