Coming of Age in the 60’s – My Seven Decades in America
Of the Seven Decades I’ve spent in America, the 60’s highlight my journey to adulthood.
During the sixties, the price for gasoline rose from twenty-five cents per gallon to thirty-five cents.
The average cost of a new car increased from $2,600 to $3,270, and you could buy a new home for $12,000 to $15,500.
Also, the Civil Rights Movement was in full-swing, and the United States decided to send 3,500 troops to Vietnam. It was the first time since WWII that we began to think about what might happen if the government called my brother or friends to serve.
High School became more challenging than grade school and middle school because I felt so inferior to all the other girls. Now I fully understood what happened to me as a child.
My Life Was Changing
My best friend had come over from the Catholic School in the middle grades and Betty, and I did everything together. I remember long summer nights when we walked down her country road. We looked up at the stars and talked about everything except the abuse I suffered as a child. No, I couldn’t share that with anyone.
A New President
Grandma was over-the-moon that the country elected her distant cousin, John F. Kennedy as President of the United States in a victory over Republican Richard Nixon. It’s all she could talk about during the following days. My father chided Mom and Grandma that the man would never be as good as Nixon. He made fun of Kennedy’s Irish heritage and Catholicism. Grandma remained silent.
The Country – It’s A-Changin’
The United States launched its first weather balloon and created the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
We were all horrified in 1961 when the Russians put Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space. The school kids all sat in the gymnasium at school and watched the news coverage. My father again started talking about building the bomb shelter in the back yard.
By this time, a bolt of lightning had destroyed Mom’s willow tree and she no longer argued with him.
One month later, we were back in the school gym to watch as Alan Shepard became the first American in space.
It’s not like we could relax when we went to bed each evening.
World Unrest & A Smaller Family
The Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Castro in Cuba was not successful, and construction was beginning on the Berlin Wall. We had more than enough to keep us frightened.
We had more than enough to keep us frightened. And yet, this was America and we never lost hope in achieving our dreams in this great land.
Jay graduated and headed off to the University of Iowa. He pledged a fraternity because that’s what boys from well-to-do families did according to Mom. Like all freshman, he played a bit too hard, and his grades began to suffer.
For the first time, we saw Mom go to bed with major depression. It would become a tragic pattern as her bipolar illness began to manifest.
Teens Start to Speak Out
My generation became heavily involved in the direction of the country. Cars and buses carried young Americans to the southern states to march in the Civil Rights Movement.
For the first time, I began to hear stories about the Ku Klux Klan and the impact they had on the south. I read and re-read “To Kill a Mockingbird, and I wept.
We watched film footage of college kids holding candles and singing peace songs at campus gatherings in defiance of the Vietnam War. Soon, I would become one of them.
Kids wanted to join the Peace Corps and share everything that’s good about being an American. I mentioned it, but my father was dead set against me joining.
I watched as my years in high school came to an end, and I wanted to do something – anything, to add my voice to the uproar. Every night, I dreamed of being one of those people who could bring hope to the hopeless.
Instead, I stayed home, trying to be good so the abuse wouldn’t start again. I spent every waking moment studying. Everything came so easily for Jay. But, I had to read and re-read things seven or eight times before I could keep them in my head.
It would all pay off on graduation night when I was named Salutatorian.
Emotions were ramping up, and then everything changed.
Tragedy Strikes America
They called us to the gym again. This time, the Principal stood up on the stage and announced that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas.
It was Friday afternoon. Everyone was crying.
I remember stumbling out of assembly hall, earlier than usual that day, toward the buses parked at the curb. Then, I stopped between two of the buses and sobbed.
Someone grabbed me and told me to go home.
That evening, we watched the television coverage as Walter Cronkite tried to keep up his composure as he reported what happened.
The Tragedy is Felt Across the Land
Again, Mom’s depression hit with force that weekend. She laid on the sofa, refusing to go to church on Sunday morning. I can’t remember her ever missing church.
When we walked in the door after services, she was on her feet screaming, “They killed him!”
