The River's Badge

Saturday, July 14, 2018

1968 ~ Fifty Years



I've been watching the CNN series, "1968" (trust me; the only thing I watch on CNN), which was co-created by Tom Hanks, who I like a lot, as long as he keeps his politics to himself.

Need I say, fifty years ago??

Every individual's reality is their own. The series is somebody's reminiscences about that year.  Mine naturally differ.

I was thirteen that year. I'd just completed seventh grade with its attendant awkwardness. I was a mess in '68 and I knew it. I just kept hoping that life would get better, or at least I would get better, but all signs pointed to no. In the realm of supreme ineptitude, I excelled. I had zero social skills. I had pimples that I tried to mask with a heavy application of Cover Girl ivory foundation, which resulted in a freakish zombie-like appearance. Nobody advised me on my hair, so I let it do whatever it wanted, and it wanted to cling greasily to my scalp.

I was skinny as hell, but I convinced myself I was fat. I stood sideways in front of my bathroom mirror and detected a "stomach bump". This made me despondent and determined to stop eating all together.

Needless to say, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were not foremost in my mind.

1968 was the year that pop culture left me behind. It's been fifty years and it's still not reconciled itself with me.  And it won't, ever. We who lived in the heartland had differing priorities, different realities. I was just trying to get by, with what is now politely called a "dysfunctional family", so anti-war protests and fire hoses and things were just images on the TV screen. The Viet Nam world only touched me in the sense that my big brother enlisted in the National Guard to thwart his number from being culled from the bingo jar that determined who would potentially die in the stultifying jungle.

Side note:  In May of 1969, my state became infamous for the "Zip To Zap", which was, I guess, the (really) poor man's Woodstock. Zap was a hamlet in western North Dakota, populated by approximately 300 souls. It had two local bars and not much else. Some kids from North Dakota State University apparently scoured the map and pinpointed a town name they could build a slogan around. The AP picked up the story and soon thousands of bored beer-seeking kids from parts unknown began arriving in the hapless town that had initially embraced the off-the-cuff notion as a potential tourism enticement.

When the pair of taverns ran out of beer and the temperature plummeted, things turned ugly. Kids ripped timbers from the skeleton of an abandoned building and blazed a bonfire in the middle of Zap's lone street. Town residents, petrified and no longer civic-minded, shoved bureaus up against doors and cocked their shotguns; peered from behind lace curtains at the vomit-spewing, wantonly urinating revelers.

Before daybreak, the governor called in the National Guard to disperse the loopy mercenaries. Our local paper, that evening, featured a jumbo photo of jeeps heading down the highway, packed with baffled gun-toting military men.

And my brother got to go!


They tell me 1968 was a turbulent year, and I don't dispute that. However, the number one hit on June 1 was this:



So, how turbulent was it...really?

I was ensconced for the week at my brother and sister-in-law's apartment while Big Bro was away at Guard camp, and this song playing on the clock radio lulled me to sleep (and why wouldn't it?):



...when my sister-in-law shook me awake to tell me they were talking about "Kennedy getting shot" on the radio. "I don't know if they're talking about John Kennedy or what," she said. We propped ourselves up on pillows and listened as the announcer described the scene in Los Angeles in the aftermath of yet another Kennedy assassination. My thought in the middle of the night was, you gotta watch out if you're running for anything, because someone will pull out a pistol and kill you. 

I don't remember if I started walking down to the local Catholic church before or after that, but I essentially spent that week in town genuflecting before the out-sized crucifix in the church's sacristy. I understood that the world was essentially insane, but I still thought it was only my world. I was disconnected from the planet at large. Bobby Kennedy's murder was just one more peg in the corkboard of my gloom.

By August, I felt a bit better, until I watched the anarchy of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago unfold on CBS news. I wasn't on anybody's side; but I was (and still am) a fan of order, and I didn't appreciate the messiness. On the one hand, I was not in favor of people getting beaten with clubs; but on the other hand, I thought these people were a bit too melodramatic. Fake outrage was born in 1968, and fifty years later, it's alive and kicking. Theater. I'm a big fan of honesty.

Meanwhile, this song was number one:




I knew, at thirteen, that whomever the Democrats nominated wouldn't matter. They'd already committed suicide.

By fall I was enrolled in eighth grade; still in the turn of the century fat brick building that resembled a prison. 


My US History teacher was the same asshat who'd student-taught Mr. Reisenauer's geography class the year before. We'd all hated him because he was stuffy and joyless and grew miffed when we giggled at the filmstrip unwinding from the projector, coiling onto the floor. I strolled into his classroom the day after Labor Day unwilling to tolerate any supercilious bullshit. I had enough to deal with at home, thanks.

The second week of September, Mr. Hamann assigned us to create presidential campaign signs. Pissed at my dad and not yet realizing it, my fresh brain synopses suddenly firing, I went home and pasted felt letters to a sticky foam board. My finished project read, "This time, vote like your whole world depended on it. Nixon/Agnew." Before I toted my completed product to school, I tacked it up on the garage wall just outside the kitchen door where Dad couldn't miss it. I hovered in the background and watched him alight the two steps to the doorway, stop, scan the words, then shake his head in disappointment. I felt only a tiny tinge of guilt. Mr. Hamann, on the other hand, spying my poster Monday morning, smiled faintly and said, "That's plagiarism, isn't it?" I didn't know what "plagiarism" meant, but I knew I'd met a kindred spirit. From that moment on, Mr. Hamann and I were fast pals.

It was a little thing, but I found an inkling of an identity in eighth grade. My home life didn't get better and it wouldn't get better for the rest of my teen years, but I realized it was okay to be "me" and not a little clone of two people whose demeanor I abhorred.

So I guess 1968 was a rather momentous year after all. Even for me.

However, I still wouldn't do it again.






















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