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1968: Voice of the Reader

Remembering an unforgettable year.

We asked readers to share their memories of 1968 and to tell us how that year changed their lives. The responses flooded in, and we've included a selection here, as well as in our 1968 feature article.

Karen Schickedanz, 61, Tucson, Arizona
1968 started off with high hopes, as I became one of the "Clean for Gene" college volunteers for Sen. Gene McCarthy in Indiana. Even though he lost the primary there, I was happy with Bobby Kennedy's win. Then, just before graduation, I took a spring break trip with three girlfriends down to Daytona Beach. While there, Martin Luther King was assassinated. And then the morning after I graduated, I turned on the TV and found out that Bobby had been assassinated. I cried all the way back home.

The combination of events made me realize how quickly things can change; how quickly dreams can shatter, and that if you have hope, you need to act on those dreams as quickly as you can. It all made me grow up a lot faster than I would have ever wished. It really was a loss of innocence.

William Cook, 58, Charlotte, North Carolina
The year 1968 changed America and changed me forever. It was a leap year and on February 29, 1968, I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. I was only 18 years old and living on the south side of Chicago. The Vietnam War was in full blast and I, as others, of that era were the young, tough guys who were going to go over there and end the war single-handed. As with the young military fighting today, I was not political and didn't even know where Vietnam was. I just felt it was my duty and obligation to serve my country, especially since so many others were burning their draft cards. While in boot camp training at Camp Pendleton, California, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This single event and the ensuing riots changed my opinion and ended my naive of what being a Black American in White America really meant.

Later that year, the Democratic Convention was held in Chicago and the assassination of another Kennedy made me realize that the America I had grown to admire, love and respect never really existed. It was also the year of the highest death count of the war, many of which were black. This situation caused the NAACP to investigate. On a lesser note, jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery died in California. As with Martin and Bobby no one ever rose to take his place. It was a year of some of the greatest American music that has ever occurred. It made us think and contemplate. And it is something that is sorely lacking in today's form of music. Crosby Stills and Nash were my favorite in the rock genre when they made that song about the National Guard and the Kent State massacre. The Temptations had an album with a song called "Message to the Black Man." There were great protest songs about the war, about the inequality of black Americans at the time. It was music with a message, something that music today is devoid of. I believe that because of the music and the types of individuals who wrote and performed it, I was imbued with hope"something I continue to hold onto to this day.

Rae Anna Victor, 58, Spokane Valley, Washington
I entered college that fall, and as a female in criminology, experienced real prejudice and ostracism for the first time in my life. Men did not want women in the police field, and they were very vocal about it. I felt a sense of defeatism, but the experience also gave me a burning to fight for what was right. Now, after four decades in law enforcement, I can look back and see how far we have come, but also see how far we have to go.

As few as five years ago, I knew a woman who was harassed so badly that she quit. The "guys" made it known they didn't want her as backup. Another stuck it out, but faces subtle discrimination on a daily basis. It's still an uphill battle at best.

Rosemary Mattson, 66, Eveleth, Minnesota
First Martin Luther King was assassinated, then a friend of mine died of a drug overdose. I was getting enthused over Bobby Kennedy and then he was shot. The father of my child came home from Vietnam and died in a car accident a month later. Too much death. Reading Rosemary's Baby freaked me out, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test made me want to drop out of society altogether. But I didn't. I grew up. I became an adult. And somehow I made it through to 1969.

Anita Wolfe, 50, Houston, Texas
I was 11 years old, living in the heart of the rioting that went on immediately at nightfall when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. My neighborhood was Binghampton, and I lived specifically at the corner of Tillman and Johnson Streets, which became the focus of a Commercial Appeal article, "Corner Refuses to Keep Cool!" I could look out the upstairs bedroom window and see the National Guardsmen with their guns aimed at me for peeking. My siblings and I slept on the floor each night instead of our beds.

One neighbor was outside throwing bricks at some of the cars. But rage wasn't something that went on in my home. We didn't talk about hatred. There was just intense sadness" and fear of not knowing what was going to happen to us as a black family.

LuAnn Herbert-Smith, 54, Greentown, Pennsylvania
In 1968 I was graduating from 8th grade. My brother Wayne made a special point of being home for that day. He was so handsome in his dress Marine blues, that all my female classmates were asking who the handsome boy was, was he going with anyone, etc. I never thought of my brother as "hot."

That year my perspective on life was forced to change. New school, "new brother," the war.

Soon after, Wayne would be in DaNang during Tet. He never would talk about it. My other brother Norman was already over there. My mother's black hair became gray that year. Even though both brothers returned home, a part of all of us was affected by that war.

Norman became an alcoholic. Wayne ended up with fibromyalgia. My mother never really recovered from the whole thing. I remember growing up a lot that year.

