I watched a very interesting show on tv the other night. It was a CNN look-back on the year 1968. Sixty-eight was, of course, 50 years ago and it was indeed an extraordinarily tumultuous year for the United States and the entire world. The effects of all the trauma were under our noses here in Canada just as they were for Americans thanks to the ability of tv signals to skip borders.
Those were the days of constant enmity between the Americans and the Russians, of daily news film, uncensored in those days, graphically showing the horrors of the hugely divisive war in Vietnam, the race riots, the assassinations and the brutality of the Chicago police clubbing and beating young demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention, of brawls and physical violence inside the walls of that very convention hall among warring factions of that same party.
Flailing police batons, bleeding heads, tear gas, water cannons and fire…lots and lots of fire. It seemed all America was ablaze.
Makes todays shenanigans seem truly tame.
I turned twenty right smack in the middle of that mad, mad year. I didn’t really understand just how nuts it all was but the sense of impending danger was everywhere. My interest in world affairs and politics was beginning to emerge, but at that age, making sense of my own immediate life and situation occupied the vast majority of my energy, mental and otherwise.
By July of 1968 I had been on the road for two full years. The band was based in Toronto but we spent most of our time living in low-end hotel rooms and playing in bars, downstairs or down the street, in towns and cities all over Ontario and Quebec. We played for the young and the broken and the drunk; we backed up the topless dancers and were backlit by the oily lava-lamplight projected through a smoke haze so thick that it poured out the open doors like an inverted waterfall and saturated the night air with the reckless abandon of the young and possibly doomed.
And I was a newlywed to boot…just to complicate things…Georgia and I had gotten hitched in April.
The thing that did strike me, and I think most other young people that year, was that it seemed everything was about us. It was college students who led the demonstrations and sit-ins and building occupations. They marched in gigantic parades carrying placards decrying the War, Nixon, and the Draft. Young women burned bras, young men burned draft cards.
I met American draft dodgers in the same bars where I met Canadians who had gone to enlist in the US army so they could go fight in Vietnam. Some were going back for second and third tours, they were excited and high on adrenalin; some others just sat in dark corners and drank.
And this was Canada. I can only imagine what American bars were like in those days.
It was all fascinating to me and I wondered what I would have done if I had been born there…in the USA. Would I have actually gone into the army? I don’t think so. When I was a kid I loved all things military but by high school I had begun cultivating a fairly powerful anti-authority stance in keeping with the trend of my generation, and killing people or being killed by them was just nowhere in my life plan. But then again, I hadn’t been raised in that jingoistic, uber-patriotic, love-it-or-leave-it brainwash that so appealed to so many young men on both sides of the border.
Back then it was all just the way it was. We had all grown up waiting for the bomb to drop in our backyards so a little more existential anxiety was nothing to write home about. I played my drums and dreamed of being a star and planned my life in spite of all the noise. I could tune it out, I guess, just like so many are doing now. And the times changed and life went on.
And we’re all still here…most of us anyway…and I guess that’s the point that emerges most powerfully from watching a re-play of that harrowing time.
If the world could survive that (and it truly was a year when all bets were off when it came to war, democracy and personal freedom) then surely we can all get our shit together and get past the current avalanche of dung being hurled from high towers the world over.
Once again I’m betting on the young…fresh legs are needed. Reminders of past struggles are needed too…and experience and memory and perhaps even a snippet of wisdom.
We do go round and round…we humans. We repeat past mistakes and create deeper grooves with each pass. But like a wheel we are all moving forward even as we go round and round…it just takes a little correction this way or that to avoid the ruts.
I remember watching a Beatles press conference in the United States back in those times. A reporter asked, “Ringo, how do you feel about the draft?” To which the smart-ass Beatle replied, “It’s a little much, would you close the window.”