I was born in 1956, the last year of President Eisenhower’s first term, and my adoption was final a few weeks after his second inaugural. I have vague memories of Elvis from when I was a small child. I was seven when President Kennedy was assassinated, the same weekend that our family moved Up North. The Viet Nam war, and the anti-war protests, dominated the headlines for most of my junior-high and high school years; my first campus visit to the mega-university which today is my alma mater had to be re-routed due to a massive sit-in which closed the main avenue through town.
But, for me personally, in my own young life, three things captured my imagination during the Sixties – the Beatles and their music, the space program, and the Detroit Tigers. . .
I was a month or so shy of my eighth birthday when the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. I really couldn’t tell you what it was that so struck my young fancy, but I was instantly smitten. The next day, I, along with most of the boys in my 2nd-grade class, collected such length of hair as we had available, and combed it forward, imitating, as best we could manage, their ‘long’ hair (and it is a source of considerable amusement to me, in retrospect, how really tame those 1964-vintage haircuts were, especially considering our parents’ reactions to them; to say nothing of what came to be considered ‘long hair’ in subsequent years).
I talked my mom into taking me to see ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (and ‘Help!’ a year later), and I turned such disposable cash as I could scrape together into 45rpm records (the ones with the huge center-hole, containing one song on each side; for my birthday, or other occasions where I might have a bit more available cash, I could afford a whole album!), which I played until they were too scratchy to hear anymore. One of my cousins actually went to one of their concerts, at the Olympia in Detroit, which made me quite envious, and miffed at my own parents that they wouldn’t take me (the five-hour drive notwithstanding).
The Beatles’ musical development seemed to track perfectly my own growth process - I was 10 when ‘Revolver’ came out, 11 for ‘Sgt. Pepper’, 12 for the White Album, and 13 for ‘Abbey Road’ – and their songs, like ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Get Back’, ‘Something’, ‘Let It Be’, etc, etc, became the soundtrack for my adolescence. I memorized entire albums, and I can still sing dozens of their songs, by memory, from beginning to end.
I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why the Beatles captured my imagination the way they did. I suppose their music was just interesting (at a time I was learning to play) and a lot of fun.
I was 14 when Paul McCartney put out his first solo album, effectively announcing the breakup of the Beatles. But their music remained popular all through my college years, and beyond. I followed their solo careers, and some of the music was still very good (I still regret not at least trying to get tickets when Wings came to Detroit in ’76, but I was a poor college student at the time), but it wasn’t quite the same. And when John Lennon was murdered a few months after my wedding, it just put the final ending to all the hopes of a Reunion Tour (which, c’mon, wouldn’t have been the same, either; but it would’ve been a hell of a lot of fun), and the Beatles passed definitively, once-and-for-all, into history. . .
I was within a week or two of my sixth birthday (maybe it’s a February thing) when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, and that was the beginning of what has become a lifelong fascination with space and space exploration, and other worlds. . .
Especially when I was in 5th grade, during the heyday of Project Gemini, my teacher would bring a TV set into our classroom, to watch the launches and splashdowns, and all the talking heads playing with the models of rockets and space capsules, and it was all very cool, thinking about being in outer space, where the sky was black, and there was no air, and no gravity. Such a strange, exotic place!
But the real kicker came over Christmas of ’68, when I was in 8th grade, and Apollo 8 orbited the moon. That was just the most incredible thing – three men in what was really a tiny little can were a quarter-million miles from earth, orbiting another heavenly body! I was glued to the TV set watching the pictures that Christmas Eve, of the lunar surface passing below the Apollo spacecraft. And the Earthrise photograph that came back from Apollo 8 was one of the great paradigm-shifting images of all time – suddenly, the earth didn’t seem quite so huge – just the notion that those three men in their tin can could look out their window, and see the earth whole and entire, rising above the surface of the moon, and really kinda small against the backdrop of space, was a revolutionary shift of perspective.
And I was advancing in my own education to the point where I could begin to have some understanding of just what the physics of space flight were, and how the machines worked. (It was maybe 15 years or so ago, that young engineers started coming into the work force, who were born after the moon landings; I remember asking one of them, “Without the space program, whatever inspired you to become an engineer?” Because so many of the engineers of my generation grew up watching the moon shots on TV).
The following summer, when I was 13, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I, and my whole family, along with most of the United States, and a large proportion of the entire world, watched in awe as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually walked on the surface of the moon – another world, entirely separate from the earth! I was utterly, completely fascinated, and I spent hours reading all I could get my hands on about it, and imagining what it was like to be there, on another world, and fly in a spaceship, and all that stuff.
