Memories of a Lost Time: 1969

Most people remember 1968, those who remember it at all, as an ill-stared and ominous year. It was the year of Tet; the siege of Khe Sahn; the decision of Lyndon Baines Johnson (“LBJ”) not to seek a second full term; the bracketed assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy; the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia ending the “Prague Spring;” the Chicago Democratic Convention; and the election of Richard M. Nixon (“RMN”).

However, 1969 may have been an even more ominous year.

In many ways it was a year of absence. John F. Kennedy (“JFK”) and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy (“RFK”), had been prematurely removed from the scene and their absence was palpable. During LBJ’s Administration, we had a direct successor, served by many of the same advisers, at least for awhile. By the time of RMN’s inauguration in January, there was no connection to a martyred President, except the issues.

In Space, in Vietnam and on a bridge in a place called Chappaquiddick, those issues would persist.

RMN came to office. Many people tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. Truman had, in recent memory, “risen to the Office.” However, I still remember my mother saying that after JFK, no one ever seemed to deserve Hail to the Chief being played for them again.

People tried to get comfortable with RMN, but it never seemed that he ever became comfortable with himself. Many people who knew RMN personally said he was a very different man in person than he was perceived: persuasive and genuine. Yet somehow, the TV Camera seemed to pick up on all of RMN’s self doubt, all of his artifice, and laid it bare. Despite ending the Vietnam War, opening China, domestic successes like OSHA and a landslide victory in 1972, the collapse of the Nixon presidency over the next 5 years would try the nation’s faith in its institutions. Quite a lot for a poor Quaker boy from Whittier to have done, although somehow more reflective of an inner darkness than an “Inner Light.”

Some of the unfinished business of the Kennedy years was positive. In 1969, America would fulfill one of his commitments.

At the end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969, an Apollo mission orbited the Moon. In July, Astronauts would land on the Moon for the first time, fulfilling JFK’s commitment to land on the moon by the end of the decade. Out of this would come Neil Armstrong’s famous statement: “One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind,” which was written for him as “One small step for a man,” but you can understand him blowing his lines. Also out of this would come the iconic photo of the Earth as seen from the Moon, reminding us how small (and concomitantly fragile) our world is.

This was a good time to be young. In the spring, the first mission deploying the Lunar Exploration Module (“LEM”) took place. To me, it looked more like some thing out of Star Trek; like the alien ship from The Tholian Web episode, than something out of Lost in Space, which was set in the distant, but closer, year 1997. Of course, with its landing legs deployed, the LEM looked much like a less streamlined version of the Space Pod from Lost in Space. Cheesy science fiction come to life: what more could you ask for?

Yet, here too was darkness. Years later, the late Bill Safire would reveal that he wrote a speech for RMN to give in the event the mission failed, which was deemed likely. The other detail he revealed was that the first step that would have been taken, when it was clear that we could not get the crew of The Eagle back, was that the cameras would have been shut off: yet another victory for artifice over truth.

For all of that however, the Moon landing brought us together. It made us proud to be Americans. Vietnam did neither.

My major memory of the Spring of that year, along with doing chores and flying kites with my father, was Hamburger Hill.

The fight over Ap Bia Mountain between NVA and US Forces in the rugged A Shau Valley demonstrates that many recent histories of the War, such as Lewis Sorely’s A Better War, that claim that a sea change occurred when GEN Creighton W. Abrams was COMUSMAC-V are somewhat overstated. While GEN Abrams almost certainly saved the Army after Vietnam as Chief of Staff (and I would later serve on a number of occasions under his capable son GEN [Ret.] John Abrams), much of what was wrong, like pitched battles for terrain that could not be held, none the less continued. My teacher that year had a son in 1st CAV. You would be hard pressed to tell her that things were getting better that year.  As Kurt Vonnegut said in his 1969 book Slaughterhouse 5: “So it goes.”

Shortly after the high of the Moon landing in July came two very dark lows.

The first was Chappaquiddick, where a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne and the ambitions for higher office of Edward Moore Kennedy both fell victim to a decent man’s alcoholism and survivor’s guilt. Ted Kennedy lived a bit more than 40 years beyond that day, but a part of him died then. My mother, as Catholics do for the dead, prayed for both Mary Jo Kopechne and Ted Kennedy for many years. In a sense, for many people, hope for a bright future that we would be led to by honest and charismatic men died that day, too.

Even worse were the Tate-Lo Bianco murders.

It’s odd that, more than 40 years later, Roman Polanski is again in the news, this time as a result of a crime he later committed. Unlike O.J. Simpson, Polanski and his father-in law, a retired Army Counter-intelligence Colonel, actually investigated the Tate-LoBianco murders, using Polanski’s knowledge of the LA demimonde and COL (Ret.) Tate’s knowledge of how to conduct investigations and his analytic skill. In fiction, such actions by the believed kin of a murder victim would either solve the crime or would hinder the investigation. In reality, what they learned resulted in some small but usable leads that were somewhat helpful in developing the official investigation that finally closed in on the Manson family.

From what has been written of him, Polanski, child of the Holocaust and refugee from the Communists, seemed happy, to that point in his life, only during his time with Sharon Tate. That his happiness was ended by violence, or that such a famous and successful man was haunted by violence and tragedy seemed to be one of the themes of 1969. We were all learning, like the protagonist of Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown, that the world was darker than we thought. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Soon after, the murders were discovered, however, America’s youth gave it reason to be proud.

At Woodstock, hundreds of thousands of young people came together without violence and with only a few accidents (but with, it should be noted, some famously bad brown acid, immortalized by the eponymous documentary).

I talked to a fellow once, a Registered Nurse who wrote a book about the Medical aspects of the event, who told me that only one person was run over by a vehicle. You could not run a military operation of that size, with NCOs supervising and sleeping areas marked off with engineer tape and chemical lights (and presumably everyone sober) without more losses than that.

While Woodstock was going on, my father and I were working on the front porch of the house. People kept driving up and asking directions to the festival. Oddly, we lived about 60 miles north and on a side-street.  While the festival goers were clearly committed to peace, love and understanding, many were clearly not well oriented to time, place and event.

On November 3, 1969, RMN made his “Silent Majority” speech. Written by the late Bill Safire and the ubiquitous Pat Buchanan, it set the tone (unfortunately) for what now passes as political discourse the United States. Spiro T. Agnew, formerly a moderate, if secretly and genially corrupt, Maryland governor became the point man (“Nattering Nabobs of Negativism”). RMN and his circle were aware that people were not warming to him and they wanted to find support. Instead, providing more heat than light, they breed discord, which continues to this day.  To this day, politicians have not learned that it is a fool’s errand to do battle with those who buy ink by the barrel.

On December 6, 1969, the sixties died along with an armed young man, Meredith Hunter, killed by a Hell’s Angel, who perceived Hunter as threatening him while the Stones played “Under My Thumb” at a faux-Woodstock free concert in Altamont, California. The Hell’s Angels had been asked to watch the stage and the generators during the concert.

The shooting was legally justifiable, tragic and epitomized the times.  It happened as it was getting darker and colder at the Altamont Speedway.  It was getting darker and colder in America as well as 1969 came to a close.

Unlike the young man, the Sixties were not mourned.  “So it goes.”