A workshop assignment — The 60’s, an essay or story about a news-breaking event that occurred in November of the past century, maybe one you experienced.
May I take the decade as a whole and try to explain in essay form how that turbulent time and my reaction to it:
When JFK took the oath as President, I was 10 years old, Irish Catholic. Do I need to tell you the fires of excitement in our house his success stirred up. A Catholic in the White House and Irish at that! I knew factually, but not emotionally, how not that long ago, Irish were shunned and kicked aside as “Papists.” Now I would never have to know that prejudice–heck, one of ours was president. Later, a time for smiles as we basked in Camelot, and a man named Vaughn Meader released a cute album of First Family skits, cleverly crafted to reflect all the Kennedy clan along with their foibles and quirks … Boston accents, Kennedy touch football, bed time stories for Caroline about that big, mean bear to the east. Good stuff for a storybook time!
Despite the euphoria of those days, the cold war cast a cloud of uncertainty over life. Doomsdayers ballyhooed the concept of atomic radiation (compliments of Russian bombs) killing us all in much the same way terrorism or global warming is bandied about today. We lived daily with nuclear war reminders as charged rhetoric zoomed back and forth across the Atlantic. Premier Kruschev promised to bury us. The Russians were winning the space race–fearsome in that they could perhaps use their advanced space technology for something more sinister against us. It was a jittery time.
In 1964, it got worse. I remember being by that time a freshman in high school. At school, the principal broke into our classes with the news President Kennedy had been shot. I recall walking home that gray and windy Pittsburgh day wondering what it meant, not realizing in my naivete, that I couldn’t know. No one could. It had never happened before. I worried it might be a Russian conspiracy, a takeover. Who knew?
Later, that concept proved to be, at least overtly, not true. Then, I watched on TV as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in cold blood. What an experience! Murder live on TV! My jaw dropped, as I came two steps closer to growing up. My shiny childhood world had just developed a little rust.
Later that year, my mother died and I was oblivious to much until finally the escalation of the Viet Nam war blared in my ear. Soon it was everywhere, a cacophonous racket on the landscape of America. Everyone asked why, why, we were there. I watched the culture take a decided step to the left as teenagers, following the lead of rock stars, took a stand against the war. A loud, raucous step. Eventually others would follow.
Two year later, a new tragedy. Martin Luther King was assassinated and the country literally caught fire with riots. I remember going to my first college classes where the school, next to the inner city neighborhood, offered up a ghastly new panorama. My heart slammed to the pavement in dismay as I viewed soldiers on every corner poised with their hands on guns. A military face had invaded the cities. Wasn’t this something from some other place? Not in America, right? What had happened to my country? Eventually, the unrest subsided and Viet Nam stepped up to take center stage again. Campuses erupted in earnest, students bonded in protest, and the great era of the 60’s spun wild. For years to come, the drum beat of protest would sound, unrelenting.
Along the way, these trying times continued to astound. Heading into my second year of college, I was sitting at the TV one muggy summer night, tinkering with thread for a sewing project, sweating, pondering how everything is harder when it is suffocatingly hot–when on the news blasted out that Robert Kennedy had been shot. I was older now and too arrogantly teenage to act or feel afraid. Once again, though, I wondered what was happening. That was three assassinations–JFK, Martin Luther King, and now RFK.
In 1969, I finished 2 years of college and got my first job. On the very first day, I had a celebratory date in the evening. We went out but came home early. We wanted to see the “moonwalk,” having no idea what that meant, really. Was it comic book fodder? Mesmerized, we watched Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon. How can I explain the jaw-dropping, eerie feeling of that night. Afterward, we went outside to stare at the stars. The universe had just come knocking to remind us we are not alone in this vast universe of spinning rocks. From here on, life was different; we actually touched the moon and it was real.
Those are the steps I took growing up during the 60’s–from naive, expecting childlike fairy tales to spring to life from my girlhood story books, instead to being bombarded with blow after blow from stark reality, expanding its dense ugly cloud with each strike, until finally it led to exhaustion and then disillusionment. Until the moonwalk spiraled me back to believing in fairy tales again.
In retrospect is the fortification of an old adage, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” We had looming doomsday then; we have looming doomsday now. You know what? It will loom tomorrow too, only wearing yet another new face. And there will be another “moon walk,” too. Because dreams are as real as we can make them, and we never stop trying to make them real.
Copyright 2006 JO Janoski