February 9: 74 million viewers watch the Beatles’ first performance on Ed Sullivan
For some reason we were at my grandmother’s house, and after dinner, at about 7:30, my mother says “Okay, it’s time to go.” I looked at her as if she were from Venus. “No, we can’t go now,” I said, louder than usual, like I was talking to my sister in our basement. “The Beatles are on Sullivan at 8:00. We’ll never make it home in time, and there’s no way I’m missing that.”
“The whaaaaat?” my Aunt Olivia said, putting away her Kodak Viewmaster Projector and the three wheels of pictures from her trip to England and France.
My mother’s sister, Olivia, was forty-five, a former Army sergeant who was now an office supervisor at the electric company. She still lives at home, and apparently has made the most of that opportunity to somehow now know more than just about anybody, especially folks who have had the temerity to go to college. “She’s no day at the beach,” I once heard my mom say to dad. He nodded back, saying “But if she were, that beach would probably be Normandy.”
“Oh God, what have they done with their hair?!” my aunt blurted out as the group first appeared. “They look like a bunch of girls!”
My eyes were glued to the set from the first chord of “All My Lovin’.” They looked and sounded even better than I had thought they would, and as I watched them, heard their voices, I felt more focused than I had ever felt. The four of them, their guitars in black and white and gray, the lines on the set pointing to the spot. I felt as though I knew at last where the center of the universe was, and I was right there to see it.
“Why can’t they just get haircuts like everybody else?” Olivia said coldly.
“Shhhhh!” I turned to her at once.
My aunt glared at me as if I had spat on the coffee table.
“Alex!” my mother admonished.
“I can’t hear,” I implored her, turning back to the set.
My father sat unmoved on the couch; beside him, my mother’s mother leaned against the pillow at the corner and slept.
Aunt Olivia huffed loudly and walked out to the kitchen.
Whatever guilt I had felt, if any, vanished by the start of “Till There Was You,” and I was transported once again to a place I had only imagined a mere fifteen minutes before.
February 25: Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston in Miami Beach
My father said this was a fight with no one to root for. “Liston was a criminal and a thug,” he said, though many people thought he was the most ferocious fighter they had ever seen. They called him “The Bear.” Cassius Clay was another thing altogether. People said he was too light, that he ran around the ring too much, didn’t have enough of a punch. Worst of all, people thought he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He almost had a stroke at the weigh-in, taunting Liston and bragging about how fast he was, how pretty. He kept saying Liston was afraid of him, but a lot of folks figured it was just the other way around, that he was terrified of Liston and what he might do to him. So when The Bear didn’t come out for the seventh round, it was a huge upset. The pictures on the news showed Clay dancing around the ring and yelling that he was “the greatest!”
Some people said that he would soon join the Black Muslims. Others said he already had.
Watching him made me nervous. It scared the hell out of my dad.
March 9: Ford introduces the Mustang
I won’t be sixteen until November, but when it comes to driving, that doesn’t matter anyway. My dad told me last year that I couldn’t get my license until I was eighteen, that he didn’t think sixteen-year-olds were responsible enough to drive. I half agreed with him, I guess; I mean, there were my friends, and I sometimes did listen to myself, but that didn’t stop me from looking longingly at cars and imagining myself tooling along Turney Road with the windows down and the radio up. And this Mustang? Wow!
I was looking at a picture of the new Ford in the paper at the newsstand when David Bowler came up behind me. He lives down our block and graduated from Saint John’s last spring. He played football and baseball, but he was a better student than he was an athlete. He’s worked at Fletcher’s Foods since he was a sophomore, and now he’s there full-time, at least until he decides between college and the Army. The last time he said anything about it to me, not that we talk a lot, he said it was about fifty-fifty.
“I’m going to get one of those,” he said as he pointed from over my left shoulder. “Candy Apple Red with a black leather interior,” he almost sang.
“Really?!” I nearly gasped. “Are you kidding?”
“Kidding? I’ve been saving for a car since forever, and this is it. I’m going to buy one as soon as it’s available at the dealership down on Broadway.
