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December 2001 / January 2002 Cover

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Stephen King on the '60s

Stephen King on the '60s
Reflections of a campus activist

About the Photo: "There was a tremendous amount of excitement about being involved with the anti-war protests." — Stephen King


Hearts in Atlantis
Every year for the past decade, a class book has united University of Maine students and faculty in a common dialogue about literature and contemporary issues. This year's class book has done that and much more. The book, Hearts in Atlantis, is written by UMaine alumnus Stephen King.

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College is always a time of change, I guess, the last major convulsion of childhood, but I doubt there were ever changes of such magnitude as those faced by the students who came to their campuses in the late sixties.
— Peter Riley in Hearts in Atlantis

Like hundreds of his contemporaries on The University of Maine campus during the late 1960s, Stephen King struggled to come to terms with a world turned upside down by the Vietnam War. Arriving in Orono as a first-year student in 1966, King's politics changed from those of a clean-cut young Republican from a small southern Maine town to, by the time he graduated in 1970, those of a long-haired anti-war protester and campus activist.

King and other student leaders from UMaine's Vietnam War era reunited at their alma mater Oct. 3 for a special panel discussion, "Thirty Years Later: Reflections on Campus Activism by Those Who Led It." The panel was assembled to tie into UMaine's 2001-2002 Class Book, King's Hearts in Atlantis (see Sidebar).

Along with King, the panel featured two members of the Class of '69: Michael Carpenter, a former Maine Attorney General; and Richard Davies, a former state legislator and current public policy consultant. Joining them were Christine Hastedt ('68), co-founder of the Maine Equal Justice Project and the Maine Equal Justice Partners; Trish Riley ('73), executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy and current chair of UMaine's Board of Visitors; and Clifford Rosen ('71), a medical doctor and national expert on osteoporosis. Moderating the discussion was National Public Radio's Brian Naylor, a 1979 UMaine graduate.

Speaking to a capacity crowd at Hauck Auditorium, they reflected on how their UMaine experience affected their views of the world and their lives. Excerpts from King's comments follow.

Getting involved
"For me it was a progression. My folks came from Scarborough, Maine. They were deep Republicans, to the extent that during the '30s, nobody in my mother's family would say Roosevelt's name; he was just ‘that man in the White House.' I worked for (Republican) John Reed as governor, and I worked for Barry Goldwater in his campaign in 1964. The first thing my wife tells people we meet: ‘In 1968, Steve voted for Richard Nixon.'

"The first (protest) I remember was in 1967, a boycott of grapes sold at the supermarkets in the Bangor area. From there, I became part of this (anti-war) movement. There was a sit-in at East Annex where Dow Chemical was holding job interviews. We all knew that Dow made napalm. That was what we were defoliating Vietnam with. From there, it was a quick progression (in activism).

"When I came on campus in 1966, I lived in Gannett Hall and my roommate was Harold Crosby of Whiting, Maine. He knew what he wanted to do (become a dentist), he did it and is doing it today. Harold is in Hearts in Atlantis. By January 1967, he had decided that we were wrong to be in Vietnam. To this day, I am mad that Harold beat me to that (realization).

"There was a tremendous amount of excitement about being involved with the anti-war protests. And there were a lot of other things involved, boiled down to three or four strong points — protest the war, protest poverty, protest discrimination against women. It was tremendously exhilarating to be part of it."

A world turned upside down
"The paranoia (on campus) was very high. There were stories of infiltrators from the FBI and Maine State Police in the demonstrations. (They) were supposed to be getting names. It's very difficult now to convey the sense of paranoia we had, and the growing sense of rage that this would go on in the face of what had become a kind of national insanity. You don't know (how bad it was); to walk in front of the (grocery store) at the Westgate Mall and have women come up and look at you with this expression of contempt and say, ‘Why don't you get a haircut? Why don't you go to Vietnam? What are you good for?'

"It was scary right here on campus. It was scary to wake up and find the National Guard had killed four kids on a campus in Ohio (Kent State, May 4, 1970).

"Yet at the same time, I was aware that on the periphery, for all the people who looked like me — the heads, the long hairs, the freaks — there was an entire world right here at the University where the guys were wearing polyester and pullover sweaters and the girls were wearing A-line skirts and Ship 'n Shore blouses with Peter Pan collars, and they were happy to check in (to their dormitories) by 10 (p.m.) because they had to do those rollers and had to get that stuff all going so they could go on a date that next night. They were involved in dates and football games. Vietnam was somewhere over the horizon."

Turning points
"I came home from college and one of my aunts from Massachusetts was up visiting. I was in the kitchen, and my mother and aunt were in the living room. I heard my aunt say to my mother, ‘Why don't you tell him to cut his hair or get the hell out? He looks like a girl and he's talking all this stuff about the government.' My mother said, ‘I don't agree with him but he's doing what he believes is right and he's now old enough to think for himself.' My eyes filled with tears and I had to leave the room. I didn't want her to know I had overheard that and she never spoke of it (again).

"(My mother) died of cancer in 1974. In late 1973 when it was clear that she was never going to get better, she was in bed and she grabbed me and pulled me down and said, ‘I want to tell you something before I go. You have to promise not to tell your brother.' I said OK, and she said, ‘I voted for McGovern.'"

Looking back
"Sometimes I'm not a big fan of my generation. I think the impact of the activism can be overrated. To my mind, a lot of people — even the people involved in the anti-war movement — moved to the center in politics later on. I think an awful lot of people got involved with, ‘How much money can I make?' and, ‘God, I know that Reagan's politics are a little bit Neanderthal, but Jesus, he is good for the economy. My portfolio is getting so big. Not only can I afford to put my kids through school, but I can afford some blow.'

"There was a time when we did have (the ability to change the nation) in our hands, when we literally came maybe within a month, three marches, four demonstrations, three more wrong moves by the idiotic Nixon and Johnson administrations of changing this country and turning it on its ear. I believe we came that close to changes in policy. There were men with guns; one of them gunned down Bobby Kennedy in 1968 in a hotel kitchen. That made a difference.

"The movie Easy Rider ends with one of the guys saying, ‘We blew it.' I put that in the front of my book (Hearts in Atlantis)."

December, 2001/January, 2002

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