Monday, September 8, 2008

An advance look at "When I'm 64"

Since some of you haven't heard from me for a while, I wanted to let you know that I am still chugging away at "When I'm 64." If you're interested, this is a draft of what will be the introductory chapter of the book. I welcome your comments.

GRADUATION DAY

The rented gowns were heavy and more than a little scratchy. Royal blue for the boys, white for the girls and gold sashes for members of the National Honor Society. We had been told what to wear underneath them, and there was talk that a few of the more adventuresome among us might disregard the instructions and opt for being as cool as possible. These days they call it “going commando.”

It was June 5, 1967, the beginning of the summer season in the Washington, D.C., area, an area so hot and humid that Congress always used to adjourn for the year by Memorial Day in the days before air conditioning. Just 23 years earlier, almost to the day, a president had informed the nation that American troops were coming ashore in France as part of the D-Day invasion that marked the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler. Those soldiers, many of them no older than we were, and others like them who fought in other theatres of the war, were our fathers.

They had beaten the Axis and then returned home to enjoy the seemingly limitless bounty of postwar America. A big part of that bounty turned out to be children, and our class in 1967 represented flood tide of the so-called baby boom. The 804 seniors at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax – most of them graduating on this Monday night, represented the largest graduating class up to then in the state of Virginia.

The school had opened only five years earlier, and more than 3,300 kids were crowded into a five-year old building that year, with a senior class that was more homogenous than even seems possible in a public school today. Only 14 members of the class were African-American, and the only senior of Asian descent was an exchange student from South Vietnam.

We had no idea that anything was at all out of the ordinary. Those of us who had grown up in Virginia had lived through “massive resistance,” the effort led by the Byrd political machine to prevent the courts from implementing integration in the schools. Woodson hadn’t been integrated at all until our junior year, when a handful of black students included two basketball players who led our team to the state tournament.

The next year, with the final closing of Fairfax County’s black high school, several hundred students enrolled at Woodson and many of us went to class with someone of another race for the very first time.

Our families weren’t all that wealthy, but there may never have been a better time to be middle class in America. Beautiful suburban homes were available for less than $30,000, and most of our fathers had access to low-interest government mortgages due to their military service.

Not that many of us had cars – this wasn’t California – but mohair sweaters, Gant shirts, London Fog windbreakers and Bass Weejun loafers were relatively common status symbols.

Within two or three years, dress codes would be a thing of the past. But at Woodson in the middle of the 1960s, boys were sent home for wearing blue jeans or ordered to get haircuts when their hair touched their ears or their collars and girls fought and lost the battle of whether they would be allowed to wear culottes to school. Slacks or shorts were completely out of the question.

Dozens of American cities exploded in race riots during the summer of 1965 and again in 1966, and protesters in the northeast and in California were already questioning the war in Vietnam. But Washington, D.C., was a company town, and most of our fathers worked for a CEO named Lyndon Baines Johnson. We were young enough and America in general was still innocent enough that few of us even considered the possibility that we might not be getting the whole truth.

"We were so sheltered," 1967 graduate Dudley Wilson said. "I don’t think we thought we were, but we were."

Of course we were. The idea that high school students – suburban high school students – would have anything to protest was ludicrous. Our parents got great pleasure from telling us how much better we had it than they did. We hadn’t grown up during the Great Depression, suffered through rationing during World War II or gone off to fight the war before we were old enough to vote.

By almost any standard, we were pampered. All that was expected of most of us was that we would get good grades and get into a decent college. For the boys, at least, our options were limited. We couldn’t plan a year or two off or a stint in the military unless we wanted to spend 1968 in the jungle in South Vietnam. That meant college, which wasn’t the toughest possible future.

We knew all that as we waited just outside the football stadium on June 5. If there was one place on the 78-acre campus that held more good memories than any other, it was probably the stadium. For members of the football team like class president Mike McCuddin, the previous fall had been the best season ever – eight victories in 10 games. For another of the graduation speakers, Nancy Abt, there was the memory of being crowned homecoming queen the previous October.

For others there were memories of cheerleading, of marching in the band, or just of sitting in the stands and enjoying an autumn Friday night.

But now it was June, and for most of those waiting to graduate, it would be the last time they would ever walk into the stadium. And as the symphonic band began playing Elgar’s "Pomp and Circumstance," there were more than a few people fighting back tears.

It wasn’t because of the music. Elgar didn’t much move us, and neither did most classical music. We were the rock 'n' roll generation, and most of us tuned our car radios to AM stations like WEAM in nearby Arlington("The WEAM team") or to WPGC's "Good Guys" across the Potomac River in Maryland.

