A front row seat to history

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Vaughn Meador, center, on the cover of a humorous album about the Kennedys.

Vaughn Meader, center, on the cover of a humorous album about the Kennedys.

A student  asked me today what it was like, growing up in the 1960s and experiencing all the assassinations and other things that were happening at the time. The question, which came in the middle of a discussion of this week’s historical inauguration of our first African-American president, took me by surprise for a second. I’m not sure what I answered in class, because I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and what I said may not match up with all my thoughts since then.

But I decided maybe I should share some of my experiences growing up in Southwest Missouri in the 1960s, and what it was like. 

I was raised (we were taught to said raised. ‘Rear” was a word reserved for our backsides) in Noel, Mo., where I lived for most of my young life. My family was typical for its day — a working father and a stay-at-home mom, with brothers and sisters and not much money. Until I was 12, my father was either in the Air Force or retired from there and working as a real estate and insurance agent. He was suited for the work, but not for the sales aspect, and the family took a collective sigh of relief when he went to work at the U.S. Post Office, and was given a commission as Postmaster in 1962. Suddenly we had enough money to not worry as much. But because we were a typical post-World War II family, the kids didn’t worry, anyway. 

My mother was (and is) a vivacious, friendly and outgoing piece of eye candy. My father, claimed by Parkinson’s disease in 1988, was a quiet, painfully-shy civil servant, who doted on his widowed mother and kept both her and his  adored wife and family happy and well. I don’t think Dad ever handled money, though. It was the 1960s answer to direct deposit: from the check in the mail to Mom and then to the checking account. Politically, my mother leaned left, and sometimes when Dad and Mom argued about current events, he would accuse her of having communist leanings. Dad never revealed his political ideas, but I think he secretly did exactly like Mom; he couldn’t let Grandma know, though; she was an ardent supporter of all things Republican. And so was most of the town. 

In the late 1950s and throughout most of the 1960s, Noel was domineered by a merchant who owned most of the town, including the lumber yard, the hardware company, and the water company. This man was Republican, and everyone who worked for him or did business with him voted as he told them. And they did vote, because his workers ran the elections and worked the voting precincts, and they knew who voted how. Not all of this man’s actions were bad; in fact, you could say he had his own Republican version of the New Deal going. I had several relatives who worked for him, and lived in his houses for very little rent until they died. He always took care of people, and if he was somewhat controlling at times, that was OK to folks when they knew he was also someone who would see to their needs in times of trouble.  In that way, Noel was a typical Southern town. Our local merchant was no different than the others, who ran towns nearby. The towns also had their own telephone companies back then, although this began to change about this time and most of the smaller companies were swallowed whole by larger companies in the 1960s. 

In our town we had three grocery stores, all doing good business; we also had a 5 & 10 store, an independently owned bank, a dry cleaners and laundry, two pharmacies, two doctor’s offices, and other assorted businesses including several taverns. Very little of that remains today, not even the taverns, where fallen women and naughty men (or so I was told) would congregate. (We kept a small bottle of spirits at home, way down under the cupboard somewhere, for medicinal purposes only. I never saw my parents drink until the 1960s, and even then, it was only a fine bottle of wine for a special meal, and never to excess) Today there is no place in the county to get meat cut to order, unless you have your own cattle slaughtered and taken to the processor. A person could also get credit at the grocers, so your family could eat between paychecks. Today this is more or less impossible, so people use credit cards and pay day loans. It was different world. 

We were segregated, but not because there were African-Americans living amongst us. We were segregated by a strange twist of history and geography, being a historically unfriendly area to diverse persons. The usual old saw about the sign at the edge of town was told, but I never saw it (the sign reportedly said “don’t let the sun set on your black ass, N—–,” but I fervently hope this was never the case.) We had one Black man in town, Earl Brown. He was left there by the people who brought him as their servant and then died. Brownie had no place to go, but he was given a place in town to live, (probably by the local merchant, although I don’t know this) and did odd jobs for people to pay for incidentals. We kids all loved Brownie, who was nice to everybody (probably for his own best interests.) Brownie was buried in the city cemetery, two graves down from my Dad. Everyone else was white or passed for white, with even the American natives staying over toward Southwest City, near the Oklahoma border. 

We talked politics at the dinner table at home, and Mom got several magazines that I read cover-to-cover when they arrived. One of those was Newsweek; another was Look, a large, pictoral magazine with articles about important things. Dad came home every night between 5:30 and 6, and the first thing he did was turn the TV to the evening news. My first remembrance of politics was Mom begging Dad to vote, and to cast his ballot for Adlai Stevenson, who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent President Dwight D.  Eisenhower in 1956. We never found out how Dad voted. In 1960, I’m pretty sure both of my parents voted for JFK. 

Noel was not only segregated from the outside world, it was isolated. When I read James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, I thought of the village up in the Himalayas as being similar to Noel in many respects. We had stores, but they didn’t carry anything even remotely exotic. Yogurt, for example, never graced the shelves of Homer Kilmer’s grocery store; but he could cut up a fantastic sirloin steak in a couple of minutes, thickness to order. Mom was a fantastic cook, and she often placed special requests to Mr. Kilmer for cuts of meat that he didn’t usually have. He would cheerfully take the order, and in a few days, voila! Try getting that in today’s Wal-Mart! Because of our isolation, we didn’t have fast food, except for the Dairy Lane out on the highway and a place in town that was only open for the summer tourists. And fast food was not the term, because it was burgers and fries, etc., and it took a few minutes. But tacos? I didn’t have tacos until 1968, and those were cooked unceremoniously in the back yard of our Spanish teacher, who was experimenting with a recipe. She had to get the shells in Tulsa. (I didn’t have fajitas until the 1980s, but that is another story.)

