1968: a walk down memory lane

October 30, 2012
Oakland Museum

When I saw that this exhibit was showing at the Oakland Museum, I thought it was a great opportunity to hang with my writer-friend, LK, who lives in the East Bay. So last week, we met for lunch and to walk through a year that we both remembered so well.

I often say that I’d go back to the mid-1960s in a heartbeat, and do it all over again, even without the benefit of what I now know.  That era just vibrates for me, it resonates in a way that nothing else has.  The air was electric with change, and while for many it was a terrible time, it was also a time when people who had been kept down rose up with fury and focus.

They changed the world in ways that haven’t happened since.

In 1968, I was a junior in high school. I remember well the markers of that year.

First, the Vietnam War. It pervaded everything. The peace movement had always been present but it was given new life by the mass media.

Yes, children, this was our TV.

Images of death invaded our living rooms through television and were seared into our consciousness. How could we forget footage of children running down a road covered with burning napalm? Or even execution by a point-blank shot to the head, broadcast into comfortable suburbia?

Bought this again, for my office.

War became something real because Walter Cronkite showed it to us, in all its horror. I remember this poster, well.

Dress worn by campaign worker

The peace movement became politicized in a big way, and while the hawks did get Nixon elected, young adults were energized to get more involved in the process.

I wonder how many young men headed for Canada because of this poster?

In an era of brand-new free-love, this anachronistic anti-war poster seemed appropriate. Boys said NO to the draft, but not as many as you’d think. Few had the nerve to leave the country. I wonder how many regretted it as they lay dying on a battlefield in southeast Asia?

Another kind of war.

Poverty didn’t enter our homes with as much impact, but the War on Poverty was real back then, a real program, and it’s something that we haven’t focused on in decades, at least not in the same way. Yes, there was a time when politicians actually stepped up to help poor people. I can hardly remember it now.

And then, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was taken from us.

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. …, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.   — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I may not get there with you.” He didn’t.

This speech still brings me to tears, because he knew. He knew his role in history and he knew his fate.  

But he was a catalyst for change. And while I think he’d be disappointed in where we are today –you’d think we would’ve gotten further than we have–it doesn’t take a thing away from his legacy.  Is there someone like this who 16-year-olds will look back on when they’re 60? I don’t see one. How lucky that he lived in my lifetime and showed us what true commitment is.
But taking Dr. King wasn’t enough. They wanted Bobby, too.  Ah, Bobby.

1968. So many things happened. Those were dark days, but the darkness energized us and became our lifeblood, propelling many of us to become activists.

And there was the women’s movement. Just a few years after 1968 I marched in a parade to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Still not ratified.

Women are still held back and having spent an entire life in the business world, I know it first hand. Saw it, experienced it and am more angry than ever about it.

The bra was symbolic and “banning” it was part women’s movement and part sexual revolution.
  And then, the counterpoint to the darkness was some of the silly cultural icons of the era. That goofy show, Laugh In. The 1968 Exhibit had a segment on a loop and it seemed ridiculously slapstick today. But then? Cutting edge comedy that launched Goldie Hawn to stardom. 
Who could forget The Beatles and their Yellow Submarine, the Monkees and all the other “entertainment,” whose innocence belied the times? Or maybe they served as a breather, a break from the bad stuff. God knows, we needed it.

 We all smoked cigarettes back then, and ashtrays were everywhere.
“You’ve come a long way, baby” was the slogan.
Virginia Slims saw the women’s movement as a great way to promote cancer sticks to women. Of course, we still haven’t come far enough, even in the 21st century. But back then? We thought we were really going places. Sigh.
We all had those webbed lawn chairs, the clunky radio, the plaid cooler. Oh, it all looked so wholesome. This was America: white, one man and one woman, married, two kids. But the underbelly was seething with discontent.
 Sometimes we ate our meals on TV trays like this one. Sometimes, those meals were TV dinners.
Depression-raised immigrant parents covered their furniture with plastic so they wouldn’t get dirty. Yes, my mother did this.
We voted on machines like this. Today, more and more of us vote at home with a paper ballot.
When the dog leashes get tangled on our dog walks, M. calls it a “macrame moment.” Until then, I hadn’t thought about macrame for decades. But it was everywhere, and many of us tried our hand at the craft, often making sling-hangers for potted plants. Do you remember “spider plants?”
So modern they were displayed in MOMA
I had these dishes–they were quite the thing back in 1972, when I got them. 
Contemporary, plastic. It brought back memories to see them in the exhibit and when I showed M. the photo, he, too, remembered.
This cute portable typewriter was also the height of modernity in 1968.
We spun our 45 rpm rock and roll records on these record players. Note the daisy, an icon of the era.
The clothing of 1968 in the exhibit was evocative–I loved the Indian prints we used to cover our beds and even pants were made of them. I covet these–and the youthful body to wear them. Maybe I’ll find a spread when we go to India next year.

