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Seeking the Sixties

December 15, 2015

Susan Marg

Photo by: © nejron

Photo by: © nejron

There’s an old hippie saying: “If you remember the Sixties you weren’t there.” Well, I disagree. I think we all remember the Sixties. There was the hope and excitement that President Kennedy brought to the country when he was inaugurated in 1961; our shared grief when he was assassinated in 1964. President Johnson fought the war on poverty, but greatly expanded our presence in Vietnam. Like-minded individuals marched for civil rights, burned their bras for women’s rights, and rioted for gay rights. Young people flocked to San Francisco in 1967, the Summer of Love, but fled the Hollywood Hills following the Manson murders in 1969.

If these events bring back memories, write about them. Here are some more suggestions to consider when thinking about your own personal or family history.

  1. By executive order. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps to promote world peace and friendship in 1961. Although the volunteer organization had its critics, Congress formally authorized the program later that year. Since then, nearly 220,000 Americans have joined and served in 140 countries.
  2. Notorious for being banned. When first published in Paris in 1934, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned here: it couldn’t be imported to the U.S. When Grove Press legally published it in 1961, the battle to read about the adventures of a young expatriate in Paris had just begun. Local authorities in twenty-one states filed sixty lawsuits against the book or those who sold it on grounds of obscenity. When one such case went to the Supreme Court in 1964, it overruled state court decisions and established a new, more liberal definition of obscenity. No longer could a book be banned because of its dirty parts, but rather it had to be without any socially redeeming value, as well as prurient throughout and offensive.
  3. Tell the people what she wore. The bikini first went on sale following an outdoor fashion event in France in 1946. The song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polk Dot Bikini” was the number one song for one week in August, 1960. The sexy swimsuit did not become fashionable, or acceptable, however, until Annette Funicello wore one in the 1963 movie Beach Party. Hers neither had yellow polka dots nor showed her navel.
  4. The doctor is in. In Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Love the Bomb, a 1964 satire of the Cold War, the President and his advisors, including Dr. Strangelove, a nuclear war expert played by Peter Sellers, are trying to resolve a crisis brought about by a crazy Air Force general who unleashed a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It did not end well for anyone. In Doctor Zhivago, an epic drama released the following year, a doctor/poet played by Omar Sharif survives World War I and the Russian Revolution. Both films were nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and both lost to musical love stories, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, respectively, demonstrating the wisdom of making love, not war.
  5. The British are coming! The British Invasion refers to rock bands from across the pond, such as the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones, making a big splash in America in the mid-1960s. Few made it to Woodstock in 1969, however. The Who performed, and Joe Cocker’s performance of “With a Little Help from My Friends” earned accolades. John Lennon wanted to be there, but the U.S. government refused him an entry visa.
  6. A shot in the dark. While protesters marched for peace, we witnessed the assassination of John R. Kennedy in 1963, of Malcolm X in 1965, of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, and of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
  7. A space odyssey. American astronaut Neil Sheperd went into space in 1961, three weeks after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth. Still, Sheperd was the first person to have manual control of his spacecraft and was widely celebrated upon his safe return home. In July 1969, we went to the moon, landing in the Sea of Tranquility. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong pronounced, stepping outside. Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin joining him twenty minutes later described the surface as “magnificent desolation.” Their teammate Michael Collins stayed on board to man the controls, while Armstrong and Aldrin collected rocks that President Nixon gave as gifts to 135 countries and all fifty states.
  8. Kings of cool. Dean Martin, former partner of Jerry Lewis, member of the Rat Pack, nightclub entertainer, and movie star, began hosting The Dean Martin Show, a television variety program, in 1965. Always charming, he sang, danced, flirted, smoked, and drank his way through the hour program. In 1967 Tommy and Dick Smothers offered viewers an alternative point of view on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In their opening act they sang folk songs, which usually led to an argument. There were also plenty of arguments with the censors, as their pointed humor was usually directed at racism, the President, and the Vietnam War. The show was cancelled in 1969, while Dean Martin continued to get good ratings through the 1973-1974 season.
  9. Thank you, Al Gore. Contrary to statements Gore made, possibly taken out of context, he did not invent the Internet. Rather the Internet grew out of the ARPANET. Scientists formulated the idea to enable general communications among computer users, particularly corporate, academic, and government researchers, in 1963 and developed a plan to implement the network in 1968. It was up and working in 1969, under the control of the military for two decades. Al Gore as a Senator, by the way, promoted legislation to fund the expansion of the ARPANET to allow greater public access.
  10. Close to home. The Cuyahoga River, dividing the East side from the West side of Cleveland, Ohio, my hometown, caught fire in 1969. Neither the first nor worst time this had occurred, the incident barely made the local news, but it created a national outcry, leading to the passage of the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The pendulum swings, and a lot happens in a decade.

© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved


Post a comment
  1. December 18, 2015

    I suspect this kind of memory prompt is a great way to get people to open up about their own personal history. Asking them to speak about themselves might not be easy at first. Asking them what they were doing when … (President Kennedy was shot for example) … would be a good way to allow them to move past their personal barriers to discuss something which may seem neutral (a news item) towards sharing personal feelings, experiences, memories etc.

    When you work with clients, do you begin with this line of questioning, Susan? The personal historian in the making that I am wants to know 😉

    Thanks so much for sharing – I literally have no memories from the 60s 😉 but you’ve left me with food for thought, for sure!


    • December 20, 2015

      Michelle, thanks for responding so generously to my blog post. History, as a news item, is neutral, but it also provides background and context. I think this is important when telling a story.

      I don’t begin with this line of questioning. Rather, I see where a client wants to go and what subjects he/she wants to cover. For example, If someone wants to talk about growing up in the sixties (or fifties or seventies), his/her favorite music, movies, books, clothing, food, to name a few topics, tells us about a generation, as well as gives insight into a particular person.


  2. cjmadigan #
    December 18, 2015

    Thank you, Susan; this brings back a lot of memories. And it’s great to see all these events lined up like that throughout that turbulent decade.


    • December 20, 2015

      Turbulent, but interesting, don’t you think? Thank you, CJ, for your comment.


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