Wednesday, November 4, 2020

1960 | Lefsetz Letter

We went to bed and we did not know who won the presidency.

I was in second grade. What I remember most is that although we started school in September 1960, by January it was 1961, and you could flip the numbers over and it would still be 1961, and they said it wouldn’t happen again for…so many years it was clear I wouldn’t be alive when it did. A minor item, but when you’re seven, these little markers are a big deal. But then you get old and you realize nothing is a big deal, you’ll live and you’ll die and then ultimately you’ll be forgotten. You think you want to leave your mark, and then you get old enough to realize it’s a fool’s errand.

Now Fairfield Woods was both an elementary and junior high school, at least when I went there. And the buildings were separated, connected by a hall in which the principal’s office was located, someplace you never wanted to go.

Kindergarten is a blur, other than the fact it was 1958. Did I really go to school in the fifties?

As for first grade, it was taught by Mrs. Godfrey. These first grade teachers are saints. To put up with kids who are not yet formulated, who are not yet obedience trained. Then again, it’s different today, with all the pre-school, with kids being able to read before they even go to school, but back in the fifties, this was a rarity.

And, they passed out books. That was another very cool thing about first grade, you got your own books. And in a matter of just a few school days, you were reading. And then you got the “Weekly Reader.” I don’t know if kids get that anymore. Then again, those were exciting times, with space launches and scientific discoveries, we thought we were thoroughly modern, the internet was not even foreseeable.

So now it was 1960. And there was a new second grade teacher, Miss Kamph. She was young. And we could relate to her better, she was less of a mother figure. This was back in the days where single women taught for a few years and then got married and disappeared. These were also the days you didn’t get a male teacher until at least fifth grade. Then again, we were unenlightened, but we didn’t think we were.

But Ms. Kamph’s room was in the junior high wing. UPSTAIRS!

Now Fairfield Woods junior high was run like a military operation. You had to walk around in circles in the hallway. In one direction. Even if your next destination was just a few feet to the left, you had to walk all the way around the building to the right to get there, and believe me, you didn’t want to get busted. That was one of the breakthroughs of going to high school, it was a free-for-all in the halls. And ultimately girls could wear pants and boys could wear jeans, but that was just before I graduated. Oh, the wars we fought back then, remember when skirts couldn’t be above the knee? Probably not.

The junior high kids moved classrooms every period. Whereas we in the second grade were in Ms. Kamph’s room almost all the time. But when we left, if it was between junior high periods, the halls would be full and we’d get pushed around like bowling pins, but we didn’t care, we enjoyed it, we were hanging with the big kids, remember when junior high students were sophisticated? Oh yeah, back then there was no “middle school.” And junior high was just two years. But…

I was trying to remember if we had lockers. But now I realize we did not, those were for the junior high students. We hung our jackets in the room. And this was when the men started being separated from the boys. As in the smart from the less intelligent, or motivated. Remember SRA? Once again, probably not. It stood for “Stanford Research…” was it “Associates,” I don’t remember. But it came in a big box. which you opened and got cards, with questions you answered, and then checked your answers on these other little cards and then filled in a graph with your results. You felt good if you didn’t get any wrong. Yes, even at this young age they were undercutting our creativity, our originality, making us conform. We believed if we got good grades and obeyed, everything would work out. Ain’t that a laugh.

So the first thing I remember about second grade, other than Miss Kamph herself, was the hurricane. It was the fall, school was open, we all went, and then it was closed, they sent us home. And this was back in the era where you walked to school, your parents neither dropped you off or picked you up. I lived about a ten minute walk away. So I put on my jacket and endured the weather on my walk home. My sisters were at Fairfield Woods too, but we did not congregate, we all went home independently. Where we looked out the window and waited for the end of the world, but there was just wind and rain. Furthermore, they sent us home too late to watch cartoons, so it was kind of a botched day.

But then came the election.

