I applied to Harvard where my brother had graduated and to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Both accepted me but I went to Reed. In my adolescent mind, all that mattered was being near good skiing, some of America’s last wilderness and only a twelve-hour drive from San Francisco.
I missed freshman orientation and arrived just in time for classes. That put me in temporary housing with Mike Malloy from Illinois, who thought Reed was a party school. In drunken frustration at his colossal mistake, Mike punched a fist through the cheap wallboard between rooms and departed, leaving me with a new roommate called “Tiny” who was of course enormous, the son of a lucky Oklahoma dirt farmer who had struck oil. Tiny never attended a class so far as I know. Anyone could get into Reed in 1953 but not many graduated. We were a freshman class of 225. We graduated 75.
My parents paid for room, board and tuition, which my mother covered from her salary at UC Berkeley. I made spending money by opening Reed’s snack bar from 9:30 to 10:30 Monday through Friday, selling hamburgers and fries, and by spending a couple of hours between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am playing poker in Reed’s 24/7 game.
Reed’s teaching style required students to take the lead in small classes of 10 to 12 while professors listened and occasionally helped shape the discussion. It was intense and immersive.
The core Freshman course was Humanities, “The Judaic Christian Tradition,” as they called it in those days of cultural myopia and the white man’s burden. The courses were thoroughly secular, avoiding most sacred texts and viewing history as a kind of Darwinian evolution, where, over time, better ideas beat out worse ones. Aristotle advanced Plato with reason.
Galileo saw the moons around Jupiter and demonstrated that the earth traveled around the sun. Despite church opposition it was a better idea whose adoption was inevitable. When the Enlightenment posited personal freedom and reason as its basic tenets, they were ideas whose time had come. Reason, logic and science would solve every problem. “Every day, in every way, the world was getting better and better.” It was the basic message of American philosopher John Dewey.
I lost interest in news and politics in the heady Reed environment. It was a relatively calm time anyway. Spring had seen some easing of tension with the Soviet Union after Joseph Stalin died in March. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, adopted a new Soviet policy of peaceful co-existence.
The event that most affected my life was the end of the Korean War in July. American colleges admitted veterans in record numbers that summer and they had a powerful influence on Reed’s classes. Veterans were older than the rest of us and had been in a war that most people already wanted to forget They exuded the bitterness of another generation. Mature, serious veterans substantially deepened our classroom discussions with real world experiences.
Veterans also brought the ruthlessness of R&R retreats to our poker games and I thanked Eddie O’Brien for his early training. A small group of consistent players regularly went home with money, while a larger group of occasional players lost money, like every poker game I’ve ever joined. Other than classes and poker, veterans took almost no part in campus life.
McCarthy was finally on the defensive. Arthur Miller’s thinly disguised attack, The Crucible, opened in New York City in January of 1953. Scripts began circulating in college campuses in the Fall. Edward R. Murrow presented a highly critical documentary on McCarthy on his See It Now series. The senator himself self destructed a year later when he launched hearings into the United States army and drew the famous response of attorney Robert Welch, “… have you no sense of decency … ?” The Senate censured McCarthy in September of 1954.
A culture of passive acceptance and frightened conformity made the continuation of McCarthy’s task unnecessary anyway. Under assault from television, America was losing its regional culture in exchange for the processed culture of corporate television. We began loosing the tradition of the family dinner, as corporations introduced processed foods in the early 1950s. Prepared cake mixes, processed cheese slices, Minute Rice and frozen fish sticks were all on the market by the end of 1952. Fast food restaurant chains opened in mid-decade. Cheap chain motels. Suburbs. Traffic. Strip malls.
I was fortunate to live near San Francisco, one of the few places in America where a unique regional culture still existed. San Francisco had a long history of independence and a wild streak. It was a union town with the left leaning ILWU headed by Harry Bridges.
His union provided a meeting place and some legitimacy for radical ideas. And in North Beach, in the old Italian part town, near the seedy bars and girlie joints of the low life, remnants of an old Bohemia were beginning to stir. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City