Lee Harvey Oswald would never face a jury. All I could think about was the hatred I saw. It had only been a few months earlier when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
All that day I kept thinking about the hatred I saw in this country. It had only been a few months earlier when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. As I write this, I’m watching news coverage of the funeral of the young woman who died in Virginia when a car ran into the crowds. Things haven’t changed all that much.
It felt like all our dreams died that November.
Rose Kennedy sent a copy of the card handed out to the mourners at JFK’s funeral to Grandma Burton. She slept with it under her pillow until the day she died. The Kennedy’s stick together.
Graduation and a New Journey
After Kennedy’s death, Lyndon B. Johnson became President. I loved Lady Bird and her beautification projects, but her husband wasn’t my favorite President.
It was the decade we sent the Mariner 4 space probe to take pictures of Mars. My favorite actor back then, Sidney Poitier, walked away with the cherished Academy Award for Best Actor.
Wal-Mart stores continued to expand throughout the United States.
Lyndon Johnson signed the “Voting Rights Act” and the war in Vietnam continued to escalate.
The year was 1965, and I was finally going to graduate from high school.
I wanted to go to secretarial school at AIB College of Business in Des Moines, but Mom decided I needed to go to the university like my brother. She wanted me to try out for the Miss Washington contest too, so I could win the $500 scholarship. I didn’t disappoint her.
I Became Miss Washington County
At the end of my freshman year, the pageant committee sent me to San Francisco to Patricia Steven’s Finishing School in preparation for the Miss Iowa Pageant. I’ll never forget the day some of us girls took a sightseeing trip.
The bus went through the famous Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The hippies were on every street corner. What I saw that day would curl Mom’s hair, had I ever shared it with her.
I met a young man there who worked for a short period in the Johnson Whitehouse as an assistant to the President. He told me he finally had to quit. The reason? He couldn’t stand taking dictation while President Johnson was sitting on the “john.”
We saw the Golden Gate Bridge and the zoo. It was a safe trip. The boy models and wanna-be actors who attended the school with us were not interested in girls. But they took us places and protected us.
I Wasn’t Deserving
I’d already spent a year doing public appearances and I was burned out.
All I could think about was that I was the worst possible person to become a role model for little girls. My heart was still heavy from an appearance I made at the lake for the girl scouts. I’m still haunted by those little girl’s eyes as they looked up at the girl with the crown, wanting to be just like me.
My heart was still heavy from an appearance I made at the lake for the girl scouts. I’m still haunted by those little girl’s eyes as they looked up at the girl with the crown, wanting to be just like me.
Oh, how I wanted to scream at them that no one should ever want to be me. The girl who won the pageant that year was a friend of mine at the University of Northern Iowa, Jeannie Formanek. Her portrayal of Alice in Wonderland was magical. The new Miss Iowa was a perfect example to young girls everywhere.
The girl who won the pageant that year was a friend of mine at the University of Northern Iowa, Jeannie Formanek. Her portrayal of Alice in Wonderland was magical.
The new Miss Iowa was a perfect example to young girls everywhere.
Everything is Lost
By my sophomore year, things at home were disintegrating. My father had a new girl friend and Mom went to Iowa City for treatment for her manic depression with a psychiatrist there.My anger increased. How could Mom continue to forgive him for all of his indiscretions?
My father had a new girl friend and Mom went to Iowa City for treatment for her manic depression with a psychiatrist there.
The anger I felt toward him increased. How could Mom continue to forgive him for all of his indiscretions?
By then, I was in love with a boy named Mike. I met him at the University of Northern Iowa. We’d been dating for a little over a year, and I could finally see a brighter future. I told him what my father did, but instead of walking away, he held me tight.
I told him what my father did to me, but instead of walking away, he held me tight.
The phone in the hallway of the dorm rang on March 11, 1967. It was Coffee Holmes, my Godfather. He told me there had been a fire the evening before and that he was coming to pick me up.
The Loss Is Staggering
As we drove into Keota, I could see the smoke from five miles away. The business was still smoldering.
Coffee drove down Main Street and parked his car outside the police barricades. I jumped out of the car, scooted under the barrier, and walked down the street to look at the building that once housed Keota Spray Service and Grimes Decorating Shop. There was nothing left.
