A Strange, Terrifying Journey

Originally posted September 21, 2007

I wrote a little while ago about the trip my family took in 1968: my parents and I heading from Minnesota to Pennsylvania to greet my sister when she came home from six weeks in France, and the four of us heading back to Minnesota along a different route.

Well, 1968 itself was a kind of journey – as all years are, I guess – and thinking back about the world of 1968, its journey took all of us here in the U.S. through a strange and terrifying land.

The journey began at the end of January with what became known at the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a synchronized military campaign launched against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces by the People’s Army of Vietnam – the regular army of North Vietnam – and the guerilla forces known as the Viet Cong. The end result was a military loss for the attackers, as they sustained casualties without gaining any ground (although gaining territory is not at all the aim of a guerilla war as we are learning again to what I fear will be our everlasting sorrow). But the attack was nevertheless a victory for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, as our government and military had been assuring us for some time that our military operations had diminished our opposition’s capabilities to the point that they could no longer mount major offensives. The sight of U.S. Marines battling attackers inside the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in the city that was then called Saigon tended to lead us to other conclusions.

On an April evening in Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots broke out in the African-American sections of many major U.S. cities, with Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Chicago being among the most affected.

Just more than two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel just moments after claming victory in the California primary election; the victory had made him the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president.

And just more than two months after that, downtown Chicago exploded into violence during the Democratic National Convention, as demonstrators and police clashed in what was later judged by investigators to be a “police riot.”

The rest of the year was quieter, says my memory, bolstered by Wikipedia, but how could it not have been? In November, Richard Nixon won the presidential election, defeating Hubert Humphrey in a divisive race that also included third-party candidate George Wallace.

And in perhaps the only public event of the year that provided any solace at all, in December, three astronauts aboard the Apollo 8 space capsule became the first humans to orbit the moon and to look back from that vantage point at our blue planet.

Such images have become so commonplace – in advertising and elsewhere – in the thirty-nine years since that it’s hard for those who did not experience it to understand just how electrifying and humbling it was to see for the first time all of the earth at one moment. That image – of the blue earth hanging alone in the black of space – underlined to me, and, I think, to many, how alone we are and how this small earth is all we have, a lesson that I think we need to relearn.

Another bit of solace, though not nearly as cosmic, came in October with the release of “Abraham, Martin and John,” a single by Dion, the one-time king of doo-wop and pre-Beatles pop rock. Sounding unlike anything that might have been expected from Dion, and sounding folky enough to have been written years ago (except for the telling coda that had Robert Kennedy “walkin’ up over the hill”), the song – written by Dick Holler – was an instant classic, and the single climbed to No. 4 during a twelve-week stay in the Top 40.

When the accompanying album, Dion, came out, it was also a departure, more folky than anything one might have expected, with songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, folkie Fred Neil and Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix? Yeah, Dion covered “Purple Haze,” giving it an odd serenity in a performance that sits high on my “Who the hell thought that was a good idea?” list. The rest of the album, though, is pretty good. I especially like Dion’s take on Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy.” (I’ve included in the zip file “Daddy Rollin’ [In Your Arms],” which was the B-side to the “Abraham, Martin and John” single [Laurie 3464].)

This is a rip from vinyl that I found out on the ’Net and used because the record it came from was in slightly better shape than my own vinyl copy of Dion.

Track list
Abraham, Martin and John
Purple Haze
Tomorrow Is A Long Time/Everybody’s Talkin’
Sonny Boy
The Dolphins
He Looks A Lot Like Me
Sun Fun Song
From Both Sides Now
Sisters of Mercy
Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever
*Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)

Dion – Dion [1968]
*Bonus track

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