With a perspective of fifty years, those of us who endured 1968 can now put things in proper perspective.
For the past five decades, we could summarize 1968 with a few quick images:
- The springtime assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy within two months,
- The violence in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention that summer,
- The election of Richard Nixon in the fall
- The daily presence of the Vietnam War on the national television news.
There is little doubt that year changed many of us.
By the mid-1960s, seniors who were among the first to pay into Social Security were now collecting their benefits.
Middle-aged people who thought they had been through the worst in World War II now scratched their heads as they watched television images of draft card burnings, college campus protests, and death in the jungles of Vietnam.
Those in their teens and twenties feared the military draft as more and more young men would be brought into the south-east Asian quagmire.
I saw it all from a different perspective. I was a fifth-grader in the spring of 1968. I grew up a lot during that year.
In April, we saw the aftermath of the King shooting, the rioting, the funeral procession, and the updates on the manhunt for the man who pulled the trigger.
The next month would bring tragedy to my family when my uncle Bill was killed in a car accident near my hometown. Bill had endured a tour of duty in Vietnam. He had finished his service just six months prior to that accident.
I spent a good amount of time in later years tracking down soldiers who knew him. I never got the chance to talk to him about his military service. He died when I was just eleven years old. I knew that I would never know him as an uncle.
With that accident coming just a month after the King shooting, I put the events from the south out of my mind and focused on going through the grieving process with my family as we mourned the death of Bill Newvine.
In early June, the world saw Robert Kennedy gunned down in Los Angeles.
I have distinct memories of spending a Saturday afternoon at my cousin’s dairy farm. My cousins and I spent most of the day outside.
But whenever I came inside, my aunt Betty would be watching the Kennedy funeral on television.
I survived 1968. Thanks to my parents.
Like most parents, Ed and Bea sought to protect their children, and provide enriching experiences for them.
Our annual camping trips over the summer months remained on the calendar in 1968.
We packed our camper and headed to Golden Beach State Park on Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks. There, we joined with several other families from my hometown for a week of vacation.
The remainder of that summer would take us through images of violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago later that summer.
The Vietnam War would continue to rage seemingly out of control as more American soldiers paid the ultimate price.
But my parents sought to keep our summer as normal as possible. In addition to the camping trips, we’d go to the weekly firemen’s field days in Port Leyden and surrounding communities.
My brother, sister, and I would help Mom tend to the garden or assist Dad with projects around the house. I spent many days riding my bike and being with friends.
On weekends, my parents would take us on family day trips to such places at the Saint Lawrence Seaway or a boat cruise through the Thousand Islands of northern New York State.
The summer ended with one final camping trip to another Adirondack state park. We returned home on Labor Day, and I entered the sixth grade the next day.
On one level, the events of 1968 made me feel as though the world was falling apart. But in my family circle, my parents were trying to fill our free time with things to do. This in spite of the fact my Dad was dealing with his own grief over the death of his brother earlier in the spring.
The most hope-filled moment of 1968 came at Christmastime when the Apollo 8 mission took three astronauts around the moon for the first time ever.
Circling the moon was an important milestone for the space program as it proved NASA could safely travel there. Astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and Jim Lovell would fly close enough to the surface to identify favorable landing spots for the mission that would land there later in 1969.
But the moment that remains as a hopeful sign that times would get better came when the astronauts read from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve, 1968.
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”
Those words, coupled with pictures showing the earth looking like a bright blue marble, put a final touch on a year many would just as soon forget.
The passage ended a year of tragedy with words of hope.
“And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
1968 was filled with tragic events. It was more than enough to endure for any child, or any adult for that matter.
Thanks to my parents, there were some pleasant memories from 1968.
And for that, I am grateful.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.
He wrote about the 1968 death of his uncle Bill in his book Finding Bill, available from Lulu.com