Willa Shaffer, 59,
Reston, Virginia
I was 20, an idealist, a single mother. My youthful spirit longed to have its innocence and its natural belief in the good of humanity. When Martin Luther King was shot down, then RFK, all hope drained right along with their blood, replaced with a profound sense of despair laced with cynicism. That despair and cynicism would characterize my outlook for decades to come. That Nixon was elected was evidence, in my broken state of mind, that we were beaten, that good could no longer be expected to prevail over evil in these United States; that we could not even hope to "tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

Carol Custer, 63, San Clemente, California
1968 was the year I graduated from college. Apart from all the important social and political changes taking place, I was more concerned with how my own life was going to change. I was vaguely aware of the political climate and yet not really a part of it. I was against the war in Vietnam not because I understood anything about it; but because I had close friends who were killed there.

I listened to protest songs along with my beloved Beatles music. I loved hearing about the hippies in Haight-Ashbury, who were a world away from my small-town Kansas college campus. I could never have become a hippie, though. I was much too straitlaced for that. With the drug culture all around me, I didn't join in. My friends nicknamed me "Super Straight." I wore miniskirts and ironed my hair. I embraced all the changes of the '60s without realizing the importance of them. I look back on that "1968's me" and realize I was a rather shallow person. I wasn't really thinking about the world. I was thinking about me, about getting a job and an apartment, and having fun and falling in love.

Perhaps they weren't for the right reasons, but 1968 was definitely a year of change for me.

Lionel Bauman, 64, Baldwin, New York
1968 was the year my father died. I was in Vietnam. He had a heart attack and the Red Cross got me home in less than 24 hours. I never returned. He told me when I entered the hospital room, "If this was all it took, I would have had a heart attack sooner." Once home, I learned that the world had changed a lot in the six months I was away. I had been sheltered in the world of death and guns. I had my honorable discharge that year and I learned I didn't want anything more to do with violence. I grew up a lot that year and realized that I had to think outside the box before that became the catchphrase of the day. When we were in the service everything was fed to us. I had to learn to think for myself. That was the year I went from boy to man.

David S. Kessler, 54, Silver Spring, Maryland
I bought myself a copy of V by Thomas Pynchon for my 15th birthday in November 1968. The summer before, an older woman (she was already 15) regaled me with stories from the book. I eagerly read it that autumn, not understanding it all, not knowing it was supposed to be "difficult." It made me look at literature and fiction in a new way; it made me look at the world in a new way. It made me look at reality as a subjective experience"that one's perception of reality is not necessarily another person's perception of the same reality. Many people think that if there's a puzzle, there's a solution to the puzzle. After reading Pynchon, you kind of say, "There's a puzzle, and the puzzle is all there is."

I was truly transported by that novel and came through it a different person. I've reread V about six or seven times since, always a pleasure, but never the revelation of that first wow of acrobatic writing, profuse imagination, masterful storytelling, and a philosophy that we are all searching for mysteries that may well never be answered. But it doesn't stop me from searching, even if I know that there may be no end of the search. It doesn't stop me from traveling even though I know there may be no end to the journey.

Christine Litton, 60, Thornton, New Hampshire
I was one of the young women who married their high school sweetheart. Graduating high school in 1965, when the Vietnam War was driving so many lives, I was planning a wedding for the following year and separated myself from the violence and loss that affected our country for generations. It was bigger than I was. I had no way of affecting the outcome and did not, could not, understand the reason for the war and the loss of life. The music and politics of the time took a backseat to the exciting events of which I was the center.

Today I vote with conviction. The music and pop culture are interesting and enjoyable. But today we are in another war I feel that I cannot affect even with my vote. Today I feel each American life that is lost as if they were one of my children. I am not a child insulating myself from a world I am not ready to understand. I am a wise, intelligent, experienced woman who has maneuvered many of life's challenges and succeeded.

Since 1968 our country has gained in wisdom, intelligence and experience, and has successfully maneuvered through many challenges. However, almost 40 years later we are once again losing American lives in a country and culture that I don't understand, in a war whose outcome may very well be as futile as the war that took American lives when I was a girl.

Joe Henry, 63, Auburn, Washington
1968 was the most defining year of my life. Several life-altering experiences and decisions were made. Some conscientiously with deep thought; others were just a matter of course.

Spring 1968 was my last quarter at Western Washington State College and I had my student teaching experience. It was truly an awakening as I was placed in a multiracial school following the Seattle riots. I witnessed the beginnings of the reversal in the subtle discrimination Seattle offered its minorities. I volunteered to coach the distance runners on the boys' varsity track team, which won the city championship. It was extremely uplifting and rewarding.

"Henry, do you realize how long a Marine officer lives in combat in Vietnam?" said Dean of Men Bill McDonald, responding to my announcement that I had transferred from the Navy's R.O.C. (Reserve Officer Candidate) Program to the Marine Corps Officer Candidate Program.

After a summer of fun working as a playground supervisor for the County Parks Department, I was off to Quantico, Virginia, for the adventure of my life. I survived Vietnam, and the exposure and knowledge I gained have influenced my very soul. I lived when others didn't and I took life. A fact that still haunts me. I'm still trying to understand the significance of it all. The Marine Corps experience was so monumental I'm writing a book about it.

Patricia Kiely, 67, Richmond, Virginia
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil in 1968, and it turned out to be the best experience of my life. Since returning in 1969, I tended to work at nonprofit jobs. It made me culturally sensitive, more politically aware and as a retiree, I am involved in my community at the grassroots level.

