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Mid-Century Memoir--"What it was like in 1969, when abortion was illegal and sex a girl's "fault"?" Answer PART 1 Normal (Part 2 Activism to come)

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Borough Hall 

Mid-Century Memoir. “What was it like in 1969 when young people tried to remake the world?”  Answers-PART 1 “Normal”.  PART 2 “Activism”  next week. This is a personal essay through the imperfect filter of memory.

“What was it like in 1969, when young people tried to remake the world?” I was recently asked this and found it difficult to summarize that time, when “normal” became something else.  2022 is also an era of intense social upheaval.  How the “normal” of 1969 spurred serious generational change is useful to understand, especially with conservative groups lobbying to turn back the cultural “clock.” 

Life Magazine featured Haight-Ashbury’s hippie mecca, yet racist conservative George Wallace was elected in my high school’s mock elections for the 1968 race against Richard Nixon. “Times were achanging” somewhere else than my Philly borough, twenty minutes away from downtown. How did an integrated school, roughly half Black, half White, have such an outcome? Race was less important than our economic profile, and certainly our religious affiliation. We were Irish and Italian Catholics, WASP and African American Protestants, with a handful of Jewish families trying to blend-in. Hispanic and Asian Americans were nonexistent, residents of a “Downtown” many kids had never visited. Some boasted, ‘Why travel, when we have everything here?’ 

Borough was originally defined as a fortified town. Ours had well-paid factory workers, professionals, executives, and entrepreneurs. There were big and small businesses in both the Black and White sections of town. Homeowners were proud they could live here, instead of Philly’s poor neighborhoods. There were attached homes and unattached single-family homes, a few with 60′s modern custom designs. Founded in the post-war economic booms of 1950s and go-go 60s, there was a sense of “arrival” with respect for upward  mobility.  Both sections took pride in their fashionable swim clubs, restricted to members though guests of any race or creed were welcomed. 

In a carful of White kids, I remembering gawking at the town’s only airplane, kept in the backyard of a Black dermatologist.  His son, an admired athlete and A student, was definitely “college material.” For his parents higher education was a given, different from anti-higher ed parents, who often had ”made it” through a good company job or family business. I remember a friend, who was pressured by his family to turn down a scholarship from a major Catholic university for a factory job with his father’s group. (When it didn’t work out, he took to drink.)

Where college was valued, grades were non-negotiable. In my house “I guess you’re not college material” had the ring of primal failure. Though neither of my parents were college grads, we were to “buckle down” at school and not be shirkers. Life was about doing your duty, like our GI dads, whose benefits enabled them to become homeowners, start businesses, get an education. Kids in “The Donna Reed Show” might groan, but there was no compromise about gratitude for food, respect for elders, cheerful chores, AND diligent homework.  I just knew Lucy would help Little Ricky if  (like me) he brought home study-resistant D’s in math. She might have found a tutor!  

But as I recall, learning to “apply yourself” was the point of education. We were tested in kindergarten and if you were IQ smart, your parents were told you could learn anything. Not performing meant some personal flaw. Even so, it was commonly assumed a kid was “book smart” or not.  Only a few “eggheads” qualified for college or just had rich parents. The rest of us were supposedly better off not thinking we were smarter (or better) than others. 

Poverty, especially if your parents grew up in the Depression, was an underlying fear. Pride  in not going “Downtown,” because they had “made it” to this great place, was part of our isolation. Unmentioned were unsavory “elements” in the city. Special consideration was given the few single moms, who raised their kids, went to church, and maintained their houses. (A Thanksgiving turkey might appear anonymously on a front step, courtesy of some Church group or stray do-gooder. ) 

So how did Wallace get the votes in this middle class high school with about equal numbers of Black and White students? There was our widespread ignorance of the candidates and the belief that a “mock” election didn’t count, So why not Wallace? He was “cooler” than Nixon.  I heard students excuse Wallace’s racism, because he was a Southerner. “Come on. Who took the Klan seriously? A club of grown men wearing white sheets! After all, the South did lose the Civil War.” 

Collective common sense also agreed that enlistment, especially if you came from a large family, was a great career opportunity. Serving the nation and earning a paycheck was a viable path to adulthood. “Nam” talk, full of adventure and tests of bravery, was oiled by enlistment bonuses. Body bags on the news were unmentioned. Naturally, since girls didn’t serve, we kept our opinions to ourselves. I was okay with that, until the war on the home front came sharply into focus. 

