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Joseph Xavier Martin: Movie stirs memories of ’60s counterculture

Recently, I watched “The Big Chill” again. The memories flooded through me like a tsunami of yesteryear. It was the era when the Vietnam War was ramping up. A number of the older guys were being drafted into the Army. We would escort them in the early morning hours, after a night of revelry, to the Buffalo Central Terminal on Paderewski Drive. Most were scheduled for an early morning train trip to Fort Dix, N.J., and induction into the Army. Carloads of us would enter the terminal, in a loud and unruly state, escorting the draftee off to his service with a much-remembered send-off, and also bequeathing him a considerable hangover the next day.

Some of those smiling young lads never came back to us. They left their life force in the far jungles of Vietnam. Some came home and died of complications from a chemical defoliant called Agent Orange. Others came back missing limbs. Most were traumatized by that awful experience.

One friend had a quarter-inch of the bridge of his nose missing, courtesy of a Viet Cong bullet that almost took him to the great beyond. Another made it home with six bullets from an AK-47 stitched from his ankle to his shoulder. When he was airlifted back to the United States, several of us picked up his sister and father. We drove 10 hours to the U.S. Army Hospital, at Fort Devens, Mass., to welcome him home. He was weak from his wounds, but feisty as always.

It was a few years of rehabilitation and settling in before some of the lads were able to put that awful experience behind them and lead a more normal life. Few ever talked about it. They just settled in to raise families and work their jobs, like their dads had before them. Bless them every one for their service to the nation.

It was also the time when a cultural tidal wave from Britain erupted into America’s psyche. The Beatles, a rock band from Liverpool, exploded into our consciousness in 1964 after a televised performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The mop-haired lads, with their clean-cut good looks and soft melodies, enraptured our youth.

They started out with sweet airs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Help” before progressing musically to more nostalgic tunes like “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude.” Later in the ’60s, they rode in with the new age tide. Songs like “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” gave us a new perspective on music and the imagination.

With these songs, they helped usher in the “psychedelic age” that was sweeping across the landscape of America’s youth. An obscure street corner in San Francisco, Haight and Ashbury, became the center for a new movement called hippies. Outfitted with tie-dyed T-shirts, bell-bottom pants, long hair and marijuana smoking as a rite of passage, they were the self-styled “generation of love.”

Having lived through this era, I am not even sure I knew that it was happening all around me. Buffalo was not then exactly the epicenter for new age thinking. Later, a phrase developed that I think I agree with in reference to this era. “If you remember the ’60s, you probably weren’t there.”

Like the Gay ’90s and the Roaring ’20s, it was to become an iconic era, forever to be remembered in film and song. That is a good thing. Maybe I can now watch, listen and enjoy the scenes and music of the period, and experience it for the unique cultural episode that it was.

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