Summer of ’69

As we approach the end of the book in the World Civilizations class I teach, I invite students to name the earliest event they can remember happening that is in history books today. Students older than me frequently speak of the assassination of President Kennedy. Students of traditional college age used to mention the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, then the fall of the Berlin Wall. For several years the earliest event remembered by many students was the terrorist attack of 9-11. I discovered this summer that, for this year’s incoming freshmen, the fall of the World Trade towers is a historic event; they cannot recall the day it happened.

I remember some events from my early childhood, but the first historic events I remember took place in the summer of 1969. Chief among those events was, of course, mankind’s first visit to the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, while a third astronaut, Mike Collins, came along for the ride but continued circling the moon during their mission. I remember sitting in the living room watching the grainy broadcast of Armstrong climbing down the ladder and setting foot on the moon. I remember hearing him say, “That’s one small step for [a] man—one giant leap for mankind.” I remember the other details of the mission as well. It pleases me that my earliest historic memory consists of good news and high accomplishments, not an assassination or attack or accidental explosion.

I remember the Chicago Cubs were doing well in the summer of 1969; they seemed destined to enter the playoffs for the first time since they lost the World Series in 1945. I remember the heat of August as they began losing more games than they were winning. I remember my father’s disgust after some of those losses. I remember the New York Mets passing the Cubs in the standings and taking their place in the playoffs. Reason to hope for success would not return to Cubs fans for another fifteen years.

I remember seeing my first hippies. They were a carful of people with long hair and brightly-colored clothes, shouting happily and waving to the little boy (me) standing by the street. I knew they were hippies. I had seen something on television about hippies and about a concert they were attending somewhere in the state of New York.

I didn’t see the documentary movie about Woodstock until I was in college. They showed Woodstock on campus, and my friends and I went into a frenzy of celebrating everything sixties and hippie-related. A few years later I found the three-disc album from the concert in a record store and bought it and played it over and over. Yet a few years later, I bought the VHS package of the documentary, watching it every August. When those tapes were wearing out, I replaced them with the DVD package released for the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock—it contains several songs that were not included in the original documentary, including performances by Jefferson Airplane and by Janis Joplin.

Some five-year-old and six-year-old children today are going to remember the summer of 2017. It will be their introduction to current events that become history. I wish they could remember successes, accomplishments, and acts of human kindness. The summer is not yet over; we still have a chance to make history. J.

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8 thoughts on “Summer of ’69

  1. Many of the most important historical events are not even being referenced today. Many schools are simply not teaching history either. If we lose our history, we have no starting point for change. We need to be reminded of our past in order to live our future.

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  2. I saw my first hippies when I was four, the summer before I started school. That would have been 1970. They made quite an impression on me, my mom made us take such a wide berth around them I thought they were dangerous people!

    I vaguely remember the lunar landing but I vividly remember Watergate. Of course I had no idea what Watergate was, I was just outraged that the television coverage kept pre-empting Sesame Street. (I am not making this up.) After that, it’s a big blank until the ’76 Olympics in Montreal. Nadia Comaneci, right? After that, I have memories of all the high (or low, I suppose) points but the first time I remember thinking “I’m witnessing history in the making here” was the Berlin Wall coming down.

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    • I also remember Watergate, and the crushing disappointment when the President resigned. And I remember Nadia–a girl my age who was capturing the world’s attention with her artistry. J.

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  3. I have two clear historical memories, though I’m sure there are earlier ones if I dig deeply enough: The Tiananmen Square Massacre and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I vaguely remember the wrangling that went on between Reagan and Gorbachev and the good relationship our leadership had with Margaret Thatcher, but that’s not exactly an “incident.”

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