This year marks half a century since 1968, when political and racial issues spilled over into a series of tumultuous events across the United States. As Seasons writer James Battaglio recalls, Connecticut was no exception.
Looking back to 1968, I seriously question those who contend that nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: “we find the present tense and the past perfect.”
My recollections of that year are of Hartford on fire, and of first responders trying desperately to dodge snipers’ bullets while fighting the blazes set during the racial unrest that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Coupled with the reflections of my colleague news reporters donning riot helmets and hiding under parked cars to avoid sniper fire, I’d hardly call 1968 “past perfect.”
At the time, I was a writer for the former Hartford Times, then Connecticut’s largest evening newspaper, in its 151st year. I was, by all accounts, a “reluctant reporter,” forced into journalism by a city editor who enrolled me into Gannett Corporation’s two-year journalism internship. His decision (not mine) came about in 1964 after I, a copy boy at the time, spent six weeks taking dictation and rewriting press releases while the obit, garden and book editors recuperated from the influenza outbreak that summer. I protested the internship vehemently, explaining that I was going to be a doctor, not a journalist.
Pointing a sausage-sized finger at me, he shouted, “Anybody can be a doctor. You’re going to be a journalist. You know how to type.” My office was the mailroom, where I smoked cigarettes and played cards with my colleagues each morning before attending college classes each afternoon. I loved that job.
I can trace the source of my career to a summer evening in 1963, while sitting at the dinner table with my parents and an aunt who also served as a cloistered Dominican nun. My destiny was launched when Sister Mary, who spent her one-week a year sabbatical from Our Lady of Grace Convent visiting us, deemed that I would take typing in my senior year of high school. Given that her monastic status earned her the rank of family matriarch, due to having friends in high places, her word was law.
“Typing? That’s a girls’ course!” I protested. “I’m not taking typing. Everyone will laugh at me.”
“The people who know how to type will get ahead in the world,” parried my clairvoyant aunt. “You’re going to take typing.” In 1963, personal computers were still years away from making everyone a typist. Few men typed 55 years ago.
I refrained from cursing at her, given that I was in the company of God’s emissary. So I, along with one other senior male, took typing in the fall of 1963. Little did I realize that her mandate would dictate my eventual career as a news reporter.
And so it was from 1964-1966 that I shadowed seasoned reporters to Circuit Court 14 in Hartford; visited prisoners on death row; and wrote about births, marriages and deaths—hatched, matched and detached, in reporters’ vernacular. I even strolled with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on the lawn of Fuller Brush’s corporate headquarters in East Hartford. Life was pretty good and my dreams of emulating Sigmund Freud were gradually diminishing. More than once, I recalled my aunt’s dinner table mandate, thinking “she did this to me.”
Clichéd though it sounds, Uncle Sam’s draft notices really did begin with the word “Greetings,” in 1966. I, along with thousands of other males, was called to fulfill my military obligation, even if it meant doing so in snake-infested Guam, which is where I was headed after completing my six months of active duty. I had orders to ship out from New Jersey, to Texas and ultimately to Guam.
At 9 p.m. the night before I was scheduled to leave for Texas, my commanding officer entered my Army barracks and, standing before 40 soldiers waiting to board a bus to the Philadelphia airport, asked, “Who here knows how to type?”
The first rule in the military is to never volunteer for anything. No one raised a hand.
“Forty guys and no one can type?” he shouted. “I’m going to the office and pull your personnel jackets, and if I find one guy has lied to me, I’m going to make his life hell.”
I timidly raised my hand and said, “I can type a little, sir.”
“What did you do in civilian life?” he asked.
“I was a news reporter.”
“And you can type a little?” he said. “You’re going to report to me at 700 hours tomorrow. For the next six months, you belong to me. You’re going to retype every file in my office before the upcoming Inspector General inspection.”
“But I’m leaving for Texas in a few hours,” I replied.
“The hell you are. You’re going to do nothing but type until your fingers fall off.”
Once again, memories of Sister Mary’s words prevailed. For the second time in as many years, my typing skills had altered the course of my life. Guam could wait. For the next two years, as my CO promised, I typed and typed and typed until it was time to come home and prepare for my upcoming nuptials. Fortunately, my fingers didn’t fall off.