My boyfriend, “Pineapple Head”(so called because he was raised in Hawaii) and I became unwitting targets of a security operation. Recently arrived in our borough to live with his aunt after his mother died, he was exotic, handsome, and free. He had been schooled out of doors on a dormant volcano!  This rare boy, who read books and thought deeply about life, was my kind of guy.  One day after school, we went to his aunt’s house to hang out with his cousin and his girlfriend, who drank a lot of beer.  She stood on the coffee table in a platinum Supreme’s wig, belting out “Baby Love” with Ross’ perfect moves. I was entranced but we didn’t stay long. As we reached the sidewalk, we were suddenly halted. A man in a beige raincoat jumped from a parked car, snapped our photo and quickly drove away. ”What was that?” we laughed. “Are we famous?” 

Weeks later, stuck in a chair across from the Principal, I found out. A stern man at best of times, now he was apoplectic, mirrored in the polished desk that separated us. Sputtering with rage, he yelled that I was a ringleader (not just a part) of the Tristate Drug Ring. (What, I wondered?)  “I expect you to give me the names of all involved!” I told the truth (maybe it would make me free?) “I never heard of such a thing.”  ”You’re lying,” he said, moving (was he going to grab me?). I stood. ”This is a school of beer drinkers.” (this was true, with the exception of Richard, our sole hippie). 

Judgment towered over me, fierce and nasty, “You will tell me who they are!”  I put my hand on the doorknob. “You were seen!” He moved to his desk drawer and hurled a photo of Pineapple and me, across the shiny desk. “Some guy took our photograph?  Anyway, it was after school.” (As though non-truancy counted in this alternative universe.) The principal now spat each word: “You will not graduate if you do not cooperate.” I opened the door, now more angry than scared. “Tristate drug ring doesn’t exist.” He stood furious, his face flushed red. “So don’t graduate me.” 

Outside, I briefly collapsed against a wall. Safely turning the corner, I wondered what adult could I tell about this? My mother would certainly ridicule my “overactive imagination” (her take on all truths inconvenient). Weeks later a bald circle appeared on the top of my head, expanding until a comb-over was futile. She took me to a doctor. But when he suggested I might be losing hair from stress, Mom laughed. “What does she have to be stressed about? These are the best years of her life!” 1969 marked a real generation gap, visible on my scalp. 

A bald spot was nothing compared to Pineapple’s consequences. He was in the hallway, having forgotten a hall pass (which didn’t exist in Hawaii), when the principal appeared out of nowhere and bodily threw him against a wall. Reflexively, Pineapple hit him back and was instantly expelled. With no parents to advocate for him at a new school, he was forced to drop out. Unable to find work and unwilling to be a burden, eventually he disappeared, Years later I saw him on Sansom street, far less handsome and with fewer teeth. He recognized me too, less with love than irony. He had become a speed freak on the street, a “head case,” he said, lucky to be alive. Now finally clean and a counselor, he offered street kids food packages and a card with a safe address to “crash.”

I made it to graduation with no interference from The Tristate Drug Ring. Decades later, I learned that identifying “student troublemakers” in high school, before they went to college and became demonstrators, was a security directive. Had Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program 1956-71) visited my high school for suspicious students? Was I fingered by the home ec teacher? Pineapple had certainly stood out but I had not — though records may exist.  (I read such operations reached Elementary Schools before it was defunded.) 

That June, I was one of ten people headed to college out of my class of about 100.  Graduation opened with an original poem by our Student Council President, a popular Black girl. Her reading received much applause, as did the announcement of her full scholarship to an elite university for international studies. The WASP valedictorian, a pretty, shy girl, was our most academically gifted student. With 800s in college boards, she had multiple offers of 4-year scholarships. Unfortunately, her parents forced her to decline. Education would make her unfit to be a good wife–according to her mother.  Ambition shelved, the girl graduated to housework under her mother’s guidance. 

We thought this extreme (scholarship money was forfeited) but the ultimate career path for girls was still to become a wife. Home Economics was a required course, no matter how much we might want to learn drafting or woodshop. Girls also had a serious dress code, skirts were measured and slacks forbidden. We saw a dating film in Health, where a girl’s duty was “not to give in.” Smart girls did not get in compromising situations. Our job was to save the noble (less mature?) male sex from themselves and date with the altar in mind. Girls were blamed for pregnancy, though occasionally boys were pressured to “do the right thing.” 

