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WRITING: Tim Leary and Ovum - Ovum - A Brief History

Though it nearly got me expelled from high school, Ovum was both as naïve and innocent as a counter-culture publication could be. Its counter-culture status was partially a result of my own stubborness and partially a result of the time at which it appeared.

Stubborness was what had led me to include poems about abortion (then illegal) and (nominally) gay desires in the first issue, and indeed to found the magazine in the first place. A certain assistant principal had refused to let any item appear in the school literary magazine that was even remotely controversial. After arguing the point several times, I finally used my 1966 Christmas money to go to New York City and buy a mimeograph machine. With the help of Willi Bleimeister (a schoolmate who insisted on being credited as 'consulting anarchist') and a few rapidly recruited contributors, I assembled material for the first issue of my own magazine, named "Ovum" for its chick-in-the-egg status (though apparently Tim Leary was the only person to ever make that connection, when he later called the magazine a "beautiful, blossoming seed-womb organism" - everybody else seemed to find the name quite hilarious.) I then laboriously typed up the very messy multiform stencils used on a mimeograph and proceeded through the unimaginably messy process of actually printing off the first issue.

I honestly can't remember how successful the first issue was, though I later was surprised to learn how many people read and remembered the magazine overall. But almost immediately after it came out, the afore-mentioned assistant principal called Willi and me into his office, pulled out our pitifully flimsy first issue and said, "You are not going to sell this magazine in this school anymore. If you do, you will be suspended as a threat to the morals of your fellow students." To know how humorous the latter qualification was, you have to imagine a very inexperienced 15-year-old surrounded by schoolmates getting drunk, pregnant and even from time to time arrested. Not that most of my schoolmates were doing all three, but I wasn't even doing the first (which was pretty easy - and common - at the time).

Being basically a well-behaved (if not quite conventional) kid, I immediately stopped distributing the magazine in the school. However, I was now obliged to find new outlets (I was not about to let all that messy mimeographing go to waste.) As it happened, two incursions had been made into our area by the still-tiny hippy movement. One was the appearance of Timothy Leary - who was just starting to be known - at the old Hitchcock estate in Millbrook. The other was the opening of Poughkeepsie's first 'head shop' - the Sandal Shop, which in fact did sell sandals and other handmade leather goods, along with the psychedelic posters, water pipes and rolling papers. Willi and I had no trouble placing our unique publication in this like-minded venue.

Banned by the authorities and being sold in a head shop, it was now officially an 'underground magazine.

Shortly after this, we were driving around in a van with two friends even more innocuous than ourselves and suddenly had the very thrilling idea of going up to drop in on Timothy Leary. We had no idea what to expect and in fact were a little nervous. But we'd heard that these 'hippies' were everybody's friend, so we thought we'd take the chance. The result is the article which appears below.

With this undreamt-of centerpiece, we began to plan our next issue. At this point, one of our rare friends to actually have a job (at his father's gas station) offered to finance the next printing of Ovum. We quickly learned that the priest who ran the printing shop at Marist College would do offset work for a minor (as he put it) 'tip'. Meanwhile, people we didn't even know were submitting material. Willi, having discovered the Sanskrit character for OM, drew it as our cover. We delivered our typed and sketched work to the friendly priest (I've always wondered if he read it) and for $30, ended up with something like a real magazine. Since the new format was almost half the size of the mimeographed edition, it also fit neatly into small manila envelopes, which allowed a budding entrepreneur at our high school to distribute them right under the nose of the assistant principal ("I KNOW you're selling that magazine here. I don't know HOW, but when I catch you...")

We naturally sent a copy to Timothy Leary and, to our adolescent delight, he ordered twenty copies (in a characteristically exuberant letter, reproduced here.) Meanwhile, my associates decided to be real hippies and one day took most of our run and starting handing copies out free - to my rage. This was my first inkling that when dealing with rebels - even as partners - you'd better expect rebellion.

Ovum (as I later learned) was pretty popular by now and we had no trouble assembling a third issue. But by then the counter-culture was becoming mainstream, and far more serious publications were appearing to represent it. That fall, I went off to Bard College - where this sort of thing didn't impress anybody - and Ovum's days were done. But its three clumsy issues remain, artifacts of a pivotal moment in American culture.

copyright, 2000 by Jim Chevallier