Now it was 1968 and I fully expected it would be a glorious time, given that I was engaged to be married at age 21. I had completed my journalism internship and was now a full-blown staff reporter, with credentials to prove it. But, as Roosevelt said, this was a time that would go down in infamy.
James Earl Ray turned that promising spring into a dark, dismal, gut-wrenching period when he assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. The country was on fire as racial tensions prevailed, and that included the North Hartford streets where I was born and raised. Snipers occupied rooftops—some atop the homes that my relatives had owned—and heart-warming memories of neighborhood stores, playgrounds and other haunts fell victim to looting and destruction. A dead body rested on the site where I learned to play Mumbley Peg.
No, the summer of 1968 was not a good time to be a reporter for many of us, but depending on how you perceived your assignments, covering the country then was either a reporter’s dream or nightmare. The public hung on our every written word, for in 1968, the newspaper was king and TV journalism was in its infancy.
Each afternoon, before the final edition went to press, the City Room was transformed into a distribution center for riot helmets that reporters were ordered to don before entering the city’s battlefields. If, and when, sniper fire broke out, we were ordered to take shelter under parked cars.
The romance of journalism was gone in 1968 and the ugly side of news coverage prevailed. America was burning. Depending on whether you drew the short straw or not, newsmen (only males were assigned to cover the race riots) were either sent to cover the riots or were planted at desks, ordered to transcribe the pay phone (no cell phones back then) accounts of what was happening into that evening’s headline stories.
Those who could type were granted the “privilege” of sharing bylined front-page accounts of the “season of unrest.”
Of course, many people had different experiences – and different recollections of the Summer of ’68. For many of the people I knew, life was either wonderful or agonizingly tense, depending on your gender. We were a year beyond the flower children of 1967 and their Summer of Love, and a year prior to the still-talked-about 1969 Woodstock Concert.
For the women I spoke with, it was a year of new cars, nightclubs and high fashion. Like many of their young peers, these women loved to dance and drink back then, and recall doing The Monster Mash, the Mashed Potato and the Camel Walk, made famous by the Godfather of Soul, the late James Brown. Women wore white pearls, tailored suit dresses, and bold colors. Skinny model Twiggy wore a tiara and the mini-skirt was queen – 1968 was a fashion revolution akin to the 1920s flapper era.
For males, it was a different story; 1968 was filled with painful memories for the boys who crept up to their mailboxes each day, fearing the infamous “Greetings” letter from Uncle Sam. Vietnam loomed large in the hearts and minds of young males who faced the draft and the inevitable jungles of Southeast Asia. The world and its woes loomed large in their memories as they applied to the Vietnam War, along with racial strife.
Retired printing/publishing executive and former NFL player for the St. Louis Cardinals, Richard “Dick” Dean of Windsor, now 76, well remembers the year 1968 and considers it the antithesis of 1964.
“When President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, as Dr. King said, I felt as though we people of color had been to the mountain. Four years later, in ’68, when Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the mountain became our valley,” said Dean, who graduated from Indiana’s DePauw University with honors during the Johnson administration. “I grew up in the ‘Whites Only’ Washington, DC era where I was kicked out of (white) playgrounds, beaches, rest rooms and restaurants.”
Dean rationalized that “when these old people who ban me from places die, maybe this segregation crap will die with them and things will be different.”
Four years later, in 1968, Dean’s predictions were proven wrong. His two heroes, King and Kennedy, fell to assassins’ bullets. “No, 1968 was not a great year. It split the country and the races in half. America was in turmoil,” Dean somberly recalls.
While acknowledging the horror of both assassinations, most women I spoke to reflected on the positive aspects of 1968, when “2001 Space Odyssey” was the number one movie (although the country was still aghast over the cougar-like antics of Mrs. Robinson from the movie “The Graduate,” released just days before the new year) and it took more than seven minutes to sing each verse of “Hey Jude,” by the Beatles, 1968’s number one hit.
“I remember going to The Rocking Horse Café in Hartford with my roommates,” recalls Paula Serignese of Lebanon. “I was 22 years old in 1968 and had just graduated from Ithaca College in New York. I had my father co-sign for my brand new, $3,000 red 1968 Camaro with a black racing stripe. We’d go to the café where an elderly woman named May wore a huge hat and threw peanuts on tables, after which we were expected to throw the shells all over the floor. We’d order a pitcher of beer and drink the night away and get up and go to work at Pratt & Whitney the next morning where we weren’t allowed to wear pants at work…only skirts and dresses. Those were good times, but I still have a vivid memory of Bobby Kennedy dying on June 6, 1968, the day I turned 22 years old.”
