Four Days in May: What I Saw at the Coup

By:  Beverly K. Eakman
05/17/2010
       

dr. haing s. ngorAt first I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Especially in the place where I was hearing it.

In 1966, I sat as one of many education majors in a mandatory psychology class, located in a God-forsaken town called Lubbock, Texas. In actuality, it was not God-forsaken; it was Bible-belt, God-fearing Lubbock, Texas.

In the Sixties, I was probably the only kid at Texas Tech University who hailed from Washington, DC, having landed in Dallas some six months earlier at the behest of my parents — during my senior year of high school, no less — in the Land of Ten-Gallon hats; the “Texas two-step”; elaborate, pointy-toe Cowboy boots (universally referred to as “_ _ _ _-kickers”); rednecks and tumbleweed. Here, everyone had “horse sense” and women wore “britches,” certainly not “panties!” The accents weren’t exactly what you’d call “southern,” or even “western,” the way most linguists think of it. The thick drawls were nasal in quality; people talked through their noses, which didn’t sound genteel but, rather, um, ignorant to those unaccustomed to it. Moreover, the whole experience was like being pushed into in a time machine and going back 20 years.

Which is why you could have knocked me over with a feather when my bearded, educational psychology professor announced: “The first thing you kids need to know is there’s no such thing as ‘common sense’.” That, of course, would have included “horse sense” (pronounced haws sense), a favorite parental rebuke to young upstarts who were going about some chore in the wrong way. The professor drew some concentric circles on the blackboard and stabbed the bull’s eye with his chalk. “That,” he said (meaning the bull’s eye), “is the center of the universe — your Ego. All these other circles represent things like your parents, family, pastor, even your friends. They’re entirely secondary, superfluous. Ego, that’s what’s important.” He smacked the bull’s eye again several times for emphasis.

At 19 years of age, this was profound stuff. The professor had captivated everyone’s attention as he pontificated on the primacy of one’s feelings of importance, especially the perceived need to leave one’s mark on the world.

The good professor didn’t stop there. The next week he devoted half an hour to his “first-hand knowledge” of a plot by the CIA to assassinate Castro (hardly anyone in the class knew he meant Cuba’s head honcho until he said so). "Why," he huffed, “There’re enough people that needed assassinatin’ right here at home!”

That’s when I started feeling queasy. As time went on, the prof warmed to his theme, which roughly translated to “change in America.” I watched numbly as the sons and daughters of ranch hands and farmers lapped it up. I wasn’t all that smart at age 19, but I knew a snow-job when I heard it, and this was it.

Of course, most everyone my age back then was anxious to leave the family nest, to be taken seriously for his or her own opinions, to be popular and important. Homesick and timid collegiates were sniveling and weak. Even in backwoods Texas, the spirit of the times was upbeat, assertive and ready for action — the draft notwithstanding. Particularly the draft….

I was luckier than I knew to be in Lubbock at that particular time in history. Lord knows I had ample reasons to be angry at my parents — due to the move, I hadn’t even had a date to the Dallas high school’s senior prom — but if I thought the blowhard standing at the blackboard was bad news, I wasn’t seeing anything compared to my old chums back East!

On the East and West Coasts, many professors were inciting their students to actively defy authority, to get arrested, to try LSD, to “make love, not war,” all of which were enthusiastically endorsed by their pampered young charges, whose college experiences were largely subsidized by their elders. I heard that pages from a tome called Eros and Civilization, written by some guy named Herbert Marcuse, were being circulated to students at cafés, at demonstrations and housing complexes (not to be confused with old-fashioned “dormitories”). The pages from Marcuse’s and others’ writings ranged from prose to poems and chants, all infused with themes of “erotic liberation,” “rejection of the capitalist monster” and anti-authoritarianism. New wisdom had it that no one over age 30 should even be trusted, as it was obvious the world was “screwed up” by a sanctimonious Old Guard. It was time for Change. If any “war” was fought at all, it should be wars to liberate the masses from their “establishment” masters.

I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was jealous of my back-East now-collegiate chums — sipping wine, carrying signs, and trolling local cafés till 2 in the morning in search of irreverent songs and poetry (and definitely “inhaling”). They “slept it off” in apartment-like, if dingy, dwellings, which often came with small kitchens, until classes started. By contrast, I was stuck in a land of curfews — 10 p.m. weekdays and midnight on weekends. I trudged to boring same-sex dormitories with, of all things, “legislators” running the show.

Dorm “legislators” were elected by residents and installed in solemn, candlelight ceremonies that would have been laughable almost anywhere else. They handed out demerits, with punishments for infractions like missing curfew by even one minute or — get this — for an “ODA,” which is to say an “Obvious Display of Affection” anywhere on campus (if you got caught). The ODA applied equally to brief, stolen kisses or outright “necking.” (I called it a DOA, for “Dead on Arrival”).

Offending girls would get hauled up — for these and a myriad of other, silly rules — before a “board” of self-righteous, hypocritical coeds (who typically got drunk in frat houses on Saturday night, then came staggering into the dorm at 11:59 p.m.). Nevertheless, it was they who heard the “cases” and passed judgment — and sent notes home to parents concerning the “incident” and its outcome.

The whole concept was humiliating and demeaning in the extreme and probably wouldn’t have been tolerated in the mid-1960s anywhere north of Oklahoma, west of Utah or east of Arkansas.

On the other hand, I read the newspapers, even if most of my college classmates didn’t, and I had just enough sophistication from my international upbringing to recognize that something other than normal, adolescent rebellion was driving the youth culture, not only in America, but throughout the free world. Take Switzerland, for example: When I was a child in the nation’s Capital, Switzerland was the place to send a kid for the best, most rigorous education if a family was rich and “connected.” But by the mid-Sixties, Swiss schools were experiencing the same anti-establishment rhetoric and lowered academic standards as Americans. Of course, most of Europe was already socialist — the oxymoron “free-market” socialism was prevalent — but places like Switzerland, France and Britain were actually fairly straitlaced when it came to propriety and the demeanor of the young. I could recall from my nine years at an international academy how European parents thought American kids bratty — even before they really were bratty. So, I concluded, if only subconsciously, that something was afoot. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then there was the war in Vietnam, which any idiot could see was drafting more kids from the ranks of the rural and unemployed than from seriously moneyed families who sent their boys to elite colleges and contributed big bucks to political candidates. It was also an undeclared war — a “police action” without end and, apparently, without a victory plan. Rather like the Korean War, our parents said, the “forgotten war,” they called it.

The horrors of war had been duly transmitted to the progeny of the Greatest Generation, more in what men who stormed Normandy, North Africa and Okinawa didn’t say than for what they did say. For the most part, they simply declined to talk about it, and that was enough for most fellows my age. It confirmed their suspicion that it wasn’t a game of Cowboys and Indians out there. So, they played “Let’s Be Revolutionaries” instead. They had plenty of help — from the likes of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, John Lennon. And yet…I mean, did you ever hear Joan Baez. Man, what a set of pipes! It was like Susan Boyle today — people literally gasped when they heard her. Plus she was really pretty.

Meanwhile, I was shocked to find out my best friend in DC was protesting and dodging tear gas at his college. He insisted that had been fun! Many more old friends became hippies, escaped to Canada, or became “professional college students” (with convenient adjunct professorships). The snippets of information about cultural cleansing, collective farms and desperate boat people didn’t sink in.

Today, many of those same chums admit they weren’t so much protesting the war, civil rights or “the Establishment” as seeking camaraderie and new experiences. The kids at Tech were considerably more patriotic, of course, but by May 1968, when I graduated and married, a new breed of freshmen was emerging. Clearly, they had already been apprised of the new anti-Establishment wisdom, with their long, stringy hair and “attitude.”

Which put my new husband and I in a bit of a box as we headed to California — off to new jobs and a new life with all our belongings crammed into a simple, stripped-down Ford Fairlane. It seemed that no sooner had we parked the car in the parking space in our tiny apartment complex, than the Democratic National Convention erupted into a violent collage of footage that would be repeated ad nauseam. This, just months after the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations. Commentators who covered the Convention kept referring to the brawl as a protest against U.S. foreign policy, and it was true that the Youth International Party (“Yippies”) was one of the major groups involved, spearheaded by the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and other adults as far in advance as New Year’s Eve, 1967, at Hoffman’s apartment. In preparation for the Chicago convention, The Yippies held a “Yip-In” and a “Yip-Out” in New York City. Both events were planned as “be-ins,” with live music — ostensibly to promote peace, love and harmony, as a trial run for Chicago. The “Yip-In” was held at Grand Central Station. One anarchist group hung a black banner on the wall, bearing the words, “Up Against the Wall Mother ....” in red. Police stood by, watching the crowds, not taking the whole thing very seriously, and jokes were even exchanged between the two groups.

But looking at the violent convention footage from Chicago, something was out-of-whack. It wasn’t just college kids being whacked to the ground by police. This time, there were honest-to-goodness over-30 adults, and some didn’t look like Americans.

That’s when I went back to school — in more ways than my grad work at the University of California (Irvine, CA). I had my first job by now, teaching junior high pupils at the Johnson Intermediate School in the Westminster, California, School District (Orange County). No longer focused on dating, dances and dormitory challenges, I reviewed both old and new college courses from both Tech and UC. Among the educational gurus we studied were John Dewey, Erich Fromm, Jerome S. Bruner and A. S. Neill. But when I got to the library, I noticed something strange: None of the texts we actually studied contained the more controversial and radical ideas about education and childrearing espoused by these luminaries. Sweeping essentials had been omitted from my education.

A year later, Kent State hit the news. About that time, dress codes at Johnson Intermediate School were abolished; the kids (rarely well-behaved to begin with) started taunting their teachers and parents, almost daring us to act or defy them. Drugs, “the clap,” and foul language permeated the campus. They (and many of their parents) clearly believed everything the Big Three networks and the Los Angeles Times was spewing.

I had studied enough. I couldn’t in good conscience let these kids simmer in leftist stew without at least presenting alternative food for thought.

That May, I drove nine miles to Buena Park, California’s Knott’s Berry Farm, where I heard that an American Opinion Bookstore had more information — and even video footage — than people typically saw on television concerning campus riots — and not just at Kent State, but elsewhere. I spent hours, and hit the jackpot. The authenticity of the American Opinion footage was not in doubt — expert tampering with images was just too hard in those days, much less mass-production and dissemination. You either saw it or you didn’t. On my own dime, I borrowed, rented and bought a carload of information, then drove home.

The next Monday, I dispensed with my lesson plans and told the kids I wanted to show them something. Even the paper-throwers, athletic heroes and female exhibitionists were “game” — if for no other reason than that they didn’t have to open their textbooks. In the beginning of the films, students laughed jubilantly at college kids tossing bottles and raising havoc, making comments like “way to go!” Slowly, the hilarity diminished and the room became a more somber place. In one sequence, “protesters” were being “primed” and incited by definitely over-30 adults. Others showed police and innocent bystanders being attacked by the so-called “protesters” — acts from which, clearly, many would not recover — while the Big Three’s cameras were shown capturing different images, like chanting students, on another side of the street.

For the benefit of 8th-graders who could actually read, I produced an assortment of dog-eared flyers, slogan-laden signboards and apparently hastily-typed song lyrics that had been collected from the various demonstrations. I disseminated some of the few writings and interviews that had managed to trickle to the free world — people such as surgeon and gynecologist Haing Ngor, [See Note] of later Killing Fields fame, a survivor of the Pol Pot’s sadistic reign of terror. Pol Pot's real name was actually Saloth Sar, son of a successful landowner in Cambodia; he was educated in France, where he teamed up with French Communists — hardly the waif of popular culture from a down-on-their-luck family. “Pol Pot” not only had been exposed to the West, but Catholicism; yet as head of the Khmer Rouge on his return to Cambodia, this sadist recruited young, uneducated, and homeless boys and tutored them in methods of torture unthinkable to Western sensibilities. More than one million, 20 percent of the population, died.

This, I showed my students, was what some U.S. leaders were trying, however ineptly, to stop, so that it didn’t spread to other countries via Chinese Communists who were helping to supply men, money and armaments to the Khmer Rouge. We had waited too long when Adolf Hitler rose to power, and many Americans were leery of making the same mistake again — of imagining that a smaller, less modernized, nation would be unable to spread its venom globally.

I told my students to look into both sides for themselves, not to take my word for it — or the word of anything I had shown them. At the same time, I urged my young charges to look further than the nightly news and the popular slogan.

I couldn’t do today what I did as a teacher in 1970. The Left pulled off their coup and managed to marginalize — via carefully screened newscasters, commentators, educators and even theologians — much of the free speech, free press, religious values and “peaceable” assembly that our Constitution’s Framers insisted “shall not be abridged.”

Our nation, in the mold that the Founders intended it, is hanging by a thread. Self-sufficiency has been traded for “interdependency,” and even “dependency” upon a Nanny State; private property rights are slowly disappearing under excuses invented by the Environmental Protection Agency and compromised scientists bent on redistributing the people’s wealth. Religious values are in the cross-hairs and portrayed either as “discriminatory” or “superstitious.” Even much of today’s entertainment is filled with de-sensitizing, depressing and vile images.

But for a short time, I can say I challenged some students to see a bigger picture — and maybe, just maybe, that will be enough.

[Author’s Note: I had the honor of meeting Dr. Ngor while working for the Voice of America in the 1980s. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Ngor worked as a doctor in a refugee camp in Thailand and left with his niece for the United States in 1980. His wife died in a concentration camp and Dr. Ngor never remarried. Despite no previous acting experience, Ngor won three awards, including a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. He dedicated the remainder of his life in the U.S., until his untimely murder, to raising money for war orphans and repairing Cambodia’s infrastructure.]

Photo: AP Images

Beverly EakmanBeverly K. Eakman is a former educator and retired federal employee who served as speechwriter for the heads of three government agencies as well as editor-in-chief of NASA’s newspaper (Johnson Space Center). Today, she is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer and columnist, the author of five books, and a frequent keynote speaker on the lecture circuit. Her most recent book is Walking Targets: How Our Psychologized Classrooms Are Producing a Nation of Sitting Ducks (Midnight Whistler Publishers).

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