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The Second Half

The way we were (or she was) in 1968

This is the 40th anniversary of 1968, "the year that made us who we are," according to one news magazine.

So I wondered: Who was I in 1968 and who am I now? In 1968 I was in high school with my life spread out before me and 20-20 vision. Now I have 20-20 hindsight, but I can't see the food on my plate without glasses.

Many boomers remember the '60s as a time when we were sure we could change the world, and a time when our innocence and idealism were quickly snuffed out.

When 1968 began, I was 16 years old but I longed to be just a little bit older. That feeling quickly passed.

Most important in my life was being with my friends and ending the war in Vietnam, excellent examples of thinking globally and acting locally.

In January I saw the new movie everyone was talking about, The Graduate. My friend Eileen and I sat through it twice, in complete sympathy with cute Benjamin, who was expected to take his place in a hypocritical society obsessed with plastics. That was the first movie I returned to see several times.

Because we were sinking deeper into the quicksand of Vietnam, 1968 was an important presidential year — much like this year. In 1968 we were a nation deeply divided, both politically and generationally. It isn't too much generalization to say that most of the young people were against the war in Vietnam and the draft, while our parents trusted the government to do the right thing.

That winter, the girls at my school organized Pants Day. Instead of required dresses and skirts, we all wore pants one frigid day in February, confident that we couldn't all get suspended. Our teachers had warned us that wearing pants would encourage frivolity and impede the educational process. Boys wore pants and they were able to learn, so why not girls? (Women's Lib was in its infancy in 1968.)

Mr. Dorhoffer, the economics teacher, sent 36 girls to detention on Pants Day, but Principal Wolff sent everyone back to class. By seventh period, Mr. Wolff got on the scratchy PA system and announced that the dress code was hereby amended: Girls are now permitted to come to school in pants. You probably could have heard our cheers across the street in the cemetery.

In the spring of '68, while Columbia University students took over their campus, and French students staged their "days of rage," we held a protest at my high school demanding an end to the war. Marching in front of the school with our handmade signs, we refused to enter the building.

Poor Mr. Wolff: He was probably against the war too, in his own way, but what was he to do?

The war continued, and the next day we were back in class.

We were sobered and stunned by the two assassinations that spring. We were still raw from JFK's murder, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were giving us hope that soon racial discrimination would be mere history — and of course, that the war would end.

The assassinations of those men shattered our world and changed history forever.

Had Bobby Kennedy lived, he probably would have become president. There would have been no Nixon, no Watergate, and therefore none of the cynicism about government that came a few years later.

Before 1968, most Americans thought our leaders were the bravest and brightest men. Nixon jolted us into a new reality.

During the summer of 1968, I volunteered for Eugene McCarthy, the peace candidate. I stuffed envelopes at campaign headquarters and handed out fliers at the subway entrance. Then I'd go home and listen to Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs. Robinson, which seemed eerily appropriate at the time. Here's to you, Joe DiMaggio, a hero come and gone.

On the other hand, that was also the summer I discovered Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Years later I would learn it wasn't really made in Denmark.

But 1968 seemed to grow darker and sadder as the months wore on. Nixon won. McCarthy disappeared.

Even The Beatles (popularly referred to as the "White Album"), released, regrettably, on the fifth anniversary of JFK's assassination, couldn't cheer me up. Each of the four Beatles seemed to be making a different album:

I cringed at John's angry, drug-fueled songs and Paul's obnoxious little ditties. Oohblahdee oohblahdah? Help!

George's songs were mournful and beautiful, while Ringo stormed out of the sessions. I remember listening to that album on wintry afternoons, feeling like I'd lost a friend.

That was four decades ago. So much history since then — Watergate, Iran Contra, the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about sex, and the still controversial election of President Bush in 2000. Yet I remain the optimist I was as a teenager in 1968.

This fall I'll vote for the candidate I think will put the nation back on the right track. New heroes will emerge. The winds are shifting, and I am ready for change.

St. Petersburg resident Alice Graves holds an MFA in creative writing and has taught writing in college. Readers may contact her at aliceggraves@yahoo.com.

The way we were (or she was) in 1968 05/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 2:34pm]
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