A Graduate from 1968
Memory of my 1968 high school graduation is spotty. I don't remember marching to Pomp & Circumstance. I don't remember anything that might have been said, nor who might have said what I don't remember. I don't remember getting my diploma.
This is not to imply that all the events of my senior year at Tonawanda High School have been forever lost. I do have many memories. I am struck, however, by what my mind has decided is important enough to permanently save or not save.
I remember the graduation was in the school auditorium. I remember being paired off for the procession with Deborah Goeddertz, who by luck of alphabet I had seen just about everyday of my six years in high school and junior high school. After we marched out with our diplomas in hand I remember saying good-bye to her and never seeing her again.
But I don't remember who won the big high school football game that year. I don't remember caring who won. I don't remember what the school plays were, who the best cheerleaders were, how the swim team did, or where the senior prom was.
I remember 1968 for other things. The year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot. The year Johnson decided not to run again for president. I remember becoming clear in opposing the war in Vietnam. And I remember I started writing.
In 1968 we graduated into a country out of control. Tet changed the public perception of Vietnam. Vietnam changed the allure of military service. Gene McCarthy changed the game plan for presidential politics. "Laugh In" changed television. "Hair" changed Broadway. Student strikes at Harvard and Columbia changed education. "Soul On Ice" changed our perceptions of blacks in prison. Haight-Asbury changed why people went to San Francisco. And the Beatles continued to affirm that change was all right-even if it meant self-destructing.
To sit still in 1968 was to be in 1958.
I remember being stranded in downtown Buffalo with some friends when riots broke out the night of Martin Luther King's funeral. We could hear the sirens. We could feel the chaos in the streets. The concert we had come to hear had been canceled because the performers were trapped in their hotel by the riot. We were on the edge and reality was just two blocks away. Then somebody's father came to take us back to safety in Tonawanda. That night at home I watched the news with much less detachment.
1968 was the year I learned that watching the world unfold on television wasn't good enough. I needed more. I needed to be part of the action. When standing on the edge of reality turning toward safety was not going to be my direction of choice.
We graduated in to the summer of the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. That Fall Richard Nixon was elected president. Jackie Kennedy remarried (my God!!, how could she do that?) Capping the year off, at Christmas, Apollo Eight made the first manned trip to the Moon. We saw for the first time pictures of our own planet.
The year was like a metronome keeping Presto time. It swung frenetically left to right, one two three four, one two three four, from horror to hope to shock to revelation to revolution to left to left to left. And we the graduates were released into that moment. The beat went on. It beckoned us to join while challenging us to hold on.
Some went to college. Some went to work. Some went to Vietnam. Some went to Canada. Some went nowhere.
Now, half a century later, the beat has slowed. A fish from the age of Aquarius, I wonder what my fossil will look like. Did being thrust into that moment of time forever define who I would be? Have I measured up? Have we measured up? Were we correct in defining what was important?
I remember Harry Slattery. The black border around his senior class picture in the yearbook defined his future more clearly than any diploma.
I can see him driving in his metallic green fifty-eight Chevy with extra chrome extra shine and extra power in the V-8. Sometimes he drove alone. Sometimes there were other kids in the car, but I never recognized them. Harry's friends seemed to be people I didn't know. But thinking back, I really didn't know Harry.
It wasn't his leukemia that separated him from the Class of 1968. His interests seemed to be different. Harry's interests seemed to be his, unaffected by what the high school around him used to measure popularity.
I remember him as being on the quiet side. Perhaps he was shy. Perhaps he lacked confidence in himself. Perhaps his personality had a different kind of light. Or maybe he had a depth of character that reached beyond High School. Maybe in facing death Harry had a better sense of what is important. He could see his limits clearly and focus on what he was capable of grasping-like a sleek clean powerful fifty-eight Chevy.
I remember when he died. There was a simple mention made at the end of regular morning announcements over the school public address system. There was a moment of silence. And the wake was over. It was off to gym, off to geometry, off to history and English and auto shop. The metronome at Presto time slowed down to Allegro for one measure then went back to tempo.
When I consider the impact on me of events in 1968, graduation day is spotty, but Harry Slattery is still driving his green Chevy. He is right there with Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Jackie Onassis, Tet, The Maharishi, Eldridge Cleaver, Richard Nixon, The Democratic Convention, and Apollo Eight.
They are all part of what my fossil is becoming.
The events of 1968 made me a lifelong seeker. You never knew when Nuclear war or gun shots or leukemia might strike you down. I learned to accept and embrace chaos as an integral part of being human. I became a malcontent who appreciates agitation of social orders. I decided to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I took all my youthful arrogance and spent it freely while I still had it to spend. And not until now did I realize how much I had spent.
The beat goes on. Drums keep pounding rhythm to the brain-pushing my hair out from the inside. And Deborah, I didn't think I would never see you again, it just kind of happened that way.
John Gfroerer, March 24, 2018