On January 31st, 1968 I awoke in my girlfriend’s bed in New York City to see on TV the U.S. Embassy in Saigon racked by explosions and crackling gunfire, and dead Viet Cong being tossed from the roof onto the lawn.
The shocking Tet Offensive, which led ultimately to our defeat in Vietnam, ushered in a year of dramatic societal upheaval, perhaps unparalleled in our history. 1968 ultimately brought us widespread Civil Rights and antiwar protests; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; Apollo 8, the first spacecraft to orbit the moon, lighting the way for Apollo 11 to land there; the Chicago Democratic Convention riots; and the Mexico City Olympics, where American black track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute on the winners’ podium while the U.S. national anthem was played. This reverberated around the world and helped change it. And, tra-la!, Richard Nixon was elected President!
What could possibly follow a year like 1968?
Exactly what did follow it: 1969.
That’s fifty years ago. To me it’s last Wednesday.
In that momentous year, these were the major events:
— Man lands on the moon – and returns safely. Maybe the greatest moment in human history.
— Woodstock, Altamont, Isle of Wight, Atlanta and other mega-concerts. (Sorry, but I never attend any event where I have to line up to pee, or risk being trampled to death by sandals or Roots Shoes. So I wasn’t at any of those.)
— The Stonewall riots in late June in New York City, six days of battles between the NYPD and supporters of a gay nightclub. Widely considered the catalyst that galvanized the gay rights movement (still in progress).
— First U.S. ATM machine, in a bank in Rockville Centre, NY (my home town, ironically, but really nothing to do with me, that I know of).
— Chappaquiddick – Ted Kennedy’s adios to presidential hopes. More consequentially, the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and a tragic injustice as Kennedy skated punishment.
— First ARPANET communications, paving the way for the internet, which has paved the way for, basically, handheld devices and distracted driving!
— The introduction of the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, the most influential and popular commercial airplane ever.
— Iconic movies: Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy. Yes, all those came out in one year.
— Last public performance by the Beatles, atop the Apple Records building in London. One spontaneous 42-minute set, filmed, so we all know they looked miserable, then goodbye forever.
— John Lennon and Yoko Ono married. Related, one still believes, to previous item.
— Maiden crossing of the ocean liner QE2 (Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2). I was there. Read on.
OK, you’re right: the maiden crossing of the QE2 was by no means a planet-gripping headline in 1969, but I have a personal connection to it.
On May 2nd 1969, I was lunching near the Paris Opéra with my girlfriend Diane. We had just spent a month motoring through Spain and France, visiting friends from my student days in Madrid. We spontaneously decided that it was time to return home, as we both had gigs for early June. While Diane finished her Croque-Monsieur and Kronenbourg beer and settled the bill, I walked across the street to a travel agency and asked the stunning Finnish woman behind the desk when the next ship would be leaving for New York.
Bingo! Freak luck. “Le Queen” (as she called it) was departing from Le Havre at 8:00 that night. It was now 1:30, giving us time to catch the train for the two hour trip to Le Havre. I booked a Cabin Class room and we said au revoir to Paris.
We boarded QE2 around 6:30, dropped our baggage in the cabin, and headed for the dining room. Opening the menu, I noticed printed across the top: “Queen Elizabeth II – Maiden Crossing,” the first clue that we were on a maiden crossing. These are events that steamship buffs often book years in advance. We booked a mere 6 ½ hours in advance. Go figure.
But ah!, if only we still had those great, vanished ocean liners! Food was king. And so it was on the QE2. We missed no meals, not even in rough weather. Cunard provided fabulous chow, great variety, superbly presented. We could order from the menu, or just ask our waiter if the kitchen had something we fancied. The answer was always “Yes, of course.” After all, Sir, this is our maiden crossing!