It was at the Rocking Hose that Paula met Nick, her husband-to-be, who commuted from East Hartford’s Lamplight Village Apartments to an Air Force base in Westover, Massachusetts.
“I was frustrated with everything in 1968,” he recalls. Now a retired attorney and the grandfather of four, Nick is a “gentleman farmer” who lives in a magnificent home sitting on 37 acres beside the historic Lebanon Green. He, too, was part of the military environment in 1968.
“For the most part, my only fond memory of 1968 was meeting Paula a year before we got married,” says Nick. “That was pretty much an awful year, due to the King and Kennedy assassinations and the ongoing Vietnam War.”
In 1968, John Cook, CEO of QuoteWright travel insurance company of East Hartford, was a senior in South Dakota’s Yankton College, now a federal penitentiary. His recollections of 1968 included numerous attempts to answer friends’ questions as to “why the hell I chose to go into the Marines.”
“I was facing active duty orders from the Corps two weeks after college graduation. Without a doubt, I was headed for Vietnam. If I hadn’t developed a medical problem that disqualified me from the military, for sure I would have joined friends in Vietnam. I lost a lot of my buddies there,” he recalls.
Conversely, Hazel Cook, John’s wife of 49 years, now executive director of Public House in Hamden where she’s worked for 30 years, has entirely different recollections of 50 years ago.
“The fashions were fabulous in 1968,” she says. “We had a good life…nobody was hungry and we were all equals, having come from blue collar families,” she says.
Still described today as a “fashionista” by those who know her, Hazel recalls being 21 and single and driving her new (red) Mustang to the Blue Sands Nightclub in Rhode Island. She vividly recalls wearing a powder blue organza blouse and sporting a short skirt. Hazel flips through her 1969 wedding pictures and displays a photo of her coming down the aisle, wearing a “mini” white wedding gown.
Tony McMahon, of East Hartford, a retired radio and TV executive, recalls 1968 as the year he mustered out of the Marines.
“I couldn’t believe the news that Bobby Kennedy was killed. I’ll never forget walking through Grand Central Station while wearing my Marines uniform and carrying my sea bag over my shoulder as a pretty blonde approached me. I was thinking this woman might be attracted to me and that maybe this was going to be a good experience. Instead, she came up to me and spit in my face, calling me a baby killer,” he said. “That’s how I recall the summer of ’68.”
Glastonbury resident Gene Sheehan, III, president and managing partner of Sullivan & LeShane Public Relations, was on track to join the military until that path was altered by a twist of fate. He recalls that summer with mixed feelings.
“The day I graduated from Providence College in June of ‘68, I partied like crazy at a Rhode Island bar called Brad’s. From there, I drove my 1963 MGB to another party in Boston. The next morning, while suffering the worst hangover of my life, I woke up to the news that Bobby Kennedy had been shot,” recalls Sheehan. “I remember driving home to Connecticut feeling so disillusioned and depressed because Bobby was our hope of ending the Vietnam War. I kept thinking how ironic it was that I graduated high school in 1964 only months after JFK was killed, and now, four years later, Bobby met the same fate.”
Sheehan, who was in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), a group of college- and university-based programs for training commissioned officers for the U.S. Armed Forces, says his parents had no money for college so he borrowed $1,800 to pay for tuition.
Although the ROTC offered him its only Distinguished Student Military Scholarship, Sheehan – who had passed two military physicals – was on cortisone for hay fever. “Ultimately, the military declared me 1-Y status, which was a military deferment.”
As for me, I had more reason to revel in 1968 than not to. I had just gotten married, had completed my military obligation, and had two years of college behind me. I was a reporter covering Connecticut in my new red Pontiac LeMans, which was later severely damaged by undesirable types after I wrote an investigative story on their corrupt dealings. And yes, I felt the weight of two devastating assassinations and race riots that year, but who among us didn’t – male or female?
Suffice it to say that, with apologies to Charles Dickens, 1968 was clearly of tale of two sexes. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
James Battaglio is a writer and editor living in Glastonbury.