Tuesday, December 11, 2007

1968 Part II

June 3 - Radical feminist Valerie Solanas shoots Andy Warhol as he enters his studio, wounding him.

June 5 - U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California by TAWKRFK. Kennedy dies from his injuries the next day.

The Wikipedia says that The Central Intelligence Agency's Phoenix Program was officially established in June, 1968, but the article on the Program itself says that it began in 1967. Since, among other things, it involved assassination and interrogation by harsh methods (i.e. torture), it's easy to see how basic information about the program is suspect.

In the summer of 1968, I was working full time as a lifeguard at the Downtown Nashville YMCA. Actually, that is an understatement. The other certified and experience Y lifeguards had all gotten nice summer jobs at suburban pools, where they made more money and got to meet girls. This left me as the only lifeguard that the Downtown Y had to fill the high chair.

The pool was open 6 days a week, for 12 hours each day, although I sometimes got there a little late, and I was allowed to leave early if there was no one wanting to use the pool past 5. Still I was working as much as 72 hours a week for less than minimum wage.

On the plus side, it was easy work; there would sometimes be stretches of well over an hour with no one in the pool at all. And during the swim classes, the main safety responsibility fell to the instructors, so I was sometimes allowed to duck over to the café and have lunch.

Also, because of the hours, I didn't really have much of a chance to spend money. So I saved several hundred dollars that summer, despite having weekly paychecks that seldom cracked $50.

July 23-July 28 - African-American militants led by Fred (Ahmed) Evans engage in a fierce gunfight with police in the Glenville Shootout of Cleveland, Ohio.

July 25 - Pope Paul VI publishes the encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae, condemning birth control.

August 5-August 8 - The Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida nominates Richard Nixon for U.S. President and Spiro Agnew for Vice President.

Nixon was selling "The New Nixon" a forthright soul who had wandered the wilderness and who was now past the slush funds, sweaty brow, and "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

But really now, everyone knew he was still an asshole. The only thing was that he was an asshole who hadn't tried yet to get us killed. Lyndon Johnson, however, had been trying to get us killed for quite a while.

Besides, George Romney, the Republican anti-war candidate, shot himself in the feet so many times that he could have used them as colanders.

In late August police clashed with antiwar protesters in Chicago, Illinois outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which nominates Hubert Humphrey for U.S. President, and Edmund Muskie for Vice President. Richard Nixon was to use the Democratic debacle to great advantage, speaking of the "silent majority" and disparagingly of "the Hippies" which everyone took to mean anyone who had any opposition to the war, any desire for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, or any white male who had hair that managed to creep over his ears. In other words, me, about six months after leaving Nashville. But I'm getting ahead of myself. In any event, I'm not the guy to ask about the Chicago DNC riots. For that, you want Skip Williamson.

[Brief aside: In Tom Brokaw's 1968, he gets a former Chicago cop and a former anti-war activist together to have at it a bit. The Chicago cop claims that there were park benches being burned during the riots. The activist says that the story is a "total urban myth." The cop replies, "I was there," and the segment ends.

Why the hell didn't Brokaw follow up on this? It's pretty easy to find, for example, photos of park benches being piled up as barricades, but I'm damned if I can find a single burning bench photo, or even a reference to it. Which is to say that the cop was almost certainly lying, or, more likely, remembering something that never happened. And Brokaw lets it pass, as if finding out who was telling the truth would be" taking sides."


In September, 1968, I arrived at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute. My parents drove me the 1050 miles to get there, and "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams was larded onto the top 40 stations with a trowel. I remember waking to it somewhere in Baltimore, near the middle of the night, from being asleep in the back of the station wagon.

Somewhere in the first semester at RPI, Jean Shepherd performed in the gym, and asked his audience, "How many of you here believe that your life hasn't started yet?" Many hands went up, with some amusement. Shepherd proceeded to tell them what idiots they were, waiting for it to begin. I had not raised my hand. I figured that my life had begun with my arrival at RPI. I was wrong, of course; I'd had a life in Nashville. But I was also right; it wasn't the life I wanted.

