In a 1967 interview, Arnold Toynbee, who had visited the ‘scene’’ at Haight-Ashbury, was quoted as saying, ‘the hippies are a warning light for the American way of life.’ Even then, his words jumped out at me. Only an historian possessed of insight and power could extract such a convincing perspective from a phenomenon that was still unfolding. I was nineteen years old, and Toynbee’s conclusion seemed irrefutable. Visionary, even.
‘Warning light.’ Not a revolution, as we each – my friends and I – had claimed. Not something shattering. Simply a warning light.
With the great historian’s authorized perspective, I plunged head first into what would be an extraordinary phase in my life.
Enough so that ten years later, I sat at a morning table, yellow pad and pen, and etched out the events of my life – with special emphasis on the years coincident with the late Sixties and early Seventies.
Several thousands pages, hand written and typed, written and rewritten, abandoned and forgotten until the words had entered my dreams – I pieced together several volumes of what would become a quasi-autobiography. It was fiction, that is, imagined, but rooted in the only experience I know.
Severed Arms, the first volume of an extended narrative, takes me through the late Sixties – in my ambiguous pursuit of an American adulthood.
Everyone I describe, in this work, had accepted that we were all – at the time – on the edge of an auspicious moment. Yet it was a moment that would catalyze not in some immediate transformation, but reveal its deeper significance several decades later – at the advent of the next millennium. ‘Warning light,’’ remember?
It was a harbinger time. Nothing more. A time when my friends and I had ingested drugs, oftentimes recklessly, not simply to ‘get high,’ or to ‘escape reality,’ but to expand consciousness. To see if we could, with youthful passion, alter the essential founding blocks upon which this violent, hyper-industrial civilization had rested. After all, I had been born to a generation coming of age under the dark heavens of nuclear annihilation.
The war in Vietnam had cast its hoary presence, as it twisted and contorted each and every word of my storyline. Vietnam, after all, was no more than half a world away.
Recall that Vietnam had been a war without enduring credibility. But by chance of birth, I stood in the hard fire of an American truth, as the war daily reminded me that my fate had been subject to the whimsical perverse breathing of an overzealous Draft Board. Like an Aztec captive, I was forced to kneel before the deified ferocity of an angry war machine. War was peace, in the inverted universe of the Sixties. Coercion was freedom.
Little reason was left for me – and for everyone I knew – not to recklessly risk crashing the crossroads where the ‘warning light’ had flashed. On its other side, I’d find – even seize – an alternative meaning to the one my conventional upbringing had laid at my feet.
This reckless riskiness was my calling card for ‘Sixties’ living. Be it in the facetious friendships I formed, which had blossomed and burned out in a handful of American weeks; or in the sexual and drug induced hallucinations I believed would shake out some deeper meaning that never seemed to reveal itself. What reverberated was the slippery phrase I and one of my girlfriends had screamed in our shared pursuit of petty orgasm: ‘This is what life is all about!’ As if we really knew!
A warning light.
What I documented was one man’s youthful resistance to a dominant way of life – with its allure of ‘globalization’ – in what is now, in this new century, an American induced WORLD civilization. A world civilization flush with unbounded consumerism, where the sale and purchase of human souls is what now passes for ‘value’; asymmetrical warfare, where wars, such as the war in Iraq, invoke the retreaded cynicism of Vietnam, justified, once again, by the false claims of liberty and justice for all; biological ambitions that blur the ethical lines of science and genetic fantasy; and, most ominously, earthly degradation eliciting a kind of historical End Time.
I present my warning light, three and a half decades old. It is a reminiscence – told as if it is still happening. Ordinary and extraordinary lives are interwoven – the lives of disputative college roommates; romantic lovers and ex-lovers, pursuing sex in a facsimile of love; savvy street shamans, whose demeanor turns the reality of America inside out; and, finally, ‘revolutionized’ advertising executives, who forswear the shilling of their art, and pay a hefty price in their honest accomplishment of downward mobility.
Severed Arms is a story of my life lived through three glorious and insidious years, years whose unintended consequences cast a disconsolate shadow over the new and wary millennium. I present it equally for those whose memories are strangely coincident (who could sketch out their own Sixties’ stories); and for those whose understandings of the Sixties are cluttered with occluded mythology and irritating caricature.
Ultimately, what I have written is a celebration of resistance. Of refusal. Refusal to compromise with a civilization (now global) that, in its fanatical pursuit of prosperity, renders the essence of each of our living lives as expendable.
Daniel William Zampino