In Tom Brokaw’s new book “Boom! Voices of the Sixties,” he defines the period as beginning with the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and ending with the Nixon resignation in 1974. Personally, as someone who lived through the period, I can accept the definition. I also agree with his portrayal of 1968 being the “volcanic center” of the ’60s with landscape-altering eruptions occurring every month.
An obscure U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, entered the 1968 race for the presidency as an anti-war candidate. His showing in the early primaries caused a sitting president to decide not to run for re-election. It was the year that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both killed only months apart. The presidential race in 1968 also produced the first major third party candidate in years with George Wallace. It was in 1968 that the coalition of various factions which had been the strength of the Democratic Party started coming apart, and a national political convention sparked an explosion in the City of Chicago.
It was a defining year for many young people. Kris Kristofferson told the author in the book that he made a 180-degree turn in 1968. He went from being a crew-cut helicopter pilot and Rhodes Scholar, to deciding against taking a teaching position at West Point. He said he was inspired by the lyrics of a new generation of song writers like Bob Dylan and started down the road to becoming one of country music’s more famous outlaws.
The turn was more subtle for me than it was for Kristofferson, but it was a major shift. Carol and I had both graduated from college the previous year. She was starting her career as a public school teacher and I was trying to get mine off of hold. Graduate school had to be postponed, because the civilian review board for my Selective Service precinct ruled the program of study I was entering did not qualify for an extension of my student deferment. I attempted to get into a pilot and navigation program with the Air Force, but my dismal hearing kept me from it. I decided to wait on the draft.
In the midst of the tumult and the uncertainty of the times, we decided to get married. Most of our family and friends were caught by surprise. I am sure they figured that we would eventually marry, but they had to be questioning our timing and the speed with which we made the decision. We had no idea what the future held for us; I suspect most young people contemplating marriage do not either. But these were turbulent times. It seemed the entire culture was in turmoil. Changes in sexual mores, civil rights, women’s rights, drug usage and protests against a war in which the country was involved polarized the populace. What had started several years earlier with non-violent marches to focus attention on the discrimination of black Americans had turned to violence in the streets. The black power movement. which brought with it more militancy and anti-war protests, became more aggressive and vicious.
We were married six weeks after we made the decision, and a year and a half later we bought our first house, a hand-made log house on two and one half acres in the country, about 45 miles from the city. We narrowed the scope of our universe. We remodeled. We planted a garden, raised fruit and learned how to freeze and can the rewards from both. I jokingly tell our daughter it was her parents’ hippy period. But in reality, we were discovering our roots - the ideals and values we learned during our ’50s upbringing. The world we knew in the ’60s seemed to get out of control, but our parochial new one was providing us with our bearings. Buoyed by the small farm and log house experience, we moved over a 1,000 miles in 1978 to begin a new life in Texas.
It is often said that one can not choose their parents and neither can one choose the era in which they are born. The lasting impact of the ’60s on American culture is for the historians and sociologists to determine. It was a mere coincidence that I chose to read Brokaw’s book at this time - it was a gift from my sister and I have had it for several months. But as I traveled the period with Brokaw, I was reminded anew of the profound impact that spur of the moment decision made 40 years ago in a small jazz club has made.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.