That first semester, I learned how to drink. The legal age for alcohol in New York State at the time was 18, and since no freshmen were allowed to have automobiles, it wasn't even that dangerous. The RPI Student Union Rathskeller served cheap beer to anyone with a student ID, and there were a set of bars down in Troy that specifically catered to students. I made a hit with some of my buddies by knowing that common detergent contains optical bleach, which reflects UV as blue-white light. The bars had a cover charge, but used a UV ink stamp on the back of your hand to allow re-entry. A little bit of detergent, properly painted (one kind barfly loaned us her eyebrow brush; she probably found one of us attractive, but I have no idea which of us it was, which means it may have been me, dammit) saved you the cover charge.

On September 7, Women's Liberation groups, joined by members of New York NOW, targeted the Miss America Beauty Contest in Atlantic City. The protest included theatrical demonstrations including ritual disposal of traditional female roles into the "freedom ashcan." While nothing is actually set on fire, one organizer's comment - quoted in the New York Times the next day - that the protesters "wouldn't do anything dangerous, just a symbolic bra-burning," created a mass perception, and everyone now remembers the bras being burned.

RPI legend has it that the proper spelling of nerd is "knurd", which is "drunk" spelled backwards, dating from the time when you were one or the other. But some knurds drank, and besides, something new had been added to the mix. The RPI class of 1972, which arrived in 1968, already had a goodly pothead component, the younger brothers of those who had already gone to college, or those simply from places where marijuana culture had hit the high schools. It was only a year or two after that that drugs hit Donelson High, or so says my sister. There may have been somewhere in the country further behind the curve than Donelson, but it's hard to imagine such a place.

I liked hanging with the heads, but I did not indulge my freshman year. I wanted to see how it went for my fellows. Hey, isn't there a scene in Beowulf where he holds back for a while, taking Grendel's measure? Yeah, that was me and drugs. Beowulf and Grendel.

October 2 - Tlatelolco massacre: A student demonstration ends in a bloodbath at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, Mexico, 10 days before the inauguration of the 1968 Summer Olympics.

October 2 - Marcel Duchamp, French artist (b. 1887) and great-grandaddy of Dada and Surrealism, dies.

October 11 - Apollo program: NASA launches Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission (Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, Walter Cunningham). Mission goals include the first live television broadcast from orbit and testing the lunar module docking maneuver.

October 11 - In Panama, a military coup d'etat, led by Col. Boris Martinez and Col. Omar Torrijos, overthrows the democratically-elected (but highly controversial) government of President Arnulfo Arias. Within a year, Torrijos will have ousted Martinez and taken charge as de facto Head of Government in Panama.

During my first semester at RPI (and, quite frankly, during most of the rest of my time there), I merrily traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard in search of adventure, which basically translated into listening to music and/or trying to get laid. I was much more successful in the former endeavor, as I recognized a musical opportunity when I encountered it. By contrast, I was so socially clueless (one ubernurd, far from the mothership) that I basically had to be hit over the head and dragged off to bed by any woman who found me attractive. If I hadn't been good looking, and it hadn't been the 60's, I'd still be a virgin.

I made a couple of trips to Vassar, in the company of my friend, Bullshit Harvey (not his real name), who had a sister going there. The girl who took me home from the dance later decided that I'd been lying about my politics. I can say now that I really didn't know enough about my politics to lie about them, but I believed that I was lying at the time, so she had me there.

The Games of the XIX Olympiad began on October 12, in Mexico City, Mexico. The image that you've all seen from this is the one of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, 2 African-Americans competing in the Olympic 200-meter run, who raised their arms in a black power salute after winning the gold and bronze medals for 1st and 3rd place. By contrast, after winning the gold medal for heavyweight boxing, George Foreman walked around the ring with a tiny American flag, bowing several times to the audience.

But the part I remember is this: Bob Beamon of the USA shattered the world record for the long jump by more than two feet, in a leap of 29 feet 2 & 1/2.

What does it say about the way things were in 1968 that all the counter-culture tropes were abundant at RPI, an old, conservative, engineering school. It said that the times were out of joint. I knew guys who didn't bother to change out of their ROTC uniforms before getting high. Everybody talked the talk, "bummer," "good trip," "Remember kids, don't forget to smash the State!" Even the straightest student quoted Firesign Theater, "Now it's time to play, 'Beat the Reaper!"

The campus political radical guys were seen as amusing, and not nearly as much into the party time as they should be. After all, our student deferments would only take us for four years, and the war was going to last forever. Eat, drink, and try to make Mary.

October 14 - The United States Department of Defense announces that the United States Army and United States Marines will send about 24,000 troops back to Vietnam for involuntary second tours.

