Inside looking out: Remembering 1969
What a time it was.
Fifty years have passed since I was handed my diploma at Piscataway High School in New Jersey. On that day, 407 graduates and I moved forward to live in a country that had left our young hearts scarred by so many historical and personal atrocities in the years leading up to June 1969.
My mind’s eye still sees my seventh-grade homeroom teacher crying in front of a bunch of us squirrelly adolescents in November 1963 after our school principal had announced that President John F. Kennedy had been killed. We had no school for a week, and yet not one of the neighborhood kids came outside to play. All of America was saddened while watching on TV the president’s 3-year-old son salute his father’s casket as it passed by the White House.
I shall never forget another day soon after when I shouted to my mother who was in the kitchen.
“Mom, they shot Oswald! They shot him!” I couldn’t believe I had witnessed an actual murder on live television.
The ’60s were just getting started with seven years of real-life horror stories. In May 1967, on the day of our high school’s senior prom, my history teacher murdered my Spanish teacher. We had known they had been dating, and on that Friday afternoon, she had driven him across town to pick up his car that was in an auto shop. The police report said that she was planning to break up with him before he shot her eight times with a handgun and then called a priest to tell him what he had done.
She was just 22 years old and I loved her. Sure it was a classic student-teacher crush, but I also loved the way she tried her very best to teach our rowdy class and especially me, who had no interest in learning the foreign language. She called me Ricardo, and the one Spanish phrase I learned more than any other was, “Olvide mi cuaderno.” Translated this means, “I forgot my notebook.”
She would just shake her head and smile at me. Her passion for teaching inspired me to enter the profession seven years later and exit 38 years later from a wonderfully gratifying career.
Nearly a year later, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, and once again, the hope we had lost about JFK leading the American people to prosperity was further diminished when another great peacemaker fell to the bullet.
Just two months after MLK’s assassination, sometime around midnight, my father, whose restless legs kept him awake all night, shouted into our bedrooms, “They just shot Kennedy! They shot Kennedy!”
I opened my 17-year-old sleepy eyes and thought, “How could they? He died five years ago!”
This time it was Robert Kennedy, a promising presidential candidate, who was killed in a hotel right after he had won the California primary. I watched in disbelief the TV scene where someone was speaking to him while blood streamed from the fatal wound in his head.
Two Kennedys murdered. Martin Luther King Jr. killed. My favorite teacher gunned down the day she was supposed to chaperone the prom, and we had no crisis counselors in those days to help us get through. In fact, the Monday we returned to school after my teacher was slain, our principal announced, “This was a terrible tragedy we all must find some way to understand. Life begins anew on Mondays. Have a good day.”
My senior year of high school was difficult, and for none of the reasons above. Racial rioting hit the streets of the towns around us, and tension in the school hallways was rising every day. Fights broke out. I had broken my ankle in a basketball game, and while my friend was helping me get my books at my locker, his head was smashed into the metal door.
Kids were afraid to go to school. The board of education closed our high school for three days to calm student anger and to meet with parents.
But somehow we survived the year, and graduation day came along with its promises of fulfilling dreams spoken at our ceremony just like you still hear today.
The summer of ’69 for me brought miracles and joy. Living in New Jersey, I was a New York sports fan. The Mets went from last place in 1968 and won the World Series. The Jets upset the Colts in the Super Bowl.
A man walked on the moon, and Woodstock was a gathering place for 300,000 rock music fans and peace lovers.
The year was not all rainbows and lollipops. The Vietnam War raged on. A week after he visited me in the fall from his college, Jerry, my good friend, went back to his campus and shot himself in the head because his girlfriend back home didn’t love him anymore.
Reflections upon these events bring me new perspectives about growing up in the ’60s. For all I endured through my younger days, I have gathered a strong appreciation for every good moment that comes my way now.
This June, I will finally unscrew the cap to open my 50-year-old bottle of Crown Royal. I will raise my glass with a few of my high school buddies and salute our surviving the turbulent ’60s and to our coming of age in 1969.
Yes, what a time it was!
Rich Strack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.