Monday, June 27, 2011

Remembering the Sixties

This is an essay I plan to submit to a local writing competition. Any suggestions, comments, or memories of your own are most welcome.

Robin Williams joked that if you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.

I remember. How could I forget?

China took its Great Leap Forward and almost leaped off a cliff. The Cold War nearly heated to thermonuclear temperatures over the Cuban missile crisis. Vietnam burst into America’s consciousness like a bad LSD trip. The civil rights activists Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner ended up in a Mississippi landfill. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy all died by gunfire. My father died of a heart attack. Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. The Beatles conquered America. I married my girlfriend.

I commuted to Boston University back then. As a transfer from a junior college, I decided to join ROTC in my sophomore year to make the most of my inevitable military service. A sergeant in the Army ROTC office told me incorrectly that they didn’t accept transfer students, so I stumbled into the Air Force ROTC program.  One afternoon, I walked into Economics class to hear that President Kennedy had been shot. Our instructor grimly refused to cancel class, but I could not focus on her lecture.

After my graduation in 1965, the Air Force sent me to the deep South to be a weapons controller, a job that placed me in front of a radar screen to direct fighter pilots running practice intercepts in case of a Soviet bomber attack. Many of those pilots went on to fly combat support missions in Vietnam. The experience convinced me not to become a civilian air traffic controller.

That first duty assignment landed me in Montgomery, Alabama, from where I toured radar sites in the Southeast. Once I looked up a cousin in Biloxi, Mississippi, and had trouble finding him, so I rolled down the window of my Volkswagen bug and asked a young black woman how to get to Kuhn Street. She kept walking as though I didn’t exist, which I suddenly wished were true.

After three years I received orders to spend 1968 at Fire Island Air Force Station in Alaska, within sight of Anchorage and the Chugach Mountains. Fire Island is about three miles long and a mile wide and accommodated about one hundred unaccompanied men and an unknown number of moose. People drank too much, slept too much, and in early summer played softball until after 10 p.m.  Once at midnight, the ghostly lights of Aurora Borealis shimmered above us.

One day, a light plane tried to land on the narrow beach but caught its landing gear on a power line, flipped over, and exploded. In December near the end of my tour, I said goodbye to an Army officer who had been assigned to our unit on temporary duty from Fort Richardson. Lieutenant Murphy hailed from Southern California, so we called him Murph the Surf. A couple of days after our farewell, he boarded a plane to the Aleutians, replacing his boss who had come down with a cold. The plane disintegrated in mid-air in sixty-below-zero weather, its pieces scattering across a frozen lake. No one survived.

Alaska put me far from the battlefields of Vietnam and America, but the daily disaster reports reached us by television. We heard Walter Cronkite read the daily body counts from places like Pleiku—with dead enemies stacked so high, how could we not be winning? Life Magazine reported a visit by General Westmoreland to his troops who had just returned from combat. A soldier said he had killed an enemy.

“How did you know he was dead?” asked the general.

“Because I cut him in half,” the soldier replied.

“Good,” said the general.

I wondered if America had gone mad.

In Chicago, the Democrats convened amid disaster, while police beat both war protestors and innocent onlookers. Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic presidential nominee, but by the time I mailed in my absentee ballot, his position on the war seemed little different from that of Richard Nixon, except that Nixon said he had a “secret plan” to get us out of Vietnam.

After my discharge in 1969, New York Life hired me to sell insurance. Around the time of the Woodstock Festival, I sold a $6,000 policy to a recent Navy veteran who killed himself in a car wreck a week or so later. Months later, the company issued a $12,000 double indemnity check to the 19-year-old widow and mother.  I’d planned to quit my job anyway, so my delivery of the check to the woman’s father-in-law marked the end of my sales career.

For me personally, my marriage to Nancy provided the one enduring legacy of the Sixties. In 1961 we went to the high school senior prom together, and in 2011 we will attend our fiftieth high school reunion together.

So I do remember the Sixties. How could I forget?


Anonymous said...

I like it, Bob. It seemed terse, and thinking back on it, those were terse times. As you point out, your marriage was the one positive thing from the 60's. Not everybody made it to Woodstock, for sure. If anything's missing, it's the music, which is so distinctive from that time. You mention the Beatles, but there was so much more.


Patricia L. Johnson said...

Good insight into the 60s Bob. You captured the odd currents around the time -- peace, love, and ... Viet Nam. My husband served in the reserves stateside, I found your comments on ROTC interesting. I remember how bright and cheerful the clothes were, wild colors.

Bill said...

Excellent essay Bob. Each paragraph could be expanded into a chapter, but I know that's not your intent. I too came of age in the sixties; became a police officer, went through riots, got married, and had kids. Every memory touched me.

Anonymous said...

Very well written. I liked how you died the beginning and end together, and the subtleness of it, which left room for the reader to add their own images. I lived through the '60s, and those images were vivid. I wonder how those who didn't, however, might see it. Thanks for sharing.
Pat Bean

Gary E. Presley said...

Bob, I like the piece, but I could suggest you use the "circle back" technique to reinforce the emotions. To do that, you could follow the Robin Williams opening line with ...

"I remember 1961in particular. I took a pretty girl named Nancy to the senior prom."

... then the essay as is, right to the closing where you take the "pretty girl" named Nancy to the 50th reunion.

Karen Walker said...

I agree with Gary's suggestion. I think that would really enhance the intention and purpose of the piece. It's a good essay because it triggers memories in me and a desire to share them. A good essay does that.

susan said...

Only one suggestion: almost all the anecdotes reflect the larger social issues of the 60's (I was there, too, and remember it much as you do). However, one or two of the personal memories are just that -- personal memories -- and don't fully carry the weight of your essay. Specifics: the two stories about the crashed/disintegrated planes; they no doubt were shocking to you, but how do they connect with the zeitgeist of the '60s?

The same is true of of your experiences with the life insurance company -- where's the connect?

Everything else is succinct and evocative -- exactly what a personal essay should be.

Bob Sanchez said...

Thanks for all the good comments and ideas. I'm going to mull them over.

Cara Lopez Lee said...

I find the content fascinating, Bob. I was floored when you asked directions to Kuhn Street without realizing what you'd said, and when the soldier said he knew he'd killed the enemy because he cut him in half. It's a good essay, and I only have one critique: there's a lot going on here, which makes sense because it was the 60's, but while I understand that you found it a world gone mad, I still feel that it lacks an emotional thread tying it all together. What did you learn? How did it all make you feel? How did those events affect your life? Not that these questions need to be directly answered, but I'd like to have some greater sense of the answers through you letting us see more of your emotional weather as you reflect. Great material. Thanks for sharing it.

Morgan Mandel said...

I definitely remember watching the Democratic National Convention riot in 1968. I grew up in Chicago and moved to the suburbs during college, and the story was a big happening for us and others in the country.

Morgan Mandel

Anonymous said...

A bit before my time, but I do love the sixties music. If I were around during that time I could see myself running through Central Park with the cast from Hair.

Bish Denham said...

Well done. This brought back memories. The 60s were so packed with *happening* things. The riots, sit-ins, love-ins, campus take-overs. So much wonderful music. So much innocence and naive hope. Tune in, turn on, drop out. Sadly, it was a kind of social experiment that went off the deep end committed suicide.

Dani said...

I would have kept Nancy AND the VW bug. :) Nice piece of writing, Bob. Now I need to go look about the civil rights activists who ended up in the landfill. One of those names happens to be my maiden name, and it would explain my big mouth.

Bob Sanchez said...

Dani, the case of the three missing civil rights workers dominated national news for days, and their last names were permanently stamped into my consciousness. Their murders were a critical event in the history of the civil rights struggle.

LynNerd said...

I love this essay, Bob, and I like Gary's suggestion about the circle back, beginning with taking your girlfriend to the prom. And you just had your 50th reunion, that's cool! I was in 2nd grade when our teacher announced to the class that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. She had us bow us heads and pray for him and our country. A few years later, I remember hearing screaming girls/women blocks away and was puzzled about all the commotion. A Beatles movie was playing at the theater. My husband, who's four years older than me, remembers having nuclear bomb drills at school. They had to get under their desks. Say what?
The '60s were crazy, and the drug scene a travesty. When I was in 7th grade, one of the other girls and her friends were crying and crying all day long. I later found out that her older brother had died from a heroine overdose and someone dumped him in the trunk of his cars. I'm thankful my teen years were in the '70s. Your essay sure triggered a lot of memories. Nice job.

Gabrielle Evelyn said...


It seems that there's lots of things happened in the 1960s and they also affected you a lot.

karen millen