Isla Vista has been in the news recently after the recent shootings. During the early 1970’s I lived there for three years as a student at UCSB. As I heard the reports I could visualize the Spanish named streets described in the rampage: Del Playa, (where I lived), Sabado Tarde, Pasado, Embarcadero del Norte. I often visit them in my dreams. I’ve attended five different universities but when I dream about college, I only dream about UCSB and Isla Vista. IV was unique in that it was a large community of only young people. You rarely saw anyone over the age of 30 (except for professors on campus). It even had a unique smell, a sweet/sour mixture of eucalyptus and oil slick. The news reports describe it as idyllic and that sounds like a cliche, but IV and the campus are located on the side of cliffs overlooking the Pacific. In the East, the Santa Ynez mountains create the horizon. There’s a beautiful lagoon on campus and cutting class can easily mean going for a swim. When we sang about how ‘We got to get ourselves back to the garden”, that garden might be a place like this. Paradise…
On the other hand, the island in ‘Lord of the Flies’ was idyllic and it was also populated by only young people. And we know how that turned out.
In my freshman year there was a ‘Nude-in for Peace’ on the beach. Everyone gathered fully clothed waiting for someone else to take the first step. A wild, beautiful young girl, part of the ‘hippy street people’ tribe that gravitated to IV, stripped off all her clothes and ran happily into the surf. Soon everyone was following including me. I remember sitting cross-legged on the sand in a circle with all these beautiful girls from class and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Someone passed a joint, others brought large conga drums and soon everyone was dancing to the beat. On the cliffs above the beach police were arriving, followed by gawkers from Santa Barbara with binoculars and there was some concern there might be a bust. But there wasn’t, despite what happened next. I noticed a boy lying on the sand and the expression on his face was ecstatic, an expression so powerful Ican still imagine it in my mind’s eye. I remember thinking it looked like he was ascending to heaven. Then I noticed the girl’s head in his lap and I understood his ecstasy was more corporal than spiritual. And I heard female moans, equally ecstatic coming from another group nearby. A girl was spread out on the sand with a man on top of her. When he was done another took his place. I realized there was a line of young men forming, students waiting their turn. And the girls moans were moving from pleasure to panic. I walked to the line and said “Come on, guys. This isn’t cool. Cut it out, this girl is f-ed up.” Which was an understatement: ‘free love’ was becoming a gang rape. They were big guys. Students. The kind of jock-types Rodgers called ‘brutes’ in his deranged manifesto. They pushed me away and told me to get on line, to wait my ‘turn’. I walked up to the girl and threw sand on her body, warning the next guy that he wouldn’t want to continue, she was all sticky and sandy (it was the only thing I could think of at that moment). Finally, I picked one guy, looked him in the face and insisted: ‘Come on man, look at me! You know this ain’t right!” He met my eyes, there was a flicker of shame in them and he quietly agreed: “Yeah, you’re right.” We picked the stoned girl up from the beach, threw her arms over our shoulders and walked her away. I learned something then: It only took the break out of one guy on the line to break up the mob. One person can break the group fever.
IV was a wild place, exciting, young and full of energy…with the potential for a dark side when mob think took over. Even the Garden of Eden had a Serpent lurking…
For the rest of the semester, the parties in Isla Vista became nude parties, leave your clothes at the door. The next year, they were over, a fad disappearing as quickly as it began. But a more dangerous activity began.
The Bank of America was a large brick building smack in the middle of the loop, the social heart of IV. Because B of A was said to be the paymaster of the War in Vietnam it had become a symbol of the establishment for some and a source of resentment for many. In February radicals set fire to the bank and I saw it burning on my way to rehearsal at the Drama Dept. I had one of the leading roles in an English anti-war play by John Osborne I was 18 but one of the other actor’s was older, a Vet and more mature in his mid-twenties. When I excitedly informed the cast what was happening down the road he said: “You twit, the bank can’t burn! Its made of concrete.” When he saw the fire from the roof of the Drama Dept., he came back to the stage and admitted: “You’re correct. The bank is burning. But you’re still a twit!”
