I began first grade at Chester Elementary School in 1957. My parents were typical Vermonters. My mother June came from a family of nine brothers and sisters. She only went as far as the eighth grade. She was an intelligent but self-educated woman.
My father Arnold had one brother Stanley. Arnold dropped out of high school when he was a sophomore. These facts I learned a few years ago. Both of my parents wanted me to finish school.
“You’re going to graduate,” I heard many times. I wanted to drop out. Today, I think my parents didn’t want me to know their lack of schooling or maybe they were just ashamed of not being educated.
When I was in school, my parents valued a diploma a lot more than I did. I just wanted to get out in the world and see what I could get into. I now know why my graduating was important to them.
In 1957 we had air raid drills at Chester Elementary. These weren’t like fire drills where all kids went outside. An air raid drill was supposed to protect us kids from a Russian nuclear attack. What does a 5-year-old boy know about nuclear weapons?
When we had an air raid drill, all of us kids got under our desks for protection. I was 5 at the time. I remember being under my desk looking out the windows to the playground. I wondered what would happen to the glass windows if there was a bomb. Hiding under my desk convinced me I was going to die. These were scary times for a young boy.
In 1957 Russia launched the Sputnik. The Sputnik was the first man-made satellite in space. The Cold War heated up. Every night after supper my family went to the living room to watch the news. I think it’s normal for young kids to look to their parents for answers.
My parents didn’t know what Sputnik was, but the news visibly alarmed them. Ping, ping, ping went the radio signal from Sputnik on our television. This news and the conversations my folks had scared me. This was at a time when a lot of outer space movies were being made. It seemed very real to me at the time.
At this time, there were those who thought the Russians were controlling our weather. Some thought rock and roll was instigated by the Russians to stir up conflict in this country. Today some might think we were ignorant. This wasn’t the case at all. We just didn’t know.
I think it was 1959 when Nikita Khruschev made a visit to this country. I remember him pounding the table saying, “We will bury you!” Scary stuff.
In 1961 we had the Bay of Pigs invasion. This was a botched attempt to arm and support Cubans opposed to Castro. We had egg on our face as a nation. Castro really scared me.
In 1962 Russia shot down one of our U-2 spy planes. I think Gary Powers was the pilot. It was 1962 when the U.S. discovered Russia was installing nuclear weapons in Cuba. Now we were directly threatened. In October it appeared we were headed to nuclear Armageddon. I thought it was over.
In the 1960s there were a number of assassinations in this country.
President John F. Kennedy – I was at Chester Junior High School that day; we were released from school early – the Oswald murder, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King’s murder shocked the nation. Violence was everywhere and seen nightly on television.
We witnessed segregation violence where blacks were beaten or attacked by police dogs. Hearing about a lynching on the news really made a 12-year-old boy wonder.
Robert Kennedy was shot while running for president. The Vietnam War was covered on the news every night. We saw footage of battles, interviews with soldiers, an account of how many enemies had been killed that day, and our losses.
By the time I was 14, my thinking changed. Convinced we were all going to die, I altered my life plan. I began to live for the moment. Don’t make plans – just experience everything I could. I closed out the ’60s with a trip to Woodstock.
Do you remember Marty Engstrom giving the weather from atop Mt. Washington? If you do you, you’ll remember his smile when he signed off.
This week’s old saying: “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.”