An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

The Great State Uni-Varsity

I am a child of the fifties. I liked Ike well enough, but I liked Adlai more. I didn't like my cousin having to go to Korea, but I, like most of my countrymen, was too busy buying, using, and enjoying the fruits of Empire to pay much attention. High school, with its conformity and its flag waving, and its "duck and cover" h-bomb drill, was something to get through on the way to Higher Learning. I had no problem with the curriculum, it was just sooooooo dull...

Television was just taking off when I was in my middle teens. I remember our first set, a Coronado that we bought in the local Gamble-Skogmo store. A full twelve inches of glorious black and white, it had the most prominent place in our living room. I remember the joys -- and the disappointments -- of live TV. Milton Berle, Howdy-Doody, and Studio One, all good wholesome Eisenhower era entertainment, dominated the screen. That is until 1954, when television gave us a glimpse into the possibilities of live news via the Army - McCarthy hearings - and changed the face of broadcast jounalism forever.

Although I couldn't then, and cannot to this day, say exactly why, I had an overpowering sense that the Hearings were the most important event of my life to that point. I pleaded with my parents to let me stay home from school to watch, and they agreed with surprisingly little argument. It turned out I was right: there has never again been such abuse of the congressional investigative process. McCarthy spoiled it for every elected demagogue who came after him. In the process of ruining the lives of many innocent people, he manufactured dissent and called embarrasing national attention to how easily the process could be abused by an ambitious zealot.

The spectacle had a profound effect on me. It opened my eyes to the powerlessness of the average person when confronted with the machinery of Government. (It was not lost on me that most of the victims were Jewish, like me). It taught me that guarantees of fair trial and reasonable defense were mostly a sham.

When Edward R. Murrow broadcast his famous castigation of Tailgunner Joe, I literally cheered, hoping that somehow the Press would save us from people like McCarthy. It didn't. Murrow, after a few documentaries like "Harvest of Shame", was put out to pasture interviewing rich and famous airheads, and corporate news executives began to take their orders from their corporate paymasters, a process which has refined itself over the years to become present-day "infotainment".

By the time I got to the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1955, McCarthy was holding hearings on college campuses. He was drinking heavily, and looked positively loony. The president of the U, in an act of incredible bravery which few others in his position had dared, let it be known to the faculty and staff that refusal to respond to a Committee subpoena, refusal to testify, or any legal act of disruption or resistance before the tribunal, would in no way affect their tenure or freedom to work. Furthermore, he was the first head of a major university to refuse to make any on-campus facilities available to the Committee, who then were forced to hold their hearings in the old Federal building in downtown Minneapolis. The Committee hunkered down for a day and a half, and left town.

One result of these acts was that some very good professors in other universities cast an envious eye at our U. The general quality of the faculty, already quite high, was reinforced with an influx of radical thinkers, not just in the humanities, but in the physical and medical sciences as well. In the late 50s, our land-grant college was percolating with new ideas and new energy. I was majoring in interdisciplinary studies (much to the dismay of my folks, who wanted me to become an accountant), and had the great fortune to take classes from the likes of Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, and poet John Berryman (the subject of "Jones, You Are Not an Idiot").

The most important thing I learned in college was that just about everything I had learned in high school fell into a sliding scale between dubious and dead wrong. We were not, I discovered, a planned democracy, where everyone was born equal. The founding fathers (founding mothers were not being heard in the early days of our Republic) had assumed that only males with property would vote, and some folks were clearly more equal than others. Over the 200 years since the Revolution, every concession to the property-less, to women, to people of color, to new immigrants, to working people, had been won with bloodshed and stubborn resistance. Every one of our glorious wars had been resisted. People had been being thrown into jail for speaking truth to power long before the tea was dumped in Boston harbor. Going to the U permanently changed the way I looked at history and society.

In the campus newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, a young, brash, twisted and immensely talented cartoonist named Dick Guindon put out social commentary in a Jules Pfeiffer vein, but with more bite. I had first met Guindon when I was still in high school. Some friends took me to a storefront in east Saint Paul, owned by Dick's mother, where he had painted the walls black, put candles in old bottles, and installed a hi-fi and a toaster oven for heating frozen pizza. There, in the Jazz Lab, we were introduced to Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Thelonius Monk, and other greats of jazz, through their lp recordings.

Guindon's most ubiquitous cartoon character was a student he called Huggermugger, who went around with bushy hair and a long beard, wearing an overcoat that was held together by a giant safety pin. Huggermugger was an enemy of pretention. I remember one panel where Huggermugger was peacefully eating a bowl of soup in one of the student cafeterias. An undergraduate woman in bohemian attire sits down next to him, and tells him, for the next two panels, how glad she is that he is there; how much she appreciates sharing her space with a kindred spirit, so au-courant, so genteel, so perceptive, just like her. In the final panel, her face showing great dismay, she turns to him and says "did you just spit in my soup?"

When I was just into my teens, a graduate student with a thick British accent who drove an MG sports car moved into the tenement building next door to my parents' grocery store. His name was Dudley Riggs. One summer, he taught me how to play chess. Soon after, he moved away. The next time I saw him, in about 1957, he had opened Cafe Expresso, Minneapolis' first coffee-house. Mostly attended by the theater, arts, and music crowd, it featured a huge old expresso machine, classical music, and flocked walls. The ambience was definitely Vienna, not New York. Dudley would go on to found one of the planet's most durable improv theaters, still going to this day.

By 1958, when the first "beat" coffehouse came to sleepy Minneapolis, far from the trend setters of New York and California, the contemporaries of Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginzburg had moved on. Those of us who hung out at the Ten O'Clock Scholar in Dinkytown were a younger crowd, for the most part untainted by the Korean War, and attracted to a new activism with roots in the early struggles of the union movement. The folk music revival brought with it a new consciousness. We discovered the Blues, and other music forms with Black roots. We came to believe that all struggle was our struggle; that we could change things. We had not yet dropped out and turned on, as we would in the mid '60s. We were post-McCarthy, pre-Civil Rights; we were on our way to a future of freedom rides, anti-war protests, student movements and sexual revolution.

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