zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

Archive for the tag “John F. Kennedy”

Journey Post 47: A Memorial Day Encounter Remembering American Pie

Note to readers:   I’ve written an essay on the parable of the good Samaritan (called, “Good Neighbor Sam”), which I will post in a week or two.  But since today is Memorial Day, I thought it more appropriate to write about America and those who gave their last full measure of devotion.


Friday night I had an encounter with American Pie.

I’m not referring to a recent series of films but to a classic song written and released in 1971, a retrospective on America in the decade 1959-1969 by Don McLean.  The song is a ballad, a lament about things lost.  It’s not just about the music and how it “died.”

The music is a metaphor for an America and a way of life that disappeared along with the music and died in a real way—at least in the perspective of 1971.  The sad longing to return to a simpler, more innocent time is palpable.  It looked to the time when America had saved the world and savored the happiness of music that made us smile and dance.  It’s a song worth reflecting on.

So why am I writing about this on Memorial Day, the day we remember our war dead?  Because Americans of my generation have a visceral attachment to the song, this ballad of the 1960s, this song expressing how things felt to us as we went forth doing our duty to preserve freedom and justice for our country and for struggling democracies around the world.  But, in the end, it seemed that the fate of Vietnam and the fate of America itself were one and the same: hopeless and not worth our sacrifice.

Many conflate Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  I certainly enjoy being thanked for my service, especially since that never happened until seven years after I came back.  But Memorial Day is about ultimate sacrifice, about losing one’s life for one’s comrades, about dying for our country.

Those of us who returned, however seriously wounded or hurting, did in fact return.  Most of us went back to civilian life, raised families and lived in their communities and led productive lives.  But we were all deeply affected by the experience in some way, some more than others.  In a very real sense, we all died, in part, in some fashion.  We left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left us.

I have my own memories of the men I served with, the men who died, especially my company commander, Capt. David Walsh, (pictured below, KIA June 10, 1969) whose story will always be with me—a man who led a small group out from our perimeter to take down snipers, who singlehandedly killed two of them before himself being brought down by a third.  He almost certainly knew that he wouldn’t come back, but he went out to keep safe the men he loved.

The Vietnam War is not explicitly mentioned in the song, but it hangs over every bit of it like a dark, ominous cloud.  That war was still going hot and heavy when Don McLean first sang the song in 1971.  Most troops would not be out until 1973.  Perhaps most Americans were thinking that we had already lost the war:  Newsman Walter Cronkite told us so.  After all, he was the most trusted man in America, (no irony intended).  He came to that conclusion when he visited Vietnam following the ’68 Tet offensive.

I played and sang American Pie in my first guitar recital on Friday night.  Before that night, I must’ve read and thought about the words every day for over a month.  Recitals like that are mostly about young people (middle and high school age), but the parents seemed at least familiar with the song.  I explained before starting that I had come home from Vietnam in 1969 wounded and disillusioned with an America that I loved: I think I shared the same outlook then as Don McLean did in the song—an America on the verge of self-destructing.

Vietnam may be fading from our collective memory, but it’s deeply embedded in the psyche of everyone who lived the confusing time McLean sang about.

He begins his ballad “a long, long time ago,” referring to “the day the music died,” his take on what happened in February 1959 when his hero Buddy Holly, along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, were lost in a single plane crash.

The song traces the course of the ten following years when we were “on our own,” going through a series of days on which, he says, is “the day the music died”:  After Holly, McLean loses his girl to another guy at a sock hop and knows he’s “out of luck.”  Bob Dylan (the “jester”) steals the “thorny crown” from Elvis (the “King,”).  Lennon reads Marx and the “quartet” (Beatles) practiced while “we sang dirges in the dark” (a possible second reference to the death of JFK).  As the culture and music was more influenced by drugs, the birds (Byrds) are “eight miles high an’ fallin’ fast” like bombs over North Vietnam. The Jester is on the sidelines and the Beatles are becoming Sgt. Pepper, who “refuse to yield” to other groups while the “sweet perfume” of marijuana is pervasive.  (Or, is the reference to “sergeants” to the military controlling demonstrators or the Chicago police dropping “sweet perfume”—tear gas—at the ’68 Democratic convention?)