I started out at RPI in physics, because I had no idea of what I was doing. Freshman year, the only difference between physics and engineering was that the physics majors took a foreign language (mine was German), while engineering students took mechanical drawing. I'd already had mechanical drawing in high school, though, so I went for the new stuff, rather than go through what I'd already taken (that's part of the "didn't know what I was doing").

In German, however, I quickly hit my standard limitation. I'm very good in languages up to the point of the vocabulary drill. Then I fall behind, because I'm just lazy that way. It probably wouldn't be a problem in an immersion course, but there were none of those around.

So my first test scores were A's but by the end of the semester I was approaching low C territory. No need for further interpretation; I transferred to engineering, and wound up in an experimental course called "Elementary Engineering" taught by Paul Daitch, who would later be my sequence advisor in Engineering Science. EE also had a TA named Gary Steinman, who I later worked with on another experimental course, this time with me as a TA.

November 5 - U.S. presidential election, 1968: Republican challenger Richard M. Nixon defeats Vice President Hubert Humphrey and American Independent Party candidate George C. Wallace. Nixon got 301 electoral votes to Humprey's 191 and Wallace's 46 (Wallace took 5 southern states). The disproportionate electoral split masks the fact that Nixon only got 43.4% of the popular vote, to Humprey's 42.7% (with Wallace taking 13.5%). If the South had still been "solid" for the Democrats, Humprey would have picked up Wallace's 5 states, plus also the surrounding halo of "moderate" southern states, and would have won the election.

I'm sure it would have mattered if Humphrey had won, I just don't know how, or how much. Nixon was an evil bastard of a war criminal, but he hadn't started the war. Neither, of course, had Humphrey. The thought of either of them running the country put us all into frenzied paralysis. It seemed clear that the country's problems ran deeper than merely being a matter of who was President.

By the end of the year, my hair had grown at least to Little Dutch Boy length. That was enough to get me physically threatened by some random working class male at least every couple of weeks.

November 14 - Yale University announces it is going co-educational. We all yawned, as we'd already read The Harrad Experiment, and, having had a couple of months of college behind us, knew that the orgies simply weren't that easy to find.

November 22 - The White Album is released by The Beatles.

December 13 - Brazilian president Artur da Costa e Silva decrees the AI-5 (or the fifth Institutional Act), which lasts until 1978 and marks the beginning of the hard times of Brazilian military dictatorshiop.

December 24 - Apollo Program: U.S. spacecraft Apollo 8 enters orbit around the Moon. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William A. Anders become the first humans to see the far side of the Moon and planet Earth as a whole. The crew also reads from Genesis.

Whenever I hear someone talking about the cataclysmic events going on in the world, I think of 1968 (and '69, and '70) and think, "Not yet."

History happens to people, and every person's history is different, both their personal history and their embedding in the larger scheme of things. Every Baby Boomer's story is different, and even a year's difference in birth date can make all the difference in the world. I graduated high school and began college in 1968. That's how it was for me. That's how it was for all of us who had those experiences in 1968. Others had it different. If you think you understand it without having been there, you're wrong. Those of us who were there don't even understand it; we just remember it.

And badly.


BeverlyM said...

I love this! What insight and perspective. I'd love to share it with my readers.

James Killus said...

Hello, beverlym, you absolutely have my permission to excerpt an link to whatever interests you here.

JP Stormcrow said...

I hit 1968 4 years younger than you (and guess what? I think the gap is the same today!), but it certainly was the year that got me thinking differently about so many different things. For instance before then I was pretty much just a kid thinking we were winning in Vietnam because the body counts reported for the other side were higher than our own. As I mention in the segment below from over at WAAGNFNP it really was watching the Democratic convention that summer that really made re-examine the so very, very much. (It is interesting that have recently read where Brokaw tagged it as an event that turned folks like his father into "Reagan Democrats" - for me the exact opposite.)

I am going to go back two years to 1968 which was a milestone year for me in terms of both overall political awareness and music. (I know - welcome to the club.) Before that I had pretty much outsourced my musical taste to my older sister, but that year I went out and purchased my first album, Disraeli Gears by the Cream. Though not really my listening taste today, it certainly helped carve deep blue fissures in the tissues of my mind as musical accompaniment to the political events of that summer unfolding before an astonished 14-year old. (In particular, I recall staying up and watching the events in Chicago, and wanting someone to help me understand just WTF was going on.)

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