I couldn’t help but picture Bowler, a not-bad-looking 6’1” blond, rolling around town this summer in a new Candy Apple Red Mustang.
“Jesus,” I breathed, shaking my head.
David Bowler nodded. “How damn cool is that?” He tapped me on the shoulder and walked toward the exit, pausing at the door. “I tell you what, Alex. I’ll come by to give you a ride,” he smiled and pushed his way out.
The picture in my head changed. All at once it was me at the wheel and Denise Sherwin curled up coyly beside me. I could feel the smile on my face.
Denise was in my class at Saint John’s, but she was almost a year older than me. Her light brown hair and hazel eyes had pushed me off balance the first time I saw her last year. I feel the wobble every time I’ve seen her since, and that’s not easy because we’re in three subjects together. Sometimes we talk between classes, and I’ve even sat at her lunch table a few times.
And there we were in my head, riding through the park in a new Candy Apple Red Mustang with the windows down and the Beatles and the Beach Boys playing loud.
I rubbed my left hand across my face, put the paper down and made the same vow I had made before: I will call Denise Sherwin this week.
March 27, Good Friday: The Alaskan earthquake
The pictures from Alaska late last night were ungodly, awful. Grainy gray film of a huge wave rolling through a harbor, overturning boats and buildings, houses slipped ten feet below their sidewalks. They said it was one of the worst earthquakes ever in North America, the worst in the United States, and it came at dinner time on Good Friday. I thought all our earthquakes happened in California. Who knows what’s below the surface of things, what is ready to lose its grip, let go, have all hell break loose.
There were tidal waves all along the west coast, even out to Hawaii. They say the Space Needle in Seattle swayed in the quake, that lakes all over Canada sloshed in their confinement. Walter Cronkite said that if it had hit in a heavily populated area like Los Angeles, it might have been the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. For the people where it did hit, that is exactly what it was.
I called Denise today to talk about it, but we wound up talking about my dad again. He has until the middle of May to decide whether or not to take his company’s offer and move to Chicago to be the paymaster at the headquarters plant. The Cleveland Works will close this coming July. He’s been there for over thirty years, starting as an office boy, then going to clerk, assistant paymaster, and, about ten years ago, paymaster, in charge of the hours and paychecks of almost eleven hundred workers.
He says that he hasn’t decided what to do, and, to be honest, I’m not sure which way he’s leaning. He’s 54, and I don’t think he much likes the idea of starting out again in a new city, but I also don’t think he’s looking forward to finding another job at his age. I know I want to stay, and I’m beginning to think that Denise Sherwin just might want that too.
April 13: Sidney Poitier becomes the first black to win an Academy Award for best actor
A week ago, I had Teddy Epson over for dinner at our house, the first black to ever enter the small white bungalow at the corner of Portage and Fourth Streets. Teddy and I were working on a play at Saint John’s, and we needed some time outside of school to finish the last two scenes.
My folks didn’t seem to know how to act around him. It was a little weird for me, too. Teddy and I talk all the time at school, at lunch, in study hall. But this was different; it was at the house. I wondered how it was for him, but I didn’t ask.
Mom smiled pleasantly enough, though it looked as if it didn’t quite fit, like a too-big shoe or a tight jacket. She had told me that morning that she didn’t know what “those people” eat. I said I was pretty sure that her meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans would do just fine. They were, after all, Teddy’s favorite choices in the cafeteria.
My dad had a quiet, perplexed look about him through dinner, deeper than usual, though with just a month left for his job decision, not too dramatic. Furrowed brows and wrinkled lines around the eyes had become commonplace. He did ask if Teddy played any sports and seemed surprised that he did not, that he was more interested in music and art. He did nod knowingly, though, when Teddy acknowledged that his own father seemed disappointed by his choice of avocations.
As I had imagined, my friend enjoyed the meal, and mother’s countenance softened to its normal, good-fitting warmth when he asked for seconds.
