Monday, April 26, 2010

Letter to a high-school girl, part 1

A friend's daughter, a junior in high school, asked me to write her something about my experience of the 1960's. I was more than happy to do it.

Dear Ms. (or Miss if you prefer) J-----,

I was 16 in 1960, and graduated from high school in 1962. I have thought a long time about what it was like back then, and the simplest way I can say it is that the early 60's were really a continuation of the 50's (for instance, for dress-up occasions we guys were expected to wear a white shirt and tie, with sport coat and slacks, or suit, and "shinable" shoes). At sock hops we had records of rock-and-roll music (which was nothing like what's called rock today) but for the spring formal dances, live bands that played the "big band" sound of the 30's and 40's were obligatory. The way I remember it, everything seemed to change after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and the Beatles made their first appearance on live TV about February 1964. They brought with them a new kind of fashion which we had never seen here. (Look up Twiggy and Carnaby Street.)

There was also the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a very polarized election between Barry Goldwater (R) and Lyndon Johnson (D); the main issue was combating communism in Vietnam, which Goldwater supported and Johnson opposed before the election but changed his mind after he was inaugurated. That was the last election I was too young to vote in (for drinking and voting you had to be 21). Then there was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and after it, a lot of well-meaning college kids, including one friend of mine, went South on buses to help with voter registration of black citizens. (Some states in the "deep South" had poll taxes and literacy tests for voting, as I recall.) Some of those civil rights workers were murdered.

Anyway, what with the changes in music, art, fashion, and politics (I think rather enthusiastically accepted by the first of the baby-boomers who came to the University campus in the fall of 1964), things changed a lot. Now since I was two years older than the "boomers," I was a little more set in my ways even then, and didn't care for a lot of the changes -- which, by the way, I didn't really see as improvements. (If your mom shows you my facebook profile, you can see that I said about myself: "I am turning into a reactionary old crab. During the 1960s on campus I was a reactionary young crab.")

You asked: "What were your relations like with your parents, school, church and job back in the 60's?"

I got along fine with my parents. It was understood that as long as I lived in their house I obeyed their rules, and I did. They gave me very low-cost room and board while I was going to school; when I wasn't in school (summer vacations and breaks between quarters at the U) I was expected to be working and paying about 20% of my net pay towards the household. Pop was the only wage-earner of the family for many years while Mom stayed home keeping house and traking care of us six kids. Besides paying, I was expected to do a share of the house chores. The chores I had to do grew more or less because of the demands of school. (Pop and Mom graduated from high school in 1931, about the bottom of the Great Depression, and they were very strong on higher education, which they never had a chance to get.)

For high school I went to De La Salle, on Nicollet Island. I was in a college-prep curriculum, and I had no say about the courses. Again, it was "if you're here you obey the rules." I had four years of religion, English, math, social studies, science, two years of Latin, and two years of gym. After I graduated (in top 8% of my class) I was not quite used to the comparative liberty of the University. I was in a civil engineering curriculum, where certain courses were required for the first two years; but aside from that I soon realized that the profs and teaching assistants didn't care if I went to class or not - the responsibility of getting there, paying attention, and learning, was entirely on my shoulders. They graded tests and produced marks. If I flunked, tough; it was my fault. One prof told us that they intended to make it rough on us, and wash as many of us out as they could, because they wanted only the best getting engineering degrees from the U of M. That general position didn't change until after 1969 and 1970 (which I'll talk about some later on).

My relations with my Church were rather strained at the time. I went to a Catholic grade school, St. Bridget's, in north Minneapolis, and we had religion every day. There was also Mass every day before school, which was optional. De La Salle was (and is) a Catholic school. So I got my whole primary and secondary education before the Church council Vatican II (which wasn't supposed to change things but did). The reason my relations with the Church - and religion - were strained was that I was discovering that the outside world had moral compexities they never told us about in grade school. I was having growing pains, and was subconsciously (repeat subconsciously) wondering if what I had been taught as a child was enough for an adult. (I have to add that I didn't find the words for this until I was over forty. But it's something that happens to almost every young person, and - I have to add - if it hasn't happened to you and Emily yet, it probably will; but don't give up. Stay faithful. God will see you through it.) Anyway, for six or seven years I did almost nothing but go to church every Sunday - I had an intuition that if I quit that, the last thread of the rope would snap and I would drop off the mountain to my (spiritual) death. The spring I was 23, 1967, I got tired of sitting on the fence, so to speak, said to myself "this is stupid, I have to stay or go." So I took a walk up to the priests' residence of the parish where I grew up, and had a long talk with the assistant pastor, and decided to stay - and I've never looked back. If I had been more pious, I would have remembered the Bible verse about be ye hot or cold, the lukewarm I will spit out of my mouth. But I didn't. What I did remember was Mom or Pop saying, when I hung in the doorway, "For Heaven's sake, go out or come in, don't just stand there!"

