The Foundation That Did Not Rumble

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(Pictured: Robert Kennedy campaigns in Indiana on May 7, 1968.)

We can never know how it really was. We try, in our own lives, to remember how it really was. We study the history of bygone times in hopes of learning how it really was. What was it really like to come ashore on D-Day, or to be a peasant farmer on a 14th century English manor? We read memoirs and news reports, we study the evidence and the reconstructions, and we get a sense of it, but we can never know how it really was, in the moment, for the people who were living it.

What do we know, for example, about the spring of 1968? Mostly broad outlines. A bitter presidential campaign is underway. Social movements are blooming: minorities continue work for racial justice, and we perceive stirrings of women’s liberation and gay liberation. We see hippies trying to get back to the garden, and well they might, for it is a violent age, and not just in Vietnam and on the front lines of protests around the world. In the month of May, Martin Luther King has just been shot, and Robert F. Kennedy soon will be.

As we look back from here, in 2023, it seems that seismic shocks were rumbling the nation’s foundations. But were they, really?

A few years ago, I wrote about Los Angeles radio personality Dick Whittinghill, and my piece included an aircheck of his KMPC show from June 10, 1968, which I described as “a remarkably calm half-hour of radio.” Recently, I spent some time noodling with the Billboard Easy Listening chart dated May 18, 1968.

And I thought about my parents.

Over the years, I have asked them what they remember about various historical events, but their impressions are often fragmentary. Dad was cleaning manure out of the chicken house on the day of JFK’s assassination; they woke up my youngest brother, who was not yet three, to watch the astronauts walk on the moon. But they cannot tell me how it really felt to be alive in the moments when history was made, not the way I crave to know it.

That they cannot do so used to strike me weird, but it shouldn’t have. The big events of our times are always projected against a backdrop of the mundane (which is the One Day in Your Life mission statement, basically). And certainly, what looks mundane to us now didn’t seem that way to them then.

In the spring of 1968, my parents were 35 and 32 years old. They had been married not quite 10 years. They had three sons aged eight, six, and almost two. Dad ran a dairy farm with his father; Mother was busy taking care of the house and raising their boys. Such responsibilities were anything but mundane, not if they wanted the kids to eat, and to grow up into civilized adulthood. In the spring of 1968, as in every other spring, Dad had cows to milk (twice a day, seven days a week), crops to plant, and literally dozens of other tasks contending for his time; Mother had chores of her own, plus kids to wrangle.

For them, the news was something that came on the radio at 7:25 and noon, and on TV at 6 and 10, but if it wanted significant attention from them, it had to elbow its way past the responsibilities of their everydays. They did not kill time  contemplating their place in the great sweep of history, not like their oldest son would do one day. They may have, from time to time, considered how much trouble there was in the world, and how much change. But as long as they kept doing what they needed and wanted to do each day, the foundation they were building—a farm, a home, and a family—did not rumble, and would not.

No doubt there was privilege involved in not having to concern themselves overmuch with Vietnam, or civil rights, or gay rights, but in their defense, Dad and Mother were not alone. Millions of people like them went about their days focused on running their businesses and their households, and raising their kids. And they often did so while listening to their local equivalents of KMPC and Dick Whittinghill.

What were they hearing, specifically ? I am up against my self-imposed, completely arbitrary word limit for this post and I have not even begun to discuss that. So tune in again later this week.

4 thoughts on “The Foundation That Did Not Rumble

  1. mikehagerty

    I can’t pinpoint when I first read THJKOC, JB, but it was after May 16, 2013. Today is the first time I was aware of your having written about Dick Whittinghill on KMPC in 1968 on that date.

    First, one reason why Whit seems so unperturbed six days after an assassination is that the aircheck is mis-dated. It’s actually from Sunday, June 30—26 days after the assassination.

    In those days, there was the concept of a “decent interval”—the point at which you’d begin to ease back to something resembling “our regularly scheduled programming”—-partly because the audience was people like your folks and mine, who did want the news, but also wanted something to take their minds off it.

    Nobody had figured out how to build, much less monetize, an outrage machine in the media—yet.

    Pretty much the week after the RFK assassination, the only place on a music station you’d be reminded of it was in the newscasts, as the preparations were being made to try Sirhan Sirhan. There are KHJ airchecks from later in June, and they sound pretty close to back to normal.

    KMPC, coincidentally, had scheduled an entire week worth of celebrations of its new studio facility on Sunset Blvd for the week after the election. Too late to change it, they went ahead, and a couple of hours of shows from that week (with Geoff Edwards in for a vacationing Whittinghill) exist. Apart from one line from Johnny Magnus about “these times”, it was a party.

  2. Having tried to do the same history-as-people-really-lived-it deep dive on Hope Street, I am approaching this conclusion:
    If you strongly remember a historic event in which you were not personally involved, you probably didn’t have enough to do at the time.

  3. mikehagerty

    PS: Brilliant Sidepiece as usual, JB.

    As to your question about whether something could be done, yes. The Fourteenth Amendment.

    “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

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