“Spread Love, Not Fear.”

On December 16th, 1966 I was in a bus terminal somewhere between upstate New York and western North Carolina. I was waiting to board a bus in a big garage-type area where the buses pulled into to get out of the weather. The smell of diesel fumes was strong and the big concrete floor covered in dirty slush and snow mashed by bus tire tracks. The bus I would be boarding lumbered in out of a light, blowing snow and, as I stood aside for the people who were getting off, I saw a newspaper lying on a nearby crate that said in big print, “Walt Disney Dies.”

Forty-four years later I’m still a bit unclear why that moment so sticks in my memory but I think I have a good idea.

Famous people die all the time but other than obvious historical events like the Kennedy assassinations and Dr. King, I don’t remember any others. I have no memory of the death of General MacArthur (1964) or Ed Sullivan (1974) for example.

Like almost every other kid whose family had a TV set in the 1950s, Sunday afternoons were pretty much structured around The Wonderful World of Disney and the first movie I have any memory of seeing is “Snow White…”

There are a number of popular institutions that seem to define the American people as a nation and a unique culture in the world. Everybody will have their own list but I suspect Walt Disney and his “Wonderful World” would be on everyone’s.

Little boys learned how to be an All-American male from Fes Parker’s Davy Crockett; little girls learned how to be feminine from Cinderella, Snow White, the Little Mermaid and both genders learned about romance from “Lady and the Tramp.” But most of all we were thoroughly instructed in the eternal struggle between good and evil—and assured that love and goodness always triumphs—by just about every cartoon or movie Disney ever made.

I mean—can you imagine America without Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney’s wholesome, squeaky clean, black and white vision? I read somewhere during the Second World War the American lines were always being penetrated by German spies dressed as GIs who spoke perfect American English and somehow always knew the official password (as in “Halt—who goes there?”)

Good old American practicality and common sense prevailed and any German spy that approached a road block or check point who didn’t know who Mickey Mouse’s girl friend was, was in really deep trouble.

I didn’t tear up or anything as I got on the bus that day but I do remember pondering the personal significance of Disney’s death. I noticed one of the other passengers reading a paper and asked to see it when he finished. All I remember from the article was Disney died of lung cancer—he was a chain-smoker. No disrespect intended to anyone but ironically—that—was an All-American death back in those days. Those of you who are old enough to remember the prevalence of smoking in the ‘50s and the impact of tobacco advertising on popular culture will back me up on that. Remember Bogart and Lauren Bacall—coils of white smoke sinuously entwining toward each other over glasses of wine—the Marlboro man ruggedly surveying the great American west. Oh yeah—he died of lung cancer too.

All that’s changed in the last few decades. Smoking is no longer cool and the big corporations whose holdings include cigarette manufacturers are (I’m told) looking for other ways to sell people things they don’t need. Hopefully those things will at least be benign.

The guy in the featured image (Alec—very nice young man) is probably pretty close to the age I was—early 20s—back in ’66. The thing I like best about the shot is the little sign above Katy’s head: “Spread Love, Not Fear” (I can’t remember for sure if I was even aware of the sign when I took the shot.) It reminds me that the ‘60s were a time of socio-psychological, as well as political, upheaval—“Make love, not war,” “Give peace a chance,” “All you need is love.”

In any event—curiously enough the sixties—with all the youth culture emphasis on love—was a time of considerable fear for many people. (Most of them I guess much older than I was.) The rejection of the post WW-2, “Happy-Days” Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney, Lawrence Welk, American self-image by “hippies” and young people of that ilk was a profound threat to those former GIs returning from the war. Those men and many women—that had risked their lives in the defense of this nation—with it’s love of cancer causing substances that made people wealthy who could care less about the harm their products caused—but also—it’s resolute courage, iron-willed work ethic, provincial decency and practical wisdom.

I remember all too clearly—back in those long-ago Viet-Nam days—the hatred that often spilled over into violence—between the “Hard-hats” and the “Hippies.” The divisiveness we see in the news and perhaps in some of our relationships, is very reminiscent of that period of All-American conflict. My first father-in-law—an ex-Marine who fought in WW-2—was about as hard-hat as you could get in those days. I’m not sure I was a 100% hippie but I did wear a full beard and shoulder-length hair in those days and he didn’t like that about me at all.

In those days the little sign over Katy’s head—in the wrong place—at the wrong moment—could have gotten her and Alec assaulted, beat-up and spit on. I choose to believe my former father-in-law would not have actually done that but I do believe he would have cheered on whoever was doing it.

Well—I’m still here—I never did smoke. The Viet-Nam war is gone, the original hippie movement is gone and Walt is gone. So is my former father-in-law. He died of lung cancer also.

But more importantly, Katy and Alec are here with their little sign that no one will take issue with these days.

Maybe Walt was right—maybe love did triumph after all.

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