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Book Review: Generation on Fire 

click to enlarge University Press of Kentucky, 2007, $34.95
  • University Press of Kentucky, 2007, $34.95

It’s fashionable in some circles to revile the 1960s as the era when society went to hell in a handbasket, to blame everything from AIDS to school violence on those who pushed the envelope back then and sought new ways of living and loving.

But, as current events grind on, it becomes clearer every day that the self-styled authorities don’t have all the answers and never did—and that perhaps, rather than going too far, the revolution may not have gone far enough. If that’s the case, it’s certainly not the fault of the 16 widely varied heroes you will meet in this book.

Oral history is obviously dependent on getting folks to open up, and New Paltz native Kisseloff plainly has the knack. His interviews are presented as extended monologues, in which his subjects dig deep, sharing the fears and agonies of being ordinary people tasked with extraordinary roles to play in turbulent times.

The book opens with three soul-searing tales from the early civil rights movement: Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette, “race traitor” Bob Zellner, and militant Gloria Richardson Dandridge. It’s one thing to know, as an abstraction or a generalization, that people advancing the cause of voter registration and integration were beaten and jailed and threatened with death, and that some were actually killed. It’s another to share the memories of what that was actually like to experience as everyday life.

Some of the reminiscences are those of the famous: Paul Krassner, for example, is screamingly funny, and spending an hour with Father Daniel Berrigan is a real treat. But Kisseloff has done his homework and ferreted out lesser-known voices and some issues that are nearly forgotten but deserve to be remembered. How many people are familiar with pro football player David Meggyesy and his courageous journey from jock to antiwar and antisegregation activist, or the saga of Verandah Porche and the Total Loss Farm?

Kisseloff illustrates his book with poignant then-and-now photos, allowing us to observe the transition from fresh-faced and often furry youth to middle age. The transitions are interesting: Barry Melton evolving from one half of Country Joe and the Fish to attorney; gay rights activist Frank Kameny as a retired astronomer. Most of these people seem to have aged well—in both photos and words, the spark of courage and commitment has not faded even though the glare of the media spotlight has moved on.

Far from having “seen the light” and lapsed into comfortably conservative middle age, the individuals in this book are by and large still true believers. “The far right has gotten more shrill,” observes Kameny of the gay struggle, “but only because they’re fighting a battle they know now they cannot win.”

The book’s final chapter had me in tears. Alison Krause never had the chance to age well and reminisce about her wild, well-spent misspent youth. She was murdered by a national Guardsman at Kent State, and lives on through the words of her mother and boyfriend, neither of whom has truly recovered from the anguish. As boyfriend Barry Levine observes, though, her death may have played a part in saving tens of thousands of other lives. It’s almost unbearably stark: the “before” photo of a joyful young woman, and the “after” photo of a tombstone.

In giving these voices a venue, Kisseloff has created something more mind-expanding than any chemical. In and around the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—which are pleasingly plentiful and unapologetic—there were heroes. There was hope. There were changes made. These things are possible, a hard concept to grasp in this Orwellian third millennium of ours. Reading the book, one hopes that a new generation of believers—maybe regular folks like you and me—will be moved to stand up and achieve dramatic results, throwing fresh sand in the gears of the death machine.

Speaking of...

  • _Generation on Fire: Voices of Protest from the 1960s—An Oral History_ by Jeff Kisseloff.

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