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The 40th Anniversaries of Apollo 11 Moon Landing and Woodstock Offer Baby Boomers A Great Opportunity to Reminisce: Where Were You During the Summer of 69?

July 22, 2009 by  
Filed under Anne Holmes, Blog, Living, Travel & Leisure

Summer of 69 was outta sight

woodstock-1969
Image by raymaclean via Flickr

As a Baby Boomer, What Impact Did the Summer of ’69 Have On You?

Recent retrospective news stories have reminded Baby Boomers that the summer of 69 was a three-month time period few of you will ever forget. It’s probably one of those “litmus test” time periods. You know, the ones where everyone remembers exactly what you were doing at the time you heard.

Like…

  • November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas.
  • February 3, 1959, the “day the music died” – when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane crash in Iowa.
  • Or 9/11

Those are all negative events, however. For Baby Boomers, the Summer of 1969 generally presents a more upbeat image of thrills and chills…

Where Were You That Summer? What Do You Remember Most?

Personally, I was 17 and spent the summer in Europe with 29 of my classmates, all from Madison East High School.  Most of us were looking forward to enjoying the summer then returning for a triumphant senior year as the “Class of 70.”  Our group had been together since junior high, and some of us had known each other since grade school. We were so psyched about that trip…

The idea came from the fact that we’d been studying French since the beginning of 7th grade. With five years of French language and culture under our belts, somebody came up with the great idea that we should actually practice our skills in France, among the natives.

You know, show off our linguistic skills while we enjoyed:

  • Site-seeing along the Seine (Of course we would spend time in Paris. What trip to France would be complete without the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower? No to mention the shopping?)
  • Bicycling high in the Alps (No, we didn’t expect to qualify for the Tour de France, but we loved the idea of tooling around Grenoble on rented “velos”)
  • Lounging beside the Mediterranean Sea (We weren’t bold enough to seek out a nude beach, but that didn’t stop us from wanting to sunbathe on the sands of Nice)

Next thing we knew we were all preparing for the trip of our young lifetimes.

After all, few of us had ever left the country before, and none of us had previously lived apart from our families for more than a few weeks of camp. We spent the entire school year in anticipation:

  • Attending weekly in-school meetings to prepare us for the trip
  • Working after school jobs to save up our spending money
  • And perhaps most importantly, planning our wardrobes

Thankfully, Our High School French Teacher and Her Husband Agreed to Be Our Chaperones

“Madame” was young and fun, and we knew she wouldn’t cramp our style. With her help, we selected a study abroad program that allowed us to spend time touring London, Paris, Rome, Geneva — plus studying French for a month at the University of Grenoble. ” Quelle idee!”

For most of us, the summer of 69 would be our first time spending any length of time away from home. And back then, calling home if you ran into problems was a lot harder, of course. Neither cell phones nor the World Wide Web had yet been invented.

So short of expensive trans-Atlantic calls placed from a phone booth, our correspondence with the folks back home was limited to letters send via air mail…

The Trip Was Fantastic and We All Did A Lot of Growing Up That Summer

I know I was not the same person when I returned… After all, during that trip we experienced so many new things. Among them:

  • Learning to ride London’s underground railroad – the “Tube. ” (And Paris’s “Metro” too.)
    • We didn’t have subways back home…
    • My best friend Jenny and I felt so adult when we left our classmates for the evening and took the tube to visit family friends in a London suburb.
    • Even cooler, they served us beer and lasagna for dinner! (Have no recall of whether or not it was Guinness, but I do know they mixed it with lemonade and called it a ‘shandy!’)
  • Personally experiencing the artistic masterpieces at the Sistine Chapel, the Louvre, Versailles, Buckingham Palace even touring the Coliseum in Rome.
    • I loved seeing the Mona Lisa, though I was surprised how small it is.
    • For me, the colorful Swiss Guard in the Vatican City was even more impressive than was the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace!
    • However I believe going underground to experience the cool and spooky catacombs of Rome impressed me the most!
  • Taking French cooking classes – conducted in French!
    • These were even more challenging than the language and culture classes we took at the University.
    • And we got to eat our work!
    • I recall creating an apricot tarte that was “to die for”…
  • Shopping at wonderful London department stores, like Harrod’s, Fortnum and Mason, Marks and Spencer.
    • I bought some fantastic patchwork silk fabric in shades of peach, cream and lavender that I stitched into a smashing maxi skirt. Tres chic!
    • Of course, being teens, we didn’t miss the boutiques of Picadilly Street, which was so trendy back then!
    • Remember Mary Quant and the British “mod” fashions? If not, here’s a memory jogger for you: some say she created the “look” of the micro mini skirt and tights…

Budgeting was one of the life skills forced on me by this trip: I spent most of my money our first week out, in those fabulous London shops. (This was before we even got to France.)

