Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 2 May 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat
By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock
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The older stories were the favorites, and 11-year-old Duff McDuff and his teen-age friend Y.D. often insisted on them when they visited the downtown park after school.
There they usually found Oscar Hapgood. He wasn’t old, but he had done a lot to hit early middle age intact. Others who had thrown their lives into their 20s and 30s usually ended their lives in bars or, more often, a suburban home in a subdivision, living substantially as their parents had.
Oscar was different. As soon as he became successful in a field he left it. He retired from college to be a hippie and retired from the Vietnam days to join big business. For the most recent change, Oscar set up some investments that mailed him checks every month, bought some art supplies, polished his brass euphonium (tenor tuba) then retired to become a bum.
The boys knew the later tales well.
The gaunt, prematurely gray Hapgood spent his days in the park pursuing the arts. Someday, he hoped to catch one.
Duff and Y.D. (Oscar had nicknamed the lad Young Dude) found Oscar this day sitting on the grass with a paper pad on his lap and watercolor palette next to his knee.
“Hi, guys. Hey, Muses,” Oscar said to the air in front of him, “take five. Get a sandwich or wash your togas or something.”
“Are they gone yet?” Duff asked, looking behind a tree.
“Kid, Muses are goddesses from mythology,” Y.D. said. “The Greeks believed they cause inspiration. Oscar is being funny.”
“The Muses really were my nine ex-girlfriends, because they led me in different directions,” Oscar joked. He was glad Y.D. was reading the library books he’d recommended. Oscar had seen that school was not giving Young Dude what he would need to become a thinking adult.
“Tell us about the 1960s. My teacher said people like you changed the world,” Duff said.
“We hippies didn’t fix anything. Besides, the ’60s weren’t the ’60s,” Oscar said.
“Huh?” Y.D. and Duff grunted.
“Three-fourths of the 1960s was an extension of the ’50s: short hair, Red Scare, drinking on a dare,” Oscar said rapidly. “It was almost the ’70s before the ’60s began. 1968 — Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. got killed. Woodstock was 1969. That was the year of the biggest anti-war protest: 250,000 chanted in Washington, and that was in November, a month before the new decade.
“The four Kent State students were killed by our National Guard — when? 1970. Yet our government didn’t let Saigon fall until 1975 — five years later. The first Earth Day was in 1970. Is our planet clean yet?”
“You must not have enjoyed yourself,” Y.D. said.
“We had lots of great times. The best thing about sit-ins was they separated ‘us’ from ‘them.’ You always have more fun being with people who agree with you, rather than taking a chance with strangers. We found out who was who quickly.
“Did I tell you my counterculture friends called me ‘Hop-along’ Hapgood? You see, I wasn’t drafted because one of my legs is a bit shorter than the other. Whenever I carried a picket and wasn’t concentrating, I would walk in circles,” Oscar said, and the boys laughed.
Duff was disturbed. “What about Eastern Europe now?”
Both boys were mastering the questioning of authority, be it that of peers to conform to fads and intoxicants, or of the adult world of rules, or even of Oscar’s view of the world.
“Sure, there were protests in Romania, Lithuania, Hungary and the others, but they came after the communist economies began collapsing. Those countries have turned democratic because it was the only alternative to unemployment and mayhem. History doesn’t stop evolving; there could be more changes yet.
“Look at Beijing,” Oscar challenged his young friends. “Students there weren’t marching for work and food in 1989, they rallied for ideals. Because China’s economy isn’t in too bad a shape yet, the government was able to crush the movement.”
“Are you saying our First Amendment — freedom to peaceably assemble and to petition for redress of grievances — is a waste of ink? Y.D. said.
“No, the Constitution is there for when we need it: economic crisis,” Oscar said, “but when that time comes, we’ll need to fight for it.”
“We’ve got lots of problems that aren’t catastrophes. People strike and march and chant. Sometimes it works, like for the teachers,” Duff said.
Hapgood smiled slowly. “Labor rallies like those worked frequently 50 or 75 years ago, but not often now, even though they should because of better media access. Maybe protests all look alike to the audience of the moment.”
Let’s make the system — the anti-system — work again,” Duff said.
“Count me in. I’ve got an idea how to do it,” Y.D. said.
“I’m hip for another try,” Oscar said.
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