I have heard it stated a number of times recently that there's never been a year like 2020.
At the risk of going all David McCullough on you, I would like to suggest that although that's probably mostly true, I do remember one that came real close.
It was 1968.
In 1968, we didn't have a pandemic killing people worldwide in unprecedented numbers — but we did have intense racial friction playing out nationwide; we had an undeclared foreign war claiming the lives of thousands of our young people (not to mention Southeast Asians of every age); we had intense divisions in American families over topics as varied as the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, athletes showing black power gestures at the Mexico City Olympics and hotly contested political races; we had the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; and we had a number of American cities on fire from violent clashes between police and protesters.
First, allow me to back up and share my own personal biases here. In 1968 I was 20 years old — and because every able-bodied American without a student deferment was certain to be drafted and sent to Vietnam — I was in the U.S. Navy. Unlike Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, I had no cushy alternatives, so I did the only thing I could to avoid going to the jungle: trying to get into one of the non-Army branches. The Coast Guard in those days was like a country club, and the Air Force was also pretty exclusive. The Navy saved me from the draft.
When 1968 arrived, I was in Adak, Alaska, way out on the western end of the Aleutian Islands. While there, I put in for a school, in Memphis, Tennessee, and got it — which is how I came to be in that hotbed of racial unrest in the summer of '68.
Under that Navy uniform (and in spite of my extremely short haircut) I was a hippie at heart. I did not approve of the Vietnam war, and I saw no reason that Blacks (and women, for that matter) should not have all the rights and opportunities that the rest of American citizens enjoyed. In 1968 Memphis, you could still see the "whites only" signs that had been scratched off walls next to public restrooms. And even though it was by then not legal to discriminate on the basis of skin color, it was still possible to wander into the wrong laundromat, as my wife and I did, quite by accident.
In 1968, at least half of all Americans seemed to be pissed off. Entire segments of society were angry because the rules were stacked against them. Women could get decent jobs, but it would be decades before they could even hope to be paid on a par with men. Young people were still smarting about the four students killed at Kent State and the government-sanctioned beatings that took place outside the Democratic convention in Chicago.
The 1968 election would be my first chance to vote, and I was looking forward to striking a blow for freedom and democracy. When my absentee ballot arrived from Oregon toward the end of that year, I was called to the administrative building at Naval Air Station Ellison Field outside Pensacola, Florida, and informed I could use a small room off to the side of the base commander's receptionist to make my selections in private. Trouble is, my first choice for president (Eugene McCarthy) was already out of the race, my second choice (Bobby Kennedy) was no longer with us — so I had a choice between Democratic Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon, the law and order candidate who promised to end the war. Welcome to political reality, I told myself.
Now, 1968 did have its moments. A very high percentage of our country's greatest popular music appeared that year. Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and others — even the tail-end of the Beatles' output and the Elvis comeback concert occurred that year. Still, like this year, I'll always remember it as pretty much a bummer.
Now, back to 2020. It's a little ironic, I think, that both 1968 and this year were presidential election years. Both, also were Olympic years, but the coronavirus did in this year's.
An eternal optimist, I'm convinced we have the ability to do something about some of this craziness that surrounds us. We can vote.
I plan to. So should you.
Mikel Kelly retired from the community newspaper world in 2015 and now lives a life of privilege and leisure. God bless the United States of America.
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