One of my credit cards was compromised online recently by an Uber patron, it seems. The problem was addressed and headed off fairly quickly but when I told my mother about it in a telephone conversation she began to lament all of the crime and evil that are taking place around us and that thread inevitably lead to concern over our politicians, gun laws, and the hopeless impending election. I thought about that for a while and finally I said, “Well, yeah, but at least we don’t have to worry about the stagecoach getting held up by a bunch of armed bandits.”
We’re always living in scary times, I guess.
I was too young to fully participate in the 1960s. But I was there and aware and curious as a young boy – reading the daily newspaper from an early age and never missing the national news that aired each evening at 5:30. I knew (kind of) what was going on in the world around me.
It was pretty interesting. And pretty scary at times.
In October 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis was happening, I was nearing the end of my second month of second grade. I wasn’t sure what was going on but was aware of the gravity in the voices of the newscasters and the hushed tones of my parents as they discussed the news of the day. The teachers at school would huddle together outside the classroom, whispering and looking anxiously back at their charges.
In the television in the den the grim voices were reporting on foreboding things that I didn’t quite comprehend. We usually watched Huntley and Brinkley in those days. I remember going out into the back yard and looking up at the skies at the dark clouds gathering. Or is that just my imagination playing tricks with my memory?
I didn’t understand what was happening but I was aware when the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis was past and there was a palpable sigh of relief among the grown-ups.
Radio Free Europe was an agency that was broadcasting news and programming from the west into the communist bloc behind the “Iron Curtain.” In the ‘60s, regular television public service announcements would raise awareness about Radio Free Europe. Those PSAs would feature a European deejay behind the controls at a radio station introducing the American song “On Broadway” by The Drifters.
1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign ads featured the image of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev warning the west that “We will bury you!” For many Baby Boomers, I suspect that Khrushchev’s was the face of the boogeyman.
In addition to the usual attractions and agricultural exhibitions of a state fair, I remember a trip to the state fair at the old fairgrounds on 3rd Avenue West in Birmingham in the 60s that also featured fallout shelters for the home back yard. Climbing into the tight quarters, there was information on how many supplies would be needed to survive nuclear fallout. Civil defense signs indicating the locations of fallout shelters were still scattered around when I was grown.
During the time that I was discovering the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, and Motown, I was also living in Birmingham at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Anticipation about the Cold War was augmented by consciousness of the various social movements afoot stateside.
Back then “Breaking News” reports on the television were really breaking news and we would stop and wait to see what had happened. The PTA at Green Acres School had just finished its drive to supply a television for every classroom (largely by collecting S&H Green Stamps) so my third grade class was able to watch live as the announcement was made that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.
Schools had regular bomb drills and “duck and cover” was a mantra promoted in instructional films by a helmeted “Bert the Turtle.” Green Acres was a neighborhood school and most of its students lived within easy walking distance. I lived a block from the school and even had permission to go home for lunch.
So I wasn’t concerned when we got a note to take to our parents saying that on a selected day all city school students would be dismissed promptly at 3:00 and were to walk, not run, to their home. This applied to the children who were picked up at school as well as the majority of us who walked. The directive said that somebody should be at the student’s home to record precisely what time the student arrived. For the majority of us in my neighborhood in the ‘60s that person would have been our mothers.
The next day we were instructed to return the filled out time sheet to our teachers. The result of this exercise was that those of us who could walk home within a certain amount of minutes would be released to our homes in the event of an impending air attack. The rest would remain at the school with their teacher to “duck and cover” I guess.
I was a young and naïve schoolboy but I was pretty sure even then that the duck and cover routine wasn’t going to be any kind of protection if the Soviets started bombing us. There was solace in the fact that I would at least get to be home when it happened.
The 1960s continued and in October 1969 I was in junior high in Nashville. On the day of the Vietnam Peace Moratorium I got to school and heard whispering all around. Some of the students were organizing a massive school walk-out at 1:00 p.m. to protest the war. It was hard to concentrate in class with the tension and anticipation. Between classes, in classes, and during lunch people kept asking, “Are you walking out?”
I kept saying, “I don’t know. Let’s wait and see what happens.” But deep down I knew I probably wouldn’t. I’d get in trouble with Dad and Mother if I left school without permission.
At 12:55 the nervous energy was bubbling throughout the school. I had overheard some of the teachers talking together and trying to decide the best course of action when the walk-out occurred.
Suddenly the static-filled school PA system came on and an assistant principal made an announcement that the entire school would go outside at 1:00 p.m. and stand in silence for ten minutes to honor the soldiers who were serving or who had been killed in Vietnam and that regular classes would resume at 1:15.
There were grumbles among the student organizers that their thunder had been stolen by the administration. For me and probably most of my classmates there was relief that we would not have to make a decision about civil disobedience that afternoon. When our ten minutes were up the majority of us went back to class; a few walked down the street and away …
The 1960s was a combustible and scary time – albeit one with a fabulous soundtrack and lots of style. Looking back from the perspective of a much more complicated world half a century later, the struggles of the 1960s seem better defined, much less confusing, and – frankly – much less threatening than the world we are dealing with in today’s 24-hour never-ending news cycle.
Back then, we could more easily put a face with the threat and the moral boundaries seemed more clear. Nowadays, not so much. The fireworks and celebrations of Independence Day are always followed by the realities of July 5.