Friday, November 23, 2012


Some years are just more chock filled with newsworthy stuff than other years. I always think that in my lifetime 1968 was the most eventful year. If there is another year that is comparable someone tell me about it.  I was just a kid, turning 10 exactly in the middle of the year when it was all going on, but I still knew that a lot of stuff was happening. There are timelines online recording each little thing, but no point in re-doing that, so I only want to talk about a few of them that loomed large in my mind at the time and other things that I've learned about since, being oblivious to them when I was young.

The Pueblo. I was vaguely aware when the Pueblo was taken by the North Korean  Navy. The rest of it I learned much later. The whole thing is somewhat lost in history now, and I'm sure that some people who read this would say - "what?" or just have the vaguest notion about it. At the time, it was briefly quite the big deal. And, though swamped by other events, it kind of lasted a lot longer than most people think.
There are a lot of misconceptions about it even among people who were alive at the time. In fact, in one sense, you might say that the "event" is still ongoing today in that the ship, still commissioned by our navy, is also still held captive. It is a museum in North Korea, much like we display The Intrepid as a museum in New York. From time to time the Koreans offer it back in exchange for normalization of relations or to have a high ranking official come to North Korea, but no deal yet.

It was not an innocent ship. It was a spy ship used by the Navy and the National Security Agency to gather intelligence. The question will remain, was it in North Korean waters, as they claim, or international waters, as we claim? Given what we know about North Korea's habitual lying and incompetency today, it is hard to believe them anymore than we believed Iran when they took a British ship more recently. But, as far as the Pueblo is concerned, we can't really know with much reliability. At least nowadays we can look at real or doctored satellite photos in the papers. The crew and Navy insist that it was outside the territorial limit.  We do know that it was spying on North Korea (and the Soviet Union), whether or not in her waters.
There was never a chance for a fight. The ship was chased down by two sub-chasers, two Migs and four torpedo boats. Though weaponized, almost everything that could be used for combat was stored away and only one crew member aboard was trained to use them. They never fired a shot. Though they delayed two hours before surrendering and had another hour after that to destroy sensitive material, the ship was a bit of a mechanical nightmare in steering, communications (even between decks) and so on. There was virtually no way to destroy their materials and in the end, they managed to destroy very little of it.

The intelligence loss was quite severe. Materials were immediately flown to Moscow by Korea and it is estimated that 3-5 years of intelligence advantage was lost. The military was gung ho to retaliate, but Johnson refused, caring more for the safety of the crew. By the time he was awake, the ship had already been taken. With one man killed while carrying boxes to be destroyed, the remaining 82 member crew was tortured, some brutally so, and mainly they co-operated with their captors. They signed confessions and made recordings for them. On camera and in their letters they made a few puns and attempts at telling us that it was all a pack of lies. I don't think they needed to do that, and it did get them in more trouble when they were found out, but it is probably human nature to try to communicate with your hoped for rescuers. The crew was held eleven months before the U.S. admitted to spying, apologized to the Koreans and promised to be good in the future and they were released into South Korea. As soon as they were free, the admissions were renunciated, but that was actually was part of the negotiations. The North Koreans already knew it when they signed. Silly, but that is how these things are done.

Serving in the forces can be tough when you lose a battle, and there was actually a court of inquiry for the crew. A court martial was recommended for the Commanding Officer and head of research, but the Secretary of the Navy refused it. 

At the time, the belief was that the action was as a result of Soviet prodding, but, apparently along with the opening of the Eastern bloc, it was learned that it was all North Korean. Though a huge event when it occurred, the incident was dwarfed by the ongoing Vietnam War, which I cover next.

And it's 1, 2, 3, 4, what the hell are we fighting for?. . .
I want to be an air force ranger; I want to go to Vietnam. . .

