Friday, August 01, 2008

Coming of Age in the Sixties


By the time 1969 rolled around, the decade of the 1950s was starting to seem like a century past. America certainly wasn't the place it had been when Ike presided over the White House, that's for damned sure. That really isn't the case as far as the sixties are concerned. Even from the vantage point of 2008, that decade still hovers over America's consciousness to such an astounding degree, it is clear that it won't be going away any time soon.

Consider this: One of the biggest selling CDs of the past year is a compilation of eleven previously released songs by the Beatles (two of whom are long dead), re-mixed and retitled, "Let It Be: Naked". That would be the equivalent of a reissue of Paul Whiteman recordings from the late 1920s making it onto Billboard's Number One position during the summer of 1967! An absurd notion any way you look at it.

Even though I was born in August of 1958 (I'll be fifty on the sixteenth) I still have a very clear memory of the 1950s. That is to say, the decade of the sixties didn't really begin on January 1, 1960, much in the same way that it didn't really end on December 31, 1969. The sixties that we all know, love and loathe began on a sunny, unseasonably warm day in the late autumn of 1963, when the man who symbolized the hopes and aspirations of that era was shot dead in the streets of Dallas, Texas.

Historical hindsight tells us that Jack Kennedy was far from the example of humanity's perfection that so many people believed him to be at the time of his death. But that knowledge does not in any way lessen the horror and genuine grief that most people felt the moment they received the news on their radios and television sets that the president was dead. Some dark and destructive forces were jolted loose from this nation's soul when a bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald's cheap, mail-order rifle shattered President Kennedy's skull on November 22, 1963. America never fully recovered from the psychic shock of that murder. God only knows if it ever will.

"Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call/Don't stand in the doorway, don't lock up the hall/For he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled/The battle outside's raging/It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls/For the times they are a'changin'"

Bob Dylan, 1963

In this political year where "change" seems to be the operative word, the decade of the 1960s could very well offer the first decade of the twenty-first century some valuable lessons. As with the 1930s, a long-festering societal dysfunction had bought about a nonviolent, social revolution. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, the plutocracy's assault on the American infrastructure had left the economy in tatters. In 1932, unaffected by the kind of mindless, twenty-four-hour-a-day political propaganda that exists now on the American air waves, the people had the good sense to go in a new direction of real, tangible change when they sent a disabled, son of privilege named Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the White House.

Thirty years after the dawn of the New Deal, a very different type of revolution was brewing within the American soul. The sixties saw the rise of the long-repressed outrage of Black America. From the day President Lincoln had decreed the Emancipation Proclamation a century before, they had been forced to live as second class citizens in the north and fourth class citizens in the south. With leaders as diverse as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as their spokesmen, they were demanding their piece of the so-called American Dream.

For twenty-five years - from that late afternoon in December 1955 when a tired Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white man - black people in this country seemed to be making slow but significant social and economic progress. That progress came to a dead halt in 1980 when the people foolishly decided to send a former "B" movie actor named Ronald Wilson Reagan to the White House. Later on this year, God willing, that dreadful situation may very well begin to reverse itself. 2008 might be remembered as the year America confronted its racist demons by electing the first African American in history as president of the United States. Keep your fingers crossed and your hands folded.

The second revolution to come out of the sixties was the righteous indignation of an entire generation of kids who were being forced to fight and die in an untenable quagmire in a far away land. By the summer of 1968 it was obvious that the outrage expressed against the Vietnam war was not being vented merely by college age radicals. Within time, people of all ages and classes would turn against that "stupid fucking war" (as the late, lamented Molly Ivins once described it).

The dirty little secret about the massive opposition to Vietnam is that it had not a thing to do with the fact that it was an illegal war which was a sin against God and humanity. The reason American colleges exploded in the 1960s was because President Lyndon Baines Johnson decided it was unfair that the poor and working classes were doing all the fighting while the sons of privilege received college deferments. Just take a look at any newsreel of a college protest from forty years ago and I'll guarantee you that - at the very least - eighty percent of the kids in those films are today right wing conservatives. It was the sons of the working class who did most of the fighting and dying in that war. That's not just my opinion, that is a documented, undeniable fact. Look it up.

Sadly, the youth of this doomed country will never wake up to the sins that their civilian leaders are committing against the men, women and little children of Iraq unless the draft is reinstated.

Then there was what can only be described as the "Cultural Revolution". Although not quite as severe and a lot more fun than the one that had occurred in China starting in 1966, its influence is still being felt to this day. Everything, it seemed, was changing. And yet some of the things which seemed so groundbreaking all those years ago look downright silly today - the television "comedy", for instance.

