Sunday, September 19, 2010

Remnants and Reminders of 1968


On the pier at Hollywood Beach on the far North Side of Chicago near where I live, there is a remnant of the summer of 1968 when thousands of people—young people and activists—descended on Chicago for the Democratic Convention. I took this picture last year still amazed that after 40 years, the spray painted letters that spelled out an icon of that summer, E U G E N E M C C A R T H Y, had not faded but had become a part of the pier, refusing any of Mayor Daley’s graffiti buster blasts of chemicals. The bitter winds of winters and blaring beach sun had not dimmed the sentiments and message left embedded in that iron railing.

Remnant of 1968 on Hollywood Beach Pier

I’d heard stories and read about that explosive week when the people outside of the institutions of power had as much to say as those inside. And as I watch the tame and at times banal Democratic Convention while the world waits for America to finish it’s two year election, I am “hoping” that “the fierce urgency of now” doesn’t become another cliché.

For whatever you want to say about Chicago and the summer of 1968, you can’t say that people blogged about what was going on in the streets and minds of America, they came together to Chicago and demanded to be heard. Sometimes stupidly and violently, yes. But people felt rage and frustration at what was happening in America and around the world. They didn’t sit quietly watching on 48-inch screen TVs. In Europe they shut down governments and cities that year. Here, Chicago became a circus of poets, activists, hippies, yippies, artists, young, poor, black, white, and brown. And they left their mark.

I came upon this remnant a few years ago sitting on the beach grading some student essays. I stared at the faded lettering, noticing first the M and C and the string of rusted yellow letters before it and after. I knew that the beaches had become campgrounds that week. But it couldn’t be that old. Or could it? I squinted trying to make out the rest of the word. Yes. It read M C C A R T H Y. I got up and walked over. Could it actually be who I thought it was? And there was the letters before that name, spelled out to confirm my hope: E U G E N E.

I remember, my first feeling was to go to tell someone. I looked around at people on the beach that day a Vietnamese couple walked along the pier, some Hispanic children were playing in the water, gay men were lounging down the beach in groups. The lifeguard was in her boat. A few fishermen were casting their lines. Who’d even know, if I said something?

I looked at the beach and in my mind I saw the campers there, turning back the time, the tents and the energy, recalling that the beaches and parks that week had become training centers, gatherings for music and speeches. Ginsburg and Mailer and many poets and activists held court.

But the memory that was strongest was of my mother taking me one afternoon after school to the Court House of Gas City, Indiana where she’d grown up a few miles away from our house in neighboring Marion. She’d wanted me to see a presidential candidate as they were tromping through Indiana that spring of 1968. Robert Kennedy’s motorcade had driven by my school the week before and my 70 year old second grade teacher was one of the only teachers who refused to let her children out of class to see a Kennedy pass our recess yard. My sister, a fifth grader down the hall, came home ecstatic, transformed. (Later when Kennedy had been shot, she wouldn’t come out of her room for a day until she emerged the next day with a poem that she read at dinner and then broke into sobs and ran back into her room.)

So my mother took me to see Eugene McCarthy make a speech on the Court House steps of this forgotten factory town of central Indiana. I can remember only his elegance, the way his pants looked, baggy and grey to match his hair, his white shirt, and hair blowing in the spring afternoon. I don’t remember what he said. Maybe fifty people stood with arms folded and listened. But I remember feeling that my mother wanted me to see him and the people who’d came to hear him. “Listen to what this man says, he’s running for president.”

After that we went to my grandfather’s bar down the street. He came out to our car in his bar apron, a factory worker who’d finally saved enough money to open his own business, and he gave me a Milky Way bar, and we went home.

American elections should never be about candidates, they should always be about what they were intended to be: acts of faith by individuals that their beliefs, their work, their words, their lives matter and affect the future of an evolving, impressionable world.

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