A Late Boomer Recalls 1968

Somehow, as baby boomers, we keep coming back to the Sixties. And 1968 to be specific. Like Ron Gompertz, who lives now in Seattle but grew up in Los Angeles. He has a new book out called “Life’s Big Zoo,” which he calls a coming-of-age story set in the heart of Los Angeles hippiedom. These are a few of his recollections. We all can relate.

Born in 1958, I was always a late boomer. I remember John Glenn because his orbit pre-empted the Captain Kangaroo show. I don’t remember the Kennedy assassination, at least not the first Kennedy assassination.

Ron Gompertz … kickin’ back today.

Bobby Kennedy was murdered in my hometown, shot down in the kitchen of the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel after winning the California primary. Had RFK lived, the world would have been different. Nixon might have been a footnote to history.

For me, 1968 was the craziest year ever. Rigged elections, H-bombs, riots, rock and roll. Neighborhood boys going to Vietnam and Laurel Canyon overflowing with folk rock. The Doors were at their prime, though as a ten year-old I was more concerned that The Monkees TV show was cancelled. Governor Ronald Reagan was crop-dusting fields of student protests with tear gas.

If the news was terrifying, the music was exhilarating. I went to sleep listening to KHJ (“Boss Radio for Boss Angeles”) and Wolfman Jack on the transistor radio I stashed under my pillow.

Wolfman Jack, the legendary disc jockey, appeared in the 1973 film American Graffiti.

When I was seven, my mother, a staunch advocate of personal responsibility, put me on a city bus and sent me across town to be the dumbest kid in a smart class. This bus became my yellow submarine, my magical mystery tour of the sixties.

I eavesdropped on the passengers as ties widened, sideburns crept south, and hemlines migrated north. A gaggle of foul-mouthed Catholic school boys provided me with a lifetime of misinformation about sex, The Fugs, and rock and roll. One of them smacked me for saying Jesus was Jewish … so I didn’t mention that I was, too.

Had RFK lived … Robert F Kennedy on the campaign trail in 1968 shortly before he was assassinated.

For a nerdy Jewish kid, the bright lights of the sixties were partially eclipsed by the long shadow of the Holocaust. I don’t remember not knowing about the Nazis that my father and grandparents escaped. Being Jewish, even in Los Angeles, meant feeling like a visitor in my own country.

Growing up, I worried that if the H-bomb didn’t get me, the Vietnam War would. Few of us expected to live past the age of thirty. My “stop making sense” moment occurred one day when I failed to duck and cover during a drop drill. My teacher, a law-and-order man with a NASA haircut, glared at me and said, “If this had been a real nuclear attack, you’d be dead right now.” When I pointed out that everyone would be dead, he called me a “little commie.”

I eventually channeled my outsider status and deep sense of irony into novels that wrestle with the big questions of the Sixties. Can one person make a difference? Is there a God? Does the arc of history really bend toward justice or are we all just Bozos on this bus?

Among the many wise things my German grandmother told me, one that rings true time and again is that God keeps a big zoo. In 1968 I joined the menagerie.

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4 Comments

  1. Like the generation who lived through the Great Depression, came of age during WW 2, Boomers share a unique experience and memories of a time that changed the world. We were fortunate to live through it. In every sense of the phrase!

  2. Excellent book, brothers and sisters. I am about half-way into it. Ron’s wit, narrative voice, its sense of time and place, and most evocative, the way Ron juxtaposes the “zoo” with those poignant and very real, quite often universal moments. I intend to savor this one. More to come!

  3. The sixties was the major change of the United states after World War 2. It is also when the boomers were starting to come to age. I was only 7 then but I remember everything but the John Kennedy assassination. We are a bridge from WW2 to these millennials and I really hope they see the cycle that is starting again. My dad built a bomb shelter at one point and I remember having a bag of clothes by the bed at night just in case. When Bobby was buried my mom was ironing and I watched it in the living room. I asked whose funeral it was and she said another one.

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