For baby boomers, 1968 was a defining year, a year in which we, as a generation, lost our 1950's innocence. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy simply added another sickening dimension to President Kennedy's assassination four and a half years earlier.
President Kennedy had been assassinated at a time when, essentially, 1950's values were still in place and the shameful significance of the Viet Nam War was still unclear.
Nineteen sixty eight brought all these pieces together, and the result was not pretty.
In 1968, while the slightly older members of my generation set out to change the world, I went from naive girl to young woman, lost in the counter-culture, sex, and drugs.
My official memoir--the one I'm sending out to agents and publishers--begins in Hollywood, California, on Christmas Eve, 1968, but, really, my back story begins in Sioux City, Iowa, on June 5, 1968:
Ten days after high school graduation from Heelan Catholic School.My grandparents, Harley and Olive Semple, had no idea what kind of a world they were sending me into.
Mo, my grandmother, yanks my covers back.
9:30 a.m. flight. Still a bit groggy, I go over my itinerary: Sioux City to Denver on Ozark, Denver to L.A. on TWA, L.A. to Mother and stepfather Larry, then--who knows?
L.A., here I come!
“My God, they’ve got Bobby, too!” Mo says.
Bobby who? I don’t know any Bobby....
“What’s this damn world coming to, anyway?” she says, wiping the tears from her eyes.
And then it hits me, last night’s California primary, Bobby Kennedy’s expected big win--JFK’s younger brother, our hope for the future, now apparently gone.
I sit up in bed. “What happened?”
“He was shot by a goon.” She stands up and runs her fingers through her hair. “A Goddamn goon.”
It’s not like Mo to take the Lord’s name in vain, and the profanity sounds shocking coming from her lips.
“A Goddamn goon,” she whispers, as if she has read my mind and wants me to know that at this moment she hurts enough to risk her immortal soul and eternal Hellfire should she drop dead right now.
“A Goddamn goon...”
I kick the sheet off, sit at the edge of the bed, and put my arms around her. “Is he dead?”
She shakes her head. “But it don’t look good. Not good at all.” Then she covers her face. “God, don’t they ever learn? Don’t they know Bobby was just asking for it? You’d think of all people he’d know better than to expose himself like that....” She starts crying again.
I get out of bed and hug Mo, and we both cry together, remembering another time almost five years ago when we stood in another room--another house even--and mourned the loss of another Kennedy.
Years later, I’ll look back on the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations and realize how much they have changed my generation, but, more than that, how they have changed me personally--I think it has something to do with loss of trust.
But, today, the day I’m supposed to embark on my new life, all I feel is sad and a sense of complete helplessness.
After I have finished dressing and packing, Mo, Dee Dee (my grandfather), and I gather around the TV and watch the Today Show to try to sort out what has happened. For the first time, we hear words like “The Ambassador Hotel,” “Lone gunman Sirhan Sirhan,” “How could this happen again?” And for the first time we see the scenes that will become a part of the historical landscape: the victory speech; the camera being jostled; Bobby laying in his own blood on the floor and someone yelling, “The gun, get the gun”; a man in a white jacket, or maybe it was a woman, supporting Bobby’s head as he lay dying; and Bobby’s last public words, “Is everybody okay?”
And we understand that while Bobby clings to life, he’s not expected to live. And if he does live, he’ll be a vegetable, definitely not the brilliant man who campaigned so vigorously for the presidency, who had an obsessive desire to continue the Camelot years.
Yes, I’m unhappy that Bobby’s been shot, but after the deaths of JFK and Martin Luther King, I almost expected that another Kennedy would die violently.
And as Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs try to sort through what has just happened, I remember another time: when a line was drawn down the middle of November 22, 1963, my 14th year, clearly dividing Then from Now.
I had a vague idea, though, and I was ready to go:
“It’s time to go, Jennifer,” Dee Dee says in an unsteady voice. He has tears in his eyes, but I’m not sure whether it’s because he’s going to miss me or Bobby. Maybe both.
I’m all sweaty and uncomfortable in my maroon polyester jacket and skirt; Mo insists that a real lady dresses up for traveling. I disagree, but now it’s only a few hours to real freedom, and then I can wear whatever I want. I know one thing: this smelly outfit goes straight to the Goodwill.
When 1968 started, I was still in high school and only vaguely aware of world events unfolding around me; I was more interested in getting through high school and leaving home--June 5th was supposed to be a festive day.
Dee Dee picks up one of my suitcases and takes it to the car. I drag the other bag across the carpet until he returns and takes it from me. He puts both cases into the trunk and slams the lid shut.
“Well,” he sighs. “That’s that.”
“Don’t forget to write once in a while,” Mo says.
“Never forget where you came from,” she says. “We’re your people.”
Then, in silence, he and Mo slide into the front seat, and I into the back, where I sprawl out, pulling my skirt up to my thighs in hope of catching a slight breeze from the air conditioner.
Not likely: the crotch of my pantyhose digs into my groin, and the band cuts into my waist. My panty girdle also cuts into my gut, the top rolling down around my belly.
