By Nat Krieger
Like a kid who pauses halfway up a tree and is surprised to see how far away the ground has gone it’s disconcerting, and 50 years later a little comical, to see childhood memories as bit players in the broader dramas of receding History. Though I’ve never been 61 years old before, I’m assuming these feelings of vertigo and bemusement are perennial and widespread among kids who survive long enough to feel them.
As the adult guardians of the living room Zenith are long gone I will never know why I was allowed to watch a hockey game on Thursday, April 4, 1968–a school night. Exhaustive Wikipedianal research reveals that the hometown Chicago Blackhawks were in New York that night facing off against the Rangers in Game One of the NHL playoffs, so the odds are good that I presented said guardians with reasons why the match was absolutely key and also lied about finishing my math homework.
It might have been in the first period, but I think it was the second when an official man’s voice interrupted the low scoring game with a bulletin: Martin Luther King had been shot. I was only vaguely aware of who he was but TV bulletins were rare and usually announced the proximity of tornados, so I ran upstairs to tell my parents.
While time appears to move always forward it’s often remembered backward. The reason the night of the assassination is carved into my memory is not the bulletin itself but my parents’ reaction to it. Having grown up during the Great Depression my mother and father showed their children a stoicism that seems to have been the rule back then.
I can only assume that Dr. King’s murder jump-started my political awareness, though in the spring and into the summer of 1968 it seemed like there was no choice
In addition, there was a pretty long list of forbidden words. Gosh and shucks were allowed, their unvarnished variants were not. The naked shock that paralyzed their faces was my first clue that something very, very bad had just happened. Then my mother looked directly at my father, and murmured, “My God.” She then asked me if he was dead. I didn’t know. Minutes later the three of us were in front of the set, silent when the same voice came back with the answer.
Unlike fiction, where character development is tracked and motives explained, our own distant and private non-fictions, at least what we believe to be our non-fictions, are closer to disintegrating film stock, a few frames salvaged from the ruins.
I can only assume that Dr. King’s murder jump-started my political awareness, though in the spring and into the summer of 1968 it seemed like there was no choice: the house was filled with political arguments and just like you HAD to pick a favorite team in each sport, you HAD to take sides politically, at least that’s how it felt to me.
Bobby Kennedy had entered the race for President late and my next oldest brother, a Gene McCarthy supporter, was unimpressed. He argued that RFK was an opportunist who had only lately turned against the War in Vietnam and that his candidacy would fatally split the anti-war vote.
My oldest brother viewed the entire process as the death rattle of the bourgeois, capitalist order. My father’s unhappiness with his firstborn’s Leninist-Marxist critiques was very possibly exacerbated by my brother’s long hair and my father’s suspicion that his firstborn had blown out the base on the HiFi by the repeated playing of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
While my oldest brother may have grown skeptical of traditional capitalist hierarchies of power, in the case of the buzzing HiFi he could legitimately claim to be following record company instructions: many of the LPs he listened to came with the printed advisory, “This record should be played loud.”
My 11-year-old self felt a devotional bond with Bobby Kennedy. It was all feeling, not really thought out. I had not yet developed the ability to retroactively intellectualize my position (i.e. I couldn’t BS, or dunk yet. I still can’t dunk).
Strangely, I retained a vague but deep feeling for Bobby’s older brother John. I still remember the flag tied so tightly to the box on the horse-drawn wagon rolling slowly across our Zenith, in black, white, and a dozen shades of grey. My six-year-old brain tried and failed to imagine this handsome man asleep in such a small box.
The awareness that John had been our leader, should still be our leader, faded deep into the background of day to day life, but it was never gone. Physically the contrast between what we had lost and the old man who made televised speeches from behind his desk left a permanent if subconscious impact on me.
Even before the escalating Vietnam War and the drafting of sons to fuel it made LBJ hated in the eyes of our mother, I was somehow aware, without really knowing, that we had been cheated, robbed, that a whole alternative future had been snatched away. It was my first encounter with death. My mother, a Bostonian of JFK’s generation and accent, had unknowingly convinced me that the Kennedys were somehow family.
The family connection only deepened when I found out that Bobby had a little brother. John, Robert, and Teddy (I didn’t know about Joe Junior). Three boys, just like us.
I remember my sadness and shock when Bobby lost in Oregon (a Kennedy COULDN’T lose) and falling asleep the night of the California primary. Just like the final scores from west coast baseball games, my bedtime in Chicago meant I would have to learn the result the following day. California was winner take all and I knew that Bobby had to win to have a shot at beating Hubert Humphry (who I’d come to hate as much as LBJ) in Chicago.
