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Watermelon Summer

A Journal By Jeffrey Golden. J.B. Lippincott, 152 pp., $4.95

By Bill Beckett

YOU MAY REMEMBER May 1970. It was the month that began when the clever man who stands a good chance for re-election this fall got up on T.V. and, with a pointer and a map, gave us a lesson in defensive invasion. It was the month of righteous outrage at the arrogance of a Cambodian "incursion", a month with rapid weeks of genuine hatred for the government eventually translated into many meetings, much talk, a good deal of action turned against the university because of side issues that we can hardly remember, and a bit of political activity against the War. That 1970 strike is still on, if you think about it in the terms it began with--no steering committee every called it off, most of the issues were never pushed through. But by the last days of May 1970 it was quite dead and, because it was such an uncertain strike, rightly so.

If you connect the end of May 1970 with the quiet dog days in Cambridge that followed the lifting of the barrier of final exams, or even if you connect it with some summer refuge from the uneasy aimlessness that attended those Cambridge days, then your path has crossed Jeffrey Golden's. He has ridden the elevators up and down Holyoke Center, and he has walked quickly past the panhandlers who command the brickwalk bottleneck between the J. August storefront and the subway entrance on Mass. Ave. But in May 1970--wandering around an almost deserted Harvard and realizing that an organization of intellectually disciplined college students can also be a gaggle of political dilettantes--Jeff Golden began his watermelon summer. Because he did, it's much less likely that his and our paths will cross again.

That summer led him from a sign on a bulletin board in Harvard Yard to southwest Georgia, where brigades of students organized at the Cambridge Institute worked on a collective farm held by black sharecropper families; where, on Featherfield Farm, he weeded peanut fields, harvested watermelons, lived with sharecroppers, and learned about things that he, as a student, had never been close to. He also kept a journal, a present-tense day-by-day record and commentary that, as he finally had to admit to himself, he hoped to publish. With a very little editing, that journal became Watermelon Summer.

Even before he goes, he tries hard to shed his illusions about heroic sacrifice for the cause; he has to shed a lot more in the Georgia sun when the activity of his life is reduced to weeding a 72-acre peanut field for several weeks while his world stands still, and the leadership of New Communities Inc.--the black cooperative organization--engages in personal haggling while trying to keep the farm from going under completely. There weren't many sources of relief from the tedium of work for either the sharecroppers or their student allies. After his first Sunday visit to a one-room church with his new family, Jeff writes:

I thought I'd be ready for the quietism Southern religion pushes on poor people, but I wasn't, Opiates look like Vitamin C compared to the politically deadening effect of today's sermon. And yet I can't help being ambivalent. I don't think I've ever seen a large group of people so fully focused on the same vibration at the same time. Everyone fell wholly into the rhythm of the sermon, everyone had to reach out and possess each maxim as if it were a truth of infinite wisdom that had never been expressed before. An organic interchange of energy and enlightenment flamed up with every sentence, accelerating until all strength was spent. The polar opposite of a Harvard lecture.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, he often tries to put his story in terms of a radical-intellectual analysis of the group dynamics of the brigade and, not surprisingly, the analysis occasionally breaks down. What can be a little more annoying is the use of elaborate dialects whenever a Southerner is quoted, while the Northern visitors invariably speak with dictionary perfection. This communicates some of the culture-shock of finding a kind of language barrier right in the U.S. of A.--but the various inflections of Dixie take on a little more color in Golden's journal than they really need to.

Though the journal is most of all a personal account, covering Jeff's experiences without including the experiences of other brigade members or the history of the brigade as a whole, there's a difference in kind between this diary and the average summer-in-the-South reminiscence; there's more at stake here than the enlightening experience of universal brotherhood. Golden puts his radical convictions on the line, and there's no inherent certainty that they'll come through the experience confirmed. Yet in spite of the seriousness of the test Golden's journal is not a political autobiography. Jeff records the events of his summer with the passion of new experience and with an ever-present sense of irony and humor; his judgement is true, his prose is sure, and what he has to say is important--especially for future relations between hopeful progressives and the rural poor.

In the course of his summer, Jeff learns to love some of the black Georgians he meets and lives with; he learns to respect and yet to mistrust the community leader who uses the faith-healer approach to woo black support and who, at the same time, openly scorns the liberal-white college kids he'd invited to Georgia. And he learns to feel angry that some of his fellow brigade-members, thinking the peanut-weeding an inessential if not useless task, beg off from weeding and make busy work fixing meals and getting mail while the rest stays in the fields. Through the disillusionment, experience, and glimmerings of understanding. Jeff Golden changes--not utterly, not even radically, perhaps, but importantly. He is continuously testing things like the firm instructions he and his fellow workers were given--to deny if asked, ever having smoked dope or having resisted the draft. He tests whether a dining-hall radical can shuck his pride and sense of personal worth in favor of weeks of labor that may or may not give a tiny boost to the aspirations of a group of poor people who really aren't quite sure where they're going. That is where the change comes from, and just barely between the lines in this journal is one radical-American pilgrim's progress from a blurred vision of what is wrong in this country to a much clearer understanding of what a man or woman must be able to do to help make it right.

THE JOURNAL continues through the ripening of the farm's watermelon crop, through the harvest, and through Jeff's enlightening journey to New York with a truckload of melon--where he peddles most of them on the streets, manages to rip the Fillmore East off for an order of 40 melon at $5 apiece, and ends up hawking a lot more from the Fillmore stage between sets of a two-night Grand Funk Railroad orgy. And in a post-script, the journal looks back from April 1971 at what happened to Jeffrey Golden in the summer of 1970.

One of the effects it describes--and it is described in the only akward and self-conscious sentence of the book--is this: "The whole experience increased my potential as a human being. It finalized a decision that I've recognized for a while as a prerequisite to my further growth: I'm not going back to school." It's a painful, as well as a happy decision, and the reasoning behind it is, in part, that Jeff Golden wants to understand the society that he visited and he wants to become part of it--part of the America that is disenfranchised and removed from the seats of power. That's the only way he hopes to be able to help shift the way power is organized in this country. And so right now he's an apprentice carpenter in California; by next year he may be learning something entirely different. Until he does--and until he writes about it--his Watermelon Summer will stand as one of the least affected and most honest accounts of a restless journey to come out of our generation.

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