A 13-Year-Old’s View of America in 1968: Television, Murder and Vietnam
By RON JACOBS
I was a kid in 1968. It was the year I turned 13 and it was the year my dad began to prepare to go to Vietnam. The Tet offensive was on the television in January. The picture of the South Vietnamese police chief killing a suspected NLF fighter shook up our dinner table the night it was in the news. After that, my father didn’t watch television news when his younger kids were around. I won grand prize in the science fair at my junior high for an investigation into whether or not my pet guppies talked. Then I won first place in my division at the statewide fair held the last weekend in March of that year at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House.
My dad picked me up after the fair closed down. After we had packed the exhibit in the trunk of his station wagon, we got in the front seat. On the way from College Park, MD to our house in Laurel, MD-about ten miles away-we listened to the speech by President Johnson where he told the nation that he would not “seek or accept the nomination” for his party’s candidacy for the presidency. After a brief discussion with my dad about what this meant and why it happened, we turned to a conversation about the differences between FM and AM radio. Then he told me that he had been given orders to go to Vietnam. I didn’t say anything while he told me when he thought he would be leaving and what it meant for the family. He never mentioned whether he thought what he would be doing there was right or wrong. When we got home, I talked with my parents for a few minutes and went to bed.
The next day in Social Studies class the teacher talked about how remarkable it was that Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run for reelection. From there, he segued into a conversation about the elections. After a quick show of hands regarding who we supported, he asked me why I supported Gene McCarthy. I told him it was because he wanted to end the war in Vietnam. In fact, McCarthy was calling for a negotiated settlement with the northern Vietnamese and the NLF while everyone else (except for maybe Bobby Kennedy) was still talking about some kind of victory. There was only one other person in the class who supported McCarthy. Two or three others supported Bobby Kennedy, who had entered the race only days before. Most supported either Humphrey (who was LBJ’s replacement) or Nixon. On the playground at lunch that day, one of the Nixon supporters called me a faggot because I supported McCarthy.
Three days later, April 4, 1968, I was watching TV with my older sister when the graphic before a breaking news bulletin flashed across the screen. I walked over to the TV and turned up the volume. (There were no remotes back then.) A talking head came on the screen and announced that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot in Memphis. My sister and I looked at each other. We knew this was something big. I sat down to watch the incoming news while my sister put our younger siblings to bed. I knew that King had been in Memphis supporting a strike of sanitation workers and that there had been trouble at one of the marches. When our parents got home, I told my father what had happened. He sat down for a few minutes and watched as news reports filtered in about angry blacks gathering in different parts of Washington, DC. That night, I listened to WTOP–the all news station in DC– relay reports on the growing insurrection in that city and around the nation. When I got up to deliver my newspaper route the next morning, the front page was covered with banner headlines and full color pictures of the assassination and the angry response.
The following week, our family attended a cookout at a neighbor’s house down the block in our lily-white middle class suburban development. Most of Maryland was under curfew, gun sales were forbidden and liquor sales had been stopped in DC, Baltimore and several counties. While I ate beans, salad and burgers from the paper plate I had loaded up, some of the adults conversed about the murder and the insurrection. The remarks I heard from some of the neighbors changed my impression of them forever. I had never heard such racist remarks before except from some of the working class toughs who wore their hair greased back like early Elvis and smoked cigarettes while hanging out in front of the Peoples Drug Store at the local shopping center. If I learned one thing that night, it was that the ignorance of racism knew no class boundaries. The names they called Martin Luther King and the suggestions they had for the local police to “keep order” in the black section of town were reminiscent of the Klan literature one of my newspaper customers gave me almost every time I collected his month’s payment from him. Literature that I threw away after reading it the first time and being repulsed by the hatred therein.
