50 Years Ago--
Living with History
Everything was growing. The population of the world had hit 3 billion, and
that growth showed no sign of slowing, despite the invention of the pill.
Even the country was growing. The American flag now had 50 stars—the
last two added when Alaska (1959) and Hawaii (1960) became states.
But the world also was shrinking. John Glenn orbited it, and we saw the
photos of our little blue marble of a planet floating in space.
The country was at war in some faraway land called Vietnam. We heard
about it on the radio and read about it in the newspapers. But our new
president would soon put things right. John F. Kennedy was young and
handsome and cultured. He could speak to the world in the world’s
languages, and he was sending young Americans out into that world to
make it a better place through the Peace Corps.
I wanted to go. The world was changing, and I’d chronicle that change as
a journalist--or a novelist. Anyway, I’d write about it.
Race relations were even more immediate than foreign relations. The globe
was redrawing itself as one African state after another won independence
from Europe and chose a new name and a new, black president. Even
Americans were choosing new names, as blacks rejected their “slave
names” for names like Muhammed, Al-Shabazz and Rafti. Black and white
young people were riding buses together on Freedom Rides to desegregate
transportation in the South.
We married on August 25, 1963. Three days later, Martin Luther King
stirred all our hearts with his “I Have a Dream” speech calling for equal
rights and opportunities.
It was three months later, and I was hurrying across the campus, when it
struck me. Everything was very still. There weren’t many students out, and
those who were walked in small clots, bent over their radios. Something
I stopped a group and asked. John Kennedy, the president who had
carried so many hopes, had been killed in Dallas. I ran back to our married
students’ hutment (originally built to house prisoners of war) to tell Frank.
The world seemed to be falling apart. All our hopes and dreams were
dashed. It felt like the future of the country itself was at risk. Could we go
on? Then, there on the plane just before heading back to Washington,
Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president. Jackie Kennedy stood
stoically at his side. I had done enough publicity to realize that it was just a
show. Johnson and the Kennedys had never gotten along. But
symbolically, it worked wonders.
Johnson might have been the furthest thing from a Kennedy, but he was a
practical politician, trained by Sam Rayburn, and he knew how to get things
done. The country would survive, and so would we. In fact, Johnson, with
his experience with the Congress, was able to get things done that Kennedy
could only dream about.
The Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty both began in 1964. They
offered equality and prosperity for all.
The summer of 1965, we moved to Los Angeles—a move that caused our
lives to intersect the flow of history. Just a year after we drove into the
curfew zone from the riots, Frank got his draft notice. To avoid slogging
through the jungles and killing people, he joined the Navy.
We went to Disneyland the night before he reported for duty and held each
other in the back of the boat through the Jungle Cruise and in the darkness
of the Inner Space ride through the atom. That happy place had never
seemed so sad.
After basic training, Frank worked as a journalist on the aircraft carrier
Ticonderoga in the Tonkin Gulf. For the next two years, we spent only six
months together. We were apart so much that some people I worked with
at Pepperdine began to doubt that I was married at all. They had never
seen Frank and wondered if I’d made him up.
We wrote every day. I was so worried about his safety, especially those
times his letters didn’t get through. Once it was almost a week before
several came at once. They were blackened around the edges and had
been wet. I panicked before I got another letter explaining that the mail
plane had crashed.
In April of 1968, I was just getting out of a night class on campus when a
young man ran up the stairs gasping, “Martin Luther King has been
assassinated. They’re rioting in the cities.” We all knew what that meant.
Rioting would break out around us just any minute. By the time I collected
myself and got downstairs, the last car was pulling away from in front of the
building. I had to walk home alone through a neighborhood that seethed
with hatred—of people like me.
It was the most frightening walk of my life. School shut down for a week,
so I had no classes, no job to go to. I just sat in our small apartment,
listening to the accounts of the assassination and the resulting destruction on
the radio, and talking on the phone with my parents in Texas.
Frank was getting the news from the wire service on the ship, and he was
worried about me. We both had been thrown into the tumultuous events of
a tumultuous time. Frank’s letters spoke increasingly about peace, while
mine spoke of civil rights.
Then there was the night in June when I was lying in bed listening to election
returns. A Pepperdine alumnus, Kenneth Hahn, was in the toughest race of
his long career as a Los Angeles County supervisor. I was catching the
results of his race when the news cut away to the Ambassador Hotel,
where my candidate for president, Robert Kennedy, was winning the
California primary. Suddenly the tone changed. Yet another national
leader was dead.
I hardly recognized our country in this place of blood and violence, hatred
and fear. We were working to extend liberty and acceptance to those who
had been denied it, but others were trying to tear everything apart.
On those rare occasions when Frank was able to come home, I’d go down
to San Diego to meet the ship, and I could hardly recognize him, either. He
seemed taller, stood straighter, and had very short hair. He was quieter,
and it was hard to fall into the easy conversation we’d known.
Were we the same people we’d been? Could we be? And if we weren’t,
did we still love each other? We clung to each other wordlessly.
Then, in April, he was reassigned to the staff of All Hands magazine in
Washington, D.C. I was pregnant with Kathy. She was born in Bethesda
Naval Hospital, with corpsmen, not nurses, in attendance.
We were both astonished at this beautiful baby girl. When she was 1½,
Frank left the Navy and we returned to Los Angeles.
Frank in basic training.
In front of Normandie Village, married
students' housing at Pepperdine, alone..
Frank in his office on ship, with my
picture on the shelf above.
On the way to Washington, D.C., pregnant
Frank graduates from boot camp with the American Spirit
honor award as I beam with pride.
I take a photography class at Pepperdine.