Despite it all, it was the best of times
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, , it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” Charles Dickens was writing about the late 18th Century. He could have been writing about our defining years, the Fifties and the Sixties, a 20-plus year retrospective for the Baby Boom generation.
We are the children of the young men who fought at Anzio, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and North Africa, liberated the camps at Buchenwald and Dachau and survived the Bataan Death March and the German stalags. Our fathers returned home victorious, moved to the suburbs, saw Jackie Robinson integrate major league baseball, elected Ike, and nurtured a new generation of Americans.
While they went to college on the GI Bill or started careers, trying to make up for lost years in Europe and the Pacific, we started school in an America still under the crippling influence of Jim Crow and the fear perpetrated by McCarthyism. The innocence of Davy Crockett, Alfred E Neuman, Buddy Holly, hoola hoops, Willie, Mickey and the Duke was juxtaposed against a police action in Korea, Rosa Parks, and Brown vs. Board of Ed. and the spectacle of nuclear testing, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and civil defense drills in those very schools.
Our teen years were symbolized by the hope...the expectations...the optimism of John Kennedy, who compelled us to reach for the stars. And reach we did. He told us “to whom much is given, much is required.” And give we did. The Peace Corps is a fitting and lasting tribute to what he saw as our role in the world.
The innocence of the Kennedy years was mirrored by the Cartwrights of “Bonanza,” Opie, Barnie and Aunt Bea of “The Andy Griffith Show” and the Clampetts of Beverly Hills; the music of Elvis and Chubby Checker and the movie antics of Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
There was another side to the Sixties, reflected in the satirical humor of “Laugh-In” and Tom and Dick Smothers; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the disillusionment of “The Graduate” and the caustic lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan, the anguish of the Berlin Wall, the tragedy of the Bay of Pigs, the hypocrisy of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the hope of the Freedom Rides, the fear wrought by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the nightmare of November 22.
Alan Shepard was the first American to reach for the stars and John Glenn the first to orbit earth; freedom riders eradicated Jim Crow, the “pill” had a profound impact on the woman’s movement, Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose and Malcolm X was assassinated; Martin Luther King spoke forcibly of his dream, the Beatles invaded America and Sandy Koufax conquered the Yankees.
The Sixties were two diverse decades and all of us caught up in the events at the end of the decade were forever changed. They altered the way we looked at the world...they changed the world. All of the courses in all of the history books paled in comparison with what we read in the newspapers, viewed on TV and experienced on the streets.
The Tet Offensive exploded the myth of American invincibility and imminent victory in Vietnam. The light at the end of the tunnel dimmed; Walter Cronkite spoke out against and war and the polarization of America intensified. And we were silent no longer!
While civil rights foe George Wallace announced his candidacy for the presidency, the Kerner Commission reported that we were moving towards two societies - black, white and unequal; and gloved black fists held high by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City brought politics to the Summer Olympics. Dr. King, in Memphis to support a sanitation strike, was killed...Bobby Kennedy spoke eloquently of Dr. King in the rain in Indianapolis imploring reason and justice. King's long planned Poor People's March on Washington lived.
Eugene McCarthy traveled to New Hampshire; his children's crusade narrowly missed defeating an incumbent President who abdicated, deciding not to "seek or accept my party's nomination." At Columbia University students rioted; in the Ambassador Hotel's pantry Bobby Kennedy's voice was stilled. At the Democratic Convention America's children rebelled and were pounced upon by Mayor Daily's thugs.
Ultimately Nixon won with a secret plan to end the war. We marched, prayed and sang at Moratoriums in New York and Washington DC. Nixon expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia. Kent State followed, as did Song-My and Watergate and the beginning of a red state-blue state divide.
There was good news too; man walked on the moon, Woodstock seized our imagination; the Mets won the World Series, the Knicks won two NBA championships, Joe Namath guaranteed a Super Bowl victory and we celebrated a Bicentennial.
All of us who lived through the trauma of Viet Nam and the roller coaster ride of the civil rights movement were forever changed, profoundly influenced. Carl Sandburg wrote, “Our lives are like a candle in the wind.” Who we are today, how we think and what the world means to us is a result of a coming of age in a time replete with hope... and despair, with celebration...and anguish, with incredible achievements...and disastrous failures.
We began our journey as Ozzie & Harriet’s children, father always knew best. We were told everything was within our grasp. We were also told if we cared to listen, that “the future will belong to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
We are only sixty, but have lived a lifetime. A lifetime of obstacles but also great achievements. We have seen the advent of computers, of the Internet, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the spectacle of Tiananmen Square, the collapse of Communism and the rise of Islamic fanaticism. Some despaired, many maintained their vision. We’ve married, raised children and survived Vietnam, Watergate and September 11. And we continue to dream.