Forty-nine years ago on May 4, four students were killed at Kent State and nine others injured during a protest against the war in Vietnam. Today it might seem like just another school shooting — back then it rocked the world. For many years I worked to keep awareness of that time period alive through my books and other articles, but like a lot of us, I got sidetracked. But the May 2019 republication of my novel THE PIPE DREAMERS again woke me to the fact that those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it, especially in light of today’s divisive society.
When THE PIPE DREAMERS was initially published in early autumn 2001, 9/11 happened, hardly a promising environment for a novel that cast a less-than-flattering light on America. Everyone, including myself, was deeply affected by the events of September 11.
So when my publisher, Tony Acree, and I first discussed reissuing THE PIPE DREAMERS in honor of this 50th anniversary, I had mixed feelings. Caught in a whirlwind of my own projects and dealing with my son Alex’s recent death, the thought of revisiting my first novel about youthful mishaps during the Vietnam protests after a nearly 20-year hiatus was disconcerting, to say the least.
As I started to reread THE PIPE DREAMERS, I wondered, would it come across as sophomoric and overwrought? I was hardly the same person who had written it, a process that, in itself, had taken over 20 years. Divorce after a long-term marriage; my son Alex’s accidental overdose on January 1, 2017, after an eight-year struggle with addiction — an Army Reserve MP, he had been in a car accident while on active duty and had been given opioids for back pain — and a spate of other “adulting” life challenges had irrevocably changed me. How could I possibly still relate to those innocent, idealistic characters who were convinced they could change the world?
I was in for a surprise. Not only was I just as in love with the characters as I had been when I first wrote the book, but the history and the details immediately took me back to that often magical, sometimes frightening, and confusing time and place.
Yet when I mention the 1960s and ‘70s, people often say things like, “I don’t want to think about that time.” “It was in the past and unpleasant.” But now more than ever, we should look back. School shootings, random violence, bullying, Internet trolls, guns…the list goes on. Party politics are even more bitter and vile than they were in 1969 when Part One took place. And in a sense, it’s the same old, same old. One side doesn’t really listen to the other.
So I invite readers of all generations to experience a time and place that was unique and almost mystical in its idealism and simplicity. And I invite everyone to sit down and have a dialogue about what is going on in this country today and why — “rap” like we did in the 1960s and 70s — before smartphones, streaming TV, and social media.
Decide for yourself whether the hippies were right or if they really messed up. Hopefully, it will be enlightening, entertaining, and re-open lines of communication.