The lives of schoolgirls were routinely ruined, not only by becoming pregnant but the moral judgments of adults. Unable to choose a legal abortion in PA in 1969, meant unless she had a “shotgun” wedding or a family that would pretend it had a new “little sister,” she had to give the baby up. Expected to slink away in shame and disgrace before they “showed,” was just punishment. Pregnant girls had to leave school and rarely returned. The religious called it “God’s will”, though many of us girls thought it unfair.  Recently, I read a man’s online post  that more unwanted white children empowered the race (not to mention adoption agencies). I learned girls were somehow responsible and expendable.

But were boys really the enemy?  They often alluded knowingly to Playboy as favorite bathroom reading. I became curious enough to discover my father’s hidden stack. In “Party Notes,” a section about wild times in Hefner’s Mansion, I read an especially instructive story about a Quaalude party. “Wasn’t it fun” how girls, honored to be asked to the party, took what was offered? Turned into “living dolls.” They provided some entertainment! So while I was holding up the nation’s morals by kneeling for my skirt to be measured, men were drugging girls comatose?  

In June 1969, feminism was as foreign to me as the new so-called “Sexual Revolution.” In fact, a girl who got drunk and “pulled a train” was marked as a whore for life. (Psychological reasons weren’t part of our Puritan ethics.) At my regular lunch table was an intelligent, funny girl, who laughed easily, until one wet fall evening her mom was killed in a car accident. When her father quickly remarried, she was ignored for his new wife and kids. Grief-stricken, my friend passed out in drunken oblivion at some post game event. A line of boys formed to take advantage (as I learned from one who declined the opportunity and threw up). Ostracized at school, condemned at home, she eventually dropped out to become a cocktail waitress; then moved away.

I remember  sad school lunches in social Siberia, listening to her feelings of worthlessness and humiliation. Former friends, especially boys, mocked her relentlessly. Church offered no balm for her “shame.”  It is all still familiar. Even in 2022, where male porn is ubiquitous, female sexuality still evokes “slut shaming.” Erotica, which briefly in the sixties celebrated the female experience, is all but invisible. The double standard appears unimpeachable, yet for the recent spectacle of women prosecuting men in power for sexual abuse.  Neo-Puritan witch hunts or long-deserved justice?  

When I read about the trials of a generation of Playboy era men, from Harvey Weinstein (2021 indictment) to Bill Cosby,  I wondered if they were confused about changes in cultural rules.  ”Mad Men” had it right. “No means yes!” Power was an aphrodisiac. Women were a perk of authority.  Now, suddenly, women were expecting redress?  I wanted to see the legal prosecution as a step forward, but…why was Hefner lauded at the time of his funeral (2017), as a great cultural thinker– while his disciples would soon be indicted?  

The sexual divide was extreme in my 1969. In 2022, there’s social dissonance as conservative powers (male and female) work to subjugate women. What is the fear of equality? How are men ‘desexed,’ when women share prerogatives once associated only with male freedom? When boys risked lives in illegal drag racing, looked for disturbed girls to pull trains with, got crazy drunk and beat each other up, the solution was–sports. This safe outlet for  “normal male energy” was also made the focus of high school life. (Girls basketball was a joke except for those of us who played when we could get a space .) Girls were supposed to cheer or bake goodies — though some worthies volunteered as candy-stripers in hospitals, or actually found after school jobs. 

Rebellion through clothes was an option.  I had babysitting money and took the subway surface car “Downtown,” finding freedom in Mary Quant striped mini dresses. Unknown in our demure land of pastel sweator sets, these dresses of electric lime green, purple and orange earned me respect. A little notoriety went with dangling earrings. Everyone knew they were worn by whores, my “weirdness” made that impossible. You could remake yourself with clothes. Twiggy had. My friend and I used wax paper and ironed our hair straight.

Another challenge to social limits, interracial dating, also happened in my 1969, though not condoned by any communities. A girl from a financially struggling White family regularly snuck out to see her more affluent Black boyfriend.  When discovered, his parents quickly transferred him to a private high school, though her folks looked the other way. Trading up by marriage was considered using one’s assets (“Mad Men” got this right.) When marriage is a career, it’s the obvious path. 

In our borough, founded on WW2′s optimism and industrial build-up, there was no end in sight for a boom economy. Anyone willing to do an honest day’s work had a financial future.  Of course this excluded women, whose unpaid home-bound work was meant to benefit their families. But typing was a required course, it opened a business career to women with a fast and accurate wpm. 

