I turned 15 in 1963. In addition to having just started high school, as most of us did around that age, that summer I had the opportunity to travel around the country with a camp. Forty 15-year olds traveling by bus, camping around the country. I had never left NY except for a quick school trip to Washington DC, or to nearby states to visit relatives. Imagine what that was like for a NY kid to experience this great and vast country for the first time. The Grand Canyon, the great plains, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone. It was the first time I experienced anti-Semitism when some locals in the St. Louis area yelled epithets at us, things like “Go home, dirty Jew.” Imagine when a few of us in 1963 went to a store in Nebraska to buy breakfast and wanted bagels and lox. Bagels? Huh? What’s that? Lox? Oh sure, you can get locks at the hardware store. Oh, locks (L-O-C-K-S, not L-O-X).
What an amazing time for an impressionable 15 year old. I came home inspired. I read Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck – twice. I was changed.
Then the big event of 1963 happened. It was a universal experience. Every one of you who is 55+ can recall vividly where you were on Nov. 22nd, 1963. We went from believing in Camelot to disbelief.
Think about what we all went through, some at very, very young ages, some a bit older. Let’s look at some of the highlights of the baby boomer early years. And think about when you were 14 or 15.
We were too young to remember May 17, 1954. But we lived in the aftermath of that day. That’s the day the Supreme Court ruled “Thou Shalt Integrate your Schools.” Parents and teachers around the country broke into tears, particularly in the south. They cried because they said it was the beginning of the end of the world. And they were right. It was the beginning of the end of a world that needed to end. But a new world was beginning. And they just didn’t know how fast. No would, even Marshall McLuhan, the father of the electronic age, understood the incredible effect television would have. We all got to see on TV Governor George Wallace at that school door with police dogs snarling at the young black kids trying to go to school.
We saw the horror of black kids blown up at Sunday School. We saw the black community, joined by many others, protest in the streets, demanding that Jim Crow laws end.
All of it was chronicled on television. But there’s no event that exemplifies the profound effect of TV and mass communication more than Nov. 22, 1963. We saw it all live. We ALL saw it live. One people, the entire earth froze emotionally. The assassination, the funeral, the aching sadness. Kennedy was idealism personified. He was elected on TV, he lived in the White House on TV, and he died for real on TV.
Through the sixties we saw everything in our living rooms, sitting around watching TV. We saw our heroes die, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy. We saw the riots, we saw the protests. We saw the Vietnam War in our living rooms! All the blood and gore as we sat around eating dinner, watching the news.
So before most of us were 20 years old, we had seen death and destruction up close and personal. And we saw the US no longer as the infallible, unbeatable country. Some of us questioned authority, some of us protested, some of us fled, and some of us died.
We saw our mothers and sisters burning their bras and demanding equality. They wanted opportunity. Betty Friedan’s monumental book, The Feminine Mystique, written in 1963, sparked a revolution. But to her credit she didn’t exclude men. In fact, she pointed out that “Men are not the enemy, but the fellow victims.”
And then there was the draft. Whether you were a young man or a young woman, you knew someone affected. If you were in school you were safe. But you damned well better stay in school or, guess what, you ship out. The Vietnam War was a war fought by poor guys, including a huge overrepresentation of black guys who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. How many of you know guys who took prescription drugs to raise their blood pressure, or tried to get out of the draft on a psych deferment, or went to Canada, or tried to get a Conscientious Objector deferment.
And how many guys were questioning whether they didn’t want to go into the army because they thought the war was wrong or because they were scared. Am I against this war or am I a coward? That’s a tough question to ask yourself, especially as a teenager. I was one of those who thought about that question. And when you scratch the surface, you’ll probably find many others like me.
And remember how many of us scorned those who did go, those who faced their fears and did what they were asked to do. Those whom we mistreated.
Despite that, I’m damned proud of what we boomers have accomplished. No one would ever imagine just how far we’ve come. But our work is not over. And, more to the point, we don’t know what’s coming, do we? We know our bodies will continue to change. We know we’ll lose more of our friends and relatives. We’ll have heartbreak and suffering, and we’ll “kvell” watching our kids and grandchildren flourish. Those are the givens.
We also know a great deal more about ourselves, who we are. Our future is bright, even with all the difficulties some of us will face. We were inspired early in our lives to make a difference. Many of us continue to do so. Many do volunteer work in your communities, reminiscent of JFK’s charge to ask what you can do for your country. Or for your world. The status quo was never acceptable to us. We’re seeking the balance between work, community, family, and our selves.
The inspiration for my book, AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life was Gail Sheehy, the author of the seminal work, Passages. Gail tells her story of her husband, Clay, who was ill and undergoing palliative care. The palliative care doctor came to their home and asked Clay, “What are your goals for this stage in life?” I thought, what an interesting question to ask of a man who clearly was quite ill and likely going to die soon. I don’t remember what Gail said about Clay’s answer. But he had an answer. And I realized that I didn’t.
So, my friends, I ask you, “What are your goals for this stage in life?” Who’s in front of you? Who are your role models? What will we do for the rest of our lives, knowing a lot more about who we are and where we were when!
As Betty Friedan once said, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”