May 9: Peter and Gordon release “A World Without Love”
Ever since February, I’ve fancied myself something of a curly-haired Paul McCartney, and, for almost as long, I’ve imagined Denise Sherwin to be my Jane Asher. In those weeks, to further that imagery and fuel a suddenly burning musical ambition, I bought myself a Harmony f-hole, arched-top acoustic guitar, the one with the three thin trim lines on the body. I couldn’t afford a case (hell, working at .65 an hour at the library, I could barely afford the $40 for the guitar), so I ported it around in a large black garbage bag, en route to the couple guys I knew who had also mastered three chords.
It figures, then, that I would be excited to hear that McCartney had written a song for Jane’s brother Peter. So, the first day it was available at Music Manor, I was there to buy the single. I brought it home and played it with my Mel Bay Chord Book on my lap trying to figure it out. After about an hour I had done that and added the tune to my ‘set list’ which also included “Blowin in the Wind,” “Little Surfer,” “Louie, Louie” and Bob Dylan’s newest, “The Times They Are A Changin.”
I’ll take the Harmony over to Rick Hurst’s tomorrow, the only guy I know who has actually taken lessons and knows how to play melodies, to work up the song so we can play it for Denise next week.
Dad only has another week to tell his boss what he’s going to do. A couple days ago Aunt Olivia was here visiting my mom, and I heard the three of them talking in the kitchen about it. “Don’t worry about the kids, Pete. This is your decision. Do what’s right for the two of you,” she urged in that matter-of-fact voice that she used describing the slides from all her travels. “If you stay here, you’ll have to start new someplace anyway. Why not stay with the same company and head to Chicago for an adventure?”
“But we like it here, Olivia,” my mother countered. “The house is paid for, the kids are doing well in school, and we all have things we enjoy doing. We’re comfortable here. It’s home. What do we know about Chicago?”
I could imagine my aunt’s eyes rolling. “Mary, you can get all of that in Chicago. It’s Cleveland, just bigger. There are a bunch of neighborhoods just like this, nicer than this, and you’ll have no trouble selling this place. Think of it as the next new thing you get to do.”
I heard my father pour himself a beer and pull out a chair. I could just see his thoughtful eyes narrow. “Well, that’s one kind of adventure, but there’s another one that I’ve been thinking about.”
“And what’s that?”
“I could set up my own payroll-bookkeeping business.”
“How’s that?” Olivia put an edge on her voice.
“Look, I’ve been a clerk, timekeeper and paymaster for more than thirty years now. I know how to do books and payroll. The thing is, I’ve always done it for somebody else. I’d like to try to be my own boss for once.”
“That’s not an easy thing to do, Pete.” Olivia’s voice remained flat. “You’ve got to build up a client base, for a start.”
“I know that. Hell, in all these years I’ve made some connections. I know some people.”
Except for the clink of a spoon in a cup of coffee, the kitchen was quiet behind its closed doors. Then I heard my aunt again.
“I know you have a lot of experience, but what about credentials? You don’t have a degree. These folks will expect some initials after your name.”
“Pete says he has a real-world Ph.D.: persistence, hard work and determination,” my mother’s voice brightened.
I heard the soft sound of my father pushing back in his chair.
“For cripesake, Olivia. What the hell does some kid with a fresh degree in accounting know that I don’t know from thirty-plus years? I’ve got real work experience. I’ve actually done this stuff. That should count for something, no?”
“Sure it should, and I think it does. But there’s a lot of people out there looking to do the same thing you are, a lot of folks with both experience and degrees. Let’s face it, Pete; it’s 1964.
I had heard enough. I turned off the TV. and went back to my bedroom.
May 18, Monday: Decision Day
My father told the people at the plant that he would not be going to Chicago. The next day he went out to buy file cards, notebooks, stationery, envelopes, and then ordered business cards for PAPS (Peter Allen’s Payroll Services). He seemed happier than I had seen him in a long time.
June 12: Nelson Mandela is sentenced to life in prison
We always watch the CBS Evening News at our house. It was Walter Cronkite who told us about John Glenn orbiting the earth, the Cuban Missile Crisis and President Kennedy’s assassination. It’s almost an after dinner ritual.
