1968 was a pivotal year for me. The events of that year shaped the way I would think for the rest of my life.
1967 had been a consolidation of the values that had been drummed into me by my parents, the nuns at my school and my scout masters. At that time I was living in Newburgh, New York. In May I proudly marched with my troop in the Memorial Day parade down Broadway amongst active duty soldiers and sailors. My troop utilized the indoor pool at nearby Stewart AFB for our swimming and lifesaving classes. I discovered that I was adept at orienteering and enjoyed hiking, camping and climbing. During the summer race riots plagued the city. One block and one night at a time the rioters ascended from the poor neighbourhoods near the Hudson River until they had reached Williams Street, just a block away from my family’s house which had the family bar & grill on the ground floor. That evening my mother took me and my sisters to the drive-in movies while my uncle and my dad stayed back to protect the property. As our ’63 Fairlane station wagon pulled away from the kerb in the yellow glow of the evening my dad and my uncle stood in front of the big plate glass windows of the bar & grill armed with a 30.06 rifle and a shotgun. My uncle reminded me of Pancho Villa with two bandoliers of cartridges criss-crossing his chest. We saw a movie called the “Gnome-Mobile” and my kid sisters loved it and sang the theme song for the rest of the week but all I could think about during the movie was what was going on at home. As it turned out the riot fizzed out that night and all was quiet when we got home. I was told it was all down to the heroic efforts of the police department. Our boys in blue reached a zenith in my estimation that summer. A year later I would see things a bit differently.
My mates and I were keenly aware of what was going on in Vietnam. We all thought it was going well and that we were not far from victory despite my dad’s complaints about our forces having one hand tied behind their backs because of rules of engagement. A young GI who had been a member of my Boy Scout troop before joining up came to one of meetings he had a chain with several ears that he told us he had cut off dead enemy soldiers. We all thought it was cool and were concerned that the war would be over before we got the chance to get in on the excitement. When I returned home that night my mom heard me telling my dad about the ears and got angry.
I built a lot of balsa wood model aeroplanes and rockets that actually flew. My radio controlled Cessna 180 model crashed into football goal post on its maiden flight and never flew again. I had better luck with model rockets. My sleek two stage Aerobee 300 model could get well over 1,000 feet before the parachute would deploy. One day when the uppers were howling I thought I lost it but we found it several miles away on our way home. A dozen or so other scouts in my troop got into it too. My dad and I built a launching pad that would take five rockets at a time so we had competitions to see who’s rocket would be first off the pad. We were out at a shopping centre car park one January morning when an official car from nearby Stewart AFB pulled up and shut us down because we were launching into their flight path.
Like just about every other kid in the country, I keenly followed the NASA space program. In January 1968, a year after the crew of APOLLO 1, Gus, Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee died in the horrific fire inside the Command Module, NASA tested the Apollo Lunar module with the launch of Apollo 5. We were getting closer to putting a man on the moon but a launch of a different sort from North Vietnam in the form of the Tet Offensive. I remember my dad and my uncle discussing the war situation saying things like the US military was fighting with one hand tied behind its back, there was no way we could win a guerrilla with conventional methods and the long-haired hippies were just making things worse. I couldn’t imagine America not being able to win a war but the two men I really looked up to had just said it.
In March I went to my first teenage birthday party when a girl in my class turned 13. It was cool to see my classmates out of uniform. I wore stove pipe pants, Beatle boots and a blue paisley shirt with a dickey. We played spin the bottle instead of pin the tail on the donkey and listened to Beatles records.
When you are kid going to a Catholic school religious holidays and holy days of obligation are always important because they mean days off from school although we still had to attend mass. The long Easter weekend was coming up and beyond that the annual West Point Camporee at the USMA, which was one of the best scouting events of the year with the coolest first aid course around. We could look forward to stuff like an overturned jeep with realistic injuries that included fake blood pumping from arteries. But just a few days before Palm Sunday a current event hit us like a Mac Truck. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN. I didn’t find out until the next day at school. We all knew who he was and how important he was to the civil rights movement. The nuns were visibly upset and told us what a good man he was. Even though he wasn’t Catholic, I reckoned he’d probably get into heaven. Then the riots started. A white man had gunned down a black man who had advocated non-violence to fulfil his dream of equality. His followers were disillusioned, the gloves were off.
