Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Summer of '69

It was the summer of 1969. It was two years after the Hippies in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco had caught our attention with their "Summer of Love". It was one year removed from the tremendous upheavals and national trauma resulting from the MLK and RFK assassinations, and the "siege on Chicago" at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. By 1969 our nation was mired deeper in protests and in turmoil as President Nixon's promised "secret plan to end the war in Viet Nam" instead turned out to be a plan to expand it to Cambodia.

I had just finished my freshman year at Marshall University and, like Benjamin Braddock (the Dustin Hoffman character in "The Graduate") I too was concerned about my future. The Summer of '69" came midway between the time I came to know Jesus on the Ides of March, and the night in October (two weeks before my 19th birthday) when I first met my wife to be. There was a five week period between the middle of July and the third week of August that summer, that stand out as a snapshot of who we were, where our society was, and where it was heading.

The five particular events of that period that stand out in my mind are as follows:

Apollo 11 was the first manned mission to land on the Moon. Who in my generation doesn't remember sitting spellbound before our televisions that afternoon, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon? "One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind." Remember the grainy black and white television feed of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around in the reduced gravity, while Michael Collins orbited above them in the Command Module?

Later that night, my girlfriend and I sat in the front seat of the '64 Dodge Dart, gazing at the Moon. Now, that in itself was not unusual, but that particular night the big bright orb seemed bigger and brighter than ever before. Not because of romance and young love - but because of the knowledge that two of my fellow Americans were walking on it! On that heady night, it seemed that no task was impossible for our nation when we set our minds to it.

Between the time of the Apollo 11 blast off and its landing at Tranquility Base, another incident made the news. It was here on earth, and it involved Massachusetts Senator (and brother of the former President) Edward M. ("Teddy") Kennedy and a young lady who was not his wife. The setting was on a little island called Chappaquiddick, near Martha's Vineyard. Kennedy had been at a private party with some friends and some young ladies known as "the Boiler Room Girls" who had worked in his brother, Robert's, aborted presidential campaign.

Kennedy left the party with one of the young ladies, a girl named Mary Jo Kopechne. Only God and Ted Kennedy know what really happened about 11:15 PM on that July night. What we do know is that Kennedy drove his 1967 Oldsmobile off the Dike Bridge and the following morning the body of Miss Kopechne was found in the submerged overturned car in the channel, off the side of the bridge. Shortly thereafter, Senator Kennedy walked into the Edgartown police station to report the accident that, by that time was nearly 10 hours old. The question on every one's mind and lips was "Why did he wait until the next morning to report the fatal accident?"

The story that Kennedy told the police changed a time or two, and he eventually pleaded guilty to a count of "leaving the scene of an accident, after causing injury". He was sentenced to the mandatory two months in jail, but considering "his age and his status, and lack of any previous brushes with the law", his sentence was suspended. He served no jail time, but he lost more than two months of freedom. Most political observers believe that his actions and the resulting scandal cost him the 1972 Democratic Presidential nomination, which eventually went to George McGovern. Now, forty years later he is called by many, "The Lion of the Senate", but he will forever have that fateful 14 letter word, "Chappaquiddick" in his biography.

With the Kennedy scandal and the successful Moon landing and return still swirling in our heads, August brought more drama, horror, and surprise.

News reports came in from Los Angeles on the discovery of the grisly "Tate/LaBianca" murders. Pregnant actress Sharon Tate (the wife of famous director Roman Polanski), along with Abigal Folger (coffee heiress), hair stylist, Jay Sebring, and two others were found brutally butchered at Tate's estate in the Hollywood Hills. Over 100 stab wounds were found in their lifeless bodies, and "Pig" had been written on the walls of her house with the blood of the victims. One day later, the bodies of Los Angeles businessman Leno LaBianca and his wife, were found in their home. "Helter Skelter", the title of a Beatles song, was written on the LaBianca's refrigerator in their own blood.

It was several weeks before the investigation led to the arrest of Charles Manson and his "family" of misfits, runaways, and gullible drug addicted kids who were living an old abandoned movie ranch outside of Los Angeles. The horror that was revealed as the story developed, could only make one wonder at the total depravity of man, and the ability of crazed charismatic characters to impact the lives of their mindless followers. The brutality of the Manson cult put fear in all of us as we began to wonder, how many other psychopaths might still be out there, and could we ever really be safe in our homes?

The third week of August brought the other two seismic events of the Summer of '69.
One was a "little" rock concert on Yasgr's farm near Bethel, NY that kinda went out of control. The "Woodstock Music and Art Fair" turned into an orgy of sight and sound as 32 bands played and crowds swarmed to half a million young people over the three day event. The rain and sea of mud added a surreal quality to the glut of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, like we had never seen before. Many feel that Woodstock was the defining moment of my generation. It certainly was an event that openly showed the changing mores of our society and publicly brought on the concept of "if it feels good, do it!"
The other event of that week was the landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast of Hurricane Camille. Camille was the most powerful Hurricane to have made landfall in U.S. History. It's devastating category 5 power brought unfathomable destruction to Biloxi, Mississippi and surrounding areas. 248 people lost their lives, and over 1.5 billion dollars of damages were done to property - a tremendous amount in 1969.
Pretty eventful five weeks - huh? Moon landings, scandals, murders, social upheaval, and natural disasters.
The events of July and August, 1969 were unsettling to say the least. We've witnessed some other times of major historic events in our history, but one would be hard pressed to find a more jam packed period than the Summer of 1969. It was a summer of surprising events, yet with all that we witnessed in that eventful time period, none of it came as a surprise to Almighty God. The Bible reminds us, "To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: ... I know that whatever God does, It shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, And nothing taken from it. God does it, that men should fear before Him. That which is has already been, And what is to be has already been; And God requires an account of what is past." (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 & 14-15)
The inspired wisdom of Solomon here reminds us that even in changing times, there "is nothing new under the sun". Although times change and news cycles bring us breaking stories of all types, there is an unchanging God. He has a plan and He is Sovereign. Since none of us know what tomorrow holds, it pays to know who holds tomorrow.
I had just begun my walk with the Lord by the Summer of 1969. In the past 40 years, in the face of changing world and personal events, I have never regretted it.
How about you?

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