Tonight he reported that Nelson Mandela, a leader of the African National Congress, had been sentenced to life in prison for sabotage against the South African government. Eight years ago he had been acquitted on charges of treason. Though he did not take the stand in his own defense, Mandela made a long statement from the dock explaining his actions. He concluded with:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with great opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
“Yeah, sure,” father mumbled as he got up and walked to the kitchen. I turned to my mom. “That reminds me of the Martin Luther King speech in Washington last summer.”
She tilted her head and squinted. “I don’t remember that,” she said. “I’ve heard of it, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard it.
I leaned back in the couch, closed my eyes and recalled that sunny Wednesday afternoon last August. My father was at work, my sisters too, I think. My mother was next door with Mrs. Sheets.
The sun shone through the curtains like it always did, filtering my world, softening the carpet, the pastel walls and the old stuffed sofa. I remember watching the crowd squinting, shading their eyes from a sun intense, insistent like all of them gathered in the throng along the reflecting pool, upright like the columns and the statue that watched from behind, like the words, clear, cadenced, cutting through the gauzy light to jab me where I sat.
“We cannot walk alone,” he said. “We cannot turn back.”
June 21: Three civil rights workers disappear in Mississippi
“That can’t be good,” my mother said as we watched the news. “I wonder what happened to them?”
The report said that the three young men, two white and one black, had been working to register black voters. They had also organized boycotts of segregated stores and helped conduct ‘freedom schools.’
“You know what’s happened to them,” my father said flatly.
My mother turned to him. “What?”
He pursed his lips. “Two college kids from New York and a black kid from right down there telling those people what to do, how to live …”
“It’s about people’s rights …”
“I know. I know. But do you really think that folks in the pit of Mississippi, less than a hundred miles from Vicksburg for God’s sake, are going to sit still for these kids from up north coming in to try to change their world?”
“But if it needs to be changed …”
My dad just shook his head.
“It needs to be changed, hon. However, it’s done. It needs to be changed. It’s been a hundred years for pity’s sake. It’s 1964.”
No one spoke for a moment, then my father stood up, lifted his cup of coffee from the table and headed for the kitchen. He stopped at the doorway and looked back into the living room.
“They’ll never find those boys alive,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “Those boys are gone.”
June 24: The FTC rules that health warnings should appear on packs of cigarettes
My dad has always smoked. He started back in high school in Pennsylvania. He probably smokes a pack and a half a day—well, almost that much. I pilfer about six-eight from his open packs during the course of a week.
When he saw this on the news, he snorted and shook his head. “Yeah, just another thing that’s bad for you, something to keep those damn people busy. Do they really think that putting something on a pack of cigarettes is going to stop people from smoking? They might as well put ‘chocolate makes you fat’ on M&M’s and ‘beer can make you stupid’ on cans of Budweiser. Anyhow, I’m healthy as a horse, and I’ve been smoking for forty years. Surgeon General my foot!” He waved his hand derisively.
And it’s not as though my dad is one of those guys who sticks a ciggy in his mouth while he’s hammering some lumber or working on a car (neither of which things he ever does anyway). He really enjoys smoking, sits back, takes long drags on his Winstons after dinner, with a beer watching TV, at the poker game he hosts twice a year in our basement.
“People telling you what you can and cannot do, that’s all this is. Control. It’s all about control.”
“Hon, they’re just trying to help people …”
“Oh my ass they are. It’s the government, Mary.”
Later I heard my dad in the kitchen with our old Royal Standard typewriter, pecking away like he was looking through an old coffee can full of junk for just the right sized screws.
My mother told me he was working on his résumé. She said the PAPS stuff wasn’t going so well.
July 2: The Civil Rights Act is signed by President Johnson
I went with Denise to the Fourth of July fireworks behind the football field at the high school. We held hands on the way there, but she was quiet all through the display. She did say, though, that she heard that David Bowler had decided to join the Army, that he was due to report in November.