It was around this time that our teacher Sister Joachim Anne left the convent and went out to San Francisco to become a Flower Child. Sister Joachim Anne was the youngest of all of the nuns at our school and we had gotten along great with her. She was replaced by a Lay teacher, Mrs. Whitney. Mrs. Whitney was quite short and had trouble controlling us. You could hardly see our classroom clock beneath the spit balls that covered it. She kept a glass paperweight on her desk with a picture of Pope Pius XII on it. We wouldn’t listen to her when she asked us to quiet down until she hit her metal desk with the paperweight. By the end of the school year her desk looked like it had been worked over with a ball-peen hammer.
For some reason our scout troop didn’t march in the Memorial Day parade but the hits kept coming that spring. Two months after Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, the guy everyone in my social circle wanted for president was killed by a single bullet to the head. Once again I didn’t find out until I arrived at school the next morning. Once again the nuns were visibly upset. When John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963 we got sent home early from school and I found my mom and my friend’s mom in front of the TV crying. We didn’t get sent home early for Bobby and my mom wasn’t crying in front of the TV when I got home. I think everyone was getting a bit numb. I remember my dad saying that the sons must pay for the father’s sins. At the time I didn’t really understand what he meant and I didn’t ask him to explain.
When you are 13 years old, there is nothing you can do about politics and grown up stuff. You get on with being a brand new teenager. For me it was all about playing baseball, swimming and hiking and camping with my scout troop. I was a patrol leader, it wasn’t much of a responsibility but I enjoyed being a junior leader. We would get briefed on stuff and then tell the guys in the patrol what we had to do. We had inter patrol competitions and I had to make sure that everyone in my patrol was dressed properly with their shirts tucked in and their neckerchiefs properly done and looking smart. Stuff like that.
What I really looked forward to though was Beech Mountain Scout Camp. We would get to go camping for two weeks. Two weeks the beautiful mountains of Sullivan County, NY in late July and early August. There was no TV and it was hard to pick up a signal on a transistor radio. It was scouting paradise. A bugle would wake us up, call us for meals and send us to bed. During the day we would hike, swim, canoe and do all kinds of scouting stuff. My favourite event was called “Message to Garcia” We would compete against other troops by building a fire with no matches, use semaphore flags and send runners on a relay to get a message from point A to point B. The two weeks flew by and one of us wanted to go home when time was up.
Back home there was still plenty of sand-lot baseball and swimming to occupy what was left of our school holidays. So far the summer for me had been care free, almost idyllic but it was a long, hot summer that year and half a world away in Vietnam, young Americans were dying at the rate of 1,000 a month. While I honed my scouting skills and played sports there was a storm of dissension brewing and the six o’clock news was about to deliver big dose of reality to my living room.
What I later learned was that a large anti-war protest had been planned to coincide with the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago during the last week of August. Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago was not going to have a repeat performance of the riots that enflamed the city in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King Jr. shooting just a few months before. He had 12,000 uniformed police officers bolstered by 6,000 National Guard and 6,000 regular army troops ready to protect his city. They faced off against about 10,000 protesters.
What I saw on our TV that week were teenagers and young adults that looked and dressed like my schoolmate’s older brothers and sisters. I remember my dad saying something derogatory about them being long-haired hippies and draft dodgers. After watching the news that week my perception of policemen did a 180 degree turn from what it had been the year before. I watched in horror as Mayor Daley’s uniformed thugs mowed down the young men and women who were protesting bloodying them with billy clubs right in front of my eyes. In my mind whether they were long-haired hippies or draft dodgers or not was a moot point. This was in your face police brutality for all of the world to see.
Events of the subsequent years, such as the revelation of the My Lai Massacre, The Kent State Massacre and the Watergate affair reinforced my newly found scepticism. The song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills Nash and Young is a song with a message that still resonates with me today. As the years passed, many of my contemporaries who felt the same way I did back then changed their political views but I have not and I can trace it all back to one week in August 1968. Those turbulent years also had an effect on my aviation art. To this date I have only created one painting for depicting a combat aircraft that took part in the Vietnam War. It is still in my possession but I keep it tucked away in a crate and it rarely sees the light of day.