The second night out we encountered heavy seas. The stewards strung padded guide ropes across open spaces to prevent passengers’ falling. After dinner and too many drinks with shipboard musicians, we repaired to our room. On the radio I picked up a shortwave broadcast from somewhere in the ionosphere, playing (I swear this is true) “I Put A Spell On You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Culture is where we find it. Nothing quite like rock and roll on a ship that is really rocking and rolling.
Since August of 1960 I have crossed the Atlantic 11 times on steamships, but that 1969 crossing remains my fondest seafaring memory. (Honorable mention: My final ocean crossing, on the France in 1973, returning from three years in Paris, the only dining experience that matched – possibly surpassed – the inspired QE2 menu.)
(Footnote to this footnote: I have, in fact, a second personal connection to the QE2 crossing. A few years ago I learned that my future former brother-in law was also on board, although I did not meet him.)
But my most poignant and loving memory of 1969 comes from the night of the moon landing.
I have always been blessed with wonderful mentors. One of my most beloved teachers in high school was Otho W. Allen, Ph.D., Phi Beta Kappa, a tall, dignified, silver-haired French and Spanish teacher with severe-looking rimless glasses, whose classes most students tried to avoid because of his reputation for giving lots of homework – and actually requiring students to speak the language they were learning! (Can you just imagine the nerve!) He had previously taught at Phillips Exeter and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. The man knew his stuff.
I studied Spanish with him for only one year, but that year sparked a lifelong friendship, and we remained close. Mr. Allen (he disliked the honorific “doctor”) knew 16 languages. He modestly admitted one afternoon over coffee that he was fluent in only ten of them – the other six were “just working languages.”
After he retired, I occasionally dropped by his house for linguistics shop talk.
I like to talk and read, so I like languages. One afternoon – yes, one afternoon – he taught me the artificial international language Esperanto. This is one of the giant intellectual achievements of mankind, designed expressly to be easily learned (with only 16 grammar rules and ZERO exceptions!). But it has never flourished, least of all in the still doggedly monolingual U.S.
Mr. Allen, a passionately committed internationalist, proudly wore the little Green Star pin that identified him as an Esperantist. He believed in the cross-pollination of cultures; he championed those things that define our common humanity. His brothers were ethno-linguists, recording and preserving endangered Native American tribal dialects. His daughter learned Hindi and Persian and married an Iranian professor named Dr. Shiko. His son Bob specialized in Scandinavian languages. Once he and I went to the beach with a six pack of Tuborg on ice. Bob succinctly explained his fascination with that part of the world.
“Dean, have you ever seen those Viking babes? Jeeeeez!” Apparently dinner dates in those Northern climes usually included breakfast. There is always a human side to scholarship, friends.
One evening in 1964, Mr. Allen, born in Canada and raised in Illinois, reminisced about his childhood in the days of horses and buggies and unpaved roads. He recalled the first automobiles. In 1922 he had crossed the English Channel in a noisy biplane.
He grew uncharacteristically melancholy. “I so wish I could live to see men on the moon! I certainly won’t make it, but you probably will,” he said. I can never forget the sorrowful look on his face.
Fast forward five years. July 20, 1969. About 3 hours before the landing I called him up and said, “Well, Mr. Allen, assuming you live another three hours, you’ll have lived to see men on the moon.” He asked me to come over (he lived 4 blocks away) to watch the landing with him and his wife. I recall seeing Armstrong descend onto the lunar surface. My old mentor’s eyes flowed with tears of joy.
“I’m so proud of us,” he murmured.
So proud of us. Us.
Make no mistake, by “us”, O.W. Allen clearly didn’t mean “The U.S.A.” I knew that he meant humanity.
In his own lifetime, he had seen Homo sapiens progress from horse power to horsepower to space travel. I like to think that he died a happier man for having seen the fulfillment of that cycle. I revere my teachers. I miss Mr. Allen. I miss his brilliance and his dedication to teaching, and I suspect that at this very moment he is busily analyzing angelic languages. He can tutor me when my time comes.