Originally posted August 8, 2007
We didn’t take a lot of vacation trips when I was a kid.
Oh, Dad had vacations from his work at St. Cloud State, but we rarely traveled. We might spend a few days at a rental cabin on a lake somewhere north of St. Cloud. Frequently, August found my mother, my sister and I spending two weeks – with Dad coming down for the second week – at Grandpa’s farm in southwestern Minnesota, picking and freezing corn and green beans, canning tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables and butchering chickens.
We did make one major trip, however, in the late summer of 1968. My sister had spent eight weeks studying in France that summer and was scheduled to fly into Philadelphia on her return. My mom’s sister and her family lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, not far at all from Philly, so about a week before my sister’s return, Mom and Dad and I hopped into that same Ford Custom and headed southeast through Wisconsin.
We drove through Wisconsin Dells, with its souvenir shops and snack stands and its gaudy signs advertising boat tours and duck rides and treats, my head turning this way and that as we drove the city’s main street. (The city remains much the same, based on a 2006 visit; the only difference is that water parks abound on the city’s outskirts, along the I-94 route that I’m not sure existed in 1968.)
We made our way along turnpikes through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In a hotel room in Morton’s Grove, we watched on television as the Democratic Party selected its vice-presidential candidate in downtown Chicago – just a few miles distant – while outside the convention hall, police clubbed and savaged protesters in what was later categorized as a “police riot.”
Among the stops as we made our way to Reading were Notre Dame University and its Golden Dome in Indiana; Blue Hole and Mystery Hill in Ohio (the first a pond said to be too deep to measure and the second one of those places where gravity is said to be skewed and water and other things run uphill); the birthplaces of Thomas Edison in Ohio and President James Buchanan in western Pennsylvania.
We toured for a few hours the Civil War battlefield at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, and spent half a day at the battlefield at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The ebb and flow of the 1862 battle at Antietam was too complex for me to grasp it as we drove from site to site there, but the next day, at Gettysburg, I stood on Cemetery Ridge and looked west to where, in 1863, the Confederate lines had been and from where Gen. George Pickett’s men had marched in the charge that has since been named for him.
The air had that odd stillness that seems to descend on every battlefield. It’s a quiet that seems to touch every place where too many men have fallen in defense of one ideal or another. And it weighed heavily at Gettysburg, especially at that point where Pickett’s Charge broke on the Union line, the Confederate soldiers having come nearly a mile through a storm of cannon shells and rifle balls.
That stillness, that weight of history, had gathered at some of the other places we saw on that trip, whether en route, in Pennsylvania, or on our way back to Minnesota. Few places were as somber or as haunting as Gettysburg, though. With my cousins, we visited Valley Forge near Philadelphia and then toured the historic sites in the city: Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross house, Benjamin Franklin’s grave. A couple of days later, with my sister safely returned, the four of us left Reading and went to Washington, D.C., for a day.
We toured the White House and wandered freely through the Capitol building (something that is sadly unthinkable today, I would guess), saw our nation’s founding documents at the National Archives and some of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. But the most sobering moments had been late in the afternoon the day before at Arlington National Cemetery, another place where that silence descends, most notably at the gravesite of John F. Kennedy, assassinated less than five years earlier.
From Washington, we drove west, heading across the midsections of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. We visited friends and saw sites related to Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, and then toured several places related to author Mark Twain in the touristy but congenial small town of Hannibal, Missouri. From there, we headed north toward home.
It was a lot to absorb for a teenage boy, even one as tuned to history as I was. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a copy of Bruce Catton’s short history of the Civil War and dug into that when we got home. (Catton’s longer works are still on my list of things to read, as is Shelby Foote’s history of the conflict.) And as I read, I sorted through the places we’d seen, things I’d learned on that long trip. I guess, almost forty years later, I’m still sorting.
And when Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” popped up while I was compiling a random selection of songs from 1968, I was at first amused. Then it seemed appropriate to hear “We’ve all gone to look for America.” That’s what we were doing in the late summer of 1968, I guess – looking for America – and I think that’s what many of us are still doing today.
As always, bit rates will vary. Enjoy!
A Baker’s Dozen From 1968
“My Days Are Numbered” by Blood, Sweat & Tears from Child is Father to the Man
“I Am A Pilgrim” by the Byrds from Sweetheart of the Rodeo
“Roll With It” by the Steve Miller Band from Children of the Future
“Handbags & Gladrags” by Love Affair from Everlasting Love Affair
“Rocky Raccoon” by the Beatles from The Beatles
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” by Jerry Butler from The Soul Goes On
“I Just Want To Make Love To You” by Muddy Waters from Electric Mud
“Good Feelin’” by the Peanut Butter Conspiracy from For Children of All Ages
“America” by Simon & Garfunkel from Bookends
“Through An Old Storybook by Sweetwater from Sweetwater
“I Got You Babe” by Etta James from the Tell Mama sessions
“Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” by Dionne Warwick, Scepter single 12216
“The Weight” by the Staple Singers from Soul Folk In Action
A few notes on some of the songs:
In Friday’s post on horn bands, I mentioned Blood, Sweat & Tears’ debut album, Child is Father to the Man. “My Days Are Numbered” is one of the better tracks on the album and, to my mind, gives a good example of Al Kooper’s hopes for the band before some of the other band members jettisoned him.
The Love Affair’s version of “Handbags & Gladrags” is not the best version out there of that great song; I like Chris Farlowe’s take on the song, and Rod Stewart’s version might be definitive. But the little-remembered Love Affair at least battled the song to a draw.
Electric Mud was Chess Records’ attempt to make Muddy Waters more current, putting the venerable bluesman together with what All-Music Guide calls “Hendrix-inspired psychedelic blues arrangements.” The record sold fairly well, but Waters didn’t like it, and the results are more of a curio than anything substantial today. (Chess did the same thing in 1968 with Howlin’ Wolf, and the results were, if anything, less good.)
Sweetwater was an odd band that featured flute, congas and cello as well as the traditional trappings of a rock band, and its music reflects that, with results ranging from remarkable to “What in the hell were they thinking?” Sweetwater was the group’s debut album, but in 1969 – during which the band was the first group to take the stage at Woodstock – lead singer Nansi Nevins was injured in a car crash and required years of physical therapy. The group recorded two albums without her and then faded away until 1997, when Nevins and some of the other original members reunited.