In the summer of 1964, I lived in Trenton, Tennessee. West Tennessee was hot in July. How hot was it? Like my favorite aunt used to say, it’s “sitting on the front porch sipping iced-cold lemonade hot.”
I love to sit on a limb halfway up the willow tree. It’s a great place to read my library books. My long legs dangling, I watch my older brother play baseball with his friends.
Next door, a teenaged boy works on his car while the Beach Boys sing “I Get Around,” on the radio. Pilots from a nearby airfield fly test flights overhead, often breaking the sound barrier. Though initially quite shocking, we’ve grown used to the interruption.
Below me, my little brother and his best buddy sail a handmade boat in a drainage ditch. Using sticks, they push and prod the little vessel till it breaks free and begins a solo journey through the runoff toward a semi-stagnant pool at the bottom of the hill.
After a few minutes’ chatter on the neighbor’s radio, and a plug for Crest toothpaste, Jan & Dean launch into “Surf City.”
My mother appears on the other side of the screen door. “I could use some help in here.”
I drop down from my perch among the willow limbs and skip across the lawn to the front porch. Inside the house, an electric fan drones, cooling Dad’s face as he watches the news. Walter Cronkite reports that Republican Barry Goldwater has won the nomination to run for president. Race riots continue throughout the nation.
As I walk through the small room, Dad doesn’t look up, just stays glued to the black-and-white television screen. Mom has a sink full of dirty dishes for me to wash while she finishes preparations for dinner.
Dad turns off the television when they start talking about The Beatles. He can’t stand the ridiculous music—the long-hair—the screaming girls. What is the world coming to?
In many ways, the early sixties were glorious. The United States was recovering from the bad years. The Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II, the Korean War. There had been a thing called the “baby boom,” when so many children were born, following the wars. We’d entered a time of peace, but not for long. The escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam loomed large in our future.
Closer at hand, race riots burgeoned. It was time for equality in America. As a soon-to-be sixth grader in the South, segregation was still a fact of my life. I didn’t understand the need for it. I’d attended first and second grade in Southern California. My first grade class in San Diego included several races.
In July of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. I wasn’t sure what all that meant, but I knew it was important. Soon, the schools, even in the South, would be desegregated. Integrated, we’d all attend the same schools. There was bound to be trouble.
I was more interested in the rockets being launched to take close-up pictures of the moon. I’d stand in the front yard after dark and gaze up at the small white orb, imagining the Ranger circling it and snapping photos. Living on the outskirts of a town of little more than five hundred residents, and few streetlights, there were stars aplenty.
It’s been fifty years since that golden summer spent in small-town America. It seemed such an innocent time. But was it really? When I think of all that was happening—the violence, the war—I wonder. We’d so recently suffered the loss of a beloved president to assassination. The race riots, as African Americans fought for equality. And Vietnam. Memories of that long and deadly war still haunt many Americans.
Looking back, we can see the patterns of life beginning to shift. The changes came fast—a transitional phase—as America grew up. I smile as my sons speak warmly of the golden eighties, the days of their childhood, when life was simpler. Their children laugh as they dart across the lawn, playing kickball, enjoying the golden days of their youth.
And so it begins again, fifty years after 1964.