Those are songs, or in the second case, a chant I remember from the Summer of '68, when I was in summer camp. Possibly the second one has been garbled in my mind. I have read that "air force," is wrong and "airborne" correct. There is no such thing as an air force ranger. But, I'm pretty sure that was what was being sung. I was not a singer myself, but other kids sang those lyrics all the time. The first one is an actual recorded song. I'm not sure about the second.  I do recall one summer day when the counselors asked the kids not to sing them,as a friend of theirs, a pilot, had just perished in the war.
Vietnam was in the air that year. News and images in your head of fighting in jungles and dogfights with jet planes, napalm being dropped. The Tet Offensive came at the end January, but I am not sure I knew it at the time, or if I did, attached any importance to it. It was, though, one of the most critical battles in the war, probably more psychologically than practically.

The next day, a photographer caught the image of a South Vietnamese officer executing a Vietcong. The image is still in my mind, though I don't think it meant to me what it did to some others - that the South Vietnamese were no better than their adversaries. The Vietnamese complained that that was an unfair judgment, but it stuck. The government announced the greatest military casualties of the war to date for a month - over 500 dead and 2500 injured. It cannot be imagined what totals like that in a war would mean to us today, where even the death of a few makes us want to flee any war. While I was in camp that summer, there were over 540,000 military personnel in Vietnam - the peak. The Paris Peace talks started in May. Later that year Johnson announced we would no longer bomb the north. Eventually, of course, we left and barely supported our allies, while China and Russia fully supported theirs. A couple of years after that, the North was victorious, and the feelings of failure pervade our military and national conscience to this day.
I've written here before of my interest in the events leading up to WWII. Of those, there is little doubt that the Munich Agreement, a peace treaty later widely considered a craven and foolish act of appeasement that led almost directly to the war, is most important, and had its 30th anniversary in '68. No doubt American policy makers had that in their heads when it determined to become involved in and then escalate the action in Vietnam. Nevertheless, it seems that in '68 we nevertheless sought negotiations against a relentless and merciless foe with greater will than we had.

Martin Luther King, Jr., now almost universally respected, but was a divisive figure in those days - a hero to some and a louse to others. Not in my house. We knew which side was right in the civil rights disturbances going on in the south. Though I later questioned most of the political beliefs I was taught then, I do not question that.  

Memory can be funny. I was four when JFK was killed in 1963, yet I remember it well, at least images of it.  My main concern was that they would take my cartoons off the air while they covered the assassination. I know my memories cannot be accurate as it is not possible that I watched the bullet fly through the air in a newscast, but I do remember something. Yet, I was almost ten when King was killed and have only the slightest memory of it happening at all.

What is often not recounted today is that his murder caused riots throughout America, apparently well over 100 of them.  JFK's brother, Robert Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate himself, is sometimes credited with preventing it from happening in Indiana where he gave a speech announcing the murder and dealt with the issue of retribution directly. He asked the audience to reject savagery and violence, and instead show compassion for each other. He quoted from a Greek playwrite, which somehow transformed it for many into a great speech. It was not his translation, but one he had read in a book by the great recorder of Greek myths for the English speaking world, Edith Hamilton, and he certainly bolluxed one word of it, though perhaps making it better. New York Mayor John Lindsay has been credited with similarly preventing a riot with a speech in Harlem, New York. I know that many people died as a direct result of the riots, but can't recall how many. I want to say 56, but that may not be accurate. There is only so much I will research for these posts.
King's assassin was James Earl Ray, a career criminal on the lam and supporter of segregationist Governor George Wallace. He was seen running from the scene where his fingerprints were found on the rifle he had left behind. He was later caught as he headed for white minority dominated Rhodesia in Britain and was extradited here. He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty but recanted his confession a few days later. He tried repeatedly to get a trial during his life, proclaiming his innocence or at least partial innocence. In fact, he even convinced members of the King family of it. At one point, he even escaped from jail, but was quickly caught.

