When I think of America, I see myself back in 1968—fifteen years old and in the regalia of the Woodward High School Marching Band. I played clarinet and performed, to my cosmic joy, as the occasional Assistant Drum Major. In February, the month in which the above photo was taken, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. admonished his congregants in Atlanta to each become “a drum major for justice!”
All we boys wanted, however, were car keys and conquests.
It was not lost on me, especially since Dr. King was gunned down two months later in Memphis. He was there trying to help get a ten cent per hour pay raise for the city’s predominantly black garbage workers. And recognition of their union by the city, appropriate uniforms, and access to the whites-only workers lounges.
Even the fabled Cincinnati high school is no more—bulldozed into rubble more than a generation after a host of us, now aging and sentimental, lived through the best and worst of the 1960s within its rumbling, sometimes treacherous walls. My lifelong friend Steve, with whom I walked to the high school for years, lamented: “They have torn down our temple.”
The structure is gone, the bittersweet memories of blood and breakthrough linger, some of us have died already (including in Vietnam) but none of us could have imagined what I see myself scanning for back in America’s most bittersweet and contradictory decade.
The world was breaking apart then; now it is as broken as it is cybernetic. None of us could have imagined then what we actually now see in 2017—from a tweeting, bombastic, media president to a universal network of terrorist-driven security, to American tourists flocking on holiday to Vietnam. In 1961, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President John F. Kennedy declared at a live press conference: “I am the executive in charge and this is my responsibility.”
A president who doesn’t blame everybody else for everything? Was there ever such a thing in America?
Afghanistan remains a tragic hiccup (if a dreadful symbol) compared to the Vietnam horror. The trauma of that war, with its napalm, savagery, corruption, as well as the ravaging of the Vietnamese people and the Indochinese landscape wove its way into the psyches and lives of Woodward’s young men—even as we dealt with the draft and with the looming possibility of our own early deaths in Southeast Asia.
I put on the band uniform because it gave me a sense of community and a certain, musically martial status. There was a heady, unlikely, but delicious order imposed by our common cadence as against the prevailing chaos of the era. On brisk autumn Friday nights, across the pigskin grids of our beloved football Bulldogs, we marched together, a tapestry of blacks, whites, Hispanics, privileged, overlooked, yet all reaching awkwardly for our clipped pages of notes and beats.
We were experimenting, as we were supposed to, with sex and cigarettes and alcohol, we were reckless with drugs, we boys were fantasizing about the girls’ hot pants and the way they smelled and felt up close, but we were distracted by the images of body bags and jungle infernos and POWs and the terrifying possibilities that lay in store for us once we graduated high school and student deferments were no longer an escape.
All we boys wanted, however, were car keys and conquests. What we wanted was normal. What we got in ’67, ’68, and ’69 was aberrant but truly indelible. What other generation could decide to pick between Martin Luther King, Jr. (“I have a dream!”) and Governor George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”) as role models?
What generation since has loved, truly loved, a good cross-section of our national leaders, be it the grandiloquent Rev. King or the strangely aloof but perceptive Senator Eugene McCarthy or the elegiac and compelling and late-maturing Senator Robert F. Kennedy?
We were afraid, we were wary, we were in danger in those days, but we actually had personal feelings of connection and intimate affinities with many of the men and women who led us in politics, music, poetry, and social justice. And we mourned the martyrs of the time, the iconic Kennedy brothers as well as Dr. King, but also a host of guitarists and lyricists and writers and countless, faceless soldiers, nurses, chaplains, and students and housewives who marched and even died in favor of a better society that cherished values more than valuables.
And the words of the more famous ones—from the Beatles to Bobby—are words that we recall, as clearly as we remember the words of our parents, or the first movie we saw with that certain date, or what transpired in the city high school which I attended from the inception of the federal government’s civil rights legislation in 1964 through to Woodstock and the Apollo moon landing of 1969.
I found my country in those days, and discovered the moon in our grainy black and white TV screen. And through both the turbulence and elation of our gilded marching band, I learned that America is at its best when each one of us seeks to become a drum major for justice.
[Adapted from my 2010 memoir: ‘Nothing Like Sunshine.’ Michigan State University Press]