Where Have All My Young Friends Gone?

As many of you know Pete Seeger died on the January 27, 2014 at the age of 94.  He was one of the greatest folk singers and protest singers of all time.  His mission in life was to spread peace through his music and songwriting.   The song “Where have all the flowers gone” is widely attributed to Pete.  If fact, Wikipedia gives the following etiology:

The first three verses were written by Pete Seeger in 1955, and published in Sing Out! magazine.[1] Additional verses were added by Joe Hickerson in May 1960, who turned it into a circular song.[2]  In 2010, theNew Statesman listed it as one of the “Top 20 Political Songs”.[4]

Where_Have_All_the_Flowers_Gone-_(film)I have taken the liberty of altering the verses of this song for my blog.  I was reminiscing on some old photos the other day about friends, dreams, hopes, aspirations and loves that are now long gone.  Perhaps my recent surgery has made me realize my mortality.  While I never thought or even hoped to live forever, I often felt that I might.  Friends were always telling me how strong, vital, energetic and healthy I was.  I prided myself on my condition and my ability to overcome the normal aches and pains of the world.

I would like to use each “modified” verse from Pete’s song to simply express some feelings that I have about life and death.  Meditations on life and death were the purpose of this song, so I am staying true to its roots and intentions.  So many great singers have sung this song that it is hard to choose one to listen to.  However, as with many of my writings, I encourage you to click on the link and then listen to the song as you read my blog.  For someone to sing this song, I can think of no one more fitting and appropriate then Pete Seeger:  Where have all the flowers gone?

Where have all my young dreams gone, long time passing?
Where have all my young dreams gone, long time ago?
Where have all my young dreams gone?
Young friends have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn? 

I grew up with hopes and dreams for my life and the world.  Like many a young man, I ignored many of these dreams or did not realize the dedication and effort that it would actually take to make them a reality.  I played around with having my cake and eating it.  I thought that those who had “made” it got lucky or as we used to say in my old neighborhood, “They got the breaks.”  Other friends plucked some of these dreams as many of them were common to our culture.  I grew up as a “Baby Boomer” having been born on the cusp of this new wave in 1946.  We were going to change the world.  We would end war, sexism, racism, greed, hunger and environmental damage.

Where have all my young friends gone, long time passing?
Where have all my young friends gone, long time ago?
Where have all my young friends gone?
Gone for careers everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Something happened though.  Protests were difficult.  The system did not change overnight.  Peace was elusive.  The people we thought wanted help spurned our offers.  We could not fix the world overnight.  The world resisted our best efforts.  So we decided to just fix ourselves.  Many of us went back to college, either on the GI bill or with loans, grants and parental support.  We decided that maybe it was the way to change the world.  On the way to our super careers, we got married, had children, got fat and simply wanted to escape from crime, poverty and man’s inhumanity to man.

We moved to the suburbs and bought three bedroom homes with swimming pools and decks in the back so we did not have to see our neighbors.  We joined self-help groups, learned transcendental meditation, vegetarianism and Gestalt Therapy.  Our focus turned inward and we started to look at the world through prisms of narcissism and self-interest.  If we could not change the world, at least we could make a fortune; have perfect kids and a perfect marriage.

Where have all the boomers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the boomers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the boomers gone?
Gone for mansions everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn? 

In a true irony of the dreams once held by boomers everywhere, the “Greatest Generation” had begat the “Greediest Generation.”   Hippies had turned into insurance agents and advertising executives.   Education for knowledge was lost in the need to obtain “marketable” job skills.  We turned inward and lost our souls.  Technology replaced our dreams for humanity.  Three car garages and a house on the beach or in the mountains became our driving mission.   MacMansions sprang up everywhere.  We became more concerned with the corporate vision statement then we did with the vision statement for humanity.

Of course, there were holdouts everywhere who became “old hippies” but they were derided as not being able to face reality.  The social revolutions we dreamed about became replaced by media and image revolutions.  What you knew was no longer as important as how you looked or who you knew.  Friends, followers and likes have become the norm for measuring social standing.  Gucci, Prada, Nike, Coach and other brand names became worth killing for or at least sacrificing our dreams for.   We wanted only the best for our kids, but the hell with your kids.

Where have all my old friends gone, long time passing?
Where have all my old friends gone, long time ago?
Where have all my old friends gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn? 

Having read that the U.S. life expectancy in 2011 was 78.7 years, does not really do justice to the effects that human mortality have on you as you age.  There are several reasons for this including:  Accidents, murders, fatal diseases and the inevitable bell shaped distribution of “normal deaths”.  This latter fact means that if the average age of death is 79 years, then some people will die well before 80 and some will live much longer than 79.  The implications of this normal distribution of death is that I have gone to many funerals and observed many more funerals of friends and relatives who have died long before their “average” death should have occurred.  I have known joggers and marathon runners who have died of heart attacks or strokes in their thirties.