A number of years ago, the cable network Nickelodeon broadcast a week-long Laugh-In retrospective. Looking at some of those programs (as many as I was able to stomach) I was rendered speechless at how awful they were! What was I thinking when I would eagerly tune into NBC every Monday night for no other reason than to hear Judy Carne jabber, "And now, folks, it's Sock It To Me time"? In my own defence I can only say that I was a mere nine-years-old and too young to know any better when that show made its debut in September of 1967. Unlike the comedy of The Smothers Brothers, Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce, the "mod" ramblings and antics of the late Dan Rowan and the recently deceased Dick Martin has not stood the test of time very well. It has all the depth of a Peter Max poster. Sock it to me, indeed.

As much may be said of most of the things that passed as "comedy" in the 1960s. Very little of it stands out forty years later. The only interesting thing today regarding old episodes of Petticoat Junction, Bewitched, Green Acres and Mayberry RFD - is contemplating the fact that at one time people were paid huge salaries for writing such drivel. The TV networks even had to supply these idiotic programs with canned laughter in order to encourage the semi-comatose viewer at home that the crap they were watching was actually funny. Let's face some serious facts here: by the time 1960 came along, the Golden Age of American Humor as personified by the likes of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman and Fred Allen, was long gone.

The passage of time can be a misleading thing. More times than I can count, a person born post 1970 has expressed to me how brilliant he or she thought the music of the sixties was. Truth be told, it wasn't much different than any other decade. The reason the music stands out today has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with memory. We remember "A Day In The Life" and "Like A Rolling Stone". We choose to forget, "Henry The Eighth" by Herman's Hermits and "Do The Freddie" by Freddie and the Dreamers. Memory is everything.

But it cannot be denied that there were cultural and artistic events during that tormented decade which had real and lasting impact. It was, after all, the decade which produced Bob Dylan and The Beatles. The change in the language of the cinema, which had subtly begun to express itself in the previous decade, was in full bloom by the end of the sixties. Although it was an era that saw the deaths of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Merton and Jack Kerouac, it also saw the emergence of Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter Thompson. The artistic possibilities of television and videotape were pioneered very early in that decade by a lovable and eccentric madman named Ernie Kovacs. He was the world's first "video artist" although that term did not even come into being until four years after his death in a 1962 automobile accident. No question about it: between 1960 and 1970, trails were being blazed. The times were indeed a'changin'.

The comedy, tragedy and turmoil of the 1960s would all come to a head in 1968, a "whore of a year" as someone once described it. Although the final year of that decade would see the Woodstock Festival - three-hundred thousand hard-core music fans gathered at Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel, NY - plus Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon (both events taking place within the space of three weeks that summer!), nothing could have prepared any mere mortal for the events of 1968.

With the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in the spring, the mindless violence inflicted by the Chicago Police upon hapless demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in August, and the endless and graphic carnage from South East Asia that was being televised into living rooms throughout the country - night after depressing night - a sensitive and impressionable ten-year-old could very easily have been overwhelmed by the thought that the world was coming to an end. So it was with me.

But then on Christmas Eve, an epiphany....

That was the night that the crew of Apollo 8 became the first human beings to orbit the moon. Upon emerging from that asteroid's dark side, eternally invisible to the inhabitants of this small and fragile planet, the crew of Frank Borman, Bill Anders and James Lovell broadcast a message to the world. Turning to scripture, they quoted from the Book of Genesis:

"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light": and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness...."

At the conclusion of that transmission, Commander Borman, no doubt reflecting on the turmoil of the year which was about to mercifully end, said these words:

"And from the crew of Apollo Eight, we close with: good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you - on the good earth."

Hearing those words broadcast on the radio, my ear almost pressed against one of the two massive KLH speakers that dominated my father's stereo system, I felt the weight of the world being lifted from my shoulders. Somehow, I thought, everything was going to be alright. For decades afterwords, whenever America was confronted with some indescribable national trauma, Frank Borman's gentle words - transmitted from the heavens on that long ago Christmas Eve - would come back to calm me and I would feel better my country. Everything is going to be alright, I would tell myself.

I'm still struggling to believe it.

Tom Degan

Goshen, NY

tomdegan@frontiernet.net

Photograph of five of the seven Degan kids taken at 48 South Street, Goshen, NY, circa spring of 1965

Front row (left to right): Tom Degan with brother Peter and sisters Susanne and Carol

Back row: Brother Jack

Missing from photo: Brother Jeff (who was an infant at the time) and sister Sarah "Sally" (who was born later that year)

14 Comments:

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Germanicus said...

Here is an insight into my brother. I'll even give you a two-fer.

First, he posts a picture of his siblings that excludes his younger, better-looking brother, but we'll set that aside, though, until after school.

Second, for years, ages, he was the biggest Kennedy assassination theorist on the block. Bought every book ever published on the subject. Then, when received opinion finally swung round and accepted that it was virtually a physical impossibility that a single gunman armed with a mail-order Italian-made bolt-action rifle could have fired the shots that killed JFK (scoring two fatal hits on a moving target), why then Tom decides it was poor old Lee after all. And Jack Ruby really must really have been a patriot dispensing divine justice.

Apart from that, there is very little we disagree on. That, and the value of that damned photo.

 
At 10:48 AM, Blogger Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

Germaicus,
You really are a creep, you know that? When you go to sleep tonight, get on your knees and thank your maker that there is an ocean that separates us. Otherwise, I'd smack you....

Cheers!
Brother Tom

 
At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Dr. Rick Lippin said...

Tom-

At once both beautiful and sad

But always good writing

Dr. Rick Lippin
Southampton,Pa

 
At 2:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, Thanks for your eloquence.
Though I haven't posted a comment here in a while, this "rant" brought back many of my memories.
I probably still have an FBI file from the Vietnam days. Too many of my friends died for participating in that insanity.
I spoke out then and I continue to speak against the present "insanity".
So do you.
The only point that I might disagree with you about concerns things getting better.
I think they will. I hope.
All we have to accomplish first is learning to live on this tiny planet in a peaceful way.
Maybe someday.
Imagine.
W

 
At 10:08 AM, Anonymous Capt. Billy Jingles said...

Tom, I enjoyed the post in much the same way as I enjoy reading a Jean Shepard story-brings back memories. I remember the "meat hook" days of the Nixon era, trying(without success) to get a CO status to avoid the war, seeing close up the Detroit riots, listening to the great music of the 60s, travelling to Washington DC for massive war protests, trying to calm myself by reading Alan Watts, being stopped in the Desert of New Mexico and having troopers demanding to see a selective service card ("I think I left it home"). The stooge war hawks that cheered while sending thousands to their death in the meat grinder of Vietnam are still with us only a different generation! The 60s were an exciting and frustrating decade but there was a vitality that seems lacking today. I guess the draft motivated many to get off their asses and decide which direction their lives were going to go.

 
At 11:24 AM, Blogger Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

Aye! Aye! Cap'n Jingles!
You've hit the nail right on the head. There is a serious lack of motivation today that is maddening to anyone who has bothered to pay attention all these years. Wouldn't it be just like George W. Bush to bring back the draft between November and January if Barack Obama is elected? Don't count it out.

Cheers!
Tom Degan

 
At 10:05 AM, Blogger Jefferson's Guardian said...

Tom, this is the first time I've left a comment following your commentary. After linking-in from AlterNet, I was intrigued by your memories of the 1960s.

Also coming of age during that historic decade, and being about six years older, the vividness of all that you describe brought back many feelings. It was a tumultuous end-of-decade for me, personally, having to move twice, in the course of two years, when my military father was called to duty at yet another far-away location. I think back to those years, often, and realize they did more to shape my political, and economic, opinions than even my college years.

Yes, the '60s were certainly a turning-point for this nation, and the JFK assassination was undoubtedly the tipping-point within that ten-year odyssey. If history is accurately written in some far-in-the-future time, my guess is that November 22, 1963, will be the date chosen to indicate when the real power structure in the United States formally took over the reigns of government, in a coup d'├ętat that only required the firing of a few shots. The resultant cover-up, and a few more assassinations, significantly sealed the deal.

We've yet to heal from the events of the 1960s, the events that a majority of Americans are unaware, or don't want to acknowledge, took place. It was the decade that this country was "officially" taken from the people.

 
At 10:26 AM, Blogger Amolibri said...

Tom,
I KNEW which one was you~!!! You rascal!!
Thanks for the great trip down "memory lane"....for better and/or worse! ;o)

 
At 2:43 PM, Blogger Kevin Swanwick said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2:50 PM, Blogger Kevin Swanwick said...

Tom,

So much I can relate to from those early Goshen days and the emergence of the 60's culture with all of its surpise and convulsion.

Wonderful descriptive detail. Perhaps you can cover Norman Lear and what he did to save us from the banality of Laugh in.

BTW, I am with you on Oswald. Read most of the conspiracy theory books, as you know, and find them all to be houses of cards that make for good thrillers, but not good reportage or history.

Keep it coming!

 
At 8:04 AM, Anonymous rcmayo said...

Tom- its still early in the morning for me but i dont how you could have been born in 1958 and just be turning fifty. I was born in 1955 or so they tell me and i am fifty seven... good post today btw.

 
At 8:15 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

rcmayo....

This piece was actually written four years ago next month. Truth be told I'll be (GULP) fifty-four on August 16.

Cheers!

Tom Degan

 
At 8:32 AM, Anonymous rcmayo said...

One of the few advantages is caring less and less about what people think of what you do and say.....

 
At 8:45 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Yes, for every year that passes I find myself caring less and less about what people think about me. At one time I cared a lot. I'm now at the point in my life where I just don't give a damn any longer. This is a good thing.

 

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