These are not your grandparents’ Sixties

I suppose you could call me a child of the 1960s. I was born in the early 60s, too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy or the start of Beatlemania, although I have studied both extensively. I remember watching on television as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. I remember classmates upset when they heard that the Beatles were breaking up. I also remember hearing something about a hippie concert in New York. (That summer I saw my first hippies. Several of them were in a car that drove down the road—long hair, colorful clothes, the car may have been a VW bug. One of them flashed a peace sign at me… a little short-haired boy standing in the front yard of his grandparents’ house.)

Last night I experienced two hours of that hippie concert in New York, thanks to a DVD player and a flat-screen stereo TV. Woodstock marks a high point for 60s nostalgia, combining peace, love, rock-and-roll, young people, drugs, sex, and politics. Plenty of timely idealism was on hand, as the organizers, musicians, and attendees showed that they could have a peaceful gathering to celebrate their culture (or counterculture, as the case may be). Yet the gathering also revealed contempt for authority (parents, police officers, and elected officials, among others), deliberate lawlessness (though it was nonviolent), poor management of the environment, and the arrogance of thinking that they were right and everyone else in the world was wrong. On the bright side, much of the music of Woodstock was epical and some was even profound; and the reaction to inconveniences of crowding, rain, and mud were largely hopeful and humane. On the dark side, much of the music of Woodstock was poorly performed due to poor planning and less than optimal conditions; and most of the investors lost money on the concert (except for those lucky enough to include recordings and the filmed documentary in their investment).

Some people older than me seem to want to bring back the 1960s in the summer of 2020. Many people younger than me seem to want to recreate the 1960s in the summer of 2020. Both groups are misguided. Donald Trump is neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon. Nothing happening this summer compares to the Vietnam War. Rioting and violence are as counterproductive now as they were back then. From Birmingham to Ferguson, American citizens have gathered to protest racial inequality and injustice. When these gatherings are hijacked by vandals, arsonists, and looters, the protestors’ message is distorted and justice does not prevail.

Street protests did not end the Vietnam War. If anything, they lengthened the war, as the communist government of North Vietnam stalled negotiations to end the conflict, hoping that America would lose the will to fight and would withdraw unitarily. President Nixon brought an end to the war, keeping his promise to provide peace with honor, but serious negotiations only happened after his prospects for reelection became obvious in the summer of 1972, and they were concluded only after his determination to prevail was tested following the election late that year. Tragically, the United States Congress handed victory back to North Vietnam in the 1970s by refusing to enforce the treaty agreements that ended fighting in January 1973.

Fighting in Vietnam was part of the Cold War, pitting capitalism and freedom in the West against communism (actually socialism) and totalitarianism in the East. Both sides fought militarily, economically, and intellectually for decades, trying to prove that their way was right and the other way was wrong. Socialism and communism received support from many people in the United States in the 1960s, principally those who were also rallying under the banners of civil rights, anti-war, and rock-and-roll. Only one side in the Cold War had to build walls and guard borders to prevent its citizens from escaping. Over a twenty-four month period in 1989 through 1991, the Cold War ended, due to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Ironically, in 2020 some prominent Americans are speaking in support of socialism and of stricter government controls over the population, even though the bankruptcy of those ideas was clearly demonstrated thirty years ago.

Many of my favorite songs were written and recorded in the 1960s. I regularly feed my nostalgia for that time, the years of my childhood. But the legend of the 1960s created by our entertainment industry exaggerates the peace and love and artistry of those times, minimizing the fear and hatred and violence that also characterized those same years. The same entertainment industry wants to topple our present government. Again and again it insists that capitalism is bad, that freedom belongs only to the oppressed (and those who can identify themselves as oppressed), and that free speech belongs only to people who say the right things. Their arrogance resembles that of the Woodstock generation. Their legacy will be equally ephemeral. J.

Remembering Woodstock

I was vaguely aware that some rock concert was happening fifty years ago. At the time I was young and I didn’t follow rock music. I knew what hippies were—I saw a carload of them one afternoon that summer. But the term Woodstock was not very meaningful to me while it was happening.

A little more than ten years after (Yes, I did that on purpose.), the college I was attending showed the Woodstock documentary on a Friday night. My friends and I attended, and we were won over to the Woodstock spirit. In fact, that same fall we dressed as hippies for the Homecoming bed races and won the top prize for our costumes (and second prize in the actual race). I went out and bought the three-disc concert album and came to know most of the songs by heart. When it was available, I bought the documentary on VHS. When I wore out the tapes from repeated viewing, I replaced them with the DVD set (which included Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and some other singers and groups that were omitted—at their own request—from the original movie). So of course I have watched the movie again this week, joined by my teenaged daughter, who has her own appreciation for hippies and Sixties culture. In fact, having watched Woodstock earlier in the week, we followed that last night by watching Hair, a movie made in 1979 that included the songs from the Sixties musical of the same name.

