In the spring of 1968, I was 13 years old. A milestone year by anyone’s account, it marks the transition from child to teenager; from elementary school to high school. But 1968 was a year of cultural and political turmoil, and as a 13 year old, experienced it in my own way. My older brother was in the army (luckily for him, not in Vietnam), drafted on the two months after his wedding and on the brink of a promising musical career. I was an anti-war activist even then, and at 13, my cohorts and I gave new meaning to Gene McCarthy’s kiddie corps. And I became a Cubs fan.
I’m looking back on this time for two very specific and very different reasons this week. The first is the fact that 40 years have now passed since that time spring. But I recall this week forty years ago as if it was yesterday.
Forty years ago today, March 31, I was ironing something (I think it was my dad’s work shirt) in the downstairs recreation room when I heard raucous laughter from upstairs in the kitchen. And dancing. And whooping. And coming from my mother.
Lyndon Johnson had just announced his decision not to run for president in 1968. For someone who had been elected by a landslide three and half years earlier, it was quite a moment—and one met by much glee by so many who had voted for him, including my parents.
But the week was far from over, and joy turned to grief, as several days later, dressing for a dance recital (obligatory for any self-respecting 13 year old girl), I learned that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. And all hell broke loose.
From my upper middle-class home in an affluent suburb of Chicago, I only knew that something terrible and sad had happened to a great man; someone my Rabbi had walked with; someone my brother and my parents held in great esteem. But I knew that it was a horrible and tragic thing. How could dance recitals go on in a world torn apart by such tragedy? I wondered.
I recall that night of the recital, merely going through the motions, presenting a dance that I had choreographed myself in a pre-occupied haze, responding to my less-informed classmates’ quizzical, and haughty expressions of “why’s she so upset? Try to explain to 13 year old girls, whose most pressing concern was what to wear to next Saturday’s bar mitzvah party, that an entire people’s greatest advocate and hope had just been extinguished by a sniper’s bullet.
King’s assassination was followed two months later by Bobby Kennedy’s. It was the day of the eighth grade field trip: Cantingny War Museum, followed by an afternoon fashion show put on by the Home Economics class. We 13-year old radicals protested, claiming that to visit a war museum and participate in the frivolousness of a fashion parade were inappropriate. Needless to say, we didn’t win our argument with the principal. It was a terrible spring, the spring of 1968.
But not really as much of a curmudgeon as my words have so far suggested, and certainly not at the age of 13, 1968 is also noteworthy for me because it was the year I became a baseball fan. And not just a baseball fan—a Cubs fan. And today in a weird convergence of anniversaries today is both the opening day for the Cubbies, over there in the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field—and the fortieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s momentous “I will not run” speech. Being a Cub fan in 1968 was to be as hopeful as being a 13 year old political activist was to be cynical. And maybe that’s why found each other, the Cubbies and me. A fine and delicate balance between reality and fantasy; idealism and cynicism. And being a Cubs fan has immensely helped me deal with the almost eternal political gloom and doom of being (almost) ever on the losing side.
In the immortal words of Stevie Goodman, the Cubs are the perpetual “doormat of the National League.” A Bad Team. They were the bad team of bad teams. But something happened at the end of 1967. The Cubs actually got “good.” So good that even 13 year old girls had to take notice. And for $1.75 you could sit and bake in the left-field bleachers, have beer spilled on you and generally have a great time (and build a great tan). They were the symbol of everything that (could be) right about our country. And as often as we could in 1968 and all through next several years, we kept on hoping. We’d get on the “el,” get off at Addison, walk past bars and cigars and get into the ballpark in time for batting practice. We’d harass the players for autographs. (I still have a scorecard covered with Cubbie signatures and one of some Cincinnati catcher named Johnny Bench—or something.)
But the Cubbies are what the Cubbies are, and for all of the hope and idealism that was projected by Kessinger, Becker, Williams, Santo, Banks, Hundley, Jenkins, Twiggy (the relief pitcher, not the model), Holtzman and the rest, hope became jaded cynicism that mirrored the rising prices and the endlessly World Series-less years that followed.
But 40 years ago, that pivotal year; the magic of being 13; neither child nor adult, and impressionable by everything. I celebrate today, opening day at Wrigley, and Ernie Banks’ famous “let’s play two” philosophy. And commemorate that spring and summer forty years ago that made me who and what I am today.