“Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire.”
– William Butler Yeats
My high school alma mater is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Opened in Park Ridge, Illinois in 1964, the first graduating class of Maine Township High School South, including a young Hillary Rodham, received their diplomas in June 1965. Four years later, on June 10, 1969, I stood in my black graduation gown in the school’s very warm gymnasium waiting to step onto the stage to receive my own diploma. The Class of 1969 was only the second graduating class to spend its entire high school career at Maine South, and the last graduating class that was required to adhere to a strict student dress code which required men to be clean shaven, and to wear their hair cut above the collar. Bob Dylan reminded us . . . the times they were a-changin’.
The last episodes of Star Trek and the Smothers Brothers Comedy had aired on NBC and CBS respectively during the previous week. Joe Namath quit the New York Jets and Mickey Mantle’s #7 was retired by New York Yankees. The Beatles release the “Ballad Of John & Yoko” in the US and Tommy James & the Shondells released "Crystal Blue Persuasion." Warren Burger was confirmed as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and President Nixon announced that 25,000 troops would be leaving Southeast Asia by the end of the summer to begin the “Vietnamization” of the war.
In the weeks following graduation we watched as more racial unrest erupted in cities across the US. The three-day Stonewall riot in New York City would mark the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an automobile accident on Chappaquiddick Island in which Mary Jo Kopechne drowned. Charles Manson’s cult family committed the Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angles, and Hurricane Camille took the lives of 256 along coastal Mississippi and Louisiana. There was also unrest and uncertainty brewing beyond our borders. A brief war erupted between El Salvador and Honduras over a soccer match. A revolution in Libya would bring Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi to power, and British troops began their militarily intervention in Northern Ireland.
With over a half million men and women deployed to Vietnam, the war continued to rage in Southeast Asia a year after the Tet Offensive despite the planned withdrawal of some US troops. On June 27, Life magazine displayed portrait photographs of all 242 Americans killed in Vietnam during the previous week bring the war even closer to home. The US began a secret bombing campaign over Cambodia and more than 11,000 US troops would be killed in action in 1969. Hô Chí Minh died that September but his death brought the war no closer to a conclusion and the Selective Service began a draft lottery in December 1969.
During that summer, and perhaps for the first time, we began to look in earnest beyond our own planet. Two American astronauts landed on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, taking one small step for man yet one giant leap for mankind while a third orbited on board Apollo 11. Pioneer 10 began its long voyage to Jupiter and eventually beyond our solar system while Mariner 6 and 7 began sending photographs of Mars back to Earth.
Closer to home, American youth continued to make their voices known as they flocked to the Newport Jazz Festival, the Atlanta Pop Festival, the Seattle Pop Festival, the Atlantic City Pop Festival, the Texas International Pop Festival, the New Orleans Pop Festival, and the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The Rolling Stones played a free concert in London's Hyde Park. It was another Summer of Love imprinting itself across the cultural landscape of America. Even the Boys of Summer heralded change as the long-shot New York Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series for the first time in their short history.
After graduation my family moved to the suburbs of Milwaukee where I worked on a construction crew during the week and returned to Park Ridge on the weekends to hang out with my friends as we prepared to begin our college careers in the fall. We had picnics and spent warm days on the shores of Lake Michigan. Despite all that was going on in the world around me, it was a mostly carefree summer, a time to spend with friends and to begin looking toward my future. How was my high school education going to pay off? What was I going to do with the rest of my life? One of my buddies planned to join the Marines that fall; unlike the rest of us who hoped college would somehow keep us out of the military, he wanted to go to Vietnam. He visited me at my college in Florida later that year after he finished basic training. He shipped out to Vietnam in early 1970 and was killed in action shortly after his arrival in country. It would be a summer not to forget for so many reasons.
I am reminded of “Summer of 69,” one of my favorite songs by Bryan Adams:
Oh, when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah, I'd always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life.
At the time those relatively carefree weeks after graduation did seem like the best days of my life. I had put another chapter of my life behind me and I was entering into an even bigger adventure. I had no idea what life had in store for me.
Now I look back over these forty-five years and I am thankful for everything. They were not years of simply filling the bucket of all that life has given me. Back in the summer of 1969 I lit a fire that is burning ever brighter with each passing year.
And now the times are changin'
Look at everything that's come and gone.
I would not change a single thing.
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