By Julie Wittes Schlack
In early July of 1967, I sat on a bench in the rec shed of the Shaker Village Work Group, a highly non-traditional summer camp, where a town meeting had been convened to decide what to do about Eric. Separated from his Scarsdale drug dealer and desperate to get high, Eric had believed another kid's assurance that if you took enough of it, you could get stoned on Midol.
Crampless but buzzless, with nothing to show for his novel experiment but extreme nausea, Eric, hunched over, peered anxiously out from under a cascade of wavy red hair, waiting for his fellow campers – about sixty other 13- to 15-year-olds–to decide whether to send him home for violating the no-drug policy, or to give him another chance.
"This isn't about the rules, man," one of the staff said. "It's about the bigger mission of the group. It's about not being busted or shut down."
"He took Midol, man," Jon drawled. In his orange bell bottoms, a paisley shirt, and dark granny glasses, he was conspicuously cool, and a good six inches taller than the other boys his age. "The Staties aren't going to barge in here just because some guy took chick pills." Jon would later become a founding member of the Glam-Rock band, Twisted Sister, where his fashion sense and simple, bombastic guitar playing would be richly rewarded.
"Yeah, but this place is about acting in the greater good. Getting high – I mean people should have the right to do what they want…" Amy, freckled and earnest in her Indian print blouse, began to falter. "…But getting high is against the rules. I mean, not because they're rules, but just because well, you know, technically it's illegal." She finally summoned her thought. "I'm just saying we're here to prove there's a different way to be, you know? Not so individualistic or something."
Of course it was a foregone conclusion that we'd allow Eric to stay. His public humiliation was punishment enough. And besides, probably half the people in that room had smoked the innocuous herbal mix called Shaker Tea by then, in a similarly hopeful but futile quest.
Investing a community of adolescents with this kind of decision-making authority was one of many features of this experiment in temporary utopia, one that began on the heels of World War II. In 1946, a labor lawyer, Jerry Count, and his wife, Sybil, bought the land and buildings occupied by the rapidly dwindling community of Shakers living on Mount Lebanon, New York, just over the Massachusetts state line, in the heart of the Berkshire Mountains. A year later, they opened the Shaker Village Work Group.
On the surface, an aging New York lawyer and his chain-smoking English wife were an unlikely pair to preside over a camp of 200 white hippies and black urban refugees, and in the latter half of the 1960s, the Shakers were an unlikely choice of role model. But while their celibacy and religious ecstasy were lacking in "relevance" (that quality teenagers in the late 1960s cherished most), many elements of their philosophy and lifestyle had a distinctly counter-cultural quality.
Jerry and Sybil's vision was to update and enact many of these values in the new Shaker Village. It would function as a democratic, egalitarian community; the full tuition payments of some financed the scholarships of many others. While the program allowed time for recreation and relaxation, we were there to work – maintaining and improving the property, growing food, and producing items to sell in the crafts store to visiting tourists.
Though I didn't know his exact age, to my adolescent eyes, Jerry Count was old. He had white hair that shot straight up like tender leeks and he wore a lumpy red cardigan sweater regardless of the temperature. He had come of age with the Russian Revolution and drew his inspiration for Shaker Village from a seemingly disparate set of sources—from the work camps established by the Civilian Public Service during World War II to provide conscientious objectors with an alternative to military service, and from the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, or "Shakers," themselves.
Every Monday through Saturday morning, Jerry led a meeting on the lawn in front of the old Shaker chair factory. Dazed by daylight, some of us breakfasting on single-serving boxes of Frosted Flakes, we sat cross-legged on the grass as Jerry or our villager-elected Mayor made announcements and then tried to engage us in a discussion about something that mattered. Often it was a matter of Village policy. Should people be allowed to smoke cigarettes anywhere on the premises? Was it improper for us to buy our own products, the boxes and oven mitt holders and brooms we'd made, from the crafts store?
Jerry didn't say much during those meetings; he stood still, hands in pockets, listening. When he did speak, it was usually to share some insight from Prince Peter Kropotkin, the nineteenth century Russian anarcho-syndicalist who was his intellectual idol, and apply it to the most mundane of matters: "In Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, Kropotkin argued that it was an evolutionary emphasis on cooperation, not competition, that enabled all species, including the human species, to thrive," he said once, as casually as if he was sharing the score of the previous night's Yankees game. "So, as you formulate your strategies in Capture the Flag tonight, you may want to bear that in mind."
Just before we embarked on the annual blueberry harvest, Jerry held up a berry-filled branch he'd snagged from one of the bushes that surrounded the village. With the relish of a gourmet shucking a fresh oyster, he demonstrated how to pluck the berry and drop it into a metal milk bucket without damage to either the tender blue sphere or its branch. "You’ve got to be careful," he warned us, cheerily. "Blueberries are a renewable resource that supports almost all of our jam production. And that's important. After all, as Kropotkin always said, 'Local production obviates the need for central government.’"
I'd ended up there largely by accident. My parents, both graduate students, had no money to send my brother and me to summer camp. But they devoutly believed that summers in the country were as essential to our well-being as healthy food and polio vaccines, so every year my mother cobbled together enough camp sessions and visits to friends and relatives with country homes to ensure that we got at least some mosquito bites, campfires, and dawn swims in bracing mountain waters. That year, while scouring the classifieds in the Saturday Review magazine, my mother had found an ad for Shaker Village indicating that they granted scholarships. That was all she needed to know.
Two months later I found myself side-by-side with middle-class Jewish hippies from Long Island and working class black kids from Detroit and the Bronx. We learned to can and to weave, though few of my bunched and skewed place mats made their way to the store to be sold next to books, sachets, and Shaker paraphernalia. I learned to dig potatoes and pick beans and milk cows, horrified and thrilled by the sensation of wringing each long teat, the warmth of the watery milk shooting out, the torrential sound it made as it hit the base of the metal bucket. I learned to craft Shaker brooms and boxes—gleaming oval baskets with slender, dovetailed joints, held together by glue and wooden tacks. I learned to make jam from the strawberries and blueberries we picked at the start and end of summer. I learned to can Bread-and-Butter pickles. And, because paid tours and craft store sales helped subsidize the program, I learned enough about Shaker history to escort visiting tourists around the South Family Village.
One afternoon, a collection of middle-aged socks-and-sandals-clad refugees from New York City came to the Berkshires for cooler air and culture. "The Shakers,” I told my small party, “were founded by a woman, Mother Ann Lee. She came here in 1774 with eight of her followers and began to preach. She was fleeing a violent husband in England, and perhaps that helps to explain her belief in celibacy." Young and involuntarily celibate as I was, I smirked a little when I said this. "But she also believed in equality of the sexes. Every village, or 'family,' was led by an Elder and an Eldress, and they had equal authority." I did not smirk when I said this. Other than Golda Meir, I'd never seen any woman in a position of power besides a teacher.
"You hear that, Hal?" a blond woman muttered to her husband. "Equal authority."
"Why not?" he answered with a broad shrug. "We're already celibate."
While being a tour guide, with its transient authority, was one of my favorite jobs, that wasn't what made Shaker Village a keystone in my life, even now. It wasn't the Shakers’ invention of the clothespin or the broom or the fact that the Shakers were the first to sell seeds in paper packages that excited me. No, what mattered is that they were pacifists. More love, went one of the Shaker hymns we learned to sing. More love, the heavens are blessing, the angels are calling, Oh Zion, more love. Self-sufficient men and women, the Shakers found righteousness in peace, succor in work, togetherness in song, and ecstasy in dance. And in 1967, we aspired to do the same.
I hadn't known that the summer had an official name until one afternoon I read a three-month-old newspaper that I was using to wrap ceramic cups in the gift store. The article quoted an April press conference held by The Council for the Summer of Love. An amalgamation of people from an anarchist group, an underground theatre company, the San Francisco Oracle underground paper, and about 25 other locals, The Council had been formed to prepare for the anticipated rush of runaways, hippies, and seekers expected to descend on the city once school let out. Working with churches, food banks, and doctors, they tried to create a Haight Ashbury infrastructure that would support the imminent population explosion. Of course I had no appreciation for their practicality, only for their rhetoric. "This summer," they declared, "the youth of the world are making a Holy pilgrimage to our city, to affirm and celebrate a new spiritual dawn...This city is not a wasteland; our children will not discover drought and famine here. This city is alive, human and divine..."
On the day that I read this, Gray Line Bus tours began their Haight-Ashbury District Hippy Hop tour, "the only foreign tour within the continental United States." That irony was not lost on my friends and me as we sat outside the craft store 3,000 miles away, waiting for tourists of our own to guide, intently leafing through Life magazine's gaudy photos and Time's breathless dispatches from San Francisco.
The July 7, 1967 cover of Time featured a psychedelic picture of musicians— what looked like an amalgam of Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner and Gracie Slick, Joni Mitchell, and some grinning guy in paisley who could have been Dennis Hopper--—amidst swirling flowers and swooshes in purple, blue, and gold. "The Hippies: Philosophy of a Subculture" read the angled banner at the top right.
“Hippies preach altruism and mysticism, honesty, joy and nonviolence," the cover story explained. “They find an almost childish fascination in beads, blossoms and bells, blinding strobe lights and ear-shattering music, exotic clothing and erotic slogans. Their professed aim is nothing less than the subversion of Western society by ‘flower power’ and force of example. Although that sounds like a pipe-dream, it conveys the unreality that permeates hippiedom, a cult whose mystique derives essentially from the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.”
With its translations of common hippie words and phrases ("Though hippies consider any sort of arithmetic a 'down trip,' or boring, their own estimate of their nationwide number runs to some 300,000…They feel 'up tight' (tense and frightened) about many disparate things—from sex to the draft, college grades to thermonuclear war." The article read like a parody.
Even reading it today, I find myself taking umbrage at its patronizing dismissal of "the unreality that permeates hippiedom." Not everyone who aspired to those values was a devotee of hallucinogenic drugs. (Idealistic but fundamentally timid, I certainly wasn't at the age of 14, or ever.) While some kids–too many–ran away from home or dropped out of school and ended up sleeping in doorways in Haight Ashbury or St. Mark's Place that summer, most of my peers went where our parents sent us, and at least went through the motions of leading the lives we were supposed to lead. Like tourists on the Hippy Hop bus, we were in some respects just passing through, acquiring the tchotchkes of hippiedom while keeping a safe distance from it. But just as one visit to Paris or one swim in a still black lake on a moonlit night is enough to lodge itself in your heart forever, the hippy ethos penetrated us like sunlight, coloring our skin and making our bones stronger.
What I remember best is dancing—not the stomping, geometrically pristine Shaker dances that we'd re-create on parents' night—but the nights in the barn when we'd get to dance to our music. Though it hadn't been used as a barn for decades, the sweet-scented warmth of horses and hay had infiltrated every dry-aged board. Simply standing in that sun-bleached and listing structure, I felt the tender attention of past generations. Dancing, I felt that I was channeling their energy, mingling it with ours. We'd sway to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and ruminate over the lyrics ("It's clearly about LSD, man"). We'd shout with The Chambers Brothers—Time, time, time—our voices fusing and frenzied, delirious with possibility, and close out the night with The Doors. The songs started slyly, with a sexy wink and grind from Jim Morrison to the mass of gyrating youth in the stunned and creaky old barn. Ray Manzarek's organ, compressed and insinuating, squeezed out the notes as we belted out the words: We want the world and we want it…Now.
Dropping out, simply establishing a parallel, self-contained society of just and peaceful people, seemed possible. It wasn't a stretch to imagine it. That we were living in a worthy and self-directed community of teenagers seemed not so much unusual as simply appropriate.
The fact that this was just a summer, one that our parents had paid or borrowed or applied for, was lost on us. We were young, as naive as we thought we were worldly. At least most of us.
There was one camper at Shaker Village in 1967 who wasn't in the least bit naive. Then 15-years-old, Ben Chaney was a celebrity of sorts. His older brother, James, had disappeared in 1964 while en route from Philadelphia, Mississippi to the town of Meridian, along with two white Freedom Riders from New York City who had gone South for the summer to help register black voters. Their families raised a ruckus, and when the FBI finally found the bodies of Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in an earthen dam 44 days later—pistol-whipped, mutilated, and shot—the press descended on Meridian, the Chaneys’ hometown, to cover the funeral.