Who invented these torture chambers, anyway? Women shouldn't have to suffer like this.
My bra is new, a size 38 C, stiff and formal. This morning, when I took it out of its box, it crackled like a piece of paper, and the cups resembled those steel cups that opera singers wear on stage. Now, sweat rolls down from between my breasts and onto my midriff, and I can only hope the temperature on the airplane is turned down low.
I won’t miss Sioux City humidity.
On the way to the airport, Mo clicks on the car radio. “Wild thing/ You make my heart...” blaring through the speaker, and I’m thinking “Wow! What a send off....”
“Caterwauling,” Dee Dee says, running through the dial. More music:
“Hot town/ Summer in the city...”
“Damn hippie stuff!”
Then “Lucy in the sky with diamonds...” (crackle)
“And it’s Summa-time in the city, a SIZZLING eight-o at 8:00 a.m.”
Dee Dee mutters something about “disrespect for Bobby” as he continues to search.
He fiddles with the dial until he finds what he’s looking for: Bobby Kennedy is barely hanging onto life, I barely hanging onto my sanity....
“It don’t look good,” Mo says, shaking her head.
My plane sits on the tarmac, waiting for me, engines revved up, heat waves distorting its potbelly. At the thought of climbing aboard and waiting for that bucket of bolts to lift off, I feel ill.
I hate airplanes.
But it was either fly or stay in Sioux City and settle down into a boring job. No matter how much I begged to take Union Pacific instead of the plane, Mo and Dee Dee nixed the idea. Why, I don’t know. Maybe they figure that I need to grow up, to get over my fear of flying.
And I have decided I’d rather die in a fiery plane crash than slowly suffocate in Sioux City.
“Here, take this pill,” Mo says, handing me a blue and white capsule and a cup of water. “It’ll calm you down.”
“What is it?”
“Just a tranquilizer. Here, just take it.”
I pop the capsule in my mouth and under my tongue and pretend to wash it down with the water. “Someone told me marijuana has the same effect,” I say.
“Someone” being my high school English teacher, but I’m not about to snitch.
“Don’t you be gettin’ no ideas,” Mo says, shaking her finger at me.
“Oh, Mo.” But the idea has been in my mind for a long time.
I turn away from my suddenly aging grandparents and walk toward the plane.
I don’t look back.
I spit the soggy pill into my hand and drop it into my pocket.
As the plane taxis down the runway, I think a lot about death, about dying in a burning heap of twisted metal. I’m not afraid of death, really, not even a violent one--getting run over by a large orange truck at six quelled that mystery long ago.
But I am afraid of dying without having yet lived.
The flight goes without a hitch--no turbulence or incidents.
The captain on the Denver to L.A. leg updates Bobby’s deteriorating condition, and several passengers sniffle during the bulletins, but I’m past that now.
JFK had already drained every significant emotion from me.
And then the plane lands.
I disembark to my other life.
By December 31, 1968, I was stoned and living with my drug dealing boyfriend, still superficially involved with the world around me. Other than the two assassinations, my most vivid memory was Apollo 8, juxtaposed with an acid trip.
It was only later that I realized the significance of 1968.
In 2005, as I was finishing up the first draft, I decided to weave relevant news clips throughout the main narrative and spent two months building a day-by-day history through short news clips--a good idea that didn't work out, at least for my memoir:
1. Given my then-disinterest in current events, the clips felt out of place and phony.
2. The clips added more than 300 pages to the manuscript.
3. They detracted from my narrative.
But when I decided to create a blog containing excerpts from the memoir, I soon realized that the clips would work out well on the internet. Since 2005, YouTube and other video technology has advanced enough so that I, a casual user, would have little difficulty finding and embedding relevant video content.
As I comb through the various video clips from 1968 and documentaries about that year, I realize how much of 1968 has shaped me personally, even though I was not very engaged in current events.
The following documentary (in six parts) pretty much covers the highlights of 1968:
1968: The Vietnam War Protests (Part 1 of 6)
1968: Black and White--"Martin Luther Assassination" (Part 2 of 6)
1968: Counter-Culture (Part 3 of 6)
1968: International Protests (Part 4 of 6)
1968: The Long, Hot Summer--"The Whole World is Watching," "Prague Spring," and "Mexico City Massacre" (Part 5 of 6)
1968: Lawlessness, Protest, and Politics--"A Night of Sorrow," "The Black Power Salute," "Law and Order Movement," and "The Selling of a President" (Part 6 of 6)
1968: The Year that Shaped a Generation
War. Assassinations. Riots. This dramatic program examines the turbulent political and social landscapes of 1968 by combining dramatic archival footage and interviews with many key participants, including Walter Cronkite, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senator Tom Hayden, Barbara Ehrenreich, Carlos Fuentes, and Pat Buchanan. Individual sections spotlight topics such as Vietnam, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, student revolts, the counter-culture, the Democratic National Convention, the Prague Spring, the Mexico City student massacre, and the '68 presidential campaign and election.
Release Year: 1998
Run Time: 57 minutes