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Younger Than That Now

A new book, and flashbacks of Knoxville in the early '70s

by Jack Neely

When I went to UT 22 years ago, nearly everyone I knew seemed intent on convincing me that I was six or seven years too late. "You shoulda been here," they said.

Every time something exciting happened on Cumberland Avenue, a big fight or a street party or a riot, and just when you thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened, there'd be some melancholy, bewhiskered grad student who'd grumble it didn't compare to what the place had been like back in 1970.

They convinced me that I couldn't actually have a youth of my own, because they'd already had it, back in 1970. It was all gone. After a while, I got pretty annoyed about that fact.

But I've kept wondering exactly what did happen in 1970. A few months ago I wrote a longish story about the student strikes, the firebombed armory, the disruption of the Nixon appearance at the Billy Graham crusade. But I didn't get to the bottom of it. About each event, I heard sharply conflicting stories.

Now, here comes another memory of Knoxville in 1970, and it's getting national attention. Younger Than That Now is a sort of dual memoir of the counterculture by New Yorker Jeff Durstewitz and UT grad Ruth Williams. The great editor and author Willie Morris read it shortly before he died and called it "the most honest, compelling book I've ever read about the 1960s generation...."

It's an unusual book with an unusual premise. In 1969, Ruth Williams, then Ruth Tuttle, was the prim, blonde editor of her high-school paper in Yazoo City, Mississippi. She was minding her own business when she happened to get a jeeringly bizarre letter from some smarty-pants New Yorkers she didn't know who had been reading her paper to make fun of it. Among them were a couple of kids named Ben and Jerry who'd later be famous for making ice cream. The letter led to an unlikely long-distance friendship between Williams and Jeff Durstewitz, a New Yorker of radical inclinations.

Something about Jeff's brazenness fascinated Ruth, and whetted her interest in the counterculture which she knew only from TV and magazines. Their correspondence is the subject of this book.

Ruth first attended conservative, all-female Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. Then, still virginal and eager to breathe the freer air of a bigger campus, she transferred to UT during the university's most chaotic year.

She describes UT in chapter 24: it "seemed at first glance to be everything I was looking for: it was diverse, co-ed and had a recent history of activism. Except for the Panhellenic Building, it didn't even feel 'Southern.'" Excited, she bought an appropriate outfit: bellbottoms, fringed vest, sandals.

She also describes the "student ghetto." In her memory she greatly underestimates Fort Sanders' size, but otherwise gets it close: "10 square blocks of formerly genteel turn-of-the-century and Depression-era homes now fallen into graceless squalor. They were inhabited by a mishmash of foreign graduate students... undergraduates with their new cars... and owner-occupants who ranged from longtime residents to blue-collar families just out of the Smoky Mountains.... As hippie politicos moved in and turned the old houses into communal experiments, a dangerous cross-cultural brew was created." She got to know the legendary Yardarm, the Forest Avenue bar "on the dark fringe of the student ghetto."

She continues, "We had already heard the story about the 'best' commune in the area—known locally as the White House—just up the street, next door to Epworth Church." The Epworth was what's now known as Laurel Theatre, at Laurel and 16th.

She'd missed the dramatic first half of the year, but she'd read about the anti-Nixon demonstrations in Esquire, and was curious to meet some of the principals—especially Carroll Bible, one of the Knoxville 22, the bearded prophet who'd been photographed in the crowd, holding up a sign big enough for Nixon to read: Let My People Go.

Trying to retrieve a cashmere sweater she'd loaned to an acquaintance was Ruth's excuse to venture into the White House, a Victorian building with a columned porch on Laurel. Inside she found a man called Puddin' seated at a table, served by an apparent harem of barefoot women, one of whom was called Little Flower. As Little Flower served him his meal, Puddin' asked Ruth, "Maybe we can ball later?" She tripped on her bellbottoms getting away. "Peace, Sister," said Puddin'.

