Friday, August 29, 2014

The Whole World Was Watching - Dispatches from Maine

It was the summer of 1968, one of the most turbulent years of the twentieth century which had its fair share of turbulent years.  The Tet Offensive, the Battle of Hué and the siege at Khe Sanh by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were quickly turning the tide of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia.  Martin Luther King had been murdered that April and one American city after another was lighting up with racial tension and rioting, including my hometown of Chicago where Mayor Richard Daley had issued a “shoot to kill order to the city police.  This tumultuous year was barely half over when Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen in June after claiming victory in the California primary to become the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. 

Early that summer I spent some weeks in Europe where French students and workers were threatening to bring down Charles DeGaulle’s Fifth Republic.  The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had invaded Czechoslovakia putting to an end that country’s reform movement during the Prague Spring.  The newspapers there were full of stories about genocide in Nigeria’s breakaway Republic of Biafra. 

I worked much of that late summer in Milwaukee before returning to Park Ridge, in suburban Chicago, for my senior year of high school.  Before classes began there were a few carefree days in the city with my friends.  Chicago is my hometown and that summer it was buzzing with nervous energy as delegates poured into the city for the Democratic National Convention to be held at the old International Amphitheater near what was left of the Union Stockyard on the South Side.  It had been the site of four previous conventions (two Democratic and two Republican) since 1952, and I had seen The Who perform there the previous August.  My visit downtown would be nothing like what I intended or expected.

It was going to be a wide-open convention for a Democratic party that was fractured and without clear direction after President Lyndon Johnson announced that spring that he would not seek reelection.  Originally the race had been between the incumbent Johnson and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota who was calling for an end to the war and for the withdrawal of US combat troops from Southeast Asia.  Bobby Kennedy entered the race and began to syphon support from both Johnson and McCarthy, especially on the issue of the war.  Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, along with Kennedy and McCarthy, was also a vocal opponent of the war, further dividing the anti-war faction within the party.  Johnson threw his support to Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, his vice president, and the fuse was lit for what might be an explosive convention in a city already on tenter hooks.  There was talk of moving the convention to Miami where the Republicans were holding their convention, but Mayor Daley called in markers to keep it in Chicago and even threatened not to endorse of Humphrey if the convention was moved.

With Bobby Kennedy out of the race and the anti-war faction split, Humphrey came to Chicago to be anointed yet there was no real unity within the Democratic party.  He was Johnson’s proxy at a time when there was little support for the Administration’s war strategy.  In fact, Johnson never came to Chicago.  Humphrey stood by Johnson’s pro-war position as the anti-war faction imploded.  Its platform plank was debated and defeated as protestors in downtown Chicago engaged the authorities in what came to be known as the “Battle of Michigan Avenue.”

As the politicos and delegates in the International Amphitheater negotiated the nomination of Humphrey with Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine as his vice presidential nominee, the city swelled with over 10,000 protesters who had been planning for weeks to disrupt the convention while calling for an end to the war.  Mayor Daley, who had promised that there would be no organized demonstration, denied permits for gatherings and marches.  He also put almost 12,000  Chicago police on alert backed up by 15,000 US Army troops and Illinois National Guardsmen and several hundred Secret Service personnel to put down any disruptions swiftly and decisively.  What was intended as a peaceful protest soon erupted into violence when the police fired tear gas into the crowds and began attacking individual protestors with truncheons while kicking and beating others.   Members of the Fourth Estate covering the protests were also accosted by the police, many of whom removed their badges and name tags so that they could not be identified later.

The confrontations along Michigan Avenue, in Grant and Lincoln Park and elsewhere throughout downtown Chicago, occurred the day I planned my carefree excursion into the city . . . . and I never expected what I encountered that day.   Although I was certainly not in the thick of things, I nevertheless got a taste of the anarchy of the crowd and the lawlessness of the police as the remnants of the indiscriminate use of tear gas along the lakefront drifted through the downtown and loop.  People were wandering around coughing and rubbing their eyes, myself included.   Thankfully I did not end up in the wrong place and the wrong time.

That evening, safely returned to my home in the suburbs, I watched the news and the film coverage of the Chicago police riot and wondered how such a thing could occur in America.  I quickly learned that the whole world was watching and questioning what had become of America.  1968 certainly marked the end of innocence in this country.

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Farewell to Buddy’s Store? - Dispatches from Maine

In Happier Days
A couple summers ago I posted a paean of sorts to Buddy’s, our local country store here in New Gloucester [“Eat Here & Get Gas” - Looking Toward Portugal   (September 1, 2012) -].  Since then I have continued to watch this familiar landmark gradually wither away, a mere shadow of its former self.  And now it is closed and up for sale and I fear it may be gone for good.

Back in the early days, when we were coming up here for two or three weeks every year during the month of August, I would arise early in the morning and head up to Buddy’s on the main highway a couple miles from the lake cottage.  I would have a quiet early morning breakfast while folks stopped by for coffee on their way to work.  Delivery men restocked the shelves and coolers for a new day, and a few regulars would gather at the same table to enumerate and then solve the problems of the world . . . all in that unique Maine vernacular.  Armed with my notebook I would scribble notes and ideas and snippets of conversation and then I would head back to the cottage and bring SallyAnn, who had stayed in bed for a couple more hours of sleep, up-to-date on all that I had heard and learned.

Unfortunately, a few years ago the State of Maine realigned Maine Route 26 in order to bypass a series of dangerous curves on this heavily traveled road between Portland and western Maine, northern New Hampshire, and Montréal and the Eastern Townships of Québec.  With this rerouting Buddy’s was no longer the place to stop and the regular commerce and customers gradually vanished.  It was not uncommon to drive by and see not a single car parked outside.  It began to open late and close early.  There was very little there to buy except for whatever was in the coolers.  Breakfast and other fast food were replaced by slices of heated-up pizza.  One could still purchase no-name gas, but at prices twenty to thirty cents higher than any other filling station in the area.  Without breakfast and coffee the local morning council moved on and the problems of the world went unsolved.   More recently it seemed to be closed more often than open, and a couple days ago I drove by and discovered that the property is up for sale.

Several years ago Buddy (turns out that was not his real name) told me at the end of one summer that he was going to convert the place into a brew pub over the winter and for the next several months back home in Maryland I dreamed of visiting Buddy’s (or whatever its new name might be) for happy hour rather than breakfast.  That next summer, as we arrived back at the lake, we turned the last corner and Buddy’s came into view.  No brew pub, but still the place we had come to know and love.  No happy hours, but I did return most mornings for breakfast and life went on.  The problems of the world continued to be resolved.  Perhaps I can still dream that a rural brew pub might arise in the future, but to be honest, I fear this time Buddy’s might be gone for good. 

Now the locals and passers through will be obliged to seek out the small stores in the Upper Village for quick stops for gas, milk, beer, and the like.  Cloutier’s Mini-Market offers good coffee throughout the day and there are fresh pastries available if you get there early enough.  And nearby Link’s serves food to a few scattered tables in back yet it just does not have the that early morning ambiance that Buddy’s once did. I make breakfast at the cottage now which is fine with me and I eat out on the deck while enjoying yet another nice day on the lake. 

I drive by and see the sign announcing “Eat Here & Get Gas.”   Perhaps I have really done that for the last time.  It was an icon whose time has come and gone.  .  I will miss Buddy’s. I

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