It seems hardly a day goes by when I do not hear of a friend or a friend of a friend who has passed away or been given a fatal prognosis for some malady they were never aware of.   The old adage about the only sure thing being “death and taxes” comes repeatedly to my mind.  In the last three weeks, we have had to purchase three sympathy cards for friends whose spouses or close relatives have passed away.  This trend only grows worse as you get older.  Instead of deaths each year, it becomes deaths each month and for me now it is close to being a death each week.  Who needs to be reminded about mortality?  The biggest questions become whether to try to attend the funeral, send flowers, send a card, send a donation or all of the aforementioned.   I don’t want to sound cynical.  This is simply life as you get older.  Thomas Jefferson once wrote to John Adams:

“There is a ripeness of time for death, regarding others as well as ourselves, when it is reasonable we should drop off, and make room for another growth. When we have lived our generation out, we should not wish to encroach on another. I enjoy good health. I am happy in what is around me; yet I assure you, I am ripe for leaving all, this year, this day, this hour.”
To John Adams, August 1, 1816

I have joked that after my surgery results indicated that the cancer was entirely removed, I could live to die in fifteen or so years from something else.   Actually, I was being literal and not really joking.  The mortality tables for an American Caucasian male who has reached 65 years of age, show that I have a good probability of living another 15 years of so.   That’s good news except that the way time flies when you get older, fifteen years no longer seems like a long time.  It is certainly not enough time for me to change the world and end war and hunger.  I guess I will have to work on something else, perhaps slowing time down some.  J

Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to old friends, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn? 

Have you ever visited a graveyard?  They are one of my interesting places to visit.  I know that might sound morbid or strange but let me tell you some reasons why I think they are so interesting.  Once upon a time, my father told me that “I had nothing to fear in a graveyard.  I had more to fear from the living than the dead.”  I have always remembered his words and I fear no dead beings:  no vampires, no werewolves, no zombies, no ghosts, no goblins and no undead bother me in the least.  I do worry about many of the living though.   This is just one reason why I find graveyards as peaceful and contemplative places to spend a short time.

A second reason is my interest in history.  Many graveyards can tell you much about the past.  The inscriptions, dates, type of deaths, genealogy of deaths, place of death and manner of deaths are a treasure trove of interest if you have any curiosity in how people lived.  The history of many cemeteries and the history of those buried in these cemeteries is an encyclopedia of past life.  You can learn more in a graveyard than you can in many history books.

A third reason is the cultural diversity that one finds in cemeteries.  Certainly many countries differ in how they bury their dead and the accoutrements that are interred with them.  This alone is fascinating.  Karen and I have visited graveyards in about every country that we have been to.  Each country has some very unique features about their graveyards.  However, even within the USA and even within cemeteries in a single city in the USA, you will find a great deal of cultural diversity.  Some of it reflects social biases such as racism, where you find Whites and Blacks buried separately and some of it reflects religion (Jewish cemeteries, Catholic cemeteries, etc.) and some of it reflects economic status (rich versus poor) symbols and edifices in many cemeteries.

Cemeteries are of also interesting because of who is buried there.  You may not meet too many famous celebrities in your lifetime but I guarantee that there are a whole host of them you can visit who are now resting in their graves.  Many grave markers are fascinating in the comments that have been engraved in them.  Boot Hill cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona is famous for its epitaphs on the tombstones.  One of my favorite books is Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters in which the dead speak out from their graves about the life they once lived.

New cemeteries are built to house the new generation while older cemeteries are eventually lost to the ravages of time and nature.  Nothing seems more striking then to be hiking someplace remote and come across an old cemetery from the eighteenth or nineteenth century.  Any cemeteries older than that and you would need to be an archeologist to find them.

Where have all my young dreams gone, long time passing?
Where have all my young dreams gone, long time ago?
Where have all my young dreams gone?
Young friends have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

What was it Shakespeare said about man’s life?  That it is but a walking shadow.  That we strut about on a stage as though we were important; but in reality, our tales will be told by idiots and our lives are merely entertainment and signifying nothing.  “Out, out, brief candle!”   Too brief for most of us!  We may wonder why we were not designed to live for two hundred or even five hundred years.

Do you remember the Twilight story by Rod Serling of the man who sold his soul for immortality?   The escape clause written in by the Devil was that he could die anytime he was tired of living.  He laughed since he thought he would live for a thousand or more years, however within weeks he had grown bored with life and he exercised his escape clause and died of a heart attack.   Be careful of what you ask for is very often an accurate statement.

We create dreams and hopes and our lives our fueled by these dreams and visions.  Some of us dream of the sacred, some of us of the mundane but perhaps more of us of the profane.   Many of us realize our dreams only to find out that we did not want them.  We often sell our souls much too cheaply.  The unintended consequences of life are always much greater than our imaginations could project.   Timothy Leary dies of Prostate cancer.  Jerry Rubin becomes an insurance salesman.   Abbie Hoffman commits suicide.  Huey Newton killed by former members of the Black Panther party.  Google goes from counterculture to mainstream culture.   Movies are made about Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.  YouTube and Wikipedia are accepted as legitimate venues for research and education.  Villains become heroes and heroes are found to be villains.   Not to become disillusioned becomes the real secret of happiness.

What goes around does not simply come around; it is morphed in the ever changing cycle of life and becomes something new and unrecognizable.   Dreams and hopes are continually recycled from one generation to the next.  Each generation takes its chance at the cycle in often vain attempts to make a difference.  Eventually they will run out of energy and steam and it is then left to the next generation to keep the cycle of dreams and hopes turning.

“Birth and Death are words we chose to describe the doorways in and out of a cycle. This cycle is connected to a larger cycle which awaits our return.  It is all just like breathing.  Remove the fear and judgment to recognize the same pattern as a principle everywhere.”
― Franklin Gillette

Time for Questions:

How does the cycle of life and death affect you?  Is it something you think about?  Do you see other cycles in your life?  Which cycles are the most important to you?  Does it do any good to try to change a cycle?  Can we make a difference or is it all fate?  How would we know if we did not try?  Where have you made a difference?  Where do you wish you had or could have made a difference? What stopped you?   What would you do different if you were born again?  What if you knew you would go on being born again and again?  How would your life be different?

Life is just beginning.

I have a good friend and we argue all the time about fate and destiny and what we can change and what we can not change.   I say we can make a difference and that life is not predetermined.  Each time we breathe we choose.  Does this make me an existentialist? I say my friend is a determinist but he has many compelling arguments which are often hard to dispute.



12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. johnpersico
    Feb 24, 2014 @ 21:14:44

    I received the following comment from a friend via Email. I thought it was very interesting and I asked his permission to publish it.

    “Yes, one of our must private acts is dead. I took a course on death and dying at the University of Colorado in 1985. The person dying has little control, remember my brother in law is a doctor. Their job is to keep you alive. The less money you have, the easier the process of death is. Strange, dead does not discriminate.

    I enjoy the old rituals, when death was a celebration of life, not a social obligation.
    I lost six friends in 2013, all to cancer, all younger than I, no death was simple, all became complicated by family in fighting.”



  2. Fred Broussard
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 15:19:03

    I’ve had similar thought but could never say it as well as you have.

    After dwelling on those things I usually end with the thought..”This ain’t heaven”. Life’s a journey and it’s total complexity exceeds man’s comprehension capabilities. Small bites of understanding are possible but only for seekers.

    Having friends who are seekers (learners) makes my journey worthwhile. Surrounding myself with “non learners” is a downward, depressing doom spiral of being “S.O.S.”..”stuck on stupid”.

    I occasionally close my eyes in a crowd to listen undistracted to the intelligence evident in surrounding conversations.

    Two subjects seem to consume the vast majority of people’s minds (as reflected by their discussions)..gossip about others and food.

    Rarely is anything of intellectual value being shared.

    Thanks, again for sharing your creative, intelligent thoughts.



  3. johnpersico
    Mar 03, 2014 @ 13:29:25

    Thanks Fred, I think you are a seeker. I like your idea about making the journey worthwhile and having similar friends who are seekers. Sometimes it seems hard to find them. Relatives can often be a big disappointment.



  4. Vernita
    Mar 06, 2014 @ 14:01:49

    Good day I am so glad I found your blog, I really found you
    by accident, while I was browsing on Digg for something else, Anyhow I am
    here now and would just like to say many thanks for a incredible post and a all round thrilling blog (I
    also love the theme/design), I don’t have time
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    be back to read a lot more, Please do keep up the awesome work.



  5. Christena
    Mar 08, 2014 @ 00:26:59

    It’s the best time to make a few plans for the long
    run and it is time to be happy. I’ve learn this publish and if I may just I desire to counsel you some fascinating things or suggestions.
    Maybe you could write subsequent articles regarding this article.

    I desire to read more issues approximately it!



  6. Fred Broussard
    Mar 08, 2014 @ 14:24:31

    My thoughts often shift to the same areas of your blog but then I return to living one day at a time..seeing each as a blessing. I think I recall a Screwtape message to nephew, Wormwood about how to divert a patient towards their father’s service..”Make him think about what can happen to him instead of what he can do.”



  7. Fred Broussard
    May 24, 2014 @ 09:57:10

    More good, thought provoking words. Thanks, John.:-)
    You’ve helped jump start my day in the right direction.



    Feb 27, 2017 @ 16:48:16

    True that the older I get the more I think of my own mortality. I could identify with your timeline on learning of a friend or family member’s death. A few weeks hardly pass before hearing of another person’s death I have known. However, I do not believe death is the end, so I am trying my hardest to make it to the promised land. Sometimes it is hard to stay on track, but your blog puts things in perspective. Our first obligation is to ourselves and humanity and we build from there. I guess that is why I often wish that I had lived in a simpler time. GREAT BLOG!!!



  9. johnpersico
    Feb 28, 2017 @ 14:16:53

    Thanks Jeanine, Maybe when you get to heaven things will be simpler their. 🙂



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