Can a year change the world?
Maybe your parents or grandparents spoke that way about 1941. You’ll probably tell your grandkids about 2001. Or have already.
Yet, it’s usually a specific day, a certain single event that “changes the world,” more so than the entire year. It was December 7, 1941. September 11, 2001.
There was an exception.
The calendar page had turned 94 times, but 1968 began when that shot was fired in Memphis on April 4. A boy, younger than his 11 years, was watching the Chicago Blackhawks open their hockey playoff series against the New York Rangers when the TV screen suddenly splashed a “Breaking News Bulletin.” A serious-sounding, unseen adult announced Dr. Martin Luther King Junior had been shot, and was dead.
Three days of rioting on Chicago’s West Side followed. The days brought destruction, distraction and the declaration by Mayor Richard Daley that police would “shoot to kill” any arsonist or person with a Molotov cocktail.
A few weeks later the boy walked upstairs for breakfast before school and saw the newspaper on the kitchen table, its front page about Bobby Kennedy heading to victory in the California presidential primary. His dad nodded toward the paper and said, “He was shot last night.”
“You mean like, in the hand?” The boy couldn’t process what his dad had said.
“No. SHOT. He’s dead.”
After a summer of baseball it was August and the boy’s TV was filled with protesters and police by the thousands. They were locked in mortal combat, bashing in each other’s heads, in parks where he’d played as a toddler. The police did most of the head-bashing.
The 1968 Democratic Presidential Convention had come to town. Convention delegates and the media were man-handled by Daley’s police inside the convention center as the protesters had been in the parks, though less blood was spilled.
September brought seventh grade, his first boy-girl dances, a project to scrapbook the presidential race between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, and an assignment to debate the Vietnam War. “Hey Jude” played endlessly, Nixon won and he took the “pro” side.
“We made a deal with our allies,” he declared defiantly, with no clear idea what an ally was. “We have to live up to it and stay.”
On December 6 the boy’s cousin, Tommy, returned home from a year in Vietnam. At Christmas, he told Tommy that some of his buddies were talking about enlisting when they got old enough.
Today, Tom’s a proud Vietnam veteran. But at the time , he said, “You don’t want to do that.”
The boy had lazed his way into 1968 a sheltered sixth-grader with blond hair buzzed into that “regular” cut, teasing girls, wanting to become an altar boy, clueless about news and politics — and parroting what he heard the big people saying at home and school and on TV.
He stepped into 1969 a seventh grader with hair growing out, an ID bracelet that would soon be given to Nancy Westhusing, an altar boy reject for failing the Latin, paying attention to the news and politics — and challenging everything he heard at home and school and on TV.
Did 1968 change the world?
The world emanates from each person’s place in it. And 1968 changed him.