In 1966 my parents decided it was time to take a grand tour of the country. For three weeks we traveled west of the Mississippi, camping most of the way, hopping from national park to national park (Thank you Teddy Roosevelt, the parks were and still are an excellent idea.). Halfway through the trip we ended up in San Francisco. Dad wanted to see Golden Gate Bridge, Mom wanted to see Fisherman’s Wharf, and I wanted to ride the cable cars up and down the thrillingly steep streets. My older brother, who had just started to high school, wanted to visit Haight-Ashbury.
So one evening our family, parents with four children nicely dressed for our visit to the big city, walked through this quiet bohemian neighborhood with rows of old apartments crammed against the sidewalk. We stopped in a small store filled with a strange assortment of items; the walls were papered in posters with brilliantly colored surreal patterns. It was the type of establishment that would later be called a head shop. There my older brother got his prized underground newspaper. I found the posters an interesting style, and learned what “psychedelic” meant, but I am sure we weren’t the typical clientele in this birthplace of the hippie movement.
What if we had taken the grand tour of the country a year later, in 1967? We would have arrived at San Francisco when over 100,000 teenagers and college students were descending on this same neighborhood to celebrate a counterculture of yet to be illegal drugs and free love. I am sure my parents would have vetoed my brother’s request, but as we were a year early, I had the privilege of sight-seeing in Haight-Ashbury before it became overwhelmingly famous as a hippie haven, not realizing that my brother knew things ahead of his peers. (Although my brother was aware of the hippie movement, he was never drawn into it.)
Now that I reflect on my past, it is amazing that a crowd as large as the baby boomers conformed as much to each other as they did. Perhaps it was the sheer numbers of people born from 1946 to 1964 that caused business to cater to them. Fashions aimed at girls my age – short, brightly flowered A-lined shifts, embroidered caftans, bell bottom jeans – were obviously divergent from what our mothers wore, but the same as all the other girls. The guys my age hummed the same tunes. Almost all knew the words to the latest song by Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. I wasn’t completely comfortable with that kind of conformity. Hearing the Billboard top forty played over and over again on the radio was a bit boring. When I moved into a new high school, I came dressed in one of my fashionable turn-of-the decade seventies outfits. I was an outsider, only having a few friends that hung out on the fringe. One friend pointed out to me that it was the same outfit that a popular girl had worn. I never wore it again.
As I look back on growing up as a baby boomer, I now see that my generation’s break with the values of the prior generation, distrust of government, and rejection of consumerism were often orchestrated events. Many of my peers thought that rebelling against parents was a universal trait. We wanted to be different from the older generation, but weren’t willing to travel that path alone, or even in small groups. The sit-ins, marches and the rock music festivals were a way to be with others with similar tastes, to be surrounded by a large company of peers. We wanted to be different in the same way.