Two months after King, it was Kennedy's turn. He was campaigning for president and stood some chance of winning (he was behind Hubert Humphrey, but had just won the California primary). His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was a young Palestinian from Jordan. Sirhan, still alive today at 68 years old, was caught red-handed. The most astonishing part to me is that though he was twice punched in the face by a security guard and then pinned to a table by at least five men including the huge professional football player, Rosie Greer, and Olympic decathlete, Rafer Johnson, he somehow managed to wrest himself free and pick up the gun again. Fortunately, he had already emptied it.
Although Sirhan was a Christian, he was anti-Zionist, and killed Kennedy over his support for Israel.

"Bobby" was a complicated person. He could be ferociously angry and vindictive, but, also fiercely loyal and compassionate. Robert Caro, LBJ's biographer, sees him as a project in development, a vastly different person from the Attorney General in his brother's administration. His death immortalized him, not quite to his brother's or King's degree, but immortal is immortal.
The Music

I didn't know anything about music in 1968. I didn't even know the words to Happy Birthday. My family was very non-musical. The only one who seemed to care about it at the time was my oldest brother, who, though not quite a hippy, certainly liked their music. I remember most him playing The Animals' I'm Henry the Eighth, I am and Tiny Tim's bizzare Tiptoe through the Tulips over and over again. Tiny's song was from '68 when he became a media sensation, as strange in real life as he was in performance. The Animals' hit was already a few years old when my brother seemed to discover it. Both were actually covers of hit songs from much earlier in the century.
Despite my own lack of musical knowledge, I do remember knowing that music was vastly important to most young people, particularly rock & roll, and I knew that the Beatles and The Monkees were big deals since 1964. Music was actually at something of a crossroads, with the Beatles recording very new music the year before with Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, still on the charts in '68, while The Monkees, a made up tv band that somehow became real, actually outsold them in '68 with hits like Daydream Believer. The same year Mason Williams' Classical Gas, foreshadowed the progressive rock era (Williams, still alive, was a renaissance man, being a poet and comedian as well as talented guitarist).  This following list, hardly comprehensive for a year of iconic music, is not music I liked at the time (which was nothing), but what I liked from it a few years later when I became interested in music.

HEY JUDE, REVOLUTION and LADY MADONNA - The Beatles, (Sittin' On) THE DOCK OF THE BAY - Otis Redding, MRS. ROBINSON - Simon & Garfunkel,  HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. - Jeannie C. Riley, MONY MONY - Tommy James & the Shondels, HELLO I LOVE YOU - The Doors, YOUNG GIRL, WOMAN, WOMAN and  LADY WILLPOWER - Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, DANCE TO THE MUSIC - Sly & the Family Stone, JUDY IN DISGUISE - John Fred & his Playboy Band, LOVE CHILD - Diana Ross & the Supremes, ANGEL OF THE MORNING - Merrilee Rush & the Turnabouts, THOSE WERE THE DAYS - Mary Hopkin, BORN TO BE WILD and MAGIC CARPET RIDE - Steppenwolf,  CLASSICAL GAS - Mason Williams, GREEN TAMBOURINE - The Lemon Pipers, JUMPING JACK FLASH - The Rolling Stones, I'VE GOTTA GET A MESSAGE TO YOU - The Bee Gees, SCARBOROUGH FAIR/CANTICLE - Simon & Garfunkel, MIGHTY QUINN - Manfred Mann and SUSIE Q - Creedence Clearwater Revival.
And, of course, Arlo Guthrie' rambunctious Alice's Restaurant, which stands in a category by itself and makes me smile merely to write the name. When I hear it - which is rare, it brings back to me the sights, sounds, smells and feeling of that era.

This was an exciting year for politics too. Nixon, Eisenhower's VP, was running for the Republicans and the Democrats. But, just like  Mitt Romney this year had to fight off a few challenges, so did Nixon. First it was Romney's father, George Romney, who was the former Governor of Michigan. He had a shot, but blew it with comments about the war. Then Nelson Rockefeller, later Ford's VP after Nixon resigned, took a run at it and failed. Finally, another guy you may have heard about named Ronald Reagan also made a run at it. Reagan would not win the nomination for another 12 years, but it is mostly forgotten about him that in '68 he won the California primary (he was the only one on the ballot) and by doing so slightly edged Nixon in the nomination process's popular vote, while losing the delegate vote.