I have to say a word about the Second Vatican Council, which the Catholic Church held in Rome between the fall of 1962 and the fall of 1965. The Council produced several pastoral documents, which were intended to develop Catholic Christian teaching and clarify it for the modern world. What happened in many cases was that a lot of people (including clergy, sadly) thought that the changes meant that everything was "up for grabs," and started changing things they had no business changing. Now even though I was having my own difficulties with the Christian Faith, I could see that some of the changes people were making, and thought the Council had allowed to change, were not okay.

(Insert: into a big stewpot throw big changes in the Catholic Church - and I suspect others as well; big changes in music, art, theater, and fashion; the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam war and resistance to the draft; the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement; the hippies and the drug culture; the "women's liberation" movement and the "sexual revolution". . . allow to cook and mix . . . and you have a hot and foul-smelling stew.)

In the summer of 1960 I managed a paper station in north Minneapolis. In those days, the morning Tribune and the evening Star were delivered in bundles by truck to many little steel sheds (maybe 12' by 20') all over the city. The station manager had to be there by about 4:30 in the morning to hand out the papers to the carriers, then do the paperwork, close the station, do the route for any carrier who was sick or lazy and didn't get a substitute. Same routine about 3:00 in the afternoon, except Sundays. Note well that the authority of being station manager carried with it the responsibility of making sure everything got done - this was the accepted, if unspoken, idea of the fifties and early sixties: authority and responsibility go hand in hand and you can't have one without the other. Authority without responsibility is tyranny; responsibility without authority is slavery.

In the fall of 1960 through the spring of 1961 I worked on the janitorial crew at De La Salle to work off my tuition. In the summer of 1961 I worked as a temporary helper at the FBI office in Minneapolis, and made enough money to pay my senior year tuition in advance. By the way, I met a lady there who I still see - we've known each other for 49 years and get better friends all the time. Those are the friends worth keeping.

In the summer of 1962 I worked at the same office again as a summer helper.

In the late summer of 1964 I went to work in a print shop downtown. The pay was low, benefits nil, but there were only two work rules: the printing had to be perfect and it had to be out on time. I loved it, and stayed there until the spring of 1968, when the shop went out of business.

In the spring of 1968 I went to work on the housekeeping staff of a little hotel downtown, and stayed until mid-summer 1973. The important thing about that was that the bottom-line staff was only about half white - the rest was a mix of black and Indian. There were absolutely no racial tensions that I knew of at that place. We worked toegether eight hours a day five days a week, we had to get along, and the only thing that mattered was getting the job done well. Almost all the housekeeping staff was poor people, black and white and Indian, from the North Side, and mixing and working with those folks shattered almost every preconception about black people that I had grown up with. (Remember my dad served in a segregated Army during WWII, and worked in law enforcement [so he saw people at their worst]; and there were no black people in my neighborhood when I grew up.) I learned really fast to take people as they were, not by what they looked like. Of course there were some bad apples, there are in every group, black or white. But if you go back to Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech, one of the best parts is where he says that he wants his children to be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

By the way, years later I wrote a novel about the hotel, which nobody would believe unless they'd worked it one.

(But this was not so on the university campus. Starting about 1968, the black students started making demands, and in January 1969 took over and occupied the University's administration building for a while; the U authorities caved in and granted most of the demands and handed out no punishments that I recall. And it was in the summer of 1967, I think, that there was a race riot in north Minneapolis that started as a fight between some black kids and white kids at the Aquatennial torchlight parade and escalated.)

Okay, on to the next question. More later.

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