The moon landings continued, roughly two a year, for four more years, ending in December 1972, my senior year of high school. And I was glued to the TV set for every one of them. At the time, Apollo 13 was a huge disappointment to me, but I have since come to understand the magnitude of the accomplishment of simply bringing three men home safely, whose spacecraft had exploded 200,000 miles from home. But once the moon landings resumed, the TV images of lunar mountains, and astronauts driving moon-buggies across the moon, just never got old for me.
Once I was in college, though, the moon landings were securely in the past. The Skylab missions were interesting, in their way, for a year or so more, but earth orbit seemed like a tame retreat, after the exotic glory of seeing men walk on another world. But some of the engineers who helped put those men on the moon became my professors, and even if I never got close to the space program myself, it left an indelible mark on my psyche and my intellect. . .
It’s funny, but even growing up in Michigan, I really didn’t follow the Tigers until 1965, when I was nine years old. Until then, I’d been pretty much of a bookish little nerd. I had vague memories of Rocky Colavito (all the little kids tried to imitate his ‘stretching exercises’ with the bat in the on-deck circle) and Jim Bunning, and the ’61 Tigers who chased the Yankees into September. But, my dad had to force me to go out for my first baseball team; physical activity just wasn’t my first choice of activities, at that age.
But, in ’65, my ‘first mother’ left, and Dad started dating the woman who would eventually become my ‘new mother’. She had a son who was my age, and he was a complete sports nut. So, at least partly out of self-defense, and partly just so I could have something to talk with him about, I started to follow the Tigers, who were an average-to-above-average team that year, with a promising crop of young players like Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain, to go along with established veterans like Al Kaline and Norm Cash.
Kaline, especially, grabbed my imagination – something about the quiet, elegant way he played the game, at such a level of excellence, just compelled my attention. Because of him, I think, to this day, my favorite play in baseball is the right-fielder throwing to third base, to keep the runner on first from advancing two bases on a single (or even better, to throw the runner out on the attempt).
And in 1968, it all came together for my Tigers. They got on this incredible roll, and just never looked back. Denny McLain (one of the great assholes in sports history, by the way) won 31 games (the only 30-game winner between 1934 and the present day); Jim Northrup hit four grand slams (three of them in a week, and two in one game); and something like 40 times, the Tigers won a game in which they were behind after the 7th inning. My dad took us to a game in August, against the Chicago White Sox; Mickey Stanley tied the game on a home run in the 8th inning, and Jim Price (go to the head of the class if you remember Jim Price) won it with a homer in the 10th.
The ’68 Tigers won the American League pennant going away, and played the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. After falling behind three games to one (and with Denny McLain being thoroughly outclassed by Bob Gibson), the Tigers came back (in typical fashion) to win the Series, largely on the left arm of Mickey Lolich. I still look back on Game 5, when Mayo Smith left Lolich in to hit in the seventh inning, trailing by a run, and Al Kaline drove in the go-ahead run in the pivotal game of the Series. The Tigers won Game 6 behind Denny McLain (finally not matched up against Bob Gibson) and a 10-run inning (featuring another Jim Northrup grand slam), and then Lolich beat Gibson in a tense Game 7, when Northrup’s triple flew over Curt Flood’s head. For a 12-year-old Tiger fan, there could not have been anything closer to heaven – the Tigers were World Champions!
The Tigers stayed decent for a few more years, winning their division in ’72, before losing the ALCS to the Oakland A’s. But by the time I was in college, all the players I’d grown up watching were getting old, and the team was rebuilding, toward another eventual championship in ’84, which was very cool in its own right, but by then, I was married and a father, and the Tigers didn’t absorb my attention like they did when I was 12. . .
The Sixties, as such, at least in terms of the popular imagination, really ran from 1964 or so (they could be considered as starting with the Kennedy assassination, or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan) and ending roughly 10 years later (roughly with Watergate and the Nixon resignation, or the final pullout from Viet Nam). The headlines were filled with Viet Nam, and the anti-war movement; the popular culture suddenly became ‘druggier’ than it had been before; hair got longer – a LOT longer – and the sexual revolution took hold. All of those things were the cultural backdrop of my growing-up years.
But the things that most caught my youthful imagination were the Beatles, the moon landings, and the Detroit Tigers. . .