Jay had already come home from college. He was upstairs, trying to comfort Mom when I walked in the house. Our father was storming around mumbling something about insurance and crooks.
The End of a Dream
The explanation came through Mom’s sobs and Jay’s stoic interpretation. Our parents went to Ottumwa the evening of the fire. (They never went to Ottumwa on a Friday night!)
Father ordered some electrical work at the store that day.
The fire started while he and Mom were on their way home from Ottumwa. (Timing)
Jay took me aside and talked about our father’s newest love interest and what my thoughts were on how the fire started. I don’t know if someone could have triggered such a fire or not.
What I do know, is that a lot of brave men risked their lives trying to put the flames out.
The Fire Rages
Jay told me our father ran into the building and opened the fire-proof safe as the building became engulfed in flames.
What is clear in my mind today is that he threw what he thought were the accounts payable into the flames and grabbed what he thought were the accounts receivable before running back outside. When he realized his error, the firemen had to hold him back.
When he realized his error, the firemen had to hold him from running back in.
Shortly after, the roof collapsed.
When you add up the value of everything inside both businesses and the government grain bins that burned for another thirty days outside, the cost of the fire was roughly three million dollars in losses.
The tragedy? His secretary had withheld the check to the insurance company because there weren’t enough funds in the bank to cover it. That bill was past-due, and our insurance coverage forfeited as a result.
The bigger tragedy? For years my father had carried farmer’s accounts through both good and bad years. Only a couple of people came forward after the fire to pay what they owed. Everyone else smiled and knew their bills were no longer collectible. Perhaps that’s why I entered the field of commercial credit later on.
I took an incomplete in my courses at the University of Northern Iowa, kissed Mike goodbye, and moved all my stuff back home.
Shortly after the fire, I took a job with a doctor in West Branch and shared an apartment in Iowa City with a friend from high school.
Can I ever forget the day the news hit that someone had assassinated Martin Luther King? It would be only a few months later when another cousin died. Bobby Kennedy was my pick for President the first year I could legally vote for a Presidential candidate. Another cousin went home to Glory.
The world was spinning out-of-control. For the first time in my life, I cleaned out my checking account by sending a check for $50 to help build the Martin Luther King Memorial.
Years later, on a trip to Atlanta, a compassionate black cab driver listened as I told him how I reacted the day King died. He turned off the meter and took me on a tour of King’s Atlanta.
The cab driver told me he put five kids through college on his cab fares. He wanted to make sure I saw what my money helped build before going on to the airport and home.
The Music and Songs of the 60’s
Chubby Checker was rocking America with “The Twist” while the Beatles and other British groups captured the hearts of young American women. “Aquarius” was one of my favorite songs, as was “Theme from a Summer Place.” My favorite group in the 60’s was Peter, Paul, and Mary.
When Ray Charles sang, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” I wept at the loss of the greatest love of my life. Mike found someone else. Loss and grief filled my life.
One of the boys from back home came to the apartment for our New Year’s Eve party. He always made all of us laugh in school, and that hadn’t changed. We talked that night. In the coming weeks, he started coming to the apartment often.
We laughed constantly. He wasn’t a love interest then, just a friend.
There was always background music in my life. We listened to Peter, Paul and Mary, the Mama’s and the Papa’s, and the Beach Boys. The radio was always on in the apartment and the car.
I’d decided to go back to Keota for the weekend, but when I arrived, I couldn’t find Mom.
After looking around, I ran upstairs and found her sobbing in her bed.
Pill bottles surrounded her, and she held a tall glass of water in her hand.
Through the sobs, she told me my father was out in Atlantic visiting his girl friend. Mom knew this was true because her best friend knew a woman in Atlantic. She confirmed his car was at the woman’s house all night on Friday.
I’d watched the depression engulf Mom for years, but this was the first time I’d seen her suicidal.
Quickly, I grabbed up all the pills and took them downstairs. Then I went back up and told her what my father did to me as a child. The tears stopped, and her eyes became glassy.
After all the years of keeping his secret, it was finally out.
The terror of the moment consumed me. His comment was always, “Don’t ever tell your mother or else.” In the mind of a little seven-year-old girl, the threat meant he was going to kill my mom.
