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If only it had been a vision.
Over the years, as I’ve gotten older and tried to reflect on my life and determine what things influenced me and helped make me who am I today, one year from my early youth resonates like no other.
It was 1968. I was almost a teenager living with my parents and an aunt in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My aunt happened to be my godmother. Her name was Gloria Jean, and she was an angel of a human being. She taught me all the great music of the 60s, gossiped about girls, and taught me how to be a better brother, nephew and human being.
She loved the old Paul Anka and Elvis Presley songs, but when the Beatles invaded America and were on the Ed Sullivan Show she shrieked and squealed in front of the television while my dad and grandfather muttered all sorts of epithets and insults about the long-haired hippies. The Beatles signaled a change in the type of music young people in America were listening to, and it was no different in our house. The Vietnam War and the politics of the 60s were everywhere. Things were changing, and so was our house and yours truly.
My aunt graduated from Grand Rapids Catholic Central high school in 1963, which meant she was poised to experience all of the turbulence, hatred, war and bigotry of those turbulent times, but she also knew to savor the wonder of the space race, Michigan summers, the Detroit Tigers winning a World Series, and watching her family grow. Her younger brother — my Uncle Johnny — graduated from high school in 1966. He got into a scrape with the law when he was in school and the judge gave him an option: go to jail or join the military. He joined the Navy.
That’s when the war and civil rights movement crept into my life for the first time. As 1967 turned into 1968, things were happening at breakneck speed in our household. My uncle had gone missing while patrolling the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam, and we feared for his life. Riots had rocked Detroit in 1967. National Guard troops were rolling down Woodward Avenue in tanks. It was a scary time.
I remember going to a baseball game with my parents at Tiger Stadium while up the road a mile or two away all hell was breaking loose with rioting, looting and murder everywhere. I was terrified. But oh, to follow the Tigers of 1968 was one of the great loves of our family’s life, and we decided we needed the Tigers more than Michigan needed us.
About the same time, I had the great fortune to meet Bob and Sonja Schultz. They had moved into our neighborhood just around the corner. Bob was two years older and Sonja was my age. My mom learned about our new neighbors, and immediately commanded me to go over and introduce myself and befriend our new neighbors. I didn’t think twice about it and made the introductions. Bob, Sonja and I are great friends to this day.
They were also the first black family to move into the suburbs of the very conservative, white, Christian-reformed community we lived in. I heard the neighbors complaining and getting angry, and I heard a few people use the N word. That was absolutely forbidden in our house, and my first fist fight involved wailing on Larry S. for calling Bob that. I noticed people did not use that word around me again. One small victory for mankind.
I was also (and still am) a voracious reader and would spend all sorts of time reading anything I could get my hands on after school. The Hardy Boys led to The Yearling which led to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. My tastes in literature instantly changed.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged in our house and on television. We had not heard anything about my uncle’s whereabouts in weeks. Everywhere we went we crept around the house avoiding the giant elephant in the room: what if he is dead?
In early March, that all changed as Johnny came marching home. He was a changed man and nervous as a man can be. He slept in the same room with me when he first got back. Almost every night he would wake up screaming. It was terrifying to a 12-year old kid, but somehow I knew he had been to hell and back and found it in myself to accept it. Johnny and I are now great friends and he has a wonderful family. But it took 35 years for him to make peace with himself and where he had been.
One day in late March, my uncle and grandfather were watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. He was my grandfather’s favorite, and we had watched him with awe as he helped us and the nation get through the Kennedy assassination in 1963. As we sat in the family living room that evening, Cronkite came on television and announced to the American nation that it was his experience that we were not going to win the Vietnam War. He said we were an honorable people, that we had done our duty, and now it was time to bring the troops home and to end war with peace with honor.
I looked over at my granddaddy and uncle and I was stunned by what I saw. There, in that living room, I saw both of them cry like babies. They were hugging each other, and my grandfather broke down while telling my uncle how happy he was to have his only son back. That was a change in his thinking, because before his only son had gone to fight in the southeast Asian war, he had been a big hawk. In fact, his brother, my great Uncle Charley, had been a big hero in World War I.
Lyndon Johnson announced shortly thereafter that he was not seeking reelection. “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the nation,” LBJ supposedly said. The times indeed were a-changing.
A few days later, the guillotine fell again. I was lying on my parents’ bed reading when my Aunt charged in with tears streaming down her eyes: “They’ve just shot and killed Martin Luther King!”
We all huddled around the television and watched in horror as the sordid tale unfolded. I asked my mom if I could go over and visit Bob and Sonja and tell them how sorry I was. She hesitated, but let me go. When I got to the Schultz’s house, they were watching the news on TV. I saw Bob’s dad give me a real sour look, and it made me uneasy. But after a few minutes, the kids were laughing and talking about baseball and how awful everything was, but we didn’t know the reality. We were too young — but we were growing up real fast. Bob’s mother kissed me on the forehead and thanked me when I left. I remember that gesture to this day. They were kind and good people, and I miss them.
Well, a few months go by and I am about to get out of school for summer vacation and get ready to start junior high. My dad worked a fulltime day and night job to support his family, so my mom would let me stay up and watch the Late Show with Johnny Carson — especially on a non-school night. For some reason, on that particular night my mom went to bed a little early. My dad came home around one in the morning. He was tired and told me to go to bed because he was going to bed.
I disobeyed. I was watching some program when the news flash hit the screen: in Los Angeles, it happened again. There was another shooting. Robert F. Kennedy was dead. Now that one hit hard—I admired him. I walked into my parents’ bedroom and risked the wrath of my dad obliterating me by waking him up. I stuttered that Bobby had just been shot and killed, and once again our whole family sat on the couch watching the awful history of 1968 unfold in front of us. My dad walked to the door to let some air in, and somewhere out of the darkness we could hear a man screaming “What’s wrong with this country?!”
No one knew. Everything was changing. The music had changed from Yummy Yummy Yummy to Mrs. Robinson, Hey Jude, Dock of the Bay, Sunshine of your Love, and Jumping Jack Flash. The subject matter of the movies was also changing. The top movie of the year was about segregation. Rod Steiger won Best Actor for his performance alongside Sidney Poitier in the Oscar-winning film In the Heat of the Night. The thoughts and dreams of a 12-year-old boy were tempered in those months by a reality he could not understand. But he knew the world had changed, that he was changing, and there was no looking back.
Yet in all this chaos, there was the glory of putting a man in outer space and actually going to the moon. And there was profound joy at being a Boy of Summer: my Detroit Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 1968 World Serie in seven games. Names like Denny McLain, Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan rolled off my tongue with more statistics flying than even an MIT grad could understand.
So there, in this time of hate and violence, was a gift from God: the innocence of a boy listening to a baseball game on the radio with his parents sitting around talking about everything under the sun. The golden voice of Ernie Harwell reverberating across the airwaves will stay with me all the days of my life. They were the good ol’ days. They were the best days. They were the best of times.
How ironic then all this joy could be entangled with so much squalor? Only God knows those answers, but I would trade any of that right now for just one more chance to sit in that living room with my mom, my dad and my aunt Gloria.
They are all gone now, and I miss them so. But the one thing I take away from this darkness is that they loved me, they tried to do the best for me, and they gave me a legacy and example of decency to follow all the days of my life.
On days like today, when darkness comes to talk with me again, I relive those times and think of the family that loved me unconditionally. Some days I handle it better than others.
Today, the stone is at the bottom of the hill and I am alone.