John Roach

Roach: Traveling back to the 60s

The '60s in Madison is why I am who I am.

Now that we have escaped The Worst Spring Ever, Madison is setting out to make June one of the high points of the year.

And when I write “high,” I mean that literally, because our town is set to travel back in time to 1968 — a world with an abundance of hair, a scarcity of brassieres, earnest protests, endless drum solos and the sweet smell of weed wafting in the summer air.

Yes, prepare yourself for the brain child of Ben and Judy Sidran — The Madison Reunion: A Party with a Purpose, a celebration of Madison in the ’60s with those who created it. 

As a townie, I had a front row seat to history. The confluence of politics, art and culture that I witnessed taught me more than any formal education I received. 

The ’60s in Madison is why I am who I am.

Exactly when the 1960s started is up for debate, but in Madison, the era surely didn’t begin on Jan. 1, 1960. You could argue it all started in 1963 with the Kennedy assassination or The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Or in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave then-President Lyndon Johnson license to expand the Vietnam War with impunity. Which he did.

But for me, the ’60s arrived sometime in the early years of the decade when I biked down to Picnic Point to witness something called a “Be-In,” featuring a band called The Sebastian Moon Trio. The gathered throng was far more exotic to a seventh grader than your average Blessed Sacrament Pancake Breakfast. Even to a 13-year-old, it was obvious that change was in the air. 

And weed. Lots of weed.

That impression was enforced a year later at the Westmorland Park Fourth of July festivities, when a few earnest anti-war protesters chose to distribute literature to the neighborhood folks gathered for softball and fireworks. The suggestion that the U.S. was the bad guy in a war did not sit well with members of my dad’s Glenway Liquor-sponsored team, most of whom had had a few beers and a history of military service. And they let the protesters know it. When the protesters didn’t back down, a scuffle broke out. I remember being shocked at the violent reaction of my dad’s friends to the anti-war argument. 

And then came the 1967 Dow Riots on Bascom Hill, and the ’60s in Madison began in earnest.

Otis Redding’s death quickly followed. And then the State Street riots, which meant that the windows at my father’s place of business, Badger Sporting Goods, would be broken. Each riot had a rhythm. The march would start, the police would attempt to disperse the crowd, the store windows would be broken, then the police would call my dad to inform him of the damage and to confirm that his shop had no guns or ammunition. Then, the following day, Dad and his workmates, eyes red from the residual tear gas, would put up plywood until the glass was replaced. 

This routine went on for years.

The riots had even more drama for our family when the National Guard was called out because my uncle Pat was one of the commanding officers. Years later when talking with him, I marveled that no one was killed in the riots. Uncle Pat admitted it was a concern, and then told me that none of the frontline guardsmen had ammunition in their guns. Only a few personnel were fully armed, and they held stand-off positions. If only the Ohio Guard at Kent State had been as smart as the Wisconsin Guard.

But there was a fatality in Madison.

I was in bed at our home on Vilas Avenue in the early morning hours of Aug. 24, 1970, hoping to get some sleep before the first football scrimmage of my senior year. My coach was George Chryst, the father of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s current football coach Paul Chryst, who, coincidentally, managed to win more games last year than Wisconsin did in all its seasons from 1964 to 1969. 

In that early morning at exactly 3:42 a.m., our household was awakened and shaken by a thunderous explosion that resulted in extensive damage to Sterling Hall and the death of researcher and husband Robert Fassnacht. My dad bolted upright in bed and said to my mom, “One of those SOBs blew up something on campus.” He was right.

Forty-five years later, I was golfing at Odana. A guy hit a shot from another fairway that landed near me. He wandered over and I pointed out his ball. He thanked me. 

That other golfer was Karleton Armstrong, one of the convicted Sterling Hall bombers.

Interestingly, his ball had a big red Wisconsin “W” on it.

If you grew up in Madison, the ’60s never ends. It never will. 

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com. 


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