Backspace appears biweekly in commemoration of The Sun’s 125th Anniversary. Honoring not only the history of The Cornell Daily Sun but also the role it played in major campus events throughout the years, each column features a different writer chronicling a different era of Cornell’s lively past. Ed Zuckerman ’70 was managing editor and editor-in-chief of The Sun. He has written, produced or executive produced numerous episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, JAG, The Agency, Century City and most recently Killer Instinct. He is perhaps best known for his work as a writer and executive producer of dozens of episodes of Law and Order in the 1990s. Zuckerman was nominated for Emmy Awards in 1995, 1996 and 1999 and won in 1997 for his work on the production side of Law and Order.
In 1966, when I graduated from my boring Midwestern high school, I had never been drunk, had sex, ingested an illegal drug, taken part in a protest demonstration, been tear-gassed, associated with known felons. Nor had I flown to Pluto, which seemed about as likely as some of the other items on that list. Then I went off for four years at Cornell and found myself in the middle of a sex/drug/political revolution in which I did all those things and so, it seemed, did everyone around me.
Wow, I thought, college is really something.
I eventually realized, of course, that my remarkable experiences had less to do with the difference between high school and college than with the difference between the years 1966-1970 and the years that preceded them.
By pure chance, my college years coincided with a series of upheavals on American campuses largely provoked by the Vietnam War. Most male Cornell students had draft deferments that would expire when they graduated. Most knew that when they finished college they could be sent to Vietnam, where they could be killed. This was a very real fact of life that tended to concentrate the mind and was, I believe, the prime motivator of antiwar protest. Yes, the war was immoral and wrong and stupid in a hundred different ways, and yes, the war was righteously and sincerely opposed on all those grounds, but what got people thinking about the war in the first place was the definite actual possibility that they personally could be sent to Vietnam and step on a land mine and die.
So people thought about the war, and they learned about it (Professor Walter LaFeber’s courses and writings were a good place to begin), and once they learned how dumb and/or wrongheaded the authorities were about Vietnam, the way was opened to consider and reconsider other rules and laws that turned out to be dumb and/or wrongheaded – like the laws against smoking pot or the rules about having sex, and an entire edifice of societal strictures came tumbling down, egged on by the popular music of the day (a few little bands you might have heard of called the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and others).
What we had here was primarily an attitude change, and things got all mixed up, one with the other, burning draft cards with nickel bags with dropping acid with Sergeant Pepper. Even The Sun was a little confused, at least at first. One of my assignments as a freshman was to do an article about “hippies,” a new variety of young person then appearing in bemused features in the pages of Life magazine. The Sun’s managing editor wanted to know if there were any at Cornell. He sent me to interview a couple of students who had longish hair but were clearly less interested in smoking dope and dropping out than in creating the Cornell chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and leading campus antiwar protests and other political campaigns.
I was also assigned to investigate the phenomenon of smoking bananas to get high (allegedly the basis of the Donovan song, “Mellow Yellow”).
Eventually, things became clearer. The Sun covered the politics and culture of the day with accuracy and insight and inside knowledge. Because we weren’t just reporting it; we were living it. Many a night after finishing my duties on The Sun, I would return to my Collegetown apartment and sit in my roommate’s bedroom and smoke a joint (my roommate, a minor dealer and slightly paranoid, stood on alert for steps outside so he could flush his stash before the cops burst in, which they never did), and we would listen, over and over and over, to the Mothers of Invention classic “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.”
TV dinner by the pool, I’m so glad I finished school.
Or, at least, that I attended when I did.
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