     Any way you interpret it, the “day the music died” here seems to reveal that the American dream and promise of freedom is dead or dying….

On another day in December, 1969, there was the tragic Stones’ Altamont Speedway concert in which the Hell’s Angels did security, people died, and, McLean says, he saw “Satan laughing with delight….” “Jack flash” (Mick Jager) “sat on a candlestick.”  We were, as he said, “a generation lost in space with no time left to start again.”

McLean is a master at using double entendre.  Many have tried to figure it all out.  Don McLean himself has never explained it all, though he has mentioned some things.

His final verse was a retrospective on the era, and he has a line about the “three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast the day the music died.”  After ‘Nam, I was doing my own search for God, and I kept hearing the question—not, “Is God dead?” as Time Magazine famously asked on its 1967 cover—rather, “Has God finally given up on America?  Is he getting out while the getting’s good?”

After Tet ’68, America seemed to begin its fall into what we later called “Vietnam syndrome”:  God is no longer blessing America, we can’t win a war against a “little” enemy like this, and we don’t ever want to get stuck in a quagmire like that again.  How could America actually lose a war?

American Pie seems (chronologically) to end at Altamont in ’69.  But before the song was released we heard the revelations about My Lai, and  young Americans killing other young Americans at Kent State in 1970.  Those, for me, were the final straw … at least until Nixon’s resignation.

The chorus of a song is generally key to its understanding, to getting the main point:

‘Bye bye miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry,

An’ them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, and singin’,

This’ll be the day that I die…  This’ll be the day that I die.

Don McLean

I’m a couple years younger than Don McLean.  He was 13 when Holly died, I was almost 11.  But many of our experiences were the same.  For example, listening to Dinah Shore, the very popular all-American girl who had her own variety show sponsored by Chevrolet.  The Chevy song she sang played for about a decade.  One heard it everywhere all the time:  “See the U.S.A., in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call.  Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A., America’s the greatest land of all!  On a highway or a road along a levee, everything’s completer in a Chevy….”  This was America, even if you were a Ford man.

When Holly died, he was famous for the song, “That’ll be the day.”  He was singing about his girl, that, if she left him, “that’ll be the day-hay-hay … that I die!”  The good ole boys drinking whiskey and rye were lamenting his death.

Judging by all that Don McLean put into this song, they were lamenting much more: the death of America itself.  While the metaphor of the music standing for America, our way of life and our religion may seem a bit overdrawn to people now, it was very real in 1971.  It was not just a phase that we were going through and got over or grew out of.  Something real died, and those of us who returned from that war at that time know that something died in us as well.

That’s why I’m thinking that, on Memorial Day, it’s very appropriate to remember those of us who came back.  And it’s okay to mourn.  You may not be able to understand what died.  Just know that it did.

I find it greatly ironic for me personally that, in the year I came home (1969), I was just beginning to discover that those “three men I admire most,” as he called the godhead, were not getting out but were very much still around and interested in us personally and individually.  In the year he released American Pie (1971), I became a Christian.  And I began to live.


If you would like to read the complete lyrics of American Pie, you can do so here:  https://web.archive.org/web/20141129095635/http://www.don-mclean.com/viewsong.asp?id=89

journey post 21: Altruism and God

“Altruism” is a word from my high school days.  It was something spoken about often in the early 1960s.  It was an idea stunningly captured in the famous line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

jfk ask not what

When I began to notice the word, I thought it had something to do with being “true.”  And it does, in a way.  Our word comes through French from Latin, alteri huic, “to this other.”  Altruism has to do with disinterested impartiality and selfless concern for others.  It is to do the right thing for the greater good.  So it is about being true—to something outside ourselves.

altruism Peanuts cartoon

Why the language lesson?  Two reasons.  First, it’s a good reminder for me that being selfless is not my first natural tendency.  Secondly, it’s the bottom-line message of conscience:  you know, that little voice (I can still hear Jiminy Cricket singing about it) that occasionally gets through the noise to tell us how we should be treating others.  How we treat others is what the “golden rule” is all about.