In that first week in June, we were listening to songs like "Respect," by Aretha Franklin, or "Groovin’," by the Young Rascals. And of course there were the Beatles, who had provided the soundtrack for our high school years in a way no other classes could claim. They had burst upon the American scene in the winter of our freshman year, and we had sat faithfully in front of our television sets to see them on the Ed Sullivan show that March.

No one was more prolific in those days. We got a new Beatles single every few months and at least two albums a year. A new Beatles album was a major event, and few had been more anticipated than their most recent effort. "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" had been released just four days before our graduation, and if we didn’t know then that critics would one day call it the greatest rock album ever, we did know it was special.

It was a different sort of Beatles album. Most rock albums in those days contained three or four singles and a lot of filler material, but "Sgt. Pepper" wasn’t like that. It had songs that sounded like singles, but weren’t, and it had songs we were never going to hear on our favorite Top 40 stations.

One song never failed to make us laugh. Hearing 26-year-old Paul McCartney sing, "When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now," we couldn’t even imagine it. Heck, people were telling us not to trust anyone over 30. We were the generation that invented the youth culture, the kids who were never ever going to get old.

There may have been a handful of seniors waiting to graduate that night considering what life would be like when they were 64, but there were far more of us thinking about post-graduation parties, trips to the beach and the endless summer that stretched out ahead of us before the next phase of our lives would start.

When I’m 64? None of us were even old enough to vote, although that didn’t make any difference to the handful of senior boys who would be on their way to Vietnam before the end of the year.

When I’m 64? An 18-year-old in 1967 would celebrate a 64th birthday sometime in the year 2013, and we all knew there would be pills developed before then to slow the aging process. We would take them in the morning on our way to work in our flying cars.

We were never going to be 64. We had enough mixed feelings about graduating from high school. Sure, we were happy to be finished, happy to be heading on to college. But some of us had to wonder if there would ever be moments in life as wonderful as being named homecoming queen, or getting elected class president, or learning that we had nailed – absolutely nailed – our SATs.

This was our last day of being the big kids in school. In three months we would be off to colleges from coast to coast, trying to get the hang of being freshmen again. But tonight was our night to think about the future as we sat and waited to pick up our diplomas.

Mike McCuddin told us and our assembled guests how lucky we had been.

"We are fortunate to live in a country where we feel so confident in freedom and liberty that we often take them for granted; to live in a community where we are not worried about where our next meal will come from. We have spent almost one quarter of our lives at Woodson, and have actually been exposed to very little outside our own small world."

He then spoke of a photo most of us had seen in recent weeks, the famous shot of a naked child running down a street in Vietnam to escape being killed.

"Not everyone has been as lucky as we have been. Today in Vietnam, there is a little girl who has no family. They have all been killed. She has no home. It was burned. She is starving and lives in fear. She has little hope or opportunity to improve her life or be a factor in the forces that control it. She would gladly risk her life to be here with us today. And unfortunately, there are millions like her."

Then, of course, there was the inevitable look ahead.

"We leave Woodson with fantastic opportunities and challenges ahead of us. We can make a difference in a world that desperately needs our help. This is our chance, the first day of the rest of our lives. It’s time to get started. There is so much to do, and so little time to do it."

So little time? Not really. We had all the time in the world, or at least we thought we did. We were 18 years old and aching to get out and do the things we had been learning about. College, whether at an Ivy League school, a military academy or a large state university, would be a first step into that world.

McCuddin himself said it when he alluded to one of the more popular slogans of the time. Today was the first day of the rest of our lives. If the average lifespan of an American child born in 1949 was about 70 years, we still had three-quarters of our lives to enjoy. Our parents were fond of telling us to enjoy our childhood, that these years were our best years and we would never be able to get them back.

We laughed knowingly. We wanted to be adults, to control our own finances, to have our own cars, to enjoy more adult pleasures. Folks might look back now and think that we couldn’t possibly have been as innocent as most of us were. After all, it was the Sixties. But in suburban Virginia in the spring of 1967, life had much more in common with the "Happy Days" Fifties than it did with long hair, love beads and wild times.

There must have been a few of us who had tried marijuana, but there were ten times as many who had never even sampled beer. There certainly were some of us who were sexually active, but there were far more who graduated as virgins. As for anyone questioning the status quo or the war in Vietnam, it really wasn’t done.

When one senior homeroom teacher told her all-white class one morning in September 1966 that black people didn’t want to work for a living, only one student challenged her on it. "That’s a racist thing to say," he said, and only the fact that it was kept her from blowing up and throwing him out of the class. She certainly didn’t apologize for her belief.

