By Lloyd Agte
In the Backwash of the '60s.
Mysterious forces seem to be at work in the connecting up of two personalities. Such was the case of my connection with Dan Perin, the founder and chief organizer of The Whole Life Learning Center in Denver at the time. We met at a Humanistic Psychology conference in Littleton, a northern suburb of Denver, in 1974, if memory serves correctly. I was an instructor at Casper College at the time, in English, and my wife had recently gotten a job in Casper as a social worker. She had learned of the Humanistic Psychology conference, which, it turned out, was an organization of people in the helping and mental professions who had been infected with the liberating New Age radical experiments in living and self-help medicine and the happy harvest of the explosion of radical thinking concepts that arose from the social revolutions of the1960s.
As it turned out, I was totally ripe for the New Age thinking that the conference participants were putting forth, a partial explanation of which follows.
Stress is Stress: PTSD
Dial forward some sixteen years later. It is May of 1990, in a meet-up with my estranged wife (separated but not legally) at Kent State University for a gathering of old radicals who had been involved in anti-war politics before and after the murder of four students by the Ohio National Guard at an anti-war rally on the Kent State Campus, on May 4, 1970. I said to her that I thought I had been suffering for years from PTS, Post Traumatic Stress, and that probably many of us in the anti-war movement were also. (This was before the "D" got tacked on the end of the acronym for "Disorder," so now it's PTSD.) She thought my pronouncement silly at the time, but a few weeks later in a telephone conversation, she said that she thought I was right. But Isn't PTS(D) "owned" by combat soldiers, you might ask? And why would I say I had such a thing?
Dial back to the fall of 1973, after I had started my job as Instructor at Casper College, a year before meeting with Dan. I had left Kent State in the spring of 1972 to work as a carpenter's helper for the season, followed by a late winter to early-summer vacation escape to Mexico in a van. In Casper after hiring on as an Instructor at Casper College, my wife and I bought an old house in Casper to renovate. We had done the same thing at Kent--at Brady Lake, a couple miles from Kent, to be exact-- but the house there was more than twice the size, twice the quality, and yet half the money of our house in Casper. In Kent we had been near the tapering excesses of the industrial heartland (Akron, granted, was a rapidly fading one), where cost of living was low and used material in abundance, whereas in Casper we were on a wind-swept prairie, in a sort of third-world energy colony, where out-of-state oil corporations called the shots, and where scarcity of second-hand materials and high cost of living became painfully obvious.
That fall, shortly after we moved into our little house, we were walking our German Shepherd Gretel in the park near our house in the evening. We were wandering at random when a Casper Police cruiser spotted us and turned the corner and parked on a dead-end street and them proceeded to shine its spotlight on us. I presumed it was the "Hippies in the Park; they must be up to no good" syndrome (I had a full beard and fairly long hair, or by Casper standards, "really long hair"), and so except for being insulted and angry, I deliberately paid little heed and we continued our random wandering. He finally shut off his light and the cruiser left. Then in a few minutes suddenly a sound penetrated the darkening evening-- s-s-h-u-u-u-s-s-s-s-s-s-h-h-h. I turned and began running at full speed as my mind had calculated beyond my rational control: "incoming! Tear Gas! Incoming! Tear Gas!" And then after a few giant steps, there came the "fwit, fwit, fwit, fwit" of the popped-up underground sprinklers that had just turned on. It had been the roar of the water in the pipes that had created the swish of that Doppler sound. Slightly wet and giddy, we made it to the sidewalk and collapsed in hysterical laughter. What fools. But there it was, that was Post Traumatic Stress catching us unawares.
Granted the post-traumatic stress we suffered does not compare in intensity to one suffered by a soldier under fire in a war that is taking the lives of fellow soldiers and possibly his own, or with someone in a hurricane that is taking the lives of friends and family, but the effects, though not as severe, nevertheless take their toll. It's all a matter of stress, the degree, and the duration.
In the Eye of the Anti-War Storm
Any time you organize, or act alone, to challenge power over the long term, the stress is there and never totally goes away. In the case of myself, it was a balancing act between teaching well under my Teaching Fellowship at Kent State, maintaining grades in graduate school and still actively resisting the war. After the May 4, 1970 shootings, the campus became a lock-down environment: physical display of ID cards, no rallies, constant surveillance, and so on. Terrified freshmen were warned not to gather in groups, discuss what had happened in the spring before they matriculated, etc. When we did start the rallies again, in the spring of 1971, it was under great duress. From every rooftop, every window, every doorway, there could be and often was a man with a camera taking pictures of us. Campus police, Portage County Sheriff's Department, CIA, Army Intelligence, National Guard, Ohio State Police, F.B.I.--and these are only some of the obviously known entities. Somewhere, probably, there is a complete list.
And so you go on, overpowering the fear, presuming that an arrest, however illegal, looms on the horizon. But you act under the Constitution, the right to assemble, to petition the government, and so on. You exercise your rights, full well knowing that the weight of the State wants to crush them when they can find an excuse or when they think they dare, they will. And through all this you have to thread through the needle's eye of morality. Violent response to the violence in Southeast Asia would be all too human, and was advocated by some groups, but it would only (and did) stoke more violence. Even the self-defense of the Black Panther Party was interpreted by the establishment as aggressive violence. Passive resistance was highly recommended by some of the professors, but that merely meant, "don't do anything that matters or that will change things." And while they were against violence, apparently the violence in Southeast Asia being done in our name was outside the paradigm. Any government-policy resistance group means an organization, and that brings up the question of if it should be totally open and aboveground or totally underground, totally secret. But the latter is all but impossible in an open university setting, and since inclusion is at the heart of American Education, my approach was to exercise the open, completely aboveground options until they have been fully exhausted.
They WERE out to get you!
Plus there were hired undercover snitches of all shapes and forms on and about the Kent State University Campus. Some unknown "power that be" moved our neighbor and his wife to a different house and moved in an undercover snitch and his wife/girlfriend (a conclusion later drawn). He told me he was a non-union bricklayer and cursed the pigs (police) apparently to gain my approval. But I had worked as a hod carrier for brick layers for two summers, and I noted the absence of mortar on his clothes and particularly noticed that his boots were not marked up on the toes and outside edge from scuffing against the masonry or block wall, so I knew he was lying and presumed he was the a police version of Neighborhood Watch, only this was "Neighbor Watch." And the clincher, which my wife astutely discovered, is that whenever our phone rang, one of them would go inside.
And in the spring of 1971 or '72 I was part of an assemblage protesting a "Miss Hot Pants" contest in the Student Center, going out over campus radio, that some fraternities were putting on, which consisted of their parading their girlfriends or whatever down a runway in Hot Pants (see fashion archives if you are under 40--VERY tight short-shorts), a contest which we considered chauvinistic and degrading to women. So at each runway launch we would chant in unison, "One, Two, Three, Four, We Don't Want Your F***ing Whores." (That was pretty lame, too, fighting fire with fire--like who was degrading them the most, but in the spirit of the times we thought we were real funny.) But the profanity kept the contest off the air, and they finally quit in dismay. But in the mean time a former student of mine who was active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War had just come from Washington D.C. where he had befriended someone who was a veteran, but not a Vietnam vet, and he had him along for the Hot Pants Protest. Let's just call him "The Crazy Irishman." He shouted, he screamed, he pounded the tables; he jumped up on the tables and jumped from table to table. I was thinking at the time, "Either this guy has a heck of a lot of guts, or he has no clue about what a police state this campus is--or both. It turned out, much to my former student's chagrin, that he was an undercover cop working for the Washington D.C. Police, and when the opportunity arose for him to hook up with an active Vietnam Vet war protestor, they paid his way for a fishing expedition. So agent provocateur is another
All this is a way of saying that you could trust your closest friends, but that was about it. And besides ratcheting up the paranoia, it said to me that as long as the avenues of open protest were open under the Constitution, they needed to be pursued and that the romance of "The Underground" was just that. And you can't educate students, any group for that matter, about what is wrong with government foreign policy if you leave them out of the loop because of your secret group. Indeed, much of the political passivity in the main body of students was a product of ignorance and an all-too-ready willingness to accept the government and corporate-influenced media's explanation of events--sort of like today, only now it is worse, for the corporate control of the media is now total.