One of the best parts of the exhibit was the ability to reminisce with LK, to laugh about our clothes, the music and even to sit down and take a fun quiz at the exit.

I loved my walk down Memory Lane–and since then, have contemplated all of it: the good, the bad, the silly.

 And still, I’d love to go through it all again, just to feel what it was like to live in a time when the air was full of possibility and the promise of real change.

The Oakland Museum extended the 1968 Exhibit until Nov. 25.

12 comments on “1968: a walk down memory lane
  1. Anonymous says:

    LOVE that exhibit; thanks for sharing. Have you seen Ethel, the doc on HBO? watched it yesterday; she is really something.beth

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for sharing your walk down Memory Lane. Remember “head” shops….posters and pot accessories (Zig Zags, pipes)

  3. Janie Emaus says:

    I remember Bobby Kennedy getting shot and Martin Luther King. Actually, I remember quite a lot because I’m writing a young adult novel where the main character travels back in time to 1968 and hangs out with her mom.

  4. I was only 7 but this time did seem so full of passion. People were definitely in a time of “I am not going to take THIS anymore”. And they didn’t!

  5. bodyminder says:

    I wish I lived close to Oakland. I would love to see this exhibit. Is it going to other cities? Please let me know!

  6. Thank you for this powerful post. So much work, so much truth, so touching. I miss my “elephant leg” pants and my little blue typewriter I used to carry to high school so I wouldn’t have to wait in line for one. What a dork.

    I love the passion of the people from this era and the passion you demonstrated in your research. Sometimes I wish we still had those simple TVs with a handful of channels. I look forward to passing this post along to others to enjoy. Great stuff.

  7. Lavender Luz says:

    Fun! Macrame, typewriters, record-players.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that whenever the government declares war on an idea, it never really wins. Witness poverty, drugs, terrorism.

    Nice stroll.

  8. Grace Hodgin says:

    I hadn’t thought much about it but you are so right. We need to bring some more of what we had in the 60’s to the present times. You’ll be proud to know I still macrame my curtains and spider plants still thrive and live here!

    Thanks so much for the lovely trip down memory lane.

  9. Jennifer Comet Wagner says:

    Love this. I was still in elementary school in 1968 so I don’t have the memories that you do. My earliest vivid memories of world happenings began in 1970 with the Ohio State shootings and then a few years later, Watergate.

  10. Marci Rich says:

    I absolutely love this post! And I wish I lived on the West Coast so I could visit this exhibition. Oh, did this bring back memories—I was 12 in 1968. I remember all of this—the nightly footage—the carnage-from Vietnam. The deaths of MLK and RFK. The music…the energy and sense of something very big happening all around us…The next year, 1969, was a significant one for me. My father died, a tornado and flood ripped through our part of Ohio, and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Our eighth grade teacher announced something called a “moratorium” taking place at the public high school because of the Vietnam War. I ordered a POW bracelet, and I still remember this, the last name of my soldier: Coffey. Carol, thank you so much for sharing your museum experience with us. I agree with you—it was an extraordinary time the likes of which we’ll never see again.

  11. Thanks, everyone, for the very personal comments on this. I think we all forget how lucky we were to live in a time of such electric change. But when we think about it, we Boomers share so much, don’t we?

    And OMG, spider plants! I haven’t seen one in ages.

    Stop by to chat again, Boomer Babes! 😉

  12. 1968 was the year I graduated high school. Little did I know that the cute boy sitting next to me in homeroom 12-17 would be my husband 8 years later. It’s fun sharing all the same memories of yesteryear!

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