I was for Kennedy, because my parents were for Kennedy, they were big Democrats. I never had to do the switch in college, realize my parents had their political heads up their rear ends and switch sides from their party, the Republicans, to the Democrats. And oh yeah, when I went to college everybody was a Democrat. The Vietnam War was still going on. the Establishment was the enemy. You could literally name the Republicans on campus. To this day I still cannot understand how someone can be a Republican. Then again, this was in the era of Rockefeller Republicans. Those don’t exist anymore.

So, I watched the black and white TV with my mom. The results. I never went to bed early, maybe because my mother never did herself. And she slept in until ten every day. But there did come a point when I was sent upstairs, probably 8:30 or 9. Oh, that’s another thing, we used to rank on those who had to go to bed early, who could watch Claude Kirchner but then had to call it quits, who couldn’t even watch network television, which started at 7:30 back then.

So I went to bed convinced Kennedy had won. I was sure of it, I remember my mother telling me so. And needless to say, my mother wasn’t awake when we left for school, she never served us breakfast, but occasionally my father bought us doughnuts. And I’m hanging outside the classroom, at 8:30 in the morning, the junior high kids started at 8, they were already in class. And remember when you lined up outside and waited for the teacher to unlock the door? I do. And, of course we’re talking about the election. And one of my classmates says Nixon won. And I’m arguing with him.

So I ask Miss Kamph. She seems to come down on the side of Nixon. And now I’m totally confused. My mother was hip, she was with it, she couldn’t have it wrong, no way. But as the day ensued, the word spread, that Kennedy had won, I don’t know how we ultimately found out, someone in the administration must have listened to the radio and conveyed the information.

But I was too young to be concerned about shenanigans in Chicago. Or to even know that Kennedy’s dad was a bootlegger. Or maybe he wasn’t. They’re still arguing about it. And since it’s in the past, we’ll never learn the truth.

But JFK was a revelation. He was old, but he was young. Remember when your parents used to call people in their late thirties and forties “young,” we always used to argue with them, now we know they’re right.

And Kennedy represented the youth, a break with the status quo, he was a new man for a new decade and it was gonna be all roses and champagne until…

The Cuban Missile Crisis.

I remember that. The pictures on the front page of the “New York Times.” The missiles on the decks of Russian ships, covered up, but everybody knew what they were.

And by second grade I don’t think we did air raid drills anymore, for nuclear wars, where you got under your desk, but we were totally aware that a bomb could end life as we knew it. Although I do remember being confused as to the difference between an “A”-bomb and an “H”-bomb, I looked it up on the internet a few years back, I forgot what I learned.

So I was scared life was gonna end. But my mother said if they dropped the bomb we’d all die and not to worry about it. But Kennedy turned around the ships and then…

Well, there were the rocket launches. The space race was a big deal.

And Jackie was on TV giving tours of the White House on Sunday nights, how she redecorated it.

But what was truly memorable was Inauguration Day, obviously January 20th. It was a snow day, so we were all home. Otherwise I wouldn’t have seen it, there were no TVs in classrooms at that point. And for some reason my mother was watching it upstairs on the little black and white in her bedroom, and I sat on the bed and watched too, as I stared out the window at the cold and the snow. And I remember Robert Frost speaking, although he looked so old, and almost like Nikita Khrushchev, and all the adults could not get over Kennedy not wearing a hat. And soon thereafter, no one did. My father stopped, whereas before that he and all his compatriots did.

I can talk about other elections. Like in ’72, when I turned on the TV and it was already over, even though it was barely after 7 on the east coast.

And there was the exuberance of ’92, with Clinton’s initial victory.

And there was the defeat of Kerry, we were dumbfounded.

But back in 1960, things were different. Kennedy represented the future, he represented hope. The American Dream was still alive. There was no income inequality (even though there was a good deal of poverty, although in high school we raised money to eradicate it, it was one of Johnson’s big crusades), we were all in it together. Everybody I knew was middle class, although some had Cadillacs and some had Pontiacs, or Fords. But few had old cars, you see the cars didn’t last that long, a new one every two or three years was de rigueur. But they all looked different, in many cases futuristic. And we thought we were jetting into a better world.


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