It was mid-May and kids were ready for summer even though the end of school was still a month away. Juniors and seniors had final exams or projects in most classes, but a nearly empty library made it seem like they’d already happened and everyone had passed with flying colors. The mild weather could be blamed for some kids lack of interest in school, but in 1969, there was enough happening that exams and final projects just didn’t seem important.
Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed the year before, and the peaceful movement he’d started in order to work toward racial equality had grown angry and was turning into something that was anything but peaceful. One group that seemed to have taken advantage of the empty space left by King called themselves the Black Panthers. Some newspaper articles made them seem like a political party, and one of their members even tried to run for president, but other articles described the members as militant and violent.
On TV the previous summer, we’d watched athletes from around the world compete in the summer Olympics in Mexico. We saw two African-American athletes receive their gold and bronze medals, and then as The Star-Spangled Banner played, they raised their fists in a salute that had become a symbol of the Black Power movement.
Forestville was a small town, and other than the anti-war demonstration I’d unleashed on our main street a year earlier, news didn’t really happen in our little town. We just read about it in the paper or turned on the TV to watch it happening in other places. But still, it was getting harder to know who to trust, and people who used to greet strangers with a smile and a handshake were crossing to the other side of the street to avoid people who they’d decided were not like them.
The war in Vietnam had gotten progressively worse. Our country continued to send young men to Vietnam, just boys really, and more and more we saw them return in flag draped coffins. To try to destroy an enemy that was able to kill our soldiers and then simply fade into the surrounding villages and jungles, our planes carpet bombed, dropped fiery napalm, and sprayed chemicals to kill vegetation, making it harder to hide. All the while, people back home tried to figure out how farmers and villagers in some far away country could be our enemies. There were peaceful protests, but often those protests turned violent as people realized that taking over a building or starting things on fire got them more attention than waving a two-fingered peace sign in the air.
Not that a high school kid spends too much time thinking about politics, but the presidential election of 1968 had gotten everyone’s attention. A young Senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, seemed likely to win the Democratic nomination and continue on to win the election, bringing his energy and new ideas with him. He was talking about equality, social justice, and some were saying, a peaceful end to the war. But that ended in June of 1968, when he was assassinated. Richard Nixon went on to become president and many of the changes we were hoping for never happened. The war just seemed to get worse.
And with the war, came the draft. Draft was a word that had snuck its way into our vocabulary over the last few
years. It wasn’t like we’d learned it in English class or looked it up in a dictionary. One day it was just in our mouths, like it had always been there. Draft.
What it meant was that boys were getting called up to fight in the war. My father was in the army already. He’d made a career out of it. He spent most of his time on a base working on engines, keeping planes flying and trucks moving. When he went to Vietnam, I worried about him, missed him, wished every day that he could come home. Even though he wasn’t out doing the fighting, he was still in danger while he was over there, but the difference was that he’d signed up for the job. He had made that decision for himself.
The draft was different. The draft was plucking boys up like an unlucky lottery ticket. They might have had plans to be a doctor, or a scientist, or a teacher, or a father, and then, just like that, they were a soldier. They weren’t taking high school age boys, but the juniors and seniors at El Molino were certainly thinking about what they were headed for, because at age 18 you had to register, and then when your number came up, you went. And lots of the kids at school had older brothers. Some had already gone, and some hadn’t come back.
The one bright spot in all this bad news had our attention focused over two-hundred thousand miles away. While people argued about politics, struggled for equality, and tried to find an end to war, three men would soon leave behind Earth and all its problems entirely. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were preparing to travel to the Moon. We’d sent astronauts into space before, but this time would be different. This time, they’d actually be landing on the Moon and walking on its surface.
That’s the world we were living in in 1969. We went to our classes, we talked with friends, and made plans for the weekend. But all the while, it seemed like there were clouds hanging over us. Emmie’s letter, the prospect of a cross-country trip, and a three-day concert helped push them away for a little while.
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