Observing and appreciating the culture does not include approval of all its mistakes. I still believe in marriage and faithfulness, in respect for authority, and in private property. I shower every day, and I just got a haircut this week. I have no illusions about the Age of Aquarius (and, by the way, most experts in the field say we are still in the Age of Pisces). But most of my favorite rock songs are from the Sixties. The Beatles were the best rock band ever, and Abbey Road is the best rock album ever recorded. I still ache when I think about the 1969 Chicago Cubs, how they stumbled out of first place as summer drew to a close, being overtaken by the Miracle Mets. (And this year’s version of the Cubs seem destined for the same disappointing results.)

I wouldn’t want to be seven years old again. But the summer I turned seven was full of amazing happenings that are worth remembering and celebrating. J.

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.

Remembering the Sixties

It’s all coming back to me now: the Beatles, the space program, Woodstock, Star Trek, Presidents Johnson and Nixon, I Dream of Jeannie, the Vietnam War, the Avengers (John Steed and Emma Peel), MAD magazine, hippies, protests, the Six Day War….

My youngest daughter and I watch television together. Mondays we see I Dream of Jeannie, binge-watching if you can call three episodes a week a binge. Wednesdays we see the original Star Trek, although we have only three episodes left until we have to jump to the feature movies. Weekends this new year we’ve been watching musicals. So about ten days ago we saw “The Way to Eden,” known among Trekkies and Trekkers as the “space hippy” episode. With that episode still in my head, when we chose a musical to watch last night, I suggested we see Hair. She had not seen it before, but she’s old enough to handle it, so that is what we did.

Now I am very much in a Sixties mood. I’m torn between two movies for tonight. To stay with musicals and with Sixties music and dancing and clothing, I’m leaning toward Jesus Christ, Superstar. On the other hand, to continue her education about the 1960s (which is as remote to her life as the Great Depression is to mine), I am thinking of watching Forrest Gump. Either one would be a lot of fun, and I have a few hours left before I have to make up my mind.

Of course there is also the four-hour movie version of the Woodstock music festival. That might have to wait for another weekend, though…. J.

Generations

A few posts back I grumbled about members of the Baby Boom generation and their self-centered ways. Some readers may have been thinking, “Hang on a minute, J. Aren’t you part of that generation of Baby Boomers that you are raking over the coals? You’ve been posting about Star Trek and the Beatles and a lot of Baby Boomer kind of things. Aren’t you one of them?”

Well, technically, yes. The Baby Boom generation is usually identified with people born between 1946 and 1964. (By the way, I believe that Baby Boomers are the first group in history to start identifying and labeling generations, but that’s another story.) My birth falls within that time period. For that matter, I’ve been offered or given a “senior discount” in some stores without anyone asking for identification. By strict definition, I think it’s fair to say that I’m one of those Baby Boomers about whom I was complaining.

There are big differences, though, between Americans born during the Truman administration and Americans born during the Kennedy administration. Truman Boomers attended increasingly crowded schools. New schools were built during the Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson years, and the Kennedy Boomers attended those new schools. Truman Boomers had to worry about the Vietnam War and the draft, but before we turned eighteen, the Vietnam War had ended and the draft had been abolished.

Even in arts and entertainment we are different. Early boomers remember the Elvis of the early hits and the movies, but late boomers remember only fat Elvis singing in Las Vegas and Hawaii. Early boomers remember Beatlemania and the concerts, but late boomers remember the Beatles only as a studio band that broke up while we were not yet teenagers. Early boomers went to Woodstock, but late boomers only attended if they came with their parents. Early boomers were drawn to rock and roll music; but by the time the late boomers were in high school, rock was already fragmenting into disco, heavy metal, and other categories.

Early boomers were able to vote for Bobby Kennedy and remembered his brother John, but late boomers have no memory of those two Kennedys. Early boomers took part in civil rights marches and war protests, but late boomers had no great uniting causes while Reagan was president. Early boomers have Sputnik and Mercury astronauts to remember, but late boomers have to settle for distant memories of men walking on the moon, followed by the triumphs and disasters of the space shuttles.

Early boomers and late boomers are very different from each other; they are not the same generation. I only hope that as the late boomers move into retirement, we will do so more gracefully than our predecessors.

J.