We baby boomers have lived through tumultuous times that truly changed our world. And boomer Larry Checco, from Silver Spring, Maryland, has written an essay for BoomerCafé that reminds us just how tumultuous they were. The title gives it away: “1968.”
I entered college in 1966 wearing wing-tipped shoes and button-down oxford collars, and graduated in 1970 dressed in bleach-dyed jeans and army surplus.
1968, the midpoint of my university tenure, turned out to be the tipping point, ayear of tragic, yet seminal events that most boomers will never forget.
The year began inauspiciously on January 5th when Dr. Benjamin Spock, counselor to millions of parents of baby boomers, was indicted by a grand jury in Boston, and later convicted — then, later still, acquitted — of charges of conspiring to encourage our nation’s young men to violate its draft laws.
“There’s no point in raising children if they’re going to be burned alive,” the pediatrician turned anti-war activist said.
In February ‘68, just weeks after Spock’s indictment, 70,000 North Vietnamese troops attacked South Vietnamese cities, including the American Embassy in Saigon. The Tet offensive, as it came to be known, was a stunning blow to America’s military might and resulted in the needless deaths of thousands of young American boys.
By the end of March, President Johnson was already war-weary and at a loss for how to resolve the war. I can still recall LBJ’s doleful face, declaring that he would not seek reelection.
Johnson’s decision not to run seemed a triumph for anti-war demonstrators, most of whom would eventually cast — in vain — their love, peace, and support behind dissident Democrat Senator Eugene McCarthy … which ironically helped Richard Nixon become President, edging out Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. Nixon’s policies on Vietnam prolonged the war for years.
As if there wasn’t enough going on to occupy an already exhausted and confused nation, back in January the USS Pueblo had been captured by North Korean patrol boats, allegedly for violating that country’s 12-mile territorial limit.
But the Pueblo was the year’s sidebar saga, always lurking in the background. If you got tired of thinking about what was going on in Vietnam, you could always angst over how those dastardly Koreans were treating 83 captured U.S. servicemen.
In April, an angry mob of students occupied several Columbia University buildings. The irony is that the students were not demonstrating against the war, but rather on behalf of neighbors in upper Manhattan whose recreation area was going to be taken over by the university to build a new gymnasium for the students.
Columbia’s self-empowered protestors were an omen of things to come on college campuses around the country, as well as the divisiveness being played out in living rooms across America.
At home, I remember watching a TV news report that showed anti-war protesters demonstrating across the country when my father, visibly irritated, finally erupted, “Damn it, it’s my country — right or wrong!” Reacting without thinking, I bellowed right back, “And if your country asked you to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it?”
My father had been decorated for bravery in the 1940s, during World War II. I was a product of the ‘60s. We were both venting honest rage, his against a generation he felt was spineless and unwilling to go to war for its country, mine in support of kids my age who I felt were being slaughtered for no good reason.
Immediately after our living room outburst, a silence descended upon both of us, which to this day I’d like to think marked a mutual growth spurt and a moment of awareness that transcended our generations.
So many baby boomers, back then in the late 60s, were not driven by ambition, money, or moving up the corporate food chain, but rather by total, abject confusion and the hope that through one experience or another — drugs, sex, rock and roll, peace demonstrations, whatever — we could find some clarity, or at least a peaceful refuge from the storm. We weren’t necessarily looking to save the world. We were simply hoping to find our souls and save ourselves amidst all the chaos. If we were anything, we were mindless rebels without a pause.
Although Vietnam dominated the news, the Civil Rights Movement came to a violent head shortly after Martin Luther King was shot dead in April in Memphis. In protest, fiery demonstrations engulfed entire sections of major U.S. cities. By the time the fires were extinguished, so were 46 lives.
On June 4, just two months to the day after King was killed, a 24-year-old assassinkilled Robert F. Kennedy, the embodiment of hope to so many. RFK had launched his presidential campaign back in March to challenge President Johnson’s war policies. Now he too was gone— and only half the year had gone by!
In July, Abbie Hoffman launched the Yippie Movement, characterized by public displays of disorderly conduct. In August, Hoffman and fellow Yippies played a large and disruptive role at the Chicago Democratic National Convention that turned bloody and ugly.
In September, women’s liberation groups protested the Miss American Beauty Pageant. And in October, Jackie married Ari, while President Johnson announced a total halt to U.S. bombing in North Vietnam.
In November, many male boomers observed National Turn in Your Draft Card Day with rallies and protests on college campuses nationwide. And on December 21, NASA launched Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon.
To get as far away as possible from my existential angst, I remember wishing I was in that capsule. I was still too young to understand that there’s no escaping life’s gravity.
Oh, did I mention that the summer of ‘68 found me working aboard a merchant ship delivering war materiel to Saigon? But that’s a whole other story.
© 2013 Larry Checco