Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Waiting in Calais

It was time, and I knew it!
by Charlie Leck

I came across an old and forgotten photograph yesterday and it stirred memories. I've shared it with you in the heading here. Nearly 35 years later, it looks odd, I suppose, but it marked me as I was in a time during which I was moving from one personal era to another. The rumbles in America were over and the nation was seeking its balance again and so was I.

In the 60s I'd been torn apart along with many others in the nation. I was a very moderate guy when it all began, living a restrained and modest life. However, it became difficult to continue living that way in America in the 60s. One had to be pretty blind to do it. Racial injustice was on the front page of every newspaper, nearly every day. America inched into a war in Vietnam that had no purpose and you had to be blind to truth and ignorant of reality to support it. It was an unjust and uncalled for war and I believe history supports that evaluation.

The question for me became simple, but framing the answer was difficult: Do I sit on the sidelines and pretend I don't see the injustices or do I stand and speak the truth and add my voice to the protests? I generally tried to do the former for the first few years of the decade, but the truth of the nation's condition tore at my insides. My coming-out was in 1964 with a summer trip to Mississippi, about which I've written a great deal on this blog, beginning with a piece called Remembering the Sixties.

From '64 to '74, I tried to live two lives – holding a conventional job in order to make a living and support a family, while, at the same time, finding ways to protest and oppose America's pursuit of an unjust war and the nation’s far too slow reformation of its racial attitudes. I was, at heart, in union with those radicals who took to the streets over both issues even while I donned a coat and tie of respectability and went to work every day.

I've written a long work on the 60s, trying to describe and define it for my grandchildren and their children. In it, I explain that the 60s began, for me, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was a mind altering and personally devastating event. It changed my personality and my attitudes. As well, for me, the 60s came to end on that day in May, 1970, when National Guardsmen opened fire on protesting students at Kent State University and killed several and wounded a number of others. I began to look at my dual life – the inner radical and outer moderate-worker – and realized it wouldn't and couldn’t hold together. The killings at Kent State caused my brain to vomit. Mere functioning became difficult for me.

Most historians date the beginning of the 60s with the beginning of forced integration of southern schools in 1956. They see the end of the period coinciding with America’s withdraw from Vietnam in 1975. So, then, the 60s become a period in history of nearly 20 years rather than just a decade.

The assassinations, in 1968, of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. had torn at my mind and seemed to demand something of me. From 1968 to 1978 I had a pretty lost and troubled soul. The period altered lots of things for me and, in early January of 1978, led me to move to France, where I had originally intended to take up permanent residence. However, just before I left America’s shores I fell in love with the most incredible person in the world and that encounter seemed to both bring me back to reality and to something of an even keel. For me, personally, the 60s came to an end when she came to Paris in May to bring me home.

Most of this probably just raises questions for you – if you care at all! In fact, most of you have probably stopped reading before you arrived at this paragraph and just moved on. For others, who do care, I’m working on answering those questions with a full description of what the 60s did to so many of us and to our nation. This coming year is it! I have promised myself and committed myself to completing it in the next 11 months. If and when I do, I’ll certainly announce it here.

My mind is, of course, settled these days. I can look at those years with some sense of perspective now.

One of the best and most important books I’ve read about this period is Mark Kurlansky’s book about 1968 (which ends up being also about the years that led up to 1968 and a few of the years that followed it): 1968: The Year that Rocked the World [Ballantine Books, NY, 2004 (ISBN 0-345-45581-9)]. The conclusion of his Introduction in that book nags at me:

“Working on this book reminded me that there was a time when people spoke their minds and were not afraid to offend – and that since then, too many truths have been buried.”

It’s time, I know it, to do some digging around!


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