Nine years younger than James, Ben idolized his older brother. And for good reason. James had been like a father to him, bringing him along as he organized prospective black voters in the weeks leading up to the Freedom Summer. When twelve-year-old Ben was arrested for demonstrating for civil rights, it was James who got him released. In an interview over 40 years later, Ben would say of James, "He treated me like I was a hero."
I’d seen the picture of Ben that had been taken on August 7, 1964—the day of his brother's funeral. His mother, wearing a black straw hat and black veil that covers her downcast face like chicken wire, cups Ben's temple, holding his head to her chest. His white shirt collar is brilliant; it seems to illuminate his face and make the tears on his cheek glisten. He looks like the child he was, grieving and haunted.
Soon after the funeral, Ben's family began to receive death threats. The Goodman and Schwerner families raised money among their network of friends, family, and supporters in New York City, and their financial support enabled the Chaneys to flee the South. By the time I met him, Ben lived in New York and attended the predominantly white Waldorf School, as the first recipient of the Andrew Goodman Memorial Scholarship. With the aid of well-wishing benefactors, he was spending his summer in a similar milieu at Shaker Village.
He didn’t say much about his history, at least not to me, and I didn’t know how to initiate that conversation. I was intimidated by his celebrity, by the horror in his life that earned it.
Of course, my female friends and I talked endlessly about him. We talked about all the boys—the ones we liked, the ones who liked us, the ones we’d made out with in the woods the night before.
“So after he felt me up, Howie told me to start shaving my legs,” Michelle said as she brushed out her curly blond hair in preparation for straightening.
“What did you tell him?” Ruth asked. She licked her finger then quickly touched the flat of the iron she was about to apply to Michelle’s hair.
“I told him he was a sexist piglet. I said, ‘I’ll shave mine when you shave yours,’” she answered from behind the curtain of hair that now fell in front of her face. Then, arms akimbo, she bent over and carefully touched her head to the edge of the ironing board.
Ruth fanned Michelle’s hair out, then laid a damp towel over it. “I bet he didn’t tell you to start wearing a bra.” She firmly swiped the iron just inches from Michelle’s forehead. “Assuming he noticed.”
“Oh, he noticed,” came Michelle’s muffled response.
Ben probably figured into one of those conversations. By the end of the summer, practically every boy there did. I know we danced together in the Rec Hall and played with the camp cook’s mangy dog—a bandana-clad mutt that softened Ben’s raucous, angry laugh. But my most vivid image of him is silent. He is on one side of the dirt road that led up to the Village, at the edge of the meadow where I liked to sit and dream. He is wearing his usual outfit—blue jeans and a bright white tee shirt—smoking a cigarette. He stands apart as we congregate on the other side of the road. I sense the gap between us—I see it—but don't know how to bridge it. Nothing in my experience equips me to make sense of his.
As the FBI investigators dredged rivers in their search for the missing men back in 1964, they found the bodies of other black men and women who had been murdered. These were the unnamed, uncelebrated victims of racist violence. They were not icons. Most of us knew nothing of them.
But Ben did. I recently found another picture of him taken on the day of his brother’s funeral, one that Life magazine chose not to run. The Chaney family is in the limousine that would carry them to the cemetery. His parents sit in the front seat, gazing out the front window, their faces sober and empty, depleted. Ben's three older sisters sit in the back seat, looking straight ahead. But Ben, perched in the corner of the back seat, his head disproportionately large as it juts out over his slender torso, stares directly at the camera. His face is hard to read, as if he is looking inward and out well beyond the lens at the same time. He seems to be looking into the future, and it is bleak.
Ben didn't return to Shaker Village in 1968, and by 1970 he had joined the Black Panther Party in New York City. That spring, on the way home from a trip to Florida with two New York friends, Ben was arrested in South Carolina and charged with four first-degree murders and other crimes in three Deep South states. All the alleged murder victims were white, and Ben faced the electric chair.
Hearing about his arrest at the time, I felt unsurprised, and ashamed of that fact.
While he was present when the murders took place, Ben was found innocent of murder.
He did his prison time once again back in the South. A newspaper photo shows him standing in a cell, still wearing blue jeans and a bright white tee shirt. His face is in shadow, bifurcated by bars. He has a sparse mustache and his hand, hanging by his side, is holding a cigarette. His eyes, pained but alight, seem to say, of course.
I recently discovered a Shaker Village alumni group on Facebook, where someone posted a photo from my second year there, the summer of 1968. About 120 of us are on the ground in front of the old chair factory, the largest building on the property. Built into the hillside, the building housed a dirt-floor theatre for camp-wide meetings and movies. Above it were workshops for weaving, caning chairs, candle-making, and building baskets. Evenly spaced windows checkered the front of the building, flooding the workshops with natural light and making the wide wooden floorboards gleam like honey.
In the black-and-white group portrait, most of the kids are smiling, or at least not scowling. They wear tee-shirts (without logos, as all tee-shirts were then), jeans, shorts, Indian blouses, flannel work shirts. Some wear sandals, some wear Beatles boots, but many are barefoot. There's Eric, one of the Bergen twins, all red curls and braces and pompousness to make up for being short. There's the guy whose name I forget with his arm around his girlfriend—the "it" couple because he had enough facial hair to form a robust mustache, and she had him. David, with cupid chin and hair broader than his narrow, army-jacket clad shoulders, looks frail and yearning, which is how I remember him. Four rows up, half cropped out of the picture, is one of the many Dans, dark and glum, in the ludicrously piped sweater he seemed never to take off, dutifully staring at the camera. His boyfriend, Zach—tall and willowy, with fair skin and curls like Byron and Dylan—must have been outside the camera's frame, because the two of them were never apart. Innocent and pining, it didn't occur to me then that they were anything but best friends.
Standing in the back row is Michael Scala from New York, gangly and goofy behind his granny glasses and untucked button-down shirt. One hand rests on the tree next to him, the other holds up a sign. Stop the War, it says. He is unusually tall, towering over the other kids like Abe Lincoln, but he is smiling like Abe probably never did, with the open happiness of someone who has no reason to doubt that the world belongs to him and his friends, if not now, then soon.
I look for myself in the group photo. There is a girl with center-parted long, frizzy hair four rows up, two kids away from the blond guy with big lips who I think was called Charlie. Her head is tilted to the right, the way I'm told mine often is, and her expression is grave. She might be me.
While I'm sure that the summer of 1968 held the same mix of farm work and folk arts and music as the summer of 1967, it seems to me that our sense of separation—even of the possibility of separation—from mainstream culture, had already dissolved. By August of 1968, buffeted by assassinations, police riots, escalated bombings in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon's campaign for president enveloped in the mantle of the "Moral Majority," we were feeling like trapped and frantic members of the society we had to change.
One morning in late August, in the last week of the summer program, Jerry Count stood in front of us and held up the front page of the New York Times, dominated by two black-and-white photos. In one, a procession of tanks lined a cobblestoned street in Prague, empty except for a single taxi headed in the opposite direction. In the other, a young Czech man had leapt atop one of the tanks and legs spread, held up a flag as if leading a charge. On either side of the street, clusters of people stared, and behind them, thick smoke rose from an unseen fire.
In response to political reforms in Czechoslovakia and a surge of democratic stirrings dubbed the Prague Spring, the Soviets had enlisted their Warsaw Pact allies to join them in sending 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks into the country overnight. By the morning of August 21, 1968, Czechoslovakia was occupied.
I think it was sunny that morning. But no light glinted off of Jerry's wireframe glasses as he stood in front of us, huddled and mute. When he roused himself to speak, he used words like "travesty" and "unforgivable."
"Any state founded on authoritarianism—socialist or capitalist—will sow the seeds of its own collapse," he railed, jabbing the offending photographs with his finger. Then his arms just dropped to his sides, sagging in his puffy red cardigan. "But oh, the people it will take down along the way."
In November of that year, all of the summer's villagers got a letter notifying us of Jerry's passing. The newspaper obituary it included spoke only of his "sudden death," and made no mention of the cause. There were rumors, never confirmed or denied, that he'd committed suicide. As I would later feel upon reading about Ben Chaney's conviction, on hearing the news, I was sad but unsurprised.
Shaker Village Work Group closed for good in 1971, one of many physical communities, actual instantiations of Utopian ideals, to come and go. But attempts to build them persist. Given both the swelling ranks of baby boomers and the emerging ethos at the time, 1967 was a banner year. That’s when the planned city of Columbia, Maryland, opened, with a carefully designed layout of streets, schools, interfaith congregations, and stores on an intimate, pedestrian scale. Inherent in the plan was the belief that well-designed cities could improve not just an individual's quality of life, but promote racial, religious, and class integration.
That year also marked the opening of Cumbernauld, a "visionary" town in Scotland, designed with a sunny, if unwarranted, faith in the power of enlightened civic engineering. The vision of Cumbernauld’s designers was to replace urban squalor, pollution, and irrationality with a planned community in a pastoral setting, one that would eventually provide 70,000 people with safety, fresh air, a self-sustainable economy, and, of course, accessible shopping.
But those ambitions feel distant now, as I watch a woman and her daughters traverse paved paths through Cumbernauld’s empty courtyards in a 1967 documentary, seemingly stranded in this still slumbering Brigadoon made of poured concrete and grand ideas. In the streaming gray video, this treeless new settlement looks barren and lonely, and I feel the aching gap between the longing for the ideal community and its sensible execution.
Cumbernauld still exists, though its pedestrian walkways became wind tunnels, and the development seems largely distinguished by having been the site of Britain's first indoor shopping mall and for having twice won the architecture magazine Prospect's Carbuncle award for being the most dismal place in Scotland. Fast food restaurants abound there, and according to a BBC report, "When it won the Carbuncle award in 2001, judges compared Cumbernauld to Kabul and described its shopping centre as a rabbit warren on stilts."
Utopian ideals endure, even though every physical community erected to house them has eventually crumbled. Perhaps these are convictions that can’t be constructed, only grown and carried from place to place, through time. What grew out of those last few summers at Shaker Village was organic and real, far more enduring in its impact than Cumbernauld. Though our physical congregation as a community—and as a generation—was transitory, the knowledge we acquired there sunk deep roots that have strengthened and spread. We know, and now our children know, that peace and cooperation are material and daily choices that we make. Utopia isn’t built from the outside in, and it certainly can't be planned. It doesn't require great engineering minds, just verdant hearts.
As I try to summon up how I felt being there, what gets revived is the shocking carnality of my first French kiss, the energy stoked by being part of a group and feeling myself to be a pulsing cell in a larger organism, the completely unwarranted confidence in my own agency. What I remember from those summers is simply being an adolescent. But what I feel now is the continuity in conviction that is my past, pulling me like a tow line into my future.
Upon being released after thirteen years in prison, Ben Chaney went back to New York City and got a job as a paralegal for Ramsey Clark, the former Attorney General who had represented him at his trial. He created the James Earl Chaney Foundation, to promote voter registration and to maintain a memorial in Meridian to his brother, Schwerner, and Goodman. He gives speeches to young people about the need for nonviolent change. I'm guessing that he no longer smokes.
I've found one recent picture of him, part of a slide show of photos taken at the 2009 annual gala celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King held by CORE, the venerable civil rights organization. In it, Ben and David Goodman, brother of Andrew, receive plaques in honor of the three slain men. They join a cast on the dais that includes the now ancient Delfonics singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and the USO Liberty Bells—three women looking like an integrated knock-off of The Andrews Sisters—singing the "The Star-Spangled Banner." Roy Innis, the conservative-leaning chairman of CORE, imposing and dapper, receives an award. Pat Boone, the now 75-year-old white singer who made his fortune singing covers of R&B songs, the Christian icon who organized the first Beverly Hills Tea Party rally, emcees the event and shows a music video tribute to Dr. King. And in the audience in front of them are over 2000 well-heeled people, a mix of black and white, clapping with what I imagine to be a mix of politeness and bafflement at this bizarre assembly.
But then comes the climax of the evening—a video greeting from President Obama. Once again, as so often happens lately when I look at the cultural kitsch of the recent past and present, I wonder why I'm laughing so derisively. I am, after all, looking at a photograph in which a group of old people who have led long lives full of pain and puzzlement are finally being addressed by a black man who is, after all, a president.
As at his brother's funeral, Ben is wearing a crisp white shirt and dark tie. Balding, in dark-framed glasses, he looks old beyond his years. His wildness is gone. He looks slight, almost diminutive. He and David Goodman stand side-by-side at the podium, composing in their loss and their endurance, a community of two.