Recently I picked up Rick Perlstein's book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. At the moment, I'm deep into 1968....the race riots that convulsed American cities, the anti-war protests that crippled LBJ, the emergence of Nixon's Silent Majority, endemic racism that pervaded all corners of country, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the violence that marked the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
IN 40 years, it seems we've turned this era of tumult into a romance story of generational change, peace and love, non-violence, Camelot, Make Love Not War, the Smothers Brothers and the Beatles. Perlstein paints a picture of national turmoil, of astounding distrust between races and ages, of violence and uncertainty. It is a picture less romantic than terrifying.
And in the middle of it all, at the geographical epicenter of this Great American Upheaval was us. My family had moved to Chicago in 1967 when Dad entered the Unitarian seminary at the University of Chicago. Mom stayed home with me and my younger sister and brother, and in fairly short order was pregnant with my youngest brother.
We lived in a 2-bedroom townhouse in the Hyde Park area, a few blocks from the University. Two doors over was my best friend Charles. Down the street was a corner drugstore in a small strip mall where Charles and I bought our precious baseball cards - 10 cents for a 10-card pack . (I still have many of those 1968-1970 cards!) In another small group of townhouses adjacent to the strip mall, lived my lone girl friend, Charlotte. Her complex had a small gated park filled with newly planted trees where Charlotte patiently taught me how to pull apart leaves along the stem without leaving ragged edges.
Heading the other way there was a busy street we weren't allowed to cross alone. (52nd Street) I remember testing my adventurousness and walking up to the stop sign on the corner. The buildings over there had a darker feel, more dangerous somehow. Half a block or so up this street lived another best friend, Tony. Tony's mom, Lula, babysat us kids when my parents went out. I realized that Tony and Lula were black, but I didn't think much of it. We just played baseball and rode bikes and talked about the Cubs together. Such is the glory of liberal parents. I do remember that it was always Tony who came across 52nd Street to play with us. We didn't go over there.
But what of 1968? The memories of a five almost six year old moving from Kindergarten to first grade, can't recall anything about the violence of that summer. I know from history that Chicago erupted after the murder of Dr King. I've read about the mass gatherings of students, Yippies, hippies, and provocateurs during the Democrats August convention. I was there, but as a child should be, oblivious to it all.
My few memories of 1968 (or at least thereabouts) are of learning to ride my bike on the circular paths of nearby Washington Park, of climbing the trees outside Charlotte's house, trading baseball cards with Charles on his front steps, the night my brother was born, ice skating at the bottom of the Corn Cob towers downtown, watching the election results with my Mom on our small black and white TV and sensing the disgust in her voice as she tried to explain to me what a President Richard Nixon meant to us.
I've sent both my parents a letter asking them for their recollections of the summer of '68. What was it like for young parents of four young children amidst this chaos? I've heard my grandmother had gone so far as to purchase tickets for our family to escape the city should the violence overrun our neighborhood? Did my liberal-minded parents participate in any of those protests before coming home to make us dinner and put us to bed? Did they fear for us, for our community, our country? What did they think the future held for their children?
We were there. I was there - just a few blocks from the fault line of a changing America. Yet, I only remember being a kid.