Friday, August 14, 2009

Memories of Youth in America - 1776 Revolution to 1969 Woodstock


With the media fascination surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival that began August 15, 1969, I think our reflection should also not forget other incidents when our youth stepped to the forefront. I am a baby boomer and was in my early 20's when Woodstock took place. By then several of my classmates and friends had been killed in Viet Nam.

Yes it was a time desperately in need of peace and tranquility. Coming from the Midwest we were raised to be patriots and taught that there was a price to be paid for freedom and we were more than willing to pay that price. Then things seemed to change.

A few years earlier I went to the University of Arizona where I was in ROTC as anti-war demonstrations rocked our campus. There was considerable co-mingling of students from various West Coast schools like UCLA, USC, and other California schools along with the Arizona students.

We were in the same conference, the PAC Ten and competed in athletics. At the time UCLA was becoming the dominant force in college basketball. Unfortunately I was on the Arizona basketball team and had to face the Bruins.

Then I was injured, lost my athletic scholarship and volunteered for the military draft. To my dismay I was rejected because of the sports injuries. In case you were not around then if you were not a full time student you were eligible to be drafted and if you volunteered for the draft you went to Viet Nam earlier and served one year less active duty. You could then return and go to school under the GI program.

In 1969 my brother was in the Marines and the year before was in the Tet offensive in the war zone. The Viet Cong attacks on over 100 cities stunned the military, the Johnson Administration and the public. We had been led to believe the war was winding down and we were winning. The stunning action drove the President from office that year.

Also the year before Woodstock I was a volunteer in Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign and saw him just before he was assassinated in California. It was the second Kennedy I volunteered to work for to be murdered. Just a few weeks before Kennedy was murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered. He was about to undertake the Poor People's March on Washington, DC and Resurrection City had been built on the nation's Mall. I had visited the city where up to 3,000 poor people lived and up to 50,000 gathered for the March.

King's assassination led to deadly riots across the nation and even in Omaha where I worked for the Mayor we had policemen murdered during the riots leaving behind young families. The radicals of the 1960's were attempting to hijack every cause that was legitimate. In time I got to personally know Coretta Scott King, Martin's widow, and came to appreciate the severe price her family paid to help others.

All of this was in the year leading up to Woodstock.

By the time Woodstock came around I was 23 years old, married with kids, involved in politics and trying to change the world from within the system. My work took me from Omaha to Washington, DC often. I was also into music and rock groups were dominating the music scene.

On one trip out east I heard about the upcoming Woodstock event and the line up of potential artists going to perform. Unfortunately, tickets for the event were only on sale in New York City and the surrounding area. Several of the scheduled acts performed that summer in Omaha at the auditorium and when I talked to them they were unsure of the event and if they would appear.

I was not a hippie nor did I even know any hippies though I had lived from the east coast to the west coast, and I did not grow up in the drug culture though I knew people who were exposed to it. Like many kids at the time, I was drawn to the music and the message in the music.

When Woodstock took place and nearly 500,000 showed up I was amazed it went so well but concerned that this festival would become recognized for much more than it represented because of the size of the crowd. For every ten people showing up at Woodstock to party one person had died in Viet Nam to protect their right to freedom, with nearly 55,000 of our nation's youth killed in the war.

I remembered an earlier time when our youth came together to promote an unpopular cause. The average age at Woodstock was 18-25. The average age of the Colonial Army that fought the mighty British Empire for the right to create the United States was 18-25. There was little food, clothing, money, and medical help for both groups.

While there were about 450,000 youth at Woodstock there were 231,771 who fought for freedom in the Revolution. One was a peaceful revolution to stop a war while the other was forged of battles, deaths and fighting against all odds to lay the foundation of freedom that would spawn the youth at Woodstock nearly 200 years later.

Both came at a terrible time for the people when the poor suffered, racial prejudice was dominant, there was high unemployment, excessive taxes and little opportunity. Those youth in the Revolution risked their lives, families, property and futures for a dream and were willing to pay the ultimate price to get it.

I only hope the nation does not forget the extreme difference in roles played by our youth over time. I only hope the Woodstock generation does not forget what was behind the desire for peace that summer weekend both in terms of the terrible sacrifices of the generation of youth 200 years earlier and the events of the previous year.

There was terrible war, racial prejudice, the environment was being destroyed, education was poor, unemployment was high, Madison Avenue materialism was dominant, Wall Street corruption was out of control, politicians did not listen, special interests got their way, confidence in government was at an all time low and too many people were indifferent. Sound familiar?

And I really hope the youth of today look around and see what previous generations of youth did to get you where you are today. Are you willing to take up the mantle of peace or war to defend what you inherited? Or have you let America slip back to where it was when earlier youth rose to the challenge?


No comments: