Tuesday, December 11, 2007

1968 Part 1

In the late spring of 1967, I took the SAT exams. This was early; I figured that I could always take them again if my scores were less than what I needed to get into college. All the schools I was applying for had "Institute of Technology" in their names, so the math and science scores were particularly important, and I scored very well on those. I scored even better on the verbal section, but I took that as a given.

By early 1968, based on offered financial aid (I needed a lot of it), and distance from Tennessee (I needed a lot of that, too), I'd settled on attending Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York.

On January 5, 1968, Alexander Dubček was elected leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. His term became known as the "Prague Spring," a time of general loosening of Iron Curtain repression. The thaw officially ended on August 20 when 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 5,000 tanks invade Czechoslovakia.

Once I'd received my acceptance to RPI, my time in Donelson became a holding pattern. I made a couple of half-hearted attempts at dating, both girls from the tony Belle Meade district on the west side of town, out past Vanderbuilt University, but my head was not in the game. Or in any game, really. I was so out of there.

On January 30, in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive began, as Viet Cong forces launched a series of surprise attacks across South Vietnam. The Tet Offensive was the "light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train" moment in the Vietnam War, and surprised everyone who'd thought that the war was nearing victory, which is to say, that fraction of the people whom you can fool all of the time. On January 31, Viet Cong soldiers attack the United States Embassy in Saigon. The Tet Offensive does halt until February 24.

On February 1 a Viet Cong officer was executed by Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a South Vietnamese National Police Chief. The event was photographed by Eddie Adams. The photo made headlines around the world, eventually winning the 1969 Pulitzer Prize. Americans are horrified, shocked, simply shocked, that bad things are done during a war.


One of my dates in January would have been to see "The Graduate." I liked it, as it seemed to speak to the disconnected feeling I had about everything, though, truth to tell, I expected to reconnect in college.

My date didn't like it, although she thought that Anne Bancroft was still pretty hot. I don't think she used those words, though.

January 13 - Johnny Cash records "Live at Folsom Prison".

January 22 - Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In debuts on NBC.

On February 4, 1968, Neal Cassady, inspiration for both the Beats and the Hippies died. Later in the year, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, was released, bringing Cassady yet more hipster celebrity, and I'm sure he appreciated it, really.

On the job as a lifeguard at the Downtown Nashville YMCA, I read, when it was safe, i.e when there was no one in the pool, or maybe a single middle-aged white male swimming laps. At other times I listened to the radio, via single earpiece, when it was safe to do that. When swim classes were in session, of course, the pool got my full attention.

The available music was pretty feeble. Top Forty radio had "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy" on high rotation for weeks. And no matter how much I liked both The Graduate and Simon and Garfunkle, there are only so many times I can listen to "Mrs. Robinson" without thinking of opening a vein. On somebody.

There was a light classical station that I could barely get, plus a couple of "easy listening" stations. I became quite fond of the Baja Marimba Band, and "The Call of the Wild Goose." There was also some instrumental group that did a version of "Everybody Loves My Baby" that was heavy on the kettle drum. Maybe I'll try to find out who did that sometime.

On February 8, a civil rights protest staged at a white-only bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina was broken-up by highway patrolmen, leading to the deaths of 3 college students. Drop in the bucket, really. Or, as some were describing it at the time, "a good start."

There were several versions of "The Best is Yet to Come," on the easy listening rotation, too, including the Sinatra rendition.

On February 8, 1968, the National Socialist White Peoples Party filed suit to obtain a Nazi burial for George Lincoln Rockwell’s remains at any National Cemetery. Rockwell had been assassinated in 1967, and there had been a public standoff sometime later about a previous attempt to bury his body at a National Cemetery, with members of the NSWPP demanding to be allowed to wear their Nazi insignia at the ceremony, and the cemetery officials refusing. This was all orchestrated by one of Rockwell's previous subordinates, Matt Koehl.

I wrote a bit of doggerel about the cemetery incident, using "Old King Cole" as a template. It was, to my recollection, dreadful, but it does have the distinction of being one of the least dreadful bits of poetry I wrote at the time. I was to give up all such attempts at poetry within a few years, and the world is a much better place for it.

On March 12, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson beat antiwar candidate Eugene J. McCarthy in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, but won by only 7 percentage points. Moreover, McCarthy won the lion's share, 20, of New Hampshire's convention delegates.

On March 31, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. He'd been on the receiving end of the chant, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?" for quite a while at that point. I remember thinking at the time, "Holy crap! I think he's quitting because they hurt his feelings." That would not prove to be a problem with his successor.

I was writing a lot at this point, another one of the activities that I used to fill the "empty pool time." My lifeguard duties were still somewhat contained, by attending high school and by the existence of other lifeguards to share the duties. So I was working maybe 3-4 hours 3 or 4 times a week.

