THE LAST DAY OF THE SIXTIES – Part 1

Richard Brautigan
Richard Brautigan

PART I

(standing, speaking directly to the audience)

Hi, I’m John Lehman, not Richard Brautigan. He’s dead, but I am a big fan of his work and tonight I want to share some of it with you and perhaps figure out why, years later, it still seems special.

 

HOW AND WHY I MISSED THE SIXTIES

First of all, let me tell you that I missed most of what people today think of as “The Sixties.” Oh I remember how as a senior at Notre Dame in 1963 we all felt somewhat discontent. Some said it was the fluoride in the water, or the fact that we had had the worst football record for our four years in the history of the school. But now, looking back, I wonder. Our parents had worked hard to buy nice homes, nice cars, nice TV sets. They’d put us through college and now we were about to go out into the world and become managers of savings and loans, get married, have kid… be unhappy like our parents and their parents before. Or were we?

Here’s what I do remember. About a week before graduation several hundreds of us gathered on the quad. The university president, the Reverend Theodore Hesburg, had for years been pushing “academic excellence.” Perhaps he meant it, or perhaps it was a ploy to get our minds off the losing Irish. In any case we all came together chanting, “To hell with excellence!”

Now the oldest building on campus was the Administration Building at the head of the quadrangle. Tradition had it that undergraduates were not allowed to walk up the old, stone stairs leading to the second floor main entrance. That privilege was reserved for graduate students and complete strangers. On this warm, May evening, we hesitated then rushed up those stairs, turned around and rushed up them again. Causes were to become more serious and the demonstrations more violent, but “The Sixties” had begun.

Why I missed the rest, is because I joined the Army. Most of the rest of the next seven years I spent twiddling my thumbs overseas.

 

RICHARD BRAUTIGAN SPEAKS

Here’s what he says:

I am an unknown poet. That doesn’t mean I don’t have any friends. It means mostly my friends know I’m a poet, because I have told them so.

Let’s pretend that my mind is a taxi and suddenly (“What the hell’s coming off!”) your are riding in it.

 (pause)

 

I remember

a very beautiful,

quite proper

young woman

letting

a fart

that sounded

like

a gunshot.

 

(pause)

 

     I guess you’re kind of curious as to who I am, but I’m one of those who don’t have a regular name. My name depends on you. Just call me whatever is in your mind.

     If you’re thinking about something that happened a long time ago: Somebody asked you a question and you didn’t know the answer.

     That is my name.

     Perhaps it was raining very hard.

     That is my name.

     Or somebody wanted you to do something. You did it. Then they told you what you did was wrong—“Sorry for the mistake,”—and you had to do something else.

     That is my name.

     Or you walked someplace. There were flowers all around.

     That is my name.

 

(John settles down into an easy chair, relaxes into memory.)

This is Brautigan too:

     The cover for my book Trout Fishing in America is a photograph taken late in the afternoon, a photograph of the Benjamin Franklin statue in San Francisco’s Washington Square.

     Born 1706—Died 1790, Benjamin Franklin stands on a pedestal that looks like a house containing stone furniture. He holds some papers in one hand and his hat in the other.

     Then the statue speaks, saying in marble:

PRESENTED BY

H.D. COGSWELL

TO OUR

BOYS AND GIRLS

WHO WILL SOON

TAKE OUR PLACES

AND PASS ON.

 

     Around the base of the stature are four words facing the directions of this world, to the east WELCOME, to the west WELCOME, to the north WELCOME, to the south WELCOME. Just behind the statue are three poplar trees, almost leafless except for the top branches. The statue stands in front of the middle tree. All around the grass is wet from the rains of early February.

     Way in the background is a tall cypress tree, almost dark like a room. Adlai Stevenson spoke under the tree in 1956, before a crowd of 40,000 people.

     There is a tall church across the street from the statue with crosses, steeples, bells and a vast door that looks like a huge mouse hole, perhaps from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and written above the door is “Per L’Universo.”

     Around five o’clock in the afternoon of my cover for Trout Fishing in America, people gather in this park across the street from the church and they are hungry.

     It’s sandwich time for the poor.

     But they cannot cross the street until the signal is given. Then they all run across the street to the church and get their sandwiches that are wrapped in newspaper. They go back to the park and unwrap the newspaper and see what their sandwiches are all about.

     A friend of mine unwrapped his sandwich one afternoon and looked inside to find just a leaf of spinach. That was all.

     Was it Kafka who learned about America by reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin…

     Kafka who said, “I like the Americans because they are healthy and optimistic.”

 

Here’s another of Brautigan’s poems:

 

 

The moon

is Hamlet

on a motorcycle

coming down

a dark road.

he is wearing

a black leather

jacket and

boots.

I have

nowhere

to go.

I will ride

all night.

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