"If You Are Not Paranoid, You Don't Have a Grasp On Reality"--a 60s Saying
But I digress in my attempt to justify the self-diagnosis of PTS(D). But one more example: I remember while working in Lewiston, Idaho as a carpenter the summer we left Kent, 1972, our graduate studies in limbo, and with both of our Corvairs still registered with Ohio plates. A couple of times someone asked, "How is it that you came from Ohio to Idaho," and my immediate paranoid response to the innocent question was, "Who's asking?" It took a few months to get over that and to get over wondering if the headlights behind me were following me or just going in the same direction. Drug induced? No, after the campus killings, we (my wife and I) gave up what little marijuana smoking we had occasionally indulged in. It does induce paranoia in stressful situations in most people, and it decreases organizing efficiency in the complicated politics of resistance, and more importantly, it makes one vulnerable to arrest. For it became clear that drugs seem to have been tolerated in Kent by the various governmental establishments until things started to heat up politically, and then there would be busts. And then the tokers would come to our political meetings crying for money to "bail out our brothers and sisters" who are a "valuable part of our counter culture movement," and so on. Time, money and energy were thus bled from the highly taxed organizing strength reserves of our anti-war groups. Yet on the other hand, when the major rallies started in the spring (hard to get people to stand out in the sleet and snow for a political rally), voila, suddenly the campus seemed to be flooded with drugs.
On one occasion I was one of the organizers for a rally in 1972 and had a partner who was to be helping. As rally was about to get started, I was talking to him, but he seemed strangely non-communicative, and in further trying to get some organizing ironed out, he seemed just plain weird. I finally said, "What the f*** is wrong with you?" And as he waved around on his legs, seemingly barely able to stand, he said, grinning, "I'm all soaped up." (That is, he had taken a soporific, a relaxing agent, a sleep-inducer, the nickname or brand I no longer remember). Obviously, he was totally useless. As were many other stoned potential protesters who might or might not come to the rally. Was it a coincidence that waves of drugs flooded in under the watchful eye of the narc squads keeping an eye on the campus upon which the National Guard two years previously had without provocation murdered four students? Was this total county/state/federal surveillance system watching the campus of 25,000 and the small town of Kent caught napping such that dealers (with no subsequent arrests) were able to flood campus and town before an advertised anti-war political rally? I don't THINK so.
Finding the Healing Waters
But I digress. Wait, I already said that. Please pardon my digression from my digression. Oh, yes, I was in the process of telling of my first meeting with Dan Perin at the Humanistic Psychology Conference in Colorado. And I got diverted telling of some of the mental baggage I was dragging with me. And all to justify my saying that I suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress from being intensely involved in the anti-war movement at Kent State (though graduate school can do the same thing, as the halls of graduate academia are littered with the bones of students whose spirits tell tales of how they shorted out from brain overload, faculty politics, state politics, graduate school politics, a personality clash with a professor, or all of the above). I would like to say that I remember with crystal clarity the entirety of Dan's presentation in my first encounter with him some thirty-seven years ago, but I would be lying. In fact, I don't remember if he did a mini-meditation or just talked about the Whole Life Learning Center and consciousness issues. But I remember that he stuck a chord, that something clicked, and that I talked to him after the presentation and got a card, the address, etc. to make future contact. And I remember thinking, seeing him stand there and talk, "I can trust that guy with my life." I'm sure many of us have had that impression of someone, and I'm willing to bet that in almost all cases it has turned out to be true. Because I still am of that opinion. (See "From Agitation to Meditation" for a blurry snapshot of some of the psychic rebuilding at Dan Perin’s Whole Life Learning Center in Denver) at http://lifecentering.blogspot.com/