People always talk about the 1960's, heavy on the emphasis, The Sixties. As in "the 60's man!" Well, I was no man in 1968 but getting closer. I turned 15 that year and had been playing music for money with my band for over a year so I was feeling my oats. I still had a foot in my childhood and played one more year of baseball in the CYO league and hung around with a lot of kids I had known forever, or as forever as a fifteen year-old has. The only reason I'm thinking about any of this is because there's been a lot if mention in the media lately about the 40th anniversary of a momentous year. Funny thing about being 15 and living in a landmark year is that you don't really know it.
At that age you don't really have many years with which to compare the current one. You figure life is full of crazy things and at that age you're pretty much obsessed with the things that interest you and not much else, like finally getting laid, getting your hands on the new Hendrix album, waiting to see what the heck The Beatles will come up with to top Sergeant Pepper or trying to hit a curve ball to right field with a runner on second. You're sort of aware that the world's out there and lately it's been on fire but you figure that's the grown-up's problem, let them straighten out this crazy mess before I grow up and it gets handed to me.
America was like the first line of a tale of two cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." On the plus side, the Civil Rights Movement had made a lot of important gains in what I considered a long-overdue recognition of the obvious. I was, after all, a Brooklyn boy, a city with a large black population and the place where Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball and helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win their only World Series before the traitorous O'Malley took our team to L.A. The year before there were race riots in New York City and it occurred to me that black people must be pretty patient people to have waited until 1967 to riot considering how they'd been screwed out of being American in America for so long.
But by '68 it looked like race relations were headed to where they should be, that is to my mind, no big deal one way or another what color you are. Said so right in the Declaration of Independence, all of us were created equal, period. So things were at least starting to head in that direction, and there was a lot of other good stuff going on. There was a whole lot of fantastic music being released, groundbreaking and wild stuff made popular through the new FM radio band. A lot of new ideas were being put forth, like women's liberation, free love, questioning authority. Questioning authority was right up my alley, being 15 and whatnot. There was also a lot of silly notions being bandied about, like free love and getting a free ride in life and not trusting anybody over 30.
Heck, my grandmother was way over 30 and I trusted her more that anybody I knew. She had died the previous year and I still missed her a whole lot. She lived right upstairs from our family and I had no better friend, so I didn't swallow all the ideas people were talking about. My mother was also completely trustworthy, and she was past 30. So I questioned the questioners too. There were a lot of competing voices in the 1960's; hippies, politicians, professors, musicians, students, union leaders, Black Panthers, radical white rich kids blowing stuff up like it was some sort of joke. There was a lot of hard things going on. The generations were separating ideologically and there was a horrible war going on in Vietnam that seemed would never end. KIds from the neighborhood just a few years older than me were getting drafted to fight there and a few of them died and others were maimed. Giant protests against the war were being held all over America, something that hadn't happened in America since the draft riots during the Civi War.
But there were some voices of hope and reason traveling the nation and trying to change things. Two of the most prominent voices were stilled with assassins bullets that summer, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, just four and a half years after John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas. That really took the wind out of a lot of people's sails and politics turned sour again with the election of the shiftiest looking President imaginable, Richard Nixon. JFK's successor, Lyndon Johnson, had not run for re-election with all the controversy over the war. He had instituted some great programs in the country, including presiding over the Civil Rights act proposed by John Kennedy, but the war in Vietnam overshadowed his legacy of having ended starvation in the richest nation on earth with his War on Poverty, food stamp program and welfare for the poorest among us.
The Soviet Union was still America's bogie man, that super power that was a malevolent presence on the world stage that our government used as an excuse to get involved in all sorts of pretty un-American intrigues and activities all over the world, the Vietnam War being only the most prominent among them. Every year it seemed that we announced athe development of a bigger and more accurate nuclear missile, like that pronouncement made anybody feel safe when you knew that only made the Soviets build bigger ones of their own. We were also using rockets to send people into space and gearing up for landing some on the moon very soon. Again, the Soviets were competing with us for astronaut headlines, having started the whole Space Race back in '59. We pretty much left them in the dust in the that race but the Cold War was an uneasy standoff that had the whole world nervous.
Looking back is easy, making sense of things while they are happening is hard. It's pretty obvious now that if Doctor King and Robert Kennedy had lived they would have taken America in a different, more healthy and more American direction, one from the pulpit of public conscience, the other from the White House. Those two deaths soured a lot of people on the possibility of racial and human progress and the nation fragmented into hostile factions from which we still have not healed. Our old Cold War habits of global manipulation have not left our government and the results have been severe for this nation, George Washington's words of warning against foreign entanglements now considered a quaint and naive sentiment from a simpler age, Dwight Eisenhower's strong warning against the undue influence of the military-industrial complex similarly ignored. Notice that these two men were accomplished generals who as supreme commanders had a huge hand in winning America's two most momentous wars.
Both men subsequently held the Presidency for two terms and you'd think we'd listen to such voices from our past. Instead, America lost the thread of being the America that was invented not to dominate the world, but to provide a free haven for liberty-seeking individuals. Any domination we achieved was the result of free, hard working people who achieved astounding success and shared their prosperity with the world. The events of 1968 largely contributed to changing that mindset and we are now in heated contention with one another and much of the world. So in 2008 we look to elect a president who will reverse this course and steer America back on the road to becoming the America we are supposed to be.
The obvious choices are two men. One was a 7-year old boy of mixed race parentage in 1968. The other man was entering his second of five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. One preaches unity and an end to the politics of hatred and divisiveness while the other preaches more of the same policies that have soured the American Dream, apparently unlike Washington and Eisenhower, having learned nothing from the hard experience of warfare. One embodies the idealism and pragmatic work ethic of King and Kennedy while the other embodies the corporate-military tandem of government that has gotten America so very far off the track. On the 50th anniversary of 1968, let's hope America looks back and says it made the right choice by electing Barack Obama and started healing our self-inflicted wounds. I's time to do what is right for America. America needs America to be America and the world needs America to be America. Happy annniversary, wierd year.