Editors Note: In one’s memory, some stretches of time just seem more significant than others. For me, the summer of 1969 is one of those times.


It Was 40 Years Ago Today

Aw, shucks. If my daddy could see me now.”

   — Up From the Skies
Jimi Hendrix

 

Like many baby boomers, I’m feeling nostalgic about three anniversaries this summer: one small and personal, a second historic and momentous, and a third somewhat less so. In 1969, I graduated from high school, saw the first man walk on the Moon and then watched from a distance as my generation partied at Woodstock.

A friend and I wanted to go to Woodstock that summer, but we couldn’t. My perpetually broken-down Mustang had a balky clutch, and my parents wouldn’t let me borrow their Chevy. As the family gathered around the old Zenith to watch miles of traffic shut down the New York State Thruway on the evening news, my parents said, “See. You’re lucky you missed out on that mess.” I didn’t feel even the least bit lucky about it.

Mom and dad were members of “The Greatest Generation” and I wasn’t, so we didn’t exactly see things the same way. The grown-ups who’d survived the Great Depression, defeated the Nazis, rebuilt our country in the 50s and then put a man on the Moon couldn’t comprehend how doing mind-altering drugs and slopping around half-naked in the mud with the Grateful Dead as the soundtrack might be anyone’s idea of a worthwhile activity or even a good time.

They couldn’t understand us. And we really didn’t want to understand them. We viewed the “Generation Gap” as a badge of honor and pontificated in vague platitudes about “The Revolution” that the Jefferson Airplane was always singing about. In lyrics as insane and inane as their stage show, The Who had sung, “Hope I die before I get old.” Well, most of us “long-haired freaks” are a lot older, fatter and balder now than our parents were back then.

We thought we’d change the world, but, compared with our parents, we didn’t do all that much, beyond repeatedly electing Republican presidents who increased tenfold the modest national debt that previous generations had accrued, and bequeathing it to future generations, who are unlikely to remember us as such a great generation. And, after all the talk about the lessons of Vietnam and overcoming “the Vietnam Syndrome,” we overcame it so well we learned virtually nothing from it.

Our generation, to its eternal disgrace, elected George W. Bush (twice, no less) and became cheerleaders for a pointless and optional war in Iraq that’s now helping to bankrupt an already-bankrupt nation. Just as our leaders had been eager to send us off to die when we graduated high school in a pointless war we’d eventually lose, our 21st century leaders have sent the graduates of the 2000s off to die in Iraq in more unnecessary carnage.

In 1969, The Greatest Generation landed two of its own on the Moon. However, although we didn’t know it at the time, it turned out to be part of the endgame of the manned space program, rather than the beginning of a great adventure in space exploration, in much the same way Woodstock was the climax of the “summers of love” that had begun at Monterrey in 1967. Soon, there’d be murder at Altamount, Charlie Manson would stain the hippie mystique, and all the talk of peace and love would fade away. But we couldn’t have known that in 1969.

Forty years later, the Woodstock generation has started collecting Social Security. Many of us graduated from high school in 1969, full of dreams, ideals and aspirations, some of which, in retrospect, now seem a little sad, not merely because of what went unfulfilled, but because so much of it was just plain silly and unrealistic.

But that’s why this 40th anniversary summer is so poignant. We aren’t the great generation our parents were, but this is still our generation — the only one we’ve got. And, in the same way that the best music is always whatever music you listened to when you were young, I choose to remember my generation as the best ever, simply and irrationally because it’s my own.

Since the summer of ’69, large numbers of Americans have gained their civil rights. We no longer lynch black men in Alabama and Mississippi, and we’ve seen the election of a black president, which no one would have believed possible during the 60s. The World War II generation did much of the heavy lifting during the Cold War, but it finally ended during our heyday. Like an episode of “Bonanza,” the good guys won, and I’d like to think we had a little bit to do with that too.

Women have now achieved most of the rights Thomas Jefferson promised to “all men,” and gay Americans are beginning to find their place as full-fledged citizens. And we’ve even raised some awareness about the destruction of the environment, although it will probably be left for Gen Z or whoever comes after them to actually do anything about it.

So, on the first weekend in October, 2009, I’ll be celebrating my 40th Greenwich High School reunion with a couple hundred of my classmates at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club. We may not be the greatest generation, but for a few hours, we’ll lift our glasses to commemorate what might have been and, 40 years later, remember the summer of ’69.


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