The Democrat side though was by far more exciting. Johnson decided not to run and made a Shermanesque speech about refusing to spend one hour campaigning when the war was ongoing. He had won the election by over 60% in '64, probably the greatest landslide since Washington, but definitely since 1824 when they started counting the popular vote and greater even than FDR's '36 re-election (and, in the future, Nixon's '72 re-election). But the war had hurt him and he was secretly concerned about living out the term. As it turned out, he barely did, and quite possibly the stress of campaigning and governing again, had  he won, would have killed him earlier. Robert Kennedy was, of course, murdered, leaving the front-running northern liberal, Hubert Humphrey, the anti-war Eugene McCarthy and the future '72 nominee, George McGovern, as the other main contenders. Former Democrat and segregationist George Wallace ran on the American Independent Party ballot.
The matter was still undecided at the convention, which was marred by bloody riots between the Chicago police and anti-war demonstrators. It is quite possible that the spectacle of the riots and the tension in the Democrat Party later cost Humphrey the election, as it was exceedingly close. In fact, had Humphrey won California, or Ohio and Illinois it would have, thanks to Wallace's third party effort, went to the House of Representatives to decide. Humphrey would have won easily there, as the Democrats controlled it.

The Olympics
Actually, none of the above was too important to me in those days. I was just a kid and I mostly liked sports. The thing that was by far most important to me that year was the Summer Olympics held in Mexico City. And what an Olympics it was. America had an awesome team. Perhaps the highlight was a political message from two American Sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who, at an awards ceremony for the 200 meters raised blacked gloved fists to promote, we were told, Black Power. Later Smith claimed the gesture stood for human rights, but right after getting off the stand, he had mentioned being proud of being black. Smith had set a world record in the 200 meters and the silver medalist, Peter Norman, a sympathetic white man from Australia, like Smith and Carlos, also wore a human rights badge, but did not raise his fist, which adds to the idea that their gesture was about black power. Carlos wore his black glove on his left hand because he had forgotten his glove, and at Norman's suggestion, wore Smith's other one.  Smith and Carlos were banned from the Olympics for life. Norman was not technically punished, but was left off the Australian 1972 team.

But, political drama aside, Bob Beamon jumped 22 inches further than anyone else ever had, 29 feet, two and a half inches in the long jump, a record that lasted 23 years. Lee Evans set a record in the 400 meters that lasted for almost 20 years and was on the 4 X 400 meter relay team that set the world record for about 24 years. Everyone on the relay team was also capable of a world record, but the last time Evans had lost in that event was actually to Tommie Smith, a world record holder in it, but his specialty was actually the 200 meters.  The two were close friends, but extremely competitive with each other. Smith, sometimes described as superhuman, might have even been better than Lee at that time it if he had continued to concentrate on it. Dick Fosbury not only won the high jump, but changed the event forever with his Fosbury Flop.  Jim Hines broke the 10 second barrier in the 100 meters. He and three other Americans broke the 4 X 100 meter relay record. Willie Davenport set the Olympic record in the 110 meter hurdles, Randy Matson in the shot put and Bob Seagren in the pole vault. Bill Toomey set it in the decathlon.

As for non-Americans, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia won the marathon and came in second in the 10,000 meters. Viktor Saneyev of the Soviet Union set a world record in the triple jump, after it was broken 4 times earlier in the same competition. Kipchoge Keino, a Kenyan police officer, beat the amazing Jim Ryun in the 1500 meters. Ryun would never win the gold at the games. Vera Čáslavská, a Czech, dominated women's gymnastics with 4 golds and 2 silvers, but her protest of the Soviet invasion of her country by looking away while the Soviet anthem was played, a barely noticeable gesture, got her ousted from future competition by the Czechs. She was made persona non grata until the 1980s when life in Czechoslovakia changed and she was resurrected from a political graveyard. My prejudice makes me leave out the swimmers, but we had some good ones.
What else?