Judith Auslander, 58, Beaverton, Oregon
In 1968 I was 19 years old. I was a "hippie" who was employed. I kind of had two identities" one was middle-class America holding down a 9-to-5 job, and the other a weekend hippie getting stoned, partying, trying to be happy in a very unhappy world. The world was so very different from the one of the '50s. The assassination of JFK and the dividing of Americans over the Vietnam War changed everything. My idealism of youth was destroyed at a very young age.

I worked very close to the Ambassador Hotel where Robert Kennedy was assassinated. I used to go there occasionally for lunch. I walked into the Ambassador a few days after the assassination and felt the oppressive sadness. I never went back. It was shortly after that I quit my job and decided to kind of drop out, be a full-time hippie, at least for a while.

Most of us who were young felt so separated and different from mainstream society. There was a feeling that our lives would be so very different from our parents'. The world was changing, and we were a part of that change. Within the sadness of it all, there was a sense of power. We were going to change the world.

John Sparacino, 57, Morehead, Kentucky
In 1968 I was a senior in high school at St. Mary's Seminary in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Although it would take me almost two more years before I would choose to end my priestly studies, the decision to do so was causative of all of the happenings in 1968.

The civil rights movement, the protests, the political assassinations, was enough to get disgruntled about life and this country. Having been in the seminary, working with drug addicts, working in Appalachia with the poor, with migrant workers in California, the world really started to disillusion me. One of the real reasons I finally decided to leave the seminary was when I discovered what love meant to me.

I saw this movie Romeo and Juliet and at that time I had never been involved in a dating relationship, a love relationship. That is what was missing in my life.

While I loved what I was doing, the thought of sharing myself in a community, a parish or organization, a church family, was not something I wanted. I wanted a one-on-one relationship with a special person. It had nothing to do with sex. It had everything to do with love.

As an impressionable youth, the turmoil and violence of the world, the corruption of government, the genre of music all led me to rethink my "reasons" for being where I was. My pending college studies, the "free love" drug cultures and temptations, my views on organized religion, and how together they all changed my life.

Evie Glodic, 61, Knightdale, North Carolina
I was a senior at the University of Georgia and graduated in August 1968. I received a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education. I did my student teaching at Chase Street School in Athens, Georgia. My supervising teacher was Mrs. Johnnie Burke.

She was black and I am white. Several people were not too happy that my supervising teacher was black, but let me tell you she was wonderful and I feel that I got a wonderful insight on teaching fifth-grade students from her. In fact, I received two A-pluses and an A for my final grade. She was very professional and set a good example by her actions. It was Johnnie. It wasn't Johnnie's color. She taught me how to handle the children by following her example.

Johnnie was a wonderful person and I felt that I got the best experience of my entire time at Georgia from her.

Mike Scheafer, 54, Costa Mesa, California
1968 was a critical year in my life. The events that occurred that year definitely steered my destiny. Two of my heroes, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, were senselessly gunned down. It seemed that it was too soon from the murder of my other hero John Kennedy, and it was. As a young teen I was anxious about my future and possible war duties in Vietnam. The events in Chicago of '68 stirred my passion for politics and guided my belief system for years to come. I got active in the anti-war effort, but knew if I was to be called to serve, I would.

As the son and grandson of veterans, I felt that I would have served if drafted into military service. I would have made it known to the service that I did not believe in the war and would probably have asked for noncombat duty. I love my country and would have served it. I had extreme respect for my father and what he did in World War II and Korea. The same sentiment for my grandfathers who served in World War I. I would not have broken the law by refusing to be drafted, which I eventually was. Fortunately for me, I guess, the draft was cancelled two weeks before my report date.

I campaigned for Eugene McCarthy. I was appalled at Richard Daley and was proud of Hubert Humphrey. It led me to become involved today with local government (I am an ex-city council member) and guided me to my work with numerous nonprofit agencies. I was glad to be a part of organizing and working for change.

Mary Aull, 61, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Yes, 1968 changed me in deep ways that are still true 39 years later. I graduated from a small Catholic college in the Midwest and moved to a large East Coast city with a group of people determined to end the war and change the world. I think all of us active in ending the war did just that (too bad we're not as successful now).

Did we change the world? Yes and no. Some things are better for women, people of color and poor people. Many things are not. For me, 1968 meant I'd never see the world the same way and commit my life to making the world better than when I entered it.

I think I am doing that. I am an anti-war, anti-violence, pro-choice, animal welfare, equal-rights-for-all activist. I plan to do all of this for many years to come.

Margaret C. Wright, 71, Summerfield, Florida
I was living in Baltimore when the riots broke out after Dr. King was killed. I was visiting my mother-in-law, and she had a bay window that overlooked the street, and I saw people going into the drugstore and appliance store across the street and coming out with stuff. There was a curfew, and they had told us not to be on the street, but this was broad daylight. It was amazing to me. I was on maternity leave as a kindergarten teacher, and people were doing all kinds of things, rolling washing machines up and down the street. I was stunned. I was afraid"I really was. People actually died as a result of those riots. I don't think that drugstore ever opened up again under that same owner.

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