She said that she was really tired, so I only stayed a few minutes at her place before I walked home. All the way back to Portage Street I wondered just how it was that she knew that David was joining the Army.
July 16: Barry Goldwater accepts the Republican nomination for President
The 1960 nomination of John Kennedy got me hooked on political conventions, so I had to watch the process unfold for the Republicans in San Francisco this year. In fact, I was the only one in the house who watched this acceptance speech.
Everybody said that the nomination of Barry Goldwater set up a dramatically clear distinction between the parties this year, and everyone seemed to scoff at his “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice … and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” but he also said: “I cherish a day when our children again will restore as heroes the sort of men and women who—unafraid and undaunted—pursue the truth, strive to cure disease, subdue and make fruitful our natural environment and produce the inventive engines of production, science, and technology.”
Denise’s family is on a two-week vacation. They travel out west to visit relatives.
How did she know about David Bowler going into the Army?
August 2: North Vietnam fires on a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Tonkin
August 4: The bodies of the three missing civil rights workers—Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner—are found in an earthen dam in Mississippi
There were pictures of men standing in the mud pointing to an earthen dam that had been excavated to surrender the bodies of the three men. Pictures of them ran along the bottom of the screen. They looked like kids. Schwerner, the oldest, was twenty-four, the same age as my oldest sister who was married last year, same age as John Lennon. Chaney was twenty-one, like George Harrison. Goodman was only twenty, half a year older than David Bowler.
My mother held her hand to her face as she watched the images on the screen. “What a world we live in,” she managed softly.
Dad exhaled smoke slowly into the room. “They knew it would be risky,” he said. “They knew what it was like down there.”
Mom turned to him. “That doesn’t make it right.”
“Oh, I didn’t say it did. I just said they knew it would be tough.”
“There’s a difference between knowing something and actually experiencing it, hon, especially when you’re young like these boys,” mom added.
“There is indeed.”
“However you look at it,” I offered quietly, “it took guts to do what those guys did, where they went and what they did. I can’t imagine doing that.”
“Courage is all about doing something that you know will be difficult but that you just as surely, maybe even more so, know is the right thing to do,” my father finished, looking out the window as he took a deep drag on his cigarette.
August 7: The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passes in Congress
I went into the basement after dinner and saw that my father had put away the little table he had set up for his PAPS stuff. Over in a corner was a box filled with the papers and files that he had used. As with everything he did, it was tidy, neatly stacked, bound with rubber bands, lined up. At the top was a small stack of business cards with his orderly, self-designed logo: Personal Attention, Professional Service—Payroll and Bookkeeping. He had two hundred made and had sent out more than half along with cover letters and brochures. He had visited two dozen prospective clients. Apparently there was not enough response to keep going.
Next week he will start his new job as a third-shift timekeeper at a local machine shop.
“It’s stuff I did twenty years ago, before I was paymaster,” he told me yesterday after dinner, forcing a semblance of a smile. “But not too bad for a fifty-four-year-old with no education. It’ll be okay. I can do this for ten years.
His words and face did not convince me, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t convince him either.
August 11: The Beatles’ movie “A Hard Day’s Night” debuts in America
Rick Hurst called me to see if I wanted to go, but I told him maybe later, after the lines died down, and it wasn’t such a big deal.
I went out to sit on the back porch with my Arvin transistor radio after dinner. I flipped it on just as Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” finished up, the new number-one song on the charts. I took out a Winston that I had surgically removed from my dad’s pack while he slept, with the cigarettes still in his shirt pocket (my latest skill), and I lit it up. My folks had gone out shopping.
As I sat back on the noisy old glider, a Candy Apple Red Mustang rolled past the house. David Bowler beamed behind the wheel. Beside him, Denise Sherwin smiled coyly on the leather bucket seat. Peter and Gordon’s “World Without Love” boomed from the radio as the car cornered and headed down the block.
I took a deep drag from the cigarette, and I think I almost smiled. It seemed like a hundred years since February and that night at my grandmother’s. I guess it wasn’t the center of the universe after all. Maybe nothing is. Maybe that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.