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.
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.
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.
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.