One of the things I began about this time was a Tolkienesque fantasy. Much later, after adding a lot more stuff stolen from Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, and Henry Kuttner, it became Book of Shadows, my first novel. Thank god, I removed the poetry.

On March 18, under heavy pressure from France's ongoing conversion of dollars to gold, the Congress of the United States repealed the requirement for a gold reserve to back U.S. currency. The dollar then began a series of sliding pegs against gold, that is to say, a series of "devaluations." These eventually ceased in 1975, when the gold/dollar link was broken completely, private citizens were again allowed to own gold, and the dollar floated against other world currencies.

I was keenly interested in business and finance, going so far as to have a subscription to Fortune magazine, and reading books on accounting. On the other hand, I was reading books on just about everything.

On March 20, Charles Chaplin Jr., American actor (b. 1925), died.

On March 22, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and seven other students occupied Administrative offices of Nanterre, launching France into a state of revolution in the month of May.

On March 16, the My Lai massacre occurred as American troops kill several hundred (300-500) civilians. The American public did not learn of the event for many months.

On March 14, nerve gas leaked from the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground near Skull Valley, Utah and killed a number of sheep.

On March 27, Yuri Gagarin, cosmonaut and the first man in orbit died in a plane crash.

In National Forensic League meets of the period, there were various categories of competition, generally segregated by gender. For most of the categories, such as "Boys' Original", there was a prepared text, which you could deliver until it won a first place prize, and then it had to be retired. Other categories, which had much lower status (and fewer NFL "points" accruing to victories) used someone else's words.

After burning through a few "Original" speeches, my forensic buddy Phil and I got either lazy or more confident, depending upon interpretation. The highest status category was "Extemporaneous" which got a subject handed to you, and you then had (as I recall) fifteen minutes to prepare the speech. Obviously the most you could really get was an outline. But that was enough, really.

It helped that the meet organizers weren't really high in the imagination department; they usually set topics cleaned from recent issues of Time, Newsweek, or U.S. News and World Reports. It was no great trick to locate the relevant newsmagazine, and to pull facts from it. What took some talent was coming up with a speech that didn't sound like you were just reading from a newsmagazine. Also, I needed something to keep me from getting bored with the deal. So I'd be looking for some odd take on the thing. That tended to make me stand out from the crowd, and often the judges appreciated that.

It also gave me an incentive to keep up with the newsmagazines, which was good, because there was plenty of incentive to just numb out from the goings on in the world.

On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupt in major American cities for several days afterward. The Asshole who Killed Martin Luthor King was arrested for the murder on June 8th. TAWKMLK first confessed to the crime, then withdrew it, then pled guilty (to avoid the death penalty), and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He then spent the remainder of his life trying to withdraw his plea and obtain a trial. He also gave interviews that tried to hint at a conspiracy. If you think there was a conspiracy, blame the death penalty for TAWKMLK not getting his trial. I think he was just a lying asshole, myself. TAWKMLK later made a book deal with writer William Bradford Huie (The Death of Private Slovik, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, The Americanization of Emily), which produced a work that I will not name.

Nashville did not have riots, and both the black and white communities patted themselves on the back for it, and even patted each other's backs a bit, which was a good thing.

There was a curfew, however. One of my dates put me up against the curfew when driving home. I don't think I worried much about it. I was more interested in the end-of-the-world sensation produced by driving from West Nashville to East Nashville without seeing a single other vehicle.

On April 6, a shootout between Black Panthers and Oakland police resulted in several arrests and deaths, including 17-year-old Panther Bobby Hutton.

In late April, student protesters at Columbia University in New York City took over administration buildings and shut down the university.

On April 29, the musical Hair officially opened on Broadway. For our sins, we were subjected to "The Age of Aquarius" on the radio for what seemed like months.

In May, student and worker strikes in France, sometimes referred to as the French May, nearly brought down the French government.

On May 17, the Catonsville Nine entered the Selective Service offices in Catonsville, Maryland, took dozens of selective service draft records, and burned them with napalm as a protest against the Vietnam War.

On May 19, Nigerian forces captured Port Harcourt and formed a ring around Biafrans. This contributed to a humanitarian disaster as the surrounded population was already suffering with hunger and starvation.

On May 22, the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine Scorpion sank with 99 men aboard, 400 miles southwest of the Azores.

In early June, 1968, I graduated from Donelson High School, in Donelson, Tennessee.


Pete,

Well, that's 12 years of school gone and we've been together most of them. What's more, there's at least 4 more years coming. Make the most of them. I'd like to think that I know you pretty well – better than most, anyway. Anyway, I know enough so that I can see you've got a great future. Let some more people find out about you – you're great. But then again, no one needed to tell you that.

--Mark

More later.

[Many of the historical events here have been memory refreshed via Wikipedia]

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