A few words of English

Memories of a time abroad, when a new President was coming into office in a very troubled time.
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President John F. Kennedy's Dallas motorcade

Memories of a time abroad, when a new President was coming into office in a very troubled time.

Up in our bedroom, with its treetop view north along Colvos Passage, I see a shard of unglazed ocher pottery. Below the bulge of the shattered rim runs a narrow incised line and a pattern of fluting. Many years ago, we picked it off the dusty ground at the ruined Greco-Roman city of Perge in southern Turkey. Shards littered the ground for acres. There was no one else around, not even a sign telling you not to pick things up. We were very young. It seemed harmless.

We had walked to the ruins from the highway, after taking a shared taxi from the city of Antalya, where we were staying. It was early fall. Mornings were cold enough so that when we drank black tea and ate bread with home made preserves on our hotel balcony, looking out through date palms to the Aegean, we wore our lined overcoats. Afternoons were so warm that we swam in the clear, deep water below the cliffs. The sun was already high when we reached the ruins. We hadn'ꀙt brought our coats.

It was a strange time to be traveling. Teenagers from all over the country had just descended on San Francisco to consort with the first hippies in what the media described as the 'ꀜsummer of love.'ꀝ A year before, San Francisco'ꀙs famous Fillmore Auditorium had been full of grown ups, some with young children in tow. That summer, it was full of 14-year-old girls.

The 'ꀜsummer of love'ꀝ was also a time of urban riots that swept Detroit, Newark, and other American cities. One of the summer'ꀙs more horrendous incidents took place in quiet, suburban Plainfield, New Jersey, where there had been so much burning and looting that New Jersey had sent in the National Guard, and a black mob had stomped a white policeman to death. The press talked about the incident as mindless violence. It was vicious, but it wasn'ꀙt mindless. In what passed for Plainfield'ꀙs ghetto, a young man told me that the slain cop had had 'ꀜa reputation as a head breaker.'ꀝ Gesturing to a corner across the street from a bar, he said, 'ꀜI saw him stand on that corner over there and beat a drunken boy until he broke his stick over the boy'ꀙs head. If you said two words to him, he laid a stick on you.'ꀝ The press never reported that context.

To analyze the causes of the riots, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a commission chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner and generally known as the Kerner Commission,. (Needless to say, Kerner had not yet been sentenced to federal prison for taking bribes.) The report, issued the next year, famously warned that the United States was in danger of becoming two societies, one black and one white. In a sense, it was already two societies.

But 40 years later, the nation elected Barack Obama as its President.

Abroad, people certainly knew about America'ꀙs riots and hippies, but they cared more about the Vietnam War. That April, we had joined Martin Luther King'ꀙs New York anti-war march from Central Park to the United Nations. Months earlier, Stimson Bullitt, then president of Seattle'ꀙs King Broadcasting Company, had become the first American broadcaster to editorialize against the war. But a majority of the American people hadn'ꀙt yet turned against it. People in other countries were a different story. Virtually no one supported the U.S. policy in southeast Asia. We were glad to be mistaken for Germans or Swedes, which we often were.

Not that any one threw rocks at us because of Vietnam; actually, people did throw rocks at us, but they probably weren'ꀙt politically motivated. In Istanbul, before we took a bus to Antalya, residents of a waterfront neighborhood attacked us with both rocks and old fruit. It was tempting to link their attitude to the presence of the U.S. naval vessels that were moored in Istanbul at the time, their rigging lit up at night like carnival rides and their sailors thronging the streets. But there was really no reason to think the people throwing things were protesting the presence of our fleet. It was a rough neighborhood. At home, we would never have walked casually through a place like that. We were just being careless.

We were careless at Perge, too. We wandered by ourselves until the sun fell low in the sky. We started to worry about getting back to the highway before dark. We walked out to the dirt road. A guy came by on a motorcycle. We hitched a ride. After we were behind him on the bike, heading for the main highway, we smelled liquor on his breath. We got back to our hotel just fine, but it was a dumb thing to do.

The day left us with lasting memories of that deserted city, crumbling into the plain. 'ꀜAll things fall and are built again,'ꀝ wrote William Butler Yeats in "Lapis Lazuli." I love the poem, but Yeats was wrong. They aren'ꀙt built again. Yeats was closer to the mark when he wrote, earlier in the poem:

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,

Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back , mule-back,

Old civilizations put to the sword.

By the time we visited Perge, the city had lain in ruins on its dusty plain for centuries. No one had rebuilt it. No one ever will.

No one had ever rebuilt Termessos, the ruined hill town that allegedly once resisted Alexander the Great, either. One day, we took a bus to within walking distance of Termessos. Huge, worn gray stones from the ruined town lay half-buried in the brush. Again, there was no one else around. When we got back to the highway, we didn'ꀙt know when or even if the next bus would come by, so we hitched a ride on a big flatbed truck. The otherwise empty bed was full of riders, all of them men. The driver evicted other riders from the cab to make room for us. He had a few words of English. We had a little Turkish.

When the driver discovered we were Americans, he held up an index finger and said, "Kennedy, number one. Johnson, number . . . ten!" I'ꀙd like to think that after Obama takes office, people met casually in distant places will think an American president is number one again.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.