I can finally and definitely state that 1968 has ended.
"... the endless year of 1968 has ended. If you come of age today, the references of ’68 don’t have any lingering, meaningful, or even relevant connotations." Yes. And yet, for those of us who were THERE in 1968 ( 69,70,71,72) , in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Washington DC, marching in the streets, participating in public protests, attending rallies, writing letters, sitting in, picketing, it is still the benchmark by which we judge the sincerity, awareness, and commitment of youth today. Sitting in front of a computer talking trash on FB and twitter appears meaningless to me. A very salient and timely essay Charles! You got my dander up, and at my age my dander mostly just lies on the Laz-E-Boy and whimpers.
The paragraph that made me rethink everything I taught I knew about the sixties, from Joan Didion's The White Album: “This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’—this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,’ and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969…The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remembered all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
I love every word of this, Charles, though I struggled through one or two readings trying to gain the objective distance of which you speak, in order to lift my own experience a bit out of the subjective bunch of memories wherein my experience of 1968 still dwells. At considerable distance now - I was then 21 and now 75 - I tend to think of the 60s generally as a time of hope brutally dashed. Of idealism just beginning to meet with an unforgiving reality. Of youth culture rudely reminded of who the fuck's actually in charge here.
The 60s started to die on the vine, as it were, with JFK's assassination in 1963, practically before we with the light in our eyes even got off the ground. The War started rumbling through town in 1964, and before it was done 58,000+ boys like me were dead from bombs, bullets, and lies. My dad was a Bataan Death March POW, so we didn't talk about Vietnam much. And after a while I didn't go home much, either.
By the early spring of 1966 I was clean cut but getting my ribs stomped in by both public and private interests in Alabama who objected to my participation in voter registration activities. Later that year, on August 1, 1966 I was slouching toward the Student Union Building on the University of Texas campus, in my huaraches, cutoffs, granny glasses, beard, and long hair when I heard the entirely unexpected sound of gunshots. Gunshots! Lots of them. On an American university campus. Within two hours the campus and surrounding streets looked more like Hué than Austin. I still see bodies on the Quad.
For the next several years, the Texas Tower - visible from every corner of the "Forty Acres" - loomed over me as a constant reminder of carnage. The Tower was a library, the Stacks, a place I maintained a carrel for my philosophy studies, and also a symbol of the University, brilliantly lit up burnt orange to celebrate football championships, and marking the center and highest point of campus. But for those of us ACTUALLY THERE AT THE TIME, it was never celebratory or even benign again. It was no longer a cultural marker, emblematic of what it was to be a Texas Longhorn. It was a brutal reminder of a life gone horribly wrong, and of lives taken away. (See my Substack essay, "The Things He Carried" to understand how truly bizarre this really was.)
"I would imagine that shock imprinted those memories, and I wonder if that's a common situation—where an awareness of violence or disaster is what lingers for early memories."
The following year I went to D.C. to march on the Pentagon and watch Abbe Hoffman try to levitate it. Unsuccessfully, no surprise. But it was a great day and we all felt brave and righteous and hopeful. And that's precisely the drug that powered us in those days. Not grass, or coke, or mescaline. Bravado.
A few years later I moved to San Francisco to join in the merriment, and to dare my draft board to call me up. A bunch of rock-ribbed, rich old cattlemen in Hereford, Texas, offended to the soles of their Lucchese boots that I'd dared to apply for Conscientious Objector status. The denouement of this tale is practically a book. Anyway, there I was in 1968, a card-carrying (or joint carrying) Hippie, living in neither the Haight nor North Beach, but in a 3rd floor walk-up on Pine Street, just off Van Ness Avenue, and working as an apprentice to a group of elderly German shipwrights who were refurbishing wooden ships at the Maritime Museum. I was there when Martin was shot. Without a TV or radio, I was out for breakfast and saw the headline on the front page of The Chronicle on a newsstand. I hurried home, expecting riots at any minute. I was there when LBJ abdicated. I was there, getting ready to head for Chicago, when Bobby was shot. I was so disheartened at that point that I returned to Austin and waited for the disgusting but inevitable election of Richard Nixon. The idealism was wrung out of me. That brave hope seems foolish today in light of the forces that were arrayed against it.
I was in Austin a few years ago, 50 years to the day after the massacre, as it happened, and I was still looking over my shoulder, never unaware of the triangulation of the Tower, my body, and the nearest granite wall to duck behind.
Now, here's the reason I belabor the Tower shooting in this context. My wife and I share many of these experiences of the 60s. She was a Berkeley Girl, gassed at People's Park. We met around the time of the Free Speech Movement. And 1968 isn't defined for us by either art or music, just as the 60's don't exist solely in some tension between "Let the Sun Shine In" and "For What It's Worth." Anymore than you can understand France by listening to Charles Trenet sing" La Mer." Just as The Texas Tower loomed over me in those bygone days, so does the lived experience of 1968 loom over us even today. Sometimes comforting (certainly as to music). Sometimes a painful memory. Occasionally, a frisson of that old feeling of hope and idealism. Sometimes instructive, as to power and who wields it, and how. But, like the Tower, it's always there. Because it isn't a matter of cultural criticism for us. We lived it, and for good or ill - for good AND ill - it formed us. 1968 might have finally ended for everyone born after 1953, but it won't be buried until we are.
None of this is to disagree with you, only to offer an entirely different and experiential view of 1968. It's not as if I haven't moved past it. I had an amazing 30-year career in the arts, none of which recapitulated The Byrds. The artists I worked with would cause many a cultural commentator to swoon. I originally set out on my Substack adventure to talk about my life among them - to tell of meeting Aaron Copland, Tennessee Williams, Renée Fleming, Harper Lee, Perlman, Marsalis (3 of 'em), Baryshnikov, Walter Cronkite, Mary Tyler Moore, Buena Vista Social Club, and on and on ... But I find myself far too often commenting on some other brilliant post, such as yours, as a prompt, eliciting some personal observation, agreement, or wry comment.
Now I hope finally to set out with blank screen and limber fingers and record my own, original and unique thoughts and experience. I can't go on. I'll go on.
I was in the protests at college in the late 60s and early 70s period. Yet when I started writing my Substack, I chose to write about 1986. What I found interesting was not the way things changed, but rather the way things were right before a major social transformation--that moment in time when only a few people had personal computers and there was no internet. I feel as if we are in a similar period--2023 is also an end that we will be writing about some day.
Looking out at the present landscape it's as if the '60s never happened. You have made clear that the era did in fact happen, just not everywhere. I'll admit, growing up urban-centric I still find myself at a loss when confronted by my contemporaries who lived a different past. Of course, we view the past as we are now, not as it truly was.
" tossed off the boat, "A better reference would be nobody was kicked off the bus.
When I visited San Francisco in 2018, after several days of wandering the city, I said to my traveling companion, "In North Beach, people still want it to be 1958, and in Haight Ashbury, they still want it to be 1967."
As a very isolated reservation Indian boy, I think my first introduction to the world was the Manson Family Murders. Strange, that.