After the King assassination I began to read the newspaper much more carefully. Not just the sports section like before, but all of the news sections as well. Prior to that, I had skimmed the front page and the local section, but had never really read anything too carefully. As the presidential campaign heated up, I switched my allegiance to Bobby Kennedy. His ability to gather huge crowds no matter where he showed up-West Virginia one day and Washington, DC the next-was impressive. He had somehow figured out how to speak to people on a different level than all of the other candidates and he said he was against the war. Meanwhile, I had discovered another newspaper that told a completely different story. That paper was Washington DC’s first underground paper, The Washington Free Press. A friend’s older brother who went to the University of Maryland used to give me his old copies when he was done with them. Somewhere not very far from the boring suburban redneck town that I lived in there was something going on that was both new and connected to the revolution I was certain had to be happening somewhere. It had to be happening because the Beatles were singing about it, the Rolling Stones seemed to have joined it, and the Free Press reported it. I didn’t understand why they didn’t like Kennedy or thought the elections were bullshit but I wanted to find out why.
When Bobby Kennedy was killed I was watching TV with my sister once again. I remember feeling angry, sad and bitter all at the same time. After he was killed I gave up on the elections for a while. No more passing out campaign literature at the shopping center or door to door. There was nothing left to do but wait until the convention and hope some kind of miracle happened that would stop the war. A war my dad was heading off to in a few short months. In late July we took a family vacation at a beach near Norfolk, VA. My father was getting ready to go to some kind of school there that was required before he went away to Vietnam. The name of that school? Air War College. You don’t have to guess what the general course of studies was. After a week, my older sister and I returned to Laurel. I delivered my newspapers, mowed lawns for the neighbors and hung out with my friends listening to music, reading, and watching TV. It was one of those nights of TV watching when another news bulletin flashed across the screen. Soviet troops had invaded Czechoslovakia. This was a year for news bulletins. I followed this event with interest because I was secretly hoping that the Czechs truly could find some kind of humane alternative to both Stalinism and monopoly capitalism, even if that terminology was unknown to me at the time.
Not long after that night, I began watching the coverage of the Democratic Convention in Chicago. I recall a sign shown on television that said “Welcome to Czechago.” Those few nights of watching cops beat the shit out of people and politicians showing their true colors-be they fascist in nature or on the side of the protesters-did more to educate and radicalize me than pretty much anything I had ever read or would ever read in my life. The angry repartee between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal on one of the networks gelled in my mind along with pictures of tear gas, bloodied reporters, people chanting “The whole world’s watching,” and my mom crying because her country was falling to pieces. When my dad came home for a weekend, he tried to convince me that the protesters were wrong and that voting was the way to solve the country’s problems. I was not convinced.
By this time, Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain was getting closer and closer to a mark not reached by a major league pitcher in many seasons. He was approaching thirty wins. Although I had given my heart to the Red Sox the year before, I tried to watch or listen to every game McLain pitched. If it wasn’t on TV and I couldn’t get the game over my AM radio via the nighttime skip phenomenon that somehow brought the games to my transistor, then I reconstructed the box scores the next morning before I delivered my papers. When the World Series came around, I was pulling for Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals. I loved to watch Gibson pitch even though he had beat the Red Sox the year before.
Meanwhile, in school we were composing a scrapbook for the elections. Each of us had to choose either Nixon or Humphrey for our scrapbook and fill it with materials related to the campaign. I chose Humphrey, even though he was for the war, he wasn’t Nixon. When it came time to turn in the scrapbook, I covered the front of the binder with “Dick Gregory for President” stickers. My teacher was not happy. She yelled at me and asked how I could support someone who opposed the war when my dad was on his way over there. I snidely suggested that the answer was obvious and ended up being sent to the counselor. He yelled at me and told me to get my head out of my ass. I left there thinking that he should do the same.
On election day we watched the final returns come in over the television in our social studies class. There weren’t any exit poll projections back then. The news people actually let the election run its course. When Walter Cronkite said that Nixon had won I had a feeling that the world as I knew it was over. In fact, it was only getting worse. The difference was now I was aware of it. I didn’t hit the streets in protest for another year but I was already there in my heart and soul.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.