In June of 1969, for the college bound minority, graduation was a series of fast announcements of academic awards and scholarships. The main celebration was for the savvy kids graduating Vo-Tech. Vocational-Technical students apprenticed with local businesses. One young woman, halfway to her beauty license, had a chair waiting at a beauty salon. Another had a bookkeeping position in a real estate firm. Our most successful male grad was a talented auto mechanic, who had flunked a grade. (Quick to learn the new car electronics, he eventually serviced the tri-state area with his own shop.) 

Unmentioned were the disappeared, those repeating the grade or the pregnant, like the Home Ec teacher’s daughter and my friend from drag-racing double dates. Though we had desperately solicited money to go to New York to get her an abortion, it wasn’t enough. The girl with an amazing photographic memory practiced denial. She hid college acceptances, wearing ever larger sweatshirts. That was just the “way of the world.”

Our graduation audience clapped respectfully for enlistees, even those who had flunked enough years to be drafted. A motivation beyond the “opportunity” was the expectations of fathers. Many, like mine, were World War II veterans. One White father was a career merchant marine, whose son would be attending a Naval Academy.  A Black father had served in the Air Force and his son enlisted to become a pilot.  It was yet a time of optimism. We would win this war.  “Give Peace a Chance” was still an unknown chant. I might have been the only one watching the body count.

I began truth-seeking. What was the attraction between war and profit, greed and death?  Machiavelli’s The Prince had some answers.  I looked for others. Time was critical, as my study hall pals toyed with destiny. These  “hoody” guys, who ignored school, had  motorcycle dreams, “Going cross-country,” finding an America beyond our town, was a hunger.  I had not heard of Kerouac but the open road stirred imaginations. We had adventures, gunning the engines of our minds. And, despite their bragging about the enlistment officer’s cash offers, few had yet signed up for ‘Nam”. There was hope. I invited them to my upcoming debate against a despised “bleeding heart liberal.” My argument, “Why war was good for society,” used The Prince, and 1984, advantages such as population control, winning the proxy war; ways the war industry primed private business at government expense, etc.

My opponent used humanitarian arguments, eliciting derision, especially when she talked about napalm destruction. I glimpsed victory, when I saw my pals’ shocked faces at the irrefutable logic of deaths for progress.  A tense moment, while the points were added up, before I was declared the victor. But after the stunned audience filed out, angry teachers, our debate sponsors, closed in.  I was expelled from the team and the results nullified. When I objected that I had won on points, the head sponsor cried out, “You were insincere!” But that was untrue. They had mixed up the means with my ends. The means did justify my ends, a very 1969 moment.   

My reward was the pals who decided not to enlist. 1973, living in San Francisco, I was surprised by a late night call from one who put his college acceptance on hold to serve his country. He told me how our fellow student, a kind gentle person–the son of the Air Force officer–had died in a helicopter crash. My caller, now discharged, was studying animal psychology, how attachment happened in ducks. He wanted nothing to do with the human race.  He kept asking, “How did you know the truth about the war?”  He never heard me say, “I didn’t. I just read a lot.”

I had been saving for a car I never bought. After graduation, I left home for a Jersey Shore version of Haight Ashbury, and a shared studio apartment that became a “crash pad.” Young people, stoned, homeless or just lonely, came through our ground floor window to sleep. I worked as a chambermaid at a hotel and at a “Head” shop, body painting and selling homemade candles. Later, when all, but my original roomate and I, left for Woodstock, we were elated to be alone. Some staggered back, others hitchhiked to California or followed the concert trail. At least one, who explored psychedelics, mentally never came back.  THC use then,, and vaping even stronger THC now, had no cautionary labels about becoming psychotic, a “head case.”  The price of experimentation was steep in 1969. 

Unmoored, the fragility of existence came down on me.  As fall approached, I realized I didn’t have to continue as a chambermaid.  I had a place at Syracuse’s art school.  I finished a painting comission of a giant psychedelic goldfish on the wall of the hotel’s cocktail lounge. I also reconciled with my parents, who rang my bell at 10 AM on a Sunday morning, Thinking the meeting was at 10 pm,  I opened the door in a robe, a glass of wine in my hand.  My parents suggested we convene at a nearby diner. Not a flicker of an eyelash or a raised brow showed they noticed the bodies visible behind me, sleeping on the floor. They went unmentioned later, as we discussed school. I was eager to move forward, to learn something. 




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    • Anonymous

      I was alive then and the title is a lie.

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