(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.