That senior remembered that September morning then and he remembers it now. He was one of the kids anxious to leave Woodson and move on, even though there were far worse times and far bigger pitfalls ahead. He wanted to be a lawyer and go into politics, but he didn’t do either. He didn’t even get a flying car.

God willing, he’ll learn what it means to be 64, although plenty of members of the Woodson Class of 1967 never will. The memory book at the class’s 40-year reunion in October 2007 listed 30 seniors who died, from Jon Rumble and Mike Sullivan in Vietnam in 1968 to Nancy Bilger in 2006. There have been more since. The class has lost touch with about 300 of its 804 members.

Those of us who survived have learned a lot. Since high school, we have lived through the King and Kennedy assassinations, the Chicago convention riots, the moon landing, Woodstock, war protests, Kent State, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, the Reagan years, the Challenger crash, the Clinton years, 9/11 and two wars in Iraq. The Six Day War actually started the day we graduated, and Robert Kennedy died one year to the day after we stood and accepted our diplomas.

Lee Millette, as a Virginia Supreme Court justice one of the highest-achieving members of the class, says being a baby boomer meant being the center of attention.

"To me the thing that is most interesting about our generation is that the world is always about us," he said. "Because of our tremendous demographic impact, we have always had an inordinate influence on what is going on in the country."

Nancy Abt’s graduation speech no longer exists outside our memories, but she remembers talking about the "Old College Try" and speaking of that famous ant that kept toppling rubber tree plants.

Yes, we had high hopes more than 40 years ago. A different song, this one by the Grateful Dead, one of the iconic bands of our era, sort of sums it all up.

"Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me; Other times, I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me ... What a long, strange trip it's been."

The Woodson Class of ’67 has indeed enjoyed a long, strange trip. Some of us lived our dreams, while others didn’t. It’s a pretty fair bet that most of us have learned a lot, although there remains one important thing we need to know.

Will they still need us, will they still feed us, when we’re 64?

6 comments:

Kirkland HOA's said...

WOW! Did I just take a trip down memory lane. Thanks Mike. I am really looking forward to more. I do remember heading out to Virgina Beach right after graduation with my girlfriends and my MOM(picked because she was the "coolest" one of the Mom's. Did not quite work out as we were 18 and "girls just wanted to have fun" even back then. She left and we stayed. I have kept in touch with some of them and will pass the info on the blog on to them. Anxiously awaiting the next chapter.
Marna(Podonsky)Hanneman

Dale Morgan said...

Mike - it's great! Really took me back. I like seeing the class picture along with the chapter. Wonder if we can get classmates to share pics for the chapters they are in. Great work and I eagerly look forward to seeing more chapters.
Dale

Bob Douthitt said...

nice job Mike, especially weaving together a whole bunch of different contexts. It's a little shocking too, to see in your numbers exactly how lily white we were!

Anonymous said...

Reads like a dream....R

Sally Lloyd Lyberger said...

Oh, yeah. Give me more. I feel like a voyeur on this website, but I can't seem to leave it alone. That's our generation, right? Actually, I was never a part of anything at Woodson. I went there for four loooonnnnggg years and I remember almost nothing about being there day after day except feeling anxious. That's ok, I don't remember a lot these days anyway! JK. The point is, even though very few of you knew who I was or what I thought about or if I wished every single morning walking those halls some of you would notice me and maybe say hi, we are inextricably tied to one another and I still wish I known you, even though life since is so full and blessed. Thank you, Mike Rappaport, for doing this, all of it, and Dale for the communication. I look forward to the next chapter, and I'm thrilled to watch it unfold once again.

Dale Morgan said...

Sally - your comments about how you felt at WTW rung true with me, too, and I would not be surprised if most everyone else feels the same way. I knew about 5 people really well during the entire 3 years I attended WTW. It was not until I got involved with coordinating the reunions years after we graduated that I got to know all these wonderful, interesting people. I look back now and realize if I had joined more committees to work on school projects and floats and plays and whatever, I would have been forced to meet more people then, but I was too shy back then. Plus, I absolutely love organizing these events so I would have enjoyed school more back then if I had just gotten more involved.

And, Sally, you were noticed. Remember several years back, I recognized you on the elevator at our workplace (which was a huge department)? I never knew you personally in high school, but I recognized your face and introduced myself and asked if you went to WTW? We just were all too shy to be the first one to introduce ourselves back then while in high school.

I am so looking forward to Mike's finished work.