CS Lewis Mere Christianity

When I was a young man reading Mere Christianity, I understood from C.S. Lewis about the “law of human nature” (his name for what conscience tells us) that we all violate it.  But back then, I had no clue about the depth of my self-centeredness.  While I eventually acknowledged that I was a sinner needing salvation, I remained blind to much of the hard-core of self-will that would become the genesis of my “zigzag journey.”  God’s patience with me seems even now more incredible because, in so many ways, I have been like Jesus’ disciples in the years before the crucifixion when they were most blatantly jockeying for privileged self-advancement and position in the Kingdom of God.

altruism--no servant greater than master

altruism--washing the feet

I missed a big lesson while reading Lewis in 1970.  I was in such a hurry to get Jesus figured out that I didn’t take enough time to ponder many things Lewis had to say.  As a result, I missed a good half of what the law of human nature had to tell me about the God who wired conscience into the human psyche.  When I put Lewis’ little book down, I still shared the predominant view of God in American culture (even within American Evangelical culture) that God is primarily the fearsome majestic judge upon the throne of heaven, waiting to mete out judgment upon sinners.  There is truth in that picture, but it is only part of the truth….

There is another part made known by conscience—and it took me decades to see that part:  Conscience tells us that we should be disinterestedly selfless (i.e., altruistic) in our actions toward others, so it must be that God greatly values this quality, and if he values it so highly, it must then reflect something about who he is and what he is like.

God is himself selfless.

Come again?  God … selfless?  I have never once thought of God in quite that way, nor have I heard other believers say it this way.  “Selfless”?  It just doesn’t seem to fit in the same sentence with the idea that God jealously guards his glory.  Yet the apostle John wrote in one of his letters (1 John) that “God is light” and “God is love.”  They are the two themes upon which the letter hangs, the basis on which he writes about Christian behavior. “Light” has to do with understanding, purity, truth, and justice—the essence of disinterested impartiality.  Love, as detailed by John in his letter, is all about loving others selflessly and non-hypocritically.  Come to think of it, Christians often have trouble putting those two concepts (light and love) together in living out everyday life.

Lest I be accused of trying to ignore that fearsome God of judgment, consider this:  I often hear this description expressed in terms of what he’s going to do to people (sinners).  Judgment will come; it is an important aspect of Jesus’ teaching that merits our attention.  But the picture of a fearsome God waiting to judge also teaches that God is passionate: he is passionate about good and evil.  He passionately loves one and hates the other.  There is something else that needs to be considered here.  That picture often gets interpreted as saying that God is fiercely eager to rain fire and brimstone on hated sinners.  There is another possibility here (which I personally understand to be what Scripture tells us): that God is waiting to make all things right.  That is a discussion for a later time.

I’ve been reading the first part of a new book by Simon Sinek called Leaders Eat Last, in which Sinek applies to business practice an idea he first noticed in military chow halls:  leaders wait until their people are taken care of first—i.e., a good leader sees to their needs above his own.  I saw the principle in combat during my final days in Vietnam.  On the same day I was wounded, my company commander, Captain David Walsh, died living out that idea.  Capt. Walsh’s section of the perimeter was drawing sniper fire.  He led a small group of men out to get that sniper.  The Captain was the one who went first, found and killed the sniper, then drew out another and killed him.  He himself was finally brought down by a third sniper.  David Walsh’s undaunted courage and willing sacrifice for us, his men, lives on.  He was a “servant-leader.”  His legacy of servant-leadership—putting the lives of his men above his own—was made real to me that day.

altruism--Capt David Walsh altruism--Capt David and Bonnie Walsh

Dennis Anderson (Andy), Michael Cipov (Tommy Tucker), Capt David Walsh, Unk, Unk

Captain David Walsh (Middle picture shows him with his wife, Bonnie.  Bottom picture shows him with the mortar platoon on our final operation.) *  

Jesus once said, “Greater love has no man than this, than that a man should lay down his life for his friends.”  Capt. Walsh did that.

I bring this up because it is a memorable example of altruism, and it tells us something about how we were made to be, something about life, something that is not restricted to the field of battle.  It finds its greatest fulfillment in the mundane routines of our lives.

If it is true that human beings are created “in the image of God,” as Scripture says, then selflessness, that remarkable quality that we see only on occasion in our fellow creatures—must certainly be a reflection of him in us.


*The two top pictures can be found at: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/dwwalsh.htm, along with a copy of his citation for the Distinguished Service Cross.  Bottom photo by Eugene Holland.

a reflection on the idea of America: The Power of Words to Move a Nation

An essay about the legacy of John F. Kennedy as leader.

Kennedys in Dallas

The images haunt us still:  that beautiful couple, smiling, ready to face a bright day so full of promise…the bright pink outfit and pillbox hat…the handsome, youthful visage, forever young…the images and the might-have-beens…a bright, shining, final moment….

You know where it will end, a dark recurring nightmare you want to wake up from before the shots.…  If only they could hear you:  “Don’t go there!”

Gallery of 42 images marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy

The Kennedys with Gov. and Mrs. Connally leave Love Field

Fifty years ago, my mom gave me a beautiful, poster-sized calendar with portraits of all the presidents in small ovals arranged with Washington top center and all the others in order down to the most recent, on a regal blue background.  John F. Kennedy, our 35th President, was located at center bottom.  My hero, Abraham Lincoln, was placed at the center.  I often stood before those faces, gazing upon each—among whom were some of our greatest leaders—pondering the meaning of the American presidency.

This week, I’m thinking on events surrounding the death of a president.  I find it easy to give in to self-pitying nostalgia over the loss of John Kennedy and “Camelot.”  One can make a case for linking that real loss with the remaining trauma of the 1960s.  I want to focus on lessons from his White House tenure that we might learn; these get lost if we see only the glamour, the life cut short, the might-have-beens.

The lessons concern the nature of public service and the nature of presidential leadership.  All seem to agree that Kennedy left certain unfinished tasks.  But they also agree he could inspire and move our nation by his words as few have with a vision of what America is all about, the idea of America….

Had it not been for Dallas, we would be focused this week on the 150th anniversary of another vision, the one cast at Gettysburg, given November 19, 1863. That battle, unknown to Americans then, marked the midpoint of the war and the point after which the South would never again be in a position to win.

Lincoln head

Lincoln gave us great words that day, great not because of their brevity (272), though their brevity enhanced them.  The occasion, the ideas, the delivery, and the genuineness of the conviction and longing they represented gave them power to move men and women.  They also confirm the image of our greatest president.  He spoke briefly, and before many could appreciate their import, he was gone.

Lincoln famously (and modestly) underestimated his “poor power to add or detract” and the impact his few lines would carry:  “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”  We have forgotten that nearly as many Americans died in that one battle as in all the Vietnam war.  And few know the name of the featured speaker for the occasion, nor any of the thousands of words he uttered.  Lincoln’s words continue to remind us who we are and claim to be.

Words spoken today aren’t taken to mean as much as they once were.  We listen skeptically, at best, to our “leaders,” assuming their words are not so forthright as they are wont to have us believe.  We watch them parry questions from news people, noting how adroitly they use words to skirt the answers.

There was a time in our land that, when the President spoke, we would listen carefully, because what he had to say was of importance to everyone in the entire United States.  It was in our interest to know and consider what he said, because he was our leader looking out for our interests more than his own.

Kennedys in car downtown Dallas

I was 15 when President and Mrs. Kennedy rode into Dallas.  I have my own memories of that day, and I’ve spent much of this week pondering its significance.  I mourn that many young people I work with see John F. Kennedy as simply another dead president.  I hope that this week of remembrance may help them think otherwise and arouse their curiosity to probe the meaning of the presidential leadership he modeled.  I hope the message they receive is more than one of national self-pity and fatalism.

Schieffer headSchieffer in Dallas

Left:  Bob Schieffaer hosting “Face the Nation.”  Right:  In Dallas

Watching one special, I was struck by Bob Schieffer’s words.  The venerable CBS newsman was a young newspaper reporter in Dallas on that day.  I heard him mention several times that America was never the same after November 22, 1963.  Others echo that sentiment.  I agree with that, both as historian and as an American who lived the turmoil and malaise of the later 60s.  That is when the events in Dallas were given exclamation points by the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, by My Lai and Kent State.  A couple years following John’s death, we began to learn about the affairs (which I didn’t believe at first), and by the time of Bobby’s death,  my own sense of disillusion had set in:  the optimism and can-do spirit conveyed by JFK turned to pessimism and “can’t-do.”  His vision and the challenge he laid down by his rhetoric now seemed empty, confirmed by my draft invitation from LBJ to go to Vietnam.

I regained a sense of optimism after becoming a Christian in 1971, and time has given new perspective to the Kennedy years.  I (hopefully) see more clearly some things that matter.   In light of the revelations of his unfaithfulness, you might expect me as a Christian to condemn JFK.  I don’t dismiss that cloud over his integrity and character.  However, I have to pause and marvel at the graciousness of Jackie Kennedy who, after all, went into their marriage knowing this about him.  It was she who created the Camelot myth, and she now lies buried alongside him at Arlington, their secrets resting there.

Kennedy head

We are left to ponder John Kennedy’s inspiring words and how he used them to lead this nation.  Were they those of a hypocrite?  I’m convinced not.  Though many were penned by another, we rightly remember them as Kennedy’s own.  He spoke them.  He knew what he wanted to say at the time and used them appropriately and judiciously as few others have.  His words inspired us, gave us courage and hope.  In saying them, he made them ours.  He gave them to us, as others have, and they are now ours.

Nikita S. Khrushchev;John F. Kennedy

Nikita Khruschev and John Kennedy in Vienna

JFK’s words reflect the fact that he was a serious student of history.  He had an understanding of its direction and its dangers.  He often quoted Khruschev about the danger of nuclear war, in which “the living will envy the dead.”  He traveled extensively as a young man (he had money, you know), and was fascinated by international relations and wrote his Harvard thesis which became a book, Why England Slept.  Watching England sleep while Hitler built helped him when it came time to stand his ground (and to provide a compromise) when face to face with nuclear holocaust over Cuba.  It also helped that he had just read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about how miscalculations led to World War I.  Determined to avoid nuclear conflagration, he was able to negotiate a test ban treaty.

Kennedy Why England slept               The Guns of August

JFK was raised to honor the nobility of public service.  One who enjoyed the blessing of God to gain riches had a responsibility to give back.  John Kennedy lived that out (however imperfectly), as did many in the past century who were from wealthy families.  We may envy their money, but we do better to emulate their service.  Kennedy may have finagled his way into the Navy by his father’s influence, but he quitted himself well when the need arose to lead his men in battle.

This notion of public service gave meaning and legitimacy to his Inaugural words calling us to dedication and commitment:  “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  It was behind his creation of the Peace Corps and its call to service, and in part behind his call to go to the moon by the end of the 60s.  Americans responded.

Kennedy speaking Inauguration

Words are one of the simplest tools that a leader has at his disposal.  He may not be a great orator, but presidents can enlist the aid of great speech writers.  John Kennedy did.  They wrote what he wanted to say, and he had a vision that was communicated clearly, memorably, and eloquently.  Americans today might cringe at his Inaugural call to “pay any price, bear any burden” because we seem to have borne all the burdens of the world for the last 50 years.  But there is no question those words were appropriate to their time—and no, I don’t know what he might have done in Vietnam.

Consider one speech he gave to the American people (he did not use that phrase as we often hear it today to close a speech).  It was his “Report to the American People on Civil Rights,” June 11, 1963.  The speech is 13 minutes, 41 seconds of some of the most compelling and morally right words you will ever hear.  You will note that the final couple of minutes are different: the camera pulled away, as though expecting him to finish.  Instead, he continued on, never once looking at his prepared statement.  He was, as one said, “winging it” during one of the most significant speeches he ever made.

Watch it. It will give you some idea of the moral authority he carried when he spoke to us.  He spoke it knowing the stiff opposition he was facing in the South at that time, and his bill indeed stalled in Congress at the time of his death.  President Johnson (of Texas) used the memory of JFK to get it passed.

Here is the link from the Kennedy Library:  http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/LH8F_0Mzv0e6Ro1yEm74Ng.aspx

Let me leave you with the last portion of Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg.  John Kennedy may have been killed by an “insignificant man,” as some say.  This has been so difficult to accept that many have insisted that there must have been a conspiracy.  But John Kennedy died for our nation as much as the men at Gettysburg.  Read these words with that in mind:

“… we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Adlai Stevenson once said: “Your representatives serve you right.”  Let us then seek leaders who will be dedicated to the public service, not because they say it but because they’ve lived it.  Let us find leaders who lead by setting a vision articulated in words that will move us to follow his example.  They don’t have to copy the Kennedy style, but they do need to copy the substance.  This is the role of a leader.

(To those who expected this post to be about C.S. Lewis.  There’s a tie-in here:  Lewis died of liver failure on the very day John Kennedy was shot.)

journey post 14: Grammar School of Freedom


If you’ve seen the movie “Braveheart,” you likely sat transfixed as I did, contemplating both the horror of the death faced by Scottish warrior William Wallace and the indomitable spirit of the man whose lips emitted that final cry.  What men and women are willing to do to secure freedom for their own people has historically called forth the best impulses of the human heart and mind in self-giving sacrifice—and still does.  That same spirit of sacrifice shown by those who fought World War II is why we call them “The Greatest Generation.”

I am a child of the 1960s.  I remember sitting transfixed, contemplating that spirit as I read stories and watched movies or heard people speak of that generation.  They were not so far removed from us then as now, for they were our parents, our teachers, neighbors, uncles and aunts, still in the prime of life.

The Sixties was the grammar school of my generation.  Grammar school (or, elementary school) is the time when young children soak in the basic structural pieces of learning (the 3 R’s) that enable them to explore and think and verbalize the world around them.  The beauty of the system as it was originally designed was that these building blocks would become internalized in such a way that those basics could be utilized without much conscious thought while continuing to learn.

And so it was that the stories of routine courage and doing the right thing to support the war effort (in jobs and “victory gardens” and innumerable other small acts of selflessness) was also a “grammar school”—those stories penetrated our minds and became such a part of our thinking that words such as “sacrifice” and “service” became closely associated with the word “freedom.”

It was a unique time in which to come of age.  I graduated from Eagle Rock High (Los Angeles) in the summer of 1966.  When I think of the Sixties, my head is usually crowded with pictures of turmoil, trouble, and tension:  the civil rights movement and people being beaten by police and attacked by dogs, more casual sex, routine drugs, burning cities, anti-war protests, and, of course, our nation’s time (and my time) in Vietnam.  Those pictures reflect the cultural memory of an era.

But it did not begin that way….  Contrary to that turmoil-filled snapshot, the decade began with calls to serve and to sacrifice, calls to selfless ideals worthy of the children of our parents.

The “Greatest Generation” had beaten back the Nazis and made the world safe to dream again.  It was a time of high idealism, fresh starts.  The words of our young President, himself a war hero, rang in our ears: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  This was not simply great rhetoric, but precisely captured the spirit of the time.  Our teachers in high school echoed the idealism sparked by his calls to excellence and the vigor with which he pursued life.   We were ready to answer the call to explore and conquer a “new frontier.”  The Peace Corps and civil rights legislation were its natural accompaniment.

jfk ask not what

We were inspired, too, by freedom.  “Let freedom ring,” as Dr. King proclaimed the dream from the steps of the Lincoln shrine.  Folk songs also proclaimed the themes:  freedom and justice for all, life and peace, help for the poor and oppressed and uneducated:  “How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?…”  Freedom was on the move throughout Africa and elsewhere: colonialism was dead, it seemed.  Castro was a hero as he led his rebel bands against the powerful dictator Bautista.


Yet freedom took on new, darker, meanings as the decade progressed.  The “free speech movement,” begun at Berkeley in 1964, was a harbinger of a new sense of personal freedom, an individualized independence whose time had come.  It fit right in with our grammar school of freedom that seemed to put its imprimatur upon this more personal freedom.  There was an increasing openness to free love (sex without commitment), and drugs (not so free)…. Even the sex life of our dead President, whispered at first then emblazoned in the tabloids, lent tacit approval (while dampening our idealism).

In mid-decade, Dusty Springfield had a huge hit that reflected the emerging acceptance of a more individualistic form of freedom (and love):

“You don’t have to say you love me

Just be close at hand

You don’t have to stay forever

I will understand

Believe me, believe me

I can’t help but love you

But believe me

I’ll never tie you down.”*

Dusty Springfield you don't have to say

“You don’t have to say you love me” was probably Dusty’s signature song.  It was also a signature song of the 60’s promise of freedom:  “I’ll never tie you down.”  It was the new definition: “I am free when I am free from impediments or obstacles to do whatever I want” (Tim Keller).   The definition would be reflected in our increasing consumerism and insistence on personal rights, and our growing litigiousness.  Hippies became Yuppies and generations since are labeled with variations of “Me.”

While “freedom” was shifting from other-centered idealism to a more me-centered practicality, our idealism was dying.  Being in Southeast Asia at first seemed to be about freedom, but the value of sacrificing for freedom and our early idealism got bogged down in a quagmire that promised only more body bags and mistrusted body counts.  1968 was the nadir of the decade.  The Tet Offensive left us stunned, and our trusted news anchor Walter Cronkite returned from a visit to South Vietnam with the verdict that we could not win.  LBJ announced he would not run again, and the real prospect of a second President Kennedy was exciting.  But it was not to be.  Our idealism and hope finally crashed to the floor on a Memphis motel balcony and a Los Angeles hotel kitchen, and politics-as-usual retook the floor….  “Where have all the flowers gone?” asked Peter, Paul, and Mary.  “Bye Bye, Miss American Pie….”

Cronkite combat

Cronkite re Vietnam

You may not agree with my analysis of the decade.  Granted, I’m too close to it.  I don’t claim it as objective history, and I’m more concerned anyway with painting a picture here of my own perspective, my context, for the statements I made at the end of last post.  You’re likely wondering what the connection is between all the foregoing and C.S. Lewis, the “law of human nature,” the “great unease,” and the stuff about missing the implications of that law and my setting myself up to buy into a legalistic version of American evangelical Christianity.  I have a lot to share about that in the next two posts.  The connection is our desire for freedom:  We were designed for freedom.  But as the 60s drew to a close, I felt very unfree, though I was inceasingly intrigued by a promise that Jesus made: “If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).  I was intrigued, but would remain puzzled about it for some 30+ years.  That’s why I must write about it here before pronouncing a wrap on Lewis.

In the 1960s, we were chasing freedom, but we ended in bondage.  Chasing freedom, I bought into more legalism.  The Church did not make me a legalist: I already was that, long before.  Legalism and its concomitant, the performance mindset, was a problem for me and for Christianity.  But it was not peculiar to me or to the Church.  It is a problem endemic to us all.

*English lyrics by Vicki Wickham, http://www.lyricsfreak.com/d/dusty+springfield/you+dont+have+to+say+you+love+me_20044060.html, (accessed 8/28/13)

Post Navigation