The summer before I entered the eighth grade, our family moved from the farm to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had left my fears of torture behind, and for the most part, the nightmares had disappeared. I loved the freedom and opportunities of city life. I was delighted to discover friends, school, and a library all within walking distance. I carried home stacks of books, some recommended by the librarian and others uncensored by anyone. By the time we had lived on Cleveland Ave. for a couple of years, nearly all of us were teenagers. I can’t imagine how my parents endured the challenges, and the rebellion. Eventually, we all found ways to cope with a father who felt it was his duty to keep us under control. For me rebellion meant challenging Dad’s political views. College made things worse.
My parents allowed me to stay at home and attend Calvin College to save money. Calvin wasn’t exactly a hotbed of 1960s demonstrations, but had its share of long-haired artists and student editors at least as wise as me and perhaps more opinionated. As may be true of many activists, most of our pronouncements were the outcome of deeply emotional reactions to the injustices we saw around us. And with such clarity of thought, we prophetically identified the sins of society and prescribed the cure. For some unfathomable reason, my father didn’t seem to understand or embrace my wisdom. Now I wonder whether my decision to neutralize my father’s view of communism was an unintentional way of defusing the enemy of my nightmares.
We, students of the ‘60s declared our Reformed denomination moribund and guilty of horrendous sins of omission. The Christian Reformed Church with its pietistic roots and Dutch culture came under fierce, sometimes hilarious, scrutiny, and if its flag had flown on campus, it might have burned. We embraced all the right isms: the civil rights movement, feminism, environmentalism, and the peace movement. Volunteering at an inner-city school, I was certain that my weekly visits would be transformative. We were earnest and proclaimed the evils of “Amerika” but, as I remember, did not give much credence to reports of suffering in the Soviet Union and its satellites. When my father challenged the tenets of socialism, I had a passionate and always contrary opinion. It sometimes reached the point when my sister would kick me under the table and fiercely point to her watch, a pretty direct hint to shut up.
One particularly memorable argument resulted when I left the book, Summerhill, lying on the dining room table. It was required reading for one of my classes and promoted the vision of progressive education in England. My father viewed its radical belief in the goodness of the child to be utter nonsense and worried aloud that Calvin was flirting with this progressive vision. Considering the unspeakable evil unveiled after World War II, one could understand his belief in total depravity. But as for me, I was drawn to the book because it questioned parental authority as well as authority in general. The stage was set for more conflict.
When Barry Goldwater ran for president under the Republican flag, our arguments took on a new kind of intensity. My father was horrified that most Americans not only ignored the evils of communism, but embraced Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. He wondered what possessed those who promoted a government-controlled utopia, and predicted that it would be an abysmal failure. I, of course, disagreed so intensely that we seldom spoke to each other, and it became clear that I needed to move out. I did, probably a relief to my parents and certainly to my siblings. My father saw the 1960s as the end of Christian civilization. I saw it as an upsetting but necessary breath of fresh air.
I drank in the coffee shop discussions and applauded the caustic editorials in the student newspaper. We knew we were right, and though some eggs might break in the process, a new socialist omelet would feed the hungry and bring a bright new world of peace and harmony.