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Constance Alexander: Looking back on college graduation and a year of living dangerously

The first wave of the Baby Boomer generation graduated from college fifty years ago, but you can’t talk about the class of ‘68 without referring to the so-called Summer of Love, 1967. The season was not without strife.

For the first time ever, American support for the war in Vietnam fell below 50 percent in opinion polls. News of riots in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere blazed in the headlines. Not far from my hometown in Metuchen, Newark, NJ suffered some of the worst riots. Even closer to my turf, the city of Plainfield erupted in violence and a local policeman died.

When fall semester of my senior year began, my roommates and I were settling into our own apartment. We didn’t devote much time to domestic tranquility, or to the courses we had to complete before student teaching. We did manage frequent celebrations of our twenty-first birthdays. I dimly recall multiple trips to the Extension, a bar not far from campus. TGIF began on Thursday night when we duly exercised our right to risk the after-effects of beverages by Budweiser, Bacardi and Boone’s Farm.

Back in our apartment on Stuyvesant Avenue, we spent hours talking about our hopes and plans for the future, against a soundtrack of the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, and the Beatles. On campus, there were more veterans than ever before. We were all near to the same age, but they seemed old to us as they sat in the Student Union, veiled in clouds of smoke. When we engaged them in conversation, our naïveté amused and frustrated them. They announced that the world was a dangerous place, but we didn’t believe their warnings.

On New Year’s Eve, 1967, it was snowing in Times Square as the glittering ball descended into 1968 with an explosion of light. On January 28, I boarded a plane at JFK International Airport to spend my last semester abroad, at University of Copenhagen. On January 30, the Viet Cong and North Vietnam’s People’s Army launched the Tet Offensive. The Mei Lei Massacre occurred in March of ’68, although it would not become public until November 1969.

For me, higher education really began in Copenhagen, where news of the world was delivered each day via the International Herald Tribune. In the classroom, one of my courses – taught by the Danish equivalent of Walter Cronkite — was about the history of Europe during World War II. Another, taught by Denmark’s representative to what was then called the Common Market, explored the possibilities associated with a future Europe as one economic community.

The exchange program also arranged trips to other countries. A long weekend in Berlin was an eye-opener. In the East, soldiers goose-stepped, Nazi-style. Citizens could not speak to foreigners or make eye contact. Tourists were restricted to shops and restaurants that accepted only foreign currencies. Since that visit coincided with Lenin’s birthday, red and white propaganda banners were displayed everywhere. Taking photos was forbidden, and if a shutter snapped even once, military guards materialized out of nowhere to confiscate the film and threaten the photographer.

On weekends, the Students Club was the center of social life. Young people from every continent congregated to dance, chat, and complain about the cost of cigarettes. People from other countries were curious about America. They asked us difficult questions, and might open a conversation with a statement like, “In America, I hear they hang black people from trees.”

One night, I actually saw a woman throw a drink into a man’s face during an argument about Vietnam.

Spring of 1968 was filled with loss. Days after Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Civil unrest and racial hopelessness fueled violence in America. Anti-war demonstrations sprang up in Copenhagen and other cities across Europe. In France, students joined a general strike to support the unions and the whole country shut down.

At the end of the semester, my journey home included stops in Ireland, Scotland and England. It was at a bed-and-breakfast in London that I learned Robert Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet after winning the California primary.

I was back home in time for the summer of 1968. This was no summer of love. The country was in turmoil. The Yippie Movement, led by Abbie Hoffman, orchestrated public displays of disorder. After challenges from Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Ronald Reagan of California, Richard Nixon became the Republican presidential nominee. At the Democratic Convention, Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president. Outside the convention, Chicago police took action against mostly peaceful demonstrators. The next day, Mayor Daley tried to explain the police action at a press conference by saying, “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

Today, fifty years later, some describe 1968 as the year that rocked the world and shaped a generation. Others claim it changed America or even shattered the country. For me, it was a year of living dangerously, when I emerged from the safe cocoon of college and the boundaries set by my parents to enter what people called “the real world.”

Still learning, I wonder why we look to the past for enlightenment and then repeat the same mistakes all over again.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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One Comment

  1. Cathy Clayk says:

    We lived in the same world, the same time.
    I often wonder about how we repeat the same atrocities in this great country of ours, or is it?
    Thank you Connie for putting many of my thoughts together so eloquently!

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