Sixties Relics

My father once told me that Exxon had had a red star for their logo, but in the climate of the Cold War they changed it. When the Soviet Union fell, he bought me one of their flags as a memento of history. He had explained tyranny when I was small, and the desolate vision of the police state stayed with me. All my life this flag had been the symbol of the terrible enemy; now it was suddenly the sad remnant of a dream of millions.

I was born after it, but I find I can’t entirely escape the sixties. Many who grew up then won’t let it go, and many did grow up then. In my early memories of the seventies are echoes of that time: relatives in a back-to-the land commune, tie-dyed t-shirts, brutal buildings.

When I was in Lausanne, I discovered an architectural relic of sixties idealism. It was a strange concrete structure, all curves and ramps, with a domed roof over a lecture hall open to the air, complete with a carpet and wooden seats and doors. Of course it hadn’t worked: the weather attacked the wood, and the theater was abandoned. Outside was an old concrete pond overrun with algae and scum. The only area open to me was the ramp on the roof which passed above all of this, so I could see down through the fences and barbed wire since added to protect the public. Like the Soviet flag, it was a relic of an obsolete dream.

Yet this ruin was a popular place. Families and old folks walked up the ramp to a flower garden beyond. On the roof of the building, kids zoomed past on rollerblades: the ramp, built for the wrong reasons, had evolved into the best rollerblading spot in town.

So when Cindy and I watched Harold and Maude recently, she complained it was boring. But I didn’t cringe at the painfully earnest idealism of a past age or at the betrayal of the self-centered characters. Like other melancholy relics, it’s a historical document.

2005-08-17

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