There were some other things at the time of which I was aware of that I'll just briefly mention:

Planet of the Apes came out. I never saw it to this day, but I felt like the only one at the time. I did not see The Lion in Winter until many years later, but it was some movie and in my belated opinion, should have won the Oscar.  Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey did win, but, when I saw it later on I found it a little boring, if an exciting idea and the effects were revolutionary until Star Wars made them seem old fashioned. The film was based on a short story, The Sentinel, and the novel with the same name as the movie actually came out afterwards. Night of the Living Dead, perhaps the best horror movie ever made, came out too.

Hair made its Broadway debut. I wonder if most kids have even heard of it today.

Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers won 31 games, the last time any pitcher wins more than 30. But, Bob Gibson, a prickly pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals did something I thought even more remarkable - he was 22 and 9, but had a 1.12 ERA. Even more remarkable, from June 2nd to the end of July, just short of two months, he had an inconceivable 0.20 ERA. The Tigers beat the Cardinals in a close World Series where the pitching star was actually another great Tiger pitcher, Mickey Lolich, who was overshadowed during the season by McClain, but won 3 complete games in the World Series.

I do remember that Jackie Kennedy got remarried to a billionaire named Aristotle Onassis, and thinking how sad it was that she would marry for money. I did not realize then how common it was. Why I thought I knew that about them then I'm not sure, but apparently it was largely true. Ari was seeking advice on divorce when he sickened and died, and Jackie had a long and bitter inheritance contest with his daughter.

And, though the landing on the moon wasn't until the next year, the Apollo program was a big deal in actuality and in my mind. I looked this up, but Apollo 7 orbited the earth 163 times and Apollo 8 orbited the moon.

I really have no memory of the following, but, just to show you what a busy year it was -
Andy Warhol was shot in his apartment.

Czechoslovakia had its Prague Spring (from which the name for the Arab Spring and other springs sprung - it it hard to say who used it first, but it might simply stem from a music festival known as Prague Spring) and the Soviet Union pounded them into submission.
Some books I never heard of then, but loved later on - Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, John Irving's Setting Free the Bears, John LeCarré's A Small Town in Germany, Lloyd Alexander's The High King, and, of non-fiction, William Manchester's masterful The Arms of Krupp: 1597-1968 and Erich von Däniken's silly, but wonderfully fun, Chariots of the Gods.

The Yippies (Youth International Party) was hardly a party but a group of young protesters and adventurers, particularly Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman (whose Steal this Book a few years later made even this unconventional weirdo dislike hippies and yippies even more than I had). The Yippies' biggest moment was inciting the riots at the Democrat's Chicago convention.

The My Lai massacre occurred, but no one knew it yet.

That should do it. A very eventful year. It would be hard to beat.


  1. Hey Music Lover,
    I'm only part way through this but figured I would let you know (before Bear mocks you even more) that Henry the VIII was by Herman's Hermits.

  2. Yeah, I knew that. In fact, it was what was in my head when I was writing the wrong thing, like when I write "see attached" and there is usually no attached. Good catch.

  3. Amazing walk down memory lane. Good job, Frodo. Even the stuff you got wrong is right as it is your memory of the year. Wonderful rehash of a painful year. Can't resist, for the record, Vida Blue won 30 games after Denny McClain. I'll let the other factual errors ride, because it's 1968 man, and the goatskin wine bag is flowing and someone just lit a "j", and I just moved to Westbury from Queens and I dunno nobody... but damn, the Stones sound groovy....

  4. No. Go ahead. These are long posts and I expect to make mistakes. I really don't care, especially if they are entertainment related, which is usually the case. Not my strong suit. Other mistakes - well, that's why Safire had his Nitpicker's Patrol - or something like that. Don already pointed out I swapped The Animals for Herman's Hermits.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .