Summer of 1969

1969 began auspiciously when Joe Willie Namath and the underdog Jets upset the Baltimore Colts 16-7 in Superbowl III. But violent student protests at Berkeley, Columbia, and Harvard soon set a grimmer mood as Chris Wallace, Frank Rich, and Tommy Lee Jones recounted in a recent Harvard Magazine. By that June, I was visiting my friend Joe Tobin in Hillsborough, California, hitting the head shops in Haight-Asbury and going to concerts at the Fillmore to hear Santana and the Jefferson Airplane at night. One night Joan Baez dedicated a song to Governor Ronald Reagan that began with the lines:

“He’s a drug store, truck drivin’ man
You know he’s the head of his own Ku Klux Klan….”

Weeb Ewbank, coach of the New York Jets, congratulates quarterback Joe Namath during the final seconds of Super Bowl III in 1969.

Today’s incivility in political discourse is nothing new!

The Summer of Love had been declared dead a couple of years before, but alternative newspapers, radio, and retail shops flourished. Don and Doris Fisher opened the first Gap that summer on Ocean Avenue.

One night Joe took me to a nearby neighbor’s for dinner. One of Randolph Hearst’s four beautiful daughters was a pretty blond 15-year-old named Patty, today the lovely Patricia Hearst-Shaw, whose defense fund Joe would found after her kidnapping and repeated rape several years later.

In July I went down to Los Angeles, where on a cloudless night I rode on Disneyland’s “Moonwalk” while Neil Armstrong was projected walking on the moon on a 60-foot television screen nearby, all beneath a brilliantly full Southern California full moon.

Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Chappaquidick happened that same week. My friend Art Nicol was working in a liquor store in Edgartown when Teddy Kennedy came in to stock up for his office party on the fateful night. Artie duly carried the booze out to Ted’s station wagon and, for his trouble, got stiffed on the tip. “They saith not a pater noster there,” my father commented when the story broke, quoting Judge Learned Hand.

Edward Kennedy after attending the funeral of Mary Jo Kopechne in Pennsylvania, July 1969.

On August 9th, eight-months-pregnant actress Sharon Tate and coffee heiress Abigail Folger were murdered brutally by followers of Charles Manson. The next night they killed again.

A week or so later, I bought a ticket at the local record store for 15 bucks and told my parents I was going camping upstate with some friends to listen to music. By the time we got to Woodstock, it was a sea of people and traffic jams, in the second-largest city in all of New York State. Richie Haven started things off with “Freedom,” followed by Arlo Guthrie and Country McDonald, bringing the crowd to its feet:

“Well, it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam…”

Then the rain began, and as Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Who, and Joe Cocker sang, Woodstock turned into a sea of mud. Sly and the Family Stone played “I Want to Take You Higher”; Paul Butterfield played “Love March”; and Jimmy Hendrix rang in the druggy dawn with the festival finale of a stoned-out “Purple Haze,” followed by his eerie electric guitar solo of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Woodstock music festival, 1969.

During the course of the night, I got separated from my friends and hitchhiked home with a blond-haired, Indian head-banded girl named Vickie. We ended up spending the night at my aunt and uncle’s pad on 79th Street, assuming they were at their beach house for the weekend. It was my first time, and Vickie made it absolutely clear I was wanting in technique. In the morning my uncle turned up bright and early to collect the week’s mail. He wasn’t happy to see us. We grabbed our knapsacks and hightailed it to Penn Station before jumping onto different trains. Vickie’s kind last words to me were, “Be good.” I wonder where she is now.

The next week, a bus dropped me at the top of Cory’s Lane, and I walked down to Portsmouth Priory to make up for the 29 I had received on my final math exam. For 10 days, I lived with the monks as Father Andrew patiently and brilliantly guided me to a 99 on my re-exam. I prayed with them, ate with them, and heard their life stories. A part of me wanted to be like them. Looking back, I think that was the most counter-cultural thing of all I did that summer of 1969.

When I left Portsmouth, I flew back down on a small Newport Aero plane with James and Candy Van Alen (Jimmy being the savior of the Newport Casino and the inventor of the revolutionary tennis tiebreaker) on their way to the second U.S. Open, where Rod Laver would complete his second Grand Slam. Later that year came the Trial of the Chicago 7, the Mets’ World Series win over the heavily favored Orioles, the My Lai Massacre, and the November anti-war Moratorium March on Washington.

The celebration at Shea Stadium in New York after the New York Mets defeated the Balitmore Orioles to win the World Series, 1969.

There was another side of 1969 as well. In addition to putting a man on the moon, the Boeing 747 jumbo jet made its first successful test flight. Scientists at UCLA and Stanford created ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. The combination of our market-driven economy, constitutional government, and individual freedoms enabled us to create amazing scientific and technological breakthroughs to achieve unprecedented wealth.

But 50 years on, those two weeks in the monastery are what stay with me most, and the words from St. Benedict’s Rule still echo in my ears:

“Seek peace and quiet; be more of a listener than a talker; if you must speak, speak the truth from your heart… To start with, ask God for the help of his Grace; then never give up…”