I opposed the war in Vietnam but I had mixed feelings about many anti-war activities. When student groups gathered and planned the shutdown of Highway 101 at rush hour (which took place) I stood before the group and argued against it. “These people in their cars are just working people. They’ve been at the job all day. They’re tired and want to get home for dinner and see their families. They’re not going to welcome us making them late. They’re going to say some asshole kid is keeping me from getting home. We’re going to turn them off. Completely.” I stood another time and argued against romanticizing the spray painted anti-war graffiti defacing the campus. I was disgusted when I heard Jerry Rubin at the Gaucho Stadium tell us that in order to be true revolutionaries we had to be willing to kill our parents. I looked around at those seated near me and yelped: ‘We wouldn’t even be here without our parents paying tuition!” It wouldn’t be the first times in my life I would be called names and told to shut up for having unpopular, minority opinions. On the other hand I did join protestors on the tarmac at Santa Barbara Airport to keep Governor Ronald Reagan from landing there. And I did join the sit-in at Perfect Park in violation of the curfew and restrictions on civil liberty in IV.
But I also called USAF recruiters in my last semester because though I was against the war I believed citizens have a duty to serve their country. I spoke to them several times but then got a full graduate scholarship to Stanford, followed by a scholarship to Yale.
On the night of April 18, 1970 I was standing on the street before the new pre-fab trailer the B of A had erected as an assertion that they would not be forced out of the community. I was ridiculously wearing an Aussie style hat and a pair of leather pants I made as a project in Costume Design. Stupidly, I had bought thick upholstery leather and the teacher told me I couldn’t make pants out of it. I proved him wrong by punching holes in it and sewing it with strong carpet thread. I could wiggle into them but it wasn’t comfortable walking. You could hardly bend your knees. Students had gathered that night and some started throwing stuff at the bank trying to break its windows and glass doors. When one did, the crowd cheered. The mob grew more brave. Molotovs followed and a small fire erupted. Several students ran up the steps with fire extinguishers to put the fire out. When this happened a few times, a Molotov, a fire extinguisher, another Molotov some in the crowd began throwing bricks at the boys with extinguishers. Five or six of us ran up the steps, placing ourselves between the mob and their victims. I raised my arms and shouted out something banal and hippie-ish like “Hey man, you’re trying to stop people from being killed in Vietnam but you’re trying to kill people right here. That makes no sense. Try to burn the bank if you want. Let them put it out if they want. But don’t hurt other people! That’s not what this is about!”
Suddenly, trucks came racing down the street. They screeched to a stop and I heard a ‘POP’. I thought it came from the tear gas canister that was now hissing smoke in front of me. Other canisters were going off around the street and cops in riot gear leaped from the trucks, chasing people through the alleys. For seconds I thought ‘should I tell the cops I was trying to stop the violence?’ But it was chaos now, no time for reasoned explanations. I took off. As I began to run, my home made leather pants split and I waddled away, grabbing them at the waist. A cop began chasing me and I banged on the doors of student houses pleading for safety. One opened and shut quickly. I stumbled inside before I could be grabbed.
Later on the radio we heard that one of the students with the fire extinguishers, one of the guys standing right behind me, was shot and killed. I’m pretty sure that was the ‘POP’ I mistakenly took for a tear gas launcher. His name was Kevin Moran, a UCSB student. I’ve always remembered his name and think of him from time to time. His life cut short for nothing. No future. No career. No wife or children. An ending as senseless as the war itself. And it could just as easily have been me who was shot by that cop that night. Sometimes life is the luck of the draw.
When I returned to Isla Vista a few years back the bank had been replaced by a pool hall. There is a plaque in cement in front of it. “Kevin Moran For Social Change, Fair Play and Peace”. I went into the pool hall, ordered a beer and asked the bartender what he knew about the plaque. He walked over it everyday but didn’t even know it was there. Neither did the waitress. I felt the same sad senselessness the day I saw the Communist President of a unified Vietnam smiling and ringing the bell on the NY Stock Exchange.
On April 13th 1970, California Governor Ronald Reagan gave a speech in Yosemite. He called for a crackdown on campus dissent saying “Appeasement is not the answer… If it’s to be a bloodbath, let it be now.” Reagan later denied making the statement but when a tape recording of his voice emerged he had to admit it. Kevin Moran, that UCSB student was shot and killed five days later on April 18th. His death has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by what happened shortly after: the following month four students were killed at Jackson State followed by four more at Kent State.