I covered her up and sat beside her until she fell asleep.
Then, I went downstairs and called my father’s attorney in Washington. His daughter had been in the pageant with me, and the families were good friends. The lawyer cried softly as I recounted the years of abuse.
I could barely hear him as he whispered, “I am so, so sorry!”
When I finished, I made him promise that if anything happened to mother or I that he would prosecute my father until the day he died.
The Fear In the Wait
After the call, I sat at the kitchen table and waited.
My father waltzed in about eleven o’clock.
I stood in defiance and plainly stated: “You have thirty minutes to pack up whatever you want out of this house and get out.
Mother knows everything, and if you think you can do anything to hurt us, I’ve already consulted your attorney who has promised to prosecute you. If you don’t leave, I will. But if that happens, I need to warn you. Tomorrow morning, I will go down Main Street and tell every business person in town that you’re a child molester if you choose not to leave.”
I can’t remember a day in my life when I’ve been that terrified or felt that level of disgust at the same time.
He didn’t say a word as he went upstairs and packed his suitcase.
I gave up the apartment in Iowa City and moved back home with Mom. She needed someone around to watch over her.
It wasn’t long before my high school friend started stopping by each evening when he got off work.
After months of watching the movie after the ten o’clock news, I finally smiled at him one night and said, “We should get married. At least I could get some decent sleep before getting up at the crack of dawn to head to work. (I worked an hour and a half away from Keota.)
Roger turned to me with the most serious look on his face, and said, “Would you…would you marry me?” That was the first time he kissed me.
We went to Washington the next day and picked out our rings.
Mom was so excited when we stopped in at her new store and told her the news. She insisted we get married in September so my brother could give me away.
Jay and his wife were moving to Colorado, and wouldn’t be able to afford to come back for a wedding at any later date. I had two months to get ready for a wedding,
Roger’s dad had a heart attack the week before the wedding.
They’d argued earlier in the day and never had a chance to make amends. For the first time, I saw an angry side of Roger I’d never seen before. I ignored it, believing it was his way of mourning.
Unbelievably, my grandfather had a heart attack before our wedding too. He was in the hospital in Ottumwa. We would stop there as we drove to the Ozarks for our Honeymoon.
My mother wanted me to marry at home. We couldn’t afford a large church wedding, and we had already agreed we didn’t want to invite my father.
After the wedding, I left my bouquet on Roger’s dad’s grave as we headed to Ottumwa. I wore a beautiful white dress with a matching coat for my “Going-away outfit.
Later, I found out that Grandpa told all the nurses that I’d be coming in my wedding dress. It never occurred to me to do that, and I’ll always regret it.
The Anger Continues
We had our first fight the day after we returned from our honeymoon. I’d run over to Mom’s house mid-afternoon because she needed help with a project. It was about 5:30 P.M. when I returned home. (2 blocks away) Roger was furious, storming around our little rental house, slamming cupboard doors.
I asked him what in the world was wrong, I’d never seen him angry like that.
“I didn’t know where you were! Anything could have happened to you!” Then he added, “I don’t want you to ever leave this house again without letting me know where you’ll be.”
I started crying. Quietly, I explained where I’d been and how innocent it was. Roger wouldn’t have any part of it. He made me promise never to go anywhere again without first letting him know where I was going.
During Those Seven Decades, We Put A Man on the Moon
Roger joined the Army Reserves. He hoped his unit wouldn’t be called up to Vietnam. I’d already lost a classmate over there and dreaded the thought that something might happen to my husband.
My grandfather died in July 1969. They buried him on July 19, 1969.
The next morning Roger’s Mom and I drove Roger to Camp McCoy for his summer active duty.
It was July 20th.
That was the day Neal Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Roger delayed his trip to summer camp in Wisconsin so he could attend the funeral with me.
When I returned home late that evening, I watched Armstrong and imagined Grandpa was helping him down to the moon’s surface.
The most important man in my life was gone forever. I couldn’t stop crying. It would be another decade before I again found the gift my grandfather had given me when I was a child. To this day, it’s the most cherished treasure in my home.
See Part 1 Here
Watch for Part 3: September 21