For reasons psychologists could probably figure out I can’t remember where or how I learned of Bobby’s assassination the following morning. The next few frames of black and white Zenith memory show Chicago’s Finest chasing demonstrators down Michigan Ave. Back inside the convention hall Abe Ribicoff, I never forgot his name, rose to condemn Mayor Daley’s “Gestapo tactics.”
The feelings of rage and helplessness that roiled me would become intimate companions; I was introduced to them during that long summer week.
By the fall I was a full-blown political junkie, visiting both Democratic and Republican campaign headquarters with my best friend Danny in search of bumper stickers and buttons-NIXON’S THE ONE!
The 1968 Illinois Governor’s race pitted Cook County Sherriff Richard Ogilvie for the Republicans against Democrat Sam Shapiro. Live and in color we stumbled into a Shapiro rally, probably after exiting his campaign HQ loaded with booty.
The diminutive candidate was hidden behind a line of cheerleaders high kicking Rockettes style and chanting “sock it to ‘em Sam, sock it to ‘em, Sam”. Yes, it was the ‘60s…
Shapiro’s synchronized support was not enough. Dick Ogilvie won the Governor’s Mansion. How different was Illinois state politics half a century ago? As governor the Republican Ogilvie passed the state’s first income tax; even more jarring, Ogilvie failed to use the Governor’s office in Springfield as a springboard to federal prison.
Eleven years old is a little young to become a cynic but RFK’s murder must have left me with a need to put some distance between me and a presidential campaign whose two main candidates wanted to make me puke (a word 11-year-old boys are still rather fond of.) Maybe Danny felt the same way.
With the help of another friend and his little sister, we canvased our neighborhood collecting hundreds of signatures for comedian and presidential candidate Pat Paulson. We even got our picture in the local paper holding our long, scroll-like petition (notebook papers connected with scotch tape).
In a fall forever darkened by the blood of two men who were so much more than all of their successors put together, the one bright spot was the Tigers-Cardinals World Series, a seven-game classic.
The previous year I had become a Detroit Tiger fan. We lived maybe forty blocks from Comiskey Park but I never warmed to the punchless Pale Hose.
Baseball historians have dubbed 1968 the Year of the Pitcher. Tigers ace Denny McClain won 31 games and Carl Yastrzemski took the American League batting title hitting a majestic .301. The runner-up finished at .290. The gods of baseball became so thirsty for offensive ambrosia that for the ’69 season they would lower the pitcher’s mound from 15 to 10 inches, where it has stayed ever since.
Although electricity was pretty widespread by October 1968, the World Series was still a strictly daylight affair. For Game One Danny had smuggled his transistor into shop class. Five or six kids were gathered round the little radio in the back of the room when the shop teacher asked us for the score.
Our sad attempt at secrecy unmasked, we decided to take the teacher’s question as tacit permission to carry on, as long as we kept the class appraised of the score. With that we settled down on our metal stools for what everyone agreed would be an Opener For The Ages: McClain against Red Birds ace Bob Gibson, who had won three World Series games the year before and finished the ’68 season with 304 innings pitched and an otherworldly 1.21 ERA.
Me, I had a bad feeling about McClain. He seemed like a showoff and the Tigers had so dominated the American League that he’d never been called on to win a big game. (This was the last year without divisions and post-season playoffs)
My sick feeling got worse: the Tigers couldn’t touch Gibson whereas the hometown Cards threatened every inning, breaking through for three runs in the fourth, and winning easily behind Gibson’s 17 strikeout, complete game shutout.
After the Tigers won Game Two they went back to Detroit where they managed to take only one of three at Tiger Stadium–just enough to get the Series back to St. Louis where they had to win both games.
A Tigers rout in Game Six set up the winner take all final contest. Bob Gibson had let the Tigers score a grand total of one run in his two complete-game victories and the Cards had him going on full, three days’ rest.
I was delighted that Detroit skipper Mayo Smith tapped Mickey Lolich to oppose the unbeatable Gibson, even though it meant starting the portly southpaw on only two days’ rest. Lolich had kept the Tigers in the Series-winning Games Two and Five, each time following Gibson victories with complete game triumphs of his own. For once Tigers management listened to me.
In the final game, Gibson was good but Lolich was better. His hard sinker was unhittable. In interviews after the victory, the Motor City’s newest immortal explained that he just threw the ball as hard as he could but with his tired arm the ball could only stay aloft for 60 feet before diving the last six inches—the perfect sinker.
Only a few frames from 1968 remain, most from the first Tuesday night in November, with permission to stay up late but falling asleep in front of the Zenith with the Nixon-Humphry contest still undecided…the reel begins to burn and melts before my eyes, the fate of nearly all super 8 movies.
But what about the obligation of a moderately sentient anciano to soar above the tree his 11-year-old self remains stuck in and survey the forest through the wide-angled wisdom gained in the intervening half century?