I still cherish my purchases, many of which were gifts for family back home: including a piece of Limoges crystal in the shape of a deer and a beautiful hand hammered copper bowl.

Why do I say that? Well, had I not run out of of money,  it might have been years later before I discovered my true entrepreneurial self.  But how I raised money to keep myself supplied with Cokes and snacks for the rest of the summer is the stuff of another post…

Strangely Enough The Most Memorable Things I Learned On That Trip Did Not Happen In the Classroom Nor On a Site-Seeing Tour

No. Forty years later I know that the two biggest things I learned that summer are to take responsibility for myself and my welfare — and to be proud to be an American.

Both of those lessons came as a result of being away from home, from “losing my comfort zone.” Especially through the experience of seeing life back home through the lens of distance – and from the point of view of a foreign press.  You certainly recall that the events of the summer of 1969 were pivotal. Both for Boomers – and for all Americans.

A lot of big news happened that summer. And it took place during a time when a lot of Americans — especially Boomers — were very unhappy with our foreign policy and our presence in Viet Nam. In fact, it would be safe to say we were not at all proud of our country at that time.

But it was very different to be experiencing what was happening back home via the filter of British and French newspapers and French TV. Strangely enough, learning about what was going on in my country while I lived on foreign soil had a galvanizing effect.

Instead of  deciding to “tune in, turn on and drop out,” as Timothy Leary had suggested a few years earlier, my living abroad experience enabled me to see what is wonderful about living in the United States, and actually caused me to became quite patriotic.

Fact is, patriotism was really not something I had experienced before the trip. I’d just taken my American citizenship — and it’s perks — for granted…

Among the news highlights  which so impacted me:

  • Man walked on the moon for the first time. For a week in July the world focused on NASA and the flight of Apollo 11, carrying astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr.
    • Their goals: land on the moon, perform some experiments, collect some rock samples, take some pictures, get home safely.
    • The trip which began July 16th lasted eight days, though they spent less than a day on the surface itself and only 2-1/2 historic hours actually walking on the moon.
    • Soon, the whole world knew that “The Eagle Has Landed,” and that “We Came in Peace for All Mankind.”
  • While most of the world avidly watched the action in the skies, Mary Jo Kopechne and the rest of Robert Kennedy’s former campaign workers – who’d been dubbed the “Boiler Room Girls” – took time out to attend a party on Chappaquiddick Island, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
    • Apparently out of deference to the Kennedy family, the US press embargoed a lot of the facts.
    • Overseas readers learned things which weren’t reported in the US media until much later.
    • These days, with the Internet and more global access to news, I doubt this sort of “media protection” could still happen…
  • And just a month later, in mid-August, we read about how almost half a million people gathered in the rain and mud at Max Yasgur’s farm in Woodstock, New York for a psychedelic celebration of peace and music dubbed “Woodstock ’69″…
    • What would it have been like to have seen those musical greats –  to experience the Woodstock bands in person?
    • Personally, I’m not sure if I could have handled the crowds, the mud, the drugs and the lack of order or sanitation facilities!
    • Still, those Woodstock stories from people who lived it are amazing!

In retrospect, being an American in France when we landed on the moon actually helped rebuild my pride and American spirit. Everywhere we went, total strangers  would come up to us and congratulate us on the Apollo trip.

Instead of feeling like the “ugly Americans” – as we had earlier in the trip — we were suddenly hailed as heroes – even though we personally had nothing to do with the flight to the moon…  That was amazing!

What about you? How did the Summer of 69 impact your life? Where were you? Given where you are now, would you agree with Bryan Adams “those were the best days of your life?”

Why not share your personal “Summer of 69” story here?