Getting to school, I had three options: I could walk, which in the winter was no problem, as we lived only about a mile from town if one walked through the woods, down the hill, and just a few hundred yards down the roadway to campus. But my parents worried about wild dogs and snakes and the fact that we were young, and walking was not their preferred method. Instead, I was encouraged to walk a mile down our dirt road in the opposite direction from town, to catch one of two school buses. Whichever one I chose, I would be the first one on and the last one off, meaning an hour’s ride through the dirt roads of the county, picking up other children. By the time I arrived, I would be extremely nauseated from a combination of diesel fumes and motion sickness, which I still suffer from if I don’t drive. And, it meant that I would have to get up earlier and walk out to the bus stop well before 7 a.m., often in the dark of early dawn. Once, after two weeks of snow holiday, school opened but the buses didn’t run because of the snow. I begged to go, being stir-crazy, and Mom agreed, so I walked through the woods and started down the hill, and then I realized I was in deep trouble. The snow had melted and thawed so many times, it had become a thick crust of ice. I was about a quarter of the way down when I decided I’d never make it down the steep incline without breaking my neck, but I couldn’t go back, either. I was stuck. To put this in perspective, imagine a 25 percent grade. It was very steep. So I did the only thing I could and grabbed onto a bush and stayed there for several hours, in freezing temperatures. Finally, the ice had melted enough that I could see places that would give me something to grab onto with my feet, and I carefully made it down. My hands and feet and face were white from the cold, but I walked on. Just as I came to the road, a lady who lived on the corner saw me come off the hill, and came out to get me. “Get inside,” she said. “You are frozen stiff!” We called my Mom, who said I should warm myself up and go to school. By this time it was about 11 a.m. She couldn’t come get me, because her car wouldn’t make it. Dad would pick me up in his Volkswagen on his way home for lunch. I can still remember the intense pain as the feeling came back into my hands and feet from this experience. Today, I would have been dispatched to the local hospital, but back then it was all a part of growing up. The trick was, not to warm up too fast, but to gradually bring back the feeling. I luckily suffered no lasting effects and was fine by that evening. (I like to tell this story to illustrate that yes, I did walk to school in the snow, but not barefoot, and it was not really uphill BOTH ways.) But, as usual, I digress.

The biggest thing for us in those years was the space race. Us against the Russians. I remember going outside up in the night with my parents, to watch one of the Sputniks, the Russian satellites, go overhead. This was probably Sputnik 3 or 4, in 1960; but I don’t remember which one. When John Glenn made his orbit of the Earth in February, 1962, our imaginations were charged with the possibilities; but in October of 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis used our overactive imaginations to scare us to death. 

I was in fifth grade when the Bay of PIgs incident occurred, in April 1961. I was in 7th grade when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. Our teachers were militantly anti-Catholic and anti-Kennedy, being Republicans. They minced no words about what we were in for, and told us to get ready for war and nuclear holocaust. As a precaution, we were taught the “duck and cover” routines, but in all reality, this would have been far from effective. In the middle of all this angst, my parents went to Jefferson City for something, leaving me (and the sibs)  behind  the day the sirens went off; hailstones were hitting the windows of our classroom, and we were all sent out in the hall. I was reduced to tears, worried about my parents out there driving toward certain death and mushroom clouds. Several minutes later, our teacher shooed us back into the classrooms, with this announcement: “Don’t worry, it was just a tornado going over.”

November 22, 1963, I was had gone outside after lunch to walk around the school yard, when a chum came up with the news: “Kennedy’s been shot in Dallas! They say he is dead.” I can still remember the numbness that began to course through me. The worst part was, so many people seemed happy about it. Others, though, were weeping openly. We had an assembly that afternoon with the principal telling us the news. We went home that Friday and didn’t come back until after Thanksgiving, which meant a week home from school. Our world had changed in one afternoon. My student, the one who asked the question today, said, “Oh, then it was your 9/11.”

I had never thought about it that way, but she is right. It was our 9/11. The rest of the 1960s went by in a blur – Vietnam, the assassinations of Malcom X (1965),  Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and the summer of Love and Woodstock. I’m surprised, under the circumstances, that our generation didn’t do more than protest, tune in/drop out, smoke dope, and burn their draft cards. So what did I do? I found myself hating all of it. The politics, the hippies, the whole shebang. All I wanted to do was immerse myself in classical music, read historical novels (Norah Lofts’ Town House series was a favorite) and stay away from the television sets. Frankly, it was overkill. Too much information. I find myself re-connecting with my teenage self these days, dredging up music I abhorred at the time – Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, etc. I was such a square. I mean, there I was, in the middle of the most exciting decade ever, and instead of going to Woodstock I was hanging out with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Well, at least it wasn’t Bolero. 

So what was it like, having a front row seat to history? I dunno. I really don’t. After Kennedy, I tuned it mostly out. I couldn’t take any more. And I remember that on 9/11, the most poignant moment i had was, “Oh, no, not again.” 

Mom and I have a lot in common, and one of those things is not to wallow in despair. But when your heart is torn up, it is hard not to wallow. I remember one of the things Mom did not long after Kennedy was murdered, was to throw away our copy of Vaughn Meador’s album The First Family, which was hilariously funny before the assassination, but now was a lingering reminder of what we had lost.  “It makes me plumb sick to look at it,” she said, as she relinquished it to the flames of the trash barrel. “I don’t know why we thought it was funny to begin with.”

3 thoughts on “A front row seat to history

  1. Professor Kilby!

    I just read your recent blog, and after just finishing Dreams from My Father moments ago, I have to say this remind me of that book. The way you described growing up during the course of a decade brought back memories from Barack Obama’s book.

    Very nice semi-autobiography!

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