She found her friend upstairs, "sprawled across one of the mattresses with a tall, gaunt man who bore a striking resemblance to the portrait of Jesus that had hung over my grandmother's bed. I envied Lori her closeness with this hero of the Knoxville underground. The fact that he could be facing a jail term made him seem even more romantic. I would have been surprised to know then that Carroll was desperately trying to make sense of it all, just like me.... Carroll put his arm over his face when he saw me and turned toward the wall...."

She learned that the counterculture spent a great deal of its time on mattresses. Her first sexual encounter is with a charismatic hippie who she doesn't know is the pasha of another commune on Highland Avenue; she met his harem when they honored him with a candlelight ceremony when he left for Canada.

When I researched that story a few months ago, I tried to confirm one story in particular, based on blurry memories that the great folksinger Phil Ochs had appeared at UT then.

For those who don't recall, Ochs was a folksinger in the collegiate sense, a songwriter many compared to Bob Dylan, who eventually overshadowed him. Many think of Ochs as the tragic hero of the counterculture.

I trusted the few people who had some memory of the Ochs performance, but couldn't nail down exactly when it happened, and didn't expect I'd ever find much detail about it. Younger Than That Now includes a more descriptive account of that shadowy Phil Ochs appearance than I ever expected to see.

He materialized in front of the University Center, sometime that fall, before a large crowd that included Carroll Bible. "Suddenly Ochs appeared, walking nonchalantly out the front door and stopping to stand on the front steps," Williams writes. The 30-year-old folk icon opened with some comments about the day's death toll in Vietnam, but failed to get the crowd worked up. "A year ago you were all in the streets, fighting to stop the war," Ochs chided the crowd. "Today, no one's interested anymore?"

The impatient crowd shouted, "Play a song!" Ruth recalls that Ochs seemed discouraged. But then he picked up his guitar and sang an unlikely opener: "Okie From Muskogee." He followed with "Joe Hill," "A Small Circle Of Friends," and "I Ain't Marching Anymore." Ruth recalls "his raspy voice wavering between anger and despair. Tears glistened in his eyes. A few people in the crowd called out, 'Right on, brother,' and he picked up steam, finally grinding the lyrics to a halt with a raucous blast of chords. He knew then, I think, that the movement had passed its zenith, that the world was already beginning to move on." Five years later, Ochs hanged himself.

Soon after that Ochs' show, Ruth's new boyfriend, an aspiring Communist from Clinton, talked her into trying LSD. They hitchhiked to the mountains where she dropped acid for the first time, as she watched her boyfriend turn into an elf. Later, she married him. During their early years, they experimented with open marriage, his idea. She had an affair with Peter Kami, the Brazilian student who'd been UT's romantic hero of 1970, apparently just before he left the country, fleeing charges stemming from the Knoxville 22 pie-fight challenge.

Though she remained an activist, she was horrified by much of what she saw in Knoxville, including a hippie father trying to feed LSD to his baby. "The Knoxville counterculture was in a meltdown of decadence and drugs," she writes. "Living among its human dregs was like trying to avoid slaughter at a stockyard; there were burned-out carcasses everywhere. That these people were only in their late teens and early 20s made it more horrifying."

By 1972, "Yogis, born-again Christians, and Marxist-Leninist philosophers began to be commonplace on campus, each taking their little piece of the countercultural pie. But most students simply left it behind and got back to their studies."

She graduated in 1973 and followed her Communist-organizer husband to Europe before divorcing him a few years later and moving back to Mississippi.

In the South, of course, people presume football allegiances based on their alma maters. Ruth had gone to only one football game at Neyland Stadium, and it left a sour taste in her mouth, in large part because her date vomited on her. Still, business acquaintances expect her to be a fan. A client prompted a dilemma when he pleaded with her to "give us a Volunteer cheer."

"Down with the pigs," she thought to herself, but then thought better of it